Are you a fan of the Bad Alpha Dads series, which is written by multiple award-winning, best-selling authors? Tami’s now written three books in this series, and all three are part of her Taming the Dragon series.
Dragon in Denial, book 3, released on May 31, 2019!
Tami wrote a two-book mafia romance series!
NOT PART OF THE PLAN
Antonio Sarvilli’s plans didn’t involve a pit stop at his older brother’s monstrosity of a mansion. His plans ran more along the lines of a boat, a lake, a popular sandbar, some booze, and hopefully a hot date. Preferably with someone who was willing to take him home and be his date all night long.
While Gino’s outrageously pretentious home was large enough to house a lake, it didn’t actually contain one. Nor did it contain the boat or sandbar. Or even the women, at least not the kind Antonio was interested in. If there were any women here, they were likely hookers, and while his brother had an affinity for them, Antonio wasn’t into paying for the goods. Nor was he into goods that had been around the block a few million times. Gino probably had a doctor on call to check him out every Monday morning, make sure he was still clean—or to clear up anything that had developed over the weekend.
The only part of Antonio’s plan that could be enacted at the moment was finding the booze, but he’d forego that in hopes that whatever the hell Gino wanted, it wouldn’t take long and he could still get out to the lake and pick up one of those hotties before all those younger studs swept in and cleaned house. Lucky twenty-year-old bastards.
Of course, if Antonio hit on women who were closer to his own age, maybe he’d get lucky on a more frequent basis. But thirty-five-year-old women did not hang out at the sandbar, unless they were doing so with their kids and husbands. Since he wasn’t really into cheating and he doubted those couples were interested in threesomes, he didn’t have a choice but to hit on twenty-year-olds.
He rounded a corner and his steps stuttered when he saw a miniature, dark-haired girl standing in the middle of the hall, head tilted as she studied a not entirely abstract black-and-white portrait of two nude women doing things this child probably didn’t need to know about just yet. He had no idea who she was or where she came from, but he stepped between her and the picture. Whoever her parents were, they’d appreciate his interference.
Although, who the hell would leave their child unattended in his brother’s mansion? Christ, he hoped she didn’t belong to one of the hookers.
The kid shifted her focus to him, and her giant blue eyes widened while her tiny pink mouth formed an O. She wore a yellow dress and had a purple backpack slung over her shoulders, and someone had worked a small braid into her hair. She’s gonna be a knockout someday.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Who are you?” she countered.
“Antonio,” he said, and he offered his hand to shake before he realized he was speaking to a child and she probably didn’t know what the action meant. But she surprised him by sliding her tiny hand into his, shaking it once and then releasing it.
“Nina. Pleased to meet you.”
“Wow, those are some manners.”
She lifted one shoulder, let it drop again. “My mom says manners are important.”
“Your mom’s pretty smart. Which raises the question: Why are you here? I don’t think many smart women hang out in this place. Gino’s not very fond of them.”
“What’s raise the question mean?”
Out of everything she could have picked from that little diatribe…
“It means pointing out something obvious that hasn’t been dealt with.” He canted his head. “Why do you look so familiar?”
“Nina. There you are. I told you not to… Oh, Antonio. Hi. Hey. Um…”
Zelda. The blonde, twenty-something Gino had imported from Sweden to play nanny to his daughter, back when he was married and pretending like he was actually a dad. Because raising his kid himself would be asking far too much. Although, the last thing that child needed was to learn anything at all from her own father. Not unless she intended to be a career criminal.
Zelda was as perky and fit and smokin’ hot and tight as any twenty-year-old ought to be. Antonio should know, since he’d had a sample within the first week of meeting her. That had been a few years ago. Three or four, maybe.
Problem was, her second week on the job, he walked in on her servicing Gino’s favorite bodyguard. For some reason he still couldn’t explain, Antonio had gone to Gino with that information, and his brother had laughed at him for expecting monogamy.
