Love Like Poison
Corsican Crime Lord, Book One
Most people don’t know they’re going to get married the first time they meet. Relationships develop over time. Some men and women weigh up the pros and cons to decide if they can live with someone until death do them part. Others follow their heart.
In my family, tradition dictates differently. The decision was made for me a long time ago. That’s how the business works. Money is power, and power is everything. Power means survival. It’s the most fundamental rule of the world.
Only the strongest survive.
That’s why I’m here, why we’re driving up the road that zigzags to the top of the hill and ends in a cul-de-sac. A mansion peeks from behind high walls. Beyond, the ocean glimmers in the golden dusk. Below, to the right, the lagoon is a flawless mirror surrounding the stilt cabins on the island. The town of Great Brak River lies a kilometer inland on the bank of the river, consisting of a supermarket, a post office, an old as well as a new church, a small police station, an art gallery, a gas station, and a handful of shops and restaurants.
Anticipation tightens my gut. The reaction is involuntary. Far from being pure or innocent, it’s born from instinct, from the darker, animalistic side of me that needs to claim and procreate.
That’s why we came all the way from Corsica to this secluded town in South Africa that’s no bigger than the point of a needle on the map.
To meet my bride.
I’ve known for ten years, but twenty or thirty couldn’t be long enough to prepare me for the moment. Whereas most human beings take the freedom of dating whoever they like for granted, I see it for what it is. A chore.
Dating is nothing but a tedious process of selection via elimination. There’s a certain calm in knowing one woman is destined to be mine. Our union will serve in fulfilling my duty. There’s logic in that. It gives stability to life in a world where little and few can be trusted. It gives meaning to existence. No soul searching or introspection are necessary.
It’s been decided.
The outcome has been predetermined.
The timing, however, could’ve been better. We left my mother and sister alone for New Year, but I understand only too well why my father is eager to see this contract to fruition. The reason for his haste eats at me too.
Instead of flying to the nearest airport, we rented a car in Cape Town and drove the four hundred and twenty-eight kilometers to George. My father wanted to see the Garden Route and stop on the way to buy wine. We took the scenic road along the coast, passing cliffs that broke off into the stormy sea and bays studded with smooth rocks and penguins. Sea bamboo drifting on the dark waters of small coves marked the whale coast. The rugged shores eventually gave way to dunes covered with Aloe Vera, their red flowers like flaming torches in the clear blue sky, and long stretches of white sand where the air smelled of salt and succulent groundcovers.
After booking into a hotel on the golf estate in the neighboring town of George, my father needed a day to rest and recover his strength. The following day, we did a reconnaissance of the area and paid our business partner—my future father-in-law—an unscheduled visit at his office. My father believes in catching his associates off guard. That way, they don’t have time to hide any unorthodox dealings they prefer to keep in the dark. “If you want to know the true nature of a man,” my father always says, “catch him with his pants down.”
My father stops next to an intercom with a camera and pushes the button. The gates swing open without a squeak. We follow the road to where several cars are parked around a fountain on a circular driveway.
Benjamin Edwards appears on his doorstep before my father has cut the engine. I get out and straighten my jacket, taking stock of the surroundings like a soldier scouts a battlefield.
The house is the most impressive for miles around, built on the highest hill. Edwards stands on the porch like a cock crowing on his dunghill. In this sparsely populated part of South Africa, he may be the wealthiest man living in the biggest house. Compared to our property in Corsica, which is nothing short of a castle, the house that defines Edwards’s status is unsubstantial. Inconsequential.
Much good all that money does us. Like Edwards’s pretentious residence, our stronghold and landscaped gardens are for show. It’s like putting a scumbag in a fancy suit. The centuries-old stigma still clings to our name. We come from a long line of vicious pirates and uneducated scoundrels. We’re not welcome in the circles of the refined, religious, and elite.
That will change soon.
Edwards descends the steps to meet us.
“I’m glad you could make it,” he says, shaking our hands, but his fake smile says otherwise.
The garden is buzzing with the commotion appropriate for a rich girl’s sixteenth birthday party. Staff wearing black uniforms and white aprons are running up and down between the house and a cool truck parked in the far corner of the garden. White and pink flower wreaths decorate the balustrades, and a silver balloon arch frames the doorway. The breeze carries the notes of string music from the front of the house.
Edwards leads us to the lounge, which is similarly decorated with flowers and balloons. Bouquets of lilies and roses perfume the air. A round table in the center of the room is piled high with parcels wrapped in pink with white ribbons and vice versa. Did they specify the color of the wrapping paper like a fucking dress code on the invitation? I won’t be surprised if Edwards introduces his daughter by marching her down the stairs in billows of white and pink voile.
What does she look like? I resisted the urge to look her up on social media. A part of me, the darker, more deviant part that can resist neither gamble nor dare, wanted to walk into this unprepared and let the surprise take me wherever it would. Shock me. Please me.
I’m about to find out which.
My father takes the box wrapped in golden paper from his jacket pocket and leaves it with the mountain of packets on the table. He’s gone to a great deal of trouble to select a fine piece of craftsmanship from one of the best jewelers in Italy.
