My debut novel is officially released! With the stress of creating my first novel finally over with, I’m excited to take some time to give back to the community.
For those of you who are looking to see if Dante: A Criminal’s Heart is for them, I’ve uploaded this sample chapter to give you an exclusive sneak peak!
None of it was up to me. It hadn’t been up to me since I was a teenager. Even then, I was just under my father’s authoritative control instead of the brutal weight of Alphonse. As I stood outside of his door, the sound of my pathetic knock surely getting lost in the commotion on the other side, I gave myself the same pep talk I rehearsed everyday.
You can do this.
You are strong. You are smart. You are secure.
You can do this.
I jumped when the handle turned. Taking a step back, I tugged my jacket shut. The smell of Alphonse’s room overtook me in a wave: the scent of whiskey, ill-advised cigars, and fear. My head stayed bowed, my eyes flickering up to meet Al’s and avoid the gaze of the men around him. I hated feeling their eyes on me. Despite being here for the past five years, I was still a spectacle to them. They assumed I was some kind of call girl, a young thing like me dressed in an outfit like that. Al had chosen the uniform, but the entire thing was my idea. If there was a single thing I had learned from Al, it was that the best place to hide was in plain sight. Every day, I tied my blonde hair back in a ponytail, slipped into the nurse-themed negligee, and learned how to walk all over again in a pair of too-tall-for-me heels.
The old man sat behind his oak desk with a familiar smile on his lips. His blue eyes had become clouded in grey over the past few years, but despite his age, Al remained just as charming as the day I met him. He wore a fine suit, tailored to his body with the next always classier than the last. Heavy gold rings graced his arthritic fingers and his classic cologne followed him everywhere he went. Had I not been the one to treat him, I might have gotten caught up in the act as much as his own men.
I didn’t assume being the Don was easy, but Al had always made it look like a vacation. At least, the rest of the world seemed to think so.
“Gentlemen.” Al smiled, waving his arms in an attempt to gesture the others out. The men stole a final glance as they strolled past me, my eyes on Al as I avoided eye contact. As the door closed behind me, I slipped out of my jacket and rested it on the chair in front of Al’s desk.
“Mr. Moreno.” Pulling at the hem of my short dress, I tried to ignore the chuckle that followed.
“Please, Ramona, you’re like a daughter to me.” If I had been a lesser woman, the words would have caused my smile to falter. I was far too rehearsed now.
“Alphonse,” I corrected and the man smiled. “You know, Mr. Moreno, I warned you about these cigars.”
“Just a bit of celebration, Ramona. You can’t take that away from an old man like me.” I snorted at the thought. Crossing the floor, I made my way to the cabinet hidden in the back of the room. Al started getting ready behind me, the man beginning to play that ungodly loud classical music before shuffling into the room in the back of his office. The cycler rolled behind me as I tugged it out of its hiding place. I had thought that after a few years of nursing, my distaste for the smell of antiseptic would go away. Truthfully, it had only grown worse.
“How’re you feeling today, Mr. Moreno?” I sang, attempting to keep my voice as cheery as possible. Nothing started the treatment off worse than when he knew I was in just as bad a mood as him. The man let out a tired sigh as I closed the door to his bedroom. Al had already gotten himself set up in his usual spot, a LazyBoy we situated in front of his flat screen and beside his equipment. It didn’t take long to figure out our little appointments went better when Al didn’t have to acknowledge there was anything wrong. Instead, he liked to pretend he was just enjoying an afternoon chat with a scantily dressed young woman. Not that I blamed him. If I could escape my reality, I would too.
