The sun blinds me as I walk down the street to my favorite coffee spot. Everyone has one in Chicago; Peet’s Coffee, Starbucks, or whatever. My loyalty lies with the family-owned bistro on the corner of Taylor and Mills, Tuscany Bistro. It’s never overcrowded, and they have the best brew.
I dig my sunglasses out from my bag and slip them over my nose. At the tail end of my shift, a car accident came into the emergency room, keeping me at the hospital until three in the morning. After not getting much sleep last night and having to gear up for my afternoon shift I’m in dire need of a strong coffee. And one of their Danishes wouldn’t hurt either.
The café is mostly empty when I walk in. A blast of cool air hits me, drying the small beads of sweat the summer sun caused along my temples. I love the walk from my apartment to the bus stop, but the humidity makes it a little less enjoyable.
“Hey!” Tony waves at me when he catches me walking toward the register. Tony has run the Tuscany Bistro since his father retired ten years ago. His son and daughter work with him most days, but they aren’t behind the counter like normal.
I push my sunglasses up on top of my head.
“Morning, Tony.” I tap my fingers on the countertop. “It’s hot as hell out there today. I think iced coffee is the way to go.” I dig out my wallet, but Tony isn’t punching any keys on the register. I look up and find him looking off to the left of me. Following his gaze, I find two men sitting at a table near the front windows. They’re dressed nice in black suits. It’s too humid to be wearing so much clothing. A wave of heat washes over me just looking at them. The bigger of the two is puffing on a cigar.
“Tony, is everything okay?” I ask him. There’s no smoking in any public buildings in Chicago. Tony knows this, so why hasn’t he kicked them out?
“What? Oh. Yes, yes, everything’s fine. What did you want to order today?” Tony straightens up and looks down at the register in front of him. Tuscany Bistro is still old school; they haven’t switched over to the new smart pads everyone’s using now.
“A large iced coffee,” I repeat my order.
“Iced coffee. Got it.” He punches the codes into the screen with a shaky finger. I glance back at the two men; they’re watching us carefully. The smoker lets out a cloud of smoke then brings the cigar back to his lips. His suit jacket pulls up with his movement. Blood spatter covers the cuff of his sleeve.
“Where’s Carlos and Eleanor today?” I ask Tony, keeping my voice steady and handing over my money.
Tony’s eyes dart to the kitchen door then back at me. He forces a smile to his lips. Tony has one of those contagious smiles. He has a wide mouth, so when he grins his cheeks get all wrinkled on the sides. That’s not the case right now. Right now, his hands are trembling, and he keeps flicking his gaze to the men at the table.
“Tony?” I ask. He’s frozen again.
“Uh, coffee. Right.” He claps his hands together and moves behind the counter to get my drink. I step to the side and put my wallet away with my change, pulling out my phone. While Tony’s fluttering around back there with the coffee machine, I take the time to check social media. I hate it, but I can’t get away from it either.
Salvatore, my douchebag of an ex, hasn’t blocked me and as stupid as it is, I can’t help but scroll through his feed. Pictures of him and his girlfriend, the one he couldn’t get away from me fast enough to chase, litter the screen. I wasn’t home enough. That had been his excuse. I was always working.
Well, one of us needed to. And he wasn’t exactly rolling in the cash with his part-time mechanic position. Aside from that, I love my job. Emergency medicine is fast-paced and stressful, but every day I get to help people.
Salvatore is a cheating asshole, and my job had nothing to do with him not being able to keep it in his pants. I know that in my head, but when the image of him walking out of our apartment with the last of his crap hits me, my chest still tightens.
“Did you want cinnamon on top?” Tony asks, holding the shaker over my iced coffee.
“No…” I step closer to the counter. There’s a tall pile of whipped cream. “Oh. Tony, I didn’t want… never mind, that’s fine. But no cinnamon.”
“Sorry, Stephania.” Tony grimaces. His attention flicks to the kitchen door again.
“Not a problem,” I say. I take the coffee when he hands it to me. “Thanks.”
