Forty

Coming in August!

Secrets tore them apart…

Nevaeh

Ten years ago, I burned my bridges and headed for the big city. Life was a roller coaster, but I was holding on—until I wasn’t anymore. This car has jumped the tracks. I want to start again. Confront the past. Do it right this time. Starting with the man who swore he loved me and left anyway—but who still haunts my dreams. 

Forty

I never got over Nevaeh Ellis. Never could forgive her either. To my brothers, she’s disloyal. There’s no making that right. But to me, she’s a puzzle. Why is she back? And why’s she so angry? The longer she’s in town, the more I wonder what really happened when we were young. Is she the bad guy—or am I?

The feud between my club and the Rebel Raiders is raging out of control, trouble is dogging her heels, and if I don’t make the right call this time—she’s not gone. She’s dead.

Forty is a 66,000-word second chance romance. It’s the sixth book in the Steel Bones Motorcycle Club series, but it can be read as a standalone. It is intended for adult readers.

HEA guaranteed. 

CHAPTER 1

NEVAEH

I’m going die from my own stupidity.

Breathless, I slam the bathroom door shut and drop to the cold tile, bracing my bare feet against the vanity and pressing my back to the wood.

“Get out here, you bitch!” Carlo bangs so hard my spine rattles.

“Fuck you!” I scream before my brain sputters to life, and I jam my fist in my mouth. What am I doing? Don’t bait the raging mobster. Sweet Lord, Nevaeh. Think.

This isn’t a normal fight; this isn’t Carlo getting pissed and letting off steam. He hit me. Yeah, he was talking with his hands, emphasizing how much he thinks I suck, and it was an accident, but he’s not sorry. I don’t think the blow even registered.

There’s a hot, wet trickle dripping down my eyelid. I swipe my brow with the back of my hand and bite back a whimper. Oh, yeah. That stings. Did he split my eyebrow? I half stand to check my face in the mirror before I remember. Oh, yeah. Rampaging boyfriend. Blockading the door. Royally screwed. I’m back.

And somehow, I’ve backed myself into a corner. How do I get out of here? There’s a small window over the toilet, but my ass wouldn’t fit, even if I could even get it that high. I’m too short to reach, and too thick to squeeze through.

And we’re on the tenth floor.

God damn my glitchy brain.

Bang. Bang. “Get out of my bathroom!”

“Just back off. I’ll go.” Laundry hamper. Bottle of hand soap. Electric razor. There’s nothing in here I can use as a weapon. Maybe I could pull the towel rack off the wall?

Carlo’s voice booms through the vent, loud as day. “Damn fucking right, you’ll go. I’m done with your shit! You can’t even do one little thing right, can you? All you had to do was keep your mouth shut and fucking smile. How hard is that? Isn’t that literally your job?”

Literally, my job is hostess at L’Alba, the club owned by Carlo’s boss. I guess I can kiss that gig goodbye after tonight. If I can talk my way out of this bathroom.  

Thud! The door strains, lower than before. He’s kicking it now. I’m so lucky it’s solid wood. There’s only a twist lock, so that’s not keeping him out, but if I stay wedged here, and my thigh muscles don’t give out, he’s not coming in.

I’m safe. I bark a laugh.

Shit, I’m not safe. I haven’t been in years. My entire post-pubescent life has been a series of dumb luck, miracles, and poor choices like this asshole who won’t just back up and let me out of his bathroom.

“What are you doing in there? You touch my shit, so help me, Nevaeh!”

What am I doing in here? Ack! Brain. Function! How do I get out of this? You catch more flies with honey, right?

“I’m sorry, Carlo. Okay?”

“For what? Making me look like a bitch in front of my associates? Or running off at the mouth and making yourself look like a dumb whore? What are you sorry for this time, Nevaeh?”

My fists curl, and I bite the insides of my cheeks. I am not going to say that he didn’t need any help from me looking like a bitch. And I am not going to say his mother’s a dumb whore. I’ve met her a few times. She’s always in the kitchen, making herself busy, but she’s a nice lady.

She raised an asshole, but I’m dating him, so who’s the dumb one?

“Just back away from the door, and I’ll leave.” I try to keep my voice even, but I can never hide what I’m feeling. I sound terrified and pissed, but mostly I sound like I’m talking down to a piece of shit.

“You telling me what to do? Fuck you!” Bang. Bang. “I’m done with you. You’re a fuckin’ mess. Your place is mess. Your life is a mess. How many times have I had to front you rent money? You’re thirty years old!”

Twenty-nine. I’m twenty-nine.

“I’ll pay you back.”

“With what? You thinking you’re gonna get your hand in Dominic Renelli’s pocket now? He don’t want no sloppy seconds.”

Oh, for heaven’s sake. I only reached across the guy for some calamari, and a glob of marinara landed on his crotch. Dominic Renelli’s scary; I was nervous. I dove into his lap with my napkin and started rubbing before I realized what I was doing, which everyone knows is my M.O. Renelli made a joke about it, and I played along. It was nothing.

But this is what always happens. I think I’m making better choices, and it ends like this. Carlo Fiore was the smart bet. Yeah, he’s connected, but he’s just a money guy. An accountant. I mean, he went to Penn State. How dangerous can he be?

A drop of blood dribbles into the corner of my eye. The socket is throbbing. I bend forward, swipe some toilet paper, and dab. I didn’t even see Carlo’s arm coming. One second I was spouting off, and the next, I was flying over the arm of the couch. If I didn’t have a brother I’d wrestled with constantly growing up, I’d have been down for the count.

Bang. “What the fuck are you doing in there?”

