Chapter One

 

“Open it,” Paolo commanded, his daunting figure silhouetted against the light of the full moon. He took a step closer to the trunk, his hands on his hips, and stared down. It was so quiet in this remote area that only the sound of crickets chirping could be heard.

Ghost Boy nodded his head, not daring to defy Paolo Montovani—no one did that, he was a loyal soldier; he did what he was told. Then Ghost Boy popped the trunk and turned toward Paolo, who stared at it contently and without emotion as it slowly rose and revealed its contents.

Staring at the human cargo inside, Paolo only nodded, his intense blue eyes scrutinizing the man. Then in a single, forceful yank, Ghost Boy pulled him out and ripped the duct tape off of the man’s mouth with a perverse pleasure from the pain it caused.

Looking at the tape, the midnight light revealed bits of hair from the man’s beard and the man grimaced in pain from it, bowing and swaying like a tree branch blowing in the wind. Glaring at Paolo with defiant eyes, the man suddenly stood as tall as his short stature would allow, refusing to succumb to fear or now show any pride. His hands remained behind his back, duct tape wrapped around his wrists, but his feet were unsteady despite that.

Leaning in to the man, Paolo spoke in a low and calm voice. “It would seem that you are a cat with nine lives, Vito. How does a man survive accidentally plummeting off a three hundred foot cliff into a rocky ravine as you did? What’s your secret? The car exploded and burned…I saw the pictures. Yet, here you stand, without so much as a scrape or bruise on you. You must have said your prayers!”

Paolo watched Vittore, Jr. look up at him now, hatred fueled in his eyes, determination set along his jaw line. But he remained silent.

“Tell me, Vito, how did you survive the fall?” Paolo said, a bit more agitated.

“You bastard! You son of a bitch! I helped you, and this is how you repay me?” Vito hissed.

Paolo sneered at him. Then Ghost Boy stepped out of the nighttime shadows, proudly displaying the brass knuckles to the man, touching them with his other hand, showing a sinister smile spread across his face.

“Yeah, okay. I often refer to myself as a lucky bastard. You’re a much luckier bastard than me, it seems. But you…you are the son of a bitch,” Paolo said.

“We had a deal! You think you can easily break me? Well you can’t! I’m a Bianchi! Nothing you do will break me! Not killing my father, or selling my mother to La Camorra, not even you fucking up my sister’s head!” His words were seething, but clearly did little to release his pain.

“Now you’re rewriting history? Was it not you who came to my family with the deal that resulted in your father’s death?” Paolo asked, crossing his arms and giving a hard stare to Vito.

“You betrayed me, Montovani! You tried to kill me!” Vito yelled. His voice echoed off the valleys of the area surrounding them.

“You betrayed me, actually,” Paolo said with smug coldness. “You weren’t in the car as you were supposed to be. And now I find out you’ve been hiding from me for weeks. How can I trust you?”

“Crazy bastard! Our deal never included throwing me off a cliff!”

“Do you really think I’d honor a deal with a man who would order his own father’s death? You wanted power. You wanted to run your family. You’re greedy and impatient. Had you waited, Vito, your father would have been dead within the year,” Paolo scolded him.

“What are you talking about?” Paolo liked the uncertainty that he heard come through in his voice. He was cracking.

“He was dying. His doctor had given him six months to live,” Paolo said, pulling sunflower seeds from his pocket.

“You’re a damned liar!” Vito yelled.

“Not about this. Your father was dying of lung cancer and was planning on leaving you in charge, as our fathers do. Why do you think he paid more attention to you lately? Taught you things and made you privy to undertakings that were off limits to you before? You were his heir. I personally think your cousin Marco was a better choice, but being of the same blood has its benefits. You stood to inherit everything.” Paolo enjoyed sharing this and taunting the son who was willing to trade his entire family for some power. And he thought he was a worthy confidante? That simply could never be.

“Now, here you are. I’m eager to make sure that there will be no retractions of the tragic story of your death. It’s you and everything you so easily surrendered that led to the unfortunate outcomes of your father, mother, and of course, your poor sister.”

Vito’s nose flared and the dawn of understanding broke through and revealed itself in the brown eyes of his chubby face.

“My mother, my sister…I will help you… I have information! But if you kill me, your empire will crumble, I can guarantee you that. You’ll never know what I know, until it’s too late.”

“So you want to make another deal,” Paolo said, moving away from him.

“I need to guarantee their safety, regardless of what happens to me,” he said.

Paolo looked at Daniel, who had remained by the side of the car, leaning against it and silently listening, and smirked.

“Your altruism gets me, right here,” Paolo said, emphasizing his sarcasm by making a fist and punching to the middle of his chest two times.

“Haa!” Daniel let go a gust of laughter. Paolo liked how his brother thrived on these situations, although they seemed to come about far too frequently, showing just how rare trust was, even in a world such as theirs.

