Loneliness tasted like hell. It also, lucky for me, tasted like a fifth of whiskey and what would most likely be a throbbing headache come tomorrow morning.
I brought the bottle to my lips and tilted it back, my eyes trained on the fire in front of me, the flames licking higher and higher, reminding me that I wasn’t exactly in any position to ask God for any favors…it may as well have been hell waving back at me and confirming my suspicions.
I’d killed too much.
I’d lied even more.
And I was officially out of favor within my family — within my world.
I hissed as a drip of whiskey landed on my blood-caked knuckles. Beating the shit out of the wall hadn’t even stopped the anger.
Ah anger, that was something I could talk about, something I could tangibly feel as it pulsed through my body. It had been my mistress for so long that I knew if I actually let it go — I’d be even more lonely than I already was.
I tried to take a deep breath, to calm myself down, but air wouldn’t go into my lungs, I felt paralyzed and on an adrenaline high all at once.
Maybe that was another part of my punishment. I had exactly twenty-four hours before I had to marry a Russian.
And not just any Russian.
An enemy, a double agent who had worked for both the FBI and, apparently, the Nicolasi family. She had sold out her own crime family, the Petrovs, and now… she was under the protection of the Italians.
How messed up was that?
I took another swig of whiskey and eyed the clock. Make that twenty-three hours and fifty-eight minutes.
I wasn’t drunk enough.
I wasn’t even close.
Marrying someone for protection I could do. Marrying someone and even killing them afterwards? Piece of cake. After all, that was my MO. I was a killer, a ghost, whatever the family wanted me to be.
But marrying someone, keeping them safe, only to watch them die within six months?
No. Hell no.
She had leukemia.
So why keep her alive this long?
I snorted and took another sip of whiskey. “I’d be doing her a favor by killing her.”
“Ouch,” a light airy voice said from somewhere in the room, causing all my hair to stand on end. “So as far as pep talks go, yours officially needs work.”
I carefully set down the whiskey, not trusting myself not to throw it in her direction in an anger-filled rage. “I was talking to myself.”
“Another sign you need to get laid.” She laughed.
“Go away, Arabella.”
“My name’s Andi.”
“Your legal name is Arabella Anderson Petrov. Care to know your social security number and credit score as well?”
“Romance is lost on you.” I felt her move around the room. The air seized with electricity; she’d always had a presence about her, and right now I was five seconds away from losing my shit and ramming my head into the fireplace just so I could escape it all.
“Don’t I know it,” I huffed and reached for the bottle again.
Small warm hands clasped around mine before I could get there. I jerked away, causing her to stumble in front of me.
White-blond hair covered her soft features. Big brown eyes blinked back at me. I hissed in a breath and cursed. “You should go.”
“We need to talk.”
“Oh goody. Is this the part where you tell me I have to give up my virginity on my wedding night?”
“What?” She blinked like a startled deer, then a weak smile pulled her lips upward.
I ignored the way my body reacted and rolled my eyes in irritation.
“Aw, he has jokes now. At least, I hope it’s a joke. You’re not, are you? A virgin, I mean.”
I snorted and eyed the bottle, calculating my odds on reaching it before she stopped me, then gave up. “Fine.” I huffed. “Hurry up and get to talking so I can get drunk.”
Andi sat opposite me in the leather chair and tucked her feet under her body. She was small, around five-one, but she packed a punch, knew how to use every automatic weapon on the market, and I was pretty sure I had once overheard that she was well-versed in torture. Looking at her, you’d think she was just graduating high school and getting ready to go shopping for her favorite pair of shoes with Daddy’s credit card.
“You’re upset,” she finally said.
“No.” I licked my lips and leaned forward. “I’m enraged. There’s a difference.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You know you can talk to me — since you’re stuck with me for the next… while. That is, unless you kill me first… like you did that FBI agent.”
