Criminal by Mary Elizabeth

Talent

It’s said that revenge is a dish best served cold.

My taste for vengeance is as hot as it was ten years ago when my mother was killed. Time has only allowed these rotten parts to fester and grow, spreading like an incurable disease inside of me. Lately, I’ve grown feverish with it.

They called it an accidental shooting. Pamela Ridge, beloved wife and loving mother, wasn’t the intended target. Wrong person. Wrong place. A series of unfortunate events. Regrettably, these things happen, and innocent people are taken out. She knew what she signed up for.

Cosa Nostra. Our thing.

Condolences. All around, condolences.

But the work must go on.

“Check this out.” Wilder, my older brother, nudges me with his elbow. He has me read the text message while hiding the prepaid cell phone beneath the table from prying eyes. In a low voice, he says, “There’s a problem.”

We have unwelcome guests.

“He can handle it,” I answer dismissively. We don’t assign contacts in the burner phones we use for family business, but the disease in me recognizes the number and my fever burns hotter.

Wilder closes the cell, shaking his head. “This won’t stop unless we put an end to it, Talent.”

“What would you have us do right now?” I ask under my breath. I scan the conference room, searching for anyone listening to our quiet conversation. This isn’t the time or place to deal with Coppola affairs. But the organization waits for no one. “Nico is there. He’s more capable of taking care of visitors.”

“Nico has checked out and you know it,” Wilder bites back, referring to the newly crowned boss.

An older man at the table beside ours clears his throat and studies us from his peripheral vision. I’ve seen him around. He’s a standard opportunist, a stiff suit who’s been sure to keep us within his reach for photo opportunities and the chance to insert himself into conversations he wouldn’t otherwise be invited to all weekend.

Wilder and I are half this man’s age, with half of his experience, but in a few minutes, we’re going to take the stage and tell the story about our rise to the top. Add motivational speaker to my résumé. I’m fucking modern day Tony Robbins. If Tony was secretly mixed up in organized crime.

“Let it go, Talent,” Wilder says, but he already knows I won’t.

There are two sides to me, constantly at battle. The side of me who grew up in the mob and now controls the most powerful organized crime outfit in the country wants to carve this man’s eyes out with a pen. But the second side, the respectable business lawyer, reaches into his jacket and tosses him a cough drop.

“There’s something going around,” I say and wink. “At your age, you might want to get it checked out.”

Caught off guard, the older gentleman flinches, juggling the cough drop from one hand to the other before it slips from his grasp and tumbles to the floor.

“What are you? A fucking pharmacy?” Wilder shakes with quiet laughter. “Do you always carry lozenges in your pockets?”

“They’re for Lydia. She woke up with a small cough.” The corner of my mouth curves into a half-smile, unable to hold it back when it concerns love. While the two sides of my professional life pull me in separate directions, it all stops for her. I have pockets full of cough drops, tampons in the glove box of my Lamborghini, and an entire high-end escort service operating from my skyscraper in Grand Haven.

There’s nothing I wouldn’t give her.

“Be easy.” My brother claps the back of my neck. “We have enough going on at home. Let’s not start a war here, too.”

“A war isn’t a bad idea. Let them kill each other,” I say. After all, that’s not too far off from our plan. But my tongue burns with regret the moment the words pass my lips.

I’ve only recently become a made man in the Italian Mafia, but the Ridges’ association with the Coppola crime family started long before we took our oaths. Spend enough time with monsters, and the culture becomes second nature. Wise guys. Good fellas. Men of honor. It’s a way of life. The philosophy—lie, steal, cheat, murder, but do it with dignity and respect the hierarchy—has been ingrained in me since I was a kid, and that makes it impossible to find joy in the hypothetical deaths of my chosen family. With the exception of a select few.

The man behind the cryptic text and my new underboss sits high on the short list.

“I don’t mean that.” I sigh, sinking with the weight on my shoulders.

Wilder spins a writing pen on his fingers, up and around his knuckles as he contemplates what I’ve said. He’s a couple of years older than me, wiser and not as quick to say things that could get us killed in another setting.

“I know you don’t.”

We’re closer than ever to answering those responsible for our mother’s death, but the truth is, it’s never felt as complicated. Our idea was to get close and strike from within like a Trojan horse—surrendering our freedom to the mob in the process. Going down in a blaze of glory was easier said than done when we didn’t have so much to lose. Now the ball is rolling, and there’s no going back. Everything is on the line.

