First the burning. Then the blood seeping through my fingers. Always the sound of Paolo croaking my name over the crack of more gunfire.
It’s the horror of loss ringing in his voice that makes my heart pound. Not the pain. Not my own fear of death. I don’t think about my demise in the moment. I didn’t when it actually went down, and I don’t in the nightmares that plague me every night.
And always the girl.
She’s in every nightly replay. Sometimes she gets shot, too. Those are the worst. My inability to rescue her, to protect her from damage makes me want to die right there. Other times she runs to me, after I’ve been shot. She wraps her arms around me and we both fall down.
Always her wide blue-green eyes lock onto mine the moment the first gun fires. I watch the terror fill them as the bullet tears through my middle.
That’s the moment that keeps her in my dreams. In that split second, in the window where I’m sure I’m going to die, hers is the face I see. My fears are for her safety, and my anguish over being shot is that I can’t protect her.
In her gaze, I swear I see it all mirrored back at me. She, too, thinks I’m going to die, and her anguish is in not warning me in time.
Because she tried. I remember every millisecond of that part. The five breaths before I got shot. I remember the way she tried to signal with her eyes. The way she refused to leave and get to safety, even though she had to know her cafe was about to explode in glass and wood and bullets and blood.
She’s like an angel in the dreams—her pale face the beacon I use to understand my own death.
Only I don’t die.
I didn’t die.
And you’d think that would make everything crystal clear. The whole near-death experience thing. It’s supposed to make you realize what you regret. What you desire. And then you get a second chance to make good on life.
Instead, I’m trapped in a nightmare-induced fog. Trying to untangle the meaning while I go through the motions of living.
The Caffè Milano girl doesn’t have the answers—I don’t know why or how my subconscious assigned so much meaning to her. She was just caught in the middle of a bad scene between the Russian bratva and our outfit.
And yet I can’t get her out of my mind.
The angel of my death.
Marissa. An innocent girl I have no business sullying.
A girl who already saw too much.
Some things you can’t forget. You can’t unsee. Can’t unhear.
Blood all over these floors. The sound of gunshots. The way my heart stopped when Junior Tacone pointed that gun at me, deciding whether to let me live or die.
I hate this time of day when the customers thin out, business gets slow, and I only have time to remember.
It’s been six months since the battle between the Russian and Sicilian mafia went down in Caffè Milano, and I’m still jumpy as hell. Still examining every customer who comes in, praying he’s not Russian mafia come for revenge. Or to shake me down for information on how to find the Tacones.
But they haven’t come. No one ever came except the Tacones with their window repair guys and a large enough amount of money to upgrade our whole kitchen. Which was good because our walk-in cooler was inches away from dying and this place hasn’t had a remodel since my grandparents opened it in the 1960s.
I pull a bowl of pasta salad from the deli case to put in the walk-in overnight. When I come back, I freeze, a gasp hitting the back of my throat.
At first, I think it’s Junior Tacone standing at my deli counter.
The guy who went gangster on my place and gunned down six guys. The one who is supposedly the protector of this neighborhood.
It’s not Junior, though. It’s his brother, Gio Tacone, the one who took a bullet out on the sidewalk. The man I thought was dead.
“Mr. Tacone!” I curse myself for sounding breathless.
“Gio,” he corrects. “Marissa, how are you?”
He knows my name!
That’s more than I can say for Junior, the current head of the family. And I wish it didn’t do fluttery things to my insides, but it does. Gio rests a forearm on the counter and pins me with a dark-lashed hazel gaze.
He is pure man-candy. With those chiseled good looks, he could easily have been an actor or model, and he has the charm to match.
“You’re alive,” I blurt. I hadn’t heard that he survived. I checked the newspapers and Googled his name after the shooting, and there weren’t any reports of his death, but I saw him take a bullet with my own eyes. “I mean, you made it. I’m so glad.” Then I blush, because, yeah. I’m probably not supposed to talk about what happened, even though it’s just the two of us here.
Gio catches my wrist, stilling my hand. His thumb strokes over my pulse as my fingers tremble in the space between us. “Why are you shaking, doll? You scared of me?”
Scared of him? Yes. Definitely. But also excited. He’s the one Tacone brother I look forward to seeing. Always have, even when I was just ten years old, wiping tables down while the mafia men met.
“No!” I pull my hand away. “I’m just jumpy. You know—since… what happened. And you startled me.”
His gaze penetrates, like he knows there’s more to it than that, and he wants to know it all. A curious shifting happens in my chest.
