Alanis Morissette blared from my phone, “You Oughta Know” fueling my determination to sort out this mess my life had turned into. I needed this morning off to wade through the cobwebs, stop moping about instead of doing nothing.
As I settled into that old, ratty sofa—now covered with two clean quilts—I felt I’d finally made it to my war room, where I could plan with a clear head. It was as if I’d slipped on my last piece of armor and was truly ready to fight. It was time to take back what was mine by any means necessary.
“Hey, got a sec?” I asked when Muriella picked up the phone.
“Yeah. What’s up?”
“There’s a file folder at the bottom of the closet in Daniel’s study. It’s under a tape player. Could you bring it to me?”
“I thought you were going to leave it alone,” she said warily.
“Well, I can’t. I’ve tried, but something about it is bugging me.” I’d been up half the night, and I kept coming back to that fucking autopsy report. I needed a better look at it.
“All right, but I don’t like this. Some things are best left alone.”
“Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get that through my thick skull.”
“As long as you’re aware of that,” Muriella teased. “I’ll bring it to you at lunch. Shouldn’t be a problem to get. Daniel went out of town for a few days.”
“He didn’t say.”
“Was she with him?” The thought crushed my heart into a million more pieces.
“Not when he left. I don’t know for certain she isn’t with him now.”
There was a heavy silence between us at the implication of her words. Images of the girl in a barely there bikini on a beach while Daniel watched her frolic in the water had me doubling over in pain.
“We could spy on her,” she suggested. “See if she’s in town or not.”
“I need to know,” I said quietly. That was borderline crazy, but I’d make myself insane thinking about the two of them off on a romantic trip.
“We’ll go before lunch. Otherwise, you won’t be able to eat,” she said.
“True.” I heard the echo of footsteps on her end. “Where are you?”
“I decided to go get the file while we’re on the phone.” A door creaked faintly. “I’m going to put you on speaker.”
I waited impatiently, listening as she made noise.
“You said it’s under the tape player?” she asked.
“Yes,” I confirmed and heard more rustling.
“I’m sorry, V. It’s not here.”
It had been two days ago. That it had been moved only raised my suspicions about the importance of that autopsy.
“I’m going to switch to FaceTime so I can let you look around. Maybe I missed it.”
In seconds I had a view of the closet. Muriella zeroed in on the tape player and my stomach sank. “That’s where it was. Will you check that box up there?”
“This one?” She pointed to the box of cassette tapes.
“Yeah.” Maybe he’d put it back in there.
M lifted the lid, sifted through the contents, and then let me see inside. No folder.
“I don’t see anything…except my old Duran Duran tape.” She picked it up and palmed it.
“Thanks for looking.” I didn’t bother to hide my disappointment.
Once we ended our call, I berated myself for not taking a better look at that report when I had the chance. I couldn’t let go of the feeling it had something to do with Daniel’s behavior, if only I could figure out what.
I sat up straight on the sofa, suddenly getting an idea about where to start.
“It’s today, isn’t it?” I said, walking into Daniel’s study.
He was sitting in his chair with his back to the desk, staring out the window, brooding. I stepped in front of him, blocking his view. Irritated, he refused to verbally acknowledge my question.
“Your father died on this date. Or it was the last time you saw him. I haven’t determined which.”
Daniel’s furious eyes burned into me, but I didn’t look away. Every year on July 23, he got into this mood that lasted all day. He was never what you’d call happy-go-lucky, but on this date, he was dark. He became unreachable, sinking so far inside himself that sometimes I wondered if I could get him out. But he was always back the next day.
He snorted and shook his head. “You’re fearless, you know that? And too fucking smart for your own good.”
“Fearless, huh?” I straddled his legs and sat on his thighs, facing him. “If that were the case, I’d have brought it up when I figured it out two years ago. I’ve let you get away with shouldering this on your own for too long. I can’t stand to see you hurting.”
“I’m not hurting,” he lashed out verbally, reaching for me at the same time. His arms went around me, sliding us closer together. I challenged him with a look, but he stubbornly set his jaw. Well, I could be stubborn too.
“We’ve been together almost five years. When are you going to realize you don’t have to bear the burden for everything yourself?”
“Right after you do,” he shot back.
“Daniel, I dump everything on you.”
“Bullshit. You carry your own shit and everybody else’s too. You’re like a damn pack mule.”
“Well, I hope I look better than one.” He wasn’t amused. Today was a day when a smile was a hard-earned reward. Little quips wouldn’t cut it. “Let me tell you what a real fucking hardship my life is. I spend every day with a man I love more than life itself. We have our health and happiness. We can go where we want, do anything we please. My family lives basically under one roof, and I have my two best friends with me always. What a load to carry,” I finished sarcastically. He was unmoved, so deep in his anger he couldn’t see past it.
