As I walked through the sea of guests in the great room, my father gripped my elbow and pulled me close to him. If I hadn’t recognized his voice, I might have been startled by the sudden touch.
“The lecture ran long,” I explained, gently tugging my arm from his grip.
“Don’t embarrass me tonight, Amelia,” he warned, taking a sip of his drink. The ice cubes rattled against the glass and he waved over a waiter walking through the crowd.
He handed off his drink to the waiter and checked his watch.
“Sebastian’s not here yet either, so you’re lucky there.”
“I guess lucky is a good enough word for it,” I said, tucking my hands into the pockets of my ankle length black dress. I was no fashion queen, so I didn’t really care if pockets were “in” or not. They were a necessity. Where else would I put my hands when I felt the desire to strangle the untouchable?
“You’ll be nice to him. No more trouble.” He wiped his hand across his freshly shaven face then pulled at the sleeves of his suit.
“Dad. I know you’re hoping something will bloom between Sebastian and me, but I don’t like him.” Despised him was more accurate. Sebastian Gorecki was the type of man who left a film of grime over you just by being nearby.
“Not this again, Amelia.” Dad settled a hard glare on me. “You know it’s a good match. It will help our family as well as theirs. Great empires are built this way.”
“Great empires?” I repeated. “Are you having aspirations of becoming the next Alexander the Great?” I tried to smile, but from over his shoulder I saw Sebastian step into the room. His thick black hair was slicked back from his face with an overabundance of hair gel. A patchy mustache grew over his thin lip which he ran his fingers over as he looked around the room.
“That’s enough, smart mouth. You’ll be sweet and kind to Sebastian, and when you’re married, you’ll be a dutiful wife. Just like your mother was.”
My stomach dipped at the mention of my mother. She died ten years ago, when I was only twelve. At the time I needed her the most, she’d been ripped away from me. My father did his best, or what he considered his best, to raise me on his own. But a man of his position didn’t exactly have time for a little girl. While he was brokering mergers and lobbying with the elite politicians of Chicago, I was raised by nannies and schoolboards. It was suggested once that he send me away to school, to be less stressful for him. But if he had done that, how could he have pulled me off the shelf to use me as bait for sympathy or business dealings.
Sebastian being the current merger he was working on.
“I’m going to get something to drink.”
“Don’t go far. He should be here soon,” my father quipped as I left him to await his knight in shining armor.
The party was being held at an estate in the middle of Lincoln Park, one of the higher end parts of the city. I’d spent my afternoon at the Herald Washington Library attending a lecture being given on Emily Dickenson. Although it had gone a bit long, what kept me from getting to the party was my lack of desire to get there.
As I made my way through the great room, I smiled and nodded at anyone who glanced my way. Several looked familiar, but I wouldn’t be able to recall their names if a gun was put to my head. No matter how many times my father tried to quiz me and lecture me on who was who of his circle, I just couldn’t retain the information. My brain rejected it.
I slipped out of the main room of the party and walked along a long corridor. My ballet flats were quiet as I stepped along the marble flooring. The bright lighting of the chandeliers hanging from the ceiling bounced off the white tiles and cream fabric wallpapered walls. It also illuminated the hanging artwork. A small lamp hung over each frame, probably for those times they weren’t using the massive house for a party. The pieces were modern artwork, some contemporary; I understood the draw of none of them.
Art wasn’t my thing, though, so while I appreciated the vibrant as well as the subdued coloring, I was left more confused. The music from the band wafted down the hallway with me, as though it were pushing me along, away from the crowd. I had no idea who the guest of honor of the party was, but I remembered my father saying she was in her late teens. I doubted she appreciated the music, or the high society party being thrown. But I’m sure she understood this party wasn’t really for her.
It never is in families like ours.
Celebrations like birthdays, graduations, and holidays were excuses for business dealings to be set in concrete. For associates to come together and make plans for the future, solidify backdoor deals, and lobby those that had enough power to make situations go away or blossom.
The rooms along the corridor were closed, except for one. I peeked inside to be sure it was empty, before I slipped into the darkened room. Quietly, I shut the door behind me and pressed myself against the wall, inhaling deeply. I was alone.
