Dial L for Lynda Sneak Peek

The cozy mystery I’m co-writing with Tracey Jane Jackson is available for pre-order now and will be released 5/1/16. Here’s a sneak peek:

Addison

FRIDAY MORNING, I was awakened by the phone buzzing on my nightstand. I rolled over with a groan and checked the caller ID. Harley. “Um, hello, no calls before eleven on Fridays. You better be in a ditch with a broken leg somewhere.”

My best friend groaned into the phone. “I just got fired.”

I sat up. “What the hell? Why?”

Harley Linn James has been my best friend since she transferred into my exclusive private school in the sixth grade. She’d been given a special scholarship due to her family’s financial situation and the shrew girls (we’d named them that because they were way worse than mean girls) clocked her the second she walked through the doors.

Harley was gorgeous. G-O-R-G-E-O-U-S. As in, soft, curly red hair, a smattering of freckles over her nose that was cute as hell (as my brother said all too many times), hazel eyes, and, when she hit her teens, she developed a curvy figure which was all too often noticed by the wrong people.

As if beauty wasn’t enough, Harley had a quick wit and an even quicker mouth. Although she rarely stood up for herself, she fought for everyone else: me, the janitor being harassed by the shrew girls, random dogs locked in hot cars on sunny days, bugs about to be squished in the hallway. And while this kept her from belonging to the “in” crowd, it made me love her even more.

And now she was calling me at 9:59 in the morning because her asshat of a boss had fired her. And I’m pretty sure I know why she was let go—because despite his many advances, she wouldn’t sleep with him.

“Why do you think?” she confirmed.

“Come over.”

“I’m already here.”

“Well, then use your key and come in. Why are you not already inside?”

“Because I didn’t know if you had your gun in its safe, or next to you, and I didn’t want to be fired and dead!”

I giggled. “Gun is in its safe. Come on in.”

I slid out of bed and wrapped my silk Armani robe around me. I could walk around half-naked in front of Harley, but she’d already been traumatized enough for one day.

I hustled into the living room and pulled her in for a hug. “He’s a dick.”

“I know,” she said, her stoic nature working overtime.

“You can cry you know.”

“I’m not going to cry over that asshole!” she snapped. “I might drink bleach later, a nice 2015 Clorox, but I won’t cry!”

“Okay, lady.” I forced myself not to laugh as I raised my hands in surrender. “Coffee?”

“Yes,” she breathed out. “Coffee. STAT.”

“You should have been a nurse,” I mused as I grabbed containers for my Keurig.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because you have the lingo down.”

“Shut it.” Harley gave me her “I will stab you in your sleep” eyes, and I smiled.

“Nurse Harley. I wonder if you’d be anything like Nurse Jackie. Let me see your eyes. Are your pupils pinned?”

I heard a quiet snort and turned to see her biting back a smile.

“I totally beat your record!”

We’d had an unwritten contest for as long as I could remember that whenever one of us was having a bad day, the other one had to get her to laugh. Harley could usually get me giggling within minutes; however, I just beat her best time, so I did a happy dance around my kitchen while I’m sure she plotted my murder in her mind.

“Let’s go out tonight,” I suggested, handing her a cup of coffee.

“Um, hello. No job, no money.”

“I’m paying.” I smiled. “Or Daddy is.”

My father was, how do you say… absent? So when my parents separated, he gave Asher and me credit cards to use whenever we wanted. Even after my parents reconciled (for appearances only, let’s be honest), Daddy insisted we keep the cards “for emergencies.”

Asher never touched his; as a highly skilled attorney, he didn’t need to. Me? I hadn’t quite found myself. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I did nothing, but planning fundraisers and events for Mother and Daddy isn’t what I ultimately wanted to do with my life. I was good at it, but it wasn’t my bliss. Of course, using Daddy’s money whenever I wanted to did bring a certain measure of joy, and since I did the work for less than most meeting planners would charge, I let my father assuage his absent-parent guilt when I needed cash for retail therapy… or bar hopping.

