Deep (the pagano family book 4)

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DEEP

 

 

The Pagano Family Series

Book FOUR

 

 

Susan Fanetti

 

 

THE FREAK CIRCLE PRESS

 

 

 

 

Deep © 2014 Susan Fanetti

All rights reserved

 

Susan Fanetti has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this book under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

ALSO BY SUSAN FANETTI

 

The Pagano Family Series:

(Family Saga)

Footsteps, Book 1

Touch, Book 2

Rooted, Book 3

 

The Signal Bend Series:

(MC Romance)

Move the Sun, Book 1

Behold the Stars, Book 2

Into the Storm, Book 3

Alone on Earth, Book 4

In Dark Woods, Book 4.5

All the Sky, Book 5

Show the Fire, Book 6

Leave a Trail, Book 7

 

 

 

 

To the Freaks, for everything.

 

And to Irene and TeriLyn. The reminders of your support have perfect timing.

 

 

 

 

Yea, take thy fill of love, because thy will

Chose love not in the shallows but in the deep.

Christina Rossetti, from “Cardinal Newman” 

Prologue

 

 

Nick Pagano stood in the center hallway of his Uncle Ben’s house on Greenback Hill and watched people coming in through the front door, a steady, seemingly endless stream of people—friends, family, business associates. They all came up and shook his hand, or hugged him, offering empty words, and then they all left him alone. He wanted to be alone, and he knew how to make that happen with nothing more than his posture.

 

He could hear the women congregating behind him, in his Aunt Angie’s kitchen, already doing what women seemed to do in these situations—in every situation, as far as he could tell: cooking. And yakking. Though he was making an effort not to hear their blather, words broke through his barrier occasionally—right in his own yard;Betty found him;so much blood;Did you see Nick?At that, he doubled up the barrier. The last thing he needed in his head was a bunch of hens clucking about how angry he looked and what they thought he was going to do about what had happened.

 

About the murder of his father.

 

He was standing near the entrance to Aunt Angie’s prissy little sitting room. Peering around the corner, he saw his mother sitting on the sofa, with his Uncle Carlo and Adele, Uncle Carlo’s wife. She was resting quietly on her brother-in-law’s shoulder, pale and empty. She hadn’t cried, as far as Nick had seen. He wondered if she would.

 

“Nick.”

 

He turned and saw his Uncle Ben, Don Beniamino Pagano, standing at the doorway to his study. He didn’t answer.

 

“Come, nephew. It’s time to talk.”

 

Nick walked down the hallway and followed Ben—his uncle, godfather, and don—into his study.

 

Like the rest of Uncle Ben’s house, the study was large and luxuriously appointed. As President and CEO of Pagano Brothers Shipping, and as majority or at least substantial shareholder in several other legitimate business ventures, Ben had ample cover for a comfortable lifestyle, and he’d married a woman who’d wanted to be pampered. Their home was one of the finest—if not, in fact, the finest—homes in Quiet Cove. And their competition for the slot was all on the same street.

 

Most of the home had been decorated with Aunt Angie in the lead, but this room, and the rooms of the cellar, were Ben’s domain. The study was done like an old school men’s club—heavy, tufted-leather sofas and chairs with nailhead trim, dark walnut paneling and ceiling, dark walnut tables, a massive walnut desk in front of a floor-to-ceiling window that looked over the bluff and the ocean below. The effect was imposing, and Nick remembered, when he was younger, being intimidated simply to be called into the room.

 

When he was younger. Not anymore.

 

Uncle Ben sat in his deep, tall leather chair behind his wide, long desk. In the room with him were the officers of the other branch of the Pagano Brothers’ business. Fred Naldi, consigliere. Dominic Addario, capo.Giulio Nicci, another capo. Nick, the third capo. Nick’s father, Lorenzo “Lorrie” Pagano, Uncle Ben’s brother, had been underboss. But Lorrie was on a morgue slab now, his face blown off. The position of underboss was empty.

 

The heavy, maroon draperies were drawn over the window behind the desk, and all the table lamps were illuminated. It was long past dark, but still the closed drapes had the effect of making the large space seem oppressively close. The silence among the men assembled didn’t ease that impression.

 

Nick sat in an armchair facing his uncle’s desk across a long, low table. Fred and the other capos sat on the sofas. And they waited for Ben to speak.

 

His uncle was tired. His normally baggy eyes seemed doubly so on this terrible night, and they were rheumy and red-rimmed. Nick knew that his father and uncle had been close even by the standards of close-born brothers who’d worked side by side their whole lives. But it was more than losing Lorrie that made his uncle so weary. For nearly eighteen months, the Pagano Brothers had been embroiled in battle after battle to preserve their place in their world. The random months of truce only seemed to be dulling Ben’s edge more quickly, making him slower to respond each time the war fired up again.

 

Since Alvin Church had announced his offensive two autumns ago, by killing Fred’s nephew and nearly killing Nick’s cousins Luca and John, the Paganos had beaten back every attack. The effort had taken a toll in all parts of their world—family hurt, business impaired, scrutiny from every level of law—and Ben, who was closing fast on eighty, had grown tired and dull.

 

Nick saw it. He knew others did, too. And now his father, who had grown tired and dull himself, was dead because the Paganos could not shut down Alvin fucking Church and his bullshit band of associates.

 

Not could not.Wouldnot. The Paganos were on the defensive, and had been since the first shot across their bow, because Ben and Lorrie had refused to fight the war they were in. They fought the war they thought it should have been. They thought they were ‘going to the mattresses’ with these sons of bitches. But this wasn’t a family war. This was a gutter war.

 

And now Nick’s father was dead. Shot on his own front lawn and left for Nick’s mother to find.

 

Uncle Ben cleared his throat and began speaking. At first, he didn’t look up; he stared at his hands, which were folded on the blotter in front of him.

 

“This is a dark, sad night. It should not be a night for business, and my home is not a place for business. I want to mourn my brother. I want to bring his wife comfort.” He looked up and scanned the faces of this part of his family. “But we have no choice. There is business that must be done. The loss of Lorrie is greater than family. He was my right hand for more than fifty years. Our business can’t run unless we fill the hole he left.”

 

Nick looked to his right and his left at the men ranked high enough in theborgatato be part of this discussion. Julie Nicci and Dom Addario had been capos for years. Decades. Both were old school, as his uncle was. Either of them would serve Don Pagano in the way he wanted—they would work to preserve the world the Pagano Brothers had built and strengthened all their lives.

 

Julie was the steadier of the two. Dom tended to fray along his edges and lose control of his temper; Nick had cleaned up his messes a few times. It should be Julie.

 

Actually, Nick thought, it should be him. This organization needed fresh blood. They needed someone who would see the world as it was. But he and his Uncle Ben had not been seeing eye to eye since Church had first raised his head. With every injury, every hit they took, every retaliation it was Nick’s job to deliver, every turn around this endless goddamn cycle, Nick became more infuriated and less reserved in showing it.

 

And Julie and Dom both hated Nick. They kept it buttoned up around the don, but Nick knew perfectly well that they saw him as a young turk who’d jumped to his position early because he was a Pagano.

 

That was bullshit, of course. Nick had earned his position in other people’s blood. For twenty years, he’d been the one who would do anything, handle any problem, clean up any mess, find anyone, get any answer, no matter what. He was up to his shoulders in blood.

 

Uncle Ben continued, “We don’t have the luxury to wait and mourn Lorrie decently before we open the books. I need a right hand, and I need it now.”

 

Julie and Dom both stirred in their seats, subconsciously jockeying for position, consciously preparing to hear the don say one of their names. Nick—who, by the nature of his job as enforcer, assassin, and interrogator, had become a student of all manner of communication—watched them closely.

 

“I need fresh eyes at my side. I need someone I can trust to see the future, because my own future grows short and dim. So I name Nick to succeed his father as underboss.”

 

The old man had perhaps at last seen reason. Too bad it had taken the loss of his blood brother to clear his eyes.

 

There were no shouts of outrage, no murmurs of protest. Tired though he might be, old though he was, Ben Pagano commanded respect. But Julie and Dom turned from him to Nick, and then they let their shock and displeasure show, in the slack set of their jaws and the deep creases in their brows. Fred quietly sat and took in the show.

 

Nick, for his part, ignored them all and simply nodded, focused on his uncle. “Thank you, Uncle. I’ll do my father proud. And you, as well. Of course.”

 

Ben nodded, too. “I know you will. We’ll celebrate when the time is better for it. For now, I give you a day to think before you offer a name to replace you as capo.”

 

“I don’t need a day, Uncle. I name Brian. Brian Notaro.”

 

That got the shouts of outrage and protest. Even Ben’s impressive, white eyebrows went up.

 

Julie said, “No! Don, I don’t agree. Brian is not capo material.”

 

Dom shouted, “He’s half-blooded! It’s an outrage even to offer his name.” He swiveled back to Nick. “Who do you think you are?”

 

Nick held his eyes and spoke calmly. “Your boss. I’m your boss now, Dom. Watch your tongue.”

 

Dom blinked. And then he shut up.

 

Julie, calmer, pushed again. “All respect, Don Pagano, to you and to Nicolo”—Nick smirked a little at the transparent attempt to show additional respect and connection by using his Italian name—“But Brian is not full-blooded. No one has risen higher than soldier without tracing his full history back toItalia. Brian is a good soldier, a real earner, but his mother is—what? Polack?”

 

Nick’s smirk grew at the wordItalia. The full body of Julie’s personal experience in the country of Italy was his two-week honeymoon thirty years ago. Brian’s mother was a European blonde of one kind or another. Her maiden name was Polish, yes. But the point was irrelevant in Nick’s eyes, and he didn’t answer Julie’s question. He said nothing at all.

 

“Julie has a point, Nick,” Uncle Ben finally said. “Make your case.”

 

Julie and Dom both gaped at his uncle. Even unflappable Fred looked shocked. Nick, too, was surprised that his uncle had not simply shot him down. Now, he spoke. “Brian has been with us as long as I have. We were made together. He’s beenmyright hand. He knows my work better than anyone. He can step into the role I filled and not miss a beat. No one has my trust like Brian. He should have the trust of every man in this room. I don’t care where his mother’s family came from. His name is Notaro. He has blood ties. And he is ready to bathe in blood so you don’t have to. That’s what we do.”

 

“Not you anymore, Nick.” Uncle Ben’s voice was low. “As your father rose above, so now do you.”

 

Nick shook his head. “I’m sorry, Uncle. I want my father’s shooter. And I want Church. I’m rolling up my sleeves until Church is done. If I can’t do that and stand at your side, then maybe Julie is your better choice.”

 

Everybody turned back to Ben. He stared across the room at Nick, and for several moments during which the tension was literally audible, in the rustle of fabric over shifting bodies, in the rasp of deep breaths, and in the solidtickof the mantle clock, the room held and waited.

 

“There’s no one better to gain vengeance for your father. And you deserve that respect. But I want you at my side. Stand with me with your sleeves up until that work is done. But to name Brian capo is to change our world too much. Take the day, bring another name, or I will name someone myself.”

 

Julie and Dom relaxed on the sofa, somewhat mollified that one offense had not been topped by another. Nick, however, was not mollified. Brian was his best friend—more than that, in theborgata, he was worth ten of Julie and Dom. He was smart, he was steady, and he was loyal as hell. That he couldn’t rise above the rank of soldier because his mother was a blue-eyed blonde European mutt—that was old bullshit. The kind of old bullshit that was going to bring the Pagano Brothers down.

 

Someday, Nick would be don. When he was, real change would happen.

 

But now, he would mourn his father.

 

And then he would avenge him.

 


Page 2

~ 1 ~

 

 

Nick woke and eased a slender arm off his chest. He stood and stretched, then went to his bureau and pulled out a pair of track pants. He stepped into them as he walked out to his kitchen. He could already smell the coffee his coffeemaker had started brewing ten or so minutes before.

 

As he reached up to get a mug out of the cupboard, he caught a look at his hand and pulled back. He still had blood around the edges of his nail beds. He’d washed, he’d thought thoroughly, several times since he’d been in a situation to get blood on his hands.

 

Standing there in his kitchen with his hand on the cupboard pull, he thought about his life in the hours since he’d had his hand in a man’s guts. The afternoon with his mother. A family party to send his cousin Carmen off to Maine with her man and their baby girl. And the night with Vanessa.

 

Nick used gloves when he did wetwork, of course, but yesterday’s work had been particularly wet. The mess had been all over his hands and arms by the time he’d stripped out of his protective gear. It had been years, though, since he left a job like that with any trace of it lingering on him. He fucking hated for one side of his life to cross over into the other. Bringing another man’s blood into his mother’s house? Around his family? Into his own bed?

 

He closed the cupboard door and went to the sink to scrub his hands until they were red and shiny, digging deep around his cuticles until he was sure he was clean. No longer in the mood for coffee or breakfast, he went around the counter to the living room and grabbed his smokes from the table near the front door. Then he went out onto the balcony.

 

The day was still young, and so was spring, and the sky was heavy with clouds, so the sea breeze off the water was on the brisk side. Nick took a deep breath, letting the chill and the salt air clean out the gunk in his head. He let it out with a cough; he didn’t smoke nearly enough to hack up a lung every morning the way his father had, but he felt the effects occasionally.

 

Felt them, and ignored them. He lit a smoke now, needing the calm it brought, and looked out over the beach to watch the morning waves roll up and back. The ocean fascinated Nick—not like it did his cousins, though. They were all of them surfers and sailors and beach bums, constantly throwing some party or another on the sand, always out ‘getting wet,’ as they called it. Nick had never been into any of that. He was active in other ways.

 

He’d bought this seaside condo not because he wanted quick access to the beach so he could surf or dive or whatever. What he wanted was proximity to the power of the sea—the roar and crash of the surf, the vast miles to the horizon, the blow of storms at his windows. He stood on his balcony on a morning like this, with his head dark and his thoughts snarled, and felt an elemental kinship with the ocean. Maybe that was arrogant, maybe it was delusional; maybe it was just absurd. But it was nonetheless true.

 

The ocean was a place of darkness and mystery, full of predators and secrets, and infinitely deep.

 

He didn’t sail, but he had a cabin cruiser he took out frequently, sometimes even recreationally. More often, though, he had business to conduct out in the deep. That was what the ocean was to Nick: a place that swallowed secrets and fed beasts.

 

Movement on the sand broke his reverie, and he shifted his eyes from the horizon and the overcast sky down to the beach. A group of six—no, seven—people, all women but one, were arrayed on the flat sand near the tideline, standing on long, narrow mats in various colors. He hadn’t noticed them when he’d first come out, but he knew who, or at least what, they were—a yoga class organized by the condo committee. They’d started doing their thing on the beach the week before. A group of granola-eaters doing some kind of tantric voguing didn’t hold much interest for Nick, so he hadn’t done more before today than register their existence. But this morning, his mind was feeling mired and indolent, and he was slow to shift his attention away. He watched them for several minutes, his focus moving from one body to the next. A couple of the women were slender and lithe, moving their bodies with obvious ease and expertise. A couple were heavyset and struggling to follow the leader.

 

The women all seemed vaguely familiar; Nick was sure he’d seen them in or around the building, though he made a practice of not becoming overly involved or familiar with his neighbors. A civil nod when they passed in the hall or the lobby, that was all. Considering the work that he did, it was better to be mysterious and aloof. His father and Uncle Ben had not been pleased that he’d bought a condo instead of a free-standing house; they thought the privacy in his building insufficient. But Nick wanted a low-maintenance life, and he liked the contained space of the beachfront condo building, built just beyond the Quiet Cove town limit and outside the jurisdiction of the rigid zoning laws that insisted every building in town be three hundred years old or look like it was.

 

The unfamiliar man flailing on his mat drew Nick’s attention. What an oaf. Probably a new resident; there had been a couple of units on the market recently. Nick read him as there for no reason other than the hookup potential. Considering that he looked like a circus clown parody of yoga, Nick knew that potential was significantly less than the guy probably thought.

 

His attention finally moved to the leader, and her, Nick placed clearly. She lived across the hall from him, and her name was…Evelyn? Kimberly? Something old-fashioned like that. He only knew that much because she had insisted on introducing herself when she moved in a while back. A year ago, maybe. When they passed in the hall, she smiled brightly, and chirped, “Hi, Nick!” every time, needing, and getting, no encouragement from him.

 

She had a beautiful smile, though, one of those brilliant, toothpaste-commercial smiles that made her whole face glow and always seemed sincere. He’d grown to enjoy meeting her in the hallway, but they still hadn’t said more than ten distinct words to each other.

 

Before today, he wouldn’t have been able to describe anything more than her face, but now, with the beach between them, he took her in more completely. Her top was dark pink and low cut; he could see her cleavage clearly, despite the distance. She was heavier than he’d expected—no, heavy was the wrong word. Curvy, maybe that was right. She had hips and tits.

 

She said something to her group and then turned to face the water. Nick tended to like his women willowy, but something about what’s-her-old-fashioned-name’s ass in her snug black pants caught his interest enough that his cock stirred. Maybe it was the way she was stretched on her yellow mat, with her legs straight out at both sides. The woman was limber, definitely.

 

The door behind him slid open. “Baby, what are you doing out here?” Hiscomare, Vanessa Morgan, stepped out, wearing his shirt from last night. Nick stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray on the small round table at his side. He didn’t smoke inside his home or his SUV, and he rarely smoked around people.

 

“Nessa. Don’t call me ‘baby.’” Nick grabbed a fistful of his shirt and pulled her to him. She came easily and wrapped her long arms around his bare waist. Vanessa was willowy. Tall, blonde, and so slender his hands could meet around her waist, she was a model trying to break beyond the New England market and into the New York big time.

 

Nick didn’t tap random pussy like most of his guys did. He liked to have a woman. He thought of himself as a serial monogamist, even before he’d been named capo. Since then, though, it was minimum expectation; his uncle believed that members of the administration should be role models for the men who worked for them, and he believed that family stability was a role they should model. That Nick was forty-five and unmarried was cause enough for consternation; he’d damn well better at least have a regular woman on his arm.

 

The woman he was putting on his arm these days, and for the past few months, leaned her head on his chest. “Coffee’s ready. Do you want me to make you breakfast?”

 

Nick slid his hand over the soft silk of her long, gold hair. “No. I’ve got an early meeting. I’ll grab a slug of coffee on my way to the shower. You should get going.”

 

She kissed his nipple, and he closed his eyes, enjoying the sensation, but irritated that she was trying to distract him. “Can I shower with you?”

 

He set her away, gentle but firm. “Not today, Ness. I need some time to myself this morning.”

 

She pouted just long enough to strum his nerves, but then she nodded. “Okay. I’ll get moving. I have a call at ten, anyway.”

 

“I’ll call you later.” He caught her before she turned away, one hand around the back of her neck, and pulled her close again for a kiss. When her arms snaked up over his shoulders, he set her away again. “Have a good day.”

 

Though she was clearly unhappy with him, she muttered, “You, too,” and went back inside.

 

Nick stayed on the balcony until he heard the front door open and close. The time might be approaching to end things with Vanessa. He had no interest in more than this with her, or with any woman, and he could smell the need for more coming on her.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

On the books and in reality, since his father’s death two months earlier, Nick was Chief Operating Officer at Pagano Brothers Shipping. About thirty hours of each week he spent doing that legitimate work. Off the books, and for most of the rest of his waking hours, his work was different but also the same. Replacing his father as underboss and Uncle Ben’s right hand, he oversaw the daily operations of the shipping company and every other Pagano Brothers interest.

 

Usually, he, Uncle Ben, and Fred met at lunch for their daily meeting; in the past few years, as he neared eighty, Ben had slowed down in the morning and didn’t, as a rule, get to the office before ten unless there was strong cause to be there earlier. Nick knew that the old man was coping with debilitating arthritis and preferred to keep his morning hours private, until the stiff weakness he felt after waking had eased and he could walk with his back and shoulders straight.

 

This morning, though, he’d wanted an earlier meeting. The previous day had been too full of blood family obligations for more than a quick ‘job’s done’ update, and he’d put Nick off when he’d said he had good intel. Now, he wanted a full briefing.

 

When Jimmy Lupo, his driver and bodyguard, knocked on his office door and leaned in to let him know it was time, Nick closed his laptop and went down the hall to Ben’s office.

 

Fred was already there, sitting in one of the red leather chairs in front of Ben’s desk. He stood when Nick came in.

 

“Morning, Nick. New suit? Sharp.”

 

In a habitual gesture that he always noticed himself doing but couldn’t seem to stop, Nick tugged lightly on the French cuff of his white shirt, bringing it out from the sleeve of his Armani suit coat—midnight blue, three button. It wasn’t a new suit, though, and it would have been difficult to tell if it were. All his suits were Armani, all of them midnight blue except his tuxedo. Some, like this one, were pinstriped. Though he didn’t always wear a tie, and wasn’t wearing one now, he dressed for business.

 

“No, Fred. Not new. But thanks. And good morning.” Before he sat in the other chair in front of the desk, he extended his hand across it and shook with the don. “Good morning, Uncle.”

 

“Nick. You left the party early last night.”

 

Nick loved his Uncle Carlo, and his cousins, too. He would certainly do everything he could to keep them safe—and he had. But he didn’t enjoy their company much. He felt a wide distance between him and them, between their family and his. They spoke of the family ‘on the other side of the pews’—meaning the Pagano Brothers—and he heard the word ‘wrong’ when they said ‘other.’ There was judgment in the distinction they made. He’d felt it as a child, and he felt it more keenly as an adult. They knew who he was in the organization, what he did, and they judged him. He didn’t care, but he felt it. So he stayed on the edges and watched.

 

He’d always felt isolated among his generation of the family. Uncle Ben’s girls, much closer to his own age, had been silly, frilly little princesses as children. They’d each left the Cove as soon as they’d graduated high school, going away to college and then marrying and leaving for good. Carlo Sr.’s children, though substantially younger than Nick, had at least been more fun, until they were old enough to make that distinction and see themselves as the better Paganos. His own siblings, an older sister and a younger brother, had both died in earliest infancy. While his cousins had all grown up in bustling, busy homes, Nick had grown up in a nearly empty house. He didn’t care, but it made him different. So he stayed on the edges.


Page 3

 

And left parties early.

 

He answered his uncle as he sat. “Yes. Met up with Vanessa.”

 

“You should bring her more often. It’s good for family to see you with someone.”

 

Choosing to ignore that statement rather than be derailed into a conversation about his sliver of a personal life, Nick said, “Landers talked at length before we were done with him. He gave us Jackie Stone. If we can take Stone out of the equation, then that’s the last line between us and Church.”

 

In the past two months, Nick and his crew had located, secured, questioned, and disposed of seven men who had worked for Alvin Church or one of his affiliates in the collective of up-jumped street rats trying to take the Paganos down. Three drivers. Four shooters. The men who killed his father, and the men who shot up the funeral, killing three Pagano associates, nearly killing Nick’s cousin Carmen and her then-unborn daughter, and injuring five other people, three of whom were civilians. His interrogations of those seven men had brought him to Raymond Landers, one of Church’s affiliates, an aimless asshole who’d been little more than a pusher with a good corner two years earlier and had lately been strutting around Lower South Providence in a customized Benz and five-hundred-dollar jeans. He’d soiled those jeans more than once before Nick and Brian were done with him. Now, that Benz had been chopped into anonymity, and Landers had, too.

 

Before he’d gone, though, he’d thrown out a nugget of intel that could finally break apart this band of assholes—he’d given them a way to flip or neutralize Church’s main ally.

 

“What do you mean, he gave us Jackie Stone?”

 

“Landers gave us the location of a big handoff with Stone and his supplier. We interrupt that, and we compromise the fuck out of Stone.”

 

Ben winced at Nick’s language but didn’t comment on it. “His supplier—you mean drugs. Out of where?”

 

“You know where, Uncle, and it’s no matter. I’m not suggesting we take on his business. I know your feelings, and I share them. I’m saying we disrupt it.”

 

At his side, Fred leaned forward, making his big belly rest on his legs. “It’s risky, Nick. A lot of our relationships with law are balanced on our agreement to stay clear of drugs. Even being anywhere near a drop like that could hurt us.”

 

Nick breathed deep and kept his eyes on the don. “Uncle. If we can get in the middle here, there’s a good chance that one of two things will happen—either the Colombians kill Stone for us, or Stone needs us to get out of trouble. The balance of Church’s power goes to hell either way. We could end this—end Church and end any question of who runs New England.”

 

Ben’s eyes moved from Nick’s, and he stared at a point between Nick and Fred for several seconds. When he spoke, he did so without shifting his focus to either man. “When’s Stone’s meet?”

 

“Ten days. Near Danbury.”

 

“That’s a long way from home. Not our neighborhood.”

 

“Take it to The Council. Ask for help from the Marconis. It’s in all the families’ interest to shut Church down. We’re already taking heat from the others for not getting control of it yet.”

 

At that, Ben’s eyes returned to Nick and blazed, but Nick was undeterred. “It’s true, Uncle. Eighteen months, Church has been biting at our ankles, and he’s done us real damage. Innocents are getting hurt. Our businesses are taking hits. My father is dead, and they shot up his funeral. The other families are watching, and they know that if Church wins, if he takes down the biggest family in The Council, it changes their games, too. The families have been at peace and allied for more than ten years. They are our friends. We need to ask for their help before they become our enemies.”

 

Nick could feel Fred’s tension, but he didn’t turn to him. He kept his eyes on his uncle. But Ben didn’t speak. When he sat back in his deep desk chair, his eyes still locked with Nick’s, Nick tried once more. “Uncle Ben. You have my love and deepest respect. Always. I know it hurts you to see that the world is not what it was. But I know you know I’m right. I know this is why you brought me to your side. Because I see. I’m telling you now what I see. We have to fight the war we’re in.”

 

At last, Ben nodded. With a heavy sigh that told Nick his uncle was finally beginning to crack under the pressure of the life he’d made, the don turned to his consigliere. “Fred. Make the calls. Ask to convene The Council.”

~ 2 ~

 

 

Beverly Maddox glided, stretching one arm and then the other past her head, kicking her legs to propel herself through the water, turning and lifting her head at steady intervals to take swallows of air. As she got to the wall of the pool, she rolled, twisted, and pushed off, headed back the way she’d come. She loved the sensual perfection of swimming laps—the slide of the water over her skin, the heat coursing through of all of her muscles as they worked in perfect sync, the centering rhythm of breath and movement.

 

One of the draws of the condo she’d bought at the end of last summer was this pool—not Olympic-size, but rectangular, laned, and deep. It was heated, and the condo community opened it in April and kept it open through September. Since they’d opened it this season, Bev had enthusiastically started a new regimen. Four days a week, she got herself going out here, doing at least thirty laps.

 

Her ‘courtyard’ unit, substantially less expensive than the ‘seaside’ units, overlooked this pool, so she always knew when it was empty and free for her to come down and do her thing. And sometimes, when she was home alone in the evening, she’d sit on her balcony and stare down at the illuminated water, letting the rippling blue glow send her into a contented trance.

 

As she reached the wall again, she took hold of the side and pulled herself up to sit on the edge of the pool and catch her breath. As she lifted her goggles off her head, she heard the yip of a small dog and blinked her eyes clear to see Carlotta walking down the sidewalk, past the fenced pool. Jester, her little white puff of a dog, pulled happily on his leash.

 

“Morning, Carlotta.” Bev stood and walked to the fence, picking up her towel from a lounge chair as she did.

 

“Hi, Bev. I hope we weren’t too loud last night.” Carlotta and her husband lived in the unit below Bev. They’d had a party the night before.

 

“Nope. I could hear some, but I went to bed with an audiobook, earbuds in, and it was fine.”

 

Carlotta smiled. “Thanks. Mrs. Greeley kicked up a fuss.”

 

“Mrs. Greeley likes to fuss.” Every neighborhood had its old biddy. The Oceancrest had Mrs. Florence Greeley, elderly widow, snoop, and malcontent.

 

“She really does.” Jester barked and scrabbled on the sidewalk, tugging as hard on his leash as his little body could. “Well, I better get him to the dog park. Have a good day.”

 

“You, too.” Bev looked up at the cloudless blue sky. “Looks like it’s going to be a beautiful spring day.”

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

She went to work a few hours later with her sense of contentment intact, and that was good. She liked her job, for the most part, but it required a level of patience that she didn’t necessarily possess by default. She meditated, did yoga, and swam because those activities gave her peace and focus, so when people were jerks, she could let it roll off without leaving a mark. It had taken a lot of training to get to that place. She’d had to clear a lot of emotional hurdles.

 

She liked her job because she liked the people she worked with, not because she liked the work. There wasn’t much to like about being a waitress. And no, she was not a ‘server.’ She was a waitress, in a silly, peach-colored polyester uniform, styled to look vintage and suit the décor of Sassy Sal’s Diner, a faux-Fifties place done in garish pastels and all theHappy Daystrimmings.

 

During the off-season, the clientele was mostly townies, and mellower. Almost everybody who lived and worked in or near Quiet Cove knew each other, or at least looked familiar, so the proportion of jerks was lower. Summer people, though, were a mixed bag. It was only April, but the days had been turning warm, and people were beginning to stream in from the cities.

 

Bev came in the back, dressed as usual in street clothes, her uniform and white leather Keds tucked neatly in her rucksack. Bruce Grady, the diner’s owner, and Dink, a busboy and dishwasher, were in the kitchen, prepping for lunch.

 

Bruce smiled at her as she headed to the small staff area. “Hey, Bev. You look bright today. Gimme some sunshine.” Bev smiled, and Bruce put his hand over his heart. “Such a sight.”

 

“You’re a flirt. You better watch it, or Sheryl will be putting a whole different kind of wiener on the menu.”

 

Bruce winced dramatically, and Dink giggled, and Bev went back and to change into her uniform and clock in. As she came out, tying her gingham apron around her waist, Bruce, his face more serious now, asked, “Hey, hon. Can I get you to double up today? I know it’s last minute, but Ceci called in, and Sky’s been on since five this morning. I can’t ask her to close.”

 

Working open to close at Sal’s wasn’t even a double. It was like a double and a half. The diner was open from six in the morning until midnight, and the staff was on the clock an hour extra on either side, so it worked out to a twenty-hour shift. So no, asking Skylar to work the entire day would be inhuman.

 

But Bev had arranged to get help picking up her new sofa tonight after work, and it had taken her more than a week to get everything scheduled just right. “Sorry, Bruce. I just can’t tonight. I’m getting my sofa, remember?”

 

Bruce looked crestfallen. “Right, right. I forgot. It’s okay. I’ll call Brooklynn and have her come from school. She’s been looking to earn money, anyway. It’s a school night, but it’ll be okay. I’ll stay with her. I’ve worked full days before. And Sheryl’ll get over it.”

 

Brooklynn was Bruce and Sheryl’s sixteen-year-old daughter. He was working Bev, playing on her sympathies, but she saw through his little passive-aggressive display and only smiled. “Sounds like a plan. Maybe Sheryl will even let you keep your wiener.”

 

Bruce laughed. “You are a cold woman, Beverly.”

 

“Nah. I’m warm and cuddly. And also smart.” She kissed her boss on the cheek, gave little Dink an affectionate pinch on the arm, and went up to the counter. Skylar Berinski, also dressed in a peach-colored uniform, was clearing a table at the front window.

 

It was just before eleven o’clock on a pre-season weekday morning, and Sal’s was in the late-morning lull that was typical for this time of day and year. The only customer at the moment was sitting at the counter with a cup of coffee, an empty plate, and theQuiet Cove Clarionin front of him. Irv Lumley was the chief of the local police department, and he was a regular, coming in just about every weekday for a sugared jelly stick and about half a pot of coffee. Most of the town cops were frequent diners at Sassy Sal’s. They got their coffee bottomless and free. The chief got his jelly sticks free, too.