“Same as always, darling.” His sweet words did nothing to hide the disdain in his voice as he reached around for the TV remote. Snatching the remote off a nearby end table, I handed it to him with a smile. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” I nodded my head before digging out a pair of latex gloves. Turning on my heels, I rushed to grab a new filter cartridge out from Al’s cabinet. Complete with beautiful maple wood and a breathtaking emerald green theme, no outsider would have guessed that Mr. Moreno’s room held enough dialysis equipment to fill a small medical office. I guess, that’s how he wanted it. Carefully inserting the filter into his cycler, I snatched my clipboard off of the top of the machine and took a seat on the stool next to Al. “So, how’re you feeling?” I repeated. This time, the man wouldn’t look at me as he responded, the only way I knew he was telling the truth.
“Digestive issues? Nausea?” The man stole a glance at me, but only shook his head. I let out a content hum as I crossed my long legs over each other. Crossing the questions off of my list, we moved on like we always did. “Did you get your weight, Mr. Moreno?”
“Al,” he reminded me, like he did a dozen times every day. “273.”
“If you cut out all that red meat, you wouldn’t have to worry about this, you know?” I teased, a smile on my face. The man covered his annoyance with a grin.
“You stop bringing in those biscottis and I’d be thin as a rail.” I let out a snort as I snaked over to grab my blood pressure cuff from his medical closet.
“And then how would I get you to sit still?” Al gave a knowing hum, a gentle smile on his lips.
It was moments like this where I found myself getting swept up in everything that was Alphonse Moreno. For brief moments throughout my day, I didn’t despise him. He was just a charming old man who never once glanced at my chest; a sick man who needed someone to talk to and treated those around him with the utmost respect. Of course, those moments were few and far between. I knew Al’s true nature better than anyone else in the house, and I had a feeling he knew it as well. He was well aware I hated him for keeping me caged, for keeping me shackled to him and his bloody machine, but maybe that’s the best a Mafioso could hope for. There was no love in the mob, and there was certainly no compassion. Maybe, at the age of 60, all Al Moreno could hope for was a pretty little nurse who kept true to her promise.
His treatment took only two and a half hours, five days a week. After I inserted the needles into his fistula and we had finally injected the Heparin, all that was left to do was wait. The same way we did every day. For the most part, Al never liked to talk much. At least, not about anything in particular. He’d put on a nature documentary or some old war film and he’d tell me stories about what it was like when he was growing up. When we had started, I was as closed off as I had ever been. Now, we had fallen into some strange comfort zone. He was just a man and I was just his nurse, so I pretended like I was interested. Occasionally, I actually was. I kept the gentle smile on my face, I asked him questions to keep his story going, and I laughed when he needed me to.
I could see why he was as powerful as he was. After everything he had done and after everything he had taken away from me, somehow he still managed to make me like him.
With the afternoon winding down, I could hardly wipe the smile off my face as Al told me the story of him stealing from a local bakery— again. As I flushed the lines and disposed of the medical waste, Al was back to his usual self: charming and loud. The man continued to wave his arms as he talked, his accent becoming thicker with every story.
In an instant, the spark in his eyes vanished as a commotion from downstairs silenced us both. Al’s smile faltered for a moment before he let out a quiet curse. The man rolled his sleeve back down as he stood. Closing the cabinet, I offered him a reassuring smile. Truthfully, it wasn’t all that unusual. With his health deteriorating, Al had started running the business largely from his home, meaning scuffles broke out daily when the boys downstairs forgot whose house they were in.
“Why don’t you turn in early tonight?” The words were more a demand than an offering. I nodded my head, locking the cabinet and turning to make my way out of his bedroom. Part of the agreement was that no one saw me and no one asked who I was. I wouldn’t know what to tell them if they did anyway.
As I entered his office, I closed the door behind myself to give Al some privacy. His classical music was still playing loudly from the speakers in the corner. While I was sure the others had thought it was to hide the sounds of an affair from his wife, the truth was that Al didn’t like hearing the sound of the cycler while it ran. Turning the music off, I grabbed for my coat. Slipping into the warm jacket, I zipped it up as much as I could. The commotion downstairs grew louder as I opened the heavy door to the office. Slipping into the hallway and snaking down the stairs, I had already decided I would take the rear exit. I was in enough trouble as it was; I wasn’t going to be caught seeing something I shouldn’t have. Willful ignorance was the only thing that kept me safe anymore.