Since a man’s injured pride was serious business, Antonio decided hot, tight Zelda was off-limits, even if the whole thing happened years ago. Unfortunately, it was a concept she didn’t seem to understand.
“You are going to the lake?” she asked, nodding at his blue-and-white Hawaiian print swim trunks. Her gaze was riveted to something south of his bellybutton, and he fought the urge to adjust his junk.
“It’s unusually warm for early June. Figured I’d take advantage.”
“Oh.” She pouted and trailed her fingers along the edge of her exposed cleavage. A lot of skin was showing. He struggled, tried, and failed to look away as she moved those digits up, up, and into her mouth.
He cleared his throat and finally managed to shift his focus to the kid. And that’s when it clicked into place. “Nina?”
He stabbed his thumb into his chest. “It’s Uncle Antonio. Remember me?”
Her face lit up like Christmas. How had he not realized she was his favorite—okay, his only, but if he had more, she’d definitely be the fave—niece?
Probably because she hadn’t been around for more than two years and kids her age changed a lot.
“Wait. Why are you here?” he asked the little girl.
Unless he was trying to piss off his ex-wife, Antonio was pretty certain Gino had zero interest in spending quality time with his protégé. Which meant this wasn’t good. Hopefully, his being summoned was not remotely connected to bumping into his niece in the hall.
Margot had gotten a raw deal by ending up on Gino’s radar, and as poor luck would have it, ultimately marrying him. It was a deal she’d have to suffer for the rest of her life. While she’d somehow managed to convince him to grant her a divorce, everybody knew that meant nothing other than she could live in her own house instead of this place. Other than that, she was still one hundred percent under Gino’s thumb, and she damn well knew it.
“Visiting my dad,” Nina replied, reminding him that he’d asked her a question.
Zelda reached for her hand. “We’re going to the park. You could join us,” she suggested, eyeing his shorts again.
“Can’t,” Antonio said distractedly. “Got a meeting with Gino. See ya.” He escaped before Zelda could do something crazy like flash her tits. Just because he told himself she was off-limits didn’t mean his body didn’t still desire her. The one night they’d spent together had been pretty damn memorable.
But something wasn’t adding up, and considering Antonio was the numbers guy, when that happened, he became determined to find out why. It was in his genetic makeup.
Gino’s home office was the size of an opulent apartment in New York City. Why the hell one man needed so much space was beyond Antonio, who rapped his knuckles twice against the wooden door before stepping inside. He strolled across the plush carpet, deliberately twirling his key ring around his finger so Gino could see that he was in a hurry to be somewhere.
His brother spoke in low tones into the phone he held to his ear while he watched Antonio’s progress into the room. They were five years apart in age, though Gino looked ten, maybe fifteen years older. He’d played and worked far too hard for almost his entire life, and Mother Nature had begun to let him know.
His hair, along with the goatee he maintained to hide his weak chin, were speckled with gray. There were crow’s feet next to his eyes and lines around his mouth. While his arms were huge and Antonio would still not willingly challenge him to hand-to-hand combat, Gino was definitely going soft around the middle. Maybe he needed to start banging a dietician instead of those hookers.
But despite the signs of age, when he disconnected the call and sat back in his chair, steepling his fingers and giving Antonio that steady, unblinking gaze, he still reeked of power, control, dominance.
Just like he had for basically Antonio’s entire life.
Gino had started his own dry cleaning business only a few months out of high school. Today, he owned two-thirds of the dry cleaners in the metro Detroit area and bullied the other third so they wouldn’t encroach on his territory. An impartial observer could easily get the impression he owned the goddamn world. In his mind, he probably did. Antonio couldn’t recall the last time someone had crossed his brother. Probably not since sixth grade, when he’d already been a boy in a man’s body.
“Antonio,” he said. “I need you to do a job for me.”
Antonio shook his head. “Already did my job today. Made you a cool half mil. You’re welcome.”
