Vanessa spent the day in her art room, pressing the tip of the brush against the canvas and getting lost in the colors of the paint. She’d been quiet lately, thinking about the conversation she’d had with her family, about the odds stacked against us.
Crow Barsetti hated me. No, he loathed me.
If there were a stronger word for hate, that would perfectly describe the way he felt.
I couldn’t blame him because I felt exactly the same way about him.
That man took everything away from me, banished me to a life on the streets. He was directly responsible for turning me into the man I’d become. I had been inside his home with access to a gun, and I could have easily killed two Barsettis in two seconds. But my hatred was masked underneath the love I had for his daughter. I loved her so much I was willing to ignore his disrespect and insults. I was willing to be handcuffed like a prisoner awaiting trial.
I’d never put up with that bullshit for anyone else.
The idea of spending the foreseeable future this way, with my baby down the hall working on something she loved while I sat in my office, was exactly how I wanted to live out my life. It was peaceful, easy, and simple. Our quiet companionship was my favorite feature of our relationship. With her, I didn’t have to pretend to be something I wasn’t. She accepted me for exactly who I was. I never had to lie or exaggerate the truth.
That was hard to find.
And that was how I knew this was real. I accepted her exactly the same way, accepted the fact that her family may never like me. I accepted the fact that she needed to be close with her family in order to be happy—despite how much it annoyed me.
I didn’t know what our next move was. Crow was putting his best men on my file, digging up every piece of dirt he could find. It was annoying because I didn’t have a problem saying the truth right to his face.
Yes, I killed people—a lot of people.
Yes, I’d paid for sex. I’d paid for a lot of sex because I was into kinky shit.
Yes, I’d paid the police to look the other way.
None of those were attributes a father wanted for his daughter.
He and I were exactly alike.
I knew that would make him hate me more.
Max called me. “Hey, I just talked to Shane. He’s doing a lot better. Went to the gym today.”
“Isn’t that a little soon?”
“I don’t blame her.” Vanessa had been in pain the entire time I was gone. I loved coming home to her, loved seeing the relief on her face when she saw me in one piece. It made me an asshole to say it, but I loved when she cried over me. I loved knowing her whole world would be shattered if something happened to me.
“She’s trying to pull him out of the business.”
That would never happen. “Shane is too deep into this. He’ll never leave.”
“I don’t know… Cynthia wants kids.”
Well, that changed everything. Being part of this lifestyle meant kids were impossible. Too risky. “We’ll see…”
“What about the rotation?”
“Yeah, I know,” he said. “But I thought you might want it. It’s in Thailand. I know you love it there.”
I loved it because of the women. Brothels were on every street, and I got my kicks before and after my missions. But now that lifestyle had been buried with my former identity. “I’ll pass. I shouldn’t be sent out so soon anyway.”
I wasn’t tempted by the money. “No.” Vanessa was under a lot of stress at the moment. If I left, she would be pissed. She needed me right now. “I met her family earlier this week…didn’t go well.”
“Did you kill them?”
I chuckled. “No.”
“Did they try to kill you?”
“No. Pretty nonviolent. But it was tense…they hate me.”
“Said they were willing to try…whatever the fuck that means.”
“Yeah.” Max chuckled into the phone. “You must really love Vanessa to go through that bullshit.”
“Unfortunately.” Loving her gave me my greatest joy but also my greatest pain. My life was a lot simpler before she came along. Now it was turned upside down. “So, I’m going to have to pass. But let me know if you need anything.”
“Sure thing.” He hung up.
I tossed my phone on the table and drank my scotch, not feeling any regret for turning down the mission. It seemed like I just came back from the last one, and my account was stuffed with so much cash I didn’t know what to do with it.
I looked out the window and thought about my other home in Lake Garda. Spring had arrived, so the snow was starting to melt. Tourists and adventurers would start to enjoy the lake soon. My place was still pretty isolated because of the way it was on the mountain, and I missed that peace and quiet.
I would ask Vanessa if we could go there soon since we didn’t have to keep up a façade anymore.
I looked up from my drink, taking in the sight of her in my t-shirt with her hair pulled up in a messy bun. There was a spot of yellow paint on her cheek, contrasting against her dark Tuscan skin. Her arms were wrapped around her waist, and her ankles were crossed. She was barefoot, and the sight of her made me think of the nights when her feet were pressed against my bare chest. “Yes. And don’t ask that again.”
