Lucky Courage Sneak Peek

I’ve been MIA lately, but with my marketing, writing, and reading goals there is very little time left to blog. Speaking of writing goals, book two of the Gods and Pawns series will be out ahead of time! I’m releasing it December 6th, and wanted to give you a sneak peek at the first chapter. Here you go. Enjoy!

lucky-courage-coverIN MY TWENTY-THREE years of life I’ve trained with legendary thieves, stolen priceless goods and artifacts from all sorts of monsters, and racked up an impressive list of scars, both physical and mental. Through it all, I’ve managed to remain breathing with my digits intact. I’d like to believe this practically stellar record gives me street cred, or at least makes me sound competent and capable, but apparently my teenage griffin sidekick still questions my abilities.

A fact made known when he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “The parking lot is empty.”

As if I didn’t have eyes to see for myself that not a single car was parked in the spots designated as maternity clinic parking only. I nodded and bit back a snarky response. It wouldn’t do the kid any good. He was still learning, after all, and as his teacher I was supposed to be supportive and encouraging. And since no supportive or encouraging responses came to mind, keeping my mouth shut was my best bet.

“Last time we were here it was packed,” Tweety added, clearly oblivious to my desire to strangle the Captain Obvious right out of him. “It’s the middle of the day. Where is everyone?”

Demarco, the six-foot tall, dark-skinned blacksmith walking with us pointed at the entryway to the Swedish clinic. The half-glass steel door was closed. We stood back and watched for a moment, but nobody came or left. Growing restless from waiting we approached. The frosted window was dark, and no sounds of ringing telephones or muted conversations came from within. Anxiety twisted my stomach into knots as we stepped onto the landing.

Demarco tensed and slid a big-ass hammer from its sheath on his back. Silvery-blue eyes flashed a warning as his exposed biceps flexed, chest rising, enough to make a lesser lady swoon. Good thing I’m a strong, independent woman, immune to my baby-daddy’s charms. Locking my knees, I bit my lip to hold back any drool as I refocused on the door. We were here to get information and there’d be no swooning until we got it.

“Think they found out she helped us and came after her?” I asked.

The “they” in question were a group of gods who’d aligned to take Zeus down by removing his essence from his body and hacking it into five portions so they could separate him and keep him from regenerating. The “her” was Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth and labor pains who ran the seemingly empty maternal clinic we currently stood in front of.

Eileithyia had pointed us to the first essence of Zeus, which we’d restolen from her sister, Eris, the goddess of chaos and discord. And since we had four more essences to collect, we were hoping the goddess of childbirth would be able to help us out again.

“Maybe it’s a holiday?” Tweety suggested. He stood a couple of inches taller than Demarco, all corded muscle with piercing green eyes and dishwater-blond hair. Although he spent most of his time looking like a twenty-something hottie, Tweety was a teenager in griffin years, complete with all the curiosity and raging hormones. He needed no weapons, since he could instantly sprout sharp talons and a beak to rain down awesome mythological beast-type wrath. And sometimes he could be annoyingly optimistic.

Demarco and I both shook our heads at him.

“What? It’s possible,” the griffin defended. “I don’t know anything about Swedish holidays, do you?”

“Nope.” But I did know a little something about luck, and it didn’t seem to be on our side lately. “Can you hear anyone in there?”

Another benefit of being a griffin came in the form of enhanced hearing, as in the guy could make out heartbeats and movement through a wall or a steel door. He held a finger to his lips and cocked his head for a few tense moments before nodding. “I hear shoes against the carpet. Clothes shuffling. Someone’s walking around.”

“How many?” Demarco asked.

Tweety listened for a moment more. “One. Maybe two? Hard to tell.”

One, maybe two, we could handle. “They’re luring us in. It’s probably a trap,” I said.

Demarco nodded. “What do you want to do?”

“We don’t have a choice.” We needed information and were out of options.

“You ready?” Demarco asked, reaching for the doorknob.

Normally I’d be the one to charge into danger, but the blacksmith and I had recently upgraded our uneasy friendship to a partnership, which meant we now worked together using logic to determine which lucky idiot got to put themselves in danger first. And when logic failed, we rock-paper-scissored it. This morning his paper had covered my rock, so I’d hang back and evacuate us if things got too hairy.

