Home > Target on Our Backs (Monster in His Eyes #3)

Target on Our Backs (Monster in His Eyes #3)
J.M. Darhower

I 'm going to tell you a story, a story about a lion that was killed by a callous hunter not long ago. This lion was the king of his pride, and this hunter? This hunter didn't even think twice about pulling the trigger, consequences be damned.

And consequences there were.

You see, when a king is killed, anarchy reigns as the next strongest male steps up to take his place. Sometimes that male is considerate, compassionate, but more likely he's a ruthless beast. To secure his place at the top of the food chain, to assert his dominance in a time of chaos, the lion annihilates anyone he considers competition, starting with his predecessor's cubs.

His offspring, the ones he created, the ones he raised to follow his lead... one-by-one they fell, victim to the new cruel tyrant, until the former king's pride was no more. In the hunter's mind, it was over the second he put down the gun, but in reality, that was when the real trouble began.

And trouble?

It came with a vengeance.

The pride lands were knee-deep in it.

Midtown Shooting Leaves One Dead

I stare through the darkness at the bold headline deep in the middle of yesterday's newspaper. It didn't make the front page. Not even close. It was tucked in along with the petty crimes that plague the city, like a shooting means nothing to these people nowadays.

Maybe it doesn't.

Who am I to judge?

Bullets certainly don't faze me anymore.

But this one stalled me. This one made me hesitate. My eyes drift from the vague headline to the lone victim's name: Kelvin Russo.

I know him.

Well, I knew him.

Kelvin is no more.

Once one of Ray's favorite street soldiers, Kelvin caught a bullet to the back of the skull. He was young, just starting out… couldn't have been any more than twenty-three or twenty-four. The paper doesn't say much about what happened, but I know an execution when I read about one.

Another of the former king's cubs has fallen.

I didn't pull the trigger this time, but when it comes down to it, I still shoulder the blame. He's dead because there's a new king of this concrete jungle, a king that's sending a message to everyone.

Bow down.

The thing is, though, I don't kneel for anyone. I get on my knees for no fucking man. I walked away a year ago, before pulling that fateful trigger, but that won't be good enough for someone like him.

It's only a matter of time before he comes for me.

Before he wants me.

Whoever he is...

"A leopard doesn't change its spots."

Giuseppe Vitale isn't usually a man to mince words. He speaks in riddles a lot of the time, something his son inherited from him, but his point is always there, front and center. He knows what he knows and feels how he feels, and when it comes down to it, he won't hesitate to tell you how it is.

A leopard doesn't change its spots.

He's talking about Ignazio.

"But he's different," I say, my eyes drifting to the small wooden table between us, like maybe subconsciously I doubt my own words. He has been different, that's true, but I know that doesn't mean he has actually changed.

Can he change?

I don't know.

Should I even want him to?

It has been over a year since a bullet tore through me in the foyer of the home in Brooklyn, although my chest still aches like it happened yesterday. The physical wound healed but my heart is another story.

Part of it remains broken.

It probably always will be that way.

Six weeks ago, Naz asked me to marry him. Really asked me, unlike before. This time, when I said yes, I knew exactly what I was committing to. I know what kind of man he is. I know the things he's done, the things he wanted to do. We said 'I do' that very night, in the chapel at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, and I've spent every night since then convinced I'd made the right decision.

Because he's different.

He is.

But what exactly does different mean?

Giuseppe reaches over, placing his rough, calloused hand on top of mine, squeezing lightly to draw my attention back to him. He's got a smile on his lips, but it's not a smile of happiness. It borders somewhere on pity.

I can almost hear what he's thinking.

Poor little girl, you don't understand what you've gotten into.

"You know, they say if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, it'll jump right back out," he says. "But if you put a frog in a pot of cool water and steadily raise the temperature, it'll stay right where it is, like nothing is happening. You get where I'm going with this?"

My brow furrows at the jump in conversation. "No."

"You're the frog, girl, and Ignazio? He's boiling you alive without you even noticing."

I want to argue against that. I want to tell him he's wrong. Because he is. He's wrong. But the only words I can come up with are 'he's different' and I'm not even entirely sure how to explain what that means. He's still Naz, still the same intimidating Ignazio, but Vitale hasn't shown his face... not around me, anyway.

I know Giuseppe can't differentiate between the masks, though. He looks at his son and only sees the monster he turned into over the years. He can't see the man he was, or the man he is, the man he swears he's trying to be.

He still disappears at night sometimes. There are still the occasional whispered phone calls. He's still paranoid, and overprotective, and extremely careful, but what he isn't is cruel. He isn't deceitful. I understand him. He understands me. He doesn't handle me with kid gloves, but he doesn't give me more than I can tolerate, either. He treats me like a person, not a possession, although, okay… his possessive streak can sometimes still be pretty fierce.

The man is an enigma. A beautiful, sometimes terrifying puzzle that I'm still piecing together, little by little.

Giuseppe, though, has no interest in his son's healing. He has no interest in him being different. As far as he's concerned, Naz is the kind of broken you just can't fix.

Before I can think of something to say to Giuseppe, something other than the usual 'but he's different' bit, the door to the deli opens, the bell loudly jiggling. I don't even have to look over to know it's him. There's something about the way he enters, a chill in the air, a heat in the stare, that tells me Naz is here.

Giuseppe doesn't turn to look, but I know he senses it, too.

"Porca vacca," he mutters, sighing loudly as he pulls his hands from mine and shoves the chair back, standing up. His eyes remain on my face, the pity now more frustration. "You want some cookies? How about some Snickerdoodles?"

He doesn't wait for me to respond before walking away.

A few seconds later, the chair across from me shifts again, another body planting in it. I glance up at him, smiling when he mutters under his breath, "just like a whore in church around here."

They're a lot alike, Naz and his father, but you won't catch me telling either of them that. Stubborn men.

"Of all places," he says, raising his eyebrows as he stares at me across the table. "I could've gotten a table at the last minute at Le Bernardin, could've even taken you to Paragone again, but no… you ask me to meet you for lunch at Vitale's Italian Delicatessen."

I shrug. "The food's good here."

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