As I turn to head to the door, I catch sight of the floor. The dark wood of the café hides it pretty well, but I know what I’m looking at. There’s a trail of blood dotting its way across the café, disappearing behind the kitchen door.
“Tony, you sure everything’s all right?” I ask once more, turning back to face him. A head pops out of the kitchen. The man attached to it steps out. His shirt is covered in blood.
“Stephania, go. Everything’s okay,” Tony urges me with panicked gestures. But the bloody man locks his gaze on me and shakes his head.
“You a doctor?” He points a red-stained finger at me. I’m wearing my light blue scrubs.
“Yes? Why?” I answer. Chairs scrape against the flooring, and the two men crowd me. I grip the coffee tighter.
“I need your help.” He crooks his finger, like I’m supposed to jump up and do what he says.
“With what?” I ask, ripping my arm out of the smoker’s grasp when he goes for me.
“No questions, just get back here and help.” He disappears back into the kitchen, and the two guys grab me, hauling me around the counter.
“I’m sorry. Stephania, just do what they ask. Please, don’t fight with them,” Tony calls after me as I’m dragged into the kitchen.
As soon as I’m in the room, the goons let me go. My gym shoes slip on the puddle of blood. On the table lies a man. He’s not conscious, and his shirt’s off.
“He’s been shot!” Switching into emergency mode, I put the coffee down on a surface and drop my bag to the floor.
“I know that,” the guy who called me in here says. “I got the bleeding to stop mostly, but he won’t wake up.”
I maneuver around the table and check him over. Two clean entrance wounds in his left shoulder; rolling him to his side reveals only one exit wound. That’s where the blood is still coming from.
“Here.” I wave the big guy over. “Grab that towel and press on the exit wound. The bleeding is slowed but I can’t tell if there’s damage inside. He needs a hospital.”
“Yeah, that’s not happening. You’re going to have to fix him up here,” the smoker says. At least he put his cigar out.
“Here?” I look around the kitchen that doubles as a storage room. “No. You need to take him to a hospital. Call an ambulance, or drop him at the front doors, if you’re scared.”
I glare at the guy holding the towel against the shot man’s shoulder. “I don’t have anything here to help him with. It’s a coffee shop!”
“Tony!” he bellows without looking away from me.
“Yeah?” Tony pokes his head in, fear written clearly all over his face. He’s pale.
“You got needle and thread?”
“I’ll check Eleanor’s bag.” Tony waves a hand and disappears.
“Where is Eleanor?” I ask. If her bag’s here, she’s here.
The big guy grunts. “She’s safe. So long as my little brother here survives, she’ll stay that way.”
“You took her?” I yell. “I’m not doing a damn thing here unless you let her go.”
He frowns. “You think you have a bargaining chip here?” He draws his gun that was tucked neatly in a holster below his jacket. “You’ll fix up my little brother or I’ll put two bullets in you. And I have better aim than the asshole that shot him.” He raises the gun until the barrel is pointed at my head.
I’ve seen organs obliterated by gunshots. I’ve watched a newborn’s heart beat for the last time during surgery. But nothing prepared me for this. Looking down the barrel of a gun, my legs wobble and my chest clenches.
I’m only twenty-nine. I haven’t found true love. I haven’t made a mark on the world. I can’t die today. Please, God, don’t let me die today.
Looking away from the barrel, my gaze falls on something worse than the patient on the bakery table. There’s another man on the floor. He’s the source of the blood pool on the floor. A gunshot to his head. He’s dead.
“Here!” Tony runs into the room waving a small sewing kit. “Will this work?” He hands it over the body to me.
With a shaking hand I take it. “Yeah, Tony, this will work. Thanks,” I say softly.
“Get back out front.” The smoker pats Tony’s shoulder. “We don’t want anything to look unusual.”
Tony nods his head. “Yes, of course. Of course,” he says and rushes back out front.
“Get to work, Doc,” the goon with the gun says.
