Tough Love by Elizabeth SaFleur

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Luna ran her fingertip along the envelope of the Valentine’s Day card. It was silly, really, to pick up a Hallmark card at the last minute at the corner drugstore. Her father would never remember her, let alone that today was a holiday.

“There she is.” Maven wheeled her father into the community room, and Luna rose to greet them. “Now, Mr. O’Malley, here is your Luna Belle. I know you’ve been looking forward to seeing her.”

“Hi, Daddy.”

His hands shook in his lap, and his eyes registered no life. They were flat, distant, and still yellowed from years of alcohol abuse. Perhaps he'd never get rid of the whiskey’s effects.

As she moved closer to him, the scent of cotton mixed with his usual stale, sour smell invaded her space.

His gaze lifted to her, and he cocked his head in question.

“It’s me, Luna Belle.” Every meeting with him began this way. Surely, someday this pattern would cease to roil that hollow pit in her stomach.

Maven gave her a small smile. “Now, you two have a nice visit.” She leaned down to talk in her father's ear. “Mr. O'Malley, one of your daughters is getting married today. I'm sure Luna is here to tell you all about it.”

“It's Starr who’s getting married, Daddy. Catarina.” Her sister didn't seem to mind which name Luna shared with him anymore—Starr, her stage name, or Catarina, her birth name. Either way, she’d be Mrs. Nathan Baldwin in a few hours.

Luna pulled up a chair next to him and tentatively put her hand on his forearm. He flinched a little, so she resettled her hands on the card.

“I brought you something.” She placed the Valentine in his shaky fingers.

“You sure are pretty. Who…?” His speech hadn’t gotten any better, either. He still fumbled his “r’s.”

“I’m Luna. Starr and Phoenix are your other daughters. Starr is marrying a wonderful man. Nathan. You’d like him.” Nathan was more than wonderful, and her sister deserved such a great guy after all she’d been through in the last year.

“You remind me.” He raised a bony finger. “A girl I knew. Cara.”

Prickles went off in her throat. “That was Mom.”

His brow furrowed under a few greasy strands of hair. “Oh, Cara was a sight to behold.”

“I know.” Luna could recall her long red hair and soft hands, though it was getting harder each year to call up her mother’s face in her mind. She tried to think of her often just so she could keep those wispy images from fading anymore.

“I got to meet her later.”

“Tell her Happy Valentine’s Day.” Reminding him her mother died nineteen years ago would be moot.

Luna’s phone went off in her purse. Probably Phoenix wondering where she was with Starr’s requested bagels and cream cheese. Breakfast of champions, right? But what the bride wanted the bride got on her wedding day.

She’d call Phee from the car because if her sister knew where she was, she’d only get a lecture about lost causes and casting pearls before swine.

Luna stood. “I’ve got to go, but I’ll try to come by in a few days.”

“You sure are pretty.” Tobacco-stained teeth shone from his mouth, and his arm lifted as if he wanted to touch her. But his hand dropped back in his lap and crinkled the unopened card.

Perhaps Phee was right. What was the point of visiting? He no longer recognized any of them. Luna just hoped to catch him on a good day so she could get her final questions answered—like over the years, had he ever wondered where they were? How they were doing? Was he sorry for all the abuse he heaped on them, especially Phee?

Her eyes drifted to Maven, who kept a watchful eye in the corner. The woman rose, giving her another kind smile, and came forward to collect their father—or what was left of him.

Outside, she cracked open her umbrella to fend off the drizzle. February rain was the saddest rain—gray, cold, with nothing pretty to water, instead spraying oil-slicked streets and umbrellas that had seen too much use already.

At least bad weather on a wedding day meant good luck for the couple—and Lord knew Starr and Nathan deserved every happiness.

Her tennies squeaked against the wet pavement as she hurried back to where she’d parked her car. A black limousine idled across the street. Her heart hitched. Today was Valentine’s Day and a Saturday. A thousand limos could be on Baltimore’s streets today as romantic paramours tried to impress their dates. It didn’t have to be his.

