I woke up to my mouth dry like cotton and my eyes scratchy as hell. Flipping on my back, I noticed the space beside me was empty. I thought I dreamed Cesar kissing me on the forehead and telling me he’d be right back.
Rolling further to the side of the bed, I squinted at the bedside clock. It was six-thirty on a Saturday. My eyes moved to the floor where I was certain he stripped our clothes and dumped them in a pile. As an afterthought, that was unlikely since that was not in his nature.
I found them folded neatly on the armchair in my room.
The events of last night came crashing back.
The high that followed.
He said he loved me with a desperation that made my heart yearn to say it back. But I was so overwhelmed in processing everything, I didn’t get a chance. Now, I wanted to shout it out to the rafters.
A silly smile formed on my lips. I rolled to face the empty side of the bed again and grabbed his pillow and hugged it to me, burying my nose and inhaling his scent I couldn’t get enough of.
I wasn’t frightened of Cesar’s obsession.
He’d stalked me for six months. I wasn’t imagining the feeling of being followed. I wouldn’t be surprised if he engineered the way I ended up catering the dinner at his house so our paths would finally cross.
My only worry was the raid. Was there more to it that he wasn’t telling me? Was there a possibility of him getting thrown in prison?
I forced myself to get out of bed. I stared down my front and grimaced. My freaking caveman. I washed my face and brushed my teeth before stepping into the shower, praying for more clarity.
I blamed Cesar for my self-esteem issues, but a clearer picture was forming in my head. I didn’t even try to change Brad’s mind. I even encouraged him to take the job. It wasn’t only the guilt of a missed opportunity that was hanging over my head, it was because if Brad had stayed, that would mean a deeper commitment.
I wasn’t ready for that at all.
But with Cesar everything was different. I’d never fought against my feelings for someone this hard because somehow I knew the hurt I’d experienced with Brad would be a blip compared to the carnage of a breakup with Cesar. My sexy Italian consumed me. Something in his madness answered a longing in my soul. The man was intense, psycho-level intense. It should be wrong. The signs that he was a controlling asshole was all there, like his insistence on dropping me off and picking me up from school. Even that first time when he stood outside my window staring up at my apartment, I wasn’t creeped out.
I craved his utter possession.
By the time I dried my hair and dressed in a pair of velour sweatpants, a giddiness took over with how much I wanted to tell Cesar I loved him. In the kitchen, I found his note posted on the coffee machine, saying he’d be back to take me out for breakfast. He didn’t specify the time, and I exhaled an annoyed breath because I was anxious to take our relationship to the next level.
My lips twitched. Saying “I love you” to each other was definitely the next level.
Turning on the television, I searched for news on the raid the day before. Maybe it would shed light on my boyfriend’s activities.
But there was nothing. Just another drug bust in the Bronx.
My phone rang.
“You awake?” It was my brother Robert.
“I am now,” I answered shortly.
“I’ll be right up.”
He hung up.
I was not in the mood for company. There was too much going on in my mind and in my heart to let anything else inside. I had only enough space for Cesar.
Apparently my brother couldn’t wait at all. A series of quick raps indicated an urgency. Cesar’s invitation to move in with him was getting more and more appealing.
The second I opened the door, my brother barreled in.
“Good morning to you too,” I said dryly.
“Where’s De Lucci?”
“He’ll be back for breakfast, but he didn’t specify when.”
Robert started pacing the length of the living room with a brown envelope clutched in his hand. The trepidation in my gut increased.
“Coffee?” I probably shouldn’t offer him any more caffeine. He was agitated, mumbling curses, and I believe I heard “Italian bastard” in his litany of grievances.
“Great job on the raid yesterday,” I ventured.
He glared at me. “Not my case.”
“What do you have there?” I forced myself to ask because my instinct of self-preservation was telling me to choose ignorance.
“I want to skin that bastard alive.”
“What did he ever do to you?” I asked warily.
“Not me.” The expression on his face morphed from anger to sympathy and my apartment suddenly turned chillier.
“You said he’s not your case,” I whispered, my mouth suddenly dry. “What’s that?”
He clasped my shoulders. “How serious are you about this guy? I mean. You just met him what, two weeks ago?”
“What’s going on Robert?” My voice came out shrill.
He blew out a breath. “The feds who were working on the heroin case were also keeping eyes on the De Luccis, including Cesar. They know he’s dating you.”
“Okay …what’s in that envelope?” If they didn’t arrest Cesar the night before, would that mean they have him on a different charge? Was he making a deal? Was that where he was right now?
Exhaling another breath, my brother handed me the item in his possession. “Those are dated. One could say they were faked. But what if they weren’t?”
I extracted photographs from the envelope, and my breath hitched. The first one was Cesar going into a strip club.
“Is this one of his businesses?”
“No. That strip club belongs to Roxanne Romero. I’m not sure if that’s her real name.”
A cry escaped my lips when I saw the last two pictures. A redhead greeting Cesar in an intimate way. And in the last one, the same woman held his hand and led him into a room.
