Tough Love: A Dark Mafia Romance Novella by Skye Warren

The moon sits high above the tree line. Somewhere beyond those woods is an electric fence. And beyond that is an entire city of people living and working and loving each other. I may as well be on the moon for how close I am to them.
Tough Love: A Dark Mafia Romance Novella
Tough Love: A Dark Mafia Romance Novella by Skye Warren
A guard walks by my window at 10:05 p.m. Right on time. I wait a few minutes until he’s out of earshot; then I flip the latch. From there it’s quick work to push up the pane with its bulletproof glass. I broke the lock a year ago. And almost every night since then I’ve sneaked down the ornate metal trellis—like a thief, stealing a moment to myself. The grass is still damp from the rain, the ground beneath like a sponge, sucking me in. I cross the lawn, heart beating against my chest. I know exactly where the guards are on their rounds. I know exactly where the trip wires are that will set off the alarms. My father is too busy in his office to even glance outside. The office I broke into this morning. I breathe a sigh of relief when I reach the pool. I’m still out in the open, but the bright underwater lights make it hard to see anything on the patio. They make it hard to see me as I curve around the edge and reach the pool house. The door opens before I touch the handle. “Clara,” comes the whisper. I can’t help but smile as I slip into the dark. Giovanni always opens the door for me. It’s like some old-world chivalry thing, even though we’re just two kids sneaking around. At least, that’s how everyone treats me. Like a kid. But when I’m with him, I feel less like a girl, more like a woman. He looks out the door for a beat before shutting and locking it. “Are you sure no one saw you?” “You’re such a worrywart, Gio.” I let myself fall onto the couch, facing up. “If your father ever found out…” We’d be in so much trouble. My father is a member of the mob. Giovanni’s father is a foot soldier who works security on the grounds. Both our dads are seriously dangerous, not to mention a little unhinged. I can’t even think about how bad it would be if they caught us sneaking around after dark. I push those thoughts away. “Did you bring it?” Reluctantly, Giovanni nods. He gestures to the side table, where a half-full bottle of Jack Daniels gleams in the faint light. “Did you?” I reach into the pockets of my jeans and pull out two cigars. I hold them up and grin. “Didn’t even break a sweat.” He rolls his eyes, but I think he’s relieved. “This was a bad idea.” “It was my idea,” I remind him, and his cheeks turn dark. Of course the little homework assignment was my idea. I’m the one ridiculously sheltered up in my room with the tutors and the gilded locks. Fifteen years old and I’ve never even been out to the movies. Giovanni gets to go to regular school. He’s too young to get inducted, but I know he gets to be at some of the sit-ins. “I just want to try them,” I say. “I’m not going to get addicted or anything.” He snorts. “More likely you’ll get a hangover. How are you going to explain puking to your padre?” “Honor will cover for me.” My sister always covers for me. She takes the brunt of my father’s anger. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I love the way she protects me. But one percent of the time, it feels like a straitjacket. That’s why I started coming to the pool house. And I’m glad I did. This is where I met Giovanni. He examines the cigar, eyes narrowed. “How do you even light it?” I ask. I’ve seen my father do it a hundred times, but I’m still not clear on how the whole thing doesn’t just catch fire. Isn’t it made from dried plants? He puts the cigar to his lips experimentally. It looks strange seeing his full lips around something I’ve mostly seen my father use. Then he blows out a breath, miming how it would be. I imagine white smoke curling in front of his tanned skin. “They don’t let you use them when they do?” I ask. He gives me a dark look. I’m not supposed to talk about the side jobs he does for his father. “I mostly sit in a corner and hope no one notices me. It’s boring.” “If it’s boring, then why won’t you talk about it?” I know it’s not a good thing to be noticed by men like our father, to be groomed by them, but sometimes that seems better than being ignored. I’m the younger one. And a girl. And there are rumors that I’m not even my father’s legitimate child. In other words, I’m lucky my sister remembers to feed me. He swears in Italian. “That’s no life for you, Clara.” “And it’s a life for you?” “I would leave if I could,” he says. “You know that.” “You turn eighteen in a year. Will you leave then?” My stomach clenches at the thought of him gone. I’m two years younger than him. And even when I turn eighteen, I won’t be leaving. By then I’ll be engaged to whoever my father picks for me. Just like my sister. I shudder at the thought of her fiancé. He shrugs. “We’ll see.” I roll my eyes. I suspect he’s making plans, but he isn’t sharing them with me. That’s how the men around here operate, keeping girls in the dark. Honor only found out she was engaged when Byron was invited over for dinner. He has the money and the power. She doesn’t get a choice. Neither will I. “If you go, you should take me with you,” I say. “I don’t think Honor would appreciate me taking you away.” No, she wouldn’t. And the thought of being without my sister makes my heart ache. Sometimes I give her a hard time, but I love her. I’d never leave her behind. “She can come with us. It will be like an adventure.” “Don’t talk stupid, Clara.” His eyes flash with anger and something else I can’t define. I jerk back, hurt. “It was just an idea.” “Well, it’s a bad idea. Your father is never gonna let you leave.” Deep inside, I turn cold. I know that’s true. Of course it is. Giovanni doesn’t have the money or the resources to take us away from here. And even if he did, why would he want to? I hate myself for even suggesting it. How desperate can I look? Shaking inside, I stand up and grab the bottle of Jack Daniels. It’s heavier than I would have expected, but I carry it over to a wet bar still stocked with decanters and wine glasses. No liquor though. There used to be huge parties here. When my mother died, they stopped. We’re supposed to have a party in a few days, though, to celebrate my sister’s engagement. I’m not even allowed to go. I’ll just be able to see the fireworks from the window. Without a word Giovanni joins me, his heat both comforting and stark. He takes the glass from my shaking hand. He opens the bottle and pours the deep amber liquid inside. Then takes another cup for himself, twice as full. “Why do you get more?” I protest, mostly because I like teasing him. His expression is amused. “I’m bigger than you.” He is bigger. Taller and broader, though still skinny. His hands are bigger than mine too. They hold the glass with confidence, whereas I almost drop mine. I take a sip before I can second-guess myself. “Oh my God.” It burns my throat, battery acid scalding me all the way down. His lips firm, like he’s trying not to laugh. “Good stuff?” “Oh, shut up.” Then it doesn’t matter because I’m laughing too. That stuff is awful. He grins and takes a drink—more like a gulp. And he doesn’t cough or wince after. “You get used to it.” “How much do I have to drink to get used to it?” “More than you should.” I take another sip. It burns again, but I have to say, not as bad. It still doesn’t taste good, but I’m determined to drink it anyway. This pool house is the only place where I can break the rules, where I can experience things. The pool house is the only place I even feel alive. “Let’s try mine,” I say. My voice already sounds rougher from the alcohol. He holds up the cigar. “Did you bring a lighter?” “Oh, crap.” His eyes crinkle in that way I love. It makes my chest feel full, like there’s no room for air. