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Salvatore sat across from me; his hands folded on the table of the seedy bar we’d agreed upon for this unexpected meeting. His tired eyes scanned the crowd, his gaze every so often returning to a beautiful brunette that sat at the bar nursing her drink.

The deep wrinkles in his face were evidence of the seventy-something years he spent on this planet, many of which were dedicated to being the don of his family.

His gaze scanned the crowd once more before landing on me.

“I admit I was surprised to hear you wished to arrange this meeting, Don Luca.”

I kept my face impassive, not wanting to give away just how desperate I was for his aid. I was willing to bury a 50-year blood war to save a woman I’d met just a couple of months ago.

“As was I,” I admitted, planting my palms face down on the table. It was tradition to show your hands when meeting with an enemy – that way it was clear we were both unarmed. I had men with me and so did he, but it was better to play it safe and show respect for the old traditions.

“So,” Salvatore pressed, leaning forward, “why have you asked me here?”

“I have a proposition for you.”

He arched a brow. “You know I only have interest in one thing.”

I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes. “Yes, access to my territory to push your narcotics.”

“And access to your arms business. You have unlimited resources at your disposal. Like your father, you’ve been selfish, Don Luca. You have refused to share these resources with my family just as your father and grandfather before you.”

“I have only carried on my father’s wishes. You crossed our family years ago, and that will never be forgotten.”

His eyes narrowed and he leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. “Then why are you wasting my time? If you haven’t come to your senses, I see no reason for this meeting.”

I sighed, bringing my palms together on the greasy table. Despite the nature of this meeting, I was careful not to let my cuffs touch the poorly cleaned wood. Even now, I was always aware of my appearance – my image. The image that brought me where I was today.

“I am willing to squash this beef between our two families, return your son to you, and grant you access to my territories as well as my weapons – for a price.”

He visibly perked up, his eyes widening a fraction and giving away his interest. “I’m listening.”

“In exchange for the offered, I want unlimited access to your soldiers. I need men to increase my numbers and take down a dangerous enemy.”

“And who might this enemy be? I’m not too keen on blindly sending my soldiers into battle.”

“I’m sure you’ve heard of him.” I replied. “Santiago Alío.”

This time, Salvatore’s eyes shot wide and he didn’t bother to hide his surprise. “You’re taking on the cartel? Are you insane?”

“Perhaps,” I answered calmly, “but he has taken something extremely valuable to me, and I cannot allow him to get away with it.”

“May I ask what?”

I scowled. “You may not.”

He shrugged. “I must know what it is I’ll be risking my men for, otherwise I may not agree.”

I slammed my palm into the table, my patience slipping. “All you need to know is that I’ll spare your son and give you access to the resources you’ve coveted for years. If you refuse, not only will I continue to deny you this access, but I will deliver your son’s remains within the week.”

“He must have taken something invaluable.”

I clenched my teeth. “Quite. So, what’s it going to be?”

He stroked his fingers along the scruff of his jaw, the crow’s feet on the edge of his eyes deepening as he lost himself in thought. “Very well, Don Luca. I agree to your terms.”

We shook on it before our men, making it official. “My consigliere will be in contact to finalize the details, but I will need access to your men tonight.”

“So soon?” He asked incredulously, “what’s the rush?”

“It’s time sensitive,” I growled, “I’ve wasted enough time as it is. Are we agreed?”

He watched me for a moment, probably seeing the last of my sanity fray before his eyes. “Very well. How many men do you need?”

“All of them.”

She was in Michigan – she had to be.

She’d mentioned a base just outside of Illinois, and one of the last GPS coordinates on her phone’s history showed her going in that direction. As I suspected, Santiago was an amateur. He hadn’t thought to deactivate the location from her phone until they were nearly four hours away from Chicago.

With a simple phone call and a few threats, I had the blueprints of the entire state of Michigan, but I focused my attentions on the areas that shared a border with Illinois. There were a few abandoned buildings, some of which were used years ago as bunkers during the Battle of Frenchtown in the 1800s.

That was where I was headed with the majority of my men and the men Salvatore lent me. The rest of the men were on their way to the nearest airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I had no doubt Santiago was planning a swift return to New York before I could intercept him and take back what was mine.

I sat in the back of the blacked-out Hummer; my fingers curled around the barrel of an assault rifle. My knuckles blanched with the force of my grip, and I couldn’t stop bouncing my leg as adrenaline and angst rushed through me.

