I roll into the underground poker game in South Boston around eleven, and here’s a guy who doesn’t belong, waiting like a snake in the grass. Enzo Palermo, the thick-necked son of the late Frank Palermo gives me a onceover with narrow eyes. Everyone on the East Coast thinks I killed Frank Palermo, my ex-boss. Can’t blame them. I’ve killed a lot of people. And Frank and I were like characters in Highlander. In the end, there could be only one.
No one can prove I killed Frank, just ask the police who’ve been trying to for months. Enzo’s not here looking for proof though; he’s here looking for blood. Watching me, he stops stacking his chips. My feet take a pause to give me time to consider, but my brain catches up with itself and tells the feet to get stepping. For me, there’s no backing down. I didn’t choose this life. I was born into it, and, later, it was kill or be killed. So now I’m in it and when trouble comes knocking, I don’t just open the door. I come outside to meet it in the street.
I stroll to the table and drop casually into my spot. The Palermos want to reclaim Coynston, my hometown. But Coins belongs to C Crue now, my crue. Enzo wouldn’t come alone, so his guys are out there in the dark, and I didn’t notice them. Pauly Mangia, the oldest captain in the Palermo organization, would definitely love to put a bullet in the back of my head. Was he on my six as I passed? Sloppy, Trick.
The rest of the guys at the table I can handle with one hand balancing a drink. There’s Gibson, a stockbroker from New York, who never meets a bluff he doesn’t like. He’s here to hemorrhage money and act like a big man. There’s a Boston Irish mob guy by the name of Murphy who hates my guts. That’s mutual as fucking hell, since it’s his brother who sealed my fate. There’s Little Mo who set up the game. Mo looks nervous, as he should. And then there’s an empty chair that’s hopefully for another rich guy trying to hang with bad ones.
I drop my cash on the table, wondering if it’s a coincidence Murphy’s here. Murphy’s brother Hugh was a crony of my old man, until Hugh betrayed him. Jack Murphy looks at me like he knows I’m the reason his brother’s buried in a Boston cemetery.
There’s a dealer. No one I know and looks harmless enough. I’ll keep an eye out. The sound of shoes clicking against stairs causes my eyes to flicker that way. The tread’s wrong for a guy.
My gaze slides to the open door to witness the emergence of a girl who should know better. Laurelyn Reilly’s from my neighborhood in Coynston, and she was a good girl in school. That doesn’t stop her from looking like the devil conjured her up to bring men to their knees. Her body’s wrapped in a beige bandage dress. At first glance, she looks nude, and my cock immediately takes an interest, hardening up like poker’s not the right game to play with her. She’s got the kind of curves you couldn’t take at high speed without heading off a cliff.
Every eye in the room goes to the D cups straining the tight fabric and bouncing above it. This isn’t how she dresses. Unless a whole lot of things have changed.
At Coins High she was a teenage Sporty Spice, playing volleyball and running track. She wore black-framed glasses borrowed from Clark Kent. She usually kept her body under wraps in loose tunic shirts over jeans. The one time I saw her in a dress that suited her was when she was on the homecoming court and wore a blue strapless dress that definitely didn’t have her tits pushed up to her chin.
That homecoming dance was the night she found out her date was a well-practiced deviant. She took off on his ass, leaving the guy—me—to get stoned and mess around with the captain of the cheerleaders. Laurel and I are still not on speaking terms, because why would we be? I went my way, and she went hers, doing the conventional life thing. Which leads me to wonder who sent out the invites to this party? Laurel Reilly’s the girl who convinced me that my dick is welcome to a workout, but my heart’s only good at beating for business, family, and revenge. No one but me knows the lessons I learned from being with Laurel a decade ago, not even her.
My gaze drops to her feet and notes the double C logo that makes them Chanel. I move up her legs, which are as gorgeous as ever. Are the clothes borrowed so she’ll look the part?
She stops next to Gibson. “Could I?” She nods at him and then at the empty chair she wants him to move over to.
“Sure.” He vacates his seat so she can have it, and now she’s next to me.
What’s this about? She’s close enough for me to catch a whiff of a flowery perfume with a sexy undercurrent. Her skin’s a creamy vanilla, which matches her sweet center, one that I was keen to corrupt. I doubt she’d be so anxious to sit next to me if she knew how many times I’d fantasized about stripping her and bending her over a table to mark her pretty ass with a flogger before fucking her in front of an audience of my closest friends.
