Daphne, Chapter One My heart stopped when I heard my favorite sound. Holy crap. I'd never forget the voice of my hero. Especially when said noise zinged a direct hit to the spot between my legs. What the hell was he doing in Chapman’s Bookery? Antonio Drago was never a bookworm. Far from it. He was the object of my fantasies from sophomore to senior year of high school. I had no business thinking dirty thoughts about a guy ten years older than me, but try to tell that to my female, adolescent brain. As if he’d have given me a second thought, anyway. He was just being nice. Since the day he drove by and saw Clint Whitehead spitting at me from the seat of his motocross bike, he insisted on accompanying me to and from St. Agnes Prep. Clint was as appealing as his last name, and Tony put a stop to his bullying. It only required one blow, and it was a crunchy punch at that. Bone and cartilage snapped with the impact. I never fancied myself a connoisseur of violence, but the freedom gained from a single clout made me a bit of a fan. Antonio was proper and gentle as a lamb with me, even though he had blood on those huge hands of his. That knowledge didn’t keep me from diddling my skittle every night while thinking of him. Fantasizing about Mr. Drago was the only action I got during my teens. Now he was in the same bookstore where I worked, looking even more muscular than I remembered. I rose from the bottom shelves behind which I hid and parted Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Far from the Madding Crowd to sneak a peek of his biceps and whether they were on the verge of busting the seams of the very expensive suit he wore. Not quite. His tailored outfit flattered his every chiseled plane and muscled bulged visibly beneath the fabric. “I’ll have an espresso, Lucia,” he said. I wondered how on earth he made a caffeinated beverage sound like dirty talk. Would he espresso all over me? “Sure thing, Tony. It’s on the house.” My boss replied. She was a good employer and paid a decent wage for the position she hired me for. It wasn’t her fault I was overqualified with my degree in library science, settling for a job which earned less than I should be making. Old habits died hard. She asked me about it during my interview. “What are your plans down the road, Daphne? Are you going to be a salesperson in a bookstore your entire life? You have a Bachelor’s degree after all. This position only requires a high school diploma.” I’d have told her the truth if I realized what it was. Instead, I deflected, “I love books. I’m so grateful there was a position in my hometown, where my sister lives.” She hired me. A deranged store clerk, who was currently hiding behind the stacks like a demented spinster. “Daphne?” Oh God, Lucia called out to me, and he was still sitting on the soft armchair of the cafe, placed there to encourage customers to linger. “Come here. There’s someone you should meet.” I’d linger on his lap, if he’d let me. No, I would not. Lap lingering was a terrible idea. He was hanging around alright. All caged energy and the promise of violence unleashed on a dime, he lounged the same as a Siberian tiger might. Antonio Drago was a predator. Plain and simple. If he knew I was back in town, would he hunt me down? I tried to hide the way he made my body temperature skyrocket. I could feel my cheeks blazing and my panty zone starting to melt. I counted twenty steps from behind the shelves to the lounge area, but it may as well have been all seven and a half miles of the Bay to Breakers Run. Towards the end, I wasn’t sure I’d make it. My breath was labored, and my knees were on the verge of giving out under me. “We’ve met.” I said. “Hi Tony.” I lifted my hand in greeting. His hands clenched briefly, then released. “Daphne Marie Pruitt—as I live and breathe.” He moved closer to erase the distance between us.“You work here?” His voice hit me right between the legs, a totally unfair advantage, and his thick black eyebrows raised at me, awaiting an answer. I nodded my reply. “Nice to meet you.” His deep voice rumbled in his chest. I reached my hand out to reintroduce myself. “Again.” Big mistake letting him take my hand. His skin emanated heat from the larger-than-life force within, this was a man you could lie with naked, snow falling on your faces, the Arctic winds howling, polar bears on the prowl, and he would keep you safe and warm. Unless you were on his hit list. Then he’d turn cold-blooded killer in an instant and terror would choke the breath from your throat. “How’s your sister?” he asked. “Still here, working at the station.” Maggie achieved local fame as a TV news anchor. I was proud of her when she wasn’t driving me crazy. His voice became ice. “You’re not seeing anyone, are you?” he