I sit up in bed and watch Mikhail getting ready to head to the pakhan’s place.
“When will you be back?”
“I don’t know.” He bends down to kiss me. “I’ll message you when I’m done.”
“Okay. I’ll go wake Lena up. She will be late.”
“You don’t have to do that. I’ll get her ready.”
“I want to. And I style her hair better,” I sign and brush his cheek.
When Mikhail leaves, I head into Lena’s room, take out the cute pink pants and shirt with matching pink ruffles from her dresser, then go sit next to her on the bed. It takes me two whole minutes of jiggling her nose until she finally wakes up.
“Bianca, Bianca, five more minutes.”
I sigh, remove a few tangled strands of hair from her face, and lean my back to the wall. We can wait five more minutes.
Sisi arrives just as I’m finishing Lena’s “many braids” hairstyle. Lena runs to grab her backpack and heads toward the door, but then she turns and hurries back to me.
“Bianca, Bianca.” She leans in and kisses me on the cheek, then runs to join Sisi, waving. “See you later, Mommy.”
As I watch her leave, a feeling of warmth spreads inside my chest.
* * *
I just finished showering when my phone rings somewhere. I tense. No one calls me, ever. No point in calling someone over the phone when they can’t speak. I run out from the bathroom, rush to the living room, and start looking for my phone. Just as I find it under the throw pillow on the couch, it stops ringing so I check the missed calls and see Allegra’s number. Something must have happened if she was calling me. I return the call as I walk back into the bedroom to put some clothes on.
“Bianca,” she says the moment the call connects. “I need you to come here right away. Hurry. It’s Milene.”
The line goes dead, and a feeling of dread collects in my stomach. What happened to Milene? Why didn’t she tell me anything?
I try calling her again, but she doesn’t answer, so I throw on the first clothes I find, take my phone and purse, and run out of the apartment. When I get to the street, I start looking around for a taxi, too distracted by all the possibilities of what could have happened to Milene to notice the car that stops right in front of me.
“Bianca!” I hear my father’s voice coming from the car. “Let’s go.”
He opens the passenger’s door, and without thinking it over, I get inside the car. The sound of doors locking makes my head snap up to glare at my father, who is regarding me with malice in his eyes.
“Cara mia,” he sneers, and backhands me with such force that I black out.
I’m just parking my car in front of Roman’s house when my phone pings with an incoming message. Thinking it must be Bianca, I open the message and my blood goes ice cold. It’s an image of Bianca sitting in an old recliner, hands tied behind her back. She’s looking up, probably at the person who took the photo, her face a mask of anger. A big red bruise covers most of her cheek, her lip is split, and a thin line of blood trails down from the corner of her mouth.
The phone in my hand rings, showing Bruno Scardoni’s number.
“I’m going to kill you, Bruno,” I say the moment I take the call. “I’ll make sure it’s slow and painful.”
“I’ll send you the address. You come alone or I’m going to hurt her.”
The message with an address somewhere in the suburbs arrives after he cuts the call. I drop the car into reverse and floor the gas pedal.
It takes me almost an hour to reach the run-down house on the outskirts of Chicago. It’s a crumbling structure surrounded by overgrown grass and weeds. Two cars are parked next to it, just in front of the door that hangs on its hinges. Two men stand on either side of the door, and another beside one of the cars.
I send a quick message to Denis, instructing him to get here right away, then take my gun from under my seat and head toward the house.
I watch my father as he leans back on the torn couch across from me, holding a gun in his hand. He won’t kill me, I know that much. Bruno might be a bastard, but he wouldn’t kill his own daughter, would he? I have no idea what’s going on, but it’s evident that something happened. Something big because I have never seen my father in this state. The suit he wears is in shambles. His usually carefully slicked-back hair is in disarray, and even though his posture is relaxed, the hand on his knee is trembling slightly as his thumb taps his leg in a fast pattern. I know his tells. He’s angry, but based on the look in his eyes, he’s also scared.
“I had everything planned. It was perfect,” he says, looking at the wall behind me. “Every single detail. It was brilliant! Pull the Bratva into a war with the Albanians, and then take over their business. The wedding shooter cost me fifty grand, and the thugs who should have killed the son of a bitch husband of yours, a hundred and fifty more. Stupid idiots.”
I just stare at him in shock. Our whole family was at that wedding reception! And I was in the same car with Mikhail when those guys started chasing us, they could have killed both of us. Did he even care?
“I was so confident that everything would go as planned until your husband blew up my shipment last night. Fifteen million. Gone. The don probably knows already. I’m fucked.”
