The stunning conclusion to The Painted Daisies…
"I pledge allegiance to her and only her."
Singer and lead guitarist Nikki Rani will do whatever it takes to keep her mom and her band safe, even if it means keeping secrets about her friend's murder. She failed her loved ones once and won't be taken in again by a ridiculous story.
There are no fairy tales in her future. Especially not with a broody stranger who's more likely to offer heartache and pain than redemption.
D'Angelo Castelli has been raised for a singular purpose―to protect the monarchy. He's dedicated two years to hunting the people trying to bring it down, and now he has mere days to retrieve the woman key to saving it all: Nikki Rani.
As the clock ticks down, D'Angelo makes one last desperate move to save his country and reveal a murderer. He thought he was prepared for everything. He was ready to torture, steal, and kill to defend the world he believed in.
What he wasn't prepared for was her.
Release date: July 12, 2023
Publisher: That's What She Said
Print pages: 420
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Behind the book
With an all-female rock band and the alpha heroes who steal their hearts, this fast-paced, romantic suspense series might just leave you breathless.
SWEET MEMORY is a second-chance, opposite-sides-of-the-track romance. The world’s sweetest rock star falls for a troubled music producer whose past comes back to haunt them.
GREEN JEWEL is an enemies-to-lovers, single-dad romance. He did it. She’ll prove it. Her body’s reaction to him be damned.
CHERRY BRANDY is an opposites-attract, forbidden romance. Being on the run with only one bed is no excuse to touch her…until touching is the only choice.
BLUE MARGUERITE, a frenemy, second-chance, celebrity romance. She’ll never forgive him for humiliating her. Not even when he offers the answers her family desperately seeks.
ROYAL HAZE, the stunning conclusion to the series, is an antihero, secret-society romance. He was ready to torture, steal, and kill to defend the world he believed in. What he wasn’t prepared for…was her.
Each full-length novel has a different HEA couple and a completed suspense plot, but the series is best read from book one to keep track of the overarching murder mystery.
Performed by Dami Im
EIGHT DAYS BEFORE
The seventy-five thousand people in the stadium’s seats took a collective breath, and silence settled over the arena as the video of Landry faded with the last notes of “The Legacy.” Nikki’s eyes filled with tears, but she held them back, closing her lids to capture them. Then, thundering feet, hands, and voices filled the air, chanting Landry’s name, chanting for all of them…
Remorse filled her.
She could never fix it. She could never make it right, but she could be here to honor Landry every day. She could help Paisley accomplish the dreams the two sisters had built together.
Nikki left her guitar by the drum kit and joined her bandmates at the front of the stage. She locked hands with Adria, and then they all took a bow before walking offstage. The crowd went wild. As soon as they were out of sight, the five of them formed a circle, hugging each other and holding on tight.
They used to do something similar before each performance to help Paisley with her stage fright, but these days, she battled it differently—with Jonas, who was part of their tour-management duo and her boyfriend. Now, he was the first of the small group of men waiting in the wings to step forward, swallowing them with his muscled arms and joining their circle.
When they broke apart, they all wiped their eyes, and Paisley fell into Jonas. He dwarfed her, making her look even smaller than her barely five feet. He had almost thirteen inches on her and doubled her in width. As tiny as she was, Paisley’s personality was huge these days. Strong and vibrant. She’d stepped into Landry’s missing shoes, filling them in a way Nikki didn’t think her sister could ever have imagined.
As Jonas’s hair slipped over his brows, he pushed it back to reveal bright-green eyes that settled on Paisley. He brushed aside her straight, black strands and kissed her forehead before linking their fingers together.
Adria threw an arm over Nikki’s shoulders. While each of them was hot and sweaty from the performance, banging on the drums worked Adria out more than any of them, so her black hair was practically adhered to her face and neck.
“They’re cute together,” Adria said with her bright, blue-eyed gaze on Paisley and Jonas. “I used to worry they’d hurt each other all over again.”
