I’m singing Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” (a favorite at Cleopatra’s) and cooking shrimp scampi in the kitchen. Frozen uncooked shrimp isn’t cheap—the bag cost me thirty bucks. But after I gave my notice at work, I was in such a good mood that I splurged. Now the smell of fresh garlic and butter fills the kitchen as the shrimp go from gray to bright pink.
Seth walks into the apartment mid-verse. I hear the thump of his briefcase hitting the floor, and he comes to join me in the kitchen. His large hands encircle my waist. “So… is this your way of telling me that you hooked up with Chrissy?”
I laugh. “Yeah. I wish. She’s way out of my league.”
He grins. “But if it ever happens, you’ll let me know, right? So I can watch?”
He inhales deeply. “Wow, whatever you’re making smells really good.”
“It was on sale,” I quickly lie.
Seth shrugs. “That’s okay. Hey, we can afford some shrimp.”
I look at him in surprise. A year ago, he would have been grilling me on the cost of those shrimp. I guess business has really picked up.
“So,” he says, “is it a special occasion?”
“Sort of.” I turn down the burner before the shrimp can overcook. They overcook so quickly and I don’t dare waste any. “I quit my job today.”
My fiancé’s eyes fly open. “You what?”
“I got an incredible opportunity.” I smile at the thought of it. “I’m going to sing every night. At Cleopatra’s and Tootsie’s.”
He takes a second to absorb all this. I can tell it’s not sitting well with him, but I’m ready for every single one of his objections. I’ve rehearsed this conversation in my head a million times.
“What about your loans?” he says.
“I’ll make just as much as I did as a data analyst.” I dump the shrimp out on a plate. “Maybe more.”
“And your health insurance…”
“There will be benefits too.”
I knew those would be his two main concerns. I study his face, hoping he’ll just accept it and be happy for me. But then his nose crinkles and I know that I’m not that lucky.
“Isn’t Tootsie’s pretty seedy?” he says.
Damn. I was hoping he didn’t know that.
“I’m only going to wear stuff that’s tasteful,” I assure him. “Nick promised me that they wouldn’t make me wear anything I’m not comfortable with.”
Seth’s body stiffens. “Nick. You mean Nick Moretti? The one who called you at two in the morning last night?”
Shit. In every iteration of this conversation in my head, I had avoided saying Nick’s name. What the hell is wrong with me? Obviously Seth doesn’t want to hear that another guy helped me get this job.
“He’s just trying to help me,” I say.
“Yeah, I’m sure that’s all he’s trying to do,” Seth mutters.
“Well, what do you want me to do?” I frown at him. “You want me to turn down my dream job?”
“I’m just telling you that this guy obviously has an agenda,” he says. “If you take this job, he owns you, Jess. You have to do whatever he wants. And I don’t like to think about what that entails.”
In a way, he has a good point. This move will give Nick tremendous power over me. But at the same time, I trust him. I know he won’t take advantage of me.
“I don’t trust him,” Seth says. “This guy is not a good guy. He’s not, Jess. You read the shit they say about him in the newspapers. He’s a lowlife gangster. Christ, what if he asks you to kill someone for him?”
“Oh my God!” I say. “I’m not going to kill someone! And he’d never ask that! What’s wrong with you? You don’t really think that, do you?”
“No,” he admits. “But what if he says that if you don’t give him a blow job, you’re fired?”
“He wouldn’t ask that either.”
Seth gives me a hard look. “Wouldn’t he?”
Nick wouldn’t. I know that better than I know my own name. But if I explain that to Seth, I’d have to admit that I’ve known Nick for nearly twenty years, and then I’d have to explain why I never told him. Not a conversation I want to have.
“I’m taking this job, Seth.” I fold my arms across my chest. “I’m not sucking any other guy’s dick—I promise you that. But I want this job. And if you really cared about me, you wouldn’t ask me not to take it.”
He glares at me. This conversation is not going anywhere near where I’d like it to go. I knew he’d have objections, but I believed I’d be able to address them all and he’d finally come on board. And be happy for me.
But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.
