Carmela Santiago reveled in the power beneath her. With both her legs in a neutral position, she concentrated, applying equal pressure against Diablo’s sides to increase her horse’s speed. Hot wind swept past her face. The pounding of his hooves surrounded her, their rhythm a beating heart. She gripped the reins as they approached the first hurdle. Leaning forward, she held on, clearing the fence with ease. Her long, dark braid sailed out from under her riding cap. A smile spread across her lips. She patted Diablo’s side in appreciation.
An hour later, with Mateo’s help, she transferred the horse into the trailer. Diablo, given to her as a peace offering from one of the many drug cartels she dealt with trained well. The world-class Arabian’s stamina outdid Allegra’s. But Allegra, a precious gift from her father, Ricardo, held a special place in her heart. While Allegra’s performances at Dressage Competitions were outstanding, Diablo had neither the temperament nor patience to parade around a ring. He preferred the challenge of the jump, just like his master. Carmela rode both horses with pride.
She found it hard to believe almost six years had passed since Ricardo’s death. The relentless ache inside her burned as she recalled how his life ended from a bullet to his brain, courtesy of Nicholas D’Angelo, the one man Ricardo had trusted above all others. So much so, he’d wanted a marriage between Nick and his only child.
Carmela reflected on how her future might have gone if Nick hadn’t betrayed them both. Her admiration developed from a child’s crush into the cravings of a woman, but she never let her emotions show after discovering he wasn’t in love with her. He’d fallen for someone else. Carrie Overton stole Nick away turning him against her father.
She swallowed hard and chewed her lower lip. Carrie, now Mrs. D’Angelo, stood in the place belonging to her. She’d found out, besides Carrie’s son, Bobby, they had two children together, Isabelle, a five-year-old girl, and Michael, a two-year-old boy named in memory of Nick’s deceased brother.
Thinking about those children set off thunderstorms in her mind. They were the children she should have borne him. Her teeth clenched, producing the familiar ache in her jaw. Taking several deep breaths, she tried to calm herself.
The past years had given her the freedom to continue to build her father’s businesses into an empire fueled by a steady stream of drug money. She liked to think how proud he’d be to see how much she’d accomplished.
A silver Lincoln sedan drove up, and she climbed into the rear seat.
“You were amazing out there.” His voice, smooth as silk, washed over her while his dark eyes caught hers in the rearview mirror.
She sank into the soft leather and admired his jet-black hair dipping below his collar. Her desire rose. She smiled knowing soon they’d satisfy it. Diego Silva, her most trusted bodyguard, had also become her lover. Not a wise choice, but running her drug business left little time for vetting suitors.
They drove to the stables behind the vineyards in Napa. The winery where her father died became the place to which she devoted most of her life. No one understood her attachment, but she stayed because she needed to keep the memory of his death close. Satisfaction would never come until she avenged his death.
Carmela followed Mateo to Diablo’s stall while Diego leaned against the Lincoln. A musky scent emanating from the horses greeted her and mixed with the sweet-smelling hay. Hooks hanging from the rough wooden walls in the tack area, held bridles, leads, curry combs, and other equipment.
She rubbed Diablo’s muzzle before turning to Mateo. “Make certain you curry him before you brush him. Pick out his hooves. Check his eyes and nose—’’
Mateo held up his hand. He tipped back his large black Cattleman’s hat. The dark skin between his brows wrinkled. “, I will take good care of him…as always.”Señorita
She shook her head and smiled. “I’m sorry, Mateo. I know you are as devoted to him as I am.”
A loud whinny came from a stall to her rear. Allegra pushed his head through the opening in the gate and whinnied again. She grabbed a carrot from a feedbag hanging outside the stall and presented it to Allegra. He chomped it down in two bites, then nuzzled her empty palm, his bristles tickling her skin.
“Mateo, turn Allegra out by the pasture. He seems restless.”
She left the stable, and Diego held the car door open. They drove, in silence, to the spacious mansion. She climbed the stone steps and hurried inside.
The Napa house, larger than the one in Miami and as well-appointed, boasted imported tile plus custom woodwork throughout. Massive windows framed grand views of the gardens and vineyards. Various rooms contained priceless art displayed according to their form, the collections here superior to the Miami artwork.
Her butler, Armando, greeted her in the marble foyer. Dressed impeccably in a white shirt with Windsor cut collar, grey tie, black jacket, and trousers, he stretched out his arm.
Employed by her family since her childhood, she was grateful when he agreed to stay on after her father’s passing.
She removed her cap and coat and handed it to him. “Thank you, Armando.”
He bowed and smiled. “Can I bring you anything, Señorita?”
“No, thank you. Maybe later.”
With each step up the large winding staircase, her heart beat faster. Within minutes, Diego would climb these same stairs to her bedroom.
Carmela closed the door. She pulled off her riding boots and unbraided her hair, letting it fall in waves down her back, the ends dipping below her waist. Stripping off her clothes, she admired her caramel-colored skin in the full-length mirror.
