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eLit Book Awards
GOLD MEDAL Erotic Fiction
GOLD MEDAL Suspense/Thrillers
Sergei Andronikov was a child when the Mafia wiped out his family, leaving him with nothing but a hunger for revenge. Years later, through ruthless strategy and tireless patience, he’s a contract killer working for the three families ruling Cape Swan… and he’s nearly in position to bring them all down from the inside.
Domenico “Dom” Maisano is Mafia royalty, a made man… and a hitman. He’s caught up in a violent life he can’t escape, struggling to maintain an image he doesn’t want, and suppressing desires he can’t have.
A chance encounter throws the killers into each other’s paths. Though Dom knows he’s playing a dangerous game, he’s intrigued and keeps coming back. Sergei can’t resist him either—Dom is everything he set out to destroy, but he’s also everything he’s ever ached for in a man.
Then Sergei gets the contract he’s been waiting for—the hit that promises to bring the town’s Mafia to its knees.
But when a capo makes an unexpected move, Sergei must choose between dropping the hammer on the families he vowed to annihilate, and protecting the man he swore he wouldn’t love.
And the wrong choice—or even the right one—will destroy them both.
Sergei Andronikov hadn’t been in the guy’s lap thirty seconds, and there was already a hand on his ass.
Carefully schooling his expression—keeping the irritation well beneath the surface—Sergei batted the asshole’s hand away. This was Sergei’s fourth or fifth client of the night, and he was one of those middle-aged financial types. The kind who’d been behind a desk in a bank long enough to think he was God. Sergei hated those fucks.
But he was getting paid, so he writhed and undulated on the banker’s lap, sharing it with a sizeable paunch. And after a few beats, the hand was back, this time coming up off the armrest to caress Sergei’s hip. Before it could inch toward his ass—these fuckers were so goddamned predictable—Sergei again pushed it away, adding a playful, “No touching. That’s the rule.”
The banker grinned, revealing teeth that were flawless aside from the misfortune of being in this man’s head. “I’m paying you good money.” He placed a defiant hand firmly on Sergei’s leather-clad hip. “I’d say the rules are negotiable.”
“Actually.” Sergei dropped the playfulness as he grabbed the man’s wrist and shoved his hand away. “They’re not.”
Do it again, and you’ll be swallowing those pretty teeth.
The guy snatched Sergei’s arm, gripping it painfully. “Customer’s always right. Now you’ll—”
In a heartbeat, Sergei had him shoved back against the chair, fingers around the asshole’s throat. Blood pounded beneath the skin, one squeeze away from being cut off, and Sergei dug his knee against the man’s crotch.
“What the fuck?” the guy ground out.
“The rules are not negotiable, and this dance is over.” Sergei dug his thumb just hard enough against the banker’s jugular to make him nervous. “Now get the fuck out of here before I turn all three of the ex-Special Forces bouncers loose on your ass.” He leaned in closer. “You know what kind of ex-Special Forces guy becomes a bouncer in a gay strip club in a shitty little town like this?”
Eyes widening even more, the asshole shook his head. “N-no…”
“The kind who are too fucked up in the head to do anything else.” Sergei pushed himself up, using the stupid sap’s throat and balls for leverage and nearly tipping the chair back in the process. “Get the fuck out of here.”
The banker wisely got the fuck out of there. Probably the smartest thing he’d done all night. He’d have moved even faster if he’d known just whose ass he’d been trying to grope.
But he was gone, and Sergei still had a few hours left on his shift, so after he’d straightened his hair and clothes, he stepped out of the booth.
Roy, the burly black bouncer hovering near the entrance to the private dance booths, grinned at him. “That guy left in a hurry. You feed him that ex-Special Forces line?”
“Maybe.” Sergei batted his eyes. “You have to admit, it gets the point across.”
Roy laughed. “Well, I think you scared him good.”
“That’s the idea.” Sergei headed back out to the lounge, ignoring the creepy tingling where the asshole’s hands had landed. He was used to a lot of things in this job, but the groping still made his skin crawl. Oh well. Occupational hazard.
As he stepped up to the bar for some water, Jesse, one of the other strippers, came running up to him.
“Hey, Sergei.” Jesse grabbed his arm, eyes huge and face white. “We gotta call the cops.”
He gestured shakily at the back door. “I was outside having a smoke, and some guys pulled up. Started fucking up some dude they pulled outta the trunk.”
Oh, shit. Not here. Not this close to where I work.
“No cops.” Sergei squeezed his shoulder and started toward the back. “I’ll chase ’em off.”
“What?” Hot on his heels, Jesse said, “Dude, they’re big guys! They’re—”
“I’ve got this. Relax.”
Jesse exhaled sharply and muttered, “Your funeral.”
“I mean it.” Sergei spun around and stabbed a finger at him. “No cops.”
“Okay, okay!” Jesse showed his palms. “No cops.”
Sergei quickly went into the back, opened his locker, and pulled up the false bottom. Beneath it was a .22 pistol and an extra magazine. With those in hand, he replaced the false bottom and headed out to the back alley where the goons were apparently conducting business.
This was just not his night, was it? He’d already had to deal with the son of a bitch who couldn’t keep his hands to himself. Now there were Italians in the back alley, one of them getting his ass handed to him, and Sergei wasn’t having it. Nobody brought Mafia business this close to his club. Not unless they were there to discreetly contract him for their dirty work, and only a handful of people knew who he was or where to find him. Otherwise, the Italians were taking their lives in their own hands if they brought their kind—and potentially the cops—this close to his club.
Especially now. It had only been three days since Lorenzo Barcia’s body washed up by the docks, and up until tonight, everybody in Cape Swan had been laying low, keeping their heads down while the cops hunted for anyone who might be connected. Shit like that happened here all the time—violence was unavoidable with three Cosa Nostra families vying for dominance—but when a murder was clearly set up to send a message, it got attention. After all, though the saltwater had fucked the asshole up good, it was a safe bet he hadn’t died of natural causes. Not with his balls torn off and shoved into his fat mouth.
In the days since he’d been found, the town had been as quiet as the July heat had been oppressive. Tensions were running hot, someone was going to get blamed for that murder, and nobody wanted to be anywhere around when any bullets started flying.
