Carmen stayed at Nova’s side, and carefully stepped around the pools of blood, but didn’t look back and she didn’t hesitate in front of the soldiers.
Once they were around the corner, and temporarily alone, she grabbed his hand and said quickly, “Ti devo parlare.”
I need to talk to you.
“After.” Nova pulled her closer, keeping his voice low, even though they were speaking in Italian. “I can’t keep him waiting, and I am on the edge of freaking out about Carlo. I—” His voice cracked, and he looked back down the hallway rather than meet her gaze. “I don’t mean to trivialize everything you lost, but—”
“I’m sorry about Carlo, but you have to answer me.” Carmen stopped and grabbed the collar of his shirt this time. “What did you say to your Don to get him to let me go? I know how this works. I’ve seen too much.”
Nova shrugged like it was no big deal, still fighting for breath past the panic. “I told him you’re a friend of mine.”
“Oh, Bello.” Carmen’s eyes welled up, making them glimmer like diamonds under the Don’s track lighting. She cupped his face and smiled. “You’re sweet, but—” Tears rolled down her cheeks. “You have to go back. You have to tell him you lied.”
Nova raised his eyebrows. “If I say I lied, he’ll have you killed. In case you haven’t noticed, we don’t fuck around with our security.”
“You still have to do it,” Carmen said, like they weren’t discussing her execution. “I’m sorry, I know it’s unpleasant.” She took a shaky breath, as more tears rolled down her cheeks. “But, I’m okay with it, really. What do I have left on this side? Nothing.”
“Hard pass.” Nova grabbed her arm and tried to keep moving.
Carmen pulled away, her hands were still shaking, but she folded her arms over her chest protectively and glared. “It’s a wonder your borgata survives, ‘cause your boy wasn’t wrong. You are good at making the same mistakes.”
“And yet we do survive.” Nova gave her a cynical smile. “Seems like if we’re keeping score, your borgata’s down a few, ‘cause all the Morettis are still standing. Same can’t be said for your side, can it?”
“What makes you think I’m part of the Brambinos?” Carmen asked him in disbelief. “I haven’t spoken to my father since I was sixteen. He hated me. It was only because of my sister that he sold me instead of killed me.” She narrowed light eyes at him. “And if you knew who my sponsor is now, you would drop me very quickly. I’m cute, but I’m not worth it to you, I promise.”
Nova studied Carmen, realizing she was genuinely scared at the idea of him saving her, which meant the alternative had to be fucking terrifying.
Death wasn’t always the worst option, but still…
Worse than the Brambinos?
Worse than death by the Morettis?
What else was left?
An icy cold river of fear burst to life in Nova’s veins and pooled in his stomach. For the moment, it washed out the panic over Carlo as the pieces started to come together in his mind. Nova had put it on the backburner behind the other problems, but Tony’s horror at finding her in the basement flashed back at him once more.
It must’ve shown on Nova’s face when he realized Carmen was indebted to someone much bigger than the Brambinos.
“You have to go tell your Don we’re not friends,” Carmen said like she expected him to agree with her. “Are you hearing me? I’m tired anyway. You’re doing me a favor, because you don’t want to know what my sponsor does to traitors. One well aimed bullet from your don would be a huge improvement.”
There was so much resignation in her voice. Nova had no idea what this woman had suffered through, but he knew that sound all too well. He felt it down to his soul, to the point that he wasn’t really sure what the right answer was any more.
There was no good and bad.
It all felt like one rabid, insane gamble, and Nova hated that feeling more than anything in the world.
Standing there with no control and no direction, he asked, “Who’re you indebted to? One of the Savios or one of the De Lucas?”
Tony had deep connections to both borgatas, one by blood, the other by association and loyalty. He could have stumbled on Carmen in either family. It had to be one of the two—Nova was certain of it.
Carmen gave him a watery smile. “Wouldn’t it be great if I could tell you it was the Savios? That’s almost solvable.”
“Yeah, that would be great.” Nova closed his eyes, because he was considering agreeing with her about death being the kinder option. He could feel his heart thundering in his ears, and every muscle in his body was tight. “Who is it, Carmen?”
Carmen shrugged, giving him a look like it should be obvious.
Either that or she was petrified to say it out loud.
“Dante?” Nova guessed, nearly choking on the name.
‘Cause if it was Dante De Luca, Nova might as well have his grandfather put a bullet in both of them. That was nearly an unsolvable, doomsday issue, and Nova was no amateur at problem solving.