The bedroom door opened. Diego rushed in. He removed his coat, then his shoulder holster, dropping them to the floor. Continuing to peel off his clothes, he shook his head. “My God, you make a grown man weak as a kitten.”
The corners of her mouth edged up into a smile, her skin tingling at the sight of his naked body. “And you make a grown woman blush.”
Diego pressed up against her, easing her onto the bed. He stroked her face and whispered, “Carmela, I love you. I have never felt like this before.”
Her body went stiff, and she frowned. “Why do you have to spoil things?” She moved away and rose from the bed. Grabbing her robe from the pale blue tufted bench at the foot, she slipped it on. She didn’t want to hear his foolish talk about love.
“Carmela, why do you act this way?” His voice held a twinge of anger. “Come back to bed.”
She scowled at him. “Diego, we have gone over and over this a million times. I’m not looking for love. Not now, not ever.”
Diego cursed under his breath. He jumped up and gathered his clothes. “What is this obsession you have? I’m warning you, if you pursue your crazy revenge it will not end well. These things never do. You need to let it go, Carmela.”
She crossed her arms and stuck out her chin. He could never imagine the scene she’d witnessed. Otherwise, he’d agree with her plans.
“This crazy revenge, as you call it, is not something I can let go. My father is dead!” A single tear erupted from her eye.
Diego moved closer. “I know how much you hurt,” he soothed. “But this idea of yours may get you killed.” He wiped the tear from her cheek.
Carmela brushed his hand away. She secured the sash on her robe. “You don’t understand. It is my duty to make his assassin pay. My heart knows he will never rest in peace until I do.” She rushed past him and ran downstairs to her study.
Turning the lock, she collapsed into the leather chair behind her desk. She removed a photograph from the drawer. Her pain still palpable, she studied the faces inside the frame. Nick stood beside her, his arm draped around her shoulder. They smiled into the camera. What a charade. Now, she could see right through his false smile, the too casual way his arm rested upon her. What she once perceived as love meant nothing more to him than a caring friendship. While his feelings floated above the surface, hers ran much deeper.
As an awkward young girl in middle school, she dreamt of a future with Nick. Something she had never admitted to anyone. If Nick had complied with her father’s wishes to marry her, she wanted him to do it because he loved her and not out of obligation.
Those dreams of hers turned into a nightmare after Carrie stole Nick from her. Carmela’s malice twisted itself around her gut, forming a deep chasm nothing could fill until the day she made Nick pay. The desire she once felt for him grew into a bitter hatred, encompassing all those he cared for.
Placing the photograph inside the drawer, she fingered a folder lying on her desk and flipped it open. She stared at still shots of Carrie D’Angelo and another man. She studied his features. His appearance proved him to be much older than her. Below the man’s photo, written in her father’s handwriting, she read the name, Travis Montgomery. Besides being the thief Nick executed for him, what was his connection to Carrie? The time to find the answer had come.
Sweeping the two photos aside, she picked up another one. She recognized the two men lying in pools of blood. Carlos and Eddie once worked for her father. Carrie Overton along with Travis Montgomery had shot them to death. Nick, given orders by Ricardo to find and kill them, deviated from his assignment by killing Travis and allowing Carrie to live.
In teaching her the business, her father had taken off the blinders, making it clear what kind of work Nick performed. He made sure she understood in the drug trade someone like Nick became a necessity.
Since her father’s death, she acquired her own person of necessity, Miguel Medina. Whenever the need arose to eliminate someone, she called Miguel. Trustworthy and efficient, she relied on him to take care of the ugly side of the business. She could have ordered him to kill Nick and his family long ago, but she wanted more. They needed to feel her suffering.
She examined the photos again before sweeping them aside. Underneath them lay a newspaper clipping. Bobby D’Angelo’s smiling face stared at her. The headline read, ‘Young Art Dealer to Show Premier Collection at New York Gallery.’
Carmela pursed her lips and continued to stare at the newspaper. She reached for the phone.
“Bernardo, get my private jet ready. I need to fly to New York tomorrow.” Carmela set the receiver down and closed the folder. She rose and wandered to the window.
“Papi,” she said. “I am listening to you. I hear you crying out from your grave. It has taken me a while, but I will make those words I said to Nick become a reality. I won’t stop until he’s dead. I won’t stop until they are all dead.”
Bobby D’Angelo stretched out his arms toward the woman lying next to him. Tracing the soft skin in-between her shoulder blades, he buried his face in her hair and inhaled. Lavender tinged his nose. A low whimper escaped her mouth. She turned and nuzzled his neck.
“Good morning,” she murmured, sleep still in her eyes.
Smiling, he gathered her close. “Sure is.”
Her hand trailed across his chest. “What’s buzzing around inside your mind?”
Bobby rolled onto his back. Out of habit, he swept away the lock of dark brown hair dipping over his right eye. Hands clasped behind his head, he relished the quiet morning and the woman beside him.
“Nothing too, much.”
