A man in a suit and glasses walked into the room. His gaze landed on me and then at the wrecked chair by the wall—a victim of my frustration. The man was Trent Beckett, the lead prosecutor of SDNY.
He sighed and glanced at Eric—a federal agent and my partner in this op to contain the Five Families of New York. “Does De Lucci need some anger management classes?”
“Fuck you, Beckett,” I growled. “Cut me loose. It’s been four goddamned hours.”
“You already got word that Miss McGrath is fine and has been discharged, right? I made sure my people kept you updated.”
“And I appreciate it … except I need to see her with my own eyes.” Ava had a flesh wound, but she had a mild concussion from when I tackled her to the ground. The bullet passed through my side and hit her. I didn’t realize I was bleeding because I was wearing my suit jacket and adrenaline had numbed the sting.
“Soon. I just have a few documents for you to sign. You’ve become our most valuable asset, De Lucci.”
“This is a partnership,” I reminded him. I trusted Beckett more than anyone else in SDNY, but there was nothing like spelling things out before I signed anything, so I reminded him some more. “I do not work for you but with you. I want to avoid a bloodbath. I’ve seen it happen in Italy, and we’ve seen it here. I don’t want to lose what family and friends I have left. I don’t want to see businesses get shuttered because this power struggle among the mafia ranks is getting out of hand. There’s no stopping organized crime. There’ll always be someone willing to take over.”
“We already know that. We’ve been playing catch up since the indictment of the Five Families in the eighties.”
“I can only offer to help control them.”
“I like your other term better, Cesar,” Eric said. “Pest control.”
In spite of the impatience simmering inside me, I had to smirk at the term. Tony Cap was on life support and not expected to survive. The SDNY was throwing the book at his Russian friend as well.
“The U.S. Attorney General is offering a fair partnership. We do realize there’s a need to operate illegal businesses in order to be a credible associate to the mafia, but we couldn’t allow it to go without oversight.”
My mouth tightened. “I hope you’re not suggesting the government gets a cut.”
Beckett’s brows furrowed. “That’s a ridiculous assumption. I’m actually offended.”
I glanced at Eric who was controlling a grin and shaking his head. “Just want all bases covered.”
The prosecutor shrugged. “Make sense.
“And Roxy is done,” I told him. “You’re letting her go.”
“Her new identity is waiting for her.”
“Good. She’s selling the strip club to an associate of the New Jersey crime family.”
“Sure you’ll have no problem with the Mafia Commission on this?”
“No. One of my subsidiaries is handling the sale. All are on board.” I wasn’t about to say my father and Jackie confirmed this to me. The Commission did meet to approve the deal. New Jersey was going to kick over thirty percent of their profits to the Rossis. None of the mafia know that Roxy was about to disappear. “Are we done here?”
He pushed a folder toward me. “Just need your signature.”
“It’s been three days, Ava. The poor man has been on our doorstep from sunup to sundown.”
I glared at Mom. “Call the cops.”
“We’ve reported Cesar six times in the last seventy-two hours. Even the police feel sorry for him now.”
“I thought you hated him.” I was laid out on the couch in my mother’s house across the street from my apartment. I wasn’t allowed to watch TV or read or do anything really because of my concussion. Mom was a tyrant about it, too, which was why I was bored out of my mind.
She sat beside me and massaged my feet which I had tucked underneath a blanket. “Oh, I was furious at first. All of us were. But Robert’s boss pulled him aside yesterday and asked that we give Cesar a chance to explain. Whatever Mr. Beckett told your brother certainly changed his mind.”
“Why can’t Robbie just tell me?” I huffed in a shaky breath. What happened at the strip club was the lowest of low. I was appalled at how willing I was to risk my life for that cheating bastard. I’d been hanging on to my lapse of stupidity as a form of self-preservation because the scaffolding holding my broken heart together was threatening to buckle. But it was damaged beyond repair. I would forgive almost anything, but not cheating. And yet despite it all, I still loved him. Heaven help me, I did.
