How far would you go to save the only family you have left?
Victoria “Vic” Asher is finally finding some balance in her life. Though she’s still reeling from her parents’ death in a plane crash, she’s content with waiting tables at the Clock; window shopping with her best friend, Tiffany; and hanging out with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Chad. But when she receives a mysterious package in the mail from her brother, Gil—a law student doing research in Italy—she knows immediately that he’s in danger. Vic isn’t about to risk losing her only brother, so she sets off for Italy to find him. But when she runs into Ian, the gorgeous leader of Interpol’s secret Rogue division, who’s also searching for Gil, she quickly realizes that her brother is in much deeper trouble than she ever could have imagined. Vic will stop at nothing to locate Gil, but doing so could cost her her life—and her heart.
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A Victoria Asher Novel
By Annalisa Grant
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2016 AnnaLisa Grant
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"Hey, Vic! Let me get another cup of coffee before you kick me out," Ray called across the diner. He was a regular, a trucker who stopped in every few days when he got back from his normal route between Miami and the rest of the East Coast. Tall with a balding head and a scruffy beard, he looked every bit the part, too. He was also the kind of guy you knew would be on your side if you ever needed him. That was nice on nights when it was just me, Tiffany, and our boss, Sam, closing up the place.
With bulldog jowls and white hair, Sam was the world's cutest seventy-year-old man. A Vietnam vet, his mind still knew how to defend himself, but his body just wouldn't cooperate anymore.
The Clock had been Sam's dream when he got back from the war. For a while, it was the only twenty-four-hour diner in town — hence "The Clock" — and it was a real hot spot for a couple of decades. But when a chain restaurant with a liquor license opened up a few blocks away, the college professors and entrepreneurs took their business there. After years of only drunks coming in at three in the morning and ordering coffee, money got tight and Sam cut the hours to close at midnight, putting a damper on the catchiness of the name.
It was a classic place. The long counter, lined with padded red-leather stools, faced the semi-open kitchen. Red booths that looked like the backseats of old cars were positioned in front of the windows, and four-top tables were strategically settled in between them and the counter. Sam took pride in the nostalgic feel of The Clock, and it was our adoration for him that made Tiffany and I feel okay about the waitress uniforms he made us wear. Plus, we had to admit that the pencil skirts and button-up shirts with scalloped sleeves were actually kind of cute, in a retro sort of way.
"Anything for you, Ray. And you know I'm not kicking you out anytime soon. You can stay as long as you want," I told him as I finished wiping down a table.
I grabbed the coffeepot and the pie stand and made my way down the counter to his usual spot at the end. "Want a slice to go with your coffee?"
"Sure. Why not?" He smiled.
"Great. I'm having one, too. It's my birthday pie," I told him, and I grabbed the can of whipped cream from the mini-cooler behind the counter.
"Was it your birthday today, Vic?" he asked.
"It's tomorrow, so, technically, I've got another forty minutes, but I'm starting the celebration early. I'm turning the big two-O," I laughed.
"Twenty. Wow. What are you doing here? You should be out with your friends!" Ray said.
The door to the kitchen swung open and Tiffany appeared. "That's what I told her, but she refused to even let me take her out after work!"
Next to my brother, Gil, Tiffany was my best friend in the whole world. We'd met in high school, and she'd stuck with me through everything that Gil and I had endured. At five foot ten, she was a good five inches taller than me. She was also gorgeous, with long blonde hair and blue eyes and curves in all the right places — nothing like the recent trend of emaciated girls on the catwalk. I kept telling her she should walk around South Beach; some photographer or agent was sure to discover her. But she only shrugged me off, saying she had better things to do.
"A girl's gotta work, Ray. And as for tonight, Tiffany, I'm not a party girl, and you know it," I said.
"Fine. Then let's grab a pie and some ice cream from Sam, and we'll go back to your place and watch movies that make us both want and swear off relationships." Tiffany gathered the salt- and peppershakers from each table and brought them to the counter where she refilled them.
"Oh! Going back to my place! That'll be new," I laughed. Tiffany practically lived at the apartment I shared with my brother. She narrowed her eyes and shot me a look. "I'm just kidding! It sounds like a perfect plan," I replied. "Sam! Mind if we pilfer a pie and some ice cream for my birthday?" I called to him through the open window to the kitchen.
"You can have anything you want, Vic!" Sam smiled his big, toothy grin and shouted back. "Happy birthday, doll!"