“Staging a comeback.” I thought I muttered it under my breath, I really did, but from the thumps and the swaying of the door, I guess he heard.

“Always with the mouth!”

“Just let me out of the bathroom. You won’t see my anymore. I get it. I screwed up. We’re over.”

Matter of fact, we were over the minute we left the restaurant. He’d dug his fingers into my upper arm, his other hand clutching his stupid messenger bag like always as if he’s got the nuclear codes in there. Then he called me a stupid whore, and I was done.

I let him bring me back here because I wanted my stuff. That was another mistake. I’m going to die over a ratty, old Steel Bones MC T-shirt and a bottle of expensive shampoo for curly hair.

It’s so weird how calm and focused I am right now even though my body is going crazy. My heart’s racing; blood is whooshing in my ears. I’m fidgety, like always, but I have to keep my legs braced, and there’s nothing to fiddle with.

My mind, though, is totally clear. It’s wild. I have ADHD—got a prescription I don’t fill and everything—so I’m never this…present. Except when I smoke up. Or sometimes during sex. Not with Carlo. Or anyone, really, except Forty Nowicki back in the day.

Gah. What am I doing, letting my mind wander again?

I’d like to say I don’t usually find myself in these sorts of predicaments, but it’s kind of my thing. I pet the dog that bites. I think I can make it—the yellow light, the staff meeting, the rent—but I fall a skosh short. I go out with a mafioso, and it turns out he makes points with his hands.

People think I’m free-spirited. The truth is I’m out of control.

Living in my head feels like running as fast as you can downhill. You know when you hit that point where you can’t stop, you can’t even turn if you want to? That’s my normal.

Before Carlo and the bathroom standoff, there was Nick and the long walk on the shoulder of I-97. Paulie and the night in jail. Aaron and cat fight video. I could blame the ADHD for the sensation seeking, the risk-taking. And sure, blame the diagnosis for the string of jobs and the speeding tickets.

But the men? That’s me grabbing for a handhold as I tumble to my doom.

To tell the truth, I’m not surprised this thing with Carlo is ending. All my relationships blow up in my face. Usually not with a blow to the face, but I am familiar with the get-your-shit-and-go.

I press my ear to the door. Carlo’s gotten quiet. Maybe he’s cooled off.

“Carlo?”

Nothing. I wait a minute, and then I cautiously get up to my feet, and as I rise, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Whoa. I’ve sweat so much I’ve got Cher “If I Could Turn Back Time” hair, and there’s blood splatter on the drapey neckline of my gold cocktail dress.

“Carlo?” Still no answer. He could have left.

Where did I leave my jacket? If I make a run for it, I’ll need it. It’s forty degrees out. Did I hang it up? I’m sure I didn’t. I probably threw it on the recliner. Or the floor?

“I’m coming out, okay? I’ll get my shit and go.” I ease back from the door and duck into the shower and grab my shampoo and conditioner. My crazy curls are a legacy from my Jewish grandma on my dad’s side. Hair products aren’t cheap.

I’ve got a bottle in each hand when there’s a thud, then a crack, and then the door flies open so hard it swings shut again. I scream and scream at the top of my lungs, grabbing shit and hurling. Air freshener. A shaving brush.

Carlo muscles in, ducking the projectiles, and grabs me by the arm.

“Shut up! Stop!”

He drags me into the living room, and I buck and flail, knocking over a lamp. He’s heading toward the front door. He’s going to throw me out. That’s good. That’s what I want.

I should stop fighting, but I can’t. I’m pure adrenaline, operating off a script that was burned into my muscles a long, long time ago. You can’t quit. You have to kick and flop and scratch and bite. You can’t go down easy. I fall silent, an old switch in my brain flipped, and the sound of grunts and panting and the slap of flesh on flesh fill the apartment. We’re almost to the door.

Open it, I silently beg. Open it. Throw me out.

Then, feet from the foyer, my free hand connects with Carlo’s cheek, and his head jerks back. My brain doesn’t even have time to register the hit, and I’m dangling in the air, slammed against the wall, Carlo’s hand tightening around my neck. I dig my nails into his forearms, and I pull, but I can’t breathe, and I’ve got no leverage. Blood’s trickling into my eye, blinding me.

I didn’t really think this would happen.

I want to take it back, take it all back. Go quietly. Keep my mouth shut at dinner. Turn Carlo down when he sidled up to me on a dance floor six months ago.

“I’m going to shove your whore mouth full of shit before I dump your body in the river,” Carlo spits as he leans his weight forward, bearing down on my chest.

Black spots float across my field of vision. I jerk my knee up, but there’s no room between us. I scrape my nails down his arm, clawing, but my fingers slip down the fabric of his suit jacket. He tightens his grip.

My chest burns. I want to go home. Please. I’ll fix everything. I’ll change. I’ll make it right.

I want to go back. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.

There’s a loud pounding on the door, mixing with the roar of blood in my ears.

“This is Greg and Don from 10C. We’ve called the police. Whatever’s going on in there needs to stop. They’re going to be here any minute.”

Carlo’s head jerks as if he’s waking up, and he drops me. I collapse to the floor. Tears spring to my eyes, and I gasp down a jagged breath. My throat burns. Everything’s bright and blurry.

“Open up!”

Oh, thank the Lord. It’s Greg and Don! They invited me over once when we ran into each other at the trash chute. Carlo had been running late, and we’d listened to Miles Davis and drank a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. They don’t like Carlo, so that was the only time we hung out, but we’re all up in each other’s social media.

“Nevaeh? Are you okay?” That’s Don. I try to answer, but all that comes out is a croak.

