* * *

I LAY ON the soft sheets of the guest bed, and fumed. I was mentally exhausted, and the stress of the day weighed on me like concrete bricks, pinning me to the mattress. To make matters worse I was hungry. But I’d be damned if I sat down there with those two and ate. I could smell the jambalaya, the scent somehow making its way up the staircase, down the hall and through the thick wooden door. I pulled the covers over my head and tried to push away the thoughts that were drilling through my head.

So Brad is a member of the Magiano family. Those are the “connections” he mentioned. Hell of a connection. The Magianos, who killed Broward and tried to kill me. I’m sleeping with the f**king enemy. Even worse, I’m in love with the enemy.

I rolled over, curling into a ball, snapshots of the last few weeks shuttering through my mind. He had opened me up so much, pushed me so far past my sexual boundaries, stolen his way into and consumed my heart. At a time when everything had gone to hell and I didn’t know where to turn, he had been my constant, my strength. The man I had trusted my safety to. And now this. Brad Magiano, not De Luca. A first name I loved combined with a last name I despised. The man I had turned to was the one I should have run from. I didn’t know what bothered me more, the new danger facing my body or the risk I had brought to my heart.

Forty

“She has to die,” Dominic Magiano said in Italian. “I’m sorry, Brad, but she knows too much.” Words Brad felt he had overheard a hundred times before. Proper regret placed on the syllables, but compassion never truly behind them.

Brad faced his father in the darkness. They stood on one of the many outdoor terraces of the home where he had grown up, facing the subtly lit and landscaped gardens. He said nothing, listening to the sounds of the night.

“Are you close to her?”

“Yes.” He said the word quietly, not needing to add anything more. Despite the estrangement, his father knew him well enough to understand the weight behind the response.

The old man stepped forward, a crack of light uncovering his features, features that had aged since the last time Brad had been home. His father was a handsome man, with a full head of white hair, olive skin and strong, powerful features. His eyes differed from Brad’s; they blazed blue instead of brown, and had never failed to find weakness in an adversary. But the skin around his eyes had sagged, and age spots now covered his skin. He looked like an old man, though Brad would never dishonor him by pointing it out. From Brad’s reflection, the aging process had begun when his wife, Brad’s mother, had left. Now, over twenty years later, there was little life left in his bones. An old, stubborn man.

They had eaten in the large formal dining room, a fire lit despite the summer month. His father, it seemed, was perpetually cold, an irritating condition for Brad, whose internal temperature was the exact opposite. They had been the only attendees to the meal, and sat at opposite ends of the ridiculously long table. Brad was grateful for the distance, if only because it put him farther from the fire’s heat. The dinner was long, five courses, and they were served by Abigail, a longtime employee of his father’s.

There had been little conversation, because Brad refused to discuss his father’s business and his father had little interest in Brad’s caseload. Brad knew that any discussion regarding Julia would wait until after the meal. Over beef tenderloin with new potatoes, Brad had asked about his brothers.

“Alfonso’s wife is pregnant again. They moved out of that townhome, they live in the Glades now, close to Dante. I wish you didn’t live so far away from the family. You isolate yourself, so far from the rest of us. You think you’re better than us?” He pointed his knife at Brad, his features dark.

This was where the conversation always ended up. No matter how it started, whether it was discussing the Yankees, the weather outside or current stock prices, it always ended with that accusation.

And now the night had finally climaxed to this point, cigars and whiskey on the balcony, Julia’s imminent demise.

He spoke slowly in their language, barely containing the anger in his voice. “Explain to me why you would order a hit, to someone I know, without contacting me first.”

“You assume too much. When I gave the order I did not know her connection to you. All we had was a name and location—her home.”

“I’m not just talking about Julia. You killed my business partner without consulting me.”

“It was business. He knew the risks, as did you when you refused the business. His work was sloppy. If it hadn’t been, our hand wouldn’t have been tipped before the takeover occurred.”

“Do you not have enough power? Why are you going after other families?” He puffed on his cigar, blowing the smoke up into the night sky, willing himself to stay calm.

“You know this business. We grow or die.”

“That’s Alfonso talking. You letting him call the shots now?”

His father’s features tightened. “Don’t forget your place, my son.”

“Don’t lose yours. You still stand in control of this family.”

His father’s face tightened around the lit cigar. He sighed, old again, and looked at Brad. “What do you suggest I do with this girl?”

“Leave her alone. She’ll keep her knowledge secret in exchange for safety.”

The older man scoffed, shaking his head at Brad. “You know better than that. Women cannot be trusted. As soon as you leave her, or scorn her, or she catches you with a whore, she will tell. She will forget the danger and do whatever she can to make you bleed.”

Automatic sprinklers started in the gardens below, and Brad leaned on the railing and ground out his cigar in frustration. His father spoke again. “No. Death is the only way.”

Brad straightened, turning to face his father. “I have stood aside and watched you ruin and take countless lives. You know my opinion of your business. I won’t dishonor you by voicing it in your home. But this is one time I am not coming to you and asking for compassion. I am demanding her protection. You have cursed me with this family. Now let me have one benefit from its association. If you come for her, you will be sacrificing me.”

The eyes of his father deadened, black holes on gray skin. “You’ve been away too long, Brad. You’ve forgotten how I respond to demands. You may be my blood, but you are also the biggest indicator of my weakness. And everyone watches me closely for weakness.” He stepped forward, gripping Brad’s shoulder with his hand. “It’s the principle of it, Bradley. My priority is this family. A family you ceased being a part of a long time ago. And she risks that priority. So, as I said before, death is the only way.” He released his grip and turned, stepping back to the railing and looking outward, away from his son.

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