Laurel leans forward, her breasts straining to spill out of the top of her dress. I’m rooting for them. Then I try to forget about her body while I ask myself two important questions. One, who staked her? Because I doubt she can afford the fifty grand buy-in on her own. And two, why does she want to sit next to me when last I knew, she’s still pissed at me from school?
I study her profile a second, taking in the high ponytail that’s held in place by a wide dark brown barrette that blends with her hair. My inspection stops at the thin gold choker around her neck. Would she wear a collar as easily? Because she would make a very pretty pet. My fingers want to play with the clasp and stroke the bones partly hidden by her hair.
She gives Little Mo a bundle of cash and introduces herself to everyone except me. The other men shoot to their feet and lean across to shake her hand. I don’t stand or say a word. She shouldn’t be here. If she wanted a reunion with me and her intentions were good, she would’ve come to Coins.
After she stacks her chips in front of her, she turns her head and fixes her green eyes on me. I remember those eyes and the way when light shines on them they look like stained glass. Always had a tough time looking away.
She inclines her head in greeting. “Hello, Scott.”
No one calls me Scott, which, of course, she knows.
I don’t answer because I immediately want in on whatever game she’s playing. Is that a bad idea considering how the table’s stacked against me? Hell fucking yes.
The feds are breathing down my neck twenty-four/seven, and they aren’t even trying to hide it anymore, which is a very bad sign. Coins PD is always after my crue. And this card game is nothing short of a funeral march. The last thing I need is to get distracted by pretty breasts, long legs, and stained-glass eyes. But whoever sent Laurel Reilly seems to know exactly where my blind spot is and always has been. Except how could anyone?
“You know this young lady? And you don’t even say hello? Worst fucking manners,” Enzo spits out. He’s about as subtle as a goring bull.
“Why don’t you come sit by me, doll? Someone as beautiful as you shouldn’t be ignored.”
She offers him a small smile, which I immediately resent. “Thank you, but the lighting’s better over here.”
That’s bullshit. The track lights are the same on both sides of the table.
“Mo, who’s on the bar?” I ask to mess with them and splash some coolant on my brain.
Little Mo’s eyebrows draw together in surprise. No one starts drinking this early. But if everyone’s putting on a show tonight, I’ll ante up on that score too.
“Jack and Coke, Trick?”
Everyone shakes their heads except Laurelyn.
“I wouldn’t mind a vodka martini,” she says.
All grown up and elegant enough to be playing the trophy wife or spoiled mistress apparently. Who bought her those shoes? And what does she let him do to her in exchange? My cock’s at half-mast, and I’m ready to offer her a closet full of designer shoes to play out fantasies that have gone unfulfilled for way too long.
Enzo, not to be outdone by me or a woman, takes a whiskey. For him it’s a mistake. Even three or four drinks in, I can roll this table my way. Everyone else should stay sober if they want to stay in the game. Even so, I really need to change lanes too. Murphy’s looking at my throat like he wants to cut it, and he’s a distant second to my real problem at the table. Enzo’s men outside aren’t drinking, and they’ll be there waiting when I leave.
“Martini. Here you go.” Mo’s lips draw back to show his overbite and cigarette-stained teeth, which for him is what passes for a smile. Mo’s in his forties, but he looks older.
I realize that at twenty-seven, I’m the youngest person in the room. Enzo’s got me beat by a decade at thirty-seven. Jack Murphy’s around forty-five. And Miss Reilly’s twenty-eight. Older girls were the only ones I played with in high school, by design. Older girls were more likely to be experienced enough to experiment with wilder sex, which is all I crave. Also, they were less likely to be trouble for me than a younger girl if they talked about the things I did to them. When the girl’s older than the guy and the hookup is consensual, the world sees the dynamic differently. Not that it really should. As a clean-shaven eighteen-year-old, I may have looked like an angel, but in reality, I was already fallen.
For an instant I’m reminded of my dad’s observation of me as a little kid courting trouble. “Look at you. Born on the road to hell and sticking your thumb out for a faster ride. What’s your rush, lad?”
From ages five to nine, I’d only shrugged, not sure how to answer or even what he was really asking. Now when I remember those words, I’ve got a better answer. I’m in a hurry, Dad, because I miss you.