I tuck an errant strand of hair behind my ear to cover my mounting discomfort.
“You have nightmares?” he guesses, like he’s read my mind.
I give a single nod. Then it occurs to me how he knows. “Do you?”
I don’t expect him to confess it if he does. I come from an Italian family. I know the men don’t admit weakness.
So, I’m surprised when he says, “All the fucking time.” He touches the place where the bullet must’ve gone in.
The corners of his lips quirk into a devastating grin. The man really should have gone into show business. “What? You think real men don’t have nightmares?”
“Maybe not the men in your line of work.”
The smile fades and he arches a brow. Oops. I crossed some line. I guess you don’t mention a mobster’s line of work.
I ignore the increased thumping of my heart. “Sorry. Is that something we don’t talk about?”
He makes me sweat for two beats then gives a half-shrug, like he decided to let it go. “I didn’t come here to ride your ass; I came to check on you. Make sure you’re okay.” He blinks those dark curly lashes that would be feminine except for the manly square jaw and aquiline nose. “Sounds like you’re having a hard time.”
The danger bell starts tolling in my head.
Never accept a favor from the Tacones. You’ll pay for it for the rest of your life.
That’s what my grandfather used to always lament. He borrowed from Arturo Tacone to start his business, and it took him forty years to pay off. But pay it off he did, and he was damn proud of it, too.
“I’m fine. We’re fine.” I straighten and lift my chin. “But we’d appreciate it if you’d hold your business meetings somewhere else in the future.” I don’t know what makes me say it. You don’t piss off a mob boss by insulting him or making demands. I definitely could’ve found a nicer way to make my request.
Again, he considers me for a moment before answering. My palms get clammy but I keep my head high and meet his gaze.
“Agreed,” he concedes. “We didn’t expect trouble. Junior regretted what happened to this place.”
“Junior pointed a gun at my head.” The words tumble out and crash between us. Too late to take them back.
“Junior would never hurt you.” He says it so immediately I know he believes it’s true. But he didn’t see what I saw. That moment of hesitation. The murmuring of his man beside him that I’m a witness.
He thought about killing me.
And then decided not to.
Gio catches my hand again and holds it, stroking the back of it this time. His fingers are large and powerful, making mine appear small and delicate in comparison. “That’s why you’re jumpy, huh? I’m sorry you got scared, but I promise you, you’re safe. This place is under our protection.”
I swallow, trying to ignore how pleasant his touch is. How nice it is to be soothed by this beautiful, dangerous man. I summon more bluster. “Maybe it would be better if it wasn’t.” My voice doesn’t come out steady. There’s a wobble to it that betrays my nerves. I clear my throat. “You know, if you just left us alone.”
I hold my breath, tensing for his reaction.
If I didn’t know better, I would say my words hurt Gio rather than pissed him off. But he just shrugs. “Sorry, doll. You can’t get rid of us. And you’re on my watch now. Which means you’re perfectly safe.”
I want to tell him I’m not his doll and he can take his protection and fuck off, but I’m not insane. Also, some traitorous part of me wants him to keep stroking my hand, keep studying me like I’m the most interesting person he’s seen all day.
But I know all that’s a lie.
Gio’s a player. And my body’s response to his presence is dangerous.
Gio abandons my hand in favor of cupping my chin. “You’re mad. I get it. I’ll let you show me a little claw today. But we paid restitution to your family and will honor our commitments to this neighborhood and to Caffè Milano.”
His touch is commanding and firm, but still gentle. It makes the flutters in my belly grow more wild.
“Gio,” I murmur, turning my face away from him and out of his hand. My nipples are hard, rubbing against the inside of my bra.
He pulls a hundred dollar bill out of his pocket and drops in on the counter. “Give me two of those cannoli.” He points to the case.
I obey wordlessly and tuck the hundred in my apron pocket, not bothering to offer him change. I figure if he used a hundred, it was because he wanted to throw his money around, and I’m going to let him do it.
He smirks a little as he takes the plate with the cannoli and sits down at a table in the cafe to eat them.
Fuck. I am so screwed.
Gio Tacone just decided to make me his pet project. Which means the chances of him ending up owning me just shot sky high.
I can’t believe I just told the Milano girl I have nightmares.
It’s not something I’ve said aloud before. Who the fuck would I tell, anyway? Junior would tell me to man up and get over it. Paolo would probably punch me where the bullet went in and then say, “See? You’re fine.”
