I blocked a blow aimed for my head. My brow was already bleeding. The asshole also tried a series of kidney punches which I deflected. Orlov dove in with rapid jabs, but I held my arms cocked and protected my head. I wasn’t going down yet. At the end of the second round, Dom assured me they’d found Natalya, and he was just waiting for confirmation, but I wasn’t willing to risk her. Carmine asked for a show. I wasn’t giving it to him.
“What’s the matter with you?” The Russian was getting frustrated. I was hanging on, letting him stalk me while I danced around the octagon, hardly going on offense. The crowd was booing me, but I didn’t give a fuck. Our match wasn’t a judged fight and it depended who got knocked out or pinned down first. And by the way it was looking, I was the underdog.
“You gone stupid or something?” Orlov snarled, coming at me like a rabid bulldog.
I absorbed all the insults and the attacks. The effort to hold back was killing me, but Natalya’s life was the most important because I was afraid if I let loose on Orlov, I wouldn’t be able to hold back. Even when a second of doubt entered my head that she was in league with Carmine, I hung on to my love for her. Love was not a weakness. Love was something I would die for. I had no pride left. I was willing to be ridiculed because of love.
The referee called the end of round three. When my back was turned, Orlov lunged at me, spun me around, and punched me across the jaw.
A roar rose in the crowd.
The blow sent me to the floor, and the side of my head exploded in pain as it bounced off the mat.
“There,” he spat. “Some excitement, mudak.”
Blood and sweat blurred my vision. Dom and Ange jumped over the fence into the octagon. I rolled on my back and Dom’s troubled face appeared above me while Ange confronted Orlov. Shouting ensued, while more men piled inside the fighting area.
“You okay, Zio?”
“Natalya?” I grunted.
Dom’s face swam in front of me but he appeared to be grinning. “Why don’t you look?”
I pushed myself up to a sitting position and twisted to my corner. There, fighting through the crowd, was Natalya. I scampered to my feet.
“You can’t leave the mat!” Dom hauled me back.
“Fuck that.” I shoved him away.
Four arms held me back, including Ange’s. “Don’t forfeit, asshole. Look. She’s fine.”
“I’m good. Let me go!” When they released me, I rushed to the corner just as my wife reached the fencing. I hauled her over the barrier and hugged her fiercely, uncaring if my sweat bled into her, not wanting to let her go, wanting to leave the fight and just say fuck it to everything. The fight. The crime family. The prestige and power. I wanted to just take Natalya and Elias and fucking go.
I gave her a quick, grinding kiss and searched her face. “Are you all right?”
“Yes!” she shouted. The noise of the crowd became deafening from the turn of events. “Now go win the fight.”
A different kind of adrenaline mainlined my veins. Killer instinct erased anxiety, and with it, a future with Natalya was within reach.
Dom clapped my shoulder. “Get back in the fight before they call forfeit.”
“Fuck that.” I gave Natalya another quick kiss and lifted her over the barrier, then I turned to meet my opponent head-on.
My skull was throbbing, but I cracked my neck from side to side. When the referee gave the go-ahead, I stalked toward Orlov.
He came at me swinging. I leaned away from his jab and landed a left hook. The Russian fell on his ass.
I could have knocked him out with a roundhouse kick, but I had a spring in my step, and I owed the crowd a show.
“What the fuck, Luca?” Ange yelled. “Stop horsing around. Finish him off.”
I did the boxer shuffle and waited for Orlov to get up. His mouth was bleeding, but I saw the deadly gleam in his eyes. He knew I was back in the game and he loved it. He faked another jab, then went low, tackling my torso, lifting me up over his shoulder and slamming me onto the mat. Blood thundered in my ears, and in slow motion, we grappled for control. He tried to weigh my thighs down under a massive bicep, and while blocking a blow to my head, I freed one leg and pinned his neck in a leg lock. That temporarily gave me control, and I broke free. I rolled to my knees about to scramble to my feet when he lunged at me, taking me back down to the mat.
