A HUGE thank you to every one of you who reviewed last chapter. There will be two chapters left, maybe three.

30.

The past few hours were a blur. I found myself back in a hotel, which was far more luxurious and secure than the one I shared with Cat. While the extravagant aspects of the room—from the stainless steel décor to wooden floors— didn't draw any noticeable comparisons to that hotel room, I was still reminded of Catherine's undeserved death.

Not only were the memories unrelenting, but my emotional state was far from normal. The sick, anxious feeling in my stomach had yet to dissipate. I felt like a cornered animal, as if I would be jumped and attacked when I least expected it.

Lucian had parted ways with me as soon as we arrived at the hotel. Clearly, he wanted solid evidence of where I was staying before he left. He had to bring Aria home, but he promised he'd be back shortly. I had my suspicions he didn't want to leave me alone for very long, for obvious reasons and considering who kept guard in my room.

Leaning against the headboard, I stared listlessly at the television. My hair was still wet from the shower I had taken. Standing underneath the scalding water had done wonders to my physical body, but it had done little for the demons inside my head. Still, now that I had an aroma of soap and no splatters of blood across my clothes and body, it did make things slightly easier.

I'd been given a change of clothes that consisted of black slacks and a white button-down shirt. It was a lot more formal than I wanted, a lot stiffer than my faded jeans and tatty sweatshirt, but it was better than the clothes I'd worn for almost two weeks straight. I'd also been given a pair of thick, wool socks that felt remarkable on my abused feet. It had taken a long time for the cold to leave my toes.

"Is the food not to your liking?"

I turned my eyes toward the motionless statue standing guard next to the door. Not wanting to look at him for a particularly long time, my eyes fell on the plate of food sitting on the bedspread next to me. Lemon chicken and rice with a side of fresh green beans. Considering I'd mostly consumed hotdogs the past few days, the food was a luxury.

"No, it's fine," I responded stiffly.

"Then you should eat."

My eyes remained averted away from his endless scrutiny. Ever since the confrontation with the Gallo brothers, Marcus Collins never seemed to have looked away from me. I thought he was judging me, but every time I glanced in his direction, his eyes were void of any sort of emotion, including judgment.

He was a difficult man to read. And he wasn't talkative. Which was fine. I wasn't in any mood to talk or share intimate details of my life. I especially didn't want to talk about our… biological connection. A part of me was surprised he hadn't mentioned anything yet, but I'd come to the realization that Marcus was a man of few words. And he didn't make a habit of expressing his emotions. He was more soldier than man.

Instead of arguing that I wasn't hungry, I placed the plate on my lap and moved the rice around with my fork. He saw through it.

"Moving food from one side of the plate to the other does not constitute as eating."

I flashed him a dour look. "I'm not very hungry right now." Even though I didn't want any connection to this man, I still didn't want him to see me as weak. I'd had my fair share of people thinking little of me these past few days. Considering Marcus was the one who had rescued me, who had to experience my helplessness firsthand, it made it more difficult to appear capable in his eyes.

But why did I care? It wasn't as if I was planning to get to know him. Once Lucian was settled, and once we figured out how to slip out from Gabriele, we would be leaving. I still intended to keep my word on that. We needed time to establish ourselves without outside forces trying to mold our path for us. We needed to experience normality.

"Then get some rest." His suggestions were bland, impassive. "I will wake you when Romano arrives."

I set the dinner plate aside and stared at the television, not bothering to respond. There was no way in hell I could sleep at a time like this. It was the dead of the night, maybe even early morning, but sleep was not in the cards. At any rate, Marcus didn't look as if he'd leave anytime soon. Sleeping under his watchful gaze was enough reason to avoid being unconscious.

Grabbing the remote, I used it to occupy my restless fingers. I was worried about Aria and how she was settling in. I was worried about my family, Nick and my mother. And I was worried about Tony and his family. Marcello had confirmed they were residing in a safe house, at least having enough common sense not to drag them into his mess, but I was still worried.