And my ma? She doesn’t even know I got shot. We keep the women out of our shit show.
But no, I haven’t been the same since. And it’s not that I didn’t heal—although even that was touch and go for a while there. But I can’t stop thinking about dying now.
Everywhere I look, I see people who could die today without being prepared. A guy crosses the street without looking and boom! He gets hit by a cab. Or some poor sot has an aneurism and croaks while out getting the mail.
No chance to say goodbye. To wrap up loose ends.
That could’ve been me.
And everywhere I go, I also see potential shooters. I’m looking over my shoulder for the bratva assholes, even though I know the saga’s over. They kidnapped my sister, but she married the bastard, and we’ve made an easy truce.
That doesn’t stop me from thinking every hand in a pocket is reaching for a gun. Seeing shadows jump off the walls at me.
I came here today to check on the girl. That part was true. But I also wanted to come back to the place. Face my demons. Make sure I didn’t break out in a cold sweat when I was outside the door where I got shot. Didn’t act like a fucking pussy just because I took a piece of lead for my family.
Good news: I didn’t.
Bad news: I’m not sure what I’m living for.
I mean, I have this second chance.
I didn’t die. I’m a dead man walking. So why does my life suddenly feel so fucking empty?
I sit and watch Marissa bustle around, closing the place up. She’s young—whole life ahead of her. She’s still living for something.
Rather fervently, too.
I suddenly want to know what it is. I want to know all her deep, hidden secrets. Her desires. She darts a few looks at me. I make her nervous. A little self-conscious. But I also make her blush, which makes my dick twitch.
She’s beautiful but hasn’t figured it out yet. Or downplays it because she doesn’t want the attention from men. She’s young, smart, and extremely capable. She can’t be over twenty-five, and she’s been running this place for several years. I seem to recall her grandmother bragging that she went to culinary school.
Lotta good it did her. She’s still stuck in her family business, doing the thing that’s expected of her.
Just like me.
I get up and leave my plate on the table for her to pick up. If she’d been nicer, I would’ve brought it up to the counter, especially considering she’s trying to close the place, and I’m the asshole still here. But she kept my hundred and played bitch.
So, she can pick up after me.
I stroll to the door, forgetting my swagger for a moment when the scene on the sidewalk replays for me. The smell of my own blood fills my nostrils. I see the face of Ivan, the bratva asshole who set us up. The murder in Junior’s eyes when he pulled his gun. I hear Paolo’s panic when he catches me.
A touch on my arm brings me back. I look down into wide sea-blue eyes.
Just like in the nightmares, only this time her face is soft.
She doesn’t say anything for a moment. There’s compassion in her gaze. She understands me. “I tried to warn you.” Tears pop into her eyes. I wonder if her nightmares are like mine only the other way. Does she see me getting shot over and over again, night after night?
I loop an arm around her waist and pull her in for an embrace. “I know you did.”
Fuck, she’s enchanting.
“Thank you, Marissa.” I will her to receive my sincerity.
She hesitates, then brings her arms up around my neck, like one of the dreams. She smells like coffee and sweet cream. I want to lick her skin to see if she tastes as good as she smells.
“I’m glad you made it, Gio. I thought you were dead.” Her voice is low and husky. I’ve been telling myself she’s too young for me, and she is, but everything about her registers as a woman who knows what she’s about.
“Yeah. Me, too, doll.” I drop a kiss on the top of her head and try to ignore the softness of her breasts pressed up against my ribs.
How much I want to kiss her—which isn’t like me at all. I’m more into fuck ‘em hard and smack their asses when they walk out the door.
Kissing isn’t really my gig.
But she saw my death. My near death. The moment that changed everything. She was part of it. So, I’m imagining some kind of connection.
But that’s stupid.
I shouldn’t go assigning meaning to things just to try to understand them.
I got shot.
Time to start living again.
“Watch out, Henry’s on a rampage,” I warn my fellow line chef, Lilah, as I stir the marinara sauce. The temperamental chef’s been ripping everyone a new one right and left.
She rolls her caramel-colored eyes. “When is he not?”
“Well, I guess if I were head chef, I might be a temperamental bitch, too,” I murmur in an undertone as I pull two stuffed chicken breasts from the oven and plate them. “At least we know what to expect. But you know what I really can’t handle anymore?”
Lilah chops asparagus on the diagonal making them all the same exact length. “Arnie?” she whispers back.
