June 2003 ~ Evanston, IL
Dom Russo had the ability to drink any one of his college buddies under the table and still act sober as hell. A talent that came in handy when one didn’t want to make a drunken ass out of themself. Like now.
He was standing on the sidewalk outside the last Northwestern graduation party he planned to attend, if only to spare his liver from developing a severe case of cirrhosis. Although it was much quieter out here, the muffled sounds of bass pounding from the stereo and the drunken shouts from inside the Frat house were an incessant din invading his senses.
Standing in front of him was his lifelong friend and, unbeknownst to her, the star of most of his late-night fantasies, Angelica Rose Hart. They had gone to school together their entire lives and he had loved her from the very beginning.
As she said goodbye to another of her friends he took the time to think back over their years together. His mind settled on a favorite memory of a day spent walking along the shore of Lake Michigan in forty degree weather. No other person would have had the power to persuade him to run on the beach, taunting the icy swells as they were chased back up the sand, but all Angelica had to do was ask. He remembered watching the wind whip through her long, silken blonde hair and her futile attempts at brushing aside her long bangs to keep them from hiding her almond-shaped eyes that were the color of the Caribbean waters, a bright aquamarine. He had been filled with smug pride as the strangers they encountered looked at him with envy. Angelica’s affectionate personality always led them to assume they were a couple. It also let him get away with slightly more intimate gestures like using his thumb to wipe away the water droplets that fell on her delicate cheekbones or helping to free the wisps of bangs that became ensnared in her long, inky lashes. Yes, that was a day he wouldn’t soon forget. Each minute had passed by in slow motion as he had watched her laughing and running away from the crashing waves, her cheeks rosy in contrast to her fair skin and her full, glossy lips catching the rays of the sun, just begging to be kissed.
Unfortunately, he had always been stuck in the dreaded “friend zone” with Angelica. She never dated, claiming she couldn’t spare the time away from her studies, and Dom never had the balls to let her know how he truly felt.
Although he had the ability to come off as sober, it was still hard as hell trying to remember that he shouldn’t be staring at her full breasts straining against the thin fabric of her pink sundress as she pulled her hair back into a casual ponytail.
With great effort he raised his eyes up to meet hers before she could notice.
Angelica gave him one of her concerned looks as she tried to anchor her bangs behind her ear. “Are you sure you don’t want me to give you a ride home? It’s late and with as much alcohol as I saw you consume today I would have to think that your already shaky sense of direction has to be more than a little compromised. You could end up wandering around all night.”
Dom gave her an incredulous look and tried to appear emotionally wounded.
“What? My sense of direction has never been shaky. I’m hurt that you would even suggest such a thing. When have I ever been lost?”
Without hesitation she held up her hands and started ticking off examples. “Well, let’s see. There was that time in high school when you were driving our group to that new restaurant in Chicago before the Homecoming dance and we almost ended up in Indiana. Oh, how about the time a few years ago when we went on that camping trip in Wisconsin and it took us an extra day to get there because –”
“All right, all right,” he conceded with a smile. “You’ve made your point. There have been a couple of times in the past where my impeccable sense of direction has failed me. But I’m okay tonight. Besides, I need the fresh air before I crash and become oblivious to the world for the next few days or so.”
Angelica cocked her head to the side and narrowed her eyes at him, probably trying to decide if she should force the issue.
He noticed a couple of guys on the front porch sneaking glances in their direction and laughing, pausing only to suck on the bottlenecks of their beers. They probably assumed he was hitting on Angelica and striking out. An amused smile spread across his face as he imagined how they must look through the beer-goggled eyes of their audience.
They were quintessentially opposite. Where she was light and petite, he was dark and tall. His hair was jet-black and always a little longer than clean-cut, his skin tone was olive and his eyes were a steely light blue. He stood at 6-feet 3-inches without his favorite black Harley boots. Although he admitted he was no linebacker, his body was well-muscled and lean.
