“Look who the cat dragged in!”
I laughed as I strutted into the bar through the private entrance, glancing around at the garish interior. I hadn’t been inside Gone Wild, the exclusive men’s club catering to the wealthy, powerful, and fucked-up kinky men in New York in almost two years. I’d forgotten how enticing the darkened club had become, the owner encouraging his customers to indulge in their darkest proclivities.
Thankfully, I knew the man well.
From the selection of the best-looking dancers and strippers, and the incredible food creatively prepared by a world-renowned chef to a dance floor rivaling the best clubs in the city, Gone Wild had everything a hungry boy was looking for.
“Woo hoo!” Joey yelled as he stormed toward me, pushing two of our friends out of the way. The loopy grin on his face indicated he’d already had a few. Well, it was his bachelor party. He certainly deserved to have more than one adult beverage.
My buddy, the brooding groom, was the illustrious owner, a guy I’d known for years. We’d run together since high school, both attending Columbia University, ruling the streets in our neighborhood like kids on a mission to tamp down anyone trying to assert control over us. Joey Trelista was an aggressive son of a bitch, his entrepreneurial spirit rivaling mine.
He’d parlayed the once small, seedy club into a showplace, along with three other locations and a national chain floating cash in front of him in an effort to buy him out. He wasn’t selling.
I turned in a full circle in style, doing a few dance moves until the other guys surrounding the oversized table groaned, even tossing peanuts in my direction.
“About goddamn time you got here,” Joey huffed.
“Nah, we don’t need him!” one of the other guys snarked.
“What?” I countered, running my fingers through my slicked-back hair. Tonight I was the epitome of an Italian stallion, a famished man ready to feast on whatever tasty treats were presented. I was also the best man, the wedding less than twenty-four hours away. His beautiful fiancée had just finished threatening me on the phone that if we were late to the church then she’d have our balls kept in a glass jar.
I believed her.
Which meant I’d have to cut Joey off at some point.
Almost as soon as I’d walked in with Dominick Saltori and Mark Cosner in tow, scantily clad female employees giggled and headed in our direction.
“Be careful, ladies,” I told them as two girls rubbed their hands on Dom’s chest. “He’s a man of God. He could condemn you for all eternity.”
Dominick rolled his eyes, snorting as he threw me a hateful look. “Feasting with the eyes is allowed.”
“In what good book, Father?” Mark asked as he punched Dom’s arm.
“Yeah, yeah.” Dom pushed away from the rest of us, heading toward the private bar set up for the bachelor party. Then I headed toward Joey, clapping him on the back.
“I never thought I’d see the day you’d finally settle down,” I told him as I surveyed our other friends. There were six of us, all dangerous men from important families. We were the cream of New York, likely to rule the city at minimum, Carter Franklin determined to rule the country one day given his father was a state senator.
“What day was that? The one I’d become richer than you, my friend?” Joey teased. Then he lifted his beer toward Cayman, the man not only considered a friend by the rest of us, but my Capo was well. Wherever I went, so did he, the Jamaican becoming a confidante after all we’d been through together.
My family was well known in New York, the Arturo–Powers crime syndicate an absolute powerhouse. That meant we had our share of enemies. While no recent threats had been made, that didn’t mean I could allow my guard to fall.
Cayman shook his head. “Ya, man. Joey is a wild man at heart. Just ask anyone he pays off to say so.” The man’s accent was heavier than normal on purpose. He stepped back and threw his arms up before Joey could punch him in the gut.
Joey did as well, then his expression turned somber. “The truth is I never expected to fall in love. I wasn’t even sure I deserved it. You know?”
I knew exactly what he was talking about. Maybe he’d cleaned up his act, but we were still bad men at heart, undeserving of normal lives, my sister and her fairytale romance aside. “I hear you, brother, but you’ve worked hard to get where you are. Now you can take some time and enjoy that beautiful woman of yours.”
“I plan on doing just that,” Joey said, grinning. “We’re headed to Europe for a month, somewhere I never thought I’d want to visit. I tell you what, falling in love changes a man.”
“Yeah, I can’t believe Julie can put up with you.” I couldn’t help but tease him. He’d been the guy considered the least likely to settle down. I was a close second.