As I kept my eyes on the floor, I snuck past the dining hall and into the family kitchen in the back. Al was wealthy enough to have all of his meals delivered, leaving the kitchen at the back of the house to collect dust— if the Don had allowed dust in his home, that is. The place was cleaner than a hospital and somehow always smelled like furniture polish.
As my heels clicked against the perfectly tiled floor, the groan filled my ears. My head snapped up as I searched for whoever had spotted me, but my eyes only landed on the breakfast nook hidden away in the corner of the room. The man groaned once more, a small whimper for help as he tried to navigate the pain. A groan escaped me when I recognized the man. He was one of Al’s henchmen, some dickhead who thought he was more important than everyone else in the room. Dante Russo.
My eyes flashed to his bloodied jacket, a tear in the corner signaling a knife wound as opposed to a bullet hole. I looked back over my shoulder hoping to see the group of men who brought him into the house, but no one came. Sympathy took over my reasoning when I looked back to the injured man. Regardless of how big of an asshole he was, no one deserved to be in pain alone, and if he was hurt, there wasn’t really anyone better equipped to help. Biting my lip in annoyance, I placed a hand on my hip and strolled towards his head.
Dante was by far the most attractive man I had ever seen. When I saw him in passing a few years prior, Al told me to stay away from him. When I told him he had nothing to worry about, Al just rolled his eyes and mentioned that he used to be ‘pretty boy’ too. While I had a hard time thinking Al had ever been a ‘pretty boy’, there was no doubt in my mind that Dante Russo was trouble. He wore his dark hair longer than the rest, his stubble always making him look like he didn’t give a shit about the Don’s opinions. The man was built as muscular as an enforcer, and he never seemed to have any problems showing it. His emerald green eyes should have been registered as lethal weapons, and his smirk was enough to leave my stomach tied up for weeks.
There was never any doubt: Dante Russo was trouble. But as I looked down at him, somehow that initial fear melted away. Within the past few years, I had heard rumblings of Dante losing his edge. Apparently, the man had advanced throughout the organization without much effort, but now his drive had sunk to an all time low. Had the Don not liked him so much, I was sure he would have been erased entirely.
As the man let out another groan, I let out a gentle coo in response. “Hush. It’s okay. I’m right here.” My voice stayed soft as I tried to comfort him, my hand jutting out to brush some of his dark hair out of his eyes. He had already become clammy, but judging from the lack of blood, it wasn’t anything too serious. A few stitches, a hot meal, a good rest and he’d be back to his egocentric self by lunch tomorrow. Moving gently, I snaked a hand under his back and tried to lift him. If you’re going to treat a wound, you have to see the wound. I struggled to lift his body a few inches from the table, my free hand tugging at the sleeve of his leather jacket.
As his body jerked awake, I hardly had time to react. Dante’s brilliant eyes locked onto my own and my mind went blank. When I opened my mouth to try to soothe him, his hand flew over my lips. Jumping off of the table, the man spun me around and pressed my back into the bloodied breakfast table. I tried to let out a cry of pain, but his hand covered any noise I could make. Holding me in place, his blue eyes searched my body. I could see the panic and alarm within him, and as his body shook, so did mine. He reached back to pull a handgun out of his holster, and my body went rigid once more.
“Who the fuck are you?” He snarled, his voice low enough that only I could hear. Tears began to brim my eyes, but I tried to keep myself together. All those years working alongside Alphonse Moreno had to have given me some kind of strength, right? “Who the fuck are you?” he hissed again, and my body shook like a leaf. His hand released my mouth as he began to recognize his surroundings.
“Ramona,” I choked. His head jerked back towards me, and his eyes ran down my body.
“Take off the jacket,” he commanded.
