Darkness pulled around the edges of the night, the moon half-hidden behind the clouds and casting an eerie glow. Vivian reached up and pulled a long curly strand of her dark hair behind her ear. The sound of her heels clipped against the sidewalk as she picked up her languid walk to a hurried almost-jog.
Joe would kill her if he knew she was in the worst parts of town that late at night. If her husband was anything, he was overly protective where his family was concerned. A smile touched her lips as she thought of his doting. The hardest bastard in all of the city, and yet with her he was nothing but a softy, a lover.
She turned her head subtly as the sound of someone taking a step behind her caused her heart to jolt. She was tough and had been taught to fight alongside the other members of their syndicate, but her fear was palpable nonetheless. Being the Don’s wife left her open to danger around every turn. She wouldn’t have given it a second thought if the events of the week hadn’t led her to worry about one of their own being after them.
She needed to talk with Joe, and wanted to put him on alert. If a knife landed in his flesh, it would be in the strong muscles of his back, because there was a rat. She finally had all of the evidence to prove it and she would — that night.
“Give me your purse.”
“Go fuck yourself, creep.” Vivian swung her purse toward the behemoth that stepped in front of her, the guy moving with ease. The hoodie he wore covered his face, dark hair falling across the shadows of his forehead. No way was she giving him the bag that held the perfect present for Joe. She’d been searching for days for the cuff links that he wanted, and the mugger in front of her was close to getting a bullet in his skull if he didn’t back off.
“I’d rather fuck you, beauty.” He moved forward, reaching toward her and pushing hard. She lost her footing, stumbling backward in to a dark alley, the half-moonless night doing nothing to help her gain her bearings. She tried to lift her hands, but a small crack in the dilapidated concrete beneath caused her to lose her balance.
She yelped and fell backward, the sound of her high heel cracking pissing her off. She hit the ground, and he dove forward, his large body crashing into hers. As she opened her mouth to scream, thick fingers covered her mouth, and her dark hair was yanked to the side, exposing the long line of her neck. She gagged against the smell of burned popcorn and musk.
The hot press of his tongue dragged across her throat, and she jerked away from him as bile rose up her chest. Not thinking too much about it, she pressed her mouth against his fingers and sank her teeth into his flesh. The taste of skin left her needing to empty the contents of her stomach.
He removed his hand for one minute, and she yelled into the night. “Do you know who my husband is? He’s going to fucking slaughter you.”
The guy laughed and slapped her hard across the face. The force of his strike smacked her head against the concrete beneath, stealing her breath and blurring the world.
Through hazy eyes she watched him reach down to undo his belt as he grunted low in his chest. A few other shadows crossed their path, but she couldn’t make out if it were others coming to join them or not.
“I hope he’ll try. You, my little doll, are just the bait we need. Moan if you like. This is the last fuck you’ll get this side of the alley.”
“Help,” she whispered as dizziness pulled her into the darkness. Warm liquid coated the back of her head. She tried to reach out and slap him away as he tugged at her dress, exposing her thighs to the cold night air.
She whispered for help again as confusion washed over her.
Why was she on the ground? Who were the men standing around her laughing?
A few faces registered somewhere in the depths of her mind, a remembrance at seeing them at her dinner table at the mansion.
Her eyes closed as a large man lifted her up from the ground, her arms and legs limp. Air was so difficult to access, and the world closed in around her. Darkness raged below the surface of her thoughts, and she tried hard to keep her mind on Joe and the kids, their lives giving her light as the night raged a war around her that she didn’t seem to think she’d survive.
Eventually her mind gave way to memories as she slipped from consciousness. The depravity of what happened that night was lost on her as her life quietly slipped from its host.
Joe tapped his fingers on the large cherrywood desk before him, his eyes moving from his bourbon to the clock on the wall. His wife should have been home hours ago. It was his birthday, and she had been quite excited earlier to have dinner together and then talk by the pool over dessert.