And then I thought about Marcello's and Catherine's bodies. All those bodies. Would the police stumble upon the Gallo residence and see the massacre? The Romanos that accompanied Marcus and Lucian wouldn't stay long enough to be incriminated, obviously. That only meant that the police would have to deal with it and Marcello's body would get shuffled with the rest of his enemies.

He deserved better than that.

"It does you no good to dwell in the past or concern yourself over matters you have no control over."

I looked up at Marcus, noting that he hadn't moved an inch from his position by the door. He still had his shotgun and he continued standing tall and alert as if someone would charge through the door. With his arms crossed over his chest, he leveled me with a blank stare.

"That's easy to say if you don't have the image of your dad's blown up head engraved in your mind."

Marcus hardly looked affected by my caustic tone. "Marcello Conti was a fool." He quirked a blond eyebrow. "He gladly stepped into danger for a taste of power. Need I remind you that he willingly approached the Gallo Family and used you as a bargaining chip? He knew the risks involved, yet he took it anyway."

Despite his scathing words, the man hardly changed his tone to anything but casual. Even if what he said was true, I still felt the need to defend myself. "That doesn't mean I'm not affected by his death. He was my father."

Dark eyes stared at me steadily. Luckily, before either of us had a chance to continue our awkward conversation, a knock sounded at the door. I slumped in relief, watching as Marcus turned, looking through the peephole before cautiously opening it. He did everything with an aura of cautiousness, his body constantly coiled and ready to attack an enemy.

Instead of Lucian that walked through the door, it was a woman. I straightened from my slouched position and pressed my back further against the backboard. I'd never seen the woman before, but she looked familiar. Watching as she nodded sharply at Marcus Collins, I couldn't help but compare her to Norah Conti, my grandmother-turned-mother.

She had the same blonde hair as, Norah, and the same timeless beauty. I realized that this was Ellen Reed, the current Don of the Conti Family. Or was it a Donna? Did the Mafia name their female Dons Donnas?

"I think," Ellen started, "that you should be here for this discussion, Marcus." Her words stopped the man short as he made a move to exit. "Come sit next to us." Sensing his reluctance, though he never showed it, she pressed her lips together. "There are three men guarding the door outside, I think we will manage without you overseeing the door from your perch."

If the situation wasn't so unfamiliar, I might have appreciated her dry sense of humor. Instead, I watched as Marcus approached the bed slowly, appearing just as excited as I was about the discussion Ellen Reed had in mind. He caught my eyes briefly and I pulled up my legs to make room for him at the end of the bed. He sat, his broad shoulders as stiff as the shotgun he displayed proudly at his side.

Despite the late hour, Ellen looked alert and presentable. She wore a knee-length skirt and a pair of high heels. Her blonde hair was kept back in a professional bun and away from her face. A dusting of gray highlighted her temples, but it gave her more of a sophisticated look. Even in the dim lighting, I noticed her eyes were green, a lighter shade than Marcus', but dimmer than Norah's and mine.

Her expression softened as she finally looked at me. She pulled up a chair next to the bed and handed me a paper bag and a travel mug. "Coffee and something sweet."

It was a peace offering if I ever saw one. Nonetheless, I took the offered items with a mumbled, "Thank you." Peering into the bag, I noticed the double chocolate cookies and smiled bitterly. Remembering my manners, I offered one to Marcus, who only looked at the offered desert as if it were an abomination.

"Don't mind him. He wasn't born with a sweet tooth and prefers to consume food for fuel, not enjoyment." Unexpectedly, she took an offered cookie and broke off a piece. As she chewed, she considered me closely. "I hope the hair was meant for disguise and not a fashion statement. You look better blond." Her English accent was thick and it only served to make her appear more refined.

I cleared my throat and touched the wet strands. "Disguise," I confirmed quietly. "Not that it did much good."

