by Ann Mayburn
Series: Cordova Empire #3
Genre: Adult, Contemporary Romance, Mafia Romance
Publisher: Honey Mountain Publishing
Publication Date: September 30, 2019
Rating: 4 Stars
Told in the first person. Alternating persons.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book for review from Pure Textuality PR and the author. I was not compensated nor was I required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am posting this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising".
From the moment of my birth I’ve been rejected by those who should have loved me, labeled as a freak because of my birthmark, bullied and tormented because I look different. When you’re told every day that you’re ugly and worthless you start to believe it. I managed to escape my malicious family and build a life for myself, but they’d broken something inside of me. I’m afraid to go outside, afraid to be around large groups of people, afraid of any type of confrontation and my panic attacks have left me pretty much house bound. If it wasn’t for my online friends I probably would have given up on life long ago. But there is one special friend, a man by the name of Mark, who keeps me going. He’s brave, smart, strong, and kind…and has no idea that I’m secretly in love with him.
Once I was a good man with a perfect life. I had a job I loved training dogs for the police with my wife, had a great family who filled our lives with laughter, and I woke up every day with a smile on my face. I was completely content in my blissful ignorance. I had no idea about the criminal world that thrived all around me, no idea that I’d made some powerful enemies who do anything to destroy me. Including killing my wife. I swore my revenge, and got it, but in the process I lost my soul. It was during these dark times, after my vengeance was fulfilled and I was drifting in anguish, that a beautiful soul rescued me from my own personal hell. I tried to keep my distance, tried to shield her from the villains of the world, myself included, but the evil that surrounds me wouldn’t be denied. Despite my best attempts to keep her safe, someone is out to destroy Layla, and I’m the only one who can protect her.
But who’s going to save her from me?
*Each installment in the Cordova Empire series is a standalone story.
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Mark Magnus seems to be doing a “what if”. But then something happens to bring him out of his thoughts. Layla loves her anonymity. It’s a way that she can be herself without being known. It’s also a great way for the reader to get to know her. Mark also helps us get to know who Layla is.
Mark got me frustrated at times. Layla seems so sweet and wouldn’t hurt a fly but Mark seems the one who seems so indecisive when it comes her. She has a good support team in Hannah and Joy. They help in getting her out of both her comfort zone and her shell. Even though this can be considered a standalone, if you want to know more about those ladies than you need to check out the first two books in this series.
This is a very sexy story but our author goes one step further. She seems to be an advocate for those that need service animals. That means we have an important secondary character that is the silent type but always there when needed. Mark redeemed himself, in my eyes, once the suspense started. That just showed me that he could get past his “what ifs” and finally be who he’s supposed to be for Layla. These two hooked me into this series and I can’t wait to see what our author has planned for us.
A Cordova Empire Novel
© 2019 Ann Mayburn
Three years ago
A slight vibration shook the smoky, mirrored walls surrounding me while I stared at the closed elevator doors. My gaze darted up as the lights embedded in the shiny gold ceiling flickered. After another brief dimming, they held steady when we stopped at one of the floors on our way down. People got on, people got off, but I couldn’t care less. Normally, I’d study every person that breeched my personal space.
Looking for my enemies everywhere I went.
Today, I stared at the display above the door, watching as the pale blue digital numbers counted down from thirty-eight. My mind was dazed, and my thoughts floated like poisonous bubbles inside the razor-sharp confines of my skull.
One of those bubbles burst, releasing toxic memories when the elevator stopped at floor twenty-four.
Gracie was twenty-four when she was murdered.
Sweat prickled on my palms as I struggled to suppress memories of a life that no longer existed.
Of a man I no longer was.
A happy guy back then, someone who greeted every day with a smile. Why wouldn’t I? Married to my beautiful high school sweetheart and owner of our own successful police dog training business—our lives had been complete. I’d been so fucking happy, so secure in the knowledge that I’d have kids and grow old with the love of my life. We’d even talked about starting a family, and she’d thrown away her birth control pills the month before she’d been killed.