He was under me, and with my back to his chest, his legs scissored my torso as he fought to get his arms around my neck.
The crowd roared. Ange screamed.
And through the pounding in my ears, it was my brother’s voice I heard in my head.
Respect the choke!
Orlov’s forearm pressed across my throat attempting to cut off my breath. His other hand was on top of my head, trying to slip it behind my neck to complete the blood choke. I clawed at that hand and failed. Orlov’s arms locked my neck between them.
Three seconds to blackout.
“Luca!” Natalya’s scream reached me.
Two seconds. My vision dimmed around the edges. Must not fail.
With oxygen and blood competing in its race for scarcity, my strength sputtered.
I concentrated all my remaining power to my hands, shoving, dislodging Orlov’s foot off my torso. Freeing myself from the leg lock, I shifted my body on instinct and pinned that leg. The whole movement loosened his chokehold and I didn’t waste time rolling over and slamming my elbow across his jaw.
Mayhem erupted around us.
“Get the fuck away,” Ange shouted.
Unlike the first time I tried to escape from Orlov’s deadly ground game, I went on all fours into a turtle position, keeping my limbs tight, head down, mostly to catch my breath as well as pump back blood and oxygen into my brain. Those few heartbeats restored clarity and I anticipated his attack. When his hand touched my side, I spun, twisted, and flipped him over. This time, I had his waist in a leg lock and crossed my ankles squeezing.
Orlov roared and choked and growled.
He was on top of me, wide open with disbelief on his face. At close enough range, I delivered two rapid punches to his face and released him.
I scrambled to my feet and bounced away.
Orlov rose unsteadily, swaying, eyes groggy, lips curled back in a snarl. We squared off. I shifted my cocked arms upwards, and the second his eyes followed that movement, I spun and back-kicked him on the head, twisting his body around.
Orlov dropped to the mat.
The referee ran to check on him, but swiftly called a knockout. He raised my arm as the victor.
It was over.
I faced my corner. Dom, Natalya, and Ange were rushing toward me.
I headed straight for Natalya. She jumped onto me, and I caught her under her ass while she wrapped her legs around me.
“You won! You won!” she screamed.
The adrenaline and power of the fight thrummed through me. Instead of lowering my wife, I flipped her over my shoulder. The adrenaline had sharpened my senses, and I caught sight of someone I hadn’t seen in years, my mind making rapid-fire connections that my wife had once again used subterfuge and put her life in jeopardy.
“Luca, where the hell are you going?” Dom yelled.
I could hear Natalya shouting at me. Oh, tesoro, I will deal with you later. I’m looking forward to it. My eyes focused on the red-haired man dressed in commando gear, standing at the edge of the crowd looking like event security, but he wasn’t.
He was smiling at me. The fucker.
I reached him and lowered Natalya.
“Bristow,” I snarled softly.
His smile widened into a shit-eating grin.
I punched him.
“Are you done?” Dom asked while holding an ice pack to his jaw.
I’d punched three people since Orlov.
Dom, Matteo, and Hank Bristow. All three conspired with Natalya to take down Carmine, who had met his bloody end on the floor of the building right across from where the fight was held. My wife had severed his femoral artery. I looked at her now, wearing an oversized sweatshirt—clothes that weren’t hers, but there was blood spatter on her jeans and the tip of her sneakers. And she was calm about the kill. She truly was my queen.
We were back in the penthouse. Natalya was sitting beside Sera, who was tending to Matteo’s cut lip.
“The shoe isn’t so nice when it’s on the other foot, is it, Zio?” Sera was pissed at me. “At least we gave Natalya a choice.”
“You asked her to lie to me,” I snapped.
“I wasn’t lying!” Natalya protested, but I speared her a look and she shut up.
“Are we going to argue omission versus lying?” I cut a glance at Matteo. That asshole knew what I was talking about. He nearly lost Sera because of it.
