Five thirty in the morning was way too early to think about stalkers.
Just my luck, I was fifteen pounds overweight, what my Aunt Teresa called an “unconventional beauty,“ which was an acceptable way of saying my front teeth stuck out, freckles splashed my cheeks, and no one would mistake them for beauty marks. Despite all this, Mathew had stalked me as if I were a modern-day Marilyn Monroe.
The police officers who failed to lock him up told me every stalker had a type, and it just so happened I was his.
I’d found a semblance of peace these past few months, pounding flour and yeast into bread, rolls, or donuts while working in my auntie‘s bakery. So much so that it caught me by surprise when I spun around to spot the danger and went into full-body tremors when the delivery dude slammed the giant sack of flour on the counter behind me.
A single flashback pinned me to the asphalt, one of Mathew’s knees on my shoulder, his hand on my neck. I couldn’t scream for help. Mathew pulled a gun from behind his back and aimed it at my head.
“Click!” he said and pulled the trigger on an empty chamber.
He smiled a hateful grin, full of malevolence and death, and I knew months ago when it actually happened, I’d never get his expression out of my head.
I was right.
One sack of flour tossed too hard behind me, and he was suddenly holding me down again while I struggled to hold back a scream.
No place was safe. Not even this small town in the middle of nowhere.
Telling myself to snap out of it, I sucked and blew air like a freight train, lucid again and aware of my surroundings. My chest ached as if I was at the end days of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
“Hey, you okay?” The delivery guy asked, and I started involuntarily.
I am safe, and all is well... I am safe and all is well...
Repeating the mantra recommended by my damned therapist didn’t do shit, and it was too early for a glass of wine.
“Yeah. Fine, “ I answered. I’d given up trying to explain my weird behavioral quirks. Most people didn’t understand how harassment and unwanted attention turned so sick and twisted, I ran away from my own life to escape it.
To be on the safe side, I went to the window and pulled back the curtain.
Mathew’s car wasn’t in the back parking lot.
The sound of the industrial mixer started up in the next room, grounding me, followed by the yeasty smell of bread dough. My clenched muscles relaxed in an unexpected release of tension, and tears welled up behind my eyelids.
There was no danger here with Aunt Teresa.
Chill out, Savanna. I told myself. Mathew has no idea where you are.
Aunt Teresa came in, unaware of my minor panic attack, and plopped a dome of her famous cinnamon bun dough on the marble counter. Watching her move under the puffs of flour dust, backlit by morning sunlight that streamed through the overhead antique skylight, my throat felt tight and a little sore.
Right about now, my best friend Kate would be cleaning puppy cages, and feeding the rabbits, kittens, and assorted animals at the shop we had opened: Muddy Paws.
“Coffee’s ready,” my auntie said cheerfully. “Help yourself to that and the granola I made yesterday. Then if you’d make the cream cheese frosting for the carrot cake, we’ll be all set.”
The custom made, marble-topped island filled center of the room. Redwood wainscoting covered the walls and Aunt Teresa had painted it her favorite color: tiffany blue.
Her capable hands went over the kitchen surfaces a million times a day. She was as reliable as the waves of the tide lapping at the shore, elemental and reassuring.
Gradually I’d learned how to help make her secret recipes. We cast kitchen spells by melting butter, mixing batter, sprinkling cinnamon... hoping they helped our everyday difficulties dissipate like a sugary glaze dissolved on the tongue.
I gathered my hair on top of my head in a high ponytail to keep it away from the baking equipment. My aunt told me stories of bakers pulled into an industrial mixer, kissing the rest of their days sayonara.
As if I weren’t flinchy enough.
It was weird in Briarville, a tiny, picturesque “Victorian village” on the northern coast of California—vastly different from the city of Oakland where I had gone to business school, graduated, and opened a shop with Kate.
People here looked you in the eye when they passed you on the sidewalk.
I turned over the “Open“ sign and unlocked the front door of the bakery where three cowboys waited on the black and white octagonal limestone tiles my auntie paved the entry way with. It didn’t matter to her that her customers tracked dirt and grime in from the fields. “Working-class people deserve first class treatment, Savanna,” she’d remind me.
The first customers entered the bakery as if they were entering a church. A temple where it was okay to slap each other on the back, kid one another about how they needed to “wake up sleepy head!” and dish about what happened last night at The Saloon. There was also catching up on daily chatter. “Did you hear about Ingrid? She got kicked in the head by a bull yesterday, tying an elastic band around its balls.”
The holy water in this church was coffee, its communion, baked goods.
A smiling cowboy, the same one who said to me the first day I met him, “You’re real pretty.” Stepped up to the counter and asked me, “You getting used to these crazy hours your aunt keeps?”
“Pretty much. I just go to bed early.” I slid his triple foam cappuccino across the counter with a blueberry scone, not about to go into my chronic insomnia with a virtual stranger.
I sometimes wondered if it was being overly friendly that got me into trouble with Mathew.
Teresa reassured me that cowboy Bart was harmless enough, after I about shit a brick from his initial attentions. One advantage of small-town living was that it was hard to hide your sins in a place like this. The creepers got called out, so you knew to avoid them.
The rhythm of the bakery continued, and I went into the back kitchen to brush butter on the sandwich rolls and slide them in the oven, and I ran a stack of crumb- covered plates through the dishwasher.
Pulling down the door of the commercial machine, I heard my aunt murmuring affectionately from the front of the shop, “Dante Drago, as I live and breathe. We’ve missed you around here.”
The reply was so deep it tickled the bottom of my belly and spread to the base of my spine, “Not many reasons to get out, Teresa. This is one of the few places worth stopping by. You have any of your famous carrot cake left?”
“Oh.” I hear the unmistakable sound of my auntie assembling a cake box, “You haven’t met my niece yet.”
On cue, I picked up the cake smeared with cream cheese frosting and decorated with edible nasturtiums, hefted it proudly above my shoulder, and walked it up front.
At least, that was what should have happened.
Instead, I wound up slipping and tripping ass over tea kettle upon glimpsing the best-looking man on planet Earth.
Men like Dante Drago were blessed by Mother Mary in Heaven. Invisible tears shed by women everywhere kissed his muscles when he walked past without stopping to give them the time of day.
