“How much?” Tino asked the woman at the door, and made sure he spoke slowly, enunciating the words like they were foreign on his tongue.
“Twenty each.” The hostess was pretty, with her long blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail.
She wore a red corset and black skirt, fully dressed for her work in front of the register. Tino gave her a wide smile and pulled his money clip out of his pocket. “You’re going to dance for me?”
“I’m almost disappointed to say no.” She tilted her head and leaned past the high table she was sitting behind to get a better look at Tino and Nova standing there. “Where are y’all from?”
“Sicilia.” Tino paused and glanced back to Nova, feigning confusion. “Sicily. Italy.”
“Oh.” Her blue eyes grew wide. “Wow. Are you having fun?”
“Sì, what’s not to like.” Tino started to thumb through the massive stack of hundreds he deliberately put in his pocket. He caught the hostess eyeing it as he turned to Nova and said in Italian, “Pull out your money clip.”
Nova gave him an annoyed look and held up his hands. He was a reluctant participant in this ruse at best, and in his way of playing along asked in Sicilian, “Picchì?”
“’Cause I fucking said so, that’s why,” he snapped at him in Italian. This woman couldn’t tell the difference anyway, and Tino turned back to her with a smile. “Mi dispiace. I don’t have the right one. Hold on. My brother”— he gestured to Nova — “he has it.”
“You know I have change, right?” She laughed as Nova pulled the gold clip off his roll of cash and unfolded the money to get to the twenties. “How long are you boys in town?”
“Eh, um, two—” Tino paused, like he was looking for the right word. “Two weeks.”
“No kidding? What’re you going to do in Tampa for two whole weeks?”
“Watch this, I’m going to get a date,” Tino said in Italian and hit Nova’s shoulder. Then he gave the hostess another smile. “Sei bellissima. You’re beautiful.”
Tino kissed her hand, and she blushed, looking truly pleased. “Thank you.”
“I could stand here.” Tino winked as he kept her hand in his. “All night…only to see you.”
“Minchia.” Nova put two twenties down on the table between them, forcing Tino to let go of her hand. “Quaranta.”
“It’s forty, yes?” Tino translated for him. “He doesn’t know English so well. I go to università back home.”
“University?” she asked curiously. “You’re in college?”
“It’s not so easy for him,” Tino explained to her with a wince. “He does, um, the family business for our father.”
Nova shook his head next to him and mumbled, “Wow,” which was universal for both languages.
“Listen, I’m not supposed to do this.” The hostess leaned closer to Tino, speaking in a soft, sexy voice. “But if you wanted someone to show you the real Tampa while you’re here, I could give you a tour.” She ripped off a corner from a piece of paper and wrote on it. Then she reached over, grabbed Tino’s hand, and placed the paper in his open palm. “I’m Heather.”
Tino grinned. “I’m Ash.”
“Don’t fall in love in there.” Heather pouted. “’Cause you are yummy, Ash.”
Tino held the paper to his heart. “I’ll keep it safe.”
Nova grunted in disgust next to him.
“I’ve got a girl for your brother,” Heather said conspiratorially. “She’ll cheer him up.”
Tino snorted at that. “That’s not…so easy. He’s not a normal Siciliano. Very serious. He has no fun.”
“Oh, you wait, she’s new and we already have guys showing up every night just to see her. Seriously, she’s amazing. He’ll like her.” Heather sounded really enthusiastic about it, like she was a fan. “And she speaks Italian too.”
“Ah.” Tino tilted his head, giving Nova a knowing look as he said in Italian, “How good am I at this?”
“You just shit on our entire culture,” Nova reminded him.
“But, it worked,” Tino pointed out, before he turned to Heather and switched back to English, “I think he’d like to see your friend.”
“Okay, I think she’s coming up next,” Heather said quickly.
Tino kissed her hand once more. “Grazie.”
When they turned to walk into the club, Nova looked to him and asked, “Ash?”
“What’s wrong with Ash?”
“Like Ash from Pokémon?”
“Yeah,” Tino agreed. “Do you have a problem with Pokémon now?”
Nova was quiet for a moment before he said, “It’s not even Italian.”
“Oh, she doesn’t fucking know that,” Tino said dismissively as he pulled open the door. “It’s all about the delivery.”