Least of all the man who’d stuffed Barcia’s balls in the guy’s own screaming mouth before shoving him off the pier for the crabs to snack on.
But Sergei wasn’t in charge of what went on in this twisted little world, and now, before the shit had even begun to die down, some fucknuts were beating up some wise guy in the wrong alley. Of all the times and places, they’d decided to rough up the asshole here, on the outer edges of Cape Swan, just a few blocks down from the Pacific waterfront, behind the wrong fucking strip club.
Sergei shut the back door and barricaded it with the folding chair that his coworkers sat in whenever they smoked. This was the windowless club’s only rear exit, and he didn’t want anyone following him outside. At least the other businesses along the alley were closed this time of night. As long as a roving police officer didn’t happen by, he was in the clear to shut this bullshit down.
As soon as he’d stepped outside, Sergei knew exactly where the assholes were, as if there’d been any doubt. Their Italian-accented shit-talking made his teeth grind—way to be subtle, guys. Two men had a third backed up and bloody against the bumper of a late model Cadillac, and they weren’t done with him. A punch doubled the poor fucker over, and he grunted and wheezed as they hauled him upright again.
Gun in hand, Sergei strode across the gravel. He knew he hardly cut an imposing figure—he was half their size, for one thing, and his skintight red leather shorts and crop top weren’t exactly the stuff of nightmares. Fine. They didn’t need to be intimidated.
One turned and did a double take. He snapped his fingers and pointed toward the club, as if Sergei were a stray dog who’d come to investigate the noise. “You! Get the fuck outta here, fag.”
Sergei continued his approach. “How about you idiots get the fuck out of here.”
The second man muttered something as he lowered his fist, which he’d probably been about to shove into the third guy’s gut. “You got a problem, fag?”
“Yeah, I do.” Sergei stopped, keeping the gun at his side. “How about you assholes take this somewhere else?”
The first rolled his eyes. “Or what?”
Sergei nodded toward the unfortunate asshole pinned to the bumper. “Or you both get to bleed more than him.”
Both men glanced at the pistol, but laughed.
“Get out of here, fag.” The second turned and balled his fist, drawing back to punch the goon again.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Sergei raised the .22 and put a bullet through the Italian’s knee.
The first guy jumped back. “Holy shit!”
The second howled in agony and dropped to the ground.
The third, with no one to hold him up, crumpled to his knees. His head lolled a bit, and he blinked a few times, probably trying to stay conscious. He’d taken a hell of a beating. Sergei couldn’t tell how much of the blood on his knuckles was his, but it looked like he’d given as good as he’d gotten. And he was alive. That said a lot.
The one with the bullet in his knee whined and writhed on the ground beside his own victim, blood seeping through his fingers. “Pezzo di merda! Figlio di—fuck!”
Sergei faced the man still standing. “Weapons?”
“Don’t fuck with me. Weapons on the ground, or bullet through the dick.”
The uninjured Italian’s eyes widened. Hands shaking, he withdrew a pistol from inside his jacket, and a set of brass knuckles.
The man he’d been beating saw the brass knuckles and gulped.
“Put them on the ground.” Sergei gestured at the man he’d shot. “Out of his reach.”
The Italian glanced at his wounded partner, then crouched and laid his weapons where the other guy couldn’t reach them. Hands up, he stood again.
Sergei nodded sharply toward the car. “Open the trunk and get in.”
“What?” The guy laughed, a borderline hysterical sound. “You crazy? I’m not—”
Sergei leveled the gun at the goon’s face. “Get in the fucking trunk.”
His eyes widened, and his tanned Italian complexion paled. Then he shoved his would-be victim aside, sending the man crumpling the rest of the way to the ground, groaning and clutching his chest. The goon eyed Sergei and the open trunk, and then he climbed inside.
With his foot, Sergei nudged the one he’d shot. “You too. Get in.”
“What?” The Italian blinked up at him. He clutched his knee, blood soaking his pant leg and streaming from between his fingers. “I can’t walk, you fuck!”
“Stop being a pussy.” Sergei aimed the weapon at his other knee. “Or I’ll make sure you can’t crawl, either.”
The man struggled to his feet, using the car bumper for support and whimpering whenever he moved his wounded leg. He started to climb into the trunk but couldn’t bend his knee.
“Fuck. I can’t…”
Sergei shoved him unceremoniously into the trunk, and despite their significant size difference, he knocked the sobbing Italian on top of his partner. Sergei didn’t even flinch when the guy’s head smacked against the trunk lid. By the time both men were completely inside the trunk, the wounded one was howling in pain, and from the smell, Sergei was pretty sure one or the other had pissed himself.
Whatever. Wasn’t Sergei’s fault they’d chosen this alley out of all the other options in this town. He grabbed a roll of duct tape from the trunk and put a piece over the screaming man’s mouth, but it didn’t muffle him all that much.
“Shut the fuck up,” Sergei snarled. “Or your other kneecap is gone.”
The man shut up. Tears were streaming down his face, and he was hyperventilating now, but he was more or less quiet.
Sergei bound the first guy’s hands, and then put duct tape over his mouth too. Thank fucking God—another minute of his bullshit, and Sergei would’ve shot them both then and there. Even now he was tempted just to rid the world of two more Mafia scumbags like the ones who’d murdered his family.
But not here. Not this close to the club.
He slammed the trunk and turned to the other thorn in his side—the guy they’d been roughing up. Leaving him here wasn’t an option. The cops were too jumpy to ignore a battered Italian, and they’d start prowling around in this part of town. A little too close to home for Sergei’s taste.
He didn’t care if the man lived or died as long as he didn’t do it here, so Sergei crouched beside the wounded man and quietly asked, “Can you walk?”
“Let’s see if we can get you into the car.” Sergei offered him an arm, keeping his pistol firmly in his other hand in case the wise guy decided to try something funny, and helped him to his feet.
He didn’t try anything. The poor bastard probably had some busted ribs, maybe even some bleeding on the inside, judging by the way he doubled over and kept an arm around his middle. With Sergei’s help and a pained sound, he lay back across the backseat.
