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Bound By Vengeance

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Growl
He’d never had
something to himself, never even dared to dream about owning something
so precious. He was the unwanted bastard son who’d always had to content
himself with the leftovers of others. And now they’d given him what
only a few weeks ago had been out of his reach, someone he wasn’t even
allowed to admire from afar, one of their most prized possessions.
Thrown at his feet because he was who he was, because they were certain
he would break her. He was her punishment, a fate worse than death, a
way to deliver the ultimate punishment to her father who had displeased
them so greatly.

Cara
She had always been the good girl. It didn’t protect her.
She
didn’t know his real name. People called him Growl to his face, and the
Bastard behind his back. Both were names he couldn’t possibly have
chosen for himself. His eyes were empty, a mirror to throw back her own
fear at her. He was a brutal hand of the Las Vegas Camorra.
And now she was at his mercy.
Band:
5
Jahr:
2017
Sprache:
english
Seiten:
207
Serien:
Born in Blood Mafia Chronicles
Datei:
EPUB, 204 KB
Herunterladen (epub, 204 KB)

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Am meisten angefragte Begriffe

 
1 comment
 
Library22
oooooh honestly didn't know what to expect, but i kinda really liked it! My favorite is still Nino lol but this was good! i liked learning more about the bastard brother we hear so much about in the Camora series
15 June 2021 (21:53) 

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Bound by Vengeance

(Born in Blood Mafia Chronicles # 5)



Cora Reilly





Copyright ©2017 Cora Reilly

All Rights Reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, events and places are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.



Subscribe to Cora’s newsletter to find out about her next books, bonus content and giveaways! ( http://corareillyauthor.blogspot.de/p/newsletter.html )



Cover design by Romantic Book Affairs Design





Prologue





Growl

Wide eyes. Parted lips. Flushed cheeks. Pale skin. She looked like a porcelain doll: big blue eyes, chocolate hair and creamy white skin; breakable beautiful, something that he wasn’t meant to touch with his scarred, brutal hands. His fingers found her wrist; her heartbeat was fluttering like a birds. She’d tried to fight, tried to be brave, tried to hurt him, maybe even kill him. Had she truly hoped she could succeed?

Hope; it made people foolish, made them believe in something beyond reality. He’d got out of the habit of hoping a long time ago. He knew what he was capable of. She had hoped she could kill him. He knew he could kill her, no doubt about it.

His hand traced the soft skin of her throat, then his fingers wrapped around it. Her pupils dilated but he put no pressure into his touch. Her pulse hammered against his rough palm. He was a hunter, and she the pray. The end was inevitable. He’d come to claim his prize. That’s why Falcone had given her to him.

Growl liked things that hurt. He liked hurting in return. Maybe even loved it; if he were capable of that kind of emotion. He leaned down until his nose was inches from the skin below her ear and breathed in. She smelled flowery with a hint of sweat. Fear. He imagined he could smell that too. He couldn’t resist and he didn’t have to, not anymore, not e; ver again with her. His. She was his.

He lowered his lips to her hot skin. Her pulse hummed under his mouth where he kissed her throat. Panic and terror beat a frantic rhythm under her skin. And it made him fucking hard.

Her eyes sought out his, hoping – still hoping, the foolish woman – and pleading him for mercy. She didn’t know him, didn’t know that the part of him that hadn’t been born a monster had died a long time ago. Mercy was the furthest thing from his mind as his eyes claimed her body.





CHAPTER ONE





Cara

The first time I met him, he’d been in disguise, dressed up in a stylish black suit, made to look like he was one of us. But while the layers of fine fabric covered his many tattoos, they couldn’t hide his true nature. It shone through, dangerous and chilling. Back then I’d have never thought that I’d get to know him and the monster within better than I knew anyone else, and that it would turn my whole life upside down. That it would change my entire being to the very core.





“I can’t believe they let you go with them,” Talia muttered. I turned away from the mirror to look at her. She sat cross-legged on my desk chair, dressed in her shabbiest jogging pants, and her long brown hair was piled atop her head in a messy bun. Her t-shirt, a faded grey thing littered with holes and stains, would drive our mother into a meltdown. Talia smiled grimly when she followed my gaze. “It’s not like I need to dress up for anyone, you know.”

“There’s a difference between not dressing up and between what you’re doing,” I said with a hint of disapproval. I wasn’t really annoyed at my sister for wearing her shabbiest clothes, but I knew their only purpose was to rile mother up, and it was a likely scenario given our Mother’s tendency for perfectionism and overreacting. I really didn’t want her mood to turn sour so shortly before the ball. I’d be the one to suffer since Father was definitely out of the question when it came to becoming Mother’s favorite target. Mother had a tendency to take it personally if Talia or I weren’t perfect.

“I’m making a point,” Talia said with a small shrug.

I sighed. “No, you’re being petty and childish.”

“I am a child, too young for a social gathering at the Falcone’s mansion,” Talia intoned in her best imitation of Mother’s chiding tone.

“This is an event for adults. Most people will be over eighteen or far beyond. Mother’s right. You’d have no one to talk to and someone would have to keep an eye on you all night.”

“I’m fifteen, not six. And you are only four years older than me, so don’t act so grown-up,” she said indignantly, pushing up from the desk chair, leaving it spinning around itself, and staggered toward me. She eyed me squarely, the challenge unmistakable. “You probably told mother not to take me with you because you were worried you’d have to watch me and that I’d embarrass you in front of your oh-so-perfect friends.”

I glowered. “You’re being ridiculous.” But a flicker of guilt flashed through me at Talia’s words. I hadn’t talked Mother into letting Talia stay home but I hadn’t really fought very hard for my sister joining us either. Talia was right. I’d been worried that I’d be stuck with her all evening. My friends tolerated her when we met at home but being seen with a girl four years younger at an official gathering wouldn’t sit well with them. A party at Falcone always meant the best chance to meet eligible matches and having to babysit your friend’s sister didn’t really help with that endeavor. I wanted this night to be special.

Something from my train of thoughts must have shown on my face because Talia scoffed. “I knew it.” She turned on her heel and stalked out of the room, slamming the door shut so hard that I couldn’t help but wince.

I let out a small breath, then turned back to my reflection, checking my make-up and hairdo one last time. I’d watched countless tutorials of beauty bloggers to make sure I got the smokey-eyes-look right. Everything needed to be perfect. Mother was a harsh critic but Trish and Anastasia were even worse. They’d notice if I matched the wrong tone of eye shadow to my dress or if my hand had trembled while holding my eyeliner, but their scrutiny had made my preparations meticulous. They were the reason why I was never slacking. And that was what friends were for.

My dress was dark green, and my eye-shadow just a few shades lighter. Perfect. I checked my nails one last time for chinks, but they too looked immaculate in their dark green sheen. I smoothed down my dress a few times until I was satisfied with the way the hem brushed my knees, then smoothed my hair back again, too, for good measure, turning to see if the bobby pins were still all in place holding my light brown hair up.

“Cara, are you ready? We need to leave,” Mother called from downstairs.

I checked my reflection and smoothed my dress again, scanned my tights, then finally forced myself to hurry out of the room before Mother lost her patience. I could have spent hours checking my outfit for possible mistakes if I’d had the time.

Mother stood in the doorway when I came downstairs, letting the cool autumn air into the house. She was checking her golden watch but the moment she spotted me, she grabbed her favorite winter coat, a splendid thing that had cost many ermines their life and put it over her long dress. Even with the temperatures being unusually cold for Las Vegas in November, a fur coat was completely over the top, but since Mother had bought it many years ago in Russia and loved it to pieces, she used every chance she got to wear it, no matter how inappropriate.

I walked toward her, ignoring Talia who leaned against the banister of the staircase, a sulk on her face. I felt sorry for her but I didn’t want anyone or anything to ruin this evening for me. Father and Mother hardly ever allowed me to attend parties and tonight was the biggest event of the year in our social circles. Everyone who aspired to be someone in Las Vegas had tried to get an invitation to Falcone’s Thanksgiving Feast. This would be my first year attending myself. Trish and Anastasia had been lucky enough to have been there last year too, and if Father hadn’t forbidden me from going I’d have gone too. I’d felt small and left out whenever Trish and Anastasia had talked about the party in the weeks prior and after, and they’d done so non-stop, probably because that gave them the chance to gloat.

“Give Trish and Anastasia her best, and Cosimo a kiss from me,” Talia said sweetly.

I flushed. Cosimo. He’d be there as well. I’d only met him twice before and our interactions had been more than a little awkward.

“Talia, put those horrendous rags into the trash. I don’t want to find them anywhere in the house when we return.”

Talia jutted her chin out stubbornly but even from across the room I could see the hint of tears in her eyes. Again guilt flooded me but I stayed tethered next to the front door. Mother hesitated, as if she, too, realized how hurt Talia was. “Maybe next year you’ll be allowed to come along.” She made it sound as if it hadn’t been her decision to exclude Talia from the party. Though, to be honest, I really wasn’t sure if the Falcone’s would be too happy if people started bringing their younger children along, considering that Falcone wasn’t known for his patience or family sense. Even his own children were sent to boarding schools in Switzerland and England, so they didn’t grate on his nerves. At least, if one believed the rumors.

“Put on a coat,” Mother said. I grabbed one that wasn’t fur, which wasn’t an easy feat in Mother’s wardrobe, and followed Mother out of the house. I didn’t look back at Talia as I closed the door. Father was already waiting in the driver’s seat of the black Mercedes in our driveway. Behind it, another car with our bodyguards was parked. I wondered how it was for people who weren’t always followed.

Mother opened her coat a bit wider. This was Vegas, and not Russia, I wanted to tell her. But if she preferred to melt so she could stride around dressed in her fur coat, then that was her problem. No pain, no gain, I supposed. Years of ballet classes had taught me that.

Mother sank down on the passenger seat while I slipped into the back of the car. I did another quick scan of my tights for runs, but they were immaculate. I thought companies should put a warning on their packing like ‘Only for standing, no moving allowed’, considering how easy it was to get a run while doing nothing but walking. That’s why I’d stuffed two new tights into my purse just in case.

“Buckle up,” Father said. Mother leaned over and patted his bald head with a tissue, soaking up the drops of sweat that had gathered there. I couldn’t remember Father ever having hair.

“Cara,” Father said, a sliver of annoyance entering his voice.

I quickly buckled up, and he slid the car out of our driveway.

“Cosimo and I have had a short talk this afternoon,” he said matter-of-factly.

“Oh?” I said. A knot of worry formed in my stomach. What if Cosimo had changed his mind? What if he hadn’t? I wasn’t sure which option caused my stomach to constrict harder. I forced my face into a neutral expression when I noticed Mother watching me over her shoulder.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“He suggested you two marry next summer.”

I swallowed. “So soon?”