I guess falling on my ass in front of him was one way to get his attention.
“Just don’t flex too hard if you like that shirt, “ my cousin Carlos remarked as we got dressed at the gym that morning.
“Funny.” I had to say the word. It wasn’t possible for my face to form an expression of amusement or for my lips to curve into a smile.
My features had turned to stone the day the cops came to my construction site and delivered news that shoved my heart so far beneath the ice it hadn’t yet defrosted.
So, yeah, fuck it.
For the first time since forever, I remembered how much I loved the taste. Not like I needed to watch the calorie intake. I was in the best shape of my life.
“You still in construction?” Teresa asked, snapping me back to the present. I’d placed my order, and we were waiting on her helper in the back.
“Well, the hard work shows in your physique.” She looked as if she was trying to hide her appreciation of my biceps.
Hey, I take female recognition wherever I could get it, even if Teresa was a little out of my age range.
The days of being led around by my dick were long gone.
It was like the heat-seeking missile features of my cock were left out in the rain and rusted in place.
Until I saw her come around the corner looking like three servings of disaster on a platter. She blew a golden strand of hair off of her forehead. With one hand she shoved the thick black plastic glasses up her nose, and with the other held a cake above her head as she came way too fast around the corner. Sure enough, her foot slid out from under her, and she went down.
I leapt towards her and stretched out my arms to catch her. At the last second, she caught herself on one foot, yanked away from me and crashed onto the floor, flat on her bottom. It had to hurt, but instead of crying, she held the cake stand level, extended over her head like an Olympic torch. The frosting- covered prize was completely intact.
Which was more than I could say. My heart spiked a beat, and my mouth had gone dry.
And then I felt it.
The way this girl did seductive, dark things to me.
Inside me, something came to life. Like a bear that had been hibernating for many, many seasons. It stretched its stiff limbs, scented something edible in the air, and lumbered toward the delicious morsel. The wild thing felt in its belly it had not eaten for a very long time.
And it was ravenous.
The unexpected effect she had on me made me scold her, “You shouldn’t be in such a hurry.”
It wasn’t like this girl was making any overt attempt to get male attention, but like it or not she had mine.
Goofy glasses, her eyes opened wide as if I were going to lean down and puncture her neck with my incisors. She wore an enormous body camouflaging t-shirt with a kitten sitting on a stack of books. They all added up to one thing, and it practically glowed like a neon sign. “Don’t look at me.”
Everything about her was exactly the opposite of what attracted me. I preferred leggy redheads. And yet, my body was telling me otherwise. Her mouth was half-open and swear to God I wanted to lean down and cover her lips with mine just to see what she tasted like.
She smelled like flowers, but not the kind from a bottle. It was the scent you breathed when you lowered your nose to a wildflower bouquet and took a whiff.
It didn’t help one bit when she let out a breathy little groan as she tried to help herself up off the floor. Instead of letting her, I gave her my hand, and scowled down at her soft, pillowy body.
Suddenly, my rusty, neglected cock became unhinged, unfolding in my jeans and rising rigidly, perceptibly beneath my zipper.
“You need to be more careful,” I snapped. It came out harsher than I intended, but the thought of her hurting herself, combined with the unfulfilled ache of my no longer slumbering dick, made me cranky as fuck.
“I didn’t mean to. I don’t know how I... I slipped on the floor even though I have my anti-skid shoes on.” She looked down and pulled the thick mane of her ponytail through her hand and rubbed the back of her neck.
The gesture caused a vision to whoosh across my imagination, me with one hand wrapped around her throat, the other shoved between her legs, while I whispered into her mouth, “Who do you belong to?”
I shook my head.
Later, of course it was always after the fact when you realized you’d pulled off something stupid, I asked myself what the hell I was doing.
The girl was so clearly not right for me, and she was Teresa’s niece.
I wasn’t right for anyone after what happened to Lilly… my heart shriveled like a walnut. This was nothing more than hormones talking after waking, for reasons unbeknownst to me, from their long period of inactivity.
It was getting awkward, me staring down at her. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine.” Her voice was taught like a tightrope. “I just slipped.”
Yep, all wrong for me.
Which was why I asked myself later what the fuck I was doing when I returned to the front counter and said to Teresa, “I’ll be by after work to take measurements for non-skid flooring in this corridor. I don’t want another accident.”
That was it. I was making sure nobody got hurt around here.
This wasn’t about a suddenly twitchy palm, or my fantasies of punishing her across my lap until she learned to be more careful.
Or so I told myself.
Great. I was turning into the thing I hated the most.
“How the heck did you end up on the floor so fast?” my Auntie asked.
It happened in a flash, and in that blink of an eye, I surmised that like still waters, Dante was a man with dark and unplumbed depths.
So, why didn’t he scare me?
Nearly every man I’d met since Mathew became a delusional, hard-up lunatic, frightened the piss out of me.
I tried to wipe the grin that wanted to drape itself across my features off of my face. Just one encounter with the beefy construction dude had my panties soaked. The thought of his return to install the flooring this evening while I was here alone made my heart beat fast and my fingers itch with the urge to stroke his biceps to see if they felt as hard as they looked.
I didn’t want the entire town hearing about my little crush. Lord knew if one customer heard about me practically falling into his arms, it would be all over Briarville faster than flames across a dry forest floor. The last thing I needed was to be the center of town gossip.
I’d had enough unwanted attention to last me a lifetime.
You’d think I’d have learned my lesson but try to tell that to my ovaries or galloping pulse.
While I was bagging up day old pastries and baked goods for the local women’s shelter my auntie supported, they arrived.
Teresa carried the bouquet of pink floral splendor into the kitchen: carnations, stock, and roses burst out of the vase, “These are for you, and there’s a card.” Her eyes squinted with mischief.
I plucked the small white envelope from the flowers, opened it and read:
“Flowers are fine, but nothing smells as good as the scent of you on my clothes.
I backed away from the flowers my hands raised.
It was too familiar, the unexpected grandiose gesture. “From Dante.” My whisper was tissue-paper thin and my hand floated up to cover my mouth.
