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Claiming What’s Mine







Jennifer

USA Today Bestselling Author

Sucevic




Copyright 2018 by Jennifer Sucevic

Smashwords Edition




All Rights Reserved. This book is licensed for your enjoyment only. This e-book may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in critical articles or reviews.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, places, businesses, characters and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, actual events or locales is purely coincidental.



Cover by The Reading Ruth

Edited by Allison Walker Schorr




Also by Jennifer Sucevic


Confessions of a Heartbreaker

Don’t Leave

Friend Zoned

If You Were Mine

King of Campus

One Night Stand

Protecting What’s Mine

Stay



Table of Contents

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Epilogue

Protecting What’s Mine

About the Author




























Prologue


Roman

Present


I’m beginning to lose myself.

I feel it happening more with the passing of each day, and it scares the shit out of me. During rare moments of self-reflection, doubt creeps in, and I question objectives that should be irrefutable.

For a man like me, this is a precarious situation.

Over the last three years, I’ve done everything in my power to keep her at a distance. I’ve been a bastard. I’ve been rude. I’ve tried ignoring her. I’ve withheld my friendship. Most days, I’m barely civil to her, because I know all hell will break loose once the floodgates open.

None of my tactics douse the spark that flares to life when we’re in the same room. I’m a moth dancing too close to the twisting flames.

One of these days, I’m going to get burned.

Or end up with a bullet in my head.

A solitary image of her flickering through my brain is enough to make me grow unbearably hard.

I’ve found myself on the verge of reaching out to slide my fingers through the glossy strands of her dark hair too many times to count.

Because I’m a sick and twisted fuck, I often fantasize about wrapping the thick, rope-like length around my palm and pulling it taut. I want her lush, naked body bowing like a supple tree branch and bending to my will. I want her rendered incapable of doing anything other than submitting to my dominance.

The thought of her on bent knees, ass high in the air, cheek and chest pressed against the mattress as I hold her pinned, puts me on the brink of blowing my wad.

Sofia can’t figure out why I act like such a bastard. I see the silent questions lingering in her eyes. If I were a lesser man, I’d fall to my knees and beg for absolution. But that’s an impossibility.

I know the truth, even if she doesn’t.

You’d think she would grow to despise me because of my churlish behavior. But she hasn’t. Not yet. She may have learned to stay away from me, but she doesn’t always abide by what she knows is best for her.

Sofia doesn’t understand the feelings I stoke to life inside her. Nor does she understand the attraction vibrating in the air between us. But I do. I recognize it all too well. She wears her emotions across her heart-shaped face. And she doesn’t realize that I feast upon them like a starved monster lurking in the darkness.

They’re much too tempting for me to resist.

Something primitive inside me enjoys the way her body reacts to mine. Without meaning to, she displays her sexual desire for me. She flushes when our eyes meet. Her nipples harden under clothing. Her breath hitches, causing the pulse in her neck to beat erratically like the wings of a trapped bird.

I want nothing more than to claim her and make her mine.

But that will never happen.

Sofia Valentini will never belong to me.

I can’t get her out of my head. I’ve tried losing myself in dozens of other women over the years. It isn’t difficult to find a willing woman in this city. Not when you work for the Valentinis. Our reputation precedes us wherever we go.

And the pussy flows freely in response.

It makes no difference how high or low you rank in the organization. Name recognition is more than enough to get you whatever you want. These women want to live vicariously through you. Money, drugs, blood, and violence are powerful aphrodisiacs.

It’s surprising how drawn some of these women are to a dangerous lifestyle. They want to singe their wings without getting burned. They want to dance close to the fire without getting torched.

But Sofia is different.

She’s a princess who was born into this lifestyle, and now that she’s free to make her own choices, she wants nothing to do with the Valentini empire. She would prefer to come from average, middle-class parents. Not one of the most well-known crime families in the United States, whose power and corruption dates back generations. And not one that resides in a multi-million-dollar compound on twenty sprawling acres of prime real estate along the shore of Lake Michigan.

Sofia Valentini is an exotic bird trapped in a gilded cage.

I’ve tried fucking women with the same olive-toned flesh. Big-breasted, generously-hipped, angelic-faced women I pretend with in dark rooms as I empty myself into their welcoming bodies.

But it’s no use. No matter how hard I try, I can’t forget that these women are nothing more than a poor substitute for the one I really want.

I’ve gone the other route, too, and screwed females who look nothing like her. Blondes. Redheads. Brunettes. Ones who are slim as reeds, with no tits to speak of. And ones who are tight and athletic and limber as hell.

You’d think a woman who strokes and plays with my balls as I slam into her from behind would be enough to make me forget Sofia.

It’s not.

When Sofia should be the last thing occupying my mind, she pushes her way inside. Then I ejaculate in a blind outrage with a roar of frustration. Instead of providing relief, the release fuels the fury and lust boiling within me.

It also forces me to acknowledge and accept that I have no fucking control over my own thoughts, feelings, or body where Sofia is concerned, which pisses me off more than anything else. I take pride in being able to turn my emotions off as if they were a light switch. I couldn’t do my job if I didn’t have that kind of self-control.

But that capability is rendered useless with Sofia.

