It was the end of times. Okay, maybe not so dramatic as that, but it was damn near close. At least to me.
“Hanna, you’re needed in the front hall. They want another family picture before they change the baby out of her christening gown,” one of the photographers that my brother, Christian—the oldest and the more Neanderthal of my siblings—hired to capture the christening of his firstborn child told me. She gestured toward the two open doors from the dining area toward the grand entrance where we’d take another dozen or so photographs to mark the occasion.
“Of course.” I nodded and dutifully followed her out to meet up with my brothers, their wives, and of course the baby. A few of my cousins and distant relatives were also milling around waiting to be told where to stand.
“Hanna, over here.” Christian pointed to the spot on the carpet beside him. Of course he’d want me close. Never mind I was a mere five foot three to his six foot something. I’d be dwarfed standing beside him.
“I’m good here.” I stepped into the group photo, a spot beside Maggie, my sister-in-law, and in front of my other brother, Lukas.
“You can’t just do what he says one time?” Lukas muttered from behind me as the photographer went about moving people this way and that.
“It’s a picture. Calm down.” I shifted a bit closer to Maggie.
“Have you talked to him today?” Maggie asked, moving her shoulders out when the photographer gestured.
“Of course I did. I had to drive with them over here since you two decided to stay at a swanky hotel instead of his condo.” My bedroom at Christian’s condo couldn’t really feel like home since I visited so rarely. Mostly for Christmas and Easter. During the summer I had classes, but there was usually one to two weeks where I was allowed to come back to New York.
“But I mean, like really talked.” Maggie glanced over her shoulder at me.
I shrugged. “He doesn’t listen anyway.”
“After the party, we’ll sit down. The three of us,” Lukas said, resting his hand on my shoulder. “It’s going to be fine, Hanna.”
I rolled my eyes, but since he was behind me, he didn’t see it. Lukas had run referee between me and our overprotective, know-it-all, all-powerful older brother for years. It wouldn’t be any different now. We could sit down and talk. I would say once more that I do not want to remain in New Hampshire for college like he’d kept me there for high school, and once more my words would fall on deaf ears. Christian would decide and he’d push that decision on me. It’s why I was kept so far away from home for the past four years.
Better to stash me several hundred miles away than to deal with me outright. I couldn’t really blame him. He hadn’t signed up to be my keeper. It’s just the way things played out after our parents died. I was only thirteen at the time, and he was already well into his twenties.
Our father had been second in command of the Kaczmarek family, so his duties had fallen to Christian, the oldest. And taking care of a teenager full of grief and angst wasn’t exactly going to make life easy for him.
“All right, everyone, look this way.” The photographer raised her hand in the air. “One. Two. Three!” The camera snapped a few times, and she checked the digital screen. “Two more. Here we go.” She held up the camera and clicked more photos.
“Perfect!” She grinned over her equipment and the family climbed down from the steps we’d been posing on.
“She needs a change and then needs to eat.” Amelia, my sister-in-law, bounced her daughter, Danuta, in her arms gently.
I looked down at the sweet baby sucking on her fist. She already had blonde hair covering her head and her blue eyes were large and exploring the world around her.
“Do you want help?” I asked, reaching out to run my fingertip over Danuta’s cheek.
“I have it, thank you, Hanna.” Amelia smiled at me warmly. “They’re about to serve the cake; go get some, and make sure they put a piece aside for me. I’m starving still.”
“Of course,” I promised her.
“Save a piece for me, too,” Christian added.
“Sure,” I said without looking up at him. Turning away from the group, I walked back into the banquet hall Christian had rented for the afternoon.
There wasn’t a soul in the room that I knew or could remember knowing. I recognized a few family members, but they all seemed to think I was a stranger. Or maybe they thought I was part of Amelia’s family. None of them came up to me to talk, which was fine. It was better that I kept a low profile. I’d be leaving town again soon. Graduation was only a few weeks away, and once I got that diploma I’d be free of this place altogether.
“Make sure Amelia Kaczmarek gets a large piece left at her plate, also a small piece for her husband, please.” I stopped a waiter rolling the cart of cut-up cake out to the tables.