growled. There was no other means to describe how he spoke. It was a growl. “Jeez you two.” Lucia said, “I’d say get a room, but I need Daphne on the floor.” “We know each other from way back. Lots to catch up on. I’ll return when your shift ends, we’ll have dinner.” He replied. “Uh, I’m busy.” I lied. I moved back to Briarville to survive and thrive. Maggie accused me of trying to stay small and fit in. Just like when we were kids. The entire town knew mom started in on vodka for breakfast, and was drunk by noon every day since dad died. The parish of St. Agnes came through for my sister and me with poor-people scholarships. I prepared our lunches at night, and got creative when we ran out of groceries. Pickle sandwiches, or if our neighbors gave us free eggs, I made egg salad without the mayo. By the time we got to high school, Maggie’s boyfriend-of-the-week bought her lunch every day. After saving me from Whitehead, Tony started showing up with brown paper bags full of the most delicious concoctions I’d ever encountered, all of them with exotic names: prociutto, Finocchiona, Calabrese—the sounds of them alone were tasty. He insisted it was a crucial period in my life, and I shouldn’t be malnourished. I wondered a) where the hell he got these sandwiches, b) if he noticed whether every time he became all protective and fatherly, I just stared at him, wishing his hands were on me. It was inappropriate for a fifteen-year-old to lust after someone nearly twice her age. I did it anyway. I’d die if he learned I was in the same damned situation, present day: skipping meals, surviving on Ramen, canned tuna, and scrambled eggs. He’d flip. “Daphne, hello, Daphne?” He waved his huge hand in front of my eyes. “Where’d you go?” “Sorry, what were you saying?” “I asked, when are you not busy?” I shoved my hair out of my face God, I hated being broke. I pulled out my phone and checked my bank balance for the third time today. Nope. No large deposit from a magical genie appeared in my account. Yup, paid my student loan and Hokus Pokus I was brokus, $17.56 available funds and they had to tide me over for groceries til the end of the week. I shouldn’t have purchased the limited edition boxed set, but I justified the purchase by telling myself mental entertainment was as important as good nutrition. If I ate a meal with Tony, I’d pay my own way. I understood how every member of the Drago family operated. He’d do me a favor and next thing I knew, I’d owe him one. I still had an outstanding obligation for his care and feeding of me when I was in high school. Is that why he wanted to go out? To collect on his debt? The idea made a surge of lust burn in my brain and blotted out all reason. “I uh, I’m pretty tied up this week.” Total lie. I’d be home in bed with my Kindle by seven p.m. Same as every night. But it was none of his business. I wasn’t the kind of flashy female who graced his arm in the social section, as reported by the Lost Coast Outpost. They were a long-legged, hot-blooded breed of woman. Thoroughbreds. Not shy, awkward, book worms who didn’t understand how to be a real grownups and turned grumpy when they finished a favorite series. As an equine, I’d be more of a Shetland Pony than a race horse. The women Tony preferred had their sexy siren game on so hard, they made men pay-per-view. “It’s been forever since I’ve seen you. You can’t find an earlier opening on your social calendar for me?” He leaned forward, and I inhaled him, almost disappointed to discover he had the same delicious, masculine scent, which set me on a ledge between ravenous and swoony. Lucia strode to the front of the store to help customers waiting at the counter. My guardian angel wanted to reminisce about the old days. I’d allow it. Once. As soon as I had a little more do re mi in my account. “I’d love to, Tony. Only this week is packed. How about another time?” He smiled with displeasure, but said, “Good things are worth the wait, even though I’m not a patient man.” His body radiated a raw, primal strength. “I’ve waited ten years already. I guess a few more days won’t hurt.” If only I could be more like my sister, with something clever on the tip of my tongue when an attractive male flirted with me. “Anyway,” he continued, “At least let me buy you a fancy coffee and grilled panini.” He moved towards the glass case where we stored pre-made baguette, ciabatta, or focaccia sandwiches we cooked with love in the Italian style. I had to admit, his back end was a sight to behold. It would have the nuns at St. Agnes questioning their spiritual decisions around celibacy. Another reason to keep my distance from Antonio Drago. Despite all the wrongs associated with admiring his mobster man-flesh, my hormones were yelling at me to go for it.
