Romantic Suspense - Release May 25th
He's my nemesis.
A notorious criminal with a smoldering smile to mask the devil hidden beneath.
Conniving. Threatening. Brutal.
He stalks me from the shadows.
Makes me itch to place him behind bars.
But he has an offer I can't refuse.
A major risk with the perfect reward.
I can't let down my guard.
Can't be tempted to trust him.
Not even when I begin to understand his corrupt ways.
Because the only face the devil shows is the one he wants you to see.
And all I’m seeing is hunger.
I’ve done some heavy shit in my time.
I’ve taken the lives of many and ordered the death of more.
I was barely out of my teens when I had to take down one of my own men—a guy I’d trusted—because he’d dared to touch my sister. He’d raised a hand to Layla, and in return, I’d raised a gun to his temple and didn’t bat an eye when I pulled the trigger.
My father instilled that sense of protection in me. Which, I guess, makes my task today more than a little ironic.
The man who taught me everything, who shaped my prejudices and guided me through my entire life, needs to be shut down for the betrayal he’s inflicted on his children.
Today, I will punish my father out of respect for all of us. And that, by far, is the heaviest shit I’ve ever had to deal with. Not just the thought of confronting his actions, but addressing the betrayal—his against me, and mine against him.
At one time, he was all I knew. Everything I looked up to. All I aspired to be. There was no greater man than the mighty Luther Torian.
Now, he’s everything I despise and all I crave to defeat.
My only concern is the consequences.
If I had my way, I’d tap the brakes and allow myself more time to work out this plan. But stalling isn’t an option after I made a promise to an irrational sister who was hell-bent on taking the task into her own hands.
I won’t allow anyone else to sentence him. I don’t care how big the grievance. He’s mine to deal with.
My mentor. My flesh. My blood.
If anyone is going to instigate a war of loyalties among the men in my organization, it will be me. And I’ve never been more aware of the dangers of a possible split than I am now, standing beneath a portable gazebo, before a polished coffin, waiting for my uncle’s funeral to begin, in front of a crowd filled with potential enemies.
Richard Torian was an unscrupulous bastard.
But both he and my father have always provided an unyielding level of protection toward our family that very few people dared to breech.
Without them, my stronghold will take a major hit.
Me, my sisters, my niece—all of us will be vulnerable unless I make the right choices.
“Unkie Cole, where’s Aunt Keira?” Stella drags her feet toward me, peering up with pained eyes.
“I’m sure she isn’t too far away.” I lean forward, palm her delicate chin, and encourage her focus to remain on mine. “How are you holding up, pumpkin?”
She nods, silently lying to me as she blinks through grief-stricken tears.
The heartache she harbors for a man who never existed cuts me to the core. She isn’t aware of Richard’s perversions, the ones that brought pleasure to him and agony to others. Hopefully, she never will be.
“She’s doing okay.” Layla grabs her daughter’s shoulders and encourages the child to retreat from me. It’s a subtle shun. A barely recognizable retaliation in front of a crowd filled with dark suits and darker souls. “Aren’t you, sweetheart?”
I stifle a snarl while Stella nuzzles her face into her mother’s stomach.
My sister isn’t letting go of her grudge against me any time soon. She’s made it clear she doesn’t appreciate me hiding family secrets from her. Secrets that weren’t mine to share. And, like every woman on the face of the earth, she’s clutching the grievance as if it’s a fucking lifeline.
“Lay off him, my love.” Her husband, Benji, places his hands on her waist. “The situation was complicated.”
“Your situation will be complicated if you don’t make intelligent choices about where your loyalties lie.” She scowls straight ahead, fixing her attention on something in the distance.
Benji’s hands drop from her body, his nostrils flaring in a show of annoyance. He’s not romantic or sweet. He’s not weak or defenseless either, and definitely not the type to withstand female ultimatums. Especially not in front of me.
He’s harsh. Aggressive. And threatening at the best of times.
When he opens his mouth to retaliate, I shoot him a look—one that orders him to be smart and keep quiet.
I know exactly where his loyalties lie. I always have. It’s the reason I gave him my blessing to marry my sister.
Besides, this isn’t the place to air relationship issues. God knows I’ve got enough shit to deal with without their egos fighting for supremacy.
I sigh, this time ignoring the pull of angelic eyes as I glance across the crowd. “Yeah, little one?”
