“Drop the knife, mon amour.”
His gruff voice had once enticed me, setting not only my body but my world on fire. It seemed like yesterday that I could look into his eyes, allowing myself to fall prey to his darkness.
And the danger he offered.
The man was a brutal killer and nothing more, a monster in expensive clothes, designer Italian shoes, and a muscular body. “Not a chance.”
“Then you will die and it will not be by my hands. Do you understand me?”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“I can’t allow you to do that, cherie. That would weigh heavily on my conscience.”
I laughed bitterly even as a single tear slipped past my lashes because I knew he didn’t have any.
Just like he had no soul.
As he took a step forward, I swung the implement, the sharp blade close enough I could tell I’d put the fear of God into the man. He jumped back several feet, hissing under his breath. The single light in the room barely illuminated the anger sweeping across his chiseled features, the piercing look in his eyes reflecting his frustration.
He glanced down at his shirt, noticing the red stain from the way the blade had nicked his skin. I followed his gaze, laughing softly.
“Then so be it.” I swayed as I advanced. As a clap of thunder rolled in the distance, I took a scattered breath, shifting the ancient knife from one hand to the other. My grandfather had used the old tool as a boy when he’d worked in sugarcane fields in Hawaii, the beautiful state I’d been lucky enough to grow up in. He’d given it to me as a treasured gift, something to remember him by after he’d gone.
I’d kept it wrapped in the same special cloth, sharpening the blade every so often as memories of scouring the beaches where we lived replaced those of my everyday life. The powerful man had used the instrument to save my life once upon a time, wielding it with mastery, protecting me at the cost of an intruder’s life.
Now I would do the same, refusing to allow the savage standing in front of me to take everything away. My career. My soul. My heart.
It didn’t matter if the man I’d once hungered for took my life.
But not before I destroyed his.
“You’re in danger, cherie. Allow me to take care of you,” he said, his eyes never leaving mine.
“That’s not going to happen.”
“You belong to me. You know that.”
I laughed, the sound as bitter as his tone had been before. “Not any longer. I’ve seen images of your world, the violence and bloodshed, and I want no part of it. This is my home. My life. What happened was a mistake.” I took another step closer, and he refused to back away. When I pressed the tip of the blade against his chest, he peered down briefly, then threw his arms back.
“Then do it, Sedona. End my life. If that’s going to make yours easier, remove the need we have for each other. Do it.”
The challenge was real, the smile on his face repulsive. I’d fallen into his trap, losing my mind in the process. He’d already taken everything from me. My freedom. My soul. Now he wanted to claim my heart. As tears slipped past my lashes, I reared back my arm, prepared to strike. I’d learned to become the same kind of hunter that he’d been all his life.
“I hate you,” I said through clenched teeth. But that wasn’t the truth.
He cocked his head, a moment of sadness failing his usual controlled expression. “And I adore you, mon amour. Together, we will find our destiny. You will become mine until the end of time.”
Suddenly, panic rushed into my system, crippling all rational thought.
As I swung the blade, the tears continued to fall. Light sparkled in vivid colors around my periphery of vision, images of the first time we’d kissed floating in front of my mind in a beautiful haze. As others swept through me, it was as if my life had begun the moment he’d drifted into my world.
Moments of passion and excitement.
The first touch.
The first kiss.
The first time he’d thrust his cock deep inside, showering light over the darkness.
Now I was being driven in reverse. As the shadows became overwhelming, I could no longer feel my legs. The machete slipped from my fingers, sliding ever so slowly to the floor. “Jon-ny…”
A few days earlier…
Fear was a beneficial emotion that I used often. It had a way of spiraling out of control, the blackness all-consuming. When utilized properly, the paralyzing feeling could be more effective than the violence necessary either before or after the realization swept into place. I’d become the master of terror, a powerful beast who by providing a single look, a flash of my eyes, could turn a man into stone.
Or so I’d been told more than once. It was a shame that I didn’t have such a superpower. If I did, it would prevent me from purchasing several new shirts every month. Blood was still difficult to remove from crisp white linen. I chuckled at the thought as I drove through the darkened, rainy streets of Montreal, heading toward the direction of a necessary punishment.