I drew my daggers and nodded.

Demarco jiggled the knob. Locked.

“Well, that was anticlimactic,” Tweety breathed.

Not like a locked door was an issue for me, though. Demarco moved out of the way while I re-sheathed my daggers, grabbed a small tool kit out of the inside pocket of my jacket, and went to work. Within seconds I had the lock picked and we were once again in position to storm the building.

Demarco turned the knob and pushed open the door. Nothing exploded. Nobody rushed forward and scratched off our faces. We weren’t sucked into a black hole and transported through time. All in all, I’d had worse entries.

“Again, maybe it’s a holiday,” Tweety said.

I didn’t kick him in the kidneys, but I really wanted to.

Demarco flicked the lights on. Overhead fluorescents buzzed and flickered before illuminating the entryway. With my daggers ready, I followed Demarco into the building while Tweety covered our backs.

Last time we’d been in Eileithyia’s office—less than a week ago—there hadn’t been an empty seat in the waiting room. Phones had been ringing, printers had been printing, and patients and staff had been milling about. Now the phones, printers, and people were gone, leaving only the furniture, a few scattered flyers, and a full wastebasket behind.

Demarco bent and retrieved one of the flyers from the floor, handing it to me. I scanned it long enough to see it was full of breastfeeding dos and don’ts. Eileithyia and her team had left in a hurry.

I balled up the flyer and tossed it into the trash. “Let’s search the place. Maybe we can find some clue about where they’ve gone.”

Tweety started to walk away, but stopped midstep, cocking his head again. He took a deep breath through his nose and worry creased his features as he scanned the room. “Smell that?” he asked.

I sniffed the air. Although my nose wasn’t nearly as sensitive as a griffin’s, the distinct burnt ozone scent made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Magic. There wasn’t a scent in the world like it. Wrinkling my nose, I nodded.

Demarco swung his hammer, loosening his wrists as he widened his stance and prepared. “A god?” he asked.

Lots of beings were capable of manipulating magic, and there was no way to know what we were dealing with until they decided to appear. I shrugged. Time to find out what sort of asshole we were dealing with now.

“Hello?” I called. “Anyone home? I’d like to make an appointment with my midwife.”
Tweety arched an eyebrow at me.

Creepy, high-pitched laughter erupted and echoed throughout the almost empty office, bouncing off the walls and making it impossible to narrow down the source. It continued for at least thirty seconds past annoying until a head of short silver curls peeked over the counter.

“I’m afraid that’s impossible.” The high-pitched voice belonged to a little girl, but something in her tone sent shivers up my spine.

“Is Eileithyia okay?” I asked.

“That coward? As soon as she realized she’d aligned herself with the losing side, she turned tail and ran.”

I let out a breath. The goddess was all right, which meant we could still find her and possibly get more help. “Any idea where she went?” I asked.

More laughter. The silver head of curls bobbed once, and then popped up. Wide, dark, almond-shaped eyes locked on mine and held me captive as her short legs and a small torso swung over the counter and landed in front of it. She bounded like a rabbit to perch on an empty end table not five feet away from me. Barefoot, frowning (despite her laughter), and sporting a sleeveless white karate gi, she looked like a miniature pissed sensei, ready to drag me and the guys to some otherworldly sparring event.

Looking down on me from her elevated position, she said, “Rumor has it Eileithyia’s hiding in her mommy’s basement now.”

So much for the hope I’d harbored of finding the goddess of childbirth again. I might as well kiss any chance of getting help from her good-bye since Eileithyia’s “mommy” was Hera, who lived in Mount Olympus, a place I never intended to visit.

“She’s weak, Romi. You shouldn’t be surprised she let you down.”

“Who are you?” Demarco asked.

The impish sensei ignored him and continued to speak to me. “Eileithyia doesn’t know the first thing about fighting, but you…” Her eyes wandered over me like I was a side of beef hanging from a hook at the butcher shop, and she was a starving homeless kid. “You’re a fighter.”

This time it was my turn to laugh. “Nope. Definitely not. You must have gotten some bad intel, because I’m just a thief.”

“Oh yeah?” She cocked an eyebrow at me in question.

