Kept, Page 4Maya Banks
music to comfort her. Though he finally fell into sleep, he dreamed of Hayley. Bathed in the moonlight as she played the same song over and over. In his dream he saw the shimmer of tears escaping her closed eyes and silently trekking down her face. Then, since it was only a dream, he went to her, drawn by her pain and suffering, not able to keep from offering her the same comfort she gave him each night.
He drew her into his arms and gently kissed every single tear away. And he held her until finally she slept, whispering to her over and over that she wasn’t alone.
“That stupid asshole McDuff just had to fuck everything up.” Giovanni Vanucci seethed, allowing his temper to flare. He pounded his polished mahogany desk to emphasize his statement and then fixed his forceful stare at the gathered family members. His sentinels, his loyal soldiers, here at his demand.
It wasn’t irregular for Giovanni to hold family meetings at his Connecticut home, one of the many places he owned. But here, away from the city and the possibility of surveillance, spies and secrets being exposed, was where he held family meetings, where there was no chance that anything would leak from his private office, a room even his wife and daughters didn’t dare enter.
“He screwed up months of our planning and just when we’re ready to move on the Luconis, he snatches Drake Donovan’s woman and suddenly the bastard is allied with them?”
He knew his face was mottled with rage and likely red as a beet, judging by the concerned expression of his oldest son, Gabriel. He made a concerted effort to calm down so his blood pressure didn’t soar dangerously high and he didn’t suffer another stroke. The doctors had warned him he likely wouldn’t survive another one. But regardless of the need to regain his composure, rage and an overwhelming thirst for revenge pervaded his every thought.
He turned to the only person in the room who wasn’t related to him by blood. A man who’d proven loyal to him and had displayed more ambition and loyalty than Giovanni’s own sons. His sons knew he favored the man referred to as Ghost and didn’t even bother trying to hide their anger or resentment over having an outsider usurp their importance and their role in their father’s organization.
As he turned to Ghost, planning to outline his plans and issue orders to him, he saw two of his sons cast belligerent looks in Ghost’s direction, while Gabriel’s lips merely tightened and his eyes went cold and flat as he continued to stare at his father.
Ghost couldn’t possibly miss the animosity directed at him, but his expression never wavered and he looked bored and unbothered by Giovanni’s sons’ childish temper tantrums.
“There has to be a weak link in Donovan’s organization,” Giovanni muttered. “One of his men was a snitch for the police, and he disappeared shortly after the police raid on Donovan’s club. It’s too risky to go after his woman. With her about to deliver a child, the security net surrounding her is impossible to breach. So we have to find another weakness, another hole in their security. All of his men have vulnerabilities. We just have to discover them and take advantage of them. Can I trust you with this, Ghost?”
Ghost gave a clipped nod, but then he wasn’t a man of many words, and when he spoke, the others listened. Even Giovanni’s sons were too afraid of him to overtly defy him.
Giovanni then turned to his sons, Gabriel, Jacques and Paulo. He knew that in order for them to be competent, reliable assets to the family, he had to give them the opportunity to prove themselves. He just hoped to hell they didn’t fuck up.
“I want all three of you on this. I want no angle uninvestigated. Every lead pursued. And whatever you find, you are to report it immediately to Ghost.”
His sons didn’t look at all happy with the order to report to someone who wasn’t even family, but they also understood the significance of their father asking them to do the duty he requested. It was their opportunity to prove themselves worthy of the name they bore and the chance to move up in the organization they would one day rule in their father’s stead.
What they didn’t realize was that if they failed him in any way, he’d ensure they never took over the helm. If he couldn’t rely on them for such a simple task as this, how was he supposed to leave the running and care of the entire family on their shoulders?
Giovanni waved his hand in a clear signal of dismissal but motioned for Ghost to remain. When everyone was gone, Giovanni slumped back into his chair and rubbed a hand through his hair.
“I’m counting on you,” he said wearily. “There has to be a way to strike at Donovan, to bring him to his knees. Without his support, the Luconis will be a piece of cake to take apart and destroy. But until I can remove Donovan from the picture, my hands are tied and every day that passes I lose more power. I will not stand by and allow that bastard to take everything I and my father, my grandfather and his father and his father’s father worked our entire lives to build.”