The meeting with John Lombardi is happening in a conference room a floor down from my office. I would have preferred to meet in my office—it’s plenty big, the door is remote-controlled, and also, the walls are bullet proof. The latter isn’t a fact that I advertise, but it’s nice to know.
Tony pushed me to get the conference room though. He pointed out that in my office, it seems like he’s in a subordinate role. I didn’t point out he is in a subordinate role. Now that Pop has backed off, I’m making all the major decisions for the company. I’m the CEO. Tony is just around to fuck all my female employees. Having him at this meeting is a pain in the ass, but Lombardi wanted it. It was the one thing he insisted on.
I show up to the conference room fifteen minutes early, wearing a dark gray Armani suit paired with a dark tie—a combination Chrissy once told me makes me look intimidating. Considering I’m only thirty-two years old and I’m in a wheelchair, I need all the help I can get. Tony comes into the conference room five minutes earlier than the time Lombardi is supposed to arrive, which is also ten minutes later than I told him to come. Also, he’s wearing a white silk shirt with the top two buttons undone. No tie.
“You’re late,” I snap at him. “And button up your goddamn shirt. You look nuts.” I toss him an extra gray tie I brought because I know my brother really well. “Put this on.”
“Aw, Nico, I hate ties,” Tony whines. “I feel like I’m wearing a leash.”
“Put on the fucking tie, Tony.”
He sighs loudly, but he does it. He barely knows how to tie the damn thing though, and I end up having to fix it for him while he takes a seat beside me. What kind of grown man can’t tie a tie? My brother—that’s who. If he’d have shown up when he was supposed to, I would have gotten Chrissy to do it perfect like she did mine, but there’s no time now.
“Let’s go over what I told you,” I say.
Tony rolls his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. Don’t agree to nothing. I got it.”
“We need to be on the same page, Tony,” I tell him as I slide the knot into place. There—it looks good enough. “Whatever he wants, you say…?”
He yanks the tie out of my hands. “You’re treating me like I’m five years old. I’m older than you are, you know.”
I fix my eyes on him. “Say it, Tony.”
“Christ, Nico. You think I’m some kind of moron?”
My brother grits his teeth. “We need to discuss it with our lawyers.”
I nod my head. “Perfect. I feel better now.”
Tony rolls his eyes again. He may not be happy about how I’m treating him, but I don’t trust him not to fuck up. That’s what he does best.
I hear a knock at the door to the conference room and my heart leaps in my chest. That’s Chrissy, bringing Lombardi to us. Tony rises to his feet, while I quickly straighten my own tie and glance down at my legs. My fucking legs never stay straight—every imperfection in the floor knocks them out of place. It’s so goddamn frustrating. I move them quickly, brush off my pants, and call for Chrissy to let him in.
John Lombardi is in his late forties with a full head of black hair that’s threaded with gray. In every photo I’ve ever seen of him, he’s got a five o’clock shadow on his chin, and I see it now as well. Lombardi gets photographed a good amount—he’s a social guy and tends to be seen out in public a lot with his flavor of the week. I’ve seen him before, although we’ve never formally met.
“Tony!” Lombardi raises his hand to greet my brother as he slips past Chrissy to enter the room. “Long time no see!”
“Good to see you again, Johnny,” Tony says as he grips Lombardi’s hand in his own.
Of course, my brother loves the nightlife as much as Lombardi does, so they’ve crossed paths many times before. That’s my most charitable explanation for why Lombardi wanted me to include Tony in this meeting. Maybe he wanted a familiar face present or thought Tony would be slighted if he left him out.
My least charitable explanation? Well, let’s just say that I’m certain all three of us are packing heat.
“And this must be the infamous Nick Moretti.” Lombardi sticks out his hand to me, and I take it, never breaking eye contact with him. “I’m Johnny. Is it okay if I call you Nick?”
“Absolutely,” I say. “It’s good to finally meet you, Johnny. Please have a seat.”
Lombardi looks me up and down. I resist the urge to do a weight shift, not wanting to mess up the position of my legs. This is not a time to call attention to my disability.
“Is there anything I can get for you gentleman?” Chrissy speaks up.
