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When the first gunshots sounded, Stacy Giardino ran toward them. Not because she was eager to face gunfire, but because her three-year-old son, Carlo, had been playing in the front of the house, where the shots seemed to be coming from. "Carlo!" she screamed, and tore down the hallway toward the massive great room, where the boy liked to run his toy cars over the hills and valleys of the leather furniture and pretend he was racing in the mountains.
Men's voices shouted over one another between bursts of gunfire. One of the family's bodyguards ran past her, automatic weapon at the ready. Stacy barely registered his presence; she had to reach Carlo.
The living room of the luxurious Colorado vacation home was a wreck of overturned furniture. Stuffing poured from the cushions of one of the massive leather armchairs and a heavy crystal old-fashioned glass lay on its side in the middle of the rug, ice cubes scattered around it like glittering dice. But whatever had happened here, the combatants had moved on; the room was deserted, and the tattoo of automatic weapons fire sounded from deeper within the interior of the mansion.
"Carlo?" Stacy called, fighting panic. If any of those stupid men had hurt her son, she would tear them apart with her bare hands. "Mama?"
The frightened little voice almost buckled her knees. "Carlo? Where are you, honey?"
"Mama, I'm scared."
Stacy followed his voice to a dim corner under a built-in desk. She knelt and peered into the kneehole space-into the frightened brown eyes of her little boy.
She held out her arms and he came to her, his arms encircling her neck and his face buried against her shoulder. She patted his back and breathed in the little-boy smells of baby shampoo and peanut butter. "Who were those men, Mama?" he whispered. "They came running in, and they had guns."
"I don't know who they were, darling. And it doesn't matter." The attackers could have been law enforcement agents, members of a rival crime family or different factions of the Giardino family turned against one another. Stacy didn't care. They were all part of the cruel, violent world of men that she had to navigate through every day. That was what life was like when you married into the mob-always running and hiding, never knowing who you could trust.
The family had come to Colorado on vacation, but there was no getting away from the reality of their life, from the danger. Her father-in-law, Sam Giardino, had been at the top of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list ever since his escape from prison the year before. Which was why they were staying here, on this remote mountain estate outside of Telluride, instead of in a condo near the resort like normal tourists.
And even while relaxing, Sam was directing the family "business," cutting deals, making threats and building up his evil empire. Putting everyone around him in more danger.
They could all do away with each other, for all she cared. The only other person who meant anything to her was Carlo.
She stood, straining to lift the boy, who was getting almost too big for her to carry. "I'm going to take you some place safe," she told him. "Just hang on to Mommy, okay?"
He nodded his agreement and she headed back down the hall, toward the stairs to the basement, where the safe room was located. The man who'd built this house-some billionaire who was a friend of Sam's, or who owed him a favor, since men like her father-in-law never had real friends-had built the concrete bunker and stocked it like those preppers she'd read about, people who were waiting for the end of the world.
Maybe this was the end of her world, she thought. Her husband, Sam's son, Sammy Giardino, had been battling his father for months now. Maybe those arguments had erupted into all-out war and Sammy was trying to wrest control of the family "business." She wouldn't bet against her father-in-law in that conflict; Sammy only thought he was tough. His father was the hardest, coldest man she'd ever known. He'd even pledged to kill his own daughter after she'd testified against him in federal court.
When she reached the top of the stairs, Carlo shifted against her. "They're not shooting anymore," he said.
Carlo was right; the gunfire had ceased. Muffled voices came from the back of the house, but they sounded more like normal conversation than angry outbursts. Should she move toward them and try to find out what was going on?
She stroked her son's soft blond hair. "What did the men look like, Carlo? The ones with the guns?"
"They were really big, and they had helmets covering their faces."
Not any of the thugs Sam Giardino employed, then. She'd never known them to wear helmets. These men sounded like law enforcement, maybe a SWAT team. They'd found Sam's hiding place at last. Would they take Sammy away this time, too? She had no idea if federal agents could tie her husband to any of the Giardino family crimes. Women weren't supposed to concern themselves with the "business" side of things. In any case, Stacy never wanted to know.
She started down the stairs. She'd expected to meet others moving toward the safe room. Where was Sam's mistress, Veronica, and the cook, Angela, and the guards whose job it was to protect the women? Surely the cops wouldn't have gotten to them all.
But here she was, all alone with Carlo. Nothing new about that. Even in a room full of Giardinos she was the outsider, the one who wasn't one of them. They tolerated her and she tolerated them, but none of them would have been sorry to see the last of her.