He’d been seeing Valerie Gold several times a week for the past two months. Late one night her green eyes, the color of seagrass, and her long blond hair captured his attention in a club on the Upper East Side. Bobby couldn’t imagine what this meant to her, but he understood what it meant to him. Lust, pure and simple. He couldn’t afford to get tangled up in a relationship right now.
Bobby’s career remained foremost in his mind. His passion for art had taken root not long after his mother’s shooting in Lugano, Switzerland. During her hospital stay, with bodyguards put in place by Nick, he wandered the art galleries. From abstract to impressionism and contemporary, Bobby found art soothed him. While he studied the vast array of canvases, something sparked inside. He wanted others to feel and appreciate art the way he did. While his mother recovered, he switched majors and studied what he loved.
He attended gallery shows where he befriended wealthy collectors and gave them advice regarding their purchases. His reputation grew, and he became one of the most sought after, albeit the youngest, Art Dealer in the country, with a knack for finding up-and-coming artists.
To him, nothing topped living in New York City. Next to some galleries in Europe, no better place existed to take in the many art museums. He loved spending hours at a time at the Guggenheim, the Whitney, and the Metropolitan among others.
But right now, he wanted Valerie out of his condo. Set to premiere a young artist from Brooklyn at a gallery on Fifth Avenue in the evening, Bobby needed to get ready. His gut told him this artist’s work would command a fortune one day.
He kissed Valerie’s forehead and slipped out of bed.
She let out a moan. “What’s the rush? Stay with me a little longer.”
“Can’t, babe. I have to go to the gallery and make sure for tonight.” everything is set
"All right, but is there room in the shower for two?”
Bobby winked. “Always.”
An hour later, with Valerie gone, and a towel wrapped around his waist, he stepped into his walk-in master closet. Oak shelving held sweaters on one side and shoes on the other. Jeans and several pairs of pants hung in a neat row beside numerous shirts, all this a far cry from his home in Laurel, Pennsylvania where, as an unhappy teenager, he had thrown his clothes inside his meager closet. Now a grown man, he took great care of his belongings and appreciated their value.
He dressed in jeans and a wine-colored cashmere sweater, always avoiding a suit. Unlike Nick, he hated the confines of one.
He crossed the grey carpeted living room leading to the modern kitchen. He stopped to straighten the striped throw pillows lining the contemporary beige sofa. Lightness filled his chest and he smiled. Last night, passionate kisses between him and Valerie had started here before they gravitated to his bedroom.
He glanced up at the canvas hanging above.The abstract painting by Carolyn O’Neill, an Australian artist, had been his first purchase of fine art. He fell in love with the piece at her art show and rejoiced knowing he could afford it. The striking mix of blues, greens, and oranges stirred his emotions, bringing him a sense of peace. A peace which had eluded him for so many years growing up in a household run by a monster.
Bobby grabbed the remote for the mounted flat screen and let the news drone on in the background while he brewed coffee. He sipped a quick cup and walked to the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Autumn exhilarated him. The trees, twenty stories below in Central Park wore a montage of colors. He understood why Nick always longed to come here. But it wasn’t safe. The people Bobby loved and cared for the most remained tucked away in a compound in Tuscany, Italy.
He couldn’t live a secluded life, so he made a move to New York. Nick agreed to purchase the condo for him on the Upper West Side under the condition he teach Bobby how to protect himself. Shooting lessons and self-defense tactics became a priority before he left Italy for New York.
Grateful for everything Nick had done for him and his mother, each month he sent Nick a check, determined to repay him for the condo in full one day.
Bobby finished his coffee before putting on socks and a pair of loafers. He opened his top bureau drawer, lifted a pile of t-shirts, and searched for his Glock 40 Gen 4. He tucked it behind him underneath his sweater. Slipping into a light jacket, he headed out.
Down in the lobby, he waved at the uniformed doorman. “Hey, Hank.”
“Need a taxi?”
“Not today. Think I’ll walk across the park.”
“Enjoy.” Hank tipped his cap, holding the door open, then retreated to his post.
Bobby trekked along Central Park West, oblivious to car horns and the wailing sirens in the distance. Exhaust fumes from the heavy traffic hung in the air. He traveled amidst the shadows of several tall buildings separated by narrow alleyways lined with stacks of empty wooden crates. A slight breeze carried the stench from the large trash containers overflowing with garbage. He joined the streams of pedestrians jockeying for their small bit of territory on the sidewalk.
Bobby zigzagged between cars and taxicabs, cutting over to the park entrance, winding his way toward Fifth Avenue, the din of the traffic noise receded, and the air turned crisp. A grin lit his face. This was his New York. He loved the contrast between the quiet park and the push and pull of the noisy city.
People strolled by, cell phones planted to their ears, speaking in unfamiliar tongues. To his left, several tossed a Frisbee back and forth. Dog walkers trudged along, pulled by fancy pedigree dogs attached to multiple leashes. A street musician strummed his guitar, its case lay open at his feet. The black velvet interior held a mixture of coins and one-dollar bills.