Sergei shut the car door and scanned the dark alley. As far as he could tell, no one was around. No one had seen a thing. He fully intended to keep it that way.
None of the men in the car were going anywhere without his help, so after he’d collected the weapons and kicked some gravel over the blood, obscuring it enough that it wouldn’t draw attention, he headed back inside. He took the chair away from the door and strolled into the club.
He found his boss by the bar, and flagged him down. “Hey, Paco. I need to step out for a bit. Take care of something.”
Paco raised his eyebrows. No doubt Jesse had told him about the shit going on in the alley. “You need a hand?”
“No, I’ve got this. Just need some time.”
Paco didn’t ask questions. People in Mafia-run towns usually didn’t—the less they knew about shady shit, the better.
With his boss’s blessing, Sergei left the club. In the car, he found a pair of leather gloves in the glove compartment and put them on so he didn’t leave any more fingerprints in or on the vehicle. Then he drove the goons’ car out of the alley and safely away from the row of clubs. He continued along the waterfront, past a deserted park and down to the marina, where he stopped.
As the engine idled, Sergei drummed the wheel and gazed in the rearview, debating how to handle the wise guy in the backseat and the two idiots in the trunk. If they hadn’t killed the guy, they were either inept, or they’d only intended to send a message. Pity for them they’d chosen the wrong post office for that message.
And one way or another, they were inept. They were also competition. More importantly, their ineptness could get them caught, and once the cops got their hands on anybody in this fucked up underworld—especially with bodies washing up on the beach—everyone remotely attached to La Cosa Nostra were in danger, and that included independent contractors like Sergei. If these morons were stupid enough to rough someone up this brazenly with a police station six blocks away, then they were a liability to everyone.
They had to go.
Sergei got out of the car. He opened the trunk, and without any fanfare or hesitation, unloaded two bullets apiece into their foreheads. Then he slammed the lid again.
As he’d done in the alley, he smeared his footprints in the gravel. With a towel he’d found beside the two dead men, he wiped every surface to make sure he didn’t leave any fingerprints on the inside or outside of the car. There could be no trace of him here; though the rounds were nearly impossible to trace and even the .22 would be in the ocean before sunrise, he took no chances.
And now he was left with the beaten up guy in the backseat. In theory, he could’ve offed him and walked away. One less Mafioso to pollute this town.
But Sergei didn’t kill indiscriminately. Even when he was absolutely certain a man was Mafia—and thus fair game for a bullet—the fact remained that offing the wrong guy could mark him for death if anyone ever connected him. He was good at covering his tracks, but he refused to take unnecessary risks.
And besides, he only committed murder under three circumstances. One, when it was a paid hit, because even for an independent contractor, saying no to the Mafia was a death sentence. Two, when he was in actual immediate danger. Three, when the mark needed to be removed from the Mafia chessboard so Sergei could push them all one body closer to extinction.
The goons technically hadn’t put him in immediate danger, but they posed a threat to Sergei and the handful of other hired guns in this town. They’d also seen his face. They’d brought Mafia business too close to where he conducted his business. They’d had to go.
That wasn’t to say his life as a stripper and his life as a contract killer never crossed. Quite the contrary—he had a very select group of contacts who met him at the club, and through a series of coded comments, gave him work that paid a hell of a lot more than making horny bankers pant. He deliberately handled his transactions there, hiding in plain sight. No one but his contacts ever saw his face, and none of the macho Mafia assholes would ever suspect a sometimes flamboyant gay stripper of being the hitman equivalent of the boogey man. The assassin they told their children about when they wouldn’t behave.
What they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.
And he wanted to get back to the club tonight, but he still had one more mess to clean up.
Sergei tilted the rearview down and studied the Italian’s still form. What little he could make out in the darkness, anyway. There was no telling exactly who the semiconscious Italian was. Well-dressed—that was not an off-the-rack suit—so he probably wasn’t just some random wise guy. Involved enough with La Cosa Nostra to take a ride in the trunk of a Cadillac and have his ass kicked in a back alley. But his name? His role? What he’d done to earn a beating like that? Anyone’s guess.
Sergei’s best bet was to let him go. Besides, the guy could be someone he actually wanted alive. Not that he wanted any Mafiosi alive, but some needed to keep breathing while Sergei continued pulling strings to move people into position within the families’ hierarchies. Once the dominoes were in a row, they’d all fall in good time, but for now, some of them needed to stay alive until the pieces were in place.
He opened the car door. “Time to go.”
The Italian groaned softly and struggled to sit up. Sergei helped him, and with some cursing and grunting, the wounded man made it out of the car.
Once he was on his feet, he leaned against the car, clutching his side. “Fuck…”
Sergei gave the man a quick down-up. This was the first chance he’d had to actually look at the guy, and surprisingly the Italian wasn’t one of the greasy, weathered assholes he was used to seeing. Even with the blood and the bruises, he had a much prettier face than most of his kind. The streetlights picked out a few strands of silver in his otherwise jet black hair, but he couldn’t have been older than forty. Mid-thirties, maybe.
And he probably had that lightly tanned olive skin like the other Mafia scumbags, but between his sickly pallor and the blood and sweat glinting beneath the milky light, it was impossible to tell.
Sergei shook himself. “You need a hospital.”
The man spat blood on the pavement. “No fucking hospitals.”
Stubborn idiot. Hospitals routinely called the cops when people came in with signs of assault and battery. When well-dressed Italians came in with signs of assault and battery? Nobody called nobody.
“You could be bleeding internally.”
“I’ll take my chances.” He shifted, wincing. “But I’d rather not stay out here.”
Sergei bit back some profanity in his native tongue. The less this guy knew about him, the better.
“Listen.” The Italian groaned, holding his side protectively. “If you’re gonna shoot me, just fucking get it over with.”
“If I was going to shoot you, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. What’s your name?”
The Italian lifted his head enough to meet Sergei’s gaze. “Who wants to know?”
Sergei rolled his eyes. “The guy who’s going to decide whether you wake up tomorrow in a hospital, a jail cell, or a morgue.”
He blinked. “Domenico Maisano.”
Sergei’s blood turned cold and he muttered, “You’re shitting me.”
