Main The Maddest Obsession
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I love this book its honestly so good
11 April 2021 (13:32)
well, guess what? IT'S SOOO GOOD. ngl <<33
12 May 2021 (13:15)
I was totally in fire during whole book. IT Was THAT SPICY ? ?
05 June 2021 (08:46)
fav book of the series
16 June 2021 (17:15)
Omgggg I just came from the first book and I shipped them but I didn’t expect there to be a book about them specifically I cannot wait I already love her character
29 July 2021 (02:35)
woah it was so good but the back and forth was like JUST ADMIT TO EACH OTHER ALREADY LMAO
03 August 2021 (20:45)
@knewclassic I AGREE!!!
04 August 2021 (15:00)
I love this book. The best of the series
09 August 2021 (09:38)
This book has my heart,no wait, CHRISTIAN ALLISTER has my heart!!
13 August 2021 (18:36)
Read this in one sitting all night and let me just say CHRISTIAN ALLISTER HAS MY WHOLE HEART!!!! This book was so good omg
19 August 2021 (11:19)
the best book of the series, really good
20 August 2021 (14:21)
AMAZING BOOK AND SERIES
23 August 2021 (00:22)
Amazing book, the best among the series. I read it in one night and I just couldn't get enough
28 August 2021 (16:35)
UGH! READ THIS SERIES AND YOU"LL LOVE EACH ONE OF THEM. istg.
08 September 2021 (08:46)
Danielle did what she had to do in this series.
28 September 2021 (23:05)
Christian says jump, I say "How high?"
02 October 2021 (23:23)
The absolute beet book of the series, phew read it in a day
15 October 2021 (06:10)
this book is everything THE SPICE
19 October 2021 (08:31)
the best book outta the whole series omg christian and gianna own my soul
03 November 2021 (18:16)
I love this book! 5/5
20 November 2021 (18:13)
Can this book be read as a stand-alone?
24 November 2021 (16:40)
Nevermind, I'm dumb, it says it can be read as a stand alone.
24 November 2021 (16:41)
@Jennifer you're not the only dumb
28 November 2021 (15:03)
The Maddest Obsession Copyright 2019 Danielle Lori All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without written consent of the author, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages for review purposes only. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are used fictitiously and are a product of the author’s imagination. Cover Designer: Okay Creations Interior Formatting: Champagne Book Design Editor: Bryony Leah Table of Contents Title Page Copyright Dedication Playlist Author’s Note PART I Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven PART II Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two Chapter Twenty-Three Chapter Twenty-Four Chapter Twenty-Five Chapter Twenty-Six Chapter Twenty-Seven Chapter Twenty-Eight Chapter Twenty-Nine Chapter Thirty Chapter Thirty-One Chapter Thirty-Two Chapter Thirty-Three Chapter Thirty-Four Chapter Thirty-Five Chapter Thirty-Six Epilogue Acknowledgments Connect With Me Books by Danielle Lori For my brother Corey. You always wanted to do something extraordinary, and you did. You beat us all to Heaven. I’ll love you forever. Jealous—Labrinth when the party’s over—Billie Eilish White Rabbit—Jefferson Airplane Piano Man—Billy Joel Iris—The Goo Goo Dolls To Build a Home—The Cinematic Orchestra The Good Side—Troye Sivan Nevermind—Dennis Lloyd What It’s Like—Everlast Hi-Lo (Hollow)—Bishop Briggs bury a friend—Billie Eilish Sorry—Halsey Author’s Note The Maddest Obsession spans seven years, from the time Gianna is twenty-one to twenty-eight. Because of this, I’ve split the book into two parts: the past and the present. Each chapter of Part One will take you to another year of Gianna’s life, ; while Christian’s POV is kept within only a few days. Part Two takes you to the present. It happens to coincide with The Sweetest Oblivion’s (MADE #1) storyline. Therefore, if you haven’t read The Sweetest Oblivion and plan to, I highly recommend you do so first. Danielle xo New York City September 2015 “TELL ME ONE FACT ABOUT yourself.” The clock’s ticks and tocks filled the space between us. With warm colors and a variety of seating, the room was supposed to be comfortable. Too bad the atmosphere hadn’t gotten the memo; the air was thick and cloying, as though every lie told here had been trapped for eternity. My eyes narrowed as Kyle Sheets’ wink from yesterday replayed in my mind. He’d been through the same process—though, different accusation—and had somehow bullshitted his way out of having hentai on his work computer. I was a living, breathing lie, but the idea of being lumped into the same category as that bastard rubbed me the wrong way. He wore sneakers with his suits, for fuck’s sake. Running a thoughtful hand across my jaw, I admitted the truth. “I have an addictive personality.” Sasha Taylor Ph.D. couldn’t stop a spark of surprise from lighting in her eyes, and to hide the human reaction, she dropped her attention to my file resting on her lap. The blonde’s pantsuit didn’t hold a wrinkle. She’d gone to Yale and was from old money. The thirty-one-year-old was everything I looked for in a woman: intelligent, beautiful, classy. “Alcohol?” she asked. I gave my head a shake. “Drugs?” Might’ve been easier. “Women?” Woman. Another shake, but, this time, I smiled. Her eyes fell to my lips, and she swallowed and glanced away. “We’ll come back to this in a moment.” She paused. “You do understand why you’re here?” I gave her a blank look. Her gaze wavered. “Yes, of course you do. Does . . . the incident have to do with your . . . addictive personality?” I focused my stare on her fire-engine red heels and suddenly hated myself for not having a lesser addiction, like hentai. I’d take that over the other mess any day of the week. It was public, Allister. Go through the motions, that’s all I can do. The words that had fucked me over. I wasn’t a good man, and I worked for even worse. However, I’d learned at too young of an age that the world wasn’t made up of black and white. Sometimes, one became so tainted they couldn’t get back to the light, and other times, the dark just felt right. Even if the latter didn’t apply to me, I would never jeopardize what I had built. I’d worked too hard to get here to ever give it up for a woman. Especially one who dressed like Britney Spears’ and Kurt Cobain’s love child. “No,” I lied. If I was completely honest, I’d be committed within the hour, or rather, the Bureau would make Sasha Taylor disappear, never to be heard from again. “Some believe it was over a woman,” she supplied tentatively. I raised a brow. “Are you some, Sasha?” “No.” “Why not?” “You seem too . . . levelheaded to behave in such a way over a woman.” Cold. She meant cold. She was right—in the usual case, anyway—but there was nothing usual about the irritating situation that had put me here. I had a close relationship with the cold, in the most literal sense; now, however, I felt the furthest from it. A fire burned in my chest, licking at the edges of what soul I had left. Sasha shifted in her seat, crossing one leg over the other. “Back to this addictive personality . . . do you often give in to whatever it is that you want?” Just the idea that I could tasted sweet, doubled the pace of my heart, made me feel hot and edgy. I hated the woman for making my life hell for years, but damn, if I didn’t want to touch her, to fuck the memory of every other man out of her mind until she was half as obsessed as I was, until she’d never forget my name again for the rest of her life. I ran my tongue across my teeth and pushed the feeling down, though the tension in my body didn’t release. “Never.” “Why not?” My gaze held hers. “Because then it will win.” “And you don’t like to lose?” Her words ended on a breathless note. I could almost hear the pitter-patter of her heart as we stared at each other in thick silence. She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear and looked at her papers, muttering, “No, you don’t.” Like the quiet ticks of a bomb soon to detonate, the clock made its presence known. Sasha glanced toward it, and said, “One more question, before our time is up this session. How do you cope with this ‘addictive personality’?” Easy. “Order.” “You prefer order?” she questioned. “In what circumstances?” “All of them.” A subtle blush ran up her neck, and she cleared her throat. “And when disorder comes into your life?” A vision of thick hair—sometimes dark, sometimes blond—smooth olive skin, bare feet, and everything forbidden flashed before my eyes. The fire in my chest burned hotter, stealing my goddamn breath. Where pain usually hit me like the high of a drug, whenever Gianna Russo—or, sorry, now Marino—was involved, it felt like the comedown. Nauseating. It felt fucking bitter. My response held the slightest clench of my teeth. “I fix it.” Standing, I buttoned my jacket and headed to the door. “But what if it’s not fixable?” she pushed, jumping to her feet, my file in a loose grip by her side. I paused with one hand on the doorknob and glanced at my wrist, at the elastic tie hidden beneath my cuff. A sardonic feeling pulled in my chest. “That, Sasha, is when I obsess.” 21 years old December 2012 I’D FOUND BLISS IN A rolled-up dollar bill and white powder. Sometimes, it was euphoric—blood-pumping, heart-racing, top-of-the-world euphoria. Like sex, without the emptiness. Sometimes, it was a means to an end. One line, and every insecurity, every bruise, faded to memory. One line, and I’d be free. Other times, it was a cold draft of air and the squeak of a steel door as it slammed shut before me. The echo resounded off the cell walls and into my ears like pinballs. I swallowed as the deadlock bolted into place. Stepping forward, I gripped the bars. “Surely I get a phone call?” The twentysomething Latina officer rested her hands on her gun belt, and, with dark brows lowered, looked me over from my head to my toes. “You’re out of luck, princess. If I have to look at that monstrosity of a dress”—she nodded toward my red and gorgeously lacy McQueen—“for another minute, I’ll have a headache for the rest of my shift.” I tried to bite my tongue but failed. “Blame it on my dress all you like—we both know the ache will be from that spinster bun on the back of your head, cogliona.” Gaze narrowed, she took a step toward me. “What did you just call me?” “Woah,” interrupted another female officer, putting a hand on her partner’s shoulder. “Let’s go, Martinez.” Twentysomething’s glare intensified before she stalked off, her partner following behind. I turned around to pace but stopped short when I saw I wasn’t alone. A redheaded prostitute past her prime sat in the corner, watching me through mascara-caked eyelashes. Her foundation was a few shades darker than her pale skin tone, and her fishnet tights were covered in holes. “They didn’t take your shoes.” I glanced at my red Jimmy Choos. “They’re real nice,” she said, picking at her nail polish. My gaze fell to her bare feet, and I sighed, dropping to sit on the bench adjacent from her. They hadn’t taken my shoes because I wouldn’t remain here for long. I was sure I had only minutes until a head honcho in an ill-fitting suit escorted me to somewhere with a couch and coffee—somewhere comfortable, so I would feel more open to gush all the Cosa Nostra’s secrets. Disgrace. Worthless. Unlovable. I sawed my bottom lip between my teeth as anxiety brewed in my chest. “How much did they cost?” my cellmate asked, at the same time a door down the corridor opened and shut. The echo raised the hair on my arms. I heard him before I saw him. And instantly knew he was the fed they’d sent for me. His voice was professional and disinterested, though an elusive timbre intertwined each word: an abrasive edge, like a deep, dark sin one kept locked in the pits of their soul. His next word—Gianna—touched the back of my neck, a brush of steel wings against sensitive skin. I wiped the feeling away with a hand, pulling my hair over one shoulder. “Probably too much,” I finally responded, oddly breathless. The prostitute nodded like she completely understood. She was beautiful—behind the makeup, the drug abuse dulling the sheen in her eyes, and the years of servicing New York’s finest men, I was sure. A kindred soul if I ever saw one. The fed’s voice drifted to my ears once more, this time closer as he spoke to Martinez. I couldn’t hear what was being said over the commotion in the other cells, but I could tell her voice had softened and her Hispanic roots were coming to the front, her words rolling in a sensual way. I rolled my eyes. A workplace romance. Cute. However, I didn’t believe he was taking the bait. I could feel his disinterest against my skin, hear the cold tenor in his voice. A shiver ghosted through me. For the love of God, he was only a fed. I’d dealt with Made Men since birth. I leaned back with an indifference I didn’t feel and twirled a long strand of