“Consider it done,” the man called Ghost said in his usual calm voice, his face devoid of emotion.
Giovanni shivered. He would never admit it, but he was as afraid of this man as his sons were, and he had a very good suspicion that he had every reason to be.
Hayley walked through the door of her apartment complex and rolled her shoulders even as she attempted to stifle a jaw-cracking yawn. This was her first day off from work since she’d moved in two weeks ago and she was in desperate need of a nap. She’d spent too many nights practicing, forgoing sleep because one of the two jobs she worked required late hours and she often didn’t get home until past one, and it was always closer to two in the morning before she started practicing.
A nice long nap would be next to heaven, and then she could cook herself a nice dinner and afterward get an earlier start on practice so she could get a few extra hours of sleep before tomorrow’s first class.
As she punched the button to the elevator, the doors opened and a woman who looked to be in her late thirties or perhaps early forties was coming out. She stopped once she saw Hayley and gave her an assessing look.
“You must be new,” she said cheerfully. “We’ve never met. I’m Patricia and I live on the fourth floor.”
Hayley returned her smile, sticking a hand out to hold the elevator. “I’m Hayley. I live on the top floor.”
The woman’s eyes rounded with surprise. “You must live next to the owner, then. Wow. To my knowledge the top-floor units have never been rented out before. It’s rumored the owner values his privacy very much.”
Hayley was equally shocked. She’d never seen her neighbors, but then she kept such odd hours she wouldn’t have had the opportunity. But the owner lived in the complex? That she hadn’t known.
“Well, I was told a top-floor unit was undergoing renovation,” Hayley explained. “When I first came in to inquire as to vacancies, only a basement unit was available. The manager called me shortly after and said the owner had just called to let him know that the top-floor unit was finished and to rent it out.” She shrugged. “I guess I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
The woman’s expression was skeptical, but she didn’t argue the point.
“Do you know which unit he lives in?” Hayley mused. “I live on the end and I’ve never seen anyone else on the top floor, but I’m not often at home.”
“I believe he takes the middle unit, but I’m not certain. Like I said, the owner is very private. I don’t recall actually ever seeing him.” She frowned. “For that matter, I don’t think anyone in the building has ever laid eyes on him.”
Pondering that oddity, Hayley gave the woman a friendly wave and then pressed the number of her floor as the doors slid closed. She frowned as the elevator quickly soared to the top floor and she stepped off, eyeing the door to the middle unit, even pausing outside it, straining to hear if any sound came from within. But there was only silence. No sound of a television or movement. With a shake of her head she continued on to her apartment only wanting a nap and to snuggle into the luxurious bed
that she’d barely spent any time in since she’d moved here.
Guilt nagged at her, though, twenty minutes later when fresh from a shower she’d curled up beneath the covers. She tossed and turned, mentally cursing the fact that she couldn’t simply relax and sleep. Usually if she had difficulty resting, she’d simply play a few selections on her violin to settle her, and then she found she could sleep much better. But the violin wasn’t what occupied her thoughts. Thoughts of her neighbor, the owner who’d been so kind to her, were what kept her from rest.
She owed him a great deal of gratitude. Had he gotten the brownies she’d baked for him? When she’d made them for the manager and he’d nervously informed her that it was the owner who deserved her thanks, she hadn’t had time to compose a more heartfelt thank-you. Perhaps she could make him something else and this time write a more personalized note to him. She could even bring it over and knock on his door; after all, it was better to thank him personally.
Patricia’s warning came to mind. The owner valued his privacy and none of the tenants had even seen him before? That seemed highly unlikely. But then Patricia had also seemed shocked that he had agreed to rent the top-floor apartments that flanked his. With the low amount he was charging for rent, maybe he needed the additional income.
Now that the idea had taken root, she knew it would be impossible to sleep. With a disgruntled sigh she scrambled out of bed, casting one last longing glance at the comfortable mattress. So much for a nice relaxing afternoon.
She took inventory of the groceries she’d stocked, mentally going over her repertoire of recipes and comparing them to the supplies she had on hand. The last thing she wanted was to make a trip to the market a few blocks away. It would take too much time.
