Big Bad Wolf by Diana A. Hicks
1 A Virgin Wife
Beverly, South Chicago
Though we still had plenty of summer days left, the Sassafras trees in our expansive front yard had the distinct bark scent that signaled fall was coming. The warm breeze rustled the treetops, and a few orange-brown leaves fluttered to the ground like burning pieces of paper. Growing up, this was my favorite time of year—when the foliage around our Chicago home turned a deep red. I always felt like the change happened overnight. But I knew that wasn’t the case. The change was gradual. We had plenty of warning.
It happened with Mom, too. She died on a night much like this one. Her passing felt so sudden, though it took years for the lung cancer to eat away at her body.
I pushed off the thick tree trunk, ambled to the next one about twenty feet away, and glanced up at the sky. White clouds crowded the swaying tree limbs high above us. Another optical illusion.
“I should be there with them.” I rubbed my bare arm, wishing Dad had let me come.
“And do what, Luce? Get killed?” My best friend Kayleigh squinted at me then followed my line of sight. When she didn’t find anything worth noting, she picked up a stick and threw it across the way.
Dad and my twin brother Ronan had gone out to, literally, fight for our family and left us here to do nothing but twiddle our thumbs—or as it were, throw sticks and scowl at the heavens. I wanted to be with them and do something worthwhile, make a difference. Dad and Ronan were not the only ones willing to make a sacrifice for our crew.
The Irish gang, my family, had been around for a long time. We prided ourselves on offering our community protection and solvency. Something the Italians had made extra hard recently.
In the past few months—or maybe the gang war had been brewing for longer than that—the Italians had declared open season on our territory. Dad, as the oldest surviving O’Brien and leader of the Red Wolves, had tried to improve our relationship with the Chicago Outfit. He had no interest in their human trafficking business. We weren’t about that. We ran guns to the people who needed them, and yeah, sure, when times were rough, we even dipped our toes into the drug-dealing pool.
Apparently, the filthy Italians thought that lack of excessive greed meant we were weak. And now they were killing us off one by one.
“No, Kay. To help. I can help. We can help.”
“I know. But someone had to stay home and deal with the fallout. You know this.”
We didn’t exactly know this. In the twenty-five years I’d been alive, I never had to deal with gang wars over territory. The Italians came out of nowhere and had been ruthless and relentless in their pursuit for expansion into the south of Chicago.
I turned away from Kay, and then I saw it. A slight movement toward the back of the house. “Kay,” I said under my breath.
“I see it.” She nodded, reaching for her handgun tucked in the back of her waistband. As usual, she stepped in front of me as if I were the one that needed protection. We were both in danger. But sometimes Kay liked to play my bodyguard. With her dad being my dad’s lieutenant, we grew up together. We were more than best friends; we were sisters.
“Let’s split up.” I gripped the handle of my weapon.
“We never split up,” she hissed. “This isn’t some recon mission, Luce. We assess the danger and then take cover.”
“Are we seriously having this conversation right now?”
“You started it.”
“Fine.” I put up my hand. “Left side has more trees in the way.”
“One, two, three,” she counted fast then bolted.
“Dammit.” I darted after her, keeping my weapon aimed at the ground. The last thing I needed was my gun going off because the adrenaline rushing through me made me trigger happy. Kay’s dad had trained us both since we were twelve. Kay had a knack for guns, but not me. I hated the things. If I kept one, it was because Dad begged me to do it for my own protection.
“Oh, fuck.” My heartbeat spiked as soon as Ronan’s face came into view near the kitchen door that led to the back yard.
“It’s them.” Kay stuffed her gun back in its place and took off.
I did the same, taking in big gulps of air. I needed to still my trembling hands. In the kitchen, I followed the trail of blood. Weirdly enough, the sight calmed me down. I set my gun on the counter and went straight to the sink to wash my hands. Nursing school had been Mom’s idea. She was a registered nurse—something that came in handy more than once while I was growing up. In the mob, the thing about playing with guns was that someone always got shot.
By the time I walked into the living room, Dad was already resting on one of the cots I had set up for this very purpose. “What’s the damage?”