Her mention of a gift had set him off though. His only desire was for her to be at home, safe with him. He shouldn’t have been so gruff with her on the phone, his words still ringing in his ears hours later as he had chided her without cause.
As she always did, she’d brushed him off, her voice sweet and yet holding with it the strength to put him in his place. Only she was allowed to speak to him with full familiarity. The kids were allowed to as well, to some extent, but his wife held the keys to his kingdom. He looked up at the sound of a feminine voice, hope growing in his chest as his office door opened.
“Is Mother in here? I need to talk with her for a few minutes before I go for my swim.”
Joe shook his head, sighing loudly and running his fingers through his salt and pepper hair. He stood and rolled his shoulders, his daughter, Izabella, a stunning replica of her mother at twenty-eight. Why she wasn’t married off to the most eligible bachelor was a mystery to him. Maybe she was too intimidating, too tough, too calloused.
Good. A strong woman was hard to find.
“No, she isn’t here yet.” He motioned for her to come closer. “Is D still at the hospital with his mother?”
“I don’t know. I’ll call and check on him.” She glanced up at the clock on the wall. “Call Mom. We were supposed to eat dinner at eight for your birthday.”
“We were, but she’s not made it back. Your mom is a tough woman. I’m sure she’s fine.” Joe reached out and pinched his daughter’s chin softly. His concern wasn’t just for Vivian, but for D’s mother, Maria, as well. The woman had become vitally important over the years. Almost too important. His infidelities weighed heavily on him, but he pushed them aside. He would ensure that Vivian was safe and then focus on his dying mistress in the hospital. She deserved at least one more visit from him.
Izzy moved closer and gave him a kiss on the cheek. “You’re worried, Dad. I can tell.”
“Fuck yes, I’m worried. She has thirty more minutes before I send the boys out and search the city.” He released her and picked up his glass.
“I’m sure she’s fine. She’s as smart as you and as vicious as me.” Izabella winked and turned, walking out of the room without another word.
Joe emptied his glass in one long swig and sat it down next to a picture of his bride. “If anything has happened to you, baby, I’ll gut this city from one end unto the other until I bathe in the blood of the ones responsible.” He took a shaky breath, his stomach flipping over as his chest burned.
Vivian was never late.
Something was wrong.
Four Days Later
The rain that fell from the heavens was more than appropriate, but it always was in the midst of death and despair. Having lived a life of crime for as long as someone might be expected to remember, I never could quite comprehend why it was so painfully fresh and new each time it occurred.
I stood next to the large oak tree that bent carefully over the top of the graveside. The Don had picked out the plot years ago when I first came to work for him, but never in a million years had I expected us to use the damned thing so soon.
The earlier part of the day had been filled with business, everyone trying to act as if their pain was able to be masked in normality. Only when we headed to the old, historical Saint Mary’s Cathedral on the east side of Chicago did the truth set in.
The occasional joke had been offered as I drove Joseph “Don” Castaletta and his son Marco to the old cemetery, but it was a ruse, a facade of sorts. Death seemed a far cry from the life we lived. We served it up regularly but always declined its age-old invitation to dance.
Today a different tale was being told on far too many levels.
The weekend before had been the marking of madness, a time of loss far greater than I could remember. My own mother had passed in the hospital with my younger brother, Drake, by her side four days earlier. My poor father had died many years before that day.
A sigh left me as I stood there, and I closed my eyes and drew comfort from Drake’s visit a few days before as the memory of seeing him again assaulted me.
I let my head drop as I paced the floor just in front of the fireplace. My apartment was tucked away from everyone, and only Izzy knew where it was. Drake stood quietly from his place on the couch and walked over, reaching out and gripping my shoulders tightly.
Not only was our mother gone, but now Vivian Castaletta too. Fate was an ugly bitch with far too much time on her hands.
