Copyright - Shandi Boyes 2017
A ragged gasp escapes from my lips as I springboard into a half-seated position. My hands dart up to rub the stabbing pain rocketing through my temples as I suck in large gulps of air, calming the panic scorching me from the inside out. Goosebumps prickle my sweat-slicked skin when the coolness of air conditioning glides over my body. Pure agony. Gut-wrenching hell. I’d rather die than open my eyelids is how I feel right now.
Someone, please tell me why the National School Board would ever think holding their annual conference in Las Vegas was a good idea? I swear, I only had a couple of drinks, at the very most a few, but there is no way I drank enough to suffer the side effects of a tunnel hole digger drilling through my skull. I thought waking up the morning following my twenty-first birthday was wretched. This is ten times worse.
After giving myself a few minutes to calm the pounding of my head, I reluctantly open my drooping eyelids. My lips quirk. For a school district that can't afford to buy kindergarten students coloring pencils, the hotel they booked for me is extravagant. Monstrous vaulted ceilings, whitewood paneled walls, gorgeous dark wood furniture, and one of the largest beds I've ever seen is what confronts me.
As I slide across the pristinely crisp thousand thread count sheets, a new reality dawns on me. I am naked. Not slightly nude. Naked-naked. Oh, lord, what did I do? I swing my eyes around the room as I struggle to gather my bearings. My heart is wildly beating, matching the thumping twinge between my legs.
The typical Vegas lifestyle reflects back at me. Casino chips line the highly varnished wooden floor; my clothing is strewn in a pattern from the door to the bed, and a pair of black polished dress shoes sits at the edge of a mattress that smells like hot, raunchy sex. Nothing out of the ordinary here. Wait, hold on a minute… Black polished dress shoes?
Scampering off the bed, I fall to my knees next to the shoes. I assess them carefully, like they are a time bomb set to detonate in 2.5 seconds. The soles are well-scuffed, but the leather on the size thirteen shoes is so thoroughly polished I can see my disheveled appearance in them. I cringe. I don’t remember using a spatula to apply my makeup last night. Ignoring the fact I look like I've just returned from a moonlighting job, I continue inspecting the shoes, seeking any indication of who their owner may be.
“Like grown men write their name on the soles of their shoes, Blaire,” I mumble to myself.
Failing to find any signs of ownership, I stand from my kneeling position and drift my eyes around the vast space. A silent squeal ripples from my parched mouth when the sound of a door creaking open booms through my ears. I dive for the bed, only just making it beneath the scrumptiously thick covers when a female with a heavily wrinkled face enters my room. Grumbling in a slurred accent, she retrieves my clothing from the floor and tosses it into a woven basket balancing on her ample hip.
“Oh… umm… excuse me. I didn’t order housekeeping,” I strangle out, my voice weak with embarrassment.
I sink deeper into the mattress when the elderly lady’s scorching gaze connects with my light green eyes. Her nearly black eyes are fierce, and they have my heart pumping.
“You no want me to clean your room?” she asks.
From the depth of her accent and her poor wording, it is easy for me to derive her first language isn't English. Peeking my head out of the sheet I’m clutching for dear life, I briefly shake my head.
“You want to live like pig?”
Her words are spat out of her mouth in a malicious slur, right alongside some real-life spit. I cringe and shift my gaze to the polished floor. Now I need housekeeping. Muttering in a language I’m not familiar with, the silver-haired female scuffles to the door.
“Umm…. excuse me,” I say again, my voice low, hindered by the pounding of my hungover head. I hold my hand into the air like my kindergarten students do when seeking my attention.
The elderly lady’s cotton skirt flares out when she spins around to face me. “Yes?” she snarls. The longer she stares at me, the more my heart palpitates.
“Umm… I’m going to need my clothes,” I mumble through my heart in my throat while pointing to my clothing she collected off the floor. “Unless you can get the concierge to bring up my suitcase?”
The elderly lady glares at me, nostrils flaring, veins protruding. “Concierge? You want concierge to bring your bag to your room?”
I arch my brow and briefly nod my head. “Please?”