A small frown appeared between Father’s brows, but Mother spoke first. “You are nineteen, Cara. You’ll be twenty next summer. That’s a good age to become a wife, and mother.”

My head spun. While I could somehow wrap my mind around being someone’s wife, I felt way too young for being someone’s mother. When would I get the chance to be myself? To find out who I really was and wanted to be?

“Cosimo is a decent man and that’s not an easy thing to find,” Father said. “He’s responsible, and he’s been Falcone’s financial advisor for almost five years. He’s very intelligent.”

“I know,” I said quietly. Cosimo wasn’t a bad choice, not by any standards. He wasn’t even bad looking. There just wasn’t that flutter I’d hoped for when I’d meet the man I’d have to marry. Maybe tonight. Weren’t occasions like a party the perfect place to fall head over heals for someone? I just needed to be open for the possibility.





We entered the premises of the Falcone mansion fifteen minutes later and drove for another two minutes until the driveway finally opened up to a majestic palace-like house and the huge fountain in front of it. The thing spewed water in blue and red and white out of its roman statues. Apparently, a stonemason from Italy had created the thing for Falcone. It had cost more than Father’s car. It was just one of the many reasons why I didn’t like Falcone. From what Father had told me about the man, he was a sadistic show-off. I was glad that my family and I were one his good side. Nobody wanted to have Falcone as their enemy. Everywhere you looked expensive cars were parked. From the sheer number, I wondered how all the guests would fit into the house without stepping on each other’s feet. Several bellboys rushed toward the car the moment it came to a stop and opened the doors for us. A red carpet led up the stairs and through the front door. I shook my head but quickly stopped at a look from Mother. She and Father made me walk between them as we headed toward the front door. There, another servant was waiting for us with a professional smile on his face. Neither Falcone, nor his wife, were anywhere to greet us. Why was I even surprised?

The entrance hall was bigger than any I’d ever seen. A myriad of crystal figures in all sizes stood against the walls and on the sideboards, and several huge portraits of Falcone and his wife plastered the high walls.

“Be polite,” Mother whispered under her breath as we were led toward the double doors that opened up to the ballroom with crystal chandeliers and high tables that fringed the dance floor. One wall was lined by a long table filled with canapés, piles of langoustines and lobsters, bowls filled with crushed ice that were topped with the biggest oysters I’d ever seen, tins with Ossetra caviar and every luxurious piece of food I could imagine. The bellboy excused himself the moment we arrived inside the ballroom and rushed off to the next guests.

Once inside I let my gaze glide over the guests looking for my friends. I was eager to join them and let my parents seek out their own preferred company, but Mother didn’t give me a chance to search very long. She touched my forearm lightly and whispered in my ear. “Be on your best behavior. We’ll have to thank Mr. Falcone for the invitation first.”

I looked past her to where Father was already talking to a tall man with black hair. Father held his shoulders in a hunch as if he was trying to bow before his boss without actually bowing. The sight left a bitter taste in my mouth. With Mother’s palm resting against the small of my back, I crept closer to my father and his boss. We stopped a couple of steps behind them, waiting for them to turn to us. Falcone’s dark eyes found me first before Father noticed our presence. The coldness in them sent a shiver down my back. His high-colored white shirt and black bowtie made him look even more intimidating, which was a feet in itself considering that bowties usually let their wearers appear comical to me.

After the exchange of a few meaningless pleasantries, I was finally dismissed and rushed toward one of the waiters balancing a tray full of champagne flutes on his palm. He was dressed in a white shimmery smoking and white high-polished shoes. At least the outfit made it easy to spot them.

One of our bodyguards followed a few steps behind me as I strode away from my parents, the other positioned himself at the edge of the gathered guests and kept an eye on my parents. I wondered why it was even necessary to have our bodyguards with us at a party of our supposed friends. I pushed the thought aside, wanting to enjoy this evening, and I took a glass of Champagne with a quick thanks, then downed a long gulp of the prickling liquid, grimacing at the tart taste.

“How can you make such a face while drinking Dom Perignon, the best drink in this world,” Trish said, appearing at my side out of nowhere and snatching a glass of Champagne for herself.

“It’s the water of kings,” Anastasia intoned, and it was unnerving that I wasn’t sure if she meant it as a joke or was dead honest.

“I’m trying to get used to it,” I admitted, lowering the flute from my lips. The alcohol was starting to do its magic and for that I was grateful after the short chat with Falcone. Both my friends were styled to perfection. Anastasia in a floor-length dream in silver, and Trish in a light green cocktail dress that brushed her knees. Not that I had expected anything less from them. They’d told me at length about their shopping trip for new dresses for the occasion. Of course I hadn’t been allowed to go with them despite my best attempts to convince my parents. Instead her mother had made me wear a dress I’d bought for Christmas last year. My only consolation was that nobody but my family had seen me wear it, so I wouldn’t embarrass myself in front of my friends.

“I hear it’s an acquired taste,” Trish added thoughtfully. She took a small sip from her glass, her expression turning into one of bliss. “I suppose I’ve always had a knack for Dom Perignon and in the past year I’ve certainly had enough chances to get acquired to its taste, and I intend to drink it even more often in the future.” She and Anastasia shared a laugh, and I cursed my parents again for sheltering me as much as they did. If Trish and Anastasia could brave the supposed dangers of our world, then so could I.

Trish gave me a teasing smile, then hugged me with one arm, careful not to ruin either of our hairdos or make-ups. Anastasia only smiled. Her bodice was a masterpiece of pearls and embroidery. “I’m worried I’ll pull a thread if we hug,” she said only half-apologetically.

“That’s reasonable,” I said, taking another sip from my drink and forcing my face into one of delight instead of revulsion at the taste. I knew for most people this champagne was the height of their drink fantasies but I just couldn’t enjoy it. I’d have to try harder if I didn’t want to see Anastasia’s pitying expression again.

“One of your hairpins is loose,” she said.

My free hand flew up to the spot she was looking at and I tried to find the offending pin before it could ruin my hairdo. Other guests were throwing glances my way anyway, as this was my debut at a party. I couldn’t risk appearing anything less than immaculate.

“Let me,” Trish said and simply pushed the pin a few inches back. “There. All done.” Her smile was kind.

That was all? From Anastasia’s reaction one could have thought, I’d committed an inexcusable fashion sin.

“There’s a nice selection tonight,” Anastasia said. Her eyes lingering on a group of men across from us made it clear she wasn’t talking about the buffet.

The men in her focus were all at least ten years older than us, and as I surveyed the rest of the room, I realized that we were among the youngest guests. Most of the attendants worked for Falcone. This was a party for his subjects; I doubted he had any friends. Men like him couldn’t afford that luxury.

“But of course, you don’t have eyes for other men anymore now that you’re engaged to Cosimo,” Anastasia continued, dragging me back to reality.

I wasn’t sure what to say to that. Her voice had been odd. Was she jealous? Her father was probably already looking for a suitable match for her, so she’d soon be engaged as well.

“We’ll all be married soon enough,” I said in a placating tone.

“You got your hands on the highest-ranking bachelor, that’s for sure,” she said with a tight smile. Then she let out a laugh and clinked her glass against mine. “I’m joking, don’t look so shocked.”

I laughed, relieved. I really didn’t want to fight with Anastasia over Cosimo. We’d all marry good matches.

The music picked up and I took another sip of my drink. I was starting to relax thanks to the alcohol spreading in my blood and barely minded the occasional curious glances from other guests. At the next party, I’d already be one of them and someone else would be at the center of attention. Trish tapped her foot on the hardwood floor in rhythm with the song and hummed a few tunes before Anastasia shot her a look. I had to stifle a laugh. The dynamic between them was ridiculous at times.

To my surprise, I realized that even my bodyguard had disappeared from view to give me privacy with my friends. Slowly but surely this evening was getting good.

I knew Talia would give me an earful when I returned tonight, but our parents had been right when they’d insisted she was too young for a social event at Falcone’s house. Of course I wouldn’t tell her that again. It would be hard enough to make her forgive me as it was, though a few juicy rumors would probably placate her. Not that I was an experienced socialite. I’d have to rely on Trish and Anastasia for that. Annoyance toward Father rose up in me. Maybe he’d refused to take me to a social function until now because he thought I’d embarrass him in front of his boss. I’d overheard him tell Mother several times how terrifying and brutal Falcone was, so it wasn’t too far-fetched that Father thought I might cower in fear in front of that man, which was ridiculous. He was still human, not the monster Father always made him out to be, and even if he were, I doubted very much that he’d hate to see me cower in fear. It would probably excite him if he were the man Father had described.

“They are a bit too old for my taste,” Trish said, then took another sip from her champagne, returning to our previous topic.

“I don’t mind. I want to be treated like a princess by my husband and older men are more likely to appreciate me than a young guy,” Anastasia said. She gave me a knowing smile. For some reason it felt false. “From what I hear the deal between your family and Cosimo is almost done, so your engagement party will be soon.”

I frowned at the use of the word ‘deal’ when it came to me marrying Cosimo. But in all honesty, it was probably the term that fit the whole arrangement best. I gave a small shrug, trying to act nonchalant. I didn’t want to talk about him tonight, especially since the topic seemed to rile Anastasia up.

“Oh my God, Falcone invited his monster,” Trish whispered, clutching at my arm and almost making me spill my champagne over her dress. I followed her shock-widened brown eyes toward a corner of the room where a tall, muscled man leaned against a wall. He was dressed in a white shirt that strained against his massive chest, a black suit and black dress shoes. In fact he didn’t look that different from the other men in the room except for the missing tie, if you took only his outfit into consideration. But the rest of him, God have mercy.

He looked way too tame for someone like him. Or at least he’d tried. There was no fooling anyone about his nature. It seemed to radiate off him like a dark cloud of danger. It was almost palpable even from afar.

Father had mentioned him once or twice in hushed tones but I’d never seen him, and he definitely wasn’t the type to appear in the gossip parts of the newspaper. I doubted any journalist was crazy enough to risk the wrath of a man like him.

“The Bastard, that’s what most people call him,” Anastasia added. She looked like a cat that had spotted a bird. I knew why she was so excited. So far nothing interesting had happened, but Anastasia probably hoped that this had the potential for some decent gossip.

“What’s his real name?” I asked. I’d tried to get it out of Mother once but the look she’d given me had stopped me from asking again.

“I don’t know his real name. Nobody does. People call him “Growl” to his face, and The Bastard behind his back.”

I gave them a look. Really? Both were names he couldn’t possible have chosen for himself. Someone had to know his name. At least, Falcone. He knew everything about his subjects. “Why would people call him that?”

Anastasia shrugged but didn’t glance my way. “There’s something wrong with his vocal cords since a horrible accident. That’s why he’s got that big scar.”

I couldn’t make out a scar from our vantage point. We were too far away. I assumed Anastasia had gotten that piece of information from the gossip mill as well. “What kind of accident?”

