A Dark Mafia Romance
Blood Ties, Book 1
One look at Conrado and I knew that idiot was trouble.
It’s my business to know a bad deal when I see one and with one glance at that guy, I was ready to walk
Then I saw her. Iris, an innocent, enchanting beauty.
The moment our eyes met, I wanted her.
Common sense escaped me as I agreed to work with Conrado simply to be near her.
But something’s wrong. What it is, Iris won’t say.
Instincts on alert, I’m all in.
If they thought they could play me, they’re not prepared for the consequences.
And if I find out he hurt her… there’ll be hell to pay.
“I was enthralled by this book from the very first page.”
“Brilliant Book – I couldn’t turn the page’s fast enough to see what would happen next.” – Jean R
“A gripping story line with action, desire, suspense, twists and more! – Great read from start to finish. – My first book by this author and I’ll be back for more. – Phoenix96
“Dante was the perfect alpha male rescuer for used and abused Iris.” – CS
“We were fated to kill each other, Dante. The simple fact we’re still breathing is already a win.”
The first time Montoya said that to me, at the edge of an isolated field along the Rio Grande, it was like death herself was kissing the back of my neck. Having his voice filter in on the high-end speakers, filling the luxury BMW, brought the sensation back to haunt me. My business partner may be a dark bastard, but the things he sees in the darkness have made us a lot of money over the years.
“Open your eyes to the world around you,” he continues, “or you will search endlessly and never find what you most desire.”
“You know, I still don’t get what you think I’m supposed to want.”
Thanks to our consulting venture with elite criminal society, we have money, homes, private jets, and the freedom to do anything we want. For Montoya, that means staying at the lodge on my family’s ranch. For me, a stay in Monte Carlo long enough to win and lose more than most people make in a year.
“You haven’t enjoyed the company of a woman lately.” Why and how he knows this is beyond me. We work the floor at our parties, getting to know our guests on a personal level. Sometimes it leads to more. Though, when I take a woman up on an offer, we both know it’s a one-shot deal, so there’s no expectations or hurt feelings to get in the way. Everyone walks away happy, especially me. “I’d say you’re ready to find your mate and win her love.”
Over the years, I’ve learned to trust and even respect Montoya, but this thing about me needing a mate went over the line. Damn Mennonite. Even his voice, that old-fashioned, uptight manner, is getting on my nerves. “So now you’re trying to hook me up?” I challenge, intending to derail his plan.
“Not a hookup, amigo.” He tsks. “Something much deeper.”
Which is why I always avoid the conversation. It’s not the first time he’s brought up the subject, and today I’m in no mood for this bullshit.
“There’s no such thing as a perfect woman,” I retort, without hiding my annoyance. My taste leans toward an experienced partner who’s into sharing. While I’ve come across the occasional woman who can catch my attention, she hasn’t been the complete package, the one I want to see again. It’s always been the blink of an eye then they’re all easily forgotten, and I like it that way.
“She exists, Dante,” he insists. “When you find her, the world around you will come to a halt.”
“I don’t—” A sharp pain pricks just behind my right eyebrow, signaling the beginning of a migraine. “I…uh.” The pinprick intensifies, throbbing until I have to press my fingers against the corner of my eye.
“What’s wrong?” Montoya asks, sounding all too innocent.
“Headache,” I shoot back. I keep the pressure against the curve of my eye socket as I maneuver through traffic. “Damn it.” I need to get home and start working up files for the weekend.
“Hmmm. There must be a neighborhood market or convenience store where you can get something for the pain.”
Up ahead, the sign for Gloria’s Market lights up as the sun dips into the horizon. I hit the turn signal as I move into the center lane. “Gotta go, bro.”
“Feel better, amigo.” Yet I’m not relieved when I hang up the phone. Sometimes it’s like that with Montoya. I feel like I’m missing something that’s staring me in the face.
Turning into the empty parking lot, I pull my hand back so I can put the gearshift to park. The dull pain slices through my brain, which is actually an improvement. Damn Montoya. It’s times like this when things get disturbing. Sometimes it’s like he’s picking through my thoughts and knows what’s happening better than I do, even when he’s a couple hundred miles away.
As soon as I step out of the SUV, I feel eyes on me. Fuck. Annoyed, I open the back and grab a dark cowboy hat I keep to shield my face when needed. The best part of living in this section of South Texas is having a guy in a cowboy hat, faded jeans, and expensive shoes stepping out of a vehicle priced at six figures doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.