From the first floor, we heard the door open and close. Unlike our brownstone, the entrance to this one was on the ground level where there was a sitting room, a dining room, and a kitchen. The second floor had three bedrooms and the family room which had been my hideaway for the past three days.
I tensed. Like me, Mads and my brothers had the keys to Mom’s house as we frequently ran errands for one another. But it was the middle of the day, my brothers should be at work and my sister-in-law wasn’t the best defense against Cesar.
“Mads, is that you?” Mom asked.
“It’s Robert.” Two sets of footfalls plodded up the stairs.
“Who’s with him?” I whispered.
Mom walked toward the landing and peeked over the half wall that served as a divider between the staircase and the rest of the second floor. Her shoulders rose and fell, before she turned and gave me a look.
My brain didn’t have time to process her body language before Robert appeared. Right behind him was Cesar, so achingly handsome, it hurt to look at him especially while I was laying bitter and battered on the couch.
“Why is he here?” I flashed accusing eyes at Robert. “Since when do your sister’s wishes come after those of a man you swore you’d murder before letting him near me again.”
“Hear him out,” my brother told me.
Transferring my displeasure to Cesar who was approaching me like I was a wounded animal, I said, “The doctor told me no stress and you’re stressing me out.”
“I’m here to relieve it,” he informed me.
“A magic penis is not going to fix this.”
Cesar’s mouth twitched.
He thought I was being funny?
My brother gave a strangled groan. Good. Served him right for betraying his only sister.
“Do you drink tea, Mr. De Lucci?”
My ex-lover held my eyes for a second longer before he turned to my mother. “Call me, Cesar, please. And tea would be great.”
“I’ll help you,” Robert muttered to Mom.
Oh, they were abandoning me? Cowards. But I wasn’t showing this bastard that I couldn’t handle him without my family.
He took another step forward. “How are you?”
“Fine. No thanks to you.”
A distraught look momentarily crossed his face, but it quickly disappeared. In the three weeks that I had been around Cesar, I noticed he didn’t like showing vulnerabilities. “It wasn’t safe around me.”
“No shit, Sherlock.”
“That’s why I left you at the apartment,” he growled, closing the distance between us and sitting at the edge of the couch Mom had occupied earlier. “You shouldn’t have followed me.”
“Oh, and I was supposed to ignore the fact that you are a two-timing jerk?”
He stared right into my eyes. “I never cheated on you.”
“Really? I suppose the times you disappeared down the hallway with that Roxy woman you were what? Playing patty cakes? Maybe that’s your kink?”
His hands, which were on his lap, curled into fists.
“Just … say your piece and get out of here.” Get out. Get out. Before I break down and cry you cheating bastard.
“Not without you.”
The tenuous hold I had on my broken pieces collapsed under the weight of my pain. “What the hell do you want from me?” My tearful demand reverberated in my skull. “Dammit.”
He swept to my side, kneeling in front of me, grasping my hands, his eyes wild and fierce. “Are you all right?”
“It hurts to yell.”
“Then maybe you should stop being mad at me.”
I powered through the throbbing in my brain and glared at him.
“I never cheated on you,” he repeated. “Roxy is an informant for the feds.”
My mind did a cartwheel even as my stupid heart started to hope. “Wh-what?”
“I’m helping the Justice Department. The StarLite Lounge is a high-end strip club that caters to an elite clientele. There are rooms that allow privacy and a secret entrance where high profile guests like politicians could enter without being seen.”
He answered the question in my eyes. “I knew I was already being followed. I didn’t want to add to any suspicion that my intent in the club was anything else.”
“How is Roxy involved?”
“She owns the club and she’s been feeding valuable information to the feds regarding organized crime in the Tri-state areas. They installed a direct and secure computer access to the SDNY so she could forward any wiretap instantly. Mafiosi love to party and they loved hiring Roxy’s girls.”