The sliding doors are open, revealing the green lawn that sweeps to the edge of the dune and the sea that’s visible all the way to the convex curve of the horizon. The party is already in full swing. Guests mingle around cocktail tables, their droning conversations audible above the music. The string quartet is set up under a pine tree, the musicians expertly keeping the volume on a level that allows for chatter.
The women are decked out in their best, some of them sporting hats you’d see at the Derby, and, like my father and Edwards, the men are dressed in tuxedos. Personally, I prefer a style less universal. I opted for a modern European look with a designer jacket, a fitted shirt, and tailored pants.
“Welcome to my humble home,” Edwards says, waving a waiter closer. “Can I offer you a glass of champagne?”
“Maybe Scotch first,” my father says. “While we talk business.”
Edwards glances at the top of the stairs and then at his watch. “It’s hardly the moment.”
My father’s smile is indulgent. “It won’t take long.”
Our host doesn’t have a choice but to comply. Our family is an important service provider—for lack of a better word—in his business. Although, from our impromptu visit to his office yesterday, I got the impression he wasn’t ecstatic about our presence.
As manners dictate, my father asked about the welfare of his family and specifically about news of his youngest daughter. I could almost see the gears turning in Edwards’s head, questioning the unlikely coincidence of our uninvited visit that happened to fall on the date of his daughter’s sixteenth birthday. He couldn’t do otherwise but to tell us about the party. The town is small. News travels. It would’ve been rude and politically incorrect not to invite us. We traveled across the whole of Africa after all, going to considerable efforts and expenses to call on him. Of course, my father accepted the invitation gracefully.
Judging by Edwards’s reaction yesterday, I won’t be surprised if my bride-to-be has no knowledge of my existence. Edwards isn’t a good actor. He couldn’t hide his aversion. He barely endured shaking my hand. People either fear or despise me. Mostly, they do both.
Benjamin Edwards may think he’s better than us where morals are concerned, but we put him on his throne. He may sit there with a lily-white conscience and pretend his empire isn’t built on blood, but I’m not scared to face the truth or to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty.
Edwards shows us into a study with leather couches facing a coffee table in the center of the floor but indicates the visitors’ chairs in front of the desk.
My father shoots me a look as we take our seats. It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to understand that Ben Edwards is scavenging whatever power he can, even if said power comes from hiding behind a desk.
Edwards pours Scotch at the wet bar and offers us each a drink, omitting one for himself.
He sits down and folds his hands on the desk. “What can I do for you, Santino?”
My father takes his box of cigarillos from his pocket and holds it out to Ben. Ben shakes his head.
“It’s time for Angelo and Sabella to meet,” my father says, measuring Edwards.
Edwards keeps a poker face, but he sits up straighter. “Why?”
“Sabella will be eighteen in two years.”
The only reaction Edwards shows is the twitch of his eyes. “Indeed. What of it?”
My father rolls a cigarillo between his fingers and puts away the box. “She’ll be an adult.” When Edwards doesn’t comment, he continues, “Of marriageable age.”
Edwards spares me no more than a glance, his upper lip curling as if I’m an unpleasant sight. “I don’t see what that has to do with Angelo.”
“She’s been promised to Angelo.” My father smiles. “Have you forgotten?”
Edwards’s face turns red. “I didn’t agree to any such thing.”
My anger ignites in a second. I know what he’s doing, why he’s denying the oath he made. We’re good enough to do his dirty work, but we’re not good enough for his daughter.
“We shook hands on the deal,” my father says.
Edwards no longer makes an effort to disguise his anger. “I didn’t consent to what you’re implying,”
“Where I come from, a handshake is as good as a signature. Giving your handshake is giving your word.” My father looks Edwards straight in the eyes. “Lying about it does not only make you a coward, but it’s also a slap in our faces.”
Edwards turns from red to purple. “In my country, a handshake holds no hidden meaning. Its only purpose is expressing politeness. We congratulated each other on a successful negotiation, nothing more. You get your fair cut every year.”
“You seem to have a short memory, my friend.” My father leans forward, bracing his elbow on the desk. “Part of the deal was always that Angelo would enter the business when he graduates from university and that we’d strengthen our mutual interests in blood.”
“You’re mistaken,” Edwards says, his voice rising in volume.
“You act as if being tied to the Russo family is an insult.” My father makes that statement like a challenge. “It will only benefit you.” He takes a stack of folded papers from his inside jacket pocket and slides it over the desk. “I took the liberty of getting my lawyer to draw up a contract. They’ll get married when she turns eighteen, but she can stay with us to acclimatize while Angelo finishes his MBA in Rome. Of course, she’ll get a house in her name and a monthly allowance. Provision for the children born from their union, including expenses, education, trust funds, and such, has been stipulated. They won’t want for anything. The marriage will be out of community of property, but in the unlikely event that my son decides to leave her, she will retain her property and possessions, and she will receive a handsome compensation.” My father relaxes in his seat again. “Take your time to look it over.”
Edwards doesn’t as much as glance at the contract. “You seem to have it all figured out.” He sneers. “What happens if she leaves him?”
“In that case, she gets nothing, but let’s not bring them bad luck by focusing on the negative aspects before we’ve even celebrated their engagement. As you know, divorce is highly unusual in my family.”
