The cracking sound of the traitor’s head hitting the concrete echoed in the oversized space. As soon as he was down, I grabbed a lone chair that had made it through the fire from months before, planting it over his body and pinning him down. Then I took a deep breath as I thought about how much I enjoyed being in New York.
The food. The club life. The women. Hell, I even enjoyed the Broadway shows. Unfortunately, living here wasn’t a viable option with the newly established empire in Italy.
At least I’d enjoyed the Big Apple while I was here.
I was brought back to reality as the asshole under the chair moaned. I lowered my gaze, studying his ashen face.
Death was inevitable, a way of life.
In fact, I’d studied it over the years, reveling in its playful viciousness, the brutal lessons learned over the years. I was no longer the young boy fascinated by the power it offered, becoming a ruthless killer as required by my place in society. It was a high that most couldn’t understand, feeding the darkness like nothing else could.
People went about their day-to-day existence ignoring the fact that at any given time fate could intervene, their worthless lives slipping away from them at a moment’s notice. Or with no notice at all. I’d learned over the years that shedding a single tear for a soul cast into hell or feeling a second of remorse was considered a weakness.
My father, like most leaders in the Cosa Nostra, had been unforgiving, his expectations for his only son and the heir to the throne of the Lazarro Empire harsh. But his cruel teachings had provided a solid education in methods of playing God.
I’d become proficient in acts of cruelty, either with or without toying with my enemies first. That depended on time and my mood, which was usually tainted by darkness. I was considered a sadistic man even in the ranks of soldiers who added murder on their resume of tasks. Maybe because I enjoyed the hunt as much as the act itself.
I would never claim to be a good man because of all the atrocities I performed on a regular basis. However, lying wasn’t one of them.
The man underneath the four legs of the chair I was sitting on might disagree since we’d once been friendly. Only he should have known that making friends with a viper could eventually end in his death. In this case, I’d promised him salvation if he came to the meeting of his own free will, mostly given I had no time to waste on tracking the sorry son of a bitch down.
He sputtered, gasping for what would be his last breaths, the thick wooden rung of the chair digging into his neck. Whether he knew that or not was of no consequence. I’d gotten wind he’d opened his mouth, talking to the wrong people about my family’s business. As with any rat, his life meant nothing.
“Do you have anything to say for yourself, Igor?” Igor Petrov was the estranged brother of the New York Bratva Pakhan, a turncoat who’d offered his loyalty in exchange for protection and cash. If I were anyone else, I would have turned him over to the Russian beasts as a treat for them to feast on, but the events of the last few months had left me hungry for bloodshed.
“Pu… Pu…” He coughed, his chest heaving. My soldiers had been rough on him after bringing him to the empty warehouse. But they’d known to keep him alive long enough for my subsequent visit. The bleak space was illuminated by the bright morning sun coming in through bullet holes driven into a wooden plank covering the windows, installed to keep out the homeless and drug addicts. The damp space had the distinct stench of mold and urine, a repulsive combination but fitting for someone who’d betrayed his own kind.
The Russians were more savage beasts than men, the kind who’d eat their own young for profit. I found the pitted shimmers of light comforting, although I doubted Igor would say the same.
“What’s that? I don’t think I heard you.” I leaned over the chair, peering at his ruddy complexion. He’d spent too much time sucking down bottles of booze over the years. Hadn’t someone told him alcoholism would eventually kill him? I eased off the chair, tossing it to the side. Then I crouched down beside him. “I don’t have more time, Igor. I’m sorry we can’t chat longer. If you want to clean your conscience before you meet your maker, now is the time to do it.”
He wasn’t being offered redemption. And he certainly wasn’t being offered forgiveness. I never forgave or forgot. What I was offering him was a chance that he’d still be accepted in hell.
“What information did you provide?”
The man was huffing and puffing. Perhaps my men had gone too far. I fisted his shirt, yanking him off the hard concrete floor. “Talk to me.” In exchange, he clutched onto mine, his bloodied knuckles from where he’d tried to defend himself staining my freshly pressed shirt. At least I’d had the forethought to bring a second one with me.
“They know… you’re in… town. That’s all.”
Most men in my position wouldn’t give a second thought to trusting a rat, but I was a damn good judge of people. He wasn’t lying, but he was keeping a secret. He blinked, then his hand slipped away. No, the fucker wasn’t allowed to pass out from pain or anything else. I smacked the back of my hand across his cheek to keep him awake.
My patience was reaching an end.
I stole a quick glance at my watch, disgusted the interrogation had taken this long. Maybe my skills were slipping. Honing them would be necessary.
“Talk to me or your death will be painful.”
“Please… I have… news that will… help you.”
“What could you possibly offer that would matter to me?” The man had been proficient in providing details about the Bratva, some of which I’d used to secure additional business in New York, but I doubted anything he could offer would be earth shattering.
He dragged his tongue across his lips, tears welling in his eyes. I’d known men to blubber as they begged for their lives. That wasn’t the case with Igor. There was torturous pain in his eyes for an entirely different reason. In an action I’d undoubtedly question later, I offered him a moment of compassion. Maybe I was curious as to what was tearing him apart inside. More than likely, my usually correct intuition believed whatever he had to offer was worth my slight sympathy and my time.