Pulling the brim low, I stuff the keys into my pocket and walk toward the entrance. A friendly faced caricature with a beer belly and beat-up straw hat beckons me inside, promising incredible savings. The place is empty, though the big-brother vibe doesn’t go away. A quick glance from under the brim confirms cameras watching from above while oversized mirrors sit in the corners, offering a view from behind each aisle. A local Tejano station plays over the speakers, the singer encouraging the women on the dance floor to show off what their mama gave ’em.
“Hey there,” a woman calls over her shoulder from the back of the store. “I’ll be with you in a sec.” She pushes a mop into a narrow hallway while several large fans send the smell of lavender cleanser throughout the building.
Signs hang from the ceiling, leading me to the far wall and a small but well-stocked medical section. Snatching up something for migraines, I head back to pay. The cashier, a young, dark-haired woman, darts around the end of an aisle, her arms held out to help keep her balance. Tiny feet shuffle across the wet floor in a pair of tennis shoes that might be as old as she is. If I wasn’t so used to keeping my thoughts to myself, I’d grin.
She wipes her hands on the front of the boring, coffee-colored smock she’s wearing as she tilts her hips to slide behind the counter. “Is that it?” she asks, running the box over the scanner before dropping it in a bag.
“Yup.” I pull a bill from the stack in my wallet and hand it to her.
She stares at Ben Franklin then purses her lips. “Sorry, I can’t take that.” She points a slim finger to the handwritten sign announcing they don’t accept fifty or hundred dollar bills.
“No problem.” I drag out the card I use when I travel. It’s one of those gift cards you load on your own so nobody can connect you to the purchase or location.
“Umm.” Pushing back a curl, she flashes a smile that lights up her features for a fraction of a second before she shuts it down. “Do you need water or something else to take those?” she offers, her attention on a sliding-door refrigerator a few feet away. The same colorful graphic of an old man announces they have the coldest drinks in town.
I don’t, but grabbing a drink will give me a few extra seconds to figure out what the hell is happening. This girl with the thick ponytail of curly dark hair is an innocent kid, mid-twenties or so. She’d run the other way if she knew I’m standing here wishing I had a better view of her body as she settles in behind the register. That didn’t include what I’d do if I could reach out and touch. Any other time I probably wouldn’t give a sweet girl a second thought. But today is different because Montoya put the idea in my head.
“Yeah, guess I do.” Before I can step over, she backs up and grabs a tall Ozarka bottle. Fingers spread over the contoured plastic, she swipes it over the scanner, once, twice then again, only to have the reader fail each time. The tip of her tongue darts out as she pulls the bottle around to read the numbers off the bar code.
Mmmm, I know exactly how she’d look playing those fingers around my cock before bringing it to her full, pouty lips. Putting the card into the payment slot, I twist the lid open and take a drink. The icy water is a sharp contrast to the heated thoughts creeping into my mind.
With the image filling my head, I reach into the bag for the meds. After fumbling a bit, I tear open the box then drop the container into my hand, just as the music goes silent and the lights go out. Big, startled eyes meet mine in the dim light. The stray curls framing her face stop dancing around in the breeze as the fans power down. Her only movement is the quick rise of her breasts as she sucks in a breath.
My chest tightens, sending the echo of my heartbeat throughout my body. I study her eyes, thick lashes lowering as she looks anywhere but at me. The image of her beneath me, lips parted, curls laid out around her, gets the best of me. I have to shift so I can get some relief, because even my cock is heading off on its own. Damn you, Montoya. The place feels a lot smaller all of a sudden, as if we’re in an elevator. Just the two of us… I’ve never been into the shy, quiet type, so I need to shut this down pronto.
Playing on her obvious discomfort, I check the front of the smock, my gaze lingering on the curve of a perfect breast as I look for a name tag and find nothing.
“So, no hundreds and no power for the card reader means no water and no headache meds. And I don’t even know your name so I can plead my case.”
She crosses her arms, glancing over, out of the corner of her eyes. “Yeah, well, life can be a disappointment sometimes.”
Despite my best efforts, a smile tugs at the corner of my lips. Maybe there’s more to the little innocent than I imagined.
We’re facing each other, separated by the register belt, with my comment hanging between us. Why can’t I keep my mouth shut? With no way to take back the smart-ass remark, I have to apologize, but I can’t grasp a single word. Who wouldn’t end up all stupid when you have a tall, hunky cowboy staring at you like he’s starving and you’re a Texas-sized T-bone. I nearly snort out loud. This guy is way too good-looking for description. His girlfriend probably has to chase off women everywhere they go.
“Sorry,” I murmur.
His lips twitch. “I want a name, not an apology.”