She’s my weakness

While I might not be able to possess her, I’ll be damned if another man lays claim to what’s mine.



Chapter One


Sofia

Three years ago


“Well, hello there, handsome.” My sister cranes her neck. “Who do we have here?”

At twenty-five, Francesca is already married and living in Philadelphia with her husband. I don’t get to spend as much time with her as I’d like. Since we’re two years apart, and she’s my only sister out of four siblings, we’re thick as thieves. I’m always excited when she comes home for a visit.

Our mother has arranged a shopping excursion on Michigan Avenue, along with two dinner parties with friends and family while Frankie’s here. If there’s time, we’ll head up north to spend the weekend at our cottage in Door County, Wisconsin. Escaping the frenetic energy of the city is always a welcome change. I could spend days wandering around the quaint little towns dotting Lake Michigan’s eastern shores. Like the family compound which lies north of Chicago, the cottage has been in our family for generations.

I don’t bother glancing in the direction where Frankie’s eyes are focused. I already know what—or who—has captured her attention. My skin prickled with awareness as soon as he stepped outside.

“That’s Roman. He works for Papa,” I tell her, ignoring the nerves dancing at the bottom of my belly.

Frankie snorts. “Of course, he does.” Still staring at him, she states the obvious. “Damn, but he’s hot.”

The appreciative tone of her voice makes the edges of my lips curl into a smile. Clearing my throat, I admonish, “Have you forgotten that you’re a married woman?”

Francesca and Dante have enjoyed marital bliss for two years, and Frankie is the happiest I’ve ever seen her. They were high school sweethearts and have known each other since they were children. I can’t imagine my sister with anyone other than Dante, who has mastered the art of reining her in when necessary while allowing her to spread her wings and soar. Not an easy feat for any man. Frankie can be a handful. There’s no doubt in my mind that the two of them were made for one another.

“Please.” She rolls her eyes. “I can appreciate a good-looking male when I see one.”

“Uh-huh,” I tease, recalling how she threatens her husband with bodily harm whenever she catches him looking at other women. “Can Dante appreciate a good-looking female when he sees one as well?”

“Not if he enjoys having balls.”

I burst into laughter. Francesca has nothing to worry about. Dante loves her beyond reason and would do anything for her.

How can I not envy them?

It’s difficult to imagine having a relationship like theirs since my past is riddled with courtships that fizzled out around the six-month mark. Of course, being hung up on a man who wants nothing to do with me doesn’t help my love life either.

Those thoughts viciously circle through my brain as my gaze settles on Roman. Looking deliciously sweaty, he makes his way into the yard from the basement gym where my father’s men work out. I’ve unintentionally memorized his schedule. Every day like clockwork, Roman spends an hour lifting weights before taking a four-mile run along the trails bordering the wooded property.

I like watching him when he’s unaware of my presence. Then I can look at him as much as I want without the fear of getting a glare in return.

I don’t know why he doesn’t like me.

But he doesn’t. You’d have to be blind not to notice his disgust. He doesn’t even try to hide it.

I sensed his disdain the first time we met. Each subsequent encounter has only intensified those feelings. I’m not sure what I did to cause this reaction in him, nor do I know how to alter his perception.

What I have learned in the time I’ve been acquainted with Roman is to give him a wide berth. And yet, knowing his feelings, I still gravitate to this spot at the same time every morning. I just can’t help myself.

I must be a glutton for punishment, because I live for these fleeting glimpses of him. I file them away in the back of my mind to take out when I’m alone in my room.

Roman is one of my father’s men. His disposition toward me shouldn’t matter. But it does. I’ve racked my brain to come up with a rational explanation for his behavior, but can’t find one. As much as it troubles me, I refuse to confront him and ask about it.

That would indicate I give a damn and that his opinion matters.

Which isn’t the case.

All right, maybe it is.

I can pretend all I want to the outside world, but I can’t lie to myself. I have a sick obsession with the man. I have no idea why he fascinates me.

No one would ever accuse Roman of having a sparkling personality. The man is surly to the extreme. At least toward me, he is. Every time he glowers at me, my breath catches, and my pulse runs rampant. My panties dampen whenever I imagine his big, rough hands stroking my naked body.

I’m not under any illusions that Roman would be a tender lover.

There doesn’t seem to be a gentle bone in his body.

He’s the strong, silent type, with eyes that constantly assess his surroundings to look for threats. I’ve never seen him kick back and relax. I’m not even sure if he knows how to smile.

His complexion is dark and swarthy. My guess is that he’s of Italian descent. His body is hard. Strong. Honed for violence. A thin veneer of civility masks the explosive personality I sense lurking beneath the surface.

My sister and I silently watch as Roman moves through a series of stretches. I’m held prisoner by the sight of his muscles contracting and lengthening. Since he hasn’t glanced in our direction, I assume he’s unaware of us ogling him from the screened-in porch as we enjoy steaming mugs of coffee.

Roman’s dark head angles toward us. His gaze collides with mine, and I realize that he’s been aware of us the entire time. Our interest has not gone unnoticed.

The hairs on my arms rise as he stares at me.

“Well, well, well,” Francesca murmurs, her voice full of amusement. “What do we have here?”