How ironic to think she might be the one to survive this day. To escape. The thought made her heart beat faster. For four years, all she'd wanted was to get away from the hold the Giardinos had on her. She wanted to start over, somewhere safe with her son, where no one knew her and she knew no one. She didn't need other people in her life; she only needed Carlo.
As soon as the coast was clear-as soon as whoever had attacked the house had left-she'd find a car and drive as far away as she could. Maybe she'd even go overseas somewhere. She'd get a new identity, and a job. She'd rent an apartment, or maybe a little house. Carlo could go to school and they'd have a normal life. Just the two of them. Dreams like that had kept her sane all these years she'd been trapped. The idea that she might finally make them come true renewed her strength, and she all but ran toward the basement.
The basement was dark, but she didn't dare risk turning on the light. She groped along the wall, toward the hidden door at the back that led into the safe room. Inside, she'd be able to watch the other rooms in the house on closed-circuit television and see what was going on. The room had its own generator, its own ventilation, air-conditioning and heating system and enough food and water to sustain a whole family for a month. She and Carlo wouldn't need to leave until she was sure they would be safe.
She was halfway across the room, feeling her way around a stack of packing boxes, when she froze, heart climbing her throat at the sound of footsteps on the stairs. The tread was heavy-a big man-and he was moving slowly. Stealthily.
She cradled Carlo's face against her chest. "Shh," she whispered in his ear.
Light flooded the room. She pressed herself against the wall, hidden by the boxes, and blinked at the brightness. The scrape of a shoe against the concrete floor was as loud as a cannon shot to her attuned ears. She held her breath, and prayed Carlo would keep still. Her arms ached from carrying him, but she held on tighter still.
"Who's there?" The question came from a man, the voice deep and commanding. A voice she didn't recognize. "Come out and you won't get hurt."
She crouched lower and peered between a gap in the boxes at a man dressed in black fatigues and body armor. He carried an assault rifle at the ready, but had flipped up the visor on his helmet to scan the basement.
Carlo squirmed in her arms and whimpered. She patted his back. "Shh. Shh."
"Who's there?" the man demanded. He swung the gun toward her hiding place. The sight of the weapon aimed at her turned her blood to ice.
"Don't shoot!" she squeaked. Then with more assurance, "I have a child with me and I'm unarmed."
"Move out where I can see you. Slowly. And keep your hands where I can see them."
Holding Carlo firmly to her, she moved forward. The boy squirmed around to look, his little heart racing against her own.
The man kept his weapon trained on her as she moved out from behind the boxes. "Are you alone?"
He glanced around, as if expecting someone else to loom up behind her. Apparently satisfied she'd told the truth, he aimed the gun toward the floor. "Who are you?" he asked.
She met his gaze directly, letting him see she would not be bullied. "Who are you?"
"Marshal Patrick Thompson, U.S. Marshals Service," he said.
"Stacy Franklin," she said. Franklin was her maiden name, but she didn't have any desire to introduce herself to this lawman as one of the Giardinos. "And this is my son, Carlo."
"Hello, Carlo." He nodded to the boy. His expression was still wary, but he had kind eyes, blue, with lines fanning out from the corners, as if he'd spent a lot of time outdoors, squinting into the sun. Carlo stared at him, wide-eyed, his fingers in his mouth.
Thompson turned his attention back to Stacy. "I'll need you to come with me," he said.
"Come with you where?"
"First, upstairs. We'll take a preliminary statement from you, and then I'll need you to come with me to our headquarters in Telluride."
"Are you arresting me? I haven't done anything wrong."
"No, I'm not arresting you, but you are a witness, and we may need to take you into protective custody."
She had no intention of letting anyone take her into custody, but she kept that to herself. She knew the law; though Sammy had been the one with the law degree, Stacy had written all his papers and helped him study for all his tests. She'd read the textbooks and listened to the online lectures and studied alongside him for the bar exam. None of it was knowledge the Giardinos thought a woman needed to know, but she would use it to her advantage now.
"Why are you here?" she asked.
Marshal Thompson didn't answer. He motioned for her to move ahead of him. "Come with me upstairs and we'll talk more."
She climbed the stairs, aware of him right behind her, a broad-shouldered, black-clad guardian who smelled strongly of cordite and hot steel from his weapon, which must have recently been fired.
