Read two free chapters from Dario’s story
CHAPTER ONE – DARIO
I watched as the corpse swung idly from the chains above my head, and tried to breathe out the utter fury that had swept through me. I inhaled the sweet stench of singed hair and cooked flesh, of blood, piss, and shit, and the delicious scent of fear.
Il maiale Irlandese or the Irish pig had taken some time to die. Deliberately, of course. No one wasted a simple death when he’d been kept alive for knowledge only.
No, the information I sought and the reason I had taken one of the O’Brien soldiers, and let Lucio off his leash, hadn’t been what I eventually got. That had been so much more. Indescribably so. I finally had the name I’d been after for what seemed like most of my life.
And for the first time in the eighteen years after that fateful day, I was shocked. Eighteen years to the day I’d exited the car maybe a minute after Mamma, Papà, and Uncle Andrea, because I’d bent down to pick up the lucky quarter I’d been playing with in the car and dropped on the seat. A whole minute, maybe even two, for the gunmen to spray them with bullets, and to miss me. A whole minute to completely
change my life.
Not that I wasn’t always going to succeed my father. About seventy years ago, New Jersey was carved up between three families similar to the five that ruled New York, but the three were Italian, Irish and Russian. The three had all different incomes, and we shared the harbor area, but Atlantic City was mine, or would be in a matter of hours. I didn’t touch the drugs, the guns or the imports. They each paid me a small commission for all laundered money, and apart from certain personalities and other families that thought they could take what was mine, my piece of the pie had been a well-oiled machine.
Up to five years ago, when small amounts of money started going missing.
Lucio wiped some blood, maybe some brain matter, off his face, then sat. “Boss?” I stared back at the creaking chains where what was left of Aidan O’Neill hung, minus nine toes, seven fingers, five teeth, and most of the blood in his body. Although Lucio had gone easy on him at first and had cauterized each severed part with a flick of his lighter. I didn’t think O’Neill had appreciated not bleeding out too quickly. In fact, an hour ago the maiale had begged me to allow just that. Then he’d dropped his bombshell simply to ensure I ended him.
I glanced at my phone. Five fifteen in the morning, and just less than ten hours until I married Sofia Martino, the only daughter of Rocco Martino, my father’s trusted consigliere or right-hand man, my godfather, and also my boss for the past eighteen years thanks to the stipulations in my father’s will.
Rocco Martino became the Boss—or the Don as he preferred—the day my father and uncle died, but only until my thirtieth birthday, which was also today. The second stipulation to inheriting my father’s empire was that I married Martino’s daughter on or before the same day. If I died, or refused the marriage, then all our holdings would be passed to my younger brother Gianni of seven minutes, and the same stipulations were enacted. If he refused, all my holdings would be passed to the ruling five families for them to decide. It had been that way for over a hundred years, and it wasn’t going to change now. Rocco might be Italian, but he was the wrong family. It was as much in his interest as it was in mine that the marriage happened.
Papa hadn’t been able to think of everything, especially as he had trusted Rocco with what turned out to be his actual life. The only decision, as far as I knew, to be a bad one.
I’d idolized Uncle Rocco as a child. When our parents were murdered he took both Gianni and I in, and for the first six years while I studied I was grateful. I went to school and learned the business, but when I was eighteen I made the decision to leave his home. I took one of the apartments over La Fortuna, our flagship casino, knowing not one person would challenge me being there even underage. I had decided to learn the business from the ground up. A year later Gianni made the same move, but not because he wanted to learn the business, but because he didn’t.
“I think he deserved more.”
I glanced at Lucio, knowing he had stood back while I had eviscerated O’Neill. I didn’t reply. I wasn’t sure I could.
Around five years ago my numbers man, Lixin Chen, had started noticing certain skimming. Small amounts, but over the many casinos, clubs, and restaurants, it added up. I hadn’t immediately taken my suspicions to Rocco because I wanted to find out exactly what was going on, and for the last two years I had known without a shadow of a doubt it was Rocco himself that was taking it. He was good, but I was better. I’d thought long and hard and knew that once I took over he would be retired and not either my under-boss or my consigliere as he hoped, so I had allowed it. There was only I, Gianni, Lucio, and Lixin Chen that knew. And as Rocco was my father’s best-friend and soon to be my father-in-law I let it go, and called it a retirement fund.