The corner of her mouth rose in a slight smile before she stepped inside. “I can barge in here whenever I want?”
She moved behind me then placed her hands on my shoulders. Her fingers rubbed into my bare skin, and she massaged me the way I liked, her fingers working hard to dig as deep as possible. I liked massages that were deep and rough, penetrating the thick muscle of my frame.
I closed my eyes as I enjoyed it, loving the fact that my woman knew exactly how I liked to be touched.
When she finished, she ran her hands down my chest to my stomach. “Working hard?”
“Among other things.” My arm wrapped around her waist so she wouldn’t fall over, and my other hand migrated up her smooth legs. I loved every part of her body, but I particularly loved her legs. So long and toned, they felt amazing wrapped around my waist.
I detected the sadness in her voice. “Having a hard time?”
“I guess I’m just distracted…”
I knew exactly what she was distracted by. “Don’t let it bother you.”
“Kinda hard to do.”
I moved my face into her neck and pressed kisses along her skin. My lips paused when I felt her artery, felt her powerful pulse. Her smell washed over me, so feminine and sexy. I could get lost in this woman at any time. I squeezed her thigh and pictured her ass in the air as I fucked her from behind. I could stare at her asshole all day. I enjoyed making love to her, but I also enjoyed fucking her like we were just a man and a woman.
I wrapped both of my arms around her, cradling her in my protection. “I said don’t let it bother you.”
“Hard not to.”
I wanted to tell her everything would be alright, but since I wouldn’t lie to her, I couldn’t say that. We both knew there was a strong chance this would end badly. There was a good probability she would leave me when her parents refused to accept me. I would go back to my empty life, and she would try to forget about the first man she ever loved.
But right now, we were still together. That was what we needed to focus on.
She pulled her face away from my neck and looked at me head on, her lids heavy with sadness. Her fingertips moved into the back of my hair as she looked at me. “Make love to me…that’s the only thing that makes me feel better.”
I rubbed my nose against hers, my eyes softening at her request. My lips brushed against hers, but I didn’t kiss her, purposely teasing her. I loved listening to my woman ask me to be with her, so even if it wasn’t exactly what I wanted, I wouldn’t deny her request. I was the kind of man who would always give my woman what she wanted. “Alright.”
Vanessa rested her head on my thigh while we watched TV on the couch. She’d fallen asleep, her hair stretching across my knee. She was tucked underneath a blanket, and her lips were slightly parted as she slept.
I stared at her more than the screen.
My arm rested directly underneath her tits, feeling her breathe in and out slowly. She was so much smaller than I was that sometimes I wondered if my arm was enough to crush her.
My phone started to vibrate in my sweatpants, so I pulled it out and looked at the screen. It was a number I didn’t recognize, but since those numbers always seemed to be the most important in my line of work, I took it. “Bones.”
A long pause ensued over the line, a stretch of silence that seemed innately purposeful. A full thirty seconds passed.
“Meet me at Club Bellissima in thirty minutes. The men will bring you to the back.” I knew exactly who it was even though he gave no introduction. With a deep voice full of threat, his hatred was obvious in his tone. Hearing me address myself as Bones probably ticked him off so much he needed a full minute to unclench his jaw.
I set the phone on the end table and looked down at Vanessa. I assumed he’d called me this late because he didn’t want his daughter to be involved in this conversation. I scooped her into my arms and carried her to bed before I got dressed and left.
The bouncers at the door recognized me before I gave my name. They handed me off to another crew, and the men guided me upstairs and to the back of the bar Cane Barsetti owned. I suspected both of the brothers would be there to interrogate me.
They took me through a locked door and then into another room. With black walls and black leather sofas, it was a private room with no windows. It was soundproof and the throbbing from the bass immediately died away once I was inside.
The men shut the door behind me.
Crow Barsetti sat there alone, a bottle of scotch on the black walnut table with two glasses. He was dressed in a long-sleeved black shirt and dark jeans. His black wedding ring sat on his left hand, and his Tuscan skin was still noticeable despite the dark colors around him. His jaw was covered in thick stubble because he seemed not to have shaved since the last time I saw him. Fearless, he stared at me once I stepped inside and never once looked away.
I stepped farther into the room, noting the privacy we shared. I didn’t bring a weapon to the meeting even though I had no idea what to expect. Also, the second he saw a pistol on my hip, he would immediately distrust me.