“Addie.”

Before I could respond, my phone buzzed. “Oh, look, it’s my brother.”

“Don’t answer,” Harley demanded.

“Hey, Ashy.”

“I’m killing you in my head,” she hissed.

I gave her a sassy smile and focused on my brother. Asher was two years older than me and besides Harley, my best friend. It had been the two of us against the world (or our parents) forever—still was, to be honest. Then along came Harley, using her sharp wit and small-town charisma to carve her way into the position of (her words) third wheel, although, admittedly, she provided just the balance we needed.

We’d had more fun than three kids should legally be allowed to have, until she and Asher caught the feels for each other and started acting more like two stooges.

“Hey, sis,” Asher said.

“What’s up, favorite brother of mine?”

“Can I swing by and grab that portfolio I asked you to look over?”

“When?”

“Like, now?”

I glanced at Harley and she glared at me, shaking her head. She must have heard Asher’s question.

“Ummm… ”

“I know it’s before eleven, but it’ll only take a second. I can just let myself in, but wanted to call in case your gun wasn’t in its safe.”

“What is with everyone and my gun?” I snapped. “I wouldn’t just shoot somebody willy-nilly.”

“Bobby Moore,” he said at the same time Harley asked, “Who the hell says willy-nilly?”

Bobby Moore, my shooting instructor, had made the mistake of trying to flirt with me while teaching me to shoot. I almost shot his leg off when I threw my hand up in frustration because he kept distracting me. In the end, the bullet went through his jeans, just grazing his calf, and that’s when I realized he’d never be the man for me. He was way too weak… blubbering like a sissy because of a minor flesh wound. I still shuddered thinking about what a wimp he was, and Asher loved to remind me. Gah! I hated weak men.

“One time,” I replied. “And it barely broke the skin.”

Asher chuckled. “Sure, we’ll go with that. Did I hear Harley?”

“Yep,” I said, stepping away from the laser-beam glare Harley shot me. “She says ‘hey.’”

“I hate you,” Harley breathed out, and I blew her a kiss.

“I’ll see you in a bit.”

“Sounds good,” I said, and hung up.

* * *

Harley

“Addison Angeline Allen, don’t you turn your back on me,” I demanded in the most threatening tone I could conjure.

“More coffee?” Addison asked.

I slid my mug toward her. “Please tell me your brother is not on his way here.”

“You couldn’t possibly want me to lie to you, could you?” she asked, looking appalled. “Harley, you know I’m not that kind of girl.” Then she beamed me her signature, hundred-watt smile, reminding me why I could never stay mad at her. She was like a cute little blonde-haired, blue-eyed demon whose good intentions were sure to lead me straight to my own personal hell.

“He can’t see me like this, Addie. I’m so…” Destitute, jobless, beaten, pathetic; none of the adjectives I could come up with did my situation justice.

“Are you kidding me? Right now is the perfect time for him to see you. You’ll tell him what your boss did and he’ll swoop in and drag the asshat to court, saving the day and forcing you to finally admit you’re in love with him so the two of you can get married and give me lots of gorgeous nieces and nephews.”

Addison was also a hopeless romantic.

“You think you got this all figured out, don’t you?” I asked, preparing to crush her dreams.

She nodded enthusiastically. “I’ve even found you the perfect dress.”

And I bet the glamorous creation would cost more than I made in a year. I needed to derail this train before it flattened the pennies left in my savings account. Don’t get me wrong, when it came to Asher, Addison and I had the same goal in mind–I’d marry her smart, funny, kind, handsome big brother and have his babies—but I intended to make my own way in this world first. I was working on a plan to dig myself out of the hole I’d been born into so I could climb up to his level, but losing my job would take me back to square one. And at twenty-four years old, and acutely aware of my biological clock ticking toward thirty, I didn’t want to start over.

Feeling defeated, I collapsed on the sofa and stared at the ceiling. “You don’t get it, Addie. I want Asher to see me as an equal… as someone he’s chosen to love because of what I bring to the table. Not because he has to rescue me like some damsel in distress, getting harassed by my pervert of a boss.”