Ridge & Sons exceeded my parents’ expectations after their passing. The Coppolas benefit from that success. Hush piggybacks on all of it. The problem now is our existence is rooted in the organization. As our ventures grow and our personal lives develop, my hatred for the people responsible for my parents’ deaths burns hot, but I don’t know if there’s a way to get revenge and keep my future at the same time. And I don’t know how to choose between the two.

“We haven’t come this far to lose control now.” My brother tips his chin, regarding me carefully. “If anything were to happen to Camilla, I couldn’t live with myself. Do you understand?”

“That’s not going to happen, Wild,” I answer.

“Good. I’m glad we’re on the same page.” He sits straight in his seat, refastening his cufflinks. “Our friends down south need to be dealt with sooner rather than later. We’re all fucked if anything interrupts my girl’s wedding plans. You should have seen the meltdown she had when we found out the table linens she wants are on backorder. Fucking terrifying. She reminded me a little of Lydia.”

I laugh out loud, unapologetic as it earns us a few looks from the crowd. The speaker on stage skips a beat, a welcome reprieve from his drawn-out, monotone lecture about changing tax laws. Besides ol’ Cough Drop at my right, no one dares to correct my rudeness. What Ridge & Sons has accomplished as a corporate law firm isn’t typical, and they want what we have. They’ll hang on our every word to achieve it.

If we could only get Nicolai Coppola to do the same.

“And while we’re discussing Lydia and war,” Wilder continues with an edge to his tone.

“We’re not,” I remind him, nodding toward the room full of lawyers.

“This wedding means everything to Camilla. It would be nice if Lydia lightened up a little, if you know what I mean.”

I know what he means. He thinks she’s a bitch, and no one disagrees, not even Lydia herself. But she only has so much to give, and he’s asking for too much.

“Don’t look at me like that, Talent.” He kicks my chair, and I cut the hardened expression for his sake. “Camilla asked her to be the maid of honor…”

“And she agreed,” I remind him. Adjusting my seat, I focus on the current speaker on stage and gesture for him to wrap it up. Don’t fuck with the IRS, we get it. Some of us are just better at it than others.

“After she said no twice. Who does that?”

“Lydia’s not a people person,” I say. “What’s the big deal, anyway? This wedding couldn’t have come at a worse time, and you’re already married. You’ve been married for months. Who the fuck needs two ceremonies?”

Wilder turns his entire body toward me. Thank God for the audience, because I recognize the smoke in his gray eyes, and I don’t want it.

“I’d give her four, five, six ceremonies if she wanted it, Talent. I’d marry her a hundred times over if she asked. I’m responsible for Camilla’s happiness, and if planning the wedding of her dreams gives her joy, who the fuck are you to question it? And who the fuck is Lydia to make it harder than it needs to be?”

Returning his smoke with fire, I shove my seat back and stand as my surroundings disappear behind the blaze. We were raised to understand the assignment: behave well in public and never embarrass the family. We’re impeccable businessmen, sharing an empire and an obligation to the streets. But above all, Wilder and I are brothers—real blood brothers. None of this bound by an oath shit. And if he says one more thing about my girl, on brotherhood, I’m going to fuck him up.

Wilder’s eyes follow the length of my body before matching my stare. He flashes an amused smile, pushing his own seat back. This life has turned us into animals, and it’s only a matter of time before the people building us up, tear us down. Let’s give them something to talk about.

Confusing our aggression with eagerness, our host takes the stage and excuses the current speaker to introduce us. “It seems our keynote speakers are excited for their chance at the podium.” He points his finger at us like a gun, exaggerating laughter.

“Saved by the bell, motherfucker,” Wilder mumbles as he steps past me.

“This isn’t over,” I say, walking behind him through the aisle to the stage.

The screen behind the stage changes from the seminar header to the Ridge & Sons logo. We plaster smiles on our faces as we’re greeted with polite applause, and I take the lead once we’re under the warm spotlight. That’s my role in this charade. The charming son. Easy to talk to. People pleaser.

“All I’m saying is as her maid of honor, Lydia could be a little more enthusiastic about the planning process,” Wilder whispers from a step back. His smile doesn’t waver, but if it did, no one would be surprised. He’s the callous son. All work, no play. The closer.