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “But I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain.” He takes another drink. It looks so natural when he does it. “What bargain?” “To do bad things,” I say seriously. When your life is as controlled as mine, you need to plan these things. Tonight is supposed to be the night. He looks down, a strange smile on his face. “Let’s start with the whiskey. If that’s not enough, we can knock over a bank or something.” I smack his arm. “You’re making fun of me.” “Never.” His eyes meet mine, and I see that he’s not laughing at all. “I’d rob a bank if you wanted me to.” My stomach twists at his solemn tone. “I’d rather you stay safe,” I whisper. He reaches a hand toward me like he’s going to cup my face, only half an inch away he freezes. I can almost feel the heat of him, and I remain very still, waiting to see what he’ll do next. He shoves his empty glass onto the bar and walks away. I let out a breath. What is that about? Lately we keep having these moments where it seems like he’s going to touch me. But he never does. I want to touch him too, but I don’t. I wouldn’t know where to start. I can’t even imagine how he’d feel. Would he be like the whiskey, leaving a trail of fire? I’m scared to find out. He’s on the couch, so I join him there. Not touching, just sitting beside him. “Gio, I’m worried about Honor.” He doesn’t look at me. “She’s strong. She can take care of herself.” “Yeah, but Byron is a jerk.” And even she can’t fight the tides. That’s what men like Byron are. Tsunamis. Hurricanes. Natural disasters. “Your dad wants someone who can take over. That’s pretty much guaranteed to be an asshole.” He’s not saying anything I don’t know, but it’s still frustrating. It’s too dark to see his expression. I can only see the shape of him beside me, his neck and shoulders limned by moonlight. “This isn’t the eighteenth century. This is Las Vegas.” “Marriage isn’t about that. Not here.” It’s about making alliances. It’s about money. “He should make you the next one in line.” At least Gio has been around for years. His dad is trusted here, even if he’s not high ranking. This Byron guy hasn’t even been in Las Vegas very long. And he’s a cop. I learned from an early age not to trust cops—even dirty ones. Gio shakes his head. “No, thanks.” “Why not? You’d be good at it.” I can tell he’s biting his tongue. “What?” “Good at killing people?” he asks softly. I flinch. Most of the time we skirt around what exactly my father does. And technically Gio is a part of that. I’ve never asked him if he’s killed someone. For all I know, he already has robbed a bank. He’s still in high school, so they’re keeping him light. But once he graduates high school, they’ll want to induct him. I’d almost rather he did leave then. Even though it would kill me to see him go. He shakes his head. “Anyway, if it were me being groomed, I’d have to marry Honor. And I couldn’t do that.” The thought of him marrying my sister makes my stomach knot. He’s only a couple years younger than her. It’s actually not a bad idea. “Why not?” “Because I like her sister.” I go very still. There’s only one sister. Me. “What did you say?” I whisper. “You heard me.” He leans close. He reaches for me—and this time, his hand does cup my cheek. The feel of him is shocking, startling, impossibly coarse and warm at the same time. He runs his thumb along my skin, rasping against me. My eyes flutter closed. The old leather of the couch creaks as he leans forward. He must be inches away now. His breath coasts over my lips. Goose bumps rise on my skin. I’m waiting…hoping… Suddenly his lips are against mine, warm and soft. God, I’ve seen those lips smile and twist and curse a blue streak, but I never imagined they could be this soft. Nothing like whiskey, with its fire. This is a gentle heat, a caress, and I sink into him, let myself go lax. One second later, he’s gone. Not touching me at all. My eyes snap open. “Gio?” He looks tormented. I may not have felt the whiskey burn, but he did. Pain flashes through his eyes. He stands and walks away. “No, Clara. That was wrong. I was wrong to do that.” “But why?” How could that be wrong? That was the best thing that ever happened to me. On a night when I wanted to be bad, I experienced my first kiss. It’s the best bad thing I could have imagined. And it tasted so sweet. He’s still shaking his head, so vehemently I’m not sure who he’s trying to convince—me or himself. “You’ve been drinking.” “One drink,” I say, kind of insulted. I may be new to this, but I’m not drunk. “One drink is enough.” “You had one drink too,” I point out, accusing. He laughs, the sound unsteady and harsh. “I’m bigger than you.” I don’t know if he means the drink affects him less or if it’s just another reason why the kiss was a bad idea—as if he might have overpowered me. But there is no reason why this is a bad idea. I’ve wanted him to kiss me forever. And judging by the way he kissed just now, he liked it too. Unless… My voice is small. “Did I…do it wrong?” He lets out a string of curse words. “No, bella. You did nothing wrong. This is me. I can’t touch you when you’ve been drinking. I can’t touch you at all.” Chapter Two I groan as light batters my eyelids. There’s sound too. And something heavy pressing down on my head. I flutter my hand in the universal sign for go away. In case that wasn’t clear enough, I add, “Turn off the light.” “That’s the sun, silly,” my sister says. I peek one eye open and am totally blinded. If that’s the sun, we must be going through some kind of apocalypse, because it’s a hundred times brighter than I’ve ever seen it. And since when did she speak through a microphone? All I manage to do is whimper. The bed dips as she sits down next to me. Her hand is cool and dry against my forehead. “Are you sick or something? You don’t look that great.” “Thanks,” I say wryly and then wince as the word echoes through my head. Last night comes back to me with a crash. The Jack Daniels. Then the kiss. Then rejection. Then more Jack Daniels. We finished the whole bottle while very pointedly not discussing kissing. “I’m not sick,” I tell her so at least she won’t worry. Even though I feel worse than when I had the flu. I hope a hangover doesn’t last for days. “I’ll take your temperature,” she says, heading toward the bathroom connected to my room. “No,” I protest. The thought of something beeping in my ear makes me cringe. I force myself to sit up, to prove I’m okay. “See? I’m fine.” Honor is wearing a cream vintage blouse and black pencil skirt. She always looks so put together. I glance at the clock. Ten o’clock in the morning. Okay, I guess it’s not that early. Still, she looks classy and stylish at any hour of the day. Her expression is tight. Because of me? “I’m fine,” I repeat. The line of worry between her eyes fades, but her lips are still pressed together. There’s something about her expression that’s familiar. Then I realize… it’s pain. Real pain. Not the kind of throbbing ache I’m experiencing now, an ache I completely deserve. This is something else. I stand and approach her. “We’re meeting with the caterer in thirty minutes,” she says. She’s letting me sit in on the planning sessions so I can feel involved. The food, the cake. The fireworks. Kind of crazy, having fireworks in the middle of a freaking drought. That’s the benefit of having the fire inspector in your pocket. Or Byron’s pocket. Gently, I take her arm. I press the sheer fabric against her skin—and with the fabric taut, I can see. There they are, three bruises. “Did Byron do this to you?” She pulls away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I roll my eyes. “Maybe that works on other people, but not me. I’m going to go punch him in the face.” She looks alarmed, even though the punching thing is pretty unlikely. I’m not even tall enough. And he’d probably shoot me. I don’t mind telling him off, though. He can’t shoot me for that. “Stay away from him,” she warns. “Or what? He’ll grab me too? He probably hurts you other places, doesn’t he? Places I can’t even see.” She shakes her head even though I know it’s true. She’s not even really denying it. She’s saying leave it alone. “Anything you do will just make it worse.” I hate that she’s right about that. “Then we’ll talk to Daddy. He can make him stop.” Pain flashes over Honor’s face. “He already knows.” My eyes close. I’d been afraid of that. Afraid that Byron’s connections and money were worth seeing my sister hurt. Byron may be relatively new to the scene, but he’s ambitious. And like Brutus, an ambitious man is a dangerous one. He has money and connections. My father is old and growing weaker. The other factions could see it as an opportunity to take over. So he’s solidified his rule by grooming Byron to take over—and marrying his oldest daughter to him as insurance. I swallow hard. Our father never took much interest in me, except in the worst way. Probably the rumors are true and I’m not really his daughter. I don’t have the dark hair and olive skin that marks our family. I have strawberry-blonde hair and freckles. But he’s always been fond of Honor. If he is willing to sacrifice her to assure our position, he must really have been worried about a takeover. “What can Byron even do for him?” I ask, half angry, half wondering. Honor lifts one shoulder. “He has