All the other issues had been hitting Tino one after another and he forgot how much he fucking hated strip clubs until they were inside.
It wasn’t the dark lighting, or the throb of blatantly sexual music, because he loved club culture as much as just about anyone. It was the other stuff. This was one of those all nude strip clubs Tampa was famous for, and the mix of dressed men and fully naked women tossed Tino back to a time he tried very hard to forget.
The gut-wrenching part was—a part of him instinctively looked for Lola. He had this deep, painful hole in his stomach as the very damaged Tino from his youth scanned the crowd for his partner with a rush of raw panic. They couldn’t play the game right if they weren’t together. They couldn’t protect each other.
What if some pervert found her?
What if one found him?
Except there was no Lola.
There was no saving her.
This wasn’t the first strip club he’d been in while working, but the other times he was able to tell himself Lola was happy and free of the game when he found himself looking for her on instinct.
This time it felt as though every ounce of joy had been sucked out of his world. Like every sex slave’s story, including his, was going to end gutted, naked and tragic.
There was no saving any of them.
Tino stood there looking at the beautiful, naked women walking around like it was normal and completely lost his cool. He could physically feel all the color drain from his face and for one horrible moment he thought he might pass out in the middle of this club—that’s how sick he got.
He had no idea how fucking violent his PTSD really was until he was looking down the barrel at it. He must’ve been obvious too.
“We can leave,” Nova said in hushed Italian against Tino’s ear. “I’ll come back by myself.”
Tino was just about to agree.
He knew he was a liability and that was the last thing they could afford at this point in the game. Then the music ended, and the DJ’s voice came over the surround-sound speakers.
“A little sugar with a lot of spice. She’s naughty and nice. Get your money out and welcome Lady Godiva to the stage!”
Some of the men whistled as the low pulse of music started playing. The music was different than typical strip club music, an Enigma mix that was slower, much more seductive, but also required quite a bit more skill to pull off. A slow song meant the performance better be pretty fucking captivating.
Tino turned, seeing a stream of mist flood off the stage, a bit overdramatic for a strip club, but he supposed everyone needed their fifteen minutes. Then a woman rose out of the mist, meaning she crawled there to begin with. Bad form as far as Tino was concerned—one doesn’t start on their knees—‘cause it all goes downhill from there.
Maybe she was new.
Maybe no one clued her in yet.
Tino started mentally bitching about it, even though he knewshe wasn’t new.
Not even close.
And he glanced away rather than see what he would rather ignore.
“Cazzo,” Nova grunted next to him.
He sounded equal parts enthralled and disgusted with himself, like he wanted to look away but couldn’t.
That was different.
Nova didn’t lose his game too often, especially for something simple like looks, but then, this was no ordinary stripper.
Tino knew it, because he knew who that woman was. Even with the goofy stage name, it was obvious.
He didn’t have to watch.
Nova’s reaction said it all.
If she threw him off, these motherfuckers stood no chance.
Tino glanced back to the woman they both knew was Carmen. Arms folded, annoyed, he reluctantly watched what every other man felt lucky to see.
Tino flat out hated pole dancing.
He would bite off his own tongue before he told Nova why, so he just stood there forcing himself to see it. He was used to watching it done by soul dead participants, but Lady Godiva was into it.
And that changed the whole fucking game.
Her hair was wild, with curls that framed her face in a way Lola would’ve never done. It was shorter than Lola’s too, barely reaching her shoulders, but that wasn’t the shocking part.
Carmen was blonde.
Tino wanted to hate it, but the effect was startling because her mixed heritage was obvious. Carmen was thicker than Lola had been, Florida tan, with all those soft, pretty curves rather than runway perfect like Lola. If it wasn’t for the blonde, she’d actually look more Dominican—but there it was—she didn’t even fucking dye it, which was crazy.
Worse, she had Lola’s eyes, that hauntingly ethereal gaze that stood out under the stage lights, making it very hard for most men to look away from her.
Tino could barely watch for the exact same reason.
She was wearing one of those form fitting, easy to remove stripper dresses. The simple blue cotton stretched across full tits, displaying tight nipples before she turned around and grabbed the poll, sliding down, showing off a full, firm ass that was without a doubt her best asset and that was saying something.