On paper, Gino’s dry cleaning empire made half a mil a year. Everybody—including the cops—knew he was worth far more than that. But they couldn’t prove it. Nor were they aware that his younger brother was the money man; a fucking genius when it came to investing Gino’s substantial assets. Yeah, yeah, most of the money Antonio grew was dirty—really, really dirty—but Gino paid him a lot of greenbacks to ignore that fact.
Gino slid a piece of paper across the smooth surface of the desk. It looked like somebody had taken a screenshot of a video off the computer screen. A woman took up most of the grainy pic, a decent-looking blonde, frozen in the process of talking to, based on the microphone shoved in her face, a television reporter from one of the local networks.
“I need you to befriend this woman. Find out what she knows.”
Antonio glanced from the picture to Gino. “What, like how smart she is? Like can she count to ten or something?”
“Don’t be obtuse. I want you to find out what she knows about me.”
Antonio looked at the picture again. The woman was dressed in a tank top and running shorts, and her hair was pulled back into a ponytail. It was hard to tell from the image, but it didn’t look like she was wearing makeup, or at least not as much as Gino’s usual taste in women wore. Take away the blonde hair and she reminded him a little of Gino’s ex-wife, Margot, actually.
“I don’t mean to bring up a sore spot, but you didn’t have much luck with good-looking, presumably smart women the first time around.”
Gino’s forehead developed deep grooves as he frowned, giving Antonio that look that told him he was in danger of crossing the line between being an irritant and truly pissing off his really scary brother. “I am not interested in her like that, you nimrod.” He sucked in a breath through his nose, took his time exhaling. “She may have, um, witnessed something this morning. Something that naturally didn’t quite happen the way she saw it.”
“Do I want to know what this something is?” Probably not. Antonio was quite content to stay as oblivious as possible to Gino’s business dealings. It was easier to enjoy the far-more-than-comfortable lifestyle his paychecks afforded him if he didn’t look too closely at the root of all that income.
That’s why no one really knew about him; he hid in the shadows, tucked away in the background, managed the money from behind his secure-as-Fort-Knox laptop, and otherwise stayed out of Gino’s day-to-day dealings. He didn’t even come to his brother’s house all that often, and they almost never went out in public together.
When Dad died, they hadn’t had any sort of burial or memorial service. Gino’d had him cremated and shipped the remains back to Italy to be buried in a small, nondescript cemetery there. Then he’d set Mom up in an assisted living facility where she’d wasted away from Alzheimer’s, and then he’d given her the same treatment as Dad. Hell, half the goons on Gino’s payroll probably thought he had no parents, had been born via immaculate conception. Not sure how they figured Antonio came along. Or maybe they weren’t even aware they were brothers.
Antonio didn’t mind. Pretending he wasn’t really part of Gino’s life was easier on his conscience.
“Frankie stopped by to pick up Nina, and this woman saw him. She seems to be under the impression I kidnapped my own daughter. Which, of course, isn’t true.”
Isn’t it? Antonio glanced at the closed door to Gino’s office. Today was Friday. Early June. Here in the Detroit area, most schools were still in session, at least for another week or so. “So what’s Nina doing here, anyway? Shouldn’t she be in school?”
Gino waved dismissively. “I’m letting her have a day off. Everybody deserves a day off once in a while.”
Right. “And does her mom know she’s taking the day off school?”
Gino scowled and spat out, “Margot had a date last night.”
“Good for her. Although I’m not sure what that has to do with Nina skipping school.”
Gino’s fist slammed onto his desk, rattling the sturdy, wooden contraption and sending his pencil holder skittering off the edge. “No, that isn’t good for her. She knows the rules. If she didn’t want to stay with me, she can’t be with anybody.”
“O-o-okay. I see you haven’t gotten any less psychotic over your ex. Look, I’m in a bit of a hurry here, so if you’ll excuse me…”
But before he could take a step toward the door, Gino stabbed his finger at the printout.
