Heart of Stone
3 | Thought That Counts
© Copyright C.K. Bennett 2021–2022
Leo’s dark eyes moved in Ferro’s direction, but I couldn’t read the emotion in them. The younger brother merely gazed back, as only Leo had heard me.
Steering his eyes back to mine, Leo leaned close and whispered in my ear, ‘We’ll talk about this later.’ His tone was so cold that the hair rose on my arms. He was clearly angry, but I couldn’t understand why.
Why did he care? It wasn’t like he actually wanted me, so why should it matter who I had kissed before? Besides, it had happened two years ago during a game of truth or dare. Yes, it had been a French kiss, but it hadn’t been serious. Ferro and I had just laughed about it and never repeated it.
‘There’s nothing to talk about,’ I whispered back.
Pressing his lips together, Leo glared at me for half a second. He said nothing else, however, and soon enough, we were both distracted by people who wished to congratulate us on our engagement.
What I hated most about this evening wasn’t that I had to act happy in front of all these people. It was that I had to stay on Leo’s arm for so long. For some reason, it reminded me of the time we’d travelled to Sicily together when I was twelve and Leo was eighteen.
God, that trip. It had been awful. Leo and I had been travelling alone – albeit with several bodyguards – since Giovanni and Isabella had left with Donna the week before. Ferro hadn’t joined us till a week later because he’d been staying with his maternal grandparents for a week.
On the private jet, I got my first period and I bled through my jeans. Because I was sitting next to him, Leo noticed it when I stood up to go to the lavatory, but he didn’t say anything. Instead, he left me to figure it out by myself; I pushed my beige jeans down and saw a pool of blood in them.
None of our bodyguards knew what to do, but, thankfully, a female flight attendant gave me a pad I could wear and calmed me down when I started to cry, thinking I was dying.
I had never before, or since, seen Leo as pale. He didn’t look me in the eyes for the remainder of the holiday. In fact, the first time he met my gaze after that incident was a year later, when Ferro, Leo, Roman and I were playing a game of poker and Leo called my bluff.
A server offered me another glass of Prosecco, jolting me out of the mortifying memory. I placed my empty glass on the tray and took another just as the balding, middle-aged man we’d been chatting to turned to speak to some other guests. He was quite tan, I thought, but apparently he had just returned from a holiday on the Côte d’Azur. I couldn’t remember having met him before. What was his name again?
‘For you, sir?’ the server asked Leo. I glanced at my fiancé, who stared back at me.
‘What?’ I asked him as he accepted a drink.
‘Nothing,’ he said, raising the glass to his lips as the server turned away.
He frowned. ‘Am I not allowed to look at you?’
‘Not for extended periods of time, and not without good reason.’
I thought I saw a trace of a smile on his mouth. ‘Well, I have a good reason.’
‘Why? Have I bled through again?’
He coughed on his sip. A moment of awkward silence elapsed between us.
‘No, I . . .’ He shook his head. ‘How’s your day been?’
The question took me aback. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d asked me that.
I looked at his perfectly trimmed black stubble. He must have gone to the barber earlier today. Well, at least he was putting some effort into this.
Who was I kidding? Leo always looked like a model.
He frowned. ‘Er . . .’
I mirrored his expression. ‘Er . . .’ I echoed.
‘I just wondered if you’ve had a nice day.’
I gave him a fake smile. ‘How kind of you to ask; it was fine until you arrived.’
He looked away, square jaw clenching.
‘And yours?’ I said.
He met my eyes briefly. ‘Fine – until you opened your mouth.’
‘Well, if you don’t want me to talk, I wouldn’t recommend asking me questions.’ I had another sip of Prosecco.
‘I was trying to be nice.’
‘Trying.’ My lips twitched with amusement. ‘Not really your forte, is it?’
Suddenly he leaned close, his full lips resting dangerously close to my ear. The seductive fragrance of his cologne filled my nostrils, and I caught myself enjoying it. The deeper into my lungs I took it, the warmer and softer my body became.
‘Trust me, Ade,’ he said quietly, the low bass of his voice massaging my eardrums. ‘You’d rather have me trying to be nice than not at all.’
Chills crawled down my spine. I believed him. Leo had always had a dark aura about him, and I did not want to explore the deepest corners of it.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, and I meant it. ‘I’m a little on edge tonight.’
He leaned away, dark eyes analysing my face. ‘I get it. I’m not having the time of my life either.’