He huffed then motioned for the bartender to get me a drink. “She has the patience of a saint. I do admit that.”
“She must.” I nodded at the man behind the bar. The long-term employee didn’t need to ask what I preferred to drink; my favorite scotch slid across the bar only seconds later. “I’m really happy for you, man. Shocked she can tolerate your sorry ass, but happy for you both.”
His laugh and the excitement on his face was really something. His exuberance had made me question what I wanted out of life.
“You know what’s funny?” he asked as he sipped his beer. “Eight months ago, I would have punched you in the face if you’d told me I’d be getting married. The day I met Julie, I knew she was the one. True love hits you like a ton of bricks.”
“You forget that I was there. I almost fought you for her.” Which wasn’t true. The look on his face when the beautiful redhead had walked into the restaurant was something that only happened in the movies. To say he’d been smitten was ridiculous but the goddamn truth. He’d tripped over his tongue and both feet after being pushed into opening up a conversation. Cayman, Mark, and I had watched him behaving just like he’d done with every other woman, swaggering up to meet her then putting his foot in his mouth.
When she’d slapped him, we hadn’t been able to stop laughing. How he’d managed to go home with her that night was still a mystery and one that would go down in the books.
They’d been inseparable since, the whirlwind romance the shit romance books were made of. Or least that’s what I’d heard from my sister. I certainly couldn’t confirm since women were nothing more than arm candy for a bad man like me.
“I would have put a bullet in your brain,” he snarled.
Dominick made the mistake of walking up at that exact moment. I still found it hard to believe the newly ordained Catholic priest continued to run with the old crowd. His fake look of horror was following by a lift of his arm for a toast. “To true love.”
“Hear, hear.” I lifted my glass, encouraging the other boys to form a circle around us.
Once they all clambered around, Joey grinned from ear to ear like a kid, his eyes dancing with happiness. He even puffed up like I’d seen him do a thousand times, a showman through and through.
“To Joey and Julie. May love, light, and happiness bring them joy, peace, and a huge family,” Dominick continued.
Joey tossed me a look then placed his index finger across his mouth. “Interesting you should suggest that. I might have a secret.” His voice was almost singsong, which made us all laugh.
“Uh-huh. I’m not sure we want to know,” Mark said through gritted teeth.
“He’s right,” Steve added. “Too much overload of icky-sticky.”
“What the hell is that term?” Carter snorted, making a face.
I gave Joey a hard look. “Confess or we’ll tell Julie about every second of your debauchery tonight.”
“Them’s fightin’ words.” Joey fisted one hand, taking a fighter’s stance. Then he slipped his hand into his suit jacket pocket. When he pulled out cigars, I stumbled backward.
“No!” several of the guys shouted at the same time.
“A baby?” I asked, more shocked than ever.
“Hard to believe, huh?” the father to be grinned and finished handing out the Cuban cigars. “We’re as shocked as you guys are.”
“Well, you do know how that happens. Right?” Dominick teased.
“How the hell would you know?” Steve pushed.
Dominick shook his head and grabbed one of the cigars. “I wasn’t always a celibate man. This really is a celebration. God is good.”
I backed away, trying not to dampen his spirits. We were all at the age we’d started to think about settling down, something I’d witnessed with my sister over the last few years. Marital bliss.
It was difficult to stomach the thought. Every time my sister pushed me into finding someone, I started to shut down. Which I felt like doing right now. The pomp and circumstance of the wedding and reception was enough to deal with. After placing my drink on the bar, I yanked out my phone, double checking there weren’t any issues with the two recent acquisitions.
Joey slid beside me seconds later, slowly tipping his head in my direction. “No business tonight, remember?”
I shifted against the bar, shoving my phone back into my pocket and surveying the party. The music was blaring, the liquor already flowing, and the amount of food being served could feed three dozen people. “Yeah, just a quick check. I feel something brewing.” There’d been unrest on the streets, the chatter indicating one of the lower players in the world of crime syndicates was making threats to various customers of our regime and others. That wouldn’t bode well for overall business, whether legitimate or our more profitable side.
“That’s your problem,” Joey taunted. “You never take a break. You never do anything for you.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?” I smirked then pulled my glass to my mouth.