He had been told by sorority girls on more than one occasion that he had a devilishly handsome look. Unfortunately for them, he also had the reputation to match, never engaging in anything more than casual trysts with any of them. But he was always up front about that, so they could hardly hold that against him. Though they usually did anyway, he grimaced inwardly.
He probably looked like hell with all the partying he’d been doing. He knew his once-clean white tee shirt and blue jeans bore colorful stains from an array of different alcohols spilled on him from sloppy drunks that probably made him look like a walking abstract painting, but he couldn’t muster up the energy to care.
“Okay, if you insist,” she said, finally giving in. “Call me when you get home, though, okay? I don’t want to lose any sleep thinking I’m responsible for you lying in a gutter somewhere, Dominic.”
She was the only one he allowed to get away with using his full name. Hell, he’d let her get away with just about anything.
“No problem. I think I can manage that.”
Satisfied that he could take care of himself she reached up and put her arms around his neck for a hug goodbye. The sweet smell of cherry blossoms wafted around him, prompting a barrage of memories his mind associated with her signature scent. Dom wrapped his arms around her, but was careful not to hold her too close. To do that would make it more of an intimate embrace, rather than their usual plutonic hugs. He exhaled a silent sigh of contentment. My angel.
He had used her goody-goody personality as his excuse to give her the nickname back when they were kids. It started out as something to tease her with whenever she balked at even bending the tiniest of rules, but as they grew older it metamorphosed into a term of endearment, albeit a casual one.
Given her name it was a predictable and obvious choice, but in truth Dom used it because that’s what she was to him. An angel. His angel. So many things in his life had been dark and evil, but she’d always had the ability to save him from all of it, whether she knew it or not.
She ended their hug and flashed him that killer smile. With all the alcohol coursing through his veins he had a hard time controlling the image of her flying around Heaven, bouncing on the clouds and sporting a ridiculously shiny halo and pair of gossamer wings. Wipe that dumb-ass look off your face, Russo, or she’ll think you’re smashed.
At last he managed, “Goodbye, angel.”
She screwed up her face like he had just said something distasteful.
“Goodbye? What happened to your usual ‘see ya later?’ You make it sound like we’re never going to see each other again.” In truth, he wasn’t sure what had prompted the change in his usual farewell. “If you miss Sunday brunch at my parents’ house my mom will have your head,” she warned. She gave a tired sigh and finished with, “Okay, you lush. Get your butt home and call me when you get there. Be careful, okay?”
Women. How do they survive on a daily basis with as much as they worry? Dom learned it was always better to placate them to avoid unnecessary nagging. With a finger marking an X over his heart he said, “I’ll call as soon as I’m home. I swear. And I would never dream of missing Isabella’s famous waffles.”
Satisfied with his solemn oath she turned, got into her metallic pink Volkswagen Beetle convertible and drove off down the street. He stood there watching the Bug blink in and out of the pools of street lights until it finally blinked out of sight.
Dom knew she’d be fine since Angelica never drank. He almost wished she did. Then maybe he could see her do something stupid, something that he could consider a character flaw and maybe – just maybe – he wouldn’t be so wrapped up in her. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t find a damn thing wrong with her.
Taking a deep breath and letting it back out slowly to try and clear his head, he turned in the direction of his small apartment. Now that Angelica was out of sight his surroundings came back into focus. He had to dodge the random idiots who couldn’t hold their liquor as they stumbled around the campus sidewalks, doing and saying things they wouldn’t remember in the morning, but would probably come back to bite them in the ass one way or another. Amateurs.
It was a typical hot and humid June night, but there was a nice breeze coming off of Lake Michigan that made the air somewhat comfortable. After about ten minutes of walking Dom was finally out of the party areas and the streets were once again nice and quiet.
With nothing to distract his thoughts from Angelica he forced his brain to focus on other things. For starters, he could think about the police academy he was joining in a week. He was anxious to start training so he could jump into his career as a cop. It had been a pain in the ass going to college for police science when it wasn’t necessary in order to join the academy, but Dom wanted every edge he could get. He had no desire to be a beat cop in Chicago for his entire career. He wanted to work up through the ranks quickly to become a detective and fry bigger fish. Particularly, the kind of asshole fish he had been forced to live with growing up.