One of the thoughts that tortured me was wondering if she’d been pregnant when she died. What if a tiny, perfectly innocent soul had been stamped out that terrible day?
Usually, I was good at not thinking about my personal history.
Usually, I could live in the now, with no regard for the past or fears about the future.
But today, on the anniversary of her death, my sweet Gracie haunted me.
The events of the past week—the senseless murder of a child I’d loved—shattered my normally strong mental walls. Jason, the treasured and only grandchild of the heads of the infamous Cordova Cartel, had been adored every day of his all-too-short life. Such a good kid, he always smiled and laughed. He made even the most hardened of men fall in love. You couldn’t help it; the kid was love. Jason would hug you and for a moment, with his little arms wrapped around your neck, all would be right in the world.
He’d been a beautiful, caring little boy—his only crime was being born to a greedy cunt of a mother.
Flashes of sorrow laden images from Jason’s memorial service a few days ago hit me, mixed with heart-wrenching memories of burying Gracie’s charred remains in a closed casket funeral.
While Gracie’s funeral had been soaked with rain, Jason’s burial took place on a bright sunny day.
Regardless of weather, the pain and grief had been the same.
Jason’s father Fernando had screamed in mortal agony as the first shovel of dirt hit the coffin, the terrible sound enough to drive most people to their knees.
I could sympathize with the horrified misery that comes from putting someone you love in the ground.
When the hauntingly familiar plink of earth falling onto hollow wood reached my ears, I’d nearly thrown up.
My twisted mind focused on what it must be like to be them.
To wonder if they were still aware.
Paralyzed, trapped in a rotting corpse, being buried alive and sealed away from those they loved.
In the dark.
All alone in the suffocating dark.
Unable to stop the shovelfuls of dirt cutting them off from the world of the living forever.
Trapped in the unbreathing dark.
A shudder whipped down my spine, and I tried to think about something—anything—else. These dark torments had been haunting me for days. They robbed me of any sleep or sanity. I felt fragile, brittle, and on edge—a dangerous combination for a man of my profession. One wrong move, one mistake caused by my inattention, and the people I cared for and guarded could be dead.
I had to get a hold of myself.
I had to find control.
I had to stop thinking about Gracie before I drove myself crazy.
I vividly recalled the way her dark blonde hair gleamed in the sunlight coming off the lake at my parent’s house. Each individual strand glowed with glints of gold, framing her heart-shaped face. She’d been seventeen years old, dressed in a cherry red bikini that showed off her curvy frame. That memory was shortly after we had sex for the first time, so we were still going at it like rabbits. Which reminded me of making love to her in a sleeping bag on one of our endless camping trips in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I’d proposed to her beneath those brilliant stars.
My wife loved the outdoors. Gracie connected to nature in a way few people could understand, and that link gave her an incredible gift with animals. When we trained police dogs for the Detroit police department together, I always marveled at her ability to communicate with our pack. Hell, with any animal. They instinctively understood that she had a good, pure heart.
After she’d been murdered…
My gut clenched and my heart gave a hard thump. The agony of that thought still caused me physical pain three years later.
The elevator vibrated again, strong enough to pull me from my thoughts.
The lights flickered overhead then went out, and my heart gave a hard lurch right before the small space plunged into darkness.
Pure panic washed through me, robbing me of my breath as I stumbled back. My hand hit a wall, and my imagination insisted I was trapped inside a coffin. Alone and surrounded by the stinking corpses of those I’d once loved. Blackness closed in, slowly choking me as I clawed at the roof of my casket like a crazed animal.
“Hey!” A woman’s voice, husky and beautiful, pulled me out of my waking nightmare. “Sir? Are you okay? Sir? ¿Hablas español?”
I tried to answer her, but the unrelenting black and the walls behind me furthered the illusion—trapped in a coffin, swaddled in wet cotton, drowning with weights strapped to my body. The air was thick—so fucking thick—and I couldn’t catch my breath. I swear, my heart felt like it was going to pound its way out of my chest, and I thought for sure I was about to die.