“For me. It’s something you’ll likely never let me forget too. I’m surprised you agreed to wear the monkey suit. I thought you were going to choke the tailor.”
“Hey. I look good in a tux.” My buddy was right. I’d almost smacked the older guy after being scolded for not standing still enough to suit him.
Joey’s laugh was boisterous, cutting through the thumping beat of the bass drums, the music louder than normal. Or maybe it was just because I had a headache behind my eyes. Anxiety and anger did that to me.
“Yeah, you do. Better than I do.” He patted his belly. “You should find a good woman, my man. That would do your surly attitude a world of good.”
“Maybe but it ain’t happening. I’m far too busy.”
“That’s what I said, but once you’re with your soulmate, everything you think is important just fades away. All you care about are the little things. Walks. Picnics. Dinners. Hell, movie nights.”
“My god, my friend. What happened to the tough guy who preferred dumb blondes?”
He shrugged then glanced toward the doorway when we both heard a hard thumping sound. “I’m telling you to find a sassy lady. All the shit we used to do will mean crap. I’ll be right back. I guess you were right in that we should have picked a different place for the party.”
“You want me to check it out?”
“Nah. It’s still my place. I gotta watch out after the girls. Ya know?”
He was a damn good employer.
After placing his glass on the bar, he headed toward the main part of the club. I rubbed my jaw and polished off the scotch, thinking about what he’d said. I wouldn’t admit it to anyone, but I wouldn’t mind coming home to a beautiful woman every night.
Cayman walked over, still scanning the room. The man was always on call. “You have that look on your face, boss.”
“What look is that?”
“The one where you’d be eager to wrestle an alligator.”
Chuckling, I shook my head. “This kind of event pushes my buttons.”
“He’s your best friend. Don’t forget you’re creating memories. At least according to my mother.”
We both laughed but another sound caught my attention. When I took a step toward the doorway, Cayman flanked my side, immediately ready to draw his weapon if necessary. The fact there was so much unrest in the streets had us both on edge.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know,” I told him as I popped the snap on my shoulder holster. “But I’m going to find out.” Taking long strides, I headed toward the main part of the bar, my eyes taking several seconds to get used to the pulsing neon lights. Then I noticed Joey actively involved in an argument. I could tell by his body movements, the tension easy to see. I headed toward him, the table he was fronting masked by shadows.
The closer I came, the easier it was to see the argument was heated. When I moved closer, four of the five men at the table rose to their feet. The fifth remained seated, his grin shifting from my buddy toward me.
Stefano Fucking Son of a Bitch Bianchi.
The lowlife Italian mafia family had only recently started to make a play in New York, shifting their home base from Jersey where they fucking belonged. The ruthless lowlifes were suspected of being the ones issuing the clandestine threats as well. In our world of brutal crimes, the one thing that had passed down through the generations was a sense of honor. While there would always be clashes between mafia families, blood spilled in the streets, you owned up to your mistakes even more so than your accomplishments. You also didn’t hide in the fucking shadows like a coward.
In my mind, Roberto Bianchi and his spawn were the epitome of classless thugs. The fact they were hoping to gain territory anywhere in New York was a testament to their stupidity.
“Do we have a problem?” I asked, keeping my gaze locked onto Stefano. While Joey was a smart man, keeping up with the various gangs, cartels, and syndicates who called the Big Apple their home, he had no understanding how dangerous sparring with the Bianchi family could be. Their suspected brutal and bloody attacks on the Armenians and Irish had made for a chaotic last three months. Even our businesses had suffered because of the continued threats.
“Maybe. They were causing an issue with a couple employees of mine and were asked to leave. They refused, but I think they’ve seen the error of their ways.” Joey was still puffed up. He folded his massive arms across his chest, glaring from one man to the other.
Stefano crossed his arms, easing back in his chair. “It’s a free country, Italian pig. We’re staying.”
Bristling, I unbuttoned my jacket, allowing the entire table to see the weapon I had secured in a holster. “And the club belongs to my buddy. I tell you what. Why don’t I help escort these… gentlemen to the door?” By that point Cayman had arrived with the others from the bachelor party. Not a single one of my buddies weighed less than two hundred fifty pounds, even if two of them had never been in a fight in their lives. “That can either happen of your own free will or you’ll be tossed out. The choice is yours.”