Which had all been great up to an hour ago.
When Aidan O’Neill had confirmed that my father’s best-friend had ordered the hit on my mother, father and uncle. Possibly me. Gianni was only missing as he was coming straight from a piano lesson. Rage had built in me so fast I had taken the knife from Lucius, and simply carved out O’Neill’s heart. It had beaten once before I ripped it out with my bare hands.
And ironically, that hadn’t been why one of the Irish Mob’s lieutenants was in the cellar. The reason we’d taken him was because a shipment of underage girls had been taken through my territory that someone with loose lips had told us about, and I didn’t touch that. Girls? Yes, but ones that were strictly over eighteen. The girls we pimped out as either high price escorts or lower priced entertainment were all
protected and looked after.
I catered for special tastes, but only those the girls—and boys—agreed to and got paid a shit-ton of money for. Backed by the Banetti’s.
He’d thought he could bargain with me at first, but then his only plea was to end his life. He knew when he gave up the last bit of information, he was a corpse walking anyway.
The Irish were as unforgiving as the Italians. And the Irish wouldn’t be content with just him, his whole family would be slaughtered.
And what was even more fucked up? That my bride-to-be knew. Apparently, after she stepped over my dead body on our wedding night, she was promised to Declan Walsh. The Irish were ready to swoop in and take over with Rocco’s help because he was to be given my casinos. But there wasn’t a damn thing he could do before we married, but after?
I’d doubted what he was saying until I’d found out who his mother was. The mistress of the mob boss would hear what she wasn’t supposed to.
I was focused now. I just had to work out how to avoid a blood-bath. The Irish weren’t known for their subtlety, and they would be waiting. But they wouldn’t risk the wrath of the Bratva without an Italian figurehead in their corner as backup, and much as I wanted to raise them to the ground, I needed to be married first.
Both Lucio and I looked over at the basement door that only three people had the code to, as Gianni came rushing in. He stopped for a second and winced at what remained of O’Neill, before turning to me. “I know what to do.”
“Well, thank fuck, because other than taking my A-47 to half the wedding party at the reception, I was all out of ideas,” I said dryly, noting Gianni keeping his eyes averted from the mess Lucio and I had made, which suited me fine. Gianni was a musical genius who also had a talent with computers. I had plenty of people that could pull a trigger. I needed people I could trust in other ways. And at the moment, that was a very short list of three.
The moment O’Neill had finally spilled, I had told Gianni, and he had started to work his online magic. “Do you remember Rocco’s cook from a few years ago?” I frowned at the completely random question. Elisabetta, Rocco’s wife, went through staff like other people changed clothes. She was a tyrannical bitch, and the main reason I’d left at eighteen. “Caterina Gallo. She used to make the cookies.”
I smiled, which was ridiculous considering I’d just found out I was basically screwed and I still had the blood of the Irish on my hands. But then, I probably always would. I remembered Caterina. Small woman, could cook like a dream, or she did before Elisabetta decided to employ a fancy gourmet chef and meals went from coating your ribs, to suddenly so dainty Gianni and I would have to raid the fridge after dinner. “She’s not there now though.” I didn’t remember seeing her for a good few years.
“That’s because she’s in the Long Acres nursing facility and has been for the past five and a half years. Early onset dementia. She’s only fifty-three.”
I shrugged. “What has that—”
“Because Rocco’s paying for it. The home is the equivalent of The Waldorf for patients like Caterina. And it’s expensive, really expensive.”
I gazed at Gianni. “Mio fratello, that makes no sense. There is no way he would do that. Elisabetta would go crazy. She would have been fired as soon as they found out.”
Gianni grinned. “Exactly, but now tell me. Do you remember her daughter?”