“Aunt Keira is late.”
“I know. Just try to be patient for me. I promise she will be here.”
Keira is definitely late, but she’ll show.
That boyfriend of hers will be at her side, too, when I’d much prefer he took up residence in the free plot beside my uncle.
I haven’t hidden my animosity toward Decker. In fact, I’ve made it clear I’d like to take the fucker swimming. While he wears cement blocks for shoes.
He’s a traitor. Not to mention a smart-ass who makes me want to extract every one of his teeth. Slowly.
The only thing keeping him alive is his dedication to my sister.
He saved Keira’s life. And, okay, he saved my ass, too.
But my generosity is wearing thin with every breath he takes.
“Want me to make some calls?” Luca asks over my shoulder. “She was riding with Hunt and Sarah.”
“Give them a few more minutes.” I bite back the annoyance from my voice. Luca is starting to grate on my nerves.
With the mess in my head, everyone is rubbing me the wrong way. I understand he’s still trying to find his feet in the position of my right-hand man; he just needs to do it quicker. Before I lose my shit.
Maybe it was a mistake giving him Hunter’s previous role. I demoted my long-time enforcer to prove a point about loyalty. I demand allegiance. Honesty. Reliability. Hunt had wavered on all three counts. The non-compliance wasn’t something I could ignore.
Nobody fucks with me.
Not even a little bit.
But Luca will be a suitable placeholder until my point is made. He’s an ex-SEAL who entered the fold due to his relationship with Benji—his brother.
I’m always willing to take on new members who vouch for others with their lives. It makes for easy leverage.
But Luca’s loyalty has always been clear. He’s already had the psychological manipulation implanted in him from the government, making him the perfect soldier.
He’s just asking too many fucking questions when all I want is silence.
The funeral can’t start without Keira. And as much as I’d prefer to put this morning in my rearview, I don’t have the luxury of wishing away the minutes.
She isn’t the only person missing from the festivities.
My father is yet to arrive.
Maybe he’s not going to show.
I could’ve sworn he wouldn’t miss his brother’s funeral, despite the threat of the authorities breathing down his neck.
Each second that ticks by acts like a tightening vise around my chest. I haven’t heard a word from him since I called to relay the details of the graveside service. Not one fucking word.
There have been no whispers of travel arrangements. Or sightings among the many people I pay for information.
As far as I’m aware, he’s still in the Greek islands, pretending to kick back and soak up the scenery, when what he’s really doing is tainting our family name.
Desecrating my mother’s memory.
He’s branded me and my sisters, associating all of us with the sex slave trade.
To anyone else, it might not seem a far stretch from the schemes I’ve spent years cultivating. And maybe drug distribution, money laundering, racketeering and extortion—to name a few—aren’t all that distant from the brutality of women, but to me, they’re fucking worlds apart.
Extortion is about exuding power and claiming money. The distribution of drugs, again, is about power and money. Everything I do holds the same values.
I never target those who are fragile and innocent.
I’m not weak.
Yet my father holds entirely different views, or so it seems. The man who I thought was beyond strength and power is nothing but a pitiful, spineless fool.
He preys on those who can’t protect themselves while succumbing to perversions ninety percent of the population can keep in check.
There’s no power in that. Only deficiency.
The thought of being associated with those activities makes my skin crawl.
Luca inches closer. “They’re here.”
I glance toward the narrow road leading through the cemetery and find Hunter’s black Suburban pulling into the only remaining parking space reserved for family.
Decker rides shotgun. The women must be behind the back tinted windows.
Two doors open and Hunter and Sarah make their way toward the crowd, while my sister remains in the car, taunting my impatience.
“Want me to get them to hurry up?”
I pretend not to hear yet another one of Luca’s questions and breathe deep to find some calm.
Despite my diminishing tolerance, I know Keira doesn’t deserve to be rushed. She loathes Richard more than I do. She has every reason to.
My struggle is centered on something entirely different.
Something more brutal.
I fear what I will become once I condemn my father.
I grew up worlds apart from my sisters. I didn’t have my mother’s guidance. The kindness. The nurturing. The fucking morals that have begun to drive me bat-shit crazy. I remained tightly guided under my father’s influence.
He molded me into a resilient warrior.
His spitting image.
The perfect protégé.