She quickly retrieved her keys, but they slipped from her grasp to land in a jangle on the wet pavement in the middle of the street. She crouched down and her umbrella tipped up, sending a long cascade of water onto her back.

The window of the limo lowered in a whine. She made the mistake of looking up. As it always did when she saw him, air died in her lungs. The man with piercing blue eyes and hair as black as night—and hands that when they cradled hers made her heart turn inside out—nodded in her direction.

She’d told him to stop showing up, confusing her, making her soft in the knees. She’d begged him.

Scooping up her keys, she rose and looked both ways—to see if anyone might be watching her. Then, hitching her purse strap higher on her shoulder, she strode across the street. She stopped a foot away from where he sat. “Visiting a loved one?”

“Yes.”

She dropped her arms. “Oh, I’m sorry.”

“I came to see you.”

A warmth threatened to rise in her, but she tamped it down with a big mental foot. “You shouldn’t have.”

“Just five minutes.” His door cracked open and stilled her heart—and every other part of her. If he got out, he would bring all his heat—and those mesmerizing blue eyes—closer. He couldn’t do that to her, not today.

But he didn’t get out. He let the door swing out and hover in the air, ajar. The arrogant bastard slid to the far side of the long seat, so sure she’d enter.

“No.” She’d made a deal with herself. As of Starr’s wedding day, she’d quit her foolish thoughts—and actions—around Carragh MacKenna. She wouldn’t get into his ridiculous limo and bask in the prettiest eyes she’d ever seen on a man, listen to him make small talk, have him ask her about her day, hold her hand. Like they weren’t on opposite sides of a growing feud.

Carragh held out his hand, palm up. “Please. Just for a minute.” His eyes glittered in the darkened space.

She should walk away. Take a stand for herself. Both of her sisters had found real love in the last year. Luna wanted that kind of love—the kind that protected your heart, not the kind that had you sneak around with a man who was inheriting a mob family legacy.

But the idling of the limo, tires on wet pavement on the street behind her, even the gray exhaust floating in the air behind the car were too loud in her ears. It made it hard to think.

Time to stop this torture. She closed her umbrella and got in with him.

Smooth black leather slid under her fingers. Its rich scent mixed with his Egoiste By Chanel cologne made her head swim just as it had the last three times she’d unwisely slipped into this same car—an outlandish display of wealth and privilege in this day and age.

The door clicked shut and all the sound outside died.

His beard was rough, and fatigue shone in his eyes. It tugged at something in her heart, which was absurd. This man was heir apparent to the mob family that repeatedly threatened and nearly killed everyone she loved—her sisters, their boss, Declan, and her soon-to-be brother-in-law, Nathan.

She settled her purse on her lap. “Pull an all-nighter?”

“Worried about me?” He ran a fingertip over his bottom lip. It was casual, like he hadn’t a care in the world. Probably pure bravado on his part.

“Not in the least. You can take care of yourself.”

His eyes glanced up at the memory care facility where her father resided. “Everything okay?”

“No. There isn’t anything someone can do about Alzheimer’s.”

The flash of police red and blue lights, barely visible in the tinted glass, sparkled outside.

“You’re about to get a ticket.” He was parked illegally, of course. Then again, he didn’t seem to be the kind of guy who followed the rules ordinary mortals had to.

He laughed. “It’d be worth it. To be sitting here with you.”

“Trying to flatter me?” He always did this to her. He tried to charm her with pretty little sayings.

She’d heard every line under the blessed sun. Men who came to watch her dance would wait for her by Shakedown’s exit, their eyes filled with hope that somehow, she’d return their interest.

Carragh smiled at her. “Petra.”

The driver, who’d barely moved when she got in, turned his face in profile. Petra was an older, distinguished gentleman who looked like a grandfather—or the type she’d always wanted—and not someone who was witness to all Carragh did with his women in the back seat.