He led her into the living room, where other men milled about, taking pictures and measurements. She sat. Carlo scrambled out of her arms and retrieved one of his toy cars and began driving it along the arm of the sofa.
Marshal Thompson removed his helmet and sat on the arm of the sofa, his weapon on the table beside him. He had short, light brown hair and he looked tired-as tired as Stacy suddenly felt. "What is your relationship to the Giardino family?" he asked.
She thought about lying, saying she was a maid. But they'd check her story and learn her real identity soon enough. She lifted her chin, defiant. "I'm married to Sammy Giardino."
His gaze shifted to Carlo, who was making motor noises, guiding the toy car along a seam in the leather upholstery. "This is Sammy's son?"
"Yes." She patted his chubby leg in the corduroy overalls he was already outgrowing. He was her son- Sammy had contributed half his DNA, but she had given the boy her heart and soul. He was the one thing that had kept her sane in this crazy household.
"How long have you been in this house?"
She should probably demand a lawyer, or refuse to answer his questions altogether. But she didn't really care about the answers. The sooner she told him what he wanted to know, the sooner he'd let her go. "We arrived on Sunday. Five days ago." Five days of unrelenting tension in which Sammy alternately sulked and sniped, while his father looked smug. Visitors came and went at all hours, and twice she'd awakened deep in the night to hear arguments between father and son, shouting matches she'd fully expected to end in a hail of bullets.
"Why did you come to Telluride?" Thompson asked.
Because I didn't have the option of staying behind, she thought. "We came on vacation," she said. "To ski." Carlo had loved the snow. He'd spent two half days in kiddie ski school, thrilled by the rare opportunity to hang out with boys and girls his own age. It was tough to arrange playdates when you lived with a mobster.
"Who else is in the house?"
"A lot of people. I don't even know all their names." This wasn't exactly true, but she was wary of telling Thompson anything he didn't already know, like the fact that her fugitive father-in-law had been here. If Sam had managed to escape, she didn't want him finding out she was the one who had betrayed him.
"Any other women?" Thompson asked.
Why did Thompson care about the women? "There was the cook, Angie. A woman named Veronica." No point explaining her role as Sam's latest mistress. "My sister-in-law, Elizabeth Giardino." Elizabeth had been a big surprise, showing up for lunch today as if her father had never threatened to murder her.
She looked up at him through the fringe of her lashes. "All the women."
"And the men?"
She looked around the room, at the masculine furniture and big-screen television, at the black-clad men who dusted for fingerprints and took photographs from every angle. "There were a lot of men here. There always are." The women were merely ornaments. Accessories. Necessary for carrying on the family name, but otherwise in the way. They were kept in the background as much as possible.
"Was there anyone here who wasn't a member of the family?"
"You mean besides all the bodyguards?"
"Besides them, yes. Any visitors?"
"Elizabeth was a visitor. She doesn't live here."
She shook her head. "But I don't keep track of everyone who comes and goes."
"Because you're not interested?"
"That, and because I don't want to know about the Giardino business."
"Sir, the M.E. says he's finished in the library," one of the black-clad officers addressed Thompson.
Thompson nodded. "All right. Then you can seal off the room."
"Where is everyone?" Stacy asked. The first shock of the invasion had worn off and uneasiness stole over her like a virus, making her feel sick and a little dizzy. "The other women and the rest of the family."
"They're being taken care of. You were the only one unaccounted for. Where were you when the shooting started?"
"In the bathroom, if that really makes any difference." The double doors leading into the hall opened and a man in black backed into the room, wheeling a gur-ney. Stacy stared at the figure on the gurney, covered by a white sheet. A bone-deep chill swept through her. "Who is that?" she asked, forcing the words out.
"Mrs. Giardino-" Thompson put out his arm to stop her, but she threw off his grasp and ran to the gurney.
The men wheeling it past stopped and looked at Thompson. "Sir?"
"It's all right." Thompson glanced at Carlo, who had crawled under the coffee table and was absorbed in orchestrating elaborate car crashes. "Let her look."
She hesitated, staring at the outline of a face under the white sheet, afraid of what she'd see there, yet knowing she had to look.
The man at the head of the gurney leaned over and flipped back the sheet.
Stacy gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. Thompson's hand rested heavy on her shoulder. "Can you identify this man for me, please?" he asked.
"That's my husband," she whispered. In death, he looked older than she remembered, his skin waxy and slack, the cruelty gone from his expression. "That's Sammy," she breathed, and staggered back into the marshal's arms.