Her lips pursed into a soft smile. "I'm assuming you know who I am. Nonetheless, I can demonstrate proper manners." Brushing off the crumbs on her skirt, she held out a hand. "I am Ellen Reed, Norah Conti's sister. It is a pleasure to finally meet you in person, Afton. Though I saw you a few times as a baby, those times hardly counted."

Doubtless of the oncoming sensation of dread, I shook her hand. She was going to initiate this conversation. I had been grateful for Marcus not mentioning anything, but I hadn't counted on Ellen making an appearance. "Lucian told me. Everything."

Crossing her legs, Ellen nodded once. "There was no easy way to inform you of the truth, but I thought it would be best to hear it from someone you trust. I am fortunate that Luciano was able to tell you." She had a certain regal grace as she sat properly against the back of her chair. "It will make this conversation easier for everyone involved."

From the corner of my eye, I saw Marcus turn to look at me at the mention of Lucian. Whether he disproved or was disgusted, it didn't show on his face. I wished Lucian were here. But then again, maybe it was for the best that he wasn't.

I was used to people frowning down on my relationship with him, but oddly enough, Ellen hadn't hinted at any sort of judgment. So far, my opinion of her was favorable, though considering the impending conversation, I had a feeling it wasn't going to stay favorable. They wanted something from me that I couldn't possibly give. And they'd also kept something from me that I had a right to know long ago.

Figuring it was better to address the issue than it was to avoid it, I plunged right into it. "I'd like to know why all this was kept from me." Despite all the mentally scarring wounds I endured the past few days, I was able to lift my chin and keep a solid and strong posture. "I was raised with the belief that Norah was my grandmother. It isn't exactly everyday someone finds out that their grandmother is actually their mother and his father is actually his half-brother."

I hadn't meant to be humorous, but Ellen's lips pressed together in order to suppress a smile.

"I don't mean to make light of the situation, I apologize." She bowed her head to recover. "It is a very jarring revelation, I'm sure, but things were never meant to turn out this way."

"I was fourteen," I insisted. "Fourteen when she died. I think I was old enough to know about my origins. When had she planned to tell me? I don't understand her intentions. If she… if she bred me for what I think she did, I would have thought she'd start training me young." Disgust, at its finest, dripped into my tone.

"I was supposed to raise you."

The revelation took me by surprise. I turned to Marcus. The man was sitting rigidly, yet his eyes were direct as they held my stare. Though, nothing else came from his mouth and I was reminded, again, that this was not a usual man by typical standards.

Briefly, I mulled over his confession, imagining being raised off bland oatmeal and weapons for gifts. I didn't conjure itself.

"Unfortunately, Marcus was incriminated with extortion when you were around three-years-old. Norah had planned on sending you to Marcus when you were five, but with his fifteen year sentence, plans had to change." Ellen leaned forward and clasped her hands together, gazing at me seriously. "Despite what you may think, Norah loved you dearly. She wanted you to experience a happy childhood. That's why she hadn't said anything to you at the age of fourteen. I'm sure she would have eventually told you when you were older."

I rubbed the bridge of my nose, feeling dizzy. "Why Kara Conti? Why was she my… my surrogate?"

Ellen seemed to have an answer for everything. "Norah had the ability to think ahead. She analyzed all sorts of different outcomes and planned accordingly. If something happened, she believed Marcello and Kara Conti would raise you well. They already had a son to keep you company. Besides, she also wanted you close to her, yet not close enough to be targeted."

After a lengthy pause, Ellen continued. "She had a lot of sway over your life, Afton. I can see she had a great deal of influence on you. She was able to wedge herself between you and Marcello. Despite Marcello's overbearing personality, you were able to flourish with your own unique individualism intact."

I snorted at that, weary. It was a diplomatic way of saying Marcello really was an idiot and she was glad I turned out smarter than him. "It still doesn't justify her intentions. I was an experiment." An experiment that failed miserably.

She didn't deny this. "If it makes you feel better, Norah loved Marcus."

I glanced at the mentioned man, not surprised when an impassive mask concealed his face. I noticed she said Norah loved Marcus, not that they loved each other.