“Her name is Phoebe Cavanaugh. She apparently doesn’t live too far from Margot. Go introduce yourself to her, do what you do best.”
“What’s that? Make money for her?”
“Idiot. Charm her. For some damn reason, women love you. I want you to get friendly with her, find out what she knows about me, and then convince her to stop talking to the police and the media about this alleged kidnapping issue. Got it?”
Antonio shook his head. “Nope. Don’t got it. I think you’re confusing me with one of the other guys on your payroll. I don’t do front-end work for you. I’m the greenbacks guy. I make your capital grow, period. That’s the extent of my services for hire.”
“I’m the one who decides the extent of your services.”
Goddamn it, he was right. Antonio wasn’t stupid, although he tried to act that way sometimes in an effort to stay under his brother’s radar. But the reality was, Gino’s empire was exactly like every mafia movie ever made. You didn’t get out of the business unless you got arrested or killed. And you sure as hell didn’t disobey Gino Sarvilli’s orders.
Blood wasn’t thicker than water. Sure, Antonio made a shit-ton of money for Gino, but at this point, he’d probably never be able to spend it all before he died. If Antonio disappeared, there were plenty of other financial planners who could step into his shoes, even if they didn’t have quite his knack for growing the almighty dollar.
With a sigh worthy of an Oscar, Antonio slid the grainy photo off the desk. “What’s her name again?”
Phoebe Cavanaugh lived in an apartment in a two-building complex tucked back from the road and surrounded by trees and swamp. Good for serial killers who stalked their prey in the middle of the night. Not so good for an Italian money guy who didn’t know shit about spying on someone.
With his favorite baseball cap on his head and aviator sunglasses on his face, Antonio sat in a car Gino supplied—an incredibly boring burgundy sedan that Antonio suspected had not been gotten by legal means—because apparently his white Jeep was too memorable for this sort of work. Even if Antonio had ever had an interest in doing Gino’s front-end work, the urge probably would have gone away pretty quickly. He didn’t like the idea of spying on someone, of possibly intimidating them, and he sure as hell didn’t enjoy driving around in this dark red piece of shit car.
He glanced around, taking in his surroundings. Three local TV station vans and an unmarked vehicle that was a dead ringer for a police car. He’d worked for Gino long enough to have developed a knack for picking out—and avoiding—cops.
There were only four other vehicles in the lot, defining this as a working-class apartment complex. In another couple of hours, everybody would be heading home from work, ready to kick back for the weekend. Grab a brew or two, order pizza, watch a movie, fall asleep on the couch or maybe get lucky with the old lady.
Damn, that sounded fucking awesome.
A woman stepped out of the building closest to him, and Antonio didn’t need the grainy pic his brother supplied to ID her as Phoebe Cavanaugh. Not with the way the news crew swarmed her. She didn’t look particularly happy about it, either, as she threw up her hands to apparently hide her face while kicking up the pace, heading toward one of the four unoccupied vehicles in the lot. Antonio glanced at the cop, but the guy didn’t seem inclined to intervene.
Antonio rolled down his window and called out, “Hey, you order the Uber?”
Phoebe glanced his way, taking in the unremarkable car and driver, before adjusting her path and walking toward him. “No,” she said when she was close enough.
“Oh. Huh. Well, you look like you could use a ride. Want one?”
She looked over her shoulder at the horde of media personnel headed her way. “What about your fare?”
He waved his phone. “They’re obviously not coming out. Get in. I’ll take you wherever you want to go.”
She was doubtful, but she hesitated, shifting from foot to foot and gnawing on her lower lip. Her gaze kept sweeping over his person, like she was trying to assess his honesty based purely on his looks.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” Such a stupid thing to say. Like she had any reason to believe him. Plus, he couldn’t possibly look very honest. He was Gino Sarvilli’s brother.