Snapping my head in his direction, I accidentally hit the microphone with my notes. Everyone cringes as the feedback howls from the speakers, and I quickly play it off, tapping the grill and saying, “Is this thing on?”

As if I didn’t just blow their eardrums out, the audience chuckles in compliance. I’m not arrogant enough to believe Wilder and I are the only lawyers in attendance who manipulate the law. We all bend the rules to accommodate our clients and fill our pockets with more than our fair share, but there’s not a single person here who does it like the Ridges. Flipping back and forth between high-profile lawyer and made man makes it difficult not to treat them like puppets. If I say jump, they jump. And if they don’t, I know a guy who can make them—at gunpoint.

Holding my hand over the microphone, I address my brother, “Say another word about my lady and I’ll shove this podium up your ass.”

“I’d like to see you try.” Wilder adjusts his tie at his neck, nodding at a friendly face in the crowd. “I’m the bigger and stronger brother.”

“Dumber brother,” I mumble, sounding every bit of the younger child.

“Better brother,” he sneaks in just as I turn the charm all the way up and tackle the audience.

“For those who don’t know me, I’m Talent Ridge, and this is my brother, Wilder.”

Everyone’s heard of us, and for the next hour, Wilder and I present the PowerPoint presentation created by a team at the office. We cover Ridge & Sons’ significant market growth from inception to our latest quarterly report with color graphics and bold font that catch the eye, emphasizing our key demographics and networking strategies that worked best for the law firm.

I highlight Ridge & Sons’ accomplishments, throwing out numbers and the names of our coveted clients. When it starts to sound too good to be true, because it really fucking is, Wilder cuts in with a shot of reality that makes us relatable.

“As many of you know, our family suffered a great loss.” Pause. Deep breath. Sigh. “None of this would have been possible without our father, David Ridge.”

Suffered a great loss.

It’s such a bullshit analogy, implying he’s simply lost or misplaced. We didn’t lose our father. He was murdered in the street by Luca Coppola, in a foiled attempt to kill his way from underboss to don. Wilder’s revenge was instant when he put a bullet in Luca’s head. His blood still stains the parking garage floor at Ridge & Sons.

“For a while, we were unsure if we could go on,” Wilder continues.

More bullshit. My dad wasn’t a made man, but he’d been tied up in the organization long enough to know the risks the lifestyle afforded. Sign the dotted line with the Mafia but do so with the knowledge that you may never grow old. Play with the bull, get the horns. As a man of honor, I understand this and mourn him. But as the need for revenge clouds my judgment, with the scar of an unforgivable oath on the palm of my hand, I blame him, too.

“Our business suffered alongside us,” Wilder says gravely. We show a slide that marks a decline in profits. Fake news, but it pulls heartstrings.

My father’s killing was unjust but dignified in death. The mob—the same family I’ve sworn my life to—slaughtered my mother and covered it up. Had it not been for Nico, I’d still think it was an accident. The real reason behind her murder is unknown, but I have every intention of finding out and taking down everyone involved.

“Ridge & Sons was on the brink of collapse when my brother and I realized we owed our father’s legacy, our employees, and our clients deserve a fighting chance.” An aerial view of the Ridge & Sons building on a crisp summer day appears on the screen. Someone edited dolphins in the ocean background, and when I find out who’s responsible, they’re getting a raise. “It hasn’t been easy.”

Yes, it has.

He clears emotion from his throat. I clap his shoulder and squeeze.

“Running Ridge & Sons hasn’t been easy without the guidance of the man who started it all, but we move forward with the lessons he taught us.”

The aerial shot of our building fades to a photograph of our entire team on the roof, including our interns, paralegals, receptionists, and even Dog Mom holding Lydia by her wrist. I wanted her by my side, but Lydia thought it was tasteless. She didn’t want to be in the picture at all. We settled on imprisonment.

What’s not included in the slideshow is the truth. Had my parents not met before college, David Ridge may have chosen a different career path. But he fell in love with the dark-haired Italian girl whose family ran with the Mafia, and here we are today.

“Ridge & Sons utilizes the most innovative engineering science on the market.”