“I don’t know. Some people say the Russian Mob did this, others say he tried to kill himself because he isn’t right in the head, but nobody knows,” Anastasia replied under her breath.

Who would try to kill themselves like that? And Growl didn’t seem the guy for suicide. The first story with the Bratva sounded far more likely. “So they call him Growl because that’s what it sounds like when he talks?” I asked.

Anastasia barely seemed to register my words but Trish nodded in confirmation.

I didn’t ask why they called him the Bastard. That much I could explain. People in our world didn’t look kindly upon children who were born out of wedlock. It was old-fashioned and ridiculous but some things never changed. I didn’t know who his parents were. They couldn’t be high-ranking members of society, that was certain.

I directed my eyes back to the man. He seemed completely indifferent to what was happening around him, as if this party was just another of his duties. But something told me that despite his displayed boredom he was alert. I doubted that much passed his attention. He was holding a glass of champagne in his hands but it was still full. The elegant crystal looked tiny compared to him and I marveled that he hadn’t crushed it between his palms yet. As if he could read my mind, he turned his head and stared straight at us. Trish let out a gasp and jerked beside me, spilling a few drops of her drink on the expensive looking wooden floor. She really couldn’t have acted more suspicious if she’d tried. After a moment, both Trish and Anastasia jerked their heads down, breaking eye-contact. Maybe to make him believe they hadn’t been watching him, or maybe they simply couldn’t bear the power of his gaze. Now I understood why my parents and even my friends had sounded so terrified when they’d talked about him. Even from the distance his eyes almost made my knees buckle.

It wasn’t only fear that made my heart speed up though; there was something close to excitement too. It was like watching a tiger through the glass of its enclosure and marveling at its power. Only here the only thing keeping him from attack were the social rules even someone like him was bound to. The leash Falcone had him on wasn’t a physical or visible one, but it was there nonetheless.

I wondered what was going on in his head. How did he feel surrounded by people he had hardly anything in common with? He was one of them and yet not really. A man of the shadows because nobody wanted him in the light. When I realized how long I’d been staring, I averted my eyes, but my pulse kept up its erratic pace afterward. I wasn’t sure when I’d felt this…alive the last time. My life always meandered in its predetermined pathways, but tonight felt like an adventure.

“Oh my God, that was creepy,” Anastasia whispered. “He should have stayed in the hole he crawled out of.”

I couldn’t say anything. My tongue seemed to be stuck to the roof of my mouth.

“Is he still watching?” I asked eventually, my eyes firmly plastered on the bubbles still rising in my glass.

“No, he’s gone,” Anastasia said with no small relief. “I can’t believe he came here. People like him should stay among themselves and not pretend they belong to us.”

I peered toward the corner he’d previously stood but like Anastasia had said, he was gone. For some reason it made me nervous that I didn’t know where he’d gone. He was one of the people you’d like to keep track of because you feared they could sneak up on you. And I could have sworn that I could still sense his eyes on y skin. I shivered. Paranoia usually wasn’t my style.

I searched my surroundings but he was nowhere to be seen. I shook the ridiculous feeling of being watched off. It wouldn’t do for me to start acting paranoid. If I embarrassed myself here, it would be a while before I’d be invited to anything again. Or worse, Cosimo would decide I wasn’t fit to become his wife. Mother and Father would never forgive me if that happened.

“Look who’s coming,” Trish said under her breath, and for a ridiculous, heart-stopping moment I actually thought it was Growl.

I turned to see who she was talking about and felt heat rush into my cheeks. Cosimo was heading our way. He was dressed in a grey double-breasted suit, dark-blond hair slicked back and thin-rimmed glasses on his nose.

“He looks like a broker,” commented Trish in a low voice.

He managed Falcone’s money, so that wasn’t very far off. The suit was his second skin. I’d never seen him in anything else. It was a stark contrast to the man I’d been spying on mere seconds ago.

Trish and Anastasia took a step to the side, huddling together and pretending to give Cosimo and I some privacy, which really was only pretense since I knew they’d be hanging on our lips, memorizing our words.

I doubted they’d be using them against me. They were my friends after all but I didn’t want to risk it.

Cosimo came to a stop a little too close and brought my hand to his lips. I almost rolled my eyes at the gesture, though a small part of me relished in the appreciative glances Trist and Anastasia exchanged.

“Care for a dance?” he asked, voice smooth and even. That, like the suit, was always the same. Trish had compared him to a well-oiled machine once. The term fit too well. His eyes darted to my friends but he didn’t say anything. I didn’t follow his gaze, worried Anastasia would look pissed off. Sometimes I wasn’t sure what the hell was going on with her.

I let him guide me toward the dance floor, aware of my friends’ curious gazes following us, and they weren’t the only ones watching. My parents, too, had turned their attention toward us. I almost cringed at the force of attention.

Don’t trip, I told myself over and over again as we started moving to the music.

As we danced closely, I waited for a flutter, for something, the smallest hitch in my pulse, but nothing happened. Not that Cosimo looked as if he was madly in love with me. Not that love was required for a marriage, but it would have been nice nevertheless. Cosimo tried to make conversation. The weather, how lovely my dress was, this and that he thought I might be interested in. He couldn’t have been farther off.

My friends were still watching Cosimo and me. Though, ‘watching’ wasn’t the right term for the look Anastasia was giving me. I really hoped she’d find a man for herself soon. Knowing her, she was probably just pissed that for once I was in the lead, even though I wouldn’t have minded if my father had taken more time to find someone for me. I tore my gaze away from my friend’s scowl and let my eyes settle in the corner where Growl had stood. He still wasn’t there.

“My friends and I noticed a man earlier,” I said, not even sure what Cosimo had been rambling on about before I interrupted him. “My friends told me his name was Growl. He looked…”

I didn’t get further.

Cosimo’s grip on my back tightened. “He should have stayed where he belongs,” Cosimo said with a sharpness that surprised me, then he gave me an encouraging look. “Don’t worry. You’re safe. He knows he’s not allowed near women like you.”

I opened my mouth for more questions but Cosimo shook his head. “Let’s talk about something else.”

There was nothing else I wanted to talk about right then, but I let Cosimo’s small talk lull me in. It didn’t stop my gaze from searching the room for Growl though.

Cosimo led me back to my friends and a look passed between Anastasia and him. Her scowl obviously hadn’t passed his attention either. If I were braver, I’d have confronted her and asked what her problem was, but I definitely didn’t want any trouble at my first party.

Cosimo excused himself and headed toward a group of men, including Falcone. Trish handed me a fresh glass of champagne. “How was it?”

“Good,” I said automatically, unwilling to admit to them that I couldn’t care less about my soon to be fiancé.

“You looked cute together,” Anastasia said sweetly. Surprise surged through me, and I felt myself relax at once. Apparently, Anastasia had realized that there was no reason for her to be jealous of me and Cosimo.





CHAPTER TWO





Cara

I’d lost my way; the three glasses of Champagne I’d downed didn’t really help either. This house was a maze, obviously built to impress and intimidate, and not so much as a place to feel comfortable and actually live in. At least I could not imagine ever feeling comfortable in a place like this, but maybe the almost life-sized paintings of Falcone had something to do with it as well. His haunting eyes seemed to follow me wherever I went.

I fumbled for my mobile in my purse and pulled it out, but hesitated. How embarrassing would it be if I called Anastasia or Trish and told them I’d actually managed to lose my way while looking for the ladies room? They wouldn’t let me hear the end of it. The atmosphere between us had been strained since my dance with Cosimo anyway. No need to give them any more ammunition against me.

Not for the first time I wished Talia were here. We’d laugh about this together, and she’d tease me about it for a long time, but never out of malice or schadenfreude. She wouldn’t use it against me when talking to other people.

I paused, realizing with sudden horror that I didn’t even trust my two best friends. I shook my head. This was the world I lived in. ‘You can’t walk around trusting people, not even your so-called friends’, that’s what Father always said. I’d always been reluctant to believe him. I put my phone back into my purse. There was no way I was going to call anyone.

Mother was out of the question anyway.

And Cosimo. No, I didn’t need another reason for it to be awkward between us. And he was as good as a stranger for me. I had an inkling that wouldn’t change until our wedding day and perhaps a long time after.

With a quiet sigh, I kept going. At some point I’d have to see something I recognized and find my way back to the party.

I turned another unfamiliar corner – they really looked all the same – when I spotted someone in the corridor only a few steps in front of me. Finally, someone might be able to point me in the right direction!

My elation turned to shock, then fear when I realized who I’d walked into.

Growl.

He didn’t move. Just stood there. It seemed as if he’d been in this corridor for a while already.

Waiting for a victim, perhaps, my overactive mind suggested helpfully.

But as much as I wanted to scoff inwardly at the idea, I had a feeling it wasn’t that far off. Fear and fascination battled in me, and I reminded myself that he wouldn’t touch me. My father was too important for Falcone, and that meant I was too. Maybe Growl was a merciless killer, barely more than a killing machine and monster, but he was definitely a clever monster or he wouldn’t have made it this far. And yet I hoped my bodyguards would come to find me soon. But had they even seen me leaving the party? They’d tried to give my friends and me room. Now I wished they hadn’t.

Growl’s eyes showed nothing as he watched me. The suit was too tight around his broad shoulders and the hint of black peeked out under his too white shirt. One of his many tattoos. I’d never seen them, but you couldn’t be part of society and not hear the stories. Even dressed up in a suit, masked like one of us, he couldn’t hide who he was. His tattoos showed, a small hint of the monster beneath the expensive attire. I wondered how he looked without the suit. Heat shot into my cheeks at the ridiculous thought. I’d definitely drunk too much alcohol.

The hint of a scowl crossed his face before it disappeared and I realized how long I’d been staring at him again, judging him. I probably hadn’t managed to hide my thoughts about him very well. A mistake that could ruin everything in our world. My parents had taught me better.

The door behind him, however, looked faintly familiar. It led to the main lobby. I didn’t move. Making my way back to the party meant going closer to him.

It was ridiculous. I wasn’t just anyone. And we weren’t just anywhere. He wouldn’t do anything. Even he had rules he was bind to and one of them was that I was off limits, just like all the girls from families like mine. No matter how much nonsense Anastasia talked, that statement of hers held true.

I squared my shoulders and took a few determined steps toward Growl. Closer to the party I reminded myself as my pulse quickened. For some reason this felt like a prowl to me. Growl was the hunter and I was the prey, which didn’t even make sense since he had hardly moved since my arrival in the corridor. Come to think of it, he had never spoken while I was near.

“I’m Cara,” I said in a rushed voice. Maybe if I could get him to talk, he wouldn’t seem so dangerous anymore, but he didn’t react, only watched me with an unreadable expression, and then the door behind him swung open, and my mother appeared.

