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About the book
From award-winning author Diana A. Hicks comes a dark mafia romance full of angst and heart.
Rex Valentino is my enemy.
He has the power to wave a hand and make all my family problems go away.
In return, he only requires one thing…my complete surrender.
Caterina Alfera, an angel lost in a world of beasts.
I didn’t ask for her.
Destiny brought her to me.
And now I can’t let her leave.
She’s mine to keep.
DO YOU HAVE AN INVITATION?
“Five more minutes.” I hit the screen on my phone to snooze the blaring alarm.
When nothing happened, I opened one eye to make sure I tapped the right button this time. Then I saw Dad’s serene face on the incoming call. I scrambled to sit up and quickly pressed the device to my ear.
“Caterina, it’s me.”
“I know, Dad. What’s wrong?” I squinted at my watch. “It’s one in the morning.”
“I know. I’m sorry to wake you, Bells. I need a lift.” He puffed out a breath. “You said last week, I could call any time.”
My entire body sunk deeper into the mattress. “I need a lift,” was code for “I spent all my money gambling and now I don’t even have money for a cab.” Dad’s addiction was getting worse.
“Text me your address. I’ll come get you.”
“I’m at the Crucible.”
I stopped midway with my mouth open and feet hovering over the hardwood floor. Fuck me. Why that place? “Okay. I’ll, um, I’ll be there shortly.”
“Thank you. You’re the best daughter an old man like me could ask for.”
“I’m on my way.”
“I am so sorry to do this to you, Bells. You have no idea.” His breath rustled on the speaker.
“See you soon, Dad.” I tapped on the screen.
These middle-of-the-night calls were getting out of hand. I had a job to go to. I couldn’t sit here and listen to Dad drone on about Mom. I was hurting too. A pang of remorse washed over me. I was all the family the old man had left. Dad needed me. And I seriously doubted either of my two brothers would hop on a plane right now, wherever they were, to come to the city and help us out. I had to handle the Crucible all on my own. Putting aside the dread building in the pit of my stomach, I donned a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt.
The Crucible was a super fancy, by-invitation-only, nightclub in Midtown Manhattan. It was owned by one of the most ruthless mafia kingpins in the city. It was more than a club. It was a place of debauchery, for lack of a better word, that catered to patrons’ deepest and darkest desires. In Dad’s case, gambling.
I considered my tennis shoes for a moment, then decided to go with knee-high boots. Literally, the only sexy accessory I owned. While I didn’t care what their snooty bouncers thought of me, a nicer outfit might increase my chances of getting in without having to call in a favor.
At this hour, I wasn’t sure if I would get a cab quickly, so I decided to get an Uber. As if the universe were trying to reward me for being a good daughter, the driver who picked up my order was only a minute away. I grabbed my keys and headed out to meet him at the curb.
My Chelsea apartment wasn’t too far from the Crucible. With light traffic, we made it to the night club in twenty minutes flat. The cool, spring air rustled pollen off the sidewalk. I smiled at the whirlwind and thought of fairy powder. Something like that would come in handy right about now. Dad’s gambling addiction was getting so bad, I was willing to give fairy tales a shot.
I blinked to clear a bit of dust that made its way into my eyes and darted inside the high-rise. In the main lobby, a chandelier hovered over my head and cast twinkling lights on the Italian marble. Even though I couldn’t exactly hear the music playing a few floors up, the thumping of the DJ beat trembled against the walls and the soles of my boots.
“May I help you, Miss?” The man behind the receptionist desk called after me before I reached the elevator bay.
“I’m just going up to the Crucible.” I offered him a friendly smile, trying not to feel so out of place and out of my league.
“Do you have an invitation?”
“No, I’m not here to stay. I’m looking for my father.”
An invitation from the Crucible owner wasn’t something that was easily obtained. Only the most powerful were allowed in. Dad fell into that category not so long ago. Though in the past couple of years, after Mom passed away, Dad’s position and wealth had deteriorated significantly.
I blamed Rex Valentino for all our problems. In so many ways, Rex kept Dad a prisoner in this place. Rex afforded Dad the opportunity to gamble for days at a time. He took advantage of Dad’s suffering to suck him dry. Our family money was all but gone.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t let you in.” He tapped his earpiece as his eyes glazed over me. After a quick nod at the security camera to my right, he smiled at me. “This way, Ms. Alfera.”