"If it wasn't for Norah's insistence to blend Italians into the Reed Family, she would have married Marcus instead of Benny Conti." Ellen smiled thinly, as if sensing my disbelief. "Perhaps Norah experienced regrets in her life and wanted the chance to create something—a child in this case— with a man she loved."

I was hardly impressed. "I was led to believe I was a product of natural selection, in hopes I would inherit enough desirable traits to make me a suitable heir to the Conti Family."

She spread her hands in surrender. "That was Norah's cover story. I knew her well enough to see the woman beneath. Even if she was a capable and successful businesswoman, she was still a female underneath it all. She had regrets, desires, and she tried to cover them with logical excuses. I knew her well, but Marcus knew another side to her. I'm sure you can ask him questions if you are ever curious."

This time I didn't hide my doubt and I didn't need to look at him to know he wouldn't be nodding in encouragement. Maybe Norah and Marcus did have a relationship that was unique to them both. Maybe Marcus showed more humanity around her than he did around me. Nonetheless, it didn't tempt me enough to ask the stoic man personal questions. I'd likely get a one-word answer in response.

Ellen looked between us and smiled thinly. "You two resemble each other a great deal. Though, I see a lot of Norah in your eyes, Afton."

I shifted uncomfortably and tore at the edge of the paper bag. I didn't know her angle or why she was drawing conclusions like that. I had a father already and a mother. I had a family. They couldn't be replaced so easily with sugarcoated observations. Yes, I resembled Marcus Collins, but I hardly believed I was like Norah. She was conniving; she was cold enough to run a Mafia business with an iron fist. And my biological father!

"I think we couldn't be more opposite," I said grimly with a hint of defiance. "I'm not like either of my biological parents."

Ellen seemed to realize she had overstepped far too soon and inclined her head. "It's all still new to you. I realize you have a family you've come to love. Perhaps one day you will be comfortable enough to acknowledge Norah as a mother, or at least a second mother and Marcus—"

"As a father?" I finished sharply, a bit bitterly. "My father is dead."

Ellen quickly looked at Marcus as if to gauge how the statement affected him. I looked too, but as predicted, Marcus sat unperturbed, as if the conversation was of no consequence to him. Maybe if he had showed just a sliver of initiative, I might not have been so harsh with my words. But he didn't seem to care all the same.

"You two just need to get to know one another," Ellen soothed, trying to ease the harshness of my words. "Marcus takes some time to figure out and warm up to. You'd be surprised at what you find. And I'm sure I speak for Marcus when I say we'd like to get to know you too." She looked imploringly at Marcus, as if silently urging him to give an affirmative.

The mercenary-like man turned to me. "Yes," was all he said.

I scowled. The feeling was mutual. "So you decided to approach me when I turned eighteen?" I inquired, turning my attention to a disenchanted Ellen. She recovered quickly, resuming her aura of cool professionalism. "Why now?"

"It would have been sooner, but evidently Luciano Romano got to you before you turned eighteen. I wanted to observe your environment fully before making a move, to see how much sway his family had over you." She cupped her hands together, her tone a bit leery. "I was surprised, to say the least, that a Romano would be so open in a relationship with a Conti. Am I right to assume he was the one to pursue a relationship with you?"

Without my permission, my cheeks warmed, yet my eyes narrowed. "I don't think that's important."

"I'd say it was a reasonable question," Marcus intervened swiftly. "I am trying to analyze his character before we return to Britain."

I didn't know if I was more surprised at the fact that they would consider bringing Lucian with or that they believed I would drop everything and go to Britain. Even though Lucian and I were strongly considering leaving everything behind, we would still be in the United States and we would be away from everything, including my connections to Norah Conti. We wanted a life for ourselves, something we had control over.

"I—I'm not going to Britain." For the first time, Marcus showed a sliver of emotion. He blinked once to cover his surprise. "I thank you for helping me with the Gallo Family and for explaining my origins, but…" I stumbled. "But I have no intentions of leaving."

