Authors: Michelle St. James
Tags: #Romance, #Erotica, #New Adult, #Adult, #Contemporary Romance
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright 2015 by Michelle St. James aka Michelle Zink
All rights reserved.
Cover design by Isabel Robalo
Formatting by Caitlin Greer
Angelica assumed she was just being paranoid. She’d run errands before her shift at the Muddy Cup, stopping at the grocery store, picking up the heeled boots she’d sent in for repair, and paying a past due parking ticket. None of it was unusual for a Wednesday afternoon, but she’d had the heeby-jeebies all day, dogged by the feeling that someone was watching her. She was relieved to finally step inside the coffee shop that night. Surrounded by the overstuffed sofas, old chairs, and worn counter, her paranoia faded into the background.
She’d been working at the local coffee shop since before graduation, and while she knew deep down that she needed to figure out a long term plan, she couldn’t seem to take a step in any direction. She was paralyzed, frozen and embarrassed by the post-grad apathy she despised in her generation.
She spent the next few hours slinging coffee drinks and retrieving the key that everyone seemed determined to leave inside the bathroom. By closing time, she’d completely forgotten her earlier unease and was contentedly mopping the floors when her cell phone rang. She pulled it from the pocket of her jeans, smiling when she saw the name on the display.
“Hey, loser,” she said, propping the phone between her ear and shoulder while she continued mopping.
“Very funny.” Her brother, David, laughed on the other end of the phone. “Especially since you’re still working that shitty job.”
“Touche,” she said. “What’s up?”
“Not much. Just finished mid-terms.”
She reached back to tighten the hair tie holding her long, blonde hair in a half-assed ponytail. “Fun.” She hesitated. “Is everything okay?”
She and David were close, but they usually texted. Calling was reserved for relationship and life crisis.
“Yeah, sure.” He said it a little too quickly, then sighed. “Have you heard from Dad?”
“Not for a couple of weeks. Why?”
“I don’t know,” he said. She could almost see him drumming his fingers, an old habit from childhood, on the beat up desk in his dorm room. “I left him some messages. He hasn’t called me back.”
She chewed on her thumbnail, measuring her words. David’s relationship with their father had been strained since David came out last year. In an age when it seemed everyone and their mother had accepted homosexuality as no big deal, their old-school, Italian father could barely look David in the eye. She hated it, but there was nothing she could do about it other than make her feelings known. Which she’d done. On several occasions.
Their relationship had been distant since he sent them to boarding school after their mom died, but David’s admission had only increased the tension. Their father was avoiding both of them now, and Angelica spent half the time thinking he could go fuck himself and the other half desperately trying to come up with a way to bridge the gap.
People will tell you who they are if you listen.
It was one of her father’s favorite sayings, and she was still trying to figure out if he hadn’t yet told her, or if she was just too stubborn to believe what he was saying.
“Well, if it makes you feel any better,” she said, “I haven’t heard from him in at least that long.”
“It doesn’t,” David said. “I’m sorry.”
She used the mop handle to push the wheeled bucket toward the kitchen. “It’s not your fault Dad’s a homophobe.”
He laughed, but it sounded hollow to her ears. “Good point. So what else is new?”
She balanced the phone on her shoulder while she wrung out the mop and dumped the water. “Literally nothing. My life is about as exciting as watching paint dry.”
He seemed to hesitate before speaking again. “You can change that, you know.”
She sighed. “Yeah. I just don’t know what to do next.”
“You have a degree,” he said.
“In Philosophy.” It felt like the punchline to a bad joke, and she laughed as she turned on the faucet.
“True, but I’m sure you could find a job somewhere. You could teach. Maybe overseas?”
She thrust her hands under the hot water. “Maybe. I’ll figure it out.”
“If you say so. Just promise me you’ll get out of there, Ange.” David always used the nickname, even though everyone else called her Angie. Everyone but her father, who used her given name, Angelica. “You’re too good for them.”
“Now you’re just kissing my ass,” she said.
He laughed. “You wish.”
For a split second she could see the smile on his face, and she missed him so much it hurt.
“Visit soon?” she asked.
“I’ll see you next month at Thanksgiving.”
“Sounds good. I love you.”
“Love you, too,” he said.
She hung up and slipped the phone in her pocket, then grabbed her jacket, turned out the lights, and headed for the door.
It was only eleven, but the streets were nearly empty. She remembered what David had said about mid-terms. All the state colleges were on the same schedule, which meant business would be slow for at least the next week.
It was late October, but winter was a ghost in the air, and she drew her jacket more tightly around her body as she turned to lock the door. She had just put the key in the lock when she felt the gun against her temple.
“Move and you’re dead.”
She felt a pinch in her neck just before some kind of bag came down over her head. Then everything went dark as unconsciousness claimed her.
Nico Vitale was kneeling in one of the pews at St. Monica’s, praying for his mother and father. They’d been gone two years, but the pain of losing them still lingered. He had only been twenty-eight when they’d been killed, and he’d expected to have them for many more years, to give them the daughter-in-law and grandchildren they had wanted.
Their future had been stolen. From all of them.
