Readers: I didn't respond to reviews, but I wanted to tell each and every one of you that I was grateful for your encouragement and your support. I'm glad you're still enjoying the story. And I'll say it again, this story definitely would have been abandoned if it hadn't been for all of you. I'd also like to thank whomever nominated/voted for me for the SKOW 'Best Villain' category.
Also, I'm not a law/criminal buff. I don't necessarily know if someone could take down a Don this way (how Afton executes it this chapter), but, let's face it, this is fiction. It's all in my imagination.
There is one chapter left after this and an epilogue. I'll address the future after I'm done with the story ;) Enjoy.
31. Chapter Thirty-One
Tugging at my collar, I tried to adjust the constricting tie around my neck. I'd prefer a black tie, maybe red, hell, I'd even take a Romano-inspired-green tie. Purple was acceptable by many men, and on some, it looked fashionable. But somehow, I felt uncomfortable hailing the Conti Family color on Romano turf.
"You look very handsome, Afton. Please stop tugging at your suit."
I stopped at once and looked at Ellen. Unlike me, she was cool and collected, appearing as if she took down powerful Dons on a daily basis. Across from me, Marcus was perched quietly, taking up his usual pastime of studying his surroundings with a cautious eye.
"Why does he get to wear that?" I motioned toward Marcus' non-descriptive attire that consisted of black pants and a black shirt. I didn't think he'd changed since I'd met him, clothing or expression.
"You need to give off the impression that you've embraced your position in the Conti Family, even though you have not." Ellen's voice was strained and sharp. "Do you not agree that Gabriele will feel a false sense of security if you come dressed the part? If you come dressed in civilian clothes, he'll have trouble taking you seriously."
Even my hair was parted to the side and properly styled like the enforcers in the Conti Family. I'd never felt as dressed up as I did now, not even at Lucian's New Year's Eve party or my date with Summer back in high school. And back then, I had worn a fucking tuxedo.
I folded my hands over the file on my lap, trying to breathe in deep and calm. I stared forward. Unfortunately, Marcus was directly across from me, but I bypassed his calculating stare and studied the spot above his shoulder. We were currently waiting in the car for Gabriele to agree to see us. He'd be curious enough to let us in, but he'd be guarded and cautious.
If he caught a whiff of a double-cross, he would react instantly. Even the mere prospect of more violence and gunfire made me break out in cold sweat. As much as I'd like to remain unaffected by a mere thought of a gun, my body's reaction was out of my control. The past few days were an open sore. Anything that irritated it sent my anxiety skyrocketing and my senses haywire.
Ellen reached over and placed a calming hand on the back of my neck. "If you're not ready for this, we can do it another time. It does not have to be today." Underneath her firm, professional tone, one could discern a hint of concern. "You can meet with your mother and brother instead."
It was tempting, so very tempting. I hadn't seen them for what seemed like ages. "No." I tried to steady my breathing. "I need to do this. I won't consider my friends and family safe unless he's put away."
Marcus gazed coolly across at me. "You know what to say to Gabriele." It was not a question, but a firm statement. "You will succeed. I will have your back."
I wouldn't exactly call it reassuring, but it was his way of putting confidence in me. A bit pleased he didn't underestimate me, and only continued to encourage me in his gruff way, I nodded my thanks. He was right. I did know what I would say to Gabriele. The facts were all in my head. Hours before, I had memorized a handful of numbers and details. The task had given me a sense of normalcy despite the motivation behind it.
Opening the folder on my lap, I flipped through the numerous pages. They'd been created rather quickly, even though they were original and fake. They had to resemble the real deal or else Gabriele would notice a discrepancy. But I was betting on Gabriele underestimating me enough to overlook possible inconsistencies. He would be amused and disgusted with my proposition, I knew. And his greed and his need to insult me would override his common sense.
Still, there was a chance he wouldn't agree to my terms and we'd be left with no alternative. I was riding on Gabriele signing his name. If he refused to pick up a pen, I would walk out with my pride and ego deflated. Lucian had agreed to this. And Ellen and Marcus had agreed to aid me. I couldn't let them down now.
Suddenly, knuckles rapped on the window, startling me enough to jump.
"He'll see you now," a Romano enforcer informed through the thick glass window.
I shared a brief look with Ellen and Marcus before following the latter out of the car. I only had one chance to do this right. I refused to fail.