dark hair around my finger. The room grew smaller, the walls closing in like they had too many times before. I inhaled slowly. Released it. Turning my head, I looked out of the cell. Martinez stood in the hall, staring at the fed’s back as he came in my direction, a look of pure unrequited adoration in her gaze. I guessed there was something kindred in us all. Steel bars trailed his image as he passed each cell, his eyes averted. His stride was effortless. The set of his shoulders, the relaxed carriage of his arms at his sides—the stance oozed confidence and devastation, as though brick and mortar and female hearts could turn to ash at his single command. His gaze flicked up and caught mine, heavy and emotionless, as if he was looking straight through me. My heart turned cold in my chest. Our exchange lasted only a second, but the glance stretched into slow-motion, stealing a breath of air from my lungs. I crossed one leg over the other, baring a generous amount of thigh. Like a warm blanket, a sense of security wrapped around me. As long as they were looking at my body, they’d never see what was behind my eyes. Nevertheless, the first place he looked as he reached my cell was straight into my eyes. Heartless. Invasive. Blue. His gaze burned, as if I was standing in front of an open freezer on a summer day, hot and cold air meeting like tendrils of vapor around me. As he stood in front of the barred door, with a dangerous presence that touched my skin from several feet away, I was sure he was the one locked up. It simply didn’t make sense the other way around. A dim light in the hall flickered above his head. His dark hair was shaved short on the sides, faded with an expert hand. Broad shoulders and crisp black lines, his suit molded his toned body. Control. Precision. He exuded it, like the colorful stripes on a venomous snake. But his face was what grabbed one’s attention first. Symmetrical, and flawlessly proportioned, not even his cold expression cut from stone could mar it. The second look showed the type of body women groaned over, and the third revealed intellect in every move he made, as though everyone else was a chess piece, and he was musing over how to play each one of us. My heart leapt as the cell lock unbolted, and I pulled my attention from him to the concrete wall in front of me. “Russo.” Nope. No way. If I went with him, I’d end up sold into a human trafficking ring and never be heard from again. Fed or not, with those eyes and presence, this man had seen and done things a normal Made Man hadn’t envisioned. I remained silent. I was going to sit here and wait for the fed in the ill-fitting suit. His gaze flicked to the prostitute. “Name’s Cherry,” she supplied with a smile. “But you can call me anything you’d like.” Some women didn’t know what was good for them. He ran his thumb around his watch, once, twice, three times. “I’ll keep that in mind,” was his dry response. My skin flared as I received the full weight of his stare. His eyes coasted down my body, leaving a trail of ice and fire in their wake before they narrowed with disapproval. And just like that, the apprehension from the way he’d looked into my eyes like I was a human being, not a body, drifted away, and he was now only a man. One who judged me, wanted something from me— “Stand up.” —told me what to do. Frustration flickered, lazy and hesitant, in my chest. I wanted to wait a full three seconds before I complied, but after the first two, I had the sudden and distinct feeling I wouldn’t make it to three. Complying, I got to my feet and stopped in front of the unlocked door. I stood in his shadow, and even that felt cold to the touch. I hated tall men, how they were always looking down on me, always looming over me like a cloud blocking out the sun. Large men had ruled since the beginning of time, and at that moment, as I grasped steel bars and looked up into blue eyes, I’d never felt a stronger truth. Impatience stared back at me. “Don’t know your name, or just forget it?” His refined and slightly rough voice blazed a path down my spine. I lifted a shoulder and, as if it made any sense, said, “You’re not wearing an ill-fitting suit.” “Can’t say the same for you,” he drawled. Oh, he did not. My eyes narrowed. “This dress is McQueen, and it fits perfectly.” His expression told me he couldn’t be paid enough to care as he opened the door, sending a cold draft of air to my bare skin. “Walk,” he ordered. The one-word demand grated on my nerves, but I’d made my bed and now I had to sit on it. My heart drummed in my ears as I stepped out of the cell, beneath his hold on the door, and headed down the corridor. Catcalls came from all directions. My skin felt soft to the touch, but twenty-one years had hardened it beneath the surface. Their words, jeers, and whistles bounced off into the abyss, where bruises went to die. Adrenaline poured into my bloodstream. Harsh lights. Stale oxygen. The squeak of an officer’s shoes. Coming to a fork at the end of the hall, I slowed. I was so distracted with my predicament and this man behind me that when he said, “Right,” I went left. “Your other right.” I couldn’t miss the annoyed edge in his tone, like I was an airhead not worth his time. My cheeks went hot with frustration, and words tumbled from my mouth, like they often did. “It would be nice to know where I’m going ahead of time, stronzo.” “I didn’t realize you needed time to process a simple direction,” he responded, and then that deep, dark timbre came to the surface. “Call me an asshole again, Russo, and I promise, you won’t like it.” The bite of his words touched my back, and just then, I hated the man a little for knowing Italian. I stepped into the lobby, the front doors within view. I longed to be on the other side, but in all honesty, I would rather stay here than go anywhere with him. The expected fed in the ill-fitting suit was supposed to try to gently coax the Cosa Nostra’s secrets out of me, which, at the worst, would include a too-highly-placed hand on my thigh, but he’d never physically hurt a woman. I swallowed, my eyes following the man I’d gotten instead as he walked to the front counter. Large and unyielding. Cold, and most likely unresponsive to any female wiles. What tactics did he use while interrogating? Waterboarding? Electrocution? Was that even a thing? Apprehension twisted in my stomach. Badge, after badge, after badge blurred in glints of gold and silver before my eyes, and it was making me feel a little sick. I walked further into the room and stopped beside the fed. “Why am I not handcuffed?” I asked, watching two officers escort a shackled prisoner out the front doors. He tapped a finger on the counter in a rhythm of three—tap, tap, tap—and side-eyed me, his stare filling with a trace of dry amusement. “Did you want to be?” His words were laced with deep insinuation and intimacy, and I suddenly knew two things: He was an asshole, and he had handcuffed a woman in bed. My heart rate quickened from his unexpected response, and, to hide it, I feigned a bored expression. “Thanks for the offer, but I’m married.” “So I can see, with that rock on your finger.” I glanced at my ring mechanically, and, for some silly reason, felt miffed that he held no concern his prisoner wasn’t restrained. I could totally be a threat to him and the public. “I could run, you know,” I said, planning to do no such thing. “Try it.” It was a dare and a warning. A cold shiver erupted at the base of my spine. “Would you feel good about yourself? Catching a girl half your size?” “Yes.” There wasn’t an ounce of doubt in his reply. “See, that is the problem with you feds. You love to throw your authority around.” “Weight,” he corrected dryly. “What?” “The saying is to throw your weight around.” I crossed my arms and took in the busy lobby. My eyes narrowed. I swore every woman in the vicinity had slowed their movements to watch him. A middle-aged officer old enough to be his mother stared while she pushed a clipboard toward him from the other side of the counter. He signed the papers and then handed them back to the non-blinking officer. I bet women did wonders for his ego every day. A wave of unease pressed down on my chest as someone set my faux-fur coat and purse on the counter. Electrocution can’t be a thing. “Put your coat on,” he ordered. I paused to grit my teeth because I already had one arm in the sleeve. He grabbed my sequin crossbody handbag from the counter and eyed the faux peacock feathers like they might carry malaria. I’d made the purse myself, and it was beautiful. I snatched it from his grasp, slipped it on, and headed to the front door. Stopping abruptly, I turned and waltzed back up to the counter, taking my heels off as I went. “Can you make sure my cellmate—goes by Cherry—gets these?” The officer watched me with a blank expression. I returned it. She peeked over the counter, at my bare feet and white-painted toes, and then straightened, her starched uniform rustling. “It’s been snowing for the last hour.” I blinked. “You want to give an opioid-addicted prostitute”—she tilted the shoe to look inside—“Jimmy Choos?” I brightened. “Yes, please.” She rolled her eyes. “Sure thing.” “Great,” I exclaimed. “Thank you!” Turning around, my gaze met a cold one, which I was sure could frost a lesser woman. He nodded curtly toward the exit. I sighed. “Okay, Officer, but only because you asked nicely.” “Agent,” he corrected. “Agent what?” I pushed the door open. Snow dusted the parking lot, glittering beneath the four-globe lamp posts. The December air grabbed my bare legs with bitter fingers, the cold fighting to pull me into its embrace. He observed the scene over my head, eyes narrowing as he looked at my bare feet. “Allister.” “Which car is yours, Agent Allister?” “Silver Mercedes on the curb.” I braced myself, and said, “Do you think you could unlock it?” Before he could respond, I was running to his car, the cold biting into my feet and his dry stare burning a hole into my back. He didn’t unlock it. I hopped from one foot to the other, pulling on the passenger door handle while he walked toward me, not the least bit in a hurry. “Unlock the door,” I said, my breath misting in the air. “Stop pulling on the handle.” Whoops. The door unlocked, and I slid into the seat, rubbing my feet on the carpet for warmth. His car smelled like leather and him. I was sure he wore custom-made cologne to match the suit, but it was worth the money. It was a nice smell, and even made my mind a little hazy until I blinked the feeling away. He sat in the driver’s seat and shut the door, and I ignored the way his presence threatened to swallow me whole. We left the precinct in silence—a tense yet almost comfortable silence. Digging in my purse, I found a piece of bubblegum. The crinkle of the wrapper filled the car. His eyes remained on the road, but he gave his head the most subtle shake, conveying just how ridiculous he thought I was. He was late to the party. I popped the gum in my mouth and swept a gaze over the car’s immaculate interior. Not a single receipt. Beverage. Speck of dust. Either he’d just killed a man and was trying to cover his tracks, or the fed had some OCD tendencies. I always was a bit too curious. I crushed the wrapper in my hand and moved to drop it in his cup holder. The gaze he shot me was deadly. Looked like it was the latter. I dropped the wrapper in the recesses of my purse. Crossing my legs, I blew a bubble. Popped it. The silence grew so deafening I reached for the radio, but, once again, the look he gave me changed my mind. I sighed and sat back in my seat. “Tell me how long you’ve been married.” My eyes narrowed on the windshield in front of me. This man didn’t even ask questions—he just told you to tell him what he wanted to know. However, the quiet gave too much room for thought, and I responded, “A year.” “Young age to get married.” I glanced at my cuticles. “Yeah, I suppose.” “You’re a native of New York, then.” “I wish,” I muttered. “Don’t like home?” “What I don’t like is you trying to small talk to coax things out of me. I don’t have anything to say to you, so you might as well take me back to jail.” His arm brushed mine from where it rested on the center console, and I shifted away from the touch, crossing my legs the other way. Was his car small, or was it just me? The heater ran on low, but my skin was burning up. I slipped my coat off and tossed it onto the back seat. He side-eyed me. “Nervous?” “Feds don’t make me nervous, Allister. They give me a rash.” I ignored the touch of his stare as it swept from the loose curls in my hair, down the red lace over my stomach that revealed a diamond navel piercing, to my bare feet. “If you dressed a little less like a hooker, the cop who pulled you over might not have searched you.” I pulled the bubblegum