Some would say I craved bloodshed, a danger junkie with an appetite for breaking bones. To me, it was just another day at the office, a requirement for keeping the peace in the streets of my beloved city.
I never varied from the necessary act, nor did I allow my emotions to get in the way, even when there were those who either begged or attempted to bribe me into changing my mind. Once I made a plan it was never altered. Not once. I prided myself on that factor.
“Take a left up here, boss,” Michael Constantine said from the passenger seat, my Capo always accompanying me when handling business. He’d earned the right to be my second in command, rising from the ranks over the last ten years. I trusted him implicitly, which afforded him perks of being in the powerful organization.
He also anticipated aspects of business that had helped me be considered the richest man in Canada. For that I owed him.
And for saving my life on two occasions.
I said nothing as I drove down the street, a single streetlight adding to the dinginess of the area. The fuckers who betrayed me always thought they could hide. That brought amusement, but only after I handled the situation.
“We won’t be welcomed,” he said casually.
“As if I give a shit.”
He chuckled. “You always were a hard ass.”
I threw him a look, grinning from his words as well as what I was contemplating doing. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
While I’d already sent two SUVs of my men to surround the location in case the Irish thugs were stupid enough to attempt to start a war, only Michael and I would enter the festive corner bar, heading toward the private poker game. I was a gambling man. I enjoyed taking risks. Why not put the asshole’s life on the line?
After parking, I scanned the street. The area of town was well known as being controlled by the Irish mob, a smaller organization that usually never caused issues for our organization. We lived peacefully side by side, utilizing pieces of information, sharing them with each other when necessary.
However, the son of the Irish mafia leader had become determined to break the verbal agreement my father had proctored with his. The man would need to be taught a significant lesson. What Sean had no idea about was that I’d gotten approval from his father, who’d become disgusted with his son’s rebellious behavior.
Teaching him a lesson in manners wasn’t my normal method of operation, but this time I would make an exception.
As long as the asshole didn’t attempt to make a move he’d soon regret.
I stepped out, shoving the keys into my pocket. My weapon was securely placed in my shoulder holster, the flap unfastened. I was curious how stupid Sean would become. We both took long strides toward the bar, and I chuckled. The place was lively for Tuesday night. I could say the Irish knew how to party better than the French Canadians.
It took several seconds after we walked inside for a group of Irishmen to notice us. Then three of them jerked up from their table, almost knocking it over with the force.
When one of the James family entered a property, people were instantly terrified.
That meant our reputation remained intact.
With Michael behind me, I headed toward the bar, noting the fact several burly men who’d been standing watching whatever sports game was on had moved away. They weren’t providing space as much as allowing their voices to be heard without opening their caustic mouths. The first bartender turned away, the male purposely heading toward the other end of the bar.
I appreciated the fact the freckle-faced woman sauntered straight to the open space, placing her hands on the bar. With her red hair and dazzling light green eyes, she personified the Irish pub perfectly. But the look of scorn on her face was yet another reminder we weren’t welcome in their world even with the deal proctored two decades before.
Her voice held contempt, yet the Callahans’ only daughter eyed me with the same appreciation that I had with her from time to time. She knew better than to fuck with me.
She flicked her gaze over my shoulder to Michael then grabbed a single shot glass, slamming the dense crystal on the bar. Then she grabbed her finest bottle of Irish whiskey, pouring me a shot. There was no offer for my Capo as he wasn’t here to drink, merely to watch my back.
I powered back the liquid, savoring not only the flavor but the smoothness as it quenched my parched throat. As soon as I returned the glass to the bar, I cocked my head.
“What do you want?” she asked, pulling the bottle away as if I’d reach out and grab it.
“I’m here for a game of poker.”
She knew exactly why I was here. She’d likely been told by her father.
For a few seconds, her usual mask fell, allowing me to see a hint of concern as well as surprise in her eyes. Then she took a deep breath. This was her bar, yet her brother had acted as if he’d owned the place for years. When she nodded toward the back room, the scorn returned, but there was also a slight smile curling on her luscious lips. Sean was family, which prevented her from providing the kind of discipline only a pissed-off Irish woman could dish out.
