The Innocent by Mara McQueen
"This is just as gaudy and horrifying as I was expecting. Shocking."
Then again, Patrice Duval was standing in the rain, an umbrella in one hand, Mr. Oscar's cat carrier in the other, staring at Lorenzo "Enzo" Caputo's lair of debauchery. Of course it was garish.
The imposing house was the biggest on the street. Everything here reeked of new money and unearned luxury.
The house's upstairs windows, coated in a smoky layer to keep the curious gazes away, thumped with a mesmerizing song that beat straight into Patrice's chest.
She could make out the bare edges of some languorous shadows swaying behind the gauzy drapes. Mere blurs enjoying the night.
Everything about this place seemed to entice a closer look, but deny it.
She hadn't expected any less of Enzo.
The Syndicate mafia princeling was famed for his extravagant tastes and depraved parties. Rumors of his charm had been spreading like wildfire for years; they'd even managed to creep into Patrice's secluded lab.
In a few short, infuriating months, he'd add another title to his roster—that of Patrice's "beloved" husband.
Patrice shivered at the thought. The two of them were a match made in hell.
If they didn't marry, a mafia Clan war would break out. Her Clan, the powerful Brotherhood, had been wrongfully accused of crashing a Syndicate wedding which had ended in a massacre.
Well, the Brotherhood had crashed the wedding. And, yes, some of Patrice's Brothers and Sisters had taken a life or two.
In self-defense, obviously.
But they hadn't attacked first. They hadn't rained down bullets on the guests. They hadn't killed the Syndicate leader, Victor Caputo.
They had been targets, like all the other guests.
But the vicious Underworld didn't care. The Brotherhood had been there, at the wrong place and the wrong time, and they had to pay. The code was unbreakable.
Patrice had to marry Enzo. She wasn't risking a Clan war or any of her Brothers and Sisters' lives.
She'd given her life to the Clan, now she had to sacrifice her happiness for it.
That's how the Underworld worked. She'd known that since she'd joined and made a name for herself. First, as the Lady of the Brotherhood. Then as the Viper. Unseen, unheard, and deadly—or at least her dangerous serums and potions were.
But out of all the mafia bastards in the world, why did she have to marry Enzo-fucking-Caputo?
Mr. Oscar hissed from his carrier. He was an unusual cat—wasn't scared of water, but hated the cold with a feline passion. He'd been putting up with it for ten whole minutes now, while Patrice had tried in vain to strangle her nerves.
That was obviously not happening. Might as well face the inevitable head-on.
It was time she met her future husband. For real this time.
"But do I really have to?" she whispered.
Mr. Oscar whined. Patrice didn't know who was more miserable, the cat or her.
With a heavy sigh, she turned to her guards and gestured at them to wait. Walking in with a dozen highly-skilled Brotherhood assassins would give the wrong impression. She could face Enzo all by herself.
She rolled her shoulders back and marched straight to the door. It was big enough to let an entire parade through.
She rang the golden doorbell. Then she rang it again. And again.
Not only did she have to ruin her future with this goddamn arranged marriage, now she had to break down the door to do it, too? She might've been tiny, but they didn't call her the Lady of the Brotherhood for nothing.
Just as she lifted her leg to give the carved wood a good kick, the door swung open.
Patrice stared at the middle-aged man dressed in a perfectly pressed black suit.
Enzo had a butler. Of course he did. And not just any butler—one that looked like he'd been transported from some British lord's house from the nineteenth century. The man had graying muttonchops, for heaven's sake.
"How may I help you?" he asked, perfectly polite and stoic.
Patrice licked her teeth. Enzo had been reminded, more than once, that she'd arrive today. Asshole.
"I'm here to see your boss," she said.
"Business or personal?"
"Both," Patrice ground out.
"Ah, Mistress Duval," he said, just as pleasantly. "Please, do come in. The Master is waiting for you."
If Patrice would have had it her way, the Master would've kept on waiting. But she didn't, did she?
She walked in like she already owned the place. Technically, she'd own half of it by the end of the year. But she didn't want any of it, not even the specks of dust.
Not that she could see any. The house was pristine. The huge foyer was a mix of white marble and golden fixtures. A vintage chandelier hung from the painted ceiling right above a massive staircase.
She'd walked into a bloody palace parading as a mere house.
The butler made to grab the carrier. "Allow me to help you with—"
Mr. Oscar hissed. The butler flinched back.
"What's your name?" Patrice asked.
Of course it was. "Don't get too close to Mr. Oscar. He doesn't like strangers."
Especially Syndicate strangers.
"Very well." Charles eyed the carrier suspiciously. "The Master is upstairs. Shall I inform him of your arrival?"
Judging by the sounds vibrating through the ceiling, Patrice very much doubted Enzo would hear his butler.
"I'll surprise him."
She wanted to get this over with. Meet the man, tell him to go to hell, then get on with her life.
A nice, simple plan.
But as soon as Patrice climbed the stairs and walked down the dimly-lit hallway, heading straight for the crimson room at the end, her bravado melted.