“I guess I understand second-chance love better these days,” her friend replied with a shrug as her eyes landed on another man who’d been waiting for them. Ronan was wearing faded designer jeans and an old-school Goonies T-shirt that made him look more like the film director he once was rather than the president of a production studio he’d become. His cinnamon-colored hair with its thick waves was brushed back carefully, his beard was trimmed neat, and his gray eyes were glued to Adria.
Nikki chuckled but didn’t respond. She was laughing on the outside while, deep inside her, the little girl she’d once been was throwing a tantrum, aching for the love all her friends had found but had eluded her. The way the men in her friends’ lives looked at them, like they were the only thing worth living for…she wanted that. She’d wanted it from the time she’d watched her very first fairy tale.
But her fairy-tale dreams had cost them everything. It had cost them Landry.
She certainly didn’t deserve a happily-ever-after story. Not when Landry would never have one. Forever after wouldn’t be hers. She could barely allow herself moments of pleasure and peace these days without the guilt tearing her apart.
“Want to go out tonight?” Adria asked. “I’ve heard the Pygmalion has a great house band and even better bar food.”
Instead of an after-party full of media and important guests, they’d held the VIP gathering before the concert today. The two-night stand in Dublin was the last of their concerts in the calendar year. Tomorrow, everyone was heading off in different directions for the holidays. The fact they were going to be apart for a few weeks wasn’t the reason Adria was asking her to go out though. This was her friend keeping the promise she’d made in November to not leave Nikki without a wingwoman just because the entire band now had a man to go home with at the end of the day.
“Nah,” Nikki replied. “I want to be sure I’m packed and ready to go for our early flight. Besides, I think your man might literally explode if he doesn’t have you in his arms in the next ten seconds.”
Adria snorted. “Ronan will survive.”
Nikki turned laughing eyes to her friend. “But will you?”
Adria’s smile grew, giving Nikki the signature wink the world associated with her. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
Nikki hugged Adria tightly before letting her go, and they started over to where Ronan was standing with Nikki’s stepmom. Her height was the only thing that made her mom stand out in a crowd. It certainly wasn’t the medium-length brown hair she almost always had tied back in a tight bun or her hazel eyes hidden behind simple black-framed glasses that drew attention to her. She was quiet, and many would say she was plain-looking―forgettable―but Nikki had seen her mom standing in the face of a storm, holding the tiller of a sailboat, and keeping them on course. She was a quiet power. One Nikki admired deeply.
Her stepmom had been there when the worst hit―when they’d lost Nikki’s father. She’d gotten them through it one day, one plan at a time. Then, she’d continued to be there for Nikki as the darkness came after her friends. Sometimes, she ached to tell her mom everything. To unburden all her secrets.
Nikki slid her hand into the pocket of her ripped-up jeans, finger landing on the sharp point of the clasp on the tiny bird-of-paradise-shaped pin she kept there. The pain was a reminder that she needed to stay silent. For a long time after Landry’s death, she’d hidden the sapphire-encrusted brooch away in her luggage, unable to stomach looking at it without being torn apart by her deadly mistake. But ever since she’d seen the picture Holden had shown the band of the professor’s brother meeting up with Angel Carter, she’d been tempted to tell everyone the truth. But she couldn’t afford to do so. She wouldn’t be the reason any of them got hurt again.
Ronan’s arm went around Adria’s waist, tucking her close. “Showering here or going back to the hotel?” he asked, hope gleaming in his eyes, and Nikki barely held back a laugh.
“Hotel. But I need to say goodbye to everyone. I’m not sure we’ll see each other in the morning,” Adria answered, turning toward the rest of the band gathered near the stage.
Fiadh’s dark-mahogany hair lined with purple was a vibrant splash of color against Asher’s black suit jacket as he held her to him. The couple was listening to something Holden was saying as Paisley, Jonas, and Leya looked on.
The former Secret Service agent who was now in charge of the multiple security companies and agencies trailing the band looked fierce tonight, like the superhero they sometimes teased him about being. He’d been especially on edge since Colombia, increasing their security until it was a tight knot around them and running the entire organization with an iron fist. If any of the detail made one mistake, they were let go. There’d been too many things that had gone wrong already this year. The only softness you saw in Holden was when he reached for Leya, as he did now, grabbing her hand and stopping her from playing with the leather and beaded bracelets layered on her arms.