As soon as I turned toward the private space, several men pushed their way in front of me, acting as if they were little more than Neanderthals ready to intervene.
“Back down,” Erin told them. “Our guest has business with Sean.” Her lilting accent floated above their deep growls. They acted as if they weren’t going to comply then backed away, preventing me from needing to use violence. I wasn’t in the mood.
I took my time heading for the door, not bothering to knock.
The four men surrounding Sean were shocked to see my entrance, fear and rage crawling through the thick cords in their necks. They jerked to a standing position, immediately reaching for their weapons.
I shifted my suit jacket, allowing them to see I was carrying, lifting my eyebrows in a dare for one of them to reach for their weapon. They would be dead before they could wrap their thick fingers around the handles of their Glocks. They knew it as well as anyone. I’d been trained by experts, considered an elite marksman, capable of taking out ten moving targets in six seconds flat.
Sean exhaled as his only reaction to my presence, but I could smell his fear. Terror had a distinct odor, a stench that was recognizable from a few yards away. I took a chair from one of the players, sitting down across from Sean.
“What are you doing here?” Sean asked, trying to regain his composure.
“Looking for a heads-up poker game.” The game meant for two was one I knew well. It was also one I’d never lost when playing.
Sean glared at me for a few seconds before studying Michael. He was no fool. He knew exactly what this meant. He nodded toward one of the men, who was obviously the dealer.
“What are we betting on?” he asked, still antsy.
I pulled out a wad of cash, although this was merely the starter money. “Ten thousand to start.”
He huffed as if I had to be kidding then gave me a single nod. Within seconds, one of the other soldiers placed cash on the table.
As the cards were shuffled, we both remained quiet. Only when several had been dealt did I finally address the situation. “It would seem you’ve been a bad boy, Sean. You ignored the treaty established by your father.”
He snorted as he checked his first cards, barely able to look me in the eye. “It was necessary to keep our business afloat in the States.”
Both organizations had ventured across the border, enjoying the perks of having rich and powerful American men as our clients. Whereas the James family had stayed mainly in the northeast, the Callahans had ventured further south. What Sean had done in the process was interrupt a supply chain. Then he’d had the audacity to poach several of my clients.
That wasn’t acceptable on anyone’s terms.
He’d also managed to get himself into financial trouble, his heavy gambling habit placing him in a difficult situation with a member of the Bratva, their behind closed doors games of poker brutal in comparison.
“By stealing clients.”
He’d obviously believed he’d covered up his mess, laying blame on another organization. “I raise you five G’s.”
Laughing, I agreed. For a little while I enjoyed the reverie of watching him squirm as the cards were presented. The other aspect regarding fear that I found fascinating was the fact there wasn’t a single person alive capable of hiding emotion entirely. I could tell karma had dealt him a heavy blow, the cards not going in his favor.
“I’m going to up the ante, Sean. This is a one and done.”
“Meaning you win this hand, not only will you take my money, but I’ll pay off the debt you owe to the Bratva scum.”
His eyes flickered, the light returning. Then confusion settled in. “And if I lose?”
I settled back in my seat, feeling more comfortable than usual. “Then you take the punishment you deserve like a man.”
He snorted initially before realizing I was serious. “Punishment?”
“It’s a fair deal, Sean. Anyone else would be eliminated for such an egregious infraction.”
Now he was in panic mode, beads of sweat rolling down both sides of his face. “I can give you the person in control of the syndicate in the US. You can have their business.”
“Oh, I plan on it, Sean. And you will supply the name and all the pertinent details. What I’m offering you is a chance to maintain your life as you know it. This is a one-time deal. Take it or leave it.”
He knew he’d been cornered. After only five seconds of hesitation, he nodded his agreement.
The final cards were dealt, and he seemed pleased. “Full house.” His men congratulated him, and I sensed he was ready to toss back a few shots after winning.
While I normally enjoyed basking in the throes of winning, today wasn’t one of those days. Perhaps I needed to take a few days off, head to a tropical location. Michael had mentioned after commenting on my unusual level of tension that it was obvious I needed to get laid. Only he could get away with such disrespect.