She smiles. It is a scary and life-threatening smile. “I’ll be sure to ask concierge to bring up your bag,” she says in a thick, heavily drawled accent.
“T-thank you,” I stutter.
The crazy beat of my heart weakens when she places the basket onto a large antique dresser sitting by the door. After issuing me a final reprimand solely using her eyes, she exits the room. The instant the latch on the door lock clicks into place, I slip out of bed and make a mad dash for the door. Since my bare feet are unable to grip the overly polished floor, I crash into the door with an almighty thud. The winded rattle of my brutal blow bellows all the way up my heaving chest.
After brushing a bunch of unruly blonde hairs off my heated cheeks, I secure the lock on the door, snag my clothing out of the basket, and make a beeline for the only other door in the room.
My quick speed slows to a snail’s pace when I walk into an extravagantly grand bathroom. Scanning my eyes around the room, I drink in the black marble countertops, artisan glass sinks, and a ginormous clawfoot tub. If I wasn't concerned about receiving another visit from the Wicked Witch of the West, I’d be tempted to drown away my hangover in that heavenly-looking tub.
Snubbing the pleas of my aching muscles, I make my way to the double vanity to splash some cold water on my inflamed face. Confusion muddles my brain when bright rays of sunshine bounce off my blonde locks. If the brightness beaming through the rooftop window is any indication, I only have mere hours before my scheduled flight home.
My first visit to Vegas was planned as a fly in and out in one night affair. My odds of winning Teacher of the Year were small, but the privilege of being nominated saw me cashing in my parents’ frequent flyer miles for a whirlwind weekend. From the swirling of my stomach and thumping of my head, whirlwind is an extremely adequate word to describe my once in a lifetime solo getaway.
Clutching the edge of the marble counter, I drag my heavy eyes over my reflection in the mirrored wall behind the vanity, eager to see what has caused my muscles to be taut with the odd combination of agony and pleasure. Deciding to start my avid assessment at a less risqué part of my body, I drop my eyes to my pastel yellow-painted toes. The fiery heat gifting my face with a pink hue has extended to the lower extremities of my body. Other than my legs being bronzed with the effects of a desert sun, the lower half of my body is in the same condition it was before I arrived in Vegas.
Munching on my bottom lip, I continue with my in-depth perusal. My avid scan stops mere inches from the lower half of my body when my eyes lock in on an accessory I didn’t have Friday night.
Oh, sweet Jesus. What in the Lord's name is that?
Stumbling backward, I scrub my hand over the thick black ink scrawled across the curve of my right hip. My heartrate rockets into dangerous territory as I scrub, scratch, and scour my skin. Even with my hip red, raw, and on the verge of bleeding, nothing works. The four-letter word scrawled across my hip won't budge.
“Who the hell is Rico? And why is his name tattooed on my hip?” I mumble to my wide-eyed reflection.
I plant my backside on the edge of the black marble tub and bury my head in my hands. This is not me. I'm the safe friend. The good girl. I'm a kindergarten teacher for crying out loud! I don't go to Vegas and get a man's name tattooed on my hip. I grade papers, hunt garage sales every Sunday for low-cost books for my students, and I knit booties for the babies in the NICU at my local hospital. I don't get drunk, and I most definitely do not get tattoos!
Maybe I’m dreaming, and I haven’t arrived at Vegas yet? Maybe those sleeping tablets I guzzled down with a wine spritzer while squeezed between a man whose body odor smelled like a cat’s food bowl and the lady who had an extra toe are messing with my mind. Yes! That makes perfect sense. This is all just a big bad dream.
Nope, I’m not sleeping.
Rubbing my leg, I soothe the sting of my nasty pinch while I struggle to unscramble the confusion muddling my brain.
Minutes pass in silence, and nothing but a sea of blackness greets me.
There is one thing my over-fried brain can decipher. I need to get out of here.
I yank my knee-length floral skirt up my tense thighs before fastening my cotton push up bra around my back. My movements are unsteady, inhibited by the thumping of my hungover head. After snagging my dusty pink cotton blouse off the vanity and slinging it around my shoulders, I run my fingers through my ratted mess of hair. With the number of knots in my hair, my usually straight locks have a bolder, more risqué look to them.
