All it had taken was one phone call to fuck everything up.
I hadn’t even told my brother what I was thinking yet. I don’t know why. I’d kept my interest in Anastasia Kozlov to myself. Maybe because it was nice to have something of my own for once. Growing up as a twin, we’d shared everything, and just this once, I wanted her to be mine.
She was a fucking vision, all blonde hair, green eyes, and curvy hips, but it was the glaring independence in her eyes that had drawn me in. I knew she didn’t need anyone to take care of her, which made me want to be the one who did all the more.
In the world of the Boston underground, there had been whispers of her growing power. The Kozlovs were a Russian bratva family that had begun moving into the city not long ago, but they had made waves while doing it. Anastasia was the one that had smoothed everything out, and that was fucking sexy as hell.
Her father, Roman, nominally ran the Kozlovs, but I knew the truth. His days were numbered. Eventually, she was going to take his place and do it better.
Fuck if I didn’t want to be at her side as she did it.
I hadn’t made a move yet, but I was planning on it. Life had gotten in the way. The Colombian cartel had been pissing people off, treading into our territory as well as that of some of the other families in the city. There just hadn’t been time.
Business was business.
I’d kept telling myself that tomorrow I’d call her. Tomorrow, I’d ask her out.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow…
Until it was too late.
Fuck. Nothing beat a good pint of Guinness.
With all the rumblings of coming trouble, it was nice to lose myself in a drink, to not worry about what could come for us tomorrow and focus on the good ole times of tonight instead.
Caden leaned casually against the polished wood bar, his Guinness in hand, while I sat next to him on a nearby stool, nursing my own pint. It was Friday night, and Murphy’s Pub was just starting to get busy.
Swirling the rich, ebony beer in my glass, my mind drifted back to an unforgettable memory from years ago, when Caden and I had been a little bold, perhaps a touch reckless, but I wouldn’t ever admit that out loud. I chuckled softly to myself, and his blue eyes flicked to mine, curious.
“What?” he asked.
“You remember that time we decided to break into that bank on Main Street?” I asked, my voice tinged with nostalgia.
Caden’s lips curled into a smirk, a hint of mischief in his piercing blue eyes. “How could I forget? That night had glorious disaster written all over it from the moment it began.”
“Yeah, and remember what a disaster it turned out to be? We thought we had that combination all figured out, but we ended up locked inside the bank’s vault instead.” I chuckled, my gaze fixed on the frothy head of my Guinness.
Caden laughed, his deep voice resonating throughout the pub. “I remember. It took us hours to pick that lock, and as soon as we got it open, the fail-safe mechanism triggered and locked us inside.”
We both burst into laughter, the warmth of the memory filling the air between us.
“And then the cops showed up,” I continued, laughing to myself. “I still remember how pissed off Kieran was at how much it cost us to pay them off.”
Caden’s shoulders shook with mirth. “We were lucky they didn’t throw us in jail that night.”
“More like, we were lucky Kieran didn’t throw us in prison himself and lock away the key,” I laughed.
“Damn right,” Caden smirked.
I took another long draw of my beer, enjoying the pleasant buzz that was finally settling into my limbs. As I glanced around the cozy confines of Murphy’s Pub, I couldn’t help but soak in the lively atmosphere. The party was just getting started.
The dimly lit space was brimming with the warm glow of hanging lights, casting dancing shadows on the walls. A couple of local men with their whiskey glasses in hand belted out a spirited Irish ballad, their voices rich with tradition. Cheerful laughter filled the air, their merriment infectious.
I loved this place.
I was just about to take another swig of Guinness when the buzzing of my phone on the bar interrupted the moment. I glanced at the screen, not immediately recognizing the number. I reached for it and silenced it, not wanting any family business to ruin the night. I’d let it go to voicemail and deal with it in the morning.
I could take one night off. Nobody was gonna die.
Probably not, anyway…
As soon as my phone’s screen dimmed, Caden reached into his pocket, his own buzzing softly in his palm.
“It’s Anastasia Kozlov,” he murmured.
I raised a single eyebrow. Okay, he got me. I was curious.
Unlike me, Caden always answered pretty much immediately, and he promptly greeted her with a soft “Hello.”