Then a miracle happened. A wet, cool nose nudged my hand. A dog’s nose. An unexpected sensation, it made my panicking mind slow down and process my environment. The blessed, solid weight of a good-sized dog leaned against my leg, and I let out a shuddering breath. A wet tongue licked my wrist, further pulling me out of my fucked-up head.
“Vali,” the woman in the elevator with me hissed, “Get back over here. Sir, please don’t be afraid. I know he looks scary—”
My voice sounded like I’d been gargling glass, but I managed a shaky laugh. “I have no idea what he looks like. I’m not a bat. I can’t see in the dark.”
“Oh, I thought you saw us when we got on. We…kinda stand out.” Her voice broke at the end before she quickly added, “Because of his size and his bright red service vest. Plus, he’s half lab, half pit bull, so some people tend to be a little intimidated when they see him. He’s all black except for a big white blaze on his chest. And he’s big, but I promise he’s a marshmallow. He’s the kind of dog that just loves everyone. I mean, I guess he intimidates people because he has an overbite and his teeth stick out sometimes. Wonder if I should get him dog braces? Do they make dog braces?” She gave a short, forced laugh, then said in a higher pitched voice, “Uh, I think I’m babbling, which I normally don’t do, so I’ll shut up now, but I promise he won’t hurt you. Please, don’t be afraid of him. It breaks his heart when people are scared. He’s got a gentle soul.”
The dog at my feet lightly butted my hand with his head, and I scratched behind his ears with trembling fingers. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was extremely grateful I wasn’t alone. If this mystery woman and her dog hadn’t been with me, I might have had a panic induced stroke. I had to get ahold of this shit. Take some damn pills and pass out for a few days to give my brain a fucking break.
“Are you okay?”
“Fine,” I growled as suspicion crept into my exhausted mind. “Why do you care?”
She sucked in a quick breath, one that somehow conveyed a sense of hurt. “I’m sorry…I just wanted to help.”
Guess her dog wasn’t the only gentle soul. Shit, I was acting like a complete asshole to some random lady trapped in an elevator with me. If Gracie was here right now, she’d cuff me on the back of the head for scaring the woman. It wasn’t the mystery woman’s fault fate stuck her with me in a broken elevator.
“Hey,” she asked in a tense voice, “Do you have a phone?”
Once again, the paranoia that came from feeling vulnerable reared its head. “Why?”
She gave a soft, nervous laugh. “I wanted to see if the cell towers were down, or if we could get a message out to someone that we’re stuck in here. The battery on my phone is dead, otherwise I would have used the flashlight during your panic attack.”
“I wasn’t having a panic attack.”
She cleared her throat. “Of course.”
Anger, and a big dose of denial, made me growl. “I wasn’t.”
“Look, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.” Her lush voice took on a soothing tone that made my bones want to melt. “I used to have them all the time. That’s how I recognized the sound.”
“Yeah, the sound of your breathing. There’s…how to describe it? There’s a certain pitch to your gasps, a feeling of desperation like you just can’t get enough air in your lungs. Like you’re drowning. It’s a terrible feeling. I hate it.” The sound of a dog’s tag jingling along with a dog’s panting filled the small space. “Vali here has been specially trained to help me through my panic attacks. Honestly, if you’re claustrophobic, or afraid of the dark, or whatever, you couldn’t have asked for a better pair to be trapped with.”
She was right, but I hated how her words exposed my weakness. “Yeah, well, I’m fine.”
“Okay.” Her doubt came through loud and clear by her tone.
“I’m not saying you aren’t.”
I stewed in silence for a moment, but the longer I sat in the all too quiet dark, the more I swore I could smell the mineral scent of dirt surrounding me.
“So, do you have a phone?”
I felt my pocket and wanted to thump my head against the wall. “No. I must have left it up in my office.”