Her eyes lighted on a can of condensed milk and a bag of toffee bits, remembering she’d bought the stuff to make her caramel pie on a whim. There was only one graham cracker pie crust and only enough whipped cream to make one pie, so she couldn’t afford to screw it up.
It would take a few hours for the condensed milk to boil and become the thick caramel filling she used in the pie, so she started that first, filling a large pot with water and setting it to a low boil. After placing the can in the water, she pulled the rest of the ingredients from her small pantry and the fridge and laid out the cream cheese, heavy whipping cream, vanilla, pie crust and toffee bits on the counter. Realizing there was little she could do until the caramel was done and had cooled enough not to melt the chocolate-covered toffee bits, she decided to use the time to practice her violin. Perhaps instead of practicing late this night, she’d get in her practice now, finish the pie and take it to her neighbor, and then she’d have a simple dinner and go to bed early. The idea of an actual whole night’s sleep was extremely enticing.
After putting the whipping cream back in the fridge, she left the cream cheese out to soften to room temperature, and then she went to open the window closest to the chair she sat in to play. She pulled the violin from the case and lovingly ran her fingers over the worn and faded wood, tears suddenly burning like acid in her eyes.
“Oh, Daddy, I miss you so much,” she choked out.
For a moment she simply hugged the aged violin to her chest and bowed her head, allowing herself, for the first time in a very long time, to weep for her loss.
* * *
Silas let himself into his apartment on silent feet and then turned and began the comforting, necessary ritual of locking and unlocking the many deadbolts that guarded the entrance to his apartment. Satisfied they were secure, he then set about ensuring that his space—and the complex—was secure from threat. It was a habit ingrained in him, as necessary as breathing.
As he sat in his chair where security monitors surrounded him, a distant echo caught his attention. He became still, senses alert as he strained to discern the source. Then the muffled strains of the same haunting melody she’d played for the first time several nights ago barely reached his ears, but he knew instantly that she was home and playing.
He uncharacteristically shoved away from the monitors, not having completed his sweep of the premises, something he never did, and hurried into his bedroom, to his window, pushing it open to allow the beautiful music inside.
Before Hayley moved in, opening a window in his apartment was something he would have never even contemplated. It was a security risk. Someone could access his private domain, and he held his privacy and his space sacred. No one dared encroach on it. There were a hundred other risks he took by opening his window and making himself vulnerable, but he was simply unable to resist the call of her violin.
With his windows closed, they were nearly impenetrable. All were top of the line, bulletproof and shatterproof. It would take a high-powered bomb to penetrate the glass and provide someone access to his apartment. And yet now, he found himself easing onto the edge of his bed, the soft breeze blowing inside, concentrating on each note, the raucous noise of the city falling away as he narrowed his concentration only on the heavenly sound seemingly carried on the wind by angels’ wings.
He shook his head, wondering if he was finally losing what was left of his mind. He wasn’t a poetic man at all, even if he did have a preference for fine music, food and wine. He had promised himself many years ago, when he’d given up all dreams of being a normal child and living a normal life, that he would leave dirt and poverty behind. Never again would he go days without eating only to then rummage through garbage bins, so hungry it mattered little what he stuffed in his mouth, and then be chased away like vermin by angry store owners who thought he was there to cause trouble.
His self-worth had been stripped away long before he even knew what self-worth was or what it meant. He’d never been given the opportunity to be a human being, instead regarded as little more than an animal since his unfortunate birth. Hell, even animals were treated more humanely than he had been.
But he’d made a solemn vow to never again be moneyless or powerless, and by God, he’d followed through on that vow. He had more money than he would ever spend in a lifetime, and yet he had no one to leave his vast wealth to. He’d set his course, choosing a solitary existence, only embracing the men he called brothers, men like him who’d seen the darker side of humanity, men who’d been shaped and scarred from the travesty of growing up in appalling conditions, never knowing what it was like to have someone love or care about them. Drake was the exception. He was a fortunate man to have found a woman—Evangeline—who accepted the darkness that lived inside him, in them all. It hadn’t been easy. Drake had very nearly destroyed—twice—the very woman who ended up saving him from the barren existence Silas and the rest of his brothers lived.