“I’m a doctor,” I mutter. “I need to wash my hands.” I point to the sink. He leaves me in relative peace as I wash up as best I can in the kitchen sink, then I go back to the sleeping man.
“Get going,” he commands when I keep inspecting the wound.
“Once I’m done, I can go, right?” I ask. Not that his answer really carries any weight, but it would be good to know what’s coming at me.
“Sure. You’ll be on your merry way. Now start. If he dies—” he clicks something on the gun, “so do you.”
My mouth dries. Picking up the sewing kit, I do the only thing I can do at the moment. I get to work patching up my patient.
“Where is he?” I throw open the doors to Roberto’s bedroom. The stink of cigar smoke lingers in the air, like a thick blanket being shoved over my face. Charlie stands in the far corner of my brother’s room like a watchdog, puffing away on his damn cigar.
“Calm down, Vincenzo. He’s all right.” Anton puts his hands out to ward me off from charging straight to the bed. Our little brother is lying in the bed, two gunshots to his chest.
I shove Anton out of the way and round the bed. Roberto’s asleep. Blood has seeped through the bandage on his shoulder.
“Is he still bleeding?”
“Naw, it’s okay. That’s from when we moved him in here. We’ll change the bandage in a bit,” Anton says from across the king-sized bed.
“Charlie, put that fucking cigar out!” I point two fingers at our guard dog.
“Sorry, boss.” He smothers the stub into the ashtray on the end table.
“He’s going to be okay?” I ask, pointing back to Roberto.
“Yeah. It didn’t look like the bullets hit anything important,” Anton explains. “But there was a fatality,” he goes on, walking around the bed to my side. “Sergio didn’t make it,” he says somberly.
An ache hits my chest. Sergio grew up with me, side by side we caused hell—and took our lumps together as well. A first cousin by blood, a brother by love.
I swallow the pain. “What the fuck happened? It was supposed to be just a fucking meeting. A simple exchange.” I fist my hands at my sides. Shit doesn’t go sideways without there being blame. And whoever did this is going to pay the price.
“Well, it went to shit.” Anton rakes his hands through his hair, keeping his voice low. “We met with the Mancini brothers like we were supposed to. I gave them the envelope, then some asshole walks in the back door from the alley and takes a few shots at us. Roberto took two to his chest and Sergio took one to his head.” He blinks away the tears in his eyes. There’s time for mourning later.
“And the Mancini brothers?” I demand.
“One of them took a bullet to the shoulder, too. The little one, I can never remember his fucking name. The other grabbed him and hightailed it out,” Charlie filled in the blank.
“So, they weren’t gunning for us, not a hit from the Mancinis?”
“I don’t think so.” Anton blows out a long breath. “There was so much fucking blood, Vincenzo. The bakery’s covered in it. I sent over a crew to clean it up. Tony’s freaked the fuck out.”
The bakery really isn’t a high concern, but our meeting did fuck up the old man’s business. The Manetto family takes care of those who take care of us. We don’t leave a mess like that behind.
“Any of his family or customers hurt?” I ask. Last thing I need to worry about is collateral damage.
“No. The café was empty. He sent his kids away when we got there.”
“Good.” I rub the back of my neck and look back down at my youngest brother. Only twenty-one and this could have been his last day on earth. It’s the way of our life but fuck, he’s so young. Thank Christ Mom’s not here to see her baby lying with two holes in his chest. She’d have my fucking head. I swore to her I’d keep Roberto safe. And you can’t fuck with a promise given to your mother on her deathbed.
My phone rings.
“Mancini,” I say as I check the screen before accepting the call.
“Vincenzo.” Joseph Mancini, the head of the Mancini family, starts talking before I can. “We had nothing to do with that mess at the bakery.”
“I know,” I say in a calm tone. “Your kid got hit too?”
“Jimmy. Yeah. He’s okay, your brother?” He asks the question with hesitation.