The curtains of the floor to ceiling windows were drawn back, letting in the sparkling golden lights from the patio just outside. Built-in bookcases lined each wall, though there were no chairs or couches on which to sit and read any of the hardbound leather books lining the shelves. They were probably only for display. But the centerpiece of the room, the object that stole my breath from the very moment my eyes settled on it, was a Steinway Model S baby grand piano.
I carefully raised the fallboard and settled myself on the piano bench, lightly stroking the keys. Over the years, ivory had been routinely replaced by special plastic, but this piano had the original ivory. It must have been an original piano when the Model S’s were introduced in the 1930’s.
Gently, I played a chord, hearing the sweet hum of the strings as the hammer struck them. I positioned my hands and took off, careful of the force with which I struck the keys. But quickly the music carried me away as I picked up the tempo and let my fingers do the thinking.
The acoustics of the room were horrendous for such a timeless instrument, but I didn’t let it ruin my moment. The music soothed me, bringing a steady calm to my mind, letting me forget about the Sebastians of the world and of what my father would demand of me later. Right that moment, the only purpose that mattered was the melody.
Fireworks exploded outside the window over the gardens, tearing me from the sanctuary I’d created for myself. My fingers curled away from the keys, and I turned my attention to the gold and pink sparkling explosions in the night sky.
“I’m pretty sure this room isn’t for the guests,” a dark voice invaded from the doorway.
Startled, I swiveled on the piano bench toward the door. The lighting from the hallway cast him in a dark shadow, keeping his features hidden from my view. I jumped up from the bench, smoothing my hands down the skirt of my dress.
“The door was open,” I said, as though that could account for anything. The lights had been off, and the party obviously wasn’t happening in that room.
“You didn’t turn the lights on.” He moved further into the room, still shrouded in the shadow. Even without seeing his features, he appeared formidable. As he moved closer to me, the strong scent of musky aftershave hit me. This was not a random guest of the party, and he sure as hell wasn’t one of the servers. With every controlled step he took, he seemed to soak up the room.
Who was this party for, again? Dammit, I really needed to pay more attention.
He stopped barely a foot from me and leaned over the piano, flicking on the Tiffany lamp sitting on the lid. The soft glow of the light hit his face and my breath caught in my throat.
I knew this man.
No. I knew of this man.
I’d seen him at other parties my father dragged me to. Dad never introduced me to him, but the way he carried himself I knew he was a man of great power. He had the strictest of expressions whenever I saw him. As though he were ready to attack at any given moment and was always on the lookout for danger.
“I’m sorry.” I wet my dry lips. “I didn’t mean to intrude in your house.” I tried to step around him, but he shifted his stance, keeping me blocked.
He tilted his head slightly to the right. The light hit the sharp angle of his jaw, making him look even more fierce. If that was even possible.
“This isn’t my house,” he said evenly. “Do you know who I am?”
Another burst of fireworks blew off behind me in the garden and I jolted at the sound.
“What? Yes. No. I mean yes, I know who you are.” I just had no clue as to whose house I was in.
“And who am I?” he asked, curiosity lacing his words.
My mind raced for the name. I’d heard it plenty of times, my own father had spoken of him before. But his name was lost in the sea of other associates I’d been introduced to or overheard conversations regarding.
At my silence, he leaned forward and took a step closer. I had to move back a step to keep from being gobbled up by his presence, making me completely sandwiched between him and the piano. He easily caged me in, pressing his hands into the piano on either side of me.
I inhaled slowly, his spiced aftershave filling my senses. It was almost arousing, the heat of his scent. He towered over me with our positioning, and for the first time in ever, I regretted not forcing myself to wear heels for the night. Dark, firm eyes met mine as he lowered his face closer to mine.
The intensity of his stare dried my mouth. While my insides rattled at being the focus of his attention, I squared my shoulders and raised my chin.
His full lips kicked up to the side slightly, like I’d done something appealing, something amusing to him.
