I've ascended my throne. I wear my crown of thorns.
Fancy that? I'm Queen of the August crime family.
I'll rebuild my father's kingdom in blood and fire.
With three broken princes at my side.
I've been betrayed, shot, hunted, and forced into a loathsome marriage.
But I'm still here, still fighting for them.
For Noah, Gabriel, and Eli.
I love them too much to chain them to my savage empire.
No one will take them away from me.
No matter the cost, my broken princes will be free.
I've sharpened my sword.
I made my sacrifices.
I'm unleashing war.
Drink and be merry, for tomorrow we bathe in blood.
From USA Today bestselling author Steffanie Holmes comes the chilling conclusion to this dark and gritty contemporary high school romantic suspense.
Release date: October 20, 2021
Publisher: Bacchanalia House
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
My Savage Empire
PROLOGUE: CLAUDIA – FIVE YEARS AGO
“Get down.” My father’s hand on the back of my neck is gentle, but firm. “Stay silent.”
I appreciate his care, even though I don’t need his instructions. I’ve hidden in the secret compartment behind his desk more times than I can count, listening to his meetings and business dealings. Daddy says it’s the best way for me to learn what he does and why. Afterward, he helps me out of the tiny crawlspace hidden in the bookshelf, perches me next to the window in a leather chair that once belonged to Robert Frost, and we talk over what I heard. He listens while I dissect his supply chain conundrums and commiserate with him when he has to discipline his soldiers.
I’m nearly thirteen years old. I’ve never set foot inside a school and I can’t name the United States presidents, but I know international shipping, gun-running, and rare-artifact smuggling better than the government agents Daddy outwits every week.
He’s filled my head with everything I need to take over the family business from him – while my mother has made sure I know all the gossip that will help me navigate the world of crime. “I want you to disarm them with your brilliance,” Daddy said to me once as he quizzed me on shipping routes for the hundredth time. “Your enemies will underestimate you, and you will use their stupidity to consolidate your power.”
That’s why when Daddy pulled me from bed tonight, I didn’t protest. I know this is just another lesson.
He’s in a hurry. His tie is creased and one of his shoelaces is untied. I point at it, and he flashes me his brilliant smile as he bends down. His fingers tremble ever so slightly as he ties the laces in bunny-ears.
Is that a tremble of old age? Daddy is sixty-two, although he doesn’t look it. He still has his hair – not golden blond like mine, but dark and wavy and luxurious. He’s reed-thin, but strong. He works out every day, lifting weights in our basement gym. Antony makes him a personalized program and meal plan to keep him healthy. Daddy is nuts about his health. He doesn’t want to be a stereotype – the fat gangster bursting from his pinstripe suit as he chews on the end of a Cuban cigar. Daddy abhors smoking, and he won’t even allow guests to light up in our home.
I don’t like the idea of Daddy getting old, but the alternative is even worse – the tremble must be old age because it can’t possibly be fear.
Daddy isn’t afraid of anything.
I’m used to being hauled away from lessons or out of bed at all hours of the night. But rarely did Daddy do it with such concern in his eyes.
He touches his fingers to his lips, then presses his kiss to my forehead. “Listen well, Claudia. I’m not certain what lesson you will learn tonight, but I fear it might be the most important one I’ve ever taught you.”
I nod. Behind Daddy’s head, a bust of the emperor Augustus stares down at me with quiet contemplation. Daddy swings the hidden panel shut. The last thing I see before the lock on the doorway clicks shut is Daddy’s eyes – hard as flint, steeling himself for whatever it is he has to do.
I lean my back against the internal wall of the compartment, keeping my breathing calm. I listen to Daddy’s leather chair creak as he shuffles papers on his desk. I hear him sigh. I wonder when—
My heart stutters. A gunshot? Daddy, no, please—
No, not a gunshot. I’ve been at the firing range enough times to recognize the sound. Real gunshots – especially with the weapons our colleagues use – make a different noise. A dull POP.
