Gun powder and the metallic scent of blood lingered in the cold and late night air when Maddox Farnese stepped out of the SUV and into the abandoned warehouse. Anguished screams from further inside the building, past metal sliding doors currently shut, echoed around the iron beams and water-stained walls. Two other SUV’s with blacked out windows were parked right next to the one he had arrived in.
Unfazed by the blood-curdling sounds, Maddox slipped out of his Armani jacket and tossed it in the backseat, not willing to risk getting any blood on the fabric.
Calls from his uncle in the middle of the night always ended in blood and death.
He paid his staff enough to keep their mouths shut whenever they took his clothes to be cleaned, but he didn’t like leaving evidence for anyone to find. He was meticulous about avoiding messes because it led to fuck ups he didn’t have the patience to deal with.
The metal doors slid across the rusty tracks. Footsteps started across the wet concrete in Maddox’s direction. He shut the passenger door and turned to face one of the best hitmen and feared currently employed beneath the Farnese Empire.
“Who are you making scream in there?” Maddox leaned casually up against the side of the SUV and folded his arms over his chest. “Or are you letting my Uncle do all the dirty work?”
Dakota Jennings let out a dark laugh. “Your Uncle likes to get his hands dirty.”
“I know. Is Ryder here?”
“Not yet,” Dakota said. He leaned on a scarred palm against the side of the SUV. The black spade, an emblem of the Farnese Empire, flashed from the back of his hand. “He texted me a few minutes ago, so I imagine he’ll be here soon.”
Another scream tore through the warehouse followed by a string of choked curses.
“Who’s in there?” Maddox asked. He flipped his wrist over to undo his gold cuff links and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. “Where did you find him?”
“One of Kyzer Hawthorne’s men.”
Maddox didn’t bother fighting the pleased grin spreading across his face. Five years ago, a bloody war had erupted between prominent American Mafia families. Shipments of drugs and guns went missing with no explanation while business relationships fell apart. Assassinations of prominent members happened frequently on and off the streets.
Everything had descended into paranoid and violent chaos. Former alliances were gone. Shredded.
His uncle, John Farnese, suspected a new enemy rather than an older one. A ruthless and cunning one who trained his men to become spies and hide within the ranks of other Mafia families. To destruct them from the inside out.
And for the five past five years, Maddox and John had slowly weeded out Hawthorne’s men from within their inner circle.
“Has he squealed out any information yet?” Maddox asked, darkly.
Dakota nodded. A hesitant expression flickered across his rugged and scarred features, but before he could say anything, an SUV pulled inside the warehouse through the same doors Maddox had come through.
The back passenger door opened. Ryder Hart stepped out, shedding his outer suit jacket as well. He scanned Dakota and Maddox’s face with a small grin when he heard another painful scream.
“I see you all started the fun without me.”
“I haven’t even joined in,” Maddox stated, eyeing him with a twinge of irritation. “I was waiting on your late ass to get here before I joined in.”
Ryder scowled at him. “Hey. I was balls deep in a woman when I got the call. Forgive me for wanting to finish before I came down here.” He waggled his eyebrows at Maddox. “Maybe you should try dipping into something. You’ve been a real dick the past few months.”
Maddox stiffened defensively at the comment. “I’ve been a bit busy these past few months.” It was a partial lie, and judging from the skeptical look on Ryder’s face, he knew it was, too. He changed the topic before Ryder could say otherwise. “Come on. Let’s get in there before all the fun is over with.”
They followed directly behind Maddox as they entered through the sliding doors.
The scene slowly unfolded beneath bright and flickering fluorescent lights. Tied to a chair in the middle of the room surrounded by piles of broken pallets, a sweat-drenched man thrashed wildly against the rope restraints. A red-tinged gag was tied tightly into his mouth. Welts protruded ugly from his forehead and both his cheeks were swollen and covered in blood. The pungent aroma of charred flesh filled the air along with sweat and blood.
His uncle towered over the man with his arms crossed over his broad chest, a picture of calm despite the violent scene in front of him. He was still dressed in an expensive suit, no doubt on his way out to dinner afterward. A splatter of blood covered his right cheekbone, smooth from a fresh shave. His silver hair was slicked back from his sharp and tanned features. All hard lines and emotionless.
Standing in John Farnese’s presence was unnerving. His reputation as “Dirty John” lived strongly in the underground world and even abroad. He was cold, devoid of emotion. The day after Maddox’s parents had been murdered was still ingrained in his memory like it was yesterday.