“Of course, ma’am.” She nodded and kept moving.
I walked through the hall toward the doors leading out to the balcony. It was late spring, and the flowers were in full bloom. From the balcony overlooking the gardens below, just outside one of the main halls downstairs, I could see them all laid out.
My father had loved roses. He’d kept a large rose garden where he spent his Saturday mornings pruning and weeding. Some of them he’d spliced together himself from cuttings. When my parents died, Christian had moved me out of our family home to his condo. There was no garden. No flowers at all. No resemblance of the warm home I’d grown up in.
As I stepped outside, a cloud of cigarette smoke hit me in the face. I scrunched up my nose and waved the cloud away before finding the offender.
“I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to be smoking that out here,” I said, shutting the door behind me to keep the rest of the smoke from going inside.
The man standing with his broad back to me turned toward me. My breath hitched in my throat when his dark eyes settled on me. Black eyebrows rose, and he narrowed his eyes.
“I’m outside.” He took another drag of his cigarette but blew the smoke over his shoulder.
“It’s still gross,” I commented.
He shrugged a shoulder. There was a familiarity about him, but I couldn’t place it. Maybe it was the fierceness of his expression. Most of Christian’s associates had the same look about them. As though the most serious moment of their life was happening at that very moment. But there was something different in his eyes. He wasn’t using his expression as a way to hide a vulnerability. He held a confidence I’d seen in few men. My father being one, and my brothers being two others.
“I suppose to a little girl it would seem so.” He smashed the cigarette against the black iron railing and palmed the butt.
“I’m not a little girl,” I objected.
The left corner of his mouth kicked up. “Of course not.”
“I mean, I’m not as close to the retirement home as you are, but I’m not so close to the cradle either.”
His eyes narrowed even further, as he slid his hands into his pockets. Silently, he turned back toward the railing, setting his gaze off in the distance.
I moved away from him, searching for the silence I had gone outside for.
The doors to the hall opened. “Gregor, the car’s ready.”
“I’ll be down after I find my uncle,” the man responded without turning around toward the door.
“I just passed him in the hall speaking with Amelia.”
The man’s grip on the railing tightened. “Thanks.”
The door shut again.
“You’re Amelia’s brother.” Finally, my brain turned back on. No wonder he seemed familiar. I’d seen him before, but we’d never spoken.
“Half-brother,” he corrected me, turning his dark eyes back on me. “You’re Christian’s baby sister, is that right?” The way he emphasized ‘baby’ made my teeth clench. Could I ever be known for just being me? Hanna Kaczmarek. An individual person. Not Christian’s little sister. Or Lukas’ little sister. Just me.
“I’m his younger sister, yeah.” I thrust my chin up again.
“Let you come home from your bad girl school, did he?” he smirked.
Bad girl school. My fingers curled into fists.
“I suppose you know all about being bad?” It was a lame comeback, but I stood my ground while I cringed internally. Gregor Romanov wasn’t to be fucked with. Like my brothers, he had plenty of power and money behind him. He could own the city if he wanted to. If families like mine didn’t stand in his way.
Gregor’s lips spread into a wide grin. He closed the space between us, the soles of his leather shoes clicking on the patio surface as he stepped. The musk of his cologne whirled around me as he approached me.
“Hmmm, I wonder what they’ve been teaching you at your bad girl school? Have they taught you correct manners? Did they teach you how to fold your napkin properly for high society dinners?”
“Fuck you.” I raised my glare to meet his. It wasn’t like that at all, but the anger boiling in my chest drowned my ability to do anything other than curse him out.
“Such big words for such a little girl.” He took a deep breath through his nose and stood up to his full height. The door opened again, and he held a hand up to stop whoever it was from coming outside.
“I think your handlers want you to get moving.” I stepped back from him, turning to look back at the gardens. If I could just focus on the flowers, on the people milling around downstairs, maybe I could stop thinking about the masculine scent of him.
“Hanna. There you are.” Maggie came through another patio door. “Everyone’s looking for you.”
I clenched my teeth. I wanted ten minutes to myself. It really wasn’t that much to ask for.
