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Burned Dreams: Chapter 13

Alessandro

I push the blueprint of the Pisano mansion which Felix provided inside my dresser, and reach for my jacket and the shoulder holster on the chair. I had set my alarm for five in the morning so I could have enough time to check out the east wing before the housekeeper and the maids start their shifts at eight.

When I arrived with my bags last night, the housekeeper proposed I take one of the guest rooms in the west wing. I’ve already explored that part of the house in detail over the last couple of weeks, so I declined. Instead, I moved into a small room in the east wing, one that was probably meant to be a storage space but got outfitted for household staff at some point. It has only one narrow, horizontal window, high up on the wall. From the outside, no one can actually see inside, especially because the AC unit and other utility meters are in the way. It’s also close to the kitchen and laundry room which I haven’t had the opportunity to recon so far.

I step out and head down the hallway toward the laundry room, passing the kitchen and a few more empty staff bedrooms along the way. The blueprint showed that there is an unfinished sublevel space below the main floor of the house, but the schematic didn’t have the entrance to it marked. I find the basement door on the far end of the laundry room, behind one of the shelves holding cleaning supplies. It’s locked.

I take out my phone and check the camera feed from the entrance gate. The security guards are in the middle of their shift—acting rather lax, actually—and no cars are in view. Putting the phone away, I take out my set of lock picks. The basement door has only a standard lock, and it takes less than twenty seconds to unlock it. When I descend the steps, I look around the vast space. It’s only one room with a furnace and the water tank off in the corner, duct piping and electrical wires running along the exposed beams. There is nothing else except thick support pillars.

I take my time inspecting the heating unit and the pipes, then check the walls until I find an electrical panel. With that done, I move to the support pillars, making calculations in my head. The house might be smaller than I originally expected but overloading the circuits won’t be enough. The pillars will have to go, too. I do another round to make sure I haven’t missed anything, then return to the laundry room.

Striding down the hallway, I intend to head upstairs and check out the upper floor, when I hear sounds in the kitchen behind me. Isn’t it too early for the maids to be here? A look at my watch confirms it’s not eight, yet. I turn around and retrace my steps, only to stop short when I get to the kitchen doorway.

There is a woman standing by the open fridge, searching for something inside. Her face is hidden behind the appliance door, but I’m certain I’ve never seen her here before. She’s wearing black leggings and an oversized gray sweater with the sleeves rolled up. Her feet are bare. Long black hair is falling down her back in soft waves.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” I bark.

She jumps with a yelp, closes the fridge, and turns to face me. My eyes flare in shock.

“Good morning,” Ravenna mumbles.

I can’t stop staring. If I saw her walking down the street, I probably wouldn’t have recognized her. Ravenna is a hundred times more beautiful without makeup. She looks like a fucking angel who descended from heaven, and I find it impossible to take my eyes off her. She is also much younger than I thought.

“Um . . .” She tilts her head to the side and picks up one black strand between her fingers, twirling it. “Are you okay?”

No, I am not okay.

Although I’ve never been attracted to women who wear a lot of makeup, I’ve been mesmerized by Ravenna, even when she wears lavish clothes and has a ton of crap smeared over her face. But seeing her with her hair hanging freely, framing her angelic face, I feel like I’ve been sucker punched, unable to draw in air.

“I need to go to the hospital and then check on my mom after,” she says.

My gaze moves down, stopping at her throat. The bruises on her neck are a deep purple color today, and looking at them rekindles the rage in my stomach. It’s my fault. I should have stayed on that damn balcony and killed that motherfucker the moment he went inside her room, no matter the consequences.

“Alessandro?” Ravenna steps forward and inclines her head.

I carefully reach out and move her hair back so I can have a better look. The black strands feel like silk on my palm.

“I like your hair,” I mumble.

Ravenna’s lips curve upward. “I like your hair, too.” She lifts her hand and hesitates for a few moments, then glides her fingers over the side of my head.

“It’s really short.” She smiles.

I should fucking leave, not discuss damn haircuts, but I can’t make myself move.

“Habit.”

With my hand on her neck, I trace the shape of each bruise with the tip of my finger. Her skin is so soft, and to see it marred in such a way makes me want to go to that hospital, cut off the bastard’s hand, and make him eat the damn thing.

“Was that the first time?” I ask through clenched teeth.

“Yes.” She shrugs. Her hand is on my upper arm now, and I can feel the warmth of her touch even through the fabric of my shirt and suit jacket.