“Yeah.” Arnie, the figlio di puttana sous chef is a leering, groping dickwad who somehow thinks all the women in the kitchen are dying to suck him off. “He patted my ass in the walk-in tonight. Patted. It was gross on top of inappropriate.”
“Yeah, if you’re going to grab-ass, at least make it firm, right?” Lilah grins, dimples creasing her chocolate-brown skin.
I snort. Lilah always makes me laugh. She’s the only other young person who works in the kitchen. She started here as a dishwasher when she was sixteen and worked her way up over the last five years. She is definitely one of my favorite people at Michelangelo’s.
“Right? It’s like creepy molestation versus outright sexual harassment. I don’t know—all I know is how violated I feel right now.”
“What did you do when it happened?”
“I told him to keep his hands off my ass.”
“And let me guess, he laughed like you said something cute.”
“You should tell Henry.”
“Right. Because that will end well. Henry’s the one who doesn’t seem to think women can do this job. Arnie hired me. I feel like his solution would be to tell me to quit.”
I plate a steak and spoon some of peppercorn demi-glace over the top.
“Dude, it’s illegal. Michelangelo’s could have a lawsuit on its hands if we report it and they don’t do anything.”
“Yeah…” And my bosses would also know neither of us have the money to sue. “Maybe I’ll just keep a fork in my pocket and next time he comes near me, I’ll shove it in his thigh.”
Lilah smothers a laugh. “That’ll teach him.”
Arnie bustles by and she picks up a fork and looks over at him meaningfully.
I duck my head to hide my laugh.
Sadly, I don’t get a chance to make use of a fork the rest of the night. By the time we finish cleaning and putting everything away, my feet are killing me and I’m about ready to drop dead, but I’m happy.
I love this job, even with all the bullshit. I like joking with Lilah; I like the excitement of putting plate after plate out with the pressure of perfection. I like working with expensive, gourmet ingredients, making the works of art that Henry dreamed up. I’m always on an adrenaline rush that keeps me going long after closing.
I almost wish the shooting had put Caffè Milano out of business so this was my only job. Maybe it’s snobby of me, but I feel like creating fine cuisine in a top-rated restaurant is where I really belong.
But that’s selfish. My grandparents raised me and I owe them everything. Caffè Milano is their entire world and they’re getting old. My aunt and I are the ones who keep the place going. Even with Aunt Lori working there full-time, I have to fill in more and more the older my grandparents get. Which means until they die, or until my little cousin Mia is old enough to help—providing she can with her hip situation, it has to be my entire world, too.
I don’t expect to find anyone up at my grandparents’ when I get home, but all the lights are on.
“Hey, guys,” I say when I push the door open.
Both my grandparents and Aunt Lori are awake, sitting around the dining room table, looking like someone just died. My aunt’s eyes are red-rimmed and my nonna’s mouth is pinched into a tight line, defeat written all over her crumpled face.
“What’s going on?” I ask when they just look at me. “What happened?”
“This hospital called this afternoon.” My aunt sniffs. “Since we don’t have insurance, they refused the surgery for Mia. They said the only way they’re going to go through with it as scheduled is if we show up by close of business tomorrow with a check for thirty thousand dollars.”
“What?” Thirty thousand dollars. That’s the going rate for a hip surgery these days. Insane. “Well, that’s bullsh… crap.”
Aunt Lori tears up again. Her daughter, my eight-year-old cousin, fell on the playground a few months ago and somehow fractured her hip. They did surgery at the time, but the poor kid is still in constant pain and her new surgeon says the screws have come out and are poking her and the whole joint needs to be reconstructed. Again. It’s freaking tragic for an eight-year-old to have to go through this shit.
“I know. And I just don’t even know what I’m going to tell Mia. We’ve been trying to get her out of pain for so long.”
Now I tear up. It’s not right for a kid to be in constant pain. To not be able to play with her friends, or even walk around her school. All because our health care system in this country is so broken.
Working at Caffè Milano, my aunt and I both make too much to qualify for Medicaid but we can’t afford health insurance. At least my grandparents can get Medicare.
I sink into a chair and kick off my shoes. “We’ll figure this out,” I promise.
I don’t know how or when I became the person this family looks to for answers, but at some point, I did. My mom abandoned me as a kid, so this is my nuclear family: my elderly grandparents, my aunt—who, like my mom, got pregnant young and out of wedlock—her daughter Mia and me. We stick together and look after one another. We’re family, and we figure things out.