"Thanks, Sam!" I called back to him.
I locked the door to the diner exactly at midnight, and the three of us moseyed out with Ray by our sides twenty minutes later. He pulled a fifty-dollar bill from his wallet and told me to buy myself something special. I tried to refuse, but his insistence was stronger than my resolve.
"You're way too sweet, Ray," I said as I hugged him. Sam and Ray climbed into their trucks, and me and Tiffany in my 1995 Honda Accord. The radio wouldn't turn on, it had crank windows, and the odometer clocked in at 300,000 miles, but the air-conditioning worked, and that was all that mattered in southern Florida. I cranked it on full blast and let the ice-cold air freeze the sweat that had been rolling down my neck.
When Tiff and I pulled up to my building, we did the usual scoping to make sure there weren't any weird guys hanging around. It wasn't the shittiest part of town, but we still had to be careful. Gil and I had lived there long enough to make nice with the neighbors, and besides, we all did our best to keep our noses out of one another's business. Yeah, the crime rate could be better, but it was close enough to campus for Gil and to the diner for me. We'd talked about moving when he finished law school and had started a full-time job. But for the moment, we liked our third-floor walkup in that so-so part of town.
It had been home for the last couple of years — our parents had died in a plane crash five years ago, the crash that changed everything. We had a happy life, but it was ripped away from us without warning. I went into foster care and left every dream I ever had in the last house we shared as a family. It was the hardest thing I'd ever faced, but even harder for Gil, who was a pre-law student living in the college dorms. When he took me in, he couldn't stay there anymore. I offered to quit high school and work, but Gil wouldn't have it. Neither would Sam. It was only after I graduated that Sam gave me more hours.
About a year after the crash, we got a seven-figure settlement from the airline. The paperwork for Gil to take custody of me had just come through, and we moved into our apartment. We agreed to only use the money to pay for Gil's education and to supplement if we were really short. Gil didn't feel as strongly about it as I did, but I had a hard time spending money we had only because our parents died.
In addition to Gil's tuition at law school, we agreed that he could use whatever funds he needed to support himself on his study-abroad program, a six-month research trip to Italy. He was already more than halfway through, so he'd be back to his thrifty spending habits with me in no time.
Gil said Mom and Dad would have wanted me to go to college, too, but I wasn't ready. I wasn't sure if I even wanted to go to college, but I promised Gil when he finished his law degree that we would revisit the subject. If all went as planned for him, it meant I still had a year to figure out what I wanted to do. Thank God Gil was on the four-year plan.
The path up the stairwell to my apartment was always full of smells — the majority of them tantalizing. Mrs. Hobart on the first floor was a baker, so the aroma of cinnamon or chocolate usually seeped through the insufficient weather stripping around her door and windows.
Mrs. Vasquez, directly across the hall from me, was Cuban. The smell of stewing tomatoes and spices wafted from her apartment regardless of the time of day. The fact that it was almost one in the morning didn't matter. Her husband had passed away and her children were grown and living in other states, so I think she liked to wait up for me.
"Hey, Mrs. Vasquez." I smiled as she emerged from her door.
Mrs. Vasquez had been there longer than anyone else. She was a jolly, shapely woman whose apartment had a revolving door; she welcomed anyone who needed a place to stay. She'd already helped three people in our building when they'd gotten evicted. She was kind and probably the only neighbor I could count on to look out for me.
"Hello, mija. How was your night?" she asked with a sweet smile and a pat on my arm.
"It was fine, thanks. Tiff and I are just going to spend the night watching sappy movies and eating pie. Want to join us? It's apple!" I said, teetering the box in front of her.
"No, no. I'm watching my girlish figure!" She laughed and shook her generous rump at us. "But I have a little something for you, mija." Mrs. Vasquez walked quickly into her apartment, leaving her door ajar while we waited. When she returned, she was holding a pot of something that smelled heavenly. "I know how much you love it!"
"Oh my God! You made me black beans and rice! I love you!" Tiffany took the pot as I wrapped an arm around Mrs. Vasquez's neck. "You're the best!"
"Now you can eat like a queen for your birthday, mija."
"Thank you so much!" We kissed each other on the cheek and hugged again before she sent us into my apartment to get on with my birthday celebration. It wasn't going to be much of a party, but with pie, ice cream, and black beans and rice, it was certainly going to be better than my original plan: watching the first ten minutes of random shows until the sun came up.