“You goddamn bitch,” Carlo hisses, and he runs a hand through his black hair. He’s still wearing his suit jacket, but the buttons have come undone. There’s blood splatter on his white dress shirt.

I used to think he was handsome with his high cheek bones and his perfectly even teeth. I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. His face looks like a skull.

He grabs my chin and squeezes. “When I come back, you’re gone. Every trace of you is gone. Capiche?”

I try to nod, but he won’t loosen his grip.

Then he spits in my face, digs his nails into my jaw one last time, and then he flings open the front door. A man shouts, and then Greg and Don crowd in, two silver foxes fresh from the gym, and they gape around at the mess.

“Oh, my God!” Greg dives in, helping me up, guiding me to the sofa. “Don, we need to really call the cops.”

“No.” I croak, hardly loud enough to be heard. I hack, clearing my throat, and it hurts so bad. “No cops.”

“Of course, we call the cops. Your face is bleeding.” Don digs in the pockets of his shorts for his phone, and panic breaks through my shock. If he makes that call, I’m dead for sure.

“Don, listen,” I rasp. Don’s a lawyer. He’s not a trial lawyer, but he knows Pyle. He’ll still understand what I’m about to say. “Carlo and I were at dinner tonight. With Dominic Renelli. No cops.”

Don freezes, exhales a long sigh, and after a pause, he nods. Greg looks confused, but he’ll follow Don’s lead. “Okay. No cops, then. You better get out of here.”

“Not a problem.” I slide on the shoes I’d kicked off from habit by the door and grab the few things I keep in the drawer Carlo finally gave me a month ago. I retrieve my coat, shampoo, and conditioner from the floor. There’s no way I’m going to be able to carry all this. I dig through some kitchen drawers, looking for a trash bag, and I come up empty.

Shit, shit, shit. I need to bail. If Carlo comes back, he could hurt Don and Greg. Greg’s still recovering from knee replacement. I should just run. What am I doing digging in the cupboard?

And then my eye catches on Carlo’s precious messenger bag, sitting on the kitchen island. You know what? Fuck him. He can buy himself a new man purse. I dump all his papers on the counter, jam my stuff in, and buckle it closed.

“I thank you, gentlemen. Sorry to have interrupted your evening.” I do a stupid bow. My brain’s still woozy and reeling, and even though I have this awesome superpower where I can pretend horrible shit isn’t actually happening, I’m shaking so hard my kitten heels wobble so hard it’s a miracle they don’t snap.

Don and Greg have been hovering in the doorway, whispering to each other, matching expressions of horror and pity on their faces. “You’re going to go to the hospital, right? Get that looked at?”

“Absolutely,” I lie. From their expressions, they know it. “I’ll message you. Let you know I’m okay. I think I might leave town for a while. Visit family.”

“That’s a good idea.” Don takes my hand and squeezes, nailing me with his kind, crinkly eyes. “I think you’re in over your head here, kiddo.”

“Story of my life.” I give him a peck on the cheek, and then I wink and strut out, swinging Carlo’s messenger bag over my shoulder. I throw Don and Greg a wave over my shoulder as I head down the stairs. Ten floors in heels is a pain in the ass, but I’m not getting stuck in an elevator with my most recent psycho ex if he decides to comes back. Especially since I’m liberating his precious messenger bag. 

I keep a carefree smile plastered on my face all the way down ten flights, even though there’s no one to see me. If I’m smiling, I’m good.

I’m fine.

I didn’t just almost die.

This is just another adventure, one more story to tell at the bar. The time I played with a mobster’s dick by accident and nearly ended up feeding the fishes. I can spin this. It’s spinning right now, whirling it in my brain, a tornado tearing loose all kinds of carefully propped up lies.

I’m happy.

I’m normal.

I’m okay.

On the fifth-floor landing, I puke, and my raw throat aches. I’m shaking, but I have to keep moving, so I’m lurching, and as I sprint down the sidewalk toward subway, people stare, and it’s a familiar feeling. Look at that hot mess. Party girl. Rough night, eh, baby?

To get to my walk up from Carlo’s condo, it’s a half hour ride, and I have to change trains downtown. Then it’s a four-block walk. That’s how long it takes for the adrenaline to wear off and the shakes to come on in earnest, so hard my teeth chatter.

I don’t even get past the threshold of my efficiency before I collapse against the wall. I tuck my knees to my chest and wind my arms tight around my legs. I try to hold myself together, exert enough pressure to stop the shakes, but my grip isn’t nearly tight enough. I have thin arms. I always have. I’ve got a thick ass and thighs, and spindly arms and tiny feet. Like someone stuck toothpicks in a pear.

I’m not designed to brawl. How come I keep ending up like this?

I sniff back the snot, and look around my tenth—twelfth?—apartment since I came to the big city. From down here on the floor, I can’t ignore the mess. Dirty black slacks in a heap, underwear still stuck in the legs. A stack of mail that got knocked off the kitchen island and kicked halfway under a throw rug.

Is that my fancy water bottle under the sofa? I thought I left it at work. Last week, I gave up on finding it and bought a new one. Well, that’s fifty-four bucks down the drain.

It looks like someone came by and tossed the place, but it’s always like this. I’ll straighten up, and then an hour later…anarchy.

The floodgates burst, and tears stream down my face, dribbling down my neck. I sob, and it hurts so bad ripped from my throat.

Oh, lord. I could have died. Carlo could have killed me, dumped me in the river, and who would notice except maybe Carolyn from work? She’d be pissed if I didn’t show up for my shift to relieve her. And then they’d probably call Mom in Florida, but she’s been done with me for years, so it’d be up to my little brother Lou to clean this place out. Sweet Lou. It’d break his heart.

