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Once Burned (Morelli Family #3)
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Mine is a name known by every lowlife in Chicago. Mateo Morelli’s right hand man: problem-solver, hit man, chief strategist, confidante—whatever he needs, I’m his guy. Kinda funny, since I hate the bastard. At least, that’s what I’ve told myself over the last five years, serving a man I consider despicable—a man I once considered my closest friend. It’s what I had to do, if I wanted Elise. And I wanted Elise more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my godforsaken life.
Thing is, I’m free now. I don’t have to be Mateo’s guy anymore. I paid the price for Elise’s freedom and now I can start building a life with her. Only it’s not that simple. Nothing ever is in this damned family. Elise carries emotional baggage from her own time served, and Mateo’s in deep shit without me.
You’d think I would’ve learned my lesson about the evils of Mateo’s family at 8, when they ruined my life, or maybe even at 28, when they stole it. Now here I am, 33, faced with one final choice: do I escape this family once and for all, or do I dive back into the flames to save Mateo’s ass one last time?
**Recommended for readers 18+ due to violence. Book 3 of 4 in the Morelli Family Saga. NOT a standalone. None of these are standalones. Start with Accidental Witness or suffer the consequences! (The consequence is that you’ll be really confused. No one will murder you or anything. But I don’t advise it.)**
*** It’s also strongly recommended that you read Irreparable Damage and Irreparable Lives prior to this one. This book has ALL the spoilers from that duet, so if you ever wanted to read it, you’ll want to do that before this book. ***
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20 years ago
It still feels like I’m on fire.
I can’t move. Even if not for the damage done to my body, they’ve wrapped me up in so much gauze I look more dead than alive.
I think of the time a couple Halloweens ago when I dressed up like a mummy. I bet I’d get more candy in this get-up than that one.
Someone’s sniffling. I can’t move my head, but I shift my eyes left and see my best friend standing there, dark head bowed. The sniffling is coming from him. I’ve never seen Mateo cry before.
I try to speak, but I can’t move my mouth.
I have to wait for him to look at me again, to see my eyes are open now. It takes a few minutes, then his brown eyes, bloodshot and red-rimmed finally meet mine and all of a sudden my insides feel hollow, like a juicy watermelon after Mom finished scooping out its insides for a picnic over the summer.
Seeing I’m awake, he swipes a hand across his nose and stands a little straighter. “Hey.”
I can’t speak, but he might not know that. Either way, I’m not sure I’d answer him.
“Lucy brought me,” he explains, his eyes moving over my face, taking in all the gauze. “I had to see if you were okay.”
Luciana’s old enough to drive, but I’m surprised she put her neck out, bringing him here like this.
I try to speak again, forgetting I can’t. Just the slight movement of my facial muscles sends a shudder through me, and searing pain is my reward for the attempt.
“They said they gave you medicine, so it shouldn’t hurt so much. They… they said you’re gonna be okay.”
A new kind of pain sears me, not physical, but emotional. The memory of my father begging. My desperate mother sobbing, screaming, pleading, reaching for me.
I try to speak again. A sound comes out, but it’s not a word, and it hurts like hell.
Mateo shifts, attempting to anticipate whatever I’m trying to get out, but his face registers no comprehension. Not sure why it would, I guess, but I’m flustered all the same.
I try again, and manage a “Muh…”
I want to cry with how much it hurts, but I can’t even cry.
I watch Mateo’s face fall and he goes to step back, but stops, realizing I can’t follow him. Pushing closer to the bed, he reaches out a hand, but mine isn’t there to take; it’s wrapped up in all the gauze.
“Your mom?” he asks.
I can’t nod, but I try to convey with my eyes that yeah, I want to know about my mom.
He looks at the bed instead of me, and that’s when I know.
Mateo whispers, “I’m sorry, Adrian.”
My eyes burn with tears I can’t shed. My face burns with pain. Everything hurts, and here stands my best friend, telling me he’s sorry like it counts. Like it means anything. Like it helps.
The heart monitor I’m hooked up to starts to go haywire and Mateo backs up, startled, scared. A nurse comes hustling in to check on me and frowns at the sight of an eight-year-old in here by himself.
“You’re not supposed to be in here without an adult, honey.”
“He’s my friend,” Mateo explains, like that should be good enough.
“I understand that, honey, but you can’t be in here by yourself. Why don’t you go find your mom or dad, and you can come back in with one of them.”
Mateo just stands there, looking a little lost. Of course the nurse can’t know that his mom’s dead and his dad’s the one who put me here.
But I do.
With one last long look, my best friend, Mateo Morelli, swears, “It’s gonna be okay, Adrian. I’ll come back for you.”
This time I’m glad I can’t speak. As much as everything hurts, as much as I’ve lost this night, I don’t think I could bear looking at my best friend and telling him to stay the hell away from me.
“I’m glad you came, Adrian.”
Shifting the clear glass of amber liquid in my hand, I take a sip, then look up at Mateo Morelli, perched on the edge of his father’s desk, in his father’s study.
Memories creep up on me, of us as kids, sneaking in here to see what was so important. We both had our first taste of gin, pilfered from one of Matt’s decanters. Neither of us found the taste or the burn very much to get excited about back then.
Now I tip back my glass, welcoming the burn.
“Not every day you get invited to a Morelli family dinner,” I say, lightly.
“Aw, come on. You know you could come anytime you like.”
Mateo’s lackey speaks up now, pointing in my direction to get my attention. “You used to live here, didn’t you?”
“Lifetime ago,” I acknowledge.
Shaking his head, the man says, “Man, I don’t know how you leave all this. Way above my pay grade, but a man sure could get used to it, you know?”