Teresa came over and held me tight. “That guy, Mathew, really did a number on you, didn’t he?” She stroked my hair back from my forehead, “If it makes a difference to you, I would trust Dante with my own daughter if I had one. He’s a good boy.”
She released me to look at the bouquet and fondled a rose petal with the pad of her finger. “Romantic. He’s Italian; his blood runs hot.”
“I’m just scared to enter into something that might not work out. A break-up I can handle. A man going full blown psycho because I refuse him is more than I can take right now.”
Mathew would send flowers constantly, believing we were meant to be together even though we’d never gone out. It was like he thought if he just kept trying, I would change my mind. He tracked down my apartment address and would greet me at my doorstep after work with take-out and a movie or two. Until I got scared and filed a restraining order.
My auntie’s voice snapped me out of it, “You had a terrible experience, Savanna, but a gentleman walks away when a woman isn’t interested. Dante is a gentleman. I’d bet my bakery on it.”
We spent the last hour of the day polishing the place until we could see our reflections in the chrome and glass display cases. The manual tasks was meditative.
“Dante’s had his share of trouble, too,” she said before leaving.
“How so?” I asked.
“A drunk driver hit and killed his fiancée three years ago. They were about to be married. Tragic, really,” said my aunt.
“Oh, God, that’s so sad,” I said.
“Would you feel better if I stuck around until Dante finishes with the flooring?”
I thought about it for a moment. “No, I’m okay, auntie. I’ve got to interact with the world again sometime, and at least this is someone you know and trust.”
“Okay, my love. I plan to go home and curl up with a glass of wine and a good book. I’ll see you in the morning.” She pulled me tightly into her arms, and her cinnamon sugar scent eased my troubles. I closed my eyes.
I heard her lock the front door, and double checked it, doing the same with the back door, then headed upstairs to my studio. First thing I did was take off my bra to get comfy for the evening, then took my hair down, brushing it out.
Looking in the medicine cabinet mirror above my porcelain sink, I assessed my features. It was hard to tell what I looked like behind the enormous glasses. I applied mascara and dabbed my lips with pink gloss. Encouraged, I threw on a striped crop top, mock turtleneck and high-waisted dark denim jeans that highlighted my waist and flattered my breasts and bottom.
My pulse skittered.
Why are you doing this?
Because, for the first time since forever, my panties were damp with arousal, and my nipples rubbed readily against the front of my shirt.
Before I could think twice, I heard the delivery buzzer ring at the back door. Grabbing an oversized cardigan, I threw it on and buttoned it up to the top as I dashed down the stairs.
“Who is it?” I asked through the door.
“It’s me, Dante,” his deep voice said from the other side.
I was one part scared, two parts turned on when I opened the door and he stood there with his leather tool belt on, scowling, and holding a huge pizza box.
“Brought pizza,” he grunted, and I laughed because it was so freaking obvious.
Was he as nervous as I was?
This would be a routine service call, except his enormous bouquet was sitting on the kitchen island like a pink shout in the middle of the room.
“Thank you for the flowers. They’re beautiful.” With a mind of their own, my fingers fastened and unfastened the top button of my cardigan.
This wasn’t a date exactly. He was coming over to take care of my aunt, but I had to admit, my heart thumped faster as I stood there listening for an answer. The pulse of my blood became a bass beat in my ears.
His lips kicked up at the corners and it punched the air out of my lungs—he was a beautiful man.
Beautiful might not be a word he’d agree with, but all the other phrases I could think of fell short. His smile was unbearably handsome, totally altering his otherwise stern and chiseled features.
Suddenly, I found myself crowded against the island.
He was inches away.
The memory of his attempt to prevent me from falling earlier made my cheeks burn. It seemed our bodies were hell bent on touching each other.
“Do you want me to take your measurements?” he asked.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“For the non-slip flooring.” He gradually lowered his face towards mine, and I could feel the heat of his breath on my lips.
I nearly moaned.
His lips crashed into my mouth, demanding, and a wave of heat crashed over me. It was a kiss so deep that our souls fucked before our clothes even hit the floor, and I melted into him, allowing his tongue to explore my mouth.
Lust exploded in every cell of my body.
He pulled away, nostrils flaring, his green eyes darkened to the color of pine. “Like candy.”
He took two steps back, and we stood staring at each other, breathing like long-distance runners after a race.
Over a kiss.
I didn’t feel...
Kissing Dante made me brave enough to jump off the high dive.
His pecs swelled noticeably, and I wanted to shove up his t-shirt, lick every inch of them. Instead, I asked in a trembly voice, “So. You’re in construction?”
What a dweeb, Savanna. Quaking like a helpless female.
“Don’t do that,” he demanded.
“Do what?” I asked.
“This is more than small talk and you know it. You and me.” He was solid, and his jaw was set in stone.
I brought a shaky hand to my forehead as he swallowed his Adam’s apple down several times. “Come on.” He held his hand out to me, and I took it, wondering why I’d never noticed that there were a million nerve endings in my palm. “You can hold my measuring tape.”
He measured everything twice while I watched, writing down the dimensions for the flooring as he dictated them to me.
“Hey,” I said, and his head jerked up and his eyes locked on me with dark intensity, making me shift on my feet. “How come you’re not dirty after work if you’re a construction worker? That’s not small talk. I’m really curious.”
“More like I’m in the construction business than a construction worker. I don’t pound nails all day. I run things.” He stood up, and I had to back away; his direct gaze unsettled me. “I like to be in charge.”
He unnerved me, but it wasn’t because I was afraid of him. Every drop of my blood was beating in a scarlet tangle of desire.
This man would never hurt me.
I knew it in my bones, and I’d only just met him.
“I’ll be back tomorrow with the flooring. Be careful until I get back.” He brushed my lower lip with his gigantic knuckle, and bent down for a firm, authoritative kiss that left no doubt in my mind who was boss.
This was a first, letting a man possess my mouth the first day I met him.
But why on earth would I want to deny myself something that made me feel so alive?
He dropped a huge hand to my hip, and asked, “Are you going to show me what’s under this granny sweater of yours someday? Or do you intend to continue driving me mad with curiosity?”
I sucked my lower lip in between my teeth, trembling at his words and his nearness, wondering what would happen if I unbuttoned my cardy and dropped it to the floor.