I glanced at my cards between easing them down carefully. Then I allowed Sean to take a second glance before announcing my hand. “Straight flush.”
Suddenly, all the color drained from his face. He jerked up from the table quickly, two of his men wrapping their hands around their weapons.
“You fuckin’ cheated!” he accused.
“Time for your punishment.” I pushed back my chair, standing slowly. Then I pocketed the cash on the table before pulling away.
“This is bullshit. You don’t come into my establishment and act as if you own the place.”
“Erin owns this bar, Sean. You know that. And you know what they say. You play, you pay.” When the door opened and another Callahan soldier walked inside, I knew Sean’s father had sent the man to keep the peace.
“Mr. James. Is there any way I can provide assistance?” the soldier asked.
“What the fuck is this?” Sean demanded.
I gave Michael a look, allowing him to yank out the knife he’d brought with him. The lesson provided had to be a constant reminder, not something that could be gotten over after weeks of recuperation. That wouldn’t bode well for preventing this kind of betrayal from happening again.
Callahan’s beefy soldier was the man who grabbed Sean’s wrist, slamming his hand on the table.
In the moments of confusion and paranoia Sean experienced, he threatened me several times. I was used to that. In fact, it wouldn’t be a successful week if at least one threat hadn’t been made against me.
“You won’t get away with this!” Sean insisted, struggling to get out of his own soldier’s hold.
“Shut up, Sean. Your father agreed.”
The news hit him hard, all the color draining from his face again. I headed for the door, stopping just before opening it. “You will have one of your men email me the information requested. And just because I’m a fair man, I’ll have a talk with the Pakhan to see if I can have your debt reduced.”
Michael lifted his head, waiting for my cue. When I held up two fingers, he knew what to do. At least I wasn’t going to leave Sean a complete cripple. That was the deal we made with his father.
There would be no more.
It would seem a trip to the States was in order.
Perhaps I’d get in a little R & R along the way.
“I honestly don’t see what we need to talk about any longer,” I said more casually than I’d thought I would. I was a big girl, had been a prosecutor for several years handling some of the most horrific cases in the history of Louisville’s criminal culture. Being tossed aside by a pompous prick was easier than I’d expected. I wanted to care. I should care after dating Matt for almost six months. Right?
The sad truth was I didn’t in the least. At this point, I didn’t have the energy to pretend I was angry or sad at the fact. I was standing in the middle of a wedding reception for one of my best friends, her parents sparing no expense for the glorious affair and here I was getting dumped.
Maybe there was something innately wrong with me that kept me from getting close.
“You have nothing to say?” Matt asked, half laughing afterwards.
“What would you like me to say? Maybe I’ve had one too many glasses of celebratory champagne, but it would appear you’re the one breaking up with me. Did I miss something? Oh, how about this. Why did you choose to call me in the middle of the wedding reception?”
“I’d like to hear that you’re upset. That you wish we could talk it through.” His tone was gruffer than before. It would appear I’d pissed him off since I wasn’t into begging or groveling. “And I called you because you insisted that I come visit you at the hotel.”
“Would it do any good if I was upset, bawling my eyes out?” I heard the orchestra striking up again and knew Katie was getting ready to leave for her glorious honeymoon in the Maldives. Her fabulous new husband had kept the luxurious month trip a secret to everyone but the maid of honor. Maybe I should call myself the spinster of honor since it was obvious I would never find my Prince Charming.
He snorted and I could hear him grumbling. “No, it wouldn’t at this point, Sedona. Maybe it would have before.”
“Bullshit,” I said, coughing into my fist to keep others from hearing me. I heard his exaggerated sigh and wanted to drive an icepick through his eyeballs one at a time.
“The great Sedona Beckett. Sadly, you’re the ice queen in the courtroom and you allowed that to follow you into the bedroom.”