“Three wounded.” Ronan nodded once and stepped aside to let me get to Dad. “Connor and Sean didn’t make it.”
“Jesus.” I cut open Dad’s shirt. “Where are they?”
“Two of our guys stayed behind to get them back.” He pursed his lips, exchanging a meaningful look with Dad.
I furrowed my brows, putting pressure on Dad’s shoulder wound. Something had happened between them. Did they fight on the way here? “What did you do?” I glared at Ronan.
“Don’t give me that. I know that look.” I rinsed Dad’s shoulder wound and took the time to assess the damage. The lump in my throat bobbed, and I swallowed to keep the tears from coming. Dad was wearing a bulletproof vest and had a dish shaped bullet lodged in it. “You’re gonna need X-rays to be sure there’s no internal damage.” I used my nurse voice because, right now, I couldn’t be his daughter. I would fall apart and that would help no one. “Help me with the vest.”
I stood and let Ronan lift Dad so I could work the straps off the garment that saved his life tonight. As expected, the area was already turning purple and spreading below his rib cage. Dad was built like an ox, but he wasn’t young anymore. “You can’t keep doing this, Dad.”
“Tell that to the Italians,” he mumbled in his smoky voice and waved Ronan away.
“Bring the other two. Why are they not inside? They need to be triaged.”
Ronan nodded toward the back of the room, and our wounded magically appeared. They had stayed out of sight so I would work on Dad first. It wasn’t fair. All life was valuable. But they needed Dad alive. When I met their gaze, they blurted out their injuries. We’d done this more than once in the past few months.
“Blade to my side. It feels squishy.”
“Dog bite. Don’t ask.”
“Lie down,” I ordered, looking at the two of them. “Let me have a look. You too, Ronan. That eye looks nasty.”
“We were ambushed, Luce.” Ronan stepped into my line of sight.
“Ronan.” Dad practically barked his name.
“The Italians never had any intention of calling a truce.” He clenched his jaw and swallowed. “They were there for Dad and me.”
Dad closed his eyes and dug his head into the flat pillow. I couldn’t tell if he was tired from the night he’d had or if he was just done with all this bullshit with the Italians. At this rate, our crew would be decimated before winter was over. Our people and everyone I grew up with would have to live under the threat of the Italians, running drugs for them, paying for protection and…I stopped my train of thought because I didn’t want to think about how bad things would get if our crew didn’t exist.
“Tell her, Dad.”
“Tell me what?” I stopped midway through my stitching. Honestly, in all my training, I never had to do sutures while the patients were fighting amongst themselves.
“We need outside help.” Ronan crossed his arms over his chest. “I mean, everyone can see that.” He gestured toward the bloody scene around us.
Both Kay and I nodded because Ronan was right. If we could get one of the other Irish gangs to pitch in, we could kick the Italians out of the South—for good. No more shootings. No more vandalism. No more break-ins. Our entire community would be safe.
I looked to Dad, but he didn’t turn to me. Instead, he kept his gaze glued to the light fixture on the ceiling.
“Does this have something to do with me?” I asked.
“Yes.” Ronan stared at Dad while he spoke. “Liam Walsh has offered his help. But Dad refuses to accept.”
“Um, what?” Kay stepped in. She had managed to keep quiet and out of the way because she hated blood. Fighting ruthless assholes was more her speed. Liam Walsh being the ruthless asshole in this case. “We can’t get into bed with that creep. Who the hell knows what he’ll ask for?”
“Watch it.” Ronan turned his furious gaze to Kay.
Ronan wasn’t normally the angry type. In fact, I had never seen him act like this before. What the hell did the Italians do to piss him off?
“This is Red Wolves’ business. You don’t get a say.”
“Sorry.” Kay cleared her throat.
When she stepped back, she quickly scanned the room—no doubt looking for her dad, who, as Dad’s lieutenant, would have some say in who we asked for help. Or at least Dad would take his opinion into account. Though judging by the stern look in Dad’s eyes, he had already decided. And he wasn’t proud of it.
“Luce.” Dad reached for my hand and squeezed it tight. “This contract does involve you. Liam has the men and resources to get us out of this hole the Italians dug for us. He can get us back on our feet.”
