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VALENTINA

Four years later

Valentina Romano rapped her manicured nails on her glittery phone case, eyes glued on the handsome new bodyguard at the wheel of her father's car. He had buzzed dark hair and devastating brown eyes—or, at least, Val imagined he had nice eyes beneath the shades resting on his prominent nose. She pouted. At seven o'clock in the evening, it wasn't even bright enough outside to warrant sunglasses.

Val sighed, tearing her gaze from her mysterious driver. Although her father hadn't cared enough to pick her up from the JFK baggage claim himself, he'd at least sent a handsome face for her to look at.

Mr. Handsome Face never introduced himself before piling Val's luggage into the back of the armored car, but she'd caught his head tilting toward the rear-view mirror enough times during their drive to stroke her ego. After spending the last four years surrounded by the posh sons and daughters of Great Britain's wealthiest, she worried that she'd have little luck in pursuit of her father's chiseled, brainwashed soldiers. It reassured Val to know that men on both sides of the Atlantic were susceptible to brown curls and fresh lip gloss.

Handsome Face turned the car into a familiar driveway, rolling it to a stop in front of a brick call-box. Val leaned forward in the back seat as he extended one muscled arm out of the window and pressed a button. "It's Luca. We're here."

Luca, Val mused. A nice name. Predictably Italian. She could guess that each of the four crime families that ruled New York contained a handful of Luca's. Still, she cemented the name to memory.

She didn't know how long her father would allow her to stay in New York before shipping her off again, but she hoped he'd let her stick around long enough to wrap this new bodyguard around her pinky finger. Not because she was interested in Luca romantically. No — Val simply knew that the easiest way to elude an overeager guard was to keep him on a tight leash. She'd successfully employed such tactics when she was a teenager. She guessed it would be even easier now that she'd nearly turned twenty-two and grown a round ass.

"Va bene. Entra," a deep, static-lined voice replied from the call box. Moments later, the wrought-iron gates creaked open. Val felt her heart lurch into her throat at the familiar sound.

"Four years later and they still haven't greased-up those loud-ass gates?" she mumbled, more to herself than Luca. He didn't answer, anyway.

Val studied her phone screen, scrolling through messages and emails and anything that could distract her from the rows of oaks that lined the mile-long driveway of her youth. Distract her from the memories of biking up and down the pavement on her tricycle, her mother trailing several paces behind. The memories of chasing after her father's prized Cane Corso, Piso, between the trees.

Piso died when Val turned twenty. Her father hadn't allowed her to return home to say goodbye to the old, slobbery monster. In fact, he hadn't allowed her to return home once in the four years since she started college at the University of Oxford — in the four years since an assassin missed his target and shot Sofia Iva Romano in the back of the head...

The hairs on the back of Val's neck prickled as flashes of that day threatened to resurface. She swallowed the thick lump that nearly suffocated her every time she dared to remember her eighteenth birthday party.

At Oxford, she became quite adept at forgetting — at warding away the nightmares and fear and blood-filled memories that would cripple her if given too much power. But here, returning to her childhood home, Val struggled more than she cared to admit.

For several years, she didn't know if her father would ever let her return to their family's home in Scarsdale, New York. After her mother's death, Val's father refused to allow her to attend New York University in the fall. He called in favors with a few high-standing officials in the United Kingdom, and Val received her letter of acceptance from Oxford. She hadn't even applied to the notorious university, and, two weeks later, she found herself shipped overseas with two suitcases to begin summer classes.

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