Queen of Thorns Chapter 1

Queen of Thorns (Mice and Men Book 2)

Blurb:

With all hope of the peace shattered beyond redemption, Donatello Vanici is waging his most violent, bloody war yet. 

And caught in the heart of the carnage is Willow Stepanova, the adopted daughter of his dangerous enemy and the girl who once adored him to the depths of her soul. 

Torn between her loyalty to her family and her volatile connection to Donatello, Willow quickly realizes that it’s not just her life at stake in this vicious battle…

But what will be left of her in the end?

Mice and Men is a new standalone series in the War of Roses Universe.

Chapter 1

Disclaimer: The following is copyrighted material.

Don

I was fourteen the first time I ever killed someone. It was a sloppy hit, done at point-blank range with a stolen 9mm. Later on, I found out that was intentional on the part of the man who put me up to it—throw off suspicion by making it seem like a reckless, random robbery.

I’d merely been a pawn in a game I’d been too damn young to even guess the scope of. Such is the way of the world.

Everyone is a fucking pawn.

I don’t recall much of that day, though I sure as hell remember the messy aftermath. Namely, the blood splattered all over the pavement and the pile of puke I left alongside it. Shaking from head to toe, I could barely grip the gun in my hand. Rather than dispose of it like a seasoned hitman would, I turned tail and ran, leaving both the body and the weapon there out in the open, a rookie mistake.

I don’t even remember the poor bastard’s name. As far as I knew, he had been an enemy of Mr. Rossi, a mobster I’d pledged my loyalty to, and that was all that mattered.

Loyalty.

It was my one talent, and what I thought would cement my status as a member of the famiglia, age be damned. Until I learned a lesson they don’t bother to teach in schools, that is. A boy doesn’t become a man the second he commits murder.

No, my old boss and leader of the famiglia, Giovanni Rossi himself, told me the truth from across his desk that night. Later, as I washed the blood from my hands, I realized that some lucky bastards never learn it.

Becoming a man relies on knowing one universal certainty. Understand it, and even the poorest, dumbest son of a bitch can become whatever the hell he wants, be it a doctor, a teacher, or a fucking crime lord.

So what is it? This—all men have the same capacity for evil. No matter what he does. No matter what he wears or says. No matter how good his upbringing is, or how much money he has in the bank…

Everyone is the same underneath.

The true question of morality is whether they choose to embrace the darkness or suppress it—though the Bible tries its damn hardest to muddy the waters. I grew up with the lies, reading every classic moral lesson, which typically ended with all sin leading neatly back to the devil.

A good, God-fearing Catholic woman, my mother abided by every warning and did her best to teach me the same. The only problem? I knew early on that it was all bullshit.

The devil isn’t real. Greed is. At his core, every man is little more than a creature born of sheer greed. A priest and a mobster are both one and the same—a snarling, vicious animal out to satisfy the most basic urges. Strip him down to the bone, and he’ll do whatever it takes to eat. To fuck. To shit. And…if necessary, kill.

God rest my mother’s soul; I wish things were different, though. I wish a simple prayer could cure every act of evil.

The death.

The violence.

The blood.

I wish I could still blame my sins on the devil—though maybe I can. Just one of flesh and blood who goes by another name.

Mischa Stepanov.

He’s the reason I’m here—driving up the west end of Hell’s Gambit in a stolen car with a kidnapped woman in the trunk. I barely remember the how and why. My skull throbs as I pick through the scattered memories, each one as blurred as the last.

Mischa let himself be played by faulty information. He came after me. Vin got attacked…

I left the villa, I think, though I didn’t go see the man I should have.

No, I went right to the source of the lies. The man who tried to have me killed and then framed me for an attack on the Stepanovs. Antonio Salvatore.

I broke into his fancy manor and tried beating any information I could out of him. After that, I strangled him with my bare hands and used his own daughter as a human shield to evade the remnants of the famiglia.

Then I went back to Havienna and…

Groaning, I take one hand from the wheel to rub at my temples, but the grainy images don’t get any clearer. At least one fact is answered—if all of what happened was real, then there are two bodies in the trunk—one being just a child, kidnapped from her own home.