Sure, I’d been trained to kick ass, but fighting was always the last option, only to be used when all else had failed. Basically, whenever I’d gotten caught with stolen merchandise and couldn’t talk or disappear my way out of it.

“Fight,” she demanded, putting her hands on her hips. “Show me what you can do.”

I didn’t want to fight anyone, but the question of “Who?” still tumbled from my mouth.

She glanced at my two companions. “Them.”

I looked from Demarco to Tweety, wondering how high her level of crazy was that she expected me to turn on the guys. “No way. Who are you? What are you doing here?”

The air shifted and the smell of ozone burned my nostrils again. “Fight them,” she repeated. This time her command was powered by compulsion. I could feel it battering the walls of my resolve and I gritted my teeth, planted my feet, and fought the sudden urgent desire to do as she said. I’d spent my entire life enslaved to my sire, forced to do his bidding, and I refused to let anyone else control me. “NO! They’re my friends.”

She quirked a half-smile at me and clicked her tongue. “Oh, Romi, how many times have you been told? Thieves have no friends.”

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Thank you so much for your continued support! Keep reading!

Lucky Blow Teaser

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, because I’ve been busy working on a new book. LUCKY BLOW, Gods and Pawns Book 1 is now available for pre-order and will be released 9/27/16. Here’s the first chapter, and the pre-order links are below. Enjoy!

MY DLucky Blow Cover ebook-smallestAY STARTED upside down. No joke, I was harnessed, suspended midair, with my feet up and head down, looking over a room full of priceless artifacts when the antique grandfather clock beside the door struck midnight. Dings and dongs thundered, reminding me I was running out of time. As much as I’d like to pretend my days didn’t normally begin in an upside-down race against the clock, I’m not a liar, just a thief. But hey, a girl’s gotta make a living somehow, and this was what I was created to do—there’s a contract and everything—but that’s a story for a time when my life isn’t literally hanging from the ceiling.

As I released another inch of rope and lowered myself further, the black cocktail dress I’d hastily tucked into the knife sheaths around my thighs tumbled free, covering my upper body in chiffon and revealing my panties to the vacant room. I sighed. This was exactly why I hated dresses. But since I couldn’t magically make my normal work pants and T-shirt appear, I ignored my wardrobe malfunction and focused on my objective.

My target rested two feet, five inches below my head, locked away in an engraved metal display box chained to a pedestal, which was bolted to the wooden floor and surrounded by trip wires. Red lasers sliced the air between me and the box, rotating randomly.

Randomly…that’s what the alarm company’s brochure says.

I smirked. Human security…so quaint. 

Everything has a pattern if you’re patient enough to find it, and I was so patient, my new harness dug craters into my shoulders while I memorized the cycle. Random, my ass. As my opening approached, I bent at the waist and let out a foot more rope. The lasers shifted. I spit a small key out of my mouth and sprang back down, sliding it into the lock. I technically didn’t need the key, but picking the lock could potentially take longer than I had between laser cycles.

Besides, the owner of this building was a sleazeball who’d been too busy “accidentally” bumping into his party guests to notice my hand sliding into his pocket. A little piece of me felt like I was doing a solid for women everywhere by ripping the jerk off.

Getting back to the task at hand, I turned the key and popped open the box. Magic flooded the room like a pulsating glow of sunlight and power. Music sprang forth—some sort of ancient battle song—forcing a vision into my mind. I suddenly found myself in a bed chamber, watching an enormous brute swing a singing sword back and forth as he advanced on the figure asleep in the bed. Shaking myself free of the vision, I ignored the deafening tune and fought to stay focused on my orders. Get in, get the weapon, get out.

The bedchamber dissipated and I was once again in some rich guy’s trophy room, hanging upside down and staring at a metal box. Within the box, a magical sword almost as long as my legs and hooked at the end like a sickle, kept right on singing, declaring its greatness to the world.

The lasers were coming back around. I should have grabbed the sword, but the familiarity of it gave me pause. I pulled back from the lasers and struggled to process what I was seeing. I’d stolen some pretty high-value goods before, but this sword…I knew this sword. I’d seen pictures of it in books and read the lore about it. I was almost certain I knew what I was looking at, but I couldn’t accept it.