“Jack and Coke is easier to get than Irish punch, but does it taste as good?” Laurel asks.
Glancing her way, I only cock a brow before looking back at my chips. This is strategy on my part. I want her attention, so I’m ignoring her because I know she hates that. Or at least she did.
“What’s whiskey called in Irish?” She’s determined to remind me of a night I don’t need help remembering.
“I already told you,” I murmur without making eye contact. From the corner of my eye, I watch her smile. She’s got a pretty mouth. And I’m the one who taught her how to wrap her lips around a man’s cock. That lesson was on the same night I gave her whiskey punch from my old man’s flask.
“Uisce beatha,” Murphy says. “Water of life.”
Her gaze flits to him, and her smile widens. “That’s right.”
Murphy wouldn’t have a shot with her on his best day. He’s twice her age with a comb-over that makes his head look like a cue ball with some string taped on. But if Laurel plays us against each other by paying attention to him? Yeah, no, I’m not going to let him or anyone draw her focus away from me.
My phone buzzes in my pocket, and I slide it out. There’s a text from C. He’s the head of our crue. Three of us sit atop our syndicate’s unwritten org chart. Connor ‘C’ McCann, Sasha ‘Anvil’ Stroviak, and me. C wants to know if I’m back from Boston. Among other things, I was here to supervise the sale of some guns. That went off flawlessly, unlike this game is going to.
My thumb slides over the screen of my burner phone, texting back. I’m in Az.
It’s code. Az is short for Tombstone, Arizona. It means I expect a gunfight to erupt.
My phone lights in an instant. Send pictures.
That’s his way of telling me to turn on tracking, so they can find me and roll in like the cavalry. I think about the fact that the FBI’s watching me. This phone’s a burner, as is the one C’s texting from, but there’s no guarantee the feds don’t know these numbers. Even when you pay cash, the feds sometimes uncover the purchase. That’s why we text in code and why I periodically turn off the phone. If things go sideways in this basement, but I manage to get away, I want to be able to deny ever being here during the time in question.
My crue’s in Coynston, about an hour out. I don’t expect anything to go down immediately, so I respond with, When I get a minute. Coffee first.
Coffee’s short for coffee beans, which is a reference to Beantown.
No response and I don’t expect one. C and Anvil will be on the road in five minutes heading to Boston.
The burner phones change. The code phrases change. But the crue doesn’t change. All for one, and one for all. My smartest play is to draw the night out until I’ve got some backup on hand.
“We gonna play cards or what?” Enzo asks, clearly pissed at all the Ireland Forever talk that Laurel’s peddling and Murphy’s eating up.
I pick up my drink, which Mo’s just set in a cup holder.
The girl who looks like a slutty angel sips from a martini glass Mo dug up for her. She licks her lips, and Enzo’s eyes lock on her mouth. So do Murphy’s.
She may or may not know Murphy, but she knows Enzo’s the spawn of a shark and she knows my reputation, which has gone from bad to worse in the years since she left Coins. What’s a good Irish Catholic girl and IT systems specialist doing in a basement full of made men?
Could she be working for the FBI? And what wouldn’t I give to strip search her to check for a wire? Glancing at the flesh-colored fabric stretched around her body I decide I’m willing to gamble with my life and my freedom to get a look at her naked. I’m betting her pussy’s as pink as the blush she dusted on her cheeks.
This is all wrong, and I’m in serious trouble.
The dealer keeps the cards coming, and I keep smiling and flicking chips into the pile when what I really want to do is bolt up the stairs and out of the house. Fear and dread knots my insides. Milt lied to me. If I’d known Scott Patrick was going to be here, I never would’ve come.
In school, Scott was rumored to be a wickedly dangerous boy, but I never saw that side of him. When he was around me, he was charming and so, so beautiful that it was hard to look past his face. In summer, his sandy brown hair gets streaks of blond, and year round his blue eyes change in the light and are stunners. He could’ve been a model or a YouTube star or anything that leverages breathtaking good looks. But he doesn’t like to be photographed. And yet, I doubt there’s a woman he went to school with who doesn’t have at least one quickly snapped picture of him on an old phone. His is a face that’s meant to be stared at. I still have seven old pics of him. At one time it was forty-four, but progress has been made.
