“Look at her. She’s an ugly beast.”
“Disgusting. She can’t dance. How did she get the role in the first place?”
“I heard she slept with the choreographer.”
“Then he wore a bag.”
Malice dripped off every word, the cackling sounds what I heard every day in the halls when I passed. The ugliness burned into my mind, festering like a swarm of maggots. I was fearful they’d drill into my brain, sucking out what was left of my soul.
Even now, their hateful whispers threatened to shut down my performance.
One more pirouette.
I floated across the stage, lifted high into the air by my partner. As he allowed me to soar above the crowd, I had a sense of real freedom, my excitement returning. Then my understudy’s voice echoed in my head, her snide comments said in front of everyone in the corps de ballet. And they’d laughed with her.
“Careful what you say, or her daddy will stick a knife into your gut.” The last comment had hurt me more than any of the others.
My smile remained but I was gutted inside, trembling enough I thought for certain Evan was going to drop me, but his fingers were firm, his muscles well toned. When he slowly brought me to the floor, I could see genuineness in his eyes. He crossed the stage, making his exit and allowing the floor to be solely mine for the remainder of the performance.
I leapt through the air in perfect position, swimming in happiness from the way the director clapped, thrilled with my execution. Viktor Balakin was a man of few compliments, almost always screaming at what one or another of the students had done wrong.
As I dropped into my closing stance, I shuddered, more exhilarated than I’d ever felt before. There was utter silence, which allowed my fears to claw into my throat. What if no one had liked the performance? What if the girls were right?
My breathing echoed in my ears. Then I heard the start of thunderous applause, cheers coming from everywhere inside the posh auditorium. A single tear of happiness trickled down my cheek, rolling in an effortless slide, dropping ever so slowly to the floor. When I rose from my position, I immediately curtsied then took my appropriate bows alongside my male partner. When Evan backed away dramatically, I motioned toward the audience, then toward the corps de ballet, pressing my hands together in a silent thank you.
Within seconds, everyone in the audience was on their feet, shouts of ‘bravo’ and ‘well done’ creating another swirl of emotions. I could barely contain the tears. It had taken me years of brutal training to get to this point. I was now a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, and I’d never been happier in my life.
As I stepped into the shadows, giving my understudy her moment of accolade, I grasped onto a few seconds of glee from giving her a look of scorn as I offered a saccharine smile. Nadia was tightlipped, acting as if she owned the concert hall. She didn’t, but her father owned many, convincing the executives at the ballet to continue using the facility when others had attempted to lure the company away. But Nadia couldn’t ruin my moment.
No one could.
I’d earned it fair and square.
At least now, I could be proud of myself for two accomplishments, including pissing her off. Then I noticed my father out of the corner of my eye standing in the wings. In his arms he carried two dozen long-stem white roses. They were my mother’s favorite. If only she could be here to see me on this spectacular day.
The moment Nadia backed away, my father approached, and I’d never felt more like a princess than at this moment. Especially seeing the tears in my father’s eyes. The powerful leader of the New York Cosa Nostra was crying because of my performance. My heart soared with happiness.
The incredible ovation continued and as my father approached, I pressed my hands over my heart. He’d been there through everything. My protector. My friend. He’d been right by my side during the heartache and pain, encouraging me to follow in my mother’s footsteps, her legacy always present in the corridors of the ballet company.
As he stretched out his arms, I read his lips. I love you. As I walked toward him, his expression changed dramatically, his gaze shifting offstage. Suddenly, a strange chill coursed down my spine, a flash catching my attention at the same time it caught my father’s.
But it was too late.
He lunged in my direction just as shots rang out, knocking me to the floor. Screams erupted from everywhere, the loud popping sounds somehow amplified. Everything shifted into slow motion, two sets of strong arms grabbing mine, hauling me away.
“Get her out of here!” Gio bellowed, my father’s righthand man never far away.
“Fuck. Who the hell are they?” Luis snarled, the solider gruff and brutal, but a softie around me.
Chaos erupted, lights flashing.
Screams exploding from every direction.
I watched in slow motion as Nadia slumped down like a broken doll, her white tutu covered in blood.
“No! No!” My wails were unheeded, both Gio and Luis shielding my body with theirs, firing off shots, one coming right after the other. Just before I was yanked behind the curtains, I caught a glimpse of the stage.
Blood was everywhere, bodies strewn across the polished wooden floor as if strings of crimson had rained down on the performance.
“Let me go. My father. My father!” I heard my strangled bellow, the echo in my ears creating a wave of disillusionment. “What happened? I need my father.”
“Shush, little one.”
“No. I need my father.” I fought with everything I had, pummeling my fists against the protective force.
“It’s okay, Raleigh. You’re safe. You’re going to be just fine.” Gio’s voice was in a vacuum, but his hold was firm, his fingers digging into my arms.
I continued fighting with him, managing to jerk into a sitting position. And as I peered down at my snow-white tutu, now stained with a vivid shade of crimson, I knew what was left of my protected world had just been shattered.