The two of us were familiar with her. She was the daughter of Roman Kozlov, a Russian bratva kingpin that had been moving into town and ruffling a lot of feathers from the Italians to the Greeks, to other Russian bratvas, and even the cartel. My family had made the decision to kill his malicious son Anton, and honestly, he was lucky he hadn’t died sooner. Not only had Anton kidnapped my sister Ada, but he’d roughed up my brother Aidan’s new main squeeze, Irina Morozov, too.
None of us condoned violence against women.
As far as we knew, we’d eliminated the bad egg, and the Kozlovs wouldn’t give us anymore trouble, or at least we didn’t expect them to.
“Anastasia,” my brother purred. He sounded interested, and that was unusual for him.
Was there something between them?
I watched as he nodded, acknowledging her request, then covered the phone’s speaker and whispered to me, “She wants to talk to you, Connor.”
Increasingly curious, I reached out, accepting the phone from my brother. “Anastasia,” I greeted her, my voice a blend of politeness and interest.
There was a brief pause on the other end, as if she were choosing her words carefully. “Connor,” she began, “I hope you’re enjoying your evening, but I need your help with something… rather unconventional.”
My interest was thoroughly peaked.
There was something inexplicably vulnerable hidden within the cadence of her words, and I found myself leaning into the unique beauty of her voice. There was a note of urgency in her tone as well, which pulled me in even further.
“What do you mean unconventional?” I echoed, cocking my head with curiosity.
“I’m sure you’ve heard whispers of the Colombian cartel moving through the Boston underground,” she began.
The Colombian cartel had been making bold moves into our family’s territory for weeks now. Their presence in Boston had become an escalating problem, and I’d been watching it unfold with growing concern.
We all were.
They’d been stepping on our family’s toes at every turn. They pushed their own narcotics into our traditional gambling strongholds, recruited members from rival gangs, set up lucrative drug deals on our home turf, and they weren’t even shy about it. The cartel’s influence was expanding at an alarming rate. If we didn’t act soon, they would become more than an annoying little problem. The way things were going, it was going to result in a war.
“I have,” I answered.
“The Colombian cartel is ruthless, and they’re making moves in our city that will leave no room for negotiation. My father’s bratva is strong, but even he can’t face the cartel alone. We need allies.”
“You want my family as an ally?”
“If we join our families through marriage, we’ll create a formidable front that will command respect and fear in this impending war against them,” she continued, her voice a bit breathless.
“Marriage between the Kozlovs and the Murphys… What exactly are you suggesting?” I asked, my voice trailing off. I furrowed my brow, trying to understand what she was getting at.
“I’m suggesting that you and I enter into an arranged marriage to fully cement an alliance between our families,” she stated, her tone clear and decisive. There was no question in her voice, and my mind raced with the implications of what a marriage between us might mean.
Her proposal was bold.
I mulled over her words, knowing the risks, yet unable to deny the temptation of the power that lay in her proposition. The lively pub around me seemed to have faded into the background, replaced by the gravity of the situation and the possibilities that this alliance could bring. It could certainly strengthen my family’s position and hers. It could open trade routes we’d previously been unable to get a foothold on, especially in their home turf of Russia.
Truthfully, her proposition made sense. An alliance between the two families would strengthen our position in so many ways that it would be foolish to push it aside.
Plus, she was fucking gorgeous.
My cock jolted at the thought of her walking down the aisle towards me, dressed in a beautiful white gown that offset her long blonde hair, full lips, and sage green eyes, not to mention her long, lean body, perky breasts, and full hips.
The same breathtakingly beautiful body I would get to undress later that night.
“Sure. I’ll marry you,” I offered, like it was the simplest thing in the world.
Next to me, Caden stiffened, his eyes widening in shock. His head whipped to the side as he stared at me, disbelief written all over his face, his mouth round as he mouthed the words, “What the fuck?”
Anastasia’s voice on the other end of the line carried a mix of relief and gratitude. “Connor, thank you. This means more than you can imagine. We’ll need to arrange everything discreetly, given the circumstances.”
“No. You deserve the wedding of your dreams, Anastasia, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,” I answered.
I wasn’t about to let the cartel dictate how my wedding took place. I was a Murphy, and that name meant something in this city. A discreet wedding would make us look weak, and I wouldn’t stand for that.
“I…” she stammered, taken aback. I grinned, hearing the blush in her voice before she cleared her throat. “Thank you. I’ll reach out soon to start making the arrangements.”