“You’re not the host of the party.” I announced bravely. My bravado was all for show; if the man were to lift one finger and touch my skin I’d probably melt into a puddle at his feet.
I really needed to start dating more.
“No, sweet girl, I’m not the host.”
I swallowed and licked at my lips again. “It seems the fireworks are finished,” I said stupidly as the bright colors stopped flickering through the windows into the room.
He lifted his hand to my face, trailing the back of his knuckles along my jawline. “Oh, I think maybe they’re just beginning.”
My breath hitched.
“Kaczmarek!” I blurted out forcefully. His hand fell away from my face, but his eyes kept me pinned to where I stood. “That’s your name. Mr. Kaczmarek.”
His lips pulled into a wide grin. “Very good. Now, what’s your name?”
I swallowed. What was my name?
“Amelia,” I shot out once my brain cells fired again. Jesus. What was with this man’s ability to make all intelligence leave my body? I definitely needed a more active social life if having a strange man this close to me could send my brain spiraling so easily.
“Christian.” An urgent voice came from the doorway. “I’m sorry, but you’re needed.”
Anger flashed in his eyes, but he covered it quickly. Turning his head away from me he barked out something in Polish at the intruder.
“Of course,” the man sputtered and scurried away.
“I have to go.” He touched the tip of my nose. “But I’ll find you again. So we can continue our talk.”
“What talk?” I asked, blinking back to reality. “We weren’t talking, not really.”
He stood up to his full height, a soft scowl settled on his face.
“We’ll see.” He winked, then turned on his heel and sauntered out of the room.
Once he was gone, I let out a whoosh of air and sank back down on the piano seat. Nothing had happened, but my nerves frayed as though everything had happened.
Christian Kaczmarek was an extremely powerful and frightening man.
I’ll find you again.
Was that a promise or a threat?
As I left the room, the curious girl’s scent lingered with me. I’d seen her leave the main room of the party, casually sauntering down the hallway looking at the artwork on the wall. Her dress caught my attention first. Such a simple dress, black, form-fitting bustier with a flowing skirt. A tightly wound bun held what looked like thick blond hair at the back of her neck. While most of the women dressed as though they were going to be walking down the runway, this one looked as though she’d chosen comfort over beauty. But she’d missed the mark. Something about her pulled at me. Maybe it was that she was so different from the other women.
When I followed behind her, I wasn’t sure what I would do if I caught up to her, but once I caught her playing the piano, I wasn’t willing to walk away. She’d looked so peaceful, so at home while her fingers bounced over the keys. Even with her eyes closed, I could sense the joy as the melody played out.
Being caught startled her at first, but her little bout of fear was quickly masked by fire. She didn’t want me to see she was afraid, and once she realized who I was, she tried even harder to put on a brave face. But I could see through it.
I could always sense fear. I was like a hound in that way. A useful skill, given my position in life.
“Where is he?” I asked my brother Lukas as I entered Alderman Kozak’s office. It was his daughter’s celebration that drew us all to his mansion. A perfect cover for meetings such as these.
“He’ll be right here,” Lukas said, cracking his knuckles.
“You had me hunted down, and he’s not even ready?” I checked my watch. I could have had another five minutes with the sweet Amelia. Who knows what sort of secrets I could have drawn out of her.
“He’ll be here. He got called back out by his wife.”
I huffed. “These meetings are a pain in the ass.”
“It’s easy. Give his daughter the gift, and we can get the hell out of here.” Lukas rolled his shoulders back.
“What’s with you? You nervous or something?”
“Me? No. I’m fine.”
Before I could question him further, the alderman breezed in, wiping frosting from his lips.
“Sorry to keep you waiting.”
“It’s a family party. I understand.” I waved a hand in the air. Politicians made my stomach queasy. They always acted as though they were doing us huge favors by taking our bribes and turning their cheeks the other way, but they had no idea how much of what we did kept the city flourishing. They always made the wrong assumption that we needed them more than they needed us.
“I wanted to give you your daughter’s gift personally,” I said and motioned to my brother to hand over the envelope.
The alderman took it with the look of a toddler being gifted a pony at Christmas.
