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Surrender: A Mafia Billionaire Romance by Shanna Handel – Sample

Prologue

Nicholas

What do you do when the love of your life—the one who got away—shows up on your turf?

I know what I want to do.

I want to kiss her. I want to hold her.

Then take her over my knee and spank her. Punish her for leaving without so much as a goodbye.

Feel the sting on my palm, spanking that smooth round bottom. Turn her skin from creamy milk to a ripe red cherry. See her feet kick in protest. Feel her fight and wiggle over my lap, my cock hardening beneath her. Wrap my arm tighter around her waist. Pin her into place. Punish her till she’s saying sorry. Till she’s promising to be my very good girl.

Then hold her on my lap, her throbbing ass pressed into my thighs. Cuddle her and kiss the tears from her cheeks. Lay her down and thrust my cock into that sweet wet pussy. Feel it tighten around my shaft until I’m about to come. Flip her over the bed and take her in that perfect little ass.

Spilling my seed down her thigh.

Marking her as mine.

Punish her. Pleasure her.

Claiming every inch of her body.

That is what I want to do to her.

Will I get the chance? Or once again will she disappear in the night, taking my heart with her as she goes?

Chapter One

Three years earlier

Hannah

I should have stayed in the library. Just me, myself, and eyefuls of research. But I didn’t, and now I’m crammed into a tiny seat, pressing shoulders with a sleeping stranger on a New York City bus.

I’ve been a terrible friend. Guilt was the driving force that finally had me packing my trusty duffle bag and hiking it to the bus station. My childhood best friend, Adrianna, had moved to the city and met and married the man of her dreams. And I missed the wedding.

But then I was recently accepted into the doctorate program at Columbia, and I knew it was the perfect time to make the trip to meet her new family; soon, my course load will make it impossible to get away.

Adrianna became a Bachman. The way she speaks of her new family, they may as well be American Royalty. Wealthy men and women living in a little place they call the Village. A hidden community tucked away in the upper West Side. She’s texted me a few pics of herself partying with them, and they’re all quite gorgeous. But when I ask for details about the family, she’s elusive. I find it all quite mysterious.

Adrianna wanted to send a limo, but I told her very clearly, no limos, and insisted on paying my own way. Times are tight on my meager intern salary, hence, the bus ticket.

Luckily, the long ride is finally over. The exhaust-puffing monster pulls to the curb. As it slows to a stop, it’s suddenly filled with the high-pitched squeals of females. I want to put my hands over my ears to muffle the sounds. What is going on?

Then it hits me: the reason for the women on this bus going primal—the Bachmans must have already arrived to meet me. The occupants of the bus are stretching over one another as they hoot and holler. Their comments come in a jumbled rush, but I hear them all.

A woman wearing a bright purple dress howls, “Did we just pull up to Mt. Olympus? Damn—I thought we were on the West Side.”

“—Is that the guy that played the vampire in that movie?”

“—Nah. He’s too tan to be him. And better looking!”

“—It should be illegal to be packing heat like those guns. What does that guy do for a living? Own a gym?”

I smile. Adrianna may have mentioned the family owned a gym, among other thriving businesses.

I rise from my seat, craning my neck to get a better look. The pics I’ve seen have not done these men justice. I find my own jaw hanging open.

Shoulder to shoulder stand a group of men that could be reincarnated Greek gods. They’re sharply dressed, wearing crisp shirts in tones that complement their deep olive complexions, cut to show off their trim physiques. Tall, dark, and handsome never looked so good.

Nerves settle in my stomach—I’ve got to get off this bus and meet these supernatural beings. Taking a deep breath, I excuse myself and squeeze past my sleeping seat mate. I grab my duffle bag from the overhead storage. I try to make my way down the crowded aisle. It’s no use. As per usual with my small stature, no one notices me. “Excuse me, this is my stop.”

I’m ignored by Purple Dress who’s standing in the center of the aisle, blocking my way. She’s shouting, “There’s another one. How many is that? Six? Seven? And not a woman among them.”