The men all shouted, because she did have a great ass and when she turned back around, Tino finally accepted why his mind blanked the moment Carmen rose out of that mist. He didn’t want to see this, not in person, and certainly not while holding the bomb he was about to help Nova drop.
Tino had spent a good many years flat out avoiding any and all possibilities of running into Carmen Brambino just to not see what he was seeing now. That thing sex slaves whispered about in awe, the one super power they all wanted and almost none of them got. Even Tino didn’t fully get it and he’s a man!
Carmen Brambino got off on it.
She figured out of if they were so great at making money off her, she could just skip the middle man and find her own sponsors.
And there were plenty willing to line up.
Carmen was a professional comare.
Not the kind Tino’s mother was, but an honest to god, destroy empires, ruin entire organizations comare who had no fucking problem stepping over her father.
He heard about it, mostly the shitstorm it caused.
He saw how it affected her sister, who worked so fucking hard to protect her, but at the end of the day, Carmen loved men wanting her.
And there was a trail of them who tried to prove she was worth going the distance for. A big, long icy trail of dead bodies that lead right back to Carmen being too fucking Brambino for her own good.
Now the room was electric.
Every man there knew when a woman actually loved it.
Like hunters, they intuitively sensed that moment when it stopped being security or insecurity and just became raw, magnetic sex appeal. Survival sunk Tino’s PTSD like a stone. He was suddenly in full enforcer mode.
“I’ll go back,” Tino whispered in Italian.
Nova held up his hand in response, silently telling Tino he didn’t want to discuss it, and then turned to look at the seating selection.
Instead of sitting at the stage, the two of them slipped into one of the booths at the back of the room. They were both uncomfortable, horribly so. Tino could barely sit still. Nova rested his head on his hand and looked towards the wall, completely ruining their cover.
“Why do some of them have those little coin purses on their wrists?” Nova asked Tino in hushed Italian, still looking away from the stage as the song changed. “Do you know?”
Carmen pulled off her dress, revealing nothing but smooth, tan skin and a black g-string.
Tino didn’t want to be looking, but one of them had to. Trying to ignore the rest, he glanced to Carmen’s wrist, seeing one of those coin purses Nova was talking about.
“They carry condoms in them.” Tino choked when he said it. “That’s how you tell which ones do more than dance.”
“Motherfucker,” Nova said vehemently, speaking English, going one step further in destroying their cover. “How do we get her the fuck out of here? Right now.”
Tino glanced back to the guy in the corner he’d spotted when they first came in. Tino didn’t recognize him as a Brambino and clearly Nova didn’t either, but it was blatant he worked for them. Their borgata had this strange presence, very ice cold, never wrinkled, and always fit, which was weird. Most of the Moretti Borgata gave up about thirty and went thick. The old man was after young comares, so he worked at it, but the rest of them, including Tino’s father, liked to eat and party too much.
Tino could tell right away this floor manager didn’t party. Thirty something, he was Brambino intense. His dark brown hair was shaved short, and even under the fine Italian suit, Tino could see he was packing.
Luckily the guy wasn’t paying them any attention.
Why should he?
Heather in the front hadn’t clued him in, and thus far the bouncer had no reason to believe they were there to spend major cash. They just looked like a couple of horny, cheesy tourists.
Or that was the plan, but Nova complicated things.
Tonight was the first time Tino realized Nova didn’t know how to stop being Zu. Even to save his own fucking life, he couldn’t turn it off. It just bled out all over everywhere and it was a huge liability.
It was like finding out Carina couldn’t aim.
And Tino hadn’t done so great with that.
“First, you have to stop looking away from the stage.” Tino kept speaking Italian. “You have to pretend to be interested.”
“Pretend?” Nova snorted. “This is the most fucked up situation I’ve ever been in. I have to tell that poor girl her sister is dead, and she’ll know I’m never forgetting this shit. I feel like I’m going to throw up.”
That was no idle threat from Nova.
“I’m not sure if you noticed, but she knows she’s hot,” Tino assured him as he tried to take his own long, deep breathes to stop the panic. “She wouldn’t be able to sell it like that if she didn’t. She’s not going to hold it against you for noticing, Casanova, I promise.”