Fuck. I laugh out loud and meet my gaze in the rearview mirror. Ironically, I look like hell. Bloodshot eyes. Hair mussed to shit and dripping with a substance that sure as hell ain’t water. One hard sniff and I can peg the acidic stench—lighter fluid.

That’s right. I doused myself in it.

Maybe I’m the devil in this tale?

If only reality were as neat as the Bible. I’d confess my sins and accept the punishment. God knows, I’ve been down this road before, and the good Donatello, the man I’ve strived to be… He would turn around. Do the noble thing and bend the knee to those who wronged him.

Fall on his sword like a repentant bastard.

I can’t say the idea isn’t tempting. I’m so damn tired. Breathing is a struggle, let alone driving. The car veers from lane to lane as the steering wheel bucks against my grip. My lungs ache with every breath I take, and even blinking hurts. I just want to sleep. I’m so weary of running, and scraping, and suffering. I’m so exhausted of hiding from the past.

From Safiya.

Why not surrender to both in one fell swoop? Let the past have my pathetic soul and allow Safiya Mangenello her pound of flesh. As it stands, I should have died seven years ago, anyway.

Or…

I could say “fuck that” to mercy. I tried the good boy routine once, and it cost me the only damn thing in the world I care about. The only person whose life truly mattered. Vincenzo…

Every time I think of him, it feels like I’m the one taking a bullet to the skull. Over and over again.

I see his face everywhere I look, hovering before me, my smiling boy—only he isn’t smiling now. His dark eyes blaze, his lips moving wordlessly, demanding an answer to just one question—how could you fail me, Don? How?

I swear I see him right now, standing in the middle of the road.

“Vin!” I wrench on the wheel just to avoid him, sending the car into an arc. Mud flies up, speckling the windshield as the tires squeal in protest. Deep down, I know I’m being insane, but the second the car screeches to a halt, I scan the landscape for any sign of life.

Predictably, he’s gone. In his place is just an endless fucking road and a swath of trees looming beyond.

I’m drunk. In my right mind, I’d never be driving, especially not here. It’s what the city natives deem the no-man’s-land—a swath of hills on the outskirts, hugging the bay. There are no guardrails this far out, and my heart races as I glance over to where the shoulder ends—at a cliff. Somehow, I’d managed to hit the brake without driving right off the edge. Though fuck, I should.

A sigh rips from my throat as my toes twitch over the pedal, easing up, bit by bit. Bouncing over the uneven terrain, the car lurches into motion, barreling toward the edge of the drop. Slowly. Faster. Faster…

Right when the momentum picks up, one thing has me slamming my foot on the brake again—self-pity.

A death dashed on the rocks below is too good for me. In my soul, I sense I’m destined for something far worse, an end worthy of a monster.

Giovanni Rossi met his via a heart attack on the eve of his daughter’s wedding. Imagine that. A week before, he pulled me aside, as if he’d seen it coming. In his typical gruff baritone, he imparted one last piece of advice to me, his heir primed to take over.

Life, for all its pretentious bullshit, is just a game, sonny, he said. You can be a coward and cringe from battle. Or you declare fucking checkmate. At all costs, you go for the checkmate. You pound your fist on the damn game board if you have to. Don’t you ever give up. The second you do, someone’s already beaten you. It’s game over.

To him, everything was just a round in an unending game with every player fighting his way to the top.

Thanks to Mischa Stepanov, my time playing is nearing its end. Giving up now would be forfeiting everything to him, the ultimate checkmate.

Though, what else could I do?

As if Giovanni himself sent me a reminder from the grave, I sense something around my right hand and hold it up to the light. It takes several blinks before I can focus on it—delicate strands of golden hair looped around my fingers. I bring them beneath my nose, inhaling the scent I swear they still carry.

Roses and hatred.

I can clearly picture the source—a head of golden hair, framing a face crowned by watchful dark eyes. Wrapped around my fingers, their presence alludes to the violence that resulted in them being there. Fighting her off. Shoving her aside. Putting her in the trunk…

I catch myself eyeing the direction of it in the rearview mirror. When I lower my hand, a new emotion takes hold, and I gladly let it. Rage. Along with it comes a new perspective. Mischa may have won the last round, but as Giovanni used to say at the famiglia’s lowest moments, the war is far from over. Especially when I have in my possession one of my enemy’s very own pawns.