A perky teen suggests, “Maybe they’re a boyband?”

“Oh, yeah! That’s it. They have that look, don’t they?” Purple Dress agrees.

I hold my bag against my chest, moving slowly as I push past her and inch my way toward the door.

“I still don’t see a woman with them. Maybe they’re all dating each other?”

A voice cries out from the back, “Wouldn’t stop me from making a move!” Catcalls rise from the seats.

A few more steps and I’ll be free of this crowd.

That’s when I hear the gasp. Signaling that my childhood best friend must have finally made her appearance.

I stand on tiptoe gazing over the onlookers and sure enough through the smudged glass, I see Adrianna gliding past her male bodyguards—she always was overprotected by the men in her life. Her dark hair shines like the sea as it streams behind her. Those long gazelle-like legs carry her slender designer-clad limbs toward me. She’s waving her hand in the air, the delicate curve of her chin turns up as she searches for me.

One woman shouts, “Save some for the rest of us, lady!” The group gives a good-natured laugh.

Following Adrianna, a handful of stunning women emerge from behind the guys. A disappointed moan rises from my fellow passengers—these men are obviously spoken for. Excitement over, people make their way back to their seats and I’m finally able to get down the aisle. I’m the only one getting off at this stop. I wait at the top of the stairs for the doors to open.

From behind me I hear the woman in the purple dress say, “Who’s the lucky duck on this bus, meeting that crew?”

I turn to face her. “Me.” I flash her a cheeky grin.

She smiles and gives me a wink. “Good for you, girl.” A congratulatory applause rises from the bus, making me laugh.

I catch a glance of my reflection in the glass just before the doors open. I look nothing like the gods and goddesses who adorn the sidewalk. I’m short. And roundish. Dirty blonde waves tumble over my shoulders. No amount of product could tame my tresses and make them shine like Adrianna’s. Not that she hasn’t tried.

Born in England, grade school in Italy then college in the states, my accent and my fashion are an eclectic mix—at times I sound as American as my fellow classmates, other times they tease me for my posh accent, asking me if I’d like a spot of tea.

And I can’t seem to figure out what continent my style is from. Today, my outfit consists of a simple black A-line dress that’s a bit tighter than when I last remember wearing it, matched with Doc Marten boots. I have no idea if my clothing is acceptable and I don’t really care as I’ve always been more into studying than primping, valuing education over fashion.

My makeup-free skin drives Adrianna crazy. She lives to moisturize, contour, and paint every inch of her flawless face. Me, I wake up, splash a little water on my face and tug a brush through my hair. I’ll never be a great beauty and I don’t let it bother me.

I’ll always be Hannah—the hardworking one. The smart one.

The short one.

The doors open. My reflection disappears. And she’s standing right before me.

“Adri!” I leap from the stairs into her arms. She laughs and takes a step backwards as she catches me. I hug her, hard. Any hesitation I had over making the trip instantly melts away. “God, I’ve missed you so much!”

“Oh, Hannie! I’m so glad you’re here! I’ve been dying for you to meet everyone.” She lifts me from the ground with her tinkling bell of a laugh. Twirls me around and deposits me back onto the sidewalk.

I laugh with her, saying, “Please don’t introduce me to your family with that silly nickname you gave me in first grade.”

“I’ll try not to—but no promises.”

She steps back elegantly waving her arm in front of the Bachman family. Standing this close to them, I feel pricks of sweat rising beneath my arms.

They’re an intimidating crowd.

I guess that’s what good genes, hard work, and a lot of money get you.

“Um… hello?” I give a small wave, addressing them as a group.

They all smile back. One by one they take me in their arms, giving me huge hugs. Welcoming me. Kissing my cheeks. By the time they pass me back to Adrianna, my face is flushed, my palms damp.

I must look as overwhelmed as I feel because one of the men steps apart from the group and takes my arm in his. Steadying me.