Lombardi jerks his head in her direction, taking in her short black skirt and low cut blouse. I don’t like the way he’s leering at her. “No thanks, honey.”
“We’re good,” I tell Chrissy.
As soon as Chrissy leaves the room, Lombardi grins down at me. “That’s some piece of ass you got working for you, Nick.”
“Yeah,” I mutter. Obviously, Chrissy’s hot, but I think of her like my sister these days. I don’t want a creep like Lombardi going after her. It’s bad enough that I’m certain Tony has fucked her.
Tony and Lombardi take their seats at the conference table, which puts me at eye level with both of them—a much more comfortable position for me. It’s hard to negotiate with someone when I gotta look up at him.
“I just wanna say, Nick,” Lombardi says, “I’m real impressed with how the company’s been doing since your father retired. You made some good decisions—you’re a smart kid.”
I bristle at the way he called me “kid.” I earned enough respect that nobody calls me “kid” anymore. It makes me think the reasons Lombardi wanted us here are in no way honorable.
“Thank you,” I say simply.
Lombardi looks at me for a few seconds with his dark eyes until I start to get nervous but I never break eye contact. At first, I think he’s trying to stare me down, but then his face breaks into a smile. “I heard you’re not one for small talk, Nick. I’ll get to the point, eh?”
I nod at him. “Please do.”
He looks between the two of us. “Here’s the deal. I’m looking to buy the Morell.”
The Morell is the name of the hotel I was building when Pop had his heart attack. The name is one Pop came up with—an anglicized version of our surname. It’s become one of the more popular hotels in Manhattan, and we make a nice chunk of change on it. The idea of selling it is out of the question, but I keep my mouth shut.
“I know what you’re thinking.” Lombardi winks at me. “You’re thinking there’s no fucking way you’d ever sell that hotel.”
Tony grins. “You got that right. You sure you never met my brother before?”
Lombardi nods. “But I think once you hear my offer, you might reconsider.”
I don’t say a word as Lombardi reaches into his briefcase and pulls out a sheet of white paper. He slowly slides it across the table to me. Out of nothing more than politeness, I pick up the paper to see the number he’s written on it.
Tony gasps audibly, and I shoot him a look. But I can’t entirely blame him—I have to struggle to keep my own composure. This is much more money than I expected. More than the Morell is worth—I can tell that without even running the numbers.
But instead of weakening my resolve, this overblown offer makes me even more sure of myself. I don’t want Lombardi’s dirty money. Making this deal would be a mistake.
“That’s incredibly generous of you, Johnny,” I say, “but unfortunately, the Morell is not for sale. At any price.”
“Nico, are you out of your mind?” Tony manages.
I give Tony another look. “It’s nothing personal, Johnny. It’s just that the Morell is my first major property and it means a lot to me. I don’t want to give it up.”
Lombardi raises his eyebrows. “Funny. You don’t look like the sentimental type.”
“Looks are deceiving.”
“Nico.” Tony nudges my shoulder. “Shouldn’t we at least consider it? I mean, talk it over?”
I want to tell my brother to shut the fuck up, but I hold my tongue. “Nothing to consider. The Morell is not for sale.”
“But…” Tony sputters. “At this price—”
For fuck’s sake… “The Morell is not for sale,” I say, more sharply this time.
Lombardi is eyeing us both with amusement. “Nick, you don’t even wanna listen to what your brother’s got to say?”
“He never listens,” Tony grumbles under his breath.
I want to strangle my brother right now. We had a whole conversation right before this meeting about how we were going to be united on whatever we said. And we weren’t going to show interest in any deal Lombardi offered. What the hell does Tony think he’s doing?
Lombardi has leaned back in his seat and he’s just looking at the two of us. When he finally talks, he says to Tony, “Who’s older? Between the two of you, I mean.”
I send Tony silent messages not to take this bait.
“I am,” Tony replies.
A crooked smile spreads across Lombardi’s lips. “So Nick here gets to make all the decisions even though he’s younger and also he’s…”
He doesn’t finish the sentence. He doesn’t have to. It’s not like nobody else has questioned my competence just because I need the chair.