“I’m looking forward to watching you walk down the aisle to me, my future bride,” I murmured, and she was quiet for a long moment. She swallowed loudly enough to hear, the slightest bit of her nerves audible, and that made my cock unbearably hard.
She was going to look so pretty splayed out for me on our wedding bed. I shifted in my chair, the ache in my balls bordering on painful, and she finally cleared her throat on the other line.
“Me too,” she finally ventured before she hung up the phone.
“What have you gotten yourself into now?” Caden raised a single eyebrow towards me.
“Seems I found myself a wife,” I grinned, a mix of excitement and uncertainty swirling within me.
Caden studied my face, his dark eyes scrutinizing my smile, and there was a flicker of something unreadable in his expression. It was a subtle, almost imperceptible shadow of disappointment, but he quickly masked it with a wry, crooked smile.
“Well then, congratulations are in order, brother,” he said, his voice carrying a teasing undertone. “But, which one of us is gonna tell Kieran?”
“Not it,” I grinned.
“It’s not going to be me, either,” he countered.
“What about Angus?” I suggested.
The Scottish bartender caught my eye and shook his head. He held his hands up defensively. “Whatever you two are about to get yourselves into, I don’t want any part of it. I will, however, get you two fresh pints,” he offered.
“Good enough,” I supposed, and I winked in his direction.
Two weeks later…
I always knew I wasn’t really going to have a choice about the man I was going to have to marry.
As the daughter of a powerful Russian kingpin, my fate had been sealed long ago. For me, marriage wasn’t about love or choice; it was about alliances, power, and control.
I’d always known that, but it didn’t make it any easier.
My father had been grooming me for this role for a long time. He saw me as a pawn in a high-stakes game, and my marriage was to be the ultimate move in solidifying our dominance here in Boston. Moving into this city had been more difficult than he had ever imagined, and now we were on the brink of war.
An alliance through marriage couldn’t have come at a more opportune time.
The family my father had chosen for me was an organization of power players in the Boston criminal underground, The Murphys.
I knew their name well. My father believed that uniting our crime families would only strengthen his grip on Boston.
I was to be the bridge between their world and his.
I should be grateful that I did at least have one very small semblance of a choice in the matter. Only two of the Murphy brothers remained unmarried, the twins, Connor and Caden. I knew a little bit about them, and of the two, Connor seemed easier going than Caden.
Caden had a darker side, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready to meet it.
I’d met them both at the marriage reception for their brother Aidan Murphy and Irina Morozov, and to their credit, the two of them had been nothing but perfect gentleman. Connor had even poured me a shot of my favorite vodka and served it to me on a silver platter. Caden had peered back at me with a dark glint in his eyes, but there had been a certain grain of kindness hidden within those captivating blue depths.
Truthfully, I had been drawn to both, but I could only pick one.
In the end, I’d settled on Connor because I suspected that he would be the easier one to wrap around my finger, or at least that’s what I hoped. Beyond my usefulness in securing an alliance, I had ambitions of my own.
With my brother dead, I was next in line to inherit my father’s influence and power. If he wasn’t careful, I’d sweep it out right from under his feet.
Hopefully, Connor would help me do that.
I closed my eyes and took a moment for myself. The last two weeks had been a whirlwind. Planning this wedding had consumed my life. There were meetings with wedding planners to select the best venue, the painstaking search for the perfect dress, and a series of tastings to choose the ideal menu that would satisfy both Irish and Russian palates.
The guest list had been a source of much debate, considering the delicate nature of our alliance, and navigating the intricate politics of both crime families had proven to be just as challenging as finding the perfect flowers to match the bridal bouquet.
My days had been filled with one appointment after another, from dress fittings to hair and makeup trials, and late-night calls with Connor to ensure the coordination between our two families was running smoothly. Each detail had to be flawlessly executed, and it felt like I was walking a tightrope, juggling tradition, the complexities of each of our families, and my dream of a perfect wedding day.
Connor had given me all of that, and I was grateful to him for it.
Staring into my own eyes in the mirror, I tried to figure out what my future might hold. Nervous jitters fluttered through my stomach, and I attempted to quiet them, but they reigned free for several moments anyway.