By some miracle, she decided to take her chances and leaped into the car. Antonio punched the gas, spraying gravel at the clamoring TV crews. A few seconds later, he turned onto the main road, Friday afternoon after-work traffic quickly engulfing his forgettable ride. After about a ten-minute drive, he pulled into the parking lot of a sports bar he knew well because it was located across the street from his favorite local lake.
“So where to?” he asked.
“Are you really an Uber driver?”
“Are you going to scream and rush out of the car if I say no?”
“Okay, then no.”
“What were you doing in the parking lot of my apartment complex?”
“Well, I was about to visit a friend, but then you came out and all those reporters sort of attacked you, so I put on my shining white armor and rescued you instead.”
Her lips quirked as she asked, “Who’s your friend?”
“Al.” It had been easy enough to look up the leasing company and note the on-site maintenance guy’s name and number listed for twenty-four-hour emergencies.
She nodded. “Well, thank you for being my knight.”
“Any time. So, how famous are you, anyway?”
He knew she wasn’t, of course, but she certainly was pretty enough to be an actress or maybe a model. Her hair was ash blonde, a little longer than shoulder length, with a cute flip at the ends. Sunglasses covered her eyes and gloss shone on her lips. Kissable lips. Too bad they weren’t meeting under different circumstances. She looked damn fine in those casual shorts and a shirt with cutouts at the shoulders. He’d definitely hit on her if he met her in a bar.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Like, can we go to any old restaurant for dinner, or do we need to drive for twenty miles first and find some place off the beaten path?”
“Are you inviting me out to dinner?”
She chuckled. He liked her laugh. “Considering I don’t know you, we probably shouldn’t do off the beaten path.”
“And as for famous, I have no idea. I was on the noon news and then that happened.” She waved at the back window.
“Oh yeah? What kind of food do you like?”
She shrugged. “Pretty much anything.”
She wrinkled her nose and pressed a hand to her stomach. “Not today. Still recovering from last night. A burger place or steak is probably a better idea.”
“Got it. What happened last night?”
She turned in her seat to face him. “Shouldn’t we exchange names at this point?”
“Right, of course. My name’s Anton—um, Tony Swansen.” He offered his hand to shake. He hated that nickname, but it was far more common and less likely to stand out than Antonio, so he grinned and bore it.
She slid her hand into his. He liked the feel of her skin. Soft, yet she had a firm grip.
“Phoebe Cavanaugh. Nice to meet you. And thanks for rescuing me back there. That is, if this is a rescue mission and you aren’t about to take me out to a deserted farm and chop me into a bunch of pieces and feed me to the pigs.”
He winced. “Damn, that’s some imagination. Far exceeds my own, so no worries. Just straight up dinner and conversation. Also, true confession: I saw you on the news. Well, I caught the article online. ‘Local Jogger Attempts to Stop Kidnapping.’ Pretty altruistic.”
“Anybody would have done the same.”
Not hardly, lady. “So, is the kid home, safe and sound?”
She frowned. “I don’t know. I was actually on my way to go visit her mom to find out when you swept in and saved me from the paparazzi.”
Uh-oh. She and Margot were friends? Antonio needed to tread lightly here. He and Margot hadn’t spoken since she divorced Gino, but she was a smart lady and he didn’t want her to connect the dots and discover he was now doing more for Gino than just laundering his money. “Do you need me to take you back? Hopefully, the vans will have moved on by the time we get there.”
Phoebe shook her head. “No, it’s okay. She wasn’t expecting me. I just wanted to check on her, that’s all. She was pretty shaken up when I left.”
“That sucks.” It really did. It was one thing to basically have her life controlled by Gino. It was quite another to be the mother of his child, whom he was keeping from her just because he was a dick. A damned powerful one. “What happened?”
“Her daughter was waiting for the bus, and this guy pulled up and grabbed her and tossed her into the back of his car and took off. I can’t even imagine what Margot is going through.”
“Or the kid,” he added.