“Get her out of here!” Gio commanded. He had his hand wrapped around his weapon, waving it from one side to the other.
“I’ve got her.” As Luis grabbed my arm, yanking me to my feet, I moved into a state of shock.
Then I managed to jerk away, running back toward the stage. “No. I’m not leaving without my father.”
I’d seen carnage before, my father unable to protect me from the viciousness that I’d always known as my life, but at that moment, nothing had prepared me for the horror presented. Dead bodies littered the stage, blood pooled in strange artistic formations, shimmering in the glare of the onstage lighting.
Gio wrapped his massive arms around me, pulling me into the shadows. Then he turned me to face him, his dark brows pinched. In fury. “You can’t save him. You can’t save any of them. They’re dead. Do you understand me?”
As the realization sank in, tears slowly began to fall.
“Did you see her face when she was carried out of the room kicking and screaming?” Daniel Briggs burst into laughter, his entire face lighting up. “That girl deserved a hard spanking if you ask me.”
He was the man I considered my closest friend, but his callous attitude often caused heartburn.
Tonight was one of those nights.
His moniker of Viper suited him, his caustic tongue always in motion.
“She did threaten Ethan’s life,” Stephen Watson snorted as he leaned back in his chair. We were in the middle of a typical debriefing and not a single member of my team had expressed more than a casual interest in the prima donna actress we’d been hired to protect.
Ethan Porter grinned like a Cheshire cat. “I would have loved to see her try. The woman has balls, but she doesn’t know what it’s like to come up against a brutal, carnal man.” He grabbed his crotch, grunting as if in the throes of passion.
“Oh, please. You’re a pushover when it comes to women,” I told him, darting my gaze in his direction before returning my eyes to the computer file on the assignment we’d endured over three weeks. Three fucking weeks of pretending to be the woman’s lackeys. I’d finally put a stop to her egregious behavior, and she’d tried to fire me.
Yeah, she did need one hell of a hard spanking.
“I beg your pardon,” he retorted, fisting his hands and acting as if he planned on punching me. “The last two women I was with called me a stud.”
“You mean like an animal or a two by four?” Daniel asked, barking like a dog several times as he backed away, laughing his ass off.
Now I had to grin.
“Briana was difficult,” I admitted, which was being generous. She was like a bull in a china shop, constantly pushing every boundary.
“But you wanted to do the right thing.” Daniel huffed as if annoyed. I knew better. He thrived on attention, which we’d gotten entirely too much of for my tastes.
I preferred working in privacy and silence. However, solitude had become a forbidden luxury as of late given the firm’s popularity. I’d spent maybe thirty days in the last year at my house given the assignments I’d taken. I’d only accepted the latest gig because it had allowed me to indulge in spending quality time at home. Alone.
Even that hadn’t been enough of a perk to counteract Briana’s attitude.
“Plus, he thrives in chaos. Hence his code name in the Marines.” Ethan enjoyed teasing me as often as possible.
The others laughed.
I glared at him, refusing to relive those days in any capacity.
“We need more alcohol,” Stephen chortled as he pushed back in his chair. “Maybe two bottles in order to handle this bullshit.”
The fact an assassin had attempted to destroy her movie premiere hadn’t fazed her. She’d almost clawed my eyes out in retribution for ruining her ‘fabulous’ evening. Powers Security wasn’t in the habit of babysitting wealthy, bratty socialites, but I’d owed a friend of a mine a favor.
And I always paid my debts.
However, if he asked me another favor like this one, I’d likely punch him in the mouth.
The three-week stint had proven to be a pain in the ass for all of us. The three men I counted on the most tasked to crawl out of their comfort zone, wearing tuxedos on ten of the nights we’d provided security. They’d been like fish out of water, the formal events trying their last nerves. At least the asshole who’d been stalking the princess for weeks had been caught. Job complete.
As I typed the words, I switched to Quickbooks to create a final invoice. Briana’s father had paid a premium price for our service, the man an old commanding officer. And I planned on taking every single penny of what was due.
“What’s next?” Daniel asked when I finally wrapped my hand around the long overdue scotch.
“There’s some diplomat coming in from the Netherlands. He’s visiting family then heading to DC. This might be a solo act. I’ve heard to declassify the information.” While I’d started the security firm to keep innocent people from becoming targets from vicious assassins, lately I’d found we were protecting our fair share of mobsters and white-collar criminals. That always left a bad taste in my mouth.
“And the Spanish tycooness?” Viper asked, his wicked grin a signature representation of his personality.
After giving him a hard look, I shook my head. “First, there’s no such word. And second…”
“She only has eyes for lover boy here,” Ethan chortled.
He was the next recipient of my notorious glare. The guys laughed. I wanted nothing to do with sailing the South Pacific or the Greek Islands.
“What about the situation in Kandahar?” Stephen asked.