“Listen to me. Please. Important.”
I’d learned many things about Igor over the years. His successes. His failures. His gambling problem. I made it my mission that anyone who worked in my employ or as an informant had a full, deep dive background check.
“Why would any scrap of information you have matter to me?”
His sobs echoed throughout the warehouse, loud enough they grated my nerves. “Trust me… important.”
Now he piqued my interest. “How so?” Trust wasn’t allowed in my world just like weakness, but I was curious.
When he grasped my shirt for a second time, I didn’t pull his hand away, leaning down so he could mutter whatever mystery was worth dying for.
When he whispered his dying secret as well as found the audacity to ask for a favor, ice ran through my veins. I took a deep breath before yanking his arm away. Then I stood over him, playing the odds in my mind whether or not he was telling the truth. If he was, then the final nail could be placed into a coffin of the Bratva.
Never had I promised anyone anything in my life. That I gave it a second thought was not only unusual, it could also prove to be deadly. “Where?”
“New…York. Help. Please.”
What he’d thrown out was scintillating, enough so I was more than interested. If the man wasn’t lying like the sack of shit he was, the information could certainly prove to be useful.
“I’ll do my best, Igor. That’s all I will promise you.” I couldn’t care less for his gratitude or anything else at this point. I was late and that wasn’t acceptable.
I pulled out my weapon, not bothering to add the silencer. No one would hear the act of mercy, nor would they find him inside the abandoned space for several days. By then, we’d be back in Italy.
“Blagoslovi tebya syn,” he whispered hoarsely. In the years I’d known him, he’d only spoken to me in Russian four times. However, I’d learned the language long ago as I had several others. It helped with the family’s international business status.
But today, his words left me with bitterness.
Bless you, son.
I of all people should never be blessed nor would it matter.
I’d lost my soul a long time before.
After pulling the trigger and returning the gun to my jacket pocket, I headed toward my soldiers.
“Where to now, boss?”
I raked my hand through my hair. “Now, we’re off to a baby shower.”
“Wow. That man looks really pissed.” I leaned against Lucia, nodding toward one of three guys dressed in dark suits with matching ebony shirts, all standing in separate corners of the restaurant. Sharp gazes continually scoured the pristine space. They’d been there when I’d arrived to finish adding sparkle to the tables.
The three hulking masses of flesh added new meaning to the term ‘tall, dark, and dangerous.’ I’d expected them to frisk me upon entrance, but not one of them had moved or issued a single word. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have minded the thought of a brief interrogation by one or three stunning hunks, but their presence indicated danger lurked in every shadow.
Including within the protected sanctity of a five-star restaurant in the middle of the afternoon.
“Don’t worry about him. He’s always angry,” she answered, laughing as if she didn’t have a care in the world. “Someone didn’t just piss in his Wheaties this morning. They stole the box.”
We both laughed, but I remained nervous for no other reason than their ominous presence.
Lucia Lazarro DeLuca was my best friend, a sharp businesswoman with a tenacious demeanor. I’d admired her chutzpa and lust for life since the day I’d met her. However, up until recently, I’d only known her as the owner of a highly profitable gem brokerage firm in New York City.
Now I knew her as the daughter of a brutally slain mafia Don from Italy, recent bride to the man who’d taken her father’s place. And today was her baby shower.
I continued to have difficulty understanding how everything had changed in a few months, but today was a day for celebration.
“Hmmm… I’ll admit that he’s probably the most gorgeous man I’ve seen in New York. Whew. What I could do to his muscular body is undoubtedly a crime in several countries.” The hunk wore a suit like no other man I’d seen. The expensive attire couldn’t hide his bulging muscles. They were pronounced enough my mouth watered. “But it would be well worth going to jail for even a single taste.”
She slowly turned her head, the mischievous look in her eyes the same as I’d seen dozens of times when hunk watching at our favorite upscale Manhattan bar.
“I won’t forget to let my brother Enzo know what you think of him. I’m certain he’ll appreciate it. He is single, by the way. I admit I’m not entirely certain what kind of woman could handle his surly attitude and brazen acts of violence, but given what I know about your kinky tastes, you just might be able to handle him.” Her laughter penetrated the room, forcing the man in question to glance in our direction.
When we locked eyes, his so blue I thought I was floating in the ocean, I was thrown into a few delicious seconds of fantasizing, imagining what it would be like to writhe underneath his chiseled body.
“Please tell me you’re lying to me. That’s just one of your bodyguards, right?”
“Well, Enzo is my bodyguard for today, my darling husband insistent he fly to New York with me. However, he’s also my brother, although sometimes I don’t know how that happened.”
I turned my head, feeling the color draining out of my face. “Would you like for me to explain the birds and bees? Oops. I guess you already figured that out yourself.” I tied another balloon to one of the chairs and glanced at every table to ensure everything was perfect.
“Trust me. I figured it out in every. Single. Position. Would you like to hear all about them?”
