It’s supposed to be a civil meeting after dark at Caffè Milano.
Trouble is, you never know when you’re dealing with Russian mafiya. Fucking unpredictable feral bastards.
We’re here today to talk territory. They’ve been encroaching on our neighborhoods. Moving drugs. Working prostitution with females I suspect are enslaved.
I don’t give a shit what they do anywhere else, and fuck knows we don’t have much business in our old neighborhoods anymore, but I consider it a Family obligation to keep them clean. Keep the fucking Russians out of them.
We meet in the open, at a sidewalk cafe in Cicero. We call it the old neighborhood, kinda like how my father’s generation used to refer to the Old Country.
We’re in the business of lending money, same as always. It’s legit, unless you count the beatdowns that come with not making payments on time. These days, business has grown to huge proportions and we’re now living in mansions in the suburbs. Which doesn’t mean I don’t care about what happens in my territory.
I see one of the younger bratva sitting at a table—Ivan, I think. Vlad, their leader, doesn’t seem to be there.
Cazzo. I don’t like the way this is going.
My brothers, Gio and Paolo, and I get out of the Range Rover, along with our soldiers, Mario and Luca. We’re all armed, although we don’t make a show of it by openly carrying weapons.
“Where’s Vlad?” I ask Ivan. Gio comes with me, the other three hang back, as arranged.
Ivan shrugs, looking bored. “Coming.”
The girl working the counter—a slouchy millennial in skinny jeans and a fitted top comes out. I recognize her but I don’t know her name. She’s the granddaughter of the original owner, Luigi Milano, my father’s friend.
“Mr. Tacone.” She greets me but her face is anything but friendly. In fact, her lips are drawn in a thin line and a muscle jumps in her jaw. She darts a glance at the Russian and back at me like she’s afraid of having both of us in her place at the same time.
I named Caffè Milano as the meeting location because I consider it friendly territory for us, but I wonder if, with the new generation, things have changed. Maybe they’ve made deals with the Russians.
I should be angry by the thought, but it registers as a low buzz, hardly an interest.
“Can I bring you anything? An espresso? Cannoli?”
“Get lost,” the Russian snaps and she visibly jerks, and when her gaze swivels back to me, there’s pleading in it.
Whatever the Russians are doing here, she’s not down with it.
Which means I still have a problem.
“Espresso,” I say, wishing I could think of her name. I remember her running around here as a little girl back when my dad used this as a meeting place. Marissa? Faith? Fuck, I have no idea.
She stands there a second longer—way too long for a normal server, and now I’m positive there’s a problem.
“Get. Lost.” The Russian looks dangerous.
She throws one last glance my way and heads inside.
Gio’s elbow presses subtly but firmly against my arm. He’s telling me something, too. I sense Paolo shift behind us.
Fanculo, this thing is going sideways. It’s a trick. An ambush.
I glance through the large plate glass window. Every seat near the window is taken. Unusual for this time of night. Caffè Milano is more of a daytime deli. They stay open until evening, but people aren’t usually hanging around. I notice every customer in the place has his head bent as if to obscure my view of his face.
Ivan stands up and my hand inches toward the Walther PPK at the back of my waist. “Let’s go inside.”
“I don’t think so,” Gio answers for me, whipping out his gun.
And just like that, the thing explodes.
Shots ring out from fucking everywhere. Some come from inside the cafe, shattering the glass. Some come from our guys behind me. Gio and the Russian on the sidewalk fire at each other.
I throw the table through the glass, shattering it with explosive force to clear the view, then aim and shoot at a wounded Ivan at the same time he hits Gio.
Gio grunts and staggers backward, clutching his gut.
No. No! Not Gio. Fuck!
Things go slow-motion for me. I grab Gio’s gun from his hand and shove him into Paolo and Mario. “Get him to the car!” I shout as I aim at the heads ducked down below the window. I pull the triggers.
One. Two. Three dead. I’m shooting with both hands like I’m in a motherfucking movie.
I slam my foot into the door to kick it open and walk through. Four. Five down. I swing the guns around, looking for movement. Luca enters behind me, gun drawn, late to the show.
Something moves behind the counter and I pivot the muzzle of my Beretta. Luca aims too. It’s the Caffè Milano girl.
Fuck. Can she be trusted not to squeal? I hold the gun steady as I make my decision.
“She’s a witness,” Luca murmurs, like I don’t already know. But we don’t kill the innocent. My mind spins on how loyal her family was, and whether that bond still holds.
Her eyes fill with tears. “Mr. Tacone…”
Merde. I shove both guns in my pockets. She’s loyal. She wanted to warn me, I’m sure of it.
“No, not Tacones,” I tell her firmly. I sweep a hand around the room. “Russians.”
“Right,” she nods shakily. “All Russians.”
“Give me five minutes before you call 911.”
“Got it.” Her head’s still wobbly on her neck.
I back toward the door. “I’m good for the damages.” I jerk my head toward the window, the bullet-riddled interior.
Tears spill down her cheeks as we leave and jump into the running car.
Paolo takes off, driving fast but easy-like. Not squealing tires or calling attention to us.
“Gio. Gio? Talk to me.” I sit beside my brother, pressing my hand over his where he holds the wound.
“I’m hit.” Gio’s slumped in the back seat, blood soaked through his shirt and jacket.
“I know. Just hang in there. You’re gonna be okay, you hear me?”
“Where to, Junior?” Paolo shouts from the front seat.