“You listen to me, Maddox.” His Uncle leaned down in a fresh wave of aftershave and cigar smoke to stare into his tear-stained and frightened face. “We don’t cry in this family. We don’t show love because that’s how we lose this war. Got it? I don’t want to see tears in your eyes ever again while you’re living with me.”
Steely gray eyes glanced up from the moaning glob of flesh to rest on Maddox. He unfolded his arms with a smile. “Ah, my nephew. I’m glad you’re here.” He swiveled his attention to Ryder who was standing at Maddox’s right side. “I’m glad you’re here, too, son. This involves you more than anyone else.”
Unease flashed in Ryder’s face. He curled his hands up into fists before forcing the tension out of them. “Me, sir?”
“Yes,” John said, coolly. He gestured for both of them to come forward. “Both of you need to see this.”
Fear flashed in the man’s eyes when Maddox and Ryder approached. The muscles in his arms bulged against his tattered shirt when he tried to tug his arms free again.
“When is the last time you talked to your sister?” John asked Ryder.
A flash of fierce protectiveness and panic squeezed the inside of Maddox’s chest so tightly it forced the air out of his lungs. His blood pounded hot with the promise of pain if something happened to Livie Hart.
His eyes narrowed at the man who leaned back in the chair, shaking his head violently back and forth.
No one could get close to Livie— not without Maddox knowing about it.
A year ago, without Livie or Ryder’s knowledge, he had placed security to follow Livie and keep an eye on her at all times. He had cameras installed around her apartment at NYU to track every single person who came in and out of the building.
Protection. Maddox forced himself to believe it whenever he pulled up the cameras on his phone to watch. It had nothing to do with the longing ache in him to touch her, or to bury his fingers through those wild ashen blonde curls while he buried himself between her legs.
He couldn’t pinpoint exactly when his feelings for Livie had shifted from a deep-rooted friendship built from childhood and trauma into something else entirely. All he knew was that his thoughts were consumed with her and that he wanted her for himself. His blood burned with a yearning to take her.
Maddox glanced over to see the murderous expression settling on Ryder’s face, a reminder of why he spent the past two years fucking random women in hope that it’d take the ache away.
In their world, friendship and loyalty were hard to come by. The only person who truly understood what it was like growing up with the weight of his parent’s murder and the Farnese Empire on his shoulders was Ryder. His right hand. His best friend who knew the bottomless and dark hole of grief just as intimately as he did.
Livie was unaware of the truth about the blood running through her veins. The Hart family had been destroyed alongside Maddox’s that night, too. The grandmotherly matriarch, Mary Hart, had left Ryder in John Farnese’s hands in good faith to keep the peace and alliance in place between their two families with one exception— to never tell Livie the truth about who their families are.
To keep her safe.
Up until now, they had done a damn good job of making sure she was safe.
“I talked to her a few days ago,” Ryder said. His eyes, ablaze with fury, fixated on the squirming man in front of them. “What does this have to do with my sister?”
“We found a few messages on his phone that you both might want to read.” John handed over a black iPhone to Maddox. “I think you should read it first, Maddox.”
Ryder’s eyes sliced into Maddox as he pulled up the last conversation in the man’s inbox. “I should read it first if it’s about Livie.”
“Maddox first,” John ordered. His tone left no room for argument, but Ryder’s furious expression soured even more. He didn’t argue, and neither did Maddox. There was no arguing when it came to his Uncle.
The screen lit up with a picture of Livie when he powered it on. A far away and black picture of her petite figure emerging from one of the NYU buildings with a leather tote bag in hand. Her bountiful curls were pulled up in a messy bun secured by a black scrunchie, revealing her sharp cheekbones and full pouty red lips. She was dressed casually in a pair of tight black leggings and ankle-high brown boots with a baggy charcoal grey sweater to complete her look.
Beautiful. Pure. Livie rarely wore expensive clothes, or cover her perfectly freckled and smooth skin with makeup.
A cold fury rose inside of Maddox when he reached the text messages attached with the photo that had been sent by an unknown number.
Livie Hart—Ryder Hart’s sister. Take her.
You got it. When, boss?
Friday night. Bring her to me.
What about Maddox Farnese? He has security around her even though she has no idea.
Don’t worry about that. One of the men following her belongs to me.
The phone nearly cracked in Maddox’s grip when the realization came swift. It was Friday night and one of Kyzer Hawthorne’s men was about to kidnap Livie Hart right out from beneath his nose.
“Did you take her?” he snarled, shoving the phone into Ryder’s outstretched and impatient hand. “Tell me the truth now!”