—Early that Morning—
"Extortion," Ellen repeated after me.
Having retreated back into the main living area, I just finished explaining my plans to Marcus and Ellen. I sat on the chair opposite of her and Marcus while Lucian hovered at my shoulder. He refused to sit, least he appear weak and vulnerable to Marcus. I didn't blame him. Marcus Collins wore an expression that would even make Gabriele Romano uneasy.
"I'd like a way to destroy Gabriele." Here, I looked at Marcus. "Without killing him." The blond-haired man averted his gaze from Lucian back onto me. "I actually got the idea from your imprisonment. Extortion is enough to put Gabriele away, at least for a few years depending on his connections."
"He's a powerful man with many connections," Ellen said. "It is possible he may not even be prosecuted."
Lucian shifted. "Gabriele is powerful," he agreed. "But he's also beginning to grow too powerful. His allies are getting tired of his monopoly and constant disregard to their compensation freeze. When he's gone, there will be an uprising of who gets to claim his power. Many of his supporters would abandon him for a chance to head the Don position."
"And you think you can fool him, Afton?" Ellen turned to me. "That is a rather large risk."
"I think I can." I actually didn't think I could. More like hoped I could. Faith was all I had at my disposal. "I'm relying on his greed. Lucian said he was extremely upset after finding out his corporations were taken over by the Conti Family. I think he would jump at the chance of getting those corporations back. That is, if it's presented correctly."
Ellen pressed forward. "And you think you can present it—"
"I think the boy is capable enough to handle it. Do not pester him with nonsensical questions," Marcus interrupted darkly, ignoring Ellen's affronted look. He kept his eyes on me. "What monetary means will you use? He will expect to pay a price for obtaining the corporations back from us."
Veiling my shock at his vote of confidence, I exhaled levelly. "I plan to use nonmonetary compensation." At their expectant looks, I inclined my head toward Lucian. "I want to ask for his firstborn son. In return, he would acquire control over the corporations he lost to us—to you."
Ellen raised her eyebrows in a fashion that wasn't ridiculous by any means. Somehow, she made it look refined. "That's a heavy price. What makes you think he will take the deal? If we need him to agree to take control of the corporations, wouldn't it be wiser to ask for monetary compensation? From personal experience, the firstborn son is quite the treasured item among Dons and other business tycoons."
Lucian shifted and leaned more heavily against my chair. "If I didn't think Gabriele would go for it, I wouldn't have agreed to Afton's plan. I know my father. Afton did a job well done of planning this and manipulating Gabriele's weaknesses."
Pride blossomed in my chest and I hurriedly pushed it down. "He would be more suspicious if I asked for money," I continued after Lucian. "I know Gabriele and I know he thinks me… weak. It may sound unbelievable now, but I really think this will go right." The details could be hatched later. They wouldn't understand Gabriele until they saw how he interacted with me. "I have a detective in mind that could oversee the negotiation."
Marcus' gaze was sharp. "It is unwise to trust the law enforcement. He could arrest you and your party just as well." He didn't look at Lucian, but he didn't need to. He thought Lucian would be included in the arrest, perhaps even himself and Ellen Reed.
It was an understandable concern. "The detective's name is Paul Delve. He's approached me before." They would think I was crazy if I said I trusted a man I barely knew. But I did. There was something I had identified in Delve that I could trust and I was usually a good judge of character. "While it is a possibility that he may target Lucian and others, I firmly believe that he'd be happy with just Gabriele in custody. If they can make an arrest based on strong evidence of extortion, they can get a warrant and search his home. I know his office holds a lot of other incriminating evidence."
The silence in the room was deafening. If Lucian hadn't already voiced his support earlier, I would have believed he was just as uncertain about this whole mess as Ellen and Marcus. And I really couldn't blame them. I was using the companies Ellen had just taken over in New Jersey as bait.
If I could somehow wear a wire, or better yet, have Paul Delve with me at the time of the negotiations, I could get Gabriele arrested for extortion. The Conti Family would likely lose control over the corporations I would use as bait, but I had my suspicions that they were powerful enough that it wouldn't even affect them.
"This… ruse…" Ellen started and I tensed, knowing what she was about to ask. "You said you will act as if you've taken position as the Conti Family heir. Act and accept are two different things." She clasped her hands together. "You are not going to accept our invitation to come back with us to Britain, are you?"