“My place. Then you three go pick up Desiree Lopez.”
“That’s right. She owes me a favor. She’s works in Trauma at Cook County. If she’s not at work, she lives on 22nd in Humboldt Park. Find her and bring her to my house. ”
* * *
I barely notice my surroundings as I walk, keys in hand, to my old but running fourteen-year-old Honda Civic. I don’t see the shiny black Range Rover parked a few spaces down.
My instincts don’t warn me.
Maybe they would’ve if I hadn’t just worked a twelve-hour shift in Trauma. Maybe I wouldn’t have just plodded out to my parking garage, brushing off the security guard’s offer to walk me to my car.
Not until two big guys in trench coats get out of it and come right for me.
Oh God. This is it. I’m about to be raped and killed.
I freeze for one second, heart pounding, then dart forward, racing to jump in my car before they can reach me.
“Hold it!” One of them yells and they both lunge, one blocking my driver’s side door, the other coming after me. “Desiree Lopez?”
My brain can’t even compute how they know my name. I open my mouth to scream, but the guy claps a hand over my mouth. “Quiet.” His terse command comes out deep and scratchy. He smells of cigar smoke. He takes my purse from my shoulder, pulls out my wallet and looks at my I.D. “Yeah, it’s her.”
Adrenaline pumps through my veins. I know what they say. If someone drags you to a car, you’re not going to come back alive, so fight for your life. I elbow my kidnapper, turn my head to bite his hand.
But it’s useless. He mutters a curse in some other language and tightens his hold. All my weight thrown around, all my twisting and writhing is nothing to him. He picks me up and carries me forward.
His buddy comes up behind us and presses a gun to my ribs. “Enough with the struggle. Get in the car.” They haul me into the back of the Range Rover, sandwiched between the two men. One of them strips me of my purse as the vehicle takes off.
A bag drops over my head and I renew my fight, but they control me easily, each one taking a wrist and pinning them down by my sides.
“Yeah, we got her,” one of them says. At first I think he’s talking to the driver, stating the obvious, but then I realize he must be on a phone. “See you there.”
“Wh-what’s going on?” I warble.
No one answers me.
The phone call gives me pause. They wouldn’t call someone to say they had me if their intent was to rape and kill, would they?
They would if they’re devil worshippers who require a virgin sacrifice.
Not that I’m a virgin. Or that my theory is likely.
“I don’t know what you want, but, please. Please let me go.”
Again, no one bothers answering.
The Range Rover drives fast—and the way it only briefly slows, I’d bet they are rolling through stops or red lights, making me plow into the men beside me when it turns.
We drive long enough for me to get good and scared. For my breath to shudder in and out on silent sobs. No tears, though. I must be too afraid to let go.
And then we stop. The asshole on my right drags me out of the car, and I stumble for my footing, the blackness of the sack over my head stealing my sense of balance as well as my sight.
The surroundings are quieter—not a city street anymore, but still a sidewalk under my feet.
“What the fuck are you doing?” An angry male voice demands in a low voice, drawing closer with each word. “I told you not to hurt her.”
“She’s not hurt, just scared.” The voice beside me is low, too. We must be someplace people would hear us if they raised their voices. A neighborhood?
“Let her go.” The bag flies off my head.
I open my mouth to scream, but the sound dies on my lips when I blink up at the pair of sharp, dark eyes above the stubbled masculine line of a powerful jaw belonging to my former employer.
My galloping heart slows, reverses direction, takes off again.
“Junior.” I call him by the name his mother used when I worked in her house, forgetting the “Mr. Tacone,” forgetting to show respect.
And then, because I had actually been attracted to this man last time I saw him—had thought maybe he had a thing for me, too—and I just had the shit scared out of me, I slap his face, hard.
The men beside me growl and grasp my arms again.
“Let her go.” He takes my forearms instead, pulling me into him. Through his long wool coat, the firmness of his large body presses back at me. His dark gaze is commanding. Intense. “I’ll let that slide, this time. Because they scared you.”
A shiver runs up my spine. He’ll let that slide.
Like ordinarily, there are consequences for slapping the mob boss.
Of course there are.
“Now, come inside, I need your help.”
I look up the sidewalk at the huge house illuminated by streetlights. It’s not his mother’s Victorian brick where I worked for three months as a home healthcare nurse after her hip surgery.
Must be his?
I try to pull my wrist from his grasp. “No. You can’t just, just… kidnap me and tell me to come inside because you need my help.”
He shifts his grasp and tips his head toward the house. “Let’s go.” He doesn’t even bother answering my argument. And I suppose that’s because I’m dead wrong. He can just kidnap me and demand my help. He’s Junior Tacone, of the Chicago underground. He and his men have guns. They can make me do whatever they damn well please.
The relief that trickled in when I saw his handsome face ebbs back out. I may still never walk out of here. Because whatever awaits me in that house isn’t going to be pretty. Or legal.
Someone’s hurt and they need a nurse. That’s my best guess.
And now I’ll be a witness to whatever they’re trying to hide.
Is one of their members hurt? Or are they torturing someone? Need me to keep him alive so they can get something out of him?
I have no choice but to go in. I may have spunk, but I’m not willing to find out what happens if you defy the kingpin of Chicago. I fall into step beside him, hurrying to match his long strides.
He slides his grip from my wrist to my hand. His large hand warms my icy one and has a protective quality, like we’re on a date.
Like I’m not his prisoner.