His flesh is warm against mine as I raise my eyes to meet his. Baby blues that sparkle with mischief. His face is framed by a shock of dark, tousled hair, quite a contrast to his light eyes. His jawline forms a hard edge but then he smiles and dimples appear, instantly disarming me.

He leans down and whispers into my ear, “You okay? We can be a bit much.”

I smile up at him. “I’m good. But thanks for asking. I’m used to it. I practically grew up with Adrianna’s family.”

“Ah, so you understand the nature of the big Italian and Greek families?”

“Pretty much. As kids we ran around with her cousins. There were always more of them than I could count.”

“If you grew up with Adrianna then you’ve met the head of the Village, Rockland?”

Head of the Village? How peculiar that this family would have its own leader. “I’ve met him but never spent much time with him. He was a few years older than us.”

“He’ll be happy to see you. You’ll be reacquainted when we get home. My name’s Nicholas. It’s a pleasure to meet you. Adrianna’s been talking about you nonstop.” Without asking, Nicholas lifts my bag from the sidewalk and flings it over his shoulder as if it weighs nothing.

I’m unnerved by the crowd and want the familiar weight of my bag on my shoulder. I reach my hand out to take it from him. “I can get that.”

He bats me away, flashing me a wink. “Here at the Village the men do the heavy lifting.”

“I carried it this far. I’m quite capable of making it another few blocks—” I shoot my hand past his, wrapping my fingers around the bag’s strap and giving it a good tug.

He untangles my hand from the bag, leaving it at my side. His face is suddenly inches from mine. The scent of his cologne swirls around me. “No need to prove your strength to me.”

I keep my voice even though he’s towering over me. “Says who?”

“Says me.”

I flinch backwards in shock as he wraps his hand around the back of my neck. His touch is light, but firm. I freeze like prey in the hands of a predator.

He leans in further, so close I feel his breath caress my ear. “And what I say, goes.”

Heat rises in my cheeks. I find my words, wiggling from his hold. “Just give me my bag, alright?”

He lowers his hand. Those steely blue eyes lock on mine. Sending quivers through my belly. “You have a problem with authority, don’t you?”

“And just what authority do you have over me?”

“I’ve been asked to escort you.” He steps by, his shoulder brushing me roughly as he passes. His scent lingers in the air as he calls over his shoulder, “You have a lot to learn about the Village, little girl.”

I watch him go. “What was that?” I whisper to myself. I blink my eyes, hard. Exhale out a deep breath. Give my head a shake. What the hell just happened? Before I can overthink the exchange, Adrianna appears by my side.

She’s beaming at me. “That’s Nicholas. He’s cute, right?”

“I found him to be a bit rude.”

Her sunny gaze clouds over. “I thought you’d like him.”

“He refused to let me carry my bag. Told me I’ve got a problem with authority,” I leave out the part about calling me a little girl—I’m still blushing over it and don’t want to repeat it, “and I’ve only just met him.”

“Oh… shoot.”

“What is it?” I ask, staring angrily after him. He’s strolling down the sidewalk, my bag slung over his shoulder.

“It’s just that…” The waver in her voice pulls my attention to her face. She twists a strand of hair around her finger. Bites her bottom lip. Nervously, she fingers the gorgeous pendant—emeralds in the shape of a sword—that hangs around her neck.

She’s holding something back. Hand on my hip, I demand, “Spit it out, Adri.”

She speaks frantically, using her hands as she talks. “It’s just that we aren’t really allowed to have nonfamily members visit at the Village. But I wanted you to meet everyone, so I had to beg Rockland. He gave me permission, but only because he knew you back home—”

“Permission to visit?” They really are the American Royals. “Is this a family or a monarchy?”

“Oh, my. A monarchy—isn’t that a romantic thought! Can you imagine living in a castle, wearing those gorgeous dresses—” Her eyes turn toward the sky and I know she’s lost in a fantasy world from one of her historical romances.

I grasp her shoulders, bringing her back from dreamland. “Adri!”

“Sorry… as I was saying, he gave his permission but only under one condition…”

“Which was?”