I took another swig of my drink before answering. “I haven’t decided yet.” Returning to Afghanistan was the last thing on my agenda. I’d seen and experienced enough bloodshed to last a lifetime. I’d been asked for the team to provide military expertise on a secret project, the details unknown at this point. At this moment, I had no interest in sharing aspects of my former life.
The quick rap of knuckles on my office door dragged me out of the ugly memories. As Amelia popped her head in, I sensed whatever she had to tell me was important.
“What is it?” I asked, swirling the glass back and forth. I’d always followed my instincts, no matter the situation. My gut was telling me shit was about to hit the fan.
Or already had.
“A man by the name of Carmine Sciascia is on the line for you. He’s some attorney out of New York. It’s his third call. He’s rather insistent that he talk to you. I tried to tell him you were in a meeting, but he seemed… frantic.” Amelia opened her eyes wide, for some reason more nervous than usual. Why did I have a feeling Mr. Sciascia had been rude to her?
“I’ll take it.” And I would. However, I intended on making him wait. Let that be lesson number one.
She nodded then closed the door quickly. The poor girl usually had nerves of steel given most of my clients believed their shit didn’t stink.
I knew otherwise.
In fact, I knew more dirty little secrets than the National Enquirer ever had. That’s why I was paid huge sums of money.
“I think that’s our cue to leave, boys,” Daniel said, already getting to his feet.
“Gladly. I hear a bar calling me,” Stephen said, laughing as he polished off his beer, tossing it in the trash.
“You need anything else, boss?” Ethan asked.
“Keep your phones close,” I told him, drumming my fingers on my desk. “Daniel. Why don’t you stay?” He knew it wasn’t a request.
He sat back down, eyeing me carefully as the others walked out the door. “What’s up?”
“I don’t know, but when an attorney from New York calls, it’s usually bad news.” I studied the office phone, shaking my head as I continued to decide whether to shove his call into voicemail. Whatever the reason for the call, I knew damn good and well I wasn’t going to like it.
“Sure, boss man,” Viper teased, knowing how much I hated the expression.
I waited for a full three minutes, enjoying my beverage before answering.
“Mr. Powers. My name is Carmine Sciascia.” His voice was strained.
“I already know who you are, Mr. Sciascia. What I need to know is why you’re calling me.”
He hesitated, likely unused to anyone so brusque. “Do you know a man by the name of Tony Arturo?”
I sat back, glancing at Daniel who’d already lifted his eyebrows. The man I’d known years before I’d considered a friend. Now I wasn’t entirely certain I’d recognize what he’d become. The infamous leader of the Cosa Nostra out of New York, he’d gone from risking his life in order to preserve freedom to a cold-blooded killer. Granted, we had that in common but for entirely different reasons.
“I know him.”
Exhaling, Carmine was either surprised at my unemotional response or debating whether to continue with the conversation. When a full twenty seconds had passed, he’d worn out both my patience and his welcome.
“I’m a busy man, Mr. Sciascia, so unless you’re prepared to talk, I suggest you bother someone else.”
“Christ. His notes said you were a hard ass.”
His notes? Those two words piqued my attention once again. “I’m many things, which is something I’m certain he would tell you as well. What is the reason for the call?”
“Have you seen the news?”
“Carmine. I’m not in the mood for playing a guessing game.”
“Fine. Don Arturo was shot and killed earlier tonight.”
Sighing, I raked my hand through my hair. A sharp pang registered in my gut, but I’d always known given Tony’s life choices, he’d end up in the morgue at a young age. “I suppose you want me to find his killer.”
“That’s entirely up to you, Mr. Powers. The reason for my call is that you were mentioned in his will.”
“Let me get this straight. The man’s blood has yet to coagulate and you’re contacting people mentioned in his will?” I laughed bitterly.
“You don’t understand. I’m not the executor of his estate, but I am the only person he trusted with handling his personal affairs. I’d prefer not to discuss this over the phone. Is there a secure email address I can send you some information?”
I had to ask myself whether I wanted to have any part of this mess. Then a sharp dagger was jammed into my gut, a memory kicking in. “What about his children?”
“They’re both alive and under protection.”
There was a definite ‘but’ as if they were on the list to be next. “Send me the information.”
“I also took the liberty of having a letter Tony penned only a couple weeks prior to his death couriered to you at your office. He’d left explicit instructions that if anything should happen to him, you were to receive the letter as soon as possible.”
How the fuck had my address been discovered? I’d taken great pains over the years to ensure that the agency’s location was kept private, only the few people who worked here holding the knowledge. Right now, there was no point in asking.
“I’m going to ask you again. What is the point of this call?”
He seemed miffed, which I couldn’t care less about. “I believe you’ll find that self-explanatory once you’ve had the opportunity to read the information provided. After doing so, I’ll ask for your answer and would prefer that you came to New York.”
I shook my head, tossing back what was left of my drink. “Fine, Mr. Sciascia, but I won’t promise anything.” I gave him the email address, something I rarely did for anyone I hadn’t thoroughly checked out, but the urgency in his voice negated my usual caution.