Petra lowered his car window, stuck his arm out, and gestured for the cop to move along with two fingers.

The lights died, and the cop drove by.

She glared at Carragh. “I’m not impressed.”

“Wasn’t trying to impress you.”

“What are you trying to do?” Destroy her sanity?

“Can I drop you at your sister’s wedding?”

She slowly shook her head. “You shouldn’t know about that, Carragh.” Or care.

“Why wouldn’t I? It’s a big day.”

“It is.” Today didn’t get any bigger, and she wouldn’t let him pull any more information out of her as he’d done so easily before.

“Please, send my best wishes to your sister and Nathan. For their wedding day.” He reached down to the floorboard and lifted a small box wrapped in white glossy paper and a white ribbed ribbon. The wrapping was classier than she’d expected from a man who’d likely sent people to the bottom of the Patapsco river a time or two… or a hundred.

She didn’t take the offering. “They have enough blenders.”

“Good. Then this will be something better.” He placed it in her lap, and the movement pulled his shirt collar away, bared the red spike of a tattoo on his neck. She’d often wondered what the full image depicted.

“Thank you, but…”

His hand descended on hers. His thumb caressed her skin, slowly, lightly. A hundred messages could be delivered in such a small movement. Care. Interest. Lust. Ownership.

She didn’t have time to decipher them.

Can’t. Shouldn’t. Won’t. They were good words to utter at that moment. Instead, she sat there—barely remembering why she got into the limo to begin with.

Oh, right. To end things.

He leaned toward her, unfairly bringing his scent closer—along with his blue eyes that seemed to read every secret she harbored. He lingered inches from her for a long minute.

“A kiss for the bride? You can deliver it for me.”

“No.” There wouldn’t be a time when he could ever kiss her. If he did… well, she couldn’t think about that possibility.

“You want me to.”

She did—desperately. Without ever having touched his full lips, she already knew what he could do with them.

First, if given permission, he wouldn’t hesitate. He’d feast on her mouth, a full takeover, and she’d go willingly once he breached that intimacy.

“This…” she waved her hand between herself and him “…attraction has to stop. We can’t. I won’t put my sisters in any more danger.”

“You and your sisters are in no danger from me.”

“And the rest of your family?”

“Will listen to what I say.”

“Is that what Ruark did?” The man had held a gun to Starr’s head. Beat up Nathan. Went after Declan and Phoenix together. Repeatedly harassed them all.

“He’s not getting out for a while.”

“But someday.”

His brow furrowed and his lack of an answer said it all. There would always be a someday when it came to the MacKenna family and hers. While Carragh would never hurt her—or her sisters—his family would have no trouble cutting out her heart and opening a bottle of Chianti to sip while dining on it.

She’d brought enough misery to Starr and Phee. She wouldn’t add more.

“I can’t see you…” She grasped the door handle but couldn't seem to turn it. “You can have any woman you want.”

She’s witnessed them. Even in the Shakedown parking lot, where she worked, glossy-haired, model-thin women entered his limo to later exit with clothes askew, lipstick vanished.

How had they lost it? From his lips or from something else—things she couldn’t even think about because her yearning only grew from such imaginings. Unlike him, she couldn’t afford the luxury of giving into a mere appetite.

“They aren’t you.” His hand moved up to her forearm. He gave it a light squeeze, and his eyes searched her face.

“Maybe not, but you're still with them.”

He sidled closer, and she raised a hand to stop his advance. “Stop following me. I’m not going to break up my family. Please… stop.”

“I can’t do that.” His hand still had possession of her arm.

She yanked herself free and cracked open the door. “This is the last time you’ll see me, Carragh.”

His face hardened a bit because, of course, no one ever said “no” to him, right? Certainly not his other women who wore lipstick, dying to have it sucked off. “We’ll see about that.”