The other men fanned out around the table, crossing their arms as they glared at Stefano and his soldiers. What the hell was he doing here? Testing the waters or providing a warning?
“Don’t make me ask you again,” I stated calmly as I planted both hands on the table, leaning over and staring Stefano in the eyes. It would seem I’d need to provide a separate warning to his father.
Stefano glared at me then rose to his feet, adjusting the lapels of his suit jacket before snapping his fingers. “Let’s go, boys. This is a dump anyway.”
I sensed Joey had enough liquor in him he wanted to start a fight, but I stepped in front of him, preventing my buddy from doing something stupid.
Stefano pushed his chest against mine as he tried to leave and I gave him an amused look, forcing him to take a step to the side in order to get around me. His bullying technique when he shoved me with his shoulder pissed me off, but he was merely hoping for a reaction.
I refused to give him one. Instead, I threw my head over my shoulder, waiting until Stefano and his men were halfway to the door before exhaling.
“Do you have trouble with them often?” I asked.
“They’ve never been in here before,” Joey answered.
In my mind, it was no coincidence. “Let’s go back to your party, my man. They’re gone.”
“Yeah, I know you’re right. I just won’t let bastards like that hurt any of my girls,” he snarled.
“Understood.” I gave Cayman a nod and he knew what to do, ensuring they left the premises. I had a bad feeling about their appearance. I managed to push my buddy through the other guys, heading back into the private area. “Now, where were we? I think a round of tequila is necessary.” I motioned toward the bartender, hoping Joey would forget all about it.
Joey remained disgruntled but headed for the bar, our other friends trying to get him back in the celebratory mood. I stayed on the outskirts, constantly shifting my attention toward the doorway for any sign of additional trouble.
Five minutes passed then another ten or so and Cayman hadn’t returned. When I noticed Joey was in the middle of telling the story of how he’d met Julie for the second time of the evening, I backed away, heading toward the entrance to the club.
Cayman was walking toward me with purpose, He pulled me aside, glancing over my shoulder toward the private area we were in. “The bastards are still outside,” he said. “It’s like they’re waiting for us to leave. I don’t like it, boss. I think we need to call in reinforcement.”
“That’s not necessary. This is all about sending a message. That’s exactly what I’m going to do. Let me handle it.”
“Yeah, well, I’m going with you.”
I pulled out my weapon, keeping it out of view and pushing my hand against the exterior door. Once outside, I waited as Cayman nodded toward where the assholes were lying in wait. I eased against the side of the building, taking careful steps toward the edge.
Then I heard a sound, Joey cursing as he took long strides past me. “What the fuck is wrong with these assholes?”
Fuck. Grumbling, I trailed behind him, only realizing seconds later that he had a weapon in his hand, pointing it directly at Stefano.
“Get the fuck out of here!” Joey yelled as he waved his Glock back and forth.
While Stefano hadn’t raised a weapon, his soldiers had. They’d wanted nothing but to goad us. Goddamn it. This had everything to do with threatening my family and our regime. They’d known I was coming here, the bar far removed from my usual secured locations. Which meant someone close to me had shared my itinerary. Someone who worked for me had betrayed me.
“It’s okay, buddy. They were just leaving,” I told my friend, trying to push my way in front of Joey but he was having none of it this time.
Stefano stared in amusement, rubbing his jaw as if he had all the time in the world.
“Get out of here, Bianchi. You were told to leave politely,” I said in a commanding tone. Cayman moved slightly to the side and into a position of protection if necessary. The last thing we needed was a standoff.
“The last time I checked, this was a free country,” Stefano retorted.
Seconds later, Joey turned toward me, grinning as I’d seen him do so many times over the years. He was a big kid, happier than I’d ever seen him, but he was also the kind of man who refused to allow anyone to threaten his family, his friends, or his place of business. But something was different tonight, as if the intelligent, prudent man I’d known had been replaced.
“I said,” he yelled, snapping his head toward Stefano. “Get the fuck off my property.” He threw up his arm, pointing the barrel of his weapon at Stefano.
In the next few seconds, I couldn’t react fast enough.
Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop! Pop!