Maisano laughed, but then grimaced, and managed to croak, “You’ve heard of me.”
“Yeah. I have.” Sergei knew that name well. This guy was the nephew—more like adopted son—of Corrado Maisano himself, the boss of the powerful Maisano clan. A contractor like Sergei, who worked with all three of the big families, had to tread carefully. He had no way of knowing if he’d just interrupted a sanctioned hit, albeit a sloppily executed one. If it wasn’t sanctioned, and by some chance, someone figured out he’d been the one to finish the job, he’d bring the wrath of all three families down on his own head.
Son of a bitch. All he’d wanted to do was get all this crap away from the club so the cops wouldn’t come knocking on doors. Now he had Domenico fucking Maisano on his hands.
“Can you walk or not?” he asked sharply.
The Italian groaned again. “I don’t… I don’t know.” He tried to take a step, but stumbled, and when Sergei caught him, the man gasped. “Fuck. That hurts.”
“You got a phone?”
Maisano gingerly patted his pockets, and then shook his head. “Not… not anymore.”
“Of course you don’t.” Sergei looked around. They were pretty far from town, and no one would be wandering around here this late at night. “Don’t move.”
Maisano mumbled something about that not being a problem.
Still wearing the stolen gloves, Sergei made sure Maisano hadn’t bled on the backseat—he didn’t care if Maisano was connected to the assholes in the trunk, but on the off chance someone happened by before he’d relieved himself of the limping Italian, Sergei didn’t want anyone connecting him to them.
Then he went to the trunk, opened it, relieved one of the dead guys of his phone, and slammed the lid. “Come on. We’re going for a walk.”
“Maybe you are,” Maisano said through his teeth. “Look at me.”
“Well, it’s up to you. The paramedics can find you over there”—Sergei gestured with the phone toward a park a few blocks away—“or they can find you here.” He tapped the trunk with his gloved knuckle.
Maisano’s eyes widened.
“So.” Sergei nodded toward the park. “Let’s go.”
Maisano cursed again. Then he carefully pushed himself off the car and took a few slow, painful steps. “Don’t expect me to walk fast.”
Sergei bit back his impatience. “Need a hand?”
Maisano eyed him suspiciously, but then nodded. “I could use one, yeah.”
Sergei took his elbow, and together, they shuffled toward the park.
On the way, Sergei expected questions. Who the hell was he? What the fuck was he doing interfering with Mob business?
But Maisano didn’t ask. Maybe he was in too much pain to give a damn. Or he could’ve been silently thanking one of his Catholic saints for the leather clad angel who’d swooped in and saved his ass.
Good thing he kept his mouth shut. Sergei hated questions. And Maisano could thank all the saints he wanted—he didn’t need to know he was walking with an angel of death.
Every step Dom took was agony. Thank God this kid had intervened when he did. Left to their own devices, Floresta and Mandanici may or may not have killed him, but they sure would’ve done some more damage.
Clutching his side and holding his breath, Dom stole a glance at the slight blond enigma walking beside him. He didn’t know what to make of this kid. Not a fucking clue. He had to be around twenty-five, give or take a year, and judging by his accent, he must’ve been a Russian immigrant. There were a lot of those in Cape Swan. The way he was dressed—tight red leather and not a lot of it—he was either a stripper or a hooker. Nobody in this town dressed like that unless they were selling orgasms.
He obviously wasn’t a pussy. There was no telling what he’d done to Mandanici and Floresta. Dom had been on the verge of blacking out when the kid had shown up, and he’d only just been aware of the shot that had apparently hobbled Mandanici. Then Floresta had knocked Dom to the ground, and everything that happened after that was hazy at best. Next thing he remembered, he was being guided out of the car and onto his feet, and why the fuck were they down by the marina?
“Here.” The kid gestured at a bench beside a bus stop. “Sit.”
Dom didn’t argue. With some help, he eased himself down onto the hard bench, groaning as blinding pain ripped through him. “Fuck…”
“You really need to see—”
“I’ll be fine.” Dom moistened his lips, pausing to gingerly tongue the sweet raw spot where a fist had apparently shoved the tender flesh against his tooth. It had stopped bleeding as near as he could tell. His mouth tasted metallic, so he couldn’t tell spit from blood anymore, but the wound didn’t seem too severe. And he hadn’t lost or cracked any teeth, so… He’d call it a win.
He lifted his head and blinked a few times, trying to bring his eyes into focus. Whoa. If this kid was selling sex, he was in the right line of work. He was slim and ripped, the contours of his muscles standing out thanks to the harsh overhead light. The blanched light made his bottle blond hair almost white but didn’t quite pick out the color of those intense eyes. Or maybe it was just because Dom couldn’t focus his own enough to tell if they were blue, or black, or… whatever. Piercing, that was for sure, especially coupled with those sharp Slavic features.
Dom gingerly drew a breath. “You never told me your name.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Who am I gonna tell? The cops?”
The kid glared down at him.
“You asked my name,” Dom said.
“Yeah. I did. Anyway, you’ll be good here till help shows up.”
Dom glanced at the phone in the stripper’s hand—those gloves didn’t seem like part of his ensemble—then at him. “You calling, or am I?”
“You are.” The stripper tossed him the phone. “I’m out of here.”
Dom eyed him. “You’re pretty tough for a hooker.”
He bristled. “I’m not a hooker. I’m a stripper.”
Dom didn’t laugh—his ribs wouldn’t allow it anyway, and he really didn’t want to piss off this kid till he had a better idea what he was dealing with. “My mistake.” He gestured at the piece tucked into the kid’s waistband. “Strippers always pack heat like that?”
The stripper looked at the gun as if he’d forgotten he had it, and then shrugged. “This is a shit part of town. Everyone’s armed.”
Dom glanced around. His vision was a little fuzzy and doubling around the edges. He was up the road from the marina, that much he knew. This area was all too familiar.
