MEMORIES could make a monster out of a man.
There were times that seemed harder to deal with than others; passing moments that could make Dino DeLuca’s chest tighten in pain, or his fists clench in anger.
The sound of metal being dropped was one of the worst. He swore he could feel his back bruising and bleeding all over again at the simple tinging tone.
Whispered words made him jumpy—paranoid. Whispers were good for nothing but taunting, and he didn’t want to hear those mocking words anymore.
Had enough yet?
Learn to follow directions, Dino.
It should fucking hurt, kid.
The stench of vomit, clinging to the air and seemingly never letting go, would make his panic rush into overdrive, overwhelming him with an almost-sense of itchiness all over his skin. As if the vomit was still soaked and dripping off his clothes in the darkness as he sobbed in a dank basement, curled in a corner and fighting off another round of sickness.
The reactions always came so swiftly that they surprised him, no matter the time or place. His memories weren’t much different when it came right down to it.
These times were the most difficult for Dino.
Those times came at night.
When the lights were off …
When the apartment was quiet …
When it was just him and his monsters …
When he was alone.
The most frightening thing about monsters was the fact that they could be anybody. The old man sitting outside the pizzeria, tipping his hat at the ladies passing by. The young woman on the city bus with her hair bleached white and her gaze distant, staring at anything but anyone. The mother pushing a stroller down the street, oblivious but focused.
Or a monster could be the man dressed in three-piece suit stepping out of the restaurant he owns, the ring of the key fob for his white Bentley spinning circles as he whistled Ave Maria on his way to church.
Dino caught sight of the lower portion of his reflection in the darkly tinted glass of his Bentley’s window.
He managed a smile.
It was more like a smirk.
Fact was, the expression he wore was neither. Dino found it incredibly hard to smile—something that came so easy for others was foreign to him. When he did try, it came off as a grimacing grin and that worked its way into a sneer.
Or a smirk.
He liked that better.
It was manageable.
The monster was definitely the man wearing the three-piece suit with the key fob in his hand, staring at himself in the window, Dino knew.
Slipping into the SUV, the noise of the busy Chicago city street was instantly silenced. Dino turned on his vehicle and checked his rearview mirror before he pulled out onto the road.
He regretted choosing the rearview almost immediately.
While his reflection in the window of his car had been partly obscured by the shadows of trees providing shade to the sidewalk, it was not concealed at all in the rearview mirror.
Dino didn’t like mirrors.
He didn’t like the face staring back at him.
The soulless brown gaze, emotionless expression, and silence were more than enough to make him look away.
Except he couldn’t.
Under the right edge of his strong jaw was a three-inch scar that started three-quarters of the way up his throat and stopped just before his ear. The broad slope of his nose had the slightest crook in the middle. Sometimes the left side of his jaw ached when it rained.
Those were the obvious things—marks, scars, and reminders he could pick out instantly when faced with his reflection. The longer he stared at himself, the more he would find.
It was—without meaning to be—the most dangerous game he could play with himself.
Church, he told himself. You need to be seen at church.
It was only the ringing of his phone that finally drove his gaze away from the rearview mirror, making him check the caller ID, and breaking his cycle of self-loathing.
Dino was grateful for that.
Not so much the caller that interrupted him.
Sighing, he connected the call through Bluetooth as he pulled out onto the road.
“DeLuca here,” Dino answered.
“Why the fuck is Riley Conti calling me with demands about you, Dino?”
Dino silently counted back from five before he answered his younger brother. “Theo, good morning to you, too. Are you at church? I’m headed that way. We can talk then.”
Dino let the call drop.
Theo wouldn’t say two words to Dino at the church and he knew it for a fact. When it came to the public, Theo and Dino were constantly apart from one another—on opposite sides of the room where they didn’t have to speak.
It was the easiest way for Dino to handle Theo DeLuca.
Maybe that made him a coward.
The brothers’ history together was not an easy one, not when it had been shadowed by the death of their parents, and then the events that followed the murders. Unlike Dino, who learned quickly that trust was a beautiful myth in their lifestyle and in the Chicago Outfit, Theo was of a more stubborn mindset.
And so, the two were distant.
Dino tried with Theo, but it never really seemed to help the relationship.
He was all too aware that his younger brother blamed him for things that had been out of his control, though Theo thought his older sibling could have handled the past far better.
He probably could have—should have.
Dino thought he had, honestly. He’d taken years of abuse from the hands of their uncle Ben after their parents’ deaths. He’d lived separately from the family, sure, but he was not exempt from the beatings or the manipulation.
Of course, that was a story for another day.
If Dino got his wish, that day would never come.
Another call rang through to Dino’s cell phone.
He checked the caller ID again.
Ben DeLuca, it read.
Dino didn’t pick up the call, still driving toward the church.
He would see Ben soon enough.
Without even being told, Dino was already aware he would suffer for not picking up the call.
Years had passed since he’d suffered some form of physical harm from his uncle’s hard hand.
Dino’s chest tightened at the thought.
Truth was, he still wasn’t exempt from the manipulation.
Not when he was constantly haunted with it all.
He still wasn’t free.
Dino slid quietly into the church pew less than five minutes after Mass had started for the parishioners. He avoided meeting the gazes of those he recognized, uninterested in a whispered conversation while the priest was preaching respect from behind his pulpit at the altar.