I sneak out of my room every night. My father's guards don't see me. My sister doesn't see me.
No one sees me, except him.
He's the son of a mafia foot soldier. My father is the boss. I shouldn't even know Giovanni. And I definitely shouldn't kiss him. Our relationship is doomed to fail, but that won't stop me from trying.
Not every girl wants to be a princess. I just want to be free.
I wait a few minutes until he’s out of earshot; then I flip the latch. From there it’s quick work to push up the pane with its bulletproof glass. I broke the lock a year ago. And almost every night since then I’ve sneaked down the ornate metal trellis—like a thief, stealing a moment to myself.
The grass is still damp from the rain, the ground beneath like a sponge, sucking me in. I cross the lawn, heart beating against my chest. I know exactly where the guards are on their rounds. I know exactly where the trip wires are that will set off the alarms. My father is too busy in his office to even glance outside.
The office I broke into this morning.
I breathe a sigh of relief when I reach the pool. I’m still out in the open, but the bright underwater lights make it hard to see anything on the patio. They make it hard to see me as I curve around the edge and reach the pool house.
The door opens before I touch the handle. “Clara,” comes the whisper.
I can’t help but smile as I slip into the dark. Giovanni always opens the door for me. It’s like some old-world chivalry thing, even though we’re just two kids sneaking around. At least, that’s how everyone treats me. Like a kid. But when I’m with him, I feel less like a girl, more like a woman.
He looks out the door for a beat before shutting and locking it. “Are you sure no one saw you?”
“You’re such a worrywart, Gio.” I let myself fall onto the couch, facing up.
“If your father ever found out…”
We’d be in so much trouble. My father is a member of the mob. Giovanni’s father is a foot soldier who works security on the grounds. Both our dads are seriously dangerous, not to mention a little unhinged. I can’t even think about how bad it would be if they caught us sneaking around after dark.
I push those thoughts away. “Did you bring it?”
Reluctantly, Giovanni nods. He gestures to the side table, where a half-full bottle of Jack Daniels gleams in the faint light. “Did you?”
I reach into the pockets of my jeans and pull out two cigars. I hold them up and grin. “Didn’t even break a sweat.”
He rolls his eyes, but I think he’s relieved. “This was a bad idea.”
“It was my idea,” I remind him, and his cheeks turn dark.
Of course the little homework assignment was my idea. I’m the one ridiculously sheltered up in my room with the tutors and the gilded locks. Fifteen years old and I’ve never even been out to the movies. Giovanni gets to go to regular school. He’s too young to get inducted, but I know he gets to be at some of the sit-ins.
“I just want to try them,” I say. “I’m not going to get addicted or anything.”
He snorts. “More likely you’ll get a hangover. How are you going to explain puking to your padre?”
“Honor will cover for me.” My sister always covers for me. She takes the brunt of my father’s anger. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I love the way she protects me. But one percent of the time, it feels like a straitjacket. That’s why I started coming to the pool house. And I’m glad I did. This is where I met Giovanni.
He examines the cigar, eyes narrowed.
“How do you even light it?” I ask. I’ve seen my father do it a hundred times, but I’m still not clear on how the whole thing doesn’t just catch fire. Isn’t it made from dried plants?
He puts the cigar to his lips experimentally. It looks strange seeing his full lips around something I’ve mostly seen my father use. Then he blows out a breath, miming how it would be. I imagine white smoke curling in front of his tanned skin.
“They don’t let you use them when they do?” I ask.
He gives me a dark look. I’m not supposed to talk about the side jobs he does for his father. “I mostly sit in a corner and hope no one notices me. It’s boring.”
“If it’s boring, then why won’t you talk about it?” I know it’s not a good thing to be noticed by men like our father, to be groomed by them, but sometimes that seems better than being ignored. I’m the younger one. And a girl. And there are rumors that I’m not even my father’s legitimate child. In other words, I’m lucky my sister remembers to feed me.
He swears in Italian. “That’s no life for you, Clara.”