“He said that anytime you are in the Village and not with me—like right by my side—you have to be escorted.”

“By Nicholas?”

Her nose wrinkles adorably. “Yes. Is that a problem?”

“Yes, it is in fact a problem.” A picture of Rockland floods my mind. Caught somewhere between a surfer and a samurai, he’s tanned, muscular—and deadly looking. And though Nicholas has an easier way about him, he seems no less authoritarian. I either cancel my visit or obey their orders.

There’s no other option.

But I still protest. “I don’t want to be under the authority of some guy I don’t even know.”

“I get it… I really do… but this was the only way. Please, please, please. Say yes. Say you’ll stay. Nicholas is great. He’s a real gentleman as long as…”

“You obey his orders?”

The look on her face tells me I’m not wrong. “Kind of?”

“Is this truly the only way I’ll be able to stay?” I ask. I want to say, hell, no. Get right back on that bus. But now that I’m with Adrianna, I’m eager to spend time with her and I promised myself I would take a break from research and have some fun.

“Uh-huh.” She’s giving me that pleading look. The one I’ve not yet been able to say no to.

I imagine myself temporarily retiring my feminist card, slipping it into my dress pocket. It’s only a few days. What’s the worst that could happen? “Okay, alright. I’ll play along. But please know—I don’t like this. Not one bit. I’m only agreeing to this because I love you so much.”

“Yay! Thank you, Hannie! We’re going to have so much fun!” She gives me a tight squeeze. Spins on her heel and flits off into the crowd.

Leaving me alone. “Where are you going?” I stand on tiptoe, craning to see over the crowd, but I lose sight of her. A moment later, from across the street, I hear her calling my name. I stretch my neck in search of her and finally spot her. And my heart drops from my chest into my boots.

She’s climbing on the back of a motorcycle.

The handsome green-eyed driver I recognize as her husband, Dante, the first of the men I was introduced to. She pulls a helmet over her gleaming hair and points over my shoulder. “Get on!”

Dread fills my stomach. I look further down the street where Nicholas is sitting on top of his own motorcycle. Helmet in place. A second, smaller helmet rests in his hands. Shiny and fire engine red.

And meant for me.

“Motorcycles? Seriously, Adrianna?” I shout over the roar.

She shrugs. “You said no limos.” She gives me a wave then wraps her arms around her husband’s trim waist. And is gone.

What does she expect me to do? Climb behind this misogynistic man—a guy who thinks it’s okay to call me little girl within five minutes of meeting me—wrap my arms around his muscled body, and hold on for dear life as we tear through the city streets?

To my shock and dismay, the image wakes a queer feeling in my belly… and puts a pulsing between my legs. I find the sensation to be unsettling. I decide to walk.

These are my last few minutes of freedom. Since we are technically not on their family’s turf, I figure Nicholas’ escort duties have not yet begun. The Village can’t be far. Adrianna’s mentioned some of the names of the shops that they own. Bachman’s Jewelers rings in my mind. I’ll ask around if need be. I cross my arms over my chest and start in the direction Dante and Adrianna just disappeared.

I’ve made it half a block when I feel a strong grip around my upper arm. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“Let go of me.” I tug my arm away but it’s no use. I notice a few straggling Bachmans eyeing us curiously as they climb aboard their rides. I hate causing a scene. It’s the British in my blood. I lower my voice. “Please.”

“You’re not walking.” Nicholas’ gaze burns into mine. Challenging me. The endearing dimples are nowhere to be found. His dark brow narrows. “You’re coming with me.”

He’s scaring me. But I don’t back down. “I go to Columbia—I live in this city. I think I can manage to find my way around.”

“We aren’t on a college campus, sweetheart. There are things lurking around the corners of these streets that you don’t want to know about. And it’s my job to protect you during your stay. Let’s get one thing straight. If you aren’t with Adrianna, then you’re with me.”

“I was told you were to escort me within the Village. We aren’t in the Village.”

