BREAKING BONES, book two of the Mariani Crime Family Series, releases March 1st, and I am so excited about it that I want to share the first chapter with you. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it! If you like what you read, be sure to take advantage of the $.99 pre-order special below. Now, without further ado…
MY POPS ONCE told me that a real man provides for his family, no matter what the circumstances. It’s ironic since the old man disappeared when I was ten, leaving my mom to raise me and my brothers alone.
I’ve spent years wondering what happened to him. Did he wake up one morning and decide he’d had enough of the responsibilities of being a man? Or did he piss off the wrong people and end up taking a dirt nap in one of the luxurious Las Vegas landfills? Regardless, he left for work one day and never bothered to show his face again.
Ma did her best in his absence, evolving overnight from a sheltered housewife into an exhausted housekeeper, pulling double shifts to ensure her family’s minimum-wage survival. She worked hard, but she could only do so much. So when I saw an opportunity to help her out, I jumped on it.
It all started while I waited outside my school for Ma to pick me up. The disapproving Principal Jones leaned against the bike rack beside me, occasionally breaking into another lecture about the importance of keeping my hands to myself. But the kids at my school were loud-mouthed punks, and my fists were the only weapon I could afford.
While we waited, a slick black-and-chrome Jaguar rolled to a stop in front of us. The front doors opened and two men dressed in suits and shiny black shoes emerged. The passenger was broad-shouldered with no neck and more muscles than any suit could contain. He approached with his head on a swivel, one hand in his pocket, and a threatening scowl. The driver was older and walked slower. He had a potbelly and a lit cigarette was hanging from his lips. He took a drag of the smoke and gave me a calculated smile. I had the feeling I was being sized up. He flicked the butt of his cigarette away and gave a slight nod to Mr. Jones. Expecting my principal to go ballistic about the man smoking on school property, I turned. Mr. Jones was walking back toward the school, leaving me alone with the two suits.
“You Gino Leone’s boy?” the older man asked, still watching me. He had a scar on his cheek and the bridge of his nose zig-zagged like it had been broken a time or two.
The mention of my pops gave me pause. When Ma had reported his disappearance, she told me and my brothers the cops would be by to ask us questions. It had been months and they hadn’t bothered. The men in front of me didn’t look like any cops I’d ever seen, but I wasn’t going to risk it. If they knew something about Pops, I wanted to hear what they had to say. I nodded. Then, because my inner voice of self-preservation told me to be a little more respectful, I added a hasty, “Yes sir. How do you know my father?”
Instead of answering, the old man stepped closer and patted me on the shoulder. I was big for a ten-year-old, but his hand was enormous. It slid down to my bicep and wrapped around my arm. Shocked, I watched his giant mitt probe my muscles. A few of his knuckles were bent funny, like they’d been broken or popped out of place too many times, which seemed odd paired with his nice suit.
“We can work with this,” the old man said. “It’ll take some training, but you got heart, kid, and that’s what matters. You did a good thing today,” he said, pulling my attention back to his face. Something lingered behind his eyes. Pride? Amusement? I couldn’t tell.
A good thing? I searched for sarcasm in his tone, but he seemed genuinely pleased with me, which didn’t make sense since I had been suspended for breaking a kid’s arm. Hell, I wasn’t pleased with myself. Mr. Jones said Mom would most likely get stuck with the kid’s hospital bill. She’d probably ground me for life. Then she’d have to pick up a third job. Just thinking about her having to work more because of my temper made me sick.
The old man grinned, splitting his face in two and making him look like a frog. “Not just a good thing. A great thing. A smart thing.” He leaned closer to me and added, “You opened doors for your future today, kid. Doors that pay well.” He eyed my too-small T-shirt, my faded jeans, and my worn sneakers. “You look like you could use a little extra cash.”
I knew exactly what I looked like, but his words still stung. I scowled at him, and he held up his hands and shook his head.
“Just an observation. No offense meant. Look, you did me a favor today, so I’m trying to return the gesture. That’s how it works with the family. You scratch our backs, we scratch yours. Now, you interested in some work or not?”