“Roberto’s going to live, but Sergio wasn’t so lucky.” I press the phone harder against my ear, my fingers ache from gripping it so tight. Physical pain is better than the sort rumbling through my chest.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” His words are sincere. There’s no ill will between our families. We work together when it benefits us both, and one of us losing a family member benefits no one. “Sergio was a good man.”
“Any idea who did this?” Sergio was better than good, but I’m not going there right now. Right now, I want to get to the bottom of what the fuck happened this afternoon. I sent my brothers and cousin to meet up at a neutral location to exchange information for cash. An easy fucking meeting. No one should have walked away with so much as a paper cut, but I have a dead cousin and a shot brother.
“None. I’m looking into it. You?”
“I only just got home. I’ll start digging. If you find out who did this, don’t act without me.” It’s not a request. My cousin died. I get first dibs on the motherfucker.
“Of course.” Joseph used to deal with my father before he died and left me in charge of the family, and his respect for my father has rolled over to me. It doesn’t matter to him that I’m young enough to be his son, I’m his equal.
With the call over, I stuff the phone back into my pocket and turn back to Roberto. “The bandages need changing. I don’t think there should be so much blood.” I poke at the edges of the white bandage.
“Wait.” I grab hold of Anton’s arm when he starts to reach for Roberto. “Who patched him up?” Anton’s smarter than taking him to the hospital. They have to report gunshots, and we don’t need that sort of heat.
“A doctor,” Anton says. “A girl walked into the café a while afterward. She’s a doctor. I had her patch him up.”
I swallow back the bellow trying to escape.
“And where is this girl now?” I ask in a soft tone.
“Downstairs. I put her in the basement. I couldn’t just get rid of her after she saved him.”
I shake my head. “No. That’s good. It’s fine.” I wipe my hand over my face, over the coarse texture of my short beard. “Change his bandage.” I point to our brother and stalk off toward the door.
“Vincenzo, where are you going?” Anton calls after me.
“To see the doctor.”
I sneeze again. This room I’m locked in hasn’t been dusted in years. At least there’s a cot, so I don’t have to sit on the dirty concrete floor, but it’s not exactly comfortable.
None of that is my biggest problem, though. No. The most immediate danger I have is needing to relieve myself. There’s no bathroom in this cell-like room they’ve locked me in, and I have no idea when they’ll be back. All I got was a bunch of grunts and orders when they brought me down here.
I cross my legs tighter and lean back on the cot trying to find the best position to keep the pressure off my bladder. I’ve been kidnapped, and my fear has to do with peeing my pants. I really need to get my priorities in order.
The door creaks as it opens, and another man stands in the doorway. He’s bigger than the others I’ve already met. His bulk takes up almost the entire space. His well-tailored suit and neatly styled black hair don’t suggest he’s one of the worker bees.
I get up from the cot. “Why am I here?” I demand of him. I patched up his friend, and they repay me by stealing me. I’m owed a few answers. But first… “Wait. Before that, I need the washroom.”
He lifts his dark eyebrows like this is the first time he’s ever heard someone ask for the toilet before.
“You need the washroom?” He repeats my words.
“Yes. Then you can tell me why I’m here,” I say, stepping toward him.
He holds up a finger at me, a silent demand to wait. But I’ve been waiting hours.
“It’s either here or the bathroom,” I warn him. The bathroom would be ideal. Who knows what he’ll do to me if I make a mess in his cell. I don’t know who he is, but I have a good idea what I’m dealing with. Those men at the café weren’t casual thugs. These people are dangerous.
“And if I say it has to happen here?” he asks, sounding mildly curious.
I stare at him. If he wants me to piss right here on the floor what’s stopping him? I’m not exactly in the position to be making demands, but my full bladder is giving me more bravery than I actually possess.
“I need to use the washroom,” I repeat. Whatever game he wants to play, I’m not up for it right now.
He narrows his eyes on me, inspecting me. “You’re a doctor?”
“Yes.” I nod. “But I don’t need a medical degree to tell you the bladder can only hold so much fluid before it releases all on its own.”