Marcus narrowed his eyes, another sign that something other than neutrality hid beneath the expressionless mask.

"Afton," Ellen started calmly, professionally.

I rounded on her, interrupting her before she could continue. "You can't mean to say that you can't see it for yourself," I pressed. "Whatever Norah was hoping to create, I wasn't it." She winced at the term 'create'. "I hate—no—I despise the Mafia. It has done nothing but destroy things. It killed Norah and Benny Conti, it killed Catherine, it killed my father, it corrupted Lucian and his father, it created monsters like the Gallo brothers, and it continues to damage the lives of innocents and take away their freedom. I was conceived for the sole purpose of the Mafia and it makes me fucking sick."

Through her surprise, Ellen recovered a semblance of understanding. "You have experienced many negatives to the Mafia—"

"I have experienced no positives," I countered. "I've seen men corrupted by power and greed. My own father was blinded by power he never had. And despite being raised by a morally intact mother, Lucian was negatively affected once he became underboss. It took him a long while to dig himself out."

"Marcello was a pathetic specimen, as was his father," Marcus growled lowly. "And the Romanos are all power-hungry. Naturally, you would have been impacted negatively if you surrounded yourself with such lowlife company."

"Marcus," Ellen hissed. She turned to me, obviously the mediator of the group. "He means Gabriele is power-hungry, not Luciano. I quite like the boy, he seems extremely capable."

It didn't impress me. I knew she was tolerating Lucian because she knew I would be more agreeable that way. And for insulting Marcello so often, I was beginning to dislike Marcus Collins more and more. Marcello had just died, yet his grave—which wasn't even created yet—was being spit on. Maybe Marcus had a reason to dislike the Contis, I understood that, but that didn't mean he couldn't scrap up a bit of empathy and understand what I was going through.

Suddenly, the door opened and emitted Lucian. Clad in an eye-appealing black jacket and sporting a freshly trimmed beard, he was a welcoming sight. I might not have admired him after the rescue from the Gallos, but I'd been able to settle somewhat since then. And right now, the sight of him made my stomach lurch in need. I wanted to be close to him, but the situation prevented it.

His onyx eyes took in the situation. "Am I interrupting?"

"No," I said just as Marcus gave a curt, "Yes."

Pushing aside image, I leaped from the bed and approached Lucian. I didn't know whether to embrace him in front of all these people or give a formal greeting. Luckily, Lucian seemed to have read my indecisiveness and made the decision for me. As soon as I was within distance, he clasped my wrist, encircling it comfortingly. He surveyed my expression, knowing me too well to see beneath the indifference.

"Do you mind if we step in the other room?" Lucian asked, motioning toward the adjacent room. Unfortunately, it didn't have a door, but it was separate enough to offer privacy.

"Of course."

Even though the words had just escaped Ellen's mouth, Lucian was already leading me into the lounging area. He nudged me against a wall that would veil us from prying eyes before embracing me. I sagged against him and hugged him back, pressing my face into his neck. His aftershave and all the other aromas that were Lucian-scented reassured me and made me feel at home.

"At least you aren't running from me," Lucian mused in my ear, referring to hours ago when I'd pulled away from him on Gallo's property.

I experienced a pang of guilt. "I'm sorry, I—"

He pulled away only far enough to cup my face and look down at me. "I understand," he said quietly. His usually crafted face was softer and his eyes were concerned. "For everything you've gone through, you've shone remarkable willpower." He paused and leaned forward to kiss my forehead. "Thank you for saving my child. May God forever be with you."

The whispered words jarred me enough to pull away and look at him in bemusement.

"My mother wanted me to pass on that message," Lucian expounded. "She and Aria wanted to see you again, but I convinced them to leave with Syria. The three of them left for Italy not too long ago. Blaise is going back to school in England, but he insists that he needs to speak to you before."

"They left?" I don't know why, but I felt… disenchanted by the revelation. "To Italy?" I withdrew my arms from around Lucian and began to worry my hands together. "Will Aria be all right?"