I try to look away, but can’t. I’m transfixed by the sight of him. Other than the long black athletic shorts sitting loosely around lean hips, his sun-kissed skin is gloriously bare. His muscular chest glistens with perspiration in the early morning sunlight. His cheeks are flushed from his exertion in the gym. Dark stubble covers both chin and jawline.

This man is the epitome of tall, dark, and sinfully sexy. I’m not alone in my appreciation. I’ve seen the way other women watch him. He may not want it, but he attracts female attention without even trying.

My sister elbows me in the ribs. “Have you been holding out on me? Is there some kind of illicit flirtation going on between you and one of Papa’s henchmen?”

Without acknowledging our presence, Roman severs eye contact and releases me from the captivity of his stare. Air rushes from my lungs, and my legs turn to jelly as he takes off at a fast clip toward the dense woods bordering the side of the property. I track him until he passes through the tree line.

I shake my head to clear it of the random thoughts that have accumulated. “Of course not. There’s nothing going on between us.”

“Are you sure about that?” she sing-songs teasingly, letting me know that I’m not fooling her for a minute.

Now that Roman has disappeared into the forest that comprises three-fourths of the property, my heart rate returns to normal and coherent thought floods through my brain.

“He can barely tolerate the sight of me, Frankie.” The bitter truth of the words rings harshly in my ears and tastes bitter on my tongue.

Her brows pinch together. “Why do you say that?”

I shrug and murmur under my breath, “You saw the way he stared at me, right?”

“Yeah.”

I glance at my sister. Our gazes catch and hold. We’ve always been adept at silently communicating with one another. It’s a childhood trick that came in handy when we were trapped in a roomful of adults.

For the first time in my life, I don’t want that mental connection with Frankie. If she looks too closely, she might see the feelings I have for Roman. And I’m not comfortable with owning up to something that scares and confuses me so much.

I casually wave a hand in the air. “He always looks at me that way. It’s like he’s angry that I’m breathing the same air as him.”

“Hmm.” She presses her lips together in a thoughtful manner. “Interesting.”

None of my father’s men have ever made me feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in my own home. But Roman does.

I console myself with the fact that school begins again in less than a month. I’ll return to my apartment in the city, where I can immerse myself in classes and forget all about Roman Santori.

For a while.

I’m in my second year of a master’s program in Educational Psychology. Most of the people I know who are my age don’t spend their summer breaks living at home with their parents, but Mama and Papa are overprotective. They worry about my safety. We have an understanding. I stay at the compound during breaks in exchange for freedom during the academic year.

I really don’t mind spending time at home.

Let me rephrase that—I never minded before Roman began working for my father.

I’ve been uneasy in his presence from the get-go. I’ve tried being polite and friendly. Not overly so, but enough to pass one another in the hallway or kitchen with a cordial greeting.

My attempts at civility were repeatedly met with cold, emotionless looks and a handful of muttered words that barely passed for conversation. I now go to great lengths to stay out of parts of the house I know he’ll be in to avoid any more forced interaction.

As much as Roman intimidates me, I’m still drawn to him. His masculinity appeals to something infinitely female in me. My senses go haywire whenever he’s in the vicinity. I don’t understand my visceral reaction to him since he’s the opposite type of guy I usually find attractive.

“I don’t know,” Frankie speculates, snapping me out of my musings. “I get the feeling there’s more to it.”

“You’re crazy. I know when someone doesn’t like me.” My heart clenches as I add, “And for some reason, I rub this guy the wrong way.”



Chapter Two



Sofia

Two years ago


A hand settles on my shoulder. Startled, I spin around. As my gaze collides with Franco’s, a big smile spreads across my face. A matching grin lights up his.

“Franco!”

“Long time, no see, Valentini!”

Without hesitation, I wrap my arms around his thin, wiry body and squeeze tight. He does the same. It’s been at least a year since we’ve seen each other. Franco and I grew up together, and we’ve been close friends ever since. He moved to New York after college. We rarely get the chance to spend time together due to our busy schedules. Finding him here is a wonderful surprise.

“What are you doing here?”

“I was heading back from California when Pops asked me to stop home.” He jerks his head toward the wing of the house where my father’s office is located, his jovial expression sobering. “He’s meeting with Enzo.”

“And he brought you along for the ride, huh?” Trying to lighten the heaviness permeating the air, I joke, “Moving up in the world, I see.”

He rolls his mocha-colored eyes and snickers. “Sure, I’ll be running the show in two years, max.”

I smirk as pleasure floods through me again at his unexpected presence. Regardless of the reason, I’m happy to see him. “I don’t doubt it.”

Like me, Franco has no interest in joining the family business. We’ve always had that in common. It’s what bonded us together in the beginning. We’re just two misfits who want to blaze our own trail in the world by choosing different paths for ourselves. Franco graduated with a degree in accounting. He’s a whiz with finances. Unfortunately, his chosen area of study is a useful skill set to his father.

Mine, not so much. Which is fine with me.

“I was hoping we could get together while I’m in town. Are you free?” he asks.

“How about tonight?” I suggest, wanting to nail something down before we say goodbye.

“It’ll have to be after eight; there are family obligations I have to take care of first. Maybe we can grab dinner and drinks and make a night of it?”