Nikki and Adria made their way over to the others to say goodbye. The men were already offering each other backslaps and handshakes. They’d become almost as close as Nikki and her bandmates, forming a group Jonas laughingly called the Painted Daisies Ultimate Fan Club. Four men who’d do anything to ensure her friends’ lives ran smoothly from now on. No more drama. No more kidnappings or death.
Nikki swore it too, but she was a club of one. A very lonely club.
She was the only person who knew the truth about Landry’s death, except the killer himself.
You don’t know for sure, a tiny voice inside her tried to scream. But she squashed it with a sharp prick to her finger. This time, the pierce drew blood. She felt it along the tip. She had dozens of matching pinhole marks now.
But at least she was alive to have them.
“See you in two weeks,” Nikki said, hugging Leya before moving on to do the same with the others.
Then, each of the band members made their way to their separate vehicles that would take them and their partners to different entrances at the hotel. More security precautions. More things pulling them apart instead of keeping them together.
Tears pricked at her eyes. The goodbye left her unexpectedly emotional when, really, she should feel less so. Her loneliness would be temporarily broken tonight as Mom was staying with her. Since Ronan had hired her as his executive assistant last month, her mom had been traveling with them, helping him do his job remotely so he could be at Adria’s side. Normally, her mom had her own room, close to Ronan’s. But tonight, she was staying with Nikki so they could leave bright and early for the French Riviera, Nikki’s sailboat, and the meandering trip around the Mediterranean they had scheduled for the holidays.
They’d spend Christmas on deep blue seas. Just the idea of it, of having the smell of the salty air surrounding her and the wind on her face while basking in the tradition her father had once started, brought a sense of calm to her. It was a respite Nikki needed even when she felt guilty for taking it.
The more Holden and the team had dug into Landry’s death recently, the more she’d felt the need to tell them everything. But she knew, deep in her heart, doing so would only lead more darkness to their doors, and she refused to be the reason another one of them died.
Nikki had been able to hide her tension from her bandmates because they were lost in their new relationships. But her mom had been eyeing her funny lately, as if she knew there was a dam inside Nikki that was leaking. She was desperately trying to patch it, hoping she had what it took to hold back the swells.
You’re stronger than you know, Nik. Training can help you, her father’s voice came back to her. He’d pressed his palm to her chest at the time. But your heart will give you more strength than any skill Jerome or I will teach you. Men have lifted cars off children because of it. It won’t fail you when you need it most. It will be the one thing that saves you.
More tears poked at her eyes. Damn did she miss him. It had been over nine years, and it still hurt enough to rip through her with a simple memory.
“You look worried. What’s wrong?” her mom asked.
Nikki’s finger settled on the pin again inside her pocket, and she shook her head. “I’m just tired. The sun and rest will be good for me.”
“The weather shows a storm hitting us for a couple of days, but the rest should be clear.”
Nikki turned to really take in her mom in the shadows of the back seat. “You look tired also. Is working for Ronan wearing you down?”
Her mom fidgeted with the arm of her glasses, adjusting them, a move Nikki had watched so many times that it brought an unexpected comfort. Like walking into the house and smelling cookies baking. “I have a lot I’m juggling, but I wouldn’t change it. The job was perfectly timed.”
Nikki rested her head on her mom’s shoulder. After her dad had died, the structure Clarissa had brought to their lives was the only way they had made it through. One task, one goal, one moment. It was what made her extremely good at her work as an executive assistant, juggling high-powered people’s worlds. But in the last two years, her mom had changed companies three times. Sometimes, Nikki wondered if what had happened with Landry, the way she’d had to step in once again to keep Nikki on an even keel, had brought back her mom’s grief at losing her husband.
More guilt settled over her.
Nikki closed her eyes. When her life was over, she wondered how many negatives would be added up. Was she doomed to an afterlife of torment for the sins she’d been responsible for? Whether she’d known about them or not, she’d still been the catalyst…
Her temples throbbed.