Would Connor be kind, or would his reputation as a ruthless crime lord precede him? Would he be a good husband, and would I make a good wife?
I shook my head. None of that mattered. This was simply a marriage of convenience and alliance to ensure my family’s survival in this dog-eat-dog world. I had to keep telling myself that.
The most I could hope for was to carve a place for myself in this world. Love and happiness had no part of my future.
With a deep breath, I took in my reflection and smoothed my hands down the skirt of my dress. My wedding gown was a masterpiece. I’d known it was the one from the very first moment I’d put it on.
The neckline, a contemporary and sophisticated twist on tradition, featured a gentle sweetheart cut that gracefully traced my collarbones and highlighted the elegance of my neck. Subtle lace accents graced the edges of the neckline, adding a delicate touch to the otherwise minimalist design.
The waistline was tailored to perfection, cinching at just the right spot to accentuate my hourglass figure without being overly dramatic. A slim, elegant belt in a shade of sage green, the same hue as my eyes, added a touch of color and a subtle nod to our alliance.
The skirt gracefully fell from my waist to a soft, A-line silhouette that trailed behind me. The lace accents from the bodice continued down the skirt in a delicate, winding pattern, adding a layer of enchantment to the gown’s sleek lines.
In this dress, I felt like a modern-day queen.
I lifted my chin, staring into my own eyes. This was my duty. I could do this. I took another deep breath and a knock sounded at the entrance to my bridal suite.
“Come in!” I called out.
My father walked in through the door.
“My daughter… you look stunning,” he said, his voice a rich blend of pride and affection. He reached out and gently placed a hand on my shoulder, his touch a rare display of tenderness.
I offered a small smile, gratitude warming my heart. “Thank you, father.”
He took a step closer, and there was a hint of nostalgia in his gaze as he spoke. “You remind me so much of your mother, you know. You’ve inherited her strength.”
I smiled, not knowing what to say.
As he looked at me, his eyes held a complexity of emotions. “Today is a significant step, Anastasia, not just for you, but for our family. I want you to know how proud I am of you.”
“That means a lot, father,” I said quietly, smiling softly in his direction.
My father reached into his pocket, producing a small, intricately wrapped box. With a gentle smile, he handed it to me.
“I have a gift for you,” he said, his eyes holding a warmth that was often obscured by the weight of his business dealings.
I carefully unwrapped the box and revealed a delicate locket. It was a stunning piece made of white gold, adorned with intricate filigree and inlaid with diamonds. My breath caught as I opened the locket to find a photograph of my mother inside. My mother had passed away years ago when I was a child. Now, I hardly remembered her.
“This is beautiful,” I said, my voice filled with both surprise and emotion.
I felt a lump form in my throat, touched by such a rare moment of affection from my father. My father was usually all business. To receive such a heartfelt gesture from him was an unexpected treasure, a reminder that beneath the layers of cold business dealings, there was a hint of love for me that he had kept well-hidden.
My father nodded, his eyes softening. “I thought you might appreciate having her close to your heart on this day. She would have been as proud of you as I am.”
He took the delicate locket from my hand and gently fastened it around my neck. I reached up, hesitantly brushed my fingers against the precious metal, and sighed.
I could do this.
My father offered me his arm, and I took it gratefully. With a deep breath, I let him lead me out of my bridal suite into the waiting limousine. I stared out the window as the car pulled away from the hotel and drove through the streets of the city until we pulled up in front of the venue, a beautiful Irish Catholic Church that had stood for more than two hundred years.
It was smack in the middle of Murphy territory.
Its weathered stone façade bore the marks of time, with intricate architectural details that spoke of an era long past. The grand wooden doors were polished to a rich sheen. The church’s towering steeple, a beacon in the heart of the city, was tall enough that I imagined it reaching straight towards the heavens. The ancient, ivy-covered walls had witnessed generations of worshippers here in the city. With such a rich history, it had been an easy choice.
My father led me inside the church. The hushed whispers of the guests filled the air as they took their seats, while the soft glow of candlelight cast a warm and inviting ambiance. Stained glass windows filtered the sunlight into an enchanting tapestry of colors that danced on the polished wooden pews.
The wedding decorations were a seamless blend of white, light blue, and sage green. White roses and delicate hydrangeas, their petals soft as clouds, adorned the altar and the aisles. The scent of the flowers filled the air, adding to the picture of beauty that the church had become.