I pull Franco into my arms again. I’ve missed his friendship this past year. It’s not the same with him gone. There aren’t many people I can be honest with. Franco is one of the few. Even though I’m surrounded by family, friends, and my father’s men, life at the compound is lonely.

You’re never sure who can be trusted and who can be bought with enough money thrown in their direction. I’ve had supposed friends sell stories to the tabloids regarding my family. Once that happens, you grow cautious as to who you allow into your inner circle. When you do happen to find someone who proves themselves to be trustworthy, you hold on to them tightly with both hands because you understand just how precious a commodity it is.

I grin. “It’ll be just like old times.”

Still wrapped in Franco’s arms, I feel his presence seconds before he clears his throat. There’s no rational explanation for why my body is so finely attuned to his, but it is.

“Your father is wondering where you’ve disappeared to,” Roman says to Franco in a clipped tone.

Franco tenses and turns to face him. When I try to step out of Franco’s embrace, he stakes his claim by tightening his hold. The two men silently glare at each other as the atmosphere in the kitchen becomes oppressive.

Not once does Roman glance my way.

He never does.

To him, I am invisible.

It’s been a year since Roman began working for my father and his dislike for me hasn’t diminished. It’s as if he made a snap decision and has never bothered to revise it.

Franco looks down at me with questioning eyes and tightens his hold. He must feel the tension permeating the air, too.

A muscle ticks in Roman’s jaw, but his mask of indifference doesn’t falter. He reminds me of a predator right before it strikes at prey. I can’t imagine why he would lash out at Franco. They’re not even acquainted with one another. Enzo and Franco’s father formed an alliance decades ago. It would be foolish to create problems where none exist.

“I stopped to say hello to Sofia,” Franco replies. “I’ll be there shortly.”

Roman’s scowl deepens as he folds his arms across his wide chest. My eyes note the way his T-shirt stretches over every contour. His biceps bulge, muscles flexing with each movement. “Your father has grown impatient with your absence. Questions have surfaced that require your particular area of expertise.”

Franco stiffens. He isn’t happy about using his education in this manner, but he has a difficult time denying his father. His decision to distance himself from the family business has caused strife between them. I’m lucky in that regard. I have three older brothers and a handful of cousins to pick up that mantle.

Not so for Franco. He feels trapped in a lifestyle he neither asked for nor wanted.

“Fine.” Looking irritated, Franco shoots me a glance. “I’ll call you later, and we’ll figure out a time and place. Sound good?”

I nod in acknowledgment. The warm comfort of Franco’s arms vanishes from around me. Franco’s eyes shift from Roman to me as if he’s trying to figure out what’s going on between us. He squeezes my fingers and strides through the arched doorway to head down the hall to my father’s office.

My throat goes bone dry, and air leaks from my lungs as Roman frowns at me. I can tell the interaction we’re about to have won’t be pleasant. It’s the why of the matter that eludes me. A surge of awareness zips through my body. My muscles tighten and lock up, rooting me in place.

I’m powerless to flee.

Powerless to do anything other than stare back at him.

How is he able to do this?

How does he tie my insides up in little knots with one hard-edged glare aimed in my direction?

I’ve never experienced this kind of intensity before. What a huge cosmic joke that the man who makes me feel this way wants nothing to do with me.

“You need to stop being such a distraction,” Roman snaps.

The blood drains from my face. Confused by his reaction, I ask, “What are you talking about?”

“He’s here for a reason, and you’re getting in the way of it.”

“Franco and I are friends. We were just saying hello.”

“You’re a distraction,” he growls. “I don’t think you know how to be anything other than that.”

Before I can protest, he stalks out of the kitchen, leaving me to pull myself together after another disastrous conversation. But I can’t. No matter how much I rack my brain, I’ll never understand why Roman hates me.



Chapter Three



Sofia

One year ago


I hiccup and clap a hand over my mouth.

I rarely drink, but the champagne went down far too easily tonight. I need to lie down upstairs until my head clears. My parents are entertaining guests from out of town, so sneaking away shouldn’t be a problem with about fifty people in the house.

I grasp the railing to steady myself and climb the darkened staircase at the back of the house. During the early nineteen-hundreds, a large household staff employed by the Valentini family used this set of steps to move unobtrusively throughout the mansion. A shadow looms over me when I reach the second floor. Even though I can’t make out his features, my body instinctively senses his presence.

Regardless of my feelings for Roman Santori, I’m fully aware of him on a physical level. It’s always been this way and nothing—not his contempt, chilled demeanor, or indifference—has changed it.

My attraction to him feels pathological at times.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out and rationalize my strange obsession with him. Ironically, I’m in the last year of my graduate counseling program, and I’m unable to come to any rational conclusion as to why I can’t move past my attraction for this man.

There’s no logical explanation for it, which only makes my situation more unnerving.

I hastily step back, forgetting that I’m standing at the edge of the landing. Roman’s hands wrap around my forearms and yank me forward until I crash into his body with my palms splayed across his solid chest. My hazy brain registers that his pecs are just as sculpted and chiseled as they appeared to be all the times I sneaked peeks at him during workouts. Before I can catch my breath, he spins us around so that I’m no longer in danger of tumbling down the stairs and shoves me away.

“Are you drunk?” he snarls, accusation and something I can’t identify tinging his voice.