 

Bev brought the pot over and refilled his cup. “Morning, Chief.”

 

He looked around from his sports page and smiled. “Morning, lovely.”

 

“Anything good going on in the world?” She checked his cream pitcher and found it near empty, so she refilled that, too.

 

“Thanks, hon. Sox won last night. They’re starting off strong this year. But otherwise, it’s the usual gloom and doom.”

 

“Bummer. Get ya anything else? Another jelly stick?”

 

He chuckled and let go of a side of the paper to pat his nonexistent belly. “Better not. One of those a day is my limit. Man’s gotta watch his figure, y’know.”

 

She grinned. The front door opened just then, and a middle-aged couple came in. Bev grabbed a fresh ticket pad and passed Sky as she came out from the kitchen. Sky winked at her, and Bev winked back. That was all the greeting they needed. They got each other on a level that transcended words.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

Bev and Skylar worked through the lunch rush together, and then Sky clocked out at two. Brooklynn came in at four, excited to get the gig. Except in the summer, dinner was their lightest meal time. They spent the first couple of hours wrapping silverware and filling condiments. When the dinner traffic picked up, Bev took all the tables and let Brooklynn shadow her, so she’d have the basics down by the time Bev clocked out at seven.

 

It wasn’t the first time that Bruce’s eldest kid had worked in the diner, but it was the first time she’d be waiting tables. She was tall and skinny, and there was no uniform that fit her, so she was slumping around in one that was far too large, from a waitress before Bev’s time. She kept getting the pockets caught on the corner of the counter. But she seemed to be enjoying herself.

 

Bev wondered how long that would last. She figured by the end of the summer, Brooklynn would not be so sanguine about leaving work each day smelling like a coffee-soaked deep fryer. With burns on her fingers from the heat lamps and bruises on her ass from jerkface summer men who’d left their manners in their city houses.

 

It was definitely her coworkers who made the job bearable.

 

By the time she clocked out and changed back into her jeans, t-shirt, and jacket, Bruce was sitting at his desk, looking a little frazzled. Mario was the cook on the clock.

 

“How’s she doin’, you think?” Bruce asked as Bev was packing up her uniform and Keds.

 

“Brook? She’s fine. She’ll be fine tonight. It’s not rocket science, as they say. If you made us do diner speak, that’d be one thing, but you’re too cool for that, thank God, so there’s not much to learn. What’d Sheryl have to say about her being here tonight?”

 

He chuckled. “Oh, I’ll be sleeping on the sofa for a while, but I think I’ll keep all my parts. Speaking of sofas, you better go get yours.”

 

As if on cue, Mario poked his head in the door. “Bev, Chris is here for you.”

 

“Cool. Gotta go. I’ll see you guys tomorrow.” She kissed Bruce on the cheek and went out to the front, where Chris waited.

 

Chris Mills owned Cover to Cover Books, a little shop a couple of blocks down Gannet Street from the diner. He was her best friend, had been for more than ten years, and was the reason she’d decided to move to Quiet Cove the summer before. He grinned when she came out to the counter, his scruffy, normally hangdog face brightening considerably.

 

“You all set for this?”

 

He made a show of flexing his muscles. “Chris haul,” he grunted. “Chris heft. Chris smash.”

 

“Chris betternotsmash. Or get any kind of man grunge on my pretty white sofa.”

 

He scoffed. “Only a woman would buy a white sofa. And this woman should be nicer to the person who’s hauling and hefting said white sofafor free.”

 

She punched his arm lightly. “Not free. I bought you beer.”

 

He made another animal noise. “Beer? Chris happy.”

 

“Chris easy, you mean. Let’s go.”

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

Getting the sofa into Chris’s van was no problem. Getting it into the building was no problem. Getting it into the service elevator was no problem. But getting it around the hallway corner and to her door was looking potentially impossible. Bev had expected to be able to stand it on its end and swivel it around the corner, and from there, it was a straight shot to her door. But she had neglected to consider the quite firmly attached stained-glass light fixture hanging sturdily from the ceiling right at the corner.

 

And the door to the corner unit was right there, too. They’d crashed the sofa into it twice now. Hopefully, the tenant wasn’t home. He scared her. A little. He seemed really intense, from the little she knew.

 

Chris dropped his end of the sofa with a groan. They’d managed now to get the thing wedged against her neighbor’s door somehow. “This is hopeless. I thought you were all brawny and muscly, like Chyna.”

 

“Who?” Bev didn’t need to drop her end; it was wedged into the door.

 

“Chyna. Chick wrestler.” Chris eyed her neighbor’s door. “Even if we get this thing around the corner, how are we getting it into your place? That turn’s even tighter.”

 

“There’s no light right above my door.” She looked down the hallway to double check. The sofa cushions were stacked at the side of her door. “Nope. We’ll be good. We can tip it up down there.” She took hold of the armrest, ignoring the grey smudge from all the crashing. “Come on, we can do this. Iammuscly.”


Page 4

 

Chris whined a little, but he picked up his end. “Why did you have to get a sleeper sofa? It’s like it’s packed with rocks.”

 

“For someplace to put your drunk ass when you pass out.” They hefted and got just enough movement for Bev to feel a little hope—and to crash yet again into the door.

 

This time, it opened, and there her neighbor was, wearing nothing but a pair of plain black track pants and looking absolutely hot as hell. And not pleased. His posture seemed relaxed, but his green eyes flashed fire.

 

She smiled as brightly as she could. “Hi, Nick. Sorry for the noise.”

 

She’d never seen him shirtless before. Oh, good lord. His shoulders were—and his abs and—Bev swallowed. There was a thin line of dark hair rising up from his waistband and stopping at his navel and a light dusting of dark hair across his pecs. Realizing that she’d been staring, she shook her head sharply and looked away—and found Chris giving her a deeply sarcastic look. She resisted the urge to flip him the bird.

 

“If I may ask, what the fuck?” Nick’s voice was deep and smooth, with a rough rumble at the edge. Not hoarse or growly, but almost like he didn’t use it much. Which could well be true. Their few meetings had not been anything in the vicinity of chatty.

 

“I bought a new sofa. I didn’t want to pay the extra for delivery—they really gouge you with that stuff—and Chris here was nice enough to say he’d help me get it home, but it’s a sleeper and really heavy. We didn’t have any trouble, though, all the way to here. But now it’s stuck in this corner, and we can’t turn it up on its end because of the light, and now it’s getting smudges on it—” Sheesh, she was blathering like a vapid tween. “I’m sorry, Nick. We’ll figure it out, and we’ll try not to bang on your door while we do it.”

 

Abruptly, he closed his door, and Chris and Bev looked at each other. Chris mouthedRudeand squatted to pick up his end again. Then the door opened, and there Nick was again. He looked at Bev.

 

“Step aside.”

 

“What?”

 

“Move out of the way. Your new furniture has me blocked in.”

 

Confused, she obeyed, taking several steps backward down the hall toward her own door. And then he did something that made her jaw drop open. He grabbed the top of his doorframe in both hands and hoisted himself up like he was doing a pull-up. He had great arms, too. In fact, his whole torso flexed, and Bev thought she might just pass out. He brought his legs up and swung himself over the end of her sofa, landing neatly in the hallway on his bare feet.

 

He could have climbed over, Bev thought. But she hadn’t minded the show at all.

 

Then he turned away from her, and she saw his back. A tattoo covered him from his broad shoulders to his narrow waist and side to side—black and grey, huge angel’s wings, drawn to appear to be growing out of his shoulder blades, with an elaborate, medieval-looking sword straight down his spine, all of it wrapped in barbed wire. She was going to have a heart attack. Could you die from looking at perfection? Like going blind from looking at the sun?

 

Chris was still smirking at her, but Nick ignored her and spoke to him. “Here. Pick it up from the bottom and tip it forward about forty-five degrees.” They did so. “Good. Take a few steps to your left. Good. Okay.” He stepped backwards, and Bev did as well, keeping the same distance between them, staying out of his way.

 

She couldn’t stop staring at his back, the way it flexed as he moved and lifted her sofa. Sweet, swaddled baby Jesus. She had an image of walking up to him and licking him straight up his spine—an image so vivid she took a step forward before she pulled up with a gasp.

 

They’d gotten the sofa around the corner. Feeling a little seasick from the waves of relief and arousal crashing together inside her, Bev turned and trotted down the hallway, opening her door and yanking in all the cushions before the men got there. With only minimal consideration and discussion, they got the beast into the apartment and placed in the spot she’d made for it, right next to the window wall and her balcony overlooking the pool.

 

“Thank you, thank you, thank you! You both rock!” Chris was shaking Nick’s hand. She hugged Chris hard and then turned to Nick, who was already on his way to the door. “Wait. Stay for a beer. I owe you a beer, at least.”

 

He smiled a little—it was the first smile she’d ever seen on his face in almost a year of hallway and mailroom greetings, and it made him twice as gorgeous. Who’d’ve thought it possible? Even that little turn of his mouth, though, made him look kind and open instead of scary and intense. “No need. I need to get back. Have a good night.”

 

And he was gone, his perfect back going through her door.

 

From behind her, Chris snickered. “Shit, girl, why not just wear a sign that says FUCK ME, HOT STUFF? Wouldn’t be any less subtle.”

 

She turned back to her friend. “Bite me, bitch. Anyway, he has a girlfriend. And I am not his type. He likes blonde model types—tall, skinny, and beautiful. Here, help me get the cushions on and then you can have your beer.”

 

As they got the sofa set up, Chris said, “You are beautiful, Bev.”

 

“I wasn’t looking for affirmation, pal. I’m comfortable the way I am, finally. But I’m not six feet tall and a hundred-ten pounds.”

 

“True. But that’s such a cliché. So is he. But he is a fine specimen, even I can see that. That parkour thing he did, though, that was just being a showoff. Who is he?”

 

She shrugged and went into the kitchen to get Chris a beer. “Just my neighbor. Nick Pagano.”

 

Chris had been in the act of sitting on the new sofa. He stopped and reversed, standing straight again. “Pagano? No shit? Bev, you know who they are, right?”

 

“Of course I do. But it’s not like Tony Soprano and Sonny Corleone are hanging out in the hallway every day. From what I can tell, I think all the stories are mostly that—stories. He just goes to work and comes home, like everybody else.” She handed Chris his beer.

 

“You’re deluded. He’s bad news. I’m glad you’re not his type.” He took a drink and then scowled at the bottle. “And what the fuck is this? You said beer. This is IPA. IPA tastes like fermented yak piss.”

 

Bev had chosen it because it came from the Quiet Cove Brewery and had a cool label. She didn’t know from beers, really. She preferred wine. Or vodka, or rum. In her opinion, all beer was pretty gross. “I thought beer was beer. Plus, look—lighthouse on the label. Pretty.”

 

He set the bottle on the chrome and glass table in front of the new sofa. “You are such a girl sometimes. Saying beer is beer is like saying soda is soda. Or sex is sex. Actually, that last one is true. Never mind.” He kissed her cheek. “But I still love you. I’m gonna head out. We’re still on for Neon tomorrow, though, right?”

 

“Yep. Bought a new dress and everything.” Neon was a high-end club in Providence. A guy Chris knew from college was head of security there and had invited them, otherwise they would very much not have been on the list.

 

“Okay. Make sure Sky and what’s-his-name are here by eight.”

 

“Romeo. His name is Romeo, and you know it.”

 

“Yeah, but I can’t say it. No grown man should have that name.”

 

Sky’s boyfriend weighed about three hundred pounds, and it wasn’t fat. Chris weighed not much more than half that. “You should be careful.”

 

He grinned and went out, singing “Sky and Romeo sitting in a tree, sounding like a porn movie.”

 

Alone with her new sofa, Bev laughed and picked up his barely-touched beer from the coffee table. Not beer—IPA. Whatever the difference was, and whatever IPA meant. She took a sip. It actually wasn’t too bad. Not really her taste, but better than most beers she’d had. She had most of a six-pack in her fridge.

 

She wondered whether Nick liked IPA. Maybe she’d see. Just to be neighborly.

 

~ 3 ~

 

 

Nick went back to his apartment and took a look at his door. No damage from the sofa. He went in, washed his hands in the bathroom, and returned to his kitchen, picking up the bottle of Glenfiddich and resuming the act of pouring himself a glass.

 

He was on his own tonight. Vanessa, apparently more hurt about being dismissed yesterday than he’d realized, had returned his call last evening with a terse text:Busy, will call soon. There had been no further contact.

 

Standing out on his balcony the morning before, he’d understood that his time with Vanessa was winding down. If she was going to play passive-aggressive games, then the end was much closer than he’d realized. Romance was not Nick’s thing. Appeasing the fragile sensibilities of flighty women was not his thing. He was not a misogynist, at least he didn’t think so. He loved his mother fiercely. His cousin Carmen was his favorite among all the Paganos in his generation. He respected women and treated them well. And there was little he enjoyed more than the feel of a female body in his hands.

 

But he had no such powerful need of their company that he would cater to whim or fancy, and he would not, ever, be dragged into the ‘if you don’t know I’m not going to tell you’ bullshit that women, in his experience, seemed to favor as a means of manipulation and control. Or the hotter kind of war his parents had often engaged in.

 

He would not tolerate pouting, and he most certainly would not reward it. If Vanessa was pouting, then they were over.

 

For the best, really. He’d been feeling her hands on him, grasping, for weeks now—since his father’s death, in fact. She’d wanted to comfort him, and he had not wanted her comfort. The only comfort he’d wanted or needed was revenge, which he had wrought. But his distance then, he thought now, had made her feel how tenuous her hold on him was. It was nonexistent. He enjoyed her; he didn’t love her. He desired her; he didn’t need her.

 

He was forty-five. The pressure from Uncle Ben to marry, heavy in the years since he’d been made capo, had become constant since his father’s death. The pressure from his mother, who wanted grandchildren, had been heavy for his entire adult life. He’d always resisted, even ignored it. But he was beginning to wonder if he really did want to live his life as he was spending this night. Alone, unattached, unbonded.

 

He looked around his apartment—tasteful and comfortable—and tried to imagine the touch of a woman on his things. His taste in color was earthy and neutral: browns, greys, blacks. The designer who’d done the work had persuaded him to add orange to the living room for ‘punch.’ Nick looked over the counter peninsula at his living room and tried to picture some flouncy cushion, or a vase full of cut flowers, in the space—or fucking magenta paint, like his neighbor had done on the wall they’d put her sofa against. Magenta. On the wall. Just the one wall, but still.

 

He shuddered and drank down his scotch, refilling the glass immediately. No. He simply could not imagine sharing his life. He was sorry not to give his mother grandchildren, especially now, when she was alone in that house, but she’d just have to spend more time with his cousins’ kids.

 

As he put his refilled glass to his lips, Jimmy rapped on the door with his distinctive knock, and Nick set the glass down and glanced at the clock on the range. Nine—Jimmy was checking out. He went to the door and checked the peephole, which was filled by his guard and driver’s chest. Not bothering this time with his gun, he opened the door.

 

“You out, Jimmy?”

 

“Yeah, boss. Nose is on. Unless you need me?”

 

As a rule, Nick had not spent his life being guarded around the clock. As a rule, the Pagano Brothers’ business had been mainly calm and well-ordered. But the rules didn’t apply these days. Even before his father’s murder, security had been increased since Church had started thumping his chest. Now it was practically Secret Service level.

 

“No, Jim. I’m good. Tell Nose I’m in for the night.”

 

Jimmy nodded his massive head and turned toward the elevator. A sound down the hallway made him turn back suspiciously. Nick looked, too, and saw his neighbor, she of the bright smile, rogue furniture, and magenta wall, coming toward them, a six-pack of something or other in her hands. Jimmy made himself broad—and at six-nine and three-sixty, his breadth was considerable.

 

Nick almost laughed. “It’s okay, Jimmy.”

 

The neighbor—Evelyn? Was her name Evelyn?—faltered at Jimmy’s glower, stopping about six feet from Nick’s door. “Um, hi.”

 

“Jimmy, go on. Give Tina my regards.”

 

Nick’s most constant companion hesitated one more second and then nodded. “I will. G’night, boss.” He finally headed for the elevator, and Nick turned to his neighbor.

 

“Having another furniture disaster?”

 

She smiled—it was an amazing smile, as if it actually had light. Her eyes were good, too. He’d not really noticed before the depths of their blue. She was dressed simply, in jeans and a black, v-neck t-shirt. The shirt showed just enough of her excellent cleavage to get his attention.

 

“No. I just couldn’t stand not thanking you better for rescuing us tonight. If it weren’t for you, we’d probably still be jammed up right here.”

 

“Blocking me in. I’d say I rescued myself more than anything.”

 

That made her laugh; the sound was pleasing and gentle. “Maybe so. Anyway, I thought I’d bring this down, at least.” She lifted the six-pack as an offer, and he noticed that one bottle was missing.

 

“Part of a six-pack?”

 

Now she was blushing. He liked that, and his interest interested him. “Yeah, well, um…Chris didn’t like it. It’s IPA, whatever that means.”

 

“India Pale Ale. So you brought me your boyfriend’s rejects, then. As a thank you.”

 

She blushed so hard at that, her face lit up like a warning beacon. She was really glowing now. He’d been teasing, so he let up and smiled. His expression eased hers, cooled her cheeks and widened her eyes, and she made that gentle chuckle again. “When you say it like that, it doesn’t sound all that grateful, huh? I guess I didn’t think it through. He’s not my boyfriend, but he is apparently pickier about beer than I thought. Okay, then. I’ll just slink back to my door in shame.”

 

Nick wasn’t sure what had piqued his interest, but it was piqued—at least, he wasn’t quite done with their little banter. His eyes kept returning to her mouth. “I’m not sure I remember your name. Is it Evelyn?”

 

“Beverly. Everybody calls me Bev.”

 

He’d been close. A name from the past. “Not many young women with that name, I’d guess.”

 

“I don’t think so. I’ve never known another one personally, old or young.” She fidgeted, shifting the box in her hands, and Nick made a decision and stepped back out of his doorway, into his apartment. He’d lived here five years without getting to know a neighbor personally, but this one charmed him a little.

 

“Well, come in, and let’s try some of your boyfriend’s rejects.” He’d heard her correct him about the ‘boyfriend,’ and he’d repeated it intentionally to see if she’d correct him again.

 

“Are you sure? I’m happy to just give them to you. I wasn’t angling for an invite.” She got a look in her eye—it flashed quickly and was gone—and added, “Maybe your girlfriend would like it.” Nick read that she had not expected to be invited in, but now that she was, she was digging a little into his availability. He’d make sure to control that line of interest before it got going.

 

“I never say anything unless I’m sure, Beverly.” He stretched his arm out toward the interior of his home, and she walked through the doorway.

 

As she came in, she headed straight for the counter that divided the kitchen from the living room. “Well, I won’t say I’m not glad, because I didn’t want to be a loser and drink all alone.” She set the six-pack on the counter and then stared at his single glass of scotch. When she looked up, her blue eyes were wide.

 

Nick was enjoying this. She was so easy to read, she wasn’t just an open book, she was an IMAX movie in 3D. In most of his life, people tried to hide things from him. Even his friends and associates controlled their feelings. He found it refreshing to talk with someone this open.

 

“If you need an opener, it’s in the drawer next to the fridge.” He walked down the hallway into his bedroom and grabbed a clean t-shirt out of a drawer, then returned to the kitchen as he pulled it on. In the space of those few seconds, she had opened two bottles and was putting the remaining three in his refrigerator. As she closed the door, she looked at his chest, now covered with a t-shirt, and he saw her disappointment. He chuckled to himself as he picked up one of the open bottles from the counter and took a swig. The Pagano Brothers were investors in the Quiet Cove Brewery, so he’d had their IPA before. It was decent.

 

“So…what do you do, Nick?”

 

He turned and leaned against the counter, surprised and disappointed by her question. People knew him. They at least knew his last name, and considering that he normally got around in a blacked-out SUV with a hugecumpàfor a driver, people made assumptions. Correct assumptions, in his case. So the question was stupid, for a lot of reasons.

 

“I work.” Wanting to turn the conversation over, he thought of the morning before, watching her on the beach. “You’re a yoga instructor.”

 

“Yes…that’s a thing I do.” Her smile around those words was wry. She was being coy with him, too. She had another job as well, but she was holding it back, retaliating for his vague answer to her question. Sassy. He liked it. He’d even forgive her for asking the stupid question in the first place.

 

He’d think through his interest in this woman later; for now, he decided to poke at her a little and take her measure. “I’ve seen you on the beach doing your thing. I’m surprised.”

 

“Why?” She took a long drink from her bottle. She hadn’t fussed about needing a glass.

 

“You’re not a skinny vegan type.”

 

She didn’t take offense at all. She lifted her eyebrows in surprise, but again he could read her clearly, and she wasn’t one of those women who collapsed into a puddle of needy insecurity at any kind of comment that wasn’t an affirmation of their perfection.

 

Her answer was clear and confident. “Health and strength isn’t about being thin. It took me a long time to believe that, but now I more than believe it. I know it’s true. So, no, I’m not skinny. I’m a hundred times healthier now than when I was skinny. Or when I was fat. I’m strong and fit.” She gave him a smirk—more sass. “Limber, too.”

 

It was a good answer. And she wasn’t fat. She was—he didn’t know how to describe it. He’d say ‘average,’ but that didn’t feel right. Her shape was somehow better than average in a way he could see but not explain. She fit her clothes really well—that was as close as he could get.

 

He had an impulse to take hold of her ass. He could get there, too. But he wouldn’t.

 

When he cocked his head at her, conceding her point, she misread him and thought he was humoring her. “What, you want to arm wrestle?” She made a fist and flexed her bicep. Her muscle tone was obvious. And she had a tattoo on the inside of her right wrist—two feathers, light and delicate.

 

“No need.” He finished his ale. “I believe you.”

 

“Good.” She walked past him, around the dividing counter, and into his living room. “Your place is nice. Bigger than mine.” She gestured with her half-empty bottle toward the interior wall of glass, separating the living room from his office. “I like that—did you take the wall down, or was it an option when you bought?”

 

It was one thing to chat as a means to get a read on someone, but Nick had no use for purposeless chatter, and it seemed to him now that she was simply stalling. She wore her interest in him like a flashing red sign over her head. He was attracted, too, surprisingly so. He had two choices here: exploit that and fuck her, or send her on her way.

 

Though he wanted to get his hands on those tits, that ass, he hadn’t cut ties with Vanessa yet, and cheating was some messy bullshit that he did not need in his life. He’d cleaned up many a mess for Pagano Brothers men whose wives andcomareshad crashed together. He had only a mistress, no wife, but he didn’t need the drama. And Beverly lived across the hall. That was drama with a bonus package.


Page 5

 

So there was only one choice, then. “It’s time for you to go.”

 

Surprise was clear in the way she spun back to him. “Oh. Yeah. Sorry. Didn’t mean to overstay.” She was blushing again, and Nick had a moment of regret for his plain speaking.

 

“Finish your beer first.”

 

She handed him the bottle. “It’s India Pale Ale, remember? And I don’t like it that much. Okay, well, I’ll see you in the hallway, then.” She went to the front door, and he didn’t follow her to see her out—it was only about fifteen feet. As she opened the door she turned back and smiled. Still beautiful, but the light was a bit dimmer than earlier. “Good night, Nick. Thanks again for the help.”

 

“Good night, Beverly. You’re welcome.”

 

She left, and he finished her IPA. Then he picked up his glass of scotch and continued his evening as he’d expected. Alone.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

Early the next afternoon, Jimmy parked Nick’s SUV along a broken curb on a weedy street near the Providence Harbor. Most of the lots had been taken over by slapdash commercial interests; the few residences left were little more than squats. The Paganos kept one of the old houses for a certain kind of work. They had other locations for similar work—storage lockers, a seemingly abandoned warehouse, an old barn. Nick chose the location based upon the subject.

 

He used to choose the location. Now, because he had refused to offer up any name but Brian Notaro’s as his replacement, and Ben had cleaved to tradition and refused to promote a half-blooded Italian, J.J. Nicci, Julie’s son, was capo in charge of enforcement and information. Nick thought it was a bad fit, not least because J.J. had no interrogation experience. He was a knee-capper, with no finesse. But Julie had fought hard for his son, and he’d hit the right chord with Don Pagano.

 

Nick was keeping tabs, because he thought the don had made a mistake.

 

J.J. had brought the subject here, and that was stupid. They were only blocks from the guy’s own turf.

 

Jimmy got out, buttoning his jacket as he walked around the car and opened Nick’s door. It was a small thing, but this was a way that extra security rubbed at Nick—not even opening his own door. He felt the restraint as if it were an actual leash. No point in bitching about it, however; it was necessary, and this location was unstable. He got out and buttoned his jacket, appreciating the weight of his Beretta under his arm. Brian was already out and getting a kit from the back of the SUV.

 

They had parked near the building. Nick scanned the area. A primer-grey van was parked on the lawn behind the house; he could just see the back end. It looked as though it might have been there for a long time.

 

“They’re set up already?”

 

Seeing the van, Brian nodded. “Looks that way, boss.” Nick didn’t like hearing Brian call him ‘boss.’ From anyone else, he’d expect it, but he and Brian went far back, to second grade at Christ the King School. Still, he was the boss, and Brian was only a soldier.

 

“Okay. Let’s see what J.J.’s got.”

 

In the middle of what was left of the living room, a short, morbidly obese man was tied to a metal folding chair. First mistake. Folding chairs folded, and bindings gave more easily.

 

He was naked—that was good. A naked man was easier to intimidate, easier to hurt, and less likely to flee if the opportunity presented itself. Shame was a powerful inhibitor.

 

He was gagged with a rag tied around his face—rookie move. As evidenced by the wordless ruckus the guy was making, a gag like that made a man only incomprehensible, not truly quiet. And this was supposed to be an interrogation. They needed him to talk. There were other ways than gags to keep a man quiet.

 

He was sweating profusely but not bruised or bleeding, so J.J. had waited for him. Good. This would be his hands-on training—for him and his crew. Nick set aside his frustration at his uncle for the mistake of making J.J., thirty-five years old and only five years made, a capo, especially to replace him.

 

That new capo was staring steadily at him now, and Nick knew he was working hard to keep his face clear of the expression that suited the emotion rolling off him in waves—anger. He didn’t like being checked up on, and in front of his boys. But this was the first interrogation connected to business outside of the Church fight, and so the first one with J.J. on point.

 

“Tell me, J.J.”

 

“Boss. I just need to put some hurt on this fucker. I got it.”

 

“Tell me.”

 

J.J. sighed, walking the line between paying respect and taking a beating. “Got a guy buying up our notes. Paying off early, killing the vig. Can’t get a name, but this guy is one of his bagmen.” The bound man shook his head emphatically. Around the gag, he shouted “No!” J.J. stepped over and clocked him with the butt of his gun.

 

And now the guy was unconscious. Unconscious men did not give up intel. Nick swiped a hand over his face. Fuck, he hoped J.J. wouldn’t go down as his uncle’s greatest mistake.

 

Making high-interest loans was one of the Pagano Brothers most lucrative enterprises. Somebody coming in and paying off debt on a wide scale could cripple them financially. And it made no fucking sense. “Why the fuck am I just hearing about this now?” 

“Shylocks just started reporting it a week ago. We didn’t know what was going on until we caught this guy coming out of Tanner’s last night.”

 

“We?”

 

“My da—Julie and Dom are seeing it, too.”

 

“And nobody said shit to me or the don.”

 

J.J. swallowed, finally seeing how deep and hot was the water he stood in. “Like I said, boss, it’s only been a couple days we understood the scope. We wanted to have good intel. That’s why we have this guy.”

 

“You think a bagman’s going to know who’s holding the strings? J.J., what the fuck? And you’re three blocks from his turf. It’s like you’re trying to fuck this up.”

 

J.J.’s face went red—with rage, not with shame. Over long years of this kind of work, Nick had learned there was a difference in the way blood suffused the face, depending on the emotion that impelled it. Regardless of the color of skin over it, the color of red was different. Rage had a blue undertone. Shame was more orange. Pain had a grey cast. J.J. was furious—and impotent, which was a dangerous combination. Nick had pushed too hard.

 

He backed off. “Okay. Make what you can of him, then. Use him to hone your skill. Maybe he’s got something good after all. Something that will get you to your guy.”

 

“You gonna let me handle it?” It was a demand J.J. made, a dare. Not a request.

 

Nick met it without a word, his eyes locked on J.J.’s. After a couple of seconds, J.J. lost some of that bluish red tone and turned to the man tied to a chair.

 

When he walked away, Brian stepped to Nick’s side. “Can I speak plainly, boss?”

 

“You know you can, Bri. You don’t need to ask.”

 

Brian nodded his appreciation of that. They were friends before they were associates. “This is over these guys’ heads. He’s gonna kill this mook before he gets anything out of him. And I think this is bigger than they know.”

 

Nick watched J.J. try to slap his guy back to consciousness. He was getting nowhere. At Nick’s feet was a kit he’d put together over the course of his career. Tools of his trade. A weak suck like this guy, he’d have not only awake but giving up his own kids within ten minutes. And then, if he so chose, he’d leave him intact to go home to those kids knowing to mind his business and his manners.

 

“Keep talking.”

 

“What if this is Church? Paying our notes—that’s a huge outlay up front. Even if he doubles the vig—which would collapse business under its own weight—it’s a bad investment, unless it’s a step toward a bigger goal. Somebody big enough to drop that much cash at once, and somebody who’s looking to take us down. That enemies list has one name on it. We don’t need this poor sap. We know who’s got his strings.”

 

Nick turned to his friend. He was right. “J.J.”

 

Watching his guys try to rouse his subject, J.J. didn’t hear him. Nick raised his voice. “J.J.”

 

He held up his hand to stop his men and then turned. “Yeah?”

 

“End him. Make him a message.”

 

If J.J. balked, Nick would handle this shit himself, right in front of J.J.’s crew. He didn’t give a fuck. This entitled halfwit had been made a capo. A capo! Nick decided at that moment that he would handle more than this shit if J.J. didn’t get his ass straight, and fast. He would not let his uncle, hisfamily, be brought down over a promotion made for the wrong fucking reasons.

 

Ben had lost his edge.

 

J.J. didn’t balk. He blinked, and then he nodded and turned to one of his guys. “Picker. End him. Then let’s get to work.”

 

Deciding to be satisfied that J.J. could handle the rest, and would know which message to send and how, he put his hand on Brian’s arm and nodded toward the front door. Before they left, Jimmy in the lead, Nick turned back to J.J. “Bring the don his remembrance. This is on the books.”

 

Again, J.J. nodded.

 

When they were in the SUV again, Nick looked over the seat at Brian. “Call the guys. We’re going to Neon tonight. I need to talk to Jake.”

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

‘The guys’ were Chi-Chi Rinaldi and Matty Ferro. With Brian, they’d made up the heart of Nick’s crew for a decade. They were still working with him; he had them on Church detail, which was Nick’s special project. And now the capos’ trouble looked to be part of his big picture.

 

The four of them rode together in Nick’s Navigator, with Jimmy, as ever, behind the wheel. Neon was one of the hottest nightclubs in Providence; the Pagano Brothers owned a forty-percent share of the club and sixty percent of the escort business it fronted. Jake Chambers managed both and had his own substantial minority shares. He’d been a mover in the nightclub and escort businesses for more than thirty years and affiliated with the Paganos for most of that time.

 

Because Alvin Church also owned a nightclub—The Pink Hole, popular in its own way, with a different clientele, but otherwise similar to Neon—Jake bumped up against Church associates on a regular basis. And the escort service had a lot of client overlap with the shylocks; a man with one vice tended to have many, and that tended to be expensive. Jake was smart and perceptive; he’d know if there was something shaking underground.