“Ha! Who are you trying to kid? You look like you’ve just arrived home after starring in an 80’s music clip for Bruce Springsteen,” I mumble to my disheveled reflection.
Pretending I didn’t wear any panties yesterday, I make my way back into the main room of my suite. The elderly maid found my clothing easily as it was left where it fell, but my shoes are proving to be quite the challenge. After searching every inch of the floor space, I drop to my knees and crawl under the bed. I inwardly gag when I find a strip of condoms stuck to the satin bed ruffle. The pounding of my head reverts to a lower region of my body when I notice the three strip of bare-skinned condoms are empty. My heartrate kicks up a gear when the quickest flash of a memory filters through my brain.
Oh, lord! I ripped open one of those condoms with my teeth while…. while… Darn it! My memories have converted back to black.
Flicking the used condom packaging to the side, I outstretch my arm to my orthopedic sandal wedged in the furthermost corner. Don't judge. Have you ever walked the entire strip of Vegas before? I did—for three hours solid! Comfortable shoes are not a recommendation. They are a necessity.
I freeze and suck in a large gulp of air. That was my first recollection of arriving at Vegas. Other than recalling portions of the plane ride over, my memories of my last twenty-four hours are best described as hazy.
After snatching my second sandal from its hiding spot in the middle of the ginormous bed, I fasten them to my feet and head for the door. Hazy memories, drunken mistakes, and googling how to have a tattoo removed without your parents finding out can wait until my feet are safely back on my home turf of Ravenshoe.
Exhaling a nerve-cleansing breath, I push down on the gold embossed handle and swing open the door. My brows hit my hairline. For how elegant this hotel is, they have a very laidback approach to security. None of the rooms have the swipe locks most hotel chains have, and not a peep hole can be seen. The more I take in the chandeliered hall, the more my heart restricts. This isn't a hotel, is it? Dammit!
I make my way down the hallway, my feet padding along the chunky woolen rug in silence. Renaissance paintings line the walls, and the aroma of garlic lingers in the air. The beat of my heart merges into dangerous territory when I hit the end of the hall. Two large men whose shoulders are the width of my height are standing at the edge of the stairwell, talking to each other in a foreign language.
“Hello,” I squeak out when the sight of me stifles their conversation.
Snubbing their imprudent stares, I race down the stairwell. The galloping of my heart matches the stomping of my feet as I charge through the massive unknown residence. My tornado pace comes to a shrieking halt when a handful of women suddenly bombard me. Lace and satin materials are shoved in my face as they fire a range of questions at me. Well, I am assuming they are questions as I don’t understand a word they are saying.
Their approach reminds me of my backpacking adventures in Bali, Indonesia. If you haven’t experienced the craziness of a street market in Bali, you haven’t lived. It is the equivalent of shopping at Walmart high on crack. That’s another assumption, as I’ve never touched a drug in my life.
Not understanding a single word the group of ladies are flinging at me, I spin on my heels and scuffle down a dark and dingy corridor on my right. Their hair-raising battering is left for dust when I encroach deeper into the hall. My heart beats triple time when the scent of fear lingers in the air. From the way the women stop at the end of the hall and eyeball me with a snick of panic in their eyes, anyone would swear I just entered the gates of hell.
Taking no notice of their odd reaction—and my brain pulverizing my skull—I continue striding down the dark, dingy hall. Just like the hallway my room is in, this corridor is lined with doors. But unlike the hall my room is in, this corridor isn't as elaborately decorated, and these rooms have locks—big clunky deadbolt locks. I stop dead in my tracks and furrow my brows. Why would there be locks on the outside of the doors?
My retreating steps out of the dingy space stop when I hear the faint murmur of voices tinkling down the bland corridor. Slanting my head to the side, I level my breathing and prick my ears. My regular breathing pattern returns when the distinct noise of men talking sounds into my ears.
Pretending the twisted feeling in my stomach is from my raging hangover drilling my skull into the next century and not fear, I pace towards the collection of deep, masculine voices. The swirling of my stomach eases when I catch the occasional sentence spoken in English between the heavily accented voices.