“Begging for your life is a waste of time, not to mention your dignity. You have nothing to bargain with,” Paolo said to Vito as he popped the seeds into his mouth. “What reason would I have to entertain the rantings of a man like you? You set your family up. You had your father killed. The man who made you, who raised you, and believed in you enough to hand over everything he’d worked for to you. Only for you to spat on him in exchange for the promise of power. Power that would have been yours in a mere few months. You are the epitome of a man with no honor. I can’t be bothered.” He spit the shells in Vito’s direction.

“I know things, things my father did. Things he did to ruin you Montovanis. Things that will end it all for you,” he said, looking around to Daniel and then Ghost Boy and eventually Paolo.

Paolo nodded to Ghost Boy, who took a step forward and cocked back his fist, making Vito flinch, but then he only pushed on his chest, sending him back into the trunk. Only then did Paolo walk over. “Talk. And don’t waste my time.”

“Untie my hands and feet. It’s hard to talk like this,” Vito said.

Paolo looked at him and nodded to Daniel.

“Say please,” Daniel said close to Vito’s ear.

When Vito remained defiantly silent, Daniel lifted his arms behind his back higher than they could go naturally. It was intimidating and serious, enough so that Vito finally screamed out, “Please, dammit!”

Daniel pulled out a pocketknife from the inside pocket of his sports blazer, and pressed a button on its side. It popped open and he leaned in and swiftly cut the duct tape around Vito’s ankles and then unceremoniously jerked his body up and cut the tape that bound his wrists together behind his back.

Vito ripped the tape away from his body as quickly as possible, and then offered a glare to Paolo that showed how much he despised him. It didn’t faze Paolo in the least. “Talk, Vito. I’m losing my patience,” Paolo said.

“Before he died—”

“Before you had him killed,” Paolo corrected.

Ignoring him, Vito said, “My father was the mastermind behind your missing marijuana shipment last winter. It remains well hidden. He went to our friends, other ‘Ndrine who had a bone to pick with your family and declared that he would be making that cargo available soon to whoever could afford it. It was actually quite interesting what he did. But that’s not as interesting as what I offer next.” Vito paused for dramatic effect, creating an involuntary eye roll from Paolo, who remained as still as a statue and waited. He did not feel compelled to ask. Finally, Vito understood and continued. “Once an ‘Ndrine possesses the cargo, they must do something very important.” He had their full attention. ‘They must kill the Montovanis.”

Daniel began tapping away on his cell phone, turning his back and talking rapidly into the receiver. His fists clenched, Paolo stood to his full height, facing off with Vito, who was now smiling widely and not afraid to show the satisfied look on his face.            

***

Karisma stood in front of the three-way mirror as the head designer of Nia Simone Design Studios pulled in the waistline of the wedding gown she had designed for her. The ivory gown was a floor length, custom couture mermaid with a sweetheart neckline, guipure lace, crystal embellishments, and an elegant eight-foot train that began at her buttocks. It had spaghetti straps with crystal flowers and lace on the shoulders. The gown was backless and dropped a little past her lower back. She stood still as the designer pulled tighter.

“Ooh, that’s too tight,” she said. “I can’t breathe.”

The designer, Monique, loosened her hold on the delicate fabric, and Kari exhaled.

“That dress is gorgeous, honey,” her mother Liane said, staring at her through the full-length mirror in front of Kari.

“It surely is,” Lyric, Kari’s wardrobe manager, agreed, as she stood snapping pictures of Kari in the gown for the other members of the glamour team, Maya and Tomas.

Sierra, Kari’s personal assistant, glanced up from over her iPad, her fluffy hair showing itself before her large almond shaped eyes. Her smile was testament to what everyone else was saying. “Love it, Kari. It’s a dress fit for a queen.”

Kari looked back at her and winked. Considering Paolo was a future Mafia kingpin, that was fitting, Kari thought sardonically. She thought about her love, her Paolo. She was going to Italy in a few days. That’s where the wedding was being held. They’d discussed it and thought it best to marry there, as he could control the media better than he could in the states. Kari’s very large extended family would also make the trip. Many were ecstatic about visiting beautiful Italy and being a part of one of the biggest events of the decade—the marriage of their Karisma to the handsome and mysterious Paolo Montovani.

“Hmm, he’s gonna love it,” she purred, touching the precious crystals.

“He’ll notice the dress, but he won’t be able to take his eyes off of you, sweetie,” Liane said.

“I know that’s right!” Sierra agreed. “That man is crazy about you.” She was smiling and shaking her curly fro.

Kari smiled. Everything had happened so quickly for her and Paolo. She loved him intensely and had sensed it immediately, which had been both scary and exhilarating. When they were together, it was so beautiful. The uniting of their bodies was like a beautiful song and when they were separated, it was like a tragic opera. And they had been apart for a few weeks. She missed him like crazy. But they would be reunited in a few days, and she would have to show him exactly how much she’d missed him.