“I said take off the jacket!” He hissed again, this time tearing my coat off of my shoulders and exposing my tight dress in the process. I saw his body tense as his eyes darted back up to me.
“Please, I just—” Before the words could leave my lips, I watched his legs begin to shake beneath him. Dante stumbled forward slightly, the gun then pressing into my chest as he tried to steady himself. Reflexes took over as I placed my hands on his biceps, helping the man towards the breakfast nook once more. “You need to settle down. You’re losing too much blood.” Dante’s head jerked towards me before back down to his own arm. He let out a hushed curse as his body fell back against the table. “I need to take your jacket off to see what we’re dealing with. Can you sit up for me?”
“Go fuck yourself.” My jaw clenched in annoyance, but I kept my smile. Not that I wanted to typecast, but all mafia men seemed to react the same way. Like there was no way a girl like me could ever help someone like them. His eyes flashed up to me for a moment, studying my face before moving back down to study my outfit. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Ramona.” The name seemed to come so smoothly considering I forced myself to give fake names for years. Dante rested his head back on the cool table and closed his eyes. Letting out a breath, he weighed his options. “I can help.” Dante snorted at the idea. “Listen, just because I’m a woman—”
“What the fuck do I care?” He bit back, his eyes flying open as he shot me a glare. Looking back up at the ceiling, his eyes softened for a moment. “I don’t make a habit of trusting people I pulled a gun on.” A smile rose over my face as I leaned over his body, finally getting back in his field of vision.
“Well, I’m not sure what other options you have.” Dante pursed his lips before sitting up, his face pulling intimately close to my own. For once, I felt like I couldn’t move. I had been so busy treating Al for years that I had forgotten what it was like to have a gorgeous man so close to me. My cheeks reddened as I straightened up, helping the man out of his jacket as professionally as possible.
The damage hardly seemed as bad as the drama queen made it out to be. After I cleaned his wound, the laceration only needed a few stitches— something he allowed me to do without putting up too much of a fuss. We sat on the kitchen table for at least an hour, my mind screaming at the fact that I got to run my hands over one of his perfect arms. Had I not known who he was, I might have tried to flirt or introduce myself— anything to let him know how painstakingly single I was and how long it had been since anyone had touched me. Instead, we sat in complete silence, Dante’s deep breathing the only thing that kept me sane. The entire time, his green eyes watched my every move, drifting to my chest whenever he got the chance.
As I applied the antibacterial ointment, Dante finally seemed to come back to reality and pull his eyes off of me. Looking down towards his watch, he let out a hiss.
“You’re almost done,” I assured him. He let out a frustrated breath. “You need to change this bandage regularly, all right? You can’t mess around with stuff like this.”
“Maybe you should just do it.” This time I was the one who let out a snort. My eyes drifted up to him and my body shivered under his gaze. I tried to tide him over with a smile, but the seriousness didn’t leave him. Grabbing a fresh bandage from my kit, I began to carefully wrap his arm.
“That’s not really necessary, Mr. Russo.”
“It’s Dante.” My eyes flickered up to his own once more.
“I know,” I replied casually. “I don’t make house calls.” The words seemed to make the color come back to his face, a cocky grin returning as I backed away and he examined his handy work.
“Your little getup there says otherwise,” he grinned, using his good hand to reach out and open up my jacket. In an instant, my defenses rose with full force. Snatching my jacket away from the man, I tucked a stray hair behind my ear and hurried to gather my things.
“Things aren’t always what they seem, Mr. Russo,” I growled. Messily packing my medical kit, I turned to march off towards the back door. The night had gone on for far too long.
“Ramona—” When I stopped in my tracks, I noticed the regret lacing his face. I let out a frustrated groan once more. If I left him completely unprepared, my conscience would never let me forget it. Marching back over to him, I dug into my over-sized purse. Shoving a protein bar in his direction, I turned on my heel once more and made a quick getaway.
“Make sure you change that bandage, Mr. Russo.”
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