Such would never be for Silas. He carried too much darkness with him. Far more than Drake or any of his brothers. His demons were strong, alive and growing stronger all the time. His life was too dangerous to ever consider allowing anyone too close. They would only suffer because of him and the choices he’d made. He didn’t regret those choices or choosing a life that was solely devoted to the protection of Drake and the others. He’d given his allegiance and loyalty freely to Drake, knowing that Drake would never betray him. But that was all Silas had room for, and it occupied his entire life. Every minute of his days—and nights—was filled with one aim. He’d give his life for any of his brothers, and now Evangeline, or Angel as Drake had so appropriately deemed her.
It was likely that one day he would indeed die for one or more of those he’d sworn his loyalty to, but he embraced this duty as he did everything else in his life. With calm acceptance and no regret. Drake had much reason to live now. He had a wife he loved beyond measure, and a child who would arrive in less than two months. For the first time, Drake’s life had purpose and meaning beyond their group of brethren and the business of amassing wealth and power. And Silas would absolutely sacrifice himself to ensure that Drake never lost what he’d claimed as his, because without Evangeline and their child, Drake would no longer have any reason to live a
nd their empire would crumble to dust. Silas would never allow that to happen while he had breath in his body. Drake needed him. Their brothers needed him. Evangeline and her unborn child needed his protection. And Evangeline was one of very few people in this world to whom Silas readily gave his regard, affection and unwavering support. She was the only person who could make him truly smile, and before her, he could not remember when he’d smiled at anyone, even himself.
A sudden and unwanted thought intruded upon his introspection. Would Hayley manage to give him a reason to smile? Could he ever be in her presence and not smile? He shook off the ridiculous notion, pissed beyond measure that he was fucking obsessed with a woman he’d never even met and her nightly gift of music. He had to break her hold on him. Had to get away during the times she practiced, or he feared losing his focus at a moment when he could not afford to have his concentration anything but absolute.
And yet the mere thought of not hearing her each night as he lay in his bed was more than he could bear. Even thinking of running, escaping, being somewhere else instilled something remarkably like panic deep within him, and he was not a man who ever panicked. He was cold, ruthless and had no emotion, good or bad, when performing his duties. Emotion had no place in his dealings. Emotion made people rash, hasty. It made people make mistakes, second-guess, or hesitate. And any of those possibilities meant the difference between living and dying, killing or being killed, protecting those he was sworn to protect or failing them. He could never live knowing he had failed the people he had vowed no harm would ever come to.
For how long Silas sat there, transfixed and soothed by the notes Hayley wove together, he didn’t know. She was a magician, able to tame the beast when nothing or no one else could. Did she realize the extent of her gift? He was so lost in his thoughts and the oddity of feeling, just for a brief moment, of being at complete peace, something he couldn’t remember ever experiencing, that he didn’t realize the music had stopped until silence blanketed his bedroom, taking with it his ability to feel . . . joy, contentment and the brief respite from the rage that always simmered so close to the surface.
He bowed his head, feeling the loss as keenly as if his heart had been cut from his body. He curled his fingers into tight fists, angry that he allowed her this control over him. Her music. Even as he realized the futility in blaming her for what she had no knowledge of. Then the realization that he had no power over allowing or not allowing her anything instilled a feeling of helplessness and of being powerless, two things he’d vowed never to be again. No matter his fury or the vicious war he waged within himself, he was forced to acknowledge that he had no ability whatsoever to break the power she had over his emotions, thoughts and mood. And that made him feel more helpless and vulnerable—defenseless—than he’d felt since he was just a child.
He stood abruptly and stalked back to the living room, livid at himself for not completing his security sweep of the perimeter. It was a practice he never deviated from. Every time he left and then returned to his apartment, he always went over every single area his cameras kept a steady eye on. He had traps set inside his apartment, ways of knowing if anyone had been within, and yet he’d forgotten everything the moment he’d heard Hayley’s violin.
He swore viciously, enraged with himself for being so easily distracted. Distractions were what got a person killed. He was the man Drake was depending on to keep him and Evangeline safe, and yet Silas wasn’t even able to maintain his own security and see to his own safety thanks to his new neighbor, a woman he should have never softened toward. He should have never offered her the apartment adjoining his. To this day he was still bewildered by the sudden urge that had come over him when he saw the anguish and desperation in her face. It was so unlike him to ever give in to impulse and yet not only had he demanded that his manager offer her the apartment, but he’d also ordered him to have his driver see her home and then he’d paid the contractor an obscene amount of money to reconstruct the walls and make what had been one huge apartment spanning the entire top floor into two apartments so Hayley would have a place to live.