The right corner of his lips twitches. “You’re the doctor that fixed up my brother,” he continues.
I’m ready to pee on his fancy shoes if he doesn’t let me get to a bathroom. As much as the idea tickles me, I’m sure there will be a consequence for such an action. And I happen to like having all of my teeth.
“Yes, now please. I need the bathroom.” I step toward him again.
He tilts his head to the side. “Well, since you’ve remembered your manners. Right this way.” He turns from the doorway and I follow him down the hall.
I hurry my steps to keep up with his wide stride past other rooms. Are there any more prisoners down here?
He shows me to a small powder room and opens the door for me. I rush inside and grab the doorknob to pull it shut, but he’s not letting go of the other side. “Go on.” He jerks his head toward the toilet.
“Let me close the door.” I tug harder on the door.
He stares at me like he didn’t hear a word I said.
I sigh. “Please. Please let me close the door.”
He nods. “Sure, but not all the way.” He pulls my hand off the knob and waves me inside before shutting the door enough that he can’t see me, but he most definitely will hear everything.
My body reacts to being so close to relief that I let him have his little victory. He wants to tug for power every other sentence, fine with me. At least I’m not peeing my pants.
There’s a small sink with a bar of soap sitting on the white porcelain beside the handles. I grab it and wash up. Of course, there’s no towel.
I push the door open with my foot, shaking my hands out at my sides.
He looks down at my hands.
“This way.” He curls his finger and beckons me to follow him to the staircase at the end of the hall. At least he’s not taking me back to the dusty cell.
“Your guys took my purse and my things. I need them back,” I say to his back as we climb up the stairs to the main floor of the house. What little of it I saw as I was dragged through it to the basement was well kept and elegantly decorated. Much fancier than my one-bedroom apartment filled with Ikea internet orders.
“No, you don’t,” he says and holds the door for me at the top of the stairs.
“I need my keys, my wallet. My hospital badges.” I say, stopping once I’m out of the basement.
He levels me with a hard stare. I bet men back down when he gives them that look. I sure as hell want to, I’d like to take three steps back and run away from him, from this house. But I don’t know exactly where I am, and I need my stuff.
“You don’t need those things because you aren’t leaving yet,” he answers me. “This way.” He points down the hall toward another set of stairs. “I’ll show you to your room.”
“My room?” I don’t move. “No.” I shake my head. “I’m not staying here.” I won’t. I can’t. I have a life to get back to. “Look. I fixed up your guy, he’ll be fine so long as you keep his wounds clean and he doesn’t get infected.”
He turns around when he realizes I’m not following him, and his glare darkens. I swallow back the involuntary whimper and somehow manage to stand my ground. I can’t back down. If he senses how terrified I actually am, he can use it against me.
“What did you say?” he asks, but I know he heard me. Maybe he’s giving me a chance to change my mind and just follow him.
“I said I’m not staying.”
“What’s your name?” He walks back to me, stopping when he’s just an arm’s length away.
I raise my chin. “Stephania.”
“Stephania what?” He rolls his hand.
“Stephania Benzitto,” I say, and he doesn’t react. Why would he? I’m a nobody in a large city. “What’s yours?” Tit for tat, I suppose. The longer he glares at me, the more my insides shake. And unfortunately, fear triggers my boldness.
“Vincenzo Manetto,” he says.
I recognize the name. I’ve heard it whispered in the café from time to time, and only remember it because of seeing the family name in the papers. The Manetto family isn’t small time. They have their hands in deep-rooted pockets. Politicians, police departments, I’ve even seen their name on the donation list at the hospital.
“You know me.” He slips his hands into the front pockets of his trousers. He’s probably never met someone who didn’t have some sort of reaction when he revealed his identity. I wish I could be the first.
“I’ve heard the name Manetto before,” I confirm. “I get why they didn’t want to take your guy—”
“Brother,” he interrupts me. “My little brother, Roberto.”