 

Neon was a good place to conduct business. Loud and dark, with deep, plush booths for privacy, and with heavy, live-monitored, unrecorded security and daily bug sweeps, it was one of the most secure places the Paganos had to talk openly. Nick, though not a fan of the music, if that was what it could be called, preferred the club for business. And the women were fine and plentiful.

 

Jake came over within minutes of their taking their reserved booth, before their drinks arrived. Nick accepted his greeting of respect and then waved him off. It was better to put business off, look like they were there to party, in the event that snoops or competitors were mingling with the club revelers.

 

With these guys, though, it was easy to look like they were there to party. Chi-Chi and Matty, ten years younger than Nick and Brian, were always good to party, and they had a running competition between them for the most and best pussy. As soon as Nick nodded, they took off on the prowl.

 

Brian sat back and scanned the dancers. Nick drank his scotch and turn his sight inward, thinking through what he’d learned this afternoon and what he wanted to get from Jake. Then Brian whistled, the sound splitting the pulse of the house music.

 

Nick looked over, and Brian leaned in. “You see that guy? He’s almost as big as Jimmy. I thought he was security at first, but he’s out there dancing. Which is a sight in itself.”

 

Curious, Nick followed Brian’s finger and saw a big guy with long, blond hair dancing with a tiny twig of a girl with dark hair and a full sleeve of ink. Yeah, the guy was definitely big. He nodded.


Page 6

 

“I’m thinking we should get his details and check him out. We need to backfill security.”

 

His mind on bigger things, Nick made a noncommittal gesture. “Sure. Talk to him. Watch yourself.”

 

Brian slid out of the booth and headed to the dance floor just as the guy in question and his little slip of a chick headed toward the bar. Nick watched Brian follow him and make contact. And then he saw that the big blond and his tattooed lady had another companion. Beverly. Her sofa-moving friend was there, too, but Nick kept his eyes on her.

 

She wore a short, black dress that hugged her curves—she really did wear her clothes spectacularly well. The dress had a turtleneck but was sleeveless and somehow shoulder-less, too. Though only her arms and shoulders were bare, the effect was potent and alluring. Her dark hair was pulled back and, when she turned away, he saw that it was coiled into some kind of twist. She was pure class, substance in a sea of flash.

 

He finished his scotch as Brian brought the big guy and his friends toward the booth.

 

~ 4 ~

 

 

As head of security, Chris’s friend, Thomas, wasn’t on the door when Bev, Chris, Skylar, and Romeo walked up to the front. A long line of people dressed in fabulous clothes was already assembled.  Getting into Neon was like an audition—only the prettiest and coolest made the cut. Unless they were on the list.

 

With his hand on Bev’s elbow, Chris led the group past the line and straight to the door. A huge black guy in a blue suit and black t-shirt gave their little group an appraising look, head to toe, and came back unimpressed.

 

Chris smiled. “I’m a friend of Thomas’s. We’re on the list. Chris Mills.”

 

The bouncer lifted his phone and scrolled the screen. He looked up, appraised them again, and nodded. “Enjoy.” He gestured to Romeo. “You in security?”

 

Romeo, gigantic and blond, like a Viking on steroids, grinned a little shyly. “No, man. I work in a warehouse.”

 

The bouncer laughed. “If you’re interested, talk to Thomas. Tell him Roland sent you back.”

 

Romeo nodded, and Bev and Sky grinned at each other. Romeo was huge and strong, but he was a lot more likely to cuddle kittens than bounce drunks. He was soft-spoken, sweet, and shy. Bev had never known him to even raise his voice.

 

They went in, and Bev felt immediately assailed by sound and light. The music, electronica with a driving beat, was ear-splittingly loud, and the huge room exploded with colorful light. True to its name, Neon was full of neon lights—striping and swirling on every wall, filling the vast, glass or Lucite center bar, coiling up the support beams. Otherwise, the setup was like most other clubs she’d been to—the long side walls dominated by elaborate booth seating, tall enough for privacy, the center space arrayed with two-top tables, a roomy dance floor, currently full of gyrating bodies, ringed with lighted railing and canopied by twisting dance lights. Behind the bar, on a raised platform, was the D.J. cage.

 

Tonight was her first time here. Bev loved to dance, but she didn’t like the sense of auditioning that was so much a part of the club scene. From the line out front, to the men scoping women out and deciding who was worthy of their attention, Bev usually felt more insecure in a place like this than anywhere else. She hadn’t had a real date in more than a year, but she wasn’t interested in finding one at a place like this.

 

She was only here because she’d convinced Chris to exploit his connections and then invite Romeo and Skylar with them. Among friends, she could enjoy herself. And she’d had an excuse to buy a sexy dress and do herself up.

 

Chris was clearly miserable, and Romeo didn’t look much happier, but Bev and Sky worked on getting the guys buzzed and happy and then dragged them out on the dance floor. Neither could dance for shit, they simply shuffled their feet and bopped up and down a little, but all either woman needed was a man to dance around, so Bev and Sky danced between Chris and Romeo, mostly with each other. It was awesome.

 

For a long time, it was too loud to do much talking, so when Chris had had his fill of ‘dancing,’ he grabbed Bev’s arm, and, only a little disappointed, she followed him to the bar. Chris shouted an order at the bartender for another beer for himself and a vodka tonic for her.

 

As they waited for their drinks, Chris leaned in and shouted at her, “You seriously like this, don’t you?”

 

About halfway through his sentence, the music went into a transition and pitched way down, so his voice rang out much more loudly than either of them had expected. He looked shocked and embarrassed, and Bev laughed.

 

“Yeah, I do. Everybody is all dressed up, and I like to dance. It’s a little bit like a fairy tale ball, when you think about it.”

 

Chris nodded toward the end of the bar, where a guy in a slim-cut suit had his tongue deep in a woman’s mouth and a hand deep in the top of her sequined dress. Her hand had a strong hold on his crotch. “I remember fairy tales differently.”

 

“Okay, well. Still. Sparkly!”

 

Sky and Romeo came back to them just then, but before they could order, some guy tapped Romeo on the shoulder. A lot shorter than Romeo, maybe five-nine or so, with shoulder-length, wavy dark hair and hawkish features, the guy made Bev a little nervous. She also thought he looked a little familiar, but she couldn’t place him at all.

 

Though the music was currently a bit less loud, Bev still couldn’t hear what was being said between the guy, who had his back to her, and Romeo, so she watched Skylar for clues. She looked interested, if a little suspicious. Romeo shook his head, an affable, apologetic smile on his face. Then the guy pointed over toward the booths. Bev looked in that direction, but she didn’t see much. The booths were all cloaked in shadow, with only small globes on the tables for lighting.

 

The guy kept talking, and finally Romeo looked at Skylar, who looked up at him and then shrugged. And then they were following the guy toward the booth he’d indicated. When Sky waved at Chris and Bev to follow, they did.

 

Sitting almost in the center of that booth was Nick Pagano. And he was looking directly at her.

 

She’d gone to bed early the night before feeling embarrassed and stupid, after he’d basically thrown her out of his apartment. She hated that feeling more than anything; she’d lived enough of her life feeling like she wasn’t good enough, and those days were behind her once and for all. But she’d put herself out on a limb last night. Chris had been right; she hadn’t been subtle at all. And the guy had a girlfriend. Her bad feelings at bedtime were no one’s fault but her own.

 

Chris was right about something else, too. It was good that Nick wasn’t available to her. She’d had her share of bad boy experiences, and they had all gone…badly. The last one had gone so badly, she’d moved out of Boston, left her job, and her whole life, and was now living in a little seaside burg. She hadn’t gone far, but hopefully she’d gone far enough.

 

Nick was a bad boy. Even if she hadn’t known who the Paganos were, it was clear he was a bad boy. He hardly ever smiled. He had the guy version of Resting Bitch Face—which was maybe Resting Badass Face. He was bad news, just like Chris had said.

 

And, again—girlfriend. Tall and blonde. Nothing like her five-foot-six inch, size ten self. She was not his type.

 

But he was so unbelievably hot it wasn’t even fair. Those green eyes. That square jaw and chin, sometimes with a groomed scruff, sometimes clean-shaven, always sexy. The black hair with just a sprinkle of grey at his temples. That freaking amazing body. He was perfect. And then, last night, he had smiled at her. More than once. His face had transformed, opened up. And he’d teased her, been friendly and gentle. All the way up until he’d dismissed her, she’d enjoyed talking with him.

 

He was the worst kind of bad boy, then. The kind who was just good enough to get the hook in really deep, before the bad ripped it out and left a nasty scar.

 

But Bev thought she might be hooked already. And now he was staring right at her, just a hint of a smile lifting one side of his mouth—as if the smile were for her only.

 

Which was stupid, fairy-tale thinking and would lead straight to her doom.

 

Unless she could maybe bang him. Just once. Just to get her hands on him naked. She wondered if she could keep her stupid, excitable heart from losing its shit if she just banged him one time. If that were even possible. Last night, briefly, she’d thought it was.

 

Finally, Nick’s eyes shifted from hers, and he gestured at the seats. Everybody shuffled into the booth, and Bev didn’t miss the way Chris maneuvered himself to sit between her and Nick. In fact, she ended up on the outside edge of one side.

 

The booth walls blocked quite a bit of the sound, surprisingly, so conversation was possible. It turned out that Nick and his friend—whose name was Brian—were interested in talking to Romeo about working security for them. For the Paganos. That was twice at this club, on one night, that he’d been hit up, out of the blue, to work as a professional badass. Bev wondered if that happened to him a lot.

 

He was still smiling and shaking his head, though. He wasn’t interested. Nick let his friend Brian do most of the talking, but Bev noticed that his attention was fully on the blond, as if he was getting answers to questions that weren’t even being asked.

 

Finally, Brian leaned back with a shrug, and Nick extended his hand to Romeo. “Understood. If you change your mind, talk to Thomas here at the club. Or Jake.” He turned to the others. “Stay and have a drink.”

 

Chris spoke up, “Thanks, but we had kind of a night planned.” He turned and tried to shift Bev out of the booth. She could have punched him. He was insistent, though, and Skylar and Romeo were moving, too, so she got to her feet and smoothed her dress over her ass as gracefully as she could.

 

She looked up and saw Nick watching her hands on her ass. When his eyes lifted to hers again, she saw interest there. As she had last night, before he sent her on her way, she saw that she appealed to him. She didn’t look away. Even as Chris came to his feet and moved her a step to the side, she held Nick’s gaze. She smiled, and he smiled back. That was a hell of a smile he had. It was a shame he didn’t use it more.

 

And then Chris was pulling her away from the dark seclusion of Nick’s booth, out into the loud heat of the club. He didn’t let go of her until they were in the middle of the dance floor. She pulled her arm from his grasp.

 

“That was rude,” she yelled into his ear.

 

“Sorry—that was just weird. Didn’t you think it was weird?” He yelled back.

 

Bev looked over and saw Romeo and Skylar dancing, sort of. Romeo had picked her up, and he was rocking back and forth while they talked. Bev wanted what they had. Romeo justlovedher friend; it was written all over his face. He was a big, apparently intimidating monster of a man, but he was a genuinely good guy, and for his girl, he was a cupcake. And Sky was just the same; they gave each other exactly what they needed. Sky had much better taste in men than Bev. All Bev had ever gotten from a man was hurt.

 

Chris was right. So she shook it off, turned her back to the dark booth at the side of the room, and danced with her friend.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

A couple of hours later, Bev and her friends were beginning to wind down. Her feet, bound up in high-heeled, strappy shoes chosen for looks rather than comfort, were sore. Her hair was damp and coming loose from dancing, and she was fair-to-middling drunk. Chris, the night’s designated driver, had switched to water and lost any shred of enthusiasm for the night shortly thereafter. But Romeo and Sky were still canoodling on the dance floor while Bev and Chris sat at the bar.

 

Bev had tried hard to ignore the booth the rest of the evening, but her eyes had darted that direction of their own volition a few times. It seemed that Nick had never left his seat. People came and went—mostly men—but he stayed put. She didn’t understand why he’d even come to a place like this if he’d intended to simply sit and hold court.

 

“I’m going to take a piss. See if you can’t get Romeo and his Juliet off the dance floor. It’s a long drive home.” Chris slid off his barstool and headed to the bathrooms. Feeling tired and disheartened, Bev didn’t bother signaling to the lovebirds.

 

Somebody sat in Chris’s seat, and she turned to tell whoever it was that the seat was taken. But it was Nick, that half-smile on his face. He leaned in close and spoke into her ear. “Where’d your boyfriend go?”

 

She turned to his ear to answer, and was caught up in his scent. Clean and male, a faint linger of tobacco. “He’s in the john, and he’s not my boyfriend. Where’s your girlfriend tonight?”

 

“I don’t have a girlfriend.”

 

Well, that was news. Bev had seen her going out of the building as she’d been coming in just a couple of days ago. “Really.”

 

“Really. Come home with me tonight.”

 

Bev nearly choked on her vodka tonic, but she managed to stay fairly cool. “What?”

 

He didn’t answer, except with his eyes.

 

“Are you looking for a revenge fuck? Or a rebound thing?”

 

“I don’t rebound. And when I seek revenge, this is not how I do it.”


Page 7

 

Something was very wrong with Bev. That sentence should have scared her straight out of the club. Instead, it made her wet. She was turned on by the rumble of menace in his statement, so turned on she couldn’t resist shifting on her stool, rubbing her legs together. But she didn’t know what to say.

 

“I don’t want your heart, Beverly. I want your body. I won’t ask again.”

 

If he hadn’t punctuated that sentence by running a finger over her shoulder and down her arm, maybe she would have said no. But he had. So instead of being smart and refusing him—if in fact that would have been the smart choice; she wasn’t completely clear on that—she put her mouth to his ear and said, “I need to tell my friends.”

 

He put his hand on her chin and turned her face to his. “Do. Then come back to my booth. You drink vodka tonic?”

 

She nodded.

 

“I’ll have one waiting.” His thumb moved over her lips, making all the muscles between her hips clench, and then he was off the stool and heading back to his booth.

 

Bev’s heart was pounding so hard it hurt. Oh, hell’s bells.

 

“Are they ready to go?” Chris was back.

 

“I…I didn’t check.” She swallowed. He wasn’t going to understand this at all. “I’m…Chris, I’m staying.”

 

His brows drew in. “Please?”

 

“I’m staying. Nick asked me to stay, and he’ll take me home. I’m staying.”

 

Chris began shaking his head about halfway through her explanation. “Forget about it, Bev. I know you’ve got a crush, but don’t be stupid.”

 

“I’m staying, Chris. He’s my neighbor. Nothing bad is going to happen. I’m going over there now. Just tell Sky I’ll see her Sunday.”

 

He stared at her, and then he shook his head again. “I’m not going to pick you up after this one, Bev. I’m done picking you up and dusting you off. You need to be smarter.” With that, he walked to the dance floor, toward Romeo and Sky, picking his way through the dancers.

 

Now hurt and angry as well as anxious and massively turned on, Bev finished her drink and headed to Nick’s booth.

 

She was almost around the dance floor when a small hand grabbed her arm, and she turned to find Skylar, looking worried. “Are you sure about this?”

 

Feeling defensive, too—feeling quite full of tense emotions by now—Bev jerked her arm free. “I’m sure. He’s my neighbor. I literally know where he lives. It’s not some nameless hookup.”

 

“From what Chris says, I’d feel better if it was. Be careful, sweets. All I’m sayin’.”

 

Bev nodded and turned her back on her friend. She walked toward Nick’s booth with her head up, her shoulders squared, and her gut sucked in.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

She really hadn’t thought any of this through at all. She’d felt the first blush of regret when she’d reached Nick’s booth, and there had been three men, including Brian, sitting with him. As they scrambled to stand and greet her, she almost turned and bolted after her friends.

 

But she didn’t, and they made way for her to sit next to Nick. He put a large hand on her bare thigh, and she had trouble concentrating on much else after that. He didn’t take liberties; he simply kept his hand on her, but it was a monumentally sexual touch nonetheless. He introduced her to his friends, but she’d ask again later, if she had cause to know. Between his hand and her nerves, there was no way she’d remember who these guys were.

 

The vodka tonics kept coming at a steady but not speedy pace, and she maintained her buzz without getting sloppy. Nick folded her into their conversation without making her feel like her participation was mandatory. They weren’t talking business. They talked sports, and they talked a little bit about their families, and they talked some smack to each other. Bev felt like she was peeking behind a curtain.

 

One of the many things she’d been afraid of, seeing the booth filled with men, was fielding a lot of rude, raw comments, but these guys all treated her with real respect. After an hour or so, by her probably faulty estimation, she realized that part of their excellent manners had to do with Nick’s interest in her. A couple of women, a redhead and a blonde, both dressed to the nines, came up to the table, and the men on the end, whose names she couldn’t recall, pulled them into their laps. Those girls were treated more like Bev had feared she would be. And then, after a couple of minutes, Nick moved his hand—the one not on her. He simply swept his fingers out and pulled them back in, a subtle brushing movement, and then his friends got up and took their girls away.

 

Bev thought Nick had just told them to shoo.

 

Brian, sitting on Nick’s other side, leaned in. “What do you want to do, boss?”

 

Everybody seemed to call him ‘boss.’ Nick turned to her and gave her that little half smile. “You ready to go?”

 

She smiled back fully. His smile grew in response; she liked that. “Sure.”

 

He turned back to Brian. “Call for a car for you and the boys. Tell Jimmy we’re ready to go.”

 

Brian nodded and pulled out his phone and made a couple of calls. Anticipation growing like a pressure in her chest, Bev focused on finishing her drink. A few minutes later, Brian answered his phone and nodded at Nick.

 

Nick’s hand left her thigh, and his arm went across her back. “Okay,bella. Let’s go.”

 

Bella. That meant beautiful. Bev turned her head; his face, his mouth, was right there. Before she thought any more about it, she kissed him.

 

She’d startled him—and that gave her a rushing sense of power. The one thing she felt sure she knew about him was that he was a man of immense power and control, and that scant flinch when her lips touched his gave her a little hit of his power, like the connection had transferred some of his to her.

 

And then his other hand took hold of her face and his tongue was in her mouth, and she was completely in his control. Oh God, oh God. His mouth was hot and firm and tasted of scotch, and his tongue was like silk against hers. She wanted him so much. It was all lust, all physical desire and mystique, no substance that she could see, and she didn’t care at all. She moaned and kissed him back, abandoning herself to the folly of lust.

 

He broke away and kissed her nose. “Come on, Beverly. We have a long ride before I can do what I want to do to you.”

 

And that right there was easily the sexiest sentence in the English language, as far as Bev could imagine. She scooted out of the booth, smoothing her dress as she stood, and then Nick’s hand was on hers, on her ass, and he laced fingers with her and led her through the club. Brian stayed close, leading the way.

 

Stepping out into the late night, Bev felt a little bit like a celebrity. Though it was eleven o’clock, there was still a long line of people trying to get in. The bouncer—a different guy—stood up from his stool and nodded at Nick, and the effect was almost as if he were bowing.

 

She couldn’t help but smile brightly at everybody. Maybe she was acting like a nerd, but she was happy and excited and a little drunk, and she loved everybody.

 

Brian led them down the block a bit toward a huge, black SUV with blacked-out windows and black wheels. As they approached, the guy she’d seen at Nick’s door the night before, every bit as big as Romeo, maybe even bigger, got out of the driver’s side and walked around the front of the truck. He opened the passenger door.

 

And then he twitched—Bev only saw it because she had just noticed for the first time that he had gold tips on his black hair, which seemed an oddly fussy style choice for a man who looked liked he’d been hewn from rock with a dull chisel.

 

But he twitched, and then he spun around with surprising speed and grace and yelled “DOWN! GET DOWN!”

 

Nick knocked her to the sidewalk and landed on top of her, and Brian landed on top of him, and Bev was pretty sure the impacts had broken something inside her, but she didn’t have time to finish that thought before Nick’s arms were around her head and the air was full of noise and hot with fire.

 

The SUV had exploded.

 

~ 5 ~

 

 

“Fucking hell! Nick, you okay?”

 

Brian’s strained voice came as if it were passing through thick layers of gauze. His hands were on Nick’s shoulders, trying to pull him up and over. Nick shook him off.

 

“I’m okay.” He shifted off the woman under him and brushed her hair from her face. Her cheek was badly scraped, and she looked pained and terrified. “Are you hurt?”

 

It took her a second or two of mute staring before she answered. “My…chest. It hurts to breathe.”

 

Intending to have Brian call for help for her, Nick looked over his shoulder, not letting his mind take in more than the most immediate problems yet. But Brian was lying prone on the sidewalk. He seemed to have fallen as soon as Nick had said he was okay.

 

A piece of the Navigator was embedded in his back. “Fuck! Brian!”

 

“I’m okay, Nick. It’s just my shoulder. Hurts like a mother, but I’m okay.”

 

Now, Nick saw, too, that the back of his friend’s leather jacket was smoking. “Are you burned?”

 

Brian shook his head. “Singed. I’m okay, boss. I’m okay.”

 

He didn’t look okay, but Nick nodded. As he turned back to Beverly, he saw a big, black Italian shoe just past her head, a socked foot and ankle still inside it. Jimmy. Dammit. Ah, dammit.

 

He turned to the wreckage, finally hearing, still heavily muffled, the shouts and screams and weeping around him. Other small parts of Jimmy, many of them flaming, were scattered about—a hand with his diamond pinky ring twinkling in the light of the fire consuming it, another foot with more leg attached—but Nick figured most of him had been vaporized by the impact of the bomb. The blast radius looked to be controlled—only fifteen feet or so—but several people were down, probably hit by shrapnel from the Navigator. Jimmy seemed to be the only death, at least so far. Fuck. He had a wife and four kids.

 

Nick didn’t know how they’d managed it, with Jimmy on the Navigator all night, but he knew who. This was the sequel to his father’s funeral. He was going to peel Alvin Church’s skin off in a single sheet and turn it into a goddamn coat.

 

He’d had his attention off Beverly for only a couple of seconds. Now she shifted under him, and he felt her moan sharply—he felt it rather than heard it. “Easy,bella. Don’t move yet.”

 

There was a weird flashing light all around. He couldn’t make sense of it. Like a strobe without a predictable pattern.

 

Chi-Chi and Matty ran up then, and Chi-Chi dropped to his knees at Nick’s head. “Oh fuck, boss! Oh fuck! What the fuck!”

 

Chi-Chi wasn’t the brightest bulb in their box, but he was all in and followed directions well. Sirens began to overwhelm the sounds of trauma. Nick estimated that less than a minute, definitely no more than two, had passed since the explosion. “Shut up, Chi, and listen. If you’re carrying dirty, dump it now.” Though a few soldiers in the family had felony records, none of his crew did, and all had concealed carry permits. The Pagano Brothers kept a tight seal on their relationship with law enforcement. The right people were paid in the right way, always, and the Paganos kept a clean profile.

 

They used unregistered weapons for their wet and dirty work, however, and Chi-Chi had had some dirty work to do earlier in the day.

 

“Just my clean piece, boss. You need help up?” Chi-Chi reached his hand out, but Nick shook his head. He didn’t want to leave Beverly lying alone on the sidewalk.

 

“You and Matty—look sharp. Get a read on who’s around here, especially at the edges. And what the fuck is that—shit.” It had taken his rattled brain a minute to understand it, but now he did. The strobing light—flashes from smart phone cameras. People everywhere were taking ghoulish pictures. Probably video, too. And now the red and blue swirling lights from police and ambulance took it over. There was no point in trying to get control of all those damn cameras. Footage was probably online already.

 

Chi-Chi jumped up to do as he’d been bidden, and Nick looked back down at Beverly, still stunned and gasping. When his eyes met hers, though, she asked, “Are you hurt?”

 

For the first time, he really thought about how he felt. Sore and still half deaf, but no, not hurt. “I’m okay. You’re going to be okay, too.” From the corner of his eye, he saw dark pants and rubber-soled shoes running toward him and knew paramedics were here for her. He looked up and then, finally, reluctantly, pulled away from her, rising to his knees.

 

Her hand clamped onto his arm. “Don’t…” She cried out in pain and didn’t finish.

 

Without thinking about it, he lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. “These men will take care of you. I won’t be far. I’m here.” Then he looked up at the paramedic who’d just knelt at his side. “She’s having trouble breathing.”

 

The paramedic nodded and then asked, “How about you?”

 

“I’m okay.”

 

He stood and knew for certain that he wasn’t hurt. But Brian was unconscious now, being worked on by two other EMTs. And Jimmy was dead. And they were all trapped in a ring of public spectacle.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

Nick stood as Uncle Ben came into the E.R. waiting room, with Bobbo a few steps ahead. The cops had come and gone and would be back, but not tonight. He wasn’t worried about the local P.D. But a bombing would bring the Feds, and soon. Their reach with the Feds wasn’t quite as long. He still wasn’t overly worried. They were the victims here. The biggest legal problem was the attention now turned their way more sharply.

 

Now well past midnight, the hour was not one in which the don was at full strength. He was limping badly, arthritis pain obviously wracking his body, but Nick knew better than to offer help.

 

As he came to the empty corner in which Nick had been sitting, Ben nodded at the chairs. “Sit, nephew.”

 

They sat, and Bobbo stepped away, on watch. When Ben got himself as comfortable as possible, he said, “Tell me.”

 

Nick described the scene, choosing his words carefully. They were not in a secure location. When he was finished, Ben nodded. “Brian will pull through?”

 

“He’s in surgery now. First and second-degree burns, and the shrapnel did some damage. He’ll be sore and working with one arm for a while, but they say he should come back almost one-hundred percent. His mother is upstairs, waiting there.”

 

“Is someone on her?”

 

“Chi-Chi is up there. Matty’s down here, on the door.”

 

Ben nodded. “I saw him. I heard a woman was hurt. But not Vanessa.”

 

Vanessa had dumped him via text the day before. At the time, he’d considered getting angry on the grounds of disrespect, but he’d decided it wasn’t worth the energy. Frankly, a text was the least dramatic breakup he could think of. She’d written,I don’t think we’re working out. I think it’s time to move on.With thosethinks, he was sure she’d meant for him to react, had probably hoped to wrest some kind of desire to reconcile from him, but he’d only replied,Agreed, and let it go at that. It had barely caused a ripple in his day.

 

“No. Not Vanessa. My neighbor. They took her for X-rays.” Ben gave him a keen look but didn’t probe further. That was good, because Nick wasn’t ready to think about the sense of responsibility he felt toward Beverly. Yes, he was attracted to her. Yes, he was fascinated by her totally open and bright personality, which was the antithesis of his own. Yes, watching her dance at Neon, the lithe, confident way she’d moved her body, dancing for herself and no one else, for the simple enjoyment of it, had made him uncomfortably hard. And yes, he was responsible for her being hurt tonight. But none of that accounted for how difficult it had been to leave her side when the paramedics took over.

 

He would think about all that later. He’d have time, and he’d have cause, because now hewasresponsible for her. He had to keep her safe. They were connected now, at least as long as Church was a problem. There were probably hundreds of photographs of them together, lying on the sidewalk. Matty had already shown him that an image of him leaning over her, kissing her hand, accompanied the lead story of the bombing on the local newspaper website.

 

Uncle Ben let it drop. “Does this change our plans for next week? Your thoughts?”

 

Monday was the meeting of The Council. The heads of all the families were meeting to confer on the problem of Alvin Church, and so that the Paganos could seek permission and help from the Marconi family to deal in their neighborhood with Jackie Stone.

 

“No, Uncle. Our plans should proceed unchanged. It’s more important than ever, now.”

 

“Agreed.” The old man sighed. Nick was struck again by how used up he looked on this night, pulled from his sleep too early and without the time he needed to prepare for the world. He put his hand on his heart. “Jimmy was a good man.”

 

“He was.” Jimmy had been driving and guarding Nick for years. He’d had no aspirations beyond that job. Being made had been the highlight of his life, above even his marriage or the births of his children, but he had wanted nothing more than to protect a man he’d admired. He had killed in the service of his job. He had maimed. But he’d told Nick that his favorite part was driving Nick around, talking. They’d gotten to know each other well over the years.

 

“Who told Tina?”

 

“I sent Nose over. I called while he was there.” It wasn’t the first time he’d had to deliver that kind of news to a wife.

 

“All right.” Ben struggled to his feet, and Nick stood, too. “I’m going to sit with Brian’s mother. What is her name?”

 

“Pauline.”

 

“Pauline, yes. We’ll talk more about the girl. For now, keep her safe.”

 

“I will, Uncle.” They embraced, and Ben went off with Bobbo toward the elevators.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

Nick knew most of the staff at St. Gabriel’s Hospital, in Quiet Cove, and they knew him. Here in this huge medical center in Providence, though, he was much more anonymous, and most of the staff, dealing with the bombing casualties, were unimpressed. But one nurse knew who he was and knew well what side she should keep him on. He’d identified her quickly and exploited her respect so that he had free access to Beverly.

 

Shit. He didn’t even know her last name. He figured one of their digital intel specialists had logged it somewhere; they kept basic track of the administration’s neighbors. He’d have to find it out soon.

 

Paige—the smart nurse—called him back when Beverly was out of X-ray and gave him an update on her condition. She was in a lot of pain, but not badly hurt. Bruised ribs, a mild concussion, and some pretty bad scrapes, especially her cheek and elbow. Nothing was broken, though, and nothing required stitches. He thanked her and went back to Beverly’s little room.

 

She was propped up on the gurney, a white bandage over her right cheek and another around her right elbow. Her hair was loose over her shoulders. Her eyes were closed, her breathing shallow.

 

“Bella.” Interesting how easily an endearment came to his lips. It wasn’t a habit of his, calling people by something other than their name or title, other than a casual ‘coz’ or ‘bro.’ When he’d called herbella, all unthinking, at Neon, her eyes had lit up beautifully and her smiling face had nearly glowed. He’d enjoyed having that effect on her.

 

And then she’d kissed him. It was rarely the case that a woman made the first sexual contact with him. And now, apparently, he was beginning to think of her by that endearment.

 

She opened her eyes, but there was no smile for him this time. “I don’t know where my purse is. I need my phone. I need to call Chris. I need a friend.” Her voice was weak, supported only by her panting breaths.

 

Nick had no idea where her purse was. He’d noticed it, a little turquoise beaded thing with a strap she’d worn on her wrist. It had matched her shoes and the turquoise earrings in her ears.


Page 8

 

He went to the gurney and put his hand on her arm. She flinched, and he didn’t like that at all. “You have a friend. I’m here. I’m going to take care of you.”

 

“Why? How are you a friend? Because you were going to fuck me?”

 

Paige had told him that her pain was high, and they were being conservative with meds, giving her only Tylenol with codeine, because they wanted to keep her alert and ambulatory so they could send her home. Nick had experience with bruised and broken ribs, so he knew how bad the pain could be. Still, he hated the deflated, defensive, almost whining tone in her voice. What had him caught was her spark, and the events of the night had dimmed that.

 

He smiled, hoping to ignite her a little. “I think future tense is more appropriate than past. I’m still going to fuck you. I’ll give you a minute to feel better, though.”

 

She only blinked. “Are you a friend?”

 

“I am. And I’m going to get you out of here and take care of you. You’ll get better drugs for home.”

 

“I want to go home. I’d like a ride, since I can’t find my phone and I don’t know anybody’s numbers. But you don’t have to take care of me. I’m okay.”

 

“I do,bella. I will.”

 

“Don’t call me that. I’m Bev. And I don’t want you to take care of me.”

 

He didn’t like ‘Bev.’ It sounded like some kind of mechanical noise. But he really liked ‘Beverly,’ the old-fashioned lilt, the way his tongue furled and unfurled over the syllables. And he’d been growing quickly fond of calling herbella—and was surprised to find his feelings hurt by her rejection of it.