I steady my racing heart. It’s the crack of Daddy’s door hitting the back of the wall as someone barges in. Whoever’s here to see Daddy hasn’t even shown him the respect of knocking. My stomach twists.
“You shut down the Bangkok deal,” the intruder yells.
“Hello to you too, Brutus.” Daddy’s warm voice reaches my ears. It’s muffled by the wooden doorway separating us, but I hear no trace of his trepidation from before.
What’s Uncle Brutus doing here? My throat closes. I understand now why Daddy is on edge. Brutus is Daddy’s tribune, although lately he’s been more of a thorn in his side. Every time Daddy makes a decision, Brutus is there to argue with him. What’s worse, in meetings with Daddy’s high ranking soldiers, Brutus’ arguments have swayed others, especially when it comes to the new markets he wants to open up.
I only met Brutus a couple of times as a kid, and he made me uneasy even then. Brutus believes, like the rest of the organization, that I’ve been sent away to boarding school. Daddy doesn’t want them to see my face, not just yet. He wants me to be powerful, to take them by surprise. “If they see you now, my beautiful daughter, I’ll be fielding marriage proposals from the most powerful families in this city, and one of those families will force my hand to accept. This way, you remain out of sight, out of mind until just the right moment.”
A cramp runs along my leg. I rub the skin, hoping the moment will come soon. It’s hard to remain a shadow in my own life, to hide away in cupboards. But Daddy knows best. I’ll do whatever I need to do to make sure our empire continues after he’s gone.
I turn my attention to the situation outside. Brutus is yelling at Daddy. “…it took me weeks to arrange that shipment. And you swooped in and shut everything down. Do you have any idea of the trouble you caused? I owe money to—”
“You’ve brought this trouble down on your own head, brother.” My father’s calm voice cuts Brutus off. “You went behind my back to make that deal. You know our laws. You know the August family doesn’t deal in skin.”
A cold shiver runs through my veins.
I know what that means. I know why my father detests the business. He learned the family business from his father, my grandfather, who ran a lucrative sex-trafficking operation among the other family assets. Julian August went down to the docks to inspect one of his father’s shipments and fell head over heels in love with a Slovenian woman with a dazzling smile and ice-blue eyes. Daddy defied his father’s wishes to marry my mother and shut down the skin trade in Emerald Beach.
It sounds as if Brutus wants to start it up again.
“It’s time you faced reality, brother,” Brutus bites back with a mocking tone. “In case you haven’t noticed, we’re losing ground in the city to other gangs – gangs who don’t obey our laws. Your refusal to deal in skin just means others step in on our patch and make us look weak.”
“And we wouldn’t want to appear weak.” My father’s voice takes on a silky tone. I sense Brutus is marching himself into a trap.
“Exactly.” Another bang. I picture Brutus punching the desk for emphasis. “This is going on whether we’re a part of it or not. If we control the sex trade, you can set the rules, but right now it’s a fucking circus out there, with Nero as the ringmaster. I’m trying to preserve the reputation of the August family. We need to show that we’re still the kings of this patch. I made the deal with my own money – it was between me and Nero. It has nothing to do with you.”
“It has everything to do with me. You’re my own brother, my tribune, and you sought to undermine me. A true leader listens more than he talks, and I’ve been listening to you for some time now. Do not presume to know more than I do about the reputation of this family.” My father pauses. “You’ve forced my hand. I’m sorry, brother.”
“You should be sorry. You—” There’s a couple of thuds, and Brutus cries out. I’ve heard this often enough to know what’s happened. A couple of my father’s soldiers have appeared from nowhere and seized Brutus. There’s a crash as one of Daddy’s objects breaks in the struggle.
“You swore an oath of loyalty to me, and you broke it.” Daddy sounds so sorrowful. I imagine my father steepling his fingers together, his brow knitted in concern. “As punishment, you will wear the sacer.”
