The last two weeks had been busy.
I caught up on my school work, finished the painting I was working on, and finally transformed my apartment so it didn’t contain the scent of the man who took me hostage.
Sapphire and I texted almost every day, and she told me she and my brother were still finalizing their wedding plans. They wanted to do something small at the house, just family and lots of wine.
I loved both of those things, so I was down.
When I went to the market the other day, I ran into a handsome guy who reached for the same box of cereal. We exchanged a few words, and it turned out, he didn’t even like that brand of cereal. He just wanted an excuse to find out what my name was.
Then we went to dinner. Anytime a guy asked me out, I always insisted we meet at a casual café. Big, romantic dinners were overrated and just awkward. I didn’t want a man to try to impress me by buying me an expensive meal. Wealth wasn’t impressive to me. I wanted a man who was all man, someone who couldn’t hide behind money or success.
His name was Tony, and he was nice enough. He worked at an investment firm, taking people’s savings and putting it in the stock market. He was young for that line of work, and it sounded like it was his first year working there.
The date was pleasant but nothing special.
It was never special.
Sometimes I met a guy and we really hit it off, but then the chemistry didn’t go beyond sex. We just got off on each other and enjoyed passionate nights of good and sweaty sex. But there was nothing substantial there, so I stopped calling. Then he stopped calling.
And then it was like it never happened.
After the incident with Knuckles, I was a lot more paranoid than I used to be. How did he figure out where I was living? Did he follow me on my way home? Or did he simply do some research online? Whatever the answer was, I always took a different route home, just in case I was being followed.
When I turned the corner and walked down the quiet street, it began to snow. Small flakes floated from the sky, and the white color contrasted against the darkness of the evening. I stopped to let one touch the tip of my nose. I let it melt before I kept going. I preferred the heat of summer, but I still thought the winters in northern Italy were gorgeous. When the streets were blanketed with snow, it was a sight to behold. It was a pain to walk in it on the way to class, but it was still beautiful to see.
I stopped again when I heard a sound I would never forget.
A guttural sound, like someone drowning in their own blood.
The thud of a dead body hitting the ground.
And then the smack of a pipe cracking someone’s skull.
I stopped and turned my gaze down the dark alleyway, even though I knew there was nothing I wanted to see. That’s when I saw the dark outline of a man looming over a corpse on the ground. The victim had just died, so the freezing temperatures hadn’t turned his warm body cold yet. The shadow hid the stranger’s face, but he was the size of a monster. Tall, muscular, and large, he made Knuckles look pathetic.
A fucking murder.
It happened so fast I didn’t think to call the police. I didn’t have a knife or a weapon to intervene. But I knew it would be stupid to put myself in harm’s way when I didn’t even know what was going on.
They could have been two homeless men fighting over a dumpster.
Why did I have to be the only one out there?
I didn’t hear a single sound, so there was no way for me to anticipate what would happen next. I had a strong instinct and could feel things around me before I saw or felt them. But this guy was no average man, and he snuck up on me without his boots crunching against the snow.
Then the knife came. The steel blade was ice-cold against my throat. He pressed it hard into me, telling me he meant business. His voice was cold like the knife, icy like the air burning my lungs. The snow started to fall harder now, blocking my view of the nearest apartment building. It was the perfect coverage for something like this. “Make a sound, and I’ll slit your throat. I’ll let you bleed out like a pig at the slaughter.”
Why didn’t I just take a different route home? I took another deep breath but remained still.
I hated that phrase. I detested it every time a man used it. It was insulting, belittling, and sexist. I spoke against his hand. “Fuck. You.”
I stomped on his foot and tried to roll him forward the way my father taught me, but this guy was the size of an ox, and all I did was jerk him a little. I abandoned the attempt and tried to run for it.
“Stupid. Fucking. Girl.” He snatched my ankle and pulled so I fell forward onto the concrete. He came at me with the knife again, this time to make good on his word. He moved on top of me, ready to plunge it into my throat so I couldn’t scream for help.
