Prologue: Chapter 2

I was dead asleep when my phone rang.

The screen lit up my dark bedroom, and I fumbled for it with squinted eyes. I expected to see Lorenzo’s or Cane’s name on the screen…but it was Vanessa.

I took the call right away, seeing that it was almost two in the morning. I’d only been asleep for twenty minutes, but it felt like hours. “Yeah?”

Laughter was noticeable in the background right away. “Crow…I need help.”

The sense of danger chased away the sleepiness. I sat up and dropped my legs over the side of the bed. “Are you hurt?”

“No…just drunk. Really drunk.”

She was a few years younger than me, so she was in high school and still living with my parents. Cane and I both moved out the second we were legal adults, not because we didn’t like it there, but because we were too proud to live under our father’s roof. “Did you sneak out?”

“Yep…”

“Where are you?”

“A bar.”

“That doesn’t help me, Vanessa.” I was on my feet and grabbing the clothes I dropped on the floor earlier, jeans and a black t-shirt, wrinkled on the floorboards. “That doesn’t help me, Vanessa. Look at the sign.”

“Uh…” She stammered over the background noise on the line, like she was standing outside on the street.

“Jesus Christ, how drunk are you?”

“I can’t see the sign. It’s so blurry.”

I might not even be able to take her home. She may need to go straight to a hospital. “Where are your friends? They just left you?”

“No…they went home with some guys they met.”

“So, yes, they just left you.”

“Asshole, are you coming?”

“Shut up, you know I’m coming.” I walked through my apartment and grabbed my keys from the counter. “You need to give me something, Vanessa. Otherwise, I’m going to be driving around, combing the streets for a stupid girl standing outside.”

“Uh…it starts with a T.”

“You seriously can’t read.”

“The sign is really bright. It hurts my eyes.”

“What color is it?” I was already in the car outside and the engine was on.

“Red.”

“Alright, I—”

“No, blue.”

“Jesus…” How much did she have to drink? “I think you’re at Taolino’s.”

“Yeah…I think that’s what it says.”

“I’m on my way.”

***

I found her on the sidewalk, dressed in a little top with skintight jeans, looking completely out of place standing outside that bar. The place was closed and everyone had left, so she was out there completely alone.

Some friends.

I opened the passenger door and grabbed her by the arm. “Come on, get in.”

“Wait…” She stumbled forward and would have hit the payment if my grip wasn’t tight. Then she vomited all over her own heels and the bottom of her jeans.

I released an annoyed sigh. “That’s just great…” When she was finished, I got her into the passenger seat and buckled her safety belt. There were leftover napkins in the backseat, so I tossed them on her lap so she could clean herself up.

The car already reeked of vomit.

She sunk into the seat, her face pale like snow, and her head rolled slightly left and right as I made turns throughout the city. Instead of taking her to my apartment, I headed into the countryside where my parents lived because I assumed Vanessa had snuck out and my parents had no idea she wasn’t asleep in her bedroom down the hall. But my parents weren’t stupid, especially my dad, and when she was clearly hungover the next day, they would figure it out. “Vanessa, this was really stupid.” I didn’t care whether she could hear me or not.

“Like you didn’t do the same thing…”

“I never took it this far.”

“Shut up and just take me home…” She turned the other direction, her face toward the window. Her reflection was visible in the glass, and her eyes were closed. She crossed her arms over her chest and bumps formed on her arms.

I cranked up the heater even though I ran hot and grabbed a jacket I’d left on the backseat. I tossed it on top of her, and she immediately covered herself with it. Then she seemed to fall asleep.

I drove in silence, eyes on the road while I ignored the sound of my sister’s snores. It was dark in the countryside, only the lights from distant houses visible. My parents’ villa became visible in the distance, and thankfully, the gate was left open because my father must have forgotten to close it.

I turned off the headlights I as pulled up to the house. The second the car came to a stop, she woke up.

Her eyes opened, and she gave a groan. “I think I’m going to be sick again.”

“Then be sick outside the car.” I got out and went around, and the second I opened her door, she sank forward then hurled all over the gravel.

Lars would probably notice that in the morning, but he was never a snitch. He caught me sneaking a girl into the house when I still lived there, but he quickly turned away and tried to pretend he hadn’t noticed. As far as I could tell, he kept that secret to himself.

When Vanessa was done, I threw her arm over my shoulder and helped her to her feet. “How did you get out?”

“The—the window.” She was breathless and sick.

“You can’t climb in the window in this state.”

“Mom will kill me. She’ll slap my cheeks off my face…”

She’d slapped me a couple times. I felt no resentment toward her because I deserved each and every one.

“I’m so dead…”

“She’s going to know you’re hungover in the morning anyway,” I said. “You’re screwed no matter what. Might as well take your chances and walk through the front door.”

“I didn’t bring my keys…”

It took all my strength not to roll my eyes. “You’re the smartest dumb person that I know.”