My blood ran cold. No one knew about what I’d done last week. When I’d gained intel from another agent. “Her cover was blown. I did her a favor.”
“Did you?” Her eyebrows arched.
“Have you ever been shot, Andi?”
She sighed and leaned her head back against the lush cushion. “No, why? Are you going to educate me on what it feels like?”
I exhaled and popped my knuckles; the sound reverberated through the empty room. “It happens in three stages.”
“You mean you don’t just pull the trigger?” she joked.
Ignoring her, I continued. “Shock. It’s always the first emotion because the human brain hasn’t yet caught up with the fact that you’ve been wounded. So your body starts going into shock, and then the pain happens, but it’s not the type of pain you’d think. It burns, but it’s more of an empty, hollow pain, that starts to spread from the wound throughout the rest of your body until a slow chill starts to descend. When the chill descends, the shock wears off and confusion sets in. Why was I shot? Why me? What have I done? As humans, our brains aren’t meant to understand violence, so we have to logically explain it away. I had to have done something wrong to get shot. Or maybe I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The minute your brain finds something that makes sense you move onto the last stage.”
Andi barely moved a muscle. “Death?”
“Worse.” I reached for the bottle and took a long swig. “Denial.”
“Why is denial worse?”
“You tell me.”
Her eyes closed briefly before she offered a shrug. “Because it means you aren’t ready.”
“Look who just earned an A in class,” I mocked. “And you’re right. Denial happens when you realize it shouldn’t be you, that even if your brain connected the dots, it isn’t yet your time. The lovely little memories of your life start to play on repeat in your head — the moments you should have done something but didn’t, the things you’ll never say, the things you’ll never do. And then… you either get lucky or, if I’m the one who pulled the trigger, your memories will click off after about one minute, and you’ll be no more.”
The fire crackled.
Andi refused to look at me.
“I’d make it fast, Andi.”
“Are we seriously doing this?”
“What?” I shrugged.
“Having a conversation in what should be a nice cozy room, about you killing me?”
“It would be a kindness.”
“Go to hell!”
“Already there, Andi. Already there. Don’t you know? I belong nowhere. My family’s punishing me, the FBI’s investigating me for the murder of my superior, and now I have to marry a Russian whore.”
“So…” She stood. “…you’d rather kill me than marry me?”
“Was I not clear? I thought I was… Allow me to say it slower, perhaps in Russian? If that’s all you people understand.” I stood, meeting her chest to chest. “I’d rather kill you than see you suffer… I’d offer a dog the same kindness.”
“I’m not a dog.”
“Stop saying that.”
“What?” I sneered. “The truth? Well, sweetheart, it doesn’t get any truer than your reality. Allow me to kill you before your family or cancer does, and at least you can own your own death rather than fearing it.”
She reached for me, touched my shoulders, and then cupped my face. I hated it because I liked it; my body leaned without me telling it to. She was so warm. “And what makes you think I fear my own death?”
“Everyone is afraid of dying. The hardest part is never admitting we’re mortal, but coming to terms with the fact that we have no control over how long we’re given. You do.”
“No… I don’t… You’re trying to take that control.”
“Say the word.” My hand moved to the Glock strapped to my thigh.
“I’m not afraid.” Her lips trembled. “At least not of death… but I am afraid of something.”
“Oh yeah?” I hissed. “What’s that?”
Confused, I stepped back, immediately looking for a weapon. “I don’t understand.”
“You wouldn’t.” She shrugged. “Because you, Sergio Abandonato, are already dead.” She moved gracefully across the room. “You’re dead inside… and you don’t even know it. Forget cancer — and take a long hard look in the mirror — that’s what death looks like.”
Rachel Van Dyken is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today Bestselling author of regency and contemporary romances. When she’s not writing you can find her drinking coffee at Starbucks and plotting her next book while watching The Bachelor.
She keeps her home in Idaho with her Husband, adorable son, and two snoring boxers! She loves to hear from readers!
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