I learned about the drug trade while kids my age were getting beat up in middle school. There was no gentle upbringing. I shuffled through crime-scene photos like other teens flicked through Playboy. I was born to live in my father’s footsteps. Taught to lead. To control. To conquer.
The only softness I knew was my predecessor’s greatest lesson, the one that continues to ring in my ears to this very day, haunting me—money is power, but family is everything.
Family. Is. Everything.
Giving him what he deserves means I’m spitting in the face of the only warmth I know.
My reputation for ruthlessness will be cemented—the horrors etched in stone.
But maybe the lesson was strategic on my father’s behalf.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he taught me the highest value of family because he knew the day would come when I would question if he deserved his next breath.
And I am questioning it.
I’m questioning every thought. Every feeling. Every twinge of consciousness.
I guess the moral crisis is a blessing in disguise. It means I haven’t reached his level of savagery.
“Here they come,” Luca mutters.
“I can fucking see that.” I don’t need a blow-by-blow update. Jesus. I’m not blind.
Layla glares at me. “Watch your mouth in front of Stella.”
I roll my eyes and hold in a sigh. Her parenting isn’t a battle I’m willing to fight. We need to be strong. To be unified. I’ll release my thread-bare frustration soon enough, and God help the poor motherfucker who has to deal with the nuclear detonation.
“I apologize.” I grind the words through gritted teeth as Keira slides from the car.
Surprise, surprise, Decker meets her at the side of the vehicle with an outstretched hand.
That guy never ceases to piss me off.
I hate how she submits to him too easily. And maybe I envy it a little, too.
She’s happy with this asshole. Despite the reasons for her being here today, beyond the weary eyes and wearier expression, she’s at peace. And that solace can’t be easy to find when you know your father is responsible for the death of your boyfriend’s sister.
Yep. My father led Penny from the country using fake promises of a bright future in modelling.
Last I heard, her DNA was found in a mass grave.
What a great foundation for a flourishing relationship.
I drag my attention from the smitten couple who choose to stand away from our family gathered beneath the gazebo, and focus past the crowd, staring into the distance. I ignore the pound of a building headache. I block out the increased chatter from friends and strangers alike. I try to clear my head of the noise even though my mind pummels me with a million unanswered questions regarding my father’s whereabouts.
He’s not coming.
Which means Keira is going to crumple. Momentarily. Then bounce back even harder with a vengeance.
She will nag and nag at me to finish this. And if I don’t act quick enough, she will revert to making threats to take the matter into her own hands.
I don’t know what’s worse—the thought of the guilt that could consume me once I deal with my own father or the fear Keira will attempt an attack before I have the chance.
I can’t allow her the opportunity.
I’ve already failed her many times before. I won’t let her be in harm’s way again.
“You can start.” I jerk my head toward the funeral officiant murmuring with mourners. “The last of our family has arrived.”
Layla shoots me a look of concern. “You’re not going to wait?”
My pulse is triggered by her panic, the frantic beats ratcheting up another notch. “There’s no need. If he’s not here already, he’s not going to show.”
The admission should bring relief. I wanted more time, right? This was what I’d been praying for. So why do I feel defeated?
The officiant steps forward, a leather-bound book clutched in his hands. He greets the crowd of people I barely recognize and speaks scripted lies, his showmanship engaging everyone in attendance as he weaves something closer to a fairy-tale than reality.
I watch Keira as the funeral drags on. I don’t know how to make this right. To ease her burden. But maybe this is for the best.
I need to keep her safe. All of us safe.
Delaying the drama with my father will afford me the opportunity to build more loyalties. To cultivate a better plan.
As if hearing my thoughts, she freezes in place and grabs the crook of Decker’s arm. She stares blankly ahead, her lips parted, her eyes wide.
She could be lost in past nightmares or predicting the horrors of the future for all I know, but I follow her gaze across the open expanse of the cemetery only to find the devil stalking toward me.
“Shit.” The curse brushes past my clenched teeth.
Layla shoots me another glare, then quickly mimics my line of sight.
“Oh, God,” she whispers.
My father strides toward us, passing angel statues and monuments to lives lost, his shoulders stiff beneath his expensive suit. It’s been many months since I’ve seen him. Not enough to lessen the sense of authority he brings. Or the gut-wrenching animosity I feel.
I’ve never battled with such vastly conflicting emotions as I do right now.
The anger. The resentment.
The fucking brutal pain.