Tony, Chapter Two Fucking fabulous. Daphne smelled the same. Spicy. Warm. Decadent. Even though she insisted on dressing like a schoolmarm, probably still shopped at thrift stores same as she did in high school. She wore respectable brands like the broads from the East Coast with more money than taste. They were rags that belonged on horsey women, not my sexy baby girl. No matter how she tried to hide herself, she’d never disappear from me. I found her today, and I wasn’t even looking. She was on my radar. “Why didn’t you tell me you were back?” She pissed me off and had some nerve moving home without telling me. What was I chopped liver? “Not back for long. I was busy finding work and a place to live. Got lucky Lucia had an opening, and it came with a free apartment.” She pointed at the ceiling. “Second floor.” Blind trust in a thug as a fifteen year-old was one thing. She didn’t know any better. Five years passed while she attended college. I was a stranger all over again and she just told me the location of her place. Dammit, now I knew where she lived. Where to find her. If I found her, I’d fuck her, and she deserved better. “How do you know Lucia?” She asked. “She’s my brother’s fiancée. They met at the Diamante and fell in love at first sight. Kind of. Loved that hissed and scratched.” I looked at the swell of her hips beneath the skirt of her long store clerk apron, and my mind traveled south along with her curves. “You left to get some fancy degree in college. What are you working here for?” I asked. “I have my reasons.” Her tone sharp, she strolled down the book aisle, acting busy. Scraping me off. Instead, she pissed me off. I pinned her against the stacks, an arm on either side of her. “You’re not wearing your little plaid skirt I used to love so much. Don’t tell me you threw it away. Do I need to buy you another one?” Thinking about her St. Agnes uniform knocked me for a loop, and I watched as her cheeks flared bright pink. The difference was her newfound sass. She never would have talked to me like this back in the day, “You mean the St. Agnes uniform I wore when I was fifteen? Real classy, perv.” My tiny wren had cheek. The dull ache in my chest remained—all the years I lost with her. I turned my displeasure on her instead. “No.” My lips nearly touched hers. “A perv would have taken advantage of your little schoolgirl crush and gotten inside those white, cotton panties when he had the chance. Instead, I played the complete gentleman—no matter how much it cost me.” I caught the intimidating scowl on my face by glancing sideways in the mirror and backed down. Back in the day, I counted the minutes until I’d walk a teenager, one far from legal, to and from school, and convinced myself it was for her protection. For the best. At first it might have been. Later on, it morphed into the one thing made me leap out of bed in the morning. She was three times as smart as me, and I was ten times as strong as her. The time we spent together raced by. “You were funny. Doesn’t mean I had a schoolgirl crush on you!” Her defensive tone was a sure sign she was lying, and I pointed it out. “Deny. Deny. Deny.” I moved in on her, lowering my head closer to her level, and the scent of her drove me wild with distraction. It was impossible to hide from me. There was nowhere to run in this town. She was fair game and no longer jailbait. Right then I knew, like a sure bet, I’d have my way with her. And I’d make sure she liked it. “The little wren doth protest too much, methinks.” Her eyes flung open, her mouth agape. She remembered. “Watchful, like a small bird. Growing up in this small town you had to be.” Daphne stared as if in a trance but jerked herself out of it. “Don’t say it. Please.” She referred to my promise. I never swore a vow I couldn’t fulfill. I said to her every day after dropping her off after school, and I repeated it now. “Fly back to me tomorrow, little wren. I’ll be waiting.” The words were so familiar to her, she mouthed them in silence. I whispered them to her so often they were imbedded them in her mind like the Hail Mary or the Lord’s Prayer. I’d designed it that way, and when the sound of her breath came in soft pants… mission accomplished. The waiting was over. Time to make Daphne mine at long last. It was a single pleading glance from beneath her lashes which caused me to pick her up in my arms, brushing my mouth across hers. The whisper of my name on her lips, “Antonio,” made me kiss her cruelly, destroying her will to resist and I planned on devouring her until I had my fill. She was legal. No guilt involved. Nothing kinky or perverted about my cock swelling at the sight of her. Nevermind she was at work, with customers puttering throughout the store, surrounding us. They were the only reason I let her body slide back down mine, holding her tightly all the while, making sure she got a feel for how hard she made me. Let her think about it for a while. I’d been thinking about her for more years than I could count.
This was payback. I took another good whiff of the spicy scent of her. Enough so I could call it up later on when I wrapped my hand round my erection, her name on my lips while I came. “Give me your phone.” I grunted. “What? Why?” She blinked, eyes hot with what I prayed was desire. “Because my dear, sweet, Daphne,” my hands slid around her to prevent her from bolting, “I’ve been waiting for way too long to shock, sin, and shame you. Now you’re home, and it can’t wait.” Her palms flattened against my chest, pushing me aside. She gave me her phone number and I walked out of the bookstore. There was no trusting myself around her. I’d come too close to raising her skirt and dragging her panties down in my soon-to-be sister-in-law’s place of business. God, would they be soaking wet? Right there and then, I vowed to expose that information the next time I saw her.