“Engagement?” Edwards exclaims. “She’s sixteen, for crying out loud.” He points a finger at me. “You’re twenty.” Scornfully, he adds, “Correct me if I’m wrong.”
“That’s right,” I drawl. “I’m not asking to marry her straight away. Like my father, I prefer that she finishes school. I believe she’s attending an excellent establishment with a prestigious reputation, and a good education is important to me. Four years may seem like a big age difference now, but once she’s an adult, the gap won’t be significant. Aren’t you seven years older than your wife?”
All but choking on his spit, Edwards pushes back his chair.
We didn’t come to the birthday party of a sixteen-year-old girl with guns, but maybe we should’ve.
When I make to get up, my father exchanges a look with me, wordlessly instructing me to let him handle it.
“They should announce their betrothal as soon as possible,” he says in a placating tone, “but the actual engagement doesn’t have to take place until she’s turned of legal age. In the meantime, it’ll be wise to let them get to know each other.” My father spreads his hands. “The fact that I’m behaving so considerately and in the best interest of your daughter should reassure you.”
The laugh Edwards utters is cold. “Reassure me?”
My father waves at the papers on the desk. “If my promise isn’t enough, the figures will surely satisfy you.”
“Like I said,” Edwards says, balling his hands on the desk, “it’s not going to happen. My daughter is independent. She has a free will.” He slams a fist on his desk. “She will marry when she’s ready and who she bloody well wants.”
The patience vanishes from my father’s features. He stands. His smile is intact, but the quiet authority of his voice as he towers over Edwards leaves no uncertainty as to the outcome of this conversation. “Take some time to share the happy news with her. I can see it won’t be today. What’s another few months if it’ll help her get used to the idea? However, make no mistake. The wedding will happen. You made the bargain, and I’ll hold you to it.”
Edwards jumps to his feet. He opens his mouth but wisely thinks the better of whatever he was going to say and shuts it again. He’s got money, but we’re the ones bargaining with fear. Our threats are never empty.
The door is yanked open, cutting into the tense atmosphere.
A thickset woman with short auburn hair wearing a burgundy silk dress bulldozes into the room. “Sabella hasn’t come down yet. I swear—” She stops short when she notices us and quickly schools herself. “Oh. I didn’t know you were busy.”
Like gentlemen are taught to do when a woman enters a room, I get to my feet. Not that I’m anything of the kind. I just prefer the intimidating advantage of my height.
When she cowers a little, I can’t suppress a grin.
My father bows. “We were just done.” He takes her hand and kisses her fingers without touching his lips to her skin. “How are you, Margaret?”
“Fine, thank you,” she says with a stiff back.
My father extends an arm toward me. “This is my son, Angelo.”
I offer her a hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Edwards.”
Her fingers are limp in my mine. She pulls away before we’ve properly shaken hands, regarding me with a downturned mouth.
An awkward silence follows, which she breaks by asking my father, “How is Teresa?”
“In good health.” My father inclines his head. “She asked me to congratulate you on Sabella’s birthday. She would’ve come, but this is a business trip for Angelo and me.”
The polite exchange is amusing. It’s nothing but role play, a practiced stage act devised by civil society. Yet when cut down to the bone, we’re all selfish monsters. Underneath the pretense, we only care about furthering our own agendas.
Margaret pulls her lips into a pinch. “Maybe next time.”
“Maybe.” My father shrugs. “Who knows? Next time, we may welcome you in Corsica.”
She glances at her husband with a question burning in her eyes.
“We’ve kept you from your guests,” my father says. “We should let you get back to them.”
“Yes.” Margaret looks both worried and relieved. “We better go outside before our absence appears rude.”
Edwards comes around his desk and opens a door that exits onto the veranda. “This way.”
We step aside for Margaret to go ahead.
“If you’ll excuse us,” she says when we’re outside. “I need a word with my husband.”
“I know how taxing these affairs can be.” My father takes a lighter from his pocket. “Don’t worry about us. We’ll make ourselves at home.”
Frowning, she takes her husband’s arm and leads him down the veranda and through the sliding doors. Before disappearing into the lounge, she looks over her shoulder with the expression of someone who’s just stepped into dog shit.
My father lights his cigarillo, takes a drag, and studies the crowd as he blows out the smoke.
Like mine, his calmness is deceptive. Inside, I’m a fucking stick of dynamite with a burning fuse.
No one promises me something and then takes it away.
No one refuses me what’s mine.
It’s a tactical mistake.
Denying me only makes me want it twice as much. I’ll not only fight ten times harder to get it but also as dirty as necessary.
I can’t say I didn’t expect resistance after our cool reception at the office. I bargained on some negotiations and modifications of the terms of our contract. What I didn’t foresee was Edwards’s blunt refusal to honor an oath he’d made to my father. I remember his promise. I was there.
No one fucks us over, and no one throws our generosity back in our faces. Our surname isn’t Russo for nothing.
“That’s the oldest sister,” my father says, waving his cigarillo toward the people milling on the lawn. “The one with the burgundy dress.”
I spot her easily. She’s an attractive woman by classical standards. According to rumors, she’s the beautiful one. When people talk about the sisters, they refer to Sabella as the other one.