"If you just give me a chance. . ."
“As I said earlier. . .”
“It wasn’t as your men are saying. . .”
Stopping outside the door the voices are coming from, I inhale a deep, calming breath.
“You can do this, Blaire,” I silently chant to myself.
Clutching the handle for dear life, I throw open the heavily weighted door. Just as it gives out a creak, the sound of pleading pummels my eardrums.
“Please. No. I’m begging you. I have children. Small, precious little children.”
With my heart clutched in fear, I lift my eyes from my feet. Men in midnight-colored suits are huddled around something in the middle of the poorly lit room. Just like the men in the hallway, they are tall, wide, and set my pulse racing. I take a stumbling step backward when black smoke loiters through my nose, burning my eyes, and suffocating my throat. I try to hold in my cough the thick waft of smoke instigates. I try to smother it until I am in the safety of the hall. But no matter how much I plead with my brain that now is not the time to kick up a protest about the disgusting habit of smoking, my efforts are fruitless.
The instant my measly cough splatters through my snapped-shut lips, the large group of men shift their attention to me. I take a retreating step, alarmed by their fuming glares. Fear-induced chemicals pump through my body when my massively dilated eyes zoom in on the men's original devotion. A balding man in his mid-fifties is bound to a rickety wooden chair in the middle of the room. His right brow has a nasty gash across it that is trickling blood down his pale cheek; his eyes are wide and terrorized, and he has a wet patch that goes from the crotch of his dark blue trousers all the way down his leg until it joins a puddle sloshed around his shoeless and bloodied feet.
My pupils widen as my heart drops from my ribcage. I beg for my feet to move, but just like the man bound to the chair, I am frozen in fear.
The only remaining functioning part of my body—my eyes— swing to the side when a deep, rumbling voice vibrates through my chest. “Kitten?”
The beat of my heart enters dangerous territory when my wide gaze is met with a dark, mysterious stranger sitting in the corner of the room. He has thick black hair, bleak sable eyes, and a few days of stubble hiding his well-carved chin. If I weren't currently immersed in a scary rendition of The Godfather, I would have said he was handsome—perhaps even deliriously gorgeous—but since I am on the verge of peeing my pants like the man bound to the chair, I harness my perving gaze for a more suitable occasion.
My pulse quickens when the dark-haired stranger stands from his chair. His aura demands my attention, and his stature alludes to his power. Even in a room filled with scary men, there is no doubt who the alpha of the room is. It’s him.
Unlike the other half a dozen men gawking at me in shocked anger, this handsome stranger looks at me with a sense of familiarity, and if I’m not mistaken… ownership?
Blinking to break the trance he has trapped me in, I squeak out, “Wrong room,” before spinning on my heels and charging for the door.
Thick, accented voices yell for me to stop, but I barely hear a word over the mad beat of my heart. I race down the corridor remarkably quick for someone on the verge of wetting their pants.
But, unfortunately, my fast-moving legs are not quite quick enough.
A window-shattering squeal tears from my throat when a broad arm wraps around the top of my torso. His powerful hold has my feet lifting from the ground and my heart smashing against my ribs. I thrash and kick my arms and legs out wildly, fighting with all my might. I claw my nails into the suit-covered arm and bite at the hand moving to cover my shrieking mouth as I struggle to keep haunted memories buried.
My vicious attack only diminishes when my name comes barreling out of a deep baritone voice, the same voice that called me kitten mere seconds ago.
"Calm down, Blaire, or you are going to gain unwanted attention," he warns me, dragging me into an unlocked room on our right. “You’re safe. No one will ever hurt you.”
Air hisses through the small cracks of the hand covering my mouth as I gulp in deep breaths, battling to fill my heaving lungs with oxygen. With the fear of hyperventilating, I decrease the volume of my wails and shift my focus on breathing. The last thing I want to do is pass out in a house full of scary looking men and non-English-speaking females.
Realizing I am no longer fighting, the stranger removes his hand from my mouth, dropping it to the curve of my neck. Every fine hair on my body bristles when he rubs his thumb over the dip in my collarbone. Now instead of suffering the crippling fear of panic, I’m overcome by the frantic rush of desire. Insanely, my nipples bud and my lips part, my body choosing its own response to the closeness of the spicy-scented stranger.