His misplaced anger scrapes at something inside me—the irrational part I keep buried deep down that has been foolishly begging for his attention.

Needing distance, I unsteadily step away from him. I came upstairs hoping to clear my head, and now it feels more muddled than ever. This is the effect Roman has on me. Every damn time. And I’m tired of it. Tired of wishing for something he’s unwilling or incapable of giving me.

“Hardly,” I mutter.

Even in the darkness, his contemptuous glare singes my flesh. “I think you are,” he counters.

“Well, it really doesn’t matter what you think, now does it?” I retort, enjoying my newfound bravado. I’m done with Roman’s tight-fisted hold on me. I want to break free of it for once and for all.

He sucks in a sharp breath and releases it. “You’re right, princess. What you do is of no consequence to me.” Coldness fills his voice. His scorn could shatter me into a million jagged pieces.

I grind my teeth in aggravation.

I haven’t been in his company for more than two minutes, and already my buzz has disappeared. I have no idea why he calls me “princess.” I may be Enzo Valentini’s youngest daughter, but I’m no pampered mafia princess by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t live at the compound. I hold a job. And I don’t take money from my parents. I suspect that he does it to piss me off, which makes no sense.

But, then again, nothing this man does makes the least bit of sense.

I whirl away without another word. All I want is to find my room and lay down for a bit. Roman isn’t my father. Or my brother. Or my boyfriend.

His disapproval means nothing to me.

Well, it should mean nothing to me.

His hand shoots out and snakes around my wrist. I gasp as my back flattens against the wall and Roman’s hard body presses against mine, trapping me in place.

“Do you understand that it’s dangerous for a young woman to lower her guard by getting drunk?”

Of course, I understand that. I’m not an idiot.

If I were on a college campus or at rowdy downtown bar, I’d agree with him. A situation like that has the potential to end badly. I’m one of Enzo Valentini’s daughters, which makes me a walking target for anyone with an axe to grind. It’s one of the reasons I don’t venture out much. Or drink.

“I’m in my own home,” I quietly remind him. “I’m perfectly safe.”

Fury flashes in his dark eyes. “Are you?” He snarls, the guttural sound setting off warning bells in my head. “There are men milling around, people who have been invited here tonight who you don’t know. Any one of them could take advantage of the situation you now find yourself in.”

My throat constricts as his words somersault through my head. I lift my chin. “None of them would dare to touch me.” I can’t imagine any of my father’s men or friends laying a finger on me. Not if they want to keep theirs intact. Most just acknowledge my presence and carry on with their work.

His fingers manacle my wrists, yanking them above my head and shackling them to the wall.

My breath stutters as my eyes widen in shock. “Roman, what are you doing?”

I never say his name out loud.

I try not to even think it in my head.

The carefully controlled persona he normally exudes falls away.

“Teaching you a much-needed lesson, princess.”

Before I can rein it in, a whimper escapes my lips. I don’t know if it’s because I want him to relinquish the punishing hold he has on me or if I want to push the boundaries to see what will happen next. It’s no secret that I want Roman. I’ve dreamed about what his hands would feel like coasting over my body. I’ve longed for his lips to possess mine. I crave him on a physical level, no matter how menacing his behavior toward me is.

It’s maddening.

Roman emits an animalistic growl and slams his mouth onto mine. His kiss is hard and rough like a violent storm devastating a rocky shoreline. Battering the landscape. Leaving havoc in its place. This is anger and frustration fused together in its most elemental and explosive form.

I realize that I’m consenting to forced submission by allowing him to exert his will on me. I should fight tooth and nail, rebelling against the firm grip he has on me.

But I don’t.

How can I bring myself to push Roman away when I’ve craved this, craved him, for so long?

Those thoughts are so disturbing. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

Growing up, my parents were loving and affectionate. There is no circle of abuse or violence that needs to be broken. Deep in the recesses of my mind, I know I shouldn’t enjoy this rough treatment.

But I am. There’s no denying the adrenaline-infused desire pumping wildly through my veins.

At twenty-six, I’m no virgin. I’ve had my fair share of boyfriends over the past seven years, but no one has ever manhandled me. No one has ever trapped me against a wall and held me captive while taking what he wanted.

Roman’s mouth is harsh and demanding. I’d normally find this frightening, but I willingly open for him. His tongue invades my mouth, plundering the inside. It lashes and tangles with mine until everything in me clamors with frenzied need.

When I try to break free from the ironclad grip imprisoning my hands, he tightens his hold. His mouth leaves mine, blazing a hot trail across my chin and down my neck.

“I want to touch you,” I murmur, baring my throat.

“No,” he mutters, licking and sucking at my flesh. “You have no fucking idea what you’re doing, do you?”

I’m not sure what the question means. Does he find me inexperienced or lacking sexually?

With a snarl, he releases me and moves away. I’m more dazed now than I was earlier from the alcohol. My mouth feels bruised and tender. Without thinking, I take a step toward him. I want the warmth of his hard body pinning mine against the wall again as his thick erection presses into my belly.

Knowing he wants me in that manner is a revelation.

“No!” he snaps, the harshness in his tone slicing through the mental fog clouding my better judgment.

His fingers wrap around my upper arm. He drags me down the dark hallway.