I locked the door behind us, threw my keys and bag on the front-hall thrift-store table, and headed for the kitchen. The only nice thing in our apartment was our living-room furniture. It was a dark blue set with patterned accent pillows, all in a soft chenille fabric. It was heavenly to nap on. Our parents had bought it just a few months before the accident, and Gil and I had been religious about taking care of it.
We had strict rules about no eating on the couch, love seat, or chair; that had always been Mom's rule. Sometimes we would do pizza or popcorn, but we'd always push the coffee table out and put a tablecloth on it.
The rest of the apartment was like the table by the door: pieced together from thrift stores, online ads, and the occasional roadside treasure. Our small, oak kitchen table was a hand-me-down from the woman who used to live in Mr. Hopper's apartment. It was missing a chair and only seated three, but that was fine. There were never more than three people around that table anyway.
Tiffany put the pot of deliciousness on the stove and turned it on low while I put the pie on the counter and the ice cream in the freezer. I scanned Gil's itinerary, which had been magnetized to the fridge since he left. According to the schedule, he had just left Bologna and was on his way to Palermo. I felt a smile turn up the corners of my mouth. I was so proud and happy for my brother, even if I missed him constantly.
"Can I crash here tonight?" Tiffany asked.
"You stay here every night!" I laughed. Tiffany still lived at home with her mom and her mom's flavor of the month. Her mother had always been a magnet for freeloading drug addicts and alcoholics. In a room full of men, the woman had the uncanny ability to find the one guy with a rap sheet as long as your arm. Suffice it to say, Tiffany stayed with me. A lot.
"You're the best, Vic. You know, with Gil gone, maybe I could just move into his room. His bed is so comfy," she said with a dreamy smile.
"How would you know if Gil's bed is comfortable?"
"I've heard his bed is comfortable?" she answered sheepishly.
"I don't want to know," I told her. I knew she was joking when she implied that she and Gil had fooled around. The truth was that Gil didn't have time for even a fling. School was his lover and that was okay with him. "It doesn't matter anyway. No one goes into Gil's room without his explicit permission and you know that. The man is obsessed with his privacy."
Gil's room had a tendency to look a bit like a unabomber's lair: piles and piles of research journals organized in a way that made sense only to him. I might have peeked my head in a couple of times after he left to borrow one of his old T-shirts and noticed that he took a dozen blank journals with him. I told him I was sure he could find some there, but he swears by the ones he gets from the student store on campus, claiming they "lay just right" when he writes.
He threw himself into his studies after his girlfriend, Maria, died. We had just lost Mom and Dad two years prior, which made it especially difficult. He became obsessive about school, and I couldn't blame him. We all have our coping mechanisms. Gil is an awesome guy and an amazing brother, but his obsession for the law sometimes trumps his ability to think rationally about things.
"The couch is perfect," Tiffany smiled and changed the subject. "Did you hear from Chad today?"
Chad was my on-again, off-again boyfriend of two years. He was nice enough, but Tiffany didn't like him because he constantly mooched off me. His father was a heart surgeon who'd invented some valve used in valve-replacement surgery. Chad could have had all the money in the world if he'd gone to medical school like his parents wanted him to, but an argument about their unwillingness to replace the most recent car he wrecked, and a rash "I don't need your money anyway" statement later, and Chad was on his own. It took him a year to run out of money, but by then he was too proud to go back and admit he'd been wrong.
We met one night at the diner. He had come in twenty minutes before closing and ordered a cup of coffee. His hair was a mess and there were dark circles around his eyes. He looked like he hadn't slept in days. I asked him if he was okay and I could have sworn he was about to start crying. He said he didn't want to burden me with his problems and called me "ma'am." I refilled his coffee four times, and each time he told me a little more about how he was down on his luck. When the diner closed, he walked me to my car and told me I was the prettiest, sweetest girl he had met in a long time. He was the cutest, most polite guy I'd met in a long time, so it seemed we were made for each other.
Unfortunately, gorgeous brown eyes, sexy abs, and good table manners only go so far. He barely worked and when he did it was only one or two days filling in on a construction gig. After six months of staying at my place and not contributing in any way, I told him he had to man up, grow up, and start helping with the rent and chores. That was when he decided it was better for our relationship if he didn't practically live with me. Eventually, I stopped asking when he'd be back from an out-of-town day job because he usually stayed and mooched off his buddies after the job was done, which meant he wasn't mooching off of me.