Daphne, Chapter Three “You’ll never guess who I saw at work day…” I told Maggie during our daily debrief. “Oh, I bet I can.” I could practically see her playful grin. “Let me think. Tony Drago?” “What the hell? How did you know?” I asked. “I didn’t win investigative journalist of the year for nothing. Besides, there’s only one guy that makes your voice do the thing.” “Do what?” “If I had to describe it, I’d say you’re purring. Like a cat.” “Cut it out,” I laughed. “I’m serious. It’s as if someone just set an open can of tuna down in front of your cold, dead, feline heart.” Maggie teased. Normally my stomach would have fisted tight at the mention of tuna, since I always skipped breakfast for economic reasons. But as she spoke, I was nuking a slice of Mediterranean pizza. A certain Italian Stallion had a size extra large sent to my house last night for dinner. “You think I’m cold?” “Not with me. Never. Not with Tony either. But every other eager male within a mile radius? Watch out. You freeze them in place with your icy stare.” I considered the matter. Growing up around here, with everyone knowing our business, I learned to avoid rejection by rejecting others first. It didn’t keep our secrets entirely, like not being able to wake mama up after we got home from school. But at least it kept me from observing the expression on other people’s faces when they witnessed our family defects up close and personal. I wasn’t keen on letting anyone into our business. Except for Antonio. He’d seen the worst, coming to call when Maggie and I worried mama might have taken pills with her bottle of vodka. He never judged. The Dragos had their own code of silence. Don’t talk problems with anyone outside the family. A loudspeaker on the other end of the phone snapped me out of thinking about him. “Where are you?” I asked. “The airport. Look D. I have to leave town for a while. Not sure I’ll be able to call—I’m telling you so you don’t worry.” Moth wings fluttered in my belly. She had that tone. She was keeping me out of her business. “What’s up, Maggie?” I inquired, fairly certain she’d give me the brush off. “Nothing big. There are a few things I need to take care of. The key is in my mailbox. Will you water my plant babies?” “How long will it take? Where are you going?” I felt more than fear. It was sisterly E.S.P. Something was not right. There was nothing I could do about it. It was impossible to control her. “They’re boarding, Daphne. I have to go. Don’t worry.” She asked me to do the impossible and hung up before I could find out where she was going. Apprehension washed over me. It wasn’t the first time the urge to talk things over with Tony, the way we used to do, hit me like a ton of bricks.
A week passed and there was neither hide nor hair from Maggie. It wasn’t the first time she’d taken off and left me wondering about her safety. By now I’d usually receive a text from her, a voicemail, something. Not so this occasion. Crickets. Her silence was unlike the noisy man standing next to me in line at the Daily Grind, who let out a rough bark every instance he spoke, and kept winking at me. It creeped me out. But my research showed he was the best private investigator in the county, and I wasn’t taking chances with my sister’s safety. I hadn’t entirely figured out how to pay this dude forty-five dollars an hour on a fifteen dollars an hour salary. My paycheck didn’t come with extra anything. “I’ll comb through thousands of databases not available to the public.” He grabbed his iced coffee and left me to fend for myself. He swung his bulging arms to turn around and splashed his drink all over the front of Antonio Drago’s shirt. “Oh, no!” I said intelligently. “What are you doing here?” He scowled at me. “Let me get something to wipe it up.” The P.I. went to the counter, got a tea towel and returned. Tony ignored him, dabbing the wet spot with a paper napkin. “I might ask you the same thing. Were you following me or something?” I asked. He scowled and I put a hand over my mouth, trying to take the words back. “This is a popular place in town. Must be why he brought you here.” He glowered in distaste towards my hired help. “We had a meeting. Not that it’s any of your business. Why are you being such a beast?” I sounded angrier than I was. The unfamiliar experience of making someone jealous put me off guard. Like a beast who’d tasted blood and couldn’t stop, Antonio wanted more of me. I’d be blind to miss the way his eyes caressed me with lusting, invisible fingers. Right there in front of Mr. Goofy P.I. himself. “Hey, uh. We can discuss this another time, Ms. Pruitt. No problem,” said the P.I. “Good idea,” Tony replied. “She’ll call you later about whatever deal the two of you have.” His voice became ice cold and cutting as a scalpel. “And if you know what’s good for you, you’ll keep it strictly