I moved to the leather sofa facing him and lowered myself into the seat. I was in a black t-shirt with black jeans, the nighttime air not bothering me. My blood was too hot, and I craved the cold. I’d left Vanessa in my bed and was grateful she didn’t wake up before I left. I didn’t want to explain to her where I was going, knowing she would want to come along.
Crow rested his elbows on his knees as he leaned forward, his posture suggesting his guard was down. It didn’t seem like he was packing a gun, and I wasn’t sure what kind of message he was trying to send to me.
I knew he didn’t trust me.
He grabbed the bottle and twisted off the cap. It was aged a hundred and fifty years, so it was bound to be smooth. He poured two glasses then set it down again, the bottle thudding against the coffee table.
He grabbed his glass and took a drink.
I did the same.
He stared at me some more, his expression hardening into a look of irritation. My features alone were enough to make the bile rise up his throat, I was sure. Despite his aggression and distaste, he never pulled his gaze away.
“I’m not carrying anything. Your men checked me.”
He took another drink. “Nor am I.”
I couldn’t stop myself from raising an eyebrow, surprised he would allow himself to be unarmed when we were alone together. He didn’t trust me, but I couldn’t think of a different explanation. Maybe he was trying to show respect to his daughter, but I didn’t think that was the reason either.
He answered the unspoken question. “I don’t need a gun to kill you. My hands will suffice.”
I was much more muscular than Crow, who was ripped and lean. I packed on the muscle at a young age and never allowed it to disappear. I continued to make it grow, continued to add more weight to my workout sessions. But size wasn’t always more important in a fight. He was thirty years older than me, so I had that leverage, but I wasn’t arrogant enough to assume he was powerless against me. He had more experience than I did, and after all, he’d outsmarted my father many times until he died.
Eyes glued to one another, we continued to stare.
I saw Vanessa in his features, the color of his hair and skin. But I saw most of her in his presence. They were both strong, proud, and stubborn. The similarities were striking, even when they weren’t in the same room together.
I didn’t speak, unsure what the context of the meeting was. He wasn’t there to kill me, and there was scotch on the table like we were supposed to enjoy it together. It could have been poisoned, but I drank it anyway.
I was sure he’d read up on me, knew everything about me he could discover. But that was a question he would never find the answer to unless he asked me or Vanessa. As much as I wanted to lie about the beginning of my relationship with Vanessa because it was terrible, I couldn’t. Men didn’t respect other men who lied. It ruined their credibility. I needed Crow to respect me, even if he hated me. “Ask me anything you want, and I’ll always respond with the truth. But be careful what kinds of questions you ask…because you may not want the answer.”
Crow’s hard expression didn’t change. He didn’t even blink. “Why did my daughter shoot you?”
He didn’t know about the night we met. He didn’t know how long I’d kept her as a prisoner. It would hurt him to hear this story, but it would hurt more if he heard it from Vanessa. “I was working in Milan when I ran into her. I had an asshole in the alley, and she made the mistake of passing by at the worst time. She saw me kill him, and since she was a witness to the crime, I couldn’t let her get away. When I went to grab her, I got a better look at her face. That’s when I recognized her. That’s why I didn’t kill her.”
Crow hung on every word, hiding his emotions behind his hard face.
“I put her in the van and drove to Lake Garda to drop the body. I left the van in the snow, carried the body to the edge of the harbor, and while I was gone, she searched the van until she found my pistol underneath my seat.”
“Good,” he said proudly.
I was proud too. “When I was ten feet away, she raised the gun and fired. She was aiming for my heart, but I turned and she got me in the shoulder. My feelings for her started then. I’d never met a woman who didn’t flinch in the face of fear. She fought me the entire way and never gave up. She didn’t hesitate before she pulled the trigger. She would have killed me without remorse if she’d hit an artery, but she didn’t care. I had so much respect for her that I couldn’t keep it bottled inside. She made my hands shake. She made me feel something. So I grabbed her face and kissed her.” I looked her father in the eye as I answered his question, giving him the simple truth without remorse. “She kissed me back. Whatever I felt, she felt it too.”
“You said she always fought you. Did she fight you before this?”
I hesitated before I answered, knowing he wouldn’t take this story well. “When I tried to put her in the van in Milan, she wouldn’t go quietly. I tased her in the neck, and instead of dropping like men twice her size, she kept going. I tased her again, but that didn’t stop her. She just kept going…”
His jaw clenched noticeably, his green eyes bright with hostility.
“I told you to choose your questions wisely.”