She didn't want to be here. Lord, she did not want to be in this situation.
She had her lab. She had her draughts, and serums, and powders. She had her cabin, with the little lake. She had her sketchy missions—she'd just come back from poisoning a senator. In his own home.
She liked her vicious, organized life. There was no room for a marriage in it. And there definitely wasn't room for Caputo.
He was a wildcard, everyone and their bodyguard knew that. He lived his jet setting life, doing whatever...Actually, nobody knew what he really did. But everyone knew he was part of the Syndicate First Family and stayed far, far away from him.
Nobody messed with Enzo Caputo. He hadn't killed a single soul—as far as anyone knew, and the Underworld liked its gossip—but everyone feared him. His Clan respected him.
He was an enigma. One that Patrice was in no hurry to solve.
What she did know of him didn't bode well for her future. Whenever Patrice ventured out to a party, she made friends with the walls. She liked her cozy home, with her cozy blankets, and her cozy fireplace.
Cozy was familiar. Most importantly, it was safe.
Sure, she ventured out occasionally—couldn't poison someone from her cabin, could she—but she always returned to her home, far away from everyone.
Enzo was a player. Patrice was not—she avoided the game altogether.
She didn't jet off to underground ceremonies, exclusive concerts held in cemeteries, and wine tastings in the Vatican secret library.
Also—and she couldn't stress this enough—she did not organize orgies. Because she'd just walked into one.
An extravagant nest of decadence stretched out before her.
Black velvet cushions, sofas, and chairs were nestled in every corner of the round room. Thick silver candles were strewn on every surface. Hot wax dripped onto the dark floor and sweaty chests.
Some of the guests danced, some of them moaned, and some were writhing in the shadows.
Worst of all? Patrice had a heightened sense of smell. In her line of work, it was the skill to have. She could sniff out a drop of strychnine a mile away.
Right now, all she smelled was a sinful scent of alcohol, sweat, and cigarettes.
Adrenaline coursed through her as a cold chill crept up her spine.
"What the hell have I gotten myself into?" Patrice mumbled, frozen on the spot.
So many naked people. Those who'd bothered with clothes had opted for corsets, harnesses, and long, cascading necklaces that didn't hide anything.
A blush ravaged Patrice's skin, from her toes, straight up her small chest, past her blonde hair, and up into her forehead.
This was so not her scene. But she'd come here with a clear goal. The sooner she met the bastard—officially—the sooner she could start ignoring him.
Stare straight ahead.
She took a shaky step. Then another. By the fifth, she felt eyes on her.
Hungry, curious stares burning into the back of her neck.
She didn't belong here and all these people knew it.
At least she had her killer heels on. That seemed to be part of the dress code.
She'd walked into a dark, hedonistic world.
Mr. Oscar shouldn't be seeing this. His poor, innocent feline eyes.
Patrice had never felt more out of place. She wanted to fidget so, so badly.
Which is why she pushed her chin up as far as it would go and straightened her back.
Don't let them see you sweat.
But she was. Her body was heating up and, honestly, Patrice didn't know if she could blame it on the thermostat, which was cranked up to a hellish level.
She was surrounded by moans and groans and—was that a whipping sound?
Don't look. Don't you dare look.
Whatever sensation was coursing through her, making her blood pump harder and faster, turned to fury.
Enzo was, in fact, an asshole. He'd known she was coming today, because heaven forbid his precious ass came to live at her place.
Instead of toning it down, just for tonight, he'd amped his debauchery up.
Patrice was going to kill him. Technically, she couldn't—the blasted Underworld code, the marriage contract, and all—but it didn't hurt to dream, did it?
She wandered through the crowd, doing her best not to brush up against anyone.
Patrice schooled her features into what her Brothers and Sisters called her "don't fuck with me" face. Which was very appropriate, given the event.
A few more steps and the crowd got the message. The people parted out of her way, revealing the head of the beast.
There he was. Enzo Caputo, the future apple of her eye, sitting in a velvet chair that looked more like a throne. He had one long leg thrown over one of the chair's arms, like he owned the world and everyone in it.
He was talking on the phone, lips set in an angled grin. "Oui, mon ami. Demain. Merci beaucoup."
He'd been born and raised in New York, but damn if he couldn't pull off a French accent like the best of them.
Call finished, he threw his phone onto one of the couches and picked up a glass of wine.
His black shirt was undone at the clavicle; the hazy lights glided across his bronze skin, highlighting the edge of the tattoo snaking up from his chest. An entire halo of naked bodies danced and slid around him, vying for his attention.
The devil would've been so proud of him.
Patrice sucked in a breath.
Damn it, he was gorgeous. Lean, muscular body. Cheekbones that could cut. Perfect lips.
Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Patrice couldn't be attracted to him. She just couldn't. She refused.
Maybe if she turned around and—
Enzo took a sip of blood-red wine. His dark gaze slashed to hers over the rim of the glass, trapping her on the spot.
Patrice was screwed.