“Yuck. Keep your sex life to yourself.”
“That’s not what you used to say. Are you certain you don’t want me to introduce you? He’s rich, hard bodied, and single.”
We were teasing each other like we used to, but she was entirely different since taking on the role of the queen of the Cosa Nostra. “No. I think I’ll find a nice, normal, and very safe boyfriend, thank you very much.” When she didn’t say anything, I cringed. Now I wanted to slink away before she made good on her naughty threat.
While I wasn’t completely familiar with the lifestyle she’d been born into, I wasn’t immune to the exposure she must have endured while growing up in Italy. Until our recent discussion, she’d never opened up about her struggles of being the daughter of a brutal father and a mother who’d checked out early in her life.
“That was rude,” I said quietly. The last thing I wanted to do was insult her, but I also wanted no part of her world other than what we could share during time spent in New York.
“Nonsense. You have every right to be angry with me.”
“I’m not angry with you,” I corrected. “I’m worried.”
She pressed her hand on her stomach. “Don’t be. I have a happy life and a wonderful marriage.”
“You really love D’Artagnan?” She’d told me several interesting facts about both her family and that of her husband’s adopted family, two powerful crime syndicates inside Italy. There were parts of the story I found difficult to believe, as if she was highlighting an upcoming major motion picture. That was because I didn’t understand crime syndicate politics. She’d once hated her brother. Now he was guarding her.
She’d thought the childhood love of her life was dead, only to have him come back to life, his sole purpose to act on his need for revenge. The man had believed she’d been responsible for the fiery death of his real family, which was preposterous. There wasn’t a malevolent bone in the woman’s body. The fact they were madly in love and expecting their first child continued to amaze me. An even bigger shock was that the two families had merged into one powerhouse, a crime syndicate unequaled in Italy. That’s about the point I’d told her to stop telling me her story.
I’d never seen her develop a dreamy look in her eyes when talking about any man. Now she looked as if she wore rose-colored contacts, refusing to acknowledge that every day of life could be her last. I shuddered from the thought.
“More than the sun, moon, and stars.”
“Now I think I’m going to be the one getting sick,” I moaned. Even though she was nearing the end of her second trimester, her vicious bouts of morning sickness left her weak and exhausted most days.
Her laughter floated across the room and her brother glanced in our direction a second time, on edge to the point I was certain he was reaching for his weapon. All three guards had them secured in holsters, but easily outlined by their snug-fitting jackets.
Lucia touched her stomach and grimaced.
“Are you okay? Do you need to sit down?”
“I’m fine. Just the baby kicking. Here, feel it.” She placed my hand on her tummy and I instantly froze, a trickle of sadness stealing the moment of happiness.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Levin, but there were some complications with your daughter’s surgery.”
The single sentence was one that had haunted me for years. I didn’t need the ugly memory today. I jerked my hand away, feeling flushed and hating myself for it.
“Joy. I’m so sorry. Maybe this was a bad idea.”
Get it together. This isn’t your life.
“Nonsense!” I said with gusto, plastering on a plastic smile while my stomach formed several knots. “This is a party. We’re going to dance the afternoon away.”
Grinning, she rolled her eyes. “I don’t know how much dancing I’ll be doing. I can’t see my feet.”
“Just pace yourself.”
She didn’t answer, squeezing my arm then moving deeper into the room. The location had been rented for the event, no other customers allowed inside. Another two guards stood outside the door to ensure a wayward man or woman off the street didn’t attempt to crash the party.
I moved toward the bar, flagging down the bartender. “A very large glass of merlot. Very large. Please.” I would need more than one. I’d wanted to do this for her, to make the event special. Maybe I was fooling myself that I could get through the day without breaking down. No. I would force myself to be just fine. Tonight, I’d collapse on the couch with a carton of ice cream.
The bartender smiled, his expression almost flirtatious, but I wasn’t in the mood. Almost as soon as he placed the tall stem on the napkin, guests started to arrive, but no one that I knew personally. However, I recognized several of them. Broadway actresses. Female leaders in several powerful industries. When the mayor’s wife walked in seconds later, I held my breath. I didn’t know my bestie had so many powerful friends. I wondered what else I didn’t know about her.
I guess it was true that every family had secrets.
God knew mine had them. I’d sensed it as long as I could remember. Maybe it was the odd premonitions I’d had all my life fueling my constant badgering in trying to find out what they were.
As I nursed the drink, I milled through the crowd, marveling at the number of gifts already placed on the long table. A part of me wondered how Lucia would get them all back to Italy. Then I remembered she’d arrived in a private jet, escorted by all the men protecting her. The life was entirely different than she’d wanted to lead. I wasn’t certain how she tolerated being shadowed all hours of the day and night. The estate where she lived in Tuscany likely had bars on the windows.
I exhaled at the thought of living in such horrid conditions. From where I was standing, I was able to get a much better perspective on Lucia’s brother. He was even more insanely gorgeous up close. There was something unsettling about his deep blue eyes, as if he’d seen the worst in the world and taken it on without hesitation. Yet they were beautiful, the color of sapphires infused with hints of the Caribbean Sea.