“I told you I’m not afraid to kill you with my bare hands.”
I knew there was nothing he wanted more. The only reason both of us were still breathing was because of our shared love for Vanessa. Neither one of us crossed the line even though she wasn’t present. All we used was our words, attempting to be as civil as possible.
“I would never put a hand on her now,” I said. “That’s not how our relationship is. You know I’m not lying…since I’ll never lie. I respect her and love her. I’d rather die than let anything happen to her. She has my full blessing to shoot me in the chest if I ever did pull a stunt like that…and I would make sure she didn’t miss.”
He was stoic, as if that statement meant nothing to him. “Then what happened?”
“With all due respect, sir, I don’t think it matters. If I were another man, you wouldn’t ask that.” I hated calling him sir. It left a sour taste on my tongue. I’d never called a man that in my entire life.
“But you aren’t another man. You’re trash.”
I took a deep breath at the insult, swallowing it as best I could without retaliating.
“Now, answer me.”
“I took her to my place in Lake Garda. She had a room, food, and everything she needed.”
Crow didn’t ask the question that was lingering in his eyes, and I knew he would never ask it. It was every father’s worse nightmare. It was so disturbing he couldn’t form the words on his tongue. It was one thing for Vanessa to be tased, because she was tough and could bounce back. But to be emotionally abused against her will was another story.
So I answered it, giving him peace of mind. “I never raped her. That’s not my thing. I know my father did it to your sister…but it’s not the kind of guy I am. Besides, I respected her way too much to do something like that.”
Crow had kept a straight face throughout the entire conversation, but this was the one time he lost control of his expression. He closed his eyes for a brief moment, a sigh of relief coming from his flared nostrils.
I averted my gaze, giving him a second to recuperate.
This was the worst part. “I told her I would kill her for revenge. I planned to tape it and send it to you. But when it came down to it…I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to hurt her, not ever. It seemed like a waste, to let a woman like that leave this earth.”
Crow readopted his coldness, not reacting to that piece of news. It wasn’t surprising, since we were sitting there together at that very moment. “So you wanted to kill my whole family until you met her?”
I held his gaze and answered. “Yes.”
“You wanted to kill my wife?” His jaw clenched a little tighter.
I nodded. “Yes.”
“My son is innocent, as are my brother and his wife.”
“Yes,” he said in agreement. “And I’m proud to say that. Perhaps you should reconsider your vengeance…”
I heard what he said, but it took a moment to grasp his meaning. “You would rather I try to kill you than watch your daughter love me?”
His words shouldn’t hurt me, but they did. He might not like me, but there was no better man out there. “I’m the best thing for her. I’m the only man strong enough to balance her power. I’m the only one who makes her feel safe. I know my resume isn’t very impressive to you, but you said you wanted a powerful man who would always protect her.” I pointed at my chest. “That’s me, sir. Men don’t look at her twice when she’s with me. People are too afraid to cross me. I’m the kind of guard dog that latches on to its prey and never lets go. I’m a mountain that can’t be moved. Vanessa is the kind of woman who refuses to show vulnerability and weakness. She holds her head high and takes care of herself. But with me, she wants me to take care of her. I’m the only man she’s ever allowed to take care of her. I earned that right.”
“You earned nothing. You wanted to kill her entire family. I don’t know what this relationship is, but it’s not love.”
“Yes. It. Is.” I didn’t care if my words made him hate me more. I wasn’t going to let him change the narrative of my relationship. “I’ve never loved a woman, but I know I love her. She’s never loved a man, but she knows she loves me. I respect her, adore her, and would give her the entire world to make her happy. She calls me out on my bullshit, cries when I finally come home after a mission, and calls me when she’s scared.”
Again, it seemed like that meant nothing to him. “I made a deal with my daughter. I told her I would try to accept you, try to understand this relationship. I’m trying to like you. I’m trying to see the good in you instead of all the bullshit. But if you never get my approval…she’ll end whatever the hell this is.”
She hadn’t told me that, but I wasn’t the least bit surprised. “I’m aware of how much you mean to her. I’m aware of how important family is to her. It’s the reason I’m sitting here letting you insult me repeatedly.”
I hated knowing this man had so much power over me. He could take away the one thing that actually meant something to me. I used to care about money and women, superficial shit. But now, none of those things seemed important anymore. “Keep in mind that if you don’t try hard enough, you will devastate your daughter. I know how much she loves me…because it’s with the same intensity as I love her.”