“Is the SDNY blackmailing her to do this?”
“No.” Regret etched Cesar’s face. “She was Lorenzo’s mistress.”
My lips parted. I didn’t know what to say.
“She was deeply in love with my brother even when he was engaged to Sofia Rossi.”
I knew this story. Charles and Sofia happened after Lorenzo died, that was why it was a non-issue with the De Luccis.
“Roxy was devoted to my brother even when she knew he didn’t consider her fit for marriage. After he died, she wanted vengeance on the life that destroyed him.” Sensing my opinion about his cheating starting to change, he got up from the floor and sat beside me. “She had dirt on almost all the high-ranking mafiosi. She wanted to take them down. But her luck is running out, and Tony Cap is getting suspicious of her. She wanted someone to carry on the work.”
“Yes. The feds were aware of my work in Italy.”
“Wait. Are you talking about the former boss of the Cosa Nostra—Sal Ribisi?”
His jaw tightened, eyes losing focus as if remembering a distant memory. “I had covert connections to Italy’s judicial system. One of my closest friends was a prominent judge that had declared war on the Cosa Nostra.”
“The judge who died in a car bomb three years ago?” That was big news in The New York Times.
“Yes. My intel didn’t reach his security in time.”
“Oh, Cesar. You felt responsible.”
He nodded briefly. “And I have insider information that Tony Cap sent his explosives expert to aid the Cosa Nostra.”
“So, you got Ribisi and Tony Cap.”
He smiled grimly. “More will come.”
“So, what exactly are you telling me?”
“First, I never cheated on you.” His right hand reached out and his fingers brushed away the tears I didn’t know had fallen down my cheeks.
I smiled briefly. “I think I got that now.”
“Second, I’ll be staying in New York, but I can’t promise all my businesses will be legitimate.”
I glanced toward the staircase. “Are you sure—”
“They’re already listening.” Cesar smiled.
“Told you.” I heard Robert mumble followed by a rattling of porcelain against silver.
Cesar and I shared a chuckle. The vise around my skull seemed to have eased and so did the pressure in my chest. Not exactly the magic-penis effect but eliminating the mind fuck that polluted my thoughts and heart was an overwhelming balm to my soul.
Mom and Robert appeared, carrying a tray for tea and assorted snacks.
“So that’s what Beckett was alluding to? We’ve got some assets in the mob?”
“Partners,” Cesar answered, but we continued to gaze into each other’s eyes. Exchanging a knowing smile. Unspoken thoughts. Unspoken feelings.
“Hmm, are we intruding here?” Mom teased.
I looked her way and grinned. “Well …”
Cesar leaned in. “And third, you’re coming home with me tonight.”
When Cesar meant home, it was his six-story, nine-thousand square-foot row house on Tenth Street in the Gold Coast area of Greenwich Village. It was only an eight-minute walk to NYU and the Washington Mews. Fifth and Second were on either end of the block.
The entrance led straight into a kitchen that was meant for entertaining and raising a family. One end of it led to a dining room showcasing the biggest dining table I’d ever seen while the other end led to an eat-in-kitchen.
Thank God there was an elevator to use for a quick tour.
“Do you like it?” Cesar asked when we had settled on the second level called the parlor floor. A butler’s pantry separated the library from the living room which opened to a balcony overlooking Tenth Street. A grand piano and a vintage turntable stood on opposite ends. I wasn’t new to luxury houses in Manhattan having been in one as a friend’s guest or a server for a catering job, but I’d never envisioned myself living in one. This airy space with its thirteen-foot-ceilings and intricate crown moldings immediately relaxed me after having spent three days in the toxic prison of my mind. It was like floating from a nightmare into a dream. I pinched myself. I never envisioned having a billionaire for a boyfriend.
“Ava, are you okay? Is your head hurting?”