He used to be a storm of power and hostility, the attributes intimately entwined to make him a force to be reckoned with. At least that was what I’d thought, until he started delving in things only a weak man would entertain.
Now I see it as nothing more than a show.
A facade to hide his deficiencies.
Two men flank him, providing protection, their faces unfamiliar.
All three of them approach, inspiring a wave of whispers to break out among the mourners. The respect my father wordlessly demands is enough to make the officiant stop his fabricated remake of Richard’s life and stand at attention.
It’s time for me and my sisters to fake our loyalty.
“Dad.” Layla’s the first to greet him, the two of them sharing an awkward embrace that is interrupted by Stella squeezing between them.
“Grandpa? I didn’t think you were going to make it.”
“I couldn’t stay at home when I knew you needed me.” He runs a hand through her hair, the action taunting my restraint. “Nothing could stop me from coming to take care of my little button.”
My niece beams up at him, her grief seeming momentarily forgotten.
“Father.” I hold the disgust from my tone and reach out a hand. “I’m glad you could make it.”
“Thank you for taking care of everything. Even though you didn’t bother to wait for me.” He clasps me in a grip with unyielding strength. “We’ve got a lot to discuss once this is over.”
His tone almost holds a threat as he steps back to settle between me and Layla, his men moving in behind him. He encourages Stella to stand at his feet with the wave of a hand, and holds the little girl’s shoulders as the crowd stares.
Vengeance rushes through my veins. Anguish pounds in my chest.
“Where’s Keira?” His question is low. Almost indecipherable.
“To your left.” I jerk my chin in her direction and find her huddled into Decker, her suffering seeming to outweigh everyone in attendance despite her lack of grief.
What everyone doesn’t realize is her tears are for the man beside me. The one she wants to see six feet under.
“She’s temperamental at the moment.” I don’t know what else to tell him. Obviously, the truth isn’t an option. “She hasn’t been doing well.”
He nods. “I should’ve come back sooner. Girls always need their father at a time like this.”
I could laugh. I probably should. That way, the building resentment might have an outlet. Instead, I grit my teeth and try to ignore the men behind me, despite their proximity raising the hair on the back of my neck.
I don’t trust them. I don’t even trust my own flesh and blood after a lifetime trusting nothing but.
“Are you okay if we continue?” the officiant asks.
“Yes.” I incline my head and the man proceeds with his elaborate fiction about Richard while I focus on pushing myself toward a resolution my sister will appreciate.
Hunter is already on standby. All I need to do is say the word and this train wreck will start rolling forward.
I’ll get my father alone, confront him about the mess he’s made, then look him in the fucking eye when I tell him his fate.
It’s the only way. With respect and honor.
I refuse to make a sneak attack. I can’t stab him in the back even though he’s stabbed me in mine.
The officiant’s words trail off, and I fight to understand the sudden quiet. Then the coffin lowers, the foot of space it descends enough to make Stella wail. Her grandfather comforts her by rubbing his hands down her arms. The same hands that have molested many and scarred more.
He shouldn’t be touching her—shouldn’t be anywhere near her innocence. The horrified look Layla gives me tells she’s come to the same judgment.
“I’d now like to call upon anyone who would like to place petals or sand in the grave as a personal goodbye.” The officiant meets my gaze, offering my family the first opportunity to take from his small wicker basket.
Luther sidesteps Stella to move forward, away from his guards. He grabs a handful of petals as he passes, every person in attendance watching his movements. He scatters the offering, the gentle show of mourning leaving a bitter taste in my mouth, before he kisses his clenched fist and thumps it down on the coffin.
The bang reverberates through the crowd, stealing gasps and making the people before me jump in unison. None more so than Keira.
But it’s not her shock stealing my attention. It’s the man behind her who jostles his way to the front of the crowd, bumping Decker’s shoulder in the process.
He’s either drunk or suicidal. Maybe both.
“Luther Torian?” He calls the name loudly, without remorse.
My father bristles, every inch of him tightening in what I learned at an early age to be vehemence. He scowls, not hiding his hostility.
The man doesn’t quit his approach. He strides forward, holding his hand out for my father to take.
That’s when it hits me.
Right before the man says, “I’m Special Agent Anthony Easton, and you’re under arrest for human trafficking.” The fucker clasps my father’s palm with his right hand and retrieves a pair of cuffs with his left. “And solicitation involving minors under the age of sixteen.”
