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He shouldn't have come home. He'd promised to stay away, but maybe it was finally time.
Nothing much was different in the old neighborhood. The only thing that had changed in twelve years had been him.
A lot had changed for Dante Renaldi in twelve years. The last time he'd been here had been the night he and the guys had killed someone in an alley. He'd left town right after that with Anna's father's helpmore like his insistenceand he hadn't been back since. And in those twelve years he'd mastered the art of killing.
So maybe he hadn't changed much at all.
He vowed he'd stay away. Nothing was going to bring him home again. But one person could bring him homehis foster mother, Ellen Clemons.
Anna's father, Frank Pallino, might have asked him to walk away after that nightand never come back. And he had. But he owed everything he was to George and Ellen Clemons. Those were two people he could never walk away from. He trusted them.
They knew where he'd gone after that night, where he'd been all these years. They didn't know what had happened that nighthe owed Anna that much. But he'd stayed in touch with George and Ellen over the years so they'd never think he'd walked away from them after everything they'd done for him.
So when Ellen contacted him and asked him to come home for her and George's twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, there was no way in hell he was going to say no.
Twelve years, thousands upon thousands of miles and a few wars since then, he figured it was time to come home. He'd earned that right, especially after Afghanistan. If Frank Pallino didn't like it, too fucking bad. He'd kept his part of the bargain. He'd left, he hadn't tried to get in touch with Anna in all this time, or with any of the guys. And he had no clue what was going on with Anna.
Coming home could finally give him some answers.
Anna was the big question he was tired of wondering about. He needed to know, had spent too many nights bedding down on foreign soil, staring up at the stars and thinking about her. The only visual he could drum up was her in a shredded pink-and-white blouse, that damn heart-shaped carving on her chest and all that goddamn blood.
Seemed like the only thing in his head these days was blood. He saw plenty of it when his eyes were open, and he saw Anna's when his eyes were closed.
He didn't want that memory anymore. Time for some closure, to remove some of the blood from his mind.
His plan was to get in, get out, make it fast. He'd do his duty to Ellen and George, check on a few things, then leave. He didn't intend to stay. He was used to not staying long in one place, so he planned to treat this like a mission. All he had to do was get the intel he needed, then move on. It wasn't as if he and the guys were friends anymore. Or brothers. There wasn't going to be a reunion.
Once he left he'd find a nice beach for R & R and erase a whole lot of shit from his memory bank.
He'd rented a car at the airport, a nice nondescript midsize piece of junk. It wasn't military issue and there wasn't a chance in hell he'd be driving over a bomb, so this car suited him just fine. He almost felt like a regular guy.
Ellen had invited him to stay at the house. He smiled at that. To her he'd always be a kid. One of her kids, one of the many who passed in and out of their lives, but to the Clemonses, they were all "their" kids.
And okay, he wasn't a heartless bastard. He was here, wasn't he? But he wasn't going to sleep in a race-car bed.
He hadn't checked into a hotel yet, just wanted to cruise the old neighborhood to see what was what. Same houses as always, same parks, same sweltering-as-a-motherfucker kind of summer night when the humidity could suck the very life from you, and if it didn't, the mosquitoes would. It was this kind of night he remembered from twelve years ago, a night so hot you couldn't take enough showers to wash the sweat off.
He thought about dropping by George and Ellen's house, but that could wait until tomorrow. It was late and they had kids he didn't want to wake up.
Tonight he wanted to see the old haunts, check into his hotel and get on the right time zone. Tomorrow would be soon enough for whatever reunions had to be done.
He was actually looking forward to seeing George and Ellen, the last foster parents he'd had before Frank Pallino got him emancipated and into the service of the United
States Army. Dante wasn't sure if that was the best thing that had ever happened to him, or the worst. But considering he'd been about to turn eighteen and had no prospects for college or a future, Frank Pallino had probably done him a favor. He had skills now he never would have had if not for the army. Either way, what was done was done, and it was better than jail or God only knows what would have happened to him. He owed the man.
He supposed he owed a lot of people.
The streets were wet tonight. A hard summer thunderstorm had come down just as he'd walked out of the airport. Dante had stood just outside the airport doors and watched the rain. It had reminded him of that night twelve years ago.
Full circle again.
Maybe he shouldn't have come back. As he'd sat at the rental car place watching the rain sheet sideways onto the pavement, the memories pummeled him, those twelve years sliding away. He could still see the alley, could still see Anna the way she looked when he and the guys had walked into the ice-cream shop that night. She'd been decked out in pink and white, her button-down shirt with the little puckers all over it, her dark brown hair in a high ponytail and her caramel-brown eyes mesmerizing him like they always had.
He wished he could remember her eyes and her smile instead of her tears and all that blood. He wished he could remember the happy times instead of the trauma that bastard had inflicted on her that night.
He exited off I-44 at Hampton and headed south, turning down Wilson toward the Hill. The old brick houses all looked the same with their small front porches and well-manicured lawns. Some of the restaurants had changed names, but a lot hadn't, owned by the same Italian families for generations.
Saint Ambrose Church still stood, proud and signaling the old Italian legacy of the Hill. Some things never changed. He toured the old streets where he and his brothers used to hang, wondering which, if any, his real mom had lived in. He had an Italian name, that much he knew. His parents had never married, and he'd never bothered to search his ancestry, figuring there was no point in looking for people who either didn't want to or couldn't keep him. He'd had his foster brothers, and the Clemons family who'd taken him in at fourteen and given him almost four years of the best family life a kid like him could have ever hoped for. That had been good enough.
He left the Hill and made a beeline for Forest Park. The park was deserted, but well lit to keep people like him and his friends from loitering at night. He loved the curving roads that led toward the zoo, the Jewel Box, the art museum, all the places the Clemonses had taken him. They'd made him feel as if he finally belonged to a real family.