“And you’re the best brother a sister could ask for…” She lost her strength and slipped in my arms.

I gathered her in my hold and lifted her again, touched by her words but refusing to show it. “Vanessa, we have no other choice. We either go through the front door or I take you back to my apartment—”

The lights flicked on.

“Shit…” Vanessa gave another loud groan and started to sink again. “They know…”

“It might just be Lars.”

“Why would Lars be up at three in the morning?”

“I don’t know, cleaning something.”

She stopped and gave another sigh, like she was about to barf again.

“Don’t you dare barf on me, Vanessa.”

Her face turned green and then she sank down to vomit again.

I held on to her arm and let the mess get all over my shoes.

At that moment, the front door flew open, and standing in the light from the house was not Lars…but my mother. In silk pajamas with a black robe cinched at her waist, she wore one of the coldest stares I’d ever seen. She looked down at Vanessa without an ounce of pity. Her black hair was long and soft, and she looked beautiful even though she wore no makeup. She was French, so she had high cheekbones, fair skin, and eyes that glowed with intelligence.

Her eyes shifted to me next, still angry.

I held her stare, one arm still gripping Vanessa.

She stepped forward in her slippers, her feet hitting the gravel.

Vanessa gave a moan because she knew she was in deep shit. “Momma—”

“Get up.”

Vanessa grimaced as she rose to her feet, still wearing a look of sickness. “I went out with some friends—”

“There’s nothing you can tell me that I don’t already know. Crow, put your sister in bed. I’ll grab a bucket.” She turned away, her robe flowing behind her like a cape on a soldier. She didn’t raise her voice the way Father did, but her anger was somehow loud like a scream.

Vanessa finally seemed empty, so I lifted her into my arms and carried her into the house. Her bedroom was on the second floor, so I carried her up the flights of stairs and set her on the bed. I tossed her dirty shoes in the bathtub.

She lay there on her back, immediately asleep the second her body relaxed on the bedding.

I stood there and stared, seeing my innocent little sister lying there like a dead person.

My mom entered the bedroom a moment later, carrying a bucket and a towel. She set it by the bed along with a glass of water.

I tensed when she was beside me, knowing I would get an earful for my involvement in this.

Her hand moved to Vanessa’s forehead to check for a fever before she gently pushed her hair away. “It’s going to be a long night. And an even longer morning. I’ll get her tucked into bed after I walk you out.” She turned away and exited the bedroom first.

I followed her a moment later, and then we met in the downstairs foyer.

Her sharp eyes took me in, watching me the way a lion stalked a hyena behind the tall grass.

I did my best to cover for Vanessa. “I asked her to come by. Picked her up and took her to my apartment. We started talking, and I opened up a bottle of scotch—”

She raised her hand to silence me.

I shut my mouth, knowing she saw right through my lie.

“You’re not a snitch and I respect that, but please don’t insult my intelligence. Vanessa would normally get an earful from me in the morning, but something tells me she’s already learned her lesson…”

Those shoes of hers were ruined. They would smell like vomit no matter how many times she scrubbed them.

“I expect this behavior from you and Cane, but not from her.”

“She’s not perfect. No one is.”

Her arms crossed over her chest. “She’s my little girl…so she’s always perfect.”

She’d always been my mother’s favorite, but she was also my favorite, so the preference never bothered me.

“You’re a good brother, Crow. One day, your father and I will perish, but Vanessa will always have her brothers to look out for her, to pick her up in the middle of the night when she has no one else to call. You’re the man I raised you to be.”

My eyes immediately dropped because her words hit me in the most tender spot. I used to be desperate for my father’s approval, but now, it meant nothing to me. But my mother…her approval was my whole world.

She moved into me and both of her palms cupped my cheeks. She’d always showed her love physically, with hugs and kisses, with motherly embraces that made my heart ache. But she always showed her anger the same way, slapping me across my left cheek whenever I was stupid enough to cross her. “I love you, baby.”

“I love you too, Ma.”

She smiled when I said it back, her thumbs swiping across my cheeks. “You look so much like your father…like the day I met him.” She withdrew her hands and took away her warmth. “But your eyes are kind…and so is your heart.”

Guilt swept through me in a rush, the kind that made my throat tighten as I restrained the words. I didn’t want to be a snitch—but I didn’t want to deny my loyalty. “Is he asleep?”

“He’s out working…like always.”

Bile dropped into my stomach because I knew that was a big, fat lie. “Will you tell him what happened with Vanessa?”

She gave a slight shake of her head. “I’ll spare her that torment. Your father has always been much harder on her than you and Cane. Whenever you snuck out in the middle of the night, he found it amusing…”

Because Cane and I could take care of ourselves—but not Vanessa. “Goodnight, Ma.”

“Goodnight, baby.” She cinched her robe tight before she crossed her arms over her chest.

I walked to the front door, feeling her stare in the center of my back, and then stepped into the night.