The Harpē?  

It seemed to glow brighter in response.

It can’t be. 

Nobody seems to know where the Harpē came from, but its lore began when Gaia, the goddess of earth, and Uranus, god of the sky, birthed a handful of hideous children, known as the cyclops and giants. Uranus sent the uglies to live in a hell-like prison for deities, pissing off Momma Gaia so much she gave the weapon to their son, Cronus, and asked him to whack off his father’s junk.

And I couldn’t think of a single reason why a weapon powerful enough to take down the god of the sky would be locked away in the trophy room of a human.

Was he human?  

I’d done my homework. Public records had the owner of this place listed as Aaron Blake, some corporate CEO spawned from old money and raised to power on the backs of blue-collar workers. The guy was textbook for a hit. I had no reason to believe he was anything more than some greedy player.

Stupid, Romi. 

If Aaron Blake wasn’t human, what was he? A god or a demigod in disguise? Everyone called the disguises glamours. They were more like a trick of the eye…easy to create. I’d used the same type of magic to disguise the daggers strapped to my thighs, assuring nobody would see so much as the outline of them through my dress. Yet I hadn’t even looked for a glamour surrounding Mr. Blake. I wasn’t prepared to go up against a god, but the more I stared at the sword, the more certain I was of its identity, which meant touching it would bring someone’s ire down upon me. 

Damn. What does Shade want with the Harpē? 

Shade was terrifying enough without a magical sword at his beck and call. He already wielded me like a weapon, and the idea of arming him with the Harpē made my stomach churn.

No. I won’t take it! I won’t give him this.

Determined to follow through with my decision, I pressed the button on my harness and let the rope retract. Pain blossomed inside my chest, and the further I got from the sword—and the task Shade had ordered me to complete—the more I hurt. My insides seemed to fold inward, squeezing the air from my lungs. I knew from experience it wouldn’t let up. The pain would drive me crazy until I gave in and did my sire’s bidding.

Stars danced before my eyes, I smelled copper, and felt blood welling up in my nasal cavity, especially unpleasant due to my upside-down position. Swearing, I pressed the button again, halting my retreat. I’d only managed to get about five feet away. I dangled midair, cursing both my sire and the mother who’d abandoned me with him. Once again accepting the fact I had no choice, I lowered myself back down to hover above the sword and wait out the next cycle of lasers.

Giving in to Shade’s commands despite my personal convictions always left a sour taste in my mouth, but I couldn’t disobey. Not with my kid counting on me to make it home.

My brief rebellion squashed, I studied the box again, trying to come up with a plan. A weapon as valuable as the Harpē would be protected by a ward. Wards were magical barriers, used to keep valuables safe from thieves like myself. Generally speaking, the more treasured an item or a place was, the stronger and more potent its ward would be.

And the Harpē probably had a doozey of a ward on it, which didn’t bode well for me.

Once the lasers cycled, I blew into my hands. Gold shimmered across my palms, imbuing them with luck. Hoping it would be enough to breach the ward, I sprang down and reached for the sword. My hands hit the invisible barrier and stalled, but I pressed harder.

There was a loud pop, and then I surged past the barrier and grabbed the Harpē’s hilt. It felt like plunging my hands into an open flame. Despite its length, the sword was light enough to wield with one hand. I hefted it toward me, but it hit the ward and bounced back. The heat intensified, and my flesh burned. Biting back curses, I shifted the sword to my right hand and pulled back my left to push the button and retract the rope again. The electronic pulley system clicked, then whirred to life, tugging at the rest of my body while the ward fought to keep hold of the hand wrapped around the sword’s hilt.

Voices came from the hallway, growing louder. The doorknob jiggled. Mr. Blake had to feel me messing with his ward, and now he was here to investigate.

I clenched my jaw, trying not to scream in pain as the rope and the ward fought over my body, tugging me in two like some jacked-up version of the rack. The door slammed open, and there I was, caught with my dress around my waist and my hand in the cookie jar.

Another loud pop sounded. I flew a few feet in the air and then my body jerked to a jarring stop. As I tried to assess my level of whiplash, the mechanism whirred again, taking up the slack. With the Harpē still clutched in my blistered, smoking hand I lurched upward, ascending toward the high ceiling for what I hoped was the final time.