I faced him properly, deciding to treat him with a modicum of respect. ‘To answer you, my day’s been alright. Your mother has been dragging me from salon to salon all day, so I’m honestly quite exhausted.’
He sized me up. ‘Well, your nails look good.’
I chuckled. It was obvious that giving compliments wasn’t in his nature. Out of everything he could have chosen to comment on, he’d picked my nails.
‘My nails? Thanks, I guess.’
‘Aren’t they a bit long, though?’ he asked. ‘Can you actually use your hands with those?’
I shook my head. ‘I hate them. They’re very impractical. But Isabella insisted.’
‘They look like claws.’
‘Then why did you tell me they look good?’
He shrugged. ‘I thought they were supposed to look good.’
‘Oh my God, Leo.’ I rolled my eyes.
A chuckle slipped out of him. Had he actually just laughed? Genuinely?
‘Thought that counts?’ he said, and I was nearly blinded by his enchanting grin.
Glancing around us, I saw the glares of several other women, wild with envy as they saw Leo Cifarelli smiling – at me. Like them, I had no idea how I’d managed it. However, unlike them, I didn’t care whether Leo smiled at me or not.
I was just about to ask him how his day had been when Tom Adams approached us through the crowd. Seeing him made me tense.
I’d always envied Leo for being allowed to take part in our families’ affairs – he was Don Giovanni’s protégé, after all – because it enabled him to sit on lots of inside information. However, at least I knew enough to be aware that Tom Adams was a man to fear.
The syndicate he oversaw wasn’t among the Five Firms – the most powerful mafia clans in London – but it was notorious for its callousness, nevertheless. The Valentino Cifarelli Company had never been at war with it, but we’d witnessed it wage war against the Frontliners five years ago, who had since been deprived of any and all power.
Leo tensed as well. He took a small step forward so that I was standing more behind him than beside him.
‘Stay close,’ he ordered very quietly. ‘Whatever you do, don’t leave my side, Ade.’
Swallowing, I gave him a vague nod. This was one of the few positive things about Leo. While I couldn’t stand him as a person, no one made me feel safer than him, because Leo was always in control. I’d seen him in action and in dangerous situations several times before. He’d never once lost a physical fight, and he’d never once been outwitted by anyone else. For that reason, I trusted him with my life. Indeed, regardless of how much I hated to admit it, Leo would make an exceptional don when the time called for it.
‘Leo,’ Adams said the instant he reached us. ‘Adella, you look fabulous.’
I bowed my head slightly. ‘Tom. I’m so glad you could come.’
‘Of course. I wouldn’t miss this for the world. What a beautiful pair you are.’ Adams bared discoloured teeth in a devilish grin.
‘I’m not so sure about “beautiful pair”,’ Leo said. ‘Ade tends to steal the spotlight.’
Adams chuckled. ‘She’s definitely grown into a gorgeous young woman.’ He gave me a wink, looked back at Leo, and stepped a little closer. He motioned for Leo to lean in and whispered something in his ear.
Leo froze. Alarms went off in my head. Something wasn’t quite right.
Very slowly, Leo leaned away. ‘I’m afraid I can’t allow that,’ he said, his eyes spitting darkness that would put even the blackest shade to the test. ‘Adella stays with me. Always.’
What? I stared straight at Adams. What did he want with me?
Leo reached into his dinner jacket.
‘Oh, Leo.’ Adams laid his large, veiny hand on Leo’s shoulder. ‘Let’s keep it friendly, lad. I’m asking nicely.’
‘Adella stays with me,’ Leo repeated, his tone hostile.
Adams’ lips twitched downward as he glanced around us. ‘I was afraid you’d say that.’ When he looked at Leo again, his eyes contained a promise of death. ‘You’re just a cub, Leo. Sometimes, bravery is stupid. Hasn’t Giovanni taught you that?’
Leo pressed his lips together, and his arm moved a bit further. Was he reaching for a weapon?
Adams sighed. ‘Listen, lad. I’ve got four men, each with a gun, aiming at your brother, your sister, your mother and your father right now. All I’ve got to do is press this button’—he withdrew his phone from his pocket—‘and poof! You’ll never see them alive again. I’m sure we’d all rather avoid that, right?’
Leo swallowed. I felt my breath abandon me. True fear spread through my system. My heart was beating like it was trying to pulverise my ribs.