“Oh, you work here?”
“What do you do?”
“My job is boring. I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Okayyyy,” she said slowly, obviously confused by my abrupt answer.
Things went still again, and my skin began to prickle as the sound of my heartbeat seemed to pound louder and louder.
When she spoke, I eagerly grasped onto the sound of her voice as tangible proof that I wasn’t alone in the eternal dark. “Do you think it’s another haboob blackout?”
“Haboob,” she said slowly as if speaking to a child. “You know, those big dust storms we’ve been having? I live up north of Carefree, so they haven’t hit us, but I saw it on the news last week. A big one wiped out the power grid in Phoenix for over six hours. Man, it would suck to be stuck in here for that long.”
I slowly slid down the wall until I sat. Vaguely, I remembered the city being coated in a cloud of dust, but I’d been barely aware of anything outside of helping the Cordova family with their grief. From the moment we found Fernando’s son’s abused body, nothing else really mattered. I frowned as I realized how disconnected I’d been. Just going through the motions while wrapped up in my own head. I’m lucky as fuck none of my enemies used the opportunity to come after me, ‘cause I would have been a pathetically easy hit.
“You still there?”
I cleared my throat as some of the cobwebs seemed to lift from my brain. “Yeah, I’m here. Could be another haboob, you might be right.”
She sighed. “Then we might be here awhile. Glad I went to the bathroom before I got on the elevator.”
The corner of my mouth quirked up in a smile. “I wish I had. Hopefully we won’t be here long enough for it to become an issue.”
“Don’t worry, I have extra diapers for Vali. You can borrow one.”
“You have diapers for your dog?”
She was silent for a moment, then sighed. “I do. I also have emergency food for both myself and Vali, two bottles of water, a bowl, and three doses of my meds, just in case I get stuck somewhere. Oh, and a multipurpose tool, a compass, and some pepper spray.”
“Please don’t use the pepper spray in here. That would suck.”
Her soft, purring laugh stroked over me, and I froze at the surprisingly pleasant sensation. “See, my mind likes to think of worst-case scenarios for whenever I’m out in public.”
Eager to keep her talking, to experience more of her lovely voice, I said, “Worst case scenarios?”
“Yeah, like…what if the zombie apocalypse happens while I’m in town? What if a meteor strikes? What if a nuclear bomb goes off?”
“You really think about that stuff?”
“I have iodine tablets in my purse.”
She laughed softly, and it wasn’t a happy sound. “No on the iodine tablets. Yes on everything else. I’m a freak.”
The self-deprecating tone of her lovely voice caught my attention. “Yeah, well, you’re a freak who won’t pee their pants, even if you have to borrow a dog diaper to do it. That makes you a winner in my book.”
When she burst out laughing, my heart seemed to momentarily hitch in my chest. It was the most beautiful, entrancing, joyous laugh I’d ever heard in my life. And it was completely genuine. Working for the Cordova Cartel, I’ve been around some of the most striking women in the world, all set on seducing their way into a high-ranking member’s bed. I’ve been stalked by plenty of females who thought I was their meal ticket, and a few had sexy voices to go with their perfect bodies.
None of them had ever affected me like this.
“Thanks, I think.” She giggled again. “That’s probably the weirdest compliment I’ve ever gotten.”
“I only speak the truth.”
A rattling sound came from across the elevator, and she made a noise of disgust. “Emergency phone isn’t working. Crap, I hope we’re not here too long.”
The sound of cloth shifting reached my ears and something brushed my side.
“That was just me,” she said quickly. “No reason to go all Bruce Lee on me. Just copping a squat next to you.”
To my surprise, the dog decided to drape himself over both of our laps.
At first, I tensed. I hadn’t let a dog close to me like this in years.
My wife had been trapped and then burned to death behind the locked and chained doors of our kennels, along with all of our dogs, including the puppies. I couldn’t look at a dog without being swamped with regret and shame that I hadn’t been there to save them, along with a healthy dose of heartache. I loved my dogs like family, so knowing how they’d suffered…it tore my soul to shreds.
