What stops me from spilling the secret I loathe keeping is Beth Parsons.
Years before I stood in this bedroom, helping Mateo Morelli undress for bed, another woman did the same thing. A woman he loved. A woman who gave him a child.
It’s common knowledge that he killed her, but there was never a body and he made just enough of a trail to make it look like she ran away. The manufactured trail was enough to keep him out of criminal court, but the verdict was read many times over in the court of public opinion—he killed her. And while there are various unverified explanations as to why, each motive has the same root—she betrayed him.
Mateo Morelli is not a man you betray. Despite the pardon he gave me, Mateo did not become the wealthiest, most feared mob boss in Chicago by being merciful.
I may not be afraid of him in a general sense, but I’m not foolish enough to think I’m more special to him than a woman he was with for years—and she’s dead.
“Could I ask you an uncomfortable question?” I ask, not meeting his gaze as I peel his dress shirt off.
“Sure.” His tone is steady, but my stomach still roils with nervousness.
I take a breath without meaning to—I should be more careful, but I don’t know if I’m allowed to ask about this, and I don’t know how he’ll respond when I do. Finally, I meet his gaze, despite the shaky feeling it gives me, because I have to be able to watch his reaction. “What happened with Beth?”
His eyes widen slightly in genuine surprise, and though it’s a subtle shift, he takes a step back, away from me. My insides wilt with dread. My mind flies back over the exact words we’ve just spoken, but I can’t separate them from the thoughts flying through my head. This probably wasn’t the most subtle time to ask about the woman before me if he’s suspecting me of treachery.
I don’t know what to expect as he moves away from me, turning his back to me. He remains wordless and crosses the room, picking up a small golden box from atop his dresser. My eyes widen a little, horrifying thoughts flying through my mind—does he keep a memento in a box in his room? A trophy?
“I don’t usually answer that question,” he states, holding onto the box as his eyes move over my body. The dress was abandoned in a pool by our feet already, so I’m wearing only the bra and panties. I swallow, because his perusal isn’t warm, but I can’t put a finger on exactly what it is.
Forcing a shrug, I say, “I understand if you don’t want to. I just… wondered.”
“Understandable,” he says, inclining his head.
My eyes lock on the box in his hands, but I’m starting to feel a little ill. “There’s not, like, a finger in there, right?”
Soberly, he shakes his head. “Not the whole thing.” I must blanch, because a short laugh escapes him. “It was a joke—no body parts, I promise.”
I exhale a breath of relief, while trying to roll my eyes like I never believed him anyway.
The amusement fades, and he’s left staring at the box, pensive once more. Finally, he speaks, his tone controlled. “I don’t think I make my expectations of people unclear. I expect loyalty in all regards. It’s not an easy thing, loving a Morelli, and I understand that. I do. Generations of women have tried and failed. The problem with that is… leaving isn’t an option. If you choose a life with one of us, that’s it. No take-backs.”
I nod, swallowing hard. I try to be realistic in all matters, but there are certain myths about Mateo I don’t want to believe, this one especially. I’m not psyched about the possibility that he trafficks human beings, though Maria’s position in his house for the past 20 years doesn’t lend much hope to that one being entirely false. Whatever crimes he commits in this city, I can ignore them if I’m not seeing them. I needed to know he hadn’t hurt Mia, and she assured me he hadn’t. But this one, that he’s capable of killing his own lover? More than anything, I want Mateo to tell me what everyone believes in regards to Beth is wrong, that he simply let her go and gave her a new life for her own protection.
It does not sound like that’s where this is heading.
Cracking open the intricately designed golden chest, he draws out a necklace, an antique-looking gold locket. “I didn’t meet Beth the way I met you, or the way Vince met Mia, or… the usual way.” Glancing up at me, he adds, “Historically speaking, more women end up Morellis your way. But I met Beth out in the world. I was in a bar I’d recently acquired and she was there with her girlfriends. She caught my eye, I caught hers.” Looking from the necklace, he meets my eyes. “I met her much the same way I met you, only without the hidden motive of her wanting to kill me.”