I was sitting up, legs fully stretched across the comfiest cream leather couch with a soft blanket that smelled new. Cesar’s concerned face came directly into view when he sat beside me. Admittedly, I still held an annoyance toward him because he didn’t look like a man who’d camped out in front of Mom’s brownstone for three days. His damned suit was still wrinkle-free, and he had a healthy tanned color, not exactly the look of a man wasting away from his attempts to win back the object of his undying love. However, it must have been the lighting in Mom’s house because I could see the redness in his eyes and the smudges underneath them.
“No. I just can’t believe how beautiful this place is. The attention to detail.”
Cesar tipped his chin to the heavy tome on the coffee table. “It’s in that Manhattan architecture book. It was built in 1901. But don’t look at it now. Bad for your concussion.” He sat beside me. “Sure you’re okay?”
“Physically, I’m fine,” I raised a brow. “But we have things to discuss.”
He shrugged. “Ask away.”
“This isn’t about your deal with the Attorney General’s office.” He’d explained more of his partnership with the SDNY on our way to Greenwich Village. “But we do have unfinished business to discuss.”
His eyes turned wary. “I’m not sure …”
“The night before the strip club shootout? We had our biggest fight.”
His face darkened. “I thought we agreed we wouldn’t mention that fucker again.”
“No, we agreed we were going to discuss what you did the following day, except miraculously, you had one of your six-thirty appointments.”
“That wasn’t premeditated. Tony Cap and Ivan were at large, and Roxy was concerned.”
“That’s okay. I’m not saying you planned this and I’m not saying you were delaying it hoping I’d forget it. Obviously, Roxy was important and, no, that’s not me being passive aggressive. All I’m saying is we still need to talk about Brad.”
“How about we don’t?” Cesar snapped to his feet and started pacing in front of the coffee table. “What else is there to discuss about him anyway?”
I sighed. Maybe I was just trying to rile him up to avoid what was really bothering me. “Remember when I said my self-esteem took a hit because of what you did?”
He stopped pacing and glanced at me with a face etched in remorse. “I hate myself that I did that to you, but I still don’t regret getting him out of your life.” He threw up his hand. “I don’t know. I saw strength in you. I wasn’t thinking of its effect, just that I wanted him gone.” He rambled some more and started pacing again. “But you’re right. I was selfish. I was blinded by my obsession. And … fuck, Ava.” He returned to my side and sat beside me again. “I don’t know if I should apologize for something I don’t regret.” He grabbed my hands in his. “Because you deserved better.”
“And you’re saying you’re the best man for me?”
“Damned straight, that’s what I’m saying.”
The arrogance. An imp took hold inside for me. There was a lesson to be learned by one Cesar De Lucci. “You’re right about my strength. My self-esteem took a hit, but I promised myself I wouldn’t be put in that position again.” I extracted my hands from his, which he reluctantly relinquished, drummed two fingers on my lips as if in deep contemplation.
Cesar’s brows drew together over his narrowed eyes. “What do you mean?”
“How can I trust what’s between us, Cesar?” I asked. When the question passed my lips, I was surprised how sensible it sounded, given it hinged on what happened between Brad and me. “How can I trust that what you’re currently feeling for me—now that you’ve experienced it—you won’t look for it elsewhere once the newness of it fades? What if another woman affects you the same way I did in the beginning?”
“I’m trying very hard not to lose my temper, cara,” he spoke between clenched teeth. “What you’re saying is nonsense, and I very much want to throttle you.”
I shrugged. “You should absolutely try and control your temper. I have a concussion. I shouldn’t be stressed.”
His eyes slitted further. “You’re playing me.”
“Why would I do that?”
“To get back at me about Brad—fuck, now you made me say his name.”
“Are you saying I’m vindictive?”
“Vindictive, no. But woe is the man who underestimates you.” Suddenly, he smiled, and in my concussed brain, it appeared devious. He snapped his fingers. “But I have a perfect solution to our problem.”