Bobby drew a five-dollar bill from his wallet and dropped it into the case. The man dipped his head, smiled, and continued to play.
He exited the park onto Fifth Avenue, and the city noises boomed loud once again. Halfway up the block, he pushed open the gallery door. Near the entrance, a few signature pieces hung from the walls, encouraging people to explore. A sign read, ‘Introducing the Artistry of Wesley Bell.’
He moved along the vast expanse of wall showing off Wesley’s work. A blend of sweet grass, sage, and juniper permeated the air from diffusers placed around the gallery. Wealthy patrons became more inclined to buy with their senses heightened.
On the lookout for new talent, several friends urged Bobby to check out Wesley’s paintings. From the moment he stepped into Wesley’s small studio loft in Brooklyn, his instincts told him this artist’s work needed an introduction to the art world.
He was thrilled when one of his New York-based clients agreed to sponsor an exhibit.
Abstracts painted in striking hues, some soft, others bold, held their own against the stark white walls. Bobby stepped back a few times to ensure the lighting and placement highlighted each individual piece to its best advantage. He inspected each one for cards listing the artist’s name, the title of the painting, and price below it.
“Hello, stranger,” a female voice called.
A young woman with large red-framed glasses and brown hair cut in a bob came up to him. She wore a simple black sheath and black pumps.
“Lucy, how are you?” They kissed one another on the cheek. “I didn’t realize you were still working here.”
Lucy adjusted her frames and smiled. “I took a break. But I’m glad to see your fingers on the pulse as always. I love this artist’s work. It’s so vivid. So alive.”
“Thanks. Let’s hope my clients agree with you. How’s the roster looking?”
“Everyone is confirmed. No cancellations. But …’’
“There is one addition. She’s flying in for the showing.”
Bobby crossed his arms and frowned. His openings were exclusive and by invitation only to his wealthiest and most trusted clients.
“Lucy, you know how I feel about making exceptions for people.”
Bright pink bloomed upon her cheeks. The corner of her mouth twitched. “I know, but she’d be a new client for you. She’s purchased from this gallery before, just not through you.”
He dropped his arms and shrugged. “Well, I guess it’s too late to dis-invite her. But next time run it by me first, okay?”
Lucy’s face relaxed. “Sure. It won’t happen again.”
A half-hour later, he managed the caterers while they set out silver bowls and platters containing black caviar, blue cheese stuffed olives, and marinated beef on skewers. He inspected the assortment of champagnes, wines, sparkling waters, and imported beers. Soft jazz music piped in from the hidden speakers played throughout the gallery.
Five minutes before his clients were due to arrive, Bobby retreated to the rear office and removed his jacket. He dropped it inside a cabinet in the corner of the room. Pulling out his Glock, he placed it underneath and pushed the drawer closed.
He hurried to the entrance to greet his guests. The elite of the city strolled in, men and women, with deep pockets and the desire to add to their collections.
Ready to mingle, Bobby hesitated as a white limo stopped at the curb. In his head, he had ticked off everyone on his client list. This must be the person Lucy added.
A uniformed chauffer hurried to open the rear door. Long, slender, bronzed legs emerged from the interior first. She moved with purpose, wasting nothing and came toward him. He observed the expensive sapphire blue dress, the beaded shawl draped over her shoulder. She held out her hand.
“Carmela Santiago.” Her dark almond-shaped eyes locked on his for a moment.
His heart hammered as he shook the hand of the most stunning woman he had ever come across. “Bobby D’Angelo, it’s a pleasure.”
She slid her hand away and walked past him. Long hair, the color of maple syrup spilled down her back, making her as captivating from the rear. He caught the light scent of her perfume and fought the urge to breathe deep. She glanced over her shoulder and smiled before proceeding to a portrait by the far wall. His eyes followed each precise movement.
Inside, one of his clients stopped to chat. Glancing at her from across the room, Bobby fumbled for words. How could one woman have such an affect on him?
At the end of the gallery, Carmela plucked a glass of champagne from a silver tray held by a waiter before settling onto a bench by a painting.
Bobby tried to converse with several people before moving toward her. He caught her eye and smiled. “Like what you see?”
Her eyes traveled the length of his body before resting on his face. She patted the bench. “I like a lot of things. Come, sit, and tell me about this artist.”
Bobby detected a slight accent. It made her speech even more alluring. He brushed away the hair falling over his right eye and sat beside her.
“His name is Wesley Bell—’’
She wagged a red polished finger at him. “I know how to read, silly. Tell me how you discovered him.” She took several sips from her glass and waited.
Warmth spread up his cheeks. He cleared his throat and explained how he first met Wesley. Her eyes focused on his, while her thick, dark lashes, fluttered seductively.
He glimpsed something behind those eyes though he couldn’t quite decide what and sensed himself pulled. She was magnetic, as if she had a force field around her.
A sudden prickle in the pit of his stomach made him draw back. Unsure what it meant, he forced a smile and got to his feet. “Enjoy the rest of the evening.”
