T H I R T Y - F I V E
A week later.
I had never felt spiritually closer to my mother than before. It was those little things that Ralph told me about her that made my heart flutter in joy.
Now I knew that her favorite flower was white lily because it often reminded her of her homeland—Italy; however, she equally loved the smell of rose. And even though she never really liked snowfall, she wouldn’t ever let go of a chance to spend time with Ralph even in the coldest of weather in Chicago.
My mother had the toughest life being married to an animal such as Dante, and while her death was as barbaric as one could imagine, I know she found her peace in the afterlife—if there was an afterlife.
“I know Sophia is smiling down on us now,” Ralph said to me the other day when I helped him to take a stroll outside the perimeter of Marco’s house.
It might have taken a day or two for me to regain my health, but Ralph’s injuries were far more serious. However, the stubborn old man completely refused to cooperate if he were restricted to his bedroom. So, I insisted on holding his hand for the walk.
“I hope she is truly happy wherever she is,” Ralph sighed wistfully.
“She is happy,” I said confidently.
Mama had to be happy. She conceived her children with the man who owned her heart and soul and treated her like a queen, and even though my twin brother died at the hands of Dante, my reunion with Ralph was the ultimate peace for her.
I looked at Ralph, wondering how he had charmed my mother with his rugged yet charmingly masculine looks in his younger days. There was always a dreaminess in his eyes when he spoke of my mother but also a deep sadness. And for my sake, I believed that he tried to keep it well-hidden most of the time.
And my relationship with him, the father-daughter bonding, was evolving each day. Neither of us knew how to be a father or a daughter to each other, but we were figuring out slowly.
I wanted to know more about Ralph, so I went to that man who knew him in a way no other person was aware of him.
Marco Alessi might not have been the most cordial man around, but he was at least not a threat the way I perceived. I knew he wasn’t also the easiest man to have a conversation in the world, but what were the options did I have?
Trotting down the stairs, I sauntered closer to the gym and stopped dead in my tracks when the strangulated cries floated to my ears. I didn’t know if I was allowed in there or not, but I braved and entered.
When I peeked in, I saw a familiar man was trussed up in chains from an iron rod at the furthest end of the expanse of the room as Aurora used him as her punching bag in every conceivable manner.
“Do you recognize him?” Marco’s deep voice startled me as I spun around to see him relaxed at the other end of the room with a cold beer in hand.
I exhaled heavily. “I didn’t see you there,” I said, moving closer. “And yes. I have seen the man running errands for Dante a couple of times.”
Marco took a long swig from the bottle, nodding in acknowledgment. “He was the idiot guarding the door when we found Ralph,” he supplied.
I turned my head to look at the captive, and when his eyes widened, I knew he recognized me that instant. “I am glad you found Ralph,” I told him. Not because he needed to hear those words, but I wanted to be able to say them out loud.
“I am glad he found you,” he said softly, and in a manner, I could never imagine from Marco Alessi. He carried the reputation of a Butcher considering the way his victims were found—if found at all.
The piercing scream robbed our attention as our gazes shot to that direction, where Aurora relentlessly continued her ministrations. At this point, I felt that she was more lethal than she was beautiful.
The smooth and effortless way she swung the iron rod against his body, the control she had over the force, was the evidence of her thorough practice.
I only wondered who could have taught her the finesse of being bold and beautiful at the same time. But somewhere in my conscious mind, I guessed the answer.
Dragging back my gaze back to Marco, I watched him watching Aurora. His eyes were trained on hers with an acute degree of possession, inspecting every movement like a hawk.
“She is good. I have never seen anyone fight the way she does,” I tattled, exhilarated.
Marco’s eyes were still transfixed, only a smirk lifted at the corner of his mouth. “She is damn good.” The pride in his voice was unmistakable.
“And, I am guessing, you taught her the moves?”
“I trained her,” he corrected.
“Well, you must be proud.”
Telepathically, Aurora turned around to look at Marco, seeking some kind of approval from his end, and only when he nodded a little did she step back to take off her bloody gloves.
The connection between them was uncanny, to the point I was deeply intrigued. Despite the considerable age-gap between Marco and Aurora, I knew what they have was more than a trainee and trainer relationship.
It seemed inappropriate to cross the line, so I changed the subject. “I almost forgot. I was looking for you actually,” I told Marco.