“Takes after her mother,” he muses. “The man at her side is her fiancé. He’s not involved in the business.”
Meaning he’s no one to be worried about. That’s not who I’m interested in. My gaze is drawn to Ryan Edwards, Benjamin’s first-born.
Like I weigh him, he measures me from across the distance. We only met yesterday at his father’s office, and we’re already enemies.
“That’s who you have to watch out for,” my father says, following my gaze. “He’s the sole heir of Edwards’s business. He won’t be happy when he finds out he’ll have to share the power.”
I’m not worried about Ryan Edwards. He may be six years older, but he’s no match for me. He’s soft and impassive, a man who doesn’t like to get down and dirty when the work gets gritty.
My dad coughs.
I jut my chin toward the cigarillo. “Should you be doing that?”
“Grant an old man the small pleasures he has left,” he says, but he does put the cigarillo out in an ashtray on the garden table. “Want a drink? I need something to ease this scratch in my throat.”
Looking at the bar where rosé and champagne are cooling in ice buckets, I shake my head. I haven’t touched the Scotch Edwards poured. I’m too fucking livid, and alcohol only makes me more aggressive.
“Suit yourself,” he says, making his way to the lawn where the waiters are circulating. “In that case, you’re driving.”
Brooding, I watch his back. I don’t like the way he handled Edwards. He should’ve been firmer with him.
Years ago, Edwards came to my father and asked him to help remove a few obstacles in his business. As an imports and exports broker, Edwards saw an opportunity to make money by letting illegal shipments enter the country via the port of Cape Town. He had the right connections. He had the capital to buy off the government officials and to pay the controllers to turn a blind eye. Our job was to get rid of the ones who stood in his way, the ones who couldn’t be corrupted.
The part we contributed, doing his dirty work for more than a decade, made him one of the big players in the industry. Today, he controls everything that comes and goes through Cape Town by sea. Yes, we get our cut, but we don’t need the money. Not anymore. We’ve made enough. What we need is power. Recognition. An open door into circles where those born with the right surname and status pull their noses up at us. We need to be in on the deals. That has always been the objective.
As Edwards’s son-in-law, I’ll be rewarded shares and a position on the board of his company. As per the contract, he’ll give me a fancy title and voting rights. Of his three children, Sabella is Edwards’s favorite. She’s been the apple of his eye since the day she was born. He makes no secret of it. He’ll never do anything to jeopardize her future. Marrying her is the only sure way of getting my foot in the door and keeping it there. As soon as my seed is planted in her belly and she gives me an heir, war will no longer be necessary. The Edwards family won’t kill their grandchild’s father. Correction—they won’t hire an assassin to do it.
Owning a stake in the company will give us access to information that will make us more powerful than the governments of the countries involved in Edwards’s illegal smuggling. It will open a new avenue for us, giving us direct access to Africa. It will guarantee us unequalled leverage in negotiating terms with the companies that currently pay the government bribes to smuggle their illegal arms via the port of Durban in the Kwazulu-Natal province. We can have the government by the balls and secure kickbacks that will earn us a monopoly in Africa. Governments and arms dealers alike will have no one else to turn to but us. They’ll be our puppets. The Russo family will rule. Our name will be revered. The only thing standing between that kind of power and my family is a sixteen-year-old girl.
Edwards walks outside, searches the crowd, and heads toward where my father is standing at the edge of the lawn. Despite his bulk, his stride is lithe. I watch him like a tiger, ready to pounce. Once, my father was invincible. He could hold his own in any fist or gunfight. Now, he’s old and growing weaker by the day.
They fall into what looks like a tense discussion, but they’re not ripping each other’s heads off. How long is the princess going to wait before making her grand entry? As soon as the introductions are out of the way, we can get the fuck out of here. I won’t see her for more than a couple of days per year until we move her to Corsica. I’m a devil, but I’m not a creep. I’ve never been into underaged girls. The getting-to-know-each-other is my father’s bright idea. If it was up to me, I’d just go into the whole thing cold turkey.
I plunge a hand into my pocket and fold my fingers around the joint the hotel bellboy slipped me. The over-dressed women with their lace, silk, and ostrich feathers bug me. Margaret’s snobbish air of superiority where she’s mingling with the guests is as irritating as hell. The pretentiousness of the whole lot gathered on the lawn, smiling and kissing Edwards’s ass, grates on my nerves.
Fuck, I need to get away.
Making an impulsive decision, I walk down the length of the veranda and turn the corner.
I need to get stoned before I lose my shit and rip someone to pieces.
Just one more minute.
I let a little air from my lungs and sink deeper into the cool water. The salt no longer burns my open eyes. A wedge of sun rays pierces the surface and fans out to the bottom. Bubbles catch the light. Like tiny beads of fragile glass, they stick to my arms and legs. Life under the water is muted, the sounds dispersed. The rhythmic ebb and flow of the break is a distant lullaby. The tide gently rocks me to that beat. Forward and backward. Push and pull.
If I could, I’d stay here forever, but I can only hold my breath for so long.