Heat wells up in my cheeks and travels down my neck. The promise of a smile doesn’t help. My tummy does all kinds of flip-flops as green eyes with some wicked golden highlights stare back at me.
Compared to the slick, polished women he must date, I probably look like a troll doll, with my crazy curls doing their own thing. The one thing I hate most about being broke is not being able to buy my toiletries. I’ve done okay without makeup because I got my mom’s looks, but I didn’t inherit her long, straight hair. I need product to tame this beast, and I ran out months ago.
There’s a lot I took for granted while growing up. I glance toward the panel by the doorway, where I’d drawn our mascot in colorful window markers. It’s an image of my dad, only I gave him a beer belly and a shirt buttoned wrong. A small rebellion after I stopped believing in unconditional love. Now, it’s like he’s mocking me from above.
“It should be just a sec,” I assure the cowboy, refusing to give him the answer he’s looking for. Seconds tick by, and nothing happens. The silence is stretching out from prolonged to awkward. It feels like the building is completely empty, and I’d done enough restocking this afternoon to know it isn’t. If I had the money, I’d tell him to go and pay for his stuff myself once the power’s back.
One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi… He’s still looking. My toes curl, and I’m getting self-conscious enough I might do something stupid, like give him my name or talk uncontrollably. Thankfully, I can’t think of a single thing to say.
A loud clatter comes from the back, and my shoulders slump in relief.
“Goddammit, Iris,” Conny curses as he untangles himself from the mop bucket. I clamp down hard on my lower lip so I’ll keep my mouth shut. Taking a deep breath, I exhale as the tension around us fizzles. I turn to the cowboy without feeling like we’re the only two people in the world. “I—um, sorry about that.” Did he hear me? He’s staring intently toward the back, his shoulders tense, brow wrinkled in annoyance.
One more clunk, and a loud splash comes from the back. Ugh, now I have a mess to clean up. Hopefully, the water won’t get inside the freezer. All I need is the smell of lavender Fabuloso coming out of the beer case.
Conny comes stomping down the aisle, the heels on his boots making enough noise to be heard in the parking lot. They’re ostrich skin, with those little bumps that look like skin tags. With his skinny frame, you’d think he’s a little kid wearing his daddy’s shoes.
Conrado Villa, the son of my absent father’s girlfriend. Olga seemed nice enough back when they first got together, though she spoils her kid like nobody’s business. She kept calling him my “big brother,” but the asshole has been my own little slice of hell since the first day she brought him around.
“What’d you do?” he demands, puffing his chest up to try and look tough. Of course I’m to blame. Who else could ruin whatever porn he’d been watching. The little perv should be manning the counter at the meat market instead of being on the laptop.
“Nothing,” I reply in a tired voice. “The power went out.”
He grimaces then glances at the customer. His neck snaps back so fast I could only hope he was slipping on the wet floor. Going a round with whiplash would keep him away from me for a while. His jaw goes slack, as if he’s come face-to-face with his idol or something. “You Dante?” he asks, squinting as he searches the guy’s face.
The cowboy keeps his expression neutral. “You got the wrong guy, man,” he replies, shaking his head once. “Here. I’ve gotta get going.” He drops the hundred on the scanner and backs up a couple of steps, all cool, then heads for the door.
I pick up the money, enough to feed me for weeks, reaching out to return it. “Hey, I can’t take this—”
“Keep it,” he tosses over his shoulder and keeps walking toward the exit.
My hand shakes as the bill practically burns my fingers. He’s leaving ninety plus dollars behind to get away from Conny? It doesn’t surprise me that someone like him wants nothing to do with Conny. It’s nice we at least have one thing in common.
Dante stops on the floor mat, Conny at his heels. With the power out, the doors aren’t going to move. His shoulders stiffen. “Damn it.” His voice is low enough I barely make out the curse.
“You are Dante.” Conny puts a hand on Dante’s arm and turns to me, his excitement rising to where he forgets we don’t like each other. “Iris,” he says, without a lick of disdain. “Do you know who this is?”
The cowboy is looking at a spot somewhere above his head. For a second, I feel sorry for him. He’d already had a headache when he came in. I can only imagine how he feels now.
Conny’s wide-eyed, oblivious as only he can be as to how much the man doesn’t want to talk to him. He shakes Dante’s arm, positively giddy.
I take a step back, my heart beating in my throat. If Conny’s that interested in him, I’m better off somewhere else.
Of all the places in south Texas I could have walked into, I had to choose the one with a guy I’ve been avoiding. There must be a neighborhood market or convenience store… I’m gonna kill Montoya the next time I see him.