No flickering white lights though.
Maybe it wouldn’t become a migraine.
Maybe she’d get through a week without one.
She’d never tell anyone they were getting worse. Like the pinpricks to her fingertips, they felt justified. Earned.
She should find a therapist before everything she was holding in destroyed her inch by inch. Maybe when the tour was over, she’d make an appointment. She’d pick a different person than the one she’d gone to after her dad’s death. That one had been useless, advising her to journal and tell everyone how she was truly feeling. If she’d done that, if she’d told anyone how she felt, she would have been screaming at the top of her lungs for days on end.
She’d buried her emotions just like she’d buried the truth. She’d do the same now, and somehow, she’d survive it. She had to. She needed to be there for the people who were counting on her. Her mom. The band. Their team. It was the only penance she could pay that wouldn’t cause more pain and grief.
ARMY OF ONE
Performed by Bon Jovi
D’Angelo watched from the shadows as a man eased out of the alley. Dressed similarly to D’Angelo, all in black, the man settled at the side of a dumpster with a clear view of the hotel’s entrance. The man opened a rifle case he’d had slung over his back, quickly adding a scope and suppressor to the weapon. He checked the clip, and D’Angelo noted it was full. There were enough bullets there to kill a dozen people and make it look like yet another mass shooting. But D’Angelo knew the real truth because he’d seen the ruby pin on the man’s jacket.
As the SUV containing Nicolette and her mother pulled underneath the hotel’s portico, the man shifted the rifle in the direction of the vehicle. An unexpected wave of anger overtook D’Angelo. Sharp. Bitter. Strong. This asshole thought he could snuff out the bright light that was Nicolette without thought or consequence. The fury that hit him was stronger than he’d felt in over a decade. The emotion was unwelcome. It was even more dangerous than the man standing in front of him.
As if to taunt him, D’Angelo’s father’s voice came back to him. You’re angry, Son, and that’s okay. Your emotions are powerful tools. Harness them, wield them like a sword. Just don’t let your enemy see them, as they’ll use them against you. His father had been right, because his dad’s enemies had used his love for his family in just that way. He’d been blind to the attack. He hadn’t seen them coming.
And that was the job. To see it all. To be prepared for anything and everything. It was easier to have no emotions and rely solely on your skills to get the job done. It was safer. If he allowed feelings to sneak in, not only might he miss something, but the guilt and regret might raise their heads as well, and he’d never be able to function if he started doubting himself now.
As Nicolette emerged from the armored vehicle, D’Angelo moved forward on feet that made no sound, hand sliding under his jacket to the bandolier that held rows of knives instead of bullets. The assassin never heard him coming. Never knew until the knife had already silenced him.
Another kill. Another death. His soul was black with it.
He tossed the man and his gun into the dumpster. Instead of the nothing he’d trained himself to feel on the job, the rage still simmered. They’d come for her and may have succeeded if D’Angelo hadn’t been there.
When he turned to find Nicolette with his eyes, her mother had also stepped out of the vehicle, and the two women had been surrounded by their bodyguards. The anti-royalists were getting desperate. The sniper would have had to take out several men before he’d gotten to the women. It had been a risky play at best because her detail would have reacted instantly after the first shot. The security surrounding the Daisies had gotten tighter and significantly better since Holden Kent had taken over. D’Angelo didn’t want to like the man, but there was a piece of him that did, or at least respected what he’d done. The band was safer than it had ever been.
And yet, it was in even more danger.
The man in the dumpster was just the start of it as the clock counted down the last few minutes of the year.
D’Angelo caught a glimpse of Nicolette’s black corkscrews blowing in the breeze as she stepped toward the lobby doors in torn jeans, heeled boots, and a leather jacket with her white-and-yellow daisy embroidered on the back. A Royal Haze daisy. If he was a person to find humor in anything, he would have found it amusing she’d unwittingly chosen that particular flower to represent her in the band.