“Escort you to, and within.”

“This is so over the top. Just give me the address and I’ll find it on my own. When I get there if you must accompany me, then fine. But not a moment sooner.”

“Regardless of your thoughts, regardless of your feelings, until you step foot back on that campus, you are under my care. Understood?” His grip is tightening to the point of discomfort, leaving me wondering if I’ll have fingertip-shaped bruises in the morning. He’s staring me down in a way that makes my knees weak.

I pull away. “There’s no need for this—”

“It’s not your call.” His jaw is set like stone. He’s not going to relent. This man is a Neanderthal. I just need to appease his caveman ways till we get in the walls of the Village and I can be with Adrianna.

It causes me physical pain but I manage to whisper the words, “I understand.”

“That’s better.”

I wait for him to release my arm.

He doesn’t. Just moves his hold to my elbow, guiding me back toward the motorcycle.

“You don’t have to hold me hostage like this. I’m not going anywhere.”

He finally lets me go. His brow knits as if he’s trying to suss me out. “Tell me. How often do you make if off campus?”

“I… get around.” I literally never leave the grounds. But no need to make him smugger than he already is.

“Is that so?”

I shrug. Try to set my tone to match the steely edge of his. “You don’t need to know anything about me. Once we get to the Village I’ll be with Adri and out of your hair.”

“We’ll see.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” He’s infuriating.

His brows knit even closer together. “We don’t have visitors other than at weddings. I’m surprised Rockland even gave his okay for this. He does have an immensely soft spot for Adrianna—possibly the only soft spot in his body. It was generous of him to allow you to come. Respect his orders.”

“Orders? Isn’t that a bit of a formal term for a family? Makes you sound more like a military—”

“I get the feeling you confuse being an independent woman with one who does what she wants, regardless of her personal safety. Don’t mistake the two. Don’t leave my side. Is that understood?”

“Do I have another option?”

“I suggest you answer me with a little more clarity and respect.” His eyes bore into mine.

It’s not a suggestion.

It’s a command.

“Err… um…”

He grows visibly impatient waiting for my response. The disarming dimples misled me. This man is dangerous.

I swallow, hard. Heat builds in my chest. I sense he’ll not wait much longer before he takes matters into his own hands and makes my decision for me. One quick glance out of the side of my eye lets me know the others are still watching. I don’t want this to escalate any further. I give him a nod, and whisper, “Yes, sir.”

“Good girl.” Only two little words but somehow, they turn my world on end.

I’ve never called a man my age sir in my entire life. And I’ve never had one call me good girl.

I feel as if I’ve lost myself. I’ve been with the Bachmans less than an hour and I’m not feeling one bit like the Hannah Burns who got on that bus.

My bag’s been strapped to the back of the motorcycle. He takes a seat on the beast of a thing. Hands me the red helmet. I take it from him. Put in on. It’s heavier than I anticipated.

“Hop on.”

The motorcycle is big and powerful-looking. I’ve never ridden one before. My heart is hammering in my chest. I look from the bike to the driver.

He’s waiting, watching me. Sensing my hesitation, his stony features soften. “I’ll keep you safe. I promise.”

His blue eyes gaze at me in a way that calms yet excites me. Why is he having this effect on me? He’s attractive—that’s a scientific fact. But his exterior isn’t what has sweat building on my palms. It’s him. The way he takes control yet balances it with care.

What has Adrianna told me about these men on our late-night phone calls? That they were… doms? Was that the word she used? I’ve studied Latin and know the origins of most words. I have no trouble tracing dom to dominant, a word derived from the Latin dominus.

Which means lord or master.

He will be neither to me. Despite the reaction from my body, my brain reminds me I’ve only got to tolerate his ways until we get behind the walls of that Village. I can do this.

His hands go to the grips. He tilts his head back. “Get on.”

It’s his final request. I take a deep breath. Adjust my helmet, clicking the strap beneath my chin. He reaches up, double checks the latch to be sure it’s locked in. As he does, his fingertips brush my skin.