I almost cry out in surprise. In all the years I’ve listened from inside the bookshelf, I’ve never heard Daddy give out this punishment. The sacer is Daddy’s seal branded on the skin. It marks Brutus as an accursed man. This means anyone can kill him for any reason and they will be spared the consequences. Even law enforcement knows the meaning of the sacer, and they won’t investigate those killings. Daddy giving Brutus the sacer means marking his own brother for death.
“You wouldn’t do that to your only brother,” Brutus sneers. He sounds so certain, like a kid testing his father’s temper.
“You’re right about one thing. I cannot afford to appear weak,” Daddy says. “You’ve sown dissent among my ranks. My soldiers must know what happens to those who disobey our laws.”
There’s a scuffle, a couple of thumps, the sound of books being thrown to the floor.
“That’s your problem, Julian. You’re too concerned with law.” Brutus’ voice grows high-pitched as he struggles against his captors. “All this sacer nonsense, stopping the beast fights, letting the most lucrative businesses line the pockets of the other families. You really do believe you’re the great Emperor Augustus, just and fair. You’re so busy meting out punishments for every transgression you’ve forgotten that you run a criminal fucking empire. You’re not special. You’re not immortal. You’re certainly not morally fucking superior.”
“I know perfectly well who I am, thank you. Do me the honor of taking your punishment like a man.” Daddy’s chair creaks as he leans back. “I have spoken.”
Over Brutus’ protests, my father orders his soldier to fetch the blowtorch. The flame hisses and I know he’s holding the tip against a brand – the sword and laurel wreath that represent our family. To Brutus’ credit, he only lets out a grunt as my father accepts the brand from his captain and presses the sacer into his brother’s skin. Brutus is now an accursed man. Everyone in our world will see the mark and know that Brutus’ life no longer has worth.
“Your rule is over, Imperator,” Brutus spits as he’s dragged away. “You think one little burn and you’re in control of this city? You don’t know what’s waiting for you. You don’t—”
The office door closes, and Brutus’ cries become too faded to hear. My father’s chair squeaks. Alone now except for me, his breath comes out in ragged gasps. I wait without speaking while he collects himself.
When he swings open the door, I’m shocked at the sight of him. The ice in his eyes has cooled, and his mouth is crooked. The weight of what he’d just done to his brother, to a member of our family, weighs heavy on his shoulders. He thrusts a hand inside and helps me out, pulling me into his lap like I’m a little girl again.
“Why did I do that to Brutus?” he asks me.
“Because he betrayed our family.”
“Exactly.” He rests his forehead against mine. The sadness in his eyes is absolute. “Never forget that only those you love can truly betray you.”
My father pulls me into his arms, crushing me against his chest beneath the ferocity of his embrace. I think about Brutus’ words, and I feel cold settle in my veins as I realize the lesson Daddy intended me to learn tonight.
Only those you love can truly betray you.
If I never love, then I can never be betrayed.
CHAPTER ONE: CLAUDIA
I wrap my arms around Eli and hold tight, so tight. I press my body to him, trying to press the blood back inside myself, as if his warmth alone is enough to staunch the wound.
My ears ring from the shots. Eli rubs my arm where a bullet grazed my skin. His fingers are bloody. I can’t feel the wound. I can’t feel my arm. I’m dimly aware of a warm, stinging sensation in my abdomen from the bullet wound Eli hasn’t noticed yet.
The warmth grows hotter and hotter, radiating across my stomach, but it isn’t painful, not right this moment. I have time to bask in the light of Eli’s return.
The pain will come soon enough.
I won’t let go of Eli, no matter how much it hurts, when it comes.
I want to die in his arms.
Usually, pain blooms with fire, like touching hot coals to bare fingers, like the sound Brutus and Alec made when a brand met their skin. But when my pain comes it burns so hot it becomes ice, a frigid, crushing pain that makes my teeth clatter and numbness sweep through my arms and legs.
I can’t feel anything through the pain. I can’t even feel Eli anymore.
“Who shot at us?” I manage to gasp out.
“I don’t know. It was strange. It almost looked like…” Eli’s words trail off as he sits up, holding me at arm’s length. His eyes bug out as he stares at my belly.