The bottom line was if Chad had any idea how much money Gil and I had, he would have tried to put a ring on my finger to get a piece of it. He would be able to maintain his slacker lifestyle and never have to face his parents and admit he was wrong. Life would be a dream for him but a nightmare for me.
Tiffany and Sam were the only ones in my life who knew about the money. Tiffany, because she was there when it all went down; Sam because when things got tough at the diner, Gil and I offered to help bail him out. He wouldn't take the money, but it solidified us as family in Sam's eyes.
"No. He's working a construction job in Fort Lauderdale." I walked to my room, doing my best to disengage Tiffany from further Chad discussion. Lately, most days I could take him or leave him, so whether he called me on my birthday or not didn't really matter. When he did come back, he'd most likely bring me some cheap flowers from the corner store and pour on his charm. I wish I could resist him in those moments, but at the end of the day it's nice to have someone around to cuddle with and buy me flowers. It gets lonely when the only family you have left is in Italy.
"Here, these are yours," I said, returning from my bedroom with a pair of pajamas for Tiffany. "Oh, and I brought you a nail file."
"Um ... okay. Why did you bring me a nail file?" Tiffany asked.
"You've got a nick in your left thumbnail. You'll want to file it before it tears off," I told her. Tiffany lifted her hand to her face and examined her thumb.
"I don't know how you do that." Tiffany shook her head and got to work.
"Time to get our movie on!" I declared.
Excerpted from Oxblood by Annalisa Grant. Copyright © 2016 AnnaLisa Grant. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Victoria/Vic worked in a diner , her boss Sam was like family to her. Her brother was Gil and all she had for family as their parents had died in an airplane crash which left them with money but alone and Gil and Vic lived frugally. Only useing the money from the crash to pay for Gil going to law school. Vic had an on again on again boyfriend Chad for the last two years who was a mooch. Her best friend was Tiffaney who she worked with. Vic was having a birthday . Her brother Gil was on a student exchange program in Italy for six months. Gil emailed Vic every Sunday but not this one nor even a birthday wish. Vic got worried and contacted the university Gil attended and talked to one of his professors that Gil had mentioned and she was told their was no exchange program but if the professor heard from Gil he would let her know. Gil had sent Vic one of his journals which was very very strange as he let none see his journals. In the journal was the word Oxblood which was a family code word and Gil was in deep trouble. Even though Vic is terrified of planes she jumps on one to go to Italy. She goes to the hotel Gil had stayed in when Vic had last heard from Gil. A receptionist remembered Gil and said he had checked out two weeks ago. Then a man comes to Vic’s room puts a gun to her stomach and asks her why she was asking about Gil. It turns out Gil had lied to her and the man Ian who had come to his room. He told Ian he had noone at home. It turns out Gil was wotking with Ian who was a head of a team form a secret organization within Intyerpol and they were trying to take down a human trafficing ring. Vic refuses to leave Italy without Gil so Gil tries to give her as much training as he can in a short time. Then hopefully she can help find Gil. This was definitely a great story. I loved the action, suspense, non blood family, betrayal, lies, secrets , mystery, bravery, human trafficing, even a little romancebut so much more. The plot was excellantsome errors in grammer and spelling but an easy fix and didn’t detract from the story. I loved all the ins and outs from this awesome storyespecially those with Vic and I highly recommend. I received an ARC of thos story for an honest review.
Victoria Asher is coming to terms with the loss of her parents in a plane crash. The only family she has left is her brother, Gil. Gil is in Italy; he's a law student doing some research. He's been gone three months when she receives a package from him. Inside she finds a journal that makes no sense and the word OXBLOOD on the cover. No one else knows that is their code word for BIG TROUBLE. She's really worried, so off to Italy she flies. Starting with the last hotel that he stayed in, she starts asking questions. To her surprise, she's greeted by a good looking man .. pointing a gun at her. Seems like he's looking for her brother, as well. This is her first clue that her brother is in much more trouble than she realized. What has he done that has captured the attention of Interpol? And where is he? Billed as a book for teens, I wasn't expecting to get hooked from the very beginning. It's very well written with a lot of action to keep the reader entertained. I love the characters. Victoria is a gutsy young woman who will do anything to find her brother. Ian is the man from Interpol and having such a serious job as leader of his specific group makes him appear very solemn and serious.. but Victoria sees the softer side of him. This is such an appropriate book for teens, as well as adults. It's a fast, easy read. Many thanks to the author / Open Road Integrated Media / NetGalley who provided a digital copy in exchange for an honest, unbiased review.