“You should probably get going, Hanna,” Gregor said. “Your big brothers want you.”
There was no reason for him to be getting under my skin the way he was, but I wanted to kick him. Childish, I know, and it would have completely played into his words, but a solid kick of my three-inch heels into his shin would serve him well.
“Gregor. Hi, I didn’t see you there.” Maggie turned a small smile at him.
“He was leaving. His car is ready.” I brushed past Maggie toward the door. I wasn’t going to look back at him. Little girl. Bad girl school. What an asshole.
No wonder Amelia never talked about him.
“Hey, wait up.” Maggie linked arms with me once back inside the hall. “Everyone’s starting to leave. Let’s get our stuff and Lukas can take us back to Christian’s condo.”
“Can’t I just go to the hotel with you guys? I’m leaving in two days anyway.”
She shook her head. “Sorry, Hanna.”
Sorry. Everyone said it, but no one ever meant it.
I popped the last chip into my mouth just as my brothers sauntered into the TV room where I’d taken refuge after the christening party. Amelia was feeding Danuta and Maggie had gone with her, leaving me all alone with the television for company. They’d known each other their entire lives and lived thousands of miles apart from each other now; I couldn’t blame them for soaking up every second with each other while they had it. If I had a best friend, I’d probably act the same way.
“Hanna, we need a minute.” Christian stopped a few feet from my recliner. Lukas walked over to the TV and turned it off then sat on the edge of the arm of the couch.
I put the empty bowl I was cradling in my lap on the table beside me and pulled my feet up beneath me, wiping the crumbs from my hands.
“About what?” I’d been waiting for this conversation, but I wasn’t going to make it easy for them.
“About what happens after you graduate in a few weeks.” Christian folded his arms over his chest. He’d changed out of the suit he’d worn for the christening and was in a casual button-down shirt with a pair of dark jeans. If I didn’t know him, I’d be intimidated by his size and his positioning. But he was my older brother. Nothing he did scared me anymore.
“About what I want to happen or what you think will happen?” I asked.
“Hanna, don’t get pissed yet. He hasn’t even said anything,” Lukas, the eternal referee, said from behind Christian.
“I think college is a good idea,” Christian started, “but, we have to also consider the proposal from the Staszek family.”
My spine shook.
“It would be a solid marriage. You’d be able to go to college if you really wanted to; Janusz has already agreed that he wouldn’t get in your way if that’s what you choose,” Lukas piped up before I could get my words in the proper order.
“No.” Turned out, I only needed one. The important one.
“No.” I shoved the fleece blanket from my lap and stepped off the recliner. “I’m not marrying that old man just so you can rest easy that your little relationship with the Staszek family is solid.”
“It’s more than that,” Christian said in a low, calm tone. “It’s a good marriage, and he’s not that old. Only a few years older than you.”
“I don’t care if he’s a few days older than me. I don’t want to marry him, or anyone that you choose. I want to go to college. Get my degree, get a job, get a place to live, and have a normal life.” I raised my voice. “A normal life, Christian. No armed guards at every entrance. No dark-windowed cars pulling up outside for me. Just a regular life.”
“Well, that’s not going to happen. You’re a Kaczmarek.” Christian’s voice thinned.
“Okay, let’s just take a step back.” Lukas moved from the couch toward us. “Hanna, you know what you’re asking for can’t happen. There are people who may want to use you to get to Christian or even myself. You have to stay protected.”
“Like the people who had Mom and Dad killed?” I asked in almost a whisper.
“Hanna. Don’t.” Christian put a hand up. “You know that’s not what happened.”
“No. I don’t, Christian. I know what you told me. But I don’t know exactly what happened.” I wasn’t going to back down this time. This time, he was going to listen. “I know the car was completely totaled, and Mom and Dad were unrecognizable. I know that I remember that. But the rest. How the accident happened? Why didn’t Dad stop the car? Why was he driving anyway; they always took a driver when they went into the city.” More questions than answers, and no willingness from either of my brothers to dive for the truth.