He looks down at me, and a crazy smile spreads across his face. “But I’m not going down alone. I’m going to kill that son of a bitch if that’s the last thing I do.”
The sound of a car approaching reaches my ears, and my blood runs ice cold. No. Please God, no. I tug harder on the restraints I’ve been trying to untie for the past thirty minutes. My right wrist is already raw. I just need to loosen the rope a little bit more and I’ll be able to pull out my hand.
A shot rings out in front of the house. Two more follow in quick succession.
“That bastard.” My father stands up from the couch and walks toward me.
I lean back in the recliner to hide my hands from his view. He stops on my right and raises his gun to my temple just as Mikhail bursts in through the door. Our gazes collide, and for a moment, all I can do is watch him frozen there, seemingly in perfect control on the outside. His dark blue eye focuses on the gun at my temple.
“Did you kill my men?” my father sneers.
“Yes. Let Bianca go. This is between the two of us, Bruno.”
“I don’t think so. I think I’d prefer to have her watch. It’s all her fault anyway. Isn’t it, cara mia?” He looks down at me with such hatred that my breath catches in my lungs. “You just couldn’t, for once in your life, do as I said. I was so thrilled when I heard they would be marrying you to the Bratva’s Butcher. Oh, the plans I had. You know, I wonder . . . do you know why they call him the Butcher?”
“Bruno, don’t,” Mikhail says.
“Oh, you didn’t tell her?” My father laughs, grabs my chin with two fingers and turns my head so I’m facing Mikhail again. “Look at your husband, cara. Do you know what he does for the Bratva?”
Mikhail is staring at me, his body tense and his jaw tight, but he doesn’t say anything. I already know he’s handling the drug’s distribution, so I don’t understand why he isn’t saying anything.
“He tortures people, Bianca. They like to call it an information extraction, but, in reality, it means that he beats them, cuts them, and whatever else is needed to make them talk. Look at him well and see the real man you sold your family out for.”
I look at Mikhail, willing him to say something, to tell my father that he’s lying. He doesn’t. Instead, he puts his hand in a fist, slowly raises it to his chest, and makes a circular motion, his dark blue eye watching me with sadness the whole time. A sign meaning “I’m sorry.”
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. The world we live in is a fucked-up thing. I always knew that, and I would be only deceiving myself by believing that Mikhail could be anything other than another product of that criminal world. Each item of clothing I own, every meal I have ever eaten has been paid for with blood money. I am not a hypocrite and will not pretend otherwise. Do I condone violence? No. Could I torture a person to get the information I needed? Probably not.
I open my eyes and look right into that blue gaze. Will I love Mikhail less because of what he does? No. A fucked-up world creates fucked-up people. I’m probably one of them, too, because I accept my reality for what it is.
“I love you,” I mouth the words to Mikhail and watch him go still as he focuses on my lips.
“My God, you are in love with him,” my father says in awe and then bursts out laughing. “But no worries, you’re pretty. We will find you another monster to marry easily enough.” He turns to Mikhail. “Take out the magazine and drop the gun.”
No, no, no. I watch Mikhail as he releases the magazine and then throws it along with the gun on the floor in front of him.
“There are handcuffs on the radiator in the corner.” My father nods toward the other side of the room, still pressing the gun to my head. “Cuff yourself.”
Panic rises in my stomach as I watch Mikhail walk toward the radiator and put one side of the handcuff on his right wrist and close the other around the pipe. My father is going to kill him.
“Bruno, please. Let Bianca go. You can do whatever you want with me, but let your daughter go.”
“I don’t know . . .” He lowers the gun and takes a few steps toward Mikhail. “I think I should let her watch me kill you. Maybe it will make her more reasonable.”
Ignoring the searing pain, I pull on my restraints with all my might, rotating my hand left and right. At the same moment when I feel my hand slip free, a gunshot pierces the air. My head snaps up and I watch in horror as blood starts pooling from the wound in Mikhail’s shoulder.
“You didn’t think I’d let you off easy, did you? I have several more bullets here, and I’ll make sure only the last one is fatal.” Father takes another step toward Mikhail and cocks his head to the side. “What should I pick next? A leg maybe? Or the other shoulder? You could give me guidelines, it’s your speciality.”
I spring to my feet and run for Mikhail’s gun on the floor near the doorway.
“Bianca!” my father yells. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Leave that thing alone. You’ll hurt yourself, you idiot!”
“Get out and run!” Mikhail shouts at the same time. “Fucking now, Bianca!”
