The assassin and the angel. Can her song redeem his soul?
Miranda Devalande had long since given up on her dreams of a happy life. Forced to sing at mob boss Slick Sal's seedy nightclub to cover her brother's rising gambling debts, she survives from day to day as a caged bird. With each new bad bet by her wayward brother, her hope of finding a way free of her "contract" fades. Until a mysterious stranger arrives at the club and turns her whole life upside down...
Danger has always swirled around reluctant Guardian Warrior Sebastian Lambert. Trained as an assassin and recruited out of desperation, he now battles the evils of power-hungry Rogues in Chicago. When his friend and fellow Guardian Viktor Arnhart drags him into a nightclub, he would have never imagined to find an angel at the mic.
Caught between his desire to keep Miranda safe and his drive to hold her close, Bastian must walk the line between the light of a beautiful songstress and the dark of his perilous past even as dangerous forces threaten to destroy them both. Will he open his heart to her in time, or will she fall prey to her soulless fate?
CHAPTER ONEChicago, ILPresent daySmoke filtered through the dimly lit club, hazing the yellow glare from the overhead lamps. Miranda Devalande stepped to the solitary microphone at center stage, the strains of the piano at her back beginning to fill the silence. A couple chords later and the drums and bass joined in, the recognizable strains of “Cry Me a River” bleeding through the swirling clink of ice cubes and the mumble of incoherent conversations. Her eyes slipped closed, her brain fabricating a happier scenario. In her mind, her dress was ruby-red silk, the light fabric whisper-soft as it hugged her curves and pooled around her feet. Her hair was tumbling loose around her shoulders, the thick auburn and chocolate curls set free about her shoulders to frame her pale face. Behind her, the full orchestra underscored her voice, building to the tumultuous applause from the capacity crowd at New York City’s famous Carnegie Hall.Too bad when she opened her eyes, her dreams came crashing down. The pungent stench of cheap beer and stale cigarettes wafted up from the shadowy lounge two steps down from her. Her hand-me-down black sequined, one shoulder sheath dress had seen better days, the slit along her left leg reaching higher than her personal modesty would have liked. The same could be said of her scuffed black pumps, the stiletto heels cramping her calves.Her hand rested on the mic as her other hand brushed a stray, thick blonde curl of someone else’s hair over her single bare shoulder. She fought the overriding urge to yank the dumb hairpiece off her head. Why the club’s owner insisted on making her look like a longhaired version of Doris Day she would never understand. She was just glad she was able to talk him out of making her bleach her own hair. She had very few caveats to her contract, which was one step up from indentured servitude, so she fought hard to keep them enforced.Grateful for the low lighting and the general apathy of the crowd, she dug past her heavy heart and found her voice.Just one more song. Just one more night.Her daily mantra bounced around her head as she serenaded the Thursday night crowd of the half empty club. Life was a funny thing, and right now, its sense of humor sucked big time.Where did I go so wrong?Bored applause broke the spell of her distracted wanderings. Forcing a less than convincing smile, she took a polite bow.“Thank you. We’re going to take a short break. Enjoy your night, and we hope to see you again at Francciolli’s.”The spotlight snapped off and she took a relieved breath, her shoulders dropping as she turned to the band. Gary stood up, shaking his head as he stepped away from his piano, his full head of silver hair hardly moving as his pure blue eyes pinned her with fatherly concern.“Doll, you have the voice of an angel. Why do you stay in this place? You should be making records, or at least performing for a more appreciative audience.”“Yeah,” Bobby Ray chimed in, laying the brush sticks atop the snare. “There have got to be better jobs out there than this dump.”Miranda smiled at their kind words, giving a shy shrug as she fiddled with the clunky rings on her fingers. “Aww, you guys are like family to me. Where else could I find that?”That much was true. The trio had quickly taken her under their wing soon after she began. Never once did they ask why she sang at the nightclub owned by South Chicago’s mob boss, Salvatorre Francciolli. Each employee had their own reasons and their own twisted pathways which led them through the retro, padded-leather doors into a world out of Martin Scorsese film.Her own path had led through those doors almost eight months ago after a panicked phone call from her younger brother, Kyle. Ever since that 3am meeting, she’d stood before the standing mic, making good on a deathbed promise she’d given to her father.