The second Nova had the thought, Carmen one-upped him.
Dante was capo bastone, second in command of the entire De Luca borgata. There was only one possible person who could be considered a bigger fish than Dante De Luca.
“Holy shit.” Nova covered his face with his hands and stood there wondering what he had done to piss God off. “What were you doing in a Brambino club if you belong to Don De Luca? Talk fast, bella. We’re out of time.”
“The De Lucas have a little interfamily issue going on with their Tampa division,” Carmen explained simply. “Since Vinny and my father had an on again, off again working relationship I was using the club as a cover to get in with Vinny’s nephews, the Tampa De Lucas, and find out what they’re planning. The club gave me the tragic backstory, since everyone knows my family is hideous and they’d never suspect me of being connected to the De Lucas.”
“De Lucas are secretly working with the Brambinos,” Nova whispered in horror, because that was a completely separate problem than the one with Carmen. “That’s great, really good news for the rest of us.” He felt like she grabbed his chess board, tossed it across the room and expected him to know the next move. “Dante backed me on the Brambino deal when I got everyone out. Why the hell would he do that if the families were secretly buddies?”
“It was just a friendship between Vinny and my father, and it’s not like he’d advertise it to his son or his borgata. It was a private, on the side thing. They’ve been doing favors for each other for years.” Carmen glanced to where they left Tony and Tino. “How do you think Tony got here? He wasn’t an accident, bello. He was donated. My father owned Tony’s mother, and he wanted a little De Luca blood in the mix. Too bad Tony turned out to be a boy, but they worked with it.”
“Goddamn, Bella, this is fucking secret shit you’re telling me.” Nova couldn’t believe how easily she said it. If that didn’t prove she had nothing to lose, he couldn’t think what else would. These were the darkest of Nostra secrets about some of the most powerful players, and now Nova was tainted too. “I don’t like hearing other people’s shit. That’s a good way to wind up dead.”
“Isn’t it?” Carmen agreed. “All good deeds, right? It started out nice too. I had a place on the beach. I got a break from Vinny, and I was kind of looking forward to meeting the Tampa De Lucas. I thought maybe my luck was changing, the curse was lifted. They had to be better than Vinny, right?” She gave Nova another long look. “Imagine my surprise when a different big fish swam into my net.”
“Are you loyal to him?” Nova asked, staring at her closely, looking for signs of a lie.
“Vinny?” Carmen shook her head. “No, he wasn’t my choice. He was my father’s choice.” She shrugged then, looking at the tiled floor. “I won’t lie, Nova. I’ve been a good soldier him. Vinny could’ve done anything to my sister, to my friends. Who did I have to save me, my father? At least if Vinny was happy, we were all safe. So, I tried my hardest to keep him happy—it just wasn’t enough. My sister died anyway.”
Nova nodded. “I understand.”
Two words that encompassed a whole lifetime of suffering—for both of them. He wasn’t even sure what he wanted for himself anymore. He had been running the survival program too long, doing anything and everything in his power to ensure the don was happy enough so the rest of them could earn the special privilege of staying safe for one more day. Only hearing it from Carmen’s side made it sound one thousand times more fucked up.
“So, when you said, ‘he watches,’ back at the club,” Nova clarified, because that was one thing he couldn’t let go. “You weren’t really talking about Sammy the bouncer.”
“Well, him too, if you care. He was just a soldier my father assigned to the club to make sure I was behaving.” Carmen sighed. “But I was mainly talking about Vinny. He liked to watch the feed, just for fun, it got him off, but the De Lucas didn’t have a presence in the club. He wouldn’t risk that. Sammy worked for my father. You didn’t kill any of Vinny’s actual soldiers.”
“I just kidnapped his comare, dragged her into our war, and vouched to my grandfather under the threat of death that she’s loyal to us,” Nova finished for her. “So, that’s cool, no issues there.”
“Which is why I told you to go back downstairs,” Carmen said quickly. “Look, I’ve been thinking about it. If I’m gone, Vinny will let it go. The video from the feed means nothing. I was sixteen when he took me off my father’s hands. He doesn’t want anyone to know that, most especially Dante. He doesn’t want them to know he had me stripping in my father’s club trying to get in with the Tampa De Lucas either. What can he do to you if I never show back up?”
“I can think of a lot of things.” Nova stood there rolling the problem around in his mind. “So, you’re a spy for the De Lucas? You seduce powerful men for information.”