everyone intimidated. Judges. Drug suppliers. He’s working both sides.” I stare at the place where the bruises are. I can’t see them when the fabric rests naturally away from her skin. I’m sure that’s on purpose. She must keep an inventory of where her bruises are and make sure they’re covered up. It makes me exhausted—and desperate. “Then let’s go,” I say. We don’t need Gio to take us away. We can leave ourselves. She frowns, her delicate eyebrows drawing together. “What are you saying?” “I’m saying let’s run away. Just you and me.” My throat goes tight as I imagine never seeing Gio again. And I tell her the same thing I told him, though my voice cracks this time. “It will be an adventure.” Her head is shaking no no no. “They’d find us. There’s no way, Clara. Don’t even say the words.” But I’ve already said them. And once they’re out, I can’t put them away. Not when I close my eyes and see the dark bluish imprint of Byron’s fingers. “We’ll find some way to hide. To go underground. It has to be better than this, than you getting hurt.” “And what will we do for money?” “I don’t know. Something. I don’t need all this.” I wave my hand to indicate the ornate antique furniture and expensive artwork. These aren’t things I chose for myself. They are part of the cage that keeps me here. Money and family and obligation. All of them bind me. “It’s impossible,” she says, her voice wistful. “I thought of leaving once. I even had a plan. But…” “But what?” “But you’re still a minor, Clara. You couldn’t work. You couldn’t even be seen.” My heart clenches. I would be a liability to her. “You could leave without me.” Her eyes flare with something—memory? Betrayal? Our mother left us both. The official story is that she died in a car crash. But everyone knows she wasn’t allowed to drive. And the casket at her funeral was closed. If she did drive that day, she was leaving. And if she died that day, it means my father caught her. “I will never leave you.” She says it like a vow—fierce. My eyes grow hot with tears. “Me either,” I promise her. Even if Gio showed up, ready to take me away. Even if that girlish dream came true. I’d never leave without Honor. She’s my sister. I love her. And that’s why I can’t stand by and let Byron hurt her. There’s no fighting a man like that. The only way to keep her safe is to take her away. * * * The next night I creep across the grass. The bottoms of my feet feel extra sensitive when I do this. Maybe my sense of touch is heightened because of fear. Or because I’m about to see Gio. I can feel every blade of grass tickle my feet, every bump and dip in the earth. Even the night air becomes a tactile thing, blowing gently against my skin, leaving goose bumps in its wake. When I reach the pool house, the door opens. “Clara,” he whispers. I smile back, relieved. A part of me had worried that he wouldn’t come tonight. He’d seemed freaked out by the kiss. All through eating samples of pork forestiere and shrimp kabobs from the caterer, I’d been thinking about him. What was he eating? What was he thinking? The pool house is dark, like always. I slip inside and toss myself on the couch, like always. He looks outside to make sure no one spotted me. Like always. Then he shuts the door and makes his way over to me. This is different, though. He’s walking stiffly. Strangely. It stirs a memory in me. The way Honor sometimes walks when Byron has been rough with her. I sit up. “Are you hurt?” He doesn’t answer. He just sits down—slowly. Carefully. “You are hurt,” I say, accusing. Then I’m up and by his side, hands hovering. I don’t want to touch whatever bruise he has and make it worse. “What happened?” “It’s nothing.” I shut my eyes. The only two people in my life I care about are being beaten, being abused, and I am helpless to stop it. “Your father?” “Not this time.” I kneel beside the armchair he’s in. “Who then?” He sighs and leans his head all the way back. “Some assholes.” I run my hands over his leg that’s closest to me—his thigh, his calf, his ankles. He doesn’t flinch or pull away, so I hope that means this side is okay. “Where does it hurt? I can get some ice.” “No ice.” His voice has gone deeper. A part of me, some deep and ancient part of me, knows it’s because my hands are on him. It makes me bolder. I move closer, between his legs now. “Or maybe some bandages? Did you have any cuts? You should put antibiotics in them so you don’t get an infection.” His laugh is harsh. “No bandages, bella.” God, his voice when he says that. I can almost forget he’s injured. I can almost forget he’s seventeen and I’m fifteen. I can forget that our fathers would kill us if they found us together. “What then?” If I can make him feel better a different way, I will. I run my hands up his calves, his thighs—his hands grab my wrists, stopping me. “No anything,” he says, his voice thick with pain. Or with something else. I don’t fight his hold on my wrists. I let him keep me there. And I rest my head on his thigh. It’s not really meant to be seductive, even though I can feel the slope of his jeans. Even though I can see the bulge just inches away from my face. I know he’s not going to do anything dirty to me. I’d probably like it if he did, but he won’t. Just like he won’t kiss me again. But he doesn’t make me move away. Instead he lets out an unsteady breath and releases my wrists. I remain there, kneeling in front of him, resting my cheek on his thigh. His broad hand brushes over my temple, my cheek. He plays with the braid of my hair for a moment before resuming his gentle, rhythmic stroking. He’s not touching anywhere below my neck, but my whole body lights up with it, tense and languorous at the same time. It’s a strange feeling, like being a beloved pet. An owned thing. Cared for. Cherished. It’s somehow sweeter than being the unwanted bastard daughter. “I shouldn’t let you come here,” he mutters. “Don’t,” I say. I can’t bear when he talks like that, as if he might not show up one of these days. It’s a lifeline for me, a breath of air while I’m drowning. And if I run away with Honor, then each one of these visits could be my last. Tears spring to my eyes, dampening the denim of his jeans. “Shh,” he soothes. “I won’t make you stop.” He traces the line of my jaw and the curve of my ear. His blunt finger trails all the way down my neck. “So pretty,” he says. “Do you know, bella? I hurt with it, how pretty you are.” And then I’m hurting too, his words like whiskey. They will take getting used to. I need so much more. “Byron is hurting her,” I whisper. Because it’s the only way I know how to tell him. We’ll have to leave soon. I can’t let him keep hurting her. His hand stills, and I think he must understand my secret message. “All the men hurt women here,” he says. His tone is so dark, so unlike him. I look up at him. “Gio?” His hand encircles my neck, forcing my chin up. He just rests his hand there, his palm flush against my skin. Not squeezing. Just holding. “Are you afraid of me?” I tremble because of the pain in his expression, in his voice. I am afraid—for my sister, for him. I’m afraid I’ll break down and stay just so I can be near him, even if that means condemning my sister for life. But I’m not afraid that he’ll hurt me. “No.” “You should be.” He leans forward and whispers in my ear. “I’ve done things you couldn’t imagine.” A tear slides down my cheek. Whatever these things are, they cause him pain. I see it in him. I feel it. And he has no choice—no more than Honor has a choice. “You’d never hurt me,” I say. My voice is wobbling because I’m hurting for him. But I mean every word. It’s not the first time he’s tried to scare me away. I’m not afraid of him. The anger I feel in him slides away, replaced by something else. Desire. His eyes are almost glowing in the moonlight streaming through the window. He removes his hand from my neck. His thumb brushes over my lips, back and forth. Back and forth. My breath catches. Without even thinking, my lips part. Then the tip of his thumb is pressing inside my mouth. He gently nudges my lips further apart. I don’t understand all that’s happening, don’t know everything he wants, but I know how to take his lead. This is just like kissing, except instead of his lips and his tongue, it’s his thumb. He presses until his thumb is half in my mouth, and then it’s only natural to close my lips and suck gently. He makes a soft sound, like a grunt. It sounds like need. Like relief. The texture of his thumb is rough on my tongue. I slide it against him. He makes a hissing sound and shifts his hips. I never realized my tongue has this much power. Just a flick and the large frame of him tightens. Before I am ready, he removes his thumb. It’s still wet from my mouth when he rubs it along my lips, painting them, at first hot and then cold when he pulls away completely. I feel like I’m in a trance when I stare up at him. He could ask me for anything, and I’d give it. He knows that. He leans forward and places a chaste kiss on my forehead. “Tomorrow,” he says. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Chapter Three I stare at the wood paneling, holding my breath. I’m not sure what I think this is going to accomplish. Still, I can’t quite bring myself to knock. My father is waiting on the other side of that door. Did he notice the cigars I took? I’d be in trouble then. But even more trouble if he found out I’ve been sneaking out of the house. My palms are damp, my breathing erratic. Once I knock on the door, I’ll hear my father’s voice. Come in. He answers that way every time. He’s said those words to me more often than my own name. The sound of him saying them is both comforting and scary. When I got the summons to come downstairs, I considered going to my sister. I needed her to give me a hug and tell me everything is going to be all right. But she has her own problems to deal with, including a puffy eye and split lip. And I’m old enough now to know those promises are empty. She can’t make sure this turns out all right. Not for me and not for herself. I take a deep breath and blow it out. Then I knock. “Come in.” Shock races down my spine. I can’t make myself move. I know exactly whose voice that is. Not my father’s. The door opens in front of me. It’s not sweet, like when Giovanni does it. Not chivalrous. Byron looks impatient. “I said come in,” he snaps. I jump, imagining that voice snapping at Honor, those hands hurting her. He doesn’t wait to see if I follow him—he already knows that I will. And I do, shutting the door behind me, a hollow feeling in my stomach. I regret not going to see my sister now, even though it wouldn’t have helped. In fact she might have insisted on coming with me as a show of support, and that would just get her hurt even more. If anyone’s getting hurt now, it will be me. “Sit down,” Byron says more calmly, perching on the edge of the desk. My father sits in his chair, watching me with a blank expression. Why didn’t he tell me to come in? Because he’s just a figurehead now. He knows it. I know it. And Byron sure as heck knows it. My father leans forward. “I’ve been talking to Byron about your work. I showed him some of your paintings.” My eyebrows shoot up. I thought he barely knew about my painting. And to think he showed them to someone else, like a proud father? My throat gets tight. “It’s important for young girls to have hobbies,” Byron says. “I’ve been trying to get Honor to pick up riding, but she claims she’s afraid of horses.” My eyes narrow, but I force them to look normal. Honor doesn’t claim she’s afraid of horses—she is afraid of them. And maybe if she wasn’t busy dodging his fists and doctoring herself, she’d have more time for hobbies. As if Byron senses my anger, he smiles. “But you are different from her, aren’t you?” Is that a jab at my parentage? I snap my gaze to my father. Something dark flickers in his eyes. And that’s it. There was a time a man could be beaten for even implying dishonor. And here was this man, with his shiny shoes and his slick hair and his butt on my father’s desk, getting away with everything. It makes me angry. “Is there a reason you called me, Papa?” “Byron and I would like you to attend the party.” Sweet. Finally I get to be part of something. And hey, it’s my sister’s engagement party. Even if she is getting engaged to a monster, I should be there. Just as quickly, suspicion rolls through me. “Just last week you were saying I’m too young. Why did you change your mind?” My father’s hard expression slips, and just for a moment I see the desperation underneath. He’s a man holding on to the ledge. And one of these days, he’s going to get a push—from the man sitting on his desk. Byron’s genial expression doesn’t fool me for a second. “I convinced him you were a big girl,” he says with a wink. “You are, aren’t you?” What a creep. “Of course I am.” The look he gives my body then is bold and disgusting. His gaze settles on my breasts, and big girl takes on a totally different meaning. The corner of his mouth lifts in a slight sneer. I feel like I could shower for days and never get clean. “Can I go now?” I ask, keeping my voice as even as possible. “I have to figure out a dress if I’m going to the party tomorrow night.” “Of course,” my father says, waving me off. “Oh, and Clara.” Byron fingers a pen in a way that somehow looks menacing. “Be sure to look your best. There are some friends of mine I’m having you meet.” * * * I wasn’t exaggerating about the dress. Having spent most of my life cooped up in my bedroom or the library, I don’t have the kind of fancy dresses everyone will be wearing tonight. “You can wear one of mine,” Honor says when I tell her the good news. Well, somewhat good news. The prospect of going to the party seemed less exciting after that creepy look from Byron. And his mention of friends. I have no desire to meet anyone he’d call a friend. Still, I can’t deny that I’m excited. My first party. “There’s no way that’s going to work,” I tell her honestly. Honor is slender. And I’m…not. I’m five years younger than Honor, but somehow my bust is actually bigger. So are my hips. She rolls her eyes and still manages to look classy and mature while she does it. “We’ll make a few alterations if we have to.” “If we have to? Oh, we’ll have to. And by alterations, I’m guessing you mean adding an entire extra dress. Like if we tie two together, there might be enough fabric.” Her lips twist disapprovingly. “We aren’t that different, Clara.” Yeah, right. We’re different in every way. Her black hair to my pale. Her smooth olive skin to my pink freckled skin. Her slim body to my full one. “Have you looked in a mirror lately? You’re beautiful.” “What are you talking about? Clara, you’re gorgeous. There are women who’d love to have your curves. And your pretty hair.” I just stare at her. I don’t believe her at all. She sighs. She must know I’m a lost cause. “You have no idea how adorable your freckles are, do you?” “Just what every girl wants to be. Adorable. You look like Audrey Hepburn come to life.” That makes her laugh. “Wouldn’t that be nice. I could go off on a holiday in Rome.” “You’d have to escape first,” I remind her. That’s how the movie goes. We’ve both watched it a hundred times. There’s only so many things you can do while stuck in a mansion. Read a book. Practice yoga with a DVD instructor. “Well,” she says lightly. “That can be for later. For now, we need to get you dressed. And I have an idea.” She digs through her closet and comes up with a black wrap dress. The fabric has enough give that I can fit into it. It expands to accommodate my hips, falling above my knees instead of below, looking flirty instead of vintage. It’s cute. I stare at myself in the mirror. Really cute. Except… “That’s not going to cut it,” Honor says, staring at my cleavage. It’s hard not to stare. My cleavage is practically busting out of this dress, straining at the top. So much for looking my best. “I’m hopeless.” She shakes her head. “Nothing a little double-sided tape can’t solve. We’ll add a shawl that covers up the rest.” She disappears to find this magical tape and shawl that’s going to fix me. With her gone, I suck in my stomach and lift my body, in what I guess is a seductive pose. The truth is I have no idea what seduction would be like. My mind flashes to Giovanni’s hand stroking my hair, my neck. His thumb brushing my lips. And then slipping between them, resting on my tongue. My whole body flushes warm. I imagine Giovanni in the room with me. What would he think of this dress? What would he think of this cleavage? I wonder if I’ll get a chance to show him. He might be at the party. My mind is awash in fantasies. Dancing on the ballroom floor. Stealing a kiss in the garden. I know they’re stupid dreams. His father is a foot soldier—they don’t often get invited to these kinds of affairs, much less their underage sons. And even if Gio came, would he dance with me? Or would that tip off our fathers that we knew each other? There are a hundred reasons why it’s a bad idea. But sometimes it feels like if I want it enough, if I wish hard enough, it might happen anyway. * * * We are lounging side-by-side on the old, musty sofa. One earbud is in my left ear, the other is in Gio’s right. Above us, dust floats in the moonlight. I’m back in my standard jeans and tank top. No longer glamorous or over-the-top sexy. But this moment feels so perfect it almost hurts. I want a million of these moments, strung like beads on a necklace, one after the other. When the third Glee song comes on, Giovanni slants me a dark look that makes me giggle. “What?” I ask, going for innocent. But I don’t quite succeed. I like making him suffer with fun songs. He doesn’t tell me that much about his life outside of these nights, but I know there’s not enough fun in it. “Really?” he says. I sing along. “Don’t stop believing…” He groans, but I see the smile that plays on his lips. He likes it. “You know high school is nothing like that show, right?” “Duh,” I say. “That’s not even realistic. It’s obviously more like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” He flicks his thick fingers lightly against my arm. “Smart-ass.” I stick my tongue out, which probably proves him right. I don’t care. “Hey, it’s not my fault I never got to go. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have to guess what high school is like. I would already know.” “I don’t agree with much your father does, but I think he got that part right.” Stung, I face the ceiling again. “Whatever.” “I’m just saying people would know who your father is. It makes you a target.” “So I should just never live, is that what you’re saying? I should just stay locked up and marry whoever he tells me to and dress however Byron says—” “What the fuck are you talking about? What did Byron tell you?” He’s facing me, eyes a little wild. Unease rolls through me. Gio and I, we’ve had our little spats. It’s part of the teasing ups and downs we do. But I’ve never seen him quite so intense. Except maybe about his father. But then he mostly shuts down if that topic comes up. He’s not shutting down now. His expression is furious and expectant. “He didn’t tell me anything,” I say, trying to calm him down. “He just said I was going to the party. And that I should look my best, whatever that means.” Gio swears in Italian. I mostly don’t understand the words except to know they’re bad. “That fucker,” he says. Okay, I know that one. “It’s not a big deal.” “It’s a big fucking deal. He needs to keep his filthy fucking hands off you—” “He didn’t touch me.” I prop myself up on one elbow, concerned. Cautiously, like approaching a wild animal, I rest my hand on Gio’s arm. “He didn’t touch me, okay?” I watch Gio take deep breaths in and out. He calms down slowly, though I sense the rage is still simmering beneath the surface. After a beat, I lie back down. The song changes to Angels We Have Heard on High. It’s early May, but I love Christmas music any time of year. It’s so hopeful. I especially love the Glee version. Maybe I did think high school was a little like that… “I thought you weren’t allowed to go to the party,” he says, his voice low. I shrug. “I guess they changed their mind.” “It’s not safe for you.” Umm… “Everyone will be there.” “That’s exactly why it’s not safe.” “Will you be there?” I ask hopefully. I’m not worried about the safety of this party. I mean…it’s a party. But I want him to be there anyway. “You could protect me.” He lets out a disgusted sound. “No. I have a job that night.” A job. That sounds ominous. It’s not like he’s got shifts at a movie theater or something. A job means something for his father. Something for la familia. What if something goes wrong? What if he gets hurt? He still has bruises from whatever awful thing happened the other night. How dare his father send him into violent, dangerous situations. Then again, that’s exactly what my father is doing with Honor. “We’ll see each other after,” I say. I was thinking of telling him we’d skip that night, but lying here with him now, that feels too painful. And now that I know he has a job, I’d just be worried about him until I saw him again. “The party will be late.” “I’ll leave early. I’ll tell them I feel sick or something.” I don’t mention that I already feel sick. I’ve wanted to go to a party, to anything, since forever. But now that it’s here, it feels all wrong. This isn’t about dancing in ballrooms and getting kissed in the garden. This is being paraded in front of Byron’s friends while Gio is off somewhere risking his life. “Please. I need to see you after the party. Meet me here.” He grunts, still looking at the ceiling. “Maybe.” Chapter Four The party is a success. I know this because at least five people have told me so. How good the food is. How pretty the flowers are. How grown up I look in this dress. It makes me wonder if they want something from me. Maybe I’m just being cynical. The people do seem very nice…if a little superficial. Every conversation I’ve had has been about the weather and the best wine vintage. And the weather again. I miss lounging on the couch, choking down whiskey or listening to music. I miss resting my head on Gio’s strong thigh, feeling the warm weight of his hand on the back of my neck. I miss him. “Dear?” My attention snaps back to the woman in front of me. It’s almost hard to see her face with all the diamonds crowding her neck and earlobes. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Donato. I didn’t hear you.” It helps that the ballroom is crazy loud. It makes it less weird that she has to keep repeating herself to me. “Call me Ines,” she says with a knowing smile. “You’re practically a woman now. One of us.” One of us. But who is that exactly? It’s like there’s a secret handshake that no one ever taught me. I understand what Gio meant about staying in the background and hoping not to be noticed. There’s something almost creepy about all the smiles and the wealth. And the congratulations for my sister, when everyone here knows what a monster Byron is. Heck, everyone here is a monster. All the jewels dripping from wrists and necks were bought with blood. But I’m supposed to smile and say, “I’m so thrilled to be here.” She clucks. “It’s so hot though. More than usual, don’t you think?” “Yes, it has been warm this year.” Which is a lie. We live in Las Vegas. It’s basically a giant oven, a kiln that’s been baking the cracked clay earth for centuries. The grounds of my father’s estate are lush green, a testament to what huge sums of money and half the city’s water supply can accomplish. We’ve made our own little oasis. But that doesn’t make it any less of an illusion. I scan the crowd, but I’m too short to see above the black tuxes and fancy hairdos. “Have you happened to see Honor around?” Mrs. Di Donato winks. “I saw her leaving the ballroom with Byron a few minutes ago. Young love is a beautiful thing.” I manage some kind of nod that convinces her before making my excuses. Then I’m crossing the ballroom. I readjust the shawl as I go, making sure it’s covering my cleavage. My feet are aching after hours of standing in heels—seriously, whoever invented these was a masochist. Or a sadist. But they don’t slow me down. Whatever is going on between Honor and Byron, it’s not love. I have to check on her. A man stops in front of me. I start to go around him, but he touches my arm. I flinch back. Only then do I realize he was stopping me on purpose. He smiles. “Are you Clara?” I’ve never seen this man before. And I have no desire to meet him now. “Excuse me. I’m looking for my sister.” He grins, mouth stretching wide. He looks kind of like a movie star, and I don’t like it. “I’m afraid she’s indisposed at the moment. I hope that will give you a few minutes to talk to me.” I’m standing in the middle of hundreds of people, but I’ve never felt more alone. I don’t know where Honor is. She could be anywhere in the house. Heck, she could have left the house. And with Byron, who is no doubt hurting her in some way. He will always hurt her. There’s no way we can stop him. As I stand in the crowded room, a deep and sorrowful certainty takes root. We have to go. Leave. There’s no reason to wait. There’s no reason to hope things will get better. The only thing to do is leave—and never see Gio again. “Excuse me,” I say again, this time more quietly. I’m breaking apart inside. “I think I need to be alone.” His expression turns apologetic. “Actually, Honor sent me to check on you. She knew she’d be busy and wanted to make sure you had someone by your side.” I narrow my eyes. Is he flat out lying to me? It feels that way. Honor would know I don’t want some weirdo stranger hovering around me. But then again, she does get protective sometimes. Maybe she did worry about me in the ballroom by myself. But why not send someone I actually knew? Or at least introduce me to him