But then his eyes flashed over my face. There was an instant of emotion, a look of familiarity. It was the first time I could see his face—his fair skin, bright blue eyes, and his chiseled jawline. I imagined my attacker to be dirty, homeless, and gross.
He continued to grip the knife, but something stopped him from making good on his threat. I knew he was going to do it, saw the blood lust in his eyes. He wasn’t the kind of man to make empty threats.
Something changed his mind.
He shoved the knife into the sheath then lifted me over his shoulder.
That’s when I started to scream for help. I screamed at the top of my lungs, begging someone to hear me beyond the snow fall. Someone had to be home in one of the nearby apartments. Someone would report this to the police.
The man carried me down the alleyway toward a black van parked near the dumpster. “Scream all you want. By the time someone hears you and actually thinks to act on it, we’ll be long gone. And if by some miracle the police actually arrive, they’ll take one look at me and turn the other way.” He set me on the ground, right on top of a pile of snow. With lightning speed, he pulled a gun out of his pocket and pointed it in my face.
I stopped screaming, abandoning my call for help. I had to think of something to do—and do it quickly.
“Because I’m trying to figure out how to kill you.”
The half-smile he wore quickly turned into a full grin. A small chuckle even escaped his lips. He pressed the barrel to my cheek, the cool metal freezing like the snow. “You’re cute.” He got off me then holstered his gun, like he wasn’t the least bit afraid of me.
He shouldn’t underestimate me.
He even turned his back on me as he walked to the corpse he left behind. “Don’t run. It’ll be a lot worse in the end.” He grabbed the man by the ankles and dragged him across the asphalt and snow. He purposely set the man right next to me.
I’d never stared at a dead person before. I shot that guy when I was escaping Knuckles, but I didn’t stop to examine him. This guy was mutilated, his skull crushed in until his face was hardly recognizable.
I felt vomit rise in my throat.
The man kneeled down so we were eye level. There was a shadow underneath his jaw because his bone structure was so chiseled. He had a sprinkle of hair there, thick enough to cover his skin but not thick enough to be a beard. His fair skin complemented the brightness of his eyes. With dirty blond hair, he looked like a man who belonged on a magazine cover rather than in an alleyway in Milan. He wore a black leather jacket, black jeans, and brown boots. No amount of clothing could hide what was underneath his attire. He was strong, muscular, and powerful. “You don’t want to end up like that, right?”
He chuckled, the light reaching his eyes. Even though the laugh was full of amusement, it seemed sarcastic. Regardless of what expression he wore, he was undeniably handsome. Why the hell was a guy like this murdering people? “I can’t remember the last time someone made me laugh.”
“I don’t think there’s anything funny about your own death.”
He smiled again then grabbed a body bag from the van.
I stared down the alleyway and thought of running. I was fast, but this man was faster. If I saw someone pass in the alleyway, I would sprint for it. Or maybe I could dig my phone out of my purse. It was still with me.
I only had a second to decide.
I went for the phone. I tried to be discreet as I unzipped the zipper.
He returned with the body bag and rolled the man inside. He didn’t look at me as he guessed what I was doing. “I’m telling you, the cops won’t touch me. So you better call someone good.”
My father was too far away. Even Conway was too far away. But I had to do something.
He carried the grown man into the back of the van and dropped him with a loud thud.
He snatched the purse out of my hand and threw it in the back of the van. “You’re slow.”
“Fuck you,” I hissed.
Like everything else, my words amused him. “Get in the passenger seat. Or I’ll put you in the passenger seat.”
I eyed the van then faced forward again, looking at the street.
“Don’t call me baby.”
“You’re my baby now,” he said. “I can call you whatever I damn well please.”
“You’re going to kill me anyway.” I rose to my feet and dusted off the snow. “So I may as well—” I took off at a dead sprint, running for my life. I had to get to the street. I had to get out of there. If I got into that van, I would never see the light of day again. I would much rather die trying to escape than let him rape me then carve me with a knife.