Now we were throwing around insults, acting as if tossing my full name out meant all I cared about was my job? At this point, maybe it was a good idea. I bristled, yanking the arm of a waiter carrying one of the many silver trays, almost knocking the poor guy to the floor in my grab for another hundred-dollar glass of bubbly. I tossed a portion into my throat, hopeful my icy bitch self wouldn’t start a scene. Then I purposely lowered my voice, planting a smile on my face.
“Well, if your dick had been large enough to care about, I assure you I wouldn’t be icy. Who knows how often I might have sucked your cock if I could only find it.” Okay, so this wasn’t my finest hour. But he had asked for it.
He was silent for a full ten seconds, which was longer than his usual method when punishing me for being unsuitable to his needs. I must have floored him this time. Oops, darn.
“And here I thought we might be able to stay friends,” he said in a dour tone.
“You’re not the kind of man who has friends, Matt. You have people who can boost up your ego, and enemies. Oh, and somewhere in between, you have conquests. Don’t think I don’t know about that dirty blonde from your office. I’m not blind nor am I stupid. But you’re right. I simply stopped caring.”
I was bluffing about the affair, or as my boss would say, taking an educated guess that was always correct. When he hesitated, I had to admit that a sharp pang was driven straight into my heart. I yanked it out mentally, resisting cursing him using words I longed to say inside the courtroom more often than not. What did it matter any longer?
“No, just an ice queen. Goodbye, Sedona. I hope you find a man who doesn’t mind getting frostbite.”
“Oh, ouch. That hurt.” I realized I’d raised my voice just enough I’d drawn an audience. Exhaling, after slamming my finger against the end button, I shoved my phone into my purse and resisted becoming violent. Then I offered a sweet smile to anyone watching, tossing back the remainder of the glass, then headed to find the bride. I still had duties to follow through with.
“There you are,” Jenny said, hissing under her breath. “Katie is just about ready to toss the bouquet.”
“Groovy.” At least I could head back to my hotel, which was blocks away from the madness of the festivities, and drown myself in cocktails prior to taking a long, hot bath. Ice queen, my ass.
“What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing. Not a damn thing.”
“Matt called. Didn’t he? I hate that pompous prick.”
“In truth, so do I.”
“What did the creep do now?”
Jenny knew all about Matt’s possible infidelities as well as his rise to power within the upper echelon of Louisville society. He was considered quite the catch. Now he could lure in as many dead fish as he wanted. “He decided today would be the perfect day to break up with me.”
“Ah, what a shame. He’s a pig, you know. A bona fide Grade A with a stamp on his carved behind pig. If you ask me, the guy should be taken to slaughter.”
She shrugged and tossed her long dark locks over her shoulder. “I’m just stating a fact.”
I didn’t need to glance in her direction to know she was rolling her eyes. She’d always hated the man and his perfect suits, as she’d told me at least a half dozen times. “Perfect timing. It was a reminder of why I will never get married.”
“If you want, I can hire my brother to put a bullet in his head. Or if you’d prefer, he can handle a knife with ease. Maybe he could offer up a filet.”
Laughing, I didn’t want to tell her that I’d thought about it more than once since I’d suspected his extracurricular activities. Especially since her older brother was known to associate with a mob out of New Orleans. It was a subject considered off limits in our friendship. I’d heard he was dangerous, the entire syndicate brutal. Even my usual morbid curiosity kept me from asking her questions. When you grew up in a tight-knit, powerful family such as hers, there were always secrets. She’d dug her way out of her family’s criminal activities, becoming an attorney for the right side of the law. However, her grit and verve for life had remained, something she’d learned from her father. “You have been hanging around your brother too often. However, the jerk did call me an ice queen. Can you believe that?”
“Just say the word, girlfriend. You know what you need is an outlaw in your life, not a prim and proper pig with a stick stuck up his butt. You need a hard body. Harder cock. Refusing to take no for an answer. Yummy. My brother can make it look like an accident.” She gave me a coy look.
“First of all, I don’t think that’s the kind of thing you should tell me. Second, I don’t think dating a criminal would be beneficial to my career.” Although it did sound delicious for a change.