 

“I’m afraid, Beverly, that we don’t have a choice. People took photos outside the club. You and I are already on the internet, probably going viral as we speak. You are connected to me now. Until we figure out who did this and resolve the situation, you need to stay close to me to be safe.”

 

“Being close to you is what made me unsafe.”

 

It was a different kind of light, but he was glad to see anger in her eyes. So much better than that defeated, wet puppy look she’d had. “I think you knew who I was before you sat at my side, Beverly.”

 

She took a deeper breath, and winced hard, groaning. He squeezed her hand, and she glared down at his hand on hers. “So…what? I’m a hostage or something? I can’t even go to my own apartment, which is thirty feet from yours?”

 

“You’re not a hostage. But I’m not asking, either. You’ll stay with me. I have a spare bedroom. It’s very nice. And anything you need from your place will be right down the hall. There will be people you can send to fetch anything. Think of it as being pampered.”

 

“By big galoots with guns.”

 

Privacy regulations prevented medical rooms in public hospitals from being bugged, but Nick still had no intention of  exchanging any kind of incriminating words anywhere on the planet but a guaranteed secure location. Knowing he needed to end this conversation before she said something more, he simply nodded. “I’ll keep you safe. I’m going find the nurse, get you sprung. I want to go check on Brian before we go. I’ll be back soon.” He went to the door, pulling his phone from his pocket as he did so. “And Beverly, be careful what you say and who you say it to. Understood?”

 

When she nodded, he returned it with a smile and then left.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

He reached in and flipped the switch, turning on the lamp on the nearest nightstand. His guestroom was hardly ever used as such, but his cleaning service kept it always ready. Matty’s sister, Donna, ran that service.

 

The ride had been difficult for Beverly, and she was tired and quiet now, moving on her own power, but only just. With his arm around her shoulders, Nick led her into the room and turned the covers down, then helped her sit on the bed. She was still wearing that black dress, dirty and tattered now, but she hadn’t bothered putting her shoes back on. Nick pulled off the papery slippers Paige had given her in the E.R.

 

“I can give you a t-shirt and some sweats or something to wear. Can you manage that?”

 

She glared at him but nodded, and he went to his room and collected a white t-shirt and a pair of black sweats. He set them on the bed next to her.

 

“Thank you.” She began to lift her arms, headed to the zipper at the nape of her neck, but drew back with a sharp, shallow hiss. There was no way she was going to be able to undress herself.

 

“Let me.”

 

Her blue eyes were wide with anxiety. “No—I…I can manage.”

 

“You can’t. Don’t be stupid. I’m not going to fuck you when you can barely move. I’m just going to help you change your clothes. Unless you want to sleep in the dress you were wearing when we got bombed.”

 

“And not in the good way,” she muttered.

 

He barked a laugh, surprised and pleased. That was better. More backbone. “Right. Not in the good way. So, come on.” He held his hands out over her lap, and she put hers in them and let him help her back to her feet.

 

Nick undid the zipper slowly, trying to be gentle. Under the dress, she wore a black bra with straps crossed over her back. When he pushed the dress down, off her body, he saw that the bra had a print of tiny, white roses. Her underwear, a thong, matched. His hands desperately wanted to sweep over the firm globes of her bare ass, an ass that practically demanded it be grabbed hard, but he forbore and turned her around. Her bra clasped in front, and she took hold of the hook before he did, unfastening it and letting her ample breasts spring free. Exposed to the cool air of his room and the heat of his regard, her nipples pebbled. Nick’s mouth watered.

 

She was lovely. Unlike other women he’d bedded, she had soft curves instead of sharp angles, but she was firm and toned. He badly wanted to feel that tone in his hands, in his mouth, under his body, around his cock.

 

Her chest pinked to a deep, rosy blush. He looked up to see that it had suffused her face, too.

 

“You’re staring.” She tried to shrug the straps from her shoulders but winced in pain again. He did it for her.

 

“You’re beautiful.Bellissima.”

 

“I thought that wasn’t what this is about.”

 

He reached down and picked up the t-shirt, and she let him help her get into it. “It’s not. I’m just enjoying the view.” He liked that she hadn’t told him he was wrong, though. He detected a little of her spark in that assuredness.

 

When she got her hands through the sleeves, he reached for the sweatpants, but she said, “No. I don’t need those right now. I just want to sleep. And have the good meds, finally.”

 

Feeling a sharp twinge of concern and sympathy with every wince, every moan she tried to hold back, he helped her into bed and pulled the comforter over her, then went for a glass of water and a dose of the good meds. Percocet.

 

“Okay. Get some rest. I’m very close, so just call out if you need anything.” He turned to the open door.

 

“Wait.”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I feel stupid for saying this, but I’m…scared. I don’t want to be alone. Will you stay here until I fall asleep?”

 

It was near dawn, and he wouldn’t sleep in what was left of the night, anyway. There were too many things to do, too many problems to solve. The thought of sitting here, watching Beverly fall asleep, calmed him. Perhaps that would be enough rest to prepare him for the chaos the sun would bring.

 

He went to the empty side of the bed and sat up against the headboard. “The doctor told you it would be best to sleep on your sore side. Can you?”

 

She shifted slowly to her right and settled down so she was facing him. “It hurts.”

 

Bending down, he pressed his lips to her temple. “I know. The pills will kick in, and you’ll breathe easier this way.”

 

She nodded and closed her eyes. Nick watched her and let his mind tease out the problems snarled together. The bombing had to be Church. It seemed like everything they were involved in somehow, all of a sudden, led back to Church. Even that pathetic bagman J.J. had caught was probably tied up in the Paganos’ war with Church.

 

But how had the bomb happened? They had friends on the Providence bomb squad, so he knew they’d get their answers about the bomb itself. Controlled blast radius and timing—triggered, he thought, by the front passenger door opening—spoke to talent and opportunity. Talent made it Church. The only other entity who could afford that kind of talent would be another family, and there was no beef among the families now.

 

But opportunity—how the hell had the bomb been planted? Jimmy had opened that door to let Nick out when they arrived at Neon. And he’d obviously seen or heard something the second he’d opened it again, because he’d had time to yell them down before it blew. It must have been planted while they were in the club. Jimmy stayed with the SUV. The only time he left his post was if nature called, and then he called in to say so. So when? How?

 

Beverly moaned and then sighed, relaxing, and Nick knew she’d fallen asleep. He focused on her for a minute, marveling at the twists of the night that had landed her here, in his guestroom, for at least a few days. He needed to find out her last name. And where she worked. With that, it occurred to him to wonder what, exactly, he knew about her and whether she could have anything to do with the bomb. He didn’t know her full name, what she did, where she was from, anything except her first name and that of a few of her friends. And yet here she was, in his home.

 

It was highly unlikely that she was involved. He got no read from her that was ‘off’ in any way, and he had a keen sense for people. Still, he’d have her checked out at first light. He didn’t like ciphers in his midst.

 

Her right arm was stretched toward him, her fingers grazing his arm. He studied her tattoo, those two dainty feathers, each with a thick, dark quill and then fading out to seem light as air. The work was first-rate. Wrapping his fingers gently around her hand, he lifted it to look more closely.

 

The skin under the quills seemed raised, and, curious, he ran his thumb over her wrist. Scars. Two scars, both long, one longer than the other, vertical from her hand. He knew what those were.

 

He lifted her left arm, careful not to wake her, and checked the underside of her wrist—a single, much shorter, lighter scar there, not hidden with ink. He’d noticed that her right hand was her dominant hand. She’d cut into the right one first, probably thinking that her stronger hand would work better after its wrist had been cut and would be able to open the left wrist. Maybe she’d been wrong. Or maybe she’d changed her mind. Either way, at some point in her past, Beverly had tried to kill herself.

 

And that changed everything.

 

He got up and left her alone.

 

~ 6 ~

 

 

Bev slept hard for several hours, waking slowly, her body stiff and heavy with pain. The ache was so bad that it distracted her from the unfamiliarity of her surroundings, and by the time she had the focus to wonder where she was, she knew. She remembered. She was in Nick’s apartment, in his guestroom, apparently unsafe to cross the hall and be in her own place.

 

Each breath felt as if it got caught in her ribs somehow, and when she sat up, she thought she’d cry—but crying would hurt too much, so she refused herself that release.

 

Everything hurt. Her face, her head, her ribs, her arm—those were the worst, but she hurt from the roots of her hair straight down to her toenails. And she hurt because someone had bombed the truck she’d been about to get into. Nick’s truck.

 

Well, she’d spent the night at Nick’s place, but not the way she’d been hoping.

 

She tried to tell herself that Chris had been right, that Nick was someone to be avoided at all costs, because quite clearly he was dangerous. She’d gotten an early warning this time, and it had come with blood and fire. But those thoughts were stifled by others—his smile that always seemed a private thing between them, the way he called herbella, his hand on her leg, his lips on her mouth, on her hand. The way he’d sat with her last night as she’d fallen asleep. The way he’d helped her change out of her dress and had been a gentleman.

 

She was wearing his t-shirt right now. Feeling like a besotted schoolgirl, she brushed her hand over the smooth cotton. Another bad boy. She was up to her neck with another bad boy, lost this time before they’d done anything but kiss. She knew Chris hadn’t meant what he’d said last night. He’d be there for her, no matter how big a mistake she had made, or was still making, here. They’d been there for each other as long as they’d known each other.

 

Oh, no—Chris. The bombing must have been all over the news. Nick had said something about their photo going viral. And she didn’t have her phone. Chris and Sky would be going crazy. She needed to get to her apartment and get their numbers.

 

Getting carefully and unsteadily to her feet, she saw the sweatpants he’d brought her last night still folded at the foot of the bed. She worked her way into them and then went out of the room.

 

When she opened the door, she almost shut it again and stayed behind it. The apartment seemed to be full of people. Somebody was cooking with garlic. And there was the kind of conversational hum that suggested several people were talking together.

 

Bev tried to take a deep breath for strength, but even a normal breath was too deep right now. She resisted the impulse to hide, though, and walked out into the apartment.

 

An older woman, mid-sixties or so, stood in the kitchen, stirring something in a pot on the range. She was sturdily built, heavier than Bev but not fat, dressed like a lady who lunched—in dress slacks, low-heeled pumps, a patterned silk blouse, and rather a lot of gold jewelry. Her hair was tastefully styled and colored a coppery auburn. When she turned, Bev saw she had a tea towel stuck in her waistband like a makeshift apron.

 

She smiled and set a wooden spoon across the top of the pot. “Oh, honey. You’re awake. I’m so glad. Such a terrible night you had.” She came right up to Bev with her arms out—she wanted a hug.

 

Bev didn’t mind hugs at all, and in fact she could have used one, but at that moment, with her body feeling like it did, the mere thought made her stomach roll over. She backed up a couple of defensive steps.

 

The woman stopped short, her eyes widening as she realized. “Oh, right. I’m sorry.” She reached out instead and took Bev’s not-hurt arm and led her to a chair at the breakfast bar, which was the only dining setup in Nick’s apartment. His place was larger and nicer than hers, but in this, at least, their units were similar.

 

“Come sit down. I’m making a ziti for the boys, but that’s too heavy for you so soon after you’re up. Would you like an omelet? Ham and cheese?”

 

Bev might have laughed if her ribs would have allowed it. She would not have listed ‘ham and cheese omelet’ under ‘light breakfasts.’

 

“No, thanks—” Her voice failed her and she cleared her throat and then grunted with the pain of it.

 

“First things first. Let’s get you something for your pain. Nicky said only Tylenol this morning. Would you like it with coffee or juice? There’s grapefruit and tomato.”

 

“Coffee, please…”

 

The woman got the question implied in Bev’s tone. “Right! Betty! I’m Betty, Nicky’s—Nick’s—mother. He sent for me to come take care of you. And you’re Beverly.”

 

“Bev. Yes.” She was meeting his mother? What the hell?

 

“Bev? Okay, Bev. Coffee it is. And some Tylenol. And to eat?”

 

“I just have fruit and yogurt for breakfast.”

 

Betty scoffed. “Honey, that’s not breakfast. You need a good meal to start every day. I’ll make you some poached eggs on toast, how about that?” Without waiting for an answer, she went around the counter and fixed her a cup of coffee. “Cream? Sugar?”

 

“Both.”

 

Betty nodded and pushed a heavy mug of dark, strong-smelling coffee across the counter to her. Then she handed over a bottle of Tylenol, a sugar bowl, and a small glass of milk. “Sorry about the milk and the glass. He doesn’t have a creamer—or cream.”

 

“It’s okay. Thanks.” Milk was not her main concern. Her main concern was why she was only getting Tylenol when she knew damn well she had a prescription for Percocet, to be taken as needed, and she needed it. She also needed to talk to Nick, because people who actually cared about her were probably going nuts. But he wasn’t in the living room with the three men she didn’t recognize, none of whom were paying her any attention.

 

“Let me just get this ziti together and into the oven, and I’ll get your breakfast going.”

 

“Where’s Nick? I need to talk to him.”

 

Betty turned and pointed with her wooden spoon. “He’s in his office. I’m sure he’ll be out as soon as he can.”

 

Bev followed the direction indicated by the spoon, almost screaming when she tried to twist her body to look over her shoulder. The chair she was sitting on swiveled, thankfully, and she moved her whole body around instead.

 

The room with the glass wall. She saw him now, sitting at his desk, three more men in there with him.

 

Two of the men sitting in his living room were wearing jeans and hooded sweatshirts. The other wore a black and yellow tracksuit. The men sitting with Nick were dressed more formally, in khakis and button-down shirts, even on this Saturday.

 

Screwing up her courage and toughening up against her pain, Bev slid off the tall chair and headed for his office. Behind her Betty called, “Bev, wait,” but she didn’t stop until she’d reached the glass door and knocked.

 

All eyes in the room went to the door. Bev opened it, trying to ignore the way her hands shook and trying even harder to make sure her voice didn’t do the same. “Nick. Hi. Sorry to interrupt, but I need to talk to you.”

 

All the men—two of them older than Nick, one obviously younger—stared at her without speaking, and the scene was frozen so long that Bev began to worry that she was going to pass out from the combination of pain and tension. She kept her eyes on Nick; he looked nothing like the nice guy who’d called herbellaand taken care of her last night. His piercing green eyes were cold as crystal. He was dressed more casually than the others in the room, in jeans and a grey pullover.

 

“We’ll finish later. Get your men on what we’ve talked about.” Nick’s voice was flat and low. His eyes hadn’t left hers.

 

One of the older men, with thickly curly, greying hair, turned back to Nick. “Boss, we’re not done here.”

 

“We are for now. Go.”

 

The three men got up and left. Bev stepped back to make room, and then she entered and closed the door.

 

Nick gestured at one of the chairs in front of his desk. “Sit.” She crossed the room and sat, easing herself into the chair.

 

“I need to call Chris and Sky and let them know I’m okay. They’ve got to be worried sick.” She wondered then, for the first time, whether she should bother calling her mother but decided that she didn’t need that stress today. Even if she knew Bev had been involved in what had happened last night, there was no guarantee she would have been particularly concerned. “And I need to find my purse, if I can.”

 

“Your boyfriend was already here. He knows you’re safe. He’s short on manners. And brains.”

 

“What does that mean? And I keep telling you he’s not my boyfriend.” Why did he insist on calling Chris her boyfriend? And what was going on? Chris had been here? “Wait—he was here? Why didn’t you tell me?”

 

“You were sleeping.” He closed his laptop. “As for your purse, it’s at the precinct in Providence. You’ll have it later today. I have some questions for you. What’s your name? Your real name?”

 

“What do you mean, ‘my real name’? It’s Bev. Beverly Maddox. Beverly Denise Maddox, if that makes you happy.”

 

“How old are you?”

 

“Thirty-one. Am I being interviewed for some kind of job? What is this?” Her ribs began to ache more sharply as her heart rate picked up. He was being aggressive with her, and she had no idea why.

 

He seemed unaffected by her confusion and distress. The man who’d lain with her on the sidewalk was gone. “Whatdoyou do for money, Beverly Denise Maddox?”

 

“What? Why all these questions? What difference does it make what I do?”

 

“I’d like to know who’s in my house. Is there a reason you don’t want to tell me?”

 

There wasn’t, except that she was feeling attacked and afraid. She answered his question. “I’m a waitress. I work at Sassy Sal’s. I need to call my boss, too. I’m supposed to work the breakfast shift tomorrow.”

 

“How does a waitress afford a beachfront condo?”

 

“I don’t have a beachfront condo. You do. I have a courtyard condo, and it’s half this size.”

 

“Still. I know how much they go for. More than a diner waitress could afford.”

 

Finally, her gumption kicked in, and she squared her shoulders, wincing only a little, she hoped, at the pulling pain. “My money is my business. Who are you to be nosing around in it? Look—I don’t know what happened between when I fell asleep and now, but you obviously don’t want me here. I don’t want to be here. I’ll go back to my own place, and we can pretend like last night never happened.”

 

He shook his head slowly. “That’s not possible. As I told you last night, we’re connected now, and you’re my responsibility. And I already know the answers to the questions I’m asking. Your father died two years ago, and he left you an inheritance. You used most of it to buy the condo outright. With the rest of it, you paid off your credit cards. Responsible of you.”

 

“What—how—why—what?” Appalled, she couldn’t form a clear thought. Then she got it. “You hacked me, or whatever it’s called.”

 

“Or whatever it’s called. Yes.”

 

“Then why even bother to ask?” Had she thought shelikedthis guy?

 

“I wanted to know if you’d lie to me.”

 

“You’re testing me? Go to hell. I’m going home.” Furious and feeling violated, she got up, willing herself not to flinched at the strain in her ribs, and stalked to the door with as much dignity as she could muster. Somehow, though, he got around his desk and to the door before she did, and he blocked her path. His eyes lased into hers. He was angry, and she still had no idea why.

 

“You’re not going. I told you last night—you’re here, with me. Until I know it’s safe.”

 

“Why do you care? And why are you angry at me?”

 

“I’m not angry.”

 

“That’s bullshit. You’re totally different from the way you were last night. What did I do?”


Page 9

 

Instead of answering, he grabbed her arm and yanked it forward. A razor-sharp pain sliced across her chest and she cried out, but it didn’t seem to affect him. With his other hand, he hit a wall switch, and the glass wall went dark. Whatever he did to her next, no one would see.

 

“The only answer I haven’t found is this.” He turned the inside of her right wrist to her face. “What is this?”

 

Her heart seemed to stop for a second, and the pressure in her chest became almost unbearable. Forcing her voice to be steady, she said, “It’s a tattoo. I know you’re not scandalized by ink—I’ve seen your back.”

 

“Don’t be coy, Beverly. What’s under the ink?”

 

Twisting her hand, trying to get free of his grip without wrenching her ribs even more, she gritted out, “None of your business. Who are you to think you can ask me personal questions? Before Thursday, you barely talked to me. Please—just let me go home.”

 

“No. It’s not safe.”

 

“I’m across the fucking hall! How am I less safe across the—” A thought occurred to her, and she stopped. “It’s not me you’re keeping safe. You think I had something to do with what happened.”

 

He finally let go of her, but he didn’t move clear of the door. “The situation isn’t safe. I need to control all the variables I can until it is.”

 

“That’s nuts. I didn’t have anything to do with blowing up a car. I wouldn’t know a bomb if I tripped over one. I’ve never even held agun. Plus, I was about to get into that car myself—like a fool.” She stepped away from him, her head full of buzzing bees. If she’d only gone home with her friends last night, she’d be at the farmer’s market right now, picking out eggplants and kale. Now she was a hostage—thirty feet from her own home.

 

“I believe you. But I don’t know you well enough to trust you. And youarein danger. The people who want to hurt my uncle and me have gone for people close to us before.”

 

“I’m not close to you.” She rubbed her arm where he’d gripped her and knew she both sounded and looked petulant. Well, shefeltpetulant.

 

“They think you are.”

 

Bev was tired, and they were talking in circles. Her ribs hurt horribly, and her head did, too. Moreover, she’d realized that she hadn’t washed since she’d gotten ready for her fancy night out at Neon. She was just done with this stupid argument.

 

“I need to tell my friends I’m okay. I don’t care if you told Chris for me. I need to talk to him. And Sky, too. I need to ask my boss for a few days off. I need a shower. I need my own clothes and things. And I need my Percocet.”

 

“I’ll send Donnie over to your place with you, and you can pick up what you need and bring it back. You can call your friends and your boss on my landline, in the living room. My shower is your shower—help yourself. There’s a full first aid kit in the bathroom next to the guestroom so you can re-dress your wounds. And I’m keeping track of your Percocet. Let me know when you need it.”

 

“Why? What right do you have?”

 

He shifted his eyes to her tattooed wrist. Bastard. “I’m not a man who takes reckless chances.”

 

“Who are you to judge me? You don’t know me at all.”

 

“Which is my point.” He stepped toward her and put his hand on the doorknob. “I have to get going. My mother will take care of you. Men will be in and out most of the day, but Donnie will stay here to keep watch over you both.”

 

He opened the door and indicated she should go through first. Exhausted, confused, and inexpressibly sad, Bev did.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

Nick left before his mother’s ziti was out of the oven, but throughout the rest of the day, there were usually at least three men in his apartment, and the ziti got hit repeatedly. It was gone long before there was any sign of Nick’s return. As it dwindled, Betty started a roast.

 

Donnie took Bev to her apartment shortly after Nick left, and she packed a bag, feeling absurd, packing to go across the hall. She picked up her laptop, but Donnie took it from her with a shake of his head and a “Sorry, ma’am.”

 

She really was a hostage. She dug her paper address book out of a drawer and brought that with her instead. Then Donnie took her back to Nick’s. He made her call her friends in the living room, where everybody could hear.

 

Chris was terrified and furious, and she could only speak to him for a few minutes, because he wouldn’t stop yelling, and there were too many strangers around her to answer the questions he shouted at her. But when she said, “I love you, please don’t be mad,” at the end of the call, he replied, “I’m mad because I love you, Bev. I want you safe.”

 

She thought they’d be okay, once she could get control of her life back.

 

She called Bruce next, who had heard about the bombing but not that she had been hurt in it. He was sweet and concerned for her health, and he told her to take the time she needed. She told him she hoped to be back at work by Wednesday at the latest, which would be only two days missed, Sunday and Tuesday. She had already been scheduled off on Monday. She really hoped that by Wednesday this madness would be behind her.

 

Then she called Skylar. She and Sky had been friends since the day Bev started at Sal’s. They’d hit it off immediately. Bev generally liked everybody until they gave her a reason not to, but it had been deeper than that with Skylar. They weren’t all that similar on the surface—Sky had a lot more edge than Bev, in both taste and personality. But they got each other’s jokes, and they saw the world in similar ways. And as early as that first day, they’d been able to communicate without speaking, with simply a gesture or a look.

 

Chris was her best friend, the friend with history. They knew each other so well because they’d been together so long and had learned. Sky was her closest friend. They knew each other so well because they justgoteach other.

 

And Sky got her now, making their conversation a complicated dance on Bev’s side. “You sound wrong, sweets. I’m glad to hear your voice, but I’m still worried. I’m coming over on my way into the diner.”

 

“No, Sky. I don’t want company. I just need to rest. I’ll be okay.”

 

“Is that guy with you? Nick? What phone are you calling from? This isn’t your number.”

 

“Yeah. It’s good. I’m good. I lost my phone last night. I’m using Nick’s phone.”

 

“I still want to come over. I’ll stop at the Cove Café and have Edith make you that chicken spinach wrap thing you like.”

 

Bev looked around at the men in the room, who seemed to be simultaneously ignoring her and hearing every word. The last thing she wanted was for Sky to get caught up in this somehow. “Really, Sky. I’m good. I’m just tired and not in the mood for company. Okay?”

 

The silence on the other end of the line stretched out. When Sky finally spoke again, her voice had the depth of suspicion. “Is he keeping you from us? Chris said he couldn’t get to you this morning. Bev, I’m really worried.”

 

A big part of her wanted to say,YES! I’m in so deep I’m drowning!But she didn’t—and not only because she didn’t want her friends dragged in.

 

There was something more. Despite everything, despite her fear and frustration, she believed Nick was trying to keep her safe. She thought of him sitting next to her last night, keeping her company while she fell asleep. She wanted that man back. So she laughed lightly, trying not to stress her ribs. “You’re being silly. I was asleep this morning. The hospital gave me the good stuff. I’m not being kept from anything. I just need to rest. Okay? I’ll check in again, and I’ll see you Wednesday.”

 

Skylar sighed audibly into the phone. “Okay. You call if you need anything.”

 

“I will. Love you.”

 

“Ditto, sweets.”

 

When she ended the call, aching inside and out, feeling suddenly very alone, she nearly broke down into tears. But she managed to hold them back, unwilling to collapse in front of an audience of men she did not know, men she feared.

 

After that, she took a shower, where she did let herself cry, trying to breathe through the pain her sobs made. She then dressed in her own clothes—yoga pants, a camisole, and a zip hoodie—and bandaged her face and elbow again. Those wounds she barely thought of; the pain in her chest consumed her attention.

 

Betty, who’d been maternally fussy all afternoon, finally force fed her some roast and salad, and then, mercy of mercies, bestowed on her two Percocets with a bottle of Pellegrino. And then Bev went to the guestroom—her cell—and closed herself in and went to bed.

 

As she waited to fall into a medicated sleep, dark thoughts she’d rousted ages ago returned for a visit. In a matter of just a few hours, she’d lost the reins of her life again, and somebody she didn’t understand had laced them into his fingers. She was too trusting. She expected people to be good. No matter how many times they showed her they were not, she continued to expect them to be good and was left alone and astonished when they weren’t. She was either stupid or crazy, but either way, she never learned. Even now, she wasn’t learning; even now, her brain conjured up the memory of Nick lying with her on the sidewalk. That was the good man she wanted, and that was the thought in her head when the Percocet haze enveloped her.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

When she woke, the room was dim; night had fallen. She felt a little better in body and spirit, so she got up, eased her hoodie back on, and went out to see what the world of her handsome prison was like now.

 

It was quiet and still dim. The hall sconces were lit, and there was a light on over the kitchen sink, but otherwise the only light in the apartment came from a single lamp on a table in the living room.

 

The place was deserted—or almost. Nick sat on his sofa, a glass in his hand. Scotch, probably. She had seen the bottle of scotch on his counter the night she’d brought the beer over, and he’d drunk scotch at Neon, too. His drink of choice, she guessed.

 

His mother was gone, all the strange men were gone, even Donnie was gone.

 

His eyes went to her immediately as she entered the room. “How’re you feeling?”

 

“Better. A little less sore. Where is everybody?”

 

“Working or home with their families. There are three men on the building, including one just outside the door, so don’t worry. We’re still covered. I needed some quiet.”

 

“I’ll go back to the room, then.”

 

“No. Sit with me. Do you need anything?”

 

She was hungry, but not really in the mood to eat. On the counter was a bowl filled with a bunch of bananas, some peaches, and a couple of apples. “Can I have a banana?”

 

“Of course.”

 

She took one and came into the room as she peeled it. She sat on the other end of the sofa, and he watched her eat. They didn’t speak.

 

When she finished her banana, feeling self-conscious with his eyes so heavy on her, she took the peel to the kitchen and found the place to throw it away. Then she went back around the counter and sat where she’d been.

 

“I don’t like it when you look at me like that.”

 

He didn’t apologize or respond to that statement at all. Instead, he said, “Tell me about your scars,bella.”

 

She felt sure that she would have told him to fuck off, except that he’d called herbella. It seemed like he was always doing or saying just one thing, just enough, to keep her in the stupid zone. So she didn’t tell him to fuck off. But she also didn’t tell him what he wanted to know, not yet. “Why? Why is it so important for you to know?”

 

“You tried to kill yourself.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I don’t like quitters. I don’t like weakness. There’s no room for either in my life. Suicide is both.”


Page 10

 

“So?”

 

“I do like you.”

 

That caught her off guard. He was different, again, from the man who’d trapped her in his office earlier in the day. “Which Nick are you tonight? Good Nick or Bad Nick?”

 

He cocked his head at that, and then he grinned. Not a half-smile, a grin—but not exactly mirthful, either. She couldn’t figure it. He was so hard to read, always. Inscrutable. “I’m always Bad Nick,bella. But I’m good to people I care about.”

 

“And you care about me?”

 

“I seem to.”

 

She tried to ignore the way her stupid heart skittered at that. “Why?”

 

“I like your spark. Tell me about your scars.” He’d barely moved throughout this conversation—or was it another interrogation?

 

“I’ve only ever told people I trusted.”

 

“So trust me.”

 

She wasn’t so far gone for him that she didn’t see the absurdity in that statement. “Why should I? You’re holding me against my will.”

 

“Aren’t you trusting me with your life, then?”

 

She laughed and then grunted at the sharp twinge that followed. “God. You know how twisted that sounds? I don’t have a choice. You took my choice away.”

 

“I didn’t drag you to my table last night.”

 

“So, what—I wanted a night with you, and now we’re stuck together?”

 

“Is that all you wanted? Tell me about your scars, Beverly.”

 

His dogged return to that single demand was wearing her down. But not enough to tell him the story. “It’s old news. I had a rough time as a kid. It got to be too much. I thought it was too much.”

 

“How old were you?”

 

“Fifteen. It was literally more than half my life ago. I’m not that girl. Are you the same person you were when you were fifteen—however long ago that was?”

 

“Thirty years. And no.”

 

“Good. Can we stop talking about it now?”

 

He didn’t answer in the affirmative or otherwise. He stared at her, still unmoving, his hand holding his glass of scotch on the arm of the sofa. Then he drank it down. “Why feathers?”

 

“What?” Maybe it was the concussion, or waking up from a Percocet sleep, or maybe this conversation was just strange, but she felt two steps behind.

 

“Your ink.” He nodded at her arm. “Why feathers?”

 

Oh. That answer she gave him, free of evasion. She looked down at her wrist. She loved these feathers. They gave her strength. “When I did it, I felt crushed by the weight of everything that was wrong. The feathers remind me that we choose the weight of the problems on our shoulders. Now I choose not to let my problems weigh me down.” A philosophy she would do well to remember right now.

 

He smiled, and this one was real. Again, his face transformed, and he was Good Nick, with lively green eyes and a perfect mouth. “That’s a great answer.”

 

Some of her petulance from earlier reared up. “Do I get a gold star, or something?”

 

He didn’t lose that smile, but he cocked his head, squinting at her slightly. “Do you understand why you can’t tell people what’s going on?”

 

“I think I understand enough. You’re a mobster, or a Mafioso, or whatever you call yourselves, and you want to be able to handle the problem yourself. You don’t want people to have anything to tell cops or whoever asks.”

 

“I’m a Pagano. That’s what we call ourselves. And yeah, we have secrets. I need you to keep ours. Can I trust you to do that?”

 

“My feelings about the police are ambivalent. So yes. I’ll keep your secrets. I’m not sure what I even know.”

 

“It doesn’t matter. Just say nothing. To anyone. Agreed?”

 

“Agreed. Can I go home?”

 

“In the morning. You’re still not safe, so I’m keeping a watch on you. And I want you to stay in your apartment, or mine, until I say otherwise. But in the morning, when Donnie’s back, if you want, you can go back to your place.”

 

“I want.” She almost thanked him, but pulled the words back. She was not about to thank her captor for releasing her. “I’m going back to bed.”

 

He nodded. “Good night,bella. Your pills are on the counter, if you need them.”

 

She did, but she walked past them anyway.

 

~ 7 ~

 

 

As Nick stepped onto the front porch, Uncle Ben’s front door opened, and Sal, one of the soldiers on guard, moved aside.

 

“Morning, boss.”

 

Nick stepped into the foyer. “Sal.”

 

Aunt Angie came into the main hall, wiping her hands on a towel. “Nicky!” She tossed the towel onto her shoulder and hurried forward, her arms out. “How are you,carino?”