I can see Tony’s jaw tighten. When Pop had his heart attack and I wanted to take on more responsibility, Tony was happy to let me have it. In fact, he’s always happy to let me shoulder the majority of the work and decisions. But when people needle him about it, it gets to him. I know it’s got to bother him on some level that his crippled younger brother is running the company while he does practically nothing.
Of course, if it wasn’t for me, there wouldn’t be a company anymore. I’m sure Lombardi knows this. I’m sure he knows everything about the two of us. And this was his game all along—to bring us both here and put a wedge between us. He knew I wouldn’t go for his deal. And Tony would.
“Nick and I will think about your offer,” Tony says.
We won’t. But I’m not going to say anything more, because it will just make things worse.
Lombardi spreads his palms apart. “That’s all I’m asking for, gentlemen.”
I try to call Chrissy to escort Lombardi to the elevators, but he insists he can find his own way. I watch him leave the conference room, a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. That meeting did not go well. But on the plus side, nobody got shot.
As soon as the doors slam shut, I turn to glare at Tony, who is busy loosening his tie and unbuttoning his shirt. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with him. “I can’t fucking believe you,” I say. “I told you—any deal he offered, you were supposed to say we’d discuss it with our lawyer.”
Tony whips his tie off in one smooth motion. “Yeah, well. You didn’t do it either. You just told him no.”
“No,” I say patiently. “The deal was that our lawyers have to look before we agree to something. Not before we turn it down.”
“That was a lot of money, Nico.” He shakes his head. “We could take that money and build a casino.”
“I don’t want to build a casino.”
“Well, why the hell not?”
“First of all,” I say through my teeth. “When you say ‘we’ can build a casino, you mean me. You want me to do all the work while you do nothing. As usual. And since I’d be doing all the work, I’d say it’s my goddamn decision.”
“And also, because Pop made you the CEO of the company,” Tony says.
I groan. “So… what? You want to be in charge now?”
“Well, why can’t it be both of us?”
I wave my hand at the conference table. “I think this meeting made it really clear why. We were supposed to be in agreement. Now Lombardi knows you’re willing to go for his deal and I’m not. Where do you think that leaves me?”
Tony narrows his eyes at me. “What are you saying?”
“What am I saying?” I glare at him again. “I’m saying Lombardi now knows that if I weren’t in the picture, you’d make a deal with him.”
He shakes his head. “What? You think he’d try to… whack you?”
“Christ, Nico,” he snorts. “You’re getting paranoid. You don’t really think that, do you?”
Admittedly, I don’t really think John Lombardi’s going to try to kill me. It’s unlikely. But then again, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Whenever I remember that guy Nucci I caught tailing me, I get this sick feeling.
“I think we should talk to Pop and Jack about that offer,” Tony says.
“No,” I say. “It’s decided.”
“Right,” I say. “By me.”
The only person who matters.
Tony stands up and now I gotta look up at him. Before I got shot, I used to be an inch taller than he was.
“You never respect what I got to say,” he says. “Never.”
I don’t argue with him. I let him storm out of the conference room and slam the door behind him. Tony can throw all the temper tantrums he wants. I’ve made my decision.
I’m driving Jessie home from Cleopatra’s and my back is killing me.
I’ve been up and in my chair too many hours today. I need to lie down. It doesn’t matter how many massages I get from Sonja if I’m spending eighteen hours a day sitting in my chair. If I knew what was good for me, I would’ve gone straight home from the office instead of going to Cleopatra’s to see Jessie perform.
Obviously, I don’t know what’s good for me.
The clock is ticking on me and Jessie. She’s getting married in two months. I can’t fucking believe it. What am I going to do? There haven’t been any other moments where I could kiss her. If I don’t make a move soon, that’s it. I’m done.
As I glance over at Jessie while stopped at a red light, I wonder if I’m kidding myself. Maybe I don’t actually have a shot with Jessie. Maybe Lombardi’s got a better chance of getting me to sell the Morell. I keep my left hand on the steering wheel, my right on the gear that controls the accelerator, and my eyes on the road. Jessie is quiet, her head resting against the passenger side window. She looks tired and thoughtful.