I almost died.

My stomach lurches, and I gag and wretch, but nothing comes out. And that hurts, too.

I want Forty.

And that’s stupid, the most stupid thing my broken brain can conjure up. Whenever I get scared or lost, I want this dick who left me a hundred years ago. And it’s not a small feeling, not like sentimentality or nostalgia. It’s an overwhelming longing, so strong I can actually smell the Lava soap the Nowicki family always used.

Forty was this redneck in my English class freshman year of high school. He was older, built, closemouthed, and scary as hell. Even though he was only a sophomore, he ran with the Steel Bones MC. Somehow, I wrapped him around my little finger. He worshipped the ground I walked on. We were inseparable for three years, and then he decided he needed to go make a man of himself in the Army.

Until the day he left for Fort Jackson, I didn’t think he’d really go. Like I said, I have a superhuman ability to pretend that terrible things aren’t happening.

I begged him to stay. My home situation…it wasn’t good. I couldn’t talk about it, but I tried so hard to convince him not to go. I fucked him like a mad woman, so often in so many dirty ways, I gave myself a urinary tract infection. But he left anyway. I reacted badly, acted out, and he dumped me by Skype.

Our friends, the entire Steel Bones Motorcycle Club, they all turned their back on me. Harper Ruth and Annie Holt, the MC princesses, jumped me in the school parking lot. I dropped out, came to Pyle, and one G.E.D., ten years, and a hundred more poor choices later, here I am.

In a weeping ball on a dirty linoleum floor, wondering what exactly is making it so sticky.

Forty Nowicki was a rite of passage, the kind of heartbreak everyone goes through with their first love, but somehow my soupy grey matter doesn’t get that it’s long over and probably wasn’t as intense and earth-shattering as I thought it was at the time.

But I still dream about him. Not all the time. Only when I’m stressed or when I fall asleep drunk.

And at some point in every relationship, usually when I’m trudging along a highway in the pouring rain or stuck in a bathroom with a maniac beating down the door, I have the same realization.

Aaron, the guy who baited me and his ex into fighting? And then videotaped it and posted it on a porn site? He had a softail bike like Forty.

Paulie, the guy who picked me up for a date in a stolen Lexus, landing me in City Jail until it got sorted out? He was gruff, a man of few words. Like Forty.

And Nick, the guy who kicked me out of his truck on the side of the highway after two years together? He had Forty’s exact build. Height, weight, haircut. Everything. And I didn’t see it.

Not ‘til it was over.

And oh shit. Big reveal. Thinking about it now? Carlo has that “lethal violence simmering just under the surface” that Forty had. Ugh. I couldn’t have picked a guy who liked professional wrestling and monster truck? Forty was into that, too.

I stretch my legs, and wipe my nose with the back of my hand. Carlo’s messenger bag is plopped next to me where I dropped it. It was stupid to take it. Hopefully, he was attached to the papers that I dumped on his counter and not the bag itself. It’s real leather, I think, but it’s not couture or anything.  

I sigh, shoulders slumping. What should I do now?

I obviously can’t go back to L’Alba. Rent is due two weeks. Without a paycheck, I’m gonna be at least two hundred short. The landlord isn’t cutting me any more slack.

Anway, I’ve got way bigger problems than rent. Everyone knows the Renelli organization doesn’t leave loose ends. And isn’t that what I am now? I must have fingerprint bruises around my neck. My face is busted up. That’s physical evidence. If I was suicidal enough to go to the cops, they’d press charges. Renelli would never let a nobody like me walk around with leverage against his money man.

At the very least, I’m due for a warning visit from some goons. And I don’t want to see how sideways that could go with my mouth and lack of filter.

It’s depressing. I’ve been in this city for a decade. I know everyone. But push comes to shove? I am a nobody with no one to call. No place to go.

It’s my fault. I keep it light, never get too close. I friend people, but I’m not friends with people, you know?

I wish it was different. There was a time I had friends, crazy people that rolled with my crazy. Well, I thought I did. Then Forty dropped me, and my “friends” turned on me in zero seconds flat. That kind of loyalty? It’s admirable in a way. Hurts like a bitch to be on the other side, but you can’t help but respect it.

I sigh, kick off my shoes, and wiggle my toes. What am I doing on the floor? I need to pack.

I can’t stay here, and there’s only one person in the world who loves me enough to let me crash, no questions asked. My baby brother Lou. We have different fathers, and we’re nothing the same, but he still thinks I’m cool. He’s the only decent person in the family. Gentle. Oblivious.

Lou still tags along with Steel Bones, all these years later. I’d bring him around the clubhouse when Forty and I were together, and when I left town, he never stopped showing up. The brothers never iced him out like they did me.

When we talk, Lou keeps me posted about the MC. Shirl’s doing good. Ernestine put Grinder out again. Scrap might get early release. Forty’s coming home on a medical discharge. I tell Lou I don’t need the updates, but he doesn’t stop sharing. Like I said. Oblivious.

If I go home, I’ll see Forty. Petty’s Mill is too small to avoid anyone for long. A thrum begins in my belly, shooting bubbly tingles of anticipation to my nerve endings. Some of the tension seeps away. Ah. Sensation. Better than any drug.

Maybe I don’t want to avoid Forty. Maybe I have some things I want to say. This could be the universe nudging me to go back, resolve some issues, sort out the past so I can move on. 

There’s an exhaustion competing with this new adrenaline surge. Butterflies are going crazy in my belly, while my arms and legs feel like weights are dragging them down. This always happens when I think about going home. There’s a large part of me that would rather walk through fire than confront the past.