“Hanna.” Lukas put his hands on my shoulders, turning me away from Christian’s heated glare. “You were younger, you don’t remember anything the way it actually was because it was traumatic. And I know you want to blame someone. You want to make someone pay for it, but there isn’t anyone to go after. The brakes failed. Dad was driving because he was taking Mom on a night out and she didn’t want a driver with them. They did that sometimes, not a lot, but they did. There’s nothing there to find, Hanna. You have to stop with it.”
I jerked free of his grip. “Then why would I be in so much danger on my own if there’s no one to blame? If there’s no enemies, why wouldn’t me going to college and having a normal life not be an option for me?”
Christian lowered his head and closed his eyes. He was losing his patience. I’m sure the sleepless nights with the baby weren’t helping.
“Hanna. Staszek is a good match. He’s got a good job, he’s a decent guy, and he’ll treat you well,” Christian said quietly.
“I would sooner run away than go through with it,” I said.
He looked at me then rolled his eyes. “You’ve been threatening to run away since you were five years old, Hanna.” He wasn’t wrong. Once I even packed some toys into my school backpack and headed for the door. I made it the end of the driveway before I turned back and ran for my father waiting at the door for me.
But I wasn’t five years old anymore and my father wasn’t waiting for me at the door.
“If you run away, you know we’d never stop looking for you.” Lukas’ voice dipped low; the same tone I’d heard him use with Maggie when she was ignoring his orders.
“I won’t marry against my will.” I stood firm. They would probably use all of their power to hunt me down, but my big brothers didn’t have any real idea of the skills I’d learned while being tucked away at that damn boarding school.
Christian sighed. “We’ll talk more in the morning. I’m too tired to fight with you now.” He rubbed his temples.
“There’s nothing more to talk about.” I walked away.
“Hanna.” Lukas’ voice stopped me before I hit the hallway. “Amelia didn’t want to marry Christian, and you see how great they are now. And Maggie had her reservations about me, but we’re good. You never know, maybe things will be just as good with you.”
I stared at him a moment. Lukas had always been the go-between for me and Christian, but I could always count on him to have my back when it really mattered. But this time, with this, he was on Christian’s side.
“I understand you both would rather I get married and become someone else’s problem, but that’s not happening. I’m eighteen. I decide what happens in my life. It’s my choice. And if you can’t deal with that, then just leave me alone.”
They said nothing as I turned and made my way to my bedroom. I didn’t doubt for a moment that they weren’t going to take my words seriously. Christian expected me to follow along with his plans for me without a problem. But he didn’t understand me; he didn’t get that I meant what I said.
I would not marry against my will. He was going to push the issue. He had no reason to choose me over his precious allies. He wanted to make the family stronger by creating a bond with the Staszeks. No. Christian wasn’t going to let up about this.
I meant what I said. I was leaving.
And they would never find me.
Two years later
He was dead.
Janusz Staszek was dead.
I blinked a few times at the news article I read through my phone app. Drunk, he’d crashed his car into a pole. Nothing newsworthy for New York City, except he had taken out a police car on his way to the pole. The police officer hadn’t been injured.
“You picked a great guy, Christian. A drunk,” I muttered as I put my phone on the table beside my coffee cup.
This didn’t change anything for me. Two years ago, maybe it would have brought some relief. It would have meant the marriage couldn’t happen, and I would have had a chance to get my brothers to listen to reason.
But it didn’t happen two years ago. Two years ago, I packed up to go back to school in New Hampshire, letting my brothers believe I’d see them at graduation in a few weeks. But I wasn’t at that ceremony. I wasn’t even in New Hampshire. I’d already made it to Chicago, which had been risky since Lukas lived there, but I had to meet up with a girl from school. I needed help with the rest of my plan.
By the time they realized I’d left school and was long gone, I’d moved on to St. Louis. It took several moves, but finally, I was settled in Boston. New city, new name, blank future ahead of me. Staszek’s death didn’t mean anything to me. But maybe my brothers would think otherwise.
I pulled my laptop from the kitchen counter, brought it back to the table, and fired it up. I never disconnected my old phone, but I made sure they couldn’t use it to trace me. The messages and calls that went to the phone bounced so many times before I picked them up on my computer they wouldn’t know where to start looking.