I stumble while trying to keep up with him as my heart thuds against my ribcage.

Before I can gather my scattered wits, we’re standing at the threshold of my childhood bedroom. Holding me firmly in his viselike grip, he reaches out with his other hand and grabs the handle. He throws open the door and shoves me inside.

I stagger, catching myself before I fall. My head still spins from the alcohol and his drugging kisses. My eyes dart to the door in shock as he slams it shut, leaving me inside.

Alone.

I don’t move a muscle as the last five minutes play out in my head. Did that really happen?

My fingers fly to my lips for confirmation. They’re sore and swollen, which proves I didn’t imagine anything.

If I’m smart, I’ll avoid Roman like the plague.

But I’m not smart. I’ve already proven that time and time again.



Chapter Four



Sofia

Present


“Congratulations!” I pull Grace, my brother’s fiancée, in for a hug. “I’m so happy for you two!”

My older brother, Matteo, has been popular with the opposite sex since he turned fifteen. An endless string of socialites and models have clung to his arm over the years. I don’t remember seeing him with the same woman more than twice. I think my mother gave up on him ever falling in love. It didn’t seem to be in his DNA.

But Grace changed that. I’ve never seen my brother so besotted. And it’s easy to understand why. His new fiancée is kind and sweet. Her easy nature draws people in. I already love her like a sister.

Grace’s smile widens. “Thank you!” She glances around the tent, which is filled with a hundred and fifty close friends and family. “It was so thoughtful of your parents to throw this party for us.”

I pat her on the shoulder. “It’s adorable the way you think you had a choice in the matter.” Snorting, I shake my head. “My mother has so much more in the works for you. This little shindig is just the beginning of the circus that will roll into town. You need to either jump on the bandwagon or get run over by it.”

That statement would scare most women. Or at least make them rethink their decision. But not Grace. She’s embraced our family as if we were her own and seems to enjoy how overly involved we can be at times.

If anyone deserves a storybook happy ending, it’s this woman. Two and a half years ago, Grace lost both of her parents in a car accident. They’d been traveling in bad weather when they lost control of their vehicle. She doesn’t have any siblings, aunts, uncles, or grandparents. It was always just the three of them. I’ve tried imagining what that would feel like—to be completely alone in the world—but can’t fathom it. I’ve spent my entire life surrounded by family.

I have three brothers and a sister. There are dozens of cousins, aunts, and uncles in Chicago, New York, and Italy. Second and third cousins are considered family just as much as immediate ones. The Valentinis are a big, noisy, close-knit Italian family.

And I love it.

I can’t imagine my life any other way. Everyone is always in each other’s business. That’s just the way it is. I can understand how it could be overwhelming if you aren’t used to that kind of chaos. But Grace has thrown herself into the mix. It’s amazing how well she fits in.

Since it’s been a few years since Francesca got married and I’m as far from taking a walk down the aisle as you can get, Mama was overjoyed at the prospect of planning another wedding. Grace seems equally thrilled that my mother has commandeered the event.

“Did I mention that Teresa and I met with the wedding planner last week, just two days after Matteo proposed?” With shining eyes, she continues, “Can you believe he was able to squeeze us in on such short notice? Kenneth McKenzie is one of the most sought-after wedding planners in Chicago.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right.” I laugh at her naiveté. My mother was on the phone with Kenneth making tentative arrangements right after Matteo picked out Grace’s ring. Mama is lucky that Grace is so easy going. Otherwise, they would end up butting heads.

“I’m so grateful that she’s helping me with all this,” she says softly. “I’d be completely lost and wouldn’t know where to start.”

Her words tug at my heartstrings. Mama has been a strong force in my life. Wanting to offer comfort, I slip an arm around Grace. “I’m sorry. It must be difficult not having your mother here to help plan the wedding.”

Grace smiles, but it doesn’t reach her blue eyes. “It’s been more than two years, and the loss of them still feels tender. I miss them the most at times like these.” Lost in her own thoughts, she falls silent for a moment. “Your parents have been so kind and welcoming. I’m thankful for that.” Putting on a brave face, Grace forces another smile. “It’s impossible to be sad when I have so many wonderful new people filling my life.”

Her gaze sweeps across the backyard, where a huge white tent has been erected for today’s festivities. Space heaters are discreetly placed throughout the area in case the weather doesn’t cooperate.

Thankfully, it has.

It might be late April, but you never know what you’re going to get in the Midwest. The weather is unpredictable and often changes in the blink of an eye. It could be sunny and warm one day and snowy the next.

“And just look at this party!” Grace exclaims in an awed tone. “How did your mother pull all this together so quickly?”

“It’s one of her many talents,” I joke.

Sparkling crystal chandeliers hang from the tent’s ceiling. Fifteen round tables filled with vasefuls of pink and white roses are arranged beneath them. Rectangular white-clothed tables line one of the sides, laden with meats, cheeses, breads, and pasta dishes that are kept warm in silver chafing dishes. Another table boasts a display of delicate desserts. I’ve been eyeing the tiramisu for at least an hour. Waiters in black tuxedos circulate throughout the space, armed with polished serving trays full of champagne. A string quartet tucked into a corner adds ambiance to the celebration.