“Your brother is the only family you have left, Andy. You gotta keep him safe, sweetie. He’s gonna need you.”“You coming, kid?”Her lips remembered how to smile as she banished the memories for a moment. With a slow nod, she followed them to the door reading Employees Only, finding peace in the only measure of privacy in her fishbowl life. Away from the interrogation-focus of the spotlight, she relaxed a fraction, her fingers sneaking under the edge of her false bouffant perched on her head.Laughter bubbled up behind her as an aged ebony hand landed on her shoulder, squeezing gently.“Girlie, you trying to dig through to your brain?”Smirking, she turned to find the welcoming smile of her bassist, Eddie, with his chocolate brown eyes crinkled in mirth. Soon her giggle blended in happy harmony with his baritone. “I’m still here, Eddie, so I don’t think there’s much left upstairs.”His dark skin gleamed under the fluorescents of the employee break room, his salt and pepper halo matching the black and white of his classic suit and loosened tie. “Now don’t be giving yourself too little credit there. You got all the words right again tonight and that’s something to say.”Together, they slumped into the battered leather couch pushed against the red brick wall. She tugged the dress down as she sat, shimmying to cover her legs as much as the ridiculous outfit would allow. Her eyes scanned the faces of the other employees enjoying a brief reprieve, their tired eyes and plastic smiles shielding the part of their soul still under their own control. So many broken lives, it was hard for her to grasp the true reach of the corrupt fingers. Her smile faltered, fatigue dimming her eyes as they met the twinkling brown beside her.“I guess that’s better than last night, right?”A wrinkled hand covered hers, his grin bright and honest as he patted her hand. “Girl, you know your voice is the only thing keeps people coming back here. Ain’t no one paying a damned bit of attention to the words you’re saying.”Miranda tossed her head back, letting the soothing balm of laughter ease her troubled spirit. “Well, thanks for the vote of confidence.”“Yeah,” added Bobby Ray as he handed her a cold bottle of water before dragging over a chair, spinning it deftly and straddling the back. “Some big record guy’s gonna come through the doors one night and we’ll be able to say that we knew her when.” Half the contents of the beer bottle at his lips vanished in a long swallow as the others murmured in agreement.A shy and awkward smirk tilted her full lips. She slowly shook her head as she hid her blush behind the clear plastic shield of Crystal Geyser water. The words were nothing new to her, the sentiment echoed from staff and patrons alike since her debut performance. She was happy all those hours of classical training during high school, spending afternoons harmonizing with her dad’s records of Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, had somewhat paid off.Yet, her father’s diagnosis of Stage Four lung cancer during her sophomore year at Chicago’s Columbia College put the brakes on her music education. His two-year-long downhill battle took its toll not only on her family’s savings, but on the fabric that held her family together. The huge medical bills sent her brother into a dangerous spiral of “easy money” schemes, “can’t lose” investments, and her personal favorite, “the sure thing.”Through it all, she was always able to find comfort in her singing. Music gave her joy and helped her when things seemed at their worst. Within the purity of the notes, she found peace and passion, logic and love. Before she’d walked through the back alley entrance, escorted by two silent, well-armed sentinels, her songs had spoken of lightness and love.Since that dark night, only words of loss and heartache seemed to pour from her lips. Every night, the sparse crowds half listened with cool indifference, each crystal clear note falling on inattentive ears. She hoped things would get better soon, but the cynical voice inside her head told her that the hammer of life truly had yet to fall.As her gaze scanned the employee break room, she found her fellow band members laughing over one of Gary’s many impersonations. The Boys in the Background, as they labeled themselves, had made peace with their lot in life many years before she joined them.Could she?Would she ever give up on her idea of being saved from this smoke-filled tower?