It was a thrill having this gruff, gorgeous man in front of me, watching me curiously, and yet he wasn’t trying to force me to do a thing.
I marveled at the power I had over him.
He gave my body a bold, sweeping gaze. “I recognize quality material when I see it, Savanna. You’ve brought me back to life. “
“You just met me,” I protested, although my spirits pranced at his compliment.
“Some things don’t take long to figure out,” he replied.
His palm slid around my hip and cupped my ass, and I slid my hands up his chest, got my fill of his hard pecs. Instead of stopping there like I should, I shoved his T-shirt up to his collarbone so I could stare at his beautiful, golden skin.
He tilted his head, studying me. “I think we’d better stop there. Otherwise, you might not make it to work on time tomorrow.”
My heart shrunk, but I knew he was probably right.
He strode to the back door and said, “The pizza’s for you. You need to put some weight on.”
With my ass resting against the island counter, I could still feel his large palm prints there and my pussy was wet for him, clenching and releasing as he stared at me from the back entrance.
“Be a good girl. Lock this door behind me.” His voice dropped to an intimate level before he closed the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I raced up the stairs, ripped off my granny sweater and everything underneath it, jumped under the covers, and put my hand between my legs to rub at the insatiable ache he made there until I came over and over again.
Dante had a strange kind of animal magnetism that drew me to him. I couldn’t wait to tame that tiger.
I stayed up way too late last night thinking of a certain sweet ass as it wriggled under my hand, Savanna’s blossom scent rising to fill my nostrils, teasing me even in my dreams.
I lost my faith but remained faithful to Lilly.
Devoted to her memory.
A big part of me felt like a real jerk fantasizing into the late hours about a hot little bod. Shit, I didn’t even know how hot it was because she draped it in baggy clothes, as if she had something to hide.
Lack of sleep and blue balls meant I was cranky as a junkyard dog at work the next day.
“The fuck you are,” I snarled into the phone at my cousin, Carlos. He informed me the syndicate planned a switch to an equity form of reimbursement versus the two-point-five percent commission the organization collected from my construction company for the privilege of doing business.
“Put your balls back in your pocket, Dante. I ran the numbers; you’ll still be making a banging profit, even taking into consideration payoffs to local officials.” Carlos was the mediator between his relatives and the community it did business with.
I might be his relative, but I wasn’t “in the family.“
There was radio silence on my end.
Being pushed around by my relatives pissed me off, and I gave two shits about how ruthlessly they handled dissenters. I’d rather cast my balls in concrete than roll over.
“Yeah, well... Money talks. You tell my uncle I can do three percent, no more. If that won’t work for him, we need a meeting.”
“I can’t promise anything. You know how this works.”
“Yeah, I know how it works. I bring in plenty of ‘legitimate’ cash for the famiglia and don’t appreciate being bent over a barrel for my efforts.”
Carlos made an affirmative sound. “I get it, but you gotta see dad’s side too. Without the permits, union workers, police security watching your sites—you ain’t got shit for business. It’s a two-way street, Dante.”
It took work to keep my temper in check, and I still didn’t have it quite under control when I arrived later than I wanted at Piece of Cake.
Parking my truck in the back lot, I felt my cock coming to life at the thought of seeing her again.
I hefted two panels of the non-slip flooring, willing my dick down with the efforts of heavy lifting, and rang the back door.
Two minutes passed, and I rang the buzzer again.
What the fuck?
She knew I was coming.
Maybe she was putting on a special outfit for me. My dick perked up at that thought, and I felt pressure down below.
God, men are pigs.
Fucking finally she opened the door, and standing in front of me was a sight my eyes refused to believe. In her right hand, she held a huge kitchen knife, smeared with thick arterial blood, so she hadn’t been slicing tomatoes.
There were matching splotches of dark burgundy fingerprints stamped up her sleeve, stomach and chest.
“Savanna?” Speaking slowly and softly, as one would with a half feral animal, I tried to make eye contact. Hers were glassy and stared vacantly off to the side.
Her baby blues finally snapped up to my face, as if just realizing I was here. “He found me.” She said squeezing her lids shut, her lips and chin trembling.
I gently guided her indoors, so no one saw her like this, and set the non-slip panels down against the kitchen wall.
“Show me.” I talked to her like she might break.
One thing that ran through Drago blood was the ability to read people.
As if our lives depended on it.
This girl beside me who was wrapping her arms around her belly was not a killer. Which meant someone tried to hurt her, and she’d fought back.
I’d bet my life on it.
Gently, I reached for the knife in her cold and clammy hand. “It’s okay, you’re safe now. No one’s going to hurt you.” I replaced the knife with my hand.
This wasn’t the first dead body I’d seen, but it was the bloodiest. His lifeblood pooled in a thick crimson puddle, which coagulated in place across the floor of the workroom, spilling out from a deep gash in his jugular. I leaned over to look and realized she must have hit the carotid artery.
A puncture to this part of the neck meant sudden and irreversible death.
My girl had good aim.
I didn’t know whether to be afraid of her, impressed by her, or both.
“Baby, I have to make a call. I’m going to take care of this. Do me a favor though; don’t touch anything,” I handed her a kitchen towel, “Wrap this around your hands, and we’ll go to my place where you’ll be safe.”
It wasn’t the first time life backed me into a corner. Carlos had meticulous cleaning methods, and would take care of this. No questions asked.
I got my burner phone from the glove box and called him.
“Carlos, I have a situation here.” My tone was urgent.
“Tell me, my man.” Old loyalties kicked in.
Food, family, and fucking.
The three Fs.
Carlos had my back, but that didn’t mean he was above pressing his advantage. After I explained what I was dealing with, he said, “I would consider it a personal favor if you were to ask for my help on this, Dante. But you have to ask.”
“Carlos, I’ve got to get this mess cleaned up, and I need to get her out of here. I’m taking her to my place.”
“Then it’s done.” Carlos probably thought he was reassuring me, but I felt my mouth go dry when he said, “Leave it to me, Dante. I’ll take care of everything.”
Exactly what I was afraid of.
Now I owed him one.
I grabbed my jacket from the truck. It was big enough to keep every speck of blood on her hidden from watchful eyes. She looked like a little girl standing there in my coat, which dwarfed her.