With shaky limbs, I board the motorcycle, climbing behind him, trying not to touch him as I do. My modest display is over as soon as I feel the first rumble of the engine. With a terrified shriek, I throw my arms around him, gripping him tightly and scooting as close to him as possible.

Which makes him laugh.

Which, despite my annoyance, makes me laugh. The engine roars and we take off. We are flying through the air speeding down the streets of the city. Weaving in and out of traffic. I cling to him as if my life depends on it. I pin my body to his, my breasts press against his back. It’s not lost on me that while riding on the back of her cycle, Adrianna looked like a model in an advert for French cigarettes. I fear I look as if I’m a terrified baby monkey clinging to its father’s back as it swings through the jungle trees for the first time.

His muscles flex and ripple beneath me as we drive. My arms tighten around his flat, hard belly. The thrill of the experience, the skill of his driving, the flexing of his muscles—it has my senses turned up. My body electrified.

Between my legs there’s a hot, pulsing throb. Instantly flooding me with shame. I tell myself I can’t help what I feel—it’s biology. Just a simple chemical reaction. A product of having my body so close to his.

My private thoughts are interrupted by Nicholas’ words. “I can’t breathe.”

“Oh!” Embarrassed, I loosen my grip.

“Thanks. Try to relax, sweetheart. Enjoy the ride.”

He’s called me sweetheart again. Does he mean it as a term of endearment or is this more of his patriarchal tendencies? As my life is currently in his hands, I decide not to ask.

I do as he says. Take a deep breath. Watch the world go by. The streets become posher with every block. We drive by sidewalk cafés, boutiques, art galleries. The buildings become more uniform. Tall, proud, and meticulously maintained. Brownstones that boast elegantly scripted signs, proudly stating the names of the businesses. I read them as we go by. Daughtry Clothiers, Clara’s Children’s Boutique, Barbells Gym. Curious tall black gates rise between each of the shops, small black boxes buried in the stone walls beside them. We pass the gold swirling letters of Bachman’s Jewelers.

I never would have found this place on my own. I offer an olive branch. “Are we in the Village now?”

“These are the outer buildings.” He slows to a crawl. Pulls in front of the gate that’s attached to the jewelry store. Reaches up and presses his thumb against the box. The gate slides to the right, disappearing into the wall. Revealing another gate. Another box. He pulls up further. Waits until the gate is closed behind us. Turns over his shoulder and flashes me a smile. Presses his thumb against this black box and says, “This is the Village.”

We leave the alley and pull onto a cobblestone path. There’s a whir and a clank as the gate rolls shut behind us. The Village is beautiful and quaint, quite like a storybook. Couples stroll down the sidewalk, hand in hand. Bistro tables dot a central town square where people sit drinking wine, nibbling food, chatting.

The streets are lined with rows of three-story homes. Each one decorated with its own personality. A turquoise door here, black shutters and flowerboxes there. I glance over my shoulder. Behind us, the buildings rise like an enormous privacy fence. It’s a hidden world. “I can’t believe this exists.”

“You’re very lucky to be here. Adrianna and Rockland must trust you with their lives?” It’s a statement but he asks it as a question.

It irks me that his tone hints he does not trust me. That he is not particularly fond of my being here. “They treated me like family when I only had my father. I’d never do anything to hurt them.”

“Good to know.” There’s an awkward silence. A moment later, he offers what seems like his own olive branch. “We have a little time to kill. You want the tour?”

“Yes, please.”

The streets we drive down are numbered—one through seven. Each of the streets are lined with rows of homes. Nick says, “All of the houses have identical layouts but couldn’t be more differently decorated. Mine is kind of lacking compared to others. You know—being a bachelor and all.”

So, he’s single. Not that that matters to me. Does it? “Mine’s stuffed to the gills.”