“Is Karla coming? She’s supposed to be here for her fitting as well. I made her the most beautiful gown—” Monique said.

“She’ll be here,” Kari interrupted. “Probably off somewhere chasing Ray.”

“No, Kari, she’s not bothering with that fool,” Liane said, shaking her head like she wanted to get such a nasty thought out of it as quickly as possible.

“Yes she is, Mom,” Kari said, side-eyeing her mother.

Liane was about to say something but her eyes darted to the side. Kari looked and saw that it was Karla.

“Sorry I’m late,” Karla offered, going right to her mother and kissing her cheek. “I got tied up.” Then she turned to Kari, almost like she was a secondary thought, and added, “Hey Kari, ooh that gown is gorgeous.” Her eyes lit up as she said that.

“Hey Karla. Late as usual, I see. How’s Ray?”

“Kari, stop,” Liane scolded.

“He’s fine. He says hello to everyone,” Karla replied. She was always willing to rise up to a challenge and she smiled, almost shyly, but Kari knew her too well. There was mischief behind that smile.

“What were you doing with Ray?” Liane asked, definitely showing discomfort to see that Kari had been right.

“Just hanging out, that’s all. He and Tony were laying down some pretty cool tracks over at Black Dolla$,” she said.

“Oh yeah? How long you been just hanging out, as you say, with Ray?” Liane wanted to know this and Kari noticed that everyone else did, too. Monique and Sierra and Lyric all watched.

Leave it to Karla, Kari thought. Her sister found a way to get attention constantly, but not effortlessly.

“Okay, Mom, we’re friends, that’s all,” Karla said, looking at Kari now.

Did Karla think Kari would help her with that dawg? She had another think coming. “Friends, huh? All the female friends Ray has, have special benefits. Are you an FWB?” Kari asked.

“What’s an FWB?” Liane asked.

“Friend with benefits,” Kari and Karla answered at once.

“Karisma Mikayla Montgomery!” her mother exclaimed.

“Mom, she’s hanging out with Ray, of all people! My ex, the sex-addict! Really, Karla?”

“Are you jealous, or what?” Karla asked with a sassy head roll.

“Oh my gawd,” Kari said with disgust.

“Why are you hanging out with him, Karla?” Liane asked, her voice more pressing. “Can’t you find someone else to be friends with?”

Just then Wolfe appeared in the doorway.

“Knock, knock,” he said. “Hey, Boss Lady, we got company.”

“Company? Who, the paparazzi?” she asked.

“Two carloads of Paolo’s guys just pulled up, saying they’re here to help with security.”

“Again? What now?” she almost yelled. This clashing of security between hers and Paolo’s irritated her. It made sense, but still… In her gown, she maneuvered her way to the window to see the suit-clad “Goon Squad,” as she called them. “Monique, help me out of this dress,” she said impatiently. Stepping out of the gown and beautiful crystal encrusted Louboutins, she grabbed a white tank top from a nearby chair and threw it over her head. She slid her feet into a pair of flip-flops, and strutted out in the black spandex shorts she wore underneath her wedding gown.

“Want some backup?” Karla asked.

“Got all I need right here,” Kari answered without turning around. Wolfe and Sierra followed her.

When she got outside, her security team of Amani, Omar, and Jamil were all standing around, conferring with Damiano, who, along with Adalberto, was now part of Kari’s regular security detail. But Adalberto was in Italy with Paolo, doing who knows what.

“Hey guys, what’s up? What’s all this?” she asked, her index finger gesturing to the eight new armed guards posting up around her estate.

“Miss Montgomery, Paolo sent them over to stay with you until you arrive in Italy,” Damiano said to her.

“Why?” she asked, her lovely eyes holding his gaze.

His voice reflected a nervous stutter as he answered. “It’s a necessary precaution.”

“Why?” she repeated with more force.

“There’s a huge media crush waiting for you at the airport, and down the hill from your estate. You need the added security for your safety.”

She stared at him a moment, then turned with a pirouette, and marched back up the stairs to the mansion with Wolfe and Sierra right behind her.

“Lies,” she said. “Where’s my damn phone?”

***

Ghost Boy punched Vito in his mouth and he fell to the ground, blood soaking the front of his shirt and chin. Paolo stood over him. “Stand him up. He’s a man. He’ll die on his feet, not on his knees.” Ghost Boy and Adalberto lifted Vito to his feet.       

“Are you telling me that your father put a hit on my family?” he asked, with narrowed eyes on his human prey.

“He did,” Vito said as he spat blood onto the ground.

“Damn, I’m really pissed you didn’t die in that car, Bianchi,” Paolo said.

“What does that tell you?” Vito replied, smugly.