I ended the call, snarling under my breath.
“What the hell was that all about?” Daniel asked.
I yanked the bottle of scotch off my credenza without bothering to get up. “I’m not entirely certain. An old friend needing help.”
As I brought the glass to my lips, I tried to remember the last time I’d seen Tony. His daughter’s christening. That had been the happiest I’d ever seen Tony. He’d been in love with his baby girl, her beautiful mother beaming. I’d gotten word three years or so later that Emilie had died giving birth to his son. After that, I’d lost touch with him. The truth was we were different people. “What?” I barked at him.
He raised a hand in mock surrender. “Nothing, but I’ve never seen you this bothered by anything. I think I need another beer.” As he grabbed one from the small refrigerator in my office, I coveted the emptiness I usually felt. I wasn’t prone to emotions, which had proved to be a virtue in my line of work.
But something about this had already pulled at strings deep inside and there was no logical reason for it.
Suddenly, the glass seemed heavy in my hand. I wasn’t the kind of man to feel sadness or remorse. My ability to feel anything any longer was challenged. However, the nagging continued. “Let’s just say I have a bad feeling I’m going to sucked into a shitshow.”
My eye caught an incoming email from Sciascia’s address, and I pressed my index finger on the keyboard, hitting the download.
Daniel leaned forward in his chair, lifting a single eyebrow. As the pictures came into view, I took a deep breath, holding the heated bile until I almost choked on it. The photographs were brutal, depicting the violence in a colorful, morbid display. My initial thought was how artistic they seemed, definitely not typical police procedures, which mean the shit was already in the news. I hit print, allowing the full color visuals to be highlighted on slick photographic paper.
My second was registering the fact bodies were still on the stage, the photographer close enough to capture the fact several ballet dancers had been caught in the slaughter.
And the third sent a bolt of rage directly into my system.
Tony had been killed at his daughter’s performance. How old could his daughter be at this point? Thirteen? Fourteen? I wasn’t certain. To slaughter people in front of an innocent child was heinous even for the typical savage working in organized crime.
“Jesus Christ. Talk about a massacre. Who the hell is this friend of yours?”
“Mafia. We served together.”
“Oof,” he muttered. “You have friends in high places. Where did this occur?”
I shifted through the last pictures, tossing them aside. Then I jerked to my feet. Why would Tony insist I receive a letter if he was killed? It had to be so someone he trusted could hunt down his killer.
“A new case?” He was already surfing his phone, likely for additional news coverage. The press would be all over this. I’d been around enough mob leaders to know the drill. The circus would be endless for days.
Shrugging, I rubbed my jaw. “I don’t know yet. I’m expecting additional information.”
“Anthony Arturo, the notorious leader of the Arturo Crime Syndicate was gunned down while attending a presentation of Giselle at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center,” Daniel read. “Why are they always called notorious?” He chuckled and I fisted my hands as additional memories flooded my mind.
The guy had been a good soldier and a decent friend. I’d taken a bullet for him, something he’d said he’d never forget. I didn’t want his goddamn money or anything to do with his empire. “What else does it say?”
“Nothing of use except a lot of innocent people died.”
I nodded, already starting to pace the floor. “You don’t need to wait.”
“Hey, it’s okay. I’m not in the mood to go out drinking anyway. I’ll just spend the rest of the evening with you.”
“Yeah, so what?” he laughed, although I could tell he was curious as to what the hell was going on.
Now it was nothing more than a waiting game.
I didn’t need to wait for long. The courier had already been in route by the time Sciascia’s call got to me. After signing for the package, I had it ripped open before I returned to my desk. There was nothing but a typical office envelope with a single piece of folded paper inside. The words themselves had no special meaning, mostly cryptic in nature.
But it was clear to see that Tony had predicted his own death.
Max, if you’re reading this, I’m already dead.
“So, what’s the deal?” Daniel asked.
I thought about the question for a few seconds, debating both sides of the equation before making a decision. “The deal is that I’ll be on the next plane for New York.”
There wasn’t a single thing I liked about the city. It was dirty, infested with rats, and that included humans who worked the streets after dark, victimizing men and women who were just attempting to go about their boring, everyday lives.
Even the food was shit as far as I was concerned, and I had no appreciation of art or entertainment. My world revolved around the company I’d built, working long hours, which suited my personality and simple needs.
The traffic was horrific, the stench inside the vehicle repulsive.
How long had it been since I’d been here? Not long enough. I didn’t bother renting a car for the excursion, taking a cab instead. I had no intention of being here for more than twenty-four hours. I’d made a decision that Powers Security wasn’t in the business of hunting down killers.
As the cabbie pulled up to the address Carmine had emailed, I found myself tensing. The note was safely tucked in my jacket pocket, although after reading it several more times, I hadn’t managed to glean any additional information. There’d been a sense of urgency about it. From what I’d read in the papers over the last few years, Tony had tight security, soldiers prepared to die to keep him safe.