Gunfire popped all around me, pinging off vehicles as well as hitting the targets. After I launched myself at Joey, tossing us both to the ground, I twisted my body, firing off shots indiscriminately. In the split-second decision, I was responsible for putting several bullets between Stefano’s eyes.
There would be repercussions from my impetuous decision, a potential war brewing in the streets, but that didn’t matter to me.
No one fucked with my friends or family.
After targeting another one of Stefano’s soldiers, his agonizing cry followed by his drop to the ground, I fell back against the pavement, taking gulping breaths. Footsteps sounded all around us, customers clambering to find out what the hell was going on.
Then there was nothing but silence.
“Boss. Jesus fucking Christ!” Cayman snarled as he dropped to the ground beside me.
“What the hell happened here? Jesus. Call 9-1-1!”
I heard Dominick’s voice from behind me as well as the hard pounding of additional footsteps. Everything remained in slow motion as I tried to sit up, gasping for air as I dropped my head, staring at Joey.
So much fucking blood.
“Joey,” I yelled, shaking him. “Joey! Jo-ey!”
“The world owes you nothing, my baby girl. You’re very special but you need to grasp onto your life with both hands never letting go. We’ll get through this.”
It was perhaps the last thing I remembered my mother telling me before she was gunned down in cold blood on my fifteenth birthday. It had been a festive event, the vivid memories of the party like indelible ink in my mind, staining the forefront of my brain just like visions of her lifeless eyes and the pool of blood under her broken body continued to do. I’d never found out what she’d meant, but her eyes had held a haunting vacancy as if she’d given up on life.
I hadn’t known it then, but I had a feeling it would be the best piece of advice I’d ever be given.
I’d been driven close to madness after she’d been taken, my mother my best friend. But I’d survived the horrific, paralyzing tragedy and the lonely task of going on without her. My father had been a shell of a man for months, ignoring his only child. I’d had a nanny taking care of my needs, something I hadn’t wanted at that age. Then he’d rallied around me, pretending as if everything was still normal even after our lives had been ripped apart.
And here the two of us sat in the back of a posh SUV, our soldiers driving the rental vehicle to an unknown designation on yet another birthday event. I’d been excited at first, the announcement of a surprise coming out of the blue. Now there was nothing but a sick, foreboding feeling, my mind playing tricks on me. Would this turn out to be just another tragic event?
My instinct was screaming my father was up to something and that his announcement was a ruse of some kind. Maybe I wasn’t being the good Catholic girl I’d been raised to be, but the intense gnawing inside my stomach refused to go away.
I leaned forward, wringing my hands.
“Turning eighteen is very special, Christiana,” my father said quietly, his usual vivacious tone devoid of any emotion.
He’d been somber since announcing our trip to New York, where I’d been excited, full of raw energy. I was no longer a child, now considered an adult and in celebration, my father was taking me on a trip of a lifetime to the Big Apple. I’d always wanted to go, but he’d refused up until now, reminding me a dozen times of the danger crawling in the darkened bowels of what he called the violent, ugly city.
One day I planned on living in the vile location, although I’d yet to tell my father. I had plans on attending Columbia University for my law degree. I was already attending community college, just finishing my second year. My father had been so proud I’d graduated from high school at sixteen, his raucous applause and deep shouts heard over every other parent. Now, another milestone. Yet my gut told me something was tragically wrong.
“You still haven’t told me where we’re going, Papa,” I said to him as I glanced out the side window. As usual, we had a driver, two of our soldiers making the trip on the private jet. We were never alone, my father always requiring security. I’d grown used to having men trail behind me like lap dogs over the years, ignoring their presence as I went about my typical daily routine. But today I wished I could be alone with my father.
We were all each other had. There were no siblings, no grandparents still alive. My mother’s unsolved murder remained a shadow in our lives that had never left, never ceased to cause pain. In the world of the mafia, danger was always present. At least that’s what he’d told me several times. As if that was an excuse for why justice hadn’t been served.
He’d been the one to protect and nurture me, keeping me safe while fulfilling my every wish. To say I was a princess was an understatement, but I understood the value of human life and money more than most. Maybe because I’d seen so many horrors, so much bloodshed over the years. I shoved the ugliness aside, still curious why we’d headed out of the Big Apple toward the suburbs.