Her eyes settled on me, then moved on to Growl, and her expression grew rigid.

“Cara, your father and I are looking for you. Come back to the party,” she said, completely ignoring the man in the corridor with us.

I nodded and rushed past Growl. His eyes, amber not dark as they’d seemed from afar, followed me but he remained silent. When I had my back to him, a thrill shot through my body and I had to stop myself from looking over my shoulder.

The moment Mother and I were out of the corridor and in the deserted hall, she grabbed my arm in a crushing grip. “What were you thinking being alone with that…that man,” she practically spat the last word. Her eyes were wide and almost frantic. “I can’t believe they let him in. He belongs in a cage in shackles, far away from anyone decent.”

Her nails dug into my arm.

“Mom, you’re hurting me.”

She released me and I finally recognized the emotion on her face. Not anger, but worry.

“I’m fine,” I said firmly. “I lost my way and came across…” I searched my mind for a name to call him other than Growl, which seemed like too much of a nickname to use around my mother but came up empty-handed.

“Cara, you can’t go running around like that, without thinking about the consequences of your actions.”

“I was on her way to the ladies room. I wasn’t running around,” I said.

“Cosimo is a good match. Don’t go ruin it now.”

I blinked, unable to believe my ears. “That’s what you’re worried about.”

Mother took a deep breath and pressed her hand against my cheek. “I’m worried about you. But that includes your reputation. In this world, a woman is nothing without a good reputation. A man, that’s a different matter. They can do as they please and it’ll even help their reputation, but we are bound to different standards. We need to be everything they’re not. We need to make up for their failures. That’s what we’re meant for. We, you need to be gentle and docile and virtuous. Men want everything they see. We should keep our desires firmly locked away, even if men can’t.”

It wasn’t the first time she’d said something like that to me but the way she accentuated the word ‘desire’ in her speech made me worry that she knew of my body’s reaction to Growl’s closeness.

She needn’t have worried though. My fear of that man, of everything he stood for and of what he was capable of, trumped whatever small thrill of excitement my body might have felt around him.





Growl

Growl watched them leave the corridor. The door fell shut and he was alone again. Her vanilla scent still lingered in the air. Sweet. Girls like that always chose sweet scents. He didn’t understand why they’d try to appear even more harmless by smelling like a delicate flower.

He pulled at his collar. Too tight. The fabric against his scar, he hated it. This suit, this shirt, that wasn’t him.

The look on her mother’s face had reminded him why he hated events like this. People didn’t want him around. They wanted him to do their dirty work, and they enjoyed talking shit about him, but they didn’t want him near.

He didn’t give a fuck.

They were nothing to him.

He knew they watched him like a circus animal. He was the scandal of the evening. The sweet-smelling girl, too, had been watching him. He’d seen her and her friends observe him from across the ballroom.

But the sweet-smelling girl had surprised him. He knew her name. Of course. Falcone had talked about her father and her family too often in the last few weeks. Cara.

She hadn’t run away screaming, even though they’d been alone in the corridor. She hadn’t even looked very scared. Of course there had been fear; there always was, but there had also been curiosity. Because he was a monster that they feared and that fascinated them.

He didn’t care. She was just a girl. A society girl with a pretty dress and an even prettier face. He gave a fuck about pretty. It meant nothing. It was fleeting, could be taken away in a heartbeat. Still his eyes had sought her out several times that evening. He’d imagined ripping that pretty dress off her body, imagined running his not-worthy hands over her curves. Then he’d forced his gaze away and left the ballroom before he could do something very stupid. She was someone he wasn’t meant to have. Someone he shouldn’t even imagine having. She was someone to admire from afar. And it was for the best.





Cara

That day, shortly after we returned home and I lay in bed, my fingers found the sweet spot between my legs, answering to the need that had called to me ever since I’d seen Growl. The cloak of darkness washed away my resistance and my worry of being caught. Even my mother’s words that echoed in my head weren’t able to stop me. ‘Be proper, be virtuous. This is sin.’ The image of that fearsome man had caused a sweet tingle in my core, and I was unable to resist. Wrong, my mind screamed but I banished the thought until finally my body shuddered with release.

But seconds after, a familiar sense of being dirty washed over me. This was sin. Mother hadn’t stopped saying those words to me since the day she’d caught me touching myself two months ago. I’d not given in to my sinful needs since then, until tonight.

I took a deep breath, wishing my heart would stop racing. Wishing my body would stop reminding me of what I’d done.

Ever since Mother had caught me there was a tension between us I could hardly stand. She avoided my eyes as I avoided hers. I was almost glad for my quickly approaching wedding so I’d finally escape Mother’s judgement. I still felt a wave of blatant shame was over me when I remembered that day and the look of shock on my mother’s face. It hadn’t been the first time I’d touched myself but the first time I’d really understood the wrongness of it. I’d sworn to myself back then to never let my body overrule my brain again and now I’d broken that promise. In the protection of the night, I’d dared to let my fingers roam again, all because of a man whom I shouldn’t even think, let alone fantasize about. Wrong.

I was weak and a sinner but in the brief moments of pleasure I’d felt more alive than at any other point in my life.





CHAPTER THREE





Cara

I knew something was horribly wrong as I watched Father during dinner. He had the nervous energy of a trapped animal. Talia’s eyes flitted toward me, her dark eyebrows shooting up in a silent question. She always tried to act like she was all grown up, and yet she still seemed to think I always knew more than her. But there were always more questions than answers in our house.

I gave a small shrug and cast my eyes toward Mother, but her attention was focused on Father, the same inquisitive expression on her face that Talia was giving me. None of us seemed to get answers; Father stared intently down at his iPhone, but the screen remained black. Whatever he was waiting and hoping for, it wasn’t happening. His fingers were tapping an erratic rhythm on the mahogany of our dining room table, a quiet click-click of nails on wood. Father usually wore his nails meticulously short, but whatever was turning him into the nervous wreck before us had made him forget his personal hygiene.

“Brando, you’ve barely touched your dinner. Don’t you like the roastbeef?” Mother asked. She’d spent two hours in the kitchen to prepare our Sunday feast. On every other day of the week our cook was responsible for the cooking.

Father jumped in his chair. His widened bloodshot eyes found Mother, then they registered Talia and me. Unease settled in the pit of my stomach. I’d never seen him like that. Father was calm and analytic. Little could get a rise out of him. But since the party at the Falcone’s, he’d seemed somewhat stressed.

“I’m not hungry,” Father said before his gaze returned to his cell phone.

I glanced at the pouch straining over his belt. Father loved to eat, and he never let Mother’s roastbeef go to waste.

The screen of his phone flashed with a message and Father’s face drained of color. I set down my fork, no longer hungry. But I didn’t get the chance for another questioning look at Mother because Father shot to his feet. His chair toppled over and crashed to the hard-wood floor. Mother rose as well but Talia and I were frozen to our seats. What was going on?

“Brando, what--”

Father rushed off before Mother could finish her sentence. Mother followed after him and after a moment I got to my feet. Talia was still glued to her chair. She blinked up at me. My eyes darted to the door, torn between running after our parents to find out what was going on and following the rules. We weren’t supposed to get up from the dining table without permission. I didn’t like that rule but I’d always followed it. Dinners were the only time our family ever got the chance to really spend quality time together, after all.

The door to the dining room flew open again and Father was back, two guns in his hands. He set one down, only to pull out his phone and press it against his ear. I stared at the weapon on our table. I knew what Father was doing for a living, what he was. I’d known for as long as I could remember, even if Mother, Talia and I lived a fairly normal life. Even if you tried to be blind to the truth, it sometimes smacked you in the face without invitation. But so far Father had tried to keep up the illusion of normalcy around us. It hadn’t exactly been difficult for him because until a few months ago Talia and I had both attended an all-girls boarding school and only been home on the weekends and during the holidays. And soon I’d leave for college and Talia would return to school. I’d never seen him openly display a gun. I’d never seen a gun this close at all. Father was involved in organized crime, but many people who dealt with gambling were in Las Vegas; I wasn’t even sure what exactly he was doing, except that he managed most of the Camorra’s casinos.

Mother came into the dining room, looking completely out of it, but Father didn’t glance her way. “When will you be here?” Father hissed into the phone. He nodded after a moment. “We’ll be ready then. Hurry.”

Finally he turned to us. He was trying to look calm, but failing miserably. “Talia, Cara, please pack a bag. Only things you’ll absolutely need to get by for a few days.”

Mother had become a salt pillar.

“We’re going on vacation?” Talia asked with the hope and naiveté I wished for myself.

Father always humored us if we said something silly. Not today. “Don’t be ridiculous, Talia,” he barked. She jumped in her chair, obviously taken aback by the harsh tone.

“Are we in trouble?” I asked carefully.

“I don’t have time to discuss the details with you. All you need to know right now is that we don’t have much time, so please grab a few things.”

The phone flashed with a message. Father’s shoulders sacked with relief. He rushed out of the dining room. This time all three of us followed him into the entrance hall of the house. Father opened the door and several men I’d never seen before entered. They looked rugged; ill-fitting jeans, leather jackets, sneakers.

They looked like the kind of guys I wouldn’t want to meet in the dark – or at all. Their calculating eyes slid over me. They were the kind of men that made you cross the street to avoid them.

I had to stop myself from wrapping my arms protectively around my chest. If Father had invited them in, they couldn’t be dangerous.

Father pulled out an envelope from the pocket in his jacket and held it out to one of the men. Talia’s arm brushed mine as she moved a bit closer. I wished I could give her the comfort she was obviously looking for but my own nerves were wrecked.

The man looked inside. “Where’s the rest?” he said in a heavy accent. Were those Russians? They’d looked slightly Slavic to me but I hadn’t considered the option of them actually being Russians. Father worked for the Camorra, and it was no secret that the Russians were the enemy. Weren’t we all committing treason by having those men inside our house? My head was spinning but I kept the questions to myself, from fear of making things worse.

“You’ll get it once my family and I are safe in New York. That was the deal, Wladimir,” Father said.

Talia slanted me a confused look but I didn’t dare take my eyes off what was going on. Why were we going to New York? And what had Father done that he needed Russians to protect him? He’d rarely spoken about business in our presence but whenever I’d overheard the occasional snippet about New York or Russians it hadn’t been positive.

Wladimir exchanged a look with his companions, then gave a quick nod. “That won’t be a problem. Tomorrow you’ll be in New York.”

Father turned to us. “What are you still doing here? I told you to pack your bags. Hurry.”

I hesitated but Mother grabbed Talia’s hand and led her toward the staircase. After a moment, I followed, but not without glancing over my shoulder again. The Russians were talking amongst each other. Father seemed to trust them, or at least trusted that they wanted the rest of the money badly enough to get us to New York. That reminded me. I caught up with Mother and Talia, then whispered. “Why New York? I thought we can’t go there because the ruling family there doesn’t get along with Father’s boss.”