And he’d seemingly been immune to federal investigations plaguing other criminal organizations. Perhaps his reign of power had given him too much confidence, causing him to forgo basic security measures. Whatever the case, he hadn’t bothered to pick up the phone and call, another surprise.
I paid the driver and stood on the sidewalk for a few seconds before walking inside, heading straight for the directional marquis. It would seem Carmine’s firm held court on the entire top floor. The elevator was empty, allowing freedom from the typical banter of various associates heading out for lunch. The silence was good for my mind to process what I had planned on saying to the man.
As I walked in through the glass doors, I was surprised at the level of quiet in the office. The receptionist greeted me warmly, obviously expecting my arrival, taking me down a series of hallways to Carmine’s office. She barely tapped on the door before opening it, ushering me inside.
“Would you like coffee or water?” she asked in passing.
“I won’t be here long enough to enjoy refreshments.” As soon as I’d stated the words defiantly, Carmine lifted his head. As expected, the look of concern on his face was significant. He’d likely lost one of his more affluent clients.
“Mr. Powers. I’ve heard a good deal about you.” Carmine extended his hand, giving the reception a look with narrowed eyes. She quickly left, closing the door behind her. “Please have a seat.”
While I appreciated the gesture, I had no intentions of sitting.
He returned to the other side of his desk, giving me a hard onceover as so many men and women did upon first meeting me. Standing a little over six foot four, my solid frame was intimidating and that’s exactly what I wanted.
“Yes, well, I’m certain you’d like to get down to business,” he said dryly.
“I would. I have a plane to catch.”
As he sucked in his breath, I sensed he was debating how to address my claim. “I think after you realize why you’re here you’ll want to stay for an extended period of time. In fact, that was Tony’s wish.”
“Just what are we talking about?”
He opened a file, pulling out a group of papers, having no intention of bringing them to me. I crossed the room, grabbing them from his fingers, scanning the first page. “This is his will. As I mentioned, I want no part of anything that belongs to him.”
“Please just take a few minutes and read the documents.”
I owed that much to Tony if nothing else. As I started reading, within seconds I realized that he’d left me his entire estate, with the exception of two trust funds already established for his children, Raleigh and Francesco. His holdings were significant, the companies he owned doing extremely well. I couldn’t deny the fact I was floored, uncertain of the reason why he’d made the gesture. I was nobody to him any longer.
When I looked up once, Carmine’s face was pensive, giving me a nod to continue. As I moved to the second document, he walked away from his desk. While I wasn’t at all an emotional man, the realization of why Carmine had been so insistent hit me hard. When I looked up again, he was sliding a drink across his desk in my direction.
“Tony mentioned you were a scotch man. I thought you might need a drink about now.”
There was no reason to feel irritation at the man standing in front of me. He was only expediting his client’s wishes, but the swell of annoyance was nearly suffocating.
I’d been made ward of the two children, executor of their trust funds. I wasn’t cut out to be a parent, and certainly not for two kids who belonged to a man I barely knew.
Even if I was Raleigh’s godfather. The fact I’d seen her once at her christening and no other time should have given Tony a good indication of my lack of parental skills. I eyed the drink then wrapped my fingers around the glass, using enough pressure I knew the tumbler could snap in my hands. “There’s no other relatives?”
He shook his head. “None. His parents and brother were killed in an assassination in Italy three years ago.”
“Are you suggesting the hit on Tony was made by the same people?”
Huffing, he shoved one hand into his pocket, walking toward his floor-to-ceiling window. “Tony had many enemies, Mr. Powers. He pissed a lot of people off over the years. It was only a matter of time before one of the attempts at ending his life was successful.”
“How many times has that happened?”
“Four, but none recently. I kept telling him that his security wasn’t tight enough, but Tony wouldn’t listen to me.”
I took a swig of scotch, still shell-shocked. “How old are the children? Ten? Twelve?”
He seemed amused, finally laughing. “You haven’t kept in touch with Tony.”
“No. We live in two entirely different worlds.” Lived. I had to remind myself he was dead.
“Francesco is seventeen, two months shy of eighteen and in a secure boarding school in Connecticut, although Tony’s Capo had him brought here after the massacre for safety reasons. And Raleigh is just shy of twenty-one. But you’ll notice, their trust funds won’t be released until they turn twenty-five.”
I was thrown once again, my mind going blank for a few seconds. Where the hell had time gone? “Where is Raleigh?”
“She’s sequestered at home. Now, it’s your home.”
“Oh, fuck, no.” I had no desire to live in a fancy house once owned by a mafia kingpin, even if Tony and I had actually been close.
He looked away, shaking his head. “Max, just hear me out. She’s devastated and has never lived anywhere but at her father’s estate. She’s been sequestered in a very protected bubble, her entire life wrapped around her father and her dancing.”
“So she was on stage when he was shot?”
“Was she injured?”
“No, but she’s very emotional right now. The doctors gave her a sedative.”
“And the boy?”