“Okay, I get why they didn’t want to take Roberto to the hospital. But he’s home now. If I treated him at the hospital, I’d have to report it, but I didn’t, so I’m not. But I do need to go. My shift already started.”
“The other man that was shot was my cousin,” he says and there’s a sadness in his tone.
“I’m sorry,” I say. The other man was already dead when I’d been dragged into the kitchen. I couldn’t have done anything to help him anyway. A headshot can’t be patched up with a sewing kit in a bakery.
“He was also our family physician,” he explains like it should mean something.
“I guess you’ll have to buy another doctor then. I’m sure someone on the board of directors can point you in the right direction.”
“No need.” He shrugs casually. “I already have one.”
My stomach drops with the way he says it.
“You,” he answers the question I didn’t ask.
“I’m not your family doctor. I work in the emergency room. I’ve just started, barely seasoned,” I explain quickly. “And I won’t do it.”
His lips press together. “You won’t stay willingly and see that my brother heals without complication?” He asks the clarifying question as though there’s a lot more riding on my answer than I understand.
“That’s right. I won’t stay. I can check on him in a few days, but I’m not staying here.” I roll my shoulders back. Animals aren’t the only species that feel looking bigger makes them stronger. Maybe I can scare him off still.
He takes the last two steps keeping us apart. I have to tilt my head back to keep looking into his dark brown eyes, but I refuse to step away. I’m not going to retreat.
“You sure you don’t want to change your answer?” His voice lowers, softer, almost raw sounding. It shoots a shiver through me, setting off alarms.
“I don’t,” I answer, crossing my arms over my chest. I brush against his chest as I move; he’s too close not to feel his warmth pressed against me now.
“Okay. Don’t say I didn’t give you a chance.” He takes one step back from me. Just when I think I’m going to get my way, I’m going to walk out of this house free, he bends low and swoops me off my feet.
I fall over his shoulder with a thump. My stomach lurches and my head spins. Before I can settle, he’s on the move.
“Stop it!” I yell, trying to buck myself off his shoulder. “Let me down!” I scream and smack my hands against his ass.
He doesn’t break stride.
I ball up my hands and start pummeling him while rolling my weight to the side.
“Knock it off!” he commands.
“No! Put me down!” I yell back at him, increasing my attempts to be free.
A sharp smack to my ass has me too shocked to move for a moment. “Stop wiggling and screaming,” he says and brings his hand down again across my ass. The scrubs are thin and offer no protection.
I’m wiggling again but for an entirely different reason. Fire erupts across my ass cheeks. He hasn’t stopped walking, in fact he’s climbing stairs, while spanking me as he goes.
“Vincenzo?” a male voice asks curiously.
“Not now, Anton. I’m showing the good doctor to her room.” Vincenzo smacks my ass once more then tightens his hold on me. He’s got a vise grip on me and any bit of defiance I show is countered with another swat.
“Well, Roberto’s awake when you’re done.”
“Be there in a minute,” Vincenzo says and turns the corner.
I can’t believe this is happening. I’m nothing more than a sack of bones over his shoulder.
A door opens and the flooring beneath my vision changes to a dark wood, then a blue carpet. It’s here that he finally puts me back on my feet. He grabs my arm before I can bolt for the door and points a thick finger in my face.
“I’m going to check on my brother. You, my little pet, are going to stay right here in this room until I come for you. If you’re good and don’t cause any trouble, I’ll arrange for some of your things to be brought here. If you’re not good, if you fight me, things won’t go so easily for you.”
I’m out of breath, but that’s not what keeps me silent. It’s the fear, the anger building in my throat that’s choking me.
“Be a good girl, now.” He flicks his finger beneath my chin and leaves me standing in the middle of the room. With fisted hands at my sides, all I can do is glare at him as he leaves me. The door closes and the unmistakable sound of a lock being put in place echoes in my ears.
I’m still locked in a cell. This one has carpeting, nice furniture, and windows, but it’s every bit the cell the room in the basement had been. I glare at the door, willing it to open.
Of course, it doesn’t.
I have to find another way out.