His gaze followed her as she headed inside with a grace that couldn’t be taught. Her shoulders were pulled back, stance straight, showing off her small curves that swayed delightfully as she walked. She was stunningly beautiful. Regal. She’d make a picturesque queen. His queen. He had to remind himself of that whenever watching her poked at some wolfish part of him that wanted to devour her. It was simply desire, and yet, it felt like something more. Something that could turn into a different emotion if he let it. An emotion he had no intention of feeling.
He tugged the hood of his jacket down farther over his brows and stepped out of the alley just as Nicolette’s mother turned toward the street, searching it, and he cursed silently, stepping back into the welcoming shadows. Clarissa Rani had spotted him the other day as well. Either he was slipping, or she had a sixth sense when it came to her stepdaughter.
When she finally turned to follow Nicolette into the hotel, he eased back out of the alley, crossed the road, and moved around to the employee entrance at the side. Even entering there, instead of the lobby, he would stand out. People tended to remember you when you were six foot seven. But he had years of experience blending in, shrinking his frame until it was nothing but a vague memory. A half-assed recollection people would be unable to describe.
He made his way down a side corridor and used the key card he’d swiped from the staff room to let himself into the bowels of the hotel. There were more dark corners here. Better places to secrete away in the shadows where he belonged. Where he could keep his sins to himself.
His boots were soundless along the cement floor as he found his way to the little hideout he’d made for himself. Three nights ago, he’d stationed an empty laundry cart in front of a series of pipes and wires in the back corner of the basement, and no one had moved it since. Not even the hotel security who’d been through the corridor. It was ineptitude that irked him when he should have been grateful for it. It allowed him to do his job with ease.
But it also put Nicolette at risk. Because if he’d done it, who else had as well?
D’Angelo maneuvered his massive body into the tight corner, dropping his backpack at his feet and pulling out the tablet he’d left tucked behind the pipes. He stuffed an earbud into place and swiped the screen to see the two women had already made it inside the suite. They were safe, for now, but as the sand in the invisible hourglass hovering over their heads began to dwindle away, they wouldn’t stay that way. A strange anxiety had started to grow inside him lately. More feelings he’d attempted to stuff away, hating the weakness they represented.
His people―his country―were counting on him. The stakes were as high as they were ever going to get. He’d wasted too much time already in trailing the Daisies. At first, it had been to ensure Nicolette was who they suspected she was. Then, it had been to find the assassin who’d mistakenly killed her friend. He needed the man to lead him to the person commanding the anti-royalists. They needed him taken out before they brought her in so there wouldn’t be a snake in the grass waiting to strike. The Cavalieri had been confident they’d find the traitorous bastard before now, and yet the days had slipped away, and the Judas was still on the loose, still sending men like the one in the alley to finish her before she had a chance to claim what was hers.
Irritation spun through him that he had to force back down.
His only consolation for having let so much time slip by while trailing the Daisies was in knowing he’d been able to exact justice against those who’d wronged them. He’d gotten revenge in a way the Daisies’ security would never have been able to do. Not only because of ties that bound them legally but also morally. D’Angelo didn’t have those same constraints. He’d been bred to do anything.
All in service of the crown.
Like his father had before him. And his father before that, going back centuries.
The sound of the shower running could be heard through his earbud. He’d hesitated while installing the cameras in the bathroom three days ago. Was it the wild beast in him or the actual need to have eyes on every part of the suite that had him slipping the camera in place? He’d never know for sure. All he did know was that he had to keep her safe for a few more hours until his plan came together. Until he had her next to him for good.
As he swiped through the camera views, his fingers hovered over the steam in the bathroom. Just the single thought of her bare under the stream was enough to have his entire body tightening. He quickly flipped the screen before he risked seeing her like he had accidentally weeks ago. It had been another hotel, in another city, and he’d switched the camera on without knowing she’d just emerged from the shower. His breath had disappeared. It had been like watching Rhaibele herself descend from the heavens. Nicolette didn’t have an ounce of extra flesh on her. She was composed of purely cut lines and defined muscles that traveled the tall length of her, accentuating her small curves. Seeing her that way, invading her privacy, had given him a new reason to hate himself.