It was perfect.
My heartbeat quickened in my chest, and a flutter of nervous anxiety passed through me as the string quartet began to play a harmonious melody to announce my imminent procession.
I gazed out over the crowd, seeing Kieran and Leah, Cormac and Caitlin, Ada and Shane, as well as Aidan and Irina. All of them appeared to be especially welcoming, and I wondered how I would fit into their family.
Would they welcome me, too?
As I began my journey down the aisle, my heart pounded in tune with the music, echoing the swift pace of my footsteps. The hundred or so guests turned in their pews, their eyes alight with anticipation of such a monumental wedding.
I turned my head forward and looked to see the man waiting for me at the altar.
Connor watched me with a mixture of awe and desire. His eyes locked with mine, and for a brief moment, the world outside the church ceased to exist.
He was so deliciously handsome.
He looked dashing in his tailored suit, his sage-green tie matching the waistband of my gown. His dark hair was trimmed close to his head, revealing his smoldering blue eyes and strong angular features. His dark, well-trimmed beard framed his strong jawline, enhancing his rugged good looks with a touch of refinement. He gazed back at me, his eyes holding a twinkle of mystery as he grinned in my direction.
His warm smile made each step that much easier.
Not only could I do this, but I would do this.
I’d only made it halfway down the aisle when a sudden, deafening crash shattered the serenity of the moment. The massive wooden doors splintered open, and time seemed to come to a complete stop as a group of heavily armed men streamed into the church.
All of a sudden, the world started screaming. The guests and family members recoiled as the intruders descended upon the ceremony, hiding in the pews because there was nowhere else to go. After an initial moment of shock, I realized they were members of the cartel. Clad in dark suits and armed to the teeth, they infiltrated the church just as quickly as they had appeared.
The opera music was silenced by the sound of gunfire and shouts, mingling with the horrified screams of the guests. Bullets pierced through the stained-glass windows, casting shards of colorful light across the chaos as they scattered onto the floor.
Connor lurched forward towards me, grasping my arm tightly and pulling me behind a pillar, shielding me from danger as he assessed the situation. Out of nowhere, Caden appeared by our sides. Both men crouched beside me, guns ready in their hands.
Amidst the confusion and violence, a figure emerged from the shadows, stepping forward with an air of commanding authority. I knew his face. He was the leader of the cartel, a man whose reputation for ruthless power preceded him.
His cold, calculating eyes scanned the church with a predator’s intensity. As he advanced, the frenzy of the gunfire seemed to subside, the sudden violence giving way to an eerie hush.
I hated it.
“Seems my invite to the Murphy-Kozlov wedding was lost in the mail,” Eduardo mused, and I gritted my teeth.
We had taken every possible precaution to keep the ceremony under wraps. Invitations had been hand delivered to every guest. The venue had been booked under a false name, as had the catering, the flowers, my dress, everything. Yet somehow, the cartel had found out anyway.
“Your invitation wasn’t lost,” my father answered. Before I could react, he strode forward to meet the cartel leader head on.
The tension in the church was palpable, and I heard a collective intake of breath as the two powerful figures faced each other. My own heart hammered in my chest, and I wanted nothing more than to pull my father away from whatever this was.
I had a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, and it wouldn’t go away.
“Your alliance is a threat. We cannot allow it to proceed,” Ramirez hissed, his eyes narrowing.
In a flash, my father lunged at the cartel leader. Ramirez moved with a calculated precision, avoiding his punching blow with ease.
They circled each other like predators, neither willing to yield. My father unleashed a ferocious right hook, and Eduardo narrowly evaded it by stepping to the side. Without even a moment’s hesitation, Eduardo delivered a punishing kick to my father’s midsection, causing him to stagger back and crash into one of the church pillars.
My father momentarily faltered, and Eduardo seized the moment of opportunity. Reaching down to his belt, he deftly produced a gleaming knife from a concealed sheath. The cold steel glinted ominously in the dim church light, and I sucked in a petrified breath.
“Don’t! Watch out!” I cried out, and Connor swiftly pulled me into his arms and pressed a hand over my mouth, silencing me immediately. I struggled for a brief second, stilling as the events quickly spiraled out of control.