I have to hand it to my mother. Once again, she’s pulled off a perfect event. She’s a mastermind at these kinds of affairs. She probably doesn’t need Kenneth’s help, but she adores him. My gaze lands on Mama, who’s surrounded by a dozen or so guests. She has an infectious personality that attracts people to her like bees to honey. Even though this gathering isn’t in her honor, she’s in her element as mother of the groom.

Family from New York flew in for this occasion. Franco and his family also stopped by to extend their congratulations. I catch sight of my friend and wave. He smiles in return. I hope we can carve out a few hours to catch up before he leaves. With both of us working full-time and living in separate cities, we aren’t able to spend as much time together.

As I continue studying the thick crowd, I’m jolted into awareness by dark, brooding eyes that are focused on me. The moment our gazes collide, a jolt of electricity shoots through my body, rendering me powerless to turn away.

No matter how many times I’ve tried desensitizing myself to Roman Santori’s presence, my reaction is always swift and powerful. It’s like the rest of the world falls away, leaving just the two of us.

Why him?

What is it about this man that attracts me like no other?

My fingers rise of their own accord and feather across my lips as our gazes stay locked from across the distance separating us. I’ve replayed that kiss on the staircase landing more than a thousand times in my head.

Over a year later, I still don’t understand why he kissed me. No matter how much I secretly longed for a repeat performance, nothing has happened. If anything, Roman’s become colder and more standoffish. I didn’t think it was possible, but it is.

I keep hoping I’ll outgrow my infatuation with Roman, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m beginning to wonder if it ever will, which sucks. I don’t want to be hung up on a guy who can’t even be pleasant when our paths cross.

When I meet new guys, I automatically compare them to Roman. The kiss we shared has ruined me for all other men. And it blew every other kiss I’ve experienced into oblivion.

If Roman intended to teach me a lesson, his attempt backfired spectacularly. Instead of driving me away, it’s deepened my attraction to him.

I want him more now than ever before.

Grace clears her throat, and I realize that I’m still staring at Roman, who, along with my brothers, Giovanni, Matteo, and Niko, flank my father. Roman has become my father’s right-hand man over the course of the last three years by making himself indispensable to the organization.

When I remain silent, she nudges me with her elbow. “So, Roman, huh?”

Heat suffuses my cheeks. This is one of those times when I’m glad I have olive-toned skin. A blush isn’t nearly as noticeable as on someone with a creamy complexion. Like Grace, for instance. Matteo seems to take pride in bringing the color out in her fair cheeks.

I look away from Roman and scoff, “Of course not,” wincing as the lie rolls off my tongue.

She arches an eyebrow. “Are you sure about that?”

I draw myself up to my full height. “I couldn’t be more certain.”

Grace and I have spent a lot of time getting to know one another during the six months she’s been with Matteo. I’ve kept my feelings for Roman under strict lock and key even though we’ve grown close.

There’s no point in mentioning them.

Roman isn’t interested in me. He’s done everything in his power to prove how inconsequential my existence is to him. After years of frigid looks and abrupt dismissals, it seems pathetic that I can’t get over him and move on with my life.

“I don’t know,” Grace muses. “He looks awfully interested to me.”

My gaze darts in his direction before I can stop it.

Thankfully, Matteo ends the conversation when he sneaks up behind Grace and wraps his arms around her.

My heart melts as I watch him pull her in for a backward hug. I’m happy that he’s found a woman so perfectly suited to him.

When he nuzzles her ear, I pretend to gag.

Okay, maybe it’s not pretend.

Their overly affectionate manner is enough to make anyone nauseous.

And jealous, too.



Chapter Five



Roman continually snags my attention throughout the afternoon even though I try my hardest to avoid staring at him. There isn’t a moment when I’m not aware of every move he makes. My eyes track him everywhere he goes.

After dinner, Grace and Matteo open their gifts. I glimpse Roman exiting the tent as my brother holds up a silver picture frame for everyone to see. Acting on impulse, I head toward the house after him.

We haven’t spoken a word to one another even though our gazes have connected several times throughout the afternoon. By unspoken agreement, we avoid interaction at all costs. Since that unexpected kiss took place, arm’s length has grown to yards.

Roman moves fluidly through the thick crowd and slips out the back door. No one notices him except for me. I notice everything about him.

Pulling open the French door, I glance around the Tuscan-style kitchen with its dark cherry cabinets and sand-colored granite countertops. Roman is nowhere to be found. Instead of moving toward the living room, where guests are conversing in loud, exuberant voices, I turn toward the wing that houses my father’s office as well as the security room that contains surveillance monitors for the entire property. I have a feeling that’s where Roman’s headed.

Moving away from the revelry, noise gives way to silence. As I approach Papa’s office, I notice that the door is ajar, which is unusual because my father is paranoid about security and keeps it locked at all times.

I push open the door and peek around the corner, scanning the inside of the wood-paneled room. An antique mahogany desk sits prominently in the center. A massive fieldstone fireplace occupies the far end. Built-in bookshelves line the opposite wall, filled with old leather-bound volumes that Papa has been collecting since he was a child.