I glanced back at the school and then scanned the street. Mr. Jones hadn’t returned, there was no sign of my mom, and the entire conversation was confusing me. Before I could answer his question, I needed details. “I did you a favor?” I asked.
“You helped my nephew.”
I blinked. Nephew?
“The boy being harassed by that little ingrate you attacked.”
My mind raced, trying to think of who he could be talking about. My fight today had been to fulfill my own personal vendetta. Some new kid, a jackass richie-rich, had been pissing all over the school, trying to mark his territory. Yesterday he’d been in the lunch line behind me, close enough to see my free-lunch status on the check-in computer and had been talking crap about it ever since. I’d been waiting for an opportunity to teach him a lesson, and saw it today when he was stuffing a kid into a locker after recess. I hadn’t even seen who was being bullied, just saw the richie-rich with his back turned and pounced. I thought back to the layout of the lockers, trying to figure out who the poor sap shoved into his locker could have been. “D’Angelo Mariani,” I whispered.
“His friends and family call him Angel,” the old man said. “Mariani.”
Even had I never heard the name before, the reverent way he uttered it spoke of power and authority. But all Vegas natives knew who the Marianis were.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
He cracked a smile and turned toward his associate. “Gets right down to business. Just like his old man.”
“How do you know my father?” I asked again.
Emotion flickered across the old guy’s face, but before I could place it, it was gone. He nodded. “Don’t worry about it, kid.” When I didn’t respond, he added, “Good man. Stand-up guy.”
The way he didn’t use tense wasn’t lost on me. Nobody seemed to know whether or not Pops was alive or dead, and if this guy knew, he wasn’t telling. Pops had warned me to stay away from the families though. I knew he’d tell me to run… to get the hell away from the Marianis.
But if Pops wanted a say in my life, he should have come home.
The old man pulled out a billfold and made a big show of thumbing through the wad of cash clipped together. Hundreds, fifties, and twenties floated through his fingers like they were Monopoly money of no real consequence, but it was more cash than I’d ever seen. He tugged several bills loose and offered them to me. It had to be at least four hundred dollars. My mind raced, imagining what I could do with it. I had to force my gaze back to his face, and remind myself I still didn’t know what the job entailed.
“My nephew needs a friend. A guy on the inside who can look out for him. He’s a smart kid, but his blood will make him some enemies. You do this for me, and I’ll make sure your family will be taken care of. Protected. Capisce?”
My attention drifted back to the cash. I was young, but I wasn’t stupid. There were no Good Samaritans in Vegas. Everyone sought the big payout, nobody gave away anything for free. And this offer was way too good to be true.
“You want me to be his friend and protect him? That’s it?” And he was willing to pay me hundreds for it? There had to be some sort of catch.
“Yeah. You’ll get training. Like I said, you got heart, but we’ll teach you the skills you need. Other opportunities might arise—chances for you to earn more—but Angel will always be your primary responsibility. What do you say, kid?” He added a few more twenties to the stack, sweetening the deal. “You ready to step up and become a man? Ready to help your mom out?”
The mention of Ma made me pause. Whoever this man was, he was too personal… too familiar. It felt strange, worrisome.
He chuckled. “I’m asking you to be my nephew’s friend and bodyguard, Franco Leone. You better believe I know everything about you.”
And what did I know about him? Not a damn thing. Angel, though—Angel was a quiet kid. Respectful. A little geeky. I could hang out with him and watch his back.
Before I could agree the old man said, “Leave everything to me. Don’t worry about what Mr. Jones said, you make sure your ass is in school tomorrow and every day after. Your mom will never see a hospital bill for what you did to that kid. I’ll handle it.”
It was too good to be true. “You can really do all that?” I asked.
“‘All that’?” He laughed, and his associate joined in. They carried on for an uncomfortable minute while I wondered what was so funny. Finally, the old guy wiped a tear from his eye and said, “Kid, you have no idea what I’m capable of.”
Something in his tone made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, but his offer was too good to pass up. He offered me the money again, and this time I took it.
“I’ll be his friend. I’ll protect him,” I promised.