Marcus' eyes grew sharp and he shifted his attention to Lucian, as if blaming the Romano underboss for influencing me. I imagined he was thinking how easy it would be to wipe Lucian out of existence without anyone being the wiser. And I firmly believed he had the ability to achieve such a feat.
"Why should we agree to this?" Ellen continued. "I, for one, would like it if you came back with us. You are more than welcome to bring Lucian along with you. I'm sure he would make a good ally in our family business."
"Because Gabriele is a thorn in your side." I leaned forward in my chair. "Because Gabriele killed your sister. Those reasons and more are why you would help me put Gabriele behind bars." I paused and glanced at Lucian from over my shoulder. "As far as returning to Britain, I would like at least a year without being bothered. After which, I will strongly consider leaving for Britain."
Lucian's eyes widened a fraction and he looked down at me, his face hard and unreadable. I knew we decided not to accept their invitation. I didn't want to work with the Mafia again, but I wondered if what Ellen had tried to convince me of earlier was true. She tried convincing me that I just had bad experiences with Gabriele and my father… and the Gallo brothers. Maybe there was something positive with the Mafia and I just didn't know it yet.
I also wanted to know more about my parents, my biological parents. Presently, the thought of knowing more made me ill. I was conceived for the Mafia, my existence was a simple experiment.
And I didn't want to be near Marcus. His cold and curt personality was something I couldn't deal with right now. I hated admitting it, but my mind was fucked up right now. What happened these past few days was a nightmare. I didn't want to think about it, about them, but whenever I found myself even considering what happened, I felt… I didn't feel right.
It was too much to deal with right now. I needed time to heal, heal with Lucian.
But above all else, the main reason I accepted the proposal to go to Britain was Lucian. He tried desperately to convince me that all he needed to be happy was me. But hell. I could never see him living a normal life, complaining about his job, paying bills, and living as a law-abiding citizen.
At least this way, we had a year together, to experience normalcy. If it was something Lucian could tolerate longer, we would find a way to visit Britain without becoming a part of the Mafia. And if normalcy was something Lucian couldn't tolerate, then we had a powerful Family waiting for our arrivals. And who knew? Maybe Ellen would allow Lucian to work within the Conti Family without my cooperation.
No one really knew how time would change things, change people. Maybe I would be more willing in a year's time. Maybe I would be even more against the Mafia. The only thing I was certain about now was that this was not the time to make such a huge decision that would affect us for the rest of our lives.
Ellen appeared indecisive about my offer, but unsurprisingly, Marcus did not.
"Before Christmas," he countered.
I pondered on the counteroffer. Christmas wasn't too far from a year. A couple of weeks early, but it was still enough time. "Deal," I agreed. "I will return with you to Britain before Christmas. I cannot guarantee my cooperation with the Mafia until that time, but I can promise you I will make an attempt."
Lucian placed a hand on my shoulder and squeezed painfully, showing his displeasure. I knew I should have talked this over with him, but I didn't like the miscommunication between us. He knew I didn't like the Mafia, but he desperately wanted to stay with me. He'd even deny himself something he wanted just to stay by my side.
Marcus and Ellen shared a look before the latter nodded. "If we're going to take down Gabriele Romano, we need to begin." She looked at me pointedly. "I think you should get some sleep—"
"No," I argued. "I want to help."
I needed to help. The very notion of sleeping made me panic. In front of all these people, I was afraid to jerk awake, or worse, wake up screaming. I'd see my dad, I'd see Cat, and I'd see the men I killed. I refused to sleep until this was over… if it was ever 'over'.
Marcus stood up, adjusting his rifle. "I will accompany Afton to the detective." He looked at Lucian. "Go back to your father, least he suspects something."
Lucian hesitated, but he eventually followed the instruction after another, more reassuring squeeze to my shoulder. I watched him go, finding myself afraid for him when he departed. People had a way of walking out of my life forever. I fervently hoped I'd see Lucian again and we had the chance to move on with our lives.
Since parting ways at the hotel, I talked to Lucian just briefly, but not as long as I would have liked. I had wanted to make certain he was all right with this plan. Gabriele was still his father, after all. While this plan did not result in Gabriele's death, it did ruin him. Of course, that depended if everything was executed properly.
The players and props were all in place. Now it was up to me to lure Gabriele into the trap.