My father has a deep appreciation for the classics and has instilled the same in his children. I remember running my fingers over the worn spines before selecting a novel, eagerly devouring the words on each page, and then sitting down with him to discuss my thoughts. We would spend an entire evening in the matching leather chairs with a fire roaring in the grate, cups of hot cocoa and a bowl of buttery popcorn on the end table between us.

Those are some of my most cherished childhood memories of Papa. The best thing about them is that they have nothing to do with Enzo, the mafia crime boss. They’re about a father and daughter bonding over their shared love of a well-told story.

Leaving the door open, I step into the empty room. The air is still, as if it hasn’t been disturbed for some time. Roman may have turned down this hallway, but he didn’t stop here.

Disappointment fills me, snapping me out of my daydream.

Oh my God, did I really follow Roman hoping to find him?

I blow out a long, slow breath.

I’m irritated with myself for not thinking about the ramifications of my actions and for following my instincts instead of using better judgment. I say a silent prayer of thanks that I didn’t stumble across him. The muscles in my abdomen clench uncomfortably at the thought because he wouldn’t have been happy to see me.

More like angry and irritated. Any conversation that would have taken place between us wouldn’t have been pleasant.

I rub my temples in frustration. When am I going to get over this stupid infatuation and get on with my life? My feelings for him aren’t healthy. I should rejoin the party and pretend this little lapse in judgment never happened.

“What are you doing in here?” a voice thunders.

I jump and whirl around, finding Roman looming in the doorway. His jaw looks like it’s been carved from stone. The muscles of his body are coiled tight, as if he’s on the cusp of attack.

All the thoughts circling madly around in my head flee. I gape in surprise as he studies me with hooded eyes.

He breaks the silence by biting out, “I asked what you’re doing in here, Sofia.”

Sofia.

The sound of my name sliding from his lips echoes in my head.

“I…” I trail off and clear my throat to give myself more time to come up with a believable excuse as to why I’m in Papa’s office while he’s outside entertaining guests.

I can’t tell Roman that I came here searching for him. He won’t like it. I don’t want to imagine his response when he’s already pissed.

Looking impatient, Roman arches a brow.

“My father asked me to retrieve a box of cigars from the humidor,” I blurt, my palms damp with anxiety.

His stoic expression never wavers. I can’t tell if he believes me or not. His steady gaze could burn holes through me. My heart hammers against my ribcage, the noise filling my ears in the deafening silence.

“Is that so?” he asks mockingly, making me wonder if he hears it, too.

“Yes.” I swallow down the knot of apprehension in my throat and force myself to move toward the handcrafted wood and glass box in the corner. Opening the door, I select a box of Bolivar Belicosos. They’re pricey, but not in comparison to some of the hand-rolled Montecristos in Papa’s collection. “I believe these were the ones he asked for.”

Not wanting to give Roman an opportunity to poke holes through my lie, I turn toward the door.

Roman doesn’t move as I approach the exit. The closer I get, the harder I pray that he’ll step aside. But he doesn’t. His eyes stay locked on mine until I squirm with unease. The office is generous in size, but Roman’s presence shrinks it, making it feel oppressive. As if there’s not enough space for the pair of us to breathe.

I clear my throat again and summon strength, hoping it will make me appear unfazed. “I should really get these cigars to him.” I internally flinch at how my voice came out as a husky whisper instead of its normal tone.

He shifts slightly but doesn’t abandon his post. My fight or flight response kicks in as if I’m in imminent danger. I want to flee. I’m not a fighter. I never have been.

I’m ill-equipped to deal with whatever game Roman’s playing. I don’t have nearly enough weapons in my arsenal when it comes to him. I allow my instincts to take over every time. I always give in to the need pumping through my veins and end up hurt because he doesn’t want me. He never has, and the sooner I realize it, the better off I’ll be. It’s time to stop the madness.

All I have to do is get out of here. Then I can hide the cigars in my room and replace them at a later time. The party should begin winding down soon. I can make the rounds quickly to say goodbye to everyone before taking off.

Gathering my courage, I shoot past Roman. As I do, he plucks the box of Bolivar Belicosos from my hand. I stop, staring at him in shock. “What are you doing?”

“I was on my way to see Enzo. I’ll bring them out to him myself,” he says with a smirk. “No need to trouble yourself, princess.” His eyes stay locked on mine, the challenge glinting in them evident.

Ignoring the nickname that always manages to prick my temper, I swallow my panic. “No, he asked me to get them.”

I make a swipe for the cigars, and he jerks them out of my reach. Anger stings my cheeks as I come away with nothing but air.

Goddamn it!

My mind spins. Clearly, Roman suspects that my father never asked for the cigars or he wouldn’t bother with them.

Or me.

Desperate to get the box back, I inch closer. I’m tall, but there’s no way for me to reach it unless I close the distance separating us. My body brushes against his, and he stills.

Roman’s stance changes, his muscles bunching and tensing as if he’s gone on high alert. His fingers lock around my wrist, and he pushes me away. “No.”

The simple word cracks like thunder in the dark room.

I stiffen at the harshness in his voice.

A muscle ticks in his jaw. “I don’t want you touching me.”

Stung by the ugly words, my mouth falls open. I wrench my hand out of his grip and step away from him. He’s not the only one who needs distance. Hurt floods through every fiber of my being. I fight back the tears filling my eyes.


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