A mutiny of whispered retaliation rises from the crowd, the noise building into chatter. The only quiet souls are my siblings and the people who know the severity of this situation. Not just the criminal charges, but the complication of a prison sentence.
“You have the right to remain silent.”
“No.” I storm forward. “Stop.”
This asshole isn’t going to steal vengeance away from me. My father’s punishment is my decision to make. If Luther is taken into custody, there’s no doubt he’ll escape, then disappear.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” I hold my anger in check, my voice coming out in a lethal calm.
The agent doesn’t pause. “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
My father’s men move forward, only to stop dead at the sudden shift in the crowd. A mass of strangers nudge their way through the familiar faces, holding their FBI badges high.
I chance a glance at Keira, finding her in panic mode, her body facing Decker, her hands wrapped in his white button-down as if begging for help.
Hunter and Sarah look at me for guidance. Luca and Benji, too.
They’re all waiting for instructions. All my men are.
But what do I tell them? What the fuck do I do?
This can’t end in a blood bath. Not with women and children in attendance. We can’t fight our way out of this.
The agent continues reciting the Miranda rights as he hikes my father’s hands behind his back. Not one word leaves the mighty Luther Torian’s lips. There’s no spite. Not even a glimpse of the rage I’m feeling.
Everything is locked down. Shut off.
I meet his stare and jerk my chin the slightest inch, letting him know I’m strong. Fucking defensive. He needs to think I’m on his side. That’s the only play I have. The only strategy available.
“Everyone, move,” a woman shouts. “Make way.”
The female agent steals my attention as she spreads her arms wide and keeps my extended family at bay.
I stalk to her, my fists clenched at my sides. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I keep my tone level. “This is a fucking funeral.”
She raises a brow. “Please accept my sincerest apologies for the inconvenient timing.” She flicks her attention toward my father and proceeds to ignore my existence.
Who the fuck does she think she is?
We’re not a family to be messed with. Not even by the Feds.
“We’ve done this dance a dozen times before,” I seethe. “You make an arrest. Then the charges are dropped. But this is going too fucking far. You can’t come here and tear apart a place of mourning. Do you have any idea who you’re messing with?”
Her lips kick into a sultry smile, exposing a viper beneath the feminine facade. “I know exactly what I’m doing, Mr. Torian. I’m putting a sick son of a bitch behind bars for a very long time. If I were you, I’d get my legal team in order. It’s not just your father who’s going to need it.”
My pulse doesn’t spike; it fucking detonates. The simmering madness I’ve been carrying turns into full-scale psychosis.
I see red. I hear static. I crave revenge.
“You’ve got some nerve, throwing your weight around, sweetheart.” I scrutinize her eyes, looking deep into the hazel-green depths to try and grasp the slightest glimmer of fear. But this woman isn’t scared of me. She’s not even threatened. Not yet, anyway. “The FBI has nothing on me and my family. Never have. Never will.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure.” Her grin remains in place. “In fact, I think we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other in the near future.” She glances away, seeming unconcerned with the threat standing right in front of her as she watches my father being hauled around headstones.
“Until next time, Mr. Torian.” Briefly, those taunting eyes meet mine and she winks. “Enjoy your day.”
She strides away, head high, shoulders straight, and a careless sway to her hips.
I clench my fists tighter, my nostrils flaring.
Maybe I’m closer to my father’s perversions than I thought, because I want nothing more than to take her down. To watch her suffer. To make her pay.
But this woman is far from weak. There’s no hint of vulnerability.
“What did she say to you?” Keira reaches my side, Decker close at her back, Sarah and Hunt following behind.
“A lot of things.” I grind my teeth, still fighting for the illusive calm that’s nowhere in sight. “She has the impression we’re going to be seeing a lot of each other in the future.”
“She said that?” Sarah snarls over Decker’s shoulder. “She comes to your uncle’s funeral, arrests your father, then lays more threats?”
Yes. That’s exactly what she did.
With a fucking wink.
“What are you going to do?” Decker juts his chin at me. “Apart from the legal team moving into action, what’s your plan?”
I return my focus to the female agent sauntering toward the mass of parked cars along the narrow cemetery road.
She poked a bear.
Fucking taunted a predator.
“I’m going to give that woman exactly what she wants.”
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