He’s a man now, and there’s no doubt the rumors are true. He’s in thick with Connor McCann and Sasha Stroviak and they all defected from Frank Palermo’s criminal organization and started their own. Last year amidst a gang war, someone gunned down Palermo. There’s talk that Frank’s own daughter or his ex-mistress could’ve shot him, but how likely is that when Scott Patrick is a known sharpshooter and both his muscle-bound friends are killers, too?
In high school, I couldn’t understand why a boy as a brilliant and handsome as Scott Patrick chose to hang out with thugs. I learned later he was raised to be one of them.
Dropping the medication in his glass makes my breath so short I feel dizzy. No matter what he’s done, I hate being involved in something that will hurt him.
I take another swig of my martini, trying to work up the courage to do what has to be done. My hands threaten to shake. But I’m here and I need to do this. If he’s got nothing to hide, then there’s no harm in it. And my sister needs me to try.
Still, just the thought of trying to trick him is scary. When I was being coached, Milt made everything seem simple and reasonable. But I’m not an actress, and I’m not a criminal. How can I possibly handle myself in this company?
We play hand after hand, but none of the things I’m supposed to say will come out of my mouth. Because I’m convinced if I try at all to lead the conversation to their illegal dealings, one or all of them will immediately see right through me.
An hour in, my leg’s bouncing so fast from nerves that I realize my breasts are shaking. The man named Jack Murphy has his eyes glued to my chest. Jesus. I force myself to be still. This is a disaster.
My own eyes glance at the upturned cards on the table, but I don’t really see much. I put a hand on a stack of chips, ready to recklessly push them in. I’m playing really badly because I’m scared and I’m distracted by the first guy I ever loved.
“You sure?” Trick murmurs out of the corner of his mouth.
We lock eyes, his a deep denim blue, and my hand freezes on the stack of chips. No, I’m not sure, I think. What am I sure of is that Scott has a good idea that I don’t have what it takes to beat him, but I don’t know why he’s warning me of that. Maybe it’s another game he’s playing? He’s an expert game player from way back.
I lay down my cards. Not waiting to see how things play out, I rise and hurry to the bathroom. Once locked inside, I reach down the sausage casing that is my borrowed dress and yank out the tiny microphone. I crush it under the heel of my borrowed shoe. I’ve been outfitted in designer clothing seized by the FBI. That’s where the cash on the poker table came from too. But I can’t go forward with any more of this. I open the basement window and drop the mic outside, then close the window again, getting caught by a gust of cold air. It’s spring, but the night almost feels like winter’s back.
Exhaling, I try to breathe slowly to get my hammering heart to slow. When they lose the signal, will the FBI burst in? And if so, will all three of the gangsters at the table then come after me and my family? I almost get sick at the thought. How did I ever let myself get talked into coming here?
Because Monet’s in legal trouble. And because C Crue is doing vile things and needs to be stopped. This operation is something that I should press on with, but Scott Patrick giving me advice at the poker table stopped me. Whatever else he did in high school, he never failed to watch out for me when he thought I was in trouble.
I run some cold water, cup my hands and drink a few swallows. No more vodka. And no more Scott Patrick. I’ll take his drugged drink like I want a sip and then I’ll drop it so he can’t drink anymore. Afterward I’ll lose quickly and leave.
Returning to the table, the mood has worsened and I see that the mountain of chips in front of Trick has risen. Also, his drink’s gone. Oh, God. Did he chug it down? Now I’ll have to wait to be sure he’s okay.
Across the table Enzo Palermo sneers, his face flushed an angry red. Everyone’s losing to Trick, but no one else gets needled by him every hand.
“Luck’s just not on your side tonight, huh, Enzo?” Trick asks. “Could be because you’re not Irish. You could try rubbing Murphy’s balls for luck.”
Enzo jumps to his feet, knocking his chair back. There were supposed to be no weapons, but he pulls a small gun from somewhere and points it menacingly at Trick.
I freeze while everyone else pushes back, except Trick. He lifts my drink and takes a sip, like he’s at a table in the Bellagio. Even I want to shoot him in his beautiful face.
Enzo is not having Trick’s endless cool. He stalks around the table and puts the gun to Trick’s head.
Trick cocks a brow and smirks.
Oh, my God, why?