She put her hands on her hips and stared me down. “You’re an idiot, you know that? Ash has been in love with you since—”

“Since when?” I interrupted. “Since that stupid “Seven Minutes in Heaven” game when I threw up in his lap? I’m sure that made quite the impression. Not my best moment, Addie.”

She cracked a smile, shaking her head at the memory. Some people get sweaty hands or stutter when they’re nervous. Turns out I throw up… all over the boy I’d spent my entire life crushing on. Epic.

“That was years ago, and you—”

“Can still barely talk to him without losing my lunch,” I finished for her. “Admit it, Addie, I’m a lost cause.”

“So you like the guy so much it ties your stomach in knots. It’s… it’s sweet.”

I barf on him and she calls it sweet. See? Hopeless romantic.

“And when he finds out what your boss did to you, he’ll—”

Asher picked that very moment to walk into the living room. Of course he did, because I was having the best day ever.

“What’s going on with your boss, Harley?” he asked, without missing a beat.

My cheeks heated as my eyes sought him out, wondering what else he’d overheard. Asher was suited up for the day. Probably Armani, since both he and Addison had a penchant for the designer. He had the same blond hair as his sister, but his blue eyes had an intensity to them that always managed to steal my breath away. He was currently rocking a short beard that added a layer of ruggedness to his posh handsomeness, taking him to yet another level out of my league. Hell, now that I was jobless, we weren’t even playing the same sport. I sat there in my clearance-rack skirt and blazer, acutely aware of the small run in the back of my nylons, wishing I could blend in with Addison’s leather sofa. When I didn’t answer his question, he turned to Addison.

“Addie?”

“Her boss is a douchebag,” Addison replied. “He’s been hitting on her since she started there, and when he finally realized it wasn’t going to happen, he fired her.”

Asher’s eyes hardened and the muscles along his jawline rippled as he turned his gaze back onto me. “Is that true?”

I swallowed. “Not… exactly.”

“Harley!” Addison admonished.

When I didn’t elaborate, Asher walked over to the sofa and sat down beside me. “Tell me.”

The heat of his body did crazy things to my pulse, but I forced myself to woman-up and face him. “There were some discrepancies with the budget. I brought them to his attention and he informed me they weren’t my concern and ordered me to keep my nose in my own job. But they affected my job because I couldn’t add his expenses without plunging the budget into the red, so I… I took my issue to his boss. Next thing I know, “Kirk the Jerk” is helping me pack up my desk under the watchful eye of the security guard. Like I would take anything that reminded me of Bridge City Property Management Company, eeeeeencorporated.”

Asher arched an eyebrow. “So he wasn’t hitting on you?”

“Uh… well… let’s just say that wasn’t the reason I was fired.”

“More like it wasn’t the reason he gave you,” Addison countered with a huff. “Seriously, Ashy, you should hear some of the things this Kirk douchebag has said to her. And the other day, he actually patted her on the ass! Can you imagine? Don’t you think she should—”

“Not important right now,” I said, feeling my cheeks heat up as I cast a hard glare at her. “Addie, you’re not helping.”

She glared right back at me. “You can’t let him get away with that crap.”

Asher grabbed my hand, forcing my attention back on him. “Harley, if your boss did or said anything inappropriate, you have options for—”

“For never getting a job in this town again?” I asked, emboldened by my frustration. I tugged my hand away from his, stood, and started pacing to work out my energy. “As much as I would love to do a solid for women everywhere and nail Kirk’s balls to the wall, I have to think about my future here. Do you have any idea what a sexual harassment case does to a woman’s chances of employment? I need to work, Ash. I had a plan and I was…” I paused long enough to swallow back my emotions, reminding myself that crying wouldn’t solve anything. “It would be less detrimental to my career to kill him than it would be to sue him.”

“Great, I’ll get my gun,” Addison said, heading for the safe.