If only I’d skipped the Detroit Tigers baseball game with my dad… If only I’d paid more attention to the world around me… If only I’d taken the threats against me seriously…
We sat in silence, and I waited for the air to get heavy, for it to press down on me the way it usually did when I thought about the past…but nothing happened.
My body simply couldn’t panic with the warm weight of the dog on my lap and the woman against my arm.
Her sigh seemed to fill the air as she spoke from right next to me. “So, what’s your name?”
My first instinct was to give her my usual alias, the fake one that I gave strangers.
I was Leo Brass’ second in command. His number one man. His fixer.
My enemies were legion, and nowhere was safe.
Not even inside a dark box in the heart of the Cordova territory.
With a stranger whose velvety voice sounded like sin and salvation.
And yet, even as my lips moved to form the shape of one of my aliases, I said, “My name’s Mark.”
“Well, nice to meet you, Mark.” I grunted as she jabbed my chest. “Sorry, I’m trying to shake your hand. Automatic response.”
I grasped her roving hand before she could move it away. Her skin was soft—so very, very soft—and I found myself taking my time as I slowly slid our fingers together, relishing the feminine feel of her small bones. No wedding ring, and her palm was slightly roughened by callouses. Despite her diminutive size, her handshake was firm and decisive. I caught the faint aroma of strawberries and vanilla. When I brought my hand back to my nose, eager for a better sniff, the scent intensified. It was a young, feminine smell and I wondered how old the woman was. She didn’t have the voice of a child, but there was still a hint of youthful sweetness to it.
Growing up, I was a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes. My dad and grandpa both loved his books, and I was fascinated by all that could be learned by simply paying attention to the world around you. Sherlock wasn’t a superhero; he didn’t use magic to solve crimes. He used logic and a careful attention to detail to see what others missed. As a child, I’d tried to emulate his technique, but as an adult, I’d somewhat perfected it.
Not saying I’m a genius like Holmes, but I am observant. I know how to read people.
But this woman…I was having a hard time getting a feel for her. There was something both bold and shy about her, strong yet fragile. A dichotomy that caught the attention of someone like me. She was different, and I was driven to understand her better. To know what mental box to put her in.
Glad she couldn’t see me smelling my hand in the dark like a creep, I said, “And what’s your name?”
“Thank you. I was named after the song.”
“I’m not familiar with it. How does it go?”
When she began to softly sing, every hair on my body stood at attention. Something akin to an electrical shock zipped through my nervous system, lighting me up inside. Her voice was phenomenal. I’ve been to both rock concerts and operas featuring the most exquisite singers in the world, yet this mystery woman’s voice ranked at the top. As she sang a song about a man completely in love with a woman named Layla, I held my breath.
She ended with a nervous giggle. “That song. You know it?”
It took me a moment to find my voice. “Yeah, I know it. Are you a professional singer? Your voice is amazing.”
“Then you must slay it at karaoke night.”
“Yeah, I don’t go out to bars much. I’m not big on crowds.”
Layla shifted slightly away from me, and I let my leg lean more firmly against her, silently asking her to stay where she was.
“So…” Her voice came out forced and high pitched. “What do you do for a living?”
“I work for the Cordova Corporation.”
“Really? I just dropped off a sculpture for Mrs. Cordova.” She added in a softer voice, “Poor woman. She has to be suffering so badly right now after the loss of her grandson and daughter-in-law.”
Pain pierced me and tears burned behind my eyelids, along with anger. No one outside of a small circle of people knew how the boy had actually died. The public story was a tragic car accident. The truth was the money hungry mother had her son kidnapped for ransom—except the kidnappers fucked up and accidentally killed the boy.
It hadn’t been an easy death.
She sucked in a sharp breath. “Crap, do you know the family?”
I could barely force the word out as I grunted, “Yeah.”