He noted the bright red stickers on most of the title cards. “Let me know what interests you. It seems Wesley has almost sold out.”
Before he could walk away, she pointed to the painting in front of her. “I think this one will do.”
Bobby reflected on her choice. Bright fiery slashes of red mixed with brilliant blues lit the canvas. The most vivid work in the collection had drawn her. “I see you’re attracted to saturation and intensity in art.”
She smirked and opened her purse. “No, I simply know what I like,” she said, holding out a card. “Here’s my information. I will be in town for the next day or two. Call me tomorrow and let me know when it is ready.”
She rose, handed him the empty champagne glass and made her way to the front of the gallery. His eyes lingered on her curves until she slipped out the door.
Bobby noticed a change in the air. He took a breath and studied the card, running his fingers over the embossed black lettering of her name printed on a white background with a phone number below it. A simple card. Too simple for a woman so complicated.
Bobby stuck the card in his pocket and tried to turn his attention on his clients. But the image of Carmela Santiago lingered and along with it the feeling his life was about to change.
Carmela slipped into her robe and settled herself at the table in the Presidential Suite of her hotel. She lifted the gold-domed lid before her and smiled with pleasure. Room service had done a good job. Perfectly cooked eggs benedict rested on the plate. Her appetite ravenous, she took a bite and let the creamy, lemon taste of the Hollandaise bathe her tongue.
Her mind drifted to the previous evening. She had taken a chance attending Bobby D’Angelo’s show at the gallery, but her instincts served her well. He had no idea how much their pasts linked. Bound by murder and deception.
Nick would have kept names, dates, and places to himself. A good ghost would do everything to protect his family. The more they knew, the more it put their lives at risk. Biding her time was the right decision. Almost six long years should make Nick believe her threats were no longer of consequence to him or his loved ones.
She sipped her coffee and frowned. Bobby’s rugged good looks unnerved her a little. Tall, with a square jaw, angular cheekbones, and full lips, he was one handsome man, but his ice-blue eyes and the way a patch of his thick dark hair drooped above his right eye caught her attention the most. She found these things particularly sexy.
She finished her coffee and reminded herself she couldn’t let his good looks distract her. The focus must remain on avenging her father. He’d never rest if she allowed herself to detour from her mission.
With her plate empty, she pushed away from the table. There would be time enough to dwell upon those things once she had Bobby D’Angelo under her control. She showered and dressed, selecting tight-fitting black pants and a white silk blouse. She left her long hair loose and her feet bare. A pair of gold hoop earrings and a matching bracelet complemented the simple outfit. While she dabbed perfume behind her ears and at her wrists, her cell phone rang.
“This is Carmela.”
“Hello, Ms. Santiago, it’s Bobby D’Angelo. The piece you purchased last night is ready.”
“Perfect.” She detected a note of anxiety in his voice.
“I’ll have it delivered to your hotel, or if you like, to your home.”
“I am very particular about my art,” she said. “I prefer you deliver it to my hotel.” Silence greeted her. “Is there a problem?”
“Ah…no. I’ll have someone bring it by.”
Her free hand formed a fist at her side, her fingers clenched. “I’d appreciate it if you dropped it off to my suite.”
“Sure. I can do that. See you in about two hours.”
“Make it one. I’ll be expecting you.” She hung up without waiting for an answer and called room service. Within minutes, they arrived and removed her breakfast tray.
Opening her laptop, she busied herself checking on deliveries at the restaurants she owned by speaking with each manager. She wrote a check for Bobby, before going to the bar and pouring a glass of sparkling water. A soft buzz sounded.
Smoothing her hair, she hurried to the door, but caught herself, and stopped. She’d make him wait. Seconds ticked by before the buzzer rang again, and she opened it.
He wore a black tee shirt and black jeans. A dark grey, wool blazer set off a maroon-colored scarf draped around his neck. The artwork, professionally wrapped, stood against the wall behind him.
“I have your purchase, Ms. Santiago.” He glanced over his shoulder at Diego stationed by the elevator.
“Why so formal?” she said. “Call me, Carmela, please.”
“Okay, Carmela.” The flicker of a smile crossed his lips.
She stepped aside, and he entered carrying the heavy frame. She pointed to the far wall next to a tall window. “Set it down over there.”
Bobby placed it against the wall while she drifted to the bar and put the glass of sparkling water down. Choosing a bottle of tequila, she held it up.
“Care for a drink?”
“Sorry, I haven’t much time. I need to get to the gallery. Wesley did quite well last night.”
“After such a big purchase, I don’t think one drink will hurt.” She spoke the words with firmness, making them more a command than a statement.
He hesitated a moment. “I guess I can stay for a drink.”
She poured two shots and gestured toward the sofa. “Come, sit.”
Bobby seated himself, and she handed him his glass. She slipped beside him, shifting her body, letting her knee brush up against his.
She raised her glass. “Here’s to what I hope will be a long relationship.”
They drank and set their empty glasses on the coffee table. “So, tell me,” she said. “How did you become interested in art?
And at such a young age.”