A surge of lust roared through me, which was ridiculous. I could never fall for what society would call a monster. But the naughty vixen inside knew even a single intimate encounter with him would be delicious. I pressed my hand down my dress, grateful I’d decided at the last minute to change. Then I walked toward him with purpose in my step. Why not flirt a little? Maybe it wasn’t allowed but I wasn’t the kind of girl to follow rules.
I moved to within a few inches, shocked how tall he was. At least six foot four and all muscle, the material of his suit jacket straining from his bulging biceps. A girl could easily become overheated if she spent too much time around the glorious hunk.
While I wasn’t directly in his line of sight, the tenseness in the thick cords of his neck indicated he was aware of my presence. Why not shoot the moon and see if he noticed me?
“Hi. You’re Lucia’s brother. Right?”
Enzo didn’t move at first nor did his breathing change. Then his nostrils flared as he slowly turned his head in my direction. He was a consummate professional, his eyes still scanning the facility. “Yes.”
The single word sent flutters into my heart. I wasn’t usually the kind of girl who hungered for a man at first sight. The only exception had been the man Lucia had married. Maybe the water in Italy helped create the perfect chiseled hunk. “Do you like your job?”
I was shocked and rewarded with his expression drifting into full-blown amusement.
“Questa è la mia vita,” he said in a husky voice that oozed filthy, illicit activities.
“I’m sorry but I had one semester of Italian and I sucked at it.”
His chuckle sent a wave of desire straight to my core, the flush of heat cresting across my jaw unlike anything I’d ever experienced. “I said this is my life.”
“Well, I guess you’re lucky in that it never gets boring.”
“Boredom is an aspect the mind can control.”
“Ah. That means you’re a control freak.”
He lifted a single eyebrow then swept the establishment again, allowing me to fixate on his carved features, the shadow of stubble that I imagined brushing across my skin as he French kissed me. Whew. My panties were already damp.
“I take what I want when I want.”
The statement turned up the heat full blast. “I think I’d like a man like that in my life.” I purposely turned my head away but was completely aware he’d given me a onceover. I dropped my head, turning it slightly, my mouth watering at the sight of the thick bulge between his legs. It was good to know I still had some kind of effect on members of the opposite sex. It had been forever since I’d been on a date or even been accosted by some stranger.
Oh, I was such a bad girl.
As Marla came into the restaurant, I breathed a sigh of relief. At least I knew one other person in the already crowded room. She was the third in our naughty group, the woman already searching the restaurant for any sign of a friendly face.
I couldn’t leave without issuing a parting message. “By the way. You’re gorgeous, what fantasies are made of. I thought you’d enjoy some validation.” What the hell was I doing? He likely had women flocking to him no matter where he went. Thank God he didn’t laugh in my face.
Just for kicks and giggles, before leaving, I brushed my fingers down his shirt. That’s when I noticed a dark substance on the side of his neck. Blood. I’d know it anywhere. Another shiver slammed into my spine. While I appreciated bad boys, his dangerous vibe and the electricity roaring into every cell in my body yanked the breath from my lungs.
I could swear he knew what I was thinking, the man now undressing me with his eyes.
Everything about him was captivating, including the scathing way he was looking at me. I fanned my face as I walked away, pushing through the crowd until I reached Marla.
“Wow,” she said as she eyed the crowd. “Who are all these people?”
“Girl. You need to keep up with what’s happening in New York,” I told her. I’d been friends with Marla longer than with Lucia, but as a group of wicked women, we’d become the three amigos. Reminiscing was bittersweet. “Every woman who pulls any weight in this town was invited.”
“Where’s Lucia?” Marla asked, searching the crowd. More guests filtered in and for some crazy reason I felt uncomfortable.
I watched as Enzo directed the two other guards to shift positions, moving closer to the front of the restaurant. Servers had already begun to bring food to the buffet and the number of people inside the space had begun to feel overwhelming.
“No. No! Get down.”
It was Enzo’s deep voice yelling, gunfire coming from every direction.
I sucked in my breath, the vision remaining for long enough I was able to make out several distinguishing features. The restaurant under attack.
Oh, God, no. “Shit.”
I’d been the kid who’d had premonitions all her life, foretelling horrible events that usually had nothing to do with my family. As a sick feeling pooled in my stomach, I had the sudden urge to grab Lucia, coercing her into leaving.
“What’s wrong?” Marla asked.
“I don’t know. A very bad feeling.” Swallowing hard, I glanced around the entire room, my heart racing. It had been months since I’d had a vision. This wasn’t possible.
“Uh-oh. When you get a bad feeling, buildings explode.”
I squeezed her arm. “That’s what I’m worried about. Stay close to the door just for a few minutes. Okay?”
“Whoa. You’re really concerned.”
“I am. Just trust me. I’ll be back in a few.” I moved through the crowd, no longer able to see Enzo. When I finally found Lucia, she was surrounded, her face beaming. She’d never looked happier. The last thing I wanted to do was destroy her happy place, but I’d never forgive myself if anything happened and I hadn’t attempted to draw Lucia’s attention to it.