I swim up and gulp in air when I break the surface. Treading water, I catch my breath. It’s warmer in the water than outside. The late afternoon sky already glows with a champagne-colored tint. The whining of a violin drifts down from our garden. It must be the string quartet Mom hired for the party.
I’d rather make the most of the last hour of daylight and swim until my muscles cramp than listen to Aunt Judith’s critique of the latest performing arts drama or pretend Uncle Fred hasn’t told the story about how he walked into a bank robbery for the trillionth time. I’d give all my pocket money to sit on the sand and watch the bioluminescence in the water instead of telling Aunt Mary that no, I’m not too thin, and yes, I’m eating enough. But this is my party, and I’m already in trouble for being late as it is.
Unable to put the inevitable off longer, I swim to the shore and surf the waves to prevent myself from being tumbled and crushed in the roaring mass of foam. Once my feet touch ground, I waddle out of the water. The fine sand is dusted with flecks of gold. The shallow water is like a magnifying glass on the shiny particles that, once upon a time, were majestic shells and pearly abalone.
I dig my toes into the wet sand, enjoying the tickle as the water pulls back and the sand sucks my feet deeper. A breeze picks up from the sea. Goosebumps run over my arms. A woman’s shrill laughter pierces the music coming from the hill, reminding me the guests are waiting.
Pulling my feet from the soft suction of the sand with a sigh, I run to the cave at the foot of the cliff where I left my clothes. Hurriedly, I pull my denim cutoffs and shirt on over my bikini. The thin linen doesn’t do much to warm me. In the darkness of the cave, the sand is cold, and the musty air is humid. I should’ve brought a sweater, but I wasn’t planning on staying so late.
The tide has come in. The river that feeds the lagoon flows too strongly now to swim across. On the other side of the river, a bridge spans over the lagoon to connect the beach with the island. Another bridge at the back of the island leads to the main road that runs to town. A ninety-degree bend on the right diverts to the beachfront. Our mansion stands on the highest hill at the end of that road, right on the edge, overlooking the massive dunes and a stretch of sand so long you can see Glentana in the north and Mossel Bay in the south.
Instead of going via the road, I climb straight up the steep side of the biggest dune. It’s high, and by the time I’m three-quarters up, I’m panting from the exertion. The vegetation that caps the top is dense. I have to crawl down the secret footpath I’ve walked out over the years. The fynbos forms a tunnel around me until I exit on the other side. From here, I veer left and jog around the edge of the outcrop until I reach the tar road.
Our house can only be accessed from the back of the hill. I circle the hilltop and cut across the neighborhood via a smaller road. As I turn the corner, a sound coming from one of the trashcans on the pavement stops me. Going closer, I pause and listen. There it is again, a faint scratching. My pulse quickens. It can be a snake, but it can also be a hedgehog trapped inside. Carefully, I throw back the lid and peer over the top, my body poised for action, and then my heart melts on the spot.
A small furry face with big yellow eyes and long white whiskers stares up from the trash. His fur is black except for a white patch over his left eye. At the sight of me, the kitten mewls. For such a tiny thing, the cry he pushes from his chest is loud. He tries to claw his way outside only to sink deeper. From the state of the torn bags and the waste spilling out of them, he’s been trying to get out for a while.
“You poor thing,” I exclaim, reaching inside and carefully lifting him out.
He’s so tiny, I can feel his fragile ribs beneath the softness of his fur. His little heart is pounding between my palms. He mewls even louder, pawing at the air.
“There now.” I hug him to my chest and stroke his head. “You’re safe.”
The kitten settles with a purr that vibrates in his ribcage. He mewls again, hauntingly this time, and instinctively I know the little creature is hungry. He’s too small for solid food. He needs milk.
As I huddle the hungry, helpless animal, trying my best to soothe him, anger heats my blood. Who abandons a kitten and throws him away with the trash? I have a good mind to knock on the door of the house and give them a piece of my mind, but anyone could’ve driven here and left the kitten in the trashcan. Besides, the priority is feeding him. But how do I smuggle him into the house? My mom will have a fit if she finds out.
A few cardboard boxes are stacked next to the trashcan. I go through them until I find one that’s clean and empty before lowering my charge inside. He protests loudly at being separated from the heat of my body.
“Don’t worry.” I stroke his back. “I won’t leave you. I promise.”
His claws are minuscule but sharp. I earn a scratch on my hand for my efforts. After some petting, the kitten calms again.
“I’ll call you Pirate. That’s a cool name, right?”
Pirate doesn’t like his new prison. He puts his front paws on the side of the box and tries to climb out.
“Don’t be scared,” I say, closing the flaps. “You just have to stay in there for a little while.”
Pirate mewls again when I straighten with the box in my arms. I ignore the little meows of distress, making my way home as fast as I can without jostling him.
The double gates that give access to our property are closed. The driveway leading up to the house is visible through the bars. The front parking is already packed with luxury cars. After ensuring that no one is hanging around the entrance, I fish my key from my pocket and let myself in through the pedestrian gate before sneaking around the side of the house.
Caterers carry crates of food from a cool truck parked on a strip of paving. On the front lawn, where the guests are mingling, waiters are serving champagne and oysters. Aunt Judith, my late grandmother’s sister, stands at the edge of the garden, wearing a powder-blue lace dress and matching hat. She talks animatedly, waving an empty champagne glass to emphasize whatever point she’s making.