I opened my mouth to ask how he knew my name, but I already knew the answer. I glared at the camera and imagined the all-powerful Mr. Valentino with his arms over his chest, watching me on his monitors, studying me like I was some kind of bug. I pulled on my coat and fastened the buttons. Rex had a way of making me feel like he could see through my clothes.
Of all the other times when I had come looking for Dad, this was the first time he decided to let me in. Why now? I supposed his reasons didn’t matter. I didn’t have time to stand here and question his motives. Dad needed my help. When he had called earlier, he sounded sad and defeated, as if he had gone too far this time. Had he?
Given the beast that managed this club, I’d bet he’d encouraged Dad to lose even more money. I didn’t have any kind of cash with me. My job as a creative director at A-List, an advertising agency, afforded me a nice apartment in the city and a few luxuries. But it would never be enough to pay for Dad’s gambling debts. All I could hope for at this point was to come to some sort of arrangement with Mr. Valentino, so Dad could come home and get the help he needed.
With my heart thumping in my throat, I followed the security guard into the elevator. I had no idea what to expect of the exclusive club that took up most of the forty-story building. I pictured an old school casino with a smoky bar that smelled of bleach and cigars, like something from a goodfella’s seventies movie, something cliche and cheesy.
My heart broke thinking how Dad had fallen prey to the release he was offered here. Though, I understood why he kept coming back. Two years was nowhere near enough time to get over Mom. Most days I still picked up my phone to call her. Only to realize that the number on my contacts wasn’t hers anymore.
The pressure in my chest tightened like it did every time I thought of her. I inhaled and focused on the task at hand instead. I still had one parent left, and he needed me. Falling apart now wouldn’t help either one of us.
“Here we are.” The security guard smirked at me as if he knew something I didn’t. I ignored him because his smugness was the least of my problems.
“Which way?” I glanced up when the elevator door opened and sucked in a breath. “This doesn’t look like the gambling room. My father is Michael Alfera. He asked me to come for him.” Somehow, I managed to keep the begging tone out of my words.
A tinge of recognition mixed in with trepidation touched his eyes. When he spoke again, the knowing smirk from before had disappeared. The name dropping had worked. Even if Dad was past his prime, in his time, he had been revered, if not feared, as much as Valentino was now.
He had met Mom when he was in his fifties. For her, Dad turned his life around and became the man she wanted him to be—good and decent and kind.
“Mr. Valentino has asked that you wait at the bar. He will find you,” he said over the loud, sensual music while he held the elevator door open.
I turned my attention to the opulent scene in front of me. Not what I had expected from someone as ruthless as Rex. Shimmering chandeliers, set at intervals, hung from high above. I counted twenty of them before I decided it wasn’t worth the effort. Their reflection on the massive windows made the warehouse look like it went on forever. The gold and blue accents and high-end finishes were everywhere—from the velvet furnishings and smooth marble floors to the ritzy wallpaper and shiny banister—not a single detail had been spared.
My escort patiently waited for me to peel my gaze away from the velvet sofas and club chairs grouped together where two couples were engaged in a make-out session that was about to become something else. When a nipple popped out in a confusion of arms and legs, I quickly turned away from them.
My gaze landed on the next set of couches where a woman sat seemingly by herself, eyes closed, mouth slack. By the way she kept writhing in her seat, I didn’t think she was alone. Every group of people acted like they were in their own living rooms, minus the privacy. I supposed that was the purpose of it all. I wasn’t a prude, but this was a bit much for me at two in the morning on a Tuesday. In six more hours, I had to be at work.
“Ms. Alfera.” The security guard motioned toward the bar at the far end of the room to get my attention. “This way.”
I snapped out of my trance and even managed to follow him without falling on my face. I accepted the bar stool he offered, glad to be away from the sexual commotion on the main floor. What the hell was a seventy-year-old man doing in this place? This wasn’t Dad. Or, at least, not the Dad I knew.
“Ms. Alfera.” The bartender set a glass of rosé in front of me.
“No, thank you.”
“My apologies. I was told this was your drink. I can get you anything you want.”