Hanna, now will you come home?
Lukas had sent the message along with a link to the news article about Staszek.
I didn’t just leave because of Janusz. That whole mess had been the tipping point, but it was more than that. And they never understood that. Or me.
It was tempting to respond to Lukas, and maybe I would in a few days. It had been a few months since I sent him a message that I was all right. I could probably take the risk. But not yet, and definitely not from my apartment.
“What has you so focused?” Billie, my roommate, asked as she shuffled into the kitchen, her short pixie cut hair standing on end with a bad case of bedhead. Dark bags hung under her deep blue eyes, with the mascara from the night before smudged beneath them.
“Just some news. Nothing serious.” I shut down my laptop.
“Didn’t look like nothing.” She shuffled to the coffeepot and poured the last bit into her cat mug.
“Nothing to be worried about,” I amended.
She leaned her ass against the counter and cradled her mug in both hands. “You got another message from home?”
Billie knew some of my history. Having no family to run home to at Thanksgiving created questions. It was easier to give her a little truth than to lie outright. I hated lying. I’d never mastered the art of it anyway.
“It’s fine. I’ll call my brother in a few days.” I brought my empty coffee cup to the sink, rinsed it, and put it in the dishwasher. “Any big plans for you today?” I wiped my hands on a dish towel.
“Yeah. Wake up all the way, then I have to run a quick edit on a paper due this morning.” She took a slow sip of her black coffee. Billie worked at a dive bar with loud music and clouds of smoke that kept her up until the sun was ready to come back alive. Taking late morning classes at the university made this lifestyle a bit hard on her.
“Maybe you should switch to afternoon classes next semester,” I suggested as I prepped another pot of coffee for her when she was ready.
“If I can. Some of these classes are only offered at certain times.” She closed her eyes and inhaled more of the strong brew. “You have a shift today?”
“Two shifts. One at the café that starts in half an hour and then I have a night shift at the store.” I went back to the table to retrieve my phone.
“Charlotte, you’re just as bad as me.” Billie grinned. “Tomorrow is Friday and I actually have the night off. Let’s do something.”
“Like what?” I shoved my phone into the back pocket of my jeans. “Wanna go clubbing?”
She deadpanned, “Fuck, no.”
“I was kidding,” I assured her. After spending almost every night having her eardrums abused, the last place she wanted to hang out on her night off was another club. “We’ll figure something out. How about one of those escape room things? Or we can grab some sushi and stream some horrible movies.”
“Both suggestions have merit.” She considered them. “We’ll decide tomorrow.”
“Good plan.” I snagged my black apron from the hook beside the fridge. “I’m out of here. Get some sleep, Billie.” I patted her hip as I passed her.
“I’ll try,” she called after me.
After grabbing my apartment keys and my brown corduroy jacket, I headed to work. It was going to be a busy day. An uneventful day. And I was going to enjoy every second of it.
Nico Gustavino stabbed the last link of sausage with his fork and shoved it into his mouth. A droplet of grease from the over-seasoned breakfast sausage clung to the corner of his mouth as he chewed.
“Another cup of coffee?” The plump waitress stopped at our table ready to refill my half-empty mug.
I put my hand over the top. “No. Thank you.”
“No, no.” Nico shook his head and waved his hand at her. “Thank you, Marjorie.”
“You’re welcome, Mayor Gustavino. Can I take your plate for you?” she asked, pointing to the empty plate before him.
“Please.” He swiped a cloth napkin across his mouth then dumped it on the plate as she lifted it from his space. Since I’d opted to stick to coffee during our breakfast meeting, I had nothing to offer her.
“I’m having an event next weekend. Nothing over the top. Dinner, an auction, dancing, that sort of thing.” Nico cleared his throat. “I think you’d enjoy yourself.”
“As… fun… as that sounds, I’m hoping to be back in New York by Monday.”
“Oh.” He leaned his forearms against the table. “I didn’t think you would be going back so soon,” he said.
“If I’ve finished my business here, I should get home,” I said.