off my finger with my teeth and gave him a smile. “If you looked a little less like an anal-retentive asshole, you might get laid every once in a while.” The corner of his lips tipped up. “Glad to hear there’s some hope for me.” I rolled my eyes and turned my head to look out the window. “It must have been a special occasion tonight,” he drawled. “No.” “No? You usually have that much blow on you on just an average day?” I lifted a shoulder. “I might.” “How do you pay for it?” “Money.” I blew a bubble. Popped it. A muscle in his jaw tightened, and a small amount of satisfaction filled me. “Is that why you married your husband?” His gaze met mine. “Money?” Anger stretched in my chest, and I refused to even respond. But, after he voiced his next question, I couldn’t keep it in. “Are you at least a faithful gold-digger?” Gold-digger? “Like I ever had a choice in the matter! Vaffanculo a chi t’è morto!” The look he gave me seared, dark and hot. I pressed my lips together. Dammit. He’d barely begun a conversation and he’d already gotten me to admit I didn’t exactly have a choice in marrying Antonio. “Your mom never wash your mouth out with soap?” I didn’t reply. I’d tell him my mamma was the best, and he’d easily deduce my papà would rather lock me in a room for three days than bother with having to listen to me. “Stupid move, speeding with drugs on you.” I scoffed. I wanted to ignore him but couldn’t stop myself from replying. To be ignored felt like a cut in one’s chest, and it made me sick to think I’d ever make someone else feel that way. Amusing, as I’d just told this man to go screw his dead ancestors. Italians were creative with their insults. “It was three miles per hour over the speed limit.” His finger tap, tap, tapped on the steering wheel. “Who taught you to drive? Doesn’t the Cosa Nostra like to keep their women dumb and docile?” “Obviously not, because my husband taught me.” I wouldn’t admit Antonio gave me freer rein than any other man in the Cosa Nostra gave their wife. Antonio gave me many things. And maybe that was why it was hard to despise him for what he took away. “And how is he going to react when you’re released to go home?” “How is your mamma gonna react when you get home past curfew?” “Answer the question.” I gritted my teeth and tried to ignore the anger brewing inside me by pulling down the sun visor and fixing my hair in the mirror. “Are you asking if my husband hits me? No, he does not.” Hits was plural, so, technically, it was the truth. His gaze singed my cheek. “You’re a bad liar.” “And you’re annoying me, Allister.” I slammed the sun visor closed. The atmosphere grew heavy and claustrophobic, his presence, large body, and smooth movements closing in on me. “Does he love you?” He asked it indifferently, as if it shared the same merit as my favorite color. Nonetheless, the question hit me like a blow to the stomach. I stared straight ahead as the back of my throat burned something fierce. He’d found a weakness, and now he was going to poke at it until I bled. Hatred tasted acidic in my mouth. I would take electrocution over this any day. I suddenly loathed this man, for getting into my head with his stupid questions and for baring parts of me I didn’t let anyone else see. I blew a bubble. Popped it. That was when he’d had enough. He pulled the deflated bubble straight from my mouth and threw it out the window. I stared at him, fighting not to lick the unsettling heat of his touch from my lips. “That’s littering.” His gaze sparked of indifference. Agent Allister didn’t care about the environment. No surprise. He placed his hand back on the wheel, and I suddenly wondered how severe his OCD tendencies were—if he would go home and scrub my spit off his fingers with bleach or not. However, I quickly grew bored of thinking about the fed and turned my head to glance out the window, at the orange glow of passing streetlights and the flurries falling like tiny shadows in the night. “How many times?” A vague question, but by his tone, I knew we’d come full-circle and he was talking about my husband hitting me. “Every night,” I said with insinuation. “He makes me scream so loud I wake the neighbors.” “Yeah? You like fucking a man so much older than you?” Deep irritation flared inside of me. I reached for the radio, turned it on, and coolly responded, “I’m sure he has more stamina than you.” He didn’t even deign to reply. I heard only a second of some AM politics talk show before he turned the radio off. What kind of monster chose that over music? We didn’t sit in silence for long before he filled it. “Your stepson is older than you,” he commented. “Must be strange.” “Not really.” “I imagine you have more in common with him than his father.” “You imagine wrong,” I responded, bored of this conversation and bored of this man. This was the worst punishment. I’d never touch coke again. “You lived under the same roof as him for a year. You’re close to the same age. If you don’t have more in common mentally, then surely physically.” I laughed. Nico and me? Not in a million years. Unfortunately, at the time, I hadn’t known it would only take one. “Do you take my file home with you at night, Officer?” He didn’t respond. An awareness tickled in the back of my mind as the streets grew more and more familiar. A cold sensation settled in my stomach, and as we turned onto my street, a heavy and distinct feeling consumed me. Anger. Deep and loathing. He’d let me believe he was the honorable fed when, really, he was nothing but another man in my husband’s pocket. He pulled up to the curb in front of my home and put the car in park. Resentment poured off me, mixing with the scent of leather and cologne. I was sure he could feel it when he turned his head to look at me. His gaze was as dry as gin, though a light brewed inside as if someone had thrown a lit match in the glass. Blue. The look grabbed me by the back of the neck and pulled me underwater. I inhaled slowly. Released it. A sudden feeling that I’d met this man before overwhelmed me. Though, the thought soon faded. It would be impossible to forget his face, no matter how much I wanted to forget his presence. “You pried into my personal life,” I growled, grabbing my coat from the back seat. “You wasted my time, therefore my right.” Disbelief filled me. No other man of my husband’s would have asked me the questions this one had, and then gone on to call it his right. Venom coated each sweetly-spoken word like candy. “Tell me, Agent Allister, when did you realize you weren’t human?” The subtle glow of amusement lit in his eyes. “The day I was born, sweetheart.” It disappeared in a flash. “Unless you’d prefer to go back to jail, get your ass out of my car.” I gritted my teeth but opened the door and stepped out. The frigid breeze tousled my long dark hair against my shoulders. A blanket of snow covered the street, and I welcomed the burn in my bare feet. Turning around, I eyed him with the most disdain I could muster. “Go to hell, Allister.” “Been there, Russo, and I’m not impressed.” A strong statement, but I believed him. His eyes were what nightmares were made of, ice and fire, and filled with secrets no one wanted to know. He could only pass as normal because of his too-handsome face—otherwise, he’d be locked up somewhere, the world seeing him for what he really was. Dirty. His parting words were short and apathetic. “If you get caught with blow on you again, I won’t save you. I’ll let you rot in a jail cell.” He wasn’t lying. Next time, he didn’t save me. 22 years old October 2013 BLACKNESS. INKY AND STAGNANT, IT dripped into my subconscious. It was often an escape from reality; a comfort in the madness. But this time, it whispered to me—telling me not to wake up now, not to wake up ever. Unfortunately, a shrill noise in the distance was louder. My eyes fluttered open, but I closed them again when pain cut through my head like a knife. Rrring. Rrring. A groan escaped me, and I rolled over, my hand coming to rest on a bare chest. Something shifted, one puzzle piece clicking into place. Rrring. Rrring. Splaying my fingers, I ran my hand across his chest. Too hot. Too smooth. Not right. Rrring. Rrr— “What the fuck do you want?” a male voice grumbled. Blood, veins, and my heart went ice cold—and, with one fell swoop, my world crashed to the floor around me. My eyes flew open, the pain in my head ignored for the stronger ache blooming in my chest. I viewed it in snapshots. My dress on the floor. A slit of light through the blinds. Naked skin. Mine. His. I pulled the sheets closer as a deep sickness churned in my stomach. He ended the call, tossed his phone on the nightstand, and closed his eyes. After a moment of thick tension permeating the air, he flicked them back open and looked straight at me. We stared at each other as an invasive silence licked at my skin. “Jesus,” was what Nico muttered before he closed his eyes again. I leaned over the bed and threw up everything in my stomach. Acid singed my throat, and I wiped my mouth with the back of a hand. Disgrace. Worthless. Unlovable. Whore. It didn’t happen. Lie, the blackness whispered. I felt the imprints all over me—hands, teeth, lips—crawling over my skin and into my soul with claws made of heartbreak and metal. Opening my eyes, I stared at a used condom on the floor. My ears rang, my lungs closed up, and I couldn’t breathe. I gripped the sheets, panic tearing through my chest. “Gianna . . .” “I gave him everything,” I cried, tears streaming down my cheeks. “Hell,” he muttered before getting to his feet and pulling on a pair of boxer briefs. He went to pick up my dress but tossed it back on the floor when he saw I’d puked on it. “I was a virgin when I married him. I was faithful.” “I know.” The images from yesterday came back with a vengeance. Our room. My husband. Her. Someone I had considered family. I’d always known there were other women . . . but why her? Betrayal cut through my chest, a fresh and burning wound. Tears ran over my lips, tasting salty on my tongue. “It wasn’t enough,” I whispered. I’m never enough. “Nothing is enough for my father, Gianna,” he said. “You know that.” My throat tightened as I watched Nico grab a shirt from his dresser drawer, because sometimes, I could see Antonio in the way he carried himself. I was in love with my husband, a man who didn’t love me. Maybe I could blame Agent Allister for putting the idea in my head one year ago, but somehow, the pain had led me here. To my husband’s son. The panic attack reared its head, stealing the breath straight from my lungs. “How did this happen?” “Really? You need me to explain it to you?” “This isn’t a joke, Ace.” “Not laughing, Gianna.” He set the t-shirt on my lap, dropped to his haunches next to my pile of puke, and nodded toward my mouth. “Did my papà do that to you?” I licked the cut on my bottom lip. “I threw a vase at his head and called him a cheating pig.” Ace made a small noise of amusement. “Of course you did.” Agent Allister was right now. Hit had become hits, and for some reason, I despised the man, as if he’d set all this in motion. It’d been one year since I’d seen him, but the hatred I felt for him still lay close to the surface. “You aren’t going to tell him,” Nico said. I didn’t respond. “If you tell him, I will make your life a living hell.” A bitter laugh escaped me. My best friend was fucking my husband. How did it get worse than that? He grabbed my chin and turned it toward him. “We both know you’ll take the brunt of his anger, not me.” “It’s my decision to make.” He dropped his hand, sighed, and stood up. “Fine, but I warned you. I won’t feel sorry for you, either.” I grabbed his t-shirt and slipped it on while he focused on digging through his nightstand drawer. “Why, Ace?” I whispered. How could you have let this happen? I knew why I had. I was a mess. Everything I did was wrong. But Nico? He always had his head on straight. He maintained control in every move he made. “I was drunk, Gianna. Really fucking drunk. And, to be completely honest, I still am.” He lit a cigarette, the glow of the cherry red and angry. When he opened the blinds and then the window, and light filled the room, another piece of the puzzle clicked into place. Streaks of red covered his hands and ran up his arms. Blood. I didn’t know what it was like being a Made Man, but I’d lived around them long enough to know it wasn’t easy. That sometimes, the toll of it hit them all at once. “You look like your papà.” The words escaped me, soft, yet also so harsh in the sunlit room. The sins of the night never did sound so good in the day. He blew out a breath of smoke, his eyes lighting with a flicker of dry humor. “Jesus.” He shook his head. “Is that what brought you here last night?” Strobe lights. Dirty bathroom tile. Blow. A drip of sweat down my back. Accepting