I couldn’t say no to her. It was like a chronic symptom of a problem I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to fix. That was the reason why, instead of Vivian in the back of the car headed to her new apartment, I was. She had demanded a week, one I desperately didn’t want to give her, couldn’t afford to, yet I’d caved.
There was no way I could stay in our home with her. Hell, I’d nearly changed my mind when she’d growled in that stubborn voice to “fuck fond.” I couldn’t have agreed more with that sentiment. It didn’t even scratch the surface of what we had between us.
I scrubbed my forehead a few times. The battle had started. I’d completed my task, yet I felt no better for it. In fact, I was worried. Vivian hadn’t made leaving her easy, but I’d expected to still be arguing, likely until the sun came up.
But she hadn’t cursed me out or screamed at me. Overall, she’d remained relatively calm. I’d come out unscathed, at least from the standpoint of her reaction, and that was a bad sign. It was impossible to guess what her next move would be, but there would be one.
What if there isn’t? I’d told her to move on with her life, in essence given her my blessing and a parting gift. Vivian didn’t realize it, but she’d been wrong when she said I couldn’t cut my heart out. I had, but I hadn’t thrown it away. I’d given it to her.
I hated that it had come to this. That the past and the future had finally collided, no matter how I’d tried to keep them apart. But there was nothing to be done for it. This was to spare her what lay ahead. Letting her go was the best thing for her. So why didn’t it feel that way?
My phone vibrated in the pocket of my pants. A pit formed in my stomach when I saw the caller ID, but I couldn’t ignore the other woman in my life. “Muriella.” My voice sounded strained and raw.
“Did you do it?” she demanded in a tone I couldn’t recall ever hearing from her. Anger. Hurt. All rolled into one statement.
“Yes.” It was all I could say. It was all I would get the chance to. Dead air in my ear, I looked at the screen. She’d hung up on me. In over twenty years, that was a first.
I’d told her that I was breaking things off with Vivian before I’d done it. In hindsight, I wondered if I’d been hoping she’d talk me out of it, show me another way. But when she’d demanded the why for my actions, I’d clammed up, as I was apt to do, refusing to give her the particulars. Because it was going to affect her too. I wasn’t ready to lose both of the people who were my family.
“Fuck!” I yanked on my hair just as the phone vibrated again. “What?”
“You need to get to the docks.”
I practically snapped the phone in half. I didn’t have the time, patience, or inclination to deal with Vinny Salvatore right now. The last place I wanted to go was the docks.
“There better be a good fucking reason and no goddamn problems.”
“Just get here.”
I jabbed the screen to end the call and instructed the driver to a new destination. I made a fist and had a feeling tonight I was going to want to plant it in Vinny’s face. The only reason I had anything to do with the motherfucker was out of obligation to his brother. Somebody had to be the one to keep him on a chain. He was a liability. Had the worst judgment of any human being I’d ever met. I didn’t trust him, and neither did his family.
Vinny wasn’t actually stupid, but he thought he was smarter than everyone else. Constantly tried to go over, around, and under his older brother, whose authority he resented tremendously. I tried to stay out of that family squabble, yet somehow I always ended up right in the fucking center of it.
I owed Donato Salvatore my life. He supported me in my business, and had taught me how to use my natural skills and turn them into something profitable. He ran interference if I got into trouble, guided me without insinuating I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. And when he needed me, I was there for him.
Unfortunately, keeping up with his younger brother Vinny was a full-time job.
The buildings lost the shine of Manhattan the closer we got to the East River. I knew who owned much of the property in Hunts Point. The dilapidated state was by design, to warn off anyone who ventured into the territory. The sky was a rich orange as daylight drew to an end. It was dangerous to be here at any time, but I’d lost my fear of the area nearly thirty years ago. I preferred the shadows of the darkness to the light. It was easier to hide in the blackness. This was where I’d become a man. As much as I hated returning, I needed it. To remind me of where I’d been.
The car rolled past an old warehouse on Dupont Street that caused bitterness and pure hatred to rise to the surface. Over the years, I’d come to believe my course had been set the second I came into this world, but in that building, the defining moment of my life had occurred. There, I’d learned exactly how worthless I was, and that I’d do anything to prove I wasn’t.
I spotted Vinny through the window. I cracked my knuckles and rolled my neck like I was about to throw down. That’s what dealing with Vinny felt like every fucking time. I’d always managed to keep my temper in check around him, but this evening, I could guarantee I was ready to beat the shit out of someone, and Vinny was well-deserving.
I slid out of the car, approaching him unnoticed. He jumped when he discovered I was right behind him. “Jesus Christ, Elliott.” His hand immediately went to the concealed gun on his hip.
“You should always be aware of your surroundings,” I said coolly, and his eyes flared.
“You sound like my brother,” he returned with disgust.
“He’s a wise man. Perhaps one day you’ll be smart enough to listen to him.”
Vinny’s fingers flexed around the Beretta, and I fought the urge to laugh in his face. His short temper had taken many a life, but he wouldn’t take mine. Not here. Not like this.
“We have a problem,” he gritted out. Technically he was second in command in his family, but he was well aware his brother trusted me above him. Donato and I weren’t oblivious to Vinny’s feelings. They were valid, but most times secondary.
“When do we not have a problem?” I muttered, walking to the edge of the worn-out docks, avoiding a nail sticking up out of one of the planks.
“The painting is gone,” Vinny said behind me. I immediately halted. “It was supposed to be on that boat.” He pointed to a fishing vessel that looked ready to sink. “It’s not.”
“You put an $80 million Cézanne on a boat?” Fury boiled up.
“We had to hide it.” His gaze shifted back and forth, from the vessel to me. He licked his lips. It was his tell. He’s lying.
“So instead of using one of the planes at your disposal, you put yet another set of hands on the painting? Let's not even mention the elements,” I stated coldly. With Vinny it was better to play along. Eventually he’d lead right where I wanted to go.
“This seemed more discreet. And you’ve used this tactic before,” he justified. We were around the same age, but sometimes he was like a fucking teenager.
“The difference is my goods made it to their destination safely. Here’s what I suggest. Either you find what you’ve lost or come up with the cash.” I walked away and was halfway back to the car before I turned. “By tomorrow.”
“There’s no way!” he shouted.
“You should have considered that before.”
I climbed back into the car and instructed the driver to go two blocks and stop where I could see the docks. Then I dialed.
“Is it delivered?” Donato asked hopefully. He harbored a lot of guilt about his brother, felt responsible for the man he’d become.
“He says it’s gone, but he’s lying. Get someone on his tail immediately.”
“Already done,” he said. This didn’t surprise me. Donato frequently had eyes on his brother because he was a loose cannon, too much of a liability.
“Then you know where he’s stashed the goods?”
“In a warehouse that isn’t ours. I hoped he was being thorough, but he can’t be trusted. I’ll send in a team to extract it now.” There was disappointment in Donato’s voice. He wasn’t naive, but his brother was a difficult spot for him.
“I told him to come up with the painting or the money by tomorrow. What are we going to do about him?” I was tired of Vinny getting preferential treatment because of who he was. But more than that, I was sick of him in general.
“I’ll handle it.”
Fantastic. Something else Vinny would blame me for. More grief I didn’t want or need. But I owed it to Donato to help with this job, though he never made me feel as if I was in his debt. I had my own separate business, but it was entwined with his. I depended on him, and I was afraid one day Vinny would be the thing that ripped us apart.
If he didn’t, what I had to do very soon likely would.