Mother halted. “Where did you hear that?”

“I don’t know. Sometimes I overhear things. It’s the truth, though, right?”

“New York is a difficult topic. I haven’t been there in a very long time.”

There was longing in her voice. I opened my mouth to ask her about it when a bang sounded downstairs, then men were screaming.

“We need to hide,” Mother whispered as she dragged Talia toward the master bedroom. I was about to follow them when steps thundered up the staircase. I quickly pushed into the closest room, Talia’s, and hid in her overcrowded closet. There was a pile of discarded clothes on the floor and I used it to conceal myself even more. I could still see most of the room through the slits in the door, but with only the dim light from the corridor spilling in, it was difficult to make out much. I’d barely had time to crouch down and become still before the door was flung open. Someone staggered in. For a moment light hit the man’s face and I recognized him as one of the Russians. He was bleeding from a wound in his arm. He moved toward the window. Was he going to jump? He tried to push the window up but it got stuck because of his frantic movements.

I held my breath and buried myself deeper into the heap of clothes. Another man, much taller and more muscled than the first, stalked in and grabbed the Russian. Everything happened too fast to see much, but something seemed familiar about the second man. There was a short struggle. The Russian pulled a knife but he never got to use it. The other man grabbed him by the neck and twisted. I stifled a gasp as the Russian toppled over, collided with the door so it was pushed open all the way, and eventually dropped to the ground in a lifeless heap. Light now filled the entire center of the room. My eyes moved back up to the murderer. His back was turned to me. But I knew him. I had dreamt about him several times in the last couple of weeks since the party.

Growl, of course.





CHAPTER FOUR





Cara

His black t-shirt stuck to his skin from sweat, and his arms were covered in tattoos. Without the suit and cool demeanor, this man was pure danger. Nothing controlled about him now. Everything about him screamed death. My heart pounded in my chest as I waited for him to turn around and discover me. Would he kill me as well?

He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. My family’s status still had to count for something, right?

But he walked out of the room without another glance at the man he killed – or at the wardrobe I was hiding in.

Only when he was gone and I didn’t hear his steps anymore did I dare to breathe. And then a new fear set in. Where was Father and what was happening to him? And what about Mother and Talia? I had to go looking for them, even if every fiber of my body screamed at me to stay where I was. We needed to stay together, but leaving my hiding place was a huge risk. I glanced toward the dead body in the middle of the room again. Was that our fate too?

Then a more hopeful thought crossed my mind. Maybe we’d be spared. It wasn’t a surprise that soldiers of the Camorra, like Growl was, killed members of the Bratva, their archenemies. Maybe there was a way we could convince everyone that the Russians hadn’t been here for our protection but instead to kill us. Screams and shots rang out below. I listened for a familiar voice, Father’s voice, but it wasn’t among the screams, neither were Talia’s or Mother’s. They were probably still hiding in the master bedroom.

I closed my eyes. I wasn’t accustomed to this world, even though I’d grown up around people who were part of it. But I’d always only brushed the edges of the nastiness my father was involved in. Now that I was thrown in headfirst, I wasn’t sure how to act. Waiting like a mouse in a trap wasn’t the solution though. At some point they’d search the rooms properly, and then I didn’t want to make it easy for them. I pushed to my feet and slowly opened the door, then stepped outside. Although I knew better, I crouched beside the Russian and pressed my fingers against his throat. He was still warm but there was no pulse. I considered doing CPR but then I noticed the way his neck was twisted and shoved away.

A violent shudder overwhelmed my body and for a moment I was sure I was going to have a panic attack, but the sound of voices brought me back to reality. I stood, my gaze falling on the knife the Russian had dropped during his struggle. I was about to take it when the words of the self-defense instructor that had given a weekend seminar at our school popped into my mind: ‘A weapon you can’t control is another advantage for your enemy.’

I had no doubt that I’d be disarmed in no time. I’d never learned how to fight with weapons, or to fight at all. My friends and I hadn’t taken the self-defense seminar very seriously. Now I wished I had. But we’d been so busy ogling our instructor that we hadn’t had time for anything else.

How much time had passed?

Talia screamed somewhere in the house, and I started moving without thinking. I stormed out of the room. I wasn’t sure how to help her, but I knew I needed to get to her. I didn’t get very far though. I crashed into someone, my temple colliding with a hard shoulder. My vision turned black and I staggered back, gasping. I dropped to my knees. Pain shot through my legs from the impact. After a moment, I peered up and found myself staring at the man who’d killed right in front of my eyes, the man who’d scared and fascinated me since our first encounter. He was even taller this close up and there was a long faded scar that reached around his throat. Growl. Always Growl. My fascination gave way to nothing but fear when his eyes met mine. He didn’t look human in that moment.

A killer, a monster – nothing human about his expression, or eyes, or him.

He grabbed my arm and pulled me roughly to my feet. My vision swam again. “Take her to the others,” he rasped. That voice, so deep and rough, sent a shiver down my back.

Another man took me by the arm and led me away. I threw another glance over my shoulder but, Growl, the man with the scar and no mercy, was gone. I hardly paid attention to my surroundings and almost fell down the stairs when my captor dragged me downstairs until we arrived in the living room where Father, Mother and Talia were already gathered. Father knelt on the floor in front of Falcone, who was dressed in a pin-striped suit and a high-collared stark white shirt. Talia and Mother stood a few steps back, looking as terrified as I felt. I was pushed toward them and Mother immediately wrapped an arm around me. The other was already holding onto Talia. I gave Mother a questioning look but she was watching Falcone with terrified eyes. Finally, I turned toward him as well. He’d been creepy at his party, but today he looked truly frightening.

Benedetto Falcone, Father’s boss and the head of the mafia in Las Vegas, was in our house and the look in his eyes turned my stomach to ice. That he was in our living room was a horrible sign. It could only mean that Father had messed up badly. And that Father was sweating profusely only confirmed my worries.

Somewhere in the house I could still hear the telltale sounds of a brutal fight. I shivered. The men gathered in this room all looked like they’d come for blood. The dead man in the corner and upstairs in Talia’s bedroom didn’t seem to be enough.

Heavy steps came down the staircase and a few moments later Growl stalked in. His hands and forearms were covered in blood. I wasn’t sure if it was his own but I doubted it.

Falcone looked his way. “All clear, Growl?” he asked with mild curiosity, as if he knew the answer already and I supposed he did. All the stories I’d heard in whispered voices flashed through my mind.

Growl was invincible.

The man in front of me tonight had little to do with the man I’d seen at Falcone’s party. Back then Growl had been in disguise. While other people had to put on masks, that suit and cleaned up appearance had been his, but beneath it the same monster had been lying in wake. Now there was no mistaking who or what he truly was. The best soldier in the rows of the Las Vegas Camorra, and a monster. That’s what people always said behind his back and now I saw it too. He was a fighting machine without emotions, a brutal hand of Benedetto Falcone.

“All clear,” Growl said in that deep rumble that was his voice. For the first time I could see the long scar around his throat. His vocal cords had been injured by the accident that had given him the long scar around his throat. Growl shouldn’t have survived a wound like that but somehow he had, and perhaps it had turned him into the monster he was now, or perhaps he’d only survived because he was a monster.

Falcone turned away from his soldier and Growl faded into the background. I wasn’t sure how he managed to do it; a man with his size and aura shouldn’t have been able to blend into his surroundings that easily, to make you forget he was even there. That was probably one of the skills that made him such a feared fighter.

Falcone stepped closer to Father, forcing him to tilt his head back.

“I hear you’ve been busy these last few months,” Falcone began in a pleasant drawl that made the hairs on the back of my neck rise. His grin was nasty and malicious. It promised punishment.

Father swallowed, but he didn’t say anything. Why wasn’t he saying anything?

“How much of my money have you kept for yourself, Brando?” Falcone asked, still in that horribly pleasant voice.

My stomach constricted. I couldn’t believe Father had stolen from his Boss. He wouldn’t have been that stupid. Everybody knew what happened to people who messed with Falcone.

Falcone’s smile widened and he gave a small nod toward one of his man, who immediately went outside and returned a few moments later, with Cosimo at his heels, as usual impeccably dressed. What was he doing here?

Perhaps he would vouch for Father.

But Father blanched at the sight of my future husband and I knew my hope was in vain. Father looked like he wanted to say something but he remained silent.

I tried to catch Cosimo’s eyes, but his gaze didn’t once seek me out. Why was he ignoring me? We were practically engaged; our engagement party was set for the New Year. Shouldn’t he take care of me?

He was looking at father with an expression that made my stomach turn. This was going to end badly.

“Why don’t you tell me again what you told me a few days ago?” Falcone said to Cosimo, never taking his eyes off Father.

“After we’d come to an agreement about the engagement to his daughter, Brando came to me and asked me if I wanted to earn some extra money. He told me about the deal he had with the Bratva, and that he was taking money from you.”

Father didn’t say anything. I wanted to shake him, wanted to make him deny Cosimo’s outrageous claims. With every second that he didn’t, my hopes for a merciful ending to this evening disappeared. I tried to catch Cosimo’s gaze again, still hoping, and when he finally looked my way, my heart sank. There was no emotion in his eyes. He would not be my knight in shining armor today.

Falcone turned toward my mother with a shark-like expression. Mother stiffened but she kept her head high. She was a proud woman; one of the things I admired most about her. I worried Falcone might enjoy breaking her. He was that type.

He advanced on Mother, and finally Father sprang into action. “She doesn’t know anything. My family wasn’t involved in any of this. They are innocent.” His voice rang with fear and alarm. Seeing his terror, hearing it, terrified me to no end. This wasn’t a game.

Talia looked at me for help again. God, and how I wished I knew how to help her, how to help my family, but I was useless.

Falcone stopped right in front of my mother, closer than was socially acceptable. Mother didn’t flinch back, though most people would have done that under his stare, and I hoped for the same strength if Falcone confronted me. He reached for her throat and for a crazy moment I thought he was going to strangle her. Father made a move to get up but Falcone’s man pushed him back down.

Falcone curled his fingers around Mother’s necklace. “But they’re reaping the rewards of your betrayal, don’t they?”

Father shook his head. “I didn’t buy that necklace from that money…”He trailed off, a pained expression on his face. That was a guilty plea if I’d ever heard one. I wanted to cry. Father had really stolen from the mob. That meant his death, and maybe ours as well. Falcone wasn’t known for his kindness.

“No?” Falcone said with fake curiosity. He ripped the necklace off Mother’s throat. She gasped and flinched, one hand flying up to touch her skin. When she pulled her fingers away, they were bloody. The gold chain had cut her.

Then he pointed at Talia’s earrings. Talia took a step back. “And those?” He reached for one earring.