I look down and notice with strange detachment the neat hole in my shirt, the round circle of crimson forming around it – so tidy, so different from the splatters of Brutus’ blood that speckle my skin. The whole area sizzles with ice, but I feel oddly calm about it.
I’ve already lived through so much, dying will be a breeze.
“Claudia,” Eli’s voice shakes. “You’re shot.”
Gizmo’s head pops up between us. She prods my stomach with a curious paw. I don’t feel it. All I feel is ice and fire.
I’m shot. It doesn’t seem real. The bullet might still be inside me. If it’s not, it’s torn up all sorts of vital organs on its passage through my body.
I want to laugh. It’s too fucking cruel. I’ve literally just promised Eli I’ll protect him forever. Fat lot of use I am. In fact, I wish I was fat. If I ate more pasta then maybe I’d have some padding that could have stopped the bullet.
A laugh bubbles up from inside me at the absurdity of my thoughts. Sharp pain twists in my gut. I fall forward into Eli’s arms, and the pain blooms bright and hot and intense. I’m no longer numb.
I feel everything.
Eli says something, but I can’t hear his words. It’s like he’s yelling at me underwater. Sensations fade at the edges. I can no longer sense his touch as he holds me, tugs at me, shakes me. I can’t react. I’ve lost control of my body. The room spins, rippling as the waves of fire wash over me.
I have Eli.
I’m okay with death, because I have Eli.
I love three men, and they love me back. I’ll die in perfect peace, knowing that I had their hearts and they had mine, that I never had to live through their betrayal.
Eli’s face fades into the shadows. He calls my name, but I’m sinking deeper underwater. I carry the vision of his perfect face, ringed in a halo of golden hair, as I slip into oblivion.
Darkness takes me.
CHAPTER TWO: NOAH
I tear out of the shack after Antony. In the distance, a figure ducks behind one of the outbuildings. I glimpse blonde hair streaming behind him. I pour on speed, putting Eli’s track training to good use as I tear around the side of the shed. I swing my weapon around, but when I scan the buildings for the shooter, I can’t see them anywhere.
Footsteps pound in the dust. Antony yells behind me. I whip around just as he lets off a spray of bullets that shred the ground, kicking up clouds of sand and dust. A figure leaps out of sight behind a rusting tractor.
I slam my back against the shack. Antony gestures to me to stay put and cover him while he tries to get closer. He launches himself at the tractor just as the figure makes a run for it. I think they’re doubling back toward the shack where Claudia and Eli are, so I bolt around the other side of the shed. But when I whip around to attack them head-on, there’s no one there.
“Where’d they go?” I call to Antony. But then I catch the figure darting in front of the arc of our car’s headlights. Shit. I bolt toward the car, but it’s too late. The shooter slams the door, and I run into the beam of the headlights and raise my gun as he whips the wheel around, and I see it’s not a he at all.
It’s a she.
A very familiar she.
Lips that curl back into a cruel smile.
I’m stunned for a moment at the sight of her, and I lose my shot. The car kicks a cloud of sand and dirt in my face as she whips it down the driveway.
“Come back, you bitch!” Antony fires his weapon at the rear tires but misses by a mile. The tires squeal and the rear end flies out as the car screams out the gates and disappears along the road in a streak of dust.
“Fuck.” Antony hurls his weapon into the dirt. “She got away.”
“How did she get away?” I’ve seen Antony in the ring at the Colosseum. He’s a monster. A killing machine. Once he tore a guy’s throat out with his teeth. There’s no way he’d have let this happen. “You had her when she was behind the tractor. You should have seen her turn this way. What happened?”
Antony picks up his weapon and looks up at me. Sweat pools on his brow. Splatters of Brutus’ blood are arced across his shirt. There’s a look in his eyes I can’t read – it almost looks like vulnerability. “Don’t tell Claudia this, but I’m having some trouble with my eyes.”
Laughter bubbles up inside me, but I gulp it down. Antony’s still holding a gun. My hand flies to my hair, and I run my fingers through the waves, streaked now with dust and drying blood. “What trouble?”