When I touched her arm, she pulled me into a hug. “There you are,” she said. “This wouldn’t have been possible without you.”
“I’m so glad you’re happy. Can we talk for a few seconds?”
Lucia narrowed her eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“Hopefully nothing.” The eerie feeling remained, so much so it felt as if my skin was crawling with bugs.
“Let’s go to the ladies’ room where it’s quiet.”
I trailed behind her, catching Enzo’s eye. When he didn’t immediately follow, I resisted breaking away and heading in his direction. It was possible my thoughts were unfounded, a product of realizing and even accepting the changes in Lucia’s life. I’d been called far too dramatic, but as a reporter, that’s what had given my articles flair, making the stories three dimensional.
At least that’s what my editor had told me more than once.
Thankfully, we were the only ones in the bathroom.
“You’re white as a ghost,” Lucia told me. “I can easily get someone to take you home.”
“No. Something is wrong.”
“What are you talking about?” Her usually bright smile faded as she studied my eyes. “You’re having a premonition.”
“Yeah, and one that involves the restaurant. Do you have enemies?”
Lucia laughed halfheartedly. “About a dozen. What did you see?”
“Men storming the room. They were shooting at everyone. You need to get out of here.”
My bestie had never made fun of me for the shadowy visions or the stories I’d told her before, but I sensed her reluctance to act on my warning. “I don’t know.”
“Talk to your brother. Just have him make certain no one is outside.”
After taking a deep breath, she nodded. “Come with me. Enzo will want to know exactly what you envisioned.”
I nodded, although in the back of my mind I was already imagining the man’s reaction. Men like Enzo Lazarro could never take the word of some wayward girl who’d flirted with him moments before. “You don’t think I’m crazy. Right? I’m not trying to ruin your beautiful party.”
“Sweetie,” she said as she tucked a stray strand of hair behind my ear, “you’re one of the craziest women I’ve ever known but your concern for me is endearing. If you’re right, your premonition might stop a bloody war in the middle of Manhattan.”
“And if I’m wrong?”
She laughed. “Then I’ll let Enzo dole out your punishment. Somehow, I don’t think you’ll mind being tossed over his knee.”
Another flush swept through me like a wildfire. “Wha… What?”
“Oh, stop. Come on. Let’s go talk to him.”
My best friend and the woman I’d spent dozens of nights laughing with, commiserating over the horrible men in the Big Apple, eating one too many pints of ice cream while drinking wine pulled away.
And I was suddenly frozen to the spot, the hard thumping of my heart echoing in my ears as panic gripped every muscle, twisting them violently.
“Take both bitches now.” The bark was commanding, the sound evil.
“And do what?”
“We’ll get to have some fun before cutting that baby out of her gut. Then we’ll kill them both.”
Terror swept through me and I lunged forward, uncertain if a single sound erupted from my throat as I screamed Lucia’s name.
The scream was abrupt, drawing my attention immediately. I reacted on instinct, racing toward the bathrooms, pushing people out of the way. I couldn’t care less that I’d knocked several women to the floor, likely trampling over them in my effort to find the source of the agonizing yelp.
With my weapon in both hands, I entered the corridor leading to the restrooms, hissing as I noticed two unknown assailants in dark clothing, fighting to abduct my sister and her friend Joy.
“Let go of them now!” I yelled, but the guttural sound was quickly driven to oblivion by the sound of gunfire coming from the other direction, guests screaming as the horror began to unfold.
I quickly fired off two rounds, driving bullets into one of the assailants. As one of my soldiers bolted into the space, I moved forward, careful with my aim. The two women were being used as shields by the unhurt assailant, both flailing even as a third man appeared from the shadows. Joy was still struggling, almost able to escape her attacker.
“Go protect the front,” I barked to my man, trying to gauge the distance. Then I advanced, another soldier grabbing Joy, both women fighting with their assailants. While Lucia had been trained how to handle herself, her friend knew nothing about the lifestyle or the danger. When Joy dared bite the arm of the attacker, the hold around her throat was tightened, her breathing constricted to the point she started to wheeze.
“Lascia andare ora.” My order to let go now in Italian had an off chance of being understood. When the assholes continued backing toward the door, the barrels of their weapons shoved into the women’s temples, I tried one last tactic. I had to know who the fuck I was dealing with. “Otpusti seychas ili stolknis’ s moim gnevom.” Let go now or face my wrath.
The words commanded in Russian, the sneer on one asshole’s face was a dead giveaway the bastard had understood. Fucking Bratva. Pigs.
In Italian, I told my sister to be ready to bolt. She blinked in understanding. The door was kicked open, shots fired from the back of the restaurant an indication a full assault awaited outside. My move was bold, but necessary. I lunged forward, knocking the assailant holding Lucia’s friend to the ground.
The girl screamed but rolled away. Unfortunately, the other assassin used my direct move, jerking Lucia out the door and to the awaiting vehicle. I wasted no time, pumping two bullets into the fallen soldier then aimed my Glock toward the other assailant, pulling the trigger.
