Digital Galley Edition
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Rachel Van Dyken
To all those girls out there who want to see the bad boy
redeemed… And to my amazing, amazing group of readers who make
what I do the best job in the world! I love you all!
First, I have to thank God—He is totally the reason I am able to do ANYTHING—and I’m so thankful every morning that I get to wake up and do what I love.
Husband—I’m sorry I keep bringing my computer to bed, but thank you for being awesome enough to kiss me anyway and turn out the lights even when I’m typing away at two a.m.!
Also, I feel terrible… In my last acknowledgments, I never once said thank you to Erica Silverman, my amazing, amazing agent. She’s like the soldier you want on your team during Capture the Flag—she’s that awesome. And I’m THAT competitive, so it works.
To Grand Central Publishing—I heart you guys big. You’ve been so amazing in this process. Words can’t even begin to describe how amazing my experience with you guys has been!
Lauren—friend, editor, fellow Tom Hardy fan… Your input on my last two books has been incredible! I’ve never had such a positive editing process, so thank you for not only making me better, but making it so fun!
To my street team, beta readers, and all the bloggers. To thank each and every one of you individually would take page and pages. Just know that I appreciate your love and support so much. I would be nowhere without you guys and I’m so thankful and humbled that you not only keep reading—but keep encouraging me! Love you guys!
I hid in the shadows hoping he wouldn’t see me as he hit Ma again. He’d promised Ma he’d stop drinking. He’d promised he wouldn’t be mean anymore, but he never kept his promises—not anymore.
“You stupid bitch! I know you were looking at him tonight! You think I can’t tell?”
“I wasn’t!” My mom wiped her eyes and tried to reach for my father’s hands, but he pushed her to the ground and kicked her stomach with his foot.
Afraid, I looked around the room for help. Chase was right next to me; I could see his knuckles turn white as he clenched his hand into a fist. He was just as helpless as me. I swallowed as my eyes fell to Uncle Tony; slowly he shook his head at me. He stood motionless in the corner, his gaze without emotion. Did he want me to sit there and watch? Watch while my father killed my ma? Weren’t men supposed to protect those they loved? I felt my nostrils flare in silent outrage. Someone had to do something.
I heard another shriek and then the sound of glass hitting the floor. I turned just in time to see my mom hit the ground, blood spewing from the side of her face.
“Ma!” I ran toward her, pushing my father out of the way. I had to save her, I had to protect her. “Ma!”
“Nixon.” A hand reached out to stop me. “Don’t.”
I looked up into Chase’s sad eyes. “I have to save her.”
“But I can! I have to—”
“Nixon, you’re my best friend in the whole world, but Dad said if you make your father angry again he’s just going to turn on you. The way I see it, is he’s gonna pass out soon anyway.”
“But…” I looked over at my mother. She gave me one terrified silent nod before my dad landed a final blow to her face. Her eyes fluttered closed as her head hit the ground. I watched for her lips to move so I could tell she was still breathing.
Her chest rose and fell.
Alive. She was alive—this time. Paralyzed with fear, I kept watching, counting the seconds between each weak breath, hoping, praying, that it wouldn’t be her last.
“Nixon, come on.” Chase tugged on my arm and led me outdoors. The minute my feet touched the grass I took off running.
I pumped my legs until they hurt, finally stopping at the tree on the farthest edge of our property.
“Nixon.” Chase was behind me, out of breath, but still behind me. “I’m sorry, Nixon. I’m so sorry.”
I nodded. I knew it was the right thing to say, that he was sorry; I was sorry, too. Sorry that I wouldn’t listen to Chase and that one day, I would kill my father for what he was doing to my ma. I would kill him and I would go to Hell for it—but I didn’t care. Dad said I was going there anyway.
“Let’s make a pact.” Chase put his hand on my shoulder.
“A pact?” I sniffled and turned to him. “What kind of pact?”
“One that’s forever. One that protects people rather than hurts them.”
“How do we do that?” I was suddenly interested. What if I could make all the hurt go away? What if I could save everyone!
“We do this.” Chase pulled out his pocketknife and cut open his hand, then nodded to me to do the same thing. Without pausing I cut open my hand and handed back the knife. “Blood brothers. We’re never gonna hurt each other and we’re gonna save those like your ma, Nixon. Ones who can’t save themselves. We’re going to protect them.”
“How?” I watched as the blood dripped from my open palm.
“Rules.” Chase shrugged. “They keep people safe, right? At least that’s what my mom says.” He smiled. “We make rules and we start our own club. That way, we don’t have to listen to anyone but us.”
I liked it. I chewed on my lower lip. “What do we call ourselves?”
“The chosen?” Chase offered.
“No, that sounds lame. We have to sound… more powerful than that.”
My eyes flickered to the road, and a sign poked into the ground. It said election. “Elect.” I pointed. “Let’s call ourselves The Elect.” It made sense; after all, the president was elected, wasn’t he? We weren’t exactly chosen, but we were making the choice, we were electing ourselves protectors. That’s what we were.