Walking alongside Marcus, I tried to draw from his strength. It was late evening and we'd been preparing for this all day. I hadn't slept for what seemed like ages and the food I ingested was hardly satisfying, having been thrust down my throat by a disapproving Ellen. It didn't help that I was worried about my family and Tony, or that I was silently grieving my father's execution and Cat's death, or that I still felt the blood on my hands from my victims. All these fucking emotions were draining me, but I needed to remain strong and collected.
His presence was oddly comforting. Flashing Marcus a sidelong glance, I studied him. I'd never admit it to anyone, but his silent companionship was… tolerable. It helped that he was so calm. Then again, something told me he was always calm. Ellen hadn't been able to accompany us inside, but I'd prefer Marcus' company to hers. He seemed more capable if the situation went south.
His dark gaze landed on me and I quickly looked away, grimacing. Too bad he had the personality of an uncaring rock… that is, if a rock could even be uncaring in the first place.
The Romano enforcer eyed us suspiciously. "You'll be searched." He looked at Marcus and the other Conti enforcer at my back, the only 'two guests' allowed to accompany me. "No weapons allowed inside. No wires."
"Fine," I bit out, chewing the inside of my cheek.
My palms began to grow clammy the more I thought of how things could go wrong. I thought of the wire and wondered if this would even work. If Gabriele found out about our scheme… he'd surly take out his gun and execute us like the Gallo brothers had executed my father. Then again, Marcus appeared capable of accomplishing impressive feats even without a gun slung around his shoulders. Maybe he'd somehow get us out of there before we became targets.
We were led inside the manor, the house seemingly more empty and desolate than usual. I was reminded that Contessa had left with Siena and Aria early that morning. Without their presence, Gabriele was nothing short of a cold, cruel bastard who operated on power and greed. From what Lucian said, Gabriele had all but applauded Contessa's decision to leave, thinking she was doing it to stay out of his way. Little did he know she'd left for good, unable to take the chance of endangering her children again.
The hallway we walked down was familiar and I hated the sight of it. I'd never forget my first meeting with Gabriele. But this time, I was ready and prepared. This time, I had a lot more on the line than trying to impress my boyfriend's father.
"Search them," the Romano enforcer ordered a few men outside Gabriele's office.
Hands abruptly grabbed me and slammed me against the wall. I grunted, surprised at the force. Fingers pressed underneath my jacket and against my body, roughly searching for weapons or wires. Straining my eyes, I tried to catch sight of Marcus Collins to see if he was receiving equal treatment. I found it hard to believe he'd be pressed up against the wall like this.
He was, but in a far more cautionary way. The man patting him down was leery of getting too close or too frisky. He kept shooting fearful glances up at Marcus' face, which was currently schooled into a hard and threatening expression. If the hands lingered too long on his body, Marcus' eyes would spark dangerously and the Romano enforcer would receive a contemptuous stare.
I wondered why I found the situation humorous, especially considering the bold hand that found my groin manhandled my junk. Like I'd hide anything in my underwear. Then again, I did keep my cash stashed in my boxers when I was living on the streets.
After I was released, I hurriedly straightened my suit, feeling violated, but also a bit smug. Of course they didn't find anything on us. We weren't that stupid to be caught so soon in the game.
Careful, I scolded myself. Arrogance was the last thing I needed.
Marcus and the other enforcer, Weiss, I think it was, took position at my back when we were herded through Gabriele's office. There were four men including Lucian standing behind Gabriele's desk. One of them was Gian, Gabriele's Consigliere. I locked eyes with him, trying to restrain my disgust. He'd been the one to lure me out of the manor not too long ago and into Gabriele's car. While he hadn't been the one to set Gabriele on me, he had been part of it.
The other two men were unidentifiable, but they appeared to be enforcers with trigger-happy fingers. I looked at Lucian last, surprised at what I saw there. Despite the severity of the situation, his eyes raked my figure with intentional slowness, a hungry glint in his eyes. I flushed under his stare, looking away to hide my frustration. Did he always think about sex?
Stopping before Gabriele's desk, I noticed the Don had yet to look up from his papers. The longer I stood there, the more I realized that he was intentionally making me wait like a fucking beggar. It was his way of establishing importance and dominance. According to Gabriele, he was the one in charge, not me. I was merely an inconvenience.