“Vivian,” he said warily, knowing I would not let him off the hook. “You’re not going to intimidate me into talking.”
“I’m not trying to, D. I just want to help you get this day back. I know you don’t want him to have it.” I searched his face and slid my hands up to his shoulders. “Don’t let him be the thing between us.”
His jaw worked, and he got angrier before he calmed. “He sold me out twenty-five years ago today. Correction—just plain sold me. My father stole from a man named Francesco Angelone and got himself out of that by offering him me for a lifetime of servitude to his family. Motherfucker never paid his own debts. Someone else always took the fall. A father is supposed to protect his son, not throw him to the wolves!” Daniel was shouting by the time he finished, like the words had been ripped from his soul.
I cupped his cheek, but his gaze remained hard. “I’m sorry,” I said, knowing it wasn’t enough.
He glared at me, but continued, “Angelone made a deal with me. It was rumored that the head of a rival organization,” he put the last word in air quotes, “had a black book that contained all the rival’s business dealings. If I could get it for him, I’d be free. How the hell was a fifteen-year-old kid supposed to get this phantom black book?”
“Was it real?”
He sniffed bitterly. “Angelone gave me six months to figure that out. I wracked my brain for two weeks before I decided, fuck it. I’d been watching Donato Salvatore the entire time, learning everything I could about him. Every Tuesday night at eight o’clock, he went to the same restaurant and stayed an hour and twenty minutes before he left.”
The tone of his voice was lightening, like a weight was lifting off him. His eyes were clearer, and I wasn’t having to pull the vault door open; he was pushing it open so I could see inside.
“What did you do?” I asked, brushing his hair back from his forehead.
“When you get desperate, you either curl up in a ball and hide or you face things head on with guns blazing. So I went into the restaurant and walked right up to his table. If I thought Francesco Angelone was scary, Donato Salvatore was terrifying. He was sitting at a booth in the back, eating pasta all alone and reading the paper, but surrounded by bodyguards. The first time we looked at each other, I knew in that instant the man would save me, or he’d kill me.
“I faked being brave, looked him in the eye, and I told him I needed to speak with him. When he offered me the seat across from him, I took it, and I told him the truth. It was pure luck, V. The man had an arrangement with the FBI, and nobody knew it. They still don’t. My connection with Francesco Angelone and his desire for that black book, which turned out to be real, was exactly the in Donato needed. Once I proved myself, he treated me like a son, tried to take me into his home after he got me away from Angelone, but I needed to be on the streets for a while to remind myself what I wanted to get away from.”
He’d never openly acknowledged these associations before, even though I knew they existed. I also knew what he needed from me in this moment. “You did what you had to do to survive.”
His eyes widened in disbelief. “I’ve always been a little afraid you’d be disappointed in me. I never meant to be in this life, but it’s what happened. I’m just like my father no matter how I try to be anything but.”
“From what you’ve told me, you are nothing like him, Daniel. You refuse to acknowledge it, but you have a heart and a conscience. I see it every day, even though you’re very good at hiding it.”
“You brought that out in me. I never stood a chance before you.”
“Are you still close to Donato? Why haven’t you introduced me?” I didn’t hide the hurt in my voice at the thought of being hidden from someone important to Daniel.
He took my chin in his hand and tilted my head down, his eyes deadly serious. “Donato may have helped me, may be important to me—he may be one of the good guys on the right side of the law—but there are two people I don’t take any chances with. At the end of the day, he is still a Salvatore. I don’t trust anyone but me when it comes to you and Muriella.”
“You didn’t tell me about him because you know how curious I get,” I said, and he gave me a knowing look.
“You get something in your head, and you don’t let go, Princess.”
I cocked my head, wrinkling my nose. “Why the hell would Donato teach you about his business? Isn’t that the kind of thing that should stay in the family?”
Daniel smirked. “Eight children, all girls. He and his wife tried until she couldn’t bear any more children, and he never had a son.”
“I’m glad you have him. He’s your real father.”
He kissed me on the forehead and looked at me with just a little bit of wonder. “I never thought of it that way.”
“I hope I can meet him one day.”
“Don’t push it,” he said warily, gripping my hips.
I cocked my head to the side. “Why’d you say I’m too smart for my own good? Both of my guesses about why you brood on this day were wrong.”
He pulled me closer until our chests touched. “Because the last time I saw my father and the day he died are one and the same.”
Donato. He could help me. He knew a side of Daniel I wasn’t well acquainted with. If I could get to know that facet of the man I loved, maybe I could figure out what was really going on in that head of his. Daniel would hate it, but he had let me go, so there was nothing he could do to stop me.