I grabbed the boxed carrot cake off the counter. Teresa left it there for me in return for installing the floor. I’d have to make an excuse for not getting the panels done tonight.
“My place is five minutes from here. We’ll go there and get you cleaned up,” I buckled the seat belt around her. The towel she clutched in her hands trembled, and I noticed her wince when I shut the door for her.
I said nothing as my truck wound up the mountain road towards my place. After selling the house I’d built for Lilly, I needed a spot which was remote enough so that there were no neighbors, but still close enough to town. My bungalow on the shore of Lake Azul fit the bill.
It was modest, nothing fancy. But I refinished the original maple floors, so they gleamed and installed new kitchen cabinets and tiling so that everything shone its greeting at us when I opened the door and led her inside.
Back then, I wasn’t so sure about the bathroom remodel. It was just me, and I didn’t care where I showered so long as the water was warm.
But as I led Savanna into the vintage-feeling room, designed to feel like an enclosed porch, I tucked my hands under my armpits and felt as tall as the ceiling.
All the lights were lantern style, the double sinks were antique oak washstands and against the large lake-facing window there was a freestanding porcelain soaking tub which I never used.
“You’re welcome to take a shower, but it might feel good to soak in the bath. Let’s wash your hands first, shall we?” I led her to the sink and grabbed a washcloth from the cupboard. Her hands were a gruesome sight, and the visual reminder wasn’t doing her state of mind any favors. It took some scrubbing, and I tried my best to be gentle, but I wanted him off of her.
The blood clung to the sides of the sink in drippy streaks that looked like tie dye patterns against the white porcelain, and I splashed water to wash the accusatory stain down the drain, “Keep scrubbing. I’m going to fill the tub.”
She tracked me with her eyes while I poured a generous squirt of shower gel into the bath for bubbles.
“Why don’t you put your clothes in here?” I pointed to the trash bin under the sink. “I’ll get you something else to wear.”
Turning towards the door, I stepped away from her and she snatched a handful of my sweatshirt. “Don’t leave!”
“Easy,” I pet her hair back from her forehead. “I can stay. I’ll stay right here.” I lit two candles and placed them on the window ledge next to the tub. “There you go. Fit for a princess.”
Her eyes bulged in a way that made me wonder what she was seeing. Just imagining what she had gone through tonight, what led up to it, made me want to hurt someone.
She started shaking her head, and, rather than waiting, I undressed her.
The flickering candles gave her skin a soft satin glow, and I suddenly had a craving for scotch.
Or a cold shower.
Now was definitely not the right time, but lust burned in my brain so bright I could think of nothing else.
It was definitely a sin to hide this body behind baggy clothes as she had been doing. Her full figure was made for pleasure, and the spot between her thighs was speaking my name.
I needed to have her on my tongue.
There was a cushioned stool next to the tub, and I sat on it. Savanna was in too much shock to even bother covering herself in the tub, and her breasts were ripe, succulent mouthfuls.
Picking up a washcloth, I traced warm, soapy circles on her back, under her arms, behind her ears. “Let’s wash your hair, baby.”
I held her neck and dipped her backwards like a child, submerging her thick, blonde tresses in the water, and swallowed hard, noticing the fat tears that fell from her eyes.
My hands scrubbed, rinsed, and dried the compliant doll she had become.
Seeing her like this brought back a familiar refrain…
I should have been there to prevent it.
Wrapped in a huge towel, she followed me like an obedient pet towards my bedroom and I dressed her in a pair of my sweats and a T-shirt.
This tight spot she was in was a curveball, but hey, we all had our baggage. Hers happened to be bloody. She’d tell me what was going on when she was ready.
The least I could do was take her hand and guide her through the dark. That was a good deed I could afford.
If there was one thing I knew how to do, it was wade through the deep darkness.
From the moment I met her, she came across as the best possible kind of trouble. A good girl who knew exactly when to be bad.
She awakened me from a three-year slumber, and I could hear a warning bell.
Deep sleep was better than loving someone and having them taken from you.
Better not to feel anything than to feel too hard.
I’d never have Savanna’s submission if she wouldn’t give it to me, and she’d been through way too much to entrust herself to me right now.
Telling myself all of that didn’t satisfy the pulsing need to make her body my private pleasure palace.
“Hey.” The low-pitched voice to my right startled me, and I slapped my back against the headboard.
Sitting straight up in bed, I looked around and had no idea where I was. The room was inky dark, and my chest dragged as I struggled to pull oxygen into my lungs. Waking up in the middle of the night, unable to breathe, had become par for the course since being stalked by Mathew.
Complete disorientation, not so much.
“It’s me. Dante. You’re safe.”
Now how the hell did this macho dude know the exact words I needed to hear?
“What do you say to a midnight snack?” I felt him get off of the mattress and heard him speak from further away. “I’m starving.”
I knew I should say something to explain myself, but I stayed mute as I followed Dante to his kitchen. What I did was horrible and wrong, but I couldn’t help but feel relief, and oddly, there was a chorus singing “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead” inside my head.
No more looking over my shoulder.
No more running and hiding.
No more worrying he would hurt my friends or family.
I should feel guilty.
I’d have to figure out how to live with the fact that I was a cold-blooded killer.
I felt safer than I had in a long time at Dante’s side, so I ignored the fact that I just offed someone.
And watched as he bled out on the floor.
Didn’t call for help.
Dante’s broad back rippled as he reached into the fridge and pulled out a carton of milk and a white cake box. His huge hands sliced a similarly sizable slab, placing it on a plate in front of me.
I wondered if he used a butter knife to cut the cake because he was afraid to wave a kitchen knife in front of me.
I was fine.
Better than I’d felt since this total nightmare with Mathew began.
Sitting on the stool in front of the kitchen island, I held my chin in my hands and looked down at my aunt’s famous, moist dessert.
How did everything get so fucked up? What did I do to deserve this ordeal, and why didn’t I recognize Mathew as a horrible threat from the beginning? I should have seen it coming, right?
“You going to eat some of that?” Dante pointed his own fork at my piece, and even in my fucked-up state his handsome face blew me away. And I was 100% abso-fucking-lutely sure he wouldn’t hurt me.