How the hell had he gotten here tonight? In the trunk of one car and the backseat of another, that much he knew, but at the beginning of the evening, he’d been clear on the other side of Cape Swan. He’d been parked behind an upscale restaurant, palms sweating and stomach sick over a date he didn’t want to be on, when the assholes got the drop on him. How long ago had that been? Shit. He had no idea what had happened, or when, or where…
All he knew was that he was fucked up and he needed to get out of here. He turned on the phone. It didn’t require a passcode, fortunately, and thank God he’d committed a few key numbers to memory. “Do you need me to get you a cab or something?”
He lifted his head, but the stripper was gone.
He scanned the deserted road as much as his sore muscles and shitty vision would allow, but there was no sign of the guy. Not even footsteps fading into the night.
They got ninjas working as strippers in this town or something?
Well. Whatever. He was alone now.
He shifted his gaze back to the phone, gave his eyes a second to focus, and entered a number. It rang several times, before Biaggio, his uncle’s consigliere, picked up.
The sleepy, irritated voice muttered, “Hello?”
“It’s Dom. I need help.”
He could almost hear the old man snapping to attention. “What’s going on? Are you all right? Where are you?”
“I’m… down by the marina. Couple of blocks from the gate. Banged up.”
“What? My God, what’s… Are you all right?”
“I’m… I think so? I just need to get out of here.”
“I’m on my way. Do I need to call Rojas?”
Dom knew damn well Biaggio was going to call the family’s physician either way—better safe than sorry—but he still croaked, “Yeah. Call him.”
Biaggio swore in Italian. “Where exactly are you?”
Dom gave him the intersection, and after they hung up, he leaned back against the bench, but that only aggravated the bruises on his back.
As his body ached and throbbed and threatened to just fall apart, his mind reeled. He tried not to think about everything that had happened tonight, tried not to pick apart exactly how the motherfuckers had caught him with his guard down, but that was easier said than done. It was like his brain had split into two pieces, and both sides were pulling him in opposite directions. One wanted to focus solely on staying conscious and watching for his ride. The other wanted to go back to the restaurant where his evening had started and retrace his steps. Figure out exactly when things had gone to shit. When he’d ceased to be meeting with Brigida Passantino, the woman his uncle was pressuring him to marry, and when he’d suddenly been in serious danger. And serious pain. And…here.
He rubbed his forehead, carefully avoiding the goose egg swelling near his hair line. There’d be plenty of time to retrace those steps when he got home. Biaggio had undoubtedly notified Uncle Corrado—no one in the family got roughed up without the boss knowing about it. Corrado was probably already pacing in his office, ready to grill Dom about what had happened. Or more importantly, who had happened. Who had dared to fuck with a boss’s nephew? Who was Corrado going to order dead before sunrise?
Dom was pretty sure the guys who’d fucked him up were dead already, though. The shouting and struggling in the trunk of the car had ceased after a few small caliber gunshots. Assuming he hadn’t hallucinated that part. Had he? No, he was pretty sure that had been real. Along with the red leather clad stripper who’d pulled him out of the car and then vanished. Had he been a hallucination?
Except Dom hadn’t gotten to his feet, into the car, and out of it again on his own power. Someone had been there beside him—he could still feel every tender spot the kid had touched while helping him up.
No, he’d definitely been real. And dangerous.
The back of Dom’s neck prickled. In his mind’s eye, he saw the pistol in the stripper’s waistband, the way the kid had carried it comfortably and naturally.
The gunshots echoed in Dom’s mind. There hadn’t been anyone else around. No one else could have pulled the trigger. Which meant…
But then, who else could have done it? For that matter, it didn’t take a big guy like Dom to pull a trigger, though God knew he’d pulled his fair share. A pistol made anyone, however slim and slight, physically capable of killing. If Dom could cope with putting a bullet through someone, he had no reason to believe that stripper couldn’t. And those ice cold eyes hadn’t held a trace of fear, though Dom had hardly been a threat to anyone by the time he could look at the kid’s face. Still, Dom was alive, Floresta and Mandanici were dead, and…
And who the fuck was that kid?
* * *
It seemed like hours before the sleek black car pulled up and stopped on the curb. Two doors opened. Stan, the driver, hurried around the front as Biaggio, the white-haired consigliere, stepped out of the car.
Biaggio’s eyes widened. “Domenico, what happened? Who did this?”
“Couple of Raffaele Cusimano’s thugs. I’d know… I’d know Michele Mandanici’s fucking face anywhere.” Dom held his breath as he tried to stand.
“Easy, easy.” Stan took his arm and gently helped him to his feet. “Sir, he’s bleeding and that looks like a hell of a bump on his head. Don’t you think we should take him to the—”
“No,” Biaggio snapped. “Corrado’s waiting for him. Dr. Rojas is on his way. He’ll there by the time we get back.”
Stan pursed his lips, but didn’t protest. As the driver helped him into the car, Dom questioned whether Stan and the stripper were right. Maybe he did need a hospital. But that would be for the doc to determine, and Dom wasn’t going to the ER unless it was absolutely necessary.
Inside the car, Dom closed his eyes, trying in vain to get comfortable on the luxurious leather seats.
Across from him, Biaggio was silent. Paternal concern radiated off him—he had long been more of an adoptive father to Dom than Corrado, and Dom doubted Biaggio would sleep tonight until Rojas gave Dom a clean bill of health. While Corrado raged and plotted vengeance, Biaggio would be wringing his hands about broken ribs and internal bleeding.
He said nothing, though. He undoubtedly had a million questions, but Corrado would interrogate Dom as soon as the doctor had determined he was all right. Anything Dom told Biaggio, he’d be repeating to Corrado later, so there was no point in asking now.
Thank God for that. Talking hurt. Hell, breathing hurt. Dom really wasn’t in the mood to say anything to anyone unless it involved the words “morphine” and “now.”
All the way to Corrado’s house, Dom swam in and out of darkness. He was exhausted. Completely drained. As if the adrenaline had kept him going until the car arrived, and now he was collapsing. Like both of the other car rides he’d taken tonight, this one was a blur of turns and stops and starts until Biaggio quietly said, “We’re here.”
Dom opened his eyes as Stan eased to a stop in the portico in front of Corrado’s mansion. Beyond the tinted windows, a handful of people were waiting for him. Just four that he could see, and for that, Dom was grateful. This kind of offense—two thugs kidnapping and beating a made man—certainly warranted waking everyone in the family, but Corrado must’ve known Dom wouldn’t be able to handle a crowd of angry Italians. Not until he’d had some pain pills, some sleep, some coffee, and some more pain pills, sleep, and coffee.