My sister, Matilde, faces her with a solemn face. Dressed in a mauve silk dress and matching heels with a short string of pearls around her neck, Mattie looks older than her eighteen years. Her fiancé, Jared, stands like a puppet in his tux at her side, offering a stiff smile at anyone who makes eye contact. A man I don’t know talks to Dad. Dad slips a finger into his collar and cracks his neck. It looks as if his bowtie is already strangling him.
How am I going to get through this evening?
Falling into step behind one of the caterers, I manage to arrive at the side door that the staff use to access the kitchen without being spotted by any of the guests. Just as I exhale a sigh of relief, Doris, our housekeeper, waggles through the door. Blotchy patches redden her cheeks, and perspiration shines on her forehead.
She shuffles down the path, waving a dishcloth in the air. “Hey, you. Yes, you with the mustache. Come back here.”
I duck, trying to make myself small, but the man I’m using as a shield steps aside to let her pass and thereby exposes me.
When her gaze falls on me, her eyes bulge. Her face turns pink as she takes in my state.
“It’s about time you show your face,” she says with a scowl. “You should’ve been ready two hours ago. What an insolent girl you are.” She points toward the kitchen. “Get inside now before I call Mrs. Edwards.” Throwing her arms in the air, she hurries on her way. “Hey, you. Are you deaf? I told you to wait. We need more ice.”
Holding my breath, I glance at Doris’s retreat from over my shoulder. She’s in such a flat spin with the party arrangements that she didn’t pay attention to the box in my hands.
“Where the hell is your manager?” she asks the poor man she cornered. “You’re running late with the starters.” Grabbing his arm, she drags him in the direction of the cooler truck. “This won’t do. It won’t do at all. It’s not my job to…”
Her ranting trails off as she and the man disappear around the corner.
“Not in the mood for the party either?” someone with a deep voice and a slight foreign accent asks.
I turn my face toward the voice, and then everything inside me goes still. The guy leaning on the wall next to the door is both the most arresting and scariest male specimen I’ve seen. With a square jaw and strong nose, his angular face is strikingly handsome. Yet at a certain angle, there’s a harshness to those lines. Tall and broad with hair as black as coal and a skin with a Mediterranean coloring, he looks like a character who emerged straight from a fantasy book. From a different world. He can be either a fallen angel or a demon, depending on his mood.
Right now, with the tilt to his lips, he leans toward the angelic side, but rather an archangel with a sword decapitating dragons than an angel with soft white wings. If he scowls, he’ll look more like a demon. He’s so beautiful, so utterly perfectly created, that something twists in my stomach. He’s dark like the ocean and breathless like water. That’s how I’d describe him if I could only use one word.
However, it’s not his external beauty that makes my heart skid to a complete stop before resuming to beat like a drum in my chest. It’s the energy surrounding him, a vibe of danger and deadly allure. He looks nineteen or twenty maybe, but there’s a worldly air to him that makes him seem older and more experienced. Even as my pulse spikes and awareness contracts my skin, instinct tells me he’s the kind of guy I should stay away from. Yet I stand rooted to the spot. What can I say? It’s not my fault I’m a Capricorn with a sea-goat star sign who’s attracted to water.
With one hand shoved into the pocket of his slacks and his knee bent, his pose is relaxed. It’s just acting though. Tension oozes from his pores. I’m good at feeling people.
He chuckles at my silence. “I guess not.”
Giving myself an internal shake, I try to remember what he asked.
Not in the mood for the party either?
He’s not wearing a tux, but his formal slacks and jacket tell me he’s a guest. The pang in my belly intensifies. I recognize the sentiment with a start. Regret. Regret that I don’t know him. Regret that I won’t. Already regretting that I’ll listen to my mind even though my heart loves water.
“What are you doing here?” I ask in a hostile tone designed to mask my overwhelming reaction to him. “This entrance is for staff only.”
He lifts his free hand, showing me a joint. Beneath the collar of the white shirt that’s open to the third button, his chest is visible. Just the glimpse is enough to hint at well-defined pecs. He’s inked, the top of the tattoo that’s showing jet black. I can make out the decorative curls of a border. I wish I could see the whole picture. Where it ends. His broad shoulders taper to a narrow waist. The tailored pants and the fitted cut of the shirt where his jacket falls open show off his lean shape. He’s a good dresser. I know all about understated elegance. Mom drilled it into me.
I drag my gaze back to his face lest I give him the impression that I’m staring. His full lips stretch, revealing straight white teeth set off by the olive tone of his skin. He observes me with eyes blacker than onyx, which are framed by long, dark lashes and thick eyebrows. Running a gaze over me, he weighs me in turn. When he lingers for a couple of seconds on my breasts, my heart does something funny in my chest. My shirt is still wet in patches, particularly where it’s plastered to my boobs. The red bikini top is visible underneath, as is the dip of my stomach where he fixes his attention next.
“You don’t look old enough to be a waitress,” he says, finishing his evaluation by inspecting my legs. “How young are they hiring these days?”