Nova took a shuddering breath, making it obvious it was deeply disturbing him. He had his own issues with the sex market. The guilt over what Tino went through still tormented Nova, and clearly it was all blending together for him.
It took a few more deep breaths, but Nova looked back to the stage just as Carmen pushed the g-string over her hips. Nova shifted in his seat, but he didn’t look away.
Tino wanted to get out of the club too.
His trigger finger was itchy.
A part of him wanted to blow their way out, and he knew Nova felt the same.
Tino raised his hand and gestured to the waitress instead. She was dressed in a bikini that left very little to the imagination. Tino fell back on old habits, flirting appropriately as he ordered them both sodas because they didn’t serve alcohol in the all nude clubs in Tampa.
It fucking figured.
After the waitress left, Tino leaned into Nova and said, “Her set’s almost done. We’ll give the waitress a tip to take to Carmen. She’ll make sure Carmen knows where it came from. The guys who tip big get the most attention. When she comes over, I’ll go back with her.”
“No.” Nova shook his head. “I’ll do it.”
Tino stared at him skeptically.
“I don’t want you to have to go back into that room,” Nova explained, still looking sick. “Plus, Brianna. What if she finds out?”
Tino had to admit, he wasn’t super thrilled at that idea either. It would make more sense for Nova to go in back since he was the single one, especially with someone like Carmen—who was used to selling it like a motherfucker.
The waitress showed up with their drinks before Tino could respond. Her eyes grew wide when Nova pulled out his money clip. He tilted his head towards the stage where Carmen was still dancing, but he didn’t say anything as he handed her two bills.
So Tino spoke up. “She speaks Italiano, yes?”
“Yeah, she speaks a lot of languages. She used to live in Europe.” The waitress looked at the money in her hands. “He wants me to give it to her? Two hundred bucks?”
“Sì.” Tino gave her a broad smile, even if his stomach was churning. “He thinks she’s beautiful.”
It wasn’t bullshit, except Tino was the only one who saw how uncomfortable Nova was about that little development.
“You have to pay at the bar for a private dance.” The waitress spoke slowly, as though concerned the two of them were confused how things worked. “He would have to pay again for a private room. This is something separate. It’s just a tip for watching her.”
Tino looked to Nova who was watching as Carmen finished her dance. Now completely naked, she fell to her hands and knees, and started picking up the money on the stage. Nova wasn’t hiding the blatant interest in his dark gaze. It was supposed to be an act, but Tino knew it likely wasn’t, especially considering how great Nova had been at undercover thus far.
“I think you over did it with the tip,” Tino said dryly in Italian since the waitress didn’t know what he was saying anyway. “Even for her it looks weird.”
“No, it doesn’t.” Nova answered without looking away. One man threw a bill on Carmen’s bare back, and Nova’s eyes narrowed. “These puttane should be paying a lot more than that. She shouldn’t be crawling around for ones and fives. That’s a fucking insult to God. What the hell is wrong with this borgata?”
Nova pulled another hundred out of his money clip to prove his point and put it on the table. He didn’t look away from Carmen. Tino was going to have to correct himself about Nova being bad undercover because he was selling it like a motherfucker.
“Okay, baller.” Tino had to refrain from rolling his eyes before he turned to the waitress and switched back to English. “He understands.” He picked up the extra hundred and handed it to the waitress. “He enjoyed her dance.” He glanced back to Nova who was still watching Carmen, and added in a conspiratorial voice, “My brother’s lonely.”
“Oh.” The waitress tilted her head to study Nova. Handsome, rich, with an air of power he couldn’t hide if he wanted to, most women stared at Nova like that. “He doesn’t look like he should be lonely.”
The best lies were the ones closest to the truth.
Tino didn’t have to fake the pain in his voice when he said, “But he is.”
“Then I guess it’s her lucky night.”
The waitress turned away before she could see Nova blanch, like he might actually be sick in this club.
“You should wait to break the news,” Tino suggested, because he wasn’t certain Nova was up to it. “Tell her what you need to get her out of the club for safety reasons. Then we’ll talk to her about Lola—together.”
Nova nodded and rubbed a hand over his forehead.
The music ended.