 

“I’m good, Auntie. I didn’t get hurt.” He let his aunt hug him hard. Angie was tall for a woman, taller than Uncle Ben with her heeled shoes, but she still pulled Nick down so she could get her arms around his neck. She had been a glamorously beautiful young woman and had aged into stately handsomeness as she approached eighty.

 

She clutched his shoulders and leaned back, then grabbed his cheek in one hand and gave it a hard, pinching shake. Nick closed his eyes and withstood this painful affection he’d been assaulted with his entire life. “Still. What kind of man does such a thing? Blowing up your car. This is America!” She let his cheek go with a slap. “Come, have an espresso. Your uncle isn’t down yet. This is early for him, you know.”

 

When she turned and headed back down the hall toward her palatial kitchen, Nick followed, rubbing his cheek. Italian women and their brutal affections.

 

He sat at the marble counter, and Angie poured him a small cup of strong, dark espresso. “How is Brian?”

 

“Good. Healing well. We’re bringing him home tonight.”

 

Her carefully-groomed eyebrows arched up. “So soon? It’s only a few days.”

 

“Hospitals get you home as fast as possible. And he’s safer at home.”

 

As if she saw the sense in that, she nodded. Then she got a sharp look in her hazel eyes. “And what of this girl who was with you? I saw the picture that’s all over the news. That wasn’t Vanessa you were kissing.”

 

Not even his mother had said anything about that, but Angelina Pagano, donna of the family, let nothing go unnoticed or unsaid. “Vanessa is over.”

 

One eyebrow outpaced the other on their climb up her forehead. “Good. I didn’t like her. There was disdain on her face all the time—she won’t be so pretty when she’s old if she doesn’t start smiling. But you move quickly, Nicky. Who is this new kissing partner?”

 

“Auntie, no. I kissed her hand to make her feel better. Don’t make more of it.”

 

It was more than that, and he knew it. He liked Beverly. Since the bombing, he’d come to like her a lot, and it was more than physical attraction or even a sense of responsibility. She’d fought him, stood up for herself. He’d seen the fear in her eyes, but she’d stood her ground despite it. That was real courage. Right alongside the fear was that spark, giving her power, giving her light.

 

His life was mostly darkness. Lately, since Church, it had seemed entirely dark. Beverly’s light felt like a beacon.

 

And that was some fucked-up thinking, and he needed to get control of it.

 

His smart, domineering aunt leaned on the counter, over her own espresso. “Have you looked at that picture that’s going around?”

 

It really was going around. It was getting shared out of context, too. Like that photo he’d seen a few years back of some protest or another, of a couple lying in the middle of the street, kissing. Somehow, he knew that his version of that was going to make his life more complicated. “Of course I saw it. Probably before you did.”

 

“No—have youlookedat it? Really looked at it? Because I have. There’s something in the way you look at her I haven’t seen before. You like this one. You should bring her for dinner.”

 

“Jesus, Auntie. No.”

 

“Language, Nicky. Don’t blaspheme in my house.” She gestured to the crucifix on the wall. “He is watching.”

 

“Who is watching?” Ben entered the room. He was dressed in a double-breasted dove-grey suit, a white shirt, and a charcoal grey silk tie. He looked dapper and in control, the don everyone respected. “Nick.”

 

“Uncle.” Nick embraced him and kissed his cheek. “You look good this morning.”

 

“I slept well. I hope you did, too. Today is an important day.” He went around the counter and kissed his wife. “And who’s watching?”

 

“The Lord.” Angie turned and prepared an espresso for Ben.

 

“Ah. Yes. Not too closely, I hope.” He took his cup and saucer. “Come, nephew. We should talk before we go.”

 

Nick agreed. He leaned over the counter and kissed his aunt’s cheek, then finished his espresso and followed Uncle Ben to his study.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

Ben sat on one of the long, leather sofas. Nick sat on the other, facing him. “We should talk strategy before the Council meets.”

 

“No. Strategy is for after. For the Council, I will simply explain to them our problem, how it’s also their problem, and what’s next. You’ll be quiet unless I say otherwise.”

 

Nick sat up straight, surprised and insulted. “Please? Uncle, I—”

 

Ben shut him down with a brisk wave of his hand. “No. Listen. You are the right man to be at my side. You are smart and careful—thorough. You see everything, and you see long distance. You are a good underboss, and someday you will be a great don. But I can feel your disrespect, Nicolo.”

 

“No, Uncle. You have my complete respect.” Nick felt an unfamiliar kind of wariness rising up in his chest. He had not expected this conversation at all.

 

Ben shook his head. “I don’t. You think I am past my expiration date. You think I’m making mistakes. You think I don’t know how to fight Church. Your frustration shows.” He leaned forward and narrowed his eyes. “Tell me I’m wrong.”

 

Chastened and uncertain, Nick answered quietly. “I love you. You’re my godfather. You saved my family. And you’re my don. You have my eternal respect and devotion. But no, I don’t think you’ve made your wisest choices lately.”

 

Ben sat back and laced his hands across his midsection. “We don’t speak of your father’s troubles.”

 

No, they didn’t. Ben had put a gag order on that as soon as it had happened. Thirty years ago. “No. I apologize.”

 

With a nod and a wave, Ben set that aside. “But I want you to think about the rest of it. More than fifty years, your father and I ran Pagano Brothers. We took our father’s business and built it up. We made our own business side by side with it. And those businesses have been running unimpeded since. We do things the way we do them because it works. We keep a low profile. We don’t make things harder for elected officials or law enforcement. We make things easier for them, professionally as well as personally. And they make room for us to do our work. You think we’re struggling against Church because I don’t know how to fight him. I’m saying to you now that he’s not the firstcafoneto think he could reach high enough to spit in my face. And yet here I stand, my face dry. The old way is still the way because it wins.”

 

Frustration began to filter into his blood, but Nick remained calm and respectful. “You’re right, Uncle. What you’ve built, what you’ve kept going, is an impressive empire. There is a lot to be said for the way you did things to get so far. But the worldischanging. There aren’t as many people like us, who are willing to do it right. They want the fast return. Auberon’s hole got filled by a lot of lower players, with Church in the lead, and theyarechanging the game. Eighteen months we’ve been swatting Church away. Maybe he hasn’t spit in your face yet, but he takes a bite every time he lunges.”

 

“You want to play his game.”

 

“I want to beat him at it, yes.”

 

“No. Make him play ours. That’s the strategy for this Jackie Stone thing. Under no circumstances do we end up working with a drug cartel. Drugs are not part of our world, and they will not be as long as I draw breath—and I hope you agree with me. We will give no time to these crazy Colombians who make spectacles of themselves and think they’re sending messages about their power. Those ‘messages’ are nothing more than notes from lunatics. We have a way, nephew. We have a way.”

 

Nick took a breath and let it out, making sure it did not come off as a sigh. “So, what help do you want from the Marconis?”

 

“No. What we’re doing is offering our help.”

 

“Please?” That was a complete inversion of the plan they’d had in place. The sit-down was less than two hours away. But his uncle seemed perfectly calm.

 

“We help the Marconis drive the Colombians out of Connecticut. That compromises this Stone and gives you the leverage you need to make him turn on Church. It strengthens the Council as a whole, and it might bring all the families together behind us against Church. He’s been pushing business into all the neighborhoods. We can fight him there.Capisce?”

 

Nick sat back abruptly, stunned to silence. He sat there, his uncle’s eyes steady on him, and worked through everything Ben had said, all the angles he could see. Ben was going at Church from the perimeter.

 

It was fucking brilliant.

 

“It could definitely work. But it’s not a quick solution.”

 

“The right way never is, Nick.” He put his hand on the arm of the sofa and pushed himself to stand. “Come on. We should get moving.”

 

Nick stood, too, and followed his uncle toward the door. Before he could open it, Ben put his arm across his back. “When we have time, you and I are going to talk about J.J. You need to get on board with him as a capo.”

 

Nick didn’t see that happening, but he nodded. Hell, maybe Ben was right.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

The Council never met in the same location. Generally, the family who called the meeting hosted in their neighborhood. But in this case, Ben had called the meeting for a location in Danbury, the scene of the upcoming exchange between Jackie Stone and the Zapata cartel. The Paganos were still hosting, arranging for the room and for the meal that would precede the meeting, but Ben had thought it would resonate more to meet so near the location in question.

 

He was right, of course.

 

The Council families had not beefed since Nick had been a lowly soldier. Peace and prosperity had reigned for years. Tensions were simmering on low heat lately, though, because Church was making a lot of noise. That noise brought the Paganos attention in counterproductive ways, and all the families felt it.

 

So the meeting was overdue. Yet all the bosses met as friends: Enzo Marconi. Gianni Abbatantuono. Vito Conti. Gabriel Sacco. And Ben Pagano. Each man brought his administration—underboss and consigliere—to the table. Soldiers and guards were fed elsewhere.

 

Ben had chosen a warehouse owned by a business affiliate. Each family had agreed and then sent in a man to do a security sweep. By the time the meeting took place, the space had been transformed into something like an elegant dining room, with a vast, mahogany table, upholstered arm chairs all around, and a uniformed wait staff—handpicked and cleared by the families.

 

In the way of tradition, the meal was first. Ben had explained long ago, before Nick had even been made, that men who broke bread together had a bond thereafter, and would be respectful and conscientious negotiators. Nick believed that such a bond only held when the men were of a similar mind in the first place, and when it behooved every man present equally to be of that mind. But sitting at his uncle’s right through this meal, he could not find cause to dispute the old way.

 

Still, it was difficult for Nick to understand the expense his uncle had gone to, on short notice, for the meeting. Everything had been arranged as a celebration. Lunch was osso buco served with risotto on gold-trimmed china dishes and eaten with sterling flatware. Amarone flowed into crystal goblets. Great baskets of mixed breads lined the center of the table. Before they ate, each man toasted his thanks to Uncle Ben, taking his moment to make a little speech, and then Ben toasted his thanks right back for their attendance.


Page 11

 

This was the first time Nick had a place at the Council table. He found himself both impatient with and fascinated by the rigors of tradition.

 

Finally, after more than an hour of toasting and eating and talking about families and complaining about global politics, the staff served large portions of tiramisu with small glasses of Frangelico.

 

If nothing else, the diners would be too full of food and drink to argue much, Nick thought.

 

When the waiters cleared the dessert plates and brought coffee urns and cups out, Enzo Marconi leaned his elbows on the table. Marconi was a short, thin, almost completely bald Sicilian in his mid-sixties or so. Ben and Enzo were close allies and, though Nick didn’t know for sure, it was likely that the two older men had spoken off the record already.

 

“Thank you, Ben, for the wonderful meal and the excellent company. But we’re together today not just for good food and conversation. You have a problem, and you need our help.”

 

Told earlier to stay quiet, Nick sat back and observed the families at work.

 

Ben nodded at Marconi. “We do have a problem. We all have a problem. Alvin Church and his band of vermin. They don’t understand the world they’re in, and they are making trouble for us all. He tried to kill my nephew a few days ago. He did kill a good soldier. And hurt innocents.”

 

Conti asked, “Is that confirmed? It was Church?”

 

“Yes. We got a message from him Saturday, claiming credit.”

 

“What was the message?”

 

Ben gestured at Nick, who answered. “The registration card from the SUV.”

 

Gabriel Sacco cut in. “These are Providence problems—caused by your beef with Auberon. You handled that beef off the record. And every one of us had something going with Auberon. All that business was broken.”

 

Ben tipped his head, once, acknowledging Sacco’s complaint. “You’re right. But that was a problem that needed to be handled quickly, and I did what had to be done. I’ve made my apologies to the Council, and I’ve paid my restitution to the families.” He looked around the table. “Yes?” All the bosses, including Sacco, nodded. “We move from here, then. That the void would be filled by this gutter trash none of us expected. Yes, Church’s attention is on the Paganos now, and it’s us who are taking the brunt of the damage. But I know you’re hurting, too.”

 

Sacco spoke again, clearly looking for a fight, and Nick turned his antennae toward the reactions of the rest of the table. Something was happening here. “Again, this is your weight. You should not be asking for help. You should be offering it.”

 

Conti, too, was spoiling. He could see it in the nod of the man’s head. Nick sat forward, and Ben gave him a warning look. Fred, to Ben’s left, caught Nick’s eye and made a bare shake of his head. Neither needed to have worried; Nick wasn’t going to interrupt. But he would have information for later, if he needed it.

 

But his uncle was on fire today. “It’s good you say this, Gabriel. I’mnothere to ask for help. Iamhere to offer it.”

 

His assertion changed the tone of the table immediately. Ben had their attention. Though the conversation was lively, and though Sacco and Conti looked for holes everywhere, by the end of the meeting, the Council was in and had a plan. It was a long-view plan that would take weeks to play out, but it was solid.

 

Alvin Church didn’t know it yet, but all the families were coming for him. His days were numbered.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

Nick’s new driver, Sam, was not quite as big as Jimmy but big enough and plenty mean. He’d been promoted from bagman to this more high-profile position. Nick knew he’d been a great bagman because nobody ever fucked with him. So he was probably great for this position, if he could handle the long stretches of empty time without getting bored.

 

Was that what had happened to Jimmy? Had he gotten bored and wandered off? Had Church’s men simply gotten lucky? Had they been following Nick around with a bomb, waiting for their chance?

 

No. They’d known when they’d have the chance. Somehow, they’d known. They’d known where Nick would be. They’d known where the SUV would be. They’d known they’d have opportunity to place the bomb, and Jimmy never left his post without letting someone know and getting covered.

 

That meant that somebody close to Nick was in on it. Not Jimmy. Jimmy had been killed, and his warning had saved Nick, Brian, and Beverly.

 

Brian was Nick’s oldest, closest friend. Their relationship transcended the Pagano Brothers. And Brian had been with Nick all night. He’d covered him with his own body.

 

No, not Brian.

 

Not Beverly—he’d had a full check done on her. She had no cause, no ties, no experience, no opportunity.

 

Matty or Chi-Chi. It had to be one of them. Ithadto be. One of his own crew. When he found out which one it was, Nick would devise a new way to kill.

 

He would have to tell Uncle Ben about his suspicions and lock down any conversation about their plans for Stone and Church, but otherwise, he would say nothing until he was sure.

 

With Matty at his side, he pushed the door to his friend’s hospital room open. Brian was ready to go, dressed and sitting on the side of the bed. His left arm was in a sling, and there was a kind of net bandage showing on the back of his neck.

 

Nick set aside his murderous thoughts and smiled. “You ready to go, crip?”

 

“Nice—thanks for that. Yeah. I’m just waiting for a wheelchair. They won’t let me walk out.”

 

“Matty—there was one in the hall. Grab it.” Nick turned to Brian. “We’ll take you down.”

 

Brian shook his head. “No, no. I’ll wait. You should see this nurse who’s going to take me down. Hot as fuck.”

 

As if on cue, the door opened again, and a big, bald orderly came in with the wheelchair. “Mr. Notaro? Ready for your ride?”

 

Brian actually blushed, and Nick laughed, forgetting for the moment his dark thoughts of betrayal and revenge, and focusing on his friend’s embarrassment. “Brian, man. I had no idea. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

 

“Fuck you, man.” Still sitting on the bed, he gave the orderly a plaintive look. “Where’s the nurse? The blonde with the little white cats on her scrubs? Kaia?”

 

“She’s with another patient. Gonna be a while. I’m your taxi service.”

 

Nick was still laughing as Brian muttered “Fuck” and moved to the wheelchair.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

They dropped Matty off at the warehouse, and Sam drove Nick and Brian to Brian’s apartment. Once they got Brian situated, Sam went on watch, and Nick got beers for himself and his friend. Sitting back in his aged recliner, Brian took the brew with a grateful nod, and Nick went to his sofa. He’d stay until Brian’s guard came.

 

A vast television and an elaborate home theater and gaming setup took up most of the wall facing the sofa. The recliner was angled toward it, too. Brian liked the simple things—easy women, good beer, loud games, and louder movies.

 

“Talk to me about Monday.” Though Brian was only a soldier, much to Nick’s chagrin, he was Nick’s closest confidant. Nick wouldn’t break the seal of the Council sit-down, but he could and did tell him about the plan for taking Jackie Stone.

 

When Nick was finished, Brian nodded. “There a way to do this quiet?”

 

“Quiet enough. Ben and Marconi are buying some deaf ears. And, Bri—what I’ve told you is for your ears only. Speak tono oneabout it.”

 

Brian gave him a long, silent look. “Of course. Nick, I’ve been thinking about what happened—at Neon. About how somebody could’ve gotten around Jimmy to plant that bomb. Jimmy would never have walked away from his post.”

 

“No, he wouldn’t.”

 

“The only way he would have left is if he had somebody to cover him. Somebody he knew.”

 

Nick nodded.

 

With that, Brian put his good hand up and wiped it over his face. “Fuck me.”

 

“Don’t say more, not now. I’ll figure it out.”

 

“Yeah, okay.” He took a breath as if to clear those thoughts out. “I know I don’t have the right to ask, but I want in on Stone.”

 

“Forget about it, Bri. You’re clipped already. And this will be bloody. We’re pushing back on a drug cartel to get ahold of Stone. You’re off the clock until you’re whole again.”

 

Brian lifted his injured arm. “This is nothing. A week from now it’ll be less than nothing.”

 

“And your back? The burns?”

 

He shrugged. “Stings, not much more. Another week of healing and I’m almost good as new.”

 

“Almost. No, Bri. You’re on the D.L.”

 

Brian finished his beer and set the empty on the little table, nothing but a disc of glass around a floor lamp, beside the recliner. “Are you suiting up for it?”

 

He was asking whether Nick would be in the thick of the fight. “Church is my fight. You know that.”

 

“So yeah, then.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Since when have you gone into something like this without me?”

 

Never. Brian had been at his right hand long before he’d had a right hand that mattered. But he wasn’t going to risk him. His crew was falling apart. He needed his friend. “Brian. The discussion is closed.”

 

“I know I’m just a soldier, Nick. But you’re my best friend. Don’t leave me behind.”

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

Sam unlocked Nick’s door, did a quick sweep, then returned Nick’s keys to him and went out into the hallway, where he’d stand watch until he was relieved at ten.

 

Nick was fucking sick of this level of security. Ben’s longsighted plan, brilliant as it was, could take weeks to come to fruition. Next week would only be the first skirmish in the new offensive. And in the meantime, since the bombing, it seemed Nick would be babysat everywhere he went. Fuck, even public restrooms got searched before he could take a piss.

 

Halfway through the act of closing his door, he stopped. Being alone in his apartment while a guard stood outside the door felt some distance beyond lonely. He thought about Beverly, just down the hall. He knew Donnie was still there, waiting to be relieved by the same guard who'd relieve Sam. He hadn’t been in the hall, though. Apparently Donnie was inside the apartment.

 

And suddenly, Nick was jealous. What were they doing in there?Hanging out? Donnie should have been standing outside the door, or sitting on the bench by the elevators and stairwell entrance. Period.

 

He came back out of his apartment. “Stay put,” he ordered Sam without turning to him. “I’m going down the hall.”

 

“But boss—”

 

“Shut it, Sam. Just going down the hall.”

 

He went to Beverly’s apartment and tried the knob. Finding it locked, as it should have been, he knocked. Donnie answered and had the sense to look immediately nervous. Nick noticed that he was chewing.

 

“What are you doing in here?”

 

He swallowed. “Bev said it was stupid to stand out in the hallway when I could keep her safer if I could see her. I thought that was wicked smart.”

 

“What didItell you to do?”

 

He blinked. “Stand watch in the hall.”

 

Beverly was standing back a bit, holding a bowl of popcorn. Her television was on; he could hear it. He focused again on Donnie, who had gained a sheen of sweat across his forehead. Good. “You weren’t guarding her. You were in here having a fucking date.”


Page 12

 

Donnie’s eyes widened to caricature size. “Boss, no. No way. I was just doing my job, Iswear.”

 

Nick did not lose his temper. He went cold, not hot. But the urge to let loose on this fucker and beat him senseless was strong, making his arms ache. “Get out. Vinnie’s on at ten. You stay put in the hallway until he relieves you. And you worked for free today.”

 

“Okay, boss.” Donnie’s voice was shaking now. “I’m sorry I fucked up.” He went out into the hall, and Nick shut the door in his face.

 

He turned to Beverly, still standing there, holding a white plastic bowl, half-filled with popcorn. She looked confused and angry.

 

“What did you just do?”

 

“I dealt with a personnel problem. He’s your bodyguard, Beverly, not your boyfriend.” He stepped toward her and reached his hand toward the popcorn.

 

She yanked the bowl out of his reach and stalked into her kitchen. Her setup in this space was smaller than his but similar—a kitchen separated from a living room by a tiered counter, the living room side at bar height, to make for a dining area. His décor was neutral and considerably darker in tone than hers. Her appliances and cabinetry were white, her walls and countertops a sort of sand color. And then there was that magenta wall. A store-bought negative space print of Audrey Hepburn had pride of place over her new, white sofa. The sofa had throw pillows on it now—orange and pink flowers. Everything about her place, from what he could see, was cheerful.

 

“Hewas invited in.Youwere not. And what is your fucking fascination with boyfriends? I don’t have a boyfriend—not Chris, not Donnie, nobody. Why won’t you get that? And nobody calls me Beverly. I’m Bev.”

 

He knew she didn’t have a boyfriend. But she was wrong if she thought she wasn’t surrounded by men who wanted to be. Including her friend Chris. Nick had caught, more than once, the way he looked at her when she was looking elsewhere. He’d seen the near-agony on the man’s face when they’d been dancing together at Neon. Beverly had a friend. Chris was in the friend zone.

 

But Nick knew this was not the time to point that out. That was not insight he thought she would ever want to have, and Chris’s discontent was not his concern. Until and unless it became his concern.

 

“Icall you Beverly. I don’t like Bev.”

 

She got a previously-opened bottle of white wine out of her white refrigerator and filled a glass on the counter—she didn’t offer him a drink. “Well, I do, and it’s my name. Where do you get off deciding what to call me?”

 

“I like the way my tongue moves around your real name.Beverly. I like the way it feels in my mouth.”

 

With the glass halfway to her mouth, she froze, pink rising over her cheeks. “Oh.” Despite her combative tone before, that word was barely a gasp. He waited, watching, keeping his face neutral, while she worked that out. When she spoke again, her voice was more assured but less sharp. “Why are you here?”

 

He wanted her company. Seeing her go back down the hall to her own apartment, this apartment, the morning before had been absurdly difficult. Seeing her go with such obvious relief had hurt his feelings. He’d stayed away the rest of Sunday, spending the day as usual, at Mass and then at Uncle Ben and Aunt Angie’s with his mother. He’d had work to do after. All of it kept him from thinking too much about the hurt he’d felt when she’d left.

 

But now he was here. He came around the corner and got close. She wore a long, straight, knit skirt, dark brown, and thin-strapped t-shirt in a color like the inside of a cantaloupe. White bra straps showed under the straps of her top.

 

Her hair, a fascinating blend of colors, obviously natural, that came to a sum of glistening reddish-brown, was loose and waved softly over her shoulders. Her blue eyes glittered with irritation and a little fear—but her wide pupils told him what he really wanted to know. She wanted him. Her chest, that beautiful chest, heaved erratically with her anxious arousal.

 

“How’re you feeling?”

 

It took her a beat to answer. Before she did, she set her glass down and took a step back. “Better. Still sore, but nothing like it was.”

 

“Good.” He lifted his hand to her face and brushed his thumb lightly over her scraped cheekbone. “I’m sorry you were hurt.”

 

She hadn’t flinched at his touch, but she did at his words. He wrinkled his brow at her.

 

She answered his silent question. “That’s the first time you’ve said that.”

 

“What?”

 

“That you’re sorry. I got the impression that you don’t apologize. In general.”

 

“In general, I don’t. In general, I don’t do things I regret.”

 

She laughed at that. Her laugh was wonderful, quiet and breathy, but still rich, tuneful. Nick’s balls clenched behind his already-hard cock.

 

“That’s funny?” He brushed her hair over her shoulder and left his hand resting there, his thumb on her pulse point. The beat against the pad of that digit was fast and shallow.

 

She cleared her throat. “Sort of, yeah. You must be a very careful person, then. I figure if I get through a day without having to apologize for something, then I didn’t have a very interesting day. Sometimes I just apologize on spec.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“You know—just in case I did something that warrants an apology.”

 

“That makes your apologies pretty cheap.” He traced the length of her throat with his thumb.

 

She was doing well to keep up her end of the conversation. “They’re always sincere, but I think an apologyshouldbe cheap. How much does it cost to be sorry if saying sorry eases somebody’s mind?”

 

In his world, it could cost everything. But Beverly was not of his world. He stilled his hand. “I’ve never known someone who sees the world like you do.”

 

“How do you think I see the world?”

 

“In perpetual daylight. Sunshine.”

 

“And how do you see the world?”

 

“Midnight.” He kissed her. Bringing his other hand to the back of her head, he held her still and kissed her hard, giving her a taste of his darkness, his tongue plunging deep into her mouth. She tasted of popcorn and wine and the faintest hint of fruity lip balm. She was stiff at first, not participating, and then he broke away and ducked his head, kissing the same pulse point on her throat he’d been massaging. When he bit down, she moaned and put her hands on his hips.

 

Returning to her mouth, he now found her responsive and eager, her tongue twisting with his, her moans and gasps filling his mouth. As turned-on as he could remember being in a while, maybe at all, Nick reminded himself that she was injured. He walked her backward until she stood against the refrigerator. He wanted to press into her, make her feel him, but knew he would hurt her if he did. So he dropped a hand from her head and let it fall slowly down her neck, over her chest, to take a breast. God, she was so soft. Her skin was like silk, her body firm but yielding. He wanted nothing more than to feel her around him.

 

He could feel the hard pebble of her nipple through her shirt, her bra, and he took it between his fingers and pinched. She tore her mouth from his with a cry. Oh, he liked that.

 

“Oh, my God.” She looked him in the eye. “Be Good Nick. Please. Please be Good Nick.”

 

That plea stopped him cold. She was not of his world. She’d already been hurt, bare minutes after stepping her toe into his world. She had no clue who he was, what he was capable of, what she’d be getting herself into.

 

Because what he wanted with her was more than a fuck. He didn’t know what it was, but it was more than that. And he knew she wanted more, too.

 

He leaned back, letting go of her breast to take her face again in both hands. “No,bella. I’m not Good Nick. There is no Good Nick.”

 

He kissed her forehead and left her apartment.

 

~ 8 ~

 

 

“You can sit in the booth at the back.” Bev pointed at the farthest booth against the front wall.

 

Donnie looked unconvinced. “I don’t know…it’s pretty far from the door here.”

 

“So you’ll be able to see people coming in.” Bev had figured out that Donnie wasn’t an experienced bodyguard. But he was definitely watchful, and he was nice. He’d been good company these past few days.

 

“Okay, yeah. Sounds good.” He went over and sat on the side of the booth that faced the door. He yawned, his jaw cracking. He didn’t look like he’d gotten much sleep the night before, and he’d been on early today. Bev had had to be in for her shift at Sal’s at five o’clock.

 

“I’ll get you coffee. Regular? And you want breakfast?” As she asked, she headed toward the back. She usually came through the back, but Donnie had wanted to scope the front entrance, even though the diner wasn’t even open yet.

 

“Sure—just pancakes and sausage. Tall stack.”

 

“Comin’ right up as soon as the grill’s up.” She went around to the kitchen and came face to face with a worried Bruce. “Hi, Bruce.”

 

“Hi, sunshine. You okay?” He looked under the empty ticket wheel, to the dining room and Donnie. “What’s he doing here?”

 

“I’m okay. A lot better.” She was. She still felt a little achy, but she was much better than Saturday. Four full days had passed since Friday night, and she was ready to be out in the world again—even if it meant traveling everywhere with her new friend, Donnie.

 

Bruce was still looking at Donnie, who was absently perusing the menu. Noticing a furtive look about her boss, Bev asked, “Do you know him?”

 

Guilt clear on his face, Bruce said, “I’ve seen him around, yeah. He’s bad news. Why’d he come in with you?”

 

Donnie didn’t seem like bad news to her at all. “Donnie? He’s my…my bodyguard, I guess.” At Bruce’s sharp look, she went on, “Sounds stupid, I know. It’s complicated, but he’s supposed to follow me around until whoever blew up Nick’s truck is caught. I guess. I don’t understand everything.”

 

Now something like parental concern pushed guilt or nervousness from his face. Bruce was forty, hardly old enough to be her father—younger than Nick, in fact—but he still treated all his waitresses with that sort of protective affection. “Nick Pagano, huh? How’d you fall in with the likes of him?”

 

“He’s my neighbor. And I guess I did ‘fall’ in. It all happened fast. I’m okay, though. And Donnie’s just going to sit there, if that’s okay.”

 

“Taking up a booth? All day?”

 

“Through my shift. And it’s Wednesday, Bruce. We never have a full house on a Wednesday off-season, right?”

 

“Yeah, right. Okay. I guess you want me to feed him, too.” He looked yet again into the dining room. Bev had the clear and potent sense that Bruce knew Donnie in some other way—and not just that he’d ‘seen him around.’ She wondered what Donnie usually did for the Paganos, when he wasn’t following her around.

 

But she didn’t think it was her business, so she said, “If you don’t mind. Tall stack and sausage.” When he nodded, she kissed his cheek, patted his arm and went to change into her uniform and clock in.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

The day was a usual, quiet weekday. The regular breakfast crowd, mostly elderly couples, came in. Chief Lumley sat at his usual spot at the counter and had his usual coffee and jelly stick while he read the paper. Bev noticed him and Donnie exchanging words, and she stopped and watched, too far to eavesdrop. They seemed to be doing nothing more than pleasantly chatting.

 

Donnie ate his breakfast and then spent most of his time on his phone. Bev imagined that being a bodyguard might well be one of the most boring jobs in the history of work.

 

Skylar clocked in around ten-thirty, as the breakfast crowd had dwindled and only Donnie and the chief were still around. Bev was filling sugar dispensers, feeling, and trying to ignore, the effects of having bruised ribs and being the only waitress on the breakfast shift, when Sky stepped to her side, still tying on her apron.

 

“Hey, sweets. You look pretty good. How’re you feeling?”

 

Bev leaned her head over when Sky came in to kiss her cheek. “Okay. A little more sore than I expected, and tired. But okay.”

 

“You off at two?”

 

“One. Ceci’s coming in an hour early. I’m going to go talk to Chris. Bring him some pie.”

 

Sky began to fill the coffee machine as they talked. “He’s still been ducking your calls?”

 

“Yeah. Since Saturday. It’s like he’s mad at me for getting hurt.”

 

“I think he’s mad at you for being with somebody who got you hurt. But I haven’t seen him since Saturday, either. The bookshop’s open, so I know he’s around, but he’s definitely sulking.” She turned the prepped machine on as the front door opened. When she turned toward the dining room she asked Bev, “Bruce said that’s a bodyguard for you over there.”

 

“Yeah. Donnie. He’s not a problem.”

 

“Okay. That’s fine.” She pulled her ticket pad out of her apron. “I want to talk to you, though.” Glancing at the police chief reading the paper at the other end of the counter, she dropped her voice. “Romeo got another call from that Brian guy. He hadn’t even given them his last name or his number, but he still called him. They’re offering him a shit ton of money to work security for them. Like twice what he makes at the paper company.”

 

“Wow. Weird.”

 

“Yeah—hold on.” She went out to the new table of diners, and Bev took the last fresh pot from the other coffee machine and filled Donnie and the chief’s cups. Sky was putting a ticket on the wheel when Bev got back with the pot. Sky waved her over, keeping their distance from Chief Lumley.