I glance at her again. I want to pull over and kiss her. The worst that could happen is she’d push me away and I wouldn’t be any worse off than I am right now. Maybe I should just go for it. Now or never.
Then, abruptly, her head lifts off the window and she’s staring straight ahead. “Oh no.”
I look where she’s looking, and that’s when I see him. Seth. Leaning against the front of her building, a bottle of what looks like whiskey in his hand. As we pull up to the curb, he spots us and stumbles onto the sidewalk. The bottle falls from his fingers, shattering on impact with the ground.
I better keep on driving.
Except I can’t. Because that drunk asshole steps right in front of my BMW so that I have no choice but to hit the brake if I don’t want to run him over. He leans over the hood of my car and bangs on it once. I can see through the windshield that his eyes are bloodshot. Even with the windows rolled up, I can smell the alcohol on him. I wonder how much whiskey he drank.
“Hey!” he yells at me. “What the hell are you doing with my fiancée!”
“Don’t get out of the car,” I start to say to Jessie, but I’m too late. She’s sliding out of the passenger seat, and before I can do anything about it, she’s standing next to Seth. Her hands are on her hips and she’s glowering at him. Despite everything, I can’t help but think how sexy she looks when she’s angry.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” she snaps. “You’re making an ass out of yourself!”
Seth ignores her. He rounds the car so that he’s inches away from me. Only the driver’s side window separates us. He bangs on the window with his fist. The glass doesn’t shatter—much like my office, it’s bulletproof.
“Get out of the car, fucker!” Seth yells.
I want nothing more than to get out of the car and punch a hole in Seth Parson’s face. I want it so goddamn bad. I took a self-defense course aimed for people in wheelchairs, and my upper body is strong enough that if he came at me on the street, I think I’d be able to hold my own. But this is an entirely different situation. I’m not in my wheelchair—it’s in the back seat. If I were to open the door to the car, Seth isn’t going to give me a minute to reassemble the chair and get back in it. He’s going to pull me right out of my seat, onto the ground. And once I’m on the ground, I’m fucked.
I can’t get out of this car.
Seth is pounding on the window hard now. “You asshole! Get out of the car!” The glass vibrates with each punch. “I don’t care if you’re crippled. I’ll rip you apart!”
“Seth!” Jessie is now on the driver’s side of the car too. Her hair is loose and shimmery in the dim glow of the streetlights. “You need to go upstairs. Now. Before Nick calls the cops.”
Seth glowers at me. “Oh, I don’t think this guy is calling the cops.”
I almost laugh. He thinks because I got mob ties, I’m scared of the cops—he doesn’t have a clue how many officers I got on my payroll. But I wouldn’t call them now. I got plenty of guys I’d call before the cops. Nobody could make it here fast enough to diffuse this situation, but they can teach him a lesson later.
I crack open my window just enough so they can hear me. “Jessie, get back in my car,” I tell her.
“There’s no fucking way she’s getting in your car,” Seth practically spits at me.
He’s right—Jessie isn’t getting back in my car. That leaves me with three options. First, I open the door to the car and let Seth beat the shit out of me—not really an option. Second, I get the hell out of here and leave Jessie behind, which would make me hate myself. Third…
I’ve got a gun under the seat.
I haven’t had shooting practice in a while. But this would be close range. It would be hard to miss.
My hand is itching to reach for the gun, but I know that would be a mistake. It would take me on a path I don’t want to go down. Seth is drunk and might not have enough sense in him to back off when he sees the revolver. I don’t want to have to shoot him. As much as I want Jessie, I’m not going to murder another man to get her.
“Seth,” Jessie says more quietly this time. “Please. Let’s just go home.”
She puts her hand on his shoulder in a gesture meant to soothe him, but he just shakes her off. She tries again, and this time he lashes out at her with his hand balled into a fist, clipping her in the jaw hard enough to slam her against my car.
He hit her. I can’t fucking believe that asshole hit her.
The Girl I Didn't Kill For will be released on Amazon at the end of the month!