Willow Stepanova herself could be the perfect tool to ensure that no one wins in the end.

And there are a million ways I could wreak my vengeance through her. Brutal, sick fucking shit I would have never thought myself capable of doing, even at my darkest. My fingers twitch against the steering wheel as the possibilities cross my mind.

I could rip her apart limb from limb.

Tear that beautiful body to pieces.

Torture her. Torment her. Then send the aftermath to her father, wrapped with a bow.

The truly sick part? My hand is already inching into my pocket, closing over the handle of a dagger I don’t remember carrying. It’s hers, small enough to fit her grasp with the word Mouse etched into the hilt. I run my thumb over the metal’s edge, surprised by how sharp it really is.

Sharp enough to slit a throat.

Slowly, I reach for the door handle next, but my fingers shake too badly to grip it. Out of guilt? That’s right. I made a vow once. Hell, I swore it over Olivia’s grave. To redeem the Vanici name. To never return to my old ways. To set a good example for Vincenzo and leave a legacy they both could be proud of.

I’ve failed two of those vows, but I can still fulfill one final pledge. I can make the Vanici name worth speaking again—even if feared.

Mischa Stepanov will pay for what he’s done.

Wrestling my hands into submission, I finally push the door open and yank the lever alongside my seat that unlocks the trunk. Slowly, I climb to my feet, bracing one hand against the car while the other returns the knife to my pocket.

It’s slick as shit out, with nothing but gravel and mud underfoot. Even now, a spitting rain speckles my skin, coating everything in a slippery, silvery layer of frost. On top of that, my balance is shit. As I try to take a step, the world rocks beneath me, and I vaguely remember drinking from a bottle stolen right from Antonio Salvatore’s minibar.

This whole thing could be some booze-induced hallucination. Still, I start forward.

As I round the back end of the car, a faint rustle draws my notice, and I freeze mid-step in grim anticipation. Will she jump out to meet me? Try to fight? My knuckles twitch, until both of my hands form fists so tight my own nails cut into my palms.

I wait, but the top of the trunk doesn’t budge.

The booze still in my system might be to blame for the feeling that comes over me next. Weightlessness. I stagger forward, but it’s like I’m watching a stranger curl his fingers beneath the rim of the lid, wrenching it up in one go.

Thick cloud cover obscures the sun, leaving only a faint bit of light to see by. Even so, I have no trouble making her out, curled on her side at one end of the compartment, the Salvatore girl on the other. Golden hair fans out around her, shrouding the pale limbs bared by a thin yellow dress. If I had to imagine how she’d appear, I’d assume afraid, trembling fearfully in anticipation of what I’d do next.

One look at her shatters that fantasy. Her dark eyes meet mine head-on, fiery in the grayish daylight. In them, I see a challenge portrayed so brazenly it might as well be branded across her forehead—What will you do, Donatello?

The answer is as elusive to me as it is to her. Her knife is still in my pocket, but all I seem capable of doing is staring. Remembering.

Her…

More obscure images from last night flash across my mind. Us, together in my old study, her body struggling against my grasp. A groan revs in my throat as I recall why—I’d been ready to set the entire house on fire, myself along with it.

Only one force had been able to stop me.

Her.

I remember her wrestling the matches from me, and my broken psyche adorned her with a million different embellishments then—that of a vengeful angel clothed in gold, condemning me to live another day out of spite.

In broad daylight, there is no hiding from reality.

She isn’t flawless like a soldier of divine mercy would be. No. She’s battered and pale, her yellow dress askew, her eyes as bloodshot as mine are. Liquid slicks her hair to her skull, reeking suspiciously of accelerant. That’s not all. A necklace of dark bruises encircles her fucking neck. Irrational anger flares at the sight of them, and I’m already wracking my brain for the identity of who could have possibly hurt her.