But damn, I need a break. A place to feel safe. To feel like I did for that golden moment in my life when Forty Nowicki wouldn’t leave my side, and no one could touch me.

I want to turn this shitshow that is my life around. Start again. Figure it out this time and get it right.

I sigh long and loud and drag myself to my feet. I’ve got a lot to do. I need to bail before Dominic Renelli hears about this. I need that man to understand that I am in no way, shape, or form a problem for him or his organization.

And I need to get this new life started. Do it right this time.

‘Cause every day’s another chance to get it right.

I’m going die from my own stupidity.

Breathless, I slam the bathroom door shut and drop to the cold tile, bracing my bare feet against the vanity and pressing my back to the wood.

“Get out here, you bitch!” Carlo bangs so hard my spine rattles.

“Fuck you!” I scream before my brain sputters to life, and I jam my fist in my mouth. What am I doing? Don’t bait the raging mobster. Sweet Lord, Nevaeh. Think.

This isn’t a normal fight; this isn’t Carlo getting pissed and letting off steam. He hit me. Yeah, he was talking with his hands, emphasizing how much he thinks I suck, and it was an accident, but he’s not sorry. I don’t think the blow even registered.

There’s a hot, wet trickle dripping down my eyelid. I swipe my brow with the back of my hand and bite back a whimper. Oh, yeah. That stings. Did he split my eyebrow? I half stand to check my face in the mirror before I remember. Oh, yeah. Rampaging boyfriend. Blockading the door. Royally screwed. I’m back.

And somehow, I’ve backed myself into a corner. How do I get out of here? There’s a small window over the toilet, but my ass wouldn’t fit, even if I could even get it that high. I’m too short to reach, and too thick to squeeze through.

And we’re on the tenth floor.

God damn my glitchy brain.

Bang. Bang. “Get out of my bathroom!”

“Just back off. I’ll go.” Laundry hamper. Bottle of hand soap. Electric razor. There’s nothing in here I can use as a weapon. Maybe I could pull the towel rack off the wall?

Carlo’s voice booms through the vent, loud as day. “Damn fucking right, you’ll go. I’m done with your shit! You can’t even do one little thing right, can you? All you had to do was keep your mouth shut and fucking smile. How hard is that? Isn’t that literally your job?”

Literally, my job is hostess at L’Alba, the club owned by Carlo’s boss. I guess I can kiss that gig goodbye after tonight. If I can talk my way out of this bathroom.  

Thud! The door strains, lower than before. He’s kicking it now. I’m so lucky it’s solid wood. There’s only a twist lock, so that’s not keeping him out, but if I stay wedged here, and my thigh muscles don’t give out, he’s not coming in.

I’m safe. I bark a laugh.

Shit, I’m not safe. I haven’t been in years. My entire post-pubescent life has been a series of dumb luck, miracles, and poor choices like this asshole who won’t just back up and let me out of his bathroom.

“What are you doing in there? You touch my shit, so help me, Nevaeh!”

What am I doing in here? Ack! Brain. Function! How do I get out of this? You catch more flies with honey, right?

“I’m sorry, Carlo. Okay?”

“For what? Making me look like a bitch in front of my associates? Or running off at the mouth and making yourself look like a dumb whore? What are you sorry for this time, Nevaeh?”

My fists curl, and I bite the insides of my cheeks. I am not going to say that he didn’t need any help from me looking like a bitch. And I am not going to say his mother’s a dumb whore. I’ve met her a few times. She’s always in the kitchen, making herself busy, but she’s a nice lady.

She raised an asshole, but I’m dating him, so who’s the dumb one?

“Just back away from the door, and I’ll leave.” I try to keep my voice even, but I can never hide what I’m feeling. I sound terrified and pissed, but mostly I sound like I’m talking down to a piece of shit.

“You telling me what to do? Fuck you!” Bang. Bang. “I’m done with you. You’re a fuckin’ mess. Your place is mess. Your life is a mess. How many times have I had to front you rent money? You’re thirty years old!”

Twenty-nine. I’m twenty-nine.

“I’ll pay you back.”

“With what? You thinking you’re gonna get your hand in Dominic Renelli’s pocket now? He don’t want no sloppy seconds.”

Oh, for heaven’s sake. I only reached across the guy for some calamari, and a glob of marinara landed on his crotch. Dominic Renelli’s scary; I was nervous. I dove into his lap with my napkin and started rubbing before I realized what I was doing, which everyone knows is my M.O. Renelli made a joke about it, and I played along. It was nothing.

But this is what always happens. I think I’m making better choices, and it ends like this. Carlo Fiore was the smart bet. Yeah, he’s connected, but he’s just a money guy. An accountant. I mean, he went to Penn State. How dangerous can he be?

A drop of blood dribbles into the corner of my eye. The socket is throbbing. I bend forward, swipe some toilet paper, and dab. I didn’t even see Carlo’s arm coming. One second I was spouting off, and the next, I was flying over the arm of the couch. If I didn’t have a brother I’d wrestled with constantly growing up, I’d have been down for the count.

Bang. “What the fuck are you doing in there?”

“Staging a comeback.” I thought I muttered it under my breath, I really did, but from the thumps and the swaying of the door, I guess he heard.

“Always with the mouth!”

“Just let me out of the bathroom. You won’t see my anymore. I get it. I screwed up. We’re over.”

Matter of fact, we were over the minute we left the restaurant. He’d dug his fingers into my upper arm, his other hand clutching his stupid messenger bag like always as if he’s got the nuclear codes in there. Then he called me a stupid whore, and I was done.

I let him bring me back here because I wanted my stuff. That was another mistake. I’m going to die over a ratty, old Steel Bones MC T-shirt and a bottle of expensive shampoo for curly hair.