In a horrifying display of brutality, Eduardo twisted, feinting one way as my father moved another way to avoid him, only to spin right into his clutches. Eduardo grabbed my father, wrapping one arm around his waist while wrenching the blade of his knife across his throat with the other. His throat split open, and blood poured down the front of his suit.
Without missing a beat, Eduardo thrust my father forward, and he stumbled, barely catching himself from falling to the floor.
A strangled scream emerged from my throat, and I couldn’t make it stop. Connor’s hand only muffled it a little bit.
The church filled with an anguished silence as my father staggered back and forth, clutching at his wound and trying to hold it closed. His blood flowed freely down the front of him, staining the collar of his crisp white shirt underneath his suit. I clapped my hand over my mouth to stifle another scream as he fell to his knees. Unable to watch him die, I closed my eyes and heard his body slump to the ground.
With a wound like that, he’d bleed out in less than a minute.
When I finally managed to open my eyes again, my gaze locked on my father’s still form, a pool of blood spreading beneath him.
He didn’t get back up. I knew he wouldn’t.
The trio of Murphy brothers, Kieran, Cormac, and Aidan advanced to the forefront of the church as Eduardo laughed, his maliciously crooked smirk chilling to the bone. Shane Kavanagh joined them, his expression furious.
I knew what they were doing. They needed to address Eduardo’s bold audacity. They couldn’t appear weak in the face of so many onlookers. The air was charged with tension, and I held my breath as tears coursed down my cheeks. My heart was pounding so hard it felt like it was about to beat right out of my chest.
A dreadful feeling gnawed at the pit of my belly. It was as if the world had turned dark and was crumbling around us.
Kieran, the eldest of the Murphy siblings and standing kingpin of the family, spoke with a deep and commanding voice, his eyes fixed on Eduardo. “You’ve made a grave mistake today. Roman’s death will not go unanswered.”
“You’ve stepped onto our turf and murdered our people in cold blood. If you wanted a war, you’ve got one,” Cormac added, his tone cool and calculated.
Aidan, his features a mix of anger and grief, issued a warning, “We will come for you.”
Shane, loyal to the core, stepped up alongside them, his gaze unyielding. “The Murphys and the Kavanaghs stand together. We won’t rest until justice is served.”
Eduardo smiled, his grin so maliciously evil that it chilled me to the core. He didn’t answer, but he flicked his wrist, and once again, the church erupted into gunfire.
Amidst the chaos, Kieran, Cormac, and Aidan Murphy, along with Shane, dashed to the side and dove behind nearby church pews, using them as cover. Bullets whizzed by, striking the grandiose stained-glass windows, and plaster rained down like confetti from the ornate ceiling.
The feeling in the pit of my stomach grew from bad to worse as I watched what came next unfold.
The Murphy brothers, despite their determination and steadfastness under pressure, did not emerge unscathed.
Kieran collapsed to the ground, clutching his chest as a gunshot wound sent shockwaves of pain through his body.
Cormac stumbled and fell after a bullet struck his thigh, his face etched with agony.
Aidan crumpled to the ground, clutching his abdomen, the anguish plain on his face as a bullet tore through his side.
Shane took a bullet to the arm, blood seeping from the wound as he staggered backwards.
Beside me, Connor and Caden exchanged terrified glances, and then their gaze turned to me. I couldn’t imagine how it felt to see their brothers hurt like that, but both of them were keeping level heads despite the horror happening around them.
My eyes tore to my father’s body, and I understood.
Greif struck through me, but I couldn’t give it any credence, not right now.
“We need to get her out of here,” Connor murmured, the urgency in his voice cutting through the madness.
Caden nodded in agreement, his expression resolute. “He’s right. Anastasia, we have to go.”
As much as it pained me to leave my father’s side and the turmoil of the church, I agreed with Connor and Caden. My father was lost. There was nothing I could do for him now, nor was there anything I could do for the Murphys.
The only thing I could do now was survive.
“Let’s go,” I blurted out, ignoring the tears pouring down my face.
“Out the back,” Connor called out softly. Caden and I nodded quickly, knowing now might be our only chance to escape.
With a heavy heart and an increasing sense of urgency, I crawled after the two men towards the rear of the church. I quieted a cry of terror as I pushed myself up to my feet. As we moved, our footsteps seemed to echo far too loudly against the hardwood floor and a sudden burst of fear raced through me at the prospect of potentially being discovered.