“First floor, laundry and kitchen. On the second floor, to the left is the living room. To the right, an office. Or in my case a room with an empty desk. The entire third floor is a master bedroom. There are windows in all the rooms, both on the western- and eastern-facing sides of the homes. Huge windows, open to the back garden as well as the street. They used to be kept bare, but Rockland’s insisted on curtains being hung.”

I squeak out, “You mean you could see in? Even into the… bedrooms?”

“Yup.”

I stare up at the huge, spotless windows imagining couples, the intimate part of their lives on display. I clear my throat, changing the subject. “How long has the Village been here?”

“A long time. Bachmans began buying up the land in the late eighteen hundreds. Once the entire block had been purchased, they slowly built the businesses on the streets, forming the square behind them. The backs of the buildings have no windows looking into the Village. It took a long time and once the businesses were in place, forming this fortress, they built homes.”

So this place had been around for ages. Crazy. The Bachmans are more powerful than Adrianna let on. “How long has Rockland been here? When Adrianna first left Italy, she’d followed him to a place she called… I can’t think of the name of it.”

“The Parish.”

“That’s right. Where is that?”

“It’s an island off the coast of Greece. Years ago, Rockland left the Village to branch out. He started the Parish by himself. It grew beyond anything he anticipated—from a small community to a bustling town with white stone mansions on white sand beaches. There were some changes in relationships, a few family dynamics shifted, and he ended up here. Adrianna followed him again and that’s how she ended up with Dante.”

Insane. A private island? A hidden city? Wasn’t there a third place as well? I rack my brain, remembering the name. “And the Hamlet? She mentioned her friend Paige and the leader before Rockland—what was his name?”

“The Hamlet is our third little world. It’s a suburb outside of Connecticut. Bronson is the leader there now. It’s where a couple goes if they want to breed.”

“Breed?” This place is getting stranger with every minute.

“I’m joking. It’s where you go if you want to have a family. Paige got herself knocked up and tugged Bronson off to the Hamlet—one of the shifts in dynamics I mentioned. That’s when Rockland became the head of the Village.”

“Families can only live in the Hamlet?”

“There are families at the Parish as well. Are you keeping up with all this?”

“Just barely.”

“There are no children in the Village. It worked out for Rockland and Tess to be running the show here. Rugrats aren’t on their radar.”

“Does that mean if Dante and Adrianna choose to have children, they will have to move?”

“Yes. No kids allowed.”

“Why?”

“Even though we have three main communities, the Village houses the headquarters for our businesses. Children aren’t… conducive to our way of life here.”

“How so?”

“How much has Adrianna shared with you?” There’s a touch of ice in his words, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

“About?”

“The family business?”

Italians. New York. Incredible wealth.

Am I riding on the back of a mobster’s motorcycle? Has Adrianna gotten herself tied up in the New York mafia? Surely not. I’m letting my imagination get the best of me. I shrug. Try to make my voice light. “She’s told me… enough.”

I sense a tightening in his shoulders. His voice is cold, low. “Is that so?”

His tone flusters me, which angers me. I snap back, “Of course she’s told me about the family business. Why would she bring me here without telling me?” I rack my brain. What do I know? Mostly Adrianna just talks about how much she loves Dante and how hot the sex is between them. Did she mention anything about the family business? They’re shop owners, and I think I recall her saying something about finance or stock trading.

He sniffs at my statement and changes the subject. “Why weren’t you at the wedding?”

“I… couldn’t make it.”

“You couldn’t make it to your best friend’s wedding? Adrianna was really hurt when you said you weren’t coming.”

A sharp stab pierces my heart. Swallowing hard, I blink back tears. “It just didn’t work out. Can we drop it?”

“Touchy subject?”

“Yes—you could say that.”

“Alright then.”

“Alright.” I’m over this tension between the two of us. It’s time to get off this bike. I need to find a room. Get a shower. Have a glass of wine with Adrianna and laugh and catch up. “Listen, Nicholas—”

“You can call me Nick.”

“Fine. I’ve really enjoyed—”

“Can I call you Hannie?”

I groan. How many of them overheard Adri’s embarrassing nickname for me? “No, you may not.”