Among the tiny cluster of people in the portico were his uncle, of course, and Dr. Rojas, the physician who’d come any time Corrado demanded it. Like most immigrants in town, the doc was owned by the family, and he was at the beck and call of the Maisanos to show up whenever he was needed, day or night, to treat anything from a child’s ear infection to a bullet wound, all the while turning a blind eye to certain things.
Things like exactly why Corrado’s nephew-slash-adopted-son was stumbling out of a limousine with blood all over him.
Rojas looked Dom up and down, his tanned face lined with concern. “Rough night?”
“Rough night.” Dom swallowed. “You’ve got something for pain, right?”
The doctor nodded, no humor registering in his expression. “Of course. But first, I need to make sure none of your injuries are serious.” The doc inclined his head. “If there’s anything internal or broken, there’s nothing I can do here.”
“Then let’s hope there isn’t,” Dom said.
Rojas nodded. He probably hoped as much as Dom did that this could be handled with a house call—nobody liked broaching the subject of a hospital transfer with Corrado.
With Biaggio and the doctor at each elbow, Dom shuffled up the portico’s marble stairs. Aunt Marcella had set up one of the guest rooms on the first floor, and they guided him in there.
Getting his jacket and shirt off was excruciating, but with the doc’s help, he was able to strip out of them.
“Sorry they woke you up,” Dom whispered.
“It’s all right,” Rojas ground out. “I got here as soon as I could once I realized it was you.”
They exchanged glances, but let the subject drop when Corrado appeared in the doorway. Wordlessly, Dr. Rojas examined Dom, poking and prodding just right to make his vision turn white, Corrado hovered at the edge of the room, arms folded and lips taut. Biaggio paced outside, occasionally pausing to peer into the room.
Finally, the doctor gave Dom a couple of pills and let him lie down. “I don’t see any signs of internal trauma beyond some bruising. Only an X-ray will tell us for sure if any ribs are broken, but if they are, the fractures are mild and there isn’t much to be done except wait for them to heal.”
“What about his head?” Corrado asked. “That’s quite a bruise.”
“The concussion appears to be mild. I’ll come back in the morning and see how he is.” Dr. Rojas paused. “He can sleep, but check on him every couple of hours.”
“Thank you, doctor.”
They continued talking for a moment, but Dom was already starting to fade out. He had no idea if it was exhaustion or whatever was in those pills, and he really didn’t care.
Corrado touched his arm. “Your cousin will come tomorrow and bring you some fresh clothes.”
Dom nodded slowly. “Thanks.” He didn’t need to tell his uncle he’d sworn off clothing forever. There was no way it would be any less painful to dress than it had been to undress, and dressing meant eventually undressing anyway, so he was going to be a nudist for the rest of his life.
“Get some sleep, Domenico.” Corrado patted his arm gently. “We’ll discuss what happened in the morning.”
And that was the last thing Dom heard before everything went dark.
* * *
Though there’d only been a handful of people waiting when Dom arrived in the middle of the night, the house was crawling with them when he awoke the next day. That was what it sounded like, anyway. From what Biaggio told him, every Maisano within a hundred-mile radius, not to mention every lieutenant and soldier who wanted to stay in the boss’s good graces, had flocked to the mansion the minute they’d heard.
Though Dom wanted nothing more than to inhale painkillers and sleep until he was dead, he had no choice but to come out and show his face. He needed to give visual confirmation that last night’s “incident” hadn’t done any lasting damage, that he was still strong and on his feet. The longer he took to recover, the more word would spread that Floresta and Mandanici had brought him down a peg. A black eye and a cut lip were badges of honor so long as the man wearing them still faced the world like he was ready to take on an army. Image, image, image.
First things first, though—Dr. Rojas came by again to check on him. The doc was bleary-eyed and unshaven, but still looked a hell of a lot better than Dom felt.
“How are you doing?” Rojas asked as he checked Dom’s ribs.
“I’ll feel a lot better once you stop—” He hissed. “Fuck.”
“I’m not the one who beat you up.” Rojas pressed his thumb against a particularly tender spot, turning Dom’s vision white. “Don’t blame me.”
Dom tried to mutter about him being a son of a bitch, but he couldn’t breathe.
Rojas finally finished and sat back in the chair beside Dom’s bed. “You’re damn lucky they didn’t kill you.”
They locked eyes, and Rojas sighed. Nothing needed to be said. Rojas wasn’t much older than Dom, and his involvement with the family had been about as voluntary as Dom’s. They’d surreptitiously had conversations like this for years. Rojas was probably the only man on earth who knew Dom would sell his soul to get the fuck out of the Maisano clan. The doc himself felt the same way. He didn’t have a drop of Sicilian blood, but his father had essentially sold him to the Maisanos. A desperate Colombian immigrant, the senior Rojas had bargained with Corrado to send his eldest son to medical school, on the condition that the newly minted doctor would, in addition to a legitimate career, be the family’s personal physician. Of course, he’d neglected to mention this to his son until the degree had been earned, at which point Dr. Rojas was caught up in someone else’s deal with the devil.
In the past, when they were sure no one was around to listen, Dom and Rojas had confessed how much they’d love to run away from all of this. Leave Cape Swan. Change their names. Start over.
But others had tried, and they’d been found. Dom had witnessed what Corrado did to, as he called them, apostates. Those screams were lodged deep enough into his psyche to both remind him why he wanted to leave and why he didn’t dare.
Rojas cleared his throat and stood. “I should get going. I’ll let your uncle know you’re recovering nicely.” He glanced at the door, and quietly added, “Unless you want me to tell him you’re in no condition to meet with visitors?”
Dom groaned. Right. He had to go out and show his face, didn’t he? And nothing short of being comatose in a body cast would be a severe enough injury to make it acceptable to be bedridden. The message had to be clear that Floresta and Mandanici hadn’t given him more than a schoolyard beating. “No, I’d better do this.”