He’d been disgusted with his body’s instant reaction to her. He shouldn’t have craved her. She wasn’t his to have or want or even look at as a man would a woman. It was a violation of the oath he’d taken. His duty was to the crown he served, and she was the embodiment of it.
He tightened his jaw and concentrated on the next camera, the one in the living area of the suite. Clarissa Rani was pacing, fingers on her phone, glaring at it. It made his eye twitch, an inner warning he’d learned to listen to. He pulled out his phone, skimming through the screens until he came to the clone of her device. There was a text from Jerome Barry saying he wanted to see them in Monte Carlo.
Surprise filtered in for the second time that night. None of the alarms he’d set around Barry had pinged to notify him of the man’s travel. Knowing Barry would be in Europe right as everything came to a head made D’Angelo determined to dig deeper into the man’s life. To start over and look for any gaps and holes he might have missed when he’d investigated him previously. Was there any way Barry could be tied to the anti-royalists and San Fiore?
Clarissa looked up as the bedroom door opened, and Nicolette emerged in a pair of tight pajama bottoms and an oversized sweatshirt. Her hair was wrapped in a satin scarf, hiding the shiny black coils underneath it and putting her oval face on display. Her slim nose was set artfully between eyes so dark a brown they looked black at times…like his midnight-blue ones could as well. Her full lips were curved upward at the edges as if she was permanently smiling. Even now, without lipstick, they were tinted a soft red, as if from heated kisses. Sensual. Tempting.
He turned the volume up.
“Jerome wants to see us before we set sail,” Clarissa said.
Nicolette’s brows went up. “He’s in Europe?”
“Conducting a joint training effort with a French Special Forces unit.” Clarissa headed for the bedroom. “I’ll tell him we can have dinner with him tomorrow night.”
Nicolette’s smile grew until it settled in D’Angelo’s chest like a sunbeam, as if it could burn through the black shadows lingering there and wash away the dark spots on his soul.
An absurd notion. One he pushed aside just like he did the longing that always hit him when he saw her. Longing and at that something more he couldn’t name. Something that felt bigger than respect and more like devotion.
There was no room for anything but one-hundred-percent focus right now. He wouldn’t make the same mistakes his father had.
After the two women settled in for the night, D’Angelo pulled a laptop from his backpack and opened his file on Barry. He’d investigated the former Green Beret-turned-government-consultant as soon as the police report on Landry Kim’s murder had listed him as one of the people at the farmhouse. The man seemed to have an alibi. He’d flown into New York from a joint training exercise he was conducting with the U.S. government and the Ukrainians and had just barely arrived before picking Clarissa up from her hotel and heading to the Swan River Pond farmhouse. The man had supposedly come to Grand Orchard for the same reason Clarissa had―to check on Nicolette due to the stalker messages the band had been receiving.
Jerome and Clarissa had been one of dozens who’d been concerned and watching over the band in those days. Unfortunately, no one had been there to prevent Landry from losing her life.
D’Angelo had seen it firsthand.
He’d seen the blood on her throat and the unseeing eyes.
He’d heard the tormented cries of her sister when she’d found her moments later.
What he hadn’t seen was the person who’d done it.
He’d been a handful of minutes too late. In many ways, it had been his failure more than their detail’s because D’Angelo had known what to look for when they hadn’t. He’d allowed himself to be persuaded into believing it really was a stalker without the skill or balls to actually follow through on his threat.
But a stalker hadn’t been the one to kill Landry.
The feather on the scene, if nothing else, had proven it.
D’Angelo gritted his teeth and drew his mind back to the task at hand. How would Barry being there alter his plans for Monaco? He’d go with them to the hospital if everything went according to D’Angelo’s schedule. He wouldn’t wait outside the room like her detail. He was in his sixties, but the man was still a trained Green Beret. If he saw D’Angelo, there’d be a commotion, and that was what he couldn’t afford. It would draw her bodyguards, and then he’d have to hurt people who were only doing their job. It was the one thing he avoided―harming innocents.