His only other family had been his brothers. Now, those were some memories, like the nights they'd sit in the park and get drunk or just kick back and talk shit, at least until the cops would chase them out. Those were the good times, when he felt as if he was part of somethingpart of a unit of people who had your back, who would go to the wall and die for you if it came to that.
He'd found the same thing in the military to some extent, but that was by necessity, not by choice. You had to trust your unit or you'd die out there. He'd made friends, but not brothers. He'd left his real brothers twelve years ago, and he hadn't even told them why, or said goodbye.
Now he just felt alone. Even back home, he was still alone, roaming the deserted streets where once he was in a packed car full of his brothers. Or with Anna.
His cell phone buzzed, so he pulled to the curb and dragged it out.
It was Ellen. "Did I wake you?"
"No. I was out driving around. I was going to come by tomorrow. I got in late, so I didn't want to wake the kids you have staying there."
"Well, there's a problem."
He went on immediate alert. "What's wrong?"
"George isn't here. He went out earlier tonight and isn't back yet."
"Where did he go?"
"I don't know, honey. He didn't tell me. I'm a little worried."
Dante shifted his gaze to the clock on the car dashboard. It was one in the morning.
He knew George Clemons. George was a military man, rigid in his routine. Bedtime was nine for the little kids, ten for the teens, and eleven for the adults. Unless there was an emergency, you didn't deviate from the routine. And he adored his wife. Unless things had changed a lot in the twelve years he'd been gone, something was off.
"You two have a fight?"
Ellen laughed. "We don't fight, Dante. You know that. I love that man the same now as I did the day he asked me to marry him."
And that's what he'd liked about living with them. Stability without tension. The Clemonses were solid. George wouldn't just walk out on Ellen and leave without a word. Which meant something was wrong.
"I'll be right over."
Dante parked in front of the house just as a hot-looking black Harley pulled into the driveway.
The guy took off his helmet and turned to shoot Dante a glare.
No way. Taller, his arms covered in tattoos and he definitely had a lot more muscle showing under that leather vest than he'd had when they were kids, but Dante would know Gabe anywhere.
Gabe laid the helmet on the back of the bike and headed toward him, a smirk drawing his lips up.
"Finally decided to come back, huh?"
Dante pulled Gabe into a quick hug, then drew back. "It was more like a command that I be here for their anniversary."
Gabe nodded. "Nice of you to show up. And good timing, too."
"Yeah. Ellen call you about George?"
"She's worried, and you know her. Nothing fazes her."
"Let's go inside."
Dante knew Ellen would be happy to see him, but the tight squeeze she gave him spelled a lot more than happiness.
She was past the point of worry and well into terrified.
Now it was up to him and Gabe to settle her down and hopefully figure out where the hell George was while Ellen wrung her hands together and paced the kitchen.
They'd remodeled, torn out the tiny kitchen where he and the guys used to cram their growing, oversize bodies around the tiny table. Now it was bright, with lots of overhead lighting, and a sturdy solid wood table sat in the place of the old metal one. You could seat an army there.
Ellen had coffee ready when they'd walked in. He sat at the table and downed the brew, stared up at the only woman he'd ever considered a decent mother to him. She looked as worried as she'd sounded over the phone, her short, slightly graying red hair mussed from dragging her hands through it.
"He didn't say anything about where he was going?" Dante asked.
She shook her head and wrapped her fingers around her mug. Her hands trembled. "No. I figured the boyswe have three right now, all in the raging throes of pubertyhad just gotten on his nerves tonight and he needed to drive it off."
"You'd think after years as a drill sergeant there wasn't enough attitude in the world that would annoy him," Gabe said. "We never got on his nerves, and if we couldn't rattle him, I don't think anyone could."
The corners of her mouth lifted. "True enough, but he's older now. His patience isn't what it used to be."
"Okay, so maybe that's all it is," Dante suggested. "He went for a drive and he'll be back."
"I thought so at first, but a half hour, hour at most and he'd have been home. He's been gone three hours."
"Flat tire or car trouble?" Dante suggested.
"He has his cell. He'd have called me to let me know. He'd never let me get worried like this."
"I assume you tried to call him?" Gabe asked.
"He didn't answer."
That wasn't good. Dante didn't want to say it, but the one thing George and Ellen had taught him was to be a straight shooter. "Maybe we should call the police, find out if there've been any accidents."
She sank into one of the chairs. "I've been putting that off. I could call Roman."
"Wait," Dante said. "Roman? Why?"
"Roman's a detective," she said. Dante shifted his gaze to Gabe, who shrugged. "I know. Go figure, right?"
This whole night so far had been mind-boggling.
"Okay, call him."
Ellen went to get her phone, a tremor in her hand as she flipped through the numbers. She pressed the button and held the phone to her ear, waiting, her gaze focused on Dante and Gabe.
"Roman? It's Ellen. I'm sorry to call so late, but it's George. He seems to be missing."
She paused a beat. "No, I don't think there's anything to worry about, but Dante thought" She smiled. "Yes, he's back for the anniversary party. Yes, we've kept in touch over the years. He's fine, honey. But about George "
Dante listened while Ellen told Roman about George.
Roman a cop. He didn't see that one at all. Then again, he'd never asked Ellen about the guys. His conversations with her had been short over the years, just enough to catch up with her and George, to tell them he was okay. That had been it. Never about his brothers.
He hadn't wanted to know about them, hadn't wanted to think about them, or miss them.
But now, he realized he'd missed a lot. He shifted his gaze to Gabe. Motorcycle and tattoos. What the hell had he been up to all these years?