I ignore them both. I’m not running, and I’m certainly going to hurt someone. And that someone won’t be me. I look up at my father, who is standing three yards in front of Mikhail, take the gun in one hand, insert the magazine, and cock the gun. It takes me no more than a few seconds, I practiced this many times with Angelo. The look in my father’s eyes as he watches me stand up and aim the gun at him is priceless.
For a few moments, the two of us just stand there looking at each other, my gun pointed at my father’s chest as he regards me.
“You don’t have the guts, cara mia.” He smiles and starts turning toward Mikhail.
No, I guess I don’t have the guts to kill my father. I take a deep breath, aim at his thigh, and pull the trigger.
Bruno Scardoni screams, and his gun falls from his hand. He crumbles to the floor, clutching his bloody thigh.
I take a couple of steps until I am standing right in front of him.
“That’s for me,” I rasp, then I aim again—this time at his shoulder—and fire. His body jerks and he falls backward onto the floor. “That’s for . . . my husband.”
Ignoring my father’s weeping, I kick his gun toward the other side of the room.
“Bianca, give me the gun, baby.”
I look up at Mikhail and his outstretched arm, walk toward him, and put the gun in his free hand.
“Bianca, look at me, solnyshko.”
She raises her eyes to mine, and I see she’s crying.
“Can I kill him, baby?” I look over at Bruno who is panting on the floor. If Bianca wasn’t here, he would already be dead, but I won’t kill him in front of her unless she wants me to.
She shakes her head, then pulls off her T-shirt and squeezes it in a bundle. Standing there in only her bra and jeans, she presses it to my bleeding shoulder. My hand is still cuffed to the radiator pipe, and my shoulder is screaming in pain, but there is no way I’ll risk her going near that bastard to find the key. Instead, I wrap my free arm around her and hold her to my chest, making sure that the gun in my hand doesn’t touch her skin.
The door bangs into the wall and Denis rushes in, gun drawn, looking around.
“Eyes to the floor,” I bark. No one is seeing my wife half naked except for me, special circumstances be damned.
“The key to the cuffs.” I motion with my head toward Bruno. “Tie something around his leg and call Maxim to have someone pick him up and deliver him to the don.”
Denis finds the handcuffs keys in one of Bruno’s pockets and rushes to unlock the cuffs for me.
“We need to get you to the hospital, boss,” he whispers.
“No. Let’s go to Doc’s. I’m not going to a hospital with a gunshot wound unless it’s necessary. We’re taking your car.”
“Why it’s always my car when transporting vomiting or bleeding passengers?” Denis mumbles while he’s calling Maxim.
I place a finger under Bianca’s chin and raise her head. “Are you okay, dusha moya?”
She takes my hand and places it on the shirt she’s been pressing into my shoulder, cups my face with her hands, and kisses me.
“No. But I will be.” She signs and kisses me again.
“We need to set up some rules. When I tell you to run, you run, Bianca. Is that clear?”
“And leave you to be killed?”
Bruno could have killed her. I didn’t think he’d do that, but I would never risk her life, even if there is a one percent possibility that she would end up hurt.
“I can’t promise you that. I’m sorry.”
“Bianca, baby, if you don’t promise me, I’m going to lock you in that apartment and put two men at the door. I am so angry with you for what you pulled out there. Please don’t test me on this.”
“Okay, what? Okay, you promise you will do as I say?”
She smirks a little, puts her arms around my waist, and places her head on my chest.
I don’t know what makes me lift my head from Mikhail’s chest and look at my father, lying on the floor a dozen paces or so behind Mikhail. For a moment it looks like he’s still passed out, but then my eyes fall to his right hand tucked into his jacket. The scene unfolds as if in slow-motion. His hand comes out of his jacket, holding a gun, a mad look in his eyes and a wide smile on his face. He points the gun at Mikhail’s back. I step around Mikhail and start to run toward my father. Someone is shouting. One strong arm wraps around my middle, turning me around, my back pressed to Mikhail’s wide chest. Two gunshots explode somewhere behind me, almost simultaneously. Mikhail winces and steps forward, still clutching my body to his. A kiss lands on the top of my head.
“Don’t you dare try taking a bullet meant for me ever again,” a whisper in my ear.
His arm loosens around me as Denis looks up from my father’s unmoving body, then turns and runs toward us. I let out a breath, thankful that everything is over and wrap my arms around Mikhail. His shirt is wet. I pull my right palm away—red. Horror builds in my stomach as I look up at Mikhail, who stumbles forward, but Denis manages to catch him.
“Get my car!” Denis shouts, throws Mikhail’s arm around his shoulders, and drags him toward the front door. “Now, Bianca!”