Tino nearly drowned himself in the shower.
Then he dragged his zio to the bathroom and got him clean too, which was no easy task. Tino encountered a lot of horrific shit in a very short period of time, but dealing with Carlo collapsing naked in the shower, sobbing and cursing him out in Italian for washing the last of Lola off him was easily the worst of it.
Tino had just gotten Carlo into bed when the girls came back in to the room. Carina’s hair was still wet, and she held one of the expensive crystal tumblers from the don’s study. The dark amber liquid glimmered under the lights in the bedroom. Carlo gave them shit about drinking it, but after he did, he passed out cold.
Tino was one-hundred-percent certain there was more than booze in that cup. He was just about to ask Carina to make him a drink like that, and fuck his promises, when Nova texted him to meet in the kitchen.
He rolled out of bed, leaving a snoring Carlo to be watched by Carina and Brianna, who were sitting together on the couch, doing nothing, and saying even less. They weren’t even on their phones. Carina just rested her head on Brianna’s shoulder, like making conversation was too painful.
“I love you,” Tino whispered against Brianna’s lips when he kissed her. “I’ll be back.”
Brianna just caressed his cheek rather than say anything, rubbing her thumb over the stubble on his cheek. Carina squeezed his hand before he could walk away, like she was scared to let him go—but she did anyway.
It was late now.
Most of the families crammed into the house had gone to bed, but there were still soldiers mulling around. Tino found Romeo and Nova sitting alone at the kitchen in front of the large, open bay windows facing the darkened grounds behind the don’s mansion.
The first thought Tino had was insane worry that anyone could shoot either of them through the glass. He felt like everyone and everything he loved in this would could be yanked from him at any moment.
Crashing off the blow probably wasn’t helping his problem.
Tino walked fully into the kitchen, shirtless, wearing only basketball shorts he borrowed Carlo, and immediately went for the pot of coffee because he needed it. Desperately.
“How’s your uncle?” Romeo asked.
“His girlfriend was murdered,” Tino reminded Romeo as he poured himself a cup. “So not that great.”
They were all quiet while Tino put cream and sugar in his coffee.
Then Romeo said, “I’m sorry about Lola. I know she was your friend, and more than that, she was a special person. I’m sorry the world lost her so young. It’s too unfair to process.”
It wasn’t hard for Tino to process.
He’d been dealing with horrifically unfair shit most of his life, but all he said was, “Yeah,” as he sat down next to Romeo. Then, he leaned over and hugged Romeo tightly on reflex, because Tino knew how precarious this life was. “Ti voglio bene.”
“I love you too.” Romeo kissed his forehead with brotherly affection. “What can I do? Tell me.”
“I called Lola’s sister,” Nova confessed to the two of them. “What I told Carlo was bullshit. She was deep in the network, but I did find her number. Old school land line, just like Carlo.”
“And?” Tino asked, because he knew if Nova lied to Carlo, there must be a reason.
“I talked to her roommate. She said Carmen was at work.”
Tino frowned. “So?”
“At Club Starlight.” Nova looked at Tino, his gaze hard, his voice tight as he said, “It’s a strip club.”
“And you have an issue with that?” Romeo looked between the two of them, clearly insulted. “You two would’ve starved it wasn’t for stripping. She’s probably got bills to pay.”
“Yeah, probably.” Nova met Tino’s gaze again, and then looked at his phone on the kitchen counter. He turned it on its side, like he needed something to do with his hands. “Just thought Tino should know before he agrees to go with me.” He glanced back at Tino once more. “Or I could bring Rome and you could stay here with the girls, keep an eye on Carlo and the old man once I spring him from lock up. The lawyers are still waiting to post bond. It’ll probably be past midnight.”
“I vote for keeping him in lock up,” Romeo said under his breath.
“Stai zitto,” Nova hissed at him, and looked over his shoulder in obvious paranoia. Even though they had been speaking Italian, it wasn’t like they were the only three guys in the borgata who understood it. “You’re in his house right now. You have to show respect here. Always.”
“Yeah, like the pope,” Tino offered helpfully.
Only he was bitter as fuck this evening, and it must have shown enough that Nova sent him a dirty glare too.
“I’m just giving him a visual.” Tino rolled his eyes. “So, he better understands the level of reverence required.”
“He’s not my fucking pope,” Romeo reminded both of them.
Nova looked like he was going to drop dead from a heart attack.
Tino had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling. Sometimes, Romeo’s epic level of ‘I don’t give a fuck’ when it came to Cosa Nostra was very refreshing and rejuvenating for Tino.
Maybe, if he hung around Romeo long enough, it’d rub off.
As it was, he reached over and squeezed Romeo’s thick bicep as he said in English, “The frigging stugots on him though. Come on, Casanova, you gotta admire that a little.”