The wine was my go-to whenever I needed a drink, but it wasn’t about that. “I’m not here to mingle. And who told you that was my drink?”
“Mr. Valentino always makes sure his guests have everything they need. It makes the experience much more memorable.”
I swallowed and then started coughing. With a kind smile, the bartender pushed the glass toward me, and I took it. Maybe a little liquid courage would help. “I’m not here for any kind of experience, or whatever it is you do here.” I motioned toward the multiple set of living rooms along the main floor. “I’m here to collect my father. Would you please let Mr. Valentino know I’m tired of waiting?”
“Of course.” The bartender nodded and walked away.
“Wait,” I called after him, but he was gone.
I fished out my phone from the side pocket of my coat and dialed Dad. After several rings, the call went to his voicemail again. No doubt his moment of clarity was gone, and he was somewhere in this building gambling away what little money he had left.
“Phones are not allowed in the Crucible,” a female voice whispered in my ear. “I’m surprised they didn’t take it from you on the way in.”
“I’m looking for someone.” I turned to meet the woman’s gaze.
She had that perfect “just been fucked” hair, and her cheeks were a pretty pink. The smile on her face was bright enough to light the room. “I’m Sofie.” She offered me her hand. “It’s my first time here. Gosh, I feel like I can finally breathe. You know what I mean? That feeling when you just get shit off your chest and then you can truly breathe?”
“I don’t, actually.” My lungs worked just fine. My sex life, on the other hand, was sort of on hold at the moment. I glanced down at my hands to hide my frown. My entire life had been on hold for the past two years while Mom lost her battle with cancer.
“Hmmm.” She leaned on the counter suggestively. “Did you enjoy the show? Earlier?” She pointed at the spot where I was sure I had ogled her for a good five minutes.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…you know. I’m not here for any of that.” I shook my head several times.
“That’s okay.” She beamed at me. “We’re moving down to room twenty, if you want to join us.” She pointed left to a cluster of deep blue sofas dotted with gold decorative pillows.
My heartbeat spiked at the idea of joining her group. That wasn’t me at all.
“Um, no, thanks. I’m good.” I reached for my glass and took a big gulp of wine. Where the hell was Dad?
And then I felt it. His presence had a way of sucking all the air out of the room. The hair at the back of my neck prickled. Instinctively, I drew my coat closer and checked the buttons. I lifted my gaze and found his reflection on the mirrored panel behind the bar. His form was no more than a shadow as he approached the top of the grand staircase that led to what I assumed was the VIP loft. He gripped the golden banister and leaned slightly forward as if he were searching the room. Even though it was dark, I swore I could feel his gaze on my back, willing me to face him.
I slid off the barstool. A part of me wanted to run out and never come back, but I still didn’t know where Dad was. With a shaky breath, I braced myself and turned around. But when I did, he was gone. Did I imagine the whole thing? I had hated Rex for so long, maybe I was now starting to hallucinate him. Why did he think everyone should bow to him as if he were some kind of king? He wasn’t. He was a criminal, a nightmare, a heartless thug who didn’t care how much he was hurting Dad and me. I wanted to knock some sense into Dad for putting me in this position.
Whatever game Rex thought he had going on was over. I was done sitting around like a good girl, waiting for Dad to magically appear. He was obviously not on this floor. I pushed off the counter in a huff, pissed off that I had let this much time go by. In my defense, it was two in the fucking morning and I was beyond tired—not just from lack of sleep but from my entire life.
Intense heat hovered over me before his hand brushed my lower back. My body jerked in surprise and raw nerves because, this time, I was sure Rex was real and standing right behind me. He’d come out of nowhere and now had me caged in against the barstool. I reached for my wineglass and downed the rest of it. Great, the man had officially driven me to drink.
“Shhh.” His long fingers appeared in my peripheral vision. Then the rustle of his dark suit had me thinking he had stuffed his hands in the pockets of his trousers. “Why so jumpy?”
“I’m not.” I managed not to slump my shoulders or do anything else that would indicate I was cowering at his mere presence.
“How long are you going to pretend you don’t know me, Caterina?” Rex’s smooth, deep voice was loud and clear over the music. When he released a breath, a puff of warm air traveled from the nape of my neck and settled between my legs.
Yet another reason why I hated Rex Valentino so much.