“Hey. We’ll figure out who did it, D.” Drake dropped his hands as I tugged away from him.
“No. I’ll figure it out. This is my fucking problem. You can’t get involved, or all hell’s going to break loose.” I shrugged and slumped down into a chair next to us, needing my space.
Getting Drake involved would make things so much better for me, but he had a new life, a new girl, a fresh start, and it had come at a price. After working so hard to tuck him away from Joe, I wasn’t about to bring him back into the fray.
“Did you tell the girl where you were going?” I glanced up as my chest filled with hard emotion. Drake had been looking for the right woman since we were kids, and finally in Bar Harbor he’d found her. An Italian girl, Sicily, and she could bake like Mama used to. She was a beautiful girl to say the least. I’d warned him not to let the girl know about our past, our family, or our nefarious dealings. Unfortunately, lying meant leaving unanswered questions for those we loved the most.
“No, D. I did as you told me to. I’m sure she’s pissed, but I’ll deal with that later.” Drake let out a long sigh. “Tell me what I can do to help you.”
“Call Izabella, and tell her that I’m in love with her. Tell her to come over here and let me hold her. I know she’s in pain, but…” I growled loudly and ran my fingers through my hair. “Fuck!”
“Stop being an idiot, and just tell Izabella how you feel. You lost Mama yesterday, and she lost hers too. Don’t you think that both of you suffering such an incredible loss could bring you together completely?”
“Yeah, but is that what I really want for her? I’m stuck in this life. I’m praying that as she gets older she turns from it. I could tuck her away like I did you. She could find a good man to help her heal past all the shit she’s seen. Fuck Joe for making her the enforcer of our syndicate. She’s whoring herself out and hunting down the most horrible motherfuckers. All in the name of family.” I let out another long sigh as my heart constricted painfully in my chest. I was ice cold toward everyone but Izabella. I wanted to be indifferent toward her, but she’d captured my heart and most of my soul by the time we were old enough to realize what was happening. I couldn’t remember another woman in my life meaning anything thanks to her. “For the first time in a long time, I don’t know what the fuck to do.”
“Just be there for her, D. That’s all you can do. You can’t make Izzy’s decisions for her. She’s a grown woman and a vicious one, I might add.”
I glanced up with a warning on my face. “Watch it.”
“Fuck you. She’s my sister. I’ll say whatever the hell I want to.” Drake lifted an eyebrow. The little bastard was challenging me. I loved it.
“You’re right.” I shrugged and glanced toward the clock. “I need to get back over to Joe’s. Go back to your girl. Helping you find a real life is the only thing in my long life that I’m proud of.”
Drake reached down and tugged me up, pulling me into a tight hug as he patted my back like Mom used to. “I’m sorry for taking you away from her. The damned day’s mostly over.”
“It’s all right. I’ll explain it to her.”
“Protect Izzy, Drake. You know as well as I do that not everything that’s buried stays dead. One day things might shift. You ready if they do?” I knew without a doubt that we’d face a day where Joe broke the silence over me helping my brother disappear from the syndicate. That was a day I’d have to decide who meant more: Joe or Drake.
“When they do?” Drake moved back and slid his hands into his jean pockets.
“Not really, but who is prepared when their world blows up?”
“Not me. Obviously.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “I’ll give you a ride to the airport.”
“Nah. Call me a cab. You need to get back over to the Castaletta mansion where you belong. Just treat Izzy like a sister and love on her without expecting anything back in return.” Drake walked toward the door but paused to glance over his shoulder. “Be safe, Bro.”
“Yeah. Love you.” I nodded and picked up the phone.
“Same. Watch your back since I’m not here to do it.”
“No, you’re not here to do it, are you, you bastard?” I brushed my fingers over my lips and looked around at my syndicate family, which including some of my own blood-kin.