Vince sat across from me; a bullet-proof vest strapped to his chest and an AKM held in his hands. He watched me with concern – a frown marring his brow. I tried to block out all the noise; the sound of 50 armored trucks speeding on tarmac; the roaring of the engines and the men’s voices occasionally filtering in through their walkies as they communicated.

I couldn’t retain my focus – wondering if Santiago had put his hands on Calliope. Had he hit her? Raped her? My stomach was in knots at the thought.

I imagined the way I would end his life for such an atrocious crime. I would blow out his kneecaps and put a dent in his skull with the butt of my rifle. I’d saw off his penis and let him bleed out from the wound; all the while strung up from the ceiling like a slaughtered pig.

Because that was what he was.

A pig.

“30 mikes out,” Gio’s voice spoke out of Vince’s walkie.

“Roger,” Vince replied, and my heart began to beat out of my chest.

To say that I was eager to get my hands on Santiago was the understatement of the century. My fingers itched to crush his throat. I longed for the moment he breathed his last breath and paid for the disgusting crimes he committed against my woman. Against me.

“How close is Team B to the airport?” I asked, needing to hear that our plan was running smoothly.

Vince repeated my question into his walkie. “About 45 minutes,” he answered me, even though I’d heard the response with my own ears.

I needed this plan to go off without a hitch. I was sure Santiago suspected I might retaliate, but the bastard was arrogant. The way he ended our last call suggested he thought he’d won. A man was easy prey when he thought he was untouchable.

I couldn’t wait to disappoint him.

“This may not be the best time to ask,” Vincent suddenly said.

“Then don’t,” I snapped, still struggling to keep my focus on the mission.

“I might never get another chance.”

I inhaled deeply, staying my short temper. “Speak.”

Vince wasted no time. “I already know the answer because we’re risking everything to rescue her, but I gotta hear you say it – are you in love with her?”

I jolted at his words. Of all the things Vince could have asked me, I wasn’t expecting the subject of love to come up at a time like this. What surprised me more was the fact that I didn’t outright deny the sentiment.

“You’re right,” I said, looking out the window at the passing fields of grass and open road, “this isn’t the time to ask something like that.”

“The fact that you haven’t said no is answer enough. I’m happy for you, Boss.”

“I never said I loved her,” I snapped, shooting my best threatening glare at him, “let’s just save her and try not to get killed in the process.”

“We might die out there,” Vinnie pressed, “and at the end of the day, you’re my best friend. We grew up together, man. We’re cousins but I’m more of a brother to you than Danny is. Don’t insult my intelligence, Luca. Now is the time to admit your feelings and make peace with God. We may never get another chance.”

My gaze darted between his, his words affecting me more deeply than I’d anticipated. It was true; Vinnie was my brother more than he was my cousin. Danny was younger and more distant since my mother always coddled him and my father kept me close – teaching me the ins and outs of the business at a young age. Vinnie and I had always been close.

I trusted him with my life.

But that didn’t mean I was ready to admit something I hadn’t even admitted to myself. Did I love Calliope? Of course, but was I in love with her? I didn’t know.

I knew I would take a bullet for her without question. I would lay down my life for hers without a second thought. She mattered to me. In fact, she was the center of my world. I cared about that woman more than I cared about myself.

She was my friend. Aside from Vinnie, she was my best friend. I trusted her with all my soul. I wanted her to have a better life – the life she deserved. I wanted to slay her demons and be the guard dog that kept her safe at night. I wanted to lie next to her every night not because she was the best sex I’d ever had, but because she was beautiful, and I loved to watch her sleep.

I could watch her sleep every day for the rest of my life.

But I couldn’t love her. I was incapable of such an emotion. Sure, I loved my mother and family… but that was different. That was the only form of love I’d ever known. But I’d never loved a woman. Not the way I knew I should. Not the way Calliope deserved to be loved.

Whatever this was between us, it still had an expiration date. Nothing had changed in that regard. I would see it through to the end – because it would end. Someone in my line of work had no business falling in love or taking a wife.

I could never settle down because my wife and children would always be an easy target for my enemies. They would constantly use my family against me. Families made men weak. It made my father weak, and it would do the same to me. I would never forget the days spent in an underground bunker as a boy – when my father and Salvatore were going head to head.

I would never forget the look of fear in his eyes when he bid us farewell and stepped into battle – not knowing whether he would return to us.

Some might argue that a family is a man’s greatest strength, but I must disagree with that. Families are the greatest weakness of all.

And I wasn’t weak. I never would be.

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