“Oh…” Her small hand rested on my shoulder as she gave it a gentle rub. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have… I’m sorry.”
Vali made a low whine as he leaned up and licked my chin. The familiar sensation of a dog’s caring had my throat growing tight as I fought off a wave of memories. I’d fucking loved my dogs like the children I’d never had a chance to have, and I missed the hell out of them. Long, gentle fingers began to rub my back as Vali cuddled close, and the sensations allowed me to get a grip on myself.
I never lost control, yet here I was, slipping again and again in front of a stranger.
I stroked the dog’s big head then let out a thick breath. “You said you were dropping off a sculpture. Are you an artist?”
She started to remove her hand from my back, but I reached over and held her arm in place, silently asking her not to move. “Yes. I do sculptures of mostly dragons and mythical creatures.”
“No shit. Dragons?”
“Yep. I’d show you a picture, but… You know, my phone is dead. Most of my dragons are original, but I do commission pieces as well. Last week, I finished up a five-foot tall dragon for a local pediatric orthodontist’s waiting room. It is super awesome, an exact replica of the blue dragon from an old 80s D&D manual.” She quickly added, “D&D stands for Dungeons and Dragons. Sorry, I forget not everyone is as big of a nerd as I am.”
Growing up, I’d been a big time Dungeons and Dragons player with my cousins, and I may have been a bit overly excited as I said, “I don’t think that makes you a nerd at all. In fact, I think that’s pretty awesome.”
I swore I could practically feel her glow with happiness. “Thanks. That’s not usually the reaction I get when I tell people about my work.”
“Yeah, well, don’t tell anyone, but I was a huge tabletop games fan when I was younger. Every summer, I’d stay at my grandparent’s farm for a month in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with three of my cousins. There wasn’t much to do up there, but they did have a big collection of my uncle’s table games stuff from the 80s. We had some pretty epic campaigns. I think I still have my WarCraft miniatures that we painted when I was fourteen.”
“Oh my God,” she said in an awed whisper. “You are kind of a nerd.”
“That information is top secret. You’re one of only a handful of people on this Earth that know I’m a closet dork.”
Her laughter made me grin. “Closet dork. I like that. Hopefully someday you’ll be brave enough to let your dork flag fly.”
I did a slow blink, processing her words. I’d never thought about it that way. In the past, I’d always kept my love of all things fantasy and roleplay a secret. I mean, sure anyone who’d been over to my house knew I was a fan of fantasy novels. My stocked library would attest to that, but it wasn’t like I was going to Comic-Cons, though I had been tempted.
Wanting to turn the conversation away from me, I asked, “I take it you’re comfortable with your dorkiness?”
“Absolutely.” She giggled. “Maybe I can convince you to come over to the dorkside.”
“Oh no, Star Wars puns. ...
With over forty published books, ANN MAYBURN is Queen of the Castle to her husband and three sons in the mountains of West Virginia. In her past lives she's been an Import Broker, a Communications Specialist, a US Navy Civilian Contractor, a Bartender/Waitress, and an actor at the Michigan Renaissance Festival. She also spent a summer touring with the Grateful Dead-though she will deny to her children that it ever happened.
From a young Ann has had a love affair with books would read everything she could get her hands on. As Ann grew older, and her hormones kicked in, she discovered bodice ripping Fabio-esque romance novels. They were great at first, but she soon grew tired of the endless stories with a big wonderful emotional buildup to really short and crappy sex. Never a big fan of purple prose, throbbing spears of fleshy pleasure and wet honey pots make her giggle, she sought out books that gave the sex scenes in the story just as muchd etail and plot as everything else-without using cringe worthy euphemisms. This led her to the wonderful world of Erotic Romance, and she's never looked back.
Now Ann spends her days trying to tune out cartoons playing in the background to get into her 'sexy space' and has accepted that her Muse has a severe case of ADD.
Ann loves to talk with her fans, as long as they realize she's weird, and that sarcasm doesn't translate well via text.