first? Then again, it’s not like Byron would have given her time to do anything. If he says to jump off a cliff, he’s already pushing you off. That’s how he operates. I look back at the party. I do feel sick now. Sick of smiling. Sick of pretending. I want to be in the pool house, teasing Giovanni. But it’s still my sister’s party. And I don’t need to listen to my intuition to know she might be hurting right now. I have to find her before I go. I’ll make sure she’s okay. Then I’ll make excuses so I can sneak to the pool house. “Can you bring me to my sister?” I ask the strange man. “Of course.” His smile disarms me. He actually looks pretty nice when he’s not blocking my path and being pushy. “She just stepped outside for some air.” * * * The lights strung up over the patio cast the rest of the lawn into darkness. I can’t even see the outline of the pool house from here. A couple is making out, half-hidden by a bush, but they stop when they see us. Actually, not us. Him. Whoever this guy is, he makes their eyes widen and they run inside, straightening their clothes as they go. “Where’s my sister?” I say. He absently scans the dark landscape. “She’ll be along.” It’s not only secluded here. It’s quiet. Much quieter than the voices and five-string orchestra inside. It makes me feel a little stranded, being out here alone with him, with no one to hear me. “Umm, what did you say your name was again?” “Markam,” he says with an easy smile. “Javier Markam.” My eyebrows shoot up. Wasn’t he in the news about some big controversy? “The governor’s son?” “Does my reputation precede me?” I can’t remember what he’d supposedly done. But no one in that ballroom has clean hands. Not even me. We all benefit from the criminal enterprise in some way, even if it’s only the bed we sleep in or the guards that lock us in. “Not really.” “Good.” A glint enters his eyes. “I don’t want us to get off on the wrong foot.” Suspicion is a dark knot in my chest. “Are you friends with Byron?” “Good friends, yes. We go way back.” My heart pounds. Honor would never send one of Byron’s friends to me. She wouldn’t trust him any more than I do. “He said something about wanting me to meet his friends. Was he talking about you?” Dark eyes study me. “Direct. I like that in a girl. I hope we can speak frankly with each other.” “Why would that matter?” “Because we’re going to be seeing a lot more of each other. At least, if I have my way.” He winks to lighten the words, but I can read between the lines. He always gets his way. “I don’t understand.” He shrugs. “You know how these things work. Powerful people make powerful enemies. We need to stick together. Like Byron and Honor, for example.” We are nothing like Byron and Honor. They’re engaged. And if that was a marriage proposal, it was seriously lame. “I’m fifteen.” That earns me a chuckle. He has handsome features and an expensive tux, but he’s twisting and distorting while I look at him. Everything looks exaggerated, fake. His smile. His hair. Even the good humor in his eyes. It’s a creepy kind of humor. “I know you’re too young for anything serious. We’re just getting to know each other. Getting to know if…there’d even be a point in pursuing this, understand?” No. “And if there is?” “Then you’d still stay here, finish your studies. You’d be under Byron’s protection. I’d visit from time to time.” In other words, he’d be free to play the field while I’d stay locked up in here. Gross. “I’d like to find my sister now.” “Look, Clara.” He drops his head. It’s an endearing move. A practiced move. “The truth is, Byron didn’t only introduce me to you because of the family connections we could make. He thought I’d like you…and I do.” Somehow I don’t think he’s talking about my personality. “Why would he think that?” “You have a certain innocence. A youthfulness I find appealing.” It’s called being underage, jackass. “Well, thanks. I guess. I’d like to find my sister, though. I’m worried about her.” “You never have to worry about her. Byron would never let anything happen to her.” That’s what I’m afraid of. I take a step back. Then there’s a hand clamped around my wrist. Javier’s hand. “Let me go.” He pulls me closer. I wobble on my high heels, almost falling into him. The shawl comes lose. His gaze drops and darkens. “Clara, I think you and I really get along.” “Let go of me now.” He walks forward, and I have no choice but to walk backward, stumbling as I go. One of my shoes twists off, and then the other. I’m off balance, almost falling, except that he’s holding me up, fingers clenched into my skin, wrenching me. The trellis is at my back, the same metal trellis I use to climb down, the one I use to escape, and now it’s part of my prison. I’m caught between those unforgiving bars and his body, breath coming fast. Now I understand how Honor feels. I understand why she puts up with it—because she has no choice. I knew it before, but I never experienced it until now, never felt fear like a living thing inside me, clawing its way up my throat. I kick at him, even as part of me knows that will only make it worse. I don’t have the poise and class and core of steel that Honor has. I can’t endure this, even when I know I have to. I can only fight. “You little bitch,” he snaps as my knee connects with his shin. He twists my wrist, and I’m facing the wall. The scarf is long gone, and my breasts are pressing into the metal criss-cross. Javier is holding me in place, his breath hot against my temple. “I want us to get off on the right foot, Clara. I told you that.” And this is the right foot. Violence. Coercion. Tears stream down my face. There’s no way out. This is how Honor must feel. Trapped. There is a sudden cry and groan from the man holding me captive, and then he’s up against the metal grate himself, flat with arms spread wide, while Giovanni punches him again and again. The only reply Javier makes is a groaning sound that makes the hair rise up on my neck. “Giovanni, stop!” He’ll kill him, and that will be so much worse. He’s the governor’s son—and worse than that, he’s Byron’s friend. “Stop!” Giovanni turns to see me, and the rage parts like dark clouds, long enough for me to see him looking back. Him, the boy who spent those nights in the pool house, cracking jokes and letting his hand brush against mine. The haze clears. “Clara?” I’m crying, my hands clenched together as if in prayer. Begging. “Giovanni, please.” He turns and faces Javier. For a minute I think he’s not going to listen. He’s just going to keep beating him until Javier is dead, and then what will we do? I don’t even know what we’ll do if he’s alive. We’re in so much trouble. This goes beyond trouble. Giovanni speaks low, so low I can barely hear him. “How does it feel without your buddies backing you up, huh? How does it feel one-on-one?” Then he slams Javier into the wall one last time. Javier’s eyes are closed as he slumps to the ground. I stare at the unconscious man, his nose bloodied, his crisp tux rumpled and torn. “Is he…dead?” Giovanni wipes his brow with his forearm. “No.” “Is he the one who did that to you? The bruises?” With his buddies. “It doesn’t matter.” “Yes, it does. Why would he—” “We need to get out of here.” Right. What would happen if we were found out here? Every man in there is packing heat. Some of the women too. “We have to find Honor.” “There’s not time.” He puts his hand out to me. He doesn’t grab me. Not like Javier did. His eyes are as dark as the night behind him—unfathomable. They scare me just as the night too, but I trust him. No matter how much he’s tried to scare me away. No matter that he once stroked my neck, that he once held it in his hand. I put my hand in his. “Let’s go.” He doesn’t wait. We run toward the pool house together. We don’t even have to discuss it first. We both head toward there like it’s our north star, our home. I’m out of breath when we stumble inside. Adrenaline is like lava in my veins, making it too hot to stand still. Too hot to sit down. I can only pace in the small space, running my hair through my hands. “What are we going to do? Oh my God. What are we going to do?” Gio takes my hands in his, and I finally stand still. I’m breathing hard, trembling. “You have to go,” he says. “It’s not safe for you here anymore.” I know it’s true. I knew it from the moment he first punched Javier, from the moment when Javier attacked me. I knew it even before then, when it was only Honor being hurt. But it’s still hard to hear the words. This is my home, the only place I know. And for all that my father has been distant—and maybe not even truly related—he’s the only parent I know. “You’re