business.” “I’ll call you for an update around lunchtime,” I hollered after him as he strolled out of the cafe on his rolling gait. His bowed legs made him look as if he’d been riding portly horses all his life, and he turned to give me a mock salute. “What was that about?” I spat at Tony. “Since you asked, it was about that cleavage crab staring down your shirt every time you looked away. Business my ass.” I’d hate to be the one on the receiving end of those hell-hot eyes, which stared down the P.I. as he ambled down the sidewalk, out of earshot. “As it just so happens, we are working together. Not that it’s any of your concern.” “Trust me, that guy’s factory settings are set to find as many qualibangs as he can. You have another meeting with him, you let me know. I’ll be there.” “Qualibangs? You mean like, a quality bang?” Tony didn’t talk about banging or any other sexual topic with me, but I’d be lying to say sex wasn’t on my mind whenever he was around. Things were different now between us. I was no longer in high school, and our ten-year age gap was no longer a barrier. The fact rode my mind hard. “Exactly. No doubt it’s what you’d be, baby girl.” Although his pupils dilated, dark with desire, he used my pet name, the one that told me I was still the apple of his eye. His unyielding, muscled body and sexy voice did bad things to my equilibrium. It was impossible to think straight. “Look, I’m not a little girl in need of protection anymore, Tony. You don’t have to walk me home from school. I can take care of myself.” On that note, I turned away from him and headed back to the bookstore, pretending I didn’t feel his heated gaze on my ass.
“Urgent information. Best we talk it over in person. Don’t want to deliver the news over the phone.” The P.I. barked his cryptic voice message, which I listened to during my lunch break.
“Douglas.” Was how he answered my call, and I held the receiver away from my head to protect my eardrum.
“Hey, Daphne here. Are you available this evening after work? Angelo’s pool hall?” The business had plenty of empty corners on a weeknight. We could discuss things without worrying about people overhearing us.
“Call it a date. See you there at six.” He said and hung up the phone.
It was definitely not a date. But whatever P.I. Douglas discovered would get me one step closer to finding my sister.
Neon beer signs on the far wall of the pool hall, illuminated Douglas in a pallid blue haze while he enjoyed a pint. A clucking chicken cried out for some kids who’d stuck a quarter in its slot. The odor of pizza and wings from the kitchen reminded me I hadn’t eaten all day.
The server took my order, fries and a beer. Both filled the belly and were light on the pocketbook.
“That all you’re having?” Douglas asked.
“Big lunch,” I lied, pointing to the folder sitting in front of him like a promise. “So, what’d you find?”
He rocked back in his chair, puffing a gust of air past his lips and said, “It’s not good.”
A knot of fear tore at my insides. “Is Maggie okay?”
Sinking his chair legs to the ground, Douglas removed his baseball hat and ran a jerky hand through his hair. “I’m torn about the information I’ve uncovered. You’ve hired me to perform a service, and I always deliver, but this is some dangerous shit your sister’s gotten herself into. She’s messed with some people you don’t want to mess with.”
“Will you tell me already?” The chords in my neck tensed and I started snapping wooden toothpicks over the table and making a tiny pile of their remains.
“We got lucky on this case, okay? Ran into one reporter where Maggie worked, and he let it slip your sister was digging into the local increase in meth-related deaths. Seems she’d uncovered a tie to the Sinaloa Cartel.” He whispered, as if invisible gang members stood all around us, taking in his every word.
“Sinaloa?” I asked.
Douglas leaned forward. “Mexican Cartel. They’re battling for Northern California territory against the Jaliscos and trust me, these are not people you want to mess with. If I were a betting man, I’d say your sister’s silence relates to her probing into their operations.” He held his stomach as if pained, and the flavor of my beer turned sour in my mouth. I had the urge to chase it away with something stronger and struggled to steady my trembling hands.
“What next?” I asked.
“My advice to you. Let this rest. With any luck, your sister is holed up in some romantic retreat, enjoying herself until things blow over.”
“I don’t think so.” My heartbeat was becoming a subwoofer in my chest. “Do you expect the Cartel to let bygones be bygones?”
Maggie was missing, and my intuition was telling me something wasn’t right.
And now my morality was in grave danger because I was going to enlist a savage to serve, once again, as my savior.
Just like high school.
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