It’s so weird how calm and focused I am right now even though my body is going crazy. My heart’s racing; blood is whooshing in my ears. I’m fidgety, like always, but I have to keep my legs braced, and there’s nothing to fiddle with.

My mind, though, is totally clear. It’s wild. I have ADHD—got a prescription I don’t fill and everything—so I’m never this…present. Except when I smoke up. Or sometimes during sex. Not with Carlo. Or anyone, really, except Forty Nowicki back in the day.

Gah. What am I doing, letting my mind wander again?

I’d like to say I don’t usually find myself in these sorts of predicaments, but it’s kind of my thing. I pet the dog that bites. I think I can make it—the yellow light, the staff meeting, the rent—but I fall a skosh short. I go out with a mafioso, and it turns out he makes points with his hands.

People think I’m free-spirited. The truth is I’m out of control.

Living in my head feels like running as fast as you can downhill. You know when you hit that point where you can’t stop, you can’t even turn if you want to? That’s my normal.

Before Carlo and the bathroom standoff, there was Nick and the long walk on the shoulder of I-97. Paulie and the night in jail. Aaron and cat fight video. I could blame the ADHD for the sensation seeking, the risk-taking. And sure, blame the diagnosis for the string of jobs and the speeding tickets.

But the men? That’s me grabbing for a handhold as I tumble to my doom.

To tell the truth, I’m not surprised this thing with Carlo is ending. All my relationships blow up in my face. Usually not with a blow to the face, but I am familiar with the get-your-shit-and-go.

I press my ear to the door. Carlo’s gotten quiet. Maybe he’s cooled off.

“Carlo?”

Nothing. I wait a minute, and then I cautiously get up to my feet, and as I rise, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Whoa. I’ve sweat so much I’ve got Cher “If I Could Turn Back Time” hair, and there’s blood splatter on the drapey neckline of my gold cocktail dress.

“Carlo?” Still no answer. He could have left.

Where did I leave my jacket? If I make a run for it, I’ll need it. It’s forty degrees out. Did I hang it up? I’m sure I didn’t. I probably threw it on the recliner. Or the floor?

“I’m coming out, okay? I’ll get my shit and go.” I ease back from the door and duck into the shower and grab my shampoo and conditioner. My crazy curls are a legacy from my Jewish grandma on my dad’s side. Hair products aren’t cheap.

I’ve got a bottle in each hand when there’s a thud, then a crack, and then the door flies open so hard it swings shut again. I scream and scream at the top of my lungs, grabbing shit and hurling. Air freshener. A shaving brush.

Carlo muscles in, ducking the projectiles, and grabs me by the arm.

“Shut up! Stop!”

He drags me into the living room, and I buck and flail, knocking over a lamp. He’s heading toward the front door. He’s going to throw me out. That’s good. That’s what I want.

I should stop fighting, but I can’t. I’m pure adrenaline, operating off a script that was burned into my muscles a long, long time ago. You can’t quit. You have to kick and flop and scratch and bite. You can’t go down easy. I fall silent, an old switch in my brain flipped, and the sound of grunts and panting and the slap of flesh on flesh fill the apartment. We’re almost to the door.

Open it, I silently beg. Open it. Throw me out.

Then, feet from the foyer, my free hand connects with Carlo’s cheek, and his head jerks back. My brain doesn’t even have time to register the hit, and I’m dangling in the air, slammed against the wall, Carlo’s hand tightening around my neck. I dig my nails into his forearms, and I pull, but I can’t breathe, and I’ve got no leverage. Blood’s trickling into my eye, blinding me.

I didn’t really think this would happen.

I want to take it back, take it all back. Go quietly. Keep my mouth shut at dinner. Turn Carlo down when he sidled up to me on a dance floor six months ago.

“I’m going to shove your whore mouth full of shit before I dump your body in the river,” Carlo spits as he leans his weight forward, bearing down on my chest.

Black spots float across my field of vision. I jerk my knee up, but there’s no room between us. I scrape my nails down his arm, clawing, but my fingers slip down the fabric of his suit jacket. He tightens his grip.

My chest burns. I want to go home. Please. I’ll fix everything. I’ll change. I’ll make it right.

I want to go back. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.

There’s a loud pounding on the door, mixing with the roar of blood in my ears.

“This is Greg and Don from 10C. We’ve called the police. Whatever’s going on in there needs to stop. They’re going to be here any minute.”

Carlo’s head jerks as if he’s waking up, and he drops me. I collapse to the floor. Tears spring to my eyes, and I gasp down a jagged breath. My throat burns. Everything’s bright and blurry.

“Open up!”

Oh, thank the Lord. It’s Greg and Don! They invited me over once when we ran into each other at the trash chute. Carlo had been running late, and we’d listened to Miles Davis and drank a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. They don’t like Carlo, so that was the only time we hung out, but we’re all up in each other’s social media.

“Nevaeh? Are you okay?” That’s Don. I try to answer, but all that comes out is a croak.

“You goddamn bitch,” Carlo hisses, and he runs a hand through his black hair. He’s still wearing his suit jacket, but the buttons have come undone. There’s blood splatter on his white dress shirt.

I used to think he was handsome with his high cheek bones and his perfectly even teeth. I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. His face looks like a skull.

He grabs my chin and squeezes. “When I come back, you’re gone. Every trace of you is gone. Capiche?”

I try to nod, but he won’t loosen his grip.

Then he spits in my face, digs his nails into my jaw one last time, and then he flings open the front door. A man shouts, and then Greg and Don crowd in, two silver foxes fresh from the gym, and they gape around at the mess.