He watched me, seeing through every sort of barrier I may have had. "You took good care of her, Afton. Contessa and I can't express how grateful we are for your sacrifices and your selflessness while looking after her. But Contessa is the best person to be looking after her right now, considering her mind frame." He seemed to hesitate. "And you need someone to look after you just as well. Right now, I don't want you to worry over someone other than yourself."

"I'm fine," I claimed, scraping off an imaginary stain on my nail. "I just hope she can recover. She—she saw…" There was a fucking block in my throat that prevented me from speaking. I cleared it and gave a false sense of bravado. "She saw things no girl her age should see."

Lucian was looking at me like that again. "She saw your father get killed and she saw you beat a man to death." I flinched but he was quick to grasp my shoulders and hold me in place. "Afton, Aria may have to cope with what she saw, but it's you who I'm worried about. He was your father—"

"I'd rather not talk about that right now," I said hoarsely.

"You killed for a valid reason, Afton. Never think that it wasn't in self-defense for either you or the people in your care—"

"I said I don't want to talk about that!"

Talking about the men I had killed was hardly on my agenda today—tonight—ever. He was right, it was in self-defense, but I could still hear and feel the Gallo enforcer's face concave and break with each strike I delivered. The way his blood had fountained was forever engraved in my mind.

I still felt dirty.

Lucian brought me back to reality. He was touching me, constantly brushing his hands up and down my arms or gripping my arms and shoulders. He was either doing it to confirm to himself that I was safe or he was doing it as means as comfort to me. His motives didn't really matter; I was ok with either intention.

"I'll leave it alone for now," he conceded, "but we will eventually discuss it." The soft and gentle tone he'd used with me since entering the room had hardened, inclination that it hadn't been a suggestion but a promise.

"How did Gabriele react when Contessa left with the kids?"

Lucian raised his eyebrows, a skeptic expression lining his features. "If you're indirectly asking if he's no longer a threat, no, he is still his same, manipulative self. In fact, he applauded Contessa for leaving. He didn't want anymore 'distractions' getting in the way of business. He had no idea that Contessa was leaving because of his actions, or lack of during Aria's kidnapping."

The news made me leery. "Was he always like this?"

"Gabriele never wanted children. He wanted a son to pass on the family business, but no more than that. I truly believe he loves Contessa, which is why he agreed to have more children with her. But I also believe he has grown more power-hungry as the years have gone byand he has grown blind to the truly important things in life. With the Commission of other Dons under his control, he has an unlimited amount of power."

I exhaled, leaning against the wall. Lucian was forced to remove his hands from my shoulders, but I captured his hand with my fingers and squeezed it for comfort. "You…" I hesitated. "Are you still willing to leave with me?" I asked quietly, unsure of his answer.

Lucian's brows furrowed. "Afton…" he trailed off softly.

Immediately, I began to fret. "You—if you don't want to, I understand." My pulse was racing again, and I wanted to bolt from the room and hide in a secluded corner or closet. The rush of vulnerability surprised me, and I could only assume it had to do with what transpired these past few days. "If you don't want to leave the Mafia, I can't hold you back."

Lucian tugged his hand from my hold and took a step closer. He grabbed my head on both sides and added pressure. "Sometimes," he whispered, "I want you to fight for me."

The admission took me off-guard, at least enough to ease my heightened anxiety. Lucian must have read the question on my face, for he continued, his own expression heavy with something I couldn't identify.

"Sometimes, I wish you'd be more selfish and fight for me instead of letting me go." He tightened his hold. "Like me. I know I'm being selfish for always keeping you with me, but I couldn't possibly imagine letting you go. Your insistence to let me go all the time makes me wonder if you're as invested in this relationship as I am."

"I—"

"But," Lucian interrupted, "I know what kind of person you are. I know that you're selfless when it comes to the ones you love. I can only admire you for that and vow to never take advantage of it."