Maddox ripped the gag out of the man’s mouth. He sucked in a ragged breath before spitting blood out onto the ground. “I-I-I don’t know if it has happened yet.”
“I don’t fucking believe you.” Reaching to his right hip, Maddox curled his fingers around the hilt of his gun and pulled it free. He crouched down in front of the man, watching in pleasure as his chest heaved up and down with panic. “If you don’t tell me everything you know, then I’m going to put a bullet into your kneecap and then one into your dick.”
“You better tell us everything,” Ryder growled in warning. “Does Hawthorne have my sister?”
“I don’t know!” The man’s eyes bulged out when Maddox clicked the safety off. “I don’t know because I don’t know what time it is. What time is it? I can tell you if they have her if you tell me what time it is.”
Ryder flipped his wrist over to check the time. “It’s 10:15 pm.”
The man licked his cracked and bloody lip. “It hasn’t happened yet.”
“When is it going to happen?” Maddox demanded. His thoughts were a panicked mess while he tried to think of who was supposed to be watching Livie tonight. Then, again… who could he trust anymore? Kyzer Hawthorne had managed to penetrate so many circles, including the one Maddox trusted the most to guard someone he loved.
Blood roared in Maddox’s ears. He fought the urge to shift impatiently on the balls of his feet. One day, the Farnese Empire would land on his shoulders. He didn’t want to the room full of his Uncle’s men, the same men who would work for him, to see a crack in his armor. A weakness that could be exploited.
“In fifteen minutes,” the man replied, glancing nervously at the gun in Maddox’s hand. “All I know is that he planned to take her and use her as extortion. That’s it. That’s all I know.”
“We’re at least thirty minutes away from NYU,” Ryder said, pacing wildly behind Maddox while he scrolled through the man’s phone. “This number. Call it and tell them that it’s not happening tonight.”
The man shook his sweaty head. The fluorescent light above flickered, casting shadows across his bruised skin.
“I can’t. The number is attached to a burner phone—”
Ryder slammed the phone down into the concrete. Pieces of it went scattering across the concrete. “We need to go,” he snapped, panic lining his voice. “Maddox, just kill the fucker. We have to get to Livie before Hawthorne does.”
Wordlessly, Maddox straightened up and pointed the gun right between the eyes. A quick and easy kill. His shadow stretched over the man who gazed up at him with pure terror in his eyes.
“You said if I told you everything that you wouldn’t—”
Blood and pieces of bone splattered in the air. What remained of the man’s head slumped backward and his limbs twitched violently. The death twitch.
Maddox turned away from the scene to meet his Uncle’s eyes. Void of emotion, it was hard to find any trace of John’s thoughts, but deep down, Maddox knew a conversation was going to take place.
“Get to Livie,” John said, nodding his head. “Be clean about how you handle this. The both of you.”
“Bring her back to our headquarters in Manhattan. It’ll be safe there. Oh, and Maddox.” John grabbed ahold of Maddox’s elbow before he could follow Ryder out of the warehouse. “I want to speak with you privately later. Understand?”
John dismissed him with another nod of his head. “Go on. I’ll have this cleaned up.”
Unease swept through Maddox. He brushed it aside for the time being and hurried out of the warehouse to the SUV’s where Ryder and Dakota were waiting for him.
“I can’t get ahold of her,” Ryder said when Maddox approached. Fear flickered in his eyes. “What if it happened? No one know knows where Hawthorne’s home turf is. He could take Livie out of the country for all we know.”
Fear grew rapidly inside of Maddox, too, at the thought. Women in their world were treated as objects to be used and played with. Sometimes, they were handed off to the highest bidders to inflict anguish on whoever they were taken from.
If Kyzer Hawthorne had Livie in his custody, it would be a long hard battle to get her back and worth a lot of resources. None of which his Uncle would be happy to spend.
“We have 15 minutes.” Maddox opened the passenger door. “Keep trying to get ahold of Livie. If you do, tell her to lock her apartment door and not come out until she hears us.”
The night was pitch black on the outskirts of the city when they peeled out of the warehouse and sped down the road back to the city. Endless acres of farm country was sprawled out with a few ranches. The warehouses they used had been abandoned a long time ago and were perfect because it was miles away from the closest neighbor.
Maddox bounced a leg anxiously while he watched Ryder continue to call Livie numerous times. A heaviness settled in the pit of Maddox’s stomach as the cold glitter of the city drew closer to the horizon. He braced himself for what was about to undoubtedly come.
After several attempts, Ryder lowered the phone and turned to look directly at Maddox with narrowed eyes. “Care to tell me why the fuck you had people watching my sister without telling me?”