“Yeah, tell me.” His attention focused on mine.
“I wanted to talk about Ralph, “I began clumsily. “I mean, you know, how Ralph is and everything.”
He shot me a blank look. “You have to give me more than that, Lilliana.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled like an idiot and feeling like a bigger idiot. “I wanted to know more about Ralph. I want to know the man I haven’t had a chance all these years.”
Marco’s expression turned considerate as he took his time to answer, except Aurora decided to intervene.
“And here I thought you have been gathering every piece of information about your enemies. So, how come you missed Ralph?”
It probably the tenth snarky, backhanded comment she passed on me ever since I was here. Clearly, Aurora was far less accommodating than anyone else in this house.
Before I could retort, Marco’s deep voice growled. ”Aurora.”
The single pronouncement of her name unsettled her, but she quickly regained. “Why, am I wrong?” She shot me a heated look. “Or did you restrict your findings only to Dominic?”
I could take a thousand insults but not one involving Dominic Romano, and not after what had said to me. “I get it, Aurora, that you are not exactly happy to see me here,” I snapped back. “But this isn’t your house. And I am only here to take care of Ralph.”
Her face turned into a brilliant shade of red as rage sprouted off her pores like leaking steam. A logical person would have stepped back, but I simply held my ground.
But Marco lurched forward to grasp her waist and gave a tight squeeze warningly, breathing against her ears in a dangerously low timbre, “That’s enough.”
He whispered some more menacing words, beyond my audible abilities, only I did manage to catch isolated words like count and beat. It made no sense to me. But Aurora instantly stiffened, though not intimidated by her apparent trainer.
She tipped up her chin petulantly, squirming out of his grip. “I should go.”
We watched her dashing out; the angry clack of her stilettos becoming distant as I slowly drew my gaze back to Marco.
“I am sorry about that,” I mumbled, sincerely apologetic. “I shouldn’t have commented.”
“Aurora will calm down in an hour,” he said confidently - like he knew her bone-deep.
“I will try and make myself scarce around her, or anyone else who has a problem with me. I don’t want to stir any trouble anymore.”
Marco’s uneasy look turned cool and casual. “We know exactly how to invite trouble.” He smirked. “Speaking of—” His eyes trailed up and down my height, clearly judging my oversized jumper and yoga pants. “Do you own any casual dresses?”
The conversation jumped so fast me it gave me whiplash. “What? Why? No. At least not here.”
“You will need a dress,” he mumbled more to himself, fishing out his phone and fired a text to someone. “I will send someone to help you out with that.”
“Why do I need a dress?”
He grinned up at me mysteriously. “You wanted to know more about Ralph?”
It still didn’t make sense about owning a dress. “Yes,” I replied hastily.
“Then you would need a dress because tomorrow is Sunday, and it is you who will be taking Ralph to the church and sitting through a mind-numbing two-hour service where an incorrigible middle-aged man in white clothes rambles about stupid things like prayer, God, and forgiveness.”
It took me one whole minute to process this information. “Ralph goes to the church?” I asked slowly.
“Every damn Sunday,” he muttered with a face. “And I’ll give you some helpful advice: do not, under any circumstances, fall asleep or try to sneak out. If he catches you, you will never hear the end of it for a month. And if you want to impress him, try and memorize the Lord’s Prayer.”
At that moment, I almost burst out laughing. “You are kidding me, right?”
The way he smiled from ear to ear, I knew he wasn’t kidding. “Why don’t you find out tomorrow morning?”
Madness comes in various stages, as I have come to realize for the past seven days. It seemed like heartbreak, anger, and betrayals were the greatest torture and bitter lessons than anything else life has to offer.
I knew, by now, that Lilliana was better off me, but I was in my worst without her. I felt the insane need to see her, to talk to her, or at least run my fingers through her thick brown hair than looked more bronze under the bright sunlight.
A better man would have controlled such frivolous impulses, but when have I ever claimed to be one?
After seven days of self-imposed restriction, one hundred and sixty-nine hours of sheer agony, I’d decided to break the spell and see Lilliana, except the room where she was kept, was completely empty.
“The Boss allowed her to leave,” was the vague reply I got from one of the guards.
The Boss? What the fuck?