“Leave her alone,” I said before I could stop myself. Father and Mother stared at me as if I’d lost my mind. Falcone slowly turned to me, eyes narrowing. He stepped back from Talia and came toward me. It took everything to stand my ground when everything I wanted to do was to run as fast as my feet could carry me.

I wasn’t wearing any flashy jewelry he could hold against me, or my father, but I knew that wouldn’t protect me.

His cruel eyes seemed to pierce me to the very core. I tried not to show my revulsion and fear. I wasn’t sure I was succeeding. I had no experience in facing true evil.

“You are a brave one, aren’t you?” Falcone said. I had a feeling it wasn’t meant as a compliment. I waited for him to do something to me, to punish me for my insolence, but he merely eyed me before he turned on his heel and walked back to Father. Somehow his leniency worried me. It made me think that maybe he had something worse in mind for me later. This wasn’t over.

“I wonder if you actually believed you’d get away with this, Brando?” Falcone asked. He touched Father’s shoulder in a mock friendly gesture.

“I always made more money than any of your other managers. I’ll work for free for as long as you want me to. I’ll make it up to you, I swear.”

“You’ll make it up to me?” Falcone repeated. “You betrayed me. You stole from me and gave my money to the filthy Russians. My enemies. How are you going to make it up to me?”

“I’ll do anything,” Father said.

Falcone touched his chin in contemplation. It looked as if he’d practiced the move countless times in front of the mirror. “There is something you can do for me.”

Father nodded eagerly but I wasn’t as optimistic. The look in Falcone’s eyes promised nothing good. Falcone pulled a gun out of a holster under his jacket and held it against Father’s head. “You can die.”

He pulled the trigger.

I cried out, taking a step forward to help my father, so did Mother, but our guards held us back. Talia screamed, a high-pitched sound that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. But Father didn’t topple over. He was unharmed. There hadn’t been a bullet in the gun. I shook, my emotions changing from shock to relief.

Father closed his eyes for a moment. Then he peered up at Falcone. There was definitely relief in his gaze but also trepidation.

Falcone smirked. “But first we need to know everything you know about the Russians and everything else that might harm my business, don’t you agree?”

Falcone didn’t wait for Father’s reply, he pointed at Growl. “Talk to him. And make it quick. I have better things to do.” Growl didn’t hesitate. He grabbed Father by the arm, hoisted him up and dragged him into the adjoining dining room.

Mother, Talia and I were ushered into a corner and had to wait while listening to Father’s muffled cries and moans. Talia pressed her palms against her ears and squeezed her eyes shut. Mother tightened her hold on both of us. I wanted to close my ears off to the sounds of Father’s torture but if he had to bear the pain I could at least bear this.

It grew quiet in the adjoining room. Worry gnawed at my insides. What if the silence meant that Father had lost his consciousness? Or worse.

The door creaked open. Mother stiffened. Father was led inside by Growl. He could barely keep himself upright and without the other man’s steely grip Father would have toppled over. Falcone rose from his chair. “All done?”

Growl gave a nod. He led Father into the center of the room, then let go of him. Father dropped to his knees. Growl blended back into the background as Falcone stepped in front of Father. “You disappointed me greatly, Brando. It’s a pity, really. You should have really thought about your family before you decided to screw me over.”

Father coughed, then rasped. “Don’t…don’t punish them for my…”

Falcone didn’t give him the chance to finish the sentence. He turned his back to my father. “Growl,” he said.

Growl came forward, waiting for orders. He was going to kill my father, there was no other option.

“You did good, Growl.” Falcone’s lips pulled wide. “That’s why I have a gift for you.”

Growl stood still, dripping with blood and sweat, eyes cold and empty, as if there was nothing behind them, a dark emptiness that consumed anything around. I shivered. I didn’t remember his gaze being this horrific at the party. Killing and maiming must have brought the monster to the surface.

Father started shaking his head. “You can’t!”

I startled.

Growl barely glanced his way but then his eyes found me, and they didn’t move on. God in Heaven, have mercy.





CHAPTER FIVE





Cara

“I can and I will.” Falcone nodded toward Father’s captor, who punched Father in the stomach, making him splutter and cough.

Falcone opened his arms. “You’ve been a good soldier, and you deserve a reward.” He gestured toward me and I thought my world was crashing down. I could see my life crumbling right before my eyes. But then everything turned so much worse. Falcone’s finger moved from me onto my sister. Growl’s eyes darted toward her. “It’s your choice.”

“No,” I cried out, tearing away from my guard. My newfound freedom was short-lived, however, as his hands grabbed me by the arms, bruising me. I winced from the pain shooting through my body.

Talia was frozen by fear and shock.

“Please,” Father said, his hands linked in a begging gesture. “They are innocent. Punish me but don’t hurt them.”

Falcone barely glanced his way. “Oh, I will punish you, don’t worry. But it won’t be that easy.” It was obvious he was enjoying himself tremendously. This room was filled with plenty of monsters, but I had a feeling he was the worst of them.

“It’s your choice, Growl. Take whoever you want. I’m sure you’ll enjoy either of them,” Falcone said with a nasty smile. I wanted nothing more than to wipe it off his face, to take the heavy marble sculpture of a naked Greek god my mother loved so much and smash it against Falcone’s ugly face. I didn’t know where those brutal notions came from. I’d never been the violent type, but I supposed that anyone could be driven to the worst in a situation like this.

Growl’s eyes rested on my face. I’d have thought he would check out my body but his gaze never strayed away from my face. I almost wished it were different. His eyes were like amber lakes of nothingness. I didn’t want to find out the horrible secrets they harbored in their depth.

“Oh, I think the choice is made,” Falcone said with a laugh.

Growl gave a small nod. “Her,” he rumbled, eyes still glued to me.

Horror, fear, despair crashed down on me. There should have been relief as well. Relief, because Talia had been spared, but while I didn’t want my sister in my stead, I couldn’t feel relief when my own life was crumbling right before my eyes.

“Very well then,” Falcone said in a patronizing manner. “She’s yours.”

“You can’t do that,” Father roared. I hadn’t expected that much power left in him.

“Take me. She’s just a child,” Mother pleaded, trying to get away from her captor once more.

Falcone laughed again, a menacing sound. “Who’d want an old prune when they can have a juicy peach?”

“Now watch your mouth,” Father hissed. Maybe I would have admired his sudden bravery more if he wasn’t the reason for our demise. “I won’t stand by while you insult my wife and give my daughter to that…” He glared at Growl with disgust. “That monster.”

Falcone nodded. “You’re right. You shouldn’t have to watch this.” Before either of us could react, he pointed his gun at Father and pulled the trigger. This time it wasn’t for show. The bullet tore through Father’s temple. His head whipped back violently, eyes widened in shock. After a second, his body toppled backwards. His legs got stuck under his back in an awkward angle.

A scream ripped from my throat. I couldn’t fathom what had happened. It seemed too surreal, like something from a movie, something that couldn’t possibly happen right in front of my eyes.

“No,” Mother screeched. This time she managed to tear herself away from her captor. She stormed toward Father and fell to her knees. She patted his chest helplessly, as if that would wake him. It almost looked like she was looking for his wallet and for a horrible moment something like a laugh wanted to bubble out of me, but at the same time my throat felt so tight that it hardly seemed possible to draw enough oxygen into my lungs, and perhaps that wouldn’t have been the worst thing right now. Mother cradled Father’s head in her lap but when she pulled back her hands, they came away covered in blood and something white.

My vision blurred and bile traveled up my throat. I swallowed hard, forcing myself to keep face among the horrible creatures surrounding me and my family. For some reason, I looked down at my own hands as if they, too, could be covered in blood. They weren’t and after a moment of relief, I couldn’t help but wonder how it would feel if Falcone’’s blood covered my hands, how it would feel to end his life like he’d done with Father’s. I suspected it would feel marvelous, and it scared me that I even entertained those thoughts.

“Your job here is done, Growl. Mike and Mimo will take care of the rest. Take your reward home and enjoy her. I’m sure she’ll keep you entertained for a while.”

It took a moment before I realized he was talking about me. Before I could react, Growl appeared in front of me, massive and tall. My gaze flitted up to his face but the look in his eyes made me recoil and I stared at his chest instead. He gripped my arm. His grip was tight, on the verge of painful, but I didn’t pull away. Behind him, my mother was still kneeling beside Father, a horrible empty expression on her face I’d never seen before. Growl nudged me in the direction of the door and when I didn’t react he started pulling me along. Talia’s tear-filled eyes met mine. I tried to rip away from Growl’s grip but it was like he wasn’t even human. He hardly seemed to notice my resistance. I was a bothersome fly attacking a lion.

“Wait!” I screamed and to my surprise Growl actually halted, an uncomprehending expression on his face. I twisted until I could see Falcone again. “What about my sister and mother? What happens to them?”

“That’s none of your business,” he said with that malicious grin. Then he glanced at Growl. “Take her out of my sight. I’m growing tired of her.”

Growl tightened his grip and dragged me away despite my protests. Talia tried to run toward me but was stopped by another of Falcone’s men. Mother was beyond our reach, trapped in her sadness.

“Cara!” Talia cried, her eyes pleading with me to do something, to help her. But how?

Growl opened the door and then we were outside. Talia screamed again but her words weren’t intelligible.

The door closed between us, and Talia’s terrified cries died away. I walked on autopilot. Not that it would have changed a thing if my legs had given away. Growl would just have dragged me along. I finally drew my eyes away from my home. I couldn’t bear looking at it a moment longer knowing that I might never see it again. As my gaze settled on the tall man pulling me toward an enormous black Hummer that was way too fitting, the fear for my sister and mother took a backseat as my own fate registered. Falcone had given me to his cruelest fighter. If I survived today, would I even still want to live? Maybe death would seem like the sweetest mercy after Growl was done with me.





CHAPTER SIX





Growl

Growl’s mind was racing as he pulled Cara toward his car. He’d often thought about the first time he’d seen her at Falcone’s party. He’d regretted attending the party, especially because her image had haunted his sleep in the weeks after.

He’d felt like a monkey in a suit, and he knew he looked that way too. He knew his boss only invited him, so people had something to talk about. Even after all these years they still regarded him as the monster to fear.

He was a monster, no question. But he wasn’t the only monster in that room. He wasn’t even sure he was the worst. He’d killed the most people with his own hands, that he couldn’t deny. And he didn’t want to. He was proud of what he’d done. Most of it, at least. It was the only thing he was good at, killing. He was the best. And maybe his talent for killing made him one of the worse monsters but he knew how easily the order to kill and maim rolled off the tongues of many men gathered at this ball, how they relished in their power to do so. He wasn’t sure if that didn’t make them just as bad. But it wasn’t his place to decide anyway. Maybe one day all of them, Growl included, would have to face a higher power. That day wouldn’t end well for either of them.