I did a workup on Conrado Villa several months ago. Despite Montoya’s insistence he had something of immense value, I didn’t find anything that could be of any significant benefit to anyone on our client list. He’s a little fish trying to swim in a big ocean, way out of his league, the type who would need to save in order to pay for the membership to a club so exclusive we find you then decide if you warrant an invitation.
I searched his background, which includes friends of no significance, a broken home with little to no family. It did not include a job here, or anything to convince me he was worthy of consideration.
Yet now, here I am, trapped in a convenience store, with him clutching my arm as he tries not to pee himself. With limited choices, I do the only thing left to me. Exhaling, I glare down to where his hand covers my elbow then flick my gaze up to him. He has an oversized forehead taking up most of his head, the rest of his features scrunched at the bottom. He should have enough sense to not comb his hair straight back, but that’s what he does, and he’s added a meager soul patch to round out his look.
“Man, I can’t believe you’re here.”
Holding his gaze is pointless. Those vacant eyes tell me he doesn’t get it. Relaxing my shoulders, I pull my arm up to drink from the water bottle, taking my own sweet time. “You should have more sense than to announce who I am to the world.”
His hand falls away, leaving me needing to scrub that spot clean. “Uh, sorry.” He shuffles his feet. The heels of those gaudy boots scrape the floor, with the intensity of a knife on fine china. It just adds to my annoyance. “Missed it, man. But it’s just Iris.” He points his thumb over his shoulder. “She won’t say nothing.”
Iris. Her name rolls across my mind, gaining traction. The woman-child hasn’t moved from the register. Gone is the cute, scattered look. She’s not self-conscious or second-guessing herself, either. Instead, her eyes are open wide, a wariness about her as if she senses danger. She’s waiting, a doe caught in the lethal gaze of a leopard.
Blinking, she leans away, breaking the spell. Apprehension is carved into her features. With a quick glance from Conrado to me, she clears her throat. “I’ll go clean up the mess in the back.” Pushing off from the counter, she’s out from behind the register. A quick tug pulls the end of the smock down to cover her ass. The space between the smock and the back of her legs tells me there’s more to see than meets the eye. The lovely Iris is hiding some killer curves.
She turns into the first aisle and, within a second, she’s out of view. Her head and ponytail are barely visible above the top of the shelves. Checking the mirror is another disappointment. Her features are shadowed, masking her expression as she hurries to the back of the store. Pushing through the swinging door, she disappears into the darkness without a backward glance.
Conrado shifts, dragging my attention away from the intriguing Iris. While I’ve been watching her, every step of the way, he’s been watching me. He knows. A shot of anger tightens the muscles along my shoulders. I almost forgot he’s there. Even if it’s for a second, in my world, that could be enough to end me. I haven’t been so careless, in a long, long time.
Conrado heads to the register, and my heartbeat speeds up. My only weapon is a short blade. I reach toward my belt buckle as I watch his hands. He stops at the conveyor belt and snatches up the bill I dropped. “Here.” He offers it up. “No charge.”
Dammit all. I uncurl my fingers, letting my hand drop to a nonthreatening position at my side. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s being in somebody’s debt. While I wouldn’t mind giving the hundred to Iris, I couldn’t leave him the money. He’d probably stash it away and give it back to me as part of the hundred-thousand-dollar membership fee.
Fuck. Fate’s a bitch. “Look.” I give a sharp exhale, resigned to losing time on someone I know won’t make the cut. “Maybe we can discuss your interest in the group.”
“Oh yeah!” His face lights up then so does everything around us, bringing the building alive. “Let’s head back to the office.” He turns on a heel. The door slides open and two customers come in, chatting about the inconvenience of the power outage.
“It’ll have to be later,” I warn him, eying a woman who dashes by. My gaze goes to the back, where Iris disappeared, but there’s no sign of her.
“You know what?” Conrado follows my gaze. “I got a place we can meet up.”
“Great.” I think I managed to mask my disdain. He hasn’t figured it out, but the guy’s wasting my time.
“Hang on.” He holds a hand up while he backs up to the register again. Reaching across the machine, he tosses up the cover and drags out the receipt paper, pulling loose the roll to hit the floor and leave a growing ribbon across the tile. He tears off a piece and scribbles something before folding the scrap and rushing back over. “Here. Go by the office and they’ll hook you up.”
Taking the note, I shove it in my pocket and scoff to myself. The little troll grins. “I’ll make it worth it for you.” Then he did the one thing that can change my mind: he looks over at the door where Iris disappeared.