He removed his scarf and swiped his hand through his hair. “It began while I lived in Europe. My ...” A shadow crossed his face.
“Is something wrong?” Carmela asked. His cheeks flushed. For a moment she thought he might bolt from the room.
“No.” He rubbed his palms down the front of his jeans. “I started going to the galleries and fell in love with what I saw. I studied art, built up a clientele, and here I am.”
She fiddled with one of her earrings and smiled. “You make it sound so simple.”
“Well, that’s the short version, anyway.”
She picked up a strange note in his voice. Her question made him uncomfortable. Not wanting to push things too far yet, she rose and grabbed the check from the table.
She stretched out her arm. “Here’s the payment for the piece.”
Bobby got up and reached for it. She drew her hand back and moved closer, her face now inches from his. The sharp scent of his cologne hung between them. He didn’t look away. She studied his face, the slight curve of his mouth and the dark stubble along his jawline. With no sign of retreat, she slipped the check into his palm.
He folded it in half and placed it inside the pocket of his blazer.
“Thanks. I wish all my transactions were this easy.”
“They can be.”
His stare matched hers in intensity. A hint of amusement played in his eyes. She sensed his self-confidence had returned causing her to feel bare, exposed. She took a step back to collect herself. Her insides calming, she said, “I wish to hire you as my personal Art Consultant.”
“You mean, you’d like me to add you to my client list?”
“No. I would be your only client. I want you to help me build the most magnificent collection in the world.” She waited, letting her words sink in, then added. “Your compensation would match your talent for art.”
He backed away and shook his head. “That’s tempting. But you can’t expect me to abandon my clients.”
She placed her hand on her hip. “It sounds so harsh when you say it like that.”
He draped his scarf around his neck. “I would love to help you build your collection but not at their expense. I owe them my career.”
Carmela gave him a small pout. “Okay. If you insist on keeping your other clients, I guess I have to live with that.”
Bobby fished out his wallet. He placed a card in her palm. “Thank you again. When you’re ready, give me a call.” He adjusted his blazer and sailed past her to the door.
She glanced at the card and followed him. “Wait.”
He tugged at his sleeve and checked his watch. “I need to get to the gallery.”
“Well, will you at least come to California, look at my collection and give me your opinion?”
He gave a half-shrug. “Sure, I can do that. I’ll check my schedule and let you know when I’m available.”
She bit the inside of her cheek to curb her rising irritation. Who does Bobby D’Angelo think he is? She put on a fake smile.
“I will send my private jet for you.”
“That won’t be necessary. I don’t mind flying commercial. Helps with the frequent flyer miles.” He gave her a quick wink.
Carmela’s insides twisted at his words. He was making fun of her. “Once you fly private, your opinion will change,” she shot back.
Bobby opened the door and stepped out into the hall. A cocky smirk planted on his face, he said, “What makes you think I haven’t?”
She watched him saunter to the elevator. He nodded at Diego as the doors slid open and disappeared inside.
Diego walked toward her. Carmela shook her head. “No, I have work to do.” Ignoring his hurt look, she closed the door.
She fingered Bobby’s card before tossing it on the bar and poured another shot of tequila. He had ruined her afternoon with his nonchalant attitude. One word from her to the right people and he’d no longer have a client list.
She swallowed the drink and hurled the empty glass against the wall. It shattered sending tiny shards across the carpet.
Disregarding the broken pieces, she walked to the window and viewed the shadows playing against the tall skyscrapers. Later, those concrete giants would brighten the night, their lights glittering like jewels. Its inhabitants would come alive to dine at famous restaurants and take in the Broadway shows.
She had this entire great city at her feet, but still, melancholy engulfed her. A slow, steady breath escaped her lips. Bobby D’Angelo was attracted to her. She glimpsed it in his eyes, sensed it in his body language. Her sour mood lifted and her mouth edged up into a smile. Bobby would come around. She’d gain control, and just like Diego, he’d be begging for more.
Tuscan sunlight filtered through the umbrella pines and across the patio. Surrounded by flower boxes and hanging baskets bursting with color, Nick inhaled the sharp scents of rosemary and basil from the garden below. A wind chime swayed back and forth, its melodious tinkling flirted with the breeze.
Comfortable in his jeans and polo shirt, he settled into the cushions of the wrought-iron chair, he lifted his shirt and tucked his 9mm into his waistband behind him. His Hugo Boss suits, now idle, hung in the master closet upstairs. He peered over the top of his sunglasses. An easy grin lit his face. Isabelle and Michael ran across the lush expanse of grass beyond the patio toward Carrie, while their dog trotted behind.
Carrie’s dark ponytail dipped below her shoulders. Her yellow flowered sundress showed off her deep rich tan. She laughed, bent, and gathered the children close, their tiny arms encircling her body.
Chino let out a series of joyful barks. Nick had rescued the white Akita years ago and gifted him to Ricardo Santiago. But when Chino failed to obey Carmela’s orders to attack him the day he shot Ricardo in the winery. She had scorned the poor dog, so Nick gladly took him home.