“I’m not talking about dating a criminal, at least not a noted one. I’m talking about a sexy, dangerous man with a permanent five o’clock shadow, eyes so dark and ominous that you just know all his thoughts are filled with passion. A total hottie with a Harley, a man who’ll sweep you off your feet, taking what he demands stating in no uncertain terms that you belong to him. You know the type. Dominating with a flair.” She leaned in closer so no one else would hear. “And please, girlfriend. Do not tell me that you haven’t thought about crossing the line more than once, doing something that could get you into trouble.”
I wanted to say I had no idea what she was talking about, but I would be lying, my thoughts on the use of violence and her connections entering my mind more than once. And the delicious fantasy about dating a hot alpha, very dominating man forced my mouth to water. She was sickeningly correct in that I was used to the prim and proper men who spent more money on their ties than I did on a suit, their nails perfectly manicured at all times and their shoes carrying a high sheen. Oh, wait. I’d just described Matt. “The image floating in my mind is mouthwatering but it’s not going to happen. I’ll stick to my dazzling pink vibrator from now on.” To think Matt hadn’t bothered to leave a toothbrush at my place should have tipped me off in month three.
Jenny shook her head as we walked into the room where the deflowering was going to occur. “Your loss. But I think that’s exactly what you need. One hot fling with Mr. Alpha Dog. Maybe going down on him in his flashy car would be a delicious start. Or maybe you could fuck in the shadows near your hotel room. No, wait. I’ve got the perfect place. In the ice room of the hotel.”
Now the images floating in my mind disgusted me, especially given my terse conversation with Matt.
At this point, I had no clue what I needed, but that wasn’t it by a long shot.
“Nope. Not that kind of girl,” I insisted. Although I could see ice cubes melting as I rubbed them down one sizzling, all-male body. Whew. It was getting hot in the place.
“Maybe you need to break free. Use the rest of the weekend to go hunting.”
I threw a hateful look at her, allowing my sigh to be as big and dramatic as hers could be. “You’re crazy, girl.”
“Who, me? Never. You need to live a little. That’s when the perfect man will come along, sweeping you off your feet, fulfilling every fantasy. Then you won’t need the cheap vibrator.”
“Hey! I spend a small fortune on certain apparatuses.”
The sad truth was that I had and likely would again.
“Not the same as a big, fat cock.”
She had a point.
I’d rolled my eyes far too many times during the last two days of festivities. “You’ve had way too many glasses of bubbly.” At least she could give me a laugh, something I sorely needed at this point.
If I didn’t laugh about it, I’d plan Matt’s demise with joy in my heart.
“I’ll give you one piece of advice,” she said before we’d gone too far into the room.
“I won’t be able to stop you, will I?”
“Nope. You know me.”
“A bull in a china shop. What’s that advice?”
“Find a sinfully gorgeous alpha man and let yourself go for one night. Just one. I promise you that you won’t regret it. Plus, you might find the man of your dreams hiding underneath the mysterious package.” When she shifted her gaze toward the man who’d accompanied her to the event, I smacked her arm.
“Do not tell me that’s how you met Brad.”
“Then I won’t.” She lifted her chin, acting haughty.
“You little bitch.”
We both laughed again, and I wanted to grill her for all the juicy details, but it was time for the bride and her prince to leave. I had a feeling Jenny’s wedding would be placed on my social calendar soon enough. I really would end up being the old maid of the group. That wasn’t something I wanted to add to my resume.
Katie was beaming, her face glowing with happiness. She beckoned us closer, and I knew better than to attempt to shy away from being in the semi-circle. So I stood stoically while the other girls giggled like schoolgirls. I hated the strange tradition, but the catered affair had been all about what Katie had wanted.
The lucky dog.
She was marrying an actual prince, for God’s sake. How did that happen in modern day life? Even after turning around, she glanced over her shoulder, pouting her passion pink lips as the drummer in the small orchestra did the practiced drum roll.
“Come on, girl! You ready?” I yelled on cue. “One,” I shouted.
“Two!” the entire group of women bellowed.
“Three!” This time, the room got in on it.
Katie pitched the gorgeous bouquet of two dozen long stem red roses over her shoulder, which was exactly what her mother had carried in her fairytale wedding.
And straight into my arms.
What. The. Fuck?