“Okay, sweetheart. But you can still call me Nick.”

Listen, Nick—I appreciate your showing me around but I’d like to get to Adrianna now if you don’t mind.” There’s a long silence as we cruise by a tall gray building. The words Bachman Enterprises are written in huge letters across the front. This must be the headquarters he mentioned. It certainly looks like a respectable office building, confirming they must be into stock trading. Well-to-do bankers with no time for kids. I wait for him to turn back. Head to the rows of homes. Instead, we are driving toward a beautiful grassy meadow. “Nick?”

“You’ve got an adorable accent. You know that?”

“Are you trying to change the subject on me?”

“It’s cute. British chick meets old world Italia meets classic New Yorker. But mostly British.”

“I’m… eclectic. Can you please turn around now?”

“It’s very sexy.”

Cue the blushing. “Thank you. That’s very kind of you. Can you please take me back?”

“There’s one thing.”

“What is it?”

“Are you wearing perfume?”

“It’s lotion. I’m not one for cosmetics.”

“It smells amazing.”

“Can you please stop changing the subject now?”

“Yes. But there’s one more thing.”

“Get on with it… please.”

“You know how Adrianna can be kind of flighty?”

“Please—I’ve known her since she was in pigtails. I was her walking, talking agenda when we were in school together. I had to remind her to do her homework. Tell her when her projects were due. She even forgot the school dance, which she was crazy excited about. I showed up at her house to walk with her and she wasn’t even dressed.”

“Nose stuck in a book?”

I laugh. “Yes. As per usual.”

“Sounds like our Adrianna. Unfortunately, her flightiness has caused a little rift in your schedule today.”

“What do you mean?”

“She had a few things she had to attend to. She felt terrible she wasn’t able to tell you herself. Which means I’m in charge of you till she’s freed up.”

“How long?” Disappointment creeps heavy into my chest. I lean my head down and try to take a sniff beneath my arm. As far as I can tell I don’t smell like a city bus but I still want a proper wash. “I was really looking forward to hanging out with her. And maybe taking a shower.”

“No problem. You can take one at my place.”

“I… ah. I don’t want to be rude but is there any way I could go to Adrianna’s?”

“No.” The answer comes quick and firm. The subject is not up for discussion. I sigh, resigning myself to spending the day with my appointed escort.

Being naked in his bathroom.

But I’m not one to easily resign. The second this bike is in park I’m making my way to Adrianna’s and Nick won’t be stopping me.

We turn back the way we came. Quietly ride over the cobblestones. He takes a left onto Fifth Street. Pulls up to a home that’s painted a pale blue. Almost the color of his eyes. The door is shiny black. Stately brass hardware adorns it. There are no decorations, or planters or window boxes like the other homes. But it’s still pretty.

He climbs off the motorcycle. Holds out a hand to help me down. When I’m safely off the bike, two feet planted on the ground, he gives my hand a gentle squeeze before releasing it, sending a current through me. His fingers go beneath my chin, quickly unbuckling the strap.

I clear my throat. Take the helmet off. Fidget a bit. Do anything other than stare at him. Because now that he’s shown me just a bit of his softer side, I can’t take my eyes from him. And that’s a problem.

He puts the helmets on the bike. Detaches my bag and slings it over his shoulder. Gestures for me to climb the front steps before him. “Shall we?”

I stand there, taking him in for a moment. Tall and muscular with a jawline cut from steel. He’s intimidating for sure, but who is he to tell me what to do and where to go?

Much less whose shower I’ll be using.

The motorcycle ride was exciting. He was kind to tour me around. But it’s time for me to take my life back into my own hands and find the friend I came here to visit. I know I promised her that if I wasn’t right by her side, I’d stay with Nick, but this is ridiculous. Why would a few blocks matter?

I give him a polite smile, make like I’m obediently going up the stairs. Instead, I juke to the right—forget my bag, I’ll get it later—and hightail it down the street as fast as my short little legs will go.

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