Adams had Leo’s whole family at gunpoint? Why? What sort of trouble had Leo got us into now? Or was it Giovanni’s doing?
Several men observed us, their stances seemingly relaxed. However, upon closer inspection, their hands were ready to withdraw weapons any moment now.
I looked around for one of our men. There had to be a way for us to raise the alarm, to draw attention to the danger we were in. At the same time, if I called for help, it might prompt Adams to order his men to shoot Leo’s family.
‘Did Beckett tell you to do this?’ Leo asked calmly.
My stomach sank. Leo might have lied to Lauren and Ferro earlier, when he’d said the meeting had gone well. As it looked now, it could hardly have gone worse.
Adams grinned, head shaking. ‘You’re not in a position to be asking questions, leoncino,’ he said, using the nickname Leo had acquired when he was younger. ‘Now, it’s up to you. All I need from you is Adella. If you comply, no harm will come to her or any of your family members. If you don’t, my men will fire, and I’m sure we’d all prefer to avoid the police investigation that will inevitably ensue in the wake of that. I mean, who knows what they might find on your family once they start digging into what happened here.’
Leo stared straight at Adams with an expression that revealed nothing. I tried my best to imitate him, to not show any signs of weakness or fear, but Adams seemed serious, so it was difficult to remain composed. I was shocked at his threat. Was he really willing to go that far? If the police got involved, he had to know that he would hardly come out of it unscathed. He was essentially saying he was willing to self-destruct!
Leo spent a few seconds analysing Adams, probably trying to determine whether the threat was empty or not. ‘You’re seriously willing to bring the police into this? All for a damn deal? You know as well as I do that you’re doomed if you pull those triggers. You’ll spend the rest of your life behind bars.’
Deal? What deal?
Adams shrugged. ‘Probably, but so will you and your father, and that will be my consolation.’ His eyes narrowed with animosity. ‘Fucking Italians.’ He looked like he wanted to spit in Leo’s face. ‘You filthy, greedy bastards have the nerve to come here and steal from us. I guarantee you’ll regret it. If you have any sense, you’ll crawl back into the shithole you came from.’
Leo turned toward me, and I could have sworn I saw something deep within his gaze. An apology? A promise? Or was it . . . fear?
Tears of panic formed in my eyes. What did Adams want with me? Why was I a person of interest? I hardly sat on any information regarding our families’ affairs.
It occurred to me then that Adams probably wanted to use me as a means of extortion; he was looking to manipulate our families’ next move – strike some sort of deal with us, and if we didn’t yield to his demands, I’d suffer.
‘Make up your mind, then. I haven’t got all day,’ Adams threatened. ‘Your family or your fiancée?’
I drew in a sharp breath. There was no way out of this. Leo and I were trapped in an impossible situation; there was no one we could call for without triggering four guns. One way or another, someone had to be sacrificed. Knowing that, it was only logical I agreed to Adams’ terms. If I did, it would buy Leo more time to work out a solution to this mess, preferably before any serious damage would be done to me.
Leo still hadn’t said anything when I took a step forward. ‘I’ll go.’
‘That’s a clever girl.’ Adams grinned, eyes flickering to Leo. ‘You should learn from your fiancée, leoncino.’
Leo reached for my hand, his tattooed fingers squeezing it like he never wanted to let go. His dark eyes stared intensely at me, spilling with apologies and an unmistakable vow to rescue me before it was too late.
Without taking his eyes off me, he asked Adams, ‘Do you swear no harm will come to her?’
‘That depends on whether you’ll comply with my terms.’
Leo grimaced and leaned down to rest his lips by my ear. ‘Adella, don’t worry.’ He pushed my long brown hair behind my ear. ‘I’ll find you. I swear.’
‘Fix this,’ I demanded. ‘Quickly.’
He merely looked at me.
Adams offered me his arm then, his smile ever present. I took it with reluctance, my body trembling with terror. My stomach churned when he pulled me closer. He smelled of cigarettes, whisky and too much cologne.
‘Smile, Adella,’ he ordered quietly as he guided me toward the French doors leading to the garden. ‘Laugh. Put on one hell of a show. The Cifarellis’ lives depend on it.’
I forced a fake smile immediately, but I couldn’t help glancing over my shoulder. Leo’s magnetic eyes trapped mine, and in them, I saw his promise speak to me: I’ll find you. I swear.
coming to stores may 2, 2022