Enzo cracks the gun against Trick’s scalp, making me wince. Trick stays still. Clearly he’s braced himself for this attack, but why provoke it? That’s insane.
Trick’s cool gaze stays on Enzo’s face, and then Trick moves so fast I don’t register what’s happening until Enzo’s on the floor, his gun skidding away from him as he grabs his crotch. From under the table, Trick must have slammed a fist into Enzo’s balls. Jesus.
Trick stalks across the floor and has the gun in his hand while everyone else is still catching up. Mo holds out his hands, Gibson too holds up his arms in surrender. The dealer pushes his glasses up the bridge of his nose, watching the scene. Jack Murphy doesn’t move and neither do I.
On the floor, Enzo wheezes and clutches himself, spitting curses.
Then there’s a loud noise upstairs, a crashing, followed by more noise.
“What the fuck’s going on, Mo?” Enzo demands, sitting up.
Everyone else is frozen as footsteps pound down the steps. My breath catches. Connor McCann, aka C, and Sasha Stroviak, aka Anvil, appear with guns in hand.
C’s eyes go from Trick’s face where blood is trickling down from his scalp and then to Enzo on the floor.
Enzo looks at the stairs behind them, maybe looking for his muscle to storm in. No one comes.
“Mo, cash me out,” Trick says, his voice level as he pops the clip from the gun, wipes away fingerprints, and then sets it on the poker table.
“No problem.” Mo jerks into action, spilling cash into a bag and marching it over to Trick.
Enzo gets to his feet, almost foaming at the mouth with hatred. “You come busting in, McCann? Like you own the place?”
“Seems like,” C says with dead eyes. “You the cause of my boy springing a leak?”
“Seems like,” Enzo sneers, brash and unapologetic.
Blood continues to drip down the side of Trick’s head in a line just in front of his ear. He doesn’t touch it or acknowledge it as it drops onto his white dress shirt.
Murphy grins. “Should’ve tapped him lower, Palermo. He’s needed that pretty boy face rearranged for a long time. And that might even have gotten a rise out of him.”
“I’ve got what you’re looking for,” Anvil says, waving his fingers for Murphy to come at him.
No one sane would get into a fistfight with the mammoth anvil-fisted Stroviak, but at the moment I’m not sure any of these guys are sane.
Trick steps up to the table, and his hand takes my arm into a vise grip.
My head jerks up, startled.
“On your feet,” he orders.
I blink, trying to decide.
“Get up,” C barks.
I shoot to my feet, not quite steady.
Trick takes the bag of money from Mo and guides me toward the stairs. McCann goes up first, then us, then Anvil comes up them backward, gun on the room.
They move with economy and precision to a pair of SUVs. I spot at least one man lying unconscious on the ground with blood on his swollen face. My stomach twists. Milt was right. First and foremost, they’re violent criminals.
Trick opens the passenger seat of a Range Rover.
I don’t hesitate. It’s definitely not the time to argue or do anything that would make them decide to leave me lying dead on the grass. Where is the FBI?
I buckle my seatbelt, not looking anywhere but straight ahead.
Trick gets in and starts the car. Rap blares from the speakers until he turns it down. He pulls away from the curb. Behind us there’s a second Range Rover with McCann and Stroviak in it.
“I don’t understand. I wasn’t—”
“Shut up,” he says softly.
I close my mouth, grinding my teeth. I don’t want to let him talk to me that way, but what choice do I have?
Get out, my mind screams. I slide one hand to the buckle of my seatbelt and the other to the door handle.
“You do that, and I will punish you for days.”
My gaze jerks to his profile. He’s breathtakingly good-looking, which is tragic since he’s so rotten on the inside.
Moving my hands away from the door handle and the seatbelt, I settle in the seat. I don’t know what Trick has in mind for me, but I know better than to make things worse by flagrantly challenging him. The FBI should be following us. I will be all right.
“Wrong direction for me. I don’t live in Coynston.”
“You live where I say you live until I’m done with you.”
My heart sinks, and my stomach clenches. He’s never directed his anger at me before, but I’ve seen flashes of it.