“What does he want?” I had a pretty good idea. It couldn’t be money because the Italians had made sure to sabotage all our latest dealings. They were starving us out. It also couldn’t be guns or drugs. The New York Irish had their own suppliers.
“A wife.” He winced in pain.
“Not a plaything?” Wasn’t that what he liked? At least, those were the rumors.
“I’m so sorry, Luce. I’ve tried to handle this on my own. But what choice do we have?” He rubbed the creases on his forehead, looking a decade older than he did just this morning when we had breakfast together. “At least this way, you’ll be safe. He wants children. He’s ready for a wife.”
More specifically, a virgin wife.
Dad didn’t want to embarrass me with that small detail. It would make this whole transaction too dark and twisted. But just because he wasn’t saying the word didn’t mean that it wasn’t an understood requirement. A big boss running a crew in New York would never settle for less than a virgin with ties to another boss. Dad knew this because twenty-six years ago, he made a similar deal for Mom.
I did appreciate that he’d shown some remorse, and I rather liked the illusion that I had a say in this.
Swallowing my tears, I rose to my feet and headed back into the kitchen to wash my hands. Two more of our men needed my help. One of them had a nasty dog bite that was already turning colors. Really? They were using dogs? I hated the Italians now more than ever. Tears stung my eyes as I rubbed the sticky, dried blood from my hands and forearms. Before I knew it, I was in full-on sobbing mode.
What was it they said? Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it. I wanted to help in a more significant way. Now Dad was telling me I could end this war. And all I had to do was marry a heartless monster.
Liam Walsh was the boss of the Irish Crew in Harlem, New York. He was well-known and feared by everyone, including me. Especially me. By the way Dad hesitated with every word, I’d say he was scared, too. Liam was rich and powerful. He could marry anyone he wanted. What else was he getting out of this deal?
I’d always considered myself a pragmatic woman. Mending people was never my passion, but I was good at it, so I went to nursing school after I finished my undergrad at Barnard College. Same with my virginity. I didn’t save myself over some romantic ideal. I knew one day; I would need it. I never thought I would marry for love. That was for normal people, not people like us.
My parents’ marriage had been an arranged contract between their families. Over the years, they learned to cherish each other. Were they soulmates? No, not really, but they were content and respected each other. In the end, their union made our crew stronger.
Early on, Mom had explained to me how, one day, my virginity would be a highly sought commodity. I didn’t save my virtue because of some religious ideal. I did it because I was a realistic woman. In my world, my virginity had value, as in men were willing to pay money for it. Or in my case, with a small army. My marriage to Liam Walsh could save our lives and ensure our longevity. With the Italians out of the way, we could resume our gun business.
“Fuck me.” Kay stomped into the kitchen. “You’re actually thinking about this? It’s insane. He’s insane.”
“He wants a wife.” I lifted my gaze to meet hers. “Obviously, he’s thinking about a family. He needs an heir. So who knows? He might be decent to me.”
“He wants you because you’re gorgeous and you check all the boxes. You’re the big boss’s daughter in Beverly. And, well, you’re a virgin. Apparently, he wants one, and those are hard to come by these days.” She braced her hands on the marble counter, taking in a deep breath. “What the hell am I saying? I’m so sorry.”
I inhaled too to ease the pain in my chest. Liam wasn’t called the “butcher” for nothing.
“Isn’t he like sixty years old?” Kay asked.
“Fifty. And you’re not making this any better.”
“Sorry.” She put up her hands.
“I hate this.” I splashed water on my face. “I don’t have a choice, Kay. Imagine saying no. He might even retaliate by helping the Italians finish us off.”
“Honestly, that sounds like something he would do. How did we get here?”
“The Italians. That’s how.” I fisted my hands and leaned over the sink.
My stomach clenched at the idea of what I had to do. Even though I was ready for a marriage of convenience, I had hoped I’d get to stay in Chicago. There were plenty of suitable men here, where my family was. Accepting Liam’s help and marriage contract would mean I would have to move to New York. I glanced up to look at Kay. She nodded as if saying, “you’re doing the right thing.”
I blamed the Italians for all of this. “I hate them all.”