a white pill from a baggie. Nothing. “I don’t know,” I whispered. “Well, whatever it was, I hope you got something from it, Gianna. Because we’re both going to hell.” He put his cigarette out on the windowsill and left the room. I closed my eyes and tried to finish the puzzle, to piece the rest of the night together. But all I encountered was blackness. A blackness that whispered for me to fall asleep and not wake up, ever. A box of chocolates tied with an apologetic red bow sat on our bed when I got home that morning. The same bed my husband had fucked my best friend on from behind. I climbed into the sheets and ate every one of them. Days passed, a blur of colors and feelings and a secret eating me alive. It was all upside-down, like viewing the world from a merry-go-round as it spun, head and hair hanging off the steel platform. They were bad days. Cold. Lonely. High. Antonio had shown his face only once. He came to bed late and fell asleep instantly. I’d stared at the ceiling until the sun streamed through the blinds, the bed dipped, and his presence disappeared as easily as it had come. Soon after, sleep took me under. A bright light flicked on, and a draft hit me as the comforter ripped away. I made a noise of protest but choked on it as ice-cold water poured onto my face. “Levàntate!” I sputtered as the water kept coming and jolted to a sitting position. Wiping my eyes, I opened them to see Magdalena standing at the side of the bed with a large mixing bowl in hand. A shiver rocked my body, and I choked up some water. “Are you crazy?” I gasped. She dropped the bowl and ran a hand down her simple white uniform. “Sí. Pero no tan loca como tú.” An ache pulsed behind my eyes. I was soaking wet and agitated, and my words came out harsher than I intended. “You know I don’t speak Spanish, Magdalena.” “Porque eres demasiado tonta.” Because you are too dumb. I knew that phrase only because she believed it was a great response for everything. With a groan, I fell back onto the wet sheets. “I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to hire you. You’re disrespectful, and, quite frankly, a bad maid.” The sixty-year-old turned her nose up. “I am not a maid. I am a housekeeper.” I was sure they were the same things, but I didn’t have the fight in me to argue with her. “Then go housekeep somewhere and leave me alone.” She smoothed a streak of gray hair back into place. Looked at her nails. “You have a party tonight, querida.” “No,” I protested. “No party.” “Sí—” “I’m not going to a party, Magdalena,” I said, adding, “I don’t have anything to wear.” At least, nothing my soul won’t bleed through. “Nothing respectable, no,” she agreed, eyeing me with irises as dark as chocolate. “It’s for cancer. Una cena benéfica.” My stomach and heart dipped. “A benefit for cancer?” “Sí. Antonio called and ordered for you to be ready by eight.” Ordered? Under different circumstances, such as a benefit for sea turtles—my second favorite charity—I would tell him to go fuck himself. But, the truth was, I loathed cancer, and my husband had a lot of money. “Fine, I’ll go. But only to write a big check.” I got to my feet and gave the empty chocolate box a kick as I walked past. It disappeared under the bed with the rest of my demons. “Bueno. You have been lazy all week, señora. It is not attractive.” Heading into the walk-in closet, I aimlessly pushed clothes on hangers aside. “Thank you, Magdalena,” I responded, “but there’s no one here I want to attract.” She dug through my underwear drawer. “Because Antonio’s sleeping with Sydney?” A lacy thong hung from her finger. “What color do you want, querida? Red is good.” The vise around my heart squeezed. “I see whoever taught you to clean taught you sensitivity as well,” I said, adding, “Nude, please.” “I do not clean.” “Exactly,” I muttered, walking past her with a loose black top cut off at the midriff and a matching high-waisted skirt I’d made from an old Nirvana t-shirt. With thigh-high boots, it would be perfect. I set the outfit on the bed and headed to the bathroom. Magdalena followed after me. “I knew she wasn’t a good friend for you from the beginning. Something in her eyes. You can always tell by the eyes. I told you, but you did not listen.” I fought an eyeroll. Magdalena loved Sydney and always told me I should act more like her, that my husband might love me if I did. My housekeeper was a habitual liar, a little crazy, and still the most normal person in the house. I wished she actually had warned me. Maybe then, it wouldn’t hurt so badly. My throat tightened, and betrayal burned the backs of my eyes. I grasped the edge of the sink, yellow-painted fingernails stark against the mess strewn across the counter. Dollar bills, the glint of a 9mm, pink blush, a baggie, and a dusting of white powder. I stared blankly at my reflection in the mirror. Ashy-blond hair straight from a bottle dripped water down olive skin. I met my reflection’s gaze, my soul staring back. You can always tell by the eyes. Magdalena turned the shower on. “You stink of depression, querida. Wash it away, and then I will do your hair.” I stepped in the shower. And I washed it away. Boots clicking on the marble floor, I waded through floating silver trays carrying champagne flutes that glinted beneath romantic lights. A mini orchestra played in the corner of the ballroom, a low, easy beat allowing monotonous conversation to be heard above it. I was numb in the heart, but trepidation flickered to life in the center. I’d ignored Antonio’s order to meet him at the club so we could arrive at the benefit together, and, instead, had come alone. I didn’t want to see him. I didn’t want to feel. And those two always came together. I had almost reached the donation table when my plan to get in and out before my husband arrived went down the toilet. “Gianna, you are as beautiful as always.” My eyes shut for a second. I turned around, a coy smile tugging at my lips. “Aw, you’re cute, too, Vincent.” The twenty-nine-year-old and owner of this fine hotel laughed. “Cute, what I’ve always aspired for.” In acquiescence to not getting out of here soon, I grabbed a glass of champagne from a passing tray. “Well, you pull it off magnificently,” I replied, my gaze taking in a group of Vincent’s acquaintances who congregated behind him. He ran a hand down his tie, eyes crinkling with amusement. “There’s a reason we’ve just ambushed you, and it wasn’t to talk about how cute I am.” My expression pouted in mock confusion. “Trying out new conversation, are you?” Vincent and his group chuckled. I took a sip of champagne. Awareness tickled in the back of my mind, and my gaze drifted to the ballroom’s double doors. My glass halted at my lips. Broad shoulders. Black suit. Smooth lines. Blue. Something in my chest crackled and sparked, like a firecracker on hot pavement. Agent Allister stood inside the doorway with a blonde by his side. She held onto his elbow, and he held my gaze. You can always tell by the eyes. I envied him at that moment. His were an ocean beneath ice, where nothing but the darkest creatures could thrive, while mine were a wide open plain. He saw everything. Every bruise. Every scar. Every slap against my face. I didn’t want anyone’s pity, but what drove me even crazier was that he was indifferent to it all. I’d forgotten what his voice sounded like but, somehow, I could hear what he would say to me now. Suck it up, sweetheart. You know nothing of pain. Contempt pulsed, hot and heavy, in my chest. It was irrational, I knew, but I blamed the man for putting the idea of sleeping with Nico in my mind. I blamed him because it was easy. I blamed him because he was cold enough it wouldn’t hurt. The fed’s gaze took in the group of men surrounding me. He looked away, but I saw the brief thought in his eyes before he and his blonde drifted into the crowd. He thought I was a flirt; a tease. He thought I was unfaithful. And now, I couldn’t even deny it. Hatred closed around my lungs and stole my breath. “I was just telling them about how we first met,” Vincent said. “Do you remember?” I brought my attention back to the group, a hot edge flowing from my chest to my grip on the stem of my glass. Forcing a smile to my lips, I responded, “Of course I do. You bet against my horse and lost, naturally.” “That, I did.” He dropped his gaze to the floor, clearing his throat with a smile. “But I’m talking about me getting tossed and then asking you to run away with me to Tahiti. And you saying no because you’d already been there, and Bora Bora was next on your list.” On cue, everyone laughed. I bit my cheek to hide a smile. “I was trying to save you from embarrassment, but it seems you’re a glutton for punishment tonight.” “It seems so,” he chuckled. “Morticia is up and running again, and I’m still betting she places this weekend.” “Oh, Vincent,” I said with disappointment, “you just love to throw your money away, don’t you?” The crowd grew in size until I couldn’t see beyond it, with bets and horse statistics being tossed into the center. “Gianna, are you coming to the Fall Meet this weekend?” “Gianna, are you betting on Blackie?” “Gianna, what about the afterparty?” It took thirty minutes to extradite myself from the conversation, and by that time, I’d drunk two glasses of champagne and needed to relieve myself. I used the restroom and then headed toward the donation table, hoping to hand in my check and make a clean exit. When I saw Allister’s back where he stood in front of the table speaking with one of the socialites in charge of the event, I stopped in my tracks. Hesitation settled in my stomach, and I took a step in the opposite direction, but, No way. I hated the man, though what I loathed even more was that his presence intimidated me. As if to prove something to myself, I waltzed up to the table and stopped close enough beside him my arm brushed his jacket. He glanced down at me before looking back to the middle-aged woman he spoke with like I was merely a part of the décor. “Well,” the blonde socialite said, a blush warming her cheeks, “my daughter couldn’t speak more highly of you, and I’m so glad you could make it. I know how busy a man like you must be. The crime in this city has been growing every year.” “It’s been my pleasure entirely, ma’am.” I couldn’t hold in a quiet scoff. Allister’s lips tipped up, though he didn’t glance my way. The words he said to me one year ago filled with his voice once again. Refined, slightly rough, with an amused edge like he always knew something the other didn’t. The socialite glanced my way for a second before dismissing me and gazing at the fed, but then, as if she’d just processed what she saw, looked back at me. She stared without a blink. “I’m sorry . . . can I help you?” I pulled the check I’d written out of my bra and handed it to her. She held onto a corner gingerly, until she unfolded it and looked at the amount. “Wow,” she breathed. “This is incredibly generous. Thank you so much.” She scribbled something on a slip of paper and then handed out a clipboard. “I just need you to complete this short form, please.” When I only stared at it, she pressed, “Donor information and a tax receipt.” Her voice lowered. “You can claim this on your taxes.” “Oh, I don’t pay taxes.” She blinked. Allister grabbed the clipboard. “She’ll fill it out.” “Okay . . . great.” She took a step to the side before drifting away. “Tell me, do you think before you talk? Or do you just let things spew out?” “Well,” I said, frowning, “that time, I didn’t think, no. But how am I supposed to know about taxes? Antonio said he doesn’t have to pay them.” “Everyone has to pay taxes. It’s the law.” “Oh, the one you’re so good at upholding?” He shoved the clipboard in my direction. “Fill out the form and shut your mouth before I have to arrest you for tax evasion.” “Seems a little counterproductive, considering you’d have to let me out as soon as my husband finds out.” A muscle in his jaw tightened. “He’s your savior, is he?” I tensed at the dark tone in his voice—a tone that made me feel as if he knew more of my story than he should. “He’s my husband,” I replied, as if that said everything, when, really, it said nothing at all. I grabbed the clipboard. However, he held onto it for a second, his gaze touching my face before he finally let it go. He turned to look out into the ballroom, bringing a tumbler of some clear liquid to his lips. Probably water, knowing what a killjoy he was. “You look like you got lost on your way to a grunge concert.” “Fortunately, no,” I said, filling out the form. “I would be pissed if I missed it.” “What did you do to your hair?” “What?” My lips formed a pout. “You don’t like it? I did it for you. I heard you like blondes.” “You been thinking about me?” he drawled. “Every day, every hour. You’re always there, like