“And it’s a life for you?”
“I would leave if I could,” he says. “You know that.”
“You turn eighteen in a year. Will you leave then?” My stomach clenches at the thought of him gone. I’m two years younger than him. And even when I turn eighteen, I won’t be leaving. By then I’ll be engaged to whoever my father picks for me.
Just like my sister. I shudder at the thought of her fiancé.
He shrugs. “We’ll see.”
I roll my eyes. I suspect he’s making plans, but he isn’t sharing them with me. That’s how the men around here operate, keeping girls in the dark. Honor only found out she was engaged when Byron was invited over for dinner. He has the money and the power. She doesn’t get a choice. Neither will I.
“If you go, you should take me with you,” I say.
“I don’t think Honor would appreciate me taking you away.”
No, she wouldn’t. And the thought of being without my sister makes my heart ache. Sometimes I give her a hard time, but I love her. I’d never leave her behind. “She can come with us. It will be like an adventure.”
“Don’t talk stupid, Clara.” His eyes flash with anger and something else I can’t define.
I jerk back, hurt. “It was just an idea.”
“Well, it’s a bad idea. Your father is never gonna let you leave.”
Deep inside, I turn cold. I know that’s true. Of course it is. Giovanni doesn’t have the money or the resources to take us away from here. And even if he did, why would he want to?
I hate myself for even suggesting it. How desperate can I look?
Shaking inside, I stand up and grab the bottle of Jack Daniels. It’s heavier than I would have expected, but I carry it over to a wet bar still stocked with decanters and wine glasses. No liquor though. There used to be huge parties here. When my mother died, they stopped.
We’re supposed to have a party in a few days, though, to celebrate my sister’s engagement. I’m not even allowed to go. I’ll just be able to see the fireworks from the window.
Without a word Giovanni joins me, his heat both comforting and stark. He takes the glass from my shaking hand. He opens the bottle and pours the deep amber liquid inside. Then takes another cup for himself, twice as full.
“Why do you get more?” I protest, mostly because I like teasing him.
His expression is amused. “I’m bigger than you.”
He is bigger. Taller and broader, though still skinny. His hands are bigger than mine too. They hold the glass with confidence, whereas I almost drop mine.
I take a sip before I can second-guess myself. “Oh my God.”
It burns my throat, battery acid scalding me all the way down.
His lips firm, like he’s trying not to laugh. “Good stuff?”
“Oh, shut up.” Then it doesn’t matter because I’m laughing too. That stuff is awful.
He grins and takes a drink—more like a gulp. And he doesn’t cough or wince after. “You get used to it.”
“How much do I have to drink to get used to it?”
“More than you should.”
I take another sip. It burns again, but I have to say, not as bad. It still doesn’t taste good, but I’m determined to drink it anyway. This pool house is the only place where I can break the rules, where I can experience things. The pool house is the only place I even feel alive.
“Let’s try mine,” I say. My voice already sounds rougher from the alcohol.
He holds up the cigar. “Did you bring a lighter?”
His eyes crinkle in that way I love. It makes my chest feel full, like there’s no room for air. “It doesn’t matter,” he says.
“But I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain.”
He takes another drink. It looks so natural when he does it. “What bargain?”
“To do bad things,” I say seriously. When your life is as controlled as mine, you need to plan these things. Tonight is supposed to be the night.
He looks down, a strange smile on his face. “Let’s start with the whiskey. If that’s not enough, we can knock over a bank or something.”
I smack his arm. “You’re making fun of me.”
“Never.” His eyes meet mine, and I see that he’s not laughing at all. “I’d rob a bank if you wanted me to.”
My stomach twists at his solemn tone. “I’d rather you stay safe,” I whisper.
He reaches a hand toward me like he’s going to cup my face, only half an inch away he freezes. I can almost feel the heat of him, and I remain very still, waiting to see what he’ll do next.
He shoves his empty glass onto the bar and walks away.