“That’s it, Kitten. Nice big breaths,” croons the deep voice above.
The carnal rasp of his tone tightens the coil of my womb even more. His voice is sophisticated and smooth, the type that could sell ice to Eskimos. It switches the mad beat of my heart from a frightened gallop to a leisured trot.
After a few more cavernous breaths, my regular breathing pattern returns. When the unnamed stranger places me onto my feet, I run my sweaty hands down the front of my floral skirt before swiveling around to face him. My heartrate skyrockets again. He is even more alluring up close. Defined nose, dark, edgy eyes, and cheekbones any sculptor would love to carve. He is a true masterpiece.
“How do you know my name?” I ask, peering into his eyes, unable to look away for the fear of missing something magical.
Not giving him the chance to reply, I ask, “Have we met before? You seem so familiar.” My words come out hoarse, strangled by both arousal and fear.
The handsome stranger’s eyes flare with a vast range of emotions before his lips tug high. The quickest flash of a smirk freezes my heart. My god this man is… beautiful. When he runs his hand across the scruff on his tanned face, a shimmer of platinum wrapped around his ring finger captures my attention.
"You're married?!" I squeal, disappointment in my tone.
I cringe when my nasally high voice bounces off the walls and jingles into my ears. Since I am locked in an enthralling daze of idiocy, I thought there was something greater than fear between us. Obviously, I was wrong. Masking my disappointment with a neutral look, I return the married stranger’s rousing stare.
“Is your wife here? Does she speak English?” I question when my inquisitiveness gets the better of me.
The dark-haired stranger’s brows knit, but he remains so quiet, only the sound of my heart thumping against my ribs can be heard. Astonishment and another unreadable glint brightens his nearly black eyes as he begins to speak. Before a syllable escapes his mouth, the door I was dragged through seconds ago flies open.
The trance the sable-haired man’s beauty placed on me lifts when a burly-looking man in a full-length trenchcoat steps into the room. His hollow eyes bounce between me and the mystery stranger for several heart-thrashing seconds before he locks them on the gentleman standing beside me. Mimicking the direction of his gaze, I turn my eyes as well. My heart sinks into my stomach. The captivatingly handsome specimen I was entranced by seconds ago has vanished, replaced with the man who confronted me in the room earlier. The same room with an injured man bound to a chair. Oh, my God, I’m a terrible person. I’m standing in a room eyeballing a man as if his body parts are on a dessert menu all while another man sits helpless only doors up from me.
The despair digging a hole in my heart deepens when the man at the door says, “Rico, it is time.” His voice is heavily drawled with an accent I don’t immediately recognize.
“Do as requested. I do not need to be present,” responds the handsome stranger standing next to me.
The gentleman at the door bows his head before replying, "Yes, Boss."
He shuffles backward like a dog afraid of getting a newspaper whacked across his disobedient nose. When he closes the door, I stand quiet for a minute, giving my scattered brain a chance to run the events from the past ten minutes through my blurry mind.
It is only when I reach the first half of the intruder’s statement does my dazed state end. “You’re Rico?” I ask while trying to ignore the way the room is closing in on me.
Dizziness plagues my senses when Rico briefly nods his head. I splay my hands across my hips and gulp in large breaths, shocked at discovering the mysterious stranger standing before me is Rico: the owner of the name tattooed on my hip. When the swirling of my stomach becomes too much for me to handle, I slap my quivering hand over my mouth and battle to hold in the contents threatening to break free. The fiery heat scorching my veins unveils another new discovery: a crisp coolness tingling on my parched lips.
Heavily panting, I pull my hand away from my mouth. A rush of giddiness clusters in my head when my eyes zoom in on a sparkling platinum band wrapped around the third finger of my left hand. The twisting of my stomach extends to my heart when I realize its ruby and diamond design is an exact replica of the ring on Rico’s hand.
I take a stumbling step backward, my pupils widening, my heartrate faltering.
Oh. My. Lord.
I married a Mob Boss.
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