“Her daughter?” I narrowed my eyes, looked at Lucio for some reason, who shrugged, and did my best to think. “I have a vague memory of a kid helping Caterina in the kitchen a couple of times.” Then another memory teased at me. I’d walked into the kitchen, and some tiny thing had squeaked when she’d seen me and ran into the pantry. My aunt had followed me in, and started giving Caterina orders. I knew my aunt would be furious at the girl being in the main house, so I’d never said a word.
Neither had Caterina, but she had risked Elisabetta’s displeasure and made all my favorite meals for a month.
“So why is Rocco paying for an ex-cook to be in an expensive nursing home?” It was a fair question. I would have done. Loyalty was loyalty, whether you tortured your boss’s enemies for him or attempted to love a lost little boy with his favorite food.
Gianni smiled. “Because she’s the mother of his child. The little girl—Alessia Gallo—is
his daughter. His other daughter.”
For a moment, white noise filled my exhausted brain. “You have proof?”
“Apparently Elisabetta insisted on the DNA test herself, and it took some finding, but they don’t know me,” Gianni preened. “I don’t know what’s going on, but Alessia lives there. She’s not formally acknowledged and judging from what I see online, she isn’t paid. She works as some sort of maid? She’s around your fiancée a lot. She left school at fourteen and she’s been there ever since.”
“How old is she?”
“But she doesn’t get paid?” How many twenty-year-olds would work for free?
“I’m assuming it might have something to do with where her mom is. They have no other relatives.” That was even more fucked up than the mess still swinging on the chains in front of me. “You’re not getting this,” Gianni said with a sigh.
“Look, I feel sorry—”
“Fuck sake, Dario,” my brother swore and the second he did, he jolted me out of my exhausted brain dump. The one where I was still processing my beloved godfather had murdered our parents, and I took a deep breath as icicles formed once more down my spine, stiffening it as benefited a Boss.
“There’s another daughter,” I said out loud in understanding. The will didn’t stipulate a name, just the daughter of Rocco Martino.
“Send me whatever you have on her to my phone.” It sounded like she was being kept a virtual prisoner because of her mother’s medical condition. But anyone could pay medical bills, should they have the money to do so. Dario smiled to himself. Suddenly the day had possibilities. A twenty-year-old probable virgin who would look on him like a knight in shining armor?
“It might not be so easy,” Gianni cautioned. I scoffed. Should be a piece of cake. “Because according to what my contact tells me, Rocco has bought her silence on who she is.”
“How?” I knew why.
“Because,” Gianni said. “The minute you marry Sofia, Alessia gets her freedom. She can walk away, and Rocco continues to pay her mom’s fees.” He leaned forward. “She’s been a prisoner most of her life. What makes you think for one minute she wants another jailor?” Gianni’s smile was wicked. “But you have nine hours to persuade her otherwise and get a ring on her finger.”
Chapter Two – ALESSIA
“No,” Sofia snapped as I’d been about to place the breakfast tray on the small table next to the fire. “I want it here.” She leaned forward expectantly and, of course, I sat the tray down and arranged her pillows so she could sit comfortably. I opened the small lap table and arranged it over her knees. Then I lowered the breakfast tray.
I knew from the flash in those ice-blue eyes she lifted to spear me with she wasn’t happy. “What the fuck is this?”
I started counting in my head. Back from ten so I wouldn’t be tempted to take the knife from the tray and plunge it into her heart. That was always assuming she had one, of course. I’d seen very little evidence of it in the last six years. “Monsieur Benoit thought—”
Her scream was enough to wake the dead. Unfortunately, her reaction to the chives sprinkled as a garnish on her eggs was to be expected. I had tried a few minutes ago to suggest that Sofia might not like the variation, but the new chef—the third this year—seemed confident he knew better.