For some reason, I’d thought he’d honored my wish of seeing a Broadway play, but my father was full of surprises, keeping me on my toes.
He was also a businessman, his world revolving around cash flow and keeping our enemies at bay. As of late, they seemed to be crushing down on top of us.
“You’ll learn soon enough,” he told me. “Just remember that this is an important day. For both of us.”
A slight shiver drifted down my spine. There was something odd about the way he stated the words, his entire body tense. I knew he’d been under a lot of pressure, various enemies breathing down his neck to the point he was having difficulty controlling his multiple businesses. However, I’d never seen him so anxious.
I noticed a flash of lightning in the distance and cringed. I’d worn a fancy dress, forgetting to bring an umbrella with me. I only hoped we made it to our destination in time before the storm hit. After taking a deep breath, I sat back, trying not to fidget in my seat. I noticed Paulo, the driver and my father’s Capo glancing in the rearview mirror more than once. I could swear he was ‘talking’ with my father through his quick glances. Seconds before, he’d driven into a gated residential neighborhood, which wouldn’t ordinarily be a surprise except for the fact we were over a thousand miles away from home.
When Paulo began to slow the vehicle, I leaned forward again. The houses in the gorgeous neighborhood were stunning, acres of pristine landscaping surrounding ten thousand square foot plus homes. Our beautiful mid-century modern house paled in comparison. I could only imagine what kind of royalty lived behind the closed doors.
Maybe my father was taking me to see one of my favorite actors. Another wave of excitement as well as dread pooled in my stomach. I only hoped whatever he’d gone out of his way to surprise me with wasn’t something I’d hate. Paulo slowed down and I tensed even more, noticing the oppressive-looking estate just up ahead.
When Paulo pulled through already open iron gates toward the massive building, my curiosity continued to climb. There were at least twenty cars parked along the massive stone driveway and as we approached the house, I could see lights coming from almost every window of the two-story structure. If I had to guess, I’d say an active party was already ongoing.
My father took a deep breath and the ragged sound drew my attention. When I glanced over, I noticed his expression had changed to one of blankness, his jaw clenched. Suddenly, my hackles were raised for a second time. I thought about the whispered conversations he’d had both over the phone and with Paulo and his other most trusted man.
My father had never kept anything from me. I’d learned at an early age just how dangerous he was, the Don of the most powerful Chicago crime syndicate. I’d heard about his enemies and the various battles he’d fought, had seen acts of violence so brutal that nightmares were a regular part of my sleep. But something was different, off in a way I couldn’t put my finger on.
He’d paid a hefty price for his position, his acts of violence against anyone who crossed him almost making me an orphan more than once. Then time had passed, his business dealings had become vitally important, his actions more controlled. However, I’d known something was off for months, my father almost always on edge. Our relationship, such as it was, had suffered.
Paulo stopped the car, immediately cutting the engine. Within seconds, he’d climbed out, the other soldier as well. As I looked through the windshield, I noticed both were wearing arm holsters, their weapons visible for a few seconds until they buttoned their jackets. The act wasn’t unusual, but I sensed my father’s tension increasing.
“What is going on?” I asked, immediately unfastening my seatbelt. My tone was unusually terse but there was no doubt something was very wrong.
“We have a party to attend, Christiana. You will be on your best behavior so as not to embarrass me.” He opened the door himself, ready to ease onto the driveway.
“Hold on. I have no intention of walking in through the front door until you tell me what to expect. I thought this was about celebrating my birthday.”
I was shocked when he fisted my hair, yanking me toward him. Pain tore through me and I yelped, my eyes immediately filling with tears. My father had never done anything to hurt me before, not once.
“You will do what I say, Christiana. You are now a woman, worth a great deal to me. It’s time you measured up to your value within this family.”
What in the hell was he talking about? “I don’t understand.”
“You will. You’re more valuable to me than you know. Get out of the car and keep your mouth shut. Do you understand me?”
“I… Yes, Papa.” He flung me backward as if I was a piece of trash. I fisted my hands, rage sweeping through me. I wasn’t used to anyone treating me with such disrespect. My father had insisted I learn how to protect myself, allowing me to take martial arts training from a very young age. What in God’s name was going on? Why was he treating me this way?