He had heard about the kind of foster parents that were caring and nurturing and fostered children to give them opportunities and families that they wouldn’t otherwise have. Unfortunately, Dom had never met any. He had been given over to the kinds that were in it for the extra paychecks every month. The kinds that were neglectful and abusive more than not.
The only thing that had saved him from drowning in that morally depraved life had been Angelica and her parents. Since meeting in kindergarten her parents had invited him over often for play dates, and his could-give-a-shit foster parents had only been too eager to get rid of their burden as much as possible.
Dr. and Mrs. Hart were intelligent people who were aware of Dom’s situation and always did whatever they could for him without crossing the line into condescension or pity. Somehow they understood that his pride was all he had in the world and they were always careful to leave his intact.
Growing up around the Harts, Dom was shown what life could be like. What a real family should be. He couldn’t deny that he wanted to have his own family like that someday, but Dom knew it wasn’t likely. Even though he knew he could never be like the people (and he used that term loosely) that raised him (he used that term very loosely), the niggling thought that he had been permanently tainted by them scared him to death. What if he couldn’t be the type of husband or father that he wanted to be? What if, no matter how hard he tried, the slime from his upbringing was a permanent fixture on his soul and it ended up destroying those he loved? Even if that wasn’t a factor, he had to consider that his DNA was probably corrupted as well. He didn’t know anything about his biological parents, but they had to be real gems for the state to take him away as an infant.
For those reasons alone Dom never allowed himself to think he deserved Angelica. Although he believed he had the power to change his path in life to be a better man than the ones he grew up with, he would never take the chance of poisoning her with traits he may have repressed. There would be someone infinitely better suited for her, he was certain of that. Someone who had grown up as she had and would know how to give her that same type of life and love.
Either the alcohol had seriously dulled his senses or he was incredibly lost in his thoughts because Dom didn’t hear the man approach that suddenly stood in front of him, blocking his path. He stopped abruptly and studied the unwelcome interruption.
The large man, who looked to be in his mid-twenties, easily stood about six and a half feet tall. Despite the hot weather he wore a long brown duster over his white button-down shirt that was neatly tucked into a pair of jeans. His sandy blonde hair hung long past his broad shoulders, which were coincidentally attached to the frame of a Mack truck.
He looked like a football player, but Dom didn’t recall him being on the Northwestern team. Not that he paid close attention to college football, but it’s hard to go to a Big 10 school and not be somewhat aware of the players.
Dom immediately didn’t like the guy’s stance and the cocky smirk on his ugly bearded face. Actually he was GQ-cover model material, but a strong male ego refused to let Dom admit that on anything more than a deeply subconscious level.
Something about the man’s presence pricked Dom’s survival instincts. His adrenaline kicked in. He usually tried to be the bigger man and walk away from fights, but he was always secretly disappointed when the other party didn’t press the issue. This could be fun, he decided.
“Dominic. It’s nice to finally meet you face to face. I’m Griffin and I’ll be your escort this evening.”
Dom tried to keep his senses sharp and quickly racked his brain as to why the guy knew his name. Dammit, why’d I have so much to drink at those parties?
“If you think you can mug me you’d better think again, pal. I won’t go down easily.” Taking a wide stance Dom clenched his fists to prepare for an attack.
The arrogant male laughed quietly and then gave Dom a wide smile, showing a row of brilliantly white teeth. The light from the street lamp above glinted off of two longer fangs, highlighting their sharp tips as though the light itself was trying to flash him a warning.
He’d heard about those Goth Vamp wannabe clubs, but he’d never actually seen a card-carrying member before. Great. A mentally unstable mugger. Just what he needed right now.
“I’m not here for something as trivial as your wallet, human. And I predict you’ll go down very easily.”
A split second later the guy was right in front of him, swinging a right hook towards his face. Dom barely had time to process what was happening when the world quickly went black.