“Thank you. You’re very generous. I’ll be sure my daughter gets this.” He opened the envelope and thumbed through the bills, mentally counting my generosity. I shoved my hands into my pockets to keep from throwing one of my fists into his face.
“There’s a new gas station being planned,” Lukas stated. We didn’t play coy games like the alderman did. If we wanted something, we said it. “I’m sure we can count on your help with any zoning issues.”
Kozak looked up from the envelope. “Yes, yes. Of course.” He opened the top drawer of his desk and dropped the envelope inside.
“Good.” I turned on my heel. “I think I’m going to have some cake.” If I lingered too long, Kozak would start inching toward me asking for more money, or other favors. Business was business. I gladly greased the wheels that let my work go unfettered, but I wasn’t in the business of doing favors for politicians. Those pricks were nothing but trouble.
“Oh, sure. We can talk more later.” Kozak followed me from his office. Once we were back in the main party room, like the rat he was, he scurried off into the crowd.
“Thank god that didn’t take long. That guy is slime.” Lukas said, coming to stand beside me on the edge of the room.
“He’s no worse than any other politician.”
“No, but he thinks he’s better than us.”
I glance at him. “They all do.”
Lukas shrugged. “Hey, where were you, anyway?”
Just as he asks the question, the girl who’d been playing the piano was shuffled past us by an older man—her father maybe—across the room. My eyes lock onto her as she’s half dragged by him toward the fireplace on the opposite side of the room. When they reach his destination, my stomach lights on fire.
What the fuck is an innocent girl like her talking with a fucking prick like him?
“Who is that?” I elbow Lukas and nudge him in her direction.
“You know damn well who that is.” Lukas growls.
“Not him, the girl.”
Lukas leans to see better. “Oh. That’s Kacper Dudek, so that must be his daughter.”
“What’s he talking with Gorecki for?” I asked, keeping my focus trained on Sebastian. He didn’t even hide his lust for Amelia, licking his lips as he stared down at her. She might as well have been a side of beef the way he drooled over her.
“Not sure. Maybe Dudek is hitting him up for investment money. It’s what he does best.” Lukas snagged a glass of champagne from the tray of a passing waiter.
“Doesn’t he owe us?” I recalled the name from looking over ledgers that afternoon.
“He does. I forget how much, but it’s pretty substantial.” Lukas shrugged. “Why such an interest? You know we can’t touch Gorecki. As much as he deserves it.”
As much as it made my gut twist, Lukas was right. Due to agreements made before I rose to the head of the Kaczmarek family, I couldn’t touch either of them. Truce had been called; peace was made. But it didn’t stop my blood from heating whenever I laid eyes on either of them.
The perk of not living in Chicago year-round was I didn’t have to see him often at all. He would never find success as we have; he’d never leave the dark alleys of Chicago.
Sebastian put his hand on Amelia’s arm and leaned down to say something into her ear. Her jaw tightened and as soon as he pulled back, she took a small step to her left, letting his hand fall away from her arm. Her father, oblivious to his daughter’s body language, continued talking to Sebastian and gesturing toward Amelia.
“Find out what’s happening over there. I want to know what’s going on.” My phone buzzed from inside my jacket, and I pulled it out to read the text message. “Your sister is really starting to work my last nerve.”
Lukas laughed. “She’s my sister tonight?”
I typed my one-word response, No, then put my phone away.
“If you’ll take full responsibility for the little brat, you can have her every day.”
He shook his head. “I’d rather stick to the lowlife thieves and murderers and let you handle our little sister.”
I gestured toward the conversation still going on across the room. “Then I’ll leave you to get to work.”
“I’ll call you as soon as I have the information.”
With a curt nod, I left him to it. Kacper Dudek wasn’t one of us. He borrowed money from us to keep his business dealings flowing, but he didn’t get his hands dirty.
Whatever his business with Gorecki was, it didn’t sit well with me that Amelia was somehow involved. She was too clean to be near something so disgusting.
Whatever Lukas found out would probably assuage my curiosity, and I could forget the little innocent pianist.