 

“He’s thinking about talking to them. It’s so much money. And it’s just security, not…any of the other stuff they do. It’s weird. I didn’t think people could just get ajobwith those guys. I thought they were—I don’t know—like a gang or whatever. Or likeThe Godfather. You have to be initiated or whatever. And his last name is Goodweather—I mean, his mom’s half-Italian, but I thought you had to have chianti running through your veins or something.”

 

Bev shrugged. “Sky, I have no idea. I’ve seenThe Godfatheronce. Mostly I remember that there was a horse head in somebody’s bed. Has Romeo ever been a bouncer or anything like that? I mean, he’s a mountain, I know, but it’s hard to see him being all mean.”

 

Sky leaned on the prep counter, next to the commercial toaster. “He can be mean when he needs to be. This one time, we were at the car show, and he was talking engines with some dude and I got bored and wandered off. Some guy started following me, getting really close and creepy. Then he, like, petted my hair, and I yelled and told him to back off and headed back toward Rome. He knew something was wrong before I even got all the way to him. When I told him about the guy, he…well, I don’t think that guy creeps on women much anymore.” She helped Bev put the refilled sugar dispensers on a tray. “I guess I just want to know what you know about this Nick. He’s a hot tamale, for sure. But is he a good guy?”

 

Was Nick a good guy? For the billionth time, Bev replayed that kiss, the way he’d controlled her, his mouth rough but yet somehow tender, his hands unyielding around her head and neck. That kiss had exceeded any fantasy she’d dared to entertain about him. But then he’d left her. As she’d stood there, burning hot and gasping for him, he’d walked away, straight out her front door, without even looking back. Because she’d asked for Good Nick, and he’d said there was no Good Nick.

 

But that wasn’t true. She’d seen Good Nick. She’d seen enough to know she wanted more. And there was a lot of Bad Nick she didn’t mind, either. If it had been Bad Nick kissing her, touching her, being hard for her, then she didn’t mind him at all.

 

What she minded—and minded very much—was being left alone that night. And ignored since. She wished she knew whether his lack of attention meant he was being noble—Good Nick—or dismissive—Bad Nick.

 

“Bev?”

 

She forced herself back to the present. “I don’t know. I think he can be a good guy. I know he can be a bad guy. I don’t know what to tell you.”

 

“You like him, though.”

 

She saw no point in evading that truth, not with Skylar or herself. “Yeah. I really do. But my history with guys says that I’m not a reliable judge of character.”

 

Skylar huffed her discontent. “Okay. Thought I’d ask.” She squinted at Bev, as if she were trying to see something deeper. “You be careful with this guy, right?”

 

It didn’t seem like she needed to worry much about it, actually. She smiled a big, bright smile. “Yeah. I’m being careful.”

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

After her shift, Donnie followed Bev down the street to Cover to Cover Books. She had no idea what to expect when she faced Chris inside. In the more than ten years of their friendship, he’d never iced her out like this before. But the last thing he’d said to her was that he loved her, so she knew—she wassure—that they’d make up. She balanced the pink pie box on one hand and reached for the doorknob. As the bell over the door tinkled, she turned back to Donnie.

 

“Can you stay out here? Or maybe go for my car and wait in it?” She lived not much more than a mile from the diner, and she usually walked to work. But with her sore ribs, she’d decided a walk, then a full shift on her feet, then another walk would be a bad idea. But Donnie had insisted on driving—and then, for all the five minutes of the drive, had complained about her Prius.

 

Donnie shook his head emphatically. “Forget about it, Bev. I’m staying with you. You keep trying to get me in trouble. I’ll give you some space, but I’m going in. When we’re out, I want you where I can see you.”

 

“It’s a bookshop, Donnie. Lots of nooks and crannies. It’ll be impossible to give me space and also see me.”

 

Color actually drained from his face. “Then maybe you shouldn’t go in there. Fuck! I don’t know about this.”

 

“I do. I’m going in. Keep your distance. I have private things to say to my friend.” Without brooking further discussion, she pushed the door all the way open and went in.

 

“Chris?” Silence answered her call. Then she heard ameow, and Lady Catterley, Chris’s bookshop cat, pure white, with long fur and regal blue eyes, sashayed up from the back. “Hey, Catty.” She bent down, wincing at the pinch in her ribs, and let the cat rub herself on her hand. Lady Catterley did not deign to be petted. She would, however, allow a human subject to serve as a rubbing post. When Bev’s function was fulfilled, the cat turned and sauntered off with a flick of her upright tail.

 

“Pretty cat.” Donnie looked around the shop as if he’d never been in here before.

 

“Yeah.” She pointed to a reading nook near the door that had a decent view of the wider areas of the small shop. “You can sit there. I won’t be too long.” Donnie nodded and went where she’d indicated. And Bev went toward the back, the direction the cat had come from.

 

She found Chris sitting on the floor at the ‘transition’ stacks, where he put newly-acquired inventory that needed to be logged, as well as books he’d pulled off the sales floor for various reasons. He was unpacking a wooden fruit crate, one of several stacked nearby. “Estate sale?”

 

He answered without looking up. “Yeah. In Newport on Sunday. Some really great finds. What’s up?”

 

His tone was uninterested, at best. Bev decided not to be hurt by that. She chose the weight of her problems, and this little awkwardness between her and Chris was an air bubble. They had too much history, too much knowledge to be out of sync for long. “Pie of the day today is peach. I brought you one. Oven fresh.” Peach pie was Chris’s all-time favorite. Bruce baked nutmeg into the pie crust—it was a freaking fantastic pie.

 

He looked up at that. She smiled back at his frown. He always looked glum. Even when he smiled, it seemed to be hurting him to do so. She loved his mopey face.


Page 13

 

“You brought me a whole pie?”

 

“What, you’re telling me you won’t eat it all? Today?”

 

Finally, he cracked a little smile. “Maybe. If you don’t hog it all.”

 

“I will if you don’t get your ass up and come have some with me.”

 

He stood, brushing his pants off, and nodded. “C’mon. I have some plates and plastic forks behind the sales desk. From that book-signing party a few months back.”

 

They went to the sales desk and, after he got out the necessary implements and served up some pie, they sat together behind it, on the two simple, wooden stools he kept back there.

 

Chris took a big bite from his slice of pie, and his eyes rolled back. He didn’t bother to swallow before extolling its praises. “Damn, this pie is so good. Grandmothers all over New England weep at the thought that some dumb, balding dude with a blurry mermaid tattooed on his arm outbakes the crap out of them.”

 

Bev laughed, and when Chris grinned at her, she decided to just get to it. “You’ve been ducking me. We need to talk it out.”

 

He shook his head. “Sometimes, it’s better to just let the past die and move on. Not everything can be talked out.”

 

“But I don’t know why you’ve been mad. I can’t move on from something I don’t understand.”

 

Before he answered, he took another big bite of pie. Most of his slice was gone, in only three bites. “C’mon, Bevvie. You know exactly why I’m mad. Or you would if you’d open your eyes.”

 

She hated when he called her Bevvie. He only did it when he was being condescending. Normally, she would stay calm and try to see the love in his words. It made life easier to believe people meant well. To believe otherwise was to live in siege, always expecting to be hurt. She’d been like that once. Her mother was certainly like that. It was miserable.

 

But right now, today, with her body sore from working a full shift on her feet with bruised ribs, her head a swirl from all the ways acting on her attraction to Nick was now messing with her life, and maybe the lives of her friends, Bev felt defensive and impatient. “Don’t be an evasive jerk, Chris. Just say it.”

 

He set his now-empty plate aside. “Okay. You have shitty taste in men, and you refuse to see that. Over and over, you end up with the bad boy, just fucking determined to find their heart of gold. How many guys have you dated since we’ve been friends?”

 

Bev glared at him, not bothering to do the math. A few.

 

When she didn’t answer, he did. “Five. Counting the guy you were getting over when we met, six. I’ve been there every time to get you back on your feet. Every-fucking-one of them treated you like shit, and you took it, trying to see the good, trying to make that little sliver of good the main thing about them. And every-fucking-one of them hurt you. They dumped you, or they cheated on you practically in your face until you finally wised up and left—and shit, then there’s Greg.”

 

“Don’t, Chris. I get it.” She set her half-eaten pie away, no longer hungry at all.

 

“No, you don’t. You wanted me to just say it, so here it is: Greg.Hewas such a bad boy he beat you up. And even that wasn’t enough for you to get it. He had to do itagainbefore you’d leave him. And then he stalked you. You dumped out your whole life to get away from him. And now, the next guy you exhibit any interest in is afucking mobster—who got you blown up before he even banged you. And still you want to be with him. Bevvie, I love you. I really love you. But on this point, you are a stupid twat.”

 

Shocked at his words, she jumped off the stool and tried to storm past him. She was going to cry, and she didn’t want him to see how much he’d hurt her. The betrayal she felt was thick and acrid around her.

 

He grabbed her arm as she tried to pass. “Bev. There are good guys. Guys with their heart of gold right out on their sleeve. Guys who’ll treat you like the treasure you are. They’re all around you. They’re right in front of you. You just need to open your eyes.”

 

“Let go of me.” She managed to keep her voice steady all the way until the last word. He let her go, and she fled the shop, not even stopping to tell Donnie it was time to go. But he was up and following her right away.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

As soon as the elevator opened, Bev pushed through, going ahead of Donnie, even though she knew he wanted to be out front. She just wanted to get to her apartment and be alone, where she could cry in peace and solitude.

 

The new big guy who had taken Jimmy’s place guarding Nick was standing in the middle of the hallway with his back to her, blocking her passage. Pulling up a little and preparing to ask him to excuse her, she realized that Nick’s door was open. And then, as she stepped to the far side, she caught a glimpse of blonde hair. She couldn’t see much more around the guard, but she looked at the hall floor—two female feet in high, fancy pumps.

Fuck. The girlfriend. The one he’d said he didn’t have anymore.

 

She watched those feet walk toward Nick’s door and then in. His bodyguard turned and shifted, his hand coming up to his waist and then relaxing, when he recognized her. He made room for her, and she went on, trying not to look. But she couldn’t help one glance.

 

As Nick closed his door, with the girlfriend in there with him, his eyes met hers.

 

It didn’t matter. It didn’t matter. She and Nick had nothing going on between them but bad luck. It didn’t matter that he’d lied to her, because he didn’t matter. He was weightless.

 

She went down to her apartment. Donnie had her keys, so she waited until he unlocked her door, then she snatched her keys from him, pushed past him, and locked him out.

 

Rubbing her left thumb over the feathers inked into her right wrist, a gesture to find calm in stormy seas, Bev went to her bedroom and changed her clothes. Once she was in comfortable yoga pants and a tank, she lit an incense stick, sat lotus on the floor in her pretty, soft room, and tried to meditate.

 

Before she could, though, she needed to cry. So she put her hands to her face and did that.

 

 

~ 9 ~

 

 

Nick let go of Vanessa’s arm and looked at Sam. “Make sure she gets off safely. Donnie’s got this floor until you get back.”

 

“Okay, boss.” He took Vanessa’s arm himself. But she turned back. Her mascara was smeared. All he could think of was how ugly it made her.

 

“Nick, I—I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell and say those things. I would never do…I just feel crazy. You blew me off, and then I saw that picture of you and…and I just went crazy.”

 

Crazy, stupid, not much of a difference where women were concerned, he thought. He had seen too much of the damage created by women who’d been scorned, or who’d simply thought they’d been, to be surprised by their capacity for colossal stupidity, but he would never understand it.

 

“Go. Go home. I’ll see to it your phone is replaced. But if I see you again, or if you cause me any kind of a ripple, you will have much bigger concerns than a broken phone.”

 

She nodded, and Sam pulled her forward. As they went, she looked back again. “Nick—I love you, baby.”

 

He fucking hated to be called ‘baby.’ He closed his door.

 

He’d thought maybe he’d gotten clear of Vanessa without drama. Wrong. And Beverly had seen her. That bothered him a lot, but he wasn’t sure it should. He had decided to keep his distance. Maybe it was a good thing that she’d seen what she had.

 

Fuck. He needed a drink. It was still early afternoon, but his workday was, hopefully, done. Or, at least, he could handle the rest from home. He was still getting confirmation on the security for Jimmy’s funeral tomorrow. And he was waiting on some security footage from Neon. He expected to find that either Matty or Chi-Chi had done some extracurricular work Friday night.

 

One of his own crew, who’d worked with him for years. He really needed that damn drink.

 

He’d already changed into jeans and a t-shirt before Vanessa’s unannounced and ill-conceived visit. He’d have a drink and put ESPN on and pretend he was just a guy with the afternoon off.

 

Before he’d gotten to the kitchen for his scotch, there was a knock on his door. He went back and checked the peephole. Donnie, his baby face twisted with worry. He opened the door.

 

“Problem?”

 

“Yeah…uh. Boss, it’s Bev. She’s in there crying. It’s been going on a while.”

 

Nick sighed. Today was his day to deal with women’s drama, apparently. “Did you check on her?”

 

“I knocked, but she won’t let me in.”

 

“So unlock her door.”

 

“She has the keys. She snatched them from me when I let her in.”

 

“Shit, Donnie. How can you take care of somebody if you can’t get to her?”

 

“I don’t know! Boss, I’m sorry. I’ve never done this before, guarding somebody.”

 

Nick knew that. They were strapped for security, with Jimmy down, and the three made guards who’d died at his father’s funeral. With the increased need for coverage after the bombing, they’d pulled several made soldiers up for guard detail. Guarding wasn’t difficult for a man with an instinct for it. Bev and Donnie had gotten along well, so, with no better options, he’d put Donnie on as her main guard. But clearly he had little instinct for the work.

 

“Fuck. Okay.” He closed his door. The elevator opened, and Sam stepped out. Nick threw out a quick, “Going down the hall,” and then did so.

 

He tried her knob and found it locked, as advertised. He knocked. No answer. “Beverly.” He knocked again. Nothing. “Beverly, if I need to shoot the lock off, I will. That will be loud and will draw a lot of attention I don’t need. But I’ll do it. Open the door.”

 

The chain rattled, the deadbolt turned, and then the knob lock. She’d really wanted to be alone. The door opened. And Nick had an immediate urge to cup her face with his hand. She looked so damn sad. All clouds and grey skies.

 

Vanessa’s tears had made her ugly, turning her heavy makeup into rivers of black and gold. Beverly’s tears made her sweet. Even the mascara smudges.

 

“What.” It didn’t have the energy of a question. It was just a word.

He stepped in, making her walk backward, and closed her door, leaving Donnie outside. The apartment had a strong, earthy scent he couldn’t place. Not unpleasant. Exotic. “What’s wrong,bella?”

 

“Don’t. Just don’t.”

 

“Is this about Vanessa?”

 

“Is that her name? And no. I just had a crappy day. I’m fine, and I want to be alone.”

 

He caught her right hand and turned it up, showing the inside of her wrist. “I thought your problems were the weight of a feather.” Allowing himself the luxury of impulse, he lifted her arm to his mouth and kissed her tattoo, feeling the raised skin of her scars against his lips.

 

Her eyes flared. “Why?” She pulled her hand, but he didn’t let it go.

 

“Why what?”

 

“Why be nice to me? Is it a game?”

 

“I don’t play games.”

 

“You don’t play games, and you don’t have regrets. Your life must be really simple, then.”

 

He chuckled. “No,bella. My life isn’t simple at all. Tell me what happened to make your day crappy.”

 

“Youhappened.” She pulled her hand again, and this time he let her have it.

 

“Please?”

 

She walked some distance away. “I worked a full shift, and now my ribs are killing me because I got caught up in somebody trying to bomb you. I have somebody following me around everywhere I go because the person who tried to bomb you now thinks you give a shit about me, and might hurt me because of it. My best friend was a total jerk to me because he thinks I’m—in his words—a stupid twat for liking you. And then I come home to find out that he’s totally right and you’re a liar anddohave a girlfriend. You’re right. It shouldn’t matter. I don’t, so you shouldn’t.”

 

“I do.” He went to her, turned her around to face him again.

 

“Do what? Have a girlfriend? Matter? Well, bully for you. Not to me.”

 

“I don’t think that’s true, or you wouldn’t be in here crying. But that’s not what I meant. I don’t have a girlfriend. You saw an uninvited and unwelcome guest. I do give a shit about you. You do matter.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I think it’s early to say. But I’m here, asking what’s wrong, because I care.”

 

She gave him a lengthy, sidelong look. “But there’s no Good Nick.”

 

“No,bella. There’s only me. If you want a good man, then you shouldn’t cry over me. I’m not a good man, not the way most people would define it. My life is dark and violent. So am I. But I told you that I’m good to people I care about. That was the truth. I treasure what’s mine.”

 

Something in his words had particular impact, because her expression and posture changed dramatically. Most of the clouds cleared away, though she eyed him with something like reluctance. Or trepidation.

 

“What are you saying?”

 

“I said what I meant, Beverly. What are you hearing?” She blushed bright red and looked down at the floor. He hooked a finger under her chin and made her face him. “Tell me.”

 

Lifting her head free of his hand, she huffed. “Oh, what the hell. That you want to be with me. Is that what you’re saying?”

 

It was. He did. Whatever that meant. What he felt about Beverly was different from what he’d felt about Vanessa—or any of his othercomares. They had been amusing distractions, ornaments, a required part of his capo package. He’d enjoyed lavishing gifts on them, he’d enjoyed the handsomeness of the couple he made with them, he’d enjoyed fucking them.

 

He could see enjoying all of that with Beverly, too. But there was something else underpinning the usual veneer. He was interested inher. In her history, in the way she saw the world. In the heart that she simply held out to people with faith that they would be gentle, even as she feared they would not.

 

“Yes,bella. That’s what I’m saying.”

 

“Oh, shit.” She stepped to him and leaned her forehead on his chest. “Oh, shit. Oh, shit.”

 

Feeling a pull in his chest at the light pressure of her head on him, Nick fed his fingers into her soft hair. Holding her head, he lifted her away. Her expression was completely open, that 3D movie playing in her blue eyes. Staring down into them, he saw faith and trust. And fear.

 

He kissed her. Unlike the last time, now she responded immediately, opening her mouth, drawing his tongue in and sucking on it. Surprised and captivated by such unexpected boldness, and feeling the rhythmic pulse of her mouth straight down to his cock, he let go of her head and wrapped his arms around her body. For the first time, he had her fully in his arms, and she felt divine.

 

And then she went stiff. Her mouth stopped and released his tongue. She wasn’t breathing. With a rush, he remembered her ribs and let her go.

 

“I’m hurting you.”

 

She took a halting breath. “It’s okay. I don’t want to stop.” When she stepped up and reached her arms to his shoulders, she winced and tried to recover before he could see, but seeing was part of who he was. He pulled her arms from his neck.

 

“No. We’ll wait until you’re healed.”

 

“Nick…” She made a face like a pout, and he laughed. At the sound of it, her bright smile filled her face with sunshine again.

 

“We’ll wait until you’re healed.” He brushed his thumb over the healing scrape on her cheekbone. “I’m not gentle, Beverly. I want you healed first.”

 

Her eyes widened and her pupils went fully open. He knew if he put his hand between her legs, she’d be hot and wet. It took immense self-control not to do exactly that. Instead, he took her hand. “You said you were hurting already. Do you need your pills?”

 

With a little shake of her head, she found her equilibrium. “Probably. But they knock me out. If you’re going to be here, I don’t want to go to sleep.”

 

He led her to her sofa and sat her down. “I have work to do, so I can’t stay all day. But take your pills, and I’ll stay with you until you fall asleep. You can tell me about your shitty day.” He wanted to know more about her fight with Chris—he was getting a sense that there was a problem there that needed solving.

 

He went into the kitchen, where he’d seen her pills. He got her a glass of water and then opened the bottle. Before he shook a dose out, he checked the contents, estimating that she’d only had four doses up to this point.

 

After he handed her the pills and the water and she took them, he lifted her legs and turned her to lie on the sofa with her legs over him. He tried to think if he’d ever done something like that before. He didn’t think so. He’d had quiet nights in with women, watching television, and he’d put his arm around them and held them close, or swung them around for a fuck. But what he was doing now was something new.

 

“What happened with Chris,bella?” His hand moved in circles over her thighs; he could feel her heat.

 

She arranged a pillow under her head, comfortable and content with their position. “I don’t want to talk about him. Why do you call mebella?”

 

“It means beautiful. You are.” She blushed; it made him smile.

 

Then she asked, “Do you speak Italian?”

 

“A little. Mostly sweet nothings and threats.” With a chuckle, he added, “Whispers, both.”

 

“Can you say, ‘I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse’ in Italian?”

 

He cocked an eyebrow at her. “What I do isn’t a joke, Beverly.”


Page 14

 

“I know. Trust me, I know.” She didn’t know half what she thought she did, but he didn’t intend that she ever would. He was about to bring their talk back to Chris, when she grinned brightly. “But you know, don’t you?”

 

“Yeah, I know.”

 

“C’mon. Please?”

 

He sighed and rolled his eyes. “Gli farò un’offerta che non potrà rifiutare.”

 

“God, that’s really hot,” her voice was low, her eyelids heavy with desire. “Say more. Say something sweet.”

 

She was completely open and trusting with him again, the fear gone from her lidded eyes. He felt the satisfaction of it like heat low in his gut, making his cock swollen and stiff. “Dolcemeans ‘sweet.’Dolcezzais something like ‘sweetheart.’” Feeling her arousal radiating from her, he shifted and leaned over, careful to keep his weight from her. The movement put her thigh hard against his erection, and he groaned. “Carais ‘dear.’Tesoromeans ‘treasure.’ My mother called my fathertesoro mio—‘my treasure.’”

 

At the memory his words evoked, and the seism of grief that followed on the memory, Nick closed his eyes. He felt Beverly’s hand brush his cheek, and then the backs of her fingers passed slowly, softly over his mouth. He opened his eyes again and kissed her fingers. “My Aunt Angie calls mecarino, which is like ‘cutie.’

 

A sweet, surprised laugh burst from Beverly’s lips. “‘Cutie’? Does she know you?”

 

Catching her laugh with one of his own, he nodded. “Since I was a little cutie, yes. She has a long memory. My Aunt Teresa called me and all her boyscucciolo—‘puppy.’” He slid his hand under her top and caressed the bare skin of her side and belly, warm and soft, trembling under his fingers. “Sei bella,” he murmured, “Ti desidero.Ti penso sempre.”

 

“Oh, shit,” she whispered as his mouth claimed hers.

 

He hadn’t meant to be anything more than soothing to her, to stoke the fire of her trust, but now that wasn’t enough. He wanted her on fire in every way. Still, he held back, kept the touch of his lips and his fingers light. He wouldn’t fuck her tonight, nor until she was without pain.

 

He’d been serious when he told her he wasn’t gentle. Gentle sex did little for him. Every other facet of his life required his complete control over his body and mind. In sex, he wanted unguarded, feral passion.

 

He could tell in the way she responded to him, moving much more than he was, moaning and whimpering with every brush of his fingers or sweep of his tongue, that she would be a fiery bedmate. He didn’t want to compromise that experience by rushing her.

 

That, however, didn’t mean he couldn’t get her off, see a preview show. He pushed his hand into her pants, between her legs. Just a narrow swath of soft, short hair brushed his fingers, then his palm. Oh, yes—she was slick and hot, and she arched her neck back as his fingers slid over her clit and back again.

 

“Oh, God! Wait—let’s go to bed!”

 

As he answered her, he pushed his fingers through her folds and into her. “No,bella. We’re not fucking now. But I want to see you come. I want to have you on my hands when I go back to my apartment. I want to be able to smell you, taste you, when I think about you.Ti penso sempre.” He curled his fingers inside her, and she took a deep, audible breath. It cut off abruptly at the end, and she cried out in pain rather than pleasure. He slowed, but he didn’t stop.

 

“Open your eyes, Beverly. Look at me. Take it slowly. I don’t want you hurt.” She opened her eyes and locked those blues on him. “Good. Just be easy and feel me.”

 

When she calmed, he kissed her again, moving his fingers and his tongue in time with each other, exploring the deepest, dearest parts of her, learning what she responded most to. He waited until he felt her breathing pick up again, her hands clenching and unclenching on his shirt. Then he pulled back again to watch her. Her eyes opened a little, half mast at best, and he knew the pain pills were at nearly full force, even as her body writhed under him, around his hand. She wouldn’t be awake long after he made her come—the combined effects of the Percocet and the serotonin would put her right out.

 

But the Percocet would blunt her pain, too, and he could work with that. He nipped at her lips, bringing a smile to them.

 

“I thought you weren’t gentle,” she whispered.

 

“I’m not.” He slid his free hand under her back, holding her tightly to him, and then he fucked her hard with his hand, using the knowledge of her body he’d gleaned as he’d kept her quiet and brought her slowly up.

 

Her eyes flew wide open, and her hands clawed into his shoulders. She came instantly, violently, loudly, keening as her body bucked under his. He held her, clamped to him, preventing her from doing more damage to her ribs. Finally, she went rigid for the space of a few heartbeats and then relaxed completely into his arms.

 

Lord, she was glorious. His hand was hot and soaking wet as he pulled away and straightened her clothes. Again he kissed her, and this time she barely responded. She was falling asleep already.

 

“That was amazing,” she muttered, her eyes closed and her lips barely forming the words.

 

“Sleep now. I’ll put you to bed.”

 

She woke a little. “No, I’m good here. This is just a nap. The day is young.” He stood, and she settled in. “Just a nap.”

 

There was a fluffy pink throw over a nearby chair. Pink. He laughed. The room shouted feminine good cheer—and it seemed to be contagious, a little. Nick covered her with the throw.

 

“You are Good Nick,” she muttered as she snuggled under the fluff.

 

“No,bella, I’m not.”

 

If he were good, he wouldn’t let someone so light get pulled into his darkness. But he was not good.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

Nick closed the last Velcro tab on the Kevlar vest and started buttoning his shirt over it. At his side, Matty and Chi-Chi checked the loads on an array of weapons: AR15 assault rifles. A trove of shotguns, ranging from military-grade Remington 870s to old-school, sawed-off Mossbergs. And a dozen or so handguns.

 

His shirt closed and tucked in, Nick tied his tie. Brian came up behind him, holding his suit jacket out. Nick slid his arms in and shrugged it over his shoulders. “Thanks, man.”

 

Brian nodded, and their eyes met and locked for a second deep in meaning. Nick nodded. There was tension in the room, and Nick turned and scanned the men assembled. Pagano Brothers men, all of them. All but one.

 

For this offensive, size mattered, so all three capos and their main crews were here. They would be joining with similar groups from the other Council families. Ben, too old and important for work like this, had stayed behind. There had been argument that Nick himself was too important for this work, but an authoritative presence was key—and anything related to Church was his. The argument had been halfhearted and easily dismissed. He was in Kevlar, his one concession. He hated the vest—it weighed him down and got in his way—but he would likely be their enemies’ primary target, and so, never reckless, he’d conceded.

 

He was glad to have Brian at his side, worried as he was about his fitness. But his friend had insisted that he was solid and even demonstrated as much at the gym the previous afternoon. His back was still mottled with burn damage and likely to scar, but his shoulder had healed sufficiently well for motion and strength. And he had insisted he not be left behind, especially with a rat in their midst.

 

Nick had a file in his head of images he called up when he needed a certain mindset—the mindset that allowed him to do the darkest things he needed to do and still keep hold of his soul. Since Church had started barking, that file had filled out considerably. A row of bodies, dead or grievously injured, including his cousins, Luca and John, and Luca’s girl, trussed up and laid out in front of the warehouse. The crisped remains of an innocent man, bound to a steel beam in a burned-out construction site. Jimmy’s shod foot, alone on a Providence street. His pregnant cousin, Carmen, lying bleeding against a gravestone.

 

What remained of his father’s head, lying on a white satin pillow in his casket—that image he was saving for a particular occasion. His mother, curled on the floor of her bedroom the night after the funeral, weeping inconsolably.

 

His friend and trusted associate, Luciano “Chi-Chi” Rinaldi, in the parking garage at Neon, relieving Jimmy for a piss, looking around anxiously, and then opening the front passenger door. Right there on the security footage. The Feds were on him, too, though Ben and Nick had paid heavily to slow them down. This was Nick’s to handle.

 

Chi-Chi checked the last load and then turned to Nick. “We look good, boss. I think we’re good to go.”

 

Nick holstered his Beretta. He had another, smaller Sig under his right arm. He’d go in with his holstered handguns and his father’s stiletto in his pocket, and with an AR15 on his shoulder. If he needed more, he’d trust Brian to get it to him. The fight would be loud and bloody. Neither the Zapata cartel nor Jackie Stone was known for levelheadedness. They liked things big and messy. Winning this big and messy fight would, Nick and Ben both believed, give the Paganos and all the families their best opportunity to change the battleground and the whole war and frame it on their terms.

 

If they were wrong, they could well have trouble with the Council, but Nick thought his uncle had been right. Turning back the Zapatas and their drugs would cripple Alvin Church.

 

Having a rat had turned out to be the pivot of the plan. Once Nick had confirmation that Chi-Chi had flipped for Church, he had exploited that link. Jackie Stone was expecting a different kind of trouble.

 

And now it was time to catch the rat. But Nick needed to know if Matty was in on Chi-Chi’s side gig at all.

 

“Change of plan.” Besides Ben and the capos, only Brian knew that the plan had been a decoy. Nick scanned the other men’s reactions. Interest, concern, some disquiet—all reasonable for a last-minute game change. Matty’s reaction was similar. But Chi-Chi flinched hard. And he was the first to speak.

 

“What? That wise, boss? So late?” Reading body language was important in Nick’s line of work, and Chi-Chi’s body was an encyclopedia of anxiety. Nick knew then that Chi-Chi’s betrayal extended beyond the bomb. He’d informed Church, or Stone, about today’s events, too.

 

Even Matty noticed, scowling at his friend’s challenge. A soldier questioning the boss, crew or not, friend or not, in front of most of the organization—that was a dangerous move in itself.

 

“Take him.”

 

At Nick’s short sentence, Brian went immediately and clocked Chi-Chi with the butt of a Mossberg. Chi-Chi went down, dazed but conscious. Matty had been momentarily stunned by the turn of events, but now he helped Brian bind and gag Chi-Chi. Once the daze wore off, Chi-Chi struggled mightily, but then other soldiers came in on the assist, without question.

 

When he was subdued and thoroughly restrained, Nick squatted at his side. “Security cameras in the parking garage.” Chi-Chi stopped struggling completely at Nick’s words. “You’re not a smart guy, Chi. What you had going for you was loyalty. Now you better hope you know something helpful.”

 

Nick stood and looked at Matty, who was obviously stunned but still in. Good—at least the betrayal had not spread beyond one stupid guido. “Hood him and box him. I’ll deal with him after.”

 

Matty nodded, and Danny, one of Dom’s crew, helped him drag Chi-Chi away. No one spoke until they were back. When they were, Nick said to the men assembled, “There is no reward in treason. But there is retribution. Remember that. If you need a clearer lesson, then come to the docks tonight and see the retribution in its full flower.” He gave that a beat to sink in, and then said, “Now. The real plan.” And he explained it.

 

 

~oOo~

 


Page 15

 

The real plan was half as complicated as the decoy plan and twice as dangerous. But the families had the edge, since their enemies were expecting a different target approached at a different time. Instead of going for Stone after the exchange, they were going for the cartelandStone in the middle. Twice the enemies, twice the risk, twice the result.

 

So when forty-three Italians from five different families converged on a gutted elementary school in a derelict rural area outside of Danbury, Connecticut, the thirty-plus members of the Zapata cartel and Jackie Stone’s crew assembled there were taken unawares.

 

Their assault had two prongs—stealth from the perimeter and straight in from the front. The frontal assault, as planned, caught the Zapatas attention first, giving the men on the perimeter another edge.