I checked the timestamp. It was three nights ago. One of those nights he dropped me off at the pub and returned later.
The coffee roiled in my stomach and my pulse thundered in my ears. “I think I’m going to be sick.”
I shoved the photographs back at him and rushed to the hallway bathroom. I hadn’t eaten anything, and I puked coffee until I ended up dry heaving. My vision blurred as tears rolled down my cheeks. Whether it was because of my heart shattering into a million pieces or me throwing up, I wasn’t sure. But I was certain of one thing. My feelings for Cesar were real. There was no doubt I’d fallen in love with that bastard. Because why else did my insides feel so shredded, so gutted with eviscerating pain.
My mind raced. He fucked me last night without a condom!
All the while seeing someone else? He was depraved and he was possessive, but he never guaranteed I was the only one, did he?
A hand rubbed my back.
“I’m so sorry to spring it on you like this, Ava,” Robert growled. “If he were here right now, I’d strangle him with my bare hands.”
“How could he do this to me?” I sobbed.
My brother scooped me into his arms. Suddenly I was fifteen again and crying into Robbie’s chest over a boy. We sat on the floor of my bathroom for a while. My brothers and I may butt head over things, but if I was hurting, they’d always been my rocks. My heartbreak echoed all around us. He let me cry without saying a word until I was exhausted.
Exhausted and furious.
I pushed away and stared at Robbie. “Sometimes he had meetings at six-thirty in the morning. You think he’s there right now?”
My brother looked at me, reading my mind. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Robbie,” my voice cracked. “I need to know if he’s with her right now.”
He tried to talk me down from charging into a New Jersey strip club. He suggested waiting for Cesar to come back to slap the pictures in his face. But I couldn’t remain passive about this. Somehow I knew that bastard was going to spin this to his advantage and make me look like I was the one who’d lost my mind. I had to catch him in the act even if it wrecked me. He’d grown up in a culture where having a wife and a goomar—a mistress—were expected.
Well, that son of a bitch was about to get a dose of the McGrath wrath.
It took me ten minutes to get ready. Robert drove because I was too distraught. As the sign for StarLite Lounge appeared, I realized I didn’t have a game plan. I didn’t even know what I expected to see or wanted to see. A part of me wanted to see Cesar’s Maserati so this complicated relationship could be over, but my foolish heart wished it wasn’t there. That there was an explanation. That this was all a big misunderstanding.
This was no big misunderstanding.
The Maserati was parked a few spots beside the entrance. The Maserati that I helped him pick out yesterday. If it was possible for my shattered heart to break all over again, it did. Did he let that Roxanne woman ride in it too? Cesar didn’t fuck me this morning like he usually did. Was he reserving his lust for her? Did she have his heart?
“That’s his car,” I whispered. “The Maserati.”
“Son of a bitch,” Robert growled.
I had so many questions, my head spun. My jaw hurt from clenching it too hard. My hands were clasped so tightly, my fingers became bloodless and cold. But that was the only way I could deal with the sharp pain in my chest, to keep my tears at bay and retain my composure. I had cried enough on the bathroom floor. I didn’t want to shed another tear over him.
StarLite Lounge was a twenty-four-hour strip joint with open parking space surrounding the establishment. Our car coasted easily into its lot from the main road. Robert slowed the vehicle behind Cesar’s sports car and glanced at me. “You sure?”
“Yes. Let’s just get this over and done with.”
My brother pulled into an empty slot directly behind Cesar’s car. He hadn’t fully stopped when I was shoving out of the vehicle.
“Dammit, Ava. Wait.”
A black SUV parked horizontally behind our car, locking us in. Eric got out and around toward me. “Ava.”
“Is he in there?” I demanded.
“It’s not what you think.”
“What the hell am I supposed to think?”
“Wait for him.”
“You called him? You warned him I was coming? Afraid that I’ll catch him getting his dick sucked?”
Eric winced, but that was enough to set me off, and I charged into the strip club, leaving the guys cursing behind me.
I must have made an entrance because the men sitting around the stage glanced at me curiously. My eyes swept around the room. There were smaller stages for exclusive lap dances. And then I saw him.
He was briskly striding down a hallway with a redhead that wasn’t dressed for stripping, but it was obvious they came from private rooms at the end of the hall.
Cesar’s face was grim. Angry even.
I stood transfixed as if the lights of a freight train had blinded me and I was waiting for the pain to flatten me.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” he roared, grabbing my arm to lead me back outside.
With superhuman effort, I yanked free of his hold and, before I could stop myself, I punched him in the face.
“Fuck,” he growled.
Shaking my hand, I was still vibrating with rage. “Are you fucking kidding me right now?”
“And you!” I stabbed my finger at the redhead. “Did you know he was sleeping with me too? Huh?”
The redhead smirked. “Of course.”