He hesitated, taking a deep breath. “Francesco is an angry young man, but that’s nothing new. That’s why Tony sent him to a special school. He will prove to be… challenging. I’ve feared he even had something to do with his father’s murder.”
“Why would you say that?”
Carmine looked stressed. “Because his father wasn’t certain about providing him a place inside the organization. Francesco was very angry.”
“Then I’ll keep that in mind.”
What the hell was I supposed to do now?
“I know this is a lot for you to take in, but it’s obvious Tony trusted you with his entire regime.”
“I’m not a goddamn mafia Don, Mr. Sciascia. I’m about as far removed from it as anyone could be.” Granted, Tony knew I’d crossed the very thin line between right and wrong on a few occasions, but that had been under entirely different circumstances.
“Tony left some information about his business. He was very cautious, organized, and particular about how he ran his businesses, some of which are legal and extremely lucrative operations.”
“And the others?”
If I’d expected him to look sheepish, I’d been sorely wrong. “His bread and butter were with ownership of casinos and nightclubs.”
Now he looked sheepish. “Weapons.”
“Uh-huh.” With Tony’s expertise in them, it wouldn’t be a hard connection to make.
“You can do with it what you want, Mr. Powers.”
I laughed. “If you’re asking me to abandon my life to run a criminal empire, you’re out of your mind. You will help make other arrangements for his children. I don’t know them.” And they didn’t want to know me.
“You are Raleigh’s godfather!” he snapped, his glare turning harsh. “The least you can do is try and console the children, Raleigh in particular. Her entire world was destroyed. That would be the decent thing to do, Mr. Powers.”
“Yet I’m not a decent man, Mr. Sciascia. I’m certain Tony explained that in gory detail.”
“As a matter of fact, what he told me was that out of everyone in his life, he trusted you the most.”
His words were cold and frank, but that couldn’t persuade me. I wasn’t a trustworthy man, not by a long shot. I’d done far too many things I wasn’t proud of. But I wasn’t a criminal and I had no intentions of selling illegal arms to another organization or country. “Well, then Tony was a fool.”
He rifled through his desk, yanking out what appeared to be two photographs. “This is Francesco, and this is Raleigh.” He quietly laid each picture on his desk, sliding them across with care as he studied my reactions intently.
I glanced first at the boy, easily able to sense his surly attitude. Military school followed by a stint in the Marines would do him some good. When I shifted my attention to Raleigh’s picture, the reaction was as intense as it was unexpected.
She was no little girl, but a woman, one so beautiful I had a feeling the photograph didn’t do her justice. When I sensed my increasing arousal, I purposely looked away. Fuck. I was her damn godfather and I found her attractive. That wasn’t acceptable. I had to consider myself her bodyguard if nothing else, which prevented me from touching her.
If only my cock would understand.
“She’s quite the ballerina,” he stated, pulling me out of the thick haze of lust.
He laughed. “You really didn’t have any contact with Tony.”
“As stated before.”
“She recently became a principal for the New York City Ballet. That’s a big deal and all she’s ever wanted to do.”
“Isn’t that what her mother did?”
“Yes, considered a legacy at the company. What a shame Emilie was taken so young.” When he acted like he cared, I wanted to wipe the fake look of sadness off his face. What bullshit. He was paid well for pretending he gave a damn.
I couldn’t walk away without leaving Tony’s kids in good hands. Whatever the hell that meant. I didn’t need to be given a handbook regarding mafia operations. While Raleigh was a woman, she was considered the next in line to the throne. That meant her life was in danger. If I had to guess, I’d say she’d been on the assassination list.
The asshole responsible would come for her again.
“Raleigh won’t be performing any time soon,” I told him, shifting the photographs to his side of the desk.
“That will kill her, Mr. Powers.”
“What will kill her are the men who intended on driving bullets into her thin body. Dancing is a pastime.”
“No, it’s her life. You don’t understand.”
“Perhaps I don’t, but the assassins managed to destroy her family because of her dancing.”
He seemed taken aback. “Please do not make that poor girl feel any guiltier than she already does.”
I took a deep breath. “I have no intention of doing so, but while I’m in New York, which will not be for an extended period of time, Francesco and Raleigh will be under my protection.”
“Francesco has upcoming finals. I assure you that he’s very protected at the academy. They are used to handling children from particular families. Trust me. The school is on a permanent lockdown.”
Particular families. I translated that to mean children from elite families, including crime syndicates. Shit. What had this world come to?
Glancing away, I debated the odds of anyone getting into the school. “Fine. He can return for finals. Then I’ll see. By that time, other arrangements will need to have been made for their care.”
“Tony’s will still needs to be formalized, so if you choose not to honor your friend’s wishes, that will take time. It would be preferable if you’d stay at the estate. In case you haven’t figured this out, Mr. Powers, given your relationship with Tony, you now have a target on your head as well. With the elimination of the most powerful crime syndicate in New York, sharks would be in a blood frenzy, scrambling to take over. There would be war in the streets. His enemies will do whatever it takes to keep Raleigh from advancing to the throne.”