 

Nick was not reckless, but neither was he one to hang back and let men with less power and more to lose take his risk. Moreover, he wanted to make it clear that the cartel was not facing a bunch of guineas with little brains and big guns. He led the frontal push, Brian at his side—and Vio Marconi, Enzo’s son and underboss, at his other side.

 

They drove in in three armored SUVs and piled out, using the trucks for cover. The men inside the school came roaring out of the front doors of the old school in a wave, their fully automatic rifles filling the air with metallic thunder.

 

The goal was to keep Jackie Stone and Emilio Zapata, the most important targets, alive in this storm of bullets. Stone for information, Zapata for a message.

 

The next minutes were a chaos of bullets and bodies. Nick kept his field of vision simultaneously narrow and wide, getting good focus on targets before him and keeping his periphery open to prevent being blindsided. It required a depth of cognition and perception far beyond that which most people needed, and it took a massive amount of energy to maintain.

 

The AR15 magazine went dry as Nick brought a Colombian down, and he caught movement to his right. He dropped the AR and pulled his Beretta from its holster as he turned. He fired as soon as he sighted on one of Stone’s men.

 

“Nick!” He heard Brian’s voice from behind him and wheeled around to see his friend sailing at him, his empty arms outstretched. Where was his weapon? In the thick of the gunfire, one shot sounded out somehow more loudly than any other. Time seemed to slow to a crawl, and Nick would be sure for the rest of his life that he saw every drop of blood spray that left the back of Brian’s neck in an arcing plume.

 

His friend hit him full force, blood leaving his neck in great gouts, and knocked Nick flat, sending all the air from his lungs in a rush. The Zapata who’d fired came forward to see what damage he’d wrought, and Nick raised his Beretta and shot without aiming. When the man dropped, Nick rolled, putting Brian on his back.

 

“Brian! Fuck, you stupid son of a bitch!”

 

He was alive, but his spine was exposed, nerves showing like so much capellini, and his mouth was full of blood. He died with his eyes open, but without seeing Nick leaning over him, shouting at his stupid, brave, loyal face.

 

Nick sensed someone coming from his left and raised his gun, taking a scant moment to aim before he fired. And then he stood and got back to the business of taking these fuckers down.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

When it was over, only the Council was left standing. With three key exceptions, all of Stone’s men, and all of the Zapatas, were dead—killed either in the fight or after it. Ten Council men were dead, including Brian and four other Pagano men. Vio Marconi was badly injured, shot in the shoulder, but he was on his feet and barking orders to his men to start rounding up the bodies. Arrangements had already been made for a mass burial; everyone had expected blood.

 

Nick went back to Brian’s body and waved away the Marconi men who’d come to carry him to lie with the other Council dead. But when he squatted down to lift his friend himself, Dom Addario grabbed his shoulder.

 

“No, boss. We got him. You have work to do.”

 

He was right. Nick nodded and turned toward the school. Vio walked in with him, holding a cloth to his shoulder.

 

“They’re set up as planned. This is your play, Nick. I’ll back you.”

 

Too focused for words, Nick again only nodded. He straightened his tie and suit jacket, feeling Brian’s blood wetting his hands.

 

Bound and gagged, lying on the ground in the rubble of the cannibalized old school gymnasium, Emilio Zapata, Jaime Rojas, and Jackie Stone awaited their fate.

 

Rojas and Zapata bore the signs of struggle. They had been in the fight. Stone, though, had tried to flee, leaving his men behind. He’d been caught and dragged back. Other than the heavy sweat of fear that drenched his shirt, he looked nearly clean enough for Sunday church.

 

Nick moved to the center of the room and then nodded at Matty, who was solid, though obviously exhausted and freaked by the various events of the day so far, and what he knew was yet to come. Matty went immediately to Zapata and pulled him up to a seated position and removed his gag.

 

Nick squatted at his feet. “I am Nicolo Pagano, underboss of the Pagano Brothers of Rhode Island. Behind me is Silvio Marconi, underboss of the Marconi Family of Connecticut. We have representatives here today from all the families of New England. We are allied. We are in accord. And we are resolute. New England is our neighborhood—our turf. There is no corner in our neighborhood for Colombian drugs.”

 

Zapata, calm, said nothing. Nick respected that—there was nothing, at this point, for the man to say. He knew that Nick had not laid his cards down yet.

 

He turned and waved Sal DiNapoli forward, and he came, bringing a large, army-green duffel. Stone made a ruckus behind his duct-taped mouth. Nick ignored him.

 

“This is the cash Stone was meant to give you. One-point-five million dollars. And we have control of the drugs, as well. Here are the terms. You may take your drugs, and Stone’s cash”—again, Stone yelled, and Nick looked up at Matty, who knocked him out with the butt of a shotgun. What Nick needed from Stone came later. He would have liked to make him watch the rest of this exchange, but he could fill him in on the docks.

 

“You may take Stone’s cash. We want no proceeds from this business. But you sell your wares elsewhere, and you recognize that New England is sealed. We left Jaime here alive because we know he is your son-in-law and dear to you. Consider him, and the money, our good-faith gesture.” He stood. “There will not be another.”

 

Now Zapata spoke, his voice showing no signs of distress and very little accent. “And if I tell you no?”

 

“Then we keep the money, destroy the drugs, and send another kind of message to your brother Ramon. And your journey ends here on this floor. Several difficult hours from now.”

 

“Do you honestly think that you can keep us out of all New England? Are you some kind of crusader?”

 

Nick squatted down again. “No, Emilio. I am a businessman, like you. We run a different kind of business and show our power in a different way. Your drugs get in our way. Think of it this way: with this money”—he patted the duffel—“and your life, we are buying out New England from your conglomerate. I honestly don’t give a fuck where else you sell. Have the rest of the country—the rest of the world. But New England is ours.”

 

He stayed down, nearly eye-level with Zapata, and waited. The seconds passed. And then, Emilio Zapata nodded.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

Back in Providence several hours later, Nick stood in the middle of an empty Pagano Brothers Shipping bay. Jackie Stone hung from the ceiling by a heavy hook on a winch line. Chi-Chi Rinaldi was still in his box.

 

The box was an old, military-regulation footlocker, about four feet by two feet by two feet. Chi-Chi was five-ten. He’d been in there, bound and hooded, for about eight hours. That itself was medieval-level torture. If he was still alive when Nick was ready, then he had an even worse fate waiting for him. Nick had no need to interrogate his former soldier. He had Jackie Stone for that.

 

He’d been working on Stone for about an hour. He had broken after about twenty minutes, but most of what he’d offered was background and names. Getting details about Church specifically or his future plans was proving more difficult. Stone had run at the fight; it wasn’t toughness giving him the strength to hold out. It was fear.

 

Nick had not yet decided whether he would end him or set him free. But Stone was flagging hard after an hour of Nick’s attention, and it was time to make the decision.

 

There were benefits and challenges to either approach: end him, and, with the dozen or so men he lost today, his entire enterprise would go down in flames, closing off a major supplier to Church—a supplier of more than drugs. That hurt would hamstring Church. But Stone was Church’s friend and close ally. Ending him could galvanize an already fractious opponent. If Church could pin it on the Paganos.

 

Letting him go, but turning him—if he could be reliably turned—could give them information and opportunities to do further damage.

 

As Chi-Chi had done.

 

Nick made up his mind. “To be clear, Jackie, the choice you’re making here is whether to die now, quickly, or much later, slowly.” He put the gouge on the absorbent pad next to his kit. The key to this work was developing ways to prolong and intensify pain without doing mortal damage. You wanted blood, but not too much. You wanted to avoid internal damage as long as possible. Some men who did this work preferred big tools and big damage and would cauterize as they went, causing more pain and staving off mortal blood loss. But that approach risked sending the subject into shock, and it was difficult to pull a body back from that.

 

Sculpting gouges were among his preferred tools—they were precise instruments, small and sharp. They cleanly sliced skin away in long lengths without exposing organs and overly weakening the body. The pain they left behind was extreme, however. A little salt or hot sauce in the wounds made it worse. Stone’s bare chest, belly, and thighs were crisscrossed with seasoned gouge wounds. He was also missing eight teeth and all of his fingernails.

 

But he was flagging more quickly than Nick would have expected, and it was shock they were trying to hold back now. Nick wondered whether Stone had heart problems.

 

Through his bloody, swollen mouth, Stone whined, “I don’t know what more you want from me.”

 

“You do. As close as you are to Church, I don’t believe you know so little about him.” He lifted the tray out of his kit and took one of his larger tools—a set of blacksmithing tongs that he’d had modified. “Get his shorts off.” Matty did, and Nick walked up and snapped the tongs a few inches from Stone’s flaccid dick. “Back in the Spanish Inquisition, the priests used breast rippers on female heretics. Nasty things—did just what the name says. I made myself a junk ripper.”

 

Stone hadn’t wet himself until now, but now he very much did, and Nick stepped back out of the splash zone.

 

“The Armani is ruined, but I’m hoping the Bruno Maglis make it through the day, Jackie. C’mon.”

 

“You guinea fag.”

 

Nick grinned and grabbed hold of Stone’s junk with the tongs. Stone screamed as the claws dug into the meat around his trio—dug in, but did not yet break skin. “Not smart to insult your host, Jackie. Not smart at all. Last chance here, or I give this a good, hard tug, and you bleed out hanging from a hook, with your jewels on the floor. It’s slow going, trust me. I’ve seen.” For emphasis, he squeezed the tongs a fraction more, and Stone’s eyes bugged out.

 

“New York! He’ll turn to New York!”

 

He eased off the tongs. “Explain.”

 

“Alvin’s been talking to some Puerto Rican in New York. Ortega. He doesn’t like spics, that’s why I was on point with Zapata. He’s just been toying with this guy. But Ortega has cartel connections. You cut him off in New England, so he’ll go to Ortega. Get to Ortega and it’ll cripple Church and everybody connected to him. That’s the head of the snake. Now, Lord Almighty, kill me. Please.”

 

Nick removed the tongs. “Thank you, Jackie. You’ve been a great help.” He nodded at J.J., who’d been watching the whole scene with silent, rapt attention. “You take the kill, J.J. Make it clean.”


Page 16

 

J.J. nodded. One of his crew dropped the winch until Stone’s feet were on the floor, and then J.J. put a bullet in the back of his head.

 

Nick went to a sink against one wall and washed his hands. “Matty—open the box, see if he’s alive.”

 

Matty opened the foot locker and pulled off Chi-Chi’s hood. “Yeah, boss. Conscious, even.”

 

Drying his hands with a couple of paper towels, Nick went over to the box. From his tightly folded, excruciating position, Chi-Chi made a silent plea with his eyes. Nick shook his head. “You got Jimmy killed. You got Brian hurt.” At the name, thoughts he’d shoved out of his way crowded in, and Nick paused. “You tried to set us up. If I thought you had anything to do with my father”—Chi-Chi’s eyes went wide and he tried to shake his head—“I know you didn’t. Stone told us when you turned. Stone told us everything we need. So I need only one thing from you. A suffering death.”

 

He nodded, and Matty closed the lid, dampening Chi-Chi’s already muffled screams. “Chain it up. And wrap up Stone. Time for a boat ride.”

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

Nick, Matty, J.J., and Sam took Nick’s cruiser far out into the ocean and sent Stone’s naked, weighted dead body overboard. Then the chained box containing the living traitor went over. Nick stood in the moonlight and watched the swirling, bubbling ocean take down yet another batch of secrets, more fodder for the beasts.

 

Most of his time on the ocean was spent at night, far out, when it was a vast, silent, black void that went on forever in all directions. Nick stared and stared, feeling the old sense of kinship.

 

“Boss?” Matty’s voice was quiet, hesitant.

 

Nick looked over his shoulder. “Yeah. Let’s go.”

 

They headed back for Quiet Cove Harbor. Home. His work tonight was not yet done. He had falsified death records to arrange. And Brian’s mother to inform and console.

 

And, when he could allow himself the luxury, his best friend to mourn.

~ 10 ~

 

 

Beverly woke and opened her eyes. Her bedroom was still dark, so without even bothering to look at her clock, she rolled to her other side—easing herself over in a careful move that had become habit since she’d been hurt and was now, ten days after the bombing, more the need of habit than anything else. She’d been feeling a lot better.

 

And then she yelped and jumped back, pulling her ribs enough to remind her that, while she felt better, she was not entirely healed.

 

Nick was sitting on the side of her bed, staring at her. He was shirtless—no, he was naked.

 

In the five days since he’d told her he wanted to be with her, he’d seen her for at least a couple of hours every day, except the day that had just passed, but they had not been intimate at all. Nothing more than kissing. He was a brilliant kisser, controlling but not overwhelming, rough but not brutal. But he’d insisted that he wanted her healed before they did more, and no matter how she’d cajoled, he wouldn’t go even so far as he had that first afternoon. Which was, even though it had been only high-school-level friskiness, way up on her list of hottest things ever. She was going crazy trying to get into this man’s pants.

 

And here he was, in the middle of the night, sitting naked on the side of her bed.

 

God, if this was a dream, she did not want to wake up.

 

“Nick?”

 

He said nothing. For another few seconds, he stared, and then he leaned over, tugging the covers out of her hand and throwing them away. Then he kissed her, his mouth crashing down and his hand twisting into her hair, clutching and pulling. The kiss was overwhelming and brutal, and it took her breath away.

 

Ignoring the pull and pinch in her chest, Bev wrapped her arms around him, feeding her hands into his short, dark hair as she tried to keep up with demands of his mouth, tongue, teeth. His hair was wet, and then she realized that he smelled strongly of soap and shampoo. He’d come to her straight from a shower. Fleetingly, she wondered if something had happened during the day. He’d told her that the day was important and that he would be away—had something gone wrong? But then his hand was out of her hair and moving down to grip her thigh, roughly pulling her legs apart, and she stopped wondering. All she could do was marvel.

 

She wore a nightgown—nothing fancy, just a little pink cotton thing with spaghetti straps and a big sunflower on the front—and as he moved between her legs, he grabbed a handful of the cotton and yanked it up, baring her breasts and all the rest of her. She didn’t wear underwear to bed.

 

His hand went first to her breast, andsweet Jesus, he felt good. She remembered the night of the bomb, when he’d helped her undress. She’d felt the weight of his gaze on her like a touch. A few days later, in her kitchen, he’d plucked hard at her nipple through her clothes. Those had been intensely erotic experiences. But this, his large, hot hand on her bare skin, his palm, and then his thumb, massaging her sensitive, zinging nipple until it was a nearly painfully hard knot of pleasure—nothing compared to it.

 

It was so much more than her breast, too. His long, fantastic, fully naked body was on hers, and he was not still. She could feel the muscles of his thighs flexing between hers as he drove his hips against her, keeping time with his mouth and hand. She could feel his hard length digging into her stomach. In all of it, she could feel his need, strongest of all. This strong, intense man, so dangerous, so full of controlled power, was nearly desperate in his need. Of her. Her clear sense of that truth was the most erotic, overwhelming part of this erotic, overwhelming occurrence. He needed her.

 

Moaning, she flexed her hips hard, driving herself up against him, trying to let him know, in this silence he clearly needed, that she was in, that she was his, that he could have her, take her, take what he needed. When she did, he grunted and tore his mouth from hers.

 

And then, staring down at her, he shifted, releasing her breast, reaching down and hooking her leg over his arm, dragging it up high, high enough that her thigh, ten days without yoga or much exercise at all, complained a little. Bev didn’t care. It could join the complaints of her ribs; she was ignoring it all in favor of the other, beautiful feelings filling her. He shifted again and pushed into her with impatient force, still staring into her eyes, his tormented expression illuminated only by the pale light reaching them from the kitchen, where she kept the light over the range on at night.

 

Nick was big, bigger than she’d been prepared for, and the stretch and sting was at first intense. And then he thrust again, harder, grunting. And then he seemed to lose all control. With one arm around her leg and the other shoved under her back, he dropped his head to her shoulder and just fucked her, wildly, fiercely, rapidly. Punctuating every brutal thrust with a violent, growling grunt in her ear, he slammed into her again and again and again.

 

At first, Bev was afraid—it was far more intense than any sexual experience she’d ever had, and she could feel that it was more than physical need, somehow. There was something dark and dangerous in his wild abandon, something that she knew, that she could sense, transcended his assertion that he was not a gentle lover.

 

But her fear was quickly overtaken and silenced by her own need. He felt sogood. His body on hers, in hers, felt incredible; his need of her, wild and consuming, suffused every physical sensation with emotion and intensified it all. Soon she was grunting with him, bringing her free leg up and around his waist, closing her fists in his hair, biting down on his shoulder as the waves of ecstatic frenzy rose and rose inside her until they crashed, and she threw her head back and cried out.

 

His thrusts continued their frantic pace for long afterward, extending her release until her body was a quivering, over-stimulated, exhausted mass, and then his pace changed, became syncopated, and he went still, with one last, anguished grunt that went on and on.

 

All at once, he relaxed, his full weight coming down onto her for the first time. Her need sated, her release achieved—and his, too—the complaints of Bev’s still-healing body began to clamor. She withstood for as long as possible, loving and wanting this supreme closeness, but she couldn’t breathe, and the pain grew until she thought she’d cry.

 

“Nick,” she whispered, trying not to sound distressed. He didn’t respond. “Nick, my chest.”

 

Her words took a beat to sink in, but then he said, “Fuck,” and pulled away—and then all the way up, out of her, off the bed. He grabbed his track pants off the floor of her bedroom and pulled them on, then left the room completely.

 

Bev lay there, stunned. She watched, too shocked to feel anything else, as he walked down her short hallway to the living room. Expecting him to leave, she felt a surge of relief when he went to her sofa and sat down. Then he put his elbows on his knees and rested his head in his hands.

 

She sat up and watched him for a minute or two. He didn’t move. So she got up and went to him.

 

When she sat next to him, one leg tucked under so she could face him, he didn’t react. She scooted closer and kissed his shoulder. Keeping her voice calm and soft, feeling like she was trying to soothe a wild animal, she asked, “What’s wrong?”

 

He lifted his head and dropped his hands, letting them dangle between his thighs. But he didn’t look at her. “I’ll send someone to the drugstore when it opens.”

 

She hadn’t expected him to say anything like that. “What?”

 

He turned his head slightly, but still not enough to make eye contact. “I didn’t use a condom.”

 

“Oh!” She let that sink in some more. “Oh! No—it’s okay. I’m on the Pill. And I’m healthy. If you are, then it’s okay.” She had no concerns about his health. Maybe that was stupidly trusting, but she simply felt sure he was healthy.

 

Now he looked at her. “You didn’t think that was something I should know?”

 

“Well, yeah. Of course. But I don’t know…it’s a weird thing to just bring up out of the blue, you know? Usually I use condoms anyway until I’m serious with a guy. When I know it’s safe. But it’s okay—I’m not worried.” A tiny nit of worry goosed her then. “Should I be?”

 

The corner of his mouth lifted in a barely-smile. “No.” Now that his eyes were on her, he studied her, that small smile gone. “I’m sorry I hurt you.”

 

She smiled brightly, teasing, trying to lighten his mood a little. “I thought you didn’t have regrets.”

 

His only answer was a short, audible exhale, the stunted syllable of a mirthless laugh.

 

She kissed his shoulder again. “That was the best sex I’ve ever had in my life. My ribs happily suffered a moment’s discomfort for it. But something’s wrong, Nick. Will you tell me? Can you?”

 

He pushed his hand into her hair, cradling the side of her head. His eyes, once they’d met hers, had not left. “Brian died today.”

 

“Oh, no. Oh, my God.” He hadn’t told her much about his life yet, but he’d talked about Brian several times. She’d met him at Neon, of course. He had saved her and Nick both that night. He was Nick’s best friend. “I’m so sorry.”

 

She rose onto her knees on the sofa and encircled him in her arms, his head tucked to her chest. He resisted at first, holding his body rigid, and then he gave in, resting against her, but only lightly, his hands going around her waist. They sat like that, silently, for a long time. Bev felt even closer to Nick like this, giving him comfort, than she had earlier, in her bed, though she understood that she’d been giving him comfort then, too.

 

She knew not to ask what had happened; he would tell her if he wanted to, and she had no need to know. In the time she’d known more than simply his name and face, two people close to him had died. Maybe more than that, for all she knew. She and he had almost been killed by a bomb. In the time she’d known Nick Pagano even existed, others had been killed, including his father. That story, and the events at his funeral, had made the news. She’d been online, too, in the past week and a half, and she had a fuller understanding of Nick’s own reputation.

 

He had not exaggerated when he’d told her that he and his life were dark and violent.

 

Chris was right: she was making a dangerous choice. Maybe even a foolhardy choice. But it didn’t matter. If this was the latest incarnation of her bad-boy fetish, then so be it. But she didn’t think it was that. She’d seen his eyes when he’d told her that he treasured what was his. Nick was usually inscrutable, his face a dark mask, but that day, when he’d come in to know why she’d been crying, she’d seen past his controlled exterior, and she had seen his regard for her. Since that day, he had been more open to her. She knew it; she trusted in it. He was dangerous, but not to her.

 

She kissed his still-damp head and dropped a hand to his back, rubbing over that broad expanse of muscle and skin. And that amazing tattoo. Sitting back on her heels, she kissed the top of one wing. “You have feathers, too.”

 

He chuckled a little. “Mine are a lot different from yours.”

 

Realizing that this was the first chance she’d ever had to get a really good look at his back, she turned a little to study the artwork.

 

His feathers really were a lot different from the light, downy puffs on her wrist. His made up enormous angel’s wings that seemed to have burst painfully from his shoulder blades. They arced over the curve of his shoulders and swept down his sides, trailing off below his waistband. The wings, the feathers, seemed to be made of steel and were inked with so much talent and precision they seemed to have actual weight.

 

The sword that spanned the length of his spine, from the grip, beginning at the base of his neck, to the point, again below his waistband, was intricately detailed. The metal seemed to be etched with ancient runes and symbols, and the grip was like carved, grained wood. The barbed wire that wound around it all made Bev ache a little in its brutality. And then she noticed that some of the barbs had been made to look as if they’d pierced his skin.

 

His ink was the opposite of hers in every way. Hers was meant to remind her of lightness and freedom. His was weight and pain.

 

She kissed the wing on his shoulder again. “What’s the story of your ink?”

 

He smiled a little at that and then reached across his body, took her hand from his shoulder, and held it. “What do you know about the archangels?”


Page 17

 

“Like, Michael and Gabriel and whoever?”

 

“Yeah. And whoever.” His smile widened to fullness.

 

She shrugged and then smiled, too, feeling a little sheepish. “Not much. Actually, most of what I know came fromSupernatural.”

 

“Supernatural?”

 

“The TV show. About monsters and demons and angels. The archangels are a thing.”

 

“Oh—is that the one about the gay guys who ride around in the vintage Impala?”

 

“Oh, my God! They’re not gay—they’re brothers!”

 

He chuckled. “Okay. Anyway, there are seven archangels. Catholics only recognize three: Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. But there are four more. One of them is Samael. All archangels are God’s warriors. They’re not gentle beings with harps—they’re violent and powerful. Samael walks the line between good and evil. He’s an angel of retribution and destruction. Of death. He’s God’s enforcer. He’s also known as the Prince of Demons.”

 

“Sounds like Sam and Dean got it right, then.”

 

His brows drew in at that, but Bev just shook her head and went on. “So, you have Samael’s wings and sword on your back?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Because you identify with him.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Wow.” It made sense, actually. But there was a lot of pain represented in that ink. “But you don’t rest easy with that.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“The way the wings are made to have torn through your skin, and the way the barbs are embedded. It all looks as painful as it is beautiful.”

 

He lifted her hand and kissed her palm. “Don’t romanticize me,bella. My soul isn’t tormented. I am at peace with who I am. I’m necessary. I’m important in my world. I do what others can’t or won’t, and I keep things in balance.”

 

He was speaking as if he’d already told her exactly what he did in his world, when in truth he had never said anything more than that he was dangerous. But, then, recalling his explanation of Samael, Bev realized that he had told her exactly what he did. The rumors she’d read were true. He was a killer. A torturer. That was his job.

 

That should matter, she knew. To normal people, that should matter greatly.

 

It didn’t.

 

“You’re tormented tonight.”

 

“Not because of what I do. Because of who I’ve lost. It’s been a hard few months. Brian was my best friend since I was seven.” He dropped his head and took a long, deep breath. Bev wondered if he ever allowed himself to be truly sad, if he ever cried.

 

“I’m sorry.” She cradled his head in her hands and kissed his forehead. “So sorry.”

 

There was nothing she could do to take that kind of pain away or even ease it at all. But she felt a potent emotional connection to him, knowing that he was showing her his pain, that he’d come to her, even the way that he had—especiallythe way that he had—that he had given her a kind of vulnerability that she already knew he did not offer lightly.

 

And there was one thing she could do. His head still cradled in her hands, she kissed his forehead again. And then his cheek. His jaw. His mouth. As she pushed her tongue between his lips, she scooted forward on her knees, pushing him back to lean against the back of the sofa. Then she straddled him. Still bare, and still sore and sensitive from earlier, she gasped at the feel of his cock growing hard under her.

 

His hands went under her nightgown, digging into the muscles over her hips. But he pulled his mouth away. “You’re hurt.”

 

She shook her head and pulled off her nightgown, then kissed him again. With her lips on his, she murmured, “Not like this.” And then she reached into his pants and pulled his cock free. God, it was big. She still hadn’t gotten a good look at it, but it had felt huge inside her, and now, with her hand around his girth, she had more evidence of his size. She rose up on her knees and settled down again, filling herself with him. He groaned, and his fingers dug in more deeply.

 

“Oh, God, you feel so good,” she whispered, biting at his lips.

 

He grabbed a handful of her hair and yanked her head back sharply, making her cry out—but not so far back that it tweaked her ribs. “Are you a talker,bella?”

 

“I don’t know. Sometimes. I just do what feels right.”

 

He grinned. She loved his smile so much—everything good in him shone out at her. “I like that,” he said, his voice low. “I like that a lot.”

 

A fist still tangled in her hair, he pulled her to the side, and his free hand cupped her breast. And then his mouth was on her, for the first time, sucking, nipping, drawing her nipple between his teeth, flicking his tongue back and forth until she was moaning again, unable to keep her hips still.

 

He released her breast and eased his hold in her hair. “Your body is so beautiful.Bellissima.”

 

She stilled and smiled at him, needing to challenge him. “I’m not built like the other women I’ve seen you with.”

 

“Don’t, Beverly.” His expression closed, and his tone was impatient. “Don’t do that thing that women do. I don’t respond well to that passive-aggressive bullshit. I gave you a compliment.”

 

“I wasn’t fishing for another compliment or throwing yours back.” She moved to get off of him, but he held her hips firmly in place. “I like the way I look. It took a lot of soul-searching to get to that place. I made an observation. Since I moved in, I’ve seen you with three different women. They all looked pretty much alike, Nick. The logical observation is that you have a type. And I don’t look like they do.”

 

He eased, and even smiled a little again. “Point taken. Youaredifferent. You’re unique among women I’ve known, inside and out. I love your body, especially now that my hands are full of you. You are visibly strong, and yet when I hold you, you…yield.” For emphasis, he squeezed his fingers into the muscle of her thighs. “That’s a potent feeling. Your breasts are supple and sweet, and you move in wonderful ways when I touch them.” His hands moved to her breasts, and his fingers pinched her nipples firmly, then twisted, and her entire body clenched into a knot of fierce, sudden pleasure.

 

As she clenched around him, he groaned. “I want to fuck you again, but I don’t want to hurt you again.”

 

“Let me fuck you, then.” She flexed her hips, drawing him back and forth inside her until they were both panting, and his hands came up to hold her face. He stared into her eyes, and Bev comprehended that he didn’t give up even that much control. So when he nodded, she knew what he was giving her. Another way he was opening himself to her.

 

Maybe it was his vulnerability and need on this night making him so open to her. Maybe he would regret it later. But he’d said he didn’t do things he regretted.

 

Either way, she knew at that moment beyond any doubt that her heart was his for the taking.

 

Feeling powerful and happy, she began to move in earnest, not bothering to draw it out, wanting his need and frenzy as quickly and intensely as she could get it. He made an indistinct, animal noise and then buried his face between her breasts, his hands clamping again onto her hips. She rocked and rolled, driving him into her over and over again, feeling him swell inside her as she felt his breath heaving on her.

 

Suddenly, one hand let go of her hip and smoothed over her ass. He pushed between her cheeks, and she felt his fingers playing behind her, tracing the ridged and unbelievably sensitive skin of her anus. No one had ever touched her there.

 

When she didn’t slow the pace of her hips, his hand moved farther and then returned, his fingers now wet with her juices. He didn’t look up from her chest, or ask, or even hesitate. And she didn’t try to stop him. Once he had made her moist, he pushed a finger inside her.

 

She gasped and sat upright, driving his finger deeper. “Oh, God! That’s…God!”

 

Then he looked into her eyes, his expression passionate and intent. “This is new to you.”

 

She nodded.

 

“Good. This is mine.”

 

An entirely new kind of pleasure radiated from that spot like tendrils of fire, and then he pushed a second finger in, and she was coming. She was coming so hard. Her hips moved faster and faster, chasing the end of the climax, and every flex drove his fingers in and out, in and out.

 

Sensation burst through her and she stilled, her hands clamped hard on his shoulders. As sensation receded and sense returned, she relaxed and let herself drop to his chest, ignoring the dogged complaints of her ribs. He was pulsing inside her, and she realized that he’d come, too. She’d been so wrapped up in her own pleasure, she hadn’t noticed.

 

She really had fucked him. The thought made her giggle, just quietly, to herself.

 

“Ah,bella,” he groaned, his voice like gravel, “You are a revelation.Sono abbagliato da te.”

 

She had no idea what that meant, but she didn’t care. It sounded beautiful, and she could hear in his voice that whatever it meant was beautiful, too.

 

~ 11 ~

 

 

 

Violence did not ordinarily consume Nick’s life, not on the current scale. The Pagano Brothers had not become so powerful and stable for more than half a century by participating in shootouts on a regular basis. In fact, for at least the past twenty years, the bulk of their enterprises had been legitimate. They were majority or substantial owners of an array of businesses, from nightclubs to hotels, restaurants to tourist cruise boats.

 

Even off the books, Ben and Lorrie had always run mainly higher-class operations. They lent money, they offered women. They had been involved in gambling until its legal options had expanded to the point that the profit in their enterprise had dried up. But they had never involved themselves with drugs, and their involvement with guns had been strictly as buyer.

 

The Pagano Brothers’ primary off-the-books product was influence. Power. They knew the people who could get anything done, and they knew how to persuade them to do it. Very little happened of note in Rhode Island that the Paganos had not okayed. People paid handsomely for access to that power.

 

Over the long course of their work, they had built up and maintained solid relationships that reached into every corner of business and every branch of government. Ben never spoke of ‘owning’ anyone or having someone ‘in his pocket’; he understood the danger of that kind of smug complacency. He understood that a relationship was preferable to a transaction because it was more stable. People—district attorneys, judges, ranking government agents, police chiefs, councilmen, senators, whoever—felt a great deal less conflict about the thick envelope they’d accepted when they felt liked and respected by the man holding it out, and when they liked and respected him in return.

 

The Paganos also knew when the best transaction was a symbolic one. Not every engagement required a monetary price, or a difficult one. It was possible to come to Don Pagano for a favor and have the return on it be painless. This, too, engendered goodwill.

 

The Pagano Brothers and all the New England families had been largely unimpeded by law enforcement, even while crusaders in other parts of the country made news taking down big names, because they had the right people on their side, because they were seen as doing more good than bad, because their approach to even their dirty business was perceived as clean.