“Oh, my God!” Greg dives in, helping me up, guiding me to the sofa. “Don, we need to really call the cops.”

“No.” I croak, hardly loud enough to be heard. I hack, clearing my throat, and it hurts so bad. “No cops.”

“Of course, we call the cops. Your face is bleeding.” Don digs in the pockets of his shorts for his phone, and panic breaks through my shock. If he makes that call, I’m dead for sure.

“Don, listen,” I rasp. Don’s a lawyer. He’s not a trial lawyer, but he knows Pyle. He’ll still understand what I’m about to say. “Carlo and I were at dinner tonight. With Dominic Renelli. No cops.”

Don freezes, exhales a long sigh, and after a pause, he nods. Greg looks confused, but he’ll follow Don’s lead. “Okay. No cops, then. You better get out of here.”

“Not a problem.” I slide on the shoes I’d kicked off from habit by the door and grab the few things I keep in the drawer Carlo finally gave me a month ago. I retrieve my coat, shampoo, and conditioner from the floor. There’s no way I’m going to be able to carry all this. I dig through some kitchen drawers, looking for a trash bag, and I come up empty.

Shit, shit, shit. I need to bail. If Carlo comes back, he could hurt Don and Greg. Greg’s still recovering from knee replacement. I should just run. What am I doing digging in the cupboard?

And then my eye catches on Carlo’s precious messenger bag, sitting on the kitchen island. You know what? Fuck him. He can buy himself a new man purse. I dump all his papers on the counter, jam my stuff in, and buckle it closed.

“I thank you, gentlemen. Sorry to have interrupted your evening.” I do a stupid bow. My brain’s still woozy and reeling, and even though I have this awesome superpower where I can pretend horrible shit isn’t actually happening, I’m shaking so hard my kitten heels wobble so hard it’s a miracle they don’t snap.

Don and Greg have been hovering in the doorway, whispering to each other, matching expressions of horror and pity on their faces. “You’re going to go to the hospital, right? Get that looked at?”

“Absolutely,” I lie. From their expressions, they know it. “I’ll message you. Let you know I’m okay. I think I might leave town for a while. Visit family.”

“That’s a good idea.” Don takes my hand and squeezes, nailing me with his kind, crinkly eyes. “I think you’re in over your head here, kiddo.”

“Story of my life.” I give him a peck on the cheek, and then I wink and strut out, swinging Carlo’s messenger bag over my shoulder. I throw Don and Greg a wave over my shoulder as I head down the stairs. Ten floors in heels is a pain in the ass, but I’m not getting stuck in an elevator with my most recent psycho ex if he decides to comes back. Especially since I’m liberating his precious messenger bag. 

I keep a carefree smile plastered on my face all the way down ten flights, even though there’s no one to see me. If I’m smiling, I’m good.

I’m fine.

I didn’t just almost die.

This is just another adventure, one more story to tell at the bar. The time I played with a mobster’s dick by accident and nearly ended up feeding the fishes. I can spin this. It’s spinning right now, whirling it in my brain, a tornado tearing loose all kinds of carefully propped up lies.

I’m happy.

I’m normal.

I’m okay.

On the fifth-floor landing, I puke, and my raw throat aches. I’m shaking, but I have to keep moving, so I’m lurching, and as I sprint down the sidewalk toward subway, people stare, and it’s a familiar feeling. Look at that hot mess. Party girl. Rough night, eh, baby?

To get to my walk up from Carlo’s condo, it’s a half hour ride, and I have to change trains downtown. Then it’s a four-block walk. That’s how long it takes for the adrenaline to wear off and the shakes to come on in earnest, so hard my teeth chatter.

I don’t even get past the threshold of my efficiency before I collapse against the wall. I tuck my knees to my chest and wind my arms tight around my legs. I try to hold myself together, exert enough pressure to stop the shakes, but my grip isn’t nearly tight enough. I have thin arms. I always have. I’ve got a thick ass and thighs, and spindly arms and tiny feet. Like someone stuck toothpicks in a pear.

I’m not designed to brawl. How come I keep ending up like this?

I sniff back the snot, and look around my tenth—twelfth?—apartment since I came to the big city. From down here on the floor, I can’t ignore the mess. Dirty black slacks in a heap, underwear still stuck in the legs. A stack of mail that got knocked off the kitchen island and kicked halfway under a throw rug.

Is that my fancy water bottle under the sofa? I thought I left it at work. Last week, I gave up on finding it and bought a new one. Well, that’s fifty-four bucks down the drain.

It looks like someone came by and tossed the place, but it’s always like this. I’ll straighten up, and then an hour later…anarchy.

The floodgates burst, and tears stream down my face, dribbling down my neck. I sob, and it hurts so bad ripped from my throat.

Oh, lord. I could have died. Carlo could have killed me, dumped me in the river, and who would notice except maybe Carolyn from work? She’d be pissed if I didn’t show up for my shift to relieve her. And then they’d probably call Mom in Florida, but she’s been done with me for years, so it’d be up to my little brother Lou to clean this place out. Sweet Lou. It’d break his heart.

I almost died.

My stomach lurches, and I gag and wretch, but nothing comes out. And that hurts, too.

I want Forty.

And that’s stupid, the most stupid thing my broken brain can conjure up. Whenever I get scared or lost, I want this dick who left me a hundred years ago. And it’s not a small feeling, not like sentimentality or nostalgia. It’s an overwhelming longing, so strong I can actually smell the Lava soap the Nowicki family always used.