I don’t correct him. If he knows how young I really am, he won’t give me another ounce of his attention. Although walking away is without a doubt the wiser option, I don’t want to turn my back on him. Not just yet.
His lips quirk, amusement sparking in his eyes. “Has the cat got your tongue, bella?”
A jolt runs through me. How does he know my name? Only my family and close friends call me Bella. But no. He said it differently. He said it like a term of endearment. I know what bella in that context means, and it warms my chest with a pleasant heat.
“You have an accent,” I say.
“Are you from Italy or France?”
“You speak English very well.”
“My mother insisted that we learn from a young age. It’s important to speak it for business.”
His cryptic and polite answers are a clear sign that he’s getting bored with the conversation. I should go, but I linger, unable to pull myself away. “I wish I could speak a foreign language.”
“Shouldn’t you be working?” he asks, nodding at the box in my hands.
His animosity gets my hackles up. “Shouldn’t you be mingling with the guests?”
He grins. Taking a Zippo lighter from his pocket, he taps the joint against the metal. “Parties are boring, but birthday parties are the worst.” He casts another glance at my unsuitable attire. “You obviously agree.”
Although I do share his sentiment, I can’t help but turn defensive. “Then why did you come?”
Bringing the joint to his mouth, he watches me from the slits of his eyes as he lights it. He inhales and blows out a thin line of smoke. “Business.”
The smoke twists into a ribbon before dispersing in the air, leaving the pungent odor of weed behind.
“Business?” Was I wrong about him being a guest? “Are you with the caterers?”
He laughs. “My father and Mr. Edwards are business associates.” Studying me through the thick lashes of his hooded eyes as he takes another drag of the joint, he adds after blowing out the smoke, “Of sorts.”
“So you’re only here for business reasons,” I say, my ego unjustifiably bruised.
“That’s how it would seem.”
I fail to keep the sarcasm from my voice. “I can see how that must suck for you.”
He shrugs. “It comes with the territory.”
When I don’t reply, he holds the joint out to me.
I shake my head. “I don’t smoke.”
“Do you drink?”
My parents let me have a little wine or champagne on important occasions. “Not often.”
His voice drops an octave. “Good.”
He carries on smoking while I just stand there, racking my brain for something to say.
Turning his face, he looks at me as if to ask why I’m still there. “You better run inside and get to work.”
I don’t like the way he speaks to me. I resent how he thinks he can order me around. Most of all, I hate how easily he dismisses me.
When he stubs the joint out on the wall and flicks the butt in the party trash that’s piling up next to the door, I know he’s going to walk away. And I don’t want him to. I stall by using what my feminine intuition tells me will get his attention. Defiance.
“No,” I say, lifting my chin.
His eyes flare as if he doesn’t hear that word often.
“I won’t jump because you told me to,” I continue.
He pushes off the wall. “What did you say to me?”
Standing taller, I tap into my confidence that usually comes naturally but for some reason now has failed me. “Why must I go? You leave if you don’t want me here. You shouldn’t have picked this spot if you were hoping to smoke your drugs without being caught. Which is completely not cool. Not smoking in secret but smoking at all. Especially drugs. It makes you totally uncool.”
Shit. Can I just shut up now?
His dark eyes widen with humor rather than anger. A smile flirts with his lips.
He’s laughing at me. How embarrassing.
I don’t wait for his reply. My intention is making a grand exit while I still have some dregs of dignity left to cling to, but just as I turn toward the kitchen, my mom walks through the door.
“Sabella Daphne Edwards.” She grabs my arm, her nails cutting into my skin. “Where have you been?” Her face pales as she takes me in. “My goodness. Look at you. This is too much.” She gives me a not-too-gentle shake. “I’ve had it with you.”
The stranger slides his gaze toward the lawn where white and pink balloons arch around silver blown-up numbers writing sixteen in the center. His lips curve into a full smile as he no doubt puts two and two together.
I nearly die of humiliation. My mom is really upset with me this time, so much so she doesn’t notice the young man standing to the side while catering staff enter and exit the house like a steady file of ants.
“Get inside.” She lets go of my arm and grabs the box from my hands. “Now.”
“Wait,” I cry out, trying to take back the box. “You’ll drop it.”
My mom holds the box out of reach. “What have you done now?”
“Nothing, I swear.”
Pursing her lips, she opens the flap.
“His name is Pirate,” I say, talking so fast my tongue trips over the words. “Please, you have to let me keep him.”
My mom holds the box at arm’s length. “You know I’m allergic to cats.”
“Please.” I press my palms together in a begging gesture. “It’s the only birthday gift I want. I’ll never ask you for anything else.”
My mom flicks her fingers. Miraculously, a staff member appears at her side.
“Put this in the guest bathroom upstairs.” She thrusts the box at the man, who’s one of our gardeners. “We’ll take it to the SPCA tomorrow.”
“No,” the stranger says, the word loaded with so much authority that both my mom and the gardener freeze.
I don’t know who’s more surprised, my mom or me.
My mom spins around and gives a start when her gaze falls on the guy. She looks between us, suspicion tightening her eyes. “What are you doing here at the back of the house?”
He steps up and takes the box from the gardener. “I was just giving Sabella her birthday present.”