The mind games started now, I realized. This was no regular conversation with Gabriele. This was the end. This depended on Lucian's happiness, my happiness.
With that in mind, I forced my nervousness away and embraced a part of me that normally stayed buried. Maybe it was the side of me that was biologically created from Norah and Marcus Collins. This part of me, the part with unrestrained confidence and intelligence, usually revealed itself when I competed for something or when I struggled to learn new things. I could be just as arrogant as Gabriele, just as confident.
Looking over my shoulder, I grabbed a lone chair and planted it firmly in front of Gabriele's desk. Nonchalantly, and without invitation, I sat down and placed my right ankle over my left knee in a casual pose. I sat back and watched him silently, my expression schooled into something akin to taunting amusement.
He would not greet me until he was ready, but I refused to say anything before either. He wanted me to sweat and shift uncomfortably. I would simply show him I could sit here and wait all day if I had to. I was in no hurry. He did not intimidate me.
The men shifted, both his men and mine. I could feel Marcus plant himself firmly at my side, silent, but most definitely alert. I didn't remove my eyes from Gabriele, but I could sense Lucian's sharp observance. Did he think I should have spoken first? Or was he just trying to figure out what I had up my sleeve?
Technically, even I didn't know what I had up my sleeve. I just needed to match Gabriele with equal authority and get him to agree to the extortion.
Gabriele finally looked up. He seemed taken aback at my unwavering surveillance, but he covered it quickly. "Afton Conti," he greeted airily. "Or should I say Afton Collins?" He gave a shark-like grin. "Personally, I don't think you deserve the surname Conti."
I knew this would be one of his angles. He would make me squirm by bringing up such new and hurtful topics. My control was most important right now. I couldn't let him affect me. "Whatever you prefer, Gabriele. I'm open to any form of address."
Lucian's father frowned at the obvious shift in my character. Weeks ago, my initial reaction would be to retort just as cruelly with unbridled passion. But that was not me, at least not now. It may take him awhile to realize I was here as a business prospect, not a timid and hotheaded spitfire.
Gabriele looked at Marcus, clearly recognizing him as my biological father. A sly grin stretched his lips as he turned back to me. "I want to offer you my condolences regarding your father's death, or, should I say your half-brother?" All the occupants in the room seemed to disappear. This last conflict was between Gabriele and myself. "I heard he was a pretty adornment on the Gallo Family's floor. Pity Marcello Conti couldn't decorate my rug."
Something shriveled up and died inside me. My expression fell and it took a long while to regain my composure. When I was finally confident I wouldn't break down, I offered Gabriele a thin smile. "I don't think he would fit your décor."
That shocked the fucking shit out of Gabriele. Seeing his shock almost compensated for my internal struggle. I wanted to get this over with as soon as possible. This man may have been a good father, a good husband once, but he was so far consumed in power that he was a shell of his old self. I knew Contessa. She would have never married someone like this. It was horrible to think someone could change so much and not even realize what they'd lost on their way to power.
"What do you want, Conti?" Gabriele growled, obviously knowing nothing he'd say would set me off. He was finally down to business. "Are you going to run to Britain with the other members of your brood?"
"Perhaps," I murmured, touching the folder on my lap. "It depends on you."
Gabriele grunted and pressed his forearms on top his desk. He looked at me as if I were a damnation. "Well? Get on with it."
I bit my tongue and simply raised an unimpressed eyebrow. "As a… show of good faith, I am willing to return the New Jersey corporations the Conti Family took from the Romano Family. Currently, over a dozen companies in your territory contract with the Conti Family for protection. We're receiving millions in revenue each month as compensation for our 'services'."
For the first time since our discussion, I looked down and opened the front cover of the folder. I made a show of admiring the documents inside. "But then again," I continued, "you of all people should know the amount of revenue we're receiving." Looking up, I offered Gabriele a coy smile. "After all, you were the one extorting money from them originally. We simply took the corporations off your hands for a short while."
Gabriele stared at me, appearing frozen before his face contorted into fury. "Get the hell out of my office!"
That was not part of the plan. I knew there was a possibility that Gabriele would refuse my offer, but I hadn't even considered a rejection so early in the negotiations. Gabriele needed these corporations back. The Romano Family was large, but not as large as the Conti Family. Ellen and Luciano both reassured me that Gabriele was hurting financially without these companies.
So what happened? Did I not deliver it right? Was this all my fault?