“You sure?” The doctor’s brow knitted. “Wouldn’t take much to—”
“I know. But…” He shook his head. “I’ll be fine. Thanks, though.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Rojas left so Dom could make himself presentable. As promised, one of his cousins had brought him some clothes, and with the help of some more pain pills, Dom was able to shower, shave, and dress himself. Then he came out and followed the steady hum of voices toward the cavernous dining room where Corrado regularly held court.
Outside the room, Biaggio stopped him. “How are you feeling?” His brow creased, and the dark lines under his eyes suggested he hadn’t slept at all. Guilt prodded at Dom—at Biaggio’s age, he couldn’t afford to sacrifice rest.
“I’m fine. They just knocked me around a bit.”
Biaggio sighed with relief and smiled, gently squeezing Dom’s arm. “Well, you must’ve had a guardian angel watching over you.”
The red-clad stripper flashed through Dom’s mind, and he suppressed a shiver. He didn’t tip his hand about the stripper. If he did, Corrado would send every Maisano in town looking for him, and either the kid would get roughed up until he told them everything he knew, or he’d coolly take out anyone who hassled him. The thing was, Dom did want answers from the kid, but he also owed him his life. He didn’t want to put a bull’s eye on his back or get anyone else killed who got too close if the stripper turned out to be a psychopath. He needed to find him and talk to him personally.
Yeah, someone was watching over me last night, but “angel” isn’t the word I’d use.
“You’d better go inside.” Biaggio gestured at the huge double doors to the dining room. “A lot of people are waiting to see if you’re okay.”
Dom smiled thinly. They were waiting for Corrado to see them waiting. But whatever. Image, image, image.
The second he walked in the door, someone called out, “There he is!”
Every head turned, and instantly, every made Maisano descended on him, shaking his hand and—carefully—clapping his shoulder. Such was the game they all played. The beaten had to show his face and prove he was all right, and anyone who wanted to be on Corrado Maisano’s Christmas card list had to show his face to make sure the old boss knew he was concerned. Image, image, fucking image.
Aunt Marcella served everyone a massive lunch, and afterward, having played their part as concerned members of the family, the men left. Still in pain, still hazy from the pills, and now drowsy after eating, Dom wanted nothing more than to go back to bed.
But just as duty had called the troops into Corrado’s house, it called Dom into his uncle’s office.
Only Corrado’s innermost circle was invited to this meeting. Biaggio, of course. And Corrado’s sons, Luciano and Felice. Like everyone else, they’d all put on a show of strength and solidarity, laughing and carrying on over wine and antipasto, but now they were quiet and serious.
Corrado leaned back in his big leather chair, cradling a brandy glass between his fingers. “We need to discuss what happened last night.”
Luciano folded his arms. “If word got out that Dom was meeting with Passantino’s daughter, these goons might’ve been trying to interfere.”
Corrado set his glass down. “Biaggio, any word on the girl?”
The consigliere patted the air. “I spoke to Passantino last night. His daughter is at home and is fine. They both give Domenico their best.” With a faint laugh, he added, “She was pleased to know she hadn’t really been stood up.”
Dom didn’t dare laugh. He wouldn’t be doing much of that anyway until his ribs stopped feeling like they were on fire.
Corrado didn’t laugh either. “Well, once Domenico’s back on his feet, the two of them can arrange another date. Maybe one with more security.”
Can’t wait. Dom shifted around, and at least everyone in the room was likely to blame his grimace on the pain. As much as he’d been loath to meet with Brigida, this wasn’t exactly how he’d wanted to get out of a blind date. Thank God no one had laid a hand on her and she was all right. Initially irritated that she’d been stood up, no doubt, but all right.
At least no one knew that the date had been the reason the two assholes had gotten the drop on him in the first place. He’d been nervous, almost sick to his stomach, and he hadn’t wanted to be there at all. He’d only been there because his uncle insisted it was time for him to get married, and a Passantino-Maisano marriage would be tremendously beneficial to both families. On his way from his car to the restaurant, Dom had been so distracted and queasy, Floresta and Mandanici had been able to get right up on him and—
And here he was.
He had no doubt that his uncle was serious about arranging something in the near future. Corrado and Passantino would undoubtedly have them meeting up again as soon as Dom could move. And as soon as he was presentable in public—nothing like a battered face to charm a lady.
Dom bit back a joke about this being a sign from God that maybe he wasn’t ready to get married. Corrado was in no mood for jokes right now. Not even to take the edge off. And as far as he was concerned, there was nothing funny about his nephew pushing thirty-five without a gold band on his finger.
“Doesn’t look good, Domenico,” he’d lectured him again a few nights ago. “Doesn’t look good at all.”
“Maybe I just haven’t found the right girl. People aren’t getting married so young anymore.”
Corrado had shaken his head and waved his hand in that dismissive way that meant the discussion was over. “You’re not most people. Image, my son.”
Image. Fuck image. Just one more thing to resent about this life.
Corrado sat up a little, resting his arms on the desk. “Domenico, I need you to think back to last night.”
“I’ve been thinking about it almost constantly.”
“Tell me again, everything you remember.”
Dom took a breath and told the story all over again. When he was through, his uncle scowled.
“It doesn’t make any sense.” Corrado drummed his fingers on the desk. “Either these idiots were too inept to kill you, or they just wanted to shake you up.”
Dom gritted his teeth, reminding himself that Corrado wasn’t actually angry or disappointed that they hadn’t finished the job. He was only trying to sort out what all of this meant. Such was the mind of a boss—a man in his position had to be this businesslike, so wrapped up in the politics and deeper meanings of every move anyone made that everything came down to numbers and messages instead of flesh and blood.
Corrado was quiet for a moment. “The men who attacked you. Are you sure you saw their faces?”
“Yeah. Floresta and Mandanici.”
Corrado and Luciano exchanged uneasy glances. Felice shifted his weight, watching his father and elder brother.
Luciano turned to Dom. “Are you sure it was Floresta and Mandanici?”
“Absolutely sure. Why?”
“Because their bodies were found last night by Cape Swan PD.” Luciano locked eyes with Dom. “Two bullets apiece.” He tapped the center of his forehead. “And one of them took one to the knee too. From the gravel in the wound and the amount of blood he lost, it happened before they were put in the back of the car.”