“It’s a new job. He’s really desperate for information on his nephews. Before that it’s been only women and Vinny since I was sixteen.” Carmen sounded bitter about it. “You know how Mafiosi are with their comares—territorial.”
“Yeah.” Nova flinched. “I’m aware.”
“I wasn’t trying to insult you.”
Nova frowned at her, his thoughts struggling to sift through the distraction of drugs, pain and fear. It was a second before he raised his eyebrows in understanding. “I don’t have comares, Carmen. I was talking about my mother.”
“Oh.” Carmen considered that for a moment. “I forgot about that.”
“I didn’t,” he mumbled, still pondering the problem, because it wasn’t one that could wait for later.
This was an immediate issue.
Either she lived, and he dealt with the massive consequences, or she died, and he dealt with the five hundred other things on his list, that would also likely send him to confession.
Nova glanced towards the hallway nervously, thinking of the Don downstairs with the Brambino he should’ve killed the moment he found him.
Then, he eyed Carmen again, standing there with no makeup, blonde curls wild. The overlarge blue sweater she wore had slipped down, showing the curve of her shoulder, and the black shorts exposed her strong, smooth, tanned legs.
Objectively, by virtually anyone’s standards, Carmen was gorgeous. Nova understood why Vinny De Luca sent her to Tampa with the natural assumption that she would have zero issues seducing his nephews for information that could lead to their downfall.
Nova got it.
It was a compelling idea—destroying his enemies with a woman, very old school, almost predictable. Cosa Nostra loved to catch each other with their pants down. It was a thing. So much so, they had laws designed to protect against it, and still it happened. The Brambinos had been doing it for years, case in point was standing in front of him.
“I’m a powerful man,” Nova reminded her as objectively as his acknowledgement of her beauty.
“So what?” Carmen shrugged. “We both know you don’t you have enough resources to fight the Brambinos and the De Lucas—your grandfather wouldn’t allow it.”
“True,” Nova agreed, because there was no arguing it. The De Lucas were stronger than them, especially right now, while the Morettis were fucking around with this Brambino war. “But if De Luca sent you away to seduce his nephews--”
“I have things in common with his nephews,” Carmen argued quickly. “It wasn’t hard for Vinny to believe they’d tell me things.”
“Yeah, I understand his thinking, they’re half Cuban, you’re half Dominican.” Nova nodded in understanding. “That means you speak the same language as their poor, dead mother, killed by Cosa Nostra. He probably thinks they’d be inclined to want to save you from your terrible family at any cost.”
Carmen sucked in a hard breath of understanding, but in the next moment hissed, “It won’t work.”
“Why?” Nova shrugged. “He probably has footage of me freaking out on your bodyguard if he was jerking off to the club feeds. He knows I’m vulnerable where you’re concerned. He’ll dig it, I promise. Most goodfellas are twisted like that.”
“You don’t have anything he’d want.” Carmen looked down the hallway again and lowered her voice.
“Don’t I? You can’t think of anything?” Nova asked curiously. “All my resources, all my talents, and there’s nothing? Give me a fucking break, bella, any man on this planet would give their left nut to blackmail me.”
Carmen stared back at him, light eyes sharp and assessing, then she reached back and touched her neck, tilting her head as her gaze dropped lower.
“I’d have to convince him--” She shook her head again. “Just go tell your grandfather the truth and be done with it.”
“You’re a smart girl, you’ll think of something.” Nova wrapped and arm around her waist, but she dug her heels in and stayed where she was. Nova stopped with her, and growled, “I feel like fucking merda, bella. There’s dead bodies everywhere, my nonno is on the edge of having me whacked, my brother is about to go off the deep end over this Brianna thing, and I just found out my zio is likely going down one way. I know we all have problems, but I need one person to make life easy on me. I am literally begging you to shut the fuck up about this and deal.”
Carmen folded her arms, but her features softened as she looked away. “Whatever he got from you would have to be large enough for him to believe it wasn’t bullshit. It would literally have to be something so big, or so fucking painful, there was no way he could believe you were in on it. It’s too dangerous for you—and for Tino.”
“Can’t have that, with us living such stable, conventional lives over here.” Nova started walking again, this time she followed him, reluctantly “We’ll figure out it.”
There wasn’t a lot Nova was sure of at this point in the game, but he knew one thing--Carmen Bambino wasn’t dying today.