the one who told me my father was right to keep me here.” Gio swears in Italian. “He isn’t fucking in charge anymore. You aren’t safe here. You won’t ever be safe here again.” I swallow hard. “Honor?” “She’ll go too. She won’t fight it once she knows about Javier.” “And you, you’ll come with us, right?” He rests his forehead against mine. “Clara.” Panic rises in my chest. “Gio, you have to. He’ll wake up. He’ll tell them it was you.” Chapter Five The door bursts open. I jump back from Giovanni, guilty and afraid of being caught touching—even though we have worse problems than that. It’s not my father. Not even Byron. It’s Honor. Her gaze snaps to Giovanni, but she speaks to me. “Clara, I need a word with you. Now.” She must have heard about Javier. I can tell by the strength of her voice—and the tremor hiding underneath. “You can say it in front of Gio,” I tell her. “He already knows.” Honor’s eyes narrow. She’s wondering if we can trust him. She doesn’t know him like I do. “You have to get her out of here,” Giovanni says. “There’s not much time.” Slowly she shuts the door behind her and leans back against it. “I know.” “Take my car,” he says. “It’s gassed up. It should get you a few hundred miles. Then you’d better switch vehicles.” Honor nods. “That’s better than the bus. I know they’ll be checking.” Giovanni crosses the room and stands on the back of the sofa. I can only stare as he reaches up to the vent that had been above us all those nights. He unhooks the grate and pulls out a black bag. “This has money,” he says. “It’s all I’ve got.” My sister takes it without question. “Thank you.” “Don’t tell me where you’re going,” he says. I can only stare at him. Don’t tell me where you’re going. As if he’s not coming with us. As if he might get tortured for information. I grab Gio’s arm. “What are you talking about? You need to come with us.” “Security,” he says. “They’re staying farther back from the house, but there’s even more than usual around the gate.” “That means none of us can get out.” He shakes his head. “I’ll cause a diversion. Distract them long enough so you can get out.” What? “No way.” “It’s the only way.” I look at Honor. “This is crazy. Tell him he needs to come with us.” Her eyes are sad. Sadder than I’ve ever seen them. But also accepting. Of all people, she understands about sacrifice. “We don’t have much time. The party is the best time to run, when they’re distracted, when it will be hard for them to search the house. Especially if he can pull the guards away from the gate. We need to go now.” “No.” I take a step back. “This can’t be happening.” Gio looks at my sister. “Can you give us a minute?” Her dark eyes study me. After a beat, she nods. “I’ll go scout the best path out of here.” “But the guards?” I tell her. A ghost of a smile crosses her face. “I still have some friends here.” Then she’s gone, leaving only Gio and me. Alone together. Just like we have been every night. Except totally different. Because this time tomorrow I’ll be gone. And Gio will be…where? Here. Except if they find out he helped us, they’ll hurt him. And once Javier wakes up, they’ll kill him. “Gio, no.” He runs a hand down my arm—so lightly. His fingertips barely brush my skin. “Are you hurt?” “I’m serious. We aren’t doing this. I’m not kidding.” “I’m not joking.” He sighs. “You don’t know they’ll take me. I’m not going to go easy.” “Yeah, but up against Byron? Against all of them?” His gaze dips to my chest. “This dress, Clara.” The scarf is long gone, and all the running and freaking out have left my breasts almost popping out. I look like some kind of bombshell. I don’t feel like a bombshell, though. I feel like a bomb that’s about to go off if someone doesn’t listen to me. The two people I love most are making plans about my life without me. Very serious plans that involve Gio getting hurt. And I’m afraid nothing I say can stop them. “You can’t,” I say, my voice soft and desperate. “I just need a minute,” he says, still staring at me in this dress. “To what?” “To remember this.” Fear grips my heart tighter than anything before. This can’t be happening. I’d have let Javier touch me if I knew it would lead to this. I would let Javier do anything if it meant keeping Gio safe. I can’t stand him looking at me. Not because I don’t want him to see. Because he’s looking at me like a dying man would—as if he knows it’s his last sight. As if drinking his fill. My breath stutters. I need to be closer than this. This place we’re in—this is water. And he is air. I push up to him, pull him down to me. I meet his lips in a gasp. Then he’s kissing me back, his lips demanding, tongue fierce. And his hands. Those large, beautiful hands that have done violence tonight—for me. They cradle my head so sweetly. How can something so good feel like pain? How can this be the end? I shove him back. “We’ll find another way. Something. Anything.” “There is no other way. This isn’t the first time I’ve thought of how to get you out of here. And if you stayed here, you’d condemn your sister too. Byron would make everyone suffer.” And now it will only be Gio suffering. The canapés from the party turn in my stomach. My hands curl into fists, useless. “You wouldn’t let me do this. You wouldn’t let me sacrifice myself for you. So how can I let you?” “You’re not letting me do anything, Clara. You don’t have a choice.” Angrily I shove the tears aside. This isn’t a time to be sad, because this is not happening. We’re not leaving him behind. So why can’t I stop crying? Why does it feel like I’ve already lost? “Gio,” I say, my voice breaking. His forehead touches mine again, his hands cradling my face. I feel so delicate when he holds me like this. I feel loved. “Let me do this for you,” he says roughly. “I couldn’t protect you before. I don’t have anything to offer. I never did. But this?” “No, no,” I sob. He pushes me tighter against him, cheek to cheek, and I swear these tears aren’t only mine. “You care too much, Clara.” “How is that too much? It’s the right amount. I care too much to leave you here. How is that wrong?” He is silent a moment. “It’s not wrong. But I care too much to let you stay.” His arms come around me, holding me in. They feel unbreakable. They are castle walls, his arms. They are a drawbridge rolled up and a moat. They keep everyone out. Only with him do I feel completely safe. Maybe I’d always known how much he’d do for me. He’d fight for me. He’d die for me. And that’s what he’s going to do. And at the end only rubble will be left. “I’ll be fine,” he says, but we both know it’s a lie. My hands clench in his shirt. “How can you be?” “Just go,” he whispers fiercely. “You think this is about me sacrificing for you? No. I need you to do this for me, Clara. I need you to stay safe.” I cry until his shirt is dark and wet. These are silent tears. They fall without my consent, while my face is solemn. I can be stoic for him. I won’t beg now. I won’t plead. Not even when Honor comes in and tells me it’s time to go. It feels like dying to walk away. Feels like dying to look back and see him watching me go. Feels like dying as I cross the dark lawn. Honor holds my hand, but doesn’t say anything. I think she knows. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever felt, to leave him behind. And it’s nothing compared to what he’ll go through. We’re near the gate when we hear the explosion behind us. Fireworks. Those are the fireworks that would have celebrated her engagement. Only fitting that they’ll end it. It’s not hard to find Gio’s beat-up Pontiac Grand Am parked down the side lane. The radio is broken. The gas tank is full. We drive in silence until the blasts fade to nothing. There is only empty road in front of us and empty road behind. I need you to do this for me, Clara. I need you to stay safe. And so I do. * * * Thank you for reading Tough Love, the prequel novella to the Stripped series! I hope you loved meeting Giovanni and Clara. Find out what happens to sisters Honor and Clara when they go on the run… A dangerous romance about the lies that lead us down… I’ll do anything to stay hidden, even if that means working at the scariest club in town. Then he shows up, mysterious and yet strangely familiar. And so damn sexy. When he looks at me, I forget why I can’t have him. He’s beautiful and scarred. His body fits mine, filling the places where I’m hollow, rough where I am soft. He’s the only man who wants to help, but he has secrets of his own. He has questions I can’t answer. I’m running from my past, but his might catch me first. One-click LOVE THE WAY YOU LIE Now! And don’t miss the dangerously sexy virgin