“I missed,” Paolo said with venom. He pulled his gun from his waistband, and pointed it directly at Vito’s head.

“If you come back from this, I will believe in miracles. One down, eight lives to go—”

“Wait, Paolo!” Vito begged.

Paolo had pulled back on the hammer of his gun and clicked it into the ready to fire position and he stared at Vito, not even blinking as he assessed what the piece of shit had to say. “What? Last words?”

“Last laugh, maybe,” Vito said.

“You’re talking madness for somebody with a gun to his head, motherfucker,” Paolo said, patience gone. He would not be made a fool of again. Vito would die that night.

“You’ll want to hear this,” Vito insisted.

“Finish the fucking story,” Paolo said, backing away from Vito, gun lowering to his side.

“My father set up an auction to be conducted a week before the Crimine.” The Crimine was the Ndrangheta’s yearly summit held in San Luca during the September Feast. The capo crimine, or boss of bosses, are elected at the yearly summit, and family disputes are settled. Vito continued. “During that auction, the cargo would go to the highest bidder. That family would then be required to carry out the murders of the entire Montovani ‘Ndrina, thereby making that family the most feared and powerful in the Honored Society. Like you are right now,” he explained. “He was able to get a hold of more of your family’s assets, as well. He’s hidden them in places you will never find. He has stolen a fortune from the mighty Montovanis. You didn’t even see him coming! He stole right from under your nose.” He began to chuckle.

“Lying bastard, he’s buying time, Paolo. Do him. Blow his brains out!” Daniel insisted.

“I’m not lying! Check your finances, asshole! You’ll see I speak the truth,” Vito said.

“If it is true, motherfucker, the remaining Bianchis are in big trouble,” Paolo said.

“I’d hoped we could work together to recover your wealth. Get back what you don’t even realize has been taken,” Vito bargained.

Paolo and Daniel shared a glance.

“If you kill me, you may never recover. You certainly would never know what he did. You need me. My mother and sister are clueless. They have no knowledge of what happened. We make a deal, and you spare them. My father, rest in peace, did this, not our women,” Vito said.

“Fuck your father and your women! And fuck you!” Paolo raised his gun again. “Draw another breath, motherfucker, to tell me where my shit is, all of it!” he exclaimed loudly.

“That’s just it. I don’t know exactly where it is,” Vito said.

“What the fuck? You’re wasting our time, man! You need some incentive? Maybe this will jar your memory!” Daniel grabbed the fingers of Vito’s right hand and broke them, a sickening succession of cracks resonating in the darkness. Vito howled in excruciating pain, as Daniel pulled the injured hand over to the car and proceeded to bang it against the trunk over and over again. Vito swung at him reflexively, the pain shooting through him, nearly blinding him. Connecting with the side of Daniel’s face, he was grabbed from behind by Ghost Boy, who threw him to the ground and he and Adalberto began kicking him and stomping his mangled hand until he was still.

“If you kill him, he can’t help us,” Paolo seethed, putting his hand out to show that he wanted his men to stop.

Daniel checked for a pulse. “He’s alive.” Despite the proclamation, he delivered a few swift kicks to the side of his face.

“Get him to Nino. Bring his incentive there, as well. All of them.”

His phone buzzed, three short times, and Paolo wanted to smile despite the timing. It was Kari. He turned his back while the others dealt with Vito and pulled out his phone. Then his smile faded. “PAOLO!!!!” the message read. He knew that meant trouble—all capitals. Now what?

He texted back, “Hey Beautiful.

Why the army?” she texted.

The added troops? They are there to protect you, baby,” he texted back.

From what, pray, tell?

Your fans, the press, nosey neighbors…” he typed out.

Your enemies?” she typed back.

Paolo could just hear the sound of her voice saying the words she typed. Sarcasm, anger, and frustration. Damn, he loved her spirit, but wished she’d save it for things that were negotiable. Her security was not. “Right now, I’m mostly enemy-free. No worries,” he lied.

Mostly enemy-free?

Yes, dear. I love you, I miss you, I need you.” Soon, she would be there and he’d feel much better.

You’re not slick, Slick. Don’t change the subject,” she responded.

Not trying to be slick. I just love you, baby,” he replied.

I love you too, Mr. Montovani. Very much.

This made Paolo smile. “I can’t wait to feel you, and every inch of your luscious curves. What are you doing, anyway?”

Getting fitted for my wedding gown.

Oh yeah? Can I see it? Want my opinion?” he asked. All the fuss for the gown, but it was what was underneath it that got him most excited.

You can see it and give me your opinion when I reach you at the end of the aisle,” she responded, adding a winking emoticon.

Worth a try.

Nice try. Epic fail. But seriously, I want to know why the Goon Squad was amped up. You don’t fool me.”

Paolo responded with a smiley face that matched the one he was wearing. Damn, he loved that woman.