Reeling, my mother says in a high-pitched voice, “Excuse me?”
Carefully, he hands the box back to me. “If I’d known you were allergic, Mrs. Edwards, I would’ve included antihistamines with the gift. It’s an easy enough problem to solve and a small sacrifice to pay for Sabella’s happiness.” He adds with a mocking smile, “I’m sure you’ll forgive me for the oversight.”
My mom’s nostrils flare. Her chest rises as she inhales sharply. Seemingly unable to string together words to make a sentence, she flicks her fingers again at which the gardener slips away as fast as he appeared.
“Well,” my mom says, giving me a narrow-eyed look. “You better go settle your new pet and get ready. You’ve kept everyone waiting long enough. I’ll tell Mattie to help you get dressed so that your guests don’t have to wait another hour.”
Turning up her nose, she leaves as regally as her high heels allow.
I’m shocked to a standstill, unable to believe my luck. Gaping at the handsome stranger, I say with all the sincerity I possess, “Thank you.”
A hint of warmth softens the harsh blackness of his eyes. “You’re welcome, cara.”
My stomach flutters at yet another term of endearment. “Why did you do it?”
His statement is casual, but the words are loaded. “Because you should get what you want for your birthday.”
“Your business must be really important to my dad. My mom never gives in like that.”
He shoves a hand in his pocket and glances at the partygoers. “There are only old people here. Don’t you have friends?”
“I’m not socially awkward and incapable of making friends, if that’s what you’re implying,” I say with a grin.
“I’d never be so crass,” he deadpans. “I’m just wondering why they’re not invited.”
“Everyone is away for the big summer holiday.” I pout. “If it wasn’t for this party, I would’ve been in Plettenberg Bay with them right now.”
His expression darkens. “Alone?”
“I wish.” I make a face. “My brother and his wife would’ve gone along to chaperone.”
“Ah.” Some of his tenseness evaporates. “If it makes you feel better, I could’ve been skiing in the Alps.”
“Really?” That pang of defensiveness hits me again. “You must be very disappointed about missing out on that.”
“Not so much now. The view here is very nice.”
I laugh. “Nice?”
“A lot more than I expected.”
My breathing quickens. I’m new at the nuances of our game, but I like playing it with him.
“Can I see?” he asks, motioning at the box.
“Oh.” His interest in Pirate makes me happy. Giddily, so. “Of course.”
I lift the flap. We both peer into the box, our heads close together. His cologne is a blend of something woodsy and citrusy, a subtle perfume that makes me want to bury my face in his neck and inhale the fragrance of his skin. He tickles Pirate under the chin and chuckles when the kitten purrs, but I’m not focused on the cat. I’m too aware of our proximity and how good he smells.
“He’s cute,” he says, raising his gaze to mine.
I clear my throat. “He is.”
A weird, almost calculated look comes over his face. “Who gave him to you?”
“I found him in a trashcan on my way home.”
At that, his features relax. “I’m glad he found a good home.”
“I’m sorry about earlier,” I say on impulse as a fresh bout of gratitude washes over me. “I was rude.”
The smile he offers me is so warm and unguarded it not only makes me feel as if the sun is shining on my face but also that I’m special. To him.
“I’m sorry for mistaking you for a waitress,” he says. “I should’ve asked instead of assumed.”
“Quits,” he agrees, his dark gaze piercing mine.
My blood heats under the intensity of his stare. No one has ever looked at me with so much possession. No man has ever smiled at me as if I’m valuable and important.
Slowly, something serious replaces the warmth of his expression, something predatory and carnal. I know he’s aware of how close we’re standing, invading each other’s personal space. I’m out of my depth, unequipped for what’s passing through his eyes, but I can’t make myself move.
He acts first, not stepping away but closer still, so close that the box is pressed between us. Raising his arm, he brushes his fingertips over my temple and hooks my hair behind my ear. The touch is so gentle it’s barely there, but it jolts me. It ripples over my entire body, covering every inch of my skin in goosebumps.
“Happy birthday, cara,” he says in that deep, low voice with a hint of an accent.
A beat passes in which I hold my breath, although I’m not sure for what.
And then he backs off, putting space between us.
It physically hurts. Whether it’s the distance or his proximity, it aches with the same intensity, leaving a hollow sensation in my stomach and a fluttering in my temples. My heart thumps and my knees are wobbly. It’s confusing. I both want to burrow against his chest and run away from the fiercely wonderful and scary feelings.
Worried that he’ll notice my weakness, I flee inside the house, miraculously managing an unwavering smile from over my shoulder, but he’s already strolling away with his hands shoved in his pockets and his gaze trained on the horizon. Just when my heart is about to sink, he looks back. I’m so ecstatic, I don’t care he caught me staring, because I caught him too.
For the first time in my life, I hurry to make myself pretty.
“Gorgeously written and brimming with scorching-hot chemistry, this dark, angst-filled romance kept me riveted from the first page to the last!” — Anna Zaires, New York Times bestselling author
“Charmaine Pauls has another amazing dark romance coming soon that I promise will twist you up in knots once again. Stock up on those tissues!” — Buffyanna, Goodreads
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