Walking out of there, I stormed into Viktor’s room, where he sat on the bed watching something on the TV screen with his wife tucked under his arm.
His scowl was apparent at my barged entrance, but I couldn’t care less at this point. “You didn’t seriously send Lilliana away. Did you?” I demanded.
“You are the one who told me to keep her away from you.” He shrugged.
“Where is she now?”
“Marco’s place,” he replied, freeing Mia from his clasp. “Are you planning to pay a visit?”
“What if I do?” I challenged.
Viktor made a casual face of indifference. “Sure, go ahead,” he encouraged. “You can easily ruin it for her where she has reunited with her biological father after twenty-something years, and by that logic, Marco is her half-brother now. I am sure Lilliana would be delighted to see you with her newfound family.”
Yeah, when he put it that way.
“When have I become the villain?” I snickered at him.
“You are always and essentially the villain. The problem is Dominic,” Viktor said, and he was back to his dominant outline. “When you try and play the fucking hero.”
His wife gave him a chastised look and piped in, “Don’t listen to him, Dominic.” Turning back to her husband, she pursed her lips together and slapped his shoulder hard. “How could you be so mean to him?”
Viktor caught her wrist before she could attempt a second assault and jerked her body against his. ”Kitten,” he warned her in a low baritone. “If you hit me again, I will gladly show you how mean I can be with you.”
Mia’s eyes widened only a bit, but the way she blushed against Viktor’s rough hold didn’t suggest her concern.
I shook my head and turned around to leave because this was the last thing I wanted to encounter. “Close the fucking door, asshole,” I barked before leaving.
For the first time in my life, I was nervous. I badly wanted to see Lilliana as much as I wanted to take the next breath. But I didn’t know what to tell her, or in how many words I should apologize that would be enough. Or maybe Viktor was right, and I should leave Lilliana be.
I grabbed the keys and headed towards my car when a familiar Bugatti screeched into the driveway, and a rather angry woman stepped out.
“I swear to every God up there, Dominic, if it weren’t for you and Ralph’s smiling face, I would have buried that woman six feet under the ground.” She huffed, her face glowing red.
I think I have a faint idea. “I am going to need more information than that,” I told Aurora.
“She had the balls to say that Marco’s house isn’t mine,” she gritted out through her clenched teeth. “I motherfucking lived there long before she bloody knew of its existence!”
If there Aurora has an Achilles heel, it was Marco and everything that encompasses him, including that house. In reality, the place was Aurora’s as much as it was Marco’s. “And you let her unharmed after she said that to you?” I was shocked.
Aurora grimaced as she muttered lowly, “Marco stopped me.”
“You mean he threatened to beat your ass?” I simplified.
Aurora didn’t deny but averted her gaze. Even though I had a vague idea of their separation and anger towards each other, I didn’t understand the dark power Marco held over her, pulling her to his orbit.
“You know, Aurora, he has no right over you after what he did. Why do you let him lord over you like he owns your ass?”
“It’s more complicated than that, Dominic. Marco might be an idiot, but I owe a lot to him. Besides, you are doing the same with Lilliana,” she changed the subject.
“What? And how are these two things comparable?”
Aurora shook her head. “You still believe it was love? She is happy, Dominic. Lilliana has a family now, no life threats, and clearly, she got more than she bargained. You, on the other hand, are miserable.”
I sighed and ran a hand through my disheveled hair. “I guess we are fucked up,” I mumbled with a rueful smile.
“I exactly know what we need right now,” Aurora suggested as she leaned against my car.
I immediately gave her a slanted look. “Don’t say alcohol or sex.”
She rolled her eyes heavenward before fishing out a piece of paper from the back pocket of her jeans and handing it to me. When I unfolded it, an address was scribbled on it.
“This was the last known address of Juan from where he conducts his business now, hidden from the American drones and guarded by armed men,” she responded to my unspoken query, and I looked up at her. “What do you say to a trip down to Mexico and bring this bastard home?”
I regarded Aurora silently, and then, our faces broke into a full-blown evil smile.
I decided that it was probably the best for both of us. No matter how much I wanted to exert my rights on Lilliana, the male pride in me wanting to claim and ravage her as mine, it would ultimately lead to our destruction.
Lilliana was happy, without me, and it was all that mattered right now.