a fungus, or an incessant bug swarming around my head.” A corner of his lips tipped up. Setting the clipboard down, I leaned a hip against the table, rested the pen against my chin, and looked around the ballroom. “By the way, where is your blonde?” I followed his stare to the woman in question, who was talking to another in the middle of the room. She wore a classy white cocktail dress and a tight chignon. Her posture was perfect and her current smile was tight. I bet she’d never let her hair down. “She looks . . . fun.” When I caught the corner of his disarming smile, something hot and hesitant flickered to life in my stomach. The feeling immediately brought a bad taste to my mouth. I pushed off the table. “Okay, well, you have a decent night. I would say great, but I’m doing this new thing and trying not to say what I don’t mean.” “Sure you don’t want to donate the shoes off your feet before you go?” Glancing at my thigh-high boots, I clicked my heels together like Dorothy. Unfortunately, it didn’t take me home. “I would, but I think your girlfriend’s mamma would throw them away.” I looked up to see his gaze trail from my boots to the few inches of naked thigh. It was clinical, assessing, and hardly lascivious. Still, the touch of his stare burned, like an ice cube melting on bare skin beneath a summer sun. “She’s not my girlfriend,” he said, taking a large drink of what I was now sure was water. “I would say poor girl, but . . .” My eyes sparkled with that new thing I’m trying as I began to walk past him. His next words, dripping with something bitter and sweet, stopped me in my tracks. “Trouble in paradise?” My grip tightened around the pen I still held. I swallowed and rubbed my bare ring finger with my thumb. My marriage was a mockery, and I could never escape it—divorce didn’t exist in the Cosa Nostra—but I wouldn’t be chained by a diamond on my finger, by a symbol of love, when there was none. At least, none returned. I turned to him, expecting to see triumph, but as I met his gaze, my heart stilled before tugging in an unnatural way. There was something dark and genuine behind his eyes, and I didn’t realize until later that he was letting me see it. The steady drip, drip, drip of blood. The clanks of metal and fire that forged him. He was up to his neck in blood. I wondered if, even then, beneath his fake gentleman persona, his black suit and white shirt, he was covered in it. “What have you sacrificed to stand here today?” The thought escaped me, pushed from my lips by an invisible force. “Your soul?” I stepped closer, inches away, until his presence brushed my bare skin. Running the tip of the pen across his palm by his side, I whispered, “Just how much blood is on these hands?” He ran his tongue across his teeth, flicking his gaze to the side before bringing it back to me. Bottomless. Blue. My heart beat heavy, because I knew if I stared too long I’d be trapped beneath ice. “Someday,” I breathed, tilting my head, “it’s going to catch up with you.” His gaze narrowed in distaste as it fell to the pen I’d bitten between my teeth. It took only a second to connect the dots. Germs, most likely. I licked the end of the pen like a lollipop, tucked it into his front jacket pocket, and gave his chest a pat. “Have a lousy night, Allister.” Taking a step to leave, I realized how parched his stare had made me. I stepped backward, grabbed the glass from his hand, and downed the contents. I choked. Vodka. The burn in my throat drifted to my chest as I headed toward the exit. Just as I pushed the door open and cool October air enveloped me, I came face-to-face with a familiar set of eyes. “Going somewhere?” I tensed and tried to step around him, but my husband’s hand found my own and stopped me. “Let me go,” I gritted. Antonio pulled me closer, wrapping an arm around my waist like we were the most normal couple in the world. As if there wasn’t a twenty-five-year age gap between us, as if he’d wooed me instead of having signed a contract for me, and, most importantly, as if he hadn’t cheated on me and then tried to apologize with a box of fucking chocolates. I struggled, but his hold only grew tighter. “Make a scene, Gianna . . .” he warned. Antonio was like his son, only wrapped in pain and delivered with a side of righteousness, even as the cross around his neck singed a hole through his skin. After two years of marriage, I didn’t believe he could even feel sympathy, and I knew it was how he’d climbed the ladder to be one of the most feared men in the United States. As for why he was revered—well, when Antonio was warm, he was like the sun. Everyone wanted his attention because, when he gave it, it was absolute, as though you were the only one who had ever mattered. Regardless of the heartache he’d caused me, the walls I’d put up and some I still maintained, I wasn’t a match. Now, I had to figure out how to give up the sun. “I really don’t like waiting around for you.” “I really don’t like you fucking my friends.” “Watch your mouth,” he chastised, walking us back into the hotel. Sometimes, it felt like a scream was trapped in my throat, one that had been struggling to get free for the past twenty-two years. It had a voice, a body, fiery red hair, and a heart of steel. I was terrified she would escape, that her echo would burn this world to the ground and leave me standing alone, in smoke and ash. I pushed the feeling down, down, until a light sheen of sweat cooled my skin. We passed the ballroom doors and, as I glanced inside, my gaze collided with Allister’s. The exchange was a blur of heat, the burn of liquor, a flicker of pitch-black as his eyes dropped to Antonio’s grip on my arm. And then it was gone, replaced with gold wallpaper as we walked down a hall toward the terrace. We stepped outside, and I sucked in a breath. The night was cold and dark, but instead of rubbing my arms for warmth, I let the icy breeze bite into my skin. Maybe I was a masochist, or maybe pain was one of the only things that made me feel alive. The terrace was empty, save for two guests from the benefit smoking a cigarette. “Give us a moment, yeah?” It wasn’t a question, no matter how my husband had voiced it. The men shared a hesitant look but didn’t take more than a couple of seconds to drop their cigarettes and head back through the double doors that led into the ballroom. Light fanned across the terrace floor before the doors closed and darkness consumed us once again. A distant memory swept into the present. “How could you love such a terrifying man?” my ex-best-friend Sydney had asked me as we sat on my husband’s office couch together and he talked on the phone. I’d only had to think about the question for a moment. “He listens to me.” I guessed he listened to her, too. “Care to explain what this is?” I turned to Antonio to see he held a small, round compact in his hand. My heart beat in the base of my throat. Here was one of those walls about to come tumbling down. “What is it, Gianna?” he bit out. “Birth control pills.” “Why do you have them?” “Birth control.” Antonio’s eyes blazed with anger, like two flames in the dark. We were devotedly Catholic, and birth control was frowned upon by the Church. But I knew what bothered him even more was that he wanted another child. Another son to rule his empire. “How long?” I looked him straight in the eye. “Since the day we were married.” Since the night you stepped on my heart. The slap across my face was immediate. It whipped my head to the side and knocked the breath from my lungs. The metallic taste of blood filled my mouth. “The things you make me do, Gianna,” he growled. “Do you think I want to hit you?” My bitter laugh carried on the wind. The sad part of it all was I only knew from TV this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. He chucked the pills over the railing. “No more, do you hear me?” I shook my head. “No. More. Or, I swear, I’ll cut you off. No more money, no more secret trips to Chicago—and yes, I know you’ve been there.” My heart froze to ice and shattered. “You know your papà forbade you from visiting your mamma.” Softness laced through his voice. “I haven’t told him, only because I know what it means to you.” She’s sick. I couldn’t say the words because I knew they wouldn’t be steady. “I have to see her.” “I know.” He stepped closer, the smoky scent of his cologne reaching me. “I know everything about you, Gianna. Where you go, what you do, who you speak with.” He ran a hand into my hair, and I fought the urge to jerk away because he’d only pull the strands. “You’re mine. And I look after what’s mine.” “If you care about me at all, Antonio, you’ll get your filthy hands off me and give me a divorce.” “Do you think I would take just anyone for a wife? I wanted you”—he pressed his lips to my ear—“so I took you, and I’m going to fucking keep you.” I tried to pull my head back, but his grip stayed strong. “I allow you free rein, Gianna, but test me, and I will lock you up so fast. Do you understand me?” “If you think I will even sleep with you now, you are delusional.” “You’ll cool off.” He ran a thumb across my cheek. “And when you do, you’ll realize you want children, too, cara.” His grip found my chin, a rough caress. “And don’t think I haven’t noticed you’re not wearing your ring. You’ll put it back on when you get home, or you’ll wake up tomorrow with it glued to your finger.” The glow of the ballroom highlighted his gray suit as he left through the double doors. A tremor started in my hands. The doors closed, and his words came out to swallow me with the shadows. No more secret trips to Chicago. No more secret trips to Chicago. No more secret trips to Chicago. The tremor moved up my arms, creeping into my vessels and veins. I shook from the inside out. My lungs tightened, and every breath closed them a little more. Black spots swam in my vision. I grasped the terrace handrail, the stone like ice beneath my fingers. In. Out. In. Out. Light fanned across the terrace, alerting me that someone had stepped outside. I squeezed my eyes closed, tears escaping my bottom lashes. Gianna, Gianna, Gianna. I tensed and waited for it. I waited for the world to recognize how damaged I was on the inside. To crack me open and see everything my papà had from the beginning. A different part of me, one quiet but strong, wanted to shout, to scream, to let her rule with a steel heart and red hair. “Do you want to know my favorite?” My grip tightened on the railing. In. Out. “Andromeda.” Allister moved closer. “An autumn constellation, forty-four light-years away.” His steps were smooth and indifferent, but his voice was dry, as though he found my panic attack positively boring. His attitude brought a small rush of annoyance in, but it was suddenly swayed as my lungs contracted and wouldn’t release. I couldn’t keep a strangled gasp from escaping. “Look up.” It was an order, carrying a harsh edge. With no fight in me, I complied and tilted my head. Tears blurred my vision. Stars swam together and sparkled like diamonds. I was glad they weren’t. Humans would find a way to pluck them from the sky. “Andromeda is the dim, fuzzy star to the right. Find it.” My eyes searched it out. The stars weren’t often easy to see, hidden behind smog and the glow of city lights, but sometimes, on a lucky night like tonight, pollution cleared and they became visible. I found the star and focused on it. “Do you know her story?” he asked, his voice close behind me. A cold wind touched my cheeks, and I inhaled slowly. “Answer me.” “No,” I gritted. “Andromeda was boasted to be one of the most beautiful goddesses.” He moved closer, so close his jacket brushed my bare arm. His hands were in his pockets and his gaze was on the sky. “She was sacrificed for her beauty, tied to a rock by the sea.” I imagined her, a red-haired goddess with a heart of steel chained to a rock. The question bubbled up from the depths of me. “Did she survive?” His gaze fell to me. Down the tear tracks to the blood on my bottom lip. His eyes darkened, his jaw tightened, and he looked away. “She did.” I found the star again. Andromeda. “Ask me what her name means.” It was another rough demand, and I had the urge to refuse. To tell him to stop bossing me around. However, I wanted to know—I suddenly needed to. But he was already walking away, toward the exit. “Wait,” I breathed, turning to him. “What does her name mean?” He opened the door and a sliver of light poured onto the terrace. Black suit. Broad shoulders. Straight lines. His head turned just enough to meet my gaze. Blue. “It means ruler of men.” An icy breeze almost swallowed his words before they reached me, whipping my hair at my cheeks. And then he was gone. I grasped the railing and looked to the sky. My breath came out steady. The knot in my chest loosened. The tremor in my veins became