The fear I was experiencing made me sweat uncontrollably. I felt a great deal of disappointment. Was I not capable of accomplishing something of this caliber? I'd been bred for this. Clearly, Norah and Marcus hadn't picked the right sperm and egg for their experiment.
Pushing away my fears and uncertainties, I put forward a calm façade. There still may be a way to remedy this. I couldn't lose face now. "If that is your decision, then the revenue from these corporations will never touch your bank accounts again." Slowly, I closed the folder and stood up. Holding his gaze, I channeled my inner Corleone. "Keep in mind, this was a peace offering. Without reaching an agreement, we will not just stop at these corporations. We will keep going until you are entirely powerless. Your word will hold no sway in New Jersey when we're through with you."
Gabriele narrowed his eyes, adopting a very chilling expression. "Are you threatening me, boy?"
Taking a confident stance in front of him, I placed a single hand on his desk. "I'm not threatening you," I murmured pleasantly. "I'm promising you that we will destroy you."
Perhaps it wasn't the most intelligent thing to say, because the two enforcers behind Gabriele took out their guns and pointed them unwaveringly at me. Just seeing them gave me flashbacks of the hell I'd gone through. My sweat turned cold and I removed my hand from Gabriele's desk, taking a small step backward. Only, a solid body stood behind me, stopping me from retreating further and making an idiot of myself.
I didn't look behind me, but I knew Marcus stood as a barrier. His silent reassurance told me he wouldn't allow anything to happen to me, but he also wouldn't let me retreat until this was over.
As if sensing my fear, Gabriele smiled thinly, assuming victory. "Why shouldn't I just kill you now, Conti?"
"Because I just stepped into this business, Gabriele." I straightened to my full height. "You know exactly who will replace me if I die. I highly doubt they would approve of your actions if you put a bullet through my head. And trust me when I say they are a lot more lethal than I am." Without another word, I turned my back on him and boldly made my way towards the door.
While I trusted Marcus enough to have my back, I was still stiff. I was expecting Gabriele to call me back to finish the negotiations, but if he didn't… I'd be back to square one.
I stopped and grinned at the far wall, my pulse jumping out of elation, not fear. I wasn't as hopeless as I thought. I'd read Gabriele's character correctly. It probably helped matters that he knew just how powerful the Conti Family was and refused to get on their bad side.
And the Conti Family was powerful. With the wires and the law enforcement involved in this, it would shed unwelcomed light on the Conti Family. But Ellen reassured me that a little scrutinizing would not hurt the Family. While reluctant at first, Paul Delve, the detective I involved in Gabriele's downfall, had agreed to use a smokescreen to protect other second parties. He would claim Luciano was an informant, working against his father. And the Conti Family…
Well, they technically didn'texist. And even if they did exist, they did not extort the companies I was holding in my hands and using as bait. To the law enforcement, we were simply bluffing. If anyone wanted to investigate the Conti Family after Gabriele was taken down, they would have trouble finding a paper trail. It was intentional on my part that I did not utter the name 'Ellen Reed' in my conversation with Gabriele.
It was still a risk for the Conti Family, but Ellen had been very confident in her assurance that it would take quite a bit to take down the Family.
Slowly, I turned around and faced Gabriele. The man's Consigliere, Gian, was whispering in his ear and sending me suspicious glances. With a single wave from Gabriele, the enforcers behind him lowered their weapons.
After nodding at Gian, Gabriele gave me his full attention. "Good faith you say?"
It took me a moment to remember what he was referring to, but I eventually recollected my earlier comment. "I don't like you," I said bluntly. Taking a few steps forward, I resumed my stance in front of his desk. I did not sit. I was too agitated. "I don't like you at all, but I like your family, and I feel obligated to give you immunity because of them."
"The feeling is quite mutual," Gabriele drawled coldly. "How much are you asking in return? Do you want money upfront or a percentage in the earnings?"
Oh God, I finally made it. This was it. Reaching over, I slapped the folder of documents on his desk. One signature, one agreement, was all that was needed. I was on the homestretch and it never felt more exhilarating.
I watched as he flipped through the pages with his Consigliere leaning over his shoulder. For a moment, I panicked. I was willing to bet Gabriele would overlook a small flaw in the forged documents, but I hadn't thought Gian would be joining him in the hunt. Quickly, I hurried with my end of the deal, hoping to distract them.