“They were killed in the car,” his cousin went on. “Somebody put them in the trunk, drove them down to the marina, and shot them both.”
“The marina?” Corrado’s eyes lost focus, and then his gaze slid toward Dom. “That’s not far from where Biaggio picked you up last night.”
“I know.” Dom shifted, wincing when his ribs protested. “And I remember getting out of a car, but not much else.”
Except that stripper. The blond stripper with a gun. The eyes. The accent. The stone-cold demeanor that was intimidating despite the guy’s small stature. Red leather wrapped around narrow hips and—
“We need more than that, goddammit.” Felice fidgeted impatiently. “Someone’s trying to send a message if they’re offing people that close to the marina. Or they’re trying to get cops down there to sniff around.”
“If he’d wanted to get cops sniffing around,” Corrado said, waving his hand, “he wouldn’t have taken them out in the parking lot. He’d have left them on the marina.”
Luciano nodded, folding his arms. “Either way, I think we need to increase security measures down there. We can’t take the risk of someone interfering with supply lines or leading cops anywhere near the merchandise.”
Corrado grunted. “Agreed.”
Dom resisted the urge to roll his eyes. Of course, the concern was about supply lines and merchandise. Beating him up was well and good as long as nobody got too close to the stream of cocaine and immigrants flowing through Cape Swan via Maisano hands.
“But as for this guy who took out Floresta and Mandanici,” Luciano said, “he had to have been a pro. He didn’t leave a thing at the scene. No weapon. No witnesses. No fingerprints. Guy didn’t even leave any footprints—they said the ground around the car had been wiped. Like he’d used his foot to erase his prints until he got to the concrete.”
Dom drummed his fingers on his arm. “They’re going to find my blood in the backseat of that car. I’m almost sure of it. Probably the trunk, too.”
“Well, that’s your alibi,” Corrado said. “You were in the trunk and backseat, so you weren’t the one driving. The only thing you might be questioned about is the identity of the shooter.” He narrowed his eyes a bit. “Do you remember anything else, Domenico? Anyone else who might’ve done this?”
Dom shook his head. “I blacked out. After that… nothing.” That wasn’t entirely true, of course, and he didn’t like lying to his uncle—never a wise thing to do—so he added, “I remember someone else being there, but the details… it’s all a blur.”
Beside Corrado, Felice glanced back and forth from his father to his brother, but he said nothing. Luciano swore under his breath.
Corrado sighed. “Well, in any case, the men who did this to you are dead. When I find out who sent them, he’s dead too.”
“But we should also find out who the fuck killed them,” Felice said. “Are you just going to let that slide? I mean, how do we know this guy’s on our side?”
“Because he didn’t kill me,” Dom said through his teeth. “Trust me, he had ample opportunity.”
Felice eyed him. “So you did see the guy?”
Dom’s blood turned cold. He held his cousin’s gaze. “I was on my knees and spitting blood while he was putting those boys in the trunk. And someone helped me into and out of the backseat. He even gave me a phone to call Corrado. If he’d wanted me dead, I would be.”
Felice scowled, shifting in his chair.
Luciano pursed his lips. “He might not have known who you were.”
Dom vaguely remembered telling the guy his name. Which seemed stupid now, but he did recall feeling like he didn’t have a choice.
“What’s your name?”
“Who wants to know?”
“The guy who’s going to decide whether you wake up tomorrow in a hospital, a jail cell, or a morgue.”
“You’re shitting me.”
He shuddered, which hurt like hell. Yeah, that kid knew who he was. Exactly who he was. And yet, Dom was still alive.
And his cousins and uncle were still watching him, waiting for him to say… something?
He shook his head again. “If he knew something, he didn’t say anything. And he didn’t shoot me.”
“You’ve got to remember something about him,” Felice said.
“No.” Dom looked him in the eye, and despite the mental images of that leather crop top, the sharp cheekbones, and those icy, unflinching eyes, said, “I don’t remember anything.”
“Then that’s all we have,” Corrado said. “The important thing now is finding out who sent those boys after you. Because I want a message sent to whoever sent them.”
Usually Dom would be the one dispatched to send a message. Most hitmen were just goons or independent contractors—they were more disposable, more easily shot and discarded if the cops got too close—but his uncle kept Dom in plain sight. The boss’s well-known nephew, the man who everyone assumed was a turncoat coward just like his father, the one who maintained debt ledgers and efficiently laundered even the bloodiest money, was apparently the last person anyone would suspect of carrying out dirty work like that.
But the message that needed to be sent couldn’t wait until Dom had recovered enough to send it, so Corrado would handle it. Who he’d send and what they’d do to whom, Dom had no idea, but with his uncle involved, the message would be received loud and clear that the Maisanos were not to be fucked with. And although Dom wasn’t thrilled about the condition he was in at the moment, he was secretly relieved because being this fucked up meant he wouldn’t be the one pulling the trigger this time.
“What about the guy who took them out?” Felice fidgeted in his chair. He was more agitated than usual, which said a lot. “We just gonna forget about that?”
Corrado shook his head. “No. I’ve got cops filling me in on what they know, and plenty of ears to the ground in case somebody talks. Domenico, if you remember anything, I want to know about it. Until then, he’s done us a favor and he did it for free.” He chuckled. “Perhaps we’ll find out who he is when he tries to send us a bill.”
Luciano laughed quietly.
Felice didn’t. “Dad, we need to find—”
“When your cousin remembers more details, we will.” Corrado shot his younger son a pointed look. “Until then, you’ve all got business to attend to.”
Felice swore in Italian, and then got up and stormed out of his father’s office. Corrado watched him, but didn’t try to stop him—he shook his head, muttering something about God blessing him with a bullheaded son, and then dismissed Luciano and Dom.
On the way out of Corrado’s office, Dom didn’t say a word to anyone. Nobody here needed to know that, once he’d finished licking his wounds and could breathe without pain, he had every intention of finding out who the stripper was and what he’d seen. That he fully intended to find out what this kid’s deal was.
But he wasn’t bringing the family into it. This he was doing on his own.