Nova shook his head, looking disgusted with both of them and switched to English too. “I’ll just take Rome. It’ll get him outta this house and you won’t have to deal with whatever the hell’s going on in Tampa.”
“That’swhat you’re going to protect Tino from? A strip club?” Romeo snorted in disbelief. “You need out, Casanova. Quickly. I love you. This needs to be your wake up call.”
“Yeah, I hear you,” Nova said rather than argue it. He knocked his phone against the table lightly, avoiding eye contact. “And the anger’s more justified than you think.”
This was the closest they came to just outing themselves to Romeo. It was like all their protective barriers had been ripped down and that scared Tino a little. Not for him so much, because he was long past giving a fuck.
But, Tino and Nova had years to get over the great rifts Cosa Nostra forced in their relationship. They couldn’t just throw it on Romeo all at once because they were in the middle of a crisis. It would only make things worse.
And Tino didn’t trust Nova not to crack right now.
“I’ll go,” Tino decided for all of them. “I promised Carlo I’d go.”
Nova might need an enforcer with him instead of a brother if they were busting Carmen out of an underground Brambino sex ring in Tampa, Florida of all the fucking places.
And it made sense.
Tampa was the one of the few cold spots the rest of Cosa Nostra went out of their way to stay away from because of the brewing De Luca civil war.
It was a good city for the Brambinos to get back into the business if they were willing to risk everything by clashing with the De Lucas, which was scary. The ones with nothing to lose were always the worst targets.
And if their borgata had somehow managed to manipulate Carmen Brambino to work for them again—they were definitely fuck crazy desperate.
Unless she was in on it.
It was anyone’s guess, especially since Carlo clearly hadn’t made a great case for the Morettis.
Lola was dead now.
Tino couldn’t pretend he hadn’t heard things about her sister any more.
‘Cause he had.
They all did.
Carmen Brambino was one of those people everyone liked to talk about. He wasn’t sure what parts were true, but some of it had to be.
“I’m going,” Tino repeated, knowing full well what a Brambino woman with an agenda was capable of. “I’m definitely going.
So, they drove.
All the way to motherfucking Tampa.
The second Nova sprung the don from lock up they took off.
Carina promised to stay with Carlo and she had Brianna to help. Tino didn’t like leaving them with a war going on, but there was so much mob muscle guarding the don’s place no one was breaking in or out of that compound.
They should be able to keep Carlo locked down until Tino and Nova got back.
Romeo wouldn’t stay at the mansion and Tino found himself texting manically every time Nova was behind the wheel, constantly finding reasons to check in with his brother, the girls, even a few of his cousins who were holed up with the rest of the family, just to make sure everything was okay. Carlo didn’t have a cell phone, and even if he had, Tino knew he wouldn’t have answered, so he kept in contact with Carina and Brianna instead.
The girls seemed to need it too, and Tino didn’t feel too bad about the constant checking in with them. Romeo was tolerant as well, and he promised he was training in the apartment rather than going to the dojo. That made Tino feel better, because he knew Nova had a small army guarding the building even if Romeo didn’t.
It wasn’t until they passed the Florida border through Georgia that Nova and Tino started to make a plan, which more than anything should’ve told Tino how far gone Nova was to the stress.
Nova wasn’t the sort of guy to wing things.
He was also, Tino discovered, not fantastic at going undercover, which was surprising enough to wake Tino up a little.
Tino was driving, which was another big warning flag. Nova didn’t give two shits that Tino was behind the wheel of his Bentley. All of a sudden, it seemed Nova’s car wasn’t much of a priority.
“I say we just go in like we would for any other negotiation.”
“If we show up in this car, with you flashing your Armani and gold tie, their security is going to call someone,” Tino pointed out. “That would be very bad, Casanova.”
“We can’t go to her apartment, I’m sure they’ll have it guarded, with video feeds pointed in every direction.”
“She’s not Carina,” Tino reminded him. “It’s not the same level of security. I know, because I saw what they were doing when they had money, and it wasn’t that great. Now they’re broke as a motherfucker.”
“I’m sure they’re protecting her, and I’m double fucking sure they have video feeds from the club that someone in their borgata is watching as we speak,” Nova argued. “You think the Brambinos don’t keep an eye on their investments? Especially now? People respect a suit. They fear it and fear creates weakness. If they’re going to recognize us anyway, we might as well go in demanding respect.”
Tino tried very hard not to roll his eyes because he felt like he was listening to the don with all that respect shit, but at least Nova was talking. It was something after he’d spent most of the trip silent, like whatever images had burned into Nova’s brain over the past forty-hours had shocked him quiet.
“Look, if you wear a suit into a strip club it’ll make you look like an idiot. You’ll stand out. You’re not there to fucking date them, you’re there to buy them,” Tino argued as he kept his eyes on the road. “As long as you bring your money clip, they’ll pay attention to you. That’s how it all works. You don’t have to be cool.”