Only a monster…

Not even a heartbeat later, I catch sight of my wrist, and I realize that I don’t have to look far for the culprit—me. I did this to her.

My hands shake, outstretched before me, bruised and bloodied. In contrast, she looks so small.

And so dangerous.

“Is this what you wanted?” I direct the question toward her, still inspecting my fingers. An assortment of cuts and bruises mar each digit, but not enough to cause the amount of rust-colored liquid encrusted beneath each fingernail. There’s no shying from what the substance really is. Blood.

Mine.

Antonio Salvatore’s.

And Vincenzo’s.

“Why?” The shout echoes throughout the narrow clearing this part of the road runs through, bellowed and broken.

But how does she react?

When I finally look at her again, she’s just staring.

And staring, and staring…

There’s no answer reflected in those dark irises. No hate. No fucking emotion.

Not even when I lunge for her, grasping at whatever I catch. Warm flesh trembles beneath my palm as I find myself tearing back through the trees, dragging her with me.

“You wanted to punish me, is that it?” I say in between pants. “Well, now we can both find our retribution.”

Giovanni was right. Why give up when you can ruin the game? And what better way to circumvent Mischa’s inevitable win than to aim straight for his heart?

I’ll do more than pound the damn game board. I’ll break it.

The woman resists, digging her bare heels into the earth with every step—not that there’s much she can do. I’m heading for the edge of a sheer drop, overlooking a section of gray water churning beneath. A fall from here would be deadly. If the height alone doesn’t do the trick, then the rocks down below should.

Two birds with one stone—a fitting end for Donatello Vanici, and a fitting punishment for Mischa Stepanov.

I take another step, and the woman by my side goes still, her gaze fixated on the drop.

Watching her triggers another memory, but one that occurred years ago rather than hours. Someone younger had been in her place, her dark eyes just as fearful, though the drop, in that case, had been the edge of a pool.

She couldn’t speak, but I had no trouble reading her mind. Her face was so expressive; she couldn’t keep anything secret from me even if she tried.

“You’re afraid,” I told her with a smile. “Don’t be. As long as I’m here, you’ve got nothing to be afraid of. Just close your eyes and jump. I’ve got you…”

No! I bare my teeth against the past, forcing myself back to the present. The woman struggling in my grip bears resemblances to that little girl—but it doesn’t matter. She should have no other identity than who she is now. An enemy. A means to an end. Willow Stepanova, daughter of the man who took everything from me. Everything…

And yet for someone so consequential, she doesn’t look it, so small she barely comes up to my shoulder when I shove her forward.

My grip on her arm is the only force keeping her upright. With every twitch and gust of the wind, she staggers, her feet scrambling for balance on the uneven ground. Beneath that tattered yellow sundress, she’s so slight that one strong breeze could blow her away.

All I’d have to do is let go.

So I do.

Alarm flits across her face for an instant, widening her eyes and parting those pink lips. Her impending death is a slow, morbid dance of slender limbs against relentless gravity. Her right foot loses contact with the ground first, followed quickly by the second. Left with no stability, her entire body jolts backward, that hair swaying in the wind.

Even as she starts to fall, her eyes shoot up to mine, and her brave façade cracks. Beneath it, I see her fear. The grim realization that I’ll let her die.

She knows I will…

“Fuck!” The curse slips from me, as my hand shoots out before my brain can fully process the motion, gripping the neckline of her dress. Grunting, I yank on the material, hauling her back over the edge. As I let go, her fingers fly to the rocky outcropping, using it for stability to drag herself up.

She falls to her knees as a monstrous sound rips through the silence. Booming and guttural, it’s seconds before I realize it’s coming from me. Laughter. Manic, unstable laughter.

The emotion tearing through my chest isn’t amusement, though—far from it. Just sheer, dizzying confusion.

“Why are you here? Did you come to distract me so your father or one of his men can finish the job?” I demand, spinning around as if expecting another car to appear on the road at any moment. “Where are they? Don’t tell me he’s watching from the shadows, pleased with the show? Because he sent you, didn’t he? He sent you here…”

It’s the only explanation that makes sense. Either that, or she wanted him to save me for herself, so she could be the one to drive the knife into my chest.