Not that I really cared. This was the last day. The final end of the cruel and humiliating chapter of life that had been mine for the last six years. I just had to get through today and I was free. But more importantly, my mom would be cared for until she died. The heartbreaking thought that it wouldn’t be long, was enough to distract me enough I clearly didn’t react fast enough for Sofia. In a moment, I was wearing the contents of her breakfast tray and she was screaming in my face. I didn’t move for a full five seconds as Sofia’s tirade continued, trying to tell myself that I could do this. Seven hours. That’s all it was. Seven more hours before I could start my life. I ignored Sofia and bent to the floor, scooping up the eggs in my fingers, rescuing the toast from under the bed, and dabbing at the freshly squeezed orange juice that decorated the carpet. Ignored the burn on my hand that her hot coffee had hit. I straightened up, at which point Sofia seemed to be running out of steam, only to have the door open and Elisabetta sail in, obviously drawn by the tantrum her daughter was having. I didn’t bother to stop or wait for another tantrum to start because Elisabetta’s were worse than Sofia’s and used the distraction to slip out. I knew I’d pay for it, but right at that moment I just needed—
My shriek of surprise was smothered with the large hand that covered mine at the same second I was yanked back into the large empty room next to Sofia’s. Heart pounding, even as another hand rescued the tray I was just about to use as my only available weapon, I kicked back and tried to elbow the hard wall that pressed against my back.
The low rumbling chuckle in my ear made me freeze. “Alessia, my apologies, piccola. I need to speak urgently with you, and I couldn’t let you scream.”
I sagged as my heart rate slowed. I recognized the voice. Of course, I did. Sofia’s fiancé and the new boss of the Banetti crime family as of today wasn’t someone easily forgotten.
Even if I wished I could.
I felt him pause and I nodded to show I understood. I took a deep breath as his hand moved and nearly groaned as the scent of whatever cologne Dario Banetti wore hit my lungs. Something as dark and dangerous as the man himself. I shook my head a little to recover but then stilled again as I realized he hadn’t let me go. I was still very firmly pressed back into his chest, and I stiffened as his head bent to whisper, but then he drew a deep breath as well. This was insane. “I know who you are Signore Banetti,” I whispered. “Please let me go.”
In an instant, the arms were gone and I turned to face him, my heart not slowing.
“I think we have known each other long enough for you to call me Dario.” I stared into brown eyes so dark they were almost black. A bit like his heart. They were all the same. Whatever spark that had called to me when I was a child, and he was a teenager, had been snuffed out by money and the blood of his enemies. They were all the same. Vultures that pretended to be kings, but they still preyed on the innocent, feasting on them like roadkill.
“What can I do for you, Signore Banetti?” The slight curve of his lips to show he thought my refusal to call him by his first name was unfortunately as devilishly attractive as the rest of him, and I ignored the stab both in my heart and certain other places that weren’t used to being in such close proximity as something that generally needed batteries to trigger such a reaction My breath hitched as he lifted his hand and brought it to my head, plucking something from my hair and then frowning as he looked at the piece of scrambled egg in his hand.
And of course, because my fairy godmother had since turned in her wand and retired, there wasn’t a hole in the floor that would swallow me. Right at that moment I would have settled for a portal to another dimension. I was already in hell, how scary could it be? “The breakfast tray met with an accident,” I offered.
He frowned. “I heard.” Panic clutched at my chest with claws sharper than Elisabetta’s nails. I couldn’t let this man change his mind. The wedding had to happen.
“It was an accident. Brides are always nervous on their wedding day. The pressure of everything. She wants to look perfect for you,” I continued, not sure my word-vomit was helping as his frown didn’t lessen, and suddenly wondering why he was here as I trailed off. “It’s bad luck.”
One eyebrow raised in silent inquiry.
“To see her, I mean. Before the wedding.”
“Ah,” he smiled, and I sighed. Rich, handsome, sexy, and smelled really good? Of course he was also a bastard that cheated, tortured, and murdered people for a living so that kind of cancelled out that killer smile.
“Liar,” my treacherous heart whispered.
“We don’t care,” my perfidious ovaries agreed.
“I didn’t come to see Sofia, and I believe I told you to call me Dario.”
I huffed this time, my nerves and my patience rapidly declining. “Look, we both know I can’t call you Dario—”
“You just did,” he countered. “I liked it.” Then all his words registered.
“If you didn’t come to see Sofia, why are you creeping about next to her bedroom?” The words were out before I thought they might not be such a good idea. This time the smile was wider, and I couldn’t help staring at the little crinkles at the corner of his eyes, or his white teeth as his tongue ran over them, or the way his eyes seemed to strip me with little effort.