The room grows cold as Wilder lists the new technology and know-how we use in the office, excluding the fact that some of our technology and know-how includes an entire team of money launderers, hackers, and extortionists. The numbers and formulas behind it all give me a headache, and I close my eyes against the bright lights shining on stage.

“What we’ve created in Grand Haven started off with a dream and the perseverance to see it come to life,” Wilder says in closing.

And blood money. Lots and lots of blood money.

Despite the cold air blowing from the AC, I’m sweating beneath the collar and pull it loose from my neck. Cutting it short won’t do us any favors, but there’s an entire question-and-answer segment after our presentation. The thought of standing up here for another minute to tell more lies turns my stomach, and I’m looking for the closest exit when the back door opens and Lydia steps through.

I sigh in relief at the sight of her, my body cooling and relaxing all at once. Lydia Montgomery is always beautiful, statuesque with waist-length hair, hazel eyes, and lips as red as my need to devour them. But she’s the most beautiful when I haven’t seen her in a while, like laying claim on her for the first time all over again.

As my brother and I answer the same questions over and over, Lydia stands against the far wall with her arms crossed over her chest. Wilder’s wife and Lydia’s business partner, Camilla, lingers at her side, flipping through what is no doubt a bridal magazine. Once our time on stage is complete, I don’t stick around for formal goodbyes and forced conversation, instead creating a path that leads me to forever.

Camilla opens the magazine for Lydia to take a peek. “Dark color palettes are on trend. Do you think we need to change our color choices?”

Ignoring the magazine, Lydia unfolds her arms as I approach. A simple gesture that wouldn’t mean much from anyone else, but she’s opened herself up to me the only way she knows how. It means everything.

“You don’t like the dark, Camilla. Why would you have your wedding mimic that for the sake of a trend?” she asks.

Glancing up from the editorial, the soon-to-be bride smiles and says, “You’re dark, and I like you.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Lydia drawls, sneaking a quick look at the magazine and shaking her head in disparagement. “We decided on light and airy. What’s the problem?”

I close the few feet between us, laughing at the way she forced light and airy from her tongue like a sneer. Not sure what Wilder has to complain about. From what I can see, Lydia’s fitting into her role as maid of honor seamlessly.

“Hey,” I say.

Piercing me with her gold and green stare, Lydia lifts her chin to lengthen her neck. I reach out and slide my palm over her collarbone, past her rushing heartbeat, and around the back of her neck like an anchor.

“Hey yourself,” she says smoothly, eyes melting.

“Yeah?” I take a step closer, my chest tightening as I bring our bodies together. “Hey yourself? That’s all you’ve got for me?”

“Hello, Talent. How was your day?” Camilla says robotically, twirling her finger to move this along.

She’s made a habit of filling in Lydia’s empty spaces, often speaking on her behalf when Lydia’s met her word quota for the day. It’s something we’ve all become accustomed to. My brother and I are guilty of it at times, often predicting each other’s wants and needs. These are qualities that make us impeccable business partners and why our family can have two consiglieres instead of one. We’re the same person.

But Lydia’s words are food to me, and I’m famished.

I don’t expect much while we’re in a room full of people, but she surprises me and slides her hand inside of my jacket. Gripping my shirt in her fist, she whispers, “Save me. If I have to look at another wedding dress, I’ll die.”

Wilder is right. She really is a terrible maid of honor.

Lydia Montgomery isn’t the type of woman who needs saving. She needs patience and understanding. She needs time and space. More than that, she needs me to be the man who stands by her side not only as a lover and guard, but as an equal. May the Lord have mercy on anyone who dares threaten her safety, but only after I’ve let her take the first shot.

But to hear her say save me, in any context, evokes the primal need to protect and provide that thousands of years of evolution hasn’t changed.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Camilla says. “The champagne was good.”

I taste it on Lydia’s mouth, pressing my lips softly to hers as heat charges through my veins. We have dinner reservations in an hour, but a three-course meal isn’t the nourishment I crave. I’d like nothing more than to take my girl back to our room and feast on her body until the sun comes up, and then we could think about breakfast before we catch a flight back to Grand Haven.

Not that simple. When visiting another family’s territory, even on business unrelated to the mob, a certain level of respect must be followed. The seminar might be over, but this is business as usual. After we return to the hotel for a quick change of clothes, we find ourselves at a Cuban cuisine restaurant and club owned by the don in this area. We’re his guests and refusing would be as equally insulting as spitting in his face.