“Ah.” He frowned.
My business wasn’t finished, apparently. “I do have a few more meetings I have to take care of, so it’s possible I’ll still be in town.”
His eyebrows perked back up. “Excellent. It’s Friday night. Five hundred a head.” He pulled out a card from his inside pocket and handed it across the table. “The address is on there.”
I took the heavy card stock in my hand and glanced down at the embossment. Yet another campaign contribution to keep the mayor in line with our agreement.
“I’ll be sure to buy the tickets.” I nodded. “Now, the council meeting?” I pressed. I hadn’t gotten up early and dragged my ass down to this café to meet him for breakfast for nothing. My uncle didn’t send me to Boston to have breakfasts and dinner parties with the mayor for shits and giggles. We had a new shipment line being worked out and we needed assurances we’d not only be given the proper licenses for the ports, but we’d have some protection from the city police force putting their noses where it didn’t belong.
Once I had the mayor behind us, I could get the police chief on board. If he wouldn’t play ball, I had the mayor in my pocket to get it done.
“I don’t think it will be a problem.” He took the last sip of his coffee. “I’m sure it will be fine.” He pushed back in his chair. “If I run into any issues, I’ll send word. Otherwise, I’ll see you next Friday night?”
Moving up to my feet, I nodded. “I’ll do my best,” I assured him. And then I’d be on a plane the next morning going home where I belonged.
“Excellent.” He waved a hand over the table. “Ask Marjorie to put this on the city tab. She knows what to do.” He pushed the sleeve of his suit over his Rolex. “I have a meeting to get to.”
“Of course.” I had other places I wanted to be, where I needed to be, but I wasn’t going to fuck up the easy thing going with the mayor. If he went back on his word, if he did anything to show he was ready to betray our agreement, I wouldn’t be so generous. I’d bring down the force of my entire family on his head. Hell, I wouldn’t need my family. I’d take the son of a bitch out myself for wasting my time.
As I watched him make his way out of the café, I sat back down and pulled out my phone. I wanted to know everything about Nico’s meetings. Who he was talking with, what they were talking about? Everything. If I got lucky, my men would find him with his hand in the cookie jar, or his cock where it didn’t belong. Information like that was gold for a man like me.
A woman breezed past my table as I finished typing out the last text, leaving a trail of perfume in her wake. The familiarity of it drew my attention and I glanced behind me. One of the waitresses walked behind the counter and into the back room. Her hair was up in a high ponytail, and I could make out a pair of gold hoops dangling from her ears. Other than that, nothing. She disappeared too fast. But the scent of her perfume lingered.
“Can I get you anything else?” Marjorie stepped up to the table with a genuine smile. She reminded me of an aunt I had when I was younger. My grandfather’s sister would watch me from time to time when my mother wanted a morning out with her friends. She had the same warm smile for me as Marjorie did right then. As though everyone being comfortable around her was very important.
“Just the check.”
“Oh, I can put this on the mayor’s tab, that’s what he usually does.” She picked up his empty cup and placed it on a tray she’d had tucked beneath her arm.
“I’m paying today,” I explained. Everything on his tab would be accounted for with a receipt and a log. I wasn’t taking any chances that this meeting was entered into any government documents. I’d pay.
“All right, I’ll bring it right out.” She cleared the silverware he’d left behind and headed off toward the back.
“Marjorie, which tables are mine this morning?” A gentle voice struck a memory chord. The girl with the high ponytail stood beside Marjorie at the register as she punched the keys. She had her back to me, but there was a familiarity that I couldn’t shake.
I grabbed my phone again, quickly firing off a text to my uncle.
It couldn’t be. I had to be wrong.
But my instincts were never wrong.
Another waitress stepped up to the register, further blocking my view and by the time she cleared away, the blonde had disappeared around the corner to the tables on the far side of the café.
My phone vibrated in my palm.
As far as I know Hanna is still missing.
I looked up from my phone as the blonde turned the corner back in my direction. Her face was in full view.
My instincts were still sharp.
Hanna Kaczmarek wasn’t missing.
I was staring right at her.