My older sister and cousin were sitting together near the back of the grassy hill where a large black tarp covered everyone at the service. The Castaletta family, both those involved in the syndicate and those from, afar sat quietly, the women crying and the men simply staring at their hands or perhaps their shiny shoes, most likely hoping that the heartache might soon be over.
I scanned the crowd again for Izzy, needing to check on my favorite obsession.
There. My stomach constricted as warmth raced through me. She had no clue just how lost to her I was. Nor would she ever.
Her long, dark chestnut hair held a soft curl, and her eyes were red and swollen from crying too many tears. How she was capable of being so damn beautiful in the midst of her despair, I would never know.
I shifted uncomfortably, removing my gaze from her and trying to focus on the preacher before my thoughts took me to places I’d be mortified to go to in the middle of a funeral. She needed comfort, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how well I could provide a reprieve for her.
The preacher man spoke some words from the good book and then asked Joe if he would like to say a few words. The Don stood and walked with his slight limp to the head of the casket, taking his time. His salt and pepper hair moved from the force of the wind that kicked up as he placed his worn hands on the shiny wood and paused. He looked down at the box that held his beloved Vivian and smiled as if they were having a conversation all to themselves. His words were few, but they held the depths of who I understood the man to be. He was always touting three things to anyone who would listen.
Family. Money. Love. Today would be no different.
“There are only a few things in life that have the right or ability to lift you to the highest of peaks and then in the next moment kick you in the gut and slam you into the hardness of the ground: Family. Money. Love. I’d have to say that for me, Vivian was my heart, the reason I got up some mornings when it was just too damn hard, ya know?” He looked up, and everyone nodded and mumbled in agreement.
I caught my old friend’s eye and held the stare to assure him that he wasn’t alone in that moment. Joe had been in my life for as long as I could remember. My father, Papa Big, had grown up with Joe, and the two were like brothers, leaving me to accept the protection of Don Castaletta when my dad died.
No one would hurt for Vivian’s death more than Joe, and yet we all would feel the weight of it. Izzy, Marco, and Freddy sat huddled together on the front row, their mother’s passing and their father’s heaviness clearly weighing on them.
“Vivian will be missed by me and I know by all of you. She gave me three beautiful children and helped me raise them to be every fucking thing we thought they outta be, and they are. She was kind and gentle, loving and mean like a snake when she needed to be.”
More mumbles went around, and a soft laugh bubbled up in the crowd.
Joe smiled and nodded at everyone. “If today had just been about the passing of a beautiful woman, then we’d celebrate, but it’s not. It’s about someone in this fucking city thinking they have the right to steal our crown jewel. It’s about someone thinking that they can come into my house and take from me the one thing that belonged to me alone.”
The emotion that flowed freely was anger, and the priest backed up a little. Joe was known for being the most generous of bastards in the city—and yet the most deadly.
A time of retribution and retaliation was coming.
When we had the ability to pinpoint who was going to suffer for what was done to Vivian, it was going to be a bloodbath. Joe placed his hand on the casket again as the rain shifted and sprayed him. He looked fierce and ready to take on the whole damned city if necessary, but his expression only mimicked the battle cry we all felt deep inside for justice to be served swiftly.
“We will find them, baby. We’ll find them, and I’ll kill every last motherfucker that was involved. Before I join you in the ground, we will avenge your death.”
“Yeah!” one of the syndicate brothers yelled from the back row, a few others joining in.
Joe looked up at everyone and nodded. “Yeah.”
They all yelled their agreement but me. I was far too lost in my thoughts. How someone could be ballsy enough to hit Don Joseph Castaletta, a name that shook fear across the United States and half of the countries we dealt with overseas, was beyond me. It was almost unbelievable, and yet there we stood, burying our matriarch.
I glanced up to Joe’s dark green eyes boring into me. A look of question stained his aging face.
A simple nod added my agreement to the Don’s statement. There would be no one else at the front of the search for Vivian’s killers outside of me, Joe, and Izzy, and everyone gathered to say goodbye knew it.
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