“Who else can join?” Chase asked.
“Tex and Phoenix. They’ll want to.” A weight suddenly felt like it was being lifted off my twelve-year-old shoulders. “Should we shake on it?”
“Yeah.” Chase smashed his hand against mine as our blood mixed. “No going back, Nixon.”
“No.” I shook my head. “No going back.”
* * *
I pressed my fingers to my temples and watched, replaying that moment over and over again in my head as the outline of Chase and Tracey flickered in the moonlight. Would he really do this to me? After all the shit we’d been through?
I gauged her reaction, hoping that I would be wrong. Praying to God that Trace would just this once listen to me. Her eyes flickered with interest for a few brief seconds before she looked down at the ground.
“Shit.” I waited in the shadows. A part of me knew this would happen. The part that told me to damn my feelings to hell and ignore all the warning signs that I’d been seeing. But now it seemed like it was too late. I stayed, planted where I was, watching, waiting.
“Chase, you can’t…” Trace shook her head. “You can’t be like this. We can’t do this!”
“We aren’t doing anything,” Chase said in low tones, reaching for Trace’s hand. “Don’t you?” He looked directly at me, although all he saw was a shadow. I knew I was well hidden. “Don’t you feel the same way?”
Trace jerked her hand away from Chase’s. “It doesn’t matter what I feel. It’s not about me, Chase.”
“But it is.” Chase reached for her again. This time her hand grasped his in such an intimate embrace I thought I was going to vomit all over the ground. The outside air was cold as hell as little pieces of ice tried to find their way into my wool coat.
Chase jerked her toward him. She fell against his chest and looked up into his eyes. “What are you doing?”
Chase sighed. “What I should have done a long time ago.” He grabbed the back of her head and pulled her in for a kiss. Their lips touched.
I had to look away.
The only sound in the night was that of my soft footsteps as I walked away… leaving my heart in broken pieces where I’d last stood. She was lost to me; it wasn’t even the Sicilians that had taken her, but my best friend.
A gunshot rang out loud and clear in the night air. I turned back around just in time to see Trace collapse into Chase’s arms.
Three weeks earlier
“Chase,” I growled. “Do your damn job.”
My cousin rolled his eyes and saluted me as he jogged off to Trace’s side. We’d all decided it would be best if she stayed in school. After all, the security at Eagle Elite was tight. And nobody would dare try something during the day.
Really, it was the nights that had me going insane. I didn’t know whom to trust. I wasn’t even sure if I could trust myself. If anything happened to Trace again, I would never forgive myself. The way things stood, I was having trouble even looking in the mirror after the way I’d treated her over the past few weeks.
Raped. She had been so damn close to being raped by someone I’d once called friend. And now… now her grandfather was in hiding—again. You can’t just shoot a mafia boss without a damn good reason and he didn’t have a leg to stand on. It was crucial that we find out who’d killed Trace’s parents, because if it was the De Langes like I suspected, at least her grandfather wouldn’t get shot—or worse, tortured for doing what was right.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that it had been my fault in the first place. If I would have just stayed away like her grandfather had asked. She would have been safe. Instead, the pull she had on me was so magnetic I found myself falling. Before I knew it, I was ready to start an all-out family war against the Alfero boss in order to have his granddaughter. Hell, I was ready to kidnap her.
I groaned as I watched Chase run to Trace’s side and grab her hand. Okay, I could handle a lot of things. Guns, violence, people who didn’t know their place in this godforsaken world, but my best friend kissing my girlfriend’s hand? The same girl I’d been in love with my whole life? Yeah, I was going to freaking murder him if he did anything to mess that up.
She was the only thing I had going for me. I mean, I had my sister, but both my parents were gone. My mother died when I was younger—at the hands of my bastard of a father, and my father, well… I would dance on his grave if it wouldn’t make me look like a genuine ass. The fact was, I needed Trace; she wasn’t just a girl to me, she was my lifeline. I was terrified that if I lost her, I would lose myself—lose everything that keeps me grounded and sane.
“You okay with this?” Tex asked next to me as he ran his hands through his dark red hair and nodded toward the happy couple.
I shrugged, trying to look nonchalant. “Are you challenging my judgment?”
“Whoa.” Tex lifted up his hands in surrender. “I was just asking a question, Nixon, not challenging you. Take a sedative. Seriously.”
“Take a—” I bit down on my lower lip and sucked on the metal of my lip ring. “I’m fine.”
“Right. I’m fine, you’re fine, everything’s fine. Oh, look, I think a rainbow’s sprouting out of your ass.”
“Remind me why you’re here again?”
Tex grinned and shoved his hands into his pockets. “Oh you know, to make your life miserable. That and because your hot sister promised she’d meet me before her first class.”
“Please don’t use ‘hot’ and ‘sister’ in the same sentence.”
“Sorry.” Tex cleared his throat. “I’m here because your sexy sister promised she’d meet me before her first class.”