But then why stop me?

Her eyes flicker toward me and away, giving me the answer.

“You came on your own.” I sound as incredulous as I feel. It seems insane to even consider—that she snuck from Mischa’s fortress of a home. Made her way to Havienna alone. Made her way to me.

For what?

Voice rasping, I propose the obvious answer, “Did you come to watch me die, Safiya?”

She should sneer in confirmation. Instead, a muscle in her jaw twitches, and I imagine her clenching her teeth behind those pink lips. In anger? I hunt her gaze for an answer, reminded of another moment from the past. Those same eyes in another lifetime. So dark, they’d seem to touch on red whenever their owner felt enraged.

The day I left her behind, they blazed…

Now? They’re too dark to interpret clearly. I just see defiance. You don’t control me, they declare. You lost that right.

“You’re mine now,” I snap, turning away from her. Fuck the past. This is all that matters. Who she is now and what she’s done…

She’s mine.

And I don’t have to kill her to enact my revenge.

I grab her arm, dragging her back to the road. The second we near the car, I shove her in the trunk beside another figure I’ve almost forgotten. She’s curled in a ball, staring from behind a curtain of black curls. Antonio Salvatore’s little girl, her eyes glazed over.

Both figures watch as I slam the trunk closed over them. Shaking, I reclaim the driver’s seat, moving on autopilot as I put the car back into drive. A U-turn later, I’m speeding toward Hell’s Gambit. I don’t know where I’m heading at first. My brain churns sluggishly, fighting to catch up with my body’s impulse.

Then it comes to me—I’m going home. How does that saying go? Things have a way of coming full circle. When I’ve hit rock bottom, what better place to complete that descent than the very location I rose from at the start of it all?

I still remember the whirlwind of those early days after I’d freshly joined the famiglia. Old Giovanni Rossi kept a public front in the heart of the city—a casino that Antonio Salvatore took over after ascending to the top of the outfit. Apart from that, the old man mainly did business in a small restaurant, but his pride and the true heart of his operation was located about an hour outside of the city proper.

Only his most trusted lieutenants knew of it, and even fewer were allowed to set foot there. From that old complex, Giovanni conducted his true business, using the place as a headquarters for the real source of his money—cocaine. A hell of a lot of cocaine, sourced directly from the most vicious Colombian cartels. I doubt Salvatore dumped that part of the operation. Given the lavishness of his mansion, the fucker has been enjoying the benefits of such an enterprise.

Who knows how much of that fortune remains. But even if Antonio spent every last penny, I know a way to garner more.

Enough to rebuild an empire all my own and destroy any hold Mischa Stepanov has on Hell’s Gambit. I think we’re more alike than either of us would admit. I valued the life of my son more than anything, enough to forfeit it all…

How far will Mischa go for his own daughter?

I’m willing to find out.

After a decade spent claiming a throne for himself in the seething violence of the criminal underbelly, all Donatello Vanici craves now is peace.

Only a union forged between his heir and the most powerful mafiya family in existence could ever be strong enough to end the bloodshed for good, but the Stepanov head resists his overtures at every turn… 

Until tragedy strikes, and forces Donatello’s hand.

Haunted by a past that dogs her every thought, Willow Stepanov will do anything for the man who adopted her—until a chance encounter with the enemy lands her right in the middle of a dangerous power struggle and a war that grows more violent and vicious each day.

But it’s not just her future her captor holds hostage.

He is a man with nothing left to lose—while she may just lose everything. 

Her life, her family, and her heart…

Mice and Men is a new standalone series in the War of Roses Universe.

With all hope of the peace shattered beyond redemption, Donatello Vanici is waging his most violent, bloody war yet. 

And caught in the heart of the carnage is Willow Stepanova, the adopted daughter of his dangerous enemy and the girl who once adored him to the depths of her soul. 

Torn between her loyalty to her family and her volatile connection to Donatello, Willow quickly realizes that it’s not just her life at stake in this vicious battle…

But what will be left of her in the end?

Mice and Men is a new standalone series in the War of Roses Universe.

Leave a Reply