Another round of shots was fired, the man holding Lucia still struggling to get her into the waiting SUV. Another single shot was all I needed, the back of his head exploding in blood and brain matter. I threw myself over Lucia, rolling away just before the SUV took off.
Fuck. Fuck! How had I allowed this to happen?
And who the fuck had betrayed our location?
My men raced down the street, popping off a dozen rounds. While glass exploded, the SUV managed to get away, tires screeching as the driver hit the street.
Grunting, I pulled off Lucia and instantly knew she’d been hit. “Shit.” I rolled her over and grimaced. “It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.”
“The… baby,” she whimpered.
“No. No!” Joy dropped to the pavement, sliding her arm under my sister’s head. “She’s been shot. How could you let this happen?”
“Joy. It’s not his fault,” Lucia managed. Her face was white, her eyelids half closed.
And she was bleeding from her stomach.
“I’m sorry, boss. We couldn’t stop him,” Anthony gasped. “Oh, Jesus. How bad?”
“Get the fucking vehicle. We need to get my sister to the hospital.”
“Yes, sir.” As Anthony raced away, I scanned the perimeter. There’d been more soldiers. They’d wanted Lucia specifically. What a fucking mess.
“This is your fault!” Joy snapped. “You were supposed to protect her.”
She was a beautiful woman with fiery eyes, a voluptuous body meant to be used. While her hatred of me was to be expected, I was surprised she’d launched into me immediately. “This will be alright.”
“How?” she demanded. “Lucia is bleeding. The baby. You dumb fuck. She’s six months pregnant.”
Lucia grabbed Joy’s hand, gasping for air as tears streamed from her eyes. “My baby. Please save my baby.”
“I’ll fucking protect you,” Joy said, her eyes never leaving mine. “It’s obvious your brother can’t.”
I glared at her and even though I wanted to backhand her for such egregious disrespect, my desire roared to the surface. I’d never been so aroused by a woman in my life. Goddamn it all to hell. However, the mouthy redhead with the greenest eyes I’d ever seen obviously had a death wish.
As Anthony pulled the armored SUV around to the alley, I gathered my sister into my arms. Getting her to the hospital was imperative.
“If you think I’m letting you go without me, you’re sorely wrong,” Joy snapped.
My irritation was increasing. “You’re not going.”
“She comes with me,” Lucia struggled to say, her eyes beginning to close.
“Then get the fuck in,” I barked, easing Lucia into the back seat. “On the other side. Now!”
“Why, yes, sir. You caused this.” Joy’s harsh words reverberated in the back of my mind. I’d tasked my men to keep Lucia safe and I was the one who’d fucked up.
As Joy rose to her feet, she threw another hateful look in my direction.
Federico guided her to the other side, keeping his weapon pointed toward the alley. The second SUV pulled up behind us, Federico jumping into the passenger seat. I moved to the opposite side, scanning the area before climbing in. “Get us to the hospital now.”
“Which one?” Anthony returned.
“Whichever one is closest. We don’t have time to lose.”
At least Anthony knew the streets of New York like the back of his hand. While his parents lived in Italy, longtime friends of my father, he’d gone to college in New York, keeping ties to the life he’d created.
He careened through the streets, weaving through oncoming traffic, driving in excess of the speed limit.
“She’s unconscious,” Joy hissed. “How could you let this happen? You still haven’t answered me.”
I noticed Anthony’s glance in the rearview mirror, a slight look of surprise on his face. No one talked to me that way and survived. I gritted my teeth, constantly scanning the road. Then I pulled my phone into my hand. Letting D’Artagnan know about the incident would be the beginning of a war I’d be forced to wage.
And one I wouldn’t mind.
I’d crush the fuckers who’d dared destroy my sister’s moment of happiness. I’d warned against allowing her to return to the States, my knowledge of how the Bratva worked on both sides of the ocean keeping me on edge. My sister had the new mafia Don wrapped around her finger, insisting she’d be just fine.
“How is the event?” D’Artagnan asked as he answered the phone.
“Dar. We have a situation.”
“Lucia has been shot.”
There was no sound on the other end of the line for a few seconds. Then he broke into a rage, roaring as an injured lion would do. “Who?”
“Is she alive?”
“Yes, but there’s concern over the baby.”
D’Artagnan was a man filled with the same kind of penchant for violence that I’d been born with. He’d suffered his own share of abuse from his adopted father where mine had been blood. While there was still limited trust between us, I’d accepted the position of his Consigliere months before and I intended on keeping the peace between our blended families.
As well as wipe the streets with Bratva blood.
No one fucked with our family.
“She’s barely breathing,” Joy moaned. “Why. Why?”
Her voice was filled with agony while I only felt fury, the kind that would drive me off the sharp precipice into a murderous rage.
“I’m leaving now. Hunt the fuckers responsible,” Dar commanded.
“Already in the works. I’ll call you with the location and when I know her condition.”
His voice broke, something that never happened. “She will be okay or so fucking help me God every last Russian will die.”
When he ended the call, I took a deep breath. The Bratva had no idea the war they’d just started.