the hot buzz of an electric line. And then I did it for everyone who couldn’t. I did it for every bruise. Every scar. Every slap against my face. Most of all, I did it because I wanted to. I screamed. Days bled into nights. The next few months slipped away, consumed in a whirlwind of parties, vacations, races, and weekend spa retreats. Drugs and booze were as easily supplied as the silver platter of fresh fruit and croissants that sat on the twelve-seater dining table every morning. I was young. Pampered. Full of ennui. I imbibed anything that made my heart race. Made me forget. Made me feel alive. Sometimes, it came in the form of a Colombian-imported powder. And other times . . . blue. “To live the life of luxury.” That drawl slid into my blood and warmed me from the inside out. I lounged on a chaise near the pool in a shimmery gold gown, my hair pulled into a messy updo, a dress strap sliding down my shoulder. It was an unseasonably warm March night, and I was taking advantage of it. I bit into my strawberry as my gaze met Allister’s. “Jealous?” “Closer to apathetic.” The glow of the pool lights cast him in shades of silver, blue, and shadow. Navy suit and tie. Polished Rolex and cufflinks. He stood in front of the terrace doors of my home, a tumbler in hand. His warm gaze took me in, from my hair, to the bowl of strawberries and glass of tequila on the table beside me, to my red velvet stilettos. “Don’t tell me my husband’s stories were boring you.” Antonio had a way with words, keeping others on the edge of their seats, yet I couldn’t force myself to listen to the same tale over, and over again. “Seems they couldn’t hold your interest either. Though, maybe that’s just because you knew the part about him fucking his twenty-year-old virgin bride was coming up next.” I flinched. Antonio must be angrier with me than I’d thought. I hoped he’d made it sound more exciting than it was. There’d been nothing romantic about my first time. It was cold and mechanical, leaving a hollow hole in my chest that I’d tried to fill by gaining my husband’s love. What a joke that had been. “Isn’t it in your job description to feign interest in everything he says?” His gaze flickered with something akin to dry amusement, though he didn’t respond. He stepped onto the terrace, tension outlining his shoulders. I couldn’t help but think he was weighing his options, and it seemed he would rather tolerate my presence than go back inside. “Did his crassness offend your tender sensibilities?” I asked. “Not exactly.” His eyes came my way, filled to the brim with cold, cold fury. It dimmed to something warmer as his gaze slid down my neck and bare shoulder. I shook off a shiver. “Will you avenge my honor, Officer?” “Not sure I see a point when you don’t have much left.” I pouted. “And just when I was beginning to think you cared.” “Don’t hold your breath, sweetheart.” “Strawberry?” When he looked at the fruit in my hand like it was offensive, I sighed. Then bit off the tip and licked the juice from my lips. His gaze followed the motion, warmer and heavier than the swipe of my tongue. “Why do you dislike my husband so much?” “Yes . . . why?” I froze at the sound of Antonio’s voice. Allister looked positively unmoved that my husband had heard me, not even turning around to grace his employer with his attention nor deigning to answer the question. Antonio never cared when I spoke with men, but I wasn’t sure how he would react to me being alone with one of his employees. “What are you two talking about?” “Mythology,” I said in a bored tone. “Greek.” “Ah. My favorite kind.” Allister took a drink, watching the pool. He looked as apathetic as he’d claimed to be earlier, but something else wove through his disinterest. He was too apathetic. A shadow of something dark passing by below ice. “I should have known I’d find you here, being lazy by the pool.” “Yes, well, one can only tolerate the same story five times. Though, I’ve heard you mixed it up tonight.” Antonio chuckled, reaching my chaise and running a hand around the back of my neck. “Don’t be mad, cara. It was a tasteful story, I promise.” His eyes coasted to Allister, hardening from amusement to jagged steel. “It’s not like I told them you bled all over my cock.” I cringed. The tension was so stifling I could hardly breathe. It settled in the air like late summer humidity, filling my lungs and touching my skin. I downed my glass of tequila, biting down on it. The liquor burned away the humiliation in my throat. My husband was angry at me for a multitude of reasons, but this—whatever this was—wasn’t for my benefit. The two men weren’t even looking at each other, but nobody could miss the tightly-leashed venom between them. “Your friends miss you.” Antonio’s grasp on my neck tightened enough for me to understand the warning. “Don’t be long.” He disappeared inside. Malevolence danced in the air, refusing to depart. My gaze drifted to Allister. Apathetic, but underlined with something so very scary. A quiet, uncomfortable laugh escaped me. “It would seem my husband doesn’t like you either.” I swallowed. “Aren’t you afraid he’ll find some other dirty fed to work with?” His gaze said he was not afraid in any way. I’d never seen someone act so unenthusiastic to my husband’s face, let alone one of his employees. It seemed Allister wasn’t buying what Antonio was selling like everyone else did. It was . . . refreshing, and the first thing I truly liked about the man. The tension in the air was still so thick I would grow lightheaded if I didn’t clear it. “No date tonight?” “No.” “What happened to . . .” I briefly flew through the list of blondes he’d paraded around, coming up with the name of the last one. “Portia?” “Monotony.” “But you were perfect for each other.” I sighed, like I was seriously put out. “Both gorgeous, composed, unfeeling . . . What if she was the one and you tossed her aside without giving her a real chance?” His gaze, so unimpressed with anything coming out of my mouth, touched me. “I didn’t know you had such an investment in my relationships.” I got to my feet, pulling the pins out of my hair as I made my way toward him. The long strands tumbled down my back. His body tensed as the click of my heels moved closer, but he didn’t look at me until I stood in front of him. “Have you ever thought that maybe you’re the problem?” I took the tumbler from his hand and stole a sip. The vodka in his glass always tasted better than any other. “I’m guessing you’re going to enlighten me?” He took his glass back. He would always turn it to drink from a different spot other than where my lips had touched, but tonight, he drank straight from where my pink lipstick left a mark. It sent a strange rush of heat to my stomach. I swallowed. “A woman likes some passion and spontaneity in her life. You, Officer, need to loosen up.” “Should I fuck other women in her bed? Spontaneous enough, you think?” God, he just had to know about Sydney. I sighed. I wanted to put a chink in that ice he wore like armor. Stepping closer, I ran a finger across his jawline, my voice soft. “You have such a handsome face. Does it get you everything you want?” “Almost.” There was something so significant about that single word it put a hitch in my breath. I let my finger fall from his face with a light scrape of my stiletto-shaped nail. “One look from you, and women swoon at your feet.” He was growing annoyed with me. “Yet here you stand.” I laughed lightly. “I have no interest in men, even ones as handsome as you.” “Because you’re married?” “Because I’m jaded.” His eyes narrowed. “You’re drunk.” My gaze filled with mischief when I slipped my thin dress strap off my shoulder. “And you never are. Don’t you ever live on the edge, Officer? Just let yourself have whatever you want?” The air pulsed like it had a heartbeat as I pushed the shimmery material over my hips, letting my gown fall to my feet. Chink. He didn’t look away from my face, though the urge was there. Shifting like a breeze heading in the wrong direction. I stood inches in front of him, in a red bra and panties, with an entire party and my husband just beyond a set of double doors. His response was simple and exactly what I’d expected from the strait-laced fed, yet it still found the heat to brush my back as I made my way to the pool. “No.” I looked over my shoulder. “Then how do you ever feel alive?” A smile touched my lips as I dove into the water. Because his gaze had slid down the curves of my body, and it was the furthest thing from cold I’d ever felt. September 2015 TAP, tap, tap. Sasha Taylor, Ph.D. watched the motion of my finger on the armrest. Eyes narrowed, lips slightly pursed, it was the expression she wore when deep in thought. Tap . . . tap . . . tap. Her gaze met mine, and, as a slow smile tugged on my lips, she swallowed and glanced at the file in her lap to find some resolve. “Tell me about your home life,” she finally said, looking up. “Iowa.” I chuckled. “Ah, Sasha, we both know that’s not what you want to talk about.” She pulled the charm on her necklace, back and forth, and raised a brow. “Ask,” I said impatiently. Determination flared in her eyes, and she dropped the necklace. “Fine. Let’s talk about your relationship with the number three.” “And here I didn’t take you as one to engage in breakroom gossip.” “I don’t engage, I merely observe. All means of information are valuable to a case.” “All right.” I sat back, rested an elbow on the armrest, and ran a thumb across my bottom lip. “You tell me what you think this relationship is, and I’ll tell you true or false.” Hesitation flickered across her expression, but she inhaled a breath and dove right the fuck in. “You only sleep with the same woman three times.” “True.” “Why?” A whole list of reasons, but there was only one that motivated me to do anything. “It feels right.” Four times suggested the relationship could go somewhere. Four felt like a sloppy affair, with feelings and questions thrown into the mix. Four annoyed me. She accepted my answer and continued with her probing. “Some motions, not detrimental to your overall schedule, such as adjusting your clothes, maybe combing your hair, or laps at the gym, you do in some figure of three.” “To an extent.” “What happens when you stop at two?” I held her gaze. Tap . . . tap. She waited on bated breath for the next tap that would never come. “Are you obsessing over the third now?” “No.” Yes. “Do you consider yourself OCD?” “Mildly, self-diagnosed,” I answered, looking at the clock. My phone vibrated in my pocket, and impatience burrowed beneath my skin. I had shit to do this evening. I was on suspension at the Bureau, but I’d taken on more work by outside sources, as much as was possible, because if I didn’t stay busy I was afraid I’d burn under the heat of my own fucking anger. I’d climbed my way out of hell, had seen it, tasted it, felt it, and the only thing that got me through had been dreaming about revenge and everything I would have on the other side. I’d planned my future out, from the kind of woman I’d marry to the type of hardwood in my apartment. Nowhere in those dreams had I ever planned for a Gianna Marino. I should feel reprieved she was married and out of my reach again, but, fuck . . . it sometimes felt like an impossible feat to forget her. “What about contamination symptoms?” she added, averting her gaze like there was something important in my file she’d just now noticed. “More gossip, Sasha?” Not surprising. When someone met me, they didn’t forget me. Except for one woman, anyway. My face had been a curse when I was a kid, but now, I took advantage of it. To intimidate, to manipulate, to get whatever I wanted. Power. Information. Women. Ironic, that the one thing I now wanted, I couldn’t fucking have. She looked up, flustered with herself. “You don’t kiss on the mouth.” “True.” “Why not?” “It’s messy and unnecessary.” Her eyes flickered with confliction. She’d already dug deeper into my psyche than this evaluation should have. Her interest was plain curiosity, the reason anyone decided they wanted to become a psychologist—to crack open a human’s mind like an egg, to see what made us tick. What she didn’t know was that I didn’t tick. I’d made the fucking clock. “You don’t seem to have the same opinion regarding . . . other parts of a woman’s anatomy.” I laughed. I wouldn’t have a problem with any part of a certain woman’s anatomy. Truthfully, I’d let her spit in my goddamn mouth. “So, if you’re willing to . . .” “Eat pussy?” She flushed. “This has gone beyond what it should have,” she muttered, fumbling with her pen. “Are you getting all this down, Sasha?” I adjusted my cuff. “Why no kissing?” Her uneasy movements had paused, her curiosity unwilling to let it go. She thought she’d found something, a piece of the puzzle that made me. In truth, she