I didn’t even make it halfway when his large hand grabbed my shoulder, and he shoved a taser into my neck. He shocked me at full intensity, making my entire body go rigid before I collapsed. I hit the asphalt, slightly disoriented by the electrocution. But I didn’t let myself stay down. I didn’t allow myself to be weak. I pushed up and started to run again.
This time, he laughed louder. “Jesus Christ, I’ve never seen that before.” He caught up to me again, and this time, he zapped me for twice as long. He hit me on the other side of the neck, making a new scar.
I collapsed again, feeling weaker than I did last time. I just wanted to lie there. I just wanted to give up. This guy was beyond my skills. He was a powerhouse. My small size inhibited me completely.
He stood over me. “Now, baby. It’s time to get in the van.”
I didn’t care if the fight wasn’t fair. I didn’t care if this induced a heart attack. I’d crawl to the street if I had to. “Fuck. Off.” My arms shook as I pushed myself to my feet. I stumbled forward as my legs failed to carry me. I was too weak, but that didn’t stop me from moving my body forward.
He whistled. “Alright, I admit it. I’m impressed. I’ve taken down grown ass men twice your size with this thing.” He slowly followed me, watching me crawl.
“I’ll do it again, baby. But this time, it might kill you.”
“I’d rather die on the ground as a fighter than surrender to a piece of shit like you.”
This time, he stopped following me. He stared at me, watching me crawl away.
Lights reflected off the buildings, and then I heard the sirens.
Thank fucking god. “I’m here!”
A cop car pulled up to the alleyway, and an officer got out of the driver’s seat. With his gun drawn, he was ready to take out my captor.
“No!” I pushed myself to my knees and waved my arm. “Help me!”
The cop drove away.
“No!” I watched his taillights until they disappeared. And like no one had been there at all, the street returned to silence.
The man came up behind me, his knees hitting my back. His hand wrapped around my neck, and he forced my chin up, making me meet his gaze. He didn’t stare down at me in victory. It actually seemed like he pitied me.
Then he shoved a needle into my neck.
And I was gone.
When I woke up, I was sitting in the passenger seat of the van with my cheek pressed to the cold window. The ride was bumpy, like we were driving over rough terrain. My mind was still foggy, and I could have kept sleeping, but when I remembered my position and the man who took me, I snapped out of it.
Away from people.
My hands weren’t bound and neither were my ankles.
There was some hope.
I tried to pretend I was still sleeping. That way, I could catch him by surprise. It was a stupid idea, but I could take the wheel and turn the van off the road. I might break an arm or something, but he also might die.
That would be nice.
His deep voice filled the air. “I know you’re awake, baby.” The radio wasn’t on, and only the sounds of the moving van filled our ears. The dead guy in the back rolled from side to side when we turned. I could hear the tap of my purse too.
I wished I could reach my purse. “Where are we?”
North of Verona. That meant we passed Conway’s home on the drive, along with Carter’s. Shit, why didn’t I just stay with them longer to recover? And why did I have to go on that date? If I’d just taken a different route last night, I wouldn’t be on my way to a freezing lake where he would dump my body. “I’m not letting you drown me in that lake.”
“For now,” I said ominously. “But I assure you, I will be.”
Each corner of his mouth rose in a wide grin. “I’ve never had a prisoner more amusing. They usually cry for a while. Then they start begging. They never fight back. But you’re an anomaly.”
“Because you don’t want to mess with me.”
“Ironic,” he said. “You don’t want to mess with me either.” He finally turned his head my way, his handsome expression hard but amused. He turned back to the road, his sculpted jawline so hard it looked like someone cut it out with a knife. Men that handsome weren’t supposed to be serial killers. He could have had a much different life if he wanted to.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Need to be more specific, baby.”
Ugh, I hated that word. I hated the way it fell on my ears. “Why are you killing innocent men in dark alleyways?”