“Yes, I’m aware of the balance of power. That doesn’t mean I’m the best person for the job.”
“Then maybe you more fully understand why Tony thought you were the right choice. Your reputation is impeccable. You’ve protected several heads of state, saved the lives of one governor and the vice president, and kept several would-be abductors from kidnapping loved ones of diplomats and corporate moguls without a single innocent life lost. I’d say you’re more than qualified.”
I should have anticipated he’d look at the glossy file the public was allowed to see. If only he knew about the ugliness clawing just under the surface. Perhaps he wouldn’t be quite so eager to pawn off the kids and his former client’s business to me.
“Fine. I will make arrangements to stay at the house until this situation can be settled.”
His wry smile provided another irritation for the day. It would seem the tragic incident had cracked open doors I’d thought padlocked.
He breathed a sigh of relief. “I’m glad to hear it. I’m certain Raleigh will be relieved. Should I call her giving notice of your arrival?”
That remained to be seen.
“That won’t be necessary. Do you have the keys, security information? I also need a list of everyone who works for the organization, their positions as well as their security clearances. In addition, I’ll need you to establish contact with Tony’s accountant letting him or her know I need to hold a meeting as soon as possible. Make certain that person brings a full set of financials with them. I assume you have some listing of his various bank accounts and other personal information I might need?”
His stare was as hard as before but he nodded. I had a feeling he didn’t like being commanded to do anything. “Yes,” he finally said through clenched teeth.
“Also throw together a dossier on those enemies you were talking about. If I’m going to protect everything that was important to Tony, then I’ll need to do my job while I’m here.”
“Okay. I can do that.”
“And I’ll need that information as soon as possible.” I jerked out one of my business cards, which I used only for my exclusive long-term clients, some of which had used my services for years. This was a special case. I needed to make certain whatever information I was provided was given on my terms. And not just for security’s sake. There was always a chance in a situation of this nature Tony had been betrayed by one of his own. If that was the case, I’d need to handle his… departure personally.
“I’m glad to see you’re taking this seriously,” Carmine said flatly.
“Oh, it’s serious, Mr. Sciascia.” He wasn’t going to be party to any further plans until I’d had enough time to observe how Tony’s business and personal life had been handled.
Exhaling, he studied me for a few seconds before heading toward his desk, pulling out a paper file. “This will get you started. It includes the address of the estate and security codes. I’ll make certain you’re emailed the rest within the hour.”
“Good. And not a minute longer.” I grabbed the file, immediately heading for the door.
“Mr. Powers. Just a piece of advice. Don’t pretend that you know what Tony’s life was about. That won’t ingratiate you with the men who protected and served him for years.”
I didn’t bother turning around to provide my response. “Now that I’ve accepted this responsibility, even if for a short duration of time, things will be done my way. Period. That includes whatever services you provide. I hope I’ve made myself very clear.”
“Crystal clear, Mr. Powers. Now, I completely understand why Tony insisted that you fill his shoes.”
Because I was a hard ass?
“That’s not why I’m still here, Carmine. I don’t take sloppy seconds, nor will I succumb to the needs of criminals. I do things my way.” With that, I walked out the door.
This was going to be an absolute shitshow.
But every aspect would be handled to my specifications.
Jete. Plie. Grand battement.
I’d been continuously reciting a glossary of ballet terms for the last two hours, doing everything I could to rid my mind of the horrible images of blood and gore.
As well as the wretched fog of sedation.
Nothing was working. I couldn’t close my eyes at night for fear of my mind replaying the horrible night, by morning tears staining my pillow.
At least I hadn’t taken any additional sedatives. Not only had they made me drowsy, I also hadn’t been able to function at all.
As I moved around the room, shifting into a grand jete, I almost fell, my legs shaky. I walked it off, moving in circle after circle as I tried to catch my breath. I couldn’t break down, not when there was another performance just a few days away. I knew how strict Viktor was. He’d never allow me to get away with using my father’s murder as an excuse. I was a principal of the company. The show must go on.
As another selection of music came on, I pirouetted, changing to a pique turn, doing everything I could to shut down the anger that kept my adrenaline flowing. I finally managed to allow the music to take me away from the horror and sadness, using the entire practice room to escape reality.
Jump after jump, I pushed myself even harder, barely able to see from the beads of sweat trickling into my eyes. As the number came to a close, I performed one sauté after another, flying high in the air. The last chords came quickly and I jerked to my right, determined to finish with one last sauté into a soubresaut. But as I came down heavier on one foot, the imbalance jetted me forward, pitching me toward the floor.
And into the arms of a dark stranger. The hard thud was against his massive body, but still managed to drive all air from my chest.
I tried to jerk away but the man remained steady as a rock, his large hands firmly wrapped around my arms, my small body crushed against his.