I was breathing hard, and it wasn’t from the fight. It was because my blood pressure went through the roof again after I discovered what my wife had done. I hadn’t even come down from my high stemming from the match, and the adrenaline spiked once more. All eyes watched me like I was a wild animal on the prowl.
At the penthouse were Dom, Matteo, and Sera. This operation was part of the Archer Syndicate. It was an organization I’d heard rumors about but never could confirm its existence. Many times Dom had hinted he wanted me to be a part of something big, but I’d always declined. Now they’d dragged Natalya into it, and I had no choice but to listen to their bullshit.
Which wasn’t really bullshit because they kept the underworld in check.
Ange and Dario were both listening with interest. The three of us had conversations about the organization before that originated with the De Luccis.
Madone, my niece was married to the head of the Archer Syndicate, and I must admit, I was fucking proud of her.
I glanced at the person I wanted to tear apart the most. Hank Bristow was standing beside Trevor, who I knew worked with Matteo and was ex-military like Bristow.
“Let me get this straight, so you’re involved with the Archers?” I asked Bristow.
“Doriana’s network tapped their group for extractions,” the ex-Navy SEAL said. “Carmine killed Doriana two years ago, right around the time of the mission that exposed Natalya.”
“Tell me now why I shouldn’t kill you for getting my wife in trouble.”
“It wasn’t his fault.” Natalya rose from her seat, and this time she didn’t quake under my glare. “Carmine had been playing Doriana all along and was feeding her information about Orlov’s human trafficking operations to gain her confidence. She suspected she’d been compromised. That’s why she didn’t want me to transfer the money.”
I wagged my finger between Natalya and Bristow. “And you two were communicating behind my back?” This was what I couldn’t fathom, and it pissed me off the most. “We had this understanding after New York, tesoro. No more secrets.”
She hung her head. “I know, but Detective Voss…”
Dario straightened from where he was enjoying the show. “Detective Voss? How is he involved?”
“He’s a buddy from my special ops days.” Bristow grinned his infuriating grin again. I pictured him missing a couple of teeth, courtesy of my fist. But then I registered what he had said. Dario beat me in voicing the conclusion.
“That day when he confronted us,” my consigliere said. “He made up that bullshit, didn’t he? He didn’t have evidence about our activities.” Dario glanced at Natalya. “He handed you a card.”
My wife looked like she wanted to disappear into the floor. “Yes. It was a message from Bristow and it’s a way for us to confirm our identities online since we weren’t trusting each other. I didn’t want to risk it, but they made me believe they had something on the family.” She squinted her eyes at Bristow.
“We had to blackmail you somehow to get you to help us take down Carmine,” Bristow said. “Voss played along and confronted you guys. He thought it was a brilliant fabrication. Little did he know I wasn’t bluffing.”
Ange came forward. “Are you saying you have proof?”
Bristow handed him a flash drive. “It’s all there. No copies anywhere. Chicago PD never got their hands on it. Like I was saying, Voss thought I made it up.”
“It wasn’t blackmail,” Natalya added. “He gave me references to prove who he was, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone along. Both of you worked a mission years ago to stop human traffickers in Vegas. And he’s best friends with your stepsister’s husband. We’re practically family.”
Bristow snorted. “I wouldn’t go that far.”
I wouldn’t go that far either, but Natalya wasn’t far off the mark. And the reason I hadn’t gone apeshit over this whole operation was because Bristow belonged to a group that regularly went rogue against red tape and pulled off miraculous results. In this case, I was the red tape.
“Did you know where Natalya was this whole time?” I asked.
Bristow shook his head. “I tracked her down a few months before you found her. And by the way, your hackers aren’t that good. I planted those traffic cam sightings that led you guys to the town of Grafton.” He looked me directly in the eye. “Just so you know, Carmine was the one who told Orlov that Natalya had his money. I was already part of his crew of mercenaries then and Carmine was counting on Orlov to offer up the Game of Bosses as payback.”