She’s lying. I should have realized way sooner that her husband was hurting her. There were so many signs pointing out that something is wrong between them, but I was too blinded by my hate and focused on vengeance that I chose not to dwell on them.

I still don’t want to. I don’t want to care. It would mean kissing my revenge goodbye and breaking the promise I made to myself and to Natalie. That can’t happen. I might have deviated from my plan so far, but I am going to execute it in full at the end. These stupid feelings that started growing in me, wrapping around my ice-cold heart like fiery claws, need to be extinguished. I hate Ravenna Pisano, and my stupid heart better remember that.

The sound of female chatter and hurried steps reach us from the direction of the hallway. The maids have arrived.

Ravenna quickly pulls her hand from my arm and steps away. “I’ll be ready in twenty if that works for you?”

I nod and leave the kitchen.

 

Ravenna

 

Not one word.

The man sitting next to me shot off my husband’s hand because it was used to hurt me, but he hasn’t said a single word to me since we got inside his car. But I did catch him looking at me when he thought I wouldn’t notice—a sideways glance as I was sliding onto a passenger seat instead of the back one. A squinty glimpse while I rummaged through my purse looking for a new pack of tissues. A peek through the reflection in the side window as I was trying to find the switch on the dashboard to turn up the heat. I can’t stand it anymore.

“So . . .” I ask. “Cat got your tongue?”

Nothing. Alessandro keeps staring at the road straight ahead.

“Looks like it.” I blow my nose in the tissue. “Shame. I quite enjoy your one-word monologues.”

He grunts. The man fucking grunts at me.

“Sorry, I don’t speak that specific dialect. Can you try again?”

This time, I get a sideways stare, then he looks back toward the road.

“Does my presence suddenly bother you, Alessandro?”

I hear the squeak of the leather as he tightens his hold on the steering wheel. The moment is brief before the tendons on the backs of his rugged hands relax. I swear to God, I don’t understand this man. I shake my head and focus on the buildings we’re passing by. We’re almost at the hospital.

“You shouldn’t have shot Rocco,” I say. Maybe Alessandro is worried that the don will learn of what he’s done? Punish him for it? Blame me? “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you did. But it’s obvious you’re regretting it now. Why else would you act like—”

The car suddenly swerves to the right, and I scream and grab the door handle like my life depends on it. I squeeze my eyes shut as we barrel toward the streetlight. I assume we missed it because the SUV comes to a screeching halt a split second later. The car door slams, and I’m left in silence.

Tentatively, I open my eyes and watch Alessandro as he walks past the car, stopping several feet ahead on the sidewalk. The biting wind seems to have little effect on him even though he’s not wearing a coat. It still lies on the vehicle’s backseat, just where he threw it when I chose to sit at the front.

He turns partway, not quite toward me but enough that I catch his fleeting glance, and throws his head back, facing the sky. What’s he doing? Seeking help from above? With his hands on his hips, the restlessness wafting off him is nearly palpable. I watch as he finally drops his head forward, chin nearly hitting his chest. He slowly shakes it side to side, and I have a distinct impression that an internal struggle just went on within him.

Finally, he looks at me through the windshield, our eyes catch and hold. His seem to burn as he strides toward me, his gaze unbreaking. The closer he gets, the faster he moves. A predator with prey in sight.

Approaching my side, he grips the handle and opens the door with a forceful yank. The air cracks as he leans inside, his muscled bulk invading my space. The look in his eyes is positively feral, like he wants to annihilate me on the spot.

“This is why,” he grits out through his teeth and, grabbing the back of my neck, slams his mouth to mine.

I don’t breathe. I can’t! It seems like even my heart has stopped beating through these fractured seconds while his lips stay pressed to my own. Before I have time to process or react, Alessandro releases his hold and abruptly pulls away.

“Fuck!” he barks, hits the roof of the car with his fist, and slams the door shut.

No longer still, my heart is thumping through my ribcage as I watch him walk around the front of the SUV and get back behind the wheel. He puts the car in drive and pulls onto the street. Lips pressed tight, and eyes glued to the gray concrete ribbon beyond the windshield, he won’t even look at me now. I, on the other hand, can’t make myself look away from his gruff profile.

I don’t think a kiss has ever shaken me so much, especially one so swift. Or so angry. I’d only had two boyfriends before I married Rocco, but neither made me feel like Alessandro’s all-too-brief kiss had done. God, I want him to kiss me again.