Yep, I didn’t trust that smile, and there was a sense of foreboding that I had walked into a trap. But, still, my competitive streak won out. “Oh, I wanna hear this.”
“We get married.”
My mouth gaped.
He released my hand, clasped my face and planted a possessive and forceful kiss on my open mouth. Then he jumped up again and disappeared into the butler’s pantry. He leaned back behind the partition and said, “This calls for a celebration, but you can’t have alcohol. So, Coke?”
He grinned at me and continued pouring our drinks.
When he walked back into the room with a glass of amber liquid and a slim glass of cola for me complete with cocktail straw, I was ready for battle. For good measure, I grabbed the soda because my mouth had turned dry, and I foresaw a long discussion.
Recovering from my shock and suitably hydrated with caffeine and sugar, I yelled, “We are not getting married!”
“Marriage in my family is forever,” he informed me, taking his seat beside me once more. His right hand rested on my hip, giving it a squeeze. “There is no divorce.”
“You can easily get a mistress. That’s common enough. And I won’t stand for it.”
“For made men, yes, but I’m not one. But,” he took a nip of scotch. “That’s a valid concern.” Cesar lowered his glass on the coffee table and leaned forward, staring at me intently. “Pop was faithful to my mother. And I have a feeling Carlotta would castrate Paulie if he even thought of having an affair.”
“I’m not sure what to think of her.”
“She’s exactly what Paulie needs,” he smiled. “But I don’t want to talk about my brother. We can have a prenup.”
I raised a brow. “You’re going to sign over half your assets if I catch you with another woman?”
He looked amused. “So mercenary.”
I relaxed against the arm of the couch. He didn’t seem perturbed. That was a good sign I was worth more than his money.
“How about,” he started as if testing the words on his tongue. “You get everything if I so much as show interest in another woman.”
“You would do that?” I croaked.
“There’s nothing I won’t give up for you, cara,” he said huskily. “Haven’t you figured that out yet?”
My heart almost pounded out of my chest preventing words from taking form. Because I knew deep inside me that what he said was true. His actions to win me bordered on psychotic. This was a man who ran an empire, who measured his next step with precision, but when it came to me, he willingly put himself at my mercy. There was nothing logical about his actions when it came to me.
Emotions choked my voice. “We’re fools to rush in like this.”
His eyes flared. “As it was meant to be.”
Something echoed in my head. A familiar refrain. “Did we just quote Elvis?”
He chuckled. “I believe we did.”
“I don’t want a prenup,” I cried. “I don’t want to start our marriage without trust.”
“Then we don’t,” he growled. “It’s you who keeps fighting me on this and you’re driving me crazy, and I’m not good with words, but maybe …”
He rose from the couch again and walked over to the corner where the turntable stood. It didn’t take him long to find what he was looking for. I spied the album cover.
When the first strings of Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love” came on, a rush of tears spilled down my cheeks. This was our song. Every word of it was our unspoken ones. A bubble burst around my heart, my love for him soared.
He returned. A solemn expression on his face to the tempest rioting inside me. “Are you able to dance slowly?”
I nodded, still overwhelmed.
He held out his hand. I took it. And together, we walked to the center of the parlor and began to sway to the King’s rich baritone.
Cesar’s eyes glittered with determination.
“I love you so fucking much,” he rasped. “This is once in a lifetime for me. I’m not letting you go, and if I have to fight you every day so you’ll never leave me, so be it.”
“I’ll never leave you,” I whispered. “And if you try to leave me, you’ll have a fight on your hands because I love you, Cesar.” The words I’d been yearning to tell him finally rushing past my lips. “So, so much.”
A fierce expression crossed his face. “You’re not taking that back.”
“Neither are you.”
“Never,” he swore with conviction before lowering his head to capture my lips in a long, sweet kiss. Afterward, as we continued our slow dance, staring rapturously into each other’s eyes, we continued to murmur our words of love and devotion.
My giddiness made me dizzy, but I trusted Cesar to catch me when I fell.