Mom’s beat-up old sedan turned the corner and came barreling toward us. No doubt she was pissed at the interruption in her work day my suspension caused. I stashed the cash in my pocket and stood straighter, dreading the guilt trip I was about to receive. The old man squeezed my shoulder in a gesture that bordered on painful, getting my attention. When I looked up at him, his smile had disappeared.
“He’s putting a lot of faith in you. Do not disappoint him, Franco,” he said.
Before I could ask who this mysterious ‘he’ was, the old man’s smile was back and directed toward the Celica, which screeched to a stop behind his Jaguar.
“Make sure she gets those brakes looked at,” the old man said to me. “Ron’s Brake and Tire on Decatur will help you out. Tell ’em Carlo sent you. You take care of your mom now. We owe her that much at least.” Before I could ask him why he owed Ma anything, he shuffled me toward the car as my mom was getting out, extending his hand to Mom. “Mrs. Leone, hello, so nice to meet you. You’ve got a great boy here. You should be proud.”
Mom’s brows knit together in confusion as she looked from the man to me.
“Now don’t you worry about this little misunderstanding one bit. A bully was picking on my great nephew and Franco here stepped in and defended him. It was admirable, and I’m fixin’ to go in there and talk to the principal right now. I’ll set him straight about what happened and you have my word Franco’s suspension will be lifted. You’ll be getting an apology call from the principal tonight.”
Ma’s expression softened. “You helped a kid?” she asked me.
I decided right then that protecting Angel Mariani would start with making him sound less like a sissy. If I was going to be his best friend, he needed to be someone I could respect. “He got jumped. It wasn’t a fair fight.”
The old man released my shoulder to pat me on the back and I knew I’d said the right thing. He headed toward the school and I climbed into Ma’s car and put on my seatbelt.
“You really helped a kid?” she asked again.
Well if that didn’t make me feel like the scum of the earth. Was it so difficult to believe I’d done something nice? “Ma—”
“Don’t look at me like that, Franco. This is the third suspension since your father… disappeared. You can’t blame me for being surprised.”
No, I couldn’t. Especially since I couldn’t have cared less about D’Angelo Mariani when I’d done it. “Yeah.” I patted the cash in my pocket. “Seemed like the right thing to do.”
I watched the old man disappear behind the school doors, realizing I hadn’t gotten a phone number from him. Somehow I knew it didn’t matter, though. He seemed like the type of guy who’d be in touch with me.
It’s been thirteen years since I accepted the cash from Angel’s uncle, Carlo Mariani, sealing my position as Angel’s best friend and bodyguard. My “opportunities” did increase and Carlo has kept his word, protecting my family and growing my bank account. It’s been a good run, but Angel just flipped my world upside down with his plans to leave the family.
He’d invited me to leave the city with him before taking his girlfriend, Markie, out onto the balcony to talk.
My phone rang. As I reached in my pocket, Nonna—Angel’s grandmother who had everyone call her by the Italian title for “grandma”—looked up from the magazine she was reading and said, “That’ll be Carlo. Give that old coot my regards.”
I glanced at the display. Sure enough, Carlo was calling. I hurried for the door, answering as I walked.
“Carlo?” Markie’s sister, Ariana, asked. She was sitting beside Nonna, watching Angel and Markie out on the balcony.
“Family business,” Nonna replied. “Bones’ll take care of it.”
Nonna apparently had more faith in my abilities than I did. I stepped into the hallway and spoke to my capo, my boss.
“What the hell’s going on?” he asked.
I glanced down the hallway, making sure I was alone before replying. “I don’t know, but it sounds like the boss is setting Angel free.”
“What about you?” Carlo asked.
Angel’s uncle usually had all the information long before I did. “Angel asked me to go with him.”
“No. Neither of you is going anywhere. You fix this, Franco. You need to talk Angel into staying.”
And how the hell was I supposed to do that? Angel had already made up his mind. “He’s in love, Carlo,” I replied. It sounded lame even to my own ears, but it was the truth. Angel would do anything for Markie, even abandon his family.
“Well, that’s inconvenient. I’ll see what I can do.”
The line disconnected.
For the first time in his life, Angel was happy. Of course his family would try to take that away from him. Dreading the meaning behind Carlo’s threat, I slipped back into the apartment and waited for my friend to return and tell me what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my life.
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