“Why do you assume he’s innocent?” he countered. “He could be even more evil than I am.”
“Because you took me. And I’m pretty sure I’m as innocent as they come.”
“Why?” I demanded. “The police are afraid of you. So who could I tell?”
His hand tightened on the steering wheel, and he stared out the front window. The edges of the windows were frosted with ice, and even though the defroster was on, it couldn’t combat the freezing temperatures. “I know who you are, Vanessa Barsetti. There are worse people you could tell.”
My blood suddenly turned ice-cold, colder than the snow outside. I’d been scared this entire time, but now my terror reached a new level. I’d hoped he’d let me go because I was an innocent nobody. But now that he knew who I was, there was no going back. If he let me go and I told my family, they would hunt him until there was nothing left of him. The odds of repercussions were too great. The Barsetti family was far more formidable than the entire police force. He must have looked at my ID in my purse when I was passed out and recognized my last name.
My heart started to beat harder, and despite how cold it was, my palms got sweaty. Even if I could reach my phone right now, I probably had no reception.
Fuck, this was bad.
I’d just escaped Knuckles a month ago, and now I was being taken again. But this time, my opponent was far more terrifying and intelligent. The attempts I made to evade my captor last time wouldn’t work now.
But that didn’t mean I wouldn’t try.
My father was so proud of me when I escaped. The emotion was in his eyes like never before.
I had to make him proud again.
He slammed his foot on the gas, pushing the van at top speed. Then he turned his face toward me, his look so intense it resembled the underworld. With only a single hand, he managed to keep the steering wheel straight. He let the van fly down the icy road as he mocked me with his gaze. He challenged me, unafraid of the unknown ahead of us.
I yanked on the steering wheel again, but his grip was too tight. Now we were going ninety down the icy road, and if I didn’t back off, we would both be killed when we slammed head first into a tree.
A guarantee of death would defeat the purpose of this. So I let go and returned to my seat.
He lifted his foot off the gas.
He slowed us down before we came to a bend in the road. He turned into the curve and kept the van from spinning out of control. Then, like nothing happened at all, we cruised down the path with the piles of snow on either side.
I pressed my forehead against the window and sighed. “Fuck.”
“I admire your bravery. But I don’t admire your stupidity.”
I kept my gaze out the window. “Let me go, and I promise I won’t say anything to my family. We’ll pretend it never happened. You don’t want to be in this situation. If they figure out it was you who killed me, they’ll never stop until you and your whole family are dead.”
“Well, they already killed my family, so that’s one less thing on the list…”
I turned my head back to him. “What?”
He stared straight ahead. “And I don’t care if they come after me. It’ll give me an opportunity to kill the rest. So, no, letting you go isn’t an option. I want them to know I killed you. I want them to suffer. Letting you go would rob me of my vengeance. Trust me, I’m going to kill you. I just have to make it good.”
“But you came across me by accident.”
“Was it on accident?” he said quietly.
My skin pebbled with bumps. “What did my family do to you? They’re peaceful people. You must be confused.”
“No.” He slowed down when he reached a turn in the road. He went right and headed down the weathered path. “I’m definitely not confused.” The tires crunched over the snow as we approached the beach at the lake. The water wasn’t frozen, but at this time of year, the peaks around it were covered with snow. Tourists flocked here every summer, but in the winter, it was abandoned.
“I wouldn’t worry about him. You’re still alive, so I would worry about yourself right now.” He killed the engine then hopped out of the van.
My breathing increased, and I started to panic. I could usually keep my cool even in the worst circumstances, but now that there was no hope, I really felt like my death was imminent. My parents loved me so much, and they would never get over my death. My brother would be devastated too, along with the rest of my family. I didn’t want them to suffer. Even if he drowned me in the ice-cold lake, I wouldn’t suffer as much as they would.
I turned in my seat to look at him. “What are you doing?”