Growl wasn’t too worried, however. He’d lived through hell, still lived it. There was nothing to fear for him. Nothing waiting for him beyond death could possibly do worse damage than had already been done. There was nothing of him that hadn’t been broken, nothing left to destroy, except for his body perhaps, but he wasn’t worried about that either. He knew pain, agony even. It was the only constant in his life. He’d almost come to see it as a friend. Something he could count on, something predictable.

No, he didn’t fear pain, or death for that matter. Falcone always said that made him such a valuable asset. And that was something Growl was proud of, even if the words coming from Falcone’s mouth left a bitter aftertaste.

They took him for dim witted, thought of him as nothing but a stupid lapdog to do their biding without the barest inkling of what they were up to. Like one of the many fight dogs Falcone and so many of the other men kept for entertainment.

But many people had done the same error – mistaken silence for stupidity, equaled lack of words with lack of understanding and knowledge. It was an error they might pay for one day. He knew most of their deepest and darkest secrets, simply because they didn’t keep their fucking mouths shut when he was around. They thought he wasn’t listening, and even if he were, how could he ever grasp what they were saying?

He despised them but they paid well and respected him for his strength and brutality, that was enough for him. He had no intention of using his knowledge. He didn’t need much: money to buy food for his dogs and himself, and for women and a drink now and then. He liked his simple life. He didn’t want complications. He cast his eyes over the cowering girl in the passenger seat. He hoped she wouldn’t turn out to be a complication. He could hardly give her back. Falcone wouldn’t like that.

Not that Growl had any intention of giving her back. She was his most valuable possession to this date. She was looking out of the window, ignoring him. Like she’d done at the party. Like they all did until they couldn’t ignore him anymore. Did she still think she was above him? He turned his gaze back to the road. It didn’t matter. She was his now. The idea sent a stab of pride through him and his groin tightened in anticipation.



CARA

I could barely breathe. From fear, and because of the stench. God, the stench was worse than anything I’d ever smelled before. Blood. Metallic and sweet, oppressing. I could still see the pool of blood spreading beneath Father’s lifeless body, could see Mother kneeling amidst the red liquid, and Talia’s horror-widened eyes. Every moment of tonight seemed to be burned into my mind.

My eyes flitted to the man beside me.

Growl. He steered the car with one hand, looking relaxed, almost at peace.

How could anyone look at peace after what had happened? After what he’d done?

His clothes were covered in blood, so were his hands. So much blood. Revulsion crippled me.

A few weeks ago my bodyguards would have quickly ushered me away from a man like him. My mother had practically dragged me away from him at Falcone’s party.

And now I was at his mercy.

He was a brutal, violent hand of Falcone’s will. He turned to me.

His eyes were empty, a mirror to throw back my own fear at me. His arms and chest were covered with martial tattoos, knives and thorns and guns.

I couldn’t stop looking at him, even though I wanted to. I needed to, but I was frozen. Eventually he returned his attention back to the street. I shivered, and let my head fall forward until my forehead came to rest against the cool window. There was a low buzz in my head. I couldn’t think straight. Get a grip.

I needed to figure out a way out of this.

But we were already slowing down as we turned into a shabby residential area. The paint had peeled off of most of the fronts, and garbage littered the front yards. In a few driveways cars without tires and with broken windows were parked. They wouldn’t be driving anywhere.

Growl stopped the car in front of a garage, which was freshly painted, then he climbed out. Before I could come up with a plan, he was at my side and opened the door. He grabbed my upper arm and pulled me out. My legs could hardly support me but he didn’t seem to care. He led me around the car, over cracked pavement and an overgrown front lawn. A group of teenagers was clustered together two houses down, listening to music and smoking, and across the street a woman with a stained tank top and tattoos snaking up her arms took out the garbage, looking like she would be giving birth any second.

I opened my mouth to call for help.

Growl released a harsh breath. “Do it. Scream. They won’t help you. They have their own problems.”

I hesitated. The teenagers and the woman were actually looking at us, watching how Growl was dragging me toward his house, and they didn’t even blink. Even the blood on Growl didn’t seem to shock them. There was resignation in their expressions, it seemed to seep from their pores. They didn’t have the energy to take care of themselves, to take control of their own lives, to fight for their future, much less for mine. I pleaded them with my eyes anyway, hoping. Still hoping after everything. The woman was the first to look away and walk back into her own house, moments later the teenagers returned to whatever they’d been doing.

Those people didn’t care what was happening to me. They wouldn’t help me.

We arrived in front of a door. The paint had peeled off, revealing sun-bleached wood. Growl opened the door. It hadn’t been locked. My eyes darted toward the group of teenage boys again. They didn’t look like they’d pass up an opportunity to break into a house that wasn’t even locked. I peered up at my captor, at the scar running the length of his throat, the blood on his shirt and hands, at the hard lines of his face.

Growl met my gaze head on and my legs almost buckled under the darkness in his amber eyes. He didn’t say anything.

“Even in this area nobody dares to cross you,” I whispered.

“That’s true. But that’s not why I don’t have to lock my door. Most of the people in the area are junkies and have nothing to lose.” Growl pulled me into his house and closed the door. The inside of the house was even worse than its interior. The AC was running at the maximum, turning the small corridor we stood in into a freezer.

I shivered violently but Growl seemed immune to the cold. There were no pictures on the walls, no decoration at all. This house was a lonely, dark place. All the doors were closed but behind one of them I heard sounds I couldn’t place. Like tapping. Did he have another woman locked into one of them?

Tears pressed against my eyes. This was it. Everything was over.

Had the fight already drained out of me?

He dragged me into a room. His bedroom? The only pieces of furniture were a bed and a wardrobe, but what the room lacked in furniture, it made up with wall decorations. Daggers and knives mocked me from every direction. Growl released me and I stumbled forward. I dropped to my knees. The only other option would have been to fall onto the bed, and I wasn’t going anywhere near that thing. I quickly turned, throat tight with fear as Growl watched me from the doorway. He looked like he’d risen from hell; a man wrapped in darkness, death and blood. A monster.

Oh God, oh God, oh God.

“I’ll be back,” he murmured before he turned and closed the door.





CHAPTER SEVEN





Cara

I’ll be back.

I didn’t hear a lock. Was he so sure of himself that he didn’t think he needed it? His steps moved away until I couldn’t hear them anymore. What was he doing?

I’ll be back.

That had sounded like a threat. My eyes found the bed and I quickly got up. I wasn’t stupid. I knew what he was going to do once he returned. How was I going to get out of this?

I tried to stifle my panic, but my heart didn’t stop racing and my hands were damp with sweat. The blades flashed in the corner of my eye. I knew I wasn’t a fighter, and I didn’t know how to handle a knife or any other weapon. I’d never had to hurt somebody. I wasn’t sure if I was capable of it. I approached one of the daggers. It was the least flashy one, no curved or zig-zagged blade. It was the one that scared me the least. I reached out and curled my fingers around the handle. It didn’t feel wrong like I’d expected, but I didn’t kid herself into thinking that I could do more with it than hold it. I took it off the wall. It weighed more than I’d thought and somehow I was relieved for something substantial to hold onto.

My eyes flitted around the room. Adrenaline had banished my terror for now, at least mostly. I hurried toward the window but there were bars in front of it. A bubble of hysteric laughter bubbled up my throat but I swallowed it. No sense in going crazy – yet. The windows were covered in a layer of dust, giving the illusion that the outside world was even farther away. Not that the outside of the house was any more enticing than the inside. This was a hopeless place altogether.

I backed away from the window and clutched the knife tighter. This was my only chance. It might as well have not been one at all. Steps rang out and for a moment I was frozen with indecision and fear. Maybe things would only get worse if I attacked Growl, but I wasn’t sure how that was possible. There was no light in his eyes, no mercy or kindness, nothing I could cling to and hope for an acceptable fate. Maybe there was little hope of me succeeding but…

My eyes darted to the bed, only queen-sized, which was strange for a man of Growl’s size. The blankets were dark red, probably to hide bloodstains. I shuddered as images bloomed in my mind, one more horrible than the other.

I sprang into motion, fear now greater than indecision, and hid behind the door. I needed to catch Growl by surprise if I wanted any chance at injuring him. But would that be enough? I had a feeling that Growl was like a bull in the corrida. A few wounds wouldn’t bring him down. An image of Growl with several knives buried in his chest still coming after me flitted through my mind. I needed to aim to kill.

A new wave of panic washed over me. This wasn’t who I was. This wasn’t who I wanted to be. For the first time in my life I hated my father. He’d brought this upon us, had forced us into a life neither of us had chosen. God, what was happening to Talia? Was she alright? She was too young for this. What if she was given to another mobster? She was only fifteen. I should be there for her, should protect her; instead I wasn’t even sure if I could protect myself.

Growl’s steps stopped right in front of the room. I quickly shook off my high-heels, then held my breath to hear better and lifted the knife. I’d have to aim for his throat. Even I knew that was the most vulnerable spot on a human’s body. But he had survived an injury to that spot once before. How could I hope to succeed in killing him when others had obviously failed?

He was much taller than me, so I’d have to drive the knife upwards. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to put enough force behind the stab that way. The door started to open and then Growl’s tall form came into view. Adrenaline pumped in my veins as I lunged at him.

Growl brought his bare arm up to fend off my attack. The blade sliced along his inked forearm and blood welled up at once. But his face didn’t show pain. He made a grab for my arm but I dodged him, using my smaller form to evade him. I slammed the knife upwards again, almost blindly. With a low sound deep in his throat, Growl gripped my wrist. I cried out in pain from the force of it and dropped the knife.

Cold fear slammed through me as I watched my only weapon land on the floor with a resounding cling. My eyes shot back up.

Growl’s face was a mask of nothing but I didn’t kid myself into thinking that he wasn’t furious. This man had killed people for lesser transgressions. I jerked back but his fingers around my wrist were relentless. That didn’t stop me though. I only had this one chance. He could very well decide I wasn’t worth the trouble and kill me.

I kicked at him but missed due to his quick reflexes. He thrust me toward the bed like I weighed nothing. I had no chance of stopping my fall and landed on my stomach on top of the mattress. The air rushed out of my lungs and for a moment I was certain I’d die from lack of oxygen in my body, then I sucked in a deep breath.

I tried to push myself up but Growl’s muscled body pressed up against my back, trapping me between him and the bed. Panic shot through me. I bucked my hips in an attempt to free herself. When that didn’t work, I lashed out with my arms, trying to hit Growl. With an impatient sound, he turned me around so he straddled my hips and grasped both of my wrists in one palm. Now I had no choice but to look into his face, to look at every inch of his scary body. He’d changed out of his blood-covered clothes and now wore a tight white shirt that was now covered with blood from the wound in his arm.

His hands were rough and scarred; they looked almost alien-like against my pale skin. A horrible terrified sound pressed out between my lips. Growl’s strange emotionless eyes found mine. His cheekbones and chin were sharp lines in his face. There was nothing soft about that man, least of all his heart.