Once I reached the top, I pushed the button to stop my ascent and flipped myself right side up, grabbing hold of the rope with my free hand to manually tug myself the rest of the way.

“Hey! Intruder!” someone shouted. “Stop!”

Not a chance in the underworld. Blisters popped and flesh tore from my hands as I pulled myself up to the skylight. I pushed it open and slid through, unhooking my equipment and shoving it into the backpack I’d left on the roof on my way in. Swearing as I scooped up the pack and my discarded Louboutin pumps, I sprinted across the annoyingly well-lit roof on bare feet. I made it almost to the shadows of the partial third level before something yanked on my backpack, tugging me backwards. Heart racing, I turned to find Aaron Blake grinning down on me.

No human could have followed me. Suspicions confirmed, I looked from the host to the skylight and asked, “What are you?”

His hand went from my backpack to the bare skin of my arm. Godblood pulsed through his veins, revealing his heritage in a way that rendered words useless.

Great.

As if he’d heard my thoughts, his grin widened and he released the human glamour he’d been wearing. Mischievous green eyes that sat a little too close together stared out at me over cheekbones sharp enough to slice a ripe tomato. He stood at least two feet taller than me, and his shoulder-length hair—dark at the roots and red at the tips—was styled back and up in a do that made a mockery of gravity. With his hand still securely wrapped around my arm, he gave me a quick bow. “Talon, son of Dolos.”

A demigod. That explained the quick travel, but why would someone willingly admit their sire was the god of trickery? Not exactly the best way to build trust and make friends.

“What do you want?” I asked. I had to ask. That’s how these warped little godblood games worked. If you caught someone of the blood, and could hold them, you could weasel anything you wanted them out of them in exchange for their release.

Talon released my arm only to wind his fingers in my hair and trail down to my bleeding sword hand. “For now, what I want is to know the name of the enchanting little thief who broke my ward and stole my sword.” His gaze drifted back to my face and locked with mine.

“Your name?” he repeated.

I stared at him defiantly.

“Oh, come on, I’ve already seen what’s under your dress.”

Refusing to acknowledge the heat creeping up my cheeks, I didn’t so much as blink.

“Fine, we’ll do this the hard way.” His demeanor intensified and the air crackled with a charge. “Tell me your name.”

Compulsion laced his words, making me want to spill my secret, but not even a son of Dolos was skilled enough to break my current contract. Shade had forbidden me to give out any personal information at all, so my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.

One thin, dark eyebrow arched up his flat forehead. “Interesting. Well, I caught you, so give me back my property.” He held out his hand expectantly.

I considered returning the sword, and the torturous twist of my internal organs made me rethink my position on the matter. Having no idea whether or not I was immortal, I didn’t necessarily fear death. It was the promise of a fate worse than death that scared the bejeebers out of me. I could potentially live through disobeying a direct order from Shade only to spend an eternity writhing in pain, lingering on the verge of having the life squeezed out of me. No thank you.

Talon took a step back to study me, clearly perplexed by my ability to resist his magic. That was a big mistake. The second he put distance between us I leapt backwards, calling the nearby shadows to me.

Shadows are living, breathing, brutal beings, always vying for power and wiping out the weakest among them. Sensing my pain, they launched a full-on attack against my burnt and blistered hands, extorting what they perceived to be a weakness. Gritting my teeth through the prickling pain of what felt like a thousand needles stabbing into my wounds, I opened myself to the power of Erebus and let it pulse from me. It consumed the first round of shadows, strengthening and energizing me.

The Harpē’s song increased in tempo as it flitted through notes in what now sounded like some sort of escape tune. I called more shadows, and this time they enveloped me with a loving caress.

Talon’s eyes widened as he watched the whole ordeal. “A child of darkness,” he said, chuckling as I stepped into my grandsire’s realm.

Reality shifted and my stomach did a little flip. Darkness surrounded me, spanning out as far as I could see. Keeping my destination firmly locked in my mind, I took another step. Another shift, and I was standing on the uneven cobblestones of the Seattle Underground.

Home sweet home.

 

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Breaking Bones Sneak Peek

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…

 

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CHAPTER ONE

Bones

 

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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