Nova put a hand to his forehead at that, looking like he might get sick. “Whatever, Valentino,” he finally said. “I don’t give a fuck what we wear.”
Nova checked out again.
Tino kind of did too, but fortunately, this sort of thing was what Tino did for a living so he went on autopilot. When he saw a billboard advertising an outlet mall, he decided to pull off.
Nova finally looked up from the stock market site on his phone and said, “What are we doing?”
“For what?” Nova gave him a look like he thought Tino was the one who had checked out.
“I’ve got an idea.”
Nova was silent as Tino parked and then said, “I’m gonna hate this idea, aren’t I?”
Tino didn’t even hesitate. “Yeah, you’re definitely gonna hate it.”
Tino took extra time on his hair, styling it a little higher than he normally would. Nova was so fucking disgusted, he didn’t bother.
“At least use some gel,” Tino said as he looked at himself in the hotel mirror and spied Nova sitting on one of the beds behind him.
In response, Nova flipped him off without glancing up from his phone. “Here’s your gel.”
“You know.” Tino turned around. “It doesn’t look that bad, Casanova. You’re dressed like one of those guys from Milan on fashion week.”
Nova looked up and arched a dark eyebrow in annoyance. “I’m wearing loafers with no socks. Don’t talk to me right now.”
Tino shrugged and turned back to the mirror. “I think I look good,” he decided as he admired himself in khaki pants, a dark blue blazer, and a white, open collared shirt that he’d undone down to the third button. He straightened the crucifix he was wearing and couldn’t help but flinch at that. “I could do without this much jewelry. Reminds me of the don, but the rest of it is workable.”
“Valentino, if you start wearing high waters this fucking tight on a regular basis I’m disowning you.”
“The pants don’t look bad,” Tino promised him. “And it doesn’t kill you to wear light colors. I would’ve given you the beige, but your waist is bigger than mine and I need the jacket. I’m the one packing.”
Nova didn’t acknowledge him as he sat there on the edge of the bed, light blue, micro-checkered collared shirt opened down to the third button to show off the crucifix around his neck that matched the one Tino was wearing. Nova’s thighs were spread in typical, macho Sicilian behavior, his elbows resting on his knees as he stared at his phone. There weren’t many men who could wear white pants like Nova had on and make them work, but his brother did.
The best lies were the ones closest to the truth.
Tino did have the thought of taking a picture of Nova in those pants to show Romeo and Carlo when they got home. It was a habit. It’s what he would’ve done two days ago and the second the thought popped in his head, Tino’s breath caught so violently Nova noticed.
“What?” his brother asked sharply.
“Nothing.” Tino shook his head, feeling like the laughter was a million miles away, and they’d never find it again. Instead he said, “You’re really leaving your hair like that? You’re not gonna shave or anything?”
“Cazzo.” Nova threw his phone on the bed and stood. He looked at himself in the mirror, obviously annoyed before he decided, “Gimme the gel.”
Tino put the gel next to him. He set a new razor there too. The shaving cream he used before he got in the shower and the bottle of cologne they bought at the outlet mall. Tino didn’t realize how much he needed to see real life in his brother again.
It felt cardinal to survival.
Yes, there was a war, but they’d survived everything else.
And yes, their zio was shattered, but once they got past this, they could help put Carlo back together—somehow.
There was no fix for losing Lola, but Tino was certain she wouldn’t have wanted this to break them. She’d want them to fight back. To stay strong, like she always did—no matter how badly life fucked with her.
Nova had taken off his shirt and started shaving. Tino couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief his brother probably noticed.
“I’m not using that merda.” Nova cast an annoyed glance at the cologne on the counter.
“You gotta wear it. Italiani are supposed to smell good.”
“Thank you so much for informing me on how an Italiano is supposed to behave. I had no idea,” Nova snapped at him. “My Clive Christian’s in my bag.”
“You packed your Clive Christian but forgot your razor?” Tino asked in disbelief, pissed off he didn’t know that because he would’ve used it too.
“My travel bag is prepacked in case I have to take off for the don. I have a razor. You just handed me this one,” Nova explained as he tilted his head back and worked on shaving his neck because he hadn’t shaved since the day before Carina dragged them out of bed too early on the fourth of July. “I have my gel in there too. I’m not using this either.”
Tino set Nova’s Clive Christian cologne next to him, along with the gel he packed, and Nova’s toothbrush and toothpaste. “You can’t even smell the difference anyway.”
“I can smell you right now,” Nova said with another annoyed glance at Tino. “And if I can smell it—”
“Minchia! Why didn’t you fucking tell me you brought something better, and if you say you forgot I’m laying you out, Casanova.”
A real, genuine laugh as he rinsed his razor under the steaming hot water. “That was payback for these tight ass, high water pants I’m stuck wearing.