 

Like his father before him, Nick’s job was to bury the filth. From the time he was old enough to be groomed, his father had groomed him to take his place as family’s lead enforcer. Lorrie had been a good enforcer, feared and respected both, and he had carried the family through the difficult years of the late twentieth century, when attention on so-called organized crime was at a peak. He had taught his only living child the nuances of the work. He’d made him study anatomy, psychology, physiology. He’d made him, still in his teens, watch his most intense and gruesome works.

 

He’d steeled Nick’s stomach, iced his nerves, sharpened his senses, and expanded his mind.

 

But Lorrie had been a hothead and, in his younger years, a drunk. A violent drunk. He had made mistakes. He’d had deep regrets. He’d almost torn everything important to him into shreds. Until Ben had intervened decisively.

 

Nick had been groomed as much by his father’s failings as by his teachings. He did not lose his cool. He did not get drunk. And he did not regret.

 

To regret was to open the door to torment.

 

Nick did not regret.

 

He did not.

 

He knotted his tie, shrugged on his suit jacket, and went to his office. From a top drawer of his desk, he took out a flat velvet box. And then he left his apartment, nodded at Sam, and went down the hall.

 

Though he could and usually did simply walk into Beverly’s apartment, today he knocked. When she opened her door, her pretty brow was wrinkled. “Hi. Why’d you knock?”

 

Stepping in, he hooked his hand around her neck and kissed her. She was beautiful, dressed perfectly for the day in a simple black dress, sleeveless, with a stiff, knee-length skirt that flared out a little from her waist. Her hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail.

 

“Donnie’s away today. I wanted to knock so you weren’t startled.” Donnie was working elsewhere on this day. Nick would have Beverly with him all day, so they only needed one guard.

 

She wrapped her arms around his waist and laid her head on his chest. “Are you okay?”

 

“I’m always okay,bella.” He held her briefly, then kissed the top of her head and set her back. “I have something for you.” From the inside of his jacket, he pulled out the velvet box.

 

She cocked her head but didn’t take the box from him. “What’s that?”

 

“A gift.”

 

With a small, curious smile and a glint of uncertainty in her eyes, she took the box and pushed open the hinged lid. Inside, on a satin bed, was a necklace, a simple, gold chain with a pendant—a sun, its rays gold, its center made of diamonds.

 

“Oh, Nick. It’s beautiful.” She started to lift it out of the box, but he took the box from her and did it himself, then walked behind her. Knowing what he meant to do, she pulled her ponytail out of the way.

 

After he fastened the clasp at her nape, he pressed his lips there and then gently pulled her ponytail free of her grasp, letting it lie on her back again. Then he turned her to face him, and he kissed her softly. “Sei il mio sole,” he murmured.

 

He liked that she never asked him what the quiet Italian words he gave her meant. There was a naked kind of trust in her simple assumption that what he’d said was good. He was by no means fluent in the language of his forebears. He’d told her the truth—he could get by in Italy, but with a few exceptions, the things he could say well in Italian were things to say quietly, in passion, dark or light.

 

Beverly picked the pendant up from her chest and kissed it, a gesture Nick found powerful and sweet. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.” She looked up at him. “But today?”

 

Nick had always enjoyed giving gifts to his women, usually jewelry. His enjoyment had been less about pleasing the woman, and more about the adornment of her. Seeing the small sun lying a few inches below Beverly’s throat, the image of her kissing it still vivid on his eyes, he felt something different.

 

“Today, yes. I need my sunshine.”

 

As she looked up at him and smiled, her eyes filled and swam with tears. Then she nodded and took his hand. “Okay. I’m here.”

 

He picked up her little handbag from the table by the door and handed it to her, and then he led her out of her apartment, and Sam escorted them to his best friend’s funeral.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

Brian’s mother, Pauline, and a younger sister, Janet, were his only surviving family. The mourners at his funeral were all Pagano Brothers family. His mother wanted no visitation or vigil. The Mass was brief, the graveside service briefer still. Pauline stood between Janet and Nick and stared at the casket until it had been lowered into the ground. Then she turned abruptly on her heel and walked away.

 

Janet stayed behind, staring at Nick.

 

Nick squeezed Beverly’s hand. “Go with my mother,bella. I’ll meet you at the car.” He waved Matty and Donnie over. “Stay with them, both of you.”

 

Matty nodded and held out his hand to Beverly. “C’mon, ma’am.” Since it had become clear that she was Nick’s—today made it official—everyone called her ma’am. She always blushed, just a faint tinge, at that.

 

When they were alone at Brian’s open grave, Sam at a discreet but wary distance, Nick turned to Janet. “You have something to say, Janet.” He didn’t ask, he stated. It was obvious that she did. She’d been staring icily at him since he’d greeted her at the church.

 

She laughed without humor. “You always were super smart. Remember sitting around after school, eating pizza rolls and drinking 7Up and watching Jeopardy? Even back then, you knew most of the answers.” She laughed again, that same dry tone. “I had a wicked huge crush on you when we were kids. Longer than that, even.”

 

“I know.” Janet was four years younger. She’d been transparently fascinated by Nick from the time he was about sixteen.

 

“I know you know. You know everything. So I know you know this. Brian’s dead because of you.”

 

“No. Brian’s dead because of our enemies.” Nick would not carry that weight.

 

She scoffed. “Is that right. When he got hurt just a couple of weeks ago, that bomb thing—he was protecting you, wasn’t he?”

 

“Yes. That was his job.” He would not carry that weight.

 

“His job. Your best friend’s job was to lay his life on the line for you. You used him like a shield. That’s what kind of friend you are. Is that how he died, too? Taking your bullet?”

 

“You don’t know our business. It’s not your business to know. When he died, Brian was where he wanted to be.” He would not carry that weight.

 

“Taking your heat.”

 

He would not carry it. He would not. “We’re all meeting at Uncle Ben’s. The car will take you and Pauline.”

 

“Thanks, but this is where I get off. Mom wants to go, though. She’s still drinking your Kool-Aid. You better take care of her. You’re all she’s got. She could care less about me.”

 

He knew Janet was overstating on that last point, but not by much. Janet had blamed Pauline for their father leaving, and the two had never repaired the rift it had caused. “You know I’ll take care of her, Janet. She’ll want for nothing. Same goes for you.”

 

“I don’t want your blood money, Nicky. I want you to rot in hell.” With that, Brian’s baby sister turned and walked across the cemetery, away from the rest of the mourners and the awaiting vehicles.

 

Nick watched her for a minute, and then he turned and stared down into Brian’s grave. He was tired, and he was impatient. He had lost much to Alvin Church. They all had. They had taken their share, as well, but the war was unending. Nick had come to agree with his uncle that taking Church out directly was the wrong play—it would only make a space for someone else to step in. They had to take Church’s infrastructure out first. It was the right strategy. But now that they had cut him off from his cartel supplier and closed off every pipeline Jackie Stone had managed, they had done crippling damage to that infrastructure.

 

He wanted to go for Church, and soon. He had retribution to carry out. His father and his best friend to avenge. His family to make safe. His world to balance.

 

He squatted down and tossed a handful of dirt into the grave. “See ya, bro.”

 

Then he dusted off his hands and stood, turning and walking away from thirty-eight years of friendship and the only person whose name was not Pagano who’d ever known what Nick’s father had once done. Or what Nick had then done.

 

As he and Sam walked up to the Town Car in which Beverly and his mother already sat, a white Explorer drove up and stopped. At his side, Sam drew. Every other soldier drew as well. Nick unbuttoned his suit jacket and waited.

 

The driver stepped out, his hands up, and opened the rear door. Alvin Church stepped out, and a dozen guns were aimed at his head.

 

With his hands up and a wide smile on his face, Church said, “I come in peace. I thought I’d have a word with Nick here.” He turned to Nick. “You and me have never been formally introduced.”

 

Even with his hands up, the disrespect was palpable—to show up here, after the burial of a man killed in their war, and after what he’d had done at Nick’s father’s funeral a few months before. “You’re not welcome here.”

 

“This cemetery is one of the few things in this little town you people don’t own. So I think I’m as welcome here as I want to be. I’d like a word. What do you people call it? Take a walk with me?”

 

Uncle Ben and Aunt Angie had already left, headed home in advance of their coming guests. Beverly and his mother were fewer than ten feet to his side, certainly watching all of this, at real risk if there was anyone else behind the blacked-out windows of that white Explorer. Nick closed his mind from that thought and focused on his enemy.


Page 18

 

There would be no walk. There would be no talk. There was nothing to be gained by a détente with Alvin Church, even if that, in fact, was what he was after—and it might well be, since the Council had hurt his business badly that day in Connecticut. Never would the Paganos entertain business or pleasure with a man like Alvin Church. Under any circumstances.

 

“You disrespect us by coming here, to this place, on this day. I won’t walk with you. If you want to concede, then you can do it from where you stand. If not, then I will pay you respect you don’t deserve and allow you to leave now. Those are your choices—concede or leave. The third is that I blow your head off where you stand.”

 

Church laughed. “I’m disappointed. I thought maybe you, Nick, would be a forward thinker. But you guineas think you’re better than everybody because you get invited to have lunch with the Mayor.” He dropped his hands, and Nick’s right hand twitched, ready. “You remember this day, Pagano. You remember this chance you missed.”

 

He turned his back on Nick and went back to his truck. His driver let him in, and then they drove away.

 

Matty, who’d been standing at the side of the Town Car, drawn on Church like all the rest, now came over to Nick. “You okay, boss?”

 

Nick buttoned his jacket. “I want the guard doubled on all family—my cousins, my mother, my aunt, and Beverly.”

 

“We don’t have that kind of manpower, Nick. We’re stretched too far already.”

 

“Then call up reinforcements from the clubs. Men we know we can trust—get Jake on it. We can backfill the club security with new civilian hires.”

 

Matty nodded. “On it.” He trotted off, pulling his phone from his pocket as he did. Nick went to the Town Car and got into the back seat, where Beverly was sitting.

 

“Are you okay?” She asked before he’d even closed the door.

 

He leaned over and picked the sun up off her chest. Then he kissed her lightly. “I’m fine. Everything’s fine.”

 

“Nicky?” His mother looked over the front seat.

 

“It’s fine, Ma. Nothing to worry about.” She nodded and faced front again. She’d been living this life a very long time.

 

Beverly, however, had not. Her hand clamped down on his fingers. “Nick.”

 

“Trust me,bella. Trust me.”

 

Her blue eyes burned into his. And then she relaxed and gave him a small smile. “I do.”

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

Almost immediately upon their arrival at Ben and Angie’s, Nick’s mother swept Beverly off to the kitchen with her. Nick kissed her hand and let her go, then found his uncle. As on the night of his father’s death, and again the night of his funeral, the Pagano Brothers administration set aside the rituals of mourning and sequestered themselves in Ben’s study.

 

Though Dom, Julie, and J.J. had all still been at the cemetery when Church visited, all three had been in their vehicles already and had not gotten out. So Nick briefed them all on his short exchange with Church, the threat with which it ended, and Nick’s order for increased security.

 

When he was finished, he looked straight at Ben. “We’ve hurt him, Uncle. We took out his primary associate. We cancelled supply on his primary product. We flushed out his attempt to buy out our shylocks. We have his perimeter. That was the plan. And he’s worried enough to come face to face with us. We have to strike now, before he gets with Ortega and fills the gaps we’ve made.”

 

The don was quiet for several seconds, and Nick felt the steady ticking of the mantle clock knocking at the base of his skull. He recognized the feeling as agitation, and he fought to reinforce the walls in his mind that kept him in control. He couldn’t think about his mother, or Beverly, or his father, or Brian, or what Janet had said at the side of his open grave. He could only think about the business. The fight. Strategy.

 

“You handled today well, Nick. You were right to send Church away, and you were right to take his threat seriously. But we need to close Ortega off before we take Church down. We have good intel from New York, but we have to tread carefully there. Our New York brothers don’t feel about drugs as we do. They have relationships of their own to protect, with Ortega, even. We can exploit that to our advantage, if we’re careful. But if we strike too soon, then we could end up replacing a demon with the Devil himself. A few days, a couple of weeks at the most, and we can make our move.”

 

Nick clenched his fists and said nothing. Until he had this thrumming in his head under control, he wouldn’t speak.

 

Ben sat forward and folded his hands together on the desk blotter. “But we take his threat seriously, vague as it was. It was good to double security. I think we should—”

 

“Actually, don,” J.J. cut in, “we don’t have the men. With you and Nick and us, and Donna Pagano, and your brother’s children and their families, and the construction company, and Nick’s mother, and now his newcomare, too, we’re stretched too far with one guard each. We don’t have the bodies to double it.”

 

The room had gone quiet. Nick turned and stared hard at J.J. “Never interrupt the don, you piece of shit.”

 

The youngest capo went to his feet, but Julie, his father, said, “Sit, son. Nick’s right.”

 

J.J. sat and made the anger clear from his face. “My apologies, Don Pagano. I meant no disrespect.”

 

Ben nodded at him and turned to Nick. “Do you have a solution to our manpower need?”

 

“Yes. I’ve got Matty on it. We’ll pull men from the clubs. They’re not allcugines, looking to be made.” He turned to Dom and Julie. “And most of them aren’t Italian. But they’re loyal and good at the job. They know the score. We’ll hire new to replace them in the clubs. Brian’s—”

 

Nick stopped short, remembering suddenly that the present tense did not apply to Brian. He cleared his throat. “Brian saw the need for more personnel already, and he was doing some recruiting.”

 

“Excellent. Good. We five stay focused on New York. Nick is right that we need a solution soon. But now, enough business. Business should have no place here, especially now. Brian was a good and loyal soldier. He deserves better than to be ignored today by the people he served.”

 

The capos stood and headed toward the door. At Nick’s side, his uncle said, “Wait. You and I will toast Brian here, alone, first.”

 

When they were alone, Ben poured two glasses of his best scotch and handed one to Nick. “You should have the honor.”

 

Nick lifted his glass and said, simply, “To a good friend.”

 

“Un buon amico,” Ben echoed. They drank. When Ben set his glass down, he said. “You know, Brian would have made a fine capo.”

 

“Uncle, with respect, don’t.” Nick wasn’t in a state of mind to deal calmly with that topic.

 

“Listen to what I have to say, Nicolo.” He sat on one of the sofas and indicated that Nick should do the same. “It’s not a tardy change of heart I’m having. I’m telling you that I know how loyal and smart he was. But our ways have a purpose. It’s not just tradition that insists that our leaders be full-blooded. It’s the blood itself, without conflict, families united behind the men who make the choice for this life. Who understand. You’ve never dated an Italian woman, and I don’t meddle with your choices. But should you marry outside the blood, should you have sons in such a union, they would not be your legacy in this life.” He paused. “Maybe that’s for the best.”

 

“I know the reasoning. I don’t know why you’re telling me this.”

 

“Because you brought a woman to Brian’s funeral, and you held her hand all day. Because when you speak of family we need to keep safe, you say her name without hesitation. Because you reacted when J.J. called her yourcomare. She’s more than your mistress, isn’t she?”

 

His uncle’s powers of observation remained keen. Nick didn’t bother to think about his answer. “Yes.”

 

Ben sat forward and poured them both another drink. “She’s lovely. When things calm down, your aunt will call. We’ll have you both, and your mother, over for a nice dinner.”

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

Nick stood on his balcony, staring out to the sea. The surf was heavy, and the air resounded with crash after crash against the shore. He loved the ocean like this, roaring at the world, asserting its dominance, pulling even the earth under it. But he loved the silent stillness of the open sea on a calm day even better—glassy calm atop fathomless depths, hidden supremacy.

 

He stood and smoked, feeling the crashing surf echo inside him. Lately, he’d been fighting himself for calm almost constantly. Calm control was his greatest asset, his most powerful weapon. He was not reckless, ever. He did not make rash decisions, ever. That remained true. But he could feel his tether slipping in his hands. The damage Church had done was personal. There was no tether strong enough to keep that truth from his mind.

 

The door opened behind him, and he stubbed out his cigarette.

 

“I always forget that you smoke.” Beverly stepped up close behind him and circled her arms around his waist. “You don’t do it much.”

 

“It’s a private thing. I smoke when I need to think a certain kind of thought.” He lifted one of her hands and kissed it. “You did well today,bella. Thank you.”

 

She really had. He’d been concerned about how she’d do, surrounded by Pagano Brothers family, but he needn’t have been. She’d stayed calm after the Church encounter, and she had simply been absorbed into the women at his uncle’s house. He’d checked on her a few times and had found her talking with his aunt and mother and the other women, helping in the kitchen, seemingly perfectly at her ease. His mother had pulled him aside late in the afternoon and waxed euphoric about her—so pretty, so smart, so sweet, such a good girl. She’d even remarked that Beverly had ‘good hips for babies’—he had no idea what that meant, and he didn’t bother to inquire. He got enough of the gist.

 

“I like your mom a lot. She’s kind of a broad. Your aunt, too.”

 

He looked over his shoulder. “What do you mean?”

 

“They say what they mean. They don’t tell themselves or anybody else fairy tales. They’re…pragmatic, I guess. If that makes sense. They don’t pretend things aren’t bad when they are, but instead of wringing their hands, they roll up their sleeves. I admire that. I try to be like that. It’s hard.”

 

“You are like that, Beverly.” He turned to face her, the touch of her arms sliding around his waist as he did so making his cock fill out. Her hair was loose, and she’d washed her face clean of makeup. She didn’t seem to wear much anyway, but without it, she looked younger and more innocent.

 

She wore one of his t-shirts, and he plucked at the shoulder. “Didn’t you see what was on my bed?”

 

“I did.” Her eyes dropped, and her head along with it. “I didn’t know if it was for me.”

 

He lifted her chin. “A lingerie box, open on my bed. Who else would it be for?” He smiled, but he could feel irritation beginning to bubble. “You think maybe I bought it for myself?”

 

“I just…didn’t want to presume.”

 

That irritation surged. “We’ll have this conversation now, and never again. I don’t fuck around. I never fuck more than one woman at a time—and I mean that in any possible definition. I told you I want to be with you. I’m with you. If there’s lingerie on my bed, it’s because I bought it for you and expect you to wear it. Are we clear?”

 

Her eyes flashed in the moonlight, and she stepped away from him. “We’re clear. And good. I don’t cheat, either. But watch your tone. I don’t take orders. What if I don’t like what you buy me?”

 

Now his smile was sincere. As gentle as she was, she stood up for herself, always. “Then say that. Do you not like it?”

 

She smiled back, lighting up the night. “It’s pretty fancy. I’ve never worn anything like it. But it’s freaking beautiful.”

 


Page 19

He pulled her close and slid his hand under the t-shirt, then into her panties, between her legs. She was as wet as he was hard. She gasped at his touch and threw her head back, her hands clutching his arms. He flicked his fingers over the swollen bud of her clit, and she twitched and moaned.

 

“Wear it tomorrow,” he growled. “I’m gonna fuck you right here.” He kissed her, fiercely, more than he’d even intended, and wrapped his fist around her underwear. He yanked until the side tore free, then he turned and shoved her against the side of the building.

 

He felt her hands pushing at his chest, but he ignored her. When he had to let her mouth go to get the t-shirt over her head, she gasped, “Wait—not out here! The neighbors—Nick, no.”

 

“Yes.” She was naked, but still wearing the necklace he’d given her earlier in the day. The sun. It made him all the hotter to see it. All day, his eyes had been drawn to it. More than an adornment, it was a symbol. A mark. He hadn’t realized it when he’d bought it, but it was more than a gift. It was a statement.

 

He released his aching cock from his sweats and lifted her off the ground, catching her leg high over his arm. More than two weeks had passed since she’d been hurt, and days had passed since their fucking had caused her ribs discomfort. She was working out again, and he could feel the way her muscles stretched more easily with his demands.

 

Sinking deeply into her, he felt again, as always, the wonder at her responsiveness. She was completely without affect in sex, without guile or self-consciousness. Just as she danced for herself, for the enjoyment of it, she fucked the same way—by instinct, following the needs and impulses of her body.

 

He’d fucked a lot of women. About half of them fucked like they were performing—always aware of how they looked, how they sounded. Most other women were passive, apparently taking his need for control and his lack of gentleness to mean that he didn’t want them to participate, even when he told them to. Beverly just went with it, doing what felt right, making whatever sounds happened, moving with him to maximize her own experience—which maximized the shit out of his.

 

And so, as he’d known would be the case, as soon as he was inside her, as soon as his hand was plucking her nipple and his tongue was exploring her mouth, she gave up her protests about their location and was completely with him, grunting raunchily with every thrust, biting his tongue, his lips, yanking at his hair. This was what he wanted. Passion. Physical need so great and powerful that the world disappeared around them.

 

Nick let go of the world and fucked her, driving harder and deeper with every thrust. She let go of his hair and put her hands against the wall, forcing her body down with his every inward, upward thrust, bringing him even deeper. Needing more oxygen than he could get through his nose, he broke their kiss and put his forehead on her chest.

 

“I need it harder,” she gasped. “Harder, oh God, please harder.”

 

He went harder, but didn’t have much longer left, so he dropped his hand down her back and slid two fingers into her ass. This was his; only he had ever given her pleasure in this way, and Nick found that fantastically potent. He wanted more of her ass, but would take that slowly. For now, he loved the way all her muscles closed around him like a vise the very instant his fingers pressed against that tight skin. She came immediately, and she came hard.

 

And tonight, she came screaming, drowning out the sound of the roaring surf. Nick released his hold on himself and followed with her, his own shout crashing around them.

 

They’d definitely given the neighbors a show.

 

~ 12 ~

 

 

“Remember to keep your breaths coming from the diaphragm, from your center.” Bev looked at the women assembled before her, facing the ocean. Teaching this little morning beach yoga class was one of her favorite things. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was just play money, anyway, set aside for treats and extras. And she would have done it for free. She’d been glad to get back to it, and gladder still that her class didn’t seem to mind that there were two guys in suits lurking back at the edge of the sand.

 

Two men. Donnie and a much bigger guy everybody called Smash. Bev felt sure that his mother had named him something else, but he hadn’t said, and she hadn’t asked. Though she liked Donnie a whole lot and had been even having fun with him hanging around all the time, Smash was grimmer and more businesslike—and he scared Bev, just a little. She knew he was on her side, there to protect her, and in that way she felt safer with him around. Donnie wasn’t so great at the bodyguard gig. But Smash didn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d sit with her and watchSmallvillereruns with some popcorn.

 

She moved her class down to savasana, talking them through the full-body relaxation, keeping her speech timed to the ebb and flow of the water nearby. Then they came up to lotus, and she ended the class, as always, with “Namaste.”

 

The class rolled up their mats and walked together toward their building. Bev looked up and saw Nick watching from his balcony, dressed in everything but his suit jacket. He lifted his coffee mug, and she smiled and waved at him.

 

“Come see me before I go,” he called down.

 

She wasn’t really sure what day marked the beginning of their couplehood, but she marked their time together from the bombing, which was just shy of three weeks earlier. Things seemed to be moving quickly, at least from her perspective, but they also seemed to be going at the perfect pace. They spent almost every night together, sometimes in his bed, sometimes in hers, with no real plan or reasoning behind the choice.

 

He’d been away one night, in New York for some kind of business. With the extra guards and that terrible scene at the cemetery with all the guns, Bev expected that his business in New York had been dangerous, and she had felt real fear for him, even though he’d brushed her fears away, just as he had in the car at the cemetery.

 

What he did didn’t matter to her, at least as long as it was in the abstract, at least as long as she had the Nick she knew. But what she didn’t know did scare her. There was so much death around him. The chance that he’d get caught up in that himself had to be high. She was holding her heart out to a man who could die and take it with him.

 

But she supposed that was true of anyone. No one got a guarantee of a long, safe life. Heartbreak was around every corner.

 

She got to their floor, and Sam opened Nick’s door for her. He was waiting for her inside.

 

“I love watching you do that.” He kissed her, and she dropped her mat and hooked her arms around his neck, letting him bend her backward a little. No one had ever kissed her the way Nick did—with his full body, making her full body respond in kind. “Makes me want to fuck you on the spot.”

 

She chuckled and sucked lightly on his bottom lip until he groaned and held her even closer, so that their bodies were almost sealed together. “Fine by me. I’m closing tonight, so I have hours before I have to go in.”

 

With a quick kiss to the corner of her mouth, he set her solidly on the floor again and released her. “I don’t like you closing. I don’t like you working that job at all.”

 

She smiled and brushed her fingers over his strong, square chin. “We covered this already—a couple times. I need to work. I need to pay my bills. You’ve got David and Goliath following me around everywhere. I’m just as safe at Sal’s as I am anywhere else.”

 

“That is objectively false. You’re safer tucked in your apartment. Or mine. Mine would be better.”

 

“No, Nick. My heart is already all tangled up here. I’m trying to do a little bit of thinking with my head.”

 

“If you were thinking with your head, you’d do what I say.”

 

In the days since Brian’s funeral, he’d started this topic every time she mentioned her job. He’d said he’d keep her safe. He’d said he would take care of her bills. But they were too new to even contemplate something like that. Part of her wanted it, wanted to be able to say,Yes! Take care of me!But she didn’t like that part. She wanted to be independent. And she needed to be smart. Giving up her job was wrong for a thousand different reasons. “I need to work.”

 

He stared down at her, the muscles in his jaw twitching, and she knew he was frustrated. She was, too. But she blew that feeling away like a dandelion puff and smiled up at him.

 

After a beat or two, his expression eased, and he smiled, too. “People don’t tell me no.”

 

“Obviously.”

 

“You come straight back, and you come here. Understood?”

 

“Like Donnie and Smash would let me do anything else.”

 

“Good. And I’ve got something for you. I’ll give it to you tonight.”

 

“Something else?” Already he’d given her three expensive gifts, though the first, her necklace, was by far her favorite. He seemed to take great pleasure in giving her gifts, and he understood her taste in ways even she didn’t. Nothing he’d given her would have made her own radar screen—in large part because of the expense—but all of it was beautiful and suited her.

 

“Yes. You’ll see tonight. But now”—he kissed her nose—“I have to get going. Are you going to stick around here for a while?”

 

“No. I have things to do at my place.”

 

He nodded and grabbed his jacket from the back of a chair, then led her out of his apartment.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

Traffic in the diner was a little heavier than usual for a Wednesday, but the spring had been warm, and it was early May. The season wasn’t far off. Skylar worked the swing, so she and Bev worked dinner together. They had a full house, counter, too, and for the first time, Bruce grumbled about Bev’s ‘friends’ in the corner booth. Every time he said ‘friends,’ the quotation marks were obvious. He was, in general, in a foul mood all day.

 

Bev wasn’t in a great mood herself. She’d been fine, having a day like any other, trying and almost succeeding to nudge Bruce into a better mood, flirting a little with Dink, who always blushed when she did. The dinner rush was harder than usual, though, and badness had almost broken out when some jerk at the counter smacked her ass as she went by. Smash had jumped up so fast he’d almost torn the booth apart, and Bev had found herself holding him off like a rabid bull. The diner had been full of people.

 

Bev had been more embarrassed by the scene than by the slap, as much as she hated that. She got her ass slapped or pinched fairly often. It came with the job, and she had grown to accept it. So far, Donnie hadn’t noticed, because she didn’t make a fuss. But Smash had seen this one happen.

 

And then, not long after, while she was cleaning up the mess left behind by a couple and their three out-of-control rugrats, she saw Chris walking by the front window, toward his shop. That itself wasn’t unusual. Though he drove to work and parked in a small lot at the other end of the street, he liked the Indian place a couple of blocks in the other direction, and he had to pass the diner to get there. Always before, though, he looked in and waved. Today, he just walked past.

 

They hadn’t spoken since he’d called her a twat. She’d left a couple of messages, but she hadn’t gone back. And he hadn’t sought her out at all. More than a week. In all the years of their friendship, they hadn’t gone so long without contact. Even when he’d gone to Greece for two weeks a few years back, he’d checked in regularly. He was breaking her heart.

 

Bev rubbed her feathers again and again, trying not to let the crap get her down.

 

Sky clocked out at seven, and Romeo came to pick her up. He’d taken up the offer to work security, but he wasn’t working for the Paganos, exactly. He’d gotten on at Neon, working security. Apparently, the Paganos owned a piece of the club. Bev had had no idea that their reach was like it was. It seemed that they were involved in everything.

 

The next few hours were quiet, with people coming in a couple at a time, for a slice of pie or a late burger, or maybe a cabinet. Once it was full dark, Donnie and Smash took turns walking the street in front of the diner, or the alley in back. Bev got the sense it was more to be moving and doing something than because they were especially concerned.

 

Bev got it. She was bored herself and spent about an hour in the storeroom reorganizing the shelves, simply because she was wearing the sparkle off the counter, wiping it down so often, looking for something to do. Around nine, she came out with a box of paper napkins and saw Donnie and Bruce back by his desk, locked in a quiet, serious conversation. They broke apart as soon as they saw her, and Donnie took the box out of her hands and went out front.

 

Thinking about Bruce’s complaints about her guards and feeling aggravated at the thought that Bruce was riding Donnie for being around, Bev put her hands on her hips and narrowed her eyes at her boss. “Was that about me?”

 

Bruce looked both surprised and guilty. “What? No! No, Bev. No. That’s something else.”

 

Bev didn’t believe him and she let it show.

 

He gave her a look and then blew out a sigh. “I owe him money.”

 

Well, now, Bev was the one who was surprised. “What?”

 

“Your ‘friend’ Donnie is a shylock.” Bev had no idea what that was, and it must have shown in her face, because Bruce added, “A loan shark.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“It’s a long, sad, story, but the short of it is I almost lost the place some years back, during the recession. And then Sandy hit, and I didn’t get what I needed in relief. I’m to my teeth in bank loans and nobody would give me more. So I got the loan I could. I missed a payment. Donnie was just reminding me of that.”

 

“Wait. Donnie is a loan shark?Donnie? He was back here, what? Threatening you? Donnie?”

 

That made no sense at all. Donnie was sweet. A little bit dopey without being dumb. He likedBattlestar Galactica. And hot chocolate with marshmallows. She looked through the doorway and saw him laughing with Dink. He spent ten hours a day with her—often more. How was he a loan shark?

 

“Donnie?”

 

“Yeah. It’s fine, Bev. We worked it out.”

 

“That’s why you’ve been so grouchy about him being here today.”

 

He gave her a sheepish grin. “I won’t lie. It’s not great having the guy who’s going to break my arm next week if I don’t come up with the payment and the penalty sitting around drinking my coffee and eating my pie all day. Usually it’s good to try to avoid a guy like that.”

 

“Bruce, I…I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry.” Her head was still reeling.

 

“Don’t be, sunshine. I knew what I was getting into when I asked for the money.”

 

“Do you want me to…say something?” Could she do that?

 

“No! Absolutely not. This is none of your business. Okay? Don’t meddle. I hate meddlers.”

 

“Okay.” She kissed his cheek, then went out to the counter and opened the box of napkins, seeing her friend—no quotation marks—Donnie in a whole different light.

 

 

~oOo~

 

 

The rest of the night, the vibe was off for Bev. Bruce wasn’t as grouchy, but he was quiet. Bev felt guarded and kept staring over at Donnie, trying to imagine him breaking somebody’s arm. Dink was clueless as usual, singing to himself as he cleaned the grill and emptied the big dishwasher. Their last customer left just after eleven, and the last hour, everybody just tried to get as much of the close as possible done early, until Bev could turn the sign over and lock the door.

 

Sassy Sal’s was the last place open on its block of Gannet Street. All the retail shops closed around seven or eight—some of them earlier. On the whole commercial segment of the street, only Quinn’s bar was open as late. Even the other restaurants closed by ten. Sometimes, especially in the season, that meant good late business, people coming back from a night out and stopping in for a little something greasy or sweet. But on a quiet night, it often meant a sort of creepy ghost-town atmosphere.

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