I let out a breath. What is that about? Lately we keep having these moments where it seems, like he’s going to touch me. But he never does. I want to touch him too, but I don’t. I wouldn’t know where to start. I can’t even imagine how he’d feel. Would he be like the whiskey, leaving a trail of fire? I’m scared to find out.
He’s on the couch, so I join him there. Not touching, just sitting beside him.
“Gio, I’m worried about Honor.”
He doesn’t look at me. “She’s strong. She can take care of herself.”
“Yeah, but Byron is a jerk.” And even she can’t fight the tides. That’s what men like Byron are. Tsunamis. Hurricanes. Natural disasters.
“Your dad wants someone who can take over. That’s pretty much guaranteed to be an asshole.”
He’s not saying anything I don’t know, but it’s still frustrating. It’s too dark to see his expression. I can only see the shape of him beside me, his neck and shoulders limned by moonlight. “This isn’t the eighteenth century. This is Las Vegas.”
“Marriage isn’t about that. Not here.”
It’s about making alliances. It’s about money. “He should make you the next one in line.”
At least Gio has been around for years. His dad is trusted here, even if he’s not high ranking. This Byron guy hasn’t even been in Las Vegas very long. And he’s a cop. I learned from an early age not to trust cops—even dirty ones.
Gio shakes his head. “No, thanks.”
“Why not? You’d be good at it.” I can tell he’s biting his tongue. “What?”
“Good at killing people?” he asks softly.
I flinch. Most of the time we skirt around what exactly my father does. And technically Gio is a part of that. I’ve never asked him if he’s killed someone. For all I know, he already has robbed a bank. He’s still in high school, so they’re keeping him light. But once he graduates high school, they’ll want to induct him. I’d almost rather he did leave then. Even though it would kill me to see him go.
He shakes his head. “Anyway, if it were me being groomed, I’d have to marry Honor. And I couldn’t do that.”
The thought of him marrying my sister makes my stomach knot. He’s only a couple years younger than her. It’s actually not a bad idea. “Why not?”
“Because I like her sister.”
I go very still. There’s only one sister. Me.
“What did you say?” I whisper.
“You heard me.” He leans close. He reaches for me—and this time, his hand does cup my cheek. The feel of him is shocking, startling, impossibly coarse and warm at the same time. He runs his thumb along my skin, rasping against me. My eyes flutter closed.
The old leather of the couch creaks as he leans forward. He must be inches away now. His breath coasts over my lips. Goose bumps rise on my skin. I’m waiting…hoping…
Suddenly his lips are against mine, warm and soft. God, I’ve seen those lips smile and twist and curse a blue streak, but I never imagined they could be this soft. Nothing like whiskey, with its fire. This is a gentle heat, a caress, and I sink into him, let myself go lax.
One second later, he’s gone. Not touching me at all.
My eyes snap open. “Gio?”
He looks tormented. I may not have felt the whiskey burn, but he did. Pain flashes through his eyes. He stands and walks away. “No, Clara. That was wrong. I was wrong to do that.”
“But why?” How could that be wrong? That was the best thing that ever happened to me. On a night when I wanted to be bad, I experienced my first kiss. It’s the best bad thing I could have imagined. And it tasted so sweet.
He’s still shaking his head, so vehemently I’m not sure who he’s trying to convince—me or himself. “You’ve been drinking.”
“One drink,” I say, kind of insulted. I may be new to this, but I’m not drunk.
“One drink is enough.”
“You had one drink too,” I point out, accusing.
He laughs, the sound unsteady and harsh. “I’m bigger than you.”
I don’t know if he means the drink affects him less or if it’s just another reason why the kiss was a bad idea—as if he might have overpowered me. But there is no reason why this is a bad idea. I’ve wanted him to kiss me forever. And judging by the way he kissed just now, he liked it too. Unless…
My voice is small. “Did I…do it wrong?”
He lets out a string of curse words. “No, bella. You did nothing wrong. This is me. I can’t touch you when you’ve been drinking. I can’t touch you at all.”