He brought his hands together, massaging his knuckles. “If I tell her to stop seeing you, are you going to fight for her? Turn her against me?” He showed a hint of emotion again, just the way he did earlier.
I knew how much her parents loved her. I witnessed it every time he spoke about her. I listened to the way he talked to her, like she was still his little girl even though she was a grown woman. It was the kind of love that I received from my mother when I was young, but I didn’t get to cherish it as long as she did. “No. Not because I’m weak, but because I know how miserable she would be without her family. I never want to be the reason she loses the people she loves. If you felt the same way, you would be giving me a better chance than you are now.”
“It’s different, and you know it. Not only did your father inflict horrible crimes upon my family, but you took my daughter against her will and did terrible things to her. And you wanted to kill all of us until she changed your mind. You really expect me to accept you? To shake your fucking hand and give you my blessing?”
I knew everything was working against me. I knew my past would make this nearly impossible. The odds seemed so stacked that the likelihood of success was a billion to one. But that didn’t mean I would give up—not on Vanessa. “There will never be another man out there who will love her the way I do. Not because she’s unlovable, but because my love is so unbelievably fierce that it’s crushing.”
His eyes narrowed on my face. “You’re forgetting the man who made her and raised her. You think I wouldn’t die for her? That I wouldn’t give her the whole world? You think my love isn’t fierce? I’m sitting across from the man I despise more than anyone else on this earth—because she claims she loves you. So don’t sit there and pretend your love is stronger than mine—her father’s.”
He spoke through clenched teeth. “Seemed like it.”
“You should trust your daughter. She’s a very smart woman. She wouldn’t have fallen in love with me without reason, especially after everything we’ve been through. She didn’t want to love me. She wanted to forget me. It’s like she doesn’t have a choice, that’s how strong our bond is. Trust her.”
“Love is the destruction of reason. She’s obviously not thinking clearly right now.”
“And she’s not supposed to. Did your wife think clearly when she fell in love with you?” I shouldn’t cross the line into his personal life, but I had to.
Both of his eyebrows rose, like the head of a rattlesnake that had just been provoked.
“Shut. Up.” The vein in his forehead throbbed, and his face tinted with redness. His jaw was tighter than I’d ever seen it. “Don’t talk about my wife. You can talk about me, but leave her out of it. She’s off-limits.”
I’d already made my point anyway. “Your relationship didn’t start under the best circumstances. That’s all I’m trying to say. But was she wrong for falling in love with you? Does that mean you aren’t the right man for her? No. Vanessa and I aren’t any different. In fact, our stories are so similar, it’s strange.”
“Does my daughter know all of this?” he asked, his voice breaking.
“No…” I’d mentioned some things, but never extensively.
“I don’t want her to know. You understand me?”
I nodded. “She knows that you and your brother have been criminals in the past. She knows that your relationship with her mother is shrouded in mystery because you never talk about it, and I think she can connect the dots on her own. But I’ve never explicitly told her how it started and how you treated her.”
His eyes shifted down to his hands. He went rigid, his chest tight because he’d stopped breathing. Heartbeats passed, and he didn’t move. Then he brought his hands together at his lips and closed his eyes. “Fuck.” He rose to his feet and paced around the room, his hands on his hips. “Fuck.” He stopped on the other side of the room and faced the wall, his back rising and falling quickly. “You told her?”
“I thought she knew…”
“What did she say?”
“Nothing. She cried.”
He crossed his arms over his chest, releasing another deep sigh.
“She didn’t want you to know she knew. She knows it would hurt her mother. But she wishes she could be there for her…talk to her about it. She doesn’t think less of her…she’s just heartbroken over it. She told me she hated me even though I wasn’t guilty of the crime. That was another hurdle for us, but she overcame it. I don’t want you to think Vanessa fell in love with me immediately. It took a long time, and even when she did, she did her best to fight it. She always told me she would never love someone who would hurt her family. She didn’t want this to happen. Neither did I.”
Crow didn’t turn around, his breathing still uneven. “Leave.” His tone held finality, the closure to the conversation.
I grabbed my glass and finished the rest of it, not wanting it to go to waste. I walked to the door without saying another word, knowing Crow hardly respected me as a human being. Once I opened the door, the sound of the music from the club surged in.
I turned back around, noting the way he chose to address me.
“Don’t tell her you told me. We’ll talk to her about it…when the time is right.”
I nodded even though he couldn’t see me. “Of course.”