was probably close. If she pulled at this thread hard enough, she might free another. “Lipstick,” I said. “I hate it.” Specifically, red. A heart-shaped stain on my cheek. The red imprint left on the edge of a dirty glass or a lit cigarette lying on cracked pavement. The twisting of a little black container. I fucking hated all of it. “So, the reason isn’t related to thoughts of contamination?” she pushed. “No.” It was mostly true. When I was agitated or stressed, my issue with cleanliness magnified, but otherwise, I just liked to be clean. I liked a clean space, clean clothes, and not to put dirty shit, like a used communal pen, in my mouth. Not to wake up with bugs crawling on me. Not to have to wash the dirt off my body in a drinking fountain. “We’re at the end of our meeting, but I have one more question. What is your earliest memory of the number three?” Knock, knock, knock. The knocking reverberated in my mind, three heavy thumps I’d still have been able to hear even if I placed my hands over my ears. “They always knocked three times,” I said. “Who?” “The men who made me.” 23 years old July 2014 “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!” The shout of a hundred different voices hit me as I pushed open the club door. Confetti fell, sparkling beneath dim lighting and tickling my bare skin as it brushed my shoulders. Balloons floated to the ceiling, distorting the view of a photo of me blowing a kiss to the camera that took up the entire far wall. Birthday by The Beatles flooded the room. Valentina ran up on stilettos and wrapped me in a hug. “Happy birthday!” “Do you think you might have overdone it a little, Val?” “Is it the photo?” She frowned, releasing me. “Too big, you think?” Laughing, I kissed her cheek. “It’s perfect.” I maneuvered my way into the club, hugging and thanking people for their birthday wishes until my cheeks hurt. My world tilted as someone picked me up by the waist and spun me around. The spinning stopped, and Luca’s close gaze came into focus as my feet still dangled a foot off the floor. “You owe me money, Gianna.” I frowned. “Is this how you wish everyone a happy birthday?” “Only women that try to wiggle their way out of their debts.” “Oh, please.” I brushed a piece of nonexistent lint off his shoulder. “You’ll lose the next bet. I’m only saving us time with an exchange, is all.” A dry breath of amusement escaped him, and he set me back on my feet. “I think you’re the worst cheat of us all, and you’re not even a Russo by blood.” He took a seat back at the bar. “Oh, look,” I said, stepping between Luca and Nico, who sat beside him. “I’m so popular to be honored with the great Nicolas Russo’s presence at my birthday party.” Nico gave me a half-smile, nursing a glass of whiskey. “Got a meeting tonight.” “Ah,” I responded, understanding it would be downstairs in the conference room. “Do you think you could at least pretend to be here for me?” “You have plenty of people here for you.” I pouted, looking around the crowded club. “True.” We hadn’t talked about that night one year ago. Not once, since the morning after. It was like, if we didn’t speak of it, it hadn’t happened. However, the secret had eaten away a large chunk of my soul. Regret was a hungry beast, and every day, it fed. Nico and Luca’s gazes went to the door. They stood at the same time, and I turned to see a man I didn’t recognize—black suit, black hair, the glint of the Cosa Nostra in his eyes. “Who’s he?” I asked. “None of your business,” Nico responded. He didn’t take his eyes off the Made Man as he cupped the back of my head and pulled me against his chest in a rough, short hug. “Happy birthday,” he said, adding, “Try and take it easy tonight, yeah?” “Sure, Dad.” He pushed me away playfully by the face, and then both Russo men headed toward the man who was none of my business. Valentina bumped shoulders with me as she ordered a large number of drinks from the bar, and soon after, I was lost in the bottom of a shot glass, bathroom trips, and a heady, uninhibited rush in my blood. Purple, yellow, blue. The panels beneath my feet blinked back and forth, casting a glow against my bare legs and white dress. Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl blared through the speakers, as the bodies on the dance floor moved together, limbs jiving, hips rolling, lips touching. Purple. A drop of sweat down my back. Yellow. The glide of skin against mine. Running my hands over my neck, I lifted the heavy strands and looked up. Blue. My breath slowed, and so did my movements. I held his gaze as he stood next to Nico at the bar. Allister responded to something Ace had said but kept his eyes on me. The roll of my hips, the glide of my hands in my hair—they moved to a different rhythm than the beat. Slower. Sexier. Like a caress of silk sheets against naked skin. Holding his stare, I lip-synced a line of the song. The words poured from my red-painted mouth, sensual exhales between parted lips. His eyes darkened. I’d only been messing with him, but somewhere in the middle of it, my body had grown confused. The blood in my veins heated. My nipples tightened. Sweat glistened like drops of oil on my skin, tickling as it ran between my breasts. His gaze drifted to my photo on the wall behind me before he met my eyes. I smiled, lifted a hand, and blew him a sweet kiss. With shaky legs, I stumbled off the dance floor a half hour later and drifted upstairs to quiet the thumping pulse of music in my head. I opened a VIP room door and paused with my hand on the knob. A familiar dirty fed stood with his back to me, facing the large window that sparkled with city lights. He had a phone to his ear, and his smooth, deep words reached me. Something about a contract and a bad situation. Sounded intriguing. I entered the room, closed the door, and leaned against it. Allister’s back tensed subtly at the quiet click, but he otherwise didn’t acknowledge my presence. He’d grown out the top of his fade haircut in the years since I’d met him. It was now long enough to run one’s fingers through, to grab a handful of. The thought made me feel warm and strange, and I quickly pushed the feeling away. He hung up and turned around. We stared at each other, and a thick, almost suffocating tension filled the air. Two nights on a terrace had been the only other times we were alone. Now, with a closed door, a ceiling, and four walls surrounding us, it felt like there wasn’t enough oxygen in the small space for us both. “Grown bored of your party already?” There were a number of games we’d played over the last year, at the few functions where we ran into each other. A favorite of mine required us to ignore the other’s presence completely, even if an acquaintance chose to introduce us to one another. Another game was that I pretended to be madly in love with him. He hated that one the most, and because annoying Allister would taste sweeter than my birthday cake, it was the one I decided to play. I slipped my heels off. “Maybe I came up here to be with a man.” Something dark moved through his eyes, but as soon as he leaned back against the glass it disappeared. “Let’s hope you’re not keeping it in the family this time.” My stomach dropped like lead, and a quiver started in my chest. He knew. He knew about me and Nico. I’d seen the fed with Ace a few times over the last year, but I didn’t believe they were close enough to share secrets with one another. How much had Nico told him? It felt like I was going to be sick. I swallowed and tried to keep my voice steady. “You and I aren’t related, Officer.” His lips lifted. “Ah, so you came to be with me.” Unease suddenly rose up to choke me, and I couldn’t pretend to be normal anymore. Heels forgotten, I turned and grabbed the doorknob, but before I could get the door open all the way, his hand appeared above my head and slammed it shut. The echo sent a tremor through me. His shoulders blocked out the light. His presence, heavy and palpable, skimmed down my spine. “You started this game,” he said, with the rough sound of anger. “Finish it.” I couldn’t think with him behind me, cornering me against the door. We’d always stood close—close enough to watch the room and insult each other’s looks and intelligence with ease. But this was different. Real, volatile anger poured off him, and it was freaking terrifying. Plainly, and as bland as stale bread, I said, “The way I feel about you, well, it’s put me in a small spot.” “Tight spot,” he corrected softly. I didn’t say anything because I was internally shaking. At his closeness, his unexplained anger, the fact I was trapped, and I wasn’t getting out unless he chose to let me go. Just the idea he might touch me sent every nerve ending in my back tingling in expectation. His hand slid off the door and he stepped away. I inhaled slowly. Released it. Turning, I watched him walk to the minibar and grab a glass of clear liquid that sat on the wooden top. “Go entertain your guests, Gianna.” A sliver of irritation ran through me. I hated when he told me what to do. Like he was my lord and master, and I just wasn’t aware of it yet. “That’s what I’m trying to do, but I suppose some guests are just assholes.” He braced his hands on the bar and turned a dark gaze to me. He wasn’t here for my party but for whatever meeting was happening downstairs. And his expression was making that abundantly clear. But I didn’t care for semantics. “Where is my present?” I asked, padding toward him on bare feet. “What? The room next door overflowing with presents isn’t enough for you?” “Aw, does that make you mad? That I have friends, and you don’t?” “You need confirmation that everyone adores you, don’t you?” “Yes,” I said, straight-faced. “So where is my present?” I tapped the front of his watch, and his eyes narrowed on the movement. “Surely your watch is too much? It’s a Rolex.” When he only gave me a dry stare, I sighed. “Okay, if you insist.” I started to unclasp his watch just to see if he would stop me, to grab my wrist and tell me to quit being annoying like any other man I knew would. He had never touched me. Not once. Not when I’d messed with his tie, taken his glass straight from his hand, or “accidentally” stepped on his foot when he’d told me that at least my blond hair now matched what was inside my head. To be honest, it made me believe he thought I was too lowly to even come into contact with. For a reason I couldn’t explain, it bothered me. And it might’ve been why I touched him even more. Hands braced on the bar, he only watched me unclasp his watch. My breath grew dense in my lungs. I was simply removing his watch, yet somehow, it felt like I was undoing his belt. The Rolex slid halfway down my forearm when I put it on, but I still waved it around like I would a new conflict-free diamond ring. “Thank you,” I said brightly. “I love it.” We watched each other, and something thick and heavy flowed through the room. He tipped his glass back and took a large sip. I’d say it was water, but I knew it was vodka. The man could drink, and yet he seemed impervious to getting drunk. I tilted my head. “Where are you from?” “Iowa.” A laugh escaped me. “And I’m the Queen of England.” I took his watch off, set it on the bar, and spun it with my finger. “Fine. I know what I want for my birthday.” “I’m on the edge of my seat.” “You’re not. But that’s okay. We can’t all have feelings and things.” He put his watch back on, and I grew distracted by the movement. Allister had the kind of hands that made a woman wonder what they would look like against her skin. “I want a secret,” I said, adding, “One of yours, of course.” “And what am I supposed to get out of this?” “The satisfaction of making me happy.” I flashed him a sweet smile. His gaze dropped to my lips. He looked away, but before he did, I saw a flash of something unmistakably sinful. My heartbeat tripped up on itself. He braced his hands back on the bar. “Tell me what your husband got you first.” His voice was nonchalant, though a tense vibe emanated from him, and it sent a nervous energy through me. I lifted a shoulder. “I’m sure some piece of jewelry, like he gets me every year. I don’t know. I haven’t seen him yet today.” “Why not?” “He’s a busy man.” “Too busy for his wife on her birthday?” I recognized his indifferent yet vicious tone and where he was taking this. Frustration chafed beneath my skin. “Stop,” I told him. “What was Antonio doing today? Or, maybe the right word would be, who?” Anger scratched at my throat and the backs of my eyes. Antonio didn’t consume my thoughts anymore. I no longer thought of him with a young, wide-eyed wonder. Love had turned bitter—if it had ever been love, and not infatuation. However, betrayal still stung, and Allister was cutting that wound open to bleed. I choked on my fury. “I hate you.” “I think about you.” Those