What was that about?
Trusting any guy was saying something given my track record.
“Are you ready to tell me what happened, Savanna?” He put a hand on my wrist, and I let the warmth from his body seep into mine.
The oversized, distressed steel wall clock had a huge second hand that ticked reliably forward despite how time felt viscous, as if I could float on top of it like a bather in the dead sea.
Drawing in a deep breath, it snagged in my throat like a hangnail on a pair of nylons, “Mathew was a great customer at my pet store.” I rubbed my hands on the legs of the sweatpants I was wearing. “Was. But when I told him I wasn’t interested in dating him, he didn’t accept it.”
I counted thirty ticks of the second hand, watching it jerk from one instant to the next, pulling us incrementally forward into the future whether we liked it or not, as it had done since the day I fled Oakland, and hid out here in Briarville. “Today after work, I was cleaning up as usual after Aunt Teresa went home, and I heard the back door open and shut. I’m usually careful to lock the doors, I don’t know what I was thinking. I guess I assumed it was you coming to fix the floor.”
He lifted my chin, so I had to look into his eyes. “Not your fault, babe.” His simple statement calmed me.
“Well, I was chopping chocolate at the counter when he walked in.”
My gaze bounced between the clock and Dante, “He came right up to me and put his... his... hands around my neck. He’s—was—skinny, so I didn’t expect him to be that strong. He kept choking me until there were spots in front of my eyes and I couldn’t breathe. I knew if I didn’t do something, he’d kill me.”
Standing up suddenly, it was like being back in the moment. “There was so much hate in his eyes. Toward me. I’ve never seen anyone express so much hatred in real life and he said, ‘If I can’t have you, no one will.’ I believed him. I reached behind me, grabbed the knife I’d been using and slashed out at him.”
My pacing took me past the refrigerator, and I kept going, circling the island where Dante sat. “I only meant to make him stop choking me. It surprised the hell out of me when there was blood. So much blood.”
“Shh, baby. It’s okay, you don’t have to talk about it anymore.” His tone was low and soothing.
I plunked myself on the stool, leaning my head over the counter and rubbing my temples with my eyes closed. “You don’t understand, Dante. I haven’t even told you the worst of it.”
My voice quivered, “I keep waiting to feel like I did something wrong, but I don’t.” Letting out an uncontrollable sob, I wept all over the carrot cake. “He killed Peaches! I hope he rots in hell for that.”
“Who’s Peaches?” he asked, eyes narrowed.
“My Yorkie. My little girl.” I rubbed the heel of my hand back and forth across my chest, trying to scrub out the ache I still felt there. Thinking about finding her tiny, lifeless body murdered by Mathew.
“That’s psycho. He definitely would have done the same to you tonight had you not protected yourself.” Dante sat there, patiently rubbing my back.
In a voice thick with tears I said, “Sorry.”
He leaned forward, and I looked at the second hand again, tick, tick, tick.
Confused by his sudden stillness, I turned back to him.
“You never have to be sorry with me. What you did was self-defense. one hundred percent.”
There was a lump in my throat. “But I cried all over your carrot cake. It’s ruined.” I sobbed out the words.
“Savanna.” There was a sexual haze that clouded his eyes, and it confused me until he made his next move. He took his pointer finger and scraped off a large scoop of the tear-stained, cream cheese frosting.
Watching me intently, he put his finger in his mouth and sucked off the satiny sweet, tangy texture.
It was so wrong.
I was the worst person ever.
But in the wake of slaying my stalker, the raw power of my attraction to this man seated next to me, his body thick with muscle, suddenly blindsided me.
I definitely wasn’t ready for a relationship of any kind, but it had been a long time since a man had given me an orgasm.
That was probably why I turned my back to him once we were in the bedroom and yanked the T-shirt over my head.
“Think carefully about what you’re doing, Savanna. It’s been forever since I’ve seen a woman naked, especially one with a killer body like yours.”
“Bad choice of words,” he said. “Look at me.”
I turned, letting him see my bare breasts, and hoped the sight of them made him fuck me silly. I wouldn’t blame him if he backed away. Sleeping with me looked like a pretty dangerous proposition right about now.
He approached me, and my nipples hardened, seeking his attention so forcefully they ached. He didn’t lay a finger on me. “The worst thing about that lowlife showing up here is that you and I were headed somewhere real nice. It’s a shame that had to be interrupted. I had other plans for tonight.”
My pussy leaked a silent response.
He dove his hand inside the sweats I still wore.
“Feels like I’m not the only one tired of waiting.” He pulled the sweats to the floor, and smashed my clit beneath his fingers, rolling circles, making me gasp. “Are you having naughty thoughts, Savanna? Is that what makes you so wet?”
“Yes. More, please.”
He stopped, leaving his hand there, so it was all I could do not to chase his fingers with my pelvis.
“You need to get out of the tight spot you’re in and I’ve got an offer for you.” He tapped me once, gently, right between the legs and a delicious shudder shot through me. “You and I can help each other. Stay here with me until things blow over. You shouldn’t be alone at a time like this.”
What else did he have in mind for clearing the debt I owed him? What payment would he extract for keeping my secret?
Without warning, Dante delivered three slaps, perfectly placed, right over my clit. The stunning move washed all worry, all racing thoughts out of my head.
“I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. You’re staying with me,” he said in a guttural tone that made my belly swoop.
“I guess so.” I blew air past my lips. This was all so unreal, but I couldn’t imagine sleeping alone in my room over the bakery.
I turned around to him and he raised his hands to my breasts, cupping them softly at first as if weighing them in his hands, and then rolling the pebbled tips of my nipples between his fingers.
“You guess so, or you know so?” he warned.
“I know so, okay?” Dying to reach my peak, as yet unfulfilled, I cursed, “Fuck.”
“Not yet,” he answered.
I was ripe beneath the touch of his huge fingers and trembling with need.
“Trust me, Savanna. I want to, more than anything.” He took my wrist in his hand and dragged it downward against his chest.
He kept going, over his hard belly, and came to a halt at the place between his thighs.
He yanked me to him, so that his arousal shoved against my belly, and it trapped my hand between us, with his hardness pressing against my palm.