"The Romano Family will regain possession of these companies and receive one-hundred percent of the earnings compiled from the extortion. We are not asking for any sort of percentage in the earnings. In fact, if you're willing to agree to my terms, I can promise you that we'll never touch New Jersey again. You'll get your monopoly back as soon as we leave."
Gabriele grunted again, appearing disinterested, but I knew he was taking the bait. "And your terms?"
"I want your son."
All eyes turned in my direction, most of them bright with revulsion and hilarity. I ignored them in favor of Gabriele, watching as he froze and slowly looked up from the documents. "My son?" he repeated unemotionally.
Maybe monetary means would haveworked better than nonmonetary. But then again, maybe not. Not only would nonmonetary means be less incriminating to the law enforcement, but I firmly believed I had a solid understanding of Gabriele's character. He would be more suspicious of signing anything if I asked for money and not Lucian.
"I want Luciano to be able to walk away from the Romano Family without having to look over his shoulder. I don't want you to interfere in our lives ever again. You will not contact him unless he contacts you. I want you to sever all ties to him and vice versa." I stood my ground in face of his blasé expression.
His indifference didn't last long. A small chuckle escaped his lips before he began laughing in earnest. I glanced at Lucian for the first time since the discussion started. He was leaning against the bookcases, his dark suit almost camouflaging him in the shadows. He looked poised and relaxed with his arms crossed casually over his chest, but his eyes were sharp. He watched me intensely and a pleased smirk lifted the corner of his mouth.
We both knew we had Gabriele ensnared.
"I thought you hardened a bit since the last time I saw you, boy, but I was wrong," Gabriele sneered. "You're the same old Conti I remember trembling in front of my desk." He chuckled again, shaking his head.
I endured his belittlement. His underestimation was what I'd been betting on, anyway. Still, I felt my dislike for this man intensifying.
Gabriele closed the folder, much to the displeasure of Gian, and threw a mocking glance at his firstborn son. "And is this what you want? Drinking tea with the Brits?"
It could have been defined as mocking and contemptuous, but I was a bit surprised at the question. In his own way, Gabriele was actually asking Lucian if this was what he wanted. Did he still care about his son's wellbeing or was he just mocking us?
Apparently, Lucian thought it was the latter. "You know I've always been attracted to power."
My eyes widened at the statement and I looked at him unabashedly. I knew he didn't think like that. He was interested in me before he knew I was the heir to the Conti Family. Yet, his statement still felt like a low blow. Lucian gazed back at me, indifferent, before inclining his head marginally as soon as Gabriele looked away.
He didn't mean it. This was how he always spoke with his father.
"The star-crossed lovers," Gabriele mused sarcastically. He then looked at Gian. "This is why queers are never allowed in the business. They may have a dick, but they think like a bitch."
The tips of my ears warmed with anger and it took quite a bit of restraint to keep composed. While I was resolved to keep my temper in check, Marcus didn't feel so inclined.
"Do we have a deal or not?" One would think yelling would get across someone's displeasure, but Marcus had pitched his voice so low, even a whisper would be classified as shouting. Though quiet, it reached everyone's ears and raised the hairs on their arms, mine included.
It was enough to still Gabriele and dissipate his humor. Marcus' face was carved from stone, but his dark eyes glittered sadistically, looking as if he were imagining all the things he could do to Gabriele without detection. I knew he could destroy Gabriele easily, but he'd gone along with this ruse because I requested it.
Gabriele sneered deeply, veiling his discomfort. But before he could agree, Gian spoke up.
"These aren't all the corporations," Gabriele's advisor pointed out. "It's missing at least half a dozen."
Time seemed to stop. I hadn't known Ellen didn't include all the corporations she took from Gabriele. I'd thought she 'unofficially' gave all the companies back to Gabriele and included them all in the files. Her decision to omit the corporations only meant she intended to keep them in her possession and not have the law enforcement catch wind of it.
Unfortunately, that put me in an awkward position. My mind was quickly trying to come up with a reasonable excuse.
"Of course," I said briskly, narrowing my eyes on Gian. "Do you think I'm stupid? You get more than enough to satisfy you right now. After you agree to my terms, and after Luciano and I reach Britain, we will complete the rest of the transactions. I don't trust you enough to give you all the corporations at one time."