Always the voice of reason, Asher lunged to wrap his sister in a hug, effectively cutting off the route that would begin her murder sentence. “I get what you’re saying, Harley. I don’t like it and I wish I could change your mind, but I understand why you don’t want to go after your boss. He’s definitely not worth those consequences.”

Addison snorted. “We can hide a body, Harley.”

“You say that like you’ve done it before,” Asher accused.

Addison raised her hands. “I will neither confirm, nor deny… ”

“To be clear, we’ve never bagged a body then weighted it down with twenty-pound cinderblocks before throwing it in the river, watching it sink and never be seen again.” I winked at Addison and then sighed. “Asher’s right, though, Addie. I don’t want to spend any more time or energy on Kirk. I just want to drink my feelings away this weekend, and then Monday morning I’ll put on my big girl panties and update my resume.” And with a little luck, I’d have my college loans paid off right about the time I hit ninety.

Addison’s expression softened. I could tell she wanted to hug me, but was thankful she didn’t, because I could barely hold on to my tears as it was. “You’re amazing and awesome and super-duper incredible, so you’ll find something quickly. I know you will. I’ll help you go through job listings this weekend.”

“Thanks, Ad.”

“Tonight we party, though,” Addison said. “On me. Ashy, wanna join us?”

“Can’t, Sis. I’d love to stick around and make sure you two don’t end up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning, but I’ve gotta get back to work. And I have dinner with a client tonight. But call me if you need anything.” He released Addison to grab a file off the coffee table. Then he hugged me.

Asher had been one of my two best friends for years, and his arms felt safe and familiar, like a lighthouse directing me out of my current storm. I laid my head on his shoulder and breathed in his scent, content to let him hold me while tears stung my eyes. I wished I could stay like that forever, but all too soon the rest of my body picked up on his nearness, increasing my pulse and launching my stomach into a triple-tuck flip with a half-twist.

I started to pull away, but Asher gave me one last squeeze, whispering, “I miss you” against my cheek. Then he released me and headed out. I watched his very impressive backside disappear out the door before turning back to Addison.

“That bit about the body in the river was clever,” she said. “A little terrifying, but clever.”

I shrugged. “I’ve been reading mafia novels.”

Addison rolled her eyes. “You’re so weird. No reading tonight, though. We’re gonna go out and make sure you forget all about that sleazy boss. Which reminds me, I finally figured out a way to deal with my own sleaze problem.”

Because Addison was gorgeous and at least a dozen tax brackets above the average working guy, she was often hit on by greasy gold-diggers who wanted to get their hands on her daddy’s money. Yes, male gold-diggers were a real problem for her and, just like their female counterparts, they had no shame. Many of our conversations had been interrupted by men, shirts open to their waists to thrust their ripped chests into Addison’s face like she was some kind of bitch in heat who wouldn’t be able to stop herself from rolling over and showing her who-ha at their manliness.

Right. But no matter how many cheesy pick-up lines they tried to sell to Addison, they couldn’t seem to buy a clue that jobless, pretty-boy scrubs weren’t her type. And sometimes the overly-confident jerks were really hard to deflect, forcing Addison to get creative.

The last time we’d gone out some douchebag who oiled his chest—not kidding, he was shiny and reeked of baby oil—wearing an open blazer and skinny jeans wouldn’t leave our table, insisting she give him her number. Seeing no way out of it, she scrawled a random number on a napkin and handed it over. He took two steps away from our table, called the number, then turned to freak out on Addison for throwing him fake digits. As if his pretty face and stacked body entitled him to her number.

“Good. What’s the plan?” I asked.

She grinned. “This time I’ll use a real fake number.”

“Come again?”

“Well, I added another phone line to my plan, so I just need to record a voice mail for my fake name, and bam! Problem solved.”

I scratched my head. “So you’re paying another monthly line fee to give guys a fake number?”

She nodded, still grinning. “Genius, right?”

I was thinking more along the lines of expensive and unnecessary, but I could see where it would be useful. “You sticking with the name Lynda?” I asked.