“Throwing him in the lake.” He dragged the body over the ground then across the snow toward the water. The keys to the van were in his pocket, so I couldn’t take off. My father never taught me how to hot-wire a car, but I yanked open the compartment underneath the steering wheel and tried. There were lots of wires, and I couldn’t figure out what to cut and what not to cut. I ripped them all out just to be spiteful. After he killed me, I hoped his engine wouldn’t start. Maybe he would freeze to death out here.
Served him right.
When I leaned over, I noticed a small piece of metal under his seat. I glanced out the window to see him dragging the body to the end of the pier. He was almost to the end where he would push the corpse into the lake.
I turned back and grabbed the metal.
It was a gun.
A fucking gun.
I sat upright and checked the barrel.
I couldn’t miss.
The man kicked the corpse into the water then turned around. He walked back toward me.
Now that I had some hope in my veins, my hands wouldn’t stop shaking. This moment was about life or death. If I didn’t aim perfectly and hit him right in the heart or the skull, I would blow my only chance.
I wasn’t going to miss.
I waited until he was close to the van before I opened the door and got out. I kept the gun hidden at my side so he wouldn’t notice it right away.
He was at least six-three, tall and muscular. He was packed with muscle on muscle, and he held himself with a formidable posture at all times. His blue eyes may have been pretty, but they were terrifying. His look was trained on me, an omen of what would come next. “Your turn, baby.”
“Don’t call me baby.” I aimed the gun and pointed it right at his heart. I didn’t hesitate to look for the terror in his eyes. I didn’t give myself any time to think about anything. I just had to kill this guy.
I pulled the trigger.
I missed his heart, but I hit him in the shoulder.
His body jerked slightly with the momentum of the bullet, but not once did his expression change. He didn’t show pain or fear. Like he was receiving a shot at the doctor’s office, it was just a quick pinch.
He halted in his tracks as he stared at me, and his furious expression changed into a different look altogether. Intense, territorial, and frightening, he looked at me like I was his next victim. His chest rose and fell at a quicker rate, the adrenaline spiking in his blood.
I still had the gun, so I had something to whack him with.
But he didn’t.
He stormed me, moving at a quick pace over the snow and heading right for me.
I raised the gun to smack him in the skull.
Without looking at it, he grabbed my wrist and smashed it against the side of the van, forcing my fingers to release the butt of the gun. It fell to the snow as my body was pressed against the door of the van.
One hand moved into my hair, and he crushed his mouth to mine.
And kissed me.
He kissed me aggressively, like he’d been wanting to do it for the last few hours and finally gave in. His massive body pressed against me, and he breathed warm air into my lungs. It was silent outside, the echo of the gunshot long gone.
He felt my lips with his own, sucking my bottom lip before he migrated to the top. His mouth worked mine, taking the lead and cherishing me like a man madly in love with a woman. There was more passion in that embrace than any other man had ever shown me. His cock was hard in his jeans, and I could feel it press against me.
It was a monster, just like he was.
It happened so fast I didn’t have time to think about what I was doing. But I kissed him back, my body naturally following his. I’d never been kissed this way, with such masculine possession. This man didn’t give me a chance to decide what I wanted. He just took me, like he already owned me.
Blood seeped from his wound and dripped down his leather jacket. It got on my jacket and my fingertips, warm in the frigid temperatures. He was bleeding badly, but that didn’t deter him from giving me the best kiss of my life. It didn’t stop the blood from giving him a huge hard-on.
I’d never met a man like this.
He fisted my hair harder, taking charge by force. His tongue came next, slipping into my mouth and meeting mine.
My tongue danced with his, the seductive embrace making me forget the cold.
Then he abruptly ended it, pulling his warm mouth away and leaving me exposed to the cold air once more. “Get your ass in the van.” He snatched the empty gun from the ground and got into the driver’s seat.
And his response was to kiss me.
The engine roared to life.
Did that mean he wasn’t going to kill me?
He honked the horn.
He pulled onto the main road but didn’t turn back the way we came. “Oh, I’m definitely going to kill you.”