"You think I'll gun down my own son?" Gabriele snarled.
"Honestly? It wouldn't surprise me," I whispered back.
He and I stared at one another, neither of us budging. In the end, Gabriele sighed and opened the files once more. He grabbed his pen and glanced over the contract, flipping through the pages a few more times. My heart was in my throat as Gian leaned over his shoulder again, most likely trying to warn Gabriele not to sign anything until he looked over it with a fine-toothed comb.
Ultimately, Gabriele grumbled under his breath and began signing his name. "You got yourself a deal, Conti." He closed the folder and handed it to me, unaware that my knees were shaking like mad. As I accepted the folder, Gabriele inclined his head stiffly. "And it goes without saying, but I would like to thank you for protecting my daughter during her captivity."
The floor seemed to open up and swallow me whole. The shock I felt was so overwhelming, I think I stopped breathing. Hurriedly, I looked to Lucian, wondering if I made the wrong decision of condemning Gabriele. But Lucian stared back at me and firmly shook his head.
Shakily, I sighed and stared down at the signature on the documents. "I wish you could have displayed more of that humanity before it was too late," I told Gabriele honestly.
He frowned. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Right on time, the door suddenly opened and Lucian's brother, Blaise, stepped inside. He leaned casually against the doorframe and offered a lazy smile. "You may have been watching Lucian for any suspicious behavior these past few days, but you always seem to forget that you have a second son." He paused dramatically. "I wired the fucking shit out of your office, asshole. Sucks to be taken down from inside, doesn't it?"
When Gabriele finally recovered, the police were already pilling into the office, their guns drawn and aimed. Everything seemed to become a blur as they began shouting and barking out orders. A sharp ringing sounded in my ears and I found myself raising my hands in surrender like the rest of the occupants. It wasn't until Paul Delve stepped into the office when my company and I were treated with a sliver of less hostility from the officers.
Numbly, I felt a hand on my shoulder, gently lowering my arms. "You can relax," Marcus instructed. "It's over."
It took a while to comprehend his words. Through wide eyes, I watched as officers swarmed inside, beginning to overturn file cabinets and furniture, shoving things into boxes and bags. Their figures were a mere blur as they shoved past me and crowded the room. Gabriele and his men were being escorted forcibly out of the office in handcuffs. The dark look Gabriele flashed me was hardly intimidating, not when I saw Lucian being escorted from the room as well.
"No!" I screamed, lunging after them, my body trembling like mad.
Paul Delve quickly stepped in front of me, his hands open and raised in a placating gesture. "It's only—"
"You promised!" I hissed, seeing red. "You said he'd be confirmed as an informant!"
The detective shushed me in what he thought was a soothing gesture. "It's mandatory to question him. He is not being taken out in handcuffs. We'll even need to speak with you and the rest of your party." His expression softened. "I gave you my word, Afton. Catching Gabriele Romano wouldn't have been possible without your help and Luciano's assistance."
Despite his reassurances, I couldn't seem to calm down. After all, Paul Delve was a detective. He'd want to take down Luciano as well and the Conti Family. I should have never thought of this ridiculous plan.
Lucian, who already turned at my shout of denial, shook off the hold on his arms and crossed the room in three long strides. He grabbed my waist and engulfed me in an embrace, his hands rough, but reassuring. "Everything is going to be alright, Afton." Leaning down, he pressed his lips near my ear. "You've been through so much these past few days and you deserve to shut down and rest. But I need you to be strong for a bit longer. You did an outstanding job with Gabriele. Continue the act until we're safely out of the woods."
He was pulled away and I bowed my head, struggling to gather strength I no longer had. How silly of me. I actually thought I would be able to rest freely after the handcuffs went on Gabriele. But the thought of slowing down and relaxing seemed too daunting. I realized I'd still have nightmares, I'd still have the fear, and I'd still feel empty.
Suddenly, two hands grabbed my shoulders and guided me from the office. At first, I thought it was an officer, but when I looked up, I spied Marcus Collins escorting me out of the manor. A few officers were on either side of us, but he continued to steer me by the shoulders.
"Impressive job," he said in his monotone voice. His eyes were directed ahead of him. "I knew you had it in you."
I didn't know whether to take that as a compliment or an insult. The last thing I needed was to be complimented by a mercenary. But this time, I didn't feel ashamed in basking in his solid and unwavering presence.