“Welcome to Isla Havana. It’s our honor to have you here tonight,” the hostess greets us upon our arrival. “Please, allow me to show you the table where you’ll dine.”

I rest my hand on Lydia’s lower back, and we follow the hostess through the restaurant to a table overlooking Miami Beach. Large overhead fans spin in slow rotation, secured to exposed beams crowning the vaulted ceiling. The walls are covered in gold flaked wallpaper, decorated with authentic art. Lydia’s red bottom heels tap on the mosaic tiles as we pass the main dining area, booths donned in green velvet, rich coppers, and dark wood. Potted palm trees move with the breeze blowing in from the open windows, a mix of sea and spice.

“Mr. Capone would like to remind you that your experience with us this evening is on the house.” The hostess pulls out our chairs. “Honor us by ordering whatever you like. I assure you, no request is too small for such important guests. While you decide on your meal, we’ve left a bottle of our finest wine on the table.”

“This place is nice,” Camilla says, lowering herself into her seat. “I’ve never had Cuban food before.”

“The Capones have a very heavy influence in the food industry across Florida. But this is his crown jewel. It’s why he invited us here, so order the most expensive shit on the menu. He’ll be offended if we don’t.” Wilder sits beside his wife, draping his arm across the back of her chair.

Lydia scoffs, shaking out a cloth napkin and arranging it across her lap. “Who knew you big, bad gangsters are so easy to offend?”

“It doesn’t help that Rip nearly choked his capo to death in New York a few months ago.” I pop the cork from the bottle of rum and inhale the syrupy scent before pouring Lydia a serving.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she says disapprovingly. She drinks the contents in her glass in one gulp, leaving a red lip print on the rim. “Does he have a death wish?”

Wilder pushes his glass forward and says, “He was provoked. The guy got mouthy with Nicolai in front of a bunch of heavy hitters, and Rip set him straight. As far as I’m concerned, it was a justified attack. It’s the right kind of message to send the other organizations.”

Camilla leans forward, candlelight from the centerpiece casting shadows across her face. “Didn’t he used to be the … you know, the fixer?”

“Jesus,” Lydia mumbles, taking the bottle from my hand and pouring herself an entire glass.

I was nine or ten years old when Rip Alessi started hanging around, back when Nicolai’s grandfather controlled the family. The underboss, Nico’s uncle Gino, had caught Rip stealing from a liquor store protected by the organization. Instead of cutting his hand off, he took the jaded boy under his wing, and since we were all around the same age, forced Rip’s friendship on us. He hung around long after Gino was killed, and by the time we were teenagers, it was clear that his allegiance ran deeper than his relationship with us. He was good with a gun, and he had no soul. The perfect recipe for a contract killer.

And now he’s our underboss.

But he isn’t the only one who’s good with a gun.

“You can only keep a dog like that caged up for so long before it acts out.” Wilder sips his drink.

I meet his eyes and say, “He’ll learn to behave or be put down.”

Lydia sneaks her hand under the table to squeeze my knee in silent warning. My brother’s seat is directly beside Camilla’s, and he tucks her securely under his arm. She leans into him, eyes glassy from the liquor, with a permanent smile on her lips. Their wedding bands catch the firelight, and as the rum warms my belly, I find it harder to pretend the ease of their relationship doesn’t eat me up inside.

“Let’s change the subject, shall we?” Lydia says. “There’s no telling how many sets of eyes are on us tonight.”

“Are we being watched?” Camila asks. Her posture stiffens in a clear attempt to keep herself from looking around, another reminder that she wasn’t born into this life like the rest of us.

“Absolutely.” I sit back in my seat. Lydia’s hand falls from my lap and returns to the table, and I stare at it as I say, “If we so much as spill a glass of water tonight, Capone will know it’s happened before we reach for the napkins. There’s been a tail on us since we landed at the airport. He sent men to watch us at the seminar, and there was likely someone watching you two dress shopping today.”

Camilla’s eyes widen, but Lydia is not surprised. “We were never in harm’s way,” she says. “If I didn’t think you were safe, we wouldn’t be on this trip. This is just the name of the game.”