He forced down the fury that had become all too familiar. Anger was good. Productive. It’s what drove him to seek justice, to right the wrong perpetrated against his family, against the honor code that had survived decades under the rule of some of history’s most violent men.
But this wasn’t the place for anger. This was the place for peace. Repentance. He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself.
His mother had always gone to St. Patrick’s, but Nico made a point of moving around the city, sitting in any church with an open door. He liked the anonymity of it. Liked knowing that no one would know him or remember his parents.
His faith was only a shadow of the belief that had sustained them. Nico didn’t believe in the edicts of the Church. It had been organized by man to benefit man. He worshipped his own god, and his god didn’t turn the other cheek. He might forgive, but that forgiveness didn’t preclude a punishment justly earned. Still, he liked to sit in silence and remember, to send love to his parents, wherever they were, and to stand on the side of any god who believed in vengeance.
He was reciting the Lord’s Prayer when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He instinctively shook off the hand. When he turned to see who had interrupted him, he was even less pleased.
“What is it, Dante?” He forced his voice even as he took in the leather jacket and jeans worn by the man in front of him. A dress code was part of Nico’s organizational reboot, but keeping cool was a point of pride, part of his mission to remake his father’s business for the twenty-first century. And having a reputation for being calm only made him more formidable when the situation called for his wrath.
Dante shifted in his seat, his face flushed, eyes feverish with excitement. “We got her,” he said. “We got the girl.”
Nico looked around before tipping his head at the church’s massive double doors. “Not here.”
Dante stood, hurrying down the aisle. Nico followed slowly, letting the peace of the church wash over him as he made his way out the door.
He took his time following Dante down the steps of the church. When they reached the sidewalk, they stepped back to stand near an adjacent building.
“Any trouble?” Nico asked.
Dante shook his head. “She didn’t see it coming.”
Nico didn’t like the note of excitement in Dante’s voice. Nico’s father had ingrained old-fashioned chivalry in his bones, and Nico never sanctioned hurting women. These kinds of things were a necessary part of doing business, not something he enjoyed.
“You didn’t hurt her.” It wasn’t a question.
Dante sighed, and Nico caught a hint of annoyance in the other man’s face before he could hide it. “We did it just like you said. Knocked her out, put her in the van, took her to the basement. She’s fine.”
Nico nodded. “Good. Make sure she’s comfortable.”
“Comfortable?” Dante’s laugh was bitter. “Why do we care if that bitch is comfortable?”
Nico clamped a hand on Dante’s shoulder and squeezed until he flinched. “We don’t call women bitches in this organization. Ever. Understand?”
Dante nodded, his eyes lit with the fire of indignation.
“Good.” Nico released his grip. “Now go make the pick-up.”
“Will do.” Dante rolled his shoulders, like doing so would free him of Nico’s grip when they both knew only death or dishonor would do that. “Want a ride back to the office?”
“No.” He didn’t owe Dante an explanation.
Dante nodded and headed for the car double parked at the curb. Nico watched him get in and drive away. He waited for the car to disappear into traffic before he started walking.
Dante was a problem. Nico understood it, but he was still trying to settle on a strategy for dealing with it. He knew Dante resented him. That Dante believed his father, Gabriel Santoro, should have been Underboss to Nico’s father before his death. If that had been the case, Dante’s father would be Boss now, and Dante himself would be the crown prince of the New York territory.
Instead, a year before his death Nico’s father had inexplicably turned to Nico, pleading with him to step in as Underboss. Only twenty-seven at the time, Nico wasn’t ready to take on the mantle of responsibility held by his father. He didn’t even believe in the mob. Not the way it was then; stealing and killing and raping in the name of money. In the name of power.
But his father had been unsettled. Even Nico, as young and wrapped up in himself as he’d been at the time, could see that. And his father -- his family -- meant everything to him. So he’d gotten his act together and joined the business, learning it from the inside out. He was just beginning to feel like he had a handle on the basic operations when his parents were murdered, execution style, outside the restaurant where they’d met over three decades ago. They had been celebrating their thirty-second anniversary.
Nico had spent the two years since remaking his father’s legacy. Raneiro Donati, head of the Syndicate that acted as governing body to criminal organizations all over the world, had stepped in as a mentor and father figure, guiding Nico through the early stages of grief and the rage that threatened to undo him. Gradually, Nico had found a focus for his fury, and he’d poured every ounce of his energy into targeting that focus and reimagining his father’s legacy.
Some of Nico’s soldiers embraced the change. Others, like Dante, clung to the old ways. Nico understood, but the reorganization wasn’t optional. They would comply or they would be gone.
Nico didn’t like taking the girl. A decade ago, something like that would be off the table, a blatant breaking of rules that had been in place since before the Syndicate formally existed. But nothing could be rebuilt without first dismantling the rotting foundation of what had come before.
And unfortunately, the girl was part of that foundation.
He checked for traffic on 2nd Avenue and crossed just before a taxi barreled through the intersection. He felt liberated by his time at the church. Lighter on his feet. Maybe he would call one of the women who acted as a physical companion when he felt the urge.