Behind Carrie and the children, rows of tall cypress trees towered above the stone wall encasing the yard. Stationed at the opposite end, a shoulder holster hidden underneath his light jacket, Marco Valletta caught Nick’s eyes and dipped his head.
Nick watched Isabelle, Izzy, as they called her, pluck a flower from a clay pot. Smiling, she held it up to Marco. He thanked her and placed the flower in his shirt pocket. The red bloom peeked out and Izzy pointed her tiny finger and giggled. It saddened him to think he missed the birth of his first child, but under the circumstances, he left Carrie and did what he needed to do to stop the madness raining down on them.
He looked at his little boy, grateful he’d been there for Michael’s birth, so far, the most unforgettable moment as he watched his beautiful son enter the world. They had named him Michael after the brother he’d never forget and still to this day missed. Created out of love, he treasured both his children.
It would have been hard for him to have imagined this life years ago. Time spent here, in their house in Tuscany, Italy became the happiest they’d known. He had a family of his own, and a woman he loved with every fiber of his being. One who accepted his past and all the hazards attached to it.
They had enjoyed lazy days roaming the surrounding countryside filled with vineyards and silvery olive groves. They explored the breathtaking cities of Florence, Siena, and Pisa along with countless other picturesque towns. Traveled past mountains covered with carpets of wildflowers in the spring. In warmer weather, they wound their way up the coast to Versilia where the children played in the sands of its golden beaches. And, for the first time, they had enjoyed spending several weeks with his sister and her family in Milan.
Nick wanted to believe they weren’t in jeopardy anymore. The years had flown by without a single threat from Carmela. No ghosts appeared to harm them. But whenever he allowed himself to relax, he’d remember how he almost lost Carrie and Izzy in Lugano, Switzerland and how Carmela’s threats echoed against the vault in the winery the day, he shot Ricardo. Those threats remained as real as those of her dead father.
So many times, he questioned his decision to let Carmela live. Maybe, if he had pulled the trigger, his family would be safe, something he’d never know for sure, so they stayed in Tuscany. All, except for Bobby.
He refused to limit himself by living in the compound. Nick didn’t like it, but he understood Bobby’s youth and his need to explore the world. The best he could do was teach him how to protect himself.
Before he left Italy, Nick had taken the opportunity to instruct him to shoot, defend himself, pay attention, and listen to his intuition. It amazed him how proficient a shot Bobby became. Good enough to become a ghost, but Nick hoped that day would never come. He wouldn’t wish a killers life on anyone.
Bobby chose art as his vocation, and Nick encouraged him, gladly paying for his studies. He excelled and carved out a career and without fail, a check from Bobby arrived at the end of each month. But he wasn’t aware that Nick deposited each one into a separate account where the money would remain in trust until he turned thirty years of age.
Nick eyed the whiskey bottle and two glasses he had set out earlier. He removed his sunglasses and placed them on the patio table. Dalton had called to tell him he’d flown in today with some urgent business…business he couldn’t discuss over the phone.
He considered Dalton, his best friend. It was in Dalton’s house in South Dakota where he fell in love with Carrie. It was also the place where she reconnected with Bobby. South Dakota would always hold special meaning in all their lives. Maybe one day they could return to the United States and visit there once again.
Nick rose as Carrie moved through the trellis laden with thick green climbing vines and purple wisteria while Izzy and Michael trailed behind her. Strands of her dark hair had come undone from her ponytail, and her cheeks flushed a pale pink. No matter how many times he looked at her, Carrie’s beauty always astonished him, as if he were seeing her for the first time.
Smiling, she grabbed his hand. “What are you doing sitting up here all by yourself?”
He pulled her close. “Watching you.” He studied her eyes, glad fear no longer lived within them. After the shooting in Lugano, that fear had taken up residence for quite a few years until he’d made her feel secure again. He still blamed himself for almost losing her and Izzy.
Nick bent for a kiss. Tiny hands tugged at his pant leg.
“Daddy, Daddy, pick me up,” Michael whined.
Nick sighed and let Carrie go.
Carrie burst out laughing. “They’re all yours.” She backed away and blew him a kiss. “Ti amo,” she said and slipped inside with Chino.
Nick grabbed Michael, held him up above his head, and spun him around. Michael’s chubby cheeks grew red. He howled with laughter. His bright blue eyes crinkled at the corners.
“Faster, faster,” he commanded. Within minutes, Izzy clamored for the same treatment. He set Michael on the patio and lifted her. Her face lit up, and her dark hair fanned out behind her while he spun her in his arms.
“Come sei bella, Isabelle. You’re as pretty as your mother.”
“Who would have thought I’d see a sight like this? Nicky D holding a little gal of his own.” Dalton Burgess grinned, his white Stetson in his hand. His light blue denim shirt was tucked tight into his jeans. Brown scuffed cowboy boots dressed his feet. Grey peppered his thick head of hair and bushy mustache.
Michael scrambled toward him while Izzy clung to Nick.