I wasn’t immune to the concept. I lived in New York, for God’s sake. I’d seen creeps yank older women to the ground to snag a purse. I’d witnessed a murder in an alley I shouldn’t have been walking down in the first place. And I’d almost been accosted outside my own apartment years before.
But this was different.
This was… horrific.
Oh, God. My premonition had come true. No. No!
I had blood covering my hands, specks on my dress. I could only imagine what I looked like. Every muscle ached, my throat still tight from the man who’d almost choked the life out of me. I’d also witnessed seeing half a man’s head being blown off. I should be terrified, but I was angry, furious that the system set in place for likely generations had failed.
At a goddamn baby shower.
Who would do this? Who would dare ruin the sanctity of a special celebration? And why was Enzo talking in different languages? I pressed my hand against Lucia’s face, petrified that she’d lost the baby. It would kill her. I’d never been prone to violence myself, although I had a registered gun in my apartment, mace in my purse. I’d also taken defense classes for no other reason than the city I lived and loved.
Suddenly, the Big Apple was somewhere I no longer wanted to be.
“It’s going to be okay, girlie. I promise you.”
She opened her eyes and the sadness and horror in them drove a stake through my heart. “Dar. Is he…”
“Sshhh… Don’t talk. Save your strength. He’s coming. Enzo talked with him.” I threw him another hateful look, hissing under my breath. I didn’t care who he was or what he was capable of. He would face my wrath as soon as I knew she was safe. Oh, please. The baby had to be okay. I wasn’t religious, but I said a silent prayer to whatever God was up in the heavens. My friend didn’t deserve this.
As the driver pulled into the emergency bay of Mount Sinai, the ache in my heart intensified. All I could think about was how anyone could tolerate living where at any moment life could be terminated. Enzo was out of the passenger side before the SUV was even pulled to a complete stop, racing inside.
“We’re here, honey. The doctors are going to save you,” I half whispered as I stroked hair from her face. Her skin was clammy, her face ashen, and her breathing so shallow I was terrified that no one could save her.
Within what seemed like seconds, a gurney with two attendants was rushed to the curb, the flurry of activity causing another series of shivers to strain my heart. Lucia was lifted from the passenger seat, strapped down and immediately rushed inside.
I sat where I was, taking gulping breaths as I stared down at my hands. Enzo threw me a look then his head appeared just inside the SUV.
“We need to have the doctors take a look at you.”
His gruff voice had taken a softer turn, almost as if he was concerned and it confused me.
“No, Joy, you’re not. Let me help you.” When he said my name for the first time, I shuddered all the way to my toes. Still furious and terrified, I refused to budge. Hissing, he crawled inside, wrapping his arm around me. The shock of how much electricity tore through me stole my breath, a slight whimper escaping my mouth. The connection was ungodly in my mind, the brutal man nothing I should ever be attracted to.
Yet I was.
It disgusted me that my mind was processing anything other than the horrific situation. But as he eased me into his arms, I found myself leaning against his massive body. He remained quiet as he walked us inside, the hustle and bustle of the hospital more disconcerting than I’d ever felt before. I was in a fog, barely able to comprehend what had occurred. Maybe the sick rush of adrenaline was already wearing off.
“Hey. I need another doctor. Now!” His brash attitude and barking command were something I’d ignore if I were a doctor or nurse, but within seconds, I was taken from his arms, led to a huge room with at least six partitions of fabric between small bay areas. As soon as I was placed on a gurney, I tried to bolt.
“No. I need to know about my friend.”
“Ma’am. There’s nothing you can do to help her. We need to check you out. Are you hurt?”
The nurse’s words barely registered. I stared at the floor, a wave of hatred rolling through me. “I’m fine. Just winded. Let me go.” I reacted suddenly, pushing her back by several feet then bolting toward the door into the hallway. I found Enzo talking with some of his men. When I lunged forward, driving my hands against his chest, the look of surprise on his face quickly turned to one of anger.
As if I gave a damn.
“You! You horrible man. You did this. You are responsible.” Without hesitation, I slapped him with enough force his head was jutted to the side. His men were quick to react, flanking my side. “I saw it. I knew it was going to happen.”
But Enzo waved them off before wrapping his hands around my wrists. “Breathe, Joy. Just breathe. What do you mean you saw it?”
“You breathe, you fucking son of a bitch!” I didn’t care my voice was loud enough that others in the waiting room were gawking at us. “And what do you care?”
The hard lines etched in his face softened, his long, dark eyelashes skimming across his cheeks. “I will find out whoever did this. You’ll need to trust me.” The hardness returned, the deep velvet of his voice no longer comforting.
I glared at him as if he was an alien who’d just dropped onto Earth. “Trust you? Are you fucking out of your mind?”
“Watch your mouth, woman,” one of his men growled. The guy looked as if he wanted to crush a man to death. Maybe I’d beat him to it.
“It’s okay, Anthony. She has every right to be upset.” Enzo glanced toward him then pinned his eyes on mine. “But you need to calm down. I can’t protect you if you’re off the rails.”