“I came to talk to you.”
For a mad moment I even glanced over my shoulder in case there was someone else in the room, but then when I looked back it was still to be the focus of his considerable attention. “Why?” But then I guessed. “Did you bring a gift?” He clearly wanted to surprise Sofia and I was suddenly touched he would do it himself instead of just arranging a delivery.
“A gift?” he repeated looking a little taken aback.
“Yes, do you want me to smuggle it in?”
Because he looked like he wanted to laugh, sudden fury made me sick of this conversation. “Look, I’m sorry Signore Banetti—”
Still ignoring you. “Sofia’s stylists and dressmaker will be here very soon, and they will be setting up in this room. She hasn’t had her breakfast. I also need to run the bath for her. I—”
“Or you could let her run her own bath.”
I nearly laughed. Just remembered in time who I was speaking to. “Sir—”
“If I call you Dario, will you let me get back to work?” I snapped.
His eyes flashed. Not with anger I was relieved to see, but with that same humor I wasn’t sure was much better. Seven hours, I mentally instructed. Seven hours. Anything to stop me from reaching for the knife on the breakfast tray and using it to comb his hair with.
“I need to talk to you.”
I waved a hand, silently begging him to get on with what was quickly becoming one of the weirdest conversations of my life.
He smiled. “I have an offer for you to consider.”
“No,” I said in alarm and stepped back, the wall preventing any further retreat.
“You don’t know what I’m going to ask, yet,” he said.
“I’m not continuing to work for Sofia. I’m sorry, but today’s my last day.”
He smiled. “If the demonstration I just heard is an indication of your treatment, then I wouldn’t blame you.”
My breath caught. He had no idea. Sofia and her mother were bullies. Rocco was something else entirely.
“Let me be clear. I know the arrangement you have with your father.”
I’d heard the phrase “The silence is deafening” all my life. Most people had. But until the word father slipped from Dario Banetti’s lips I hadn’t realized just how noisy silence was. A cacophony of a million voices battering me all at once. I was sure he said something else. His lips certainly moved, but the roaring blackness in my head drowned it out. Then I was flying.
Or not. My body had certainly moved and when I tamped down the sheer panic that had stolen my breath and probably what little sanity I had left, I seemed to land back to reality with a bump. Not a hard bump, though, a soft one. Currently cradled on Dario Banetti’s lap it took me a moment to work out that while he might be softer than the floor, some parts of him definitely weren’t, and some parts seemed to be getting harder.
“Let me go,” I croaked, and while his arms relaxed, I was still trapped.
“I will not hurt you, but nor can I allow you to be hurt.” Yeah, I thought, and where have you been for the past six years?
“I won’t tell you,” I said, trying to stop the tremble.
“You misunderstand, Alessia. I know all about your father. I do not need you to spill any secrets.” Didn’t he? I doubted it.
“Then what do you want from me?”
His smile was sultry, wicked. “I have a silent question first.” I frowned. A silent—? Ohh. Understanding hit me at the same time as his lips touched mine. Counting two near-misses and a disaster I’d rather not think about, Dario Banetti was, I supposed, my first kiss. I tried to think, but as his lips teased mine to open and his tongue slipped between mine, any thought, any higher brain function at all, seemed to
disappear on a tidal wave of lust that lit every cell in my parched body.
I was drowning.
He pulled back when he seemed to know I’d ignored my lungs’ demand for oxygen long enough. Gathering my tattered thoughts, my shredded dignity, and the fact I was still sprawled over his knees, I managed to croak out words. “You wanted to ask a question?”
“Amorina,” he purred. “The question was will you marry me?” His eyes flashed and deepened, the black almost showing hints of silver. “But don’t worry, your body just answered me.”
I gaped for a few seconds before fury rushed through me, and I almost catapulted off his lap. “Over my dead body,” I snarled.
“Yes,” Dario Banetti replied, his voice cool. All teasing gone, and a frigid tone gripping his words.
“Unless you agree. Over yours.”