“Fuck.” This time it was him who said it.
“I can’t Savanna, you’ve been through too much. I don’t want us to start this way, no matter how much I need you.”
Every inch of me lit up with the burning, urgent need to possess him. Desire was in the driver’s seat, so I did the only thing I could.
The thing I was getting a little too good at.
I fought dirty.
With much regret, I let my hand fall away from Dante’s hefty erection. He took a step away from me, placing a gentle kiss upon my forehead and said, “You’re too precious to take advantage of when you’re vulnerable like this.”
What did he know? I think I was fully aware of my pussy’s care and feeding regime, and right about now, some hard fucking was in order.
I stripped to my undies, hoping the sight of my bare body would tempt Dante into making a move, but he pulled the covers over his shoulders and spooned me from behind, keeping his pelvis a respectable distance from my bottom.
“Dante, I…” I spoke out in the dark, one last plea with him to service my needs, but he placed a finger over my lips.
“Shh, sleep, Savanna. What you need is rest.”
Again, I was a grown woman who knew exactly what she needed and it sure as hell wasn’t sleep.
I sucked that finger into my mouth and lapped at the tip with my tongue.
“Ah, God, baby. What are you doing?”
“Please, Dante. Make the bad thoughts go away. Do something—anything to me.” I turned around and tucked my head under his chin, his crinkly chest hair felt good against my breasts.
Suddenly the feeling stopped. Dante lowered himself down toward the foot of the mattress and nuzzled the inside of my thigh.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Anything I want, remember?” His words came out in a growl and some primitive, purely feminine part of me relished in his animal appreciation.
His tongue teased me open and his hand slid between my legs.
Silent squeals lodged in my throat while I luxuriated in sensation, and my pelvis arched off the bed as he continued to lick at me with his wide tongue. He did so leisurely, like a male lion grooming his mate, lapping his tongue over my pussy as if he had all day.
But I didn’t.
Faster than seemed possible, I felt my body vibrate.
There was nothing on my mind but chasing my finish.
He knew exactly what he was doing.
I squirmed against the mattress when he worked his strong fingers into me, igniting me. He pulled back a second later , “I have to ask. Are you a virgin?”
“Uh, no. Not quite. Why?”
“Jesus, baby, you’re so tight.” He lowered himself again, and his tongue found my trigger and fired off short little licks and sucks while he stretched me wide and met me thrust for thrust with two fingers, fucking me hard.
The rough motion sent me over the edge so that mini explosions shook my body.
My legs were jelly, and I breathed hard until the liquid pleasure spread over me like a candied glaze.
When he crawled up to me and held me in his arms, at last I found the peace that eluded me up to now.
The peace of being with a man who got off on licking me to orgasm and then fell asleep holding me tight.
If this was what it was like to honor a debt with a Drago, then I was pretty much fucked.
She was in my mouth last night. Right where I wanted her, and I couldn’t get rid of her taste on my tongue. The act played over and over again in my head like a movie scene. Every couple of minutes, I remembered her pussy pulsing under my lips.
An erotic film for sure, one that made porn a shoddy substitute.
Her pussy was all that was good and true—and like the rest of her body, fucking center-fold worthy.
It tasted like seconds, thirds… hell, I couldn’t see ever slaking my hunger for Savanna. Nor did I want to.
The next morning, I tried to scrub the need off my body with a loofa while she slept in.
Maybe the sting on my skin would clear the confusion about how this girl in trouble had walked into my life, pulled me out of my shitty, mopey routine, and tossed it all in the air like a deck of cards.
For the first time in a long while, I felt like I had something to live for.
A fixation of the female variety was a complication I most definitely could handle.
The Old Spice shower gel did nothing to erase her scent from my mind. With the olfactory reminder, I was nestled between her soft thighs again, tasting her honey. She squirmed beneath my attention and suddenly I was all powerful.
I’d make her let me do it again.
She’d asked me to fuck her. Not in so many words, but I got the general idea.
What was it like to be inside that sweet, tasty pussy that clamped down tightly around my fingers when she came?
“I called your aunt, “ I said to Savanna later on in the kitchen.
Teresa was up to speed that her niece was at my place for the weekend. I told her Savanna was having a hard time when I arrived to install the flooring last night and I thought it best that she didn’t spend the night alone.
Of course I said nothing about the dead body my cousin removed from her place of business, or that Carlos was there late into the night, making sure the place could pass forensic inspection.
Anyone who didn’t know her would think Savanna was functioning just fine, but I observed the minor differences.
From the day I met her, her laughter flowed in a constant stream, and she moved like a puppy through the world, excited to see what it offered. Nothing could kill her enthusiasm for the most mundane thing: rainbow sprinkles on a chocolate donut, an ugly flowered hat hand made by a customer, or the temperature of a frosty glass of milk she used to wash down a chocolate chip cookie.
Savanna’s energy surged so strongly it was crystal clear after only two encounters with her before the unfortunate incident with a knife.
She needed grounding. The safety of family. Mine was whacked, but they were still kin. “It’s Saturday, my Zio—that’s uncle in Italian—Lorenzo always has family dinner at his place. I go over early and help get ready. You can meet some of my crazy relatives. You look like you could use a laugh or two.”
She nodded listlessly, staring out the window towards the lake. I had a feeling she didn’t even see the water out there.
My uncle, Zio Lorenzo, built like a linebacker, his prize-fighter bulk an extreme contrast to the docile way he treated his “kitten.“ He was underboss to my grandfather, Don Alberto, and one of two remaining sons. Gangsters had killed my father when I was fifteen years old.
I’d forgotten to warn Savanna about Zio’s pet name for his lady friend.
“Kitten, will you pick out a couple bottles of wine to open for our guests?” Zio bent his gigantic form over the stove and stirred the contents of a giant stainless-steel pot, “One sec.“ He addressed me. “ It’s time to add the oregano or this sauce will go to shit.”
The sound of his huge wooden spoon scraping over the metal pan lulled the room for a moment. “You know how it is. Timing is everything.”
Once satisfied his sauce was simmering along, he spun his gigantic body towards us with surprising grace. No one would dare tease my uncle for being a tough guy with a soft side. Besides, they say a hard heart is worse than bloody hands, and I had to agree.