Something or everything about his statement pushed a laugh to the surface. “Protect me? From what? Little green men or boogeymen hiding under the bed?” I jerked away, folding my arms as I shook my head. “Fuck you. I don’t need your protection.” As I continued trying to distance myself from him, I almost stumbled from knocking into another nurse.
“She’s a wildcat,” the same brusque guy said. “Not sure you can handle her, boss.”
Enzo threw him a look. Aww, the poor guy just had his balls questioned.
I turned away, hating the fact tears were streaming down my face. Allowing a bully to see how upset I was infuriated me as much as the situation. I took long strides toward the small waiting room, standing in front of the window and trying to control my emotions. I’d tried to talk Lucia out of the shower after everything she’d told me about her new life.
And what about the people inside the restaurant? Marla, the servers? The guests? I rubbed my eyes, almost instantly cognizant of the stench of blood remaining on my hands. Between the sickening sweet copper odor and the antiseptic floating in my nostrils, my stomach did several flips.
An ambulance roared into the drive through, and I cringed even more inside. What if I hadn’t goaded Lucia into talking to the dark, mysterious stranger at the bar all those months ago? If only my crazy mind had been working then, able to warn her to stay away from the man. Would anything be different? I should be happy she was so in love with D’Artagnan, but all I could think about at this point was death.
I noticed a reflective blur in the window and bristled. As Enzo’s face appeared, illuminated by the bright afternoon sun managing to stream in through the thick glass, I was ready to launch into him again. He said nothing at first. I was certain he wasn’t used to anyone challenging his great and oh-so powerful authority.
The seconds turned into a full minute and my skin crawled, but not for the right reasons. I remained attracted to him. It was obvious my senses were in serious and very strained overload.
“You should allow someone to make certain you weren’t injured.” His words were now devoid of emotion, as if he was a shell of a man.
I spun around quickly, although there was no look of surprise on his face. “What does it matter? If I’d been killed, my lifeless body would just be added to the others who died in that restaurant because of the life you live. So who cares?”
He allowed his heated gaze to drift down my face to my chest, the way he clenched his strong jaw highlighting every carved bone. As he continued studying me like a prized animal in a cage, another wave of repulsion attempted to replace the attraction.
“No one else died in the attack,” he said coldly.
“Oh. I see.” I could see nothing and couldn’t understand anything either.
“The attack was meant for Lucia alone.”
I nodded so many times I felt like I was a bobblehead doll. “Let me see if I understand mafia politics. She was attacked to get at her husband, the real target. Right?”
Only the stark iciness of his deep blue eyes provided an answer. “So, while the king stays locked away and protected in an empire made of steel, his wife, my best friend was laid out for anyone opposing your power. Do I have that correctly?” The bitterness and hatred in my voice surprised me.
Instead of answering right away, he closed the distance, crowding my space to the point I gathered not only a whiff of his exotic aftershave but whatever mint he’d slid into his mouth before. I was overwhelmed by the fragrance of something spicy mixed with a hint of citrus and a stark, woodsy scent like sandalwood. Jesus Christ. I was dissecting his aftershave while my friend lay bleeding and maybe dying.
“While I understand your anger and your concern, this hospital like any other location has ears, some you wouldn’t want to overhear your disclaimer of the DeLuca Empire.”
Was this asshole kidding me? I was taken aback for a few seconds, blinking several times. He sensed my reaction, grabbing my wrists as he’d done before, pulling me tightly against his body.
“Enough, Joy. Enough.” When Enzo lowered his head, I was swept in another wave of burning desire, certain he was going to kiss me. I even tilted my head to accept the crude gesture.
“She’s my friend.” Which he already knew. I was never befuddled around anyone, yet with him, my tongue remained tied. Maybe my reaction was all about the terrible events.
“And I’m her brother.”
“Then act more like you care about her. You show no emotion other than anger. Why? Don’t you have feelings for anyone?”
For the slightest fraction of a second, I noticed an entirely different emotion in his piercing eyes. Maybe there was something other than a monster within him.
“I can’t afford to.”
Why he allowed another few seconds of witnessing his black soul I wasn’t certain, but it definitely didn’t endear me to him. “How very sad, Enzo.”
Now the asshole smirked as if I’d just made a joke. “I’m going to have Anthony take you home since you won’t accept medical care.”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
“You have no choice.”
My nerves were frazzled, my hatred for the man growing with every passing second. I yanked my wrists free, slamming my palms against his chest to try to gain some distance. He didn’t budge, his body rock hard.
Just like his mind.
“If you dare try and remove me from this location, I will scream bloody murder until someone either detains you and your merry little men or hands me a scalpel so I can carve you into tiny pieces. From what your sister has told me, you couldn’t care less about her well-being. That’s not the case here. I will remain to find out if she’s going to be alright. Period.” When he cocked his head, every vein standing proud in his neck, his jaw so tightly clenched I was certain his teeth would be ground to dust, I smiled just like my mother taught me how to do. “Try it, buster. You have no idea what kind of woman I am.”
There was a fire building between us that I knew would eventually explode, the heated air surrounding us suffocating. If he thought I was a weak girl, he better get his shit together.
No one fucked with the people I cared about.