Stupid. Impulsive. Irrational.
And all three were a recipe for disaster and actions a man like him should never succumb to—had never succumbed to. Until now.
The only plausible explanation for his uncharacteristic behavior was that Hayley had reminded him far too much of Evangeline in that dark time when Drake had believed she had betrayed him, had betrayed them all, and had thrown her out of his life. Perhaps the incident wasn’t as far removed from his memory as he’d thought. Yes, that had to be the only reason he’d acted on such impulse and refused to turn away a young woman who looked so vulnerable and desperate.
He meticulously checked the indicators that would let him know if anyone had entered his apartment during his absence. When he’d studied each one, three times in succession, he then went back to the monitors, disturbed and uneasy by the deviation in his routine. He always locked up first. Then he reviewed footage from each of the monitors, rewinding and watching until he was satisfied that there had been no intruders. Then and only then did he check his traps. After strict adherence to the routine that had become automatic—until now—then and only then would he see to his personal needs, but even those were carried out in exact order. Until fucking now. He cursed savagely, venting his frustration for the disruption, because any deviation from his routine greatly unsettled him and threatened his fragile hold on his sanity.
As a result of the change in the order of his tasks, and because his anxiety was so great he could barely breathe much less pull himself back together, he rewound the security footage once, twice and then a third time until he was finally satisfied that no one had trespassed on his private domain. Still tense, he went to his liquor cabinet and poured a drink in an effort to calm his rioting thoughts. He sank into the leather chair facing the monitors and ran a hand raggedly through his hair.
He had to do something about her. She couldn’t remain so close. She was driving him to the brink of insanity. She was a huge distraction. One he couldn’t afford. And yet the thought of making her leave and denying himself the healing balm of her music made him feel bereft. Lonely when he’d been alone his entire life, and before now it had never bothered him. He embraced solitude and isolation. He was far more uncomfortable in the presence of people than when he was alone. He knew how to be alone. He didn’t know how to not be alone.
To his utter astonishment, shame and guilt suddenly plagued him. Shame he was well acquainted with, having lived it for the first eleven years of his life. Since then he’d refused to feel shame for any of his actions. But guilt? He was flabbergasted that for even a brief moment he had felt an emotion that wasn’t just foreign to him. It was, quite simply, something he had never even imagined he was capable of.
He recognized his selfishness, though, and shame and guilt both accompanied that realization. He’d thought to get rid of Hayley, remove her from close proximity so he could go back to his well-ordered and disciplined existence, yet he couldn’t deprive himself of those precious few stolen moments when her music gave him beauty and peace such as he’d never known. Were it not for that one thing, he likely would have his manager move her somewhere else, citing repairs that must be made. Having already been witness to the desperation and sorrow in her eyes, how could he be a complete bastard and turn her out when she’d unknowingly given so much to him? He knew damn well how much she needed the apartment he’d given her. He’d seen—hell, he’d felt—her joy and gratitude over his renting it to her. And yet, were it not for what she gave him, he’d put her out on the streets without anywhere to go and no way to protect herself from the evil he was only too well aware existed there. He truly was the monster he’d been deemed.
He slammed his empty whiskey glass down in frustration. She was driving him insane and they hadn’t even met. In the two weeks she’d lived here, he’d felt all manner of things he’d never allowed into his mind before. Selfishness, sham
e and, worst of all, fucking guilt. He had to do something or she’d make him weak, defenseless and ineffective as the enforcer for the people he protected. Because how could he focus on his primary objective when his thoughts were consumed with a woman who didn’t even know he existed?
He was so absorbed in self-loathing that at first he didn’t register the knock at his door. When it sounded again, his head came up, nostrils flaring as anger seized him. Too much of his routine had already been destroyed today. And now some idiot was knocking on his door? If it was his manager again, he’d have his fucking head. The man knew not to ever disturb Silas and, above all, never come up unannounced to his apartment.