He pulled up the hospital’s floor plan. Could he revise the plan this late in the game? Intercept her somewhere else?
His phone vibrated.
COMANDANTE: Where are we?
D’ANGELO: I’ll deliver her to you the day after tomorrow.
COMANDANTE: I’d feel better knowing the plan. Knowing when to expect her so we have others in place.
D’Angelo, on the other hand, wouldn’t feel better if others knew. He preferred working alone unless he didn’t have any other options. The fact that he didn’t this time, that he was having to use people in Monaco, was already making his eye twitch. He shouldn’t doubt the strength and loyalty of his brotherhood. The Cavalieri d’Oro had never been breached.
Except with Dad. He’d never been able to prove it, so he pushed the thought away.
D’ANGELO: All that’s important is she’ll be there well before the deadline.
He shut off his phone before he could see the Comandante’s response. He despised the fact he’d continued to botch one aspect of this mission. In never catching Landry’s killer, the leader of the anti-royalists remained at large, weaving his threads. It was as if D’Angelo had been hunting a ghost. Someone with almost the same access and resources as the Cavalieri.
Which resurrected those doubts he hated.
Instead of following a rabbit he’d spent too many years chasing until his boss, his father’s best friend, had pulled him from the black hole, he spent the next few hours doing what he was renowned for within the brotherhood. He broke into secure locations, looking for clues, searching for answers. He was in so deep that Nicolette’s phone alarm going off actually surprised him. He’d spent the night digging and getting nowhere. He’d found nothing new on Barry. Just some redacted videos of him conducting trainings in the Middle East.
He slammed the laptop shut and stuffed it into his backpack with one eye trained on the cameras in the suite. Nicolette climbed out of the bed with her long legs bare. She’d lost the pajama bottoms at some point, and the deep bronze of her skin caught and held his gaze. There were parts of her that showcased the Black woman her great-grandfather had given up his crown for, and others that showed off the Native American ancestry she’d inherited from her biological mom, but there was also something that was just uniquely Nicolette. All the pieces of her having come together in a way that could never be replicated. A stunning perfection causing that ache in him to reemerge. The one he could never quite explain.
His time trailing the Daisies had somehow made him soft. Emotional. Malleable.
He packed up, disconnecting everything but the surveillance until the last minute. Until Nicolette left the room, dressed in jeans and an oversized sweater that still couldn’t hide the beauty of her curves underneath, with her mom beside her. Whereas Nicolette seemed to shine, Clarissa seemed to fade into the wallpapered hall, blending in.
He yanked the cord from the tablet, adding it to his other equipment in the backpack, and slid from behind the laundry bin. His body was stiff from sitting on the floor all night. It wasn’t anything he was unused to, but at thirty-five, it took a greater toll than it had when he was ten years younger. He shouldn’t even be in the field anymore. He should be sitting at the table with the other sergentes, but he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to sit back and just direct the action without taking part in it.
He moved through the hotel’s basement, slipping quietly behind the cleaning crew stuffing their carts for the day. No one even looked his way. Sometimes, he wondered if he was actually invisible. If he was as cursed as the people of San Fiore believed the monarchy was.
As he emerged from the employee entrance, the overcast Irish skies loomed above him. Dark thunderclouds blocked the weak sun, and heavy raindrops landed on his face, landing in the heavy beard he’d grown and reminding him to lift his hood. He strode along the building, head down, at a pace he’d perfected over the years. Not hurried enough to draw eyes, but quick enough to let him eat up the sidewalk.
When he arrived near the hotel’s entrance, he stepped behind the pillar and watched as Nicolette and Clarissa got into the vehicle heading to the private jet terminal and their flight to Nice. The SUV’s door had barely closed before D’Angelo’s phone pinged. He glanced down and saw she’d written a text in the Daisies’ group chat. A sweet goodbye she didn’t know would be the last before her entire world changed.
Because no matter which way the next few days fell, the life she’d been living would be over. She’d either be dead—and him along with her—or she’d no longer be just the quiet guitarist of The Painted Daisies. She’d be much, much more.
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