“And I’m leaving.” I rolled my eyes. “Tell my not-sexy, not-hot sister that she needs to answer her damn phone.”
“Will do!” Tex saluted. “Don’t trip over the rainbow, sunshine!”
I flipped him off and jogged in the opposite direction to the business building. I was technically a senior in college, though I truly only had three credits left before I’d be able to leave. I’d enrolled in electives so I could stay a student for the rest of the fall semester. I was seriously thinking about failing my last few classes so I could stay spring semester, too. I had to do something—no way was I going to be the only one not at Eagle Elite, not with the Sicilians rowing their boats across the Atlantic at this very moment.
I’d only been given control of the school because my family owned it. Clearly it was all a front. I needed access to everything, and therefore the dean had looked the other way when I enrolled in certain classes and dropped others. I’d been working for four straight years trying to discover who had killed Trace’s parents when she was six. And after all those years of trying to clear my family name, it just seemed like now everything was going backward and spinning out of control. The last thing I needed was the Sicilians breathing down my neck for raising hell these past few weeks.
“Mr. Abandonato,” my senior seminar professor announced the minute I stepped foot into the classroom. It was a tiny class of only about fifteen students, all of them too engrossed in talking and texting to care that I was late. None of them even noticed that I looked like I’d just gotten back from visiting the seventh circle of Hell and had a meet-and-greet with Satan himself.
“Yes?” I tried not to appear as irritated as I felt. As it was, I knew I was only about five seconds away from losing my shit. “What can I do for you?”
My words held a double meaning. My asking what I could do for him. He knew who I was; he knew what my family did. I always chose my words carefully for that very reason. Most people asked for favors in public—not in private. So the art of deception was my specialty. If he answered that he needed something taken care of, then I’d know he wanted to deal with Nixon Abandonato, mafia boss. If he laughed and started spouting out nonsense instructions about school, then he just wanted to talk to plain old Nixon.
Sometimes I wondered what normal would be like. For example, what does it feel like to wear jeans without hiding a gun on your leg? Or not feeling leery about every single person that looks at you cross-eyed? Sleeping was overrated, and now I was running on pure adrenaline.
“We have a new student.” Mr. Ryan’s gaze flickered to the front of the room. My eyes followed his. Rage mixed with that very same adrenaline, making my hands shake as I balled them into fists.
“Shit.” A few students looked in my direction, then gazed back at their phones as my eyes slowly took in the new student. I could probably scream “fire!” and their asses would still be firmly planted in their seats. Idiots, all of them.
“Pardon?” Mr. Ryan said. “Do you know one another?”
“Oh,” a hiss of air escaped my lips as I marched over to the desk. “You could say that.”
“Well,” Mr. Ryan said from behind me. “If you could show him around, it would be much appreciated. After all, you are senior class president.”
“That I am,” I answered. I stopped in front of the new student’s desk and whispered. “How the hell did you get in?” I was so close to his face that I could see the faint bruising across his nose—telling me one thing. He wasn’t there by choice—he’d been forced; not that he’d ever admit defeat. My nostrils flared as he licked his lips, taking his time in answering.
He leaned back in his chair, his long dark hair covering part of his face, “You think you’re the only one with connections, Abandonato?”
“Of course not.” I gripped the sides of his desk and leaned in until my face was inches from his. “I just didn’t think you’d be stupid enough to pick a side.”
“I didn’t pick. I was chosen. They want someone to investigate. Somebody trustworthy needs to be on t
“Really?” I reached into my pocket and pulled out my knife, sliding it across the desk toward his stomach. “And I’m not?” I tilted my head to the side. “Careful how you answer, Faust. I wouldn’t hesitate to slice you open where you sit.”
Ever since Faust had accused Trace of asking for it, when she was nearly raped, he’d been on my shit list. He was from one of the Original Sicilian families and a big giant pain in my ass.
He leaned in so that my blade was literally poking a hole through his white cotton shirt. “Do it. Then Trace won’t have anyone protecting her, or her grandfather. The Alferos are officially at war with the rest of us. Pick a side, Nixon, or I’ll pick for you.”
“Class!” Mr. Ryan clapped his hands. “Everyone take their seats.”
I pulled the knife back and hid it in my hand. “This isn’t over.”
“Of course not.” Faust smiled, his eyes darkening with smug satisfaction as he nodded toward me and answered, “It’s just begun.”
The minute class was over I walked over to Faust’s desk. I should have seen this one coming—which was another reason Chase was Tracey’s bodyguard instead of me. I wasn’t thinking clearly—and it was all because of her. My focus was on protecting her but in the process I was losing my touch.
Which meant only one thing.
I needed to put the fear of God into Faust before he went back and reported to whatever family the Sicilians had sent.
The door shut. I slowly turned the lock on it. I removed a poster from the wall and used it to cover the small window in the middle of the door, then turned back to face Faust.
He was leaning against his desk. “You can’t kill me.”
I smiled as adrenaline pumped through my system. I clenched my hands into tight fists and relished the feeling of blood soaring through my veins. “Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it.”