four rough words filled the air between us, settling to the floor with a stillness that rocked me to my core. My blood cooled as silence came out to touch me with cold fingers. I stared, eyes wide. He watched my expression, bitter amusement passing through his gaze. “There’s your fucking secret.” Downing his drink, he dropped it on the bar before heading to the door. He stopped with a hand on the knob and turned to me. “You want to know why I don’t touch you?” I shook my head. “Because if I did, I wouldn’t stop. Not until I’d snuffed out that pretty fire in your eyes.” His gaze flashed. “Don’t shut yourself in a room with me again, Gianna.” He left, but his warning stayed behind. My heart tripped over itself as I marched down the stairs and knocked on the heavy door. It swung open to reveal Tara standing on the other side. Her bright smile dropped into a scowl when she saw it was me. “You know Antonio doesn’t like women down here.” She opened a door for a living, yet she believed she was the equivalent of the President’s right-hand man. I didn’t know why, but every woman who had ever manned this door was a raging bitch. “You have a second to get out of my way before I have you demoted to taking out the garbage.” Her gaze narrowed to slits. “You wouldn’t dare.” “Try me.” Anger rose to her cheeks. However, as though she’d just remembered something important, a spark of mischief lit in her eyes, and she pulled the door open wide. Something obviously lay in wait for me, but I couldn’t find the will to care. I was too frazzled by Allister’s earlier words, and furious that Ace had told him what happened between us. I walked past her and down the short steel staircase. Cigarette smoke hung in the air, coalescing with dim orange lighting. The card tables sat still, and the booths circling the room unseated. A few men loitered outside the conference room door, and heated conversation filtered to my ears from within. I made my way toward Antonio’s office to wait until the meeting adjourned. As I walked past the conference room, Lorenzo stepped out of the group of men and blocked my path. “What are you doing down here?” “Trying to eavesdrop on all your secret plans to take over the world.” He slipped his hands in his pockets, a smile pulling on his lips. Lorenzo was the cutest of the Russos, if you were ever going to use that word to describe any of them. Blood splatter and the look of the Cosa Nostra usually revoked any sense of cute from their description. But, somehow, Lorenzo still retained it. He might be the cutest, but I’d heard he was the kinkiest, too. “You have a party upstairs,” he said. “Why don’t you go join it?” “I have to murder Ace first, then I will.” “Ace is busy.” “I’ll wait until he’s free.” I needed a second to collect my thoughts anyway. Not until I’d snuffed out that pretty fire in your eyes. A cold shiver erupted at the base of my spine. What did that mean, exactly? Distracted, I tried to step around Lorenzo, but he blocked my path again. “Go upstairs, Gianna.” Tara’s mischievous look came to mind. With a singsong lilt in my voice, I asked, “What’s in my husband’s office that I’m not supposed to see?” “Nothing.” “Oh, Lo, I know you can’t help it, but has anyone told you, you’re transparent?” I rolled my eyes and pushed past him. John stood beside the office door, one hand clasping the other wrist in front of him. He wasn’t Italian, and therefore could never be sworn in as a Made Man, but he’d been a trusted man of my husband’s since I’d met him and would probably always be. “New hairdo?” I asked, glancing at his bald head. It was an ongoing joke between us. A small smile came to his lips. “Borrowed some of Lorenzo’s hair gel.” I could feel Lo’s eyeroll behind me. “Ah, well, I like it.” I winked. I grabbed the doorknob, but John’s voice stopped me before I could open it. “Gianna.” I looked at him to see a somber expression staring back. At this point, I knew what lay beyond the door, but I was so tired of running from it for the last year. My thoughts reflected in my eyes, and he tipped his chin in understanding. I opened the door and strolled inside. She sat on the couch, one leg crossed over the other, a textbook open on her lap. When she looked up and saw me, she dropped her pen and stared. “Hello, Sydney.” She swallowed. “Gianna.” “Don’t mind me,” I said, sitting on the couch beside her and grabbing the TV remote. “I’m waiting for Ace. I just need to kill him, and then I’ll be on my way.” She nodded like she completely understood. I flicked through the channels, settling on my favorite soap opera, and pulled my legs up beside me. Sydney’s discomfort wafted from her like a heavy perfume. She shifted in her blue scrubs, and I realized she must have come straight from the hospital. She worked as a phlebotomist to put herself through nursing school. I was surprised she still insisted on working—I knew Antonio wouldn’t hesitate to pay her way. “Gianna . . .” She hesitated, thick emotion laced through her voice. “I don’t know what to say to tell you how sorry I am for everything.” Betrayal twisted my heart in a brutal grip. It was the same thing she’d said in a hundred emails, voicemails, messages, and a couple of personal visits I’d quickly ended. Say something too many times and it becomes meaningless. “If I could go back and change how things happened—” “No, no, no,” I muttered, shaking my head at the TV. “Don’t sleep with Chad. He screwed around with Ciara behind your back last week!” Sydney’s attention went to the TV before frustration heated her cheeks. “I know you, Gianna, and I know you aren’t so indifferent, not to me.” Bitterness stung my throat. “You do know me. You know more about me than I have ever shared with anyone else. And that is why I can’t forgive you, Sydney.” I’d taken a few college courses when I married and moved to New York. “It will help you get a feel for the city,” Antonio said. I was in awe of his generosity, the freedom he’d granted me, which I had never experienced before. That was where I met Sydney. I remembered the hours we spent squished together on her dorm room bunk bed, staring at the ceiling and talking about life. It was the first meaningful friendship I’d ever had. And when it ended, it wasn’t the first time my heart had been ripped out. My chest had felt hollow since I was five years old, and sometimes, where emotions should be, there was only numbness. Some called it depression. I called it life. “You know what he’s like,” she said softly. I did know. I knew so well I actually felt sorry for her, but it did nothing to remove the image of him and her together. Or the knowledge they’d been seeing each other for a year now, without any regard to how it would make me feel. “I didn’t mean for anything to happen. I felt sick about the whole thing—” “This topic is positively boring,” I sighed. “I know, let’s talk about how my husband is in bed.” She made a noise of frustration. “Stop doing this. Stop pretending you don’t care.” “You want some honest emotion from me? Fine.” The words poured from my lips without any sentiment. “I hate you. I hate you for what you did. I hate you for still doing it. And I hate you for acting as though I’m in the wrong here. You’re dead to me, Sydney. Is that enough emotion for you?” You’re dead to me. You’re dead to me. You’re dead to me. It resounded in the room on an undying loop, like the skipping of a scratched record. Her face lost all color, and her voice was so quiet it sounded nearly inaudible. “I’m so sorry for what I did to you.” “So am I,” I whispered, resigned. Silence reached out to consume us both. It masqueraded as a calm, peaceful entity, but it couldn’t conceal a volatile edge. We sat in that uncomfortable, deceitful silence. It was her punishment. It was just my existence. She worked on her homework with a shaky hand, and I watched my show while trying not to regret the words I’d said. But I did. They already haunted me, and she wasn’t even dead yet. Fifteen minutes later, Antonio burst into the room with Ace on his heels. They were arguing about something, but as soon as they noticed our presence, they both stopped to stare. I guessed a wife and a mistress sitting side-by-side was a perplexing sight. I aimed to make it more confusing. I smiled. “Aren’t you going to wish your wife a happy birthday?” “Jesus,” Ace muttered. “We don’t have time for this right now.” I shot him a narrowed gaze. “You know what I don’t have time for? You!” It was an immature response I didn’t think through, as I did have some free time, considering I had no job and not a single responsibility, and that thought was clearly conveyed in Ace’s dry expression. Father and son stood beside one another. Together, they could double as a brick wall. An unyielding force of nature. Or something someone might pray to. My husband’s gaze coasted from me to Sydney and, in a twisted, disgusting way, I thought he liked seeing us together. I hadn’t touched him since last October, since I’d told him I wouldn’t. But he was getting more persuasive as the days went on, and I was beginning to ache for human contact. For hands and lips on my skin; to lose myself in a sheen of sweat and lust. The desire grew stronger every day, and I knew he was only biding his time until it became unbearable. Antonio might smack me around sometimes, but he had never tried to rape me. My guess was that was a sin he’d be too ashamed to confess. Or, more likely, he thought my resistance was a game I was close to losing, and he was going to feel immense satisfaction when he won. Thankfully, the way he watched Sydney and me was making me a bit nauseous. I got to my feet and straightened my dress. “Is there a reason you’re not celebrating with the people upstairs who came here for you?” Antonio asked. “Yes, actually, there is. To shoot Ace. Since I’m not currently armed, I’ll let you do the honors.” He rolled his eyes and headed to his desk. “Appease my wife, son. It is her birthday.” I turned to Nico, triumph sparkling in my eyes like a sibling who had just won a battle. But that was a slightly awkward comparison, considering we’d had sex. Nico shook his head, and then walked to the door and opened it. “You have a second to say what you need to. And you’re not fucking shooting me.” “We’ll see,” I muttered, passing him as I walked out the door. My bare feet touched the cool concrete in the hall just as the first pop cut through the air. A draft hit my face, a ring sounding in my ears. John slumped to the floor with a solid thunk. I stared at the splatter of red that slid down the wall in front of me. My breath escaped me in one rush as someone slammed me to the wall, covering me with their body. Pop. Pop. “Fuck,” Nico growled, smacking the wall beside my head. He whirled around, pressing his back to my front. The sound of three close gunshots cut through the air. They rang in my ears and vibrated in my bones. Something wet and warm soaked through my dress. I touched the spot and brought my fingers up to my face. Red coated my hand like paint. So much blood. “Ace,” I breathed. “Oh, my god, Ace.” My hand shook. Someone grabbed my wrist and shoved me into my husband’s office. “Do not leave this room under any circumstance,” Antonio said. The darkness in his soul had leaked into his eyes, filling them with black. He slammed the door, and I fell back a step, finding balance. “Oh my god, Gianna!” Sydney hurried over to me. “Where are you hurt?” She ran her hands over my arms and midsection while I stared blankly at the door. When she didn’t find a scratch, she breathed, “Whose blood?” “Ace’s.” “Oh, my god.” A pop sounded from outside the door, one after the other, and then it went quiet. So quiet my heartbeat pulsed in my ears. She eyed the door. “No, Sydney,” I warned. Turmoil flickered through her gaze. “I can help.” “No.” Urgency filled my voice. “You heard Antonio.” Tears filled her eyes, one escaping her bottom lashes. “I have a bad feeling, Gianna . . .” “You love him.” “Yes,” she cried. “I don’t want to live without him.” She took a step toward the door, but I grabbed her wrist. I wouldn’t let her sacrifice herself for love. I couldn’t. Love wasn’t worth it. Love hurt. I tightened my grip when she tried to knock my hand away. But then the lights went out, and darkness descended on us, with reaching, searching, cold fingertips. A strangled sound of protest escaped my lips, and I was eight years old again. Don’t you ever shut up, girl? Disgrace. Worthless. Unlovable. Whore. My lungs tightened, constricting. Her wrist slipped from my grasp and disappeared into the darkness. You’re dead to me. “No,” I cried, as I dropped to my knees and fought to breathe. Sydney got her wish. She didn’t have to live without him. On my twenty-third birthday, I became a widow of one. 24 years old August 2015 “CAN YOU FEEL IT? TH