“I wear contacts, okay? To help sharpen things in the dark. Only I don’t have them in tonight because I didn’t expect this to devolve into the fucking O. K. Corral—” Antony kicks at the dirt. “This is fucked.”
I whirl around and race back toward the shack. I know this is bad, that we should be checking the whole area in case there are more ghosts lurking around to surprise us. But all I can think about is getting back to Claudia. My mind flies through everything that’s just happened. Brutus’ strange state and slurred words, his blood and brains splattering across the wall as Claudia put a bullet between his eyes. The shots ricocheting in the tiny space. Claudia lunging at Eli, the pair of them going down as I took off after the shooter…
Is either of them hit?
If either of them is hit, I will burn the world.
I reach the shack just as Eli stumbles outside, Claudia hanging limp in his arms. “We need to get her to a hospital.”
I skid to a stop. My breath rasps. I taste blood on my tongue. It’s only now that I see the dark stain spreading across Claudia’s abdomen and shoulder, and the way her head flops against Eli’s shoulder.
No no no no.
My gun slides from my fingers as I run to her. I cup her face in my hands. Her skin feels clammy. Her lips part in that perfect way she smiles, but her eyes are glassy, lifeless.
Not again. Please…
Eli carries her to the house and lays her on the porch swing. He runs inside and returns with a net curtain he’s torn from one of the windows. He rips the curtain and wraps the strip around her chest, cooing soothing words to her even though she can’t hear him, even though she’s…she’s…
This can’t be real. She can’t be dead.
I can’t lose another person. I can’t…
Her eyes stare at the stars, unblinking, unseeing. My heart isn’t built for this kind of pain. It batters itself against my ribs, shattering into a thousand shards that tear at my insides.
I drop to my knees. I hear a crack as I connect with the wooden porch, but I don’t feel any pain. I’m already broken, fallen pieces scattering away from her.
“Claudia.” I lean close to her lips. “Claudia, I know you can hear me. I know you’re still in there, you brave, stubborn, infuriating woman. Don’t you dare fucking die on us, you listen. Don’t you dare go away and leave us raw and bleeding and hopelessly in love with a shadow. You’re everything good about the world, and if you die right now I’ll…” fuck. I swallow the lump. I can hardly push out the words. “I’ll go on a murderous rampage and Eli will cry and Gabriel will do nothing but mope and write dark poetry until I have to kill him in a vicious murder/suicide just to be with you again, so don’t you dare fucking die—”
“Move,” Eli barks, elbowing me aside as he kneels down with an armload of random supplies. I shuffle away and watch him, which is good because I’m fucking useless right now. Waves of panic assail me. I kneel beside the swing and I stroke her cheek and I whisper words without meaning, words I wish had the power to heal.
Felix’s serene features and my mom’s blue-tinged skin stare back at me behind Claudia’s glassy eyes. I couldn’t save them. I can’t save Claudia. Everyone I love dies and it’s my fault…
“Hold this.” Eli drapes a towel over the shallow wound on Claudia’s shoulder where the bullet grazed her skin. “Apply pressure.”
I watch Eli run back to the house for more supplies, and I wonder if he’d be this together if he’d seen who drove away in our car.
Did he see who did this to our Claws?
“Fuck, cousin.” Antony stares down at Claudia, and his eyes darken and his jaw wobbles – the closest I’d ever seen him come to actual emotion. He pulls his mobile phone from his pocket and tosses it to me. “Call Galen. Tell him where the fuck we are and that we need him out here.”
“You do it.” I don’t have the coordination to operate a phone right now.
“I need to check the farm, make sure there’s no one else waiting to ambush us. You’re clearly in no state to help with that. Pick up the phone and call Galen, now.”
My fingers curl around the phone. And even though I know the answer to the question, I ask anyway. Because I’m hoping for a miracle, for another, less insane explanation for what just went down.
“Who was that girl who shot Claudia?”
“That,” Antony sighs, “was the real Mackenzie Malloy.”
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...