I dreamed about him again last night. I’ve come to crave these nightly visions. This time, I was on top, riding his cock as his hands moved over my stomach and breasts, and up to my throat. That should have frightened me—his hands wrapped around my neck. Rocco often holds me down when he forces himself on me. He likes to remind me of his power. But even in the dream, Alessandro’s fingers at my throat didn’t faze me. My subconsciousness knew I could trust him. I came so hard, that when I woke up, my pussy still trembled at the thought.

What happens now? I press my thighs together, helpless to stop the clench inside my core.

Alessandro parks in the hospital lot and walks around the front of the SUV to open the door for me. His stance is rigid, gaze focused somewhere across the sea of cars. I exit the vehicle and head toward the visitor’s entrance, while he follows a few paces behind.

 

* * *

 

I stare at the white door at the end of the hospital hallway. I don’t need to be directed to my husband’s room. There’s only one door with a guard on either side of it. I’ve been fixated on that door for what seems like hours while standing in the waiting room, but I know it couldn’t have been more than just a few minutes.

“Please, stay here,” I say to Alessandro without turning around, then head down the hall.

When I enter the room, I find Rocco lying in bed, head raised to allow him more comfort. The wall-mounted TV on the opposite side is showing the news. The monitor beside the bed tracks his vitals—heartbeat, blood pressure—giving off a steady beep once in a while. His right hand is hidden from view, wrapped in a thick layer of bandages.

“It’s still there. For now.”

I tense upon hearing Rocco’s voice and make myself look at him.

“It was those Serbian bastards. Can’t be anyone else,” he continues. “But they will be dealt with soon enough. I’ve made arrangements for some of my guys to hit that club of theirs and kill everyone there.”

“The don won’t like you acting without his approval,” I say. The head of our Family is very strict on how things are handled.

“One of them almost shot off my damn hand!” he snarls. “The doctor said they’re going to keep me here for three weeks at least. Three weeks!”

I can feel the pressure in my chest ease off ever so slightly. Almost a month without him.

“And then, that sleazy motherfucker, Cosimo, called me, saying how sorry he is for what happened, and that he’ll be taking over my obligations. And, how it’s such a shame I won’t be able to attend Giancarlo’s fucking party tomorrow,” he rambles on. “He always acts like he’s better than everyone else, when we all know he’s getting special treatment only because he’s banging the don’s mother. I won’t be going, but you are. And after, you’re going to tell me everything that happens there. I want to know who was present, and what was said about me.”

I take a deep breath and squeeze the purse in my hand. Rocco might have bought me tons of expensive jewelry and extravagant clothes, but I’m never going to feel like I belong in that circle. Money was always scarce in my family, and I feel awful being surrounded by so much wealth because I know that my mom and brother can barely get through a month on what my mother makes. I detest going to the Cosa Nostra gatherings.

“Are you listening to me, Ravenna?”

I bite the inside of my cheek as a memory of me curled on the bathroom floor pops into my mind. The realization that I never tried to pick or break the lock to get out eats away at me like acid.

“I don’t want to go to that party,” I blurt out.

Rocco glares at me and leans forward. I take an involuntarily step back and bump my back into the door.

“Who the fuck cares what you want!” he yells and launches the TV remote at me. I barely have time to duck and avoid being hit in the head.

“You’ll do as I say, and you’ll watch yourself. I’ll have Zanetti report to me on your behavior. Is that clear?”

“Yes,” I choke out.

“Good. Now, get out! I can’t bear to look at you!”

I fling the door open and dash out of the room. Running down the hall, I ignore the curious stares of people as I pass them. Only once I’ve reached the sidewalk in front of the hospital do I stop. My heart is beating out of my chest and I’m struggling for every breath.

A hand lands on my upper arm, long strong fingers squeezing lightly.

“Did he do anything?” Alessandro’s voice rasps over my back.

I close my eyes and shake my head. Pathetic. Rocco was in bed, almost ten feet away from me. He wouldn’t have been able to hit me, but I still panicked and ran away like the coward I am. It’s hilarious, how I always believed myself to be confident. I never shrank from confrontation. Once, I caught an older boy from school bullying my brother. I kneed him in the junk. And look at me now. Fucking terrified because that bastard raised his voice.

“Ravenna.”

A shudder runs down my spine. I love how Alessandro says my name.

Slowly, I turn and look up at his hardened face. Even in my four-inch heels, I still need to tilt my head way back to be able to meet his gaze.

“What did he do?” he asks through clenched teeth.

“He didn’t do anything.” I blink to keep the tears from spilling. I don’t know why I feel like crying. Maybe I’m mourning my pitiful attempt at standing up to Rocco. “He just yelled. I got spooked. It’s stupid.”