“Yeah.” She didn’t sound as concerned for the child as she was for the mother. Did she know Nina had been kidnapped by her dad, so was probably safe? Did she know who the kid’s dad was? Was she cooperating with the police? Shit, was she wearing a wire? Patting her chest to find out was probably not a good idea at this juncture.
Although he certainly liked the idea of getting her naked later. Wait, no. This was a job for Gino, not a date.
“Why don’t we check this place out? They have burgers and steaks.” Trying for polite not because he was hitting on her but because she seemed like the kind of girl who’d like it, he hurried around the car to open her door.
Once inside the sports bar, he asked the hostess for a booth in the back, and soon, they were seated in a corner with no other patrons around them. That would change as the evening wore on, but for now, it was nice and quiet.
“What would you like?” he asked when the server stopped at their table to take their drink order.
Phoebe hesitated and then said, “Water for now, please.”
He ordered a beer and after the server left said, “Got hammered last night, huh?”
She laughed. Yep, he definitely liked her laugh. He also liked her eyes, and her plump cheekbones, which he could see now that she’d removed her sunglasses. She was pretty in a wholesome way, not sexy so much as cute. Like she’d look good on the annual family Christmas card cute.
Margot was like that, too. Other than the hair, they could be sisters. Weird that he and his brother had once had the same taste in women. Since the divorce, though, Gino stuck strictly to painted up whores. Whatever happened between him and Margot, he clearly wasn’t interested in going down that road again.
“My co-workers,” Phoebe said after the server brought their drinks and took their food orders. “They’re all professional drinkers. Me, on the other hand, I’m more of an occasional beer kind of girl. Last night was some sort of initiation, I suspect. And clearly I failed. To make it worse, since I didn’t go into work today, I’m not even sure I have a job at the moment.”
He kind of wanted to punch her stupid co-workers. “What do you do?”
“Until last fall, I was a wedding planner. Now I work at a landscape company.”
“Those are two very different career choices.”
“Yeah, the wedding planning gig didn’t work out so well.”
“At the last wedding I planned, the groom hoped for one last fling. With me.”
“And you didn’t share the sentiment?”
“Not only that, but I told the bride.” She winced.
“Yeah. She didn’t believe me. Claimed I was the one who hit on him. That I was jealous of her for marrying him. Her mom is a local politician, and got in on the action. Was upset that I’d ruined her daughter’s wedding day. I ended up losing my job and was pretty much blackballed in the event planning industry.”
“Tough break. But hey, now you get to create beautiful landscapes.”
“True.” Her face lit up with a brilliant smile, but then she pursed her lips. “You want to know what’s really crazy about the whole situation?”
“That’s not crazy enough?”
She shook her head. “They ended up getting married anyway. And three months later, the groom was killed in a car accident.”
Antonio whistled. “No shit.”
“Told you it was crazy.”
The server brought their food, and Antonio asked Phoebe what she really wanted to do with her life, if she had the choice.
“Landscaping,” she said without hesitation. “To be honest, assuming I still have a job, getting kicked out of the wedding planning industry was a lucky break. I love flowers. Trees. Plants. Everything. I mean, being employed seasonally is going to be tough financially, but hopefully I can make it work.” She took a bite of her burger. “What about you? What do you do?”
This was the tricky part. Keep it as factual as possible without actually telling her the truth. “Financial planner.”
She laughed. “Don’t ask me about my future planning, because I have none.”
“That’s never a good idea, no matter how young you are.”
“I know. It’s just that I can barely keep up with my monthly bills, let alone try to get ahead.”
You need a sugar daddy. Like me.
Antonio actually glanced around the restaurant, in case he’d accidentally overheard someone else’s thoughts. Because he sure as hell wasn’t interested in pursuing anything with this girl except what his brother told him to do. He’d walked in on Margot far too many times, crying over her lot in life. Once you got caught up with the Sarvilli family, there was no escape. And Antonio had no interest in dragging an unsuspecting outsider into his world.
Especially not some girl he actually liked.