“How?” Aunt Lori wails. “How are we going to come up with thirty thousand dollars by tomorrow?”
Sometimes it just takes the right phrasing of a question to discover the answer.
It suddenly becomes clear as day. Inevitable, even.
The Tacones have cash. Stacks of it. All there for the asking.
All I have to do is sell my soul.
I don’t say anything in front of my grandparents because I know it would kill them.
“Tomorrow I’ll see if I can get a loan. I’m sure the bank will give us something with the cafe as collateral.”
Aunt Lori’s too distraught to notice my lie. Too desperate to grasp on to any answer. “You think so?”
“Definitely. I’ll get it figured out tomorrow. I promise.”
Mia needs help. Time to put on my big girl panties and do what has to be done.
I wake to the sound of my own shout, the, No! echoing off my bedroom walls, Marissa’s horror-stricken face burnt into my retinas, those bluish green-colored eyes bright with tears.
I throw the sheet off my sweat-drenched body and get up, my side pulling with a dull ache. The scar tissue is getting stiffer every day.
Desiree—Junior’s bride, the nurse who saved my life— says I need to get the fascia worked out. She wants me to see a physical therapist or some other shit, but that bullet hole is evidence to the crime Junior committed, killing those bratva bastards who shot me. So yeah, not happening. I stick to my morning run and lifting weights in my home gym.
I stand shirtless in the window of my apartment and look out at Lake Michigan. Sailboats cut through the water, picturesque as a fucking painting. Maybe I should learn to sail.
The thought falls like a brick, like all thoughts for my life. For my future.
I’m living the goddamn dream here. Penthouse apartment right on Lake Shore Drive, lavish furnishings, the black Mercedes G-wagon in the garage.
I was already pimping it before got a second chance at life. So why am I the least grateful fuck in Chicago? I should be waking up every day thanking my lucky stars for all I have to live for.
Except that’s just it.
There’s nothing to live for.
Not even the glory of business anymore.
I’m not saying I miss it. The violence, the danger. The intrigue. But there was a certain adrenaline rush that came with every interaction. The thrill of taking care of business. Watching money multiply. Loaning it. Collecting it.
Junior shut down a lot of the business after I got shot. Although that may be more about becoming a husband and daddy again than about almost losing me. Not that I think he didn’t suffer over what happened. I know he did. Does.
His job was always to protect me, from the time I was born. And he has. Even when that meant shielding me from the judgment of our own father. He and Paolo were the badasses, and I was the finesse. I did the smooth talking when it was needed. Played good cop, not that we ever played cops.
I wander into the living room, still in my boxer briefs and sit down at the baby grand in the corner. My fingers move over the keys automatically, the muscle memory there without thought. I still have my music. Too bad it’s not enough.
My phone rings beside me, and I stop playing and pick it up. It’s the phone number I use for women, only I haven’t been with a woman since the accident.
Marissa. I gave her the number before I left the other day.
Never expected her to use it.
I pick up. “This is Gio.”
“Gio, hi. It’s Marissa. From Caffè Milano?” She sounds nervous.
“Everything okay, doll?”
“Um, yeah. Well, I need to talk to you. Can I meet you somewhere? Not at the cafe.”
I don’t know what I hoped. That she had the nerve to ask me out. Or was calling to tell me again that she’s glad I’m alive.
That she knows I dream about her every night.
Of course not. There’s only one reason I get a call like this.
And I fucking hate the way it makes me feel.
“Sure, Marissa. Why don’t you come to my home office?” My dick gets hard as I give her the address to my apartment, even though I know that’s not how things are going to go down.
Just the idea of having her here gets me chubby, though.
I hang up and give my cock a rough squeeze. Down, boy. This is business, not pleasure.
Too fucking bad.
Dead Man’s Hand (Vegas Underground)
“I OWN YOU NOW”
She made a big mistake. You don’t blackmail a Tacone.
Coming to me with a threat? Unacceptable.
If she needs money, she’ll have to ask nicely.
But once I give it to her, we both know what it means:
She belongs to me.
I do my best to hold back. Give her respect.
Because she was there when I got shot.
She’s the girl from my nightmares—the one I have to protect.
And now that I’m back from the dead, I’m trying to do things right.
Trouble is, I can’t keep my hands off her.
And now that she’s under my thumb,
I don’t plan to let her go…
Note: This steamy stand-alone romance is the seventh in USA Today bestselling author Renee Rose’s Vegas Underground series. No cheating, no cliffhangers