Alessandro’s nostrils flare, and he lowers his head, leveling with my face. There’s a dangerous glint in his eyes, and if it was any other man in his place, I would have probably recoiled. Once bitten, twice shy, people say. But I don’t back away.

Since I’ve met him, Alessandro has gifted me with a plethora of different looks. There was despise. Anger. Irritation. Even hate, especially in the beginning. I haven’t felt threatened by him even once.

“He will. Never. Touch you again,” he says in a hushed voice.

It’s been a very long time since anyone stood up for me. Especially a stranger, or at least not a family member. I’m not sure I can trust myself to believe.

“You can’t promise that,” I whisper. If Alessandro confronts Rocco in any way, my husband will have him killed. Or he’ll do it himself.

“Yes, I can,” Alessandro says and smiles.

I can’t look away from his mouth, captivated by how sinfully attractive such a wicked grin could be.

As we head toward his car, the back of his hand accidentally brushes mine. Biting the inside of my cheek, I move a bit closer and hook my pinkie with his.

Alessandro stops.

I halt, too, but I don’t dare glance at him. A moment passes. Alessandro resumes walking, and I follow. He doesn’t pull his hand from mine.

 

* * *

 

When we reach my mom’s apartment, Alessandro takes his spot by the door as usual, and I head to the kitchen where Mamma is preparing lunch.

“You’re later than usual,” she whispers while reaching for an onion. “Did something happen?”

“Rocco got shot.”

“Is he dead?”

“No. He’s in the hospital.” I pull some carrots out of a bag and start peeling one. “How much did you get for the bracelet?”

“Eight grand.”

Shit. I’d hoped for at least ten. “I’ll see if I have a necklace that’s not too distinctive and bring it next time.”

“What if Rocco notices?”

“I’ll just say I lost it.”

My mom throws a quick look at Alessandro, who seems extremely interested in the window on the opposite wall, then focuses back on the onion she’s chopping. “And where will we go when we’ve got enough money?”

“As far as possible.”

“He’ll come after us, Ravi. You know that.”

I close my eyes for a second. Lying to my mom is the last thing I want to do, but she would never agree if she learns the truth.

I knew from the start that escaping my husband would be nearly impossible. He has the funds and connections to find me no matter where I go, so I’ve decided that I won’t be staying with Mamma and Vitto. I’ll get them settled somewhere far from New York, with enough money to last them for a few months, and leave. I’m the one Rocco will be searching for, and I won’t let my family become the collateral damage. He’ll probably kill me when he catches up with me. No one crosses Rocco Pisano and lives to talk about it.

“We’ll figure something out when the time comes,” I say. “Where’s Vitto?”

“Still sleeping. He went out with his friends last night and came back this morning.”

“What friends?”

She just shrugs, avoiding eye contact.

“Mamma?”

“I made him promise me this was the last time. He won’t do it again.”

“He went with Ugo?” I screech. “Darn, Mamma. Did they go to that bar to play cards again?”

“He said they just went to watch. He doesn’t play cards anymore.”

“And you believed him?” I throw the half-peeled carrot on the counter and march through the living room to my brother’s bedroom.

Vitto is sprawled across the bed, still in his jeans and hoodie. The curtains are pulled over the window, barring the outside light. I flip a switch, turning on the lamp on the right, and step over a pair of sweatpants on the floor, reaching for the black backpack on his desk.

“Yo, Ma?” Vitto grumbles sleepily. “Turn off that lamp.”

I open the backpack and empty the contents onto his desk. A half-full bottle of soda. Empty snack bag. Earbuds. Some change. More trash. And a bundle of money.

“What the fuck is this, Vitto?” I yell.

“Ravi?” He sits up and squints at me. “What are you—”

“Explain!”

He looks at the cash in my hand and leaps off the bed, grabbing my arm. “That’s mine. Give that back!”

“Gambling again? After everything? How could you?!”

“It’s my life! You don’t have the right to tell me what I can’t do!” He wraps his fingers around mine, trying to pry them open.

“But you can ruin mine?”

“Fuck you, Ravenna!” he yells in my face.

A thick arm wraps around Vitto’s midsection from behind. I stare in shock as Alessandro carries my brother out of the room, then I run after them. Vitto tries his best to free himself, thrashing around with his legs dangling a foot off the ground and shouting obscenities along the way. Alessandro puts him down in the middle of the living room and points to the sofa.

“Sit down.”

“What the fuck, man?” Vitto hollers. “Who do you think . . .”