In high school and around the neighborhood, Trick had seemed like the least menacing of the three of them. But they all went to work for Frank Palermo’s crime syndicate as teenagers. A hard-eyed stare from Connor McCann terrified even the teachers. And Anvil Stroviak, at around six and half feet tall and bodybuilder muscular, looked like an escaped Terminator. Trick, though, was almost always turning on the charm, joking and quick to smile. It had always been hard to believe he was involved in the darker side of the Palermo business. I’d thought maybe he was just a bookkeeper or something because he was gifted at math. He didn’t bother to do homework, so he wasn’t first in his class, but he could have been. Everyone understood that. He fell asleep in calculus all the time because it was first period, but when our teacher woke him and handed him the chalk, Trick would mumble an apology for falling asleep and go to the board. He’d stare at the problem for a second and then his hand would move wickedly fast, solving anything that was put before him.
“That was a tough one,” he would say. At first I thought he meant it, but later I realized it was his way of deflecting focus from his genius. He liked our math teacher and always treated him with respect.
He mostly was that way with teachers and administrators, unless someone in authority pushed him in a way he didn’t like. I remember the day Mr. Benedict tried to belittle Trick. He’d been in a bad mood and taking it out on the class all hour. Trick leaned back in his desk and made a couple of jokes, trying to lighten the mood. Mr. Benedict wasn’t having it. He yelled at Trick to sit up straight, calling him lazy and useless. He said Trick was so stupid he could never even remember to bring a notebook.
Trick didn’t sit up straight. Instead he leaned back farther and put his hands behind his head. “Useless is being a history teacher who gets the dates of the Emancipation Proclamation wrong when we’re covering the Civil War.”
“What? What did you say?” Benedict shouted, stalking forward. “You don’t know a thing about—”
And then Trick rattled off facts and dates Mr. Benedict got wrong, citing the date of the class he’d made the mistakes.
“You’re saying random—”
“No. I’m not,” Trick said before continuing.
People’s fingers flew to look things up and then to quietly defend Trick as right. It probably only lasted a couple of minutes but it seemed like hours.
Finally Mr. Benedict screamed for Trick to get out of his class.
“You sure? Maybe you should leave and I should teach,” Trick said casually.
The room went silent. Benedict looked like he was ready to have a seizure. Then Trick got up.
“I didn’t forget to bring a notebook. I just don’t bother.”
Mr. Benedict grabbed him by the front of his shirt.
Trick broke his grasp easily, murmuring, “Be serious.” Then he walked out.
Trick was suspended and received a failing grade in history, but still maintained a C average because in classes without homework, he got As.
I stare out the window now as the trees on the side of the interstate whiz by.
“Trick,” I continue without missing a beat. “You shouldn’t do this. You should pull off the expressway and let me out.”
He doesn’t answer.
I’m silent for as long as I can be, which is only probably about five minutes. “I don’t understand what—”
“You’re the one who came looking for me. You wanted my attention. Now you have it.”
“I didn’t,” I lie.
“Be serious.” He speaks in that same dismissive, bored tone he used so effectively against our bully of a teacher all those years ago.
I swallow, my uneasiness intensifying. Why did I let myself get talked into helping Milt with this? Who do I think I am to mess around with a guy who’s reportedly killed half a dozen men?
“I just want to be let out of the car.” My voice is no more than a whisper now. “This is all a mistake. You can drop me anywhere. I’ll call for a ride.”
There are a few beats of silence. “What was it?”
“In the drink.”
Oh, God. Did he see me spike his drink? I was smooth. He should’ve missed it.
“And who put you up to it? With Enzo, what you see is what you get. Packs an extra gun. Brings some extra muscle. Thinks he’s got it all under control because he managed to show up unexpectedly. That’s Enzo. Drugging me by getting a girl to slip something in my drink? Not Enzo. Actually I doubt even Murphy would do it in that setting. To what end? With Gibson, Mo, and the dealer there, he’s not gonna carry me out in front of witnesses to kill me elsewhere. And risk the feds and my crue getting the story? Nah. Murphy’s smarter than that. He’d lie in wait for me somewhere, kill me, and then blame it on someone else. That’s his family’s style.”
My head jerks to look at him. What’s he talking about? And why is he saying anything at all unless he’s decided I’ll never be able to pass it on?
“So tell me who sent you to set me up?”
My stomach sinks, and my voice is mostly breath. “No one.” This is more than a disaster. I have no idea what he’s planning to do. Kill me?
All he says is, “Wrong answer.”