“That’s when he came clean to us that he was The Friar,” Matteo interjected. “The Archers worked with The Friar often particularly with my cousin Ronan McGrath who was the only one who knew The Friar’s real identity. You know the McGraths, right?”
Bristow chuckled. “Of course he does. Luca gatecrashed the McGrath’s barbecue a couple of years ago.”
I rolled my eyes when everyone started snickering.
“We inserted Trevor as our own man inside so he could communicate with Dom and ensure Natalya’s safety.” Matteo splayed his hands. “And that’s how everything went down.”
Surprisingly, I was okay with the high-level information of the op and didn’t need the nitty-gritty details. Bristow could be a useful associate because he had legal access to government databases and infrastructure. I didn’t want to burn any bridges over this. I was opportunistic if anything and could ask a favor in the future.
I turned to Natalya. “I still don’t understand what happened to you after Carmine burned the house down.”
She compressed her lips before dipping her chin and shot me a wary glance beneath her lashes, as though the revelation would make me lose my shit.
The long seconds that passed only agitated my adrenaline-infused wrath, but I still gritted, “The truth. All of it.”
“It was sad, really, or maybe it was fortunate…for me at least,” she started saying. “Carmine entrusted me to the second capo who turned against you. Then the capo entrusted me to one of his crew. The man felt sorry for me and took me to the St. Louis women’s shelter. Apparently, it wasn’t the first time he’d been doing this whenever he felt sorry for women who’d become victims of violence. I think he was planning to skip town.”
“Russian outliers ambushed this guy,” Ange said. “Remember that incident, Luca? One of our men was slain on I-55.”
“I remember. That interstate runs straight into St. Louis,” I said grimly. “So in short, Carmine misplaced you.” I stated it in a deadly calm voice that was a far cry from everything I was feeling.
Natalya took tentative steps toward me, sensing an impending explosion. I held up a finger to stop her progress because she wasn’t wrong. I’d reached a breaking point. Words failed to take form. I had to turn away from everyone, needing to push down the bubbling rage with alcohol. I walked to the bar and grabbed the scotch, poured it into a glass, and gulped it down.
No one said anything.
I poured another drink and stared at the glass. It wasn’t calming me down.
My jaw clenched. I was done holding it together.
I hurled the glass against the wall. It shattered, and the amber liquid marred its pristine surface.
Everyone was still quiet.
I stared at the bottle in my hand.
“That’s good scotch,” Ange commented. “It’s better to—”
“Everyone out!” I snarled. “We’re done here.”
Dom approached cautiously. “We still need to discuss—”
“Not tonight. You guys are staying for another few days.” I glared at Bristow. “If you rope my wife into one of your schemes again…”
“I’ll keep you in the loop.”
Fucker. I tipped my chin in acknowledgement. I wasn’t a total tool. If it wasn’t for him, we would have never found Natalya.
My eyes homed in on my wife. She was about to leave with everyone.
“Where are you going?” I barked, stepping in front of her.
“I’m going to get Elias,” she squeaked.
“He’s with your parents and Martha. He’s fine.”
“Just you and me tonight, tesoro.” The endearment dripped with sarcasm. I was still livid about the whole thing. She had the rest of the night to make it up to me.
I clasped her biceps firmly and kept her to my side.
And as my family congratulated me again on winning the fight, the guys could barely hide the amusement from their faces. They knew there was only one thing that would tame the fury. Sera was the last one to say goodbye and gave me a hug. “You were magnificent tonight, Zio.” Her tone was full of affection and it reminded me how much I missed her. Then she looked at Natalya with an impish grin. “Go easy on her. She did badass shit tonight.” She winked at my wife.
“Don’t encourage her,” I groaned. “And tell Carlotta we won’t be down for breakfast tomorrow, but we’ll see you in the afternoon.”
Natalya froze. My fingers tightened on her arm.
The elevator doors closed. We stood and stared at it for a while.
Finally, I turned to my wife and said softly, “Run.”