Alessandro takes a step forward. “Sit. Down.”

My brother drops down onto the sofa and crosses his arms over his chest.

“Now, apologize to your sister.”

Vitto looks at Alessandro sideways, then turns to me and tucks his chin. “I’m sorry, Ravi.”

I shake my head and come to sit on the sofa next to him. Alessandro walks back to his place next to the front door, but he keeps his gaze fixed on my brother. My mom is still in the kitchen, her hands gripping the counter and her head hanging low. I can’t see her face, but I know she’s crying by how her body shudders.

“You need to stop, Vitto. It’s not a game.” I take his hand in mine and cast a look at Alessandro. He’s still watching us. “You know what happened the last time.”

“But it turned out good, Ravi. You live in a nice place now. Rocco has a ton of money, and he always buys you fancy clothes. You have a great life and—”

“Shut the fuck up, Vitto,” my mom snarls from the kitchen.

“But it’s the truth, Ma. If it wasn’t for me, she wouldn’t be rich. I have to wait at least a couple more years before I’m allowed to join Cosa Nostra and start making money like Rocco.”

My mom storms into the living room and grabs my brother by the front of his hoodie, jerking him around. “Did you ever wonder why your sister wears sunglasses almost every time she comes here?” she yells into his face.

“Mamma, don’t.” I grab at her forearm. “Please.”

“Did you, Vitto?” she keeps yelling while tears roll down her cheeks. “Because she doesn’t want us to see the bruises! Rocco has been beating her from the start. You fucked up and she had to pay the price! And you are still doing it.”

Vitto stares at Mamma, then turns to me. “Ravi? That’s not true, is it? You like Rocco. You told me so yourself.”

I press the heels of my palms to my eyes and shake my head. Mamma promised she’d never tell my brother the truth.

“Jesus fuck,” Vitto chokes out. “I’m going to kill him. I’m going to fucking kill him.”

He springs off the sofa and runs to the front door.

“Vitto!” I jump to stop him, but there’s no need.

As my brother reaches the door, Alessandro wraps him in a bear hug. Vitto thrashes, shaking his head left and right, trying to headbutt Alessandro. But my protector just stands there, his furious eyes scorching right through me.

“Stay there,” he says and opens the door, carrying my brother outside.

 

Alessandro

 

“Let me go, you motherfucker!” The kid twists, his spit flying everywhere.

I put him down and pin him against the hallway wall. “Calm down.”

“I can’t fucking calm down! That son of a bitch has been hitting my sister! I’m going to kill him.”

“You’re not going to kill anyone.”

“Just watch me!” he yells and tries to free himself. I put a bit more pressure into my hold.

“And do you want your sister to watch you being dragged to jail? Or even worse, attend your funeral? Because, believe me, there is nothing more excruciating than seeing the casket with your family member lowered into the ground.”

The kid stops thrashing and tilts his head up to look at me.

“Now, you’re going to calm the fuck down, go back inside, and hug your sister. You’ll tell her you love her, and that you won’t be making any more problems in the future.”

The kid stares at me, then nods. “And what about Rocco? If he’s going to . . .”

“Rocco Pisano had his death sentence signed years ago,” I say. “He won’t touch your sister again.”

“How do you know?”

“Because you can’t hit anyone if you don’t have any hands. And because I’m going to kill him before he ever has the chance to go near her again.” I release the kid. “Go inside. Tell Ravenna I’ll wait for her out here.”

He turns around and narrows his eyes at me. “You’re really going to kill him.”

“Yes.”

“I hope he’ll suffer.”

An easy smile breaks across my face. “Very much.”

No longer the hot-headed teenager of just a few minutes ago, Vitto gives me a look that of a man who understands the gravity of this situation and goes back inside. I lean my back on the wall across from the apartment door, listening to the hushed words coming from within, but I don’t move any closer to hear them more clearly. I’m barely hanging on by a thread, and if I hear any more about how that son of a bitch hurt her, I’m going to storm that hospital and separate the asshole’s head from his body.

Ravenna walks out a few minutes later, her gaze cemented on the decrepit floor.

“I’m sorry you had to witness that,” she mumbles.

I reach out and lift her chin. Her eyes meet mine. Sad. Haunted.

“Why did you marry Rocco?” I ask. “Were you in love with him?”

An anguished laugh escapes her lips. “My brother thought it would be fun to challenge Rocco to a game of poker. Vitto lost. And I was a part of debt settlement.”

I stare at her. Stories have been circling that Rocco won his wife in a card game, but I thought it was nothing but some bullshit gossip.