Wilder rolls his eyes as if he didn’t personally hire the security detail to follow our women while they shopped today. But he takes one look at the somber expression on my face and lets it go. He spins the ring around his finger, a habit he shared with our father, and I don’t need to say a word. He knows what’s on my mind.

Spotting the server approaching before any of us, Lydia straightens her posture and says, “It has been nice to get out of Grand Haven. Florida is beautiful.”

We order the chef’s special, enjoying an array of appetizers with our rum. While the waitress comes back and forth from our table to the kitchen, we trade conversation about work and family for lighter topics. Wedding planning, alligators, and the weather. I laugh at the appropriate times, nodding when I’m supposed to, and agreeing when I should.

“The humidity here is something else,” I concur over ropa vieja and plantains when all I want to do is grab Lydia’s chair and pull it closer to mine.

Her seat is marginally tilted in my direction, close enough to placate me with occasional touches and lingering stares. Typically, I’m okay with these rare signs of affection, taking what I can get from a partner who’s still learning how to express herself emotionally. But it would be nice for my girlfriend to realize that I need more, if only for the night.

Camilla’s cheeks are flushed, skin covered in a sheen of sweat. My brother’s hair has loosened from the slick style he wore earlier, curlier atop his head than usual. The light wind coming off the ocean does nothing to cool the rum running tepid through our veins or the thickness in the air. I pull my shirt away from my chest, unbuttoning the first button as our waitress clears the table of empty plates.

“I haven’t felt humidity like this since I left North Carolina.” Camilla fans her face with her hands, blowing her cheeks full of air.

“It adds to the ambiance,” Lydia says. Condensation from her glass melts over her fingers. “I think it’s romantic, like we’re actually in Cuba.”

Pausing mid-fan, Camilla chuckles. “Says the woman who doesn’t have a single strand of hair out of place.”

“That’s because I had a smoothing treatment done on my hair before we left, and I invested in waterproof mascara.” Lydia’s mouth twitches with a hint of a smirk as she runs her hand over the length of her hair. “Nothing gets the best of me. Not even the humidity.”

“Except for that cough you’ve had all weekend,” Camilla reminds her.

The lights in the restaurant go down as the music goes up on the dance floor. I grab the rum bottle by the neck and stand up when we can no longer hear each other talk. Lydia’s curious gaze follows me until my lips find the spot right below her ear. Her eyes close on a slow exhale.

“Get up. Dance with me.” I leave no room for argument.

The warmth we felt at our dinner table was tame compared to the heat on the dance floor. A sea of people move like the waves, rolling with the melody of the music and crashing on the beat. I guide Lydia to the center of the commotion, where it’s hottest and we feel the pulse of the Cuban-infused number through our feet. Orange, yellow, and red lights complete the sultry mood, intensifying the sweaty-sexy vibes.

I circle my arm around Lydia’s waist, pulling her against my body. I expect her to tense up and fight back. Maybe she’ll come up with an excuse to run back to the table. Deciding that if she tries, I’ll force her to stay—demand it. But for the third time today, she surprises me and wraps her loving arms around my neck and sways with the speed to the music.

“What are you waiting for, Mr. Ridge?” she asks when I don’t move with her. “You brought me out here. What are you going to do with me?”

Lydia turns in my arms, and I come to life. Swallowing a deep swig from the bottle, I grip her hips with my free hand and let the sensation take over. We’re swallowed by the night, lost in the mass of moving bodies song after song. She hitches her dress up, and I untuck my shirt. My hair falls over my eyes, and hers sticks to her sweaty face, finally melting like the rest of us.

“Marry me,” I say in a tone too low for her to hear. “I’m begging.”

I’m reminded of the time after we’d first met. We met at a bar outside of town, away from anyone who might have paid her for sex and anyone who’d recognize me with a paid escort. We’d stripped ourselves bare of our labels in a bottle of whiskey like we’ve done tonight in a bottle of rum.

Lydia Montgomery was born to conquer those who stand in her way, bring down entire kingdoms to prove a point. She’s rewriting her destiny, reigning with an iron fist that will be the thing of legend for generations.

Despite the responsibility thrown at me and my yearning to right some wrongs, the truth is, I was only born to love her.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy on the night we hid ourselves in the bottle of whiskey the same way I know it now, pouring the last drops of rum on her tongue. But she runs the world.

And my entire universe.