Both Addison and Asher called all their navigation systems Lynda. I’d made the mistake of asking why once, and had gotten some long, drawn-out answer that boiled down to neither of them knowing. It was just something they did. So when Addison gave out a fake name, she used Lynda. Using her navigation system’s name was her way of telling people to get lost, and writing Lynda with a Y instead of an I was like telling them to get lost with a flourish on the tail. Which pretty much summed up why she was my best friend.

“Of course,” she said, grabbing her phone. “Then whenever we’re having a crap-lousy day, we can dial in and listen to the messages. It’ll be like our own little reality show. We’ll call it Clueless Scrubs.”

Despite my own crap-lousy day, I couldn’t help but laugh as Addison set up an extra-breathy message on her new voice mail. “You know…” I grinned. “If your dad ever cuts you off, I think you could have a real future as one of those phone sex operators.”

She threw her phone at me. Then, knowing exactly what I needed, my bestie clapped her hands together and said, “All right, let’s get this party started.”

We drank mimosas for breakfast.

* * *

I WAS SLEEPING off the worst hangover of my life Saturday morning when loud pounding woke me up.

Before I could even get my bearings, the door of my studio apartment burst open and two police officers blazed in with their guns drawn.

I sat up and tugged my comforter around me, instantly sobering up by at least three margaritas. “What… what’s happening?” I managed to get out.

Neither spoke. The Hispanic cop kept his weapon trained on me, while the blond scoured the small space, checking behind my sofa, searching the closet, and peeking under my bed before he paused in front of the bathroom door. He swore, then squared his shoulders and entered. I heard the shower curtain slide over its rod before he reemerged.

“There’s blood in the bathroom. No other suspects. Let’s take her in.” He turned and spoke into his radio, but I was too freaked out to pay attention to what he said.

“What blood? Wait, take me in? To where? For what? What’s going on?” I asked.

“We need you to calm down, ma’am,” the Hispanic cop said.

Which had the opposite effect of calming me down. Heart thundering against my chest, I asked, “What?! Why are you here? Am I being arrested?”

“Blood in the bathroom?” he asked the other cop.

“Yes. We’ll need to get it roped off.”

The Hispanic cop turned back to me. “Yes ma’am. You’re under arrest for suspicion of murder. Anything you say and do can and will be used against you in a court of law.”

“Suspicion of murder?” I interrupted. “Whose murder? Where? What are you talking about?”

Instead of answering, he kept reading me my Miranda rights while he tugged me from my bed, revealing my tank top and panties. The blond kept his gun on me while the Hispanic officer gathered clothes and sneakers and tossed them on the bed. As soon as I dressed, he handcuffed me. When he tugged me past the bathroom door I peeked in. Dark streaks ran across the floor, the wall, and the shower curtain.

“What the hell?” I asked, leaning back as they shuffled me forward. “That blood? Wait, I can explain that blood.” My face heated at the idea, but embarrassment was far better than jail time.

“Ma’am, anything you say can and will be used against you… you heard that part, right?”

I bit back a snarky Addison-esque comment and dropped my head.

We stepped out into the hallway where the Hispanic handed me off to a female officer. She tugged me forward, around two more cops who were roping off the area with yellow crime scene tape. I looked past them to see the body of a man propped against the wall, only steps from my front door.

I recognized the rumpled dark suit, thinning brown hair, and squinty little eyes immediately.

But the knife sticking out of his chest was new.

I swallowed, but couldn’t seem to take in any air. Whether from an excess of alcohol or a lack of oxygen, the edges of my vision darkened and my body trembled. The female cop pulled me along. We squeezed past two men in suits and a couple of men in white jumpsuits. I glanced back, catching one final glimpse of the body.

Just yesterday, Kirk Miller had terminated my employment and I’d—very publicly, in front of the entire office—told him right where he could stick my job. In fact, I’d even offered to do it for him. Now his dead body was propped against the wall outside my apartment, making it clear that in the end I was the one getting screwed. Talk about irony.

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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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