“Who knows?” I ask through gritted teeth.

“That Rocco’s been beating me? Other than my mom, no one. Maybe one of the guards who saw the bruises.”

“His name?”

Ravenna’s eyes widen. “Why?”

Why? Because I need to find the cocksucker who saw her hurt and did nothing. I squeeze my eyes shut, trying to erase that idea from my mind. She is my target. The fact she was being abused should have no impact on me. I will not jeopardize my plan any further because of her. She means nothing to me.

I move my hand to her cheek, cupping it into my palm. The skin under my fingers feels so soft, like down feathers.

“His name, Ravenna.”

“Federico.”

The bald guy on the second shift who works the gate. I nod. “Anyone else?”

“No. Rocco was very clear about what would happen to my mom and brother if I told anyone.” She slumps her shoulders. “My mom has been selling the clothes and jewelry I give her. In a few more months, I should have enough money for the three of us to escape. But until that happens, I have to endure.”

I tilt her chin back up. “Endure?”

“You think I’m weak? Just letting it happen and doing nothing?” Ravenna shakes her head. “I tried fighting back. The first time Rocco slapped me, I tried smashing a table lamp over his head. He hit me so hard that after I couldn’t eat solid food for the rest of the week.”

Like a blast from a fucking grenade exploding in my brain, I feel the quake of my stone-cold fortress. The tremors shake the foundations of my revenge plan. Yes, in the beginning, I did think she was a weak, shallow, trophy wife whose only interests were buying clothes and parading around like a holier-than-thou queen. She fooled me, too. Or, better said, I let myself be fooled because it was easier to hate her that way. She’s been trying to fight that son of a bitch from the start, and when she couldn’t do it with brawn, she resorted to outsmarting him. Alone.

“You’re far from weak, Ravenna.” I brush her cheek with the back of my hand while another enormous chunk of my fortress breaks away and crumbles into a cloud of dust.

 

* * *

 

When we arrive back at the mansion, I escort Ravenna to the front door, then turn around and feign a casual stroll through the grounds, heading toward the guardhouse. There’s a blind spot close to the old oak tree. Knowing that cameras won’t be an issue here, I stop and take out my phone.

Overriding multiple feeds without my laptop isn’t possible, but I can scramble one with the software on my cell. I select the camera overlooking the guardhouse and pull up a dummy recording I prepared a few days ago, making the switch. Now, no one will see me slipping through the door when the moment is right.

I take cover in the shadows and wait, pressed against the outside wall of the guardhouse, not far from the pedestrian gate that’s just next to the main one. The window lets me see what’s going on inside.

Federico and another security guy are sitting in front of the monitors at a desk covered in containers of fast food. Fifteen minutes later, the other man exits the guardhouse and heads toward the trees, probably to take a piss. Federico remains, his attention focused on the wall of monitors before him. I slip inside and approach from behind. Slapping my left palm over his mouth, I simultaneously grip his neck with my other hand by pressing on both his carotid arteries.

It’s not a Vulcan nerve pinch and not like in the fucking movies when the opponent falls unconscious instantly. In reality, you need to keep the pressure on both points for at least seven seconds to cut off the flow of blood to the brain. When Federico’s body sags, I clasp his nose and grab a hamburger from one of the takeout boxes, stuffing it deep into his throat. He comes to fairly quickly and starts jerking, gasping for breath, but I keep his mouth and nose shut. The fight leaves him several moments later, and his body sags again. For good this time. I let Federico’s bulk slack in the chair, with vomit trickling out of his mouth and down his chin, then slip out of the guardhouse.

As I’m striding back toward the mansion, I look up to the second floor and the last window on the left. Ravenna’s light is off, but I can see her silhouette behind the sheer curtain. I pause and take out my phone, dialing her number. She disappears from the window, then comes back a few moments later. The curtain moves to the side, revealing Ravenna with her cell in her hand.

The ringing stops and the call connects, but she doesn’t say anything. The only thing I can hear is her soft breathing.

“Tomorrow morning at six,” I say into the phone. “The library. Wear something comfortable.”

A few beats of silence before she whispers, “Why?”

“Because it will work better.” And because I’ll make sure she never feels defenseless ever again.

I end the call and watch her. A distant light from the driveway lamppost casts its glow on Ravenna’s face. She keeps looking at where I stand, then nods. The curtain falls over the window. A moment later, she disappears from view.

I should have killed her the minute I set foot in this house. I haven’t. And now, I’m no longer capable of doing it.


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