The Drago name commanded respect, but Lorenzo got it without ever having to say his name out loud.
I watched as he smeared his white apron red with his hand swipes of homemade tomato sauce, calling to mind the violent deeds that he’d committed. Zio was a man you wanted at your back during good times or bad.
“Dante, so glad you’re here. What did you bring my kitten?”
So, for real, part of our family’s deal, ever since his “Kitten” moved in, we were all required to bring a treat for her when we came for family dinner.
Swear to God, over scotch and cigars in the solarium one night, tears dripped off Zio’s massive jaw while he described the situation he had rescued his girl from.
Jessica took care of her father for years, working herself to complete exhaustion as his caregiver, only to find out he lied about his diagnosis in order to use her as a free servant. When Lorenzo found out, he insisted she move in immediately and they’d been together ever since.
“I’ll make it up to her if it’s the last thing I do, Dante. No girl should ever have to go through such a thing. Imagine the years she wasted caring for that thankless, lying bastard. A girl needs pampering, spoiling, not to be worked like a dog who’s never even given a bone.”
Jessica, aka “Kitten,” loved my uncle with everything in her soul, and when she thought no one could hear her, I’d sometimes hear her whisper his pet name, “Daddy.”
I wasn’t sure what to think about that, but I knew their affection for one another made the skin on the back of my neck prickle.
In a good way.
Did I have such a deep connection with Lilly when she was alive?
The sick thing was, I couldn’t even remember.
Parts of my memory from that time were lost, like missing puzzle pieces.
I hated myself for it.
Rolling my neck and shoulders as Savanna approached, looking like a lost puppy now, my words came out rapid fire. “Why don’t you go with Jessica and find some eggplants in the solarium? I need two about this big for my parmesan.” With my hands, I showed her the measurements in the air, and she smirked.
“Sure.” She turned and walked away to find Jessica.
Her hair was a weakness of mine, lustrous, spun gold, cascading over her shoulders in shiny waves. I wanted to clench my hand in it and yank her back to me. Demand that she address me properly. “Yes, Sir.”
Obviously, I didn’t go there.
I didn’t go there when she was so fragile it seemed she might break into a million pieces. Even though she thought she needed sex. Nor would I go there now that she was still recovering from what happened last night.
She might not know it herself, but Savanna needed time.
I was a bastard, sure as shit, but I wasn’t a cruel bastard.
Zio’s dahlia garden was surrounded by a white picket fence, and he swung open the gate for his son, Carlos, who had just arrived, and I followed them in.
“Ah, my work of heart.” Lorenzo cooed as he stroked one of the rainbow-colored blossoms as big as his head.
“You can learn a lot about how to treat a woman in the garden, boys, lemme tell you,” Lorenzo said.
Carlos looked at me, one side of his mouth curved up into a hook. “How’s that, Zio?”
My uncle got down on his knees, his huge back bent over to see under the dark leaves which he pulled to the side. “See that?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about, but crouched down next to him, anyway. “What am I looking at?”
“Mulch.” He grabbed a handful of straw in his hand. “And underneath it, perfect soil.” He raked more of the straw back with his fingers. “Affection for a woman is just like this mulch, don’t go a single season without layering more of it on top. Without it, the ground cracks apart under the harsh glare of the sun; no protection. Mulch keeps the pesky weeds away and feeds the soil.”
A fat worm worked its way back into the black dirt that Zio had revealed by removing the straw.
“You know what they say, boys, ‘A flower cannot blossom without sunshine, and man cannot live without love.’”
Carlos raised his eyebrows and said, “I don’t know, Zio. I can’t get enough of the girls who I know are bad for me. Pretty sure that’s lust, not love.”
Zio turned a faucet on and gave a drooping dahlia a shot of water. “You’re young. You need to get it out of your system.” He turned towards us and his spray of water moved with him, soaking the path, “But some day when you least expect it, you’re going to meet a girl who makes you want to lay back, laugh at the stupidest things, hold each other, and enjoy being together in every menial moment.” He shook a hose-sized finger at us. “That’s when you know.”
He turned off the water, and we headed back inside.
Carlos put a hand on my shoulder and whispered, “Dante. That thing, it’s taken care of. No worries. Clean as a whistle.”
My uncle gave a sharp nod, sensing we were talking business that was none of his business, pushed his shoulders back and turned towards the house. “I’ll see you both back inside. Need to stir my sauce.”
This was how it worked. Carlos did me a favor, and that favor would be called in, family or not.
He had me by the balls.
I stopped short on the front lawn and turned towards my cousin. His hand dropped to his side and his eyebrows furrowed as he gazed at me with focus. A hummingbird buzzed in like a dive bomber, sizing us up. His bird brain actually considered himself a worthy opponent and reminded me of how testosterone was a drug that blinded us to our own vulnerability.
I knew getting involved with Savanna was a bad idea.
Life had shown me it could snatch a beloved from you at any moment, unexpectedly, and bam—in a nanosecond, the rough beast of oblivion became your pet.
I couldn’t go there again.
If I did, I wouldn’t make it out alive.
Not in so many words, but that was what I told Carlos. “I haven’t felt like this about a girl in a long time.”
His eyes glossed over. “Don’t blame you. With an ass like that, who needs porn?”
A snarl hit the back of my throat before I could stop it.
Carlos jerked his head back. “Whoa there. Easy. You really do have it bad.”
He scrubbed his beard with his palm and held his chin high. “If I were you, Dante, I’d call that favor in.”
“Call it in?” I narrowed my eyes at him.
His grin held a secret, “You know, in exchange for your silence about the…” his voice lowered to a whisper, “… unfortunate event with a knife… she offers her body. Becomes your sex slave.”
“That’s blackmail.” My toes curled up off the ground. “I’ll be the first to admit my proclivities toward the fairer sex are weird beyond the national average, but I’m still above using coercion to get a woman in my bed.”
I said it like I meant it, even felt my muscles tightening with conviction.
Nearly convincing myself.
But the very thought of having Savanna under lock and key, beholden to me, made my pulse quicken and my cock swell with fucked up, forbidden longing.
And right there, right then, I knew—I’d see that longing through.