His grip on my wrists didn’t loosen. He did nothing except stare. I knew I should look away. Wasn’t that what you were supposed to do if you were faced with a dangerous dog? But I was not just trapped by Growl’s powerful body but also by the terrifying look in his eyes. His breathing was calm, no sign of our fight. For him this was nothing. One of his hands moved lower toward my stomach. My shirt had ridden up during our struggle and revealed the skin beneath. I tensed when Growl put his hand against my stomach. What was he doing? He stared intently at his hand resting against my paler skin. His fingertips and palm barely touched me. Slowly his gaze rose again to meet mine.

Growl was watching me like I was an unknown species, something he couldn’t possibly understand. And perhaps that was true.

I did another half-hearted attempt to free myself but it was almost laughable. Perhaps if he’d been capable of that kind of emotion Growl might have actually laughed about me.

“Stop,” he ordered calmly.

And for some reason I did stop.



GROWL

He did have a reputation, and he was proud of it. His reputation was feared, respected, and that was a great deal more than anyone ever expected from someone like him. The son of a whore. The bastard. The boy who never spoke.

He was meant for the gutter.

He’d never had something to himself, never even dared to dream about owning something so precious. He was the unwanted bastard son who’d always had to content himself with the leftovers of others. And now Falcone had given him what only a few weeks ago had been out of his reach, someone he wasn’t even allowed to admire from afar, one of society’s most prized possessions.

Thrown at his feet because he was who he was, because they were certain he would break her. He was her punishment, a fate worse than death, a way to deliver the ultimate punishment to her father who had displeased them so greatly.

And a warning. Nobody would dare opposing Falcone if that meant their precious daughters might end up in the hands of a man like him.

Cara, a name fit for someone like her, someone too beautiful for a place like this, for someone like him. A princess and a monster, that’s what they were.

Wide eyes. Parted lips. Flushed cheeks. Pale skin. She looked like a porcelain doll: big blue eyes, chocolate hair and creamy white skin; breakable beautiful, something that he wasn’t meant to touch with his scarred, brutal hands. His fingers found her wrist; her heartbeat was fluttering like a birds. She’d tried to fight, tried to be brave, tried to hurt him, maybe even kill him. Had she truly hoped she could succeed? Hope; it made people foolish, made them believe in something beyond reality. He’d got out of the habit of hoping a long time ago. He knew what he was capable of. She had hoped she could kill him. He knew he could kill her, no doubt about it.

His hand traced the soft skin of her throat, then his fingers wrapped around it. Her pupils dilated but he put no pressure into his touch. Her pulse hammered against his rough palm. He was a hunter, and she the pray. The end was inevitable. He’d come to claim his prize. That’s why Falcone had given her to him.

Growl liked things that hurt. He liked hurting in return. Maybe even loved it; if he were capable of that kind of emotion. He leaned down until his nose was inches from the skin below her ear and breathed in. She smelled flowery sweet with a hint of sweat. Fear. He imagined he could smell that too. He couldn’t resist and he didn’t have to, not anymore, not ever again with her. His. She was his.

He’d never liked sweet things, but perhaps she would change that.

He lowered his lips to her hot skin. Her pulse hummed under his mouth where he kissed her throat. Panic and terror beat a frantic rhythm under her skin. And it made him fucking hard.

Her eyes sought out his, hoping – still hoping the foolish woman – and pleading him for mercy. She didn’t know him, didn’t know that the part of him that hadn’t been born a monster had died a long time ago. Mercy was the furthest thing from his mind as his eyes claimed her body.

He tore at her shirt, revealing inch over inch of immaculate skin. There wasn’t a single scar or blemish. She couldn’t possibly be his. She was too perfect, simply too much.

He curled his fingers around her shoulder. Soft. Softer than any woman he’d touched. None of them had been like her, not even close, not even the same species if you asked him.

The bones of her shoulder were sharp against his palm. So fragile. She looked like a doll. Breakable but beautiful. Nothing he was meant to own. His skin looked dirty compared to hers and he raised his hand a few inches, half expecting her skin to come away smudged from his touch.

She was nothing he had ever thought in his reach. She wasn’t meant to be. Nothing he was meant to touch with his scarred, brutal hands.

He wasn’t worthy.

Not worth it.

Not worth it.

Not worth it.

Something hot and sharp clawed at his chest. He didn’t like it, not one bit. He pushed off the bed, staggering to his feet. She stayed on her back, eyes full of confusion and questions, and again that flicker of fucking hope. “You better stop it,” he growled.

“What?” she whispered.

“Hoping. It’s a waste.” He picked her up. To him she weighed nothing. He needed her gone, out of his view. He carried her out of his room and into the small guestroom, he’d never had to use before. She trembled against him and for some reason it made him even angrier. He dropped her on the bed and she let out a shocked breath. He turned on his heel, tired of looking at her, of wondering, of doubting himself.

It shouldn’t…it didn’t matter why Falcone had given her to him. She was his to do with as he pleased. He headed toward the door and slammed it closed behind himself. Tomorrow he’d claim her. Worth it or not. He fucking deserved something good in his life.





CHAPTER EIGHT





Cara

I winced as the door slammed shut. Surprised the sound had managed to penetrate the fog of fear and the hammering of my heart. I felt dazed. Slowly I sat up. My body ached, and I wasn’t sure if it was from my fight with Growl or if it was terror manifesting in a more physical way. I knew nothing anymore. My world had been shattered, and soon I’d share the same fate. Growl had left, had spared me for now, but he’d return.

He’d return.

I turned my head very slowly and peered down at my torn shirt, at my naked shoulder. I remembered his touch there. My fingertips brushed the skin, and I shivered, then traced my throat and the spot beneath my ear. His touch was still there, like an imprint. I closed my eyes, released a harsh breath. My heartbeat didn’t slow. My heart raced, as if it was eager to beat a way out of my chest, away, far away from my body.

I wished it were that easy, leaving your body, drifting off to better places and times. But this was foolish thinking. There would be no miracle that would take me away from this place, from Growl’s reach. Most of my life I’d lived in a bubble, removed from the reality that so many people faced. I couldn’t allow myself that luxury anymore. If I wanted to flee my fate, I’d have to save myself. No one would come to my rescue, not my bodyguards who now served Falcone, probably always had. Not my traitorous fiancé. Not my father, who had probably already been dumped somewhere no one could find him, or been given to Falcone’s fight dogs as a snack. My chest clenched, but I fought the emotion. There was no sense in pitying the dead. They had nothing to lose anymore. But I had, my mother had, Talia had.

I let out a shuddering sob and quickly clamped my palm over my lips. I didn’t want Growl to overhear me, lest it excited him and he changed his mind about sparing me for tonight. I crawled toward the edge of the bed and put one foot on the hardwood floor, then waited for my muscles to stop shaking before I dared to get on my feet. My legs felt unsteady. Everything did.

I looked around. This room was even sparser than the last. The walls were empty. The wooden floorboards completely scratched.

Blood stains marred my shirt. It was ruined. I couldn’t bear wearing it a second longer. I ripped it off my body and wrapped my arms around myself. There were no clothes in the one shabby cupboard. Everything I owned was still at my house. There wasn’t another door except the one Growl had left through, so I didn’t have a bathroom to myself. There was nothing, except the shabby furniture. I sank back down onto the mattress. Maybe I could try to sneak out of the house after nightfall. I draped the blanket over my shoulders, covering myself up. If Growl returned, I didn’t want to wear nothing except for a bra. As if that would stop him.

I heard sniffing and then scratching at the door. My body tightened with fear as I crept toward the door. It sounded like dogs. When I arrived in front of the door, a deep bark sounded and I jumped back. The dog sounded big, dangerous. Hadn’t Father once mentioned that Falcone bred fight dogs for entertainment?

My head swam. This was all too much. I backed away and dropped back down on the bed. What if the dogs found a way inside? They would probably tear me into tiny shreds. That was what they had been bred and trained for. Rumors said that Falcone made millions with bets on dog fights.

My heart sank. I would never be able to leave the house without the dogs noticing. Even if I managed to creep past Growl, and even that seemed unlikely considering his vigilance, the dogs were an insurmountable obstacle.

I curled myself into a tight ball on the bed and buried my face in the pillow. It smelled stale, unused. Growl probably didn’t have many overnight guests. The idea almost made me laugh. I wrapped my arms around my legs and closed my eyes. Outside a couple was screaming obscenities at each other, cars were driving by with screeching tires, and doors were slammed.

I wasn’t sure how long I was lying like that but night fell around me and with it came a bone-chilling silence. I wanted the screaming and banging and screeching wheels back. This utter silence made me feel as if I were already dead.

I listened harder for sounds and then wished I hadn’t because suddenly there was scratching and creaking and rustling. I wasn’t sure what of it my mind had conjured and what was reality. I was tired and thirsty and hungry. Maybe I’d die from thirst or hunger. Maybe Growl would just forget about me. Starving couldn’t be that bad compared to what might lie in my future if I stayed alive, could it?

Stop it.

I had to stop these crazy thoughts. Going crazy wouldn’t get me out of here. I needed to keep my wits about me, needed to figure out a plan. An image of my mother and Talia flashed behind my closed eyelids, so vivid as if they were right before me. Happiness and deep sadness overcame me at the image. Would this memory be the only thing left of them? Would I ever see them again?

Tears welled in my eyes and I didn’t stop them, let them squeeze past my lids and trail down my cheeks. It felt good, a relief after pretending to be strong. I wasn’t, not really, but maybe I could learn. My family, what was left of it, I could be strong for them. If not for me, at least for them, I could gather what little courage I possessed and fight against Growl. Again. And again, until one day, perhaps I’d escape my prison.



Growl

He hated feeling. Hated the sharpness and intensity of it. Hated being reminded that he was still human in that regard. He needed to be the monster everyone expected of him, he wanted to be that monster.

He’d fought so hard to be something, anything, more than the bastard and the scar around his throat, more than the son of a whore, more. Always more.

He pushed the gas pedal hard. Perhaps he should have run. He needed to get rid of that excess energy, of that dangerous tightness encompassing his chest. But where he needed to go was too far. He couldn’t wait that long. He needed to release some tension now. Needed to get rid of that sensation in his body. He needed to become himself again. Needed to remind himself.

In the past he had to do so almost daily. Convince himself of his worth, of who he was but recently he had felt like he’d arrived, and now that girl so out of his league was ruining everything.

He pulled up in front of the Baton Rouge in the non-parking zone, ignoring the car behind him that honked. He threw open the door and got out of the car. The bouncer didn’t say a word about the hazardous way Growl had parked, only took a step back as Growl stalked past him without a word of greeting. Growl was almost sad the asshole hadn’t told him off. He wanted to break bones, wanted