“Shut up, Roxy!” Cesar snapped. But by then, Robert lunged at him. However, Cesar, with amazing skill, managed to block the blow coming at him. Given my brother was a boxer, that was quite impressive. Robert kept punching, and I realized Cesar wasn’t even fighting back, just blocking the blows, but frustration marked his face.
“Stop it!” I yelled. Eric finally waded in and pulled my brother away.
“Cara …” Cesar took a step toward me.
“Get away from her, asshole,” Robert shouted.
“We’re over, you cheating bastard. Get your things out of my apartment and leave my fucking keys behind.”
I spun away and hurried out the door, but Cesar caught up with me again.
“Leave me alone,” I cried, but he had engulfed me in his arms.
“Never,” he swore. “You’re mine.”
I laughed like crazy. We stumbled outside with me still trying to get away from him. “Get back to your … your … I don’t even know what to call her.”
“I’ll explain …”
I managed to break free again and kicked out, not knowing where my foot landed.
Scrambling in the direction where Robert was parked, I realized I couldn’t leave without my brother and he was still blocked in by Eric’s SUV.
I looked over my shoulder, seeing Cesar limping after me, but then my blood turned to ice as a suspicious black vehicle rolled slowly behind him.
A barrel of a gun slid out the window.
What I did next could be called idiotic.
I ran back to him. “Watch out!”
He glanced over his shoulder; his body already coiled for action. “Get down!” he roared.
A cracking sound ripped the air.
A force slammed into me, and my body jolted in pain as we hit concrete. Breath left my lungs as gunfire and shouting erupted around us.
Cesar was shouting at Eric, his body eased off mine, and I realized he was returning fire.
The parking lot swarmed with men in black.
But I was struggling, my vision dimming.
A loud screech of a vehicle sounded in my ear.
Pain throbbed in my abdomen. Oh my God, it burned.
“Ava?” Cesar’s horrified gaze hovered above me. His gaze dropped and then returned to my face. “You’ve been shot!”
Ava’s right hook stunned me. Not with pain. One could even say delight. Fuck, I was definitely wrong in the head, but she was not escaping me. I tore after her retreating form and caught up with her outside the strip club.
I grabbed her arm, spinning her around. “Let me explain …”
An unholy pain winged my groin, but I had no time to check the damage. If she’d injured me enough that I couldn’t have children, I sure as fuck wasn’t going it alone. She wasn’t having another man’s child. Mine or nothing. End of story.
She spun around, fury written all over her face, but when her eyes looked over my shoulder, the terror in them sent icicles through my veins. “Watch out!”
I jerked my head to the left and saw a flash of black. An instinct to protect had me surging forward to be her shield. “Get down.”
We crashed to the ground, gun already in my hand, levering above her and twisting to shoot.
Eric dashed out of the strip club shooting at the car. The black sedan burned rubber.
Men in FBI flak jackets swept in front of me and Ava and started yelling at the vehicle occupants to stop.
It screeched and rammed into parked cars.
“Ava.” I leaned over her, fear choking me. Her eyes were an ocean of confusion.
A red map spread rapidly across her lower abdomen.
“You’ve been shot!”
Her eyes rolled back and closed.
“Stay awake, cara.” My fingers trembled as they checked her breathing and pulse. “Eric!” I shouted. “Call 911.” Should I move her? How hard did we hit the ground?
“Already did. On their way.”
“That’s my sister,” someone shouted. “Let me the fuck through.”
So much blood. I focused on Ava, lifting her shirt to check the wound. “Hold on …”
“Drop your weapon!”
Fuck. I gritted my teeth and lowered my gun to the ground “I’m with—”
Hands hauled me to my feet and somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered the script. Frustration gnashed inside me. “I can’t leave her,” I snapped to the person arresting me.
My brain couldn’t communicate the plan to my muscles. Every instinct bellowed not to be separated from my woman. The blood in my head blocked every sound except the roar in my ears. When the pandemonium of the parking lot returned, I was face-down across the hood of a car, my eyes still riveted on Ava’s unmoving body.
“I can’t leave her.” My anguish ripped the air while rage vibrated through every cell in my body.
“Stop fighting, Mr. De Lucci,” one of the feds rasped in my ear. “If you want this to go easier—cooperate, dammit.”
A coppery taste saturated my tongue. My molars ground together because of my inability to get to her. Handcuffs snapped behind me, and I was led out between parked vehicles.
Eric was in handcuffs as well.
They finally allowed Robert through, and he leaned over his sister, but when he saw me, the hatred on his face made me flinch.
“I’m gonna kill you, fucker,” he shouted, but he didn’t leave Ava’s side.
“Stay with her,” I said. “Tell her—”
“You’re out of my sister’s life, you son of a bitch.” He staggered to his feet and jabbed a finger in my direction. “We’re throwing the book at you. You’re rotting in jail, motherfucker.”
“Come on, De Lucci.” The fed who snapped the cuffs on me led me briskly to the waiting police cruiser, making a fanfare of loading me inside it. Eric was put into a separate vehicle.
This fucking show had gone on long enough. It was time to end this.