“Uncle Dalton!” Michael shouted.
Dalton tossed his Stetson on the table and swept Michael up. “Are you behaving yourself?” He poked Michael’s stomach, making him giggle.
Michael looked from Nick to Dalton. He wagged his head. “Yes. I’m being berry, berry good.”
He set Michael down and gestured to Izzy. “And what about you, sweetheart? Are you keeping everybody in line?”
She bobbed her head.
“Well, then. I brought presents. They’re on the kitchen table.”
Izzy squirmed out of Nick’s arms and the two children started for the door.
“Wait,” Nick said. “What do you say?”
“Thank you,” they called out in unison and ran inside.
With the children gone, they seated themselves.
“Drink?” Nick asked.
“Sure, make it neat. It may ease the pain of what I’m about to tell you.” he settled into his chair.
Nick poured two glasses of whiskey. “Sounds serious.”
“It is. We’re being recruited. Or, should I say, ordered. And none too politely, I might add.” Dalton raised his glass and swallowed the dark amber liquid.
“What the hell are you talking about? Who’s recruiting us?” Dalton’s words made him uncomfortable. He sipped his drink.
He eyed Nick. “The government wants our help.”
“The good old United States Government.”
Nick shifted in his seat. His eyes searched Dalton’s face. “Are you serious? The government is—”
Dalton put up his hand. “Let me finish.” He lowered his voice. “Look, I’m not sure how they found out about us. They know the type of work you used to do, and I still do, on occasion.”
Nick’s gut twisted. He studied his wrist and pretended to adjust his watchband. “They’re guessing. They can’t prove anything. Besides, why would they care about us killing some bad guys?”
Dalton gave him a somber look. “Because apparently, they want us to do it for them. What they can’t prove, they’ll falsify. You know as well as I do if the government wants to make something stick, make your life miserable, they will.”
“Yeah, right,” Nick said. “Anytime the government’s involved someone gets screwed. Listen, Dalton, I’m not about to get screwed.”
A deep frown knotted Dalton’s brow. “Just hold on for a moment. I mean, it’s not a bad deal if you consider the alternative.”
Nick shot him a look. “The alternative? I don’t think I like where you’re heading with this,” he said, narrowing his eyes.
Dalton tugged on the end of his mustache. “Here’s the bottom line, ugly as it is. We either go work for them, or they put us away. You know they have an extradition treaty with Italy.” He pushed back from the table and stretched out his long legs. “They let me fly here today because I convinced them you would agree.”
Nick jumped up, knocking his chair backward. “You did what? I gave up killing with one exception. To protect my family.”
Dalton sighed. “Calm down, think about it logically. You don’t have a choice, do you? Not unless you want to say goodbye for a long, long time to Carrie and those two beautiful kids of yours. Use your head, Nick. It’s the only way out.”
“Not for me. I’ll find another way,” Nick said, stunned at the news Dalton had given him.
“Look, I’ve never taken you for a foolish man. You’ve been running from Carmela for years, and now you want to try to run from the United States Government. What kind of life would that be for Carrie and the kids?”
Nick’s head throbbed. Heat flushed through him at Dalton’s words. Protecting his family from Carmela was one thing, but trying to evade the government for a lifetime would become an impossible way to live.
Dalton got to his feet. “Look, we’ve worked for some real, unscrupulous people in the past, but you have to admit, we rid the world of some bad criminals, albeit illegally. What’s wrong with doing it for them?”
Nick blew out a breath in frustration. “I guess this means going back to the states?”
“I believe so. But, from what I hear, Carmela isn’t a threat anymore. She runs the drug business along with the legitimate businesses and is involved with her horses. If she wanted to do something, I doubt she’d wait this long to do it. The woman is no dummy. She doesn’t want to draw attention to herself. She’s moved on and so should you.”
“Maybe.” Nick folded his arms. “But you know how these things go if we agree. Setting up a kill means I’d be away from home for weeks, or months at a time. I don’t think I’m comfortable doing that.”
Dalton jerked his thumb at Marco. “He’s been with you long enough to have proven his loyalty. Your family’s in capable hands.”
“Even so, Carrie will have a hard time with this.”
Dalton rubbed the stubble on his chin and fell silent a moment. “Ask her this then, would she rather be apart from you for a few weeks or months or twenty years or more? Simple mathematics.”
He hated being backed into a corner. Forced to do something he promised himself and Carrie, he would never do again.
Killing for the government or killing for a drug lord, neither one justified the end result. But thoughts of losing the family he had waited so long for became unbearable. Without a doubt, this situation proved to be black and white, there was no grey. If he had a choice, he’d choose his family every time.
Dalton stretched out his hand. “Can I tell them we have a deal?”
Nick hesitated before raising his own. The angst inside him rose, and underneath it, darkness lay waiting.
Their hands met in a firm grip. He couldn’t help feeling besides his past allegiance to Ricardo, he had just made another deal with a new devil.
Only this devil could prove to become much more powerful. There would be no possibility of eliminating this one.