It was rare that Lucian opened up about stuff like this. I needed to reassure him. I never thought he would feel unwanted when I insisted he could leave whenever he wanted. "You were the only one I constantly thought about during this mess." I reached up and curled my hands around his wrists, which were still braced on either side of my head. "You were—are— my anchor. I couldn't imagine taking the next step without you, but I also know I can't keep you if your heart and interests are elsewhere. This is a huge decision and our last chance to back out."

Lucian's eyes grew half-lidded and he pressed up against me. His hands relocated from my head to either side of my face. "I want this. I want to see the life back in your eyes. I want to immerse in your contagious happiness. I want this more than anything."

"And if I wanted to go to Britain and join the Conti Family?"

Onyx eyes glittered dangerously. "Don't play games with me."

It was my turn to frown. "I'm being serious."

"You're not." Lucian gazed down at me. "You want to know if I would jump at a chance to join the Mafia life if I knew that's what you wanted. But I know you don't."

"If I did…"

He flexed his fingers. "I would follow you." A frown graced his mouth. "You're unconvinced—"

"I'm unconvinced that someone doesn't have their own wants and needs. I can live with your desire for adrenaline or for the Mafia life. I can handle it, Lucian. I just want to know. I don't want to find out months from now, wherever we may be, that you miss the Mafia and go behind my back to secure a position back into that kind of life."

Lucian closed up. "I do have wants and needs. Just being with you is what I want."

I didn't know if I could believe that someone could be so focused, so infatuated with someone else, that they would ignore their own desires just to be with the one they love. I immediately felt guilty. Did I not love Lucian enough to do the same? No, that wasn't right. I loved him enough to let him go and pursue his dreams, even if it would hurt me.

I realized that Lucian and I possessed a different kind of love. It didn't mean one of us loved the other more, or that one of our ways of loving was better than the other. It just meant we were compatible. I didn't think our relationship would work at all if we both possessed the same kind of love.

"Then let me rephrase my question," I began. "If I followed you wherever you chose to go, where would you lead me?"

"Florida."

I blinked at his spontaneous answer.

"If we somehow get rid of Gabriele, we'll still have enemies here. We won't have money, or much of it, but our house is already paid for. We can stay down there for a while, at least until someone buys the house with cash. It will give us a few million dollars in our pockets. With fake identification, we can move someplace where the dollar goes further, like Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, or we could even go up north to someplace like North Dakota or Michigan."

There was something rather… attractive about Lucian having all this fleshed out. It was clear he'd thought of it before. And it tickled me that he called the house in Florida 'our house', though it was his legally.

"We can get someplace cheap to live with our money. You can continue your education and we can get jobs with our fake identities. A house with a yard is what I would prefer, but if you'd like to be surrounded by people, we could always get an apartment or townhouse." Lucian nodded with a small grin. "We can make it. There would be no vineyards, at least not initially, but I can make due with a good bottle of wine once and awhile."

While I was impressed with his answer, it wasn't exactly what I had meant. "You—ah—you sound like you had this prepared."

"I do. I even hired someone to create our fake identities. Yours, actually. I already had mine."

"And you would be content living in Texas or North Dakota, working a 9 to 5 job?" I inquired softly, seriously. "Somehow, I don't see that you can be happy with that. Not with what kind of life you've had—"

Lucian leaned in and gave a bruising kiss. "I just want you," he breathed as he pulled back. "I may even attend classes with you. I've always been interested in attending university. It's a fresh start."

I still wasn't convinced, and I knew he would hate me for doubting him. I only nodded and hooked my fingers into his coat. "I have an idea." I paused. "About everything. Including Gabriele. But I need their help."

His face was blank.

"It's an idea that doesn't involve killing him," I continued, "but it will incarcerate him, or so I hope. If that upsets you, or you have any better ideas…"

"I'd like to hear it before you pitch your idea to them."

I curled my fingers around his wrist in a reassuring manner. I hoped he would approve of my plan. It was the only way we could appease everyone in this situation, even ourselves. The only part I dreaded was asking Ellen and Marcus for assistance. I was especially leery of what they would ask of me in return.