My father cursed under his breath then climbed out, immediately slamming the door, but I could tell he was giving orders to Paulo and the other man.
Marcus, my father’s other soldier threw open the door, yanking me out by the arm. I almost tottered to the ground given the tall heels I’d chosen to wear. I glanced at the malevolent sky, trying to keep from crying. I wasn’t weak, almost never weepy, but I was completely out of sorts.
My father flanked my side seconds later, pressing his hand against the small of my back, pushing me toward the front door. Another flash of lightning was followed by a booming rumble of thunder. I shivered as the wind picked up in intensity, but not from the temperature of the air but a horrible foreboding feeling.
Something was terribly wrong, my life about to change. My instincts were almost never wrong.
I jerked away, shaking my head. “Papa. Please tell me what’s going on. I’m your daughter. I deserve to know.”
“Get over here. Now!” he snarled.
“Not until you tell me what’s happening. I want to go home.” I continued to back away, throwing my arm out as Paulo took long strides in my direction.
“Let me handle my daughter.” I’d never seen my father so furious, his body shaking. When he was only a couple of feet in front of me, he pointed his long index finger in my face. “You will obey me, you little bitch. This is important. If you fuck it up, you’ll destroy me. Is that what you want, you selfish girl?”
A single tear slipped past my lashes, and I swore to myself that it would be the last. All the years I’d thought he’d loved me, he’d lied. All the education I’d received, his encouragement to keep my dreams alive had been nothing but deceit. I was nothing but a possession to him, just like everything he owned. His cars. His yacht. His half dozen homes.
“I hate you,” I told him.
“Hate me all you want, Christiana, but you always knew your place. Or maybe your mother coddled you too much.” How dare he bring up my mother right now. Something snapped inside of me.
“As nothing but a commodity. Right? What did you do this time, Papa? Who do you owe money to? Huh? I know you gamble every chance you get. You’re nothing but a pig. You fooled me once, Papa. That will never happen again.”
The moment he reared back, I stood taller, refusing to back down. Then he cracked his hand across my cheek, the force from the blow toppling me to the ground.
“Fuck,” Paulo hissed, lunging forward, cursing as he helped me to my feet. He knew better than to challenge my father or he’d have a bullet in his forehead in seconds. I pushed myself away, pressing my hand against my aching cheek as I tasted blood.
“You are pathetic,” I managed, the ache in my heart more significant than any infliction of anguish on my body. I’d worshipped him. I’d thought he was my hero, a man who’d never let anything happen to me.
But I’d been wrong.
He snorted as he snatched me from Paulo’s hand, dragging me toward the entrance.
The door was opened before we made it onto the front porch, the man standing in the entrance foyer someone I’d never seen before. At least fifty, maybe older, he nodded briefly to my father before allowing his heated gaze to fall ever so slowly to my toes. When he issued a dark chuckle, smirking as he returned his attention to my eyes, I couldn’t seem to stop shaking.
He’d sized me up as someone would a fine piece of beef or bottle of wine.
Suddenly, everything made sense. The new dress. The secrecy. The attention paid to my beauty regime, including a trip to my favorite hairdresser.
I was being sold.
“Don Lorenzo. She’s everything you said she was and well worth the wait. I assume she’s pure?”
“Yes. As required.”
Pure? Oh, my God. He’d forced me to visit my gynecologist only days before. He’d been… checking that my virginity was intact. Oh, God. Nausea rolled into my stomach.
“Excellent. I’m very pleased.”
My father exhaled then pulled an envelope from his pocket, shoving it into the man’s hands. “The contract as discussed.”
“What is this about? Who are you?” I said tartly, trying to step away. My father’s fingers were icy when he jerked me back into position.
“Christiana, it’s time you meet your future husband, Xavier Luis. Be careful, Xavier. My daughter is a handful.”
“Don’t worry, Don Lorenzo. I will control her,” Xavier said as he laughed then pressed his finger across my lips. “Come inside, Christiana, and meet our guests. Our wedding is only a week away. There’s much to do before I take you as my bride.”
As I was pushed inside, I glanced over my shoulder, praying someone would rescue me, but I knew better.
There was no such thing as a knight in shining armor, no handsome prince waiting in the storm to take me to safety.
I would fend for myself and one day, my father would pay.