As I slowly lifted my head, I was instantly mesmerized by the stranger’s deep blue eyes. There was such depth to them that I was drawn in, unable to blink. His irises were rimmed in flecks of purple, the vibrancy so stunning for a few moments my breath was taken away.
“Are you alright?” he asked, and the sound of his voice was nearly as intoxicating, the dark rich vibes reminding me of the most haunting, beautiful adagio.
A wave of heat drifted up from under my breasts, crawling ever so slowly along my jaw. I was embarrassed I couldn’t find my voice, finally managing to break free of his hold a few seconds later. I backed away as if by instinct, trying to figure who he could be. Neither Francesco nor I had been told anything, other than we were safe, but I knew we’d never be safe again.
We had targets on our backs, even if my wayward brother refused to admit it. Francesco had told me he was going hunting later. I’d just laughed at him. He’d told me other crazy things before too. “I’m fine.” The sound of my voice was barely a croak. While I was shy, the fact the stranger was standing in my father’s… in my home meant he had a right to be here, and I should be polite. “Thank you for catching me.” He was older, gorgeous by any standards, tall and so muscular, the crisp white shirt he was wearing strained from his muscular chest.
I wasn’t immune to the feelings of lust and at this moment, I was drawn into a powerful fantasy, envisioning what he would look like without the stiff attire. I envisioned him being tattooed, every muscle chiseled to perfection. As I involuntarily dragged my tongue across my lips, he was watching me.
Lusting after me.
Hungering to the point he would soon claim me as his.
Yet when I blinked, I realized it was all just a brief fantasy. He was all business, whatever that was.
“That was beautiful,” he said awkwardly. “The dance, I mean. You are very talented.”
Why did he say it as if he didn’t believe it? I grew irritated.
“Thank you. While I’m not myself these past few days, I’ve spent years training to become the best and that’s exactly what I’m considered.”
He seemed amused by my terse words, even chuckling under his breath. Whoever he was, he wasn’t making any brownie points with me.
“I’m certain you have.”
“If you don’t mind me asking. Who are you and why are you standing in my living room?” The angst had boosted with my question, enough so it came off as clear arrogance. While my father’s soldiers and capos had tried to comfort me, plying me with offers of ice cream and candy like I was five years old, nothing had consoled me.
Nothing ever would.
“Straight and to the point, just like your father.”
“Since I don’t know you at all, I can’t be certain you even knew my father. I’ve already had a dozen scammers call me, hoping my father’s money will help them out of whatever crisis they’re in. I shut them down and I’ll do it to you if necessary.” I’d always been as protective of my father as he’d been with me. If this was a fortune seeker, I’d made certain either Gio or Luis tossed him out after ensuring he would never dare attempt to come into this household again.
“Scammers. They will be handled. You won’t have to be bothered by the cockroaches again.”
I slapped my hands on my hips, cocking one. “I beg your pardon? I’m going to ask you one more time who you are and if you don’t answer to my satisfaction, I’ll have several of my father’s men show you to the door. And I assure you that they won’t be nice about it.”
He gave me a hard onceover, finally cracking a smile. When he did, a shiver so swift and passionate raced through me that I was left unable to think clearly. That wasn’t like me. I glanced away, which in the world I’d grown up in wasn’t ever done. I was never to be the one to back down first.
“I believe you would do that,” he countered.
“That’s it. You have five seconds to get out. Luis, my personal bodyguard will eat you for breakfast.” I was lying and I had a feeling this rough and tumble man knew it. I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate Luis, insisting on someone else. The man gave me the creeps and had since he was hired. Let alone I had a feeling whoever this asshole was, he could wipe the floor with the large Italian.
“Luis? Your personal bodyguard or valet?”
The bastard was calling my bluff. “Both. I get what I want when I want it.”
“Not any longer.”
I chewed on my lower lip, trying to avoid scratching his eyes out.
“Call them, the soldiers, I mean,” he chided further. “I need to see how long it takes them to get here.”
“What? What are you doing?” When he didn’t respond, I did what he’d asked, raising my voice. “Gio! I need you.”
There was no sound, no immediate footsteps. Just silence.
“Gio. An asshole is in here. He’s trying to kidnap me!” I shrank back, a trickle of fear skating down my spine.
The stranger turned slightly, shifting his attention toward the door. “That won’t do at all. Fuck.”
“Who are you?” I whispered under my breath, trying to keep my wits about me.
A lump formed in my throat, my legs shaking. Had something happened to the men protecting me? When he faced me again, he narrowed his eyes.
There was something dangerous about him, a darkness that was easy to see, but there was also a heightened level of arrogance mixed in. And the way he exuded sexual prowess was suffocating.
“My name is Maxwell Powers.” He cocked his head as if the name should mean anything to me.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Powers. I don’t know who you are.”
He looked away, the corners of both sides of his mouth turning up. “That’s partially my fault. For that I apologize.”
“I don’t understand.”
He seemed as uncomfortable as I was.
“I’m your godfather. As of now, I’m your guardian. From here on out, you will do as I say.”