Forty was this redneck in my English class freshman year of high school. He was older, built, closemouthed, and scary as hell. Even though he was only a sophomore, he ran with the Steel Bones MC. Somehow, I wrapped him around my little finger. He worshipped the ground I walked on. We were inseparable for three years, and then he decided he needed to go make a man of himself in the Army.

Until the day he left for Fort Jackson, I didn’t think he’d really go. Like I said, I have a superhuman ability to pretend that terrible things aren’t happening.

I begged him to stay. My home situation…it wasn’t good. I couldn’t talk about it, but I tried so hard to convince him not to go. I fucked him like a mad woman, so often in so many dirty ways, I gave myself a urinary tract infection. But he left anyway. I reacted badly, acted out, and he dumped me by Skype.

Our friends, the entire Steel Bones Motorcycle Club, they all turned their back on me. Harper Ruth and Annie Holt, the MC princesses, jumped me in the school parking lot. I dropped out, came to Pyle, and one G.E.D., ten years, and a hundred more poor choices later, here I am.

In a weeping ball on a dirty linoleum floor, wondering what exactly is making it so sticky.

Forty Nowicki was a rite of passage, the kind of heartbreak everyone goes through with their first love, but somehow my soupy grey matter doesn’t get that it’s long over and probably wasn’t as intense and earth-shattering as I thought it was at the time.

But I still dream about him. Not all the time. Only when I’m stressed or when I fall asleep drunk.

And at some point in every relationship, usually when I’m trudging along a highway in the pouring rain or stuck in a bathroom with a maniac beating down the door, I have the same realization.

Aaron, the guy who baited me and his ex into fighting? And then videotaped it and posted it on a porn site? He had a softail bike like Forty.

Paulie, the guy who picked me up for a date in a stolen Lexus, landing me in City Jail until it got sorted out? He was gruff, a man of few words. Like Forty.

And Nick, the guy who kicked me out of his truck on the side of the highway after two years together? He had Forty’s exact build. Height, weight, haircut. Everything. And I didn’t see it.

Not ‘til it was over.

And oh shit. Big reveal. Thinking about it now? Carlo has that “lethal violence simmering just under the surface” that Forty had. Ugh. I couldn’t have picked a guy who liked professional wrestling and monster truck? Forty was into that, too.

I stretch my legs, and wipe my nose with the back of my hand. Carlo’s messenger bag is plopped next to me where I dropped it. It was stupid to take it. Hopefully, he was attached to the papers that I dumped on his counter and not the bag itself. It’s real leather, I think, but it’s not couture or anything.  

I sigh, shoulders slumping. What should I do now?

I obviously can’t go back to L’Alba. Rent is due two weeks. Without a paycheck, I’m gonna be at least two hundred short. The landlord isn’t cutting me any more slack.

Anway, I’ve got way bigger problems than rent. Everyone knows the Renelli organization doesn’t leave loose ends. And isn’t that what I am now? I must have fingerprint bruises around my neck. My face is busted up. That’s physical evidence. If I was suicidal enough to go to the cops, they’d press charges. Renelli would never let a nobody like me walk around with leverage against his money man.

At the very least, I’m due for a warning visit from some goons. And I don’t want to see how sideways that could go with my mouth and lack of filter.

It’s depressing. I’ve been in this city for a decade. I know everyone. But push comes to shove? I am a nobody with no one to call. No place to go.

It’s my fault. I keep it light, never get too close. I friend people, but I’m not friends with people, you know?

I wish it was different. There was a time I had friends, crazy people that rolled with my crazy. Well, I thought I did. Then Forty dropped me, and my “friends” turned on me in zero seconds flat. That kind of loyalty? It’s admirable in a way. Hurts like a bitch to be on the other side, but you can’t help but respect it.

I sigh, kick off my shoes, and wiggle my toes. What am I doing on the floor? I need to pack.

I can’t stay here, and there’s only one person in the world who loves me enough to let me crash, no questions asked. My baby brother Lou. We have different fathers, and we’re nothing the same, but he still thinks I’m cool. He’s the only decent person in the family. Gentle. Oblivious.

Lou still tags along with Steel Bones, all these years later. I’d bring him around the clubhouse when Forty and I were together, and when I left town, he never stopped showing up. The brothers never iced him out like they did me.

When we talk, Lou keeps me posted about the MC. Shirl’s doing good. Ernestine put Grinder out again. Scrap might get early release. Forty’s coming home on a medical discharge. I tell Lou I don’t need the updates, but he doesn’t stop sharing. Like I said. Oblivious.

If I go home, I’ll see Forty. Petty’s Mill is too small to avoid anyone for long. A thrum begins in my belly, shooting bubbly tingles of anticipation to my nerve endings. Some of the tension seeps away. Ah. Sensation. Better than any drug.

Maybe I don’t want to avoid Forty. Maybe I have some things I want to say. This could be the universe nudging me to go back, resolve some issues, sort out the past so I can move on. 

There’s an exhaustion competing with this new adrenaline surge. Butterflies are going crazy in my belly, while my arms and legs feel like weights are dragging them down. This always happens when I think about going home. There’s a large part of me that would rather walk through fire than confront the past.

But damn, I need a break. A place to feel safe. To feel like I did for that golden moment in my life when Forty Nowicki wouldn’t leave my side, and no one could touch me.

I want to turn this shitshow that is my life around. Start again. Figure it out this time and get it right.

I sigh long and loud and drag myself to my feet. I’ve got a lot to do. I need to bail before Dominic Renelli hears about this. I need that man to understand that I am in no way, shape, or form a problem for him or his organization.

And I need to get this new life started. Do it right this time.

‘Cause every day’s another chance to get it right.

Right?


Follow My Blog

Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.

Comments are closed.