I didn’t want to die today.
Someone cleared their throat ahead of us, and my heart started beating frantically in my chest. Waiting for us just beyond the back door was a group of cartel soldiers blocking our path.
They wore all-black tactical gear, from head to toe, making them seem like shadowy figures emerging from the darkness. Their faces were obscured by sleek, featureless masks that revealed nothing of their intentions, adding an unsettling air of anonymity. They exuded a sense of quiet menace as they stood in formation, armed to the teeth with an array of weaponry from guns to knives to brass knuckles.
Panic seized my chest, and I exchanged a terrified glance with Connor and Caden.
Connor took a brave step forward. “Stay behind me,” he whispered, his voice laced with protective resolve and unwavering determination.
Caden positioned himself at our side, ready to defend me too.
At the forefront, a single imposing figure stepped forward, his piercing eyes locked on the three of us. He tore his mask off, revealing a scarred face that terrified me to the core. His lips curved into a chilling smile, showing us a row of clenched teeth. With a subtle nod, he signaled to his men, a silent command that sent a shiver down my spine.
Connor lunged forward and struck first.
He unleashed a barrage of punches, his fists a ferocious blur of motion. Each strike landed with a bone-rattling impact.
Nearly a dozen men swarmed around him as I held my breath in fear. Connor’s movements were a blur of action as he parried blow after blow. I nearly squealed with hope as he landed a hard kick straight to one of the soldier’s groins, and then when he slammed his palm straight into one of their noses.
Sweat glistened on his brow as he pushed himself beyond his limits, his breath coming in ragged gasps. The harsh scrape of his boots against the concrete floor echoed throughout the back of the church.
The cartel soldiers closed in on him, working together to surround him in seconds. They kept their guns trained on him and all of a sudden, my slim hopes were dashed.
Despite the odds stacked against him, Connor refused to back down. He fought harder, moved faster, but there were so many fighting against him that I knew our chances of escape were quickly disappearing.
Caden’s arm wrapped around my waist, holding me firmly against him as I struggled. He took several steps backwards, pulling me along with him as he put some distance between us and his brother.
I watched in horror as they managed to pin Connor down, their grip unyielding as they forced a hood over his head. He never stopped fighting and even hooded, his punches hit with sickening crunches. He kicked hard, landing a powerful blow straight to one man’s belly. He took out several more men even as more flooded over him.
I wanted to scream.
It didn’t take them long to completely overpower him. The group of cartel members lifted him clear off the ground and carried him away back into the church. Still, he fought, but he was severely outnumbered. My heart pumped in my chest as he disappeared around the corner.
“Get her out of here!” Connor yelled through the hood, and Caden took another step back, swiftly grabbing me around the waist and launching me up into the air and over his shoulder like I weighed no more than a sack of feathers. His arms held me securely in place around my hips and he started to run.
I lifted my head to see the remaining cartel members give chase, their footsteps echoing behind us. Caden quickly dove into a dark alleyway between two abandoned shops next to the church, before swiftly taking the next left and a right. His feet pounded into the pavement as he took one turn and then another until I quickly lost track of which way we were heading and where we might be going.
I curled around him, holding on tight. Right now, he was my best chance at survival. I hoped that his brothers would be alright and that they’d make it out of this alive.
Unlike my father…
The image of my father’s still form flashed before my eyes. For a moment, I allowed myself to cry. The weight of the tragedy pressed down on my heart, and I whispered a silent promise to carry his memory with me and to continue making him proud as I took over his position as leader of my family.
Right now, I had to focus on surviving.
Caden’s familiarity with the city allowed him to skillfully guide us through a labyrinth of narrow streets and concealed alleyways, his steps echoing through dimly lit corners. The uneven cobblestone streets slipped away beneath our footsteps, and the shadowed alleys revealed a mixture of faded graffiti, cracked brick walls, and rusty fire escapes clinging to aging buildings.
With every twist and turn, the city’s shadows quickly became our allies. Caden never let up his pace. If anything, he was running even faster than before. Behind us, our pursuers dropped one by one.
Still, when we lost the last member, Caden didn’t slow down. He kept running even as the skies began to turn dark.
He didn’t stop until he reached a safe house and the two of us were safely locked inside.