“There’s my little songbird.”Her spine snapped upright, that unmistakable flat and nasally accent like ice down the back of her dress. Her gaze fell on the approaching bulk of the man who held her contract. Flanked by two silent and deadly reedy shadows, he strolled through the quiet lounge, the rest of his captive audience frozen in apprehensive fear. The overhead lights were not able to soften the harsh and sharp points of his hawk-like features, his soulless bottle green eyes pinning her with a devious and calculating gaze. The simply tailored mouse brown single-button sports coat might fool the untrained, but she as well as the others in the room knew that the comforting ease of his attire lured many to their doom.The years spent commanding others and living off the profits of broken lives had padded the once fit frame, but the lingering trace of impending physical violence was ever present in each step. Even his thick helmet of Grecian formula black curls brought forth images of cement shoes and Tommy guns. Pockets of Chicago were still caught in the strangling grip of Prohibition-era gangster families that never let go of days of glory. Now, thanks to her ne’er-do-well brother, she was entangled in that dark underworld, her fate in the uncaring custody of Slick Sal Francciolli.Struggling to paint a pleasant smile across her frozen countenance, she folded her shaking hands in her lap as the icy silence deepened.“Here I come into my place, hoping to hear my favorite voice and what do I find?” His rhetorical question started a chain reaction of scuffing chairs, the opposite end of the room deciding their own break was over. Within a heartbeat, they melted into the shadows or out the nearest open door, leaving her and her bandmates as targets in the boss man’s sights.“Just taking a quick five, Mr. Francciolli. We were—”The frigid pools of green ice locked the piano man’s voice in his throat before returning to hers, the spurious smile touching only his lips and nothing else as he continued.“I find my stage empty. So, doll. You rested those pipes of yours enough?” His meaty and manicured fingers stretched across the scant distance separating them to brush away an invisible bit of fluff from her exposed shoulder.Miranda swallowed hard, forcing herself not to flinch as those square tips touched her skin. A sharp nod jolted her mouth to work, her voice a respectful whisper as her eyes studied the sea of worn tiles surrounding the once safe lifeboat of a sofa. He didn’t own her, as much as he did love to insinuate it. He had even gone so far on one occasion to suggest that she wear one of the tacky costume jewels on her ring finger, just to deter any would-be suitors.“Yes, Mr. Francciolli.”Teeth too white for his sallow pallor flashed in what resembled a grin. His fingers tightened on her shoulder, guiding her to her feet. “That’s what I like to hear.” His tone shifted as his eyes found the other musicians, his free hand waving them off dismissively. “Get back out there. I ain’t paying you guys to sit on your asses.”Voices muttered words of assurances, feet shuffling toward the door. Miranda moved to follow, only to have her forward momentum stopped by the hand still on shoulder. “How ‘bout you sing some more happy songs, doll? I keep hearing back that you’re making all the people sad.”Welcome to the club.She opted to keep her sentiment to herself, her head downcast, giving a nod in understanding. “I’ll try, Mr. Francciolli.”The strong aroma of aftershave and garlic coupled to form an overpowering fog that enveloped her as a warm breath hit her cheek. She cringed, curling into herself to hide her shudders of disgust. Her eyes squeezed shut so her make-up would stay unmarred should tears begin to form. At least once each night when he graced the place with his presence, she had to survive a sloppy kiss on the cheek or a stray hand on someplace less than pleasant. She steeled her spine, preparing herself for tonight’s bout with humiliation.“You do that, doll.” The smack of lips resounded near her ear and her arms wrapped her middle, hoping to force her body to stay still until the onslaught finished.“We’re waiting on you, kiddo.” Eddie called from just outside the door, thankfully giving her an escape route.“Be right there, Eddie.” With a polite nod, she stepped out the clinging tentacles of Slick Sal and made a hasty beeline toward the dark that offered more comfort than the bright of the break room. Her fingers were still shaking as she ran a hand through her pre-coiffed hair, smoothing her nerves as she dragged in a tainted breath, nearly coughing out the acrid air. Blinking rapidly to stem the impending tide of tears, she clasped the cold metal of the mic, mouthing her thanks to her bassist for his perfect timing. The music trailed up, wrapping her in its soothing blanket.“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to Francciolli’s, where every night is jazz night. We’ll be starting tonight with Cole Porter’s classic, ‘Begin the Beguine.’”Please, for once, let something not go wrong tonight.