Carmen met the waitress at the base of the stairs, and looked around when she was handed the money, obviously searching for the one who thought she was worth so much. Then the waitress said something else and Carmen’s features softened, making her look a little more vulnerable. That’s when he saw Lola, the kindness she couldn’t kill, no matter how much it would help her if she could.
Tino was sort of disappointed.
He realized right then, he had been silently rooting for Carmen for years now, drawing power from all those horror stories of rebellion. He wanted her to own this racket without it hurting her.
But it had—in ways she didn’t even know yet.
Carmen disappeared in back without spotting them, which was a very seasoned thing to do. She stopped caring what clients looked like a long fucking time ago. All she knew was there was a nice guy with money who wanted attention.
Tino wanted to run away.
He didn’t want to be anywhere near telling someone their sibling was dead, especially knowing it could still destroy her as utterly as it would destroy him.
“Cazzo.” Nova sighed, and confessed Tino’s fears out loud, “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to do this. My hand to God, I’m going to burn that whole borgata to the ground if it kills me.”
“I’m ready, fratello mio,” Tino said with a grim smile as he played with the straw in his drink again. “You light the match and I’ll bring the gasoline.”
A new dancer took the stage, different music played, harder, faster, more on pace with a typical strip club. He glanced over to the guy in the suit when Heather from the front walked up to him.
Tino had to play oblivious and look away when she gestured over to them. He leaned his cheek on his hand, turning his head a little, making it seem like he was still caught up with the dance. Then he watched out of the corner of his eye when Carmen came up to the bouncer, wearing her blue dress once more.
Her body was tense, and it was obvious the two of them were having a heated conversation. She looked very Italiana as she gestured to their booth, making it obvious someone clued her in on who sent the large tip. They had cameras everywhere, so he wasn’t surprised she chose to go in back to spy on potential clients.
The bodyguard slapped her hand down.
“Deficiente,” Nova whispered next to him.
“You need to chill.” Tino looked to his brother, seeing that Nova was playing the same game, watching the confrontation out of the corner of his eye. “Let’s just get her out. We’ll blow them up later.”
Nova’s wasn’t paying attention to him. He was watching Carmen instead. His body got tighter, like a live wire about to explode, and Tino glanced back to see that the bodyguard had grabbed Carmen’s upper arm, squeezing it tightly as he said something in her ear.
Lola would’ve gone limp and submissive for survival.
Carmen smacked him, open palmed, hard enough that it would likely leave a mark. Then she stormed towards them. There wasn’t grace and deliberate sexuality in Carmen’s walk, just raw anger and determination.
Nova looked at her when she stopped in front him, his dark gaze meeting Carmen’s icy one flecked with gold.
“Buy me a drink?” She didn’t smile when she said it.
Nova didn’t flinch either.
He just shook his head, face blank, his body still tight in defensiveness.
“He doesn’t speak English,” Tino explained.
“Sure.” Carmen looked unimpressed. “Is that what you’re selling?”
She shoved at Nova’s shoulder, forcing him to move over as she slid into the booth next to him. Carmen tilted her head, a dark smile on her face before she slid her hand inside his shirt right there in the booth. With her other hand she pulled open the next few buttons, and then traced blood red fingernails down the line of his pectoral muscles before they disappeared beneath his shirt.
Nova swallowed hard and asked, “Parli Italiano?”
“Sì, parlo Italiano.” She leaned more into him, clearly reaching the hand under his shirt around to his back. Her body was plastered against his to the point that she lifted her head, arched a light eyebrow and went on Italian, “Enjoy the dance, bello?”
Nova didn’t say anything.
Carmen kept herself wrapped around him, her hand still threaded underneath his shirt as she reached down, obviously slipping it beneath the lining of his pants and grabbing his ass.
Nova jumped. His gaze narrowed, because he didn’t like being vulnerable. Then he barked in Italian, “Obviously, I’m not packing.”
“You sure about that?” Carmen glanced down to his lap again. Her Italian was much more refined than Lola’s had been, so much so, she could almost pass as someone who spoke it as their first language like Tino and Nova did. She gave Nova a smile as she went on, “Glad I could give you something to remember me by.”
Nova blanched again.
So did Tino.