auction bestseller THE PAWN! “Wickedly brilliant, dark and addictive!” – Jodi Ellen Malpas, #1 New York Times bestselling author The price of survival… Gabriel Miller swept into my life like a storm. He tore down my father with cold retribution, leaving him penniless in a hospital bed. I quit my private all-girl’s college to take care of the only family I have left. There’s one way to save our house, one thing I have left of value. My body. A forbidden auction… Gabriel appears at every turn. He seems to take pleasure in watching me fall. Other times he’s the only kindness in a brutal underworld. Except he’s playing a deeper game than I know. Every move brings us together, every secret rips us apart. And when the final piece is played, only one of us can be left standing. One-click THE PAWN Now! I appreciate your help in spreading the word, including telling a friend. Reviews help readers find books! Please leave a review on your favorite book site. You can also join my Facebook group, Skye Warren’s Dark Room, for exclusive giveaways and sneak peeks of future books. SIGN UP FOR SKYE WARREN’S NEWSLETTER: www.skyewarren.com/newsletter Turn the page for a short excerpt from Love the Way You Lie… Excerpt from Love The Way You Lie In the first moments onstage, I’m always blinded. The bright lights, the smoke. The wall of sound that feels almost tangible, as if it’s trying to keep me out, push me back, protect me from what’s going to happen next. I’m used to the dancing and the catcalls and the reaching, grabbing hands—as much as I can be. But I’m never quite used to this moment, being blinded, feeling small. I reach for the pole and find it, swinging my body around so the gauzy scrap of fabric flies up, giving the men near the stage a view of my ass. I still can’t quite make anything out. There are dark spots in my vision. The smile’s not even a lie, not really. It’s a prop, like the four-inch heels and the wings that snap as I drop them to the stage. Broken. A few people clap from the back. Now all that’s left is the thin satin fabric. I grip the pole and head into my routine, wrapping around, sliding off, and starting all over again. I lose myself in the physicality of it, going into the zone as if I were running a marathon. This is the best part, reveling in the burn of my muscles, the slide of the metal pole against my skin and the cold, angry rhythm of the song. It’s not like ballet, but it’s still a routine. Something solid, when very few things in my life are solid. I finish on the pole and begin to work the stage, moving around so I can collect tips. I can see again, just barely, making out shadowy silhouettes in the chairs. Not many. There’s a regular on one side. I recognize him. Charlie. He tosses a five-dollar bill on the stage, and I bend down long and slow to pick it up. He gets a wink and a shimmy for his donation. As I’m straightening, I spot another man on the other side of the stage. His posture is slouched, one leg kicked out, the other under his chair, but somehow I can tell he isn’t really relaxed. There’s tension in the long lines of his body. There’s power. And that makes me nervous. I spin away and shake my shit for the opposite side of the room, even though there’s barely anyone there. It’s only a matter of time before I need to face him again. But I don’t need to look at him. They don’t pay me to look them in the eye. Still I can’t help but notice his leather boots and padded jacket. Did he ride a motorcycle? It seems like that kind of leather, the tough kind. Meant to withstand weather. Meant to protect the body from impact. The song’s coming to a close, my routine is coming to an end and I’m glad about that. Something about this guy is throwing me off. Nothing noticeable. My feet and hands and knowing smile still land everywhere they need to. Muscle memory and all that. But I don’t like the way he watches me. There’s patience in the way he watches me. And patience implies waiting. It implies planning. I reach back and unclasp my bra. I use one hand to cover my breasts while I toss the bra to the back of the stage. I pretend to be shy for a few seconds, and suddenly I feel shy too. Like I’m doing more than showing my breasts to strangers. I’m showing him. And as I stand there, hand cupping my breasts, breath coming fast, I feel his patience like a hot flame. This time I do miss the beat. I let go on the next one, though, and my breasts are free, bared to the smoky air and the hungry eyes. There are a few whistles from around the room. Charlie holds up another five-dollar bill. I sway over to him and cock my hip, letting him shove the bill into my thong, feeling his hot, damp breath against my breast. He gets close but doesn’t touch. That’s Charlie. He tips and follows the rules, the best kind of customer. I don’t even glance at the other side of the room. If the new guy is holding up a tip, I don’t even care. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who follows rules. I don’t know why I’m even thinking about him or letting him affect me. Maybe my run-in with Blue made me more skittish than I’d realized. All I have left is my finale on the pole. I can get through this. This part isn’t as physically strenuous as before. Or as long. All I really need to do is grind up against the pole, front and back, emphasizing my newly naked breasts, pretending to fuck. That’s what I’m doing when I feel it. Feel him. I’m a practical girl. I have to be. But there’s a feeling I get, a prickle on the back of my neck, a churning in my gut, a warning bell in my head when I’m near one of them. Near a cop. My eyes scan the back of the room, but all I can see are shadows. Is there a cop waiting to bust someone? A raid about to go down? My gaze lands on the guy near the stage. Him? He doesn’t look like a cop. He doesn’t feel like a cop. But I don’t trust looks or feelings. All I can trust is the alarm blaring in my head: get out, get out, get out. I can barely suck in enough air. There’s only smoke and rising panic. Blood races through me, speeding up my movements. A cop. I feel it like some kind of sixth sense. Maybe he feels my intuition about him, because he leans forward in his seat. In one heart-stopping moment, my eyes meet his. I can see his face then, drawn from charcoal shadows. Beautiful, his lips say. All I can hear is the song. I’m not even on beat anymore, and it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because there’s a cop here and I have to get out. Even if my intuition is wrong, it’s better to get out. Safer. I’ll never be safe. The last note calls for a curtsy—a sexy, mocking movement I choreographed into my routine. Like the one I’d do at the end of a ballet recital but made vulgar. I barely manage it this time, a rough jerk of my head and shoulders. Then I’m gone, off the stage, running down the hallway. I’m supposed to work the floor next, see who wants a lap dance or another drink, but I can’t do that. I head for the dressing room and throw on a T-shirt and sweatpants. I’ll tell them I feel sick and have to leave early. They won’t be happy and I’ll probably have to pay for it with my tips, but they won’t want me throwing up on the customers either. I run for the door and almost slam into Blue. He’s standing in the hallway again. Not slouching this time. There’s a new alertness to his stare. And something else—amusement. “Going somewhere?” he asks. “I have to… My stomach hurts. I feel sick.” I step close, praying he’ll move aside. He reaches up to trace my cheek. “Aww, should I call the doctor?” His hand clamps down on my shoulder. “I wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to you.” I grip my bag tight to my chest, trying to ignore the threat in his words. And the threat in his grip. I really do feel sick now, but throwing up on him is definitely not going to help the situation. “Please, I need to leave. It’s serious. I’ll make it up later.” He’ll know what I’m saying. That I’ll make it up to him personally. I’m just desperate enough to promise that. Desperate enough to promise him anything. And he’s harassed me long enough that I know it’s a decent prize. I’m sure he’ll make it extra humiliating, but I’m desperate enough for that too. “Please let me go.” The words come out pained, my voice thin. It feels a little like my body is collapsing in on itself, steel beams bending together, something crushing me from the outside. Regret flashes over his face, whether for refusing my offer or forcing me that low. But this time he doesn’t let me go. “There’s a customer asking for you. He wants a dance.â€

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