Once Bruno and I are finished, I find myself back in the living room on the couch looking out over what is turning into a cloudy, wet evening. I lean back and draw my knees up then remember the letter Mr. Brady had given me. My purse is on the coffee table, and I lean to get it and take out the letter. I’m alone in the living room, Bruno busy on yet another call, and both Dominic Benedetti’s and Amadeo’s soldiers ignore me as they keep watch. But this penthouse belongs to Dominic Benedetti. Lucien wouldn’t attack here because he’d not only be attacking Amadeo and Bastian, but he’d be declaring war on the man who controls the city. The thugs he deals with, the ones I know of, at least, are lower-level foot soldiers in various organizations, and even if they don’t bow to Benedetti, going against him would mean a death sentence.
I shift in my seat and hold the envelope in my hand. I trace my name written in my father’s neat handwriting. I realize as if for the first time that I will never see him again. I will never hear his voice again. Never hug him again.
I slip my finger beneath the flap and unseal it, and I swear I catch a hint of the cologne he wore every day since I can remember. It’s probably my imagination but I don’t care as I slip the pages out, unfold them and begin to read.
My dearest Vittoria,
It’s taken me a long time to sit down and write this letter to you because I know you will only read it once I’ve passed, and the fact that I’ll be leaving you alone in this world is too painful a thought.
You have been the light of my life. The bringer of joy. My only source of constant and bright sunshine. Where everyone else has betrayed me, you have been constant. And in our case, it is I who failed you when you needed me most.
By now, Mr. Brady has read my will, and you will know that you inherit controlling shares of Russo Properties & Holdings. Your brother knows the reason behind his punishment. But he does not matter. It is you who matters.
Ask Brady to arrange security for you if you don’t already have round-the-clock bodyguards. I can imagine how Lucien may react to the news that he must now bend a knee to his half sister. Do not underestimate your brother. I have tied his hands as best I can, but given the bylaws, I could only do so much. Just remember to take care. He may hurt you again if he has the chance.
I hope you know how much I love you. I hope you know everything I did I did to save you. And always remember, my princess, that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. You are the strongest woman I know. You survived events that would have destroyed anyone else. You ended those who dared lay a hand on you, and you are a force to be reckoned with.
Remember this always. And please try to remember me always as you knew me.
I love you so very much.
I re-read the letter, both emotional and confused by it. What did Lucien do that he punished him so harshly? What did Mr. Brady say about when my father had changed the will? Almost seven years ago? And the part about me ending those who dared lay a hand on me. It makes no sense. The comment about everyone betraying him I can understand. I think he means Mom. He knew Emma wasn’t his or at last must have suspected and, if I know him, confirmed by a DNA test. It’s easy enough to do with no one being the wiser.
I read my father’s last words to try and remember him as I knew him. He had a reputation for being ruthless in business. He was ruthless with Lucien. I’d heard him speak with staff in a way that made me cringe but with me, he was only kind and good. The way those words are written is strange. He chose them with care, I can see that. Why? Why leave me this letter at all? It only raises questions.
Lucien’s words play in my mind.
“Do you ever wonder about his reaction when your mom was killed? How he didn’t really seem all that surprised or upset. Well, I mean, he was surprised that little Emma made it, I guess. But don’t you wonder?”
I shudder at the implication and set the letter aside. I’m tired, jet-lagged, and just exhausted from all that’s happened. But I’m too wound up to sleep. I stand and go to the liquor cabinet across the room. I look through it, choose something strong, a whiskey. I pour a healthy serving and drink it all, needing it to warm me up. Needing it to soften body and mind. I pour another and carry the bottle back to the couch to re-read the letter yet again as rain begins to ping against the floor-to-ceiling window. I switch on a lamp as darkness falls and lay my head on the arm of the sofa to watch the storm until my eyelids grow too heavy, and I let myself drift to sleep.
Most of my injuries are on the surface apart from the burns on the bottoms of my feet, which hurt like a motherfucker. A couple of ribs are bruised. The prod left burn marks, and although I’ll walk away with a few scars, I will walk away.
I refused the heavier painkillers because they’ll trap me in sleep. But what the doctor shot me with is making me drift in and out anyway. Amadeo and Bruno are talking quietly. I pick up bits and pieces of conversation as I move in and out of consciousness so reality and dream intermingle. But when the scene in the kitchen comes into focus, I know I’m moving into unconscious almost right away. I know it every single time. The nightmare has played this opening scene for fifteen years. Yet it never fails to bring me to my knees. Here, in this kitchen, I’m not yet a man. I’m a helpless, stupid boy. A boy whose words sentence his family to their fate.
Tonight, though, it’s a little different. Tonight, Geno Russo is a blur. Lucien is center stage, looking like he did earlier in the day. And the soldier who cuts my face is the man with the cattle prod.
“You never did know when to keep your mouth shut,” Lucien says.
And then it plays out exactly as it always does. My mother screaming. The bat coming down on my father’s knees. The blade slicing Amadeo’s face. My face.
God. Fuck. I can feel it like it’s real, and I know I’m fucking dreaming it. I know. But by the time I can drag myself out, by the time I open my eyes and bolt upright, I’m covered in sweat.
I take a minute to catch my breath. To look around and know that I’m alone in the bedroom. The curtains are drawn, and it’s dark.
We’re in one of Dominic Benedetti’s penthouses in the city. Not a safehouse per se, but safe all the same because no one would be stupid enough to attack us while we’re under his roof. Lucien Russo doesn’t have that kind of manpower. He’s borrowing it. That much Bruno learned. As much as Lucien Russo wants to be the big man on campus, he’s nothing. He has no soldiers of his own. He hires mercenaries and the problem with mercenaries is their loyalties are fluid at best. They’re always willing to change sides if the terms are better. The guards he’d sent to protect Vittoria during their father’s funeral were easy enough to buy off. None of the men who work for him or those he borrows would lay down their own lives for him.
According to Bruno, these particular soldiers were hired from a local crime organization that typically operates outside of Benedetti territory. One he’s already in debt to. They’re now down a dozen men. I’m guessing that’s going to cost Lucien.
I push the blanket aside, my entire body a dull ache. But the true pain only comes when I put my bandaged feet on the floor and stand. I suck in a breath as I make my way across the room to the bathroom. I need to piss. When I’m back in the bedroom, I’m no longer alone.