“Ciao, Casanova,” she said mockingly and sat back, obviously satisfied he wasn’t packing. She stared at him again, taking in his outfit. “Nice pants. Did you wear those just for me?”
Tino had to give Nova credit, he just nodded and admitted, “You’re the only one I’d wear them for.”
“Cute.” Carmen reached over once more, this time grabbing Nova’s face, studying him. She ran a thumb over his lips and Nova parted to her like it was an instinct as she said, “Very cute. Too bad I’m off gangsters right now and my sister knows that. There is no way in hell she would send candy like you to me. So, who really sent you? Carlo? Is he hiding in the car? Scared enough to hide, not scared enough to stay away. That’s unfortunate.”
“You want me to buy you a drink? Fine, let’s get out of here. I’ll buy you dinner and we’ll talk,” Nova said evenly. “Anywhere you want.”
“No way.” She shook her head slowly. “And you better start talking, bello. I didn’t blow your cover, but I will. Considering you aren’t strapped, that could put you in an uncomfortable situation.”
Tino arched an eyebrow at her. “Who says we aren’t strapped?”
“Oh, I see how it is. Give the gun to the charming, unsuspecting one. I heard about Heather, and I’m not impressed with that. My sister says nicer things about you, Tino.” She turned back to Nova, slipping her fingers inside his shirt once more. She stayed curled into him, which left all three of them blending in perfectly. “What bet did you win to be the bait for this little endeavor?”
“I didn’t win anything.” Nova’s voice ached when he said it. “I’m actually here as a friend.”
“Yeah, I know what kind of friends Siciliani make. Yummy, dangerous friends.” Carmen said it like a woman who knew. “Unfortunately for you, I’m on a diet. It’s here or nothing.”
Nova considered her for a second before he leaned up and reached into his pocket, pulling out his money roll.
“What are you doing?” Carmen choked as Nova pulled several hundred dollar bills out and held them up. She glanced back to the bouncer, and then whispered under her breath, “They’ll make me go back with you. They’ll expect it. Fine for the ordinary, but that doesn’t always end well for pretty Siciliani with interesting last names. Get it, Bello?”
“Then leave with us.” Nova was unflinching as he said it. “Right now.”
She shook her head, eyes wild with panic. “No. I can’t leave with two Morettis. It would ruin everything. I’m working on important shit here, and you started fucking up my potion just by walking in the door.”
“Listen to me, Carmen,” Nova said in his zu voice, low and commanding as he leaned into her. “On my mother’s grave, I’m your friend and what I have to tell you needs to be done in private. So, it’s either leave with me now or we’re going into that room and I don’t want that to happen. Not even a little. I am easily the most uncomfortable person in this situation.”
She couldn’t respond because the waitress showed up and looked between them curiously. “You want me to give it to the bar to book a room?”
Carmen’s breathing was harsh. She glanced behind her, looking to the bouncer. Then she reached up and touched Nova’s face again, caressing his cheek. Tino realized she was trying to decide if she should expose them, leave with them, or go in back with Nova to keep the secret of them being there without pissing off her father like she would if she left.
“He watches.” She glanced down at his lap. “And you look very pretty in these pants, Bello, like you’re just waiting to be taken advantage of. It’ll do it for him, I promise.”
“Please leave with us,” Nova begged, sounding truly nervous. “I’m not good at this.”
And Nova begged for nothing.
“I can’t leave with you.” Carmen grabbed the money out of Nova’s hand and handed it to the waitress as she said in English, “Give us the VIP room.”
The waitress leaned into Tino and asked, “Does he want to buy her a drink?” because that was the game these clubs played. Nickels and dimes added up too and most strippers had quotas on the drinks.
Tino shrugged, feeling gutted for both of them. “I guess.”
He was the one who paid for the drink while Carmen and Nova slid out of the booth.
“Does he speak Italian?” Nova asked.
Carmen shook her head. “No.”
Tino watched them stop at the bar.
Carmen picked up the drink Tino brought her before they walked in back. The bouncer left the floor too, like the other girls didn’t matter. Tino glanced around, seeing another guy in the corner keeping an eye on things, making Tino think the first guy may be there to manage Carmen exclusively.
That was strange.
Exclusive muscle was expensive. Carmen was drop dead gorgeous, but even still…Tino was very nervous.