“Hurry, Tulah! They’re coming up the street.”
“Oh, God, Mama, I know he’s with them. I just know it.” Dread knotted Tulah’s stomach until she could hardly breathe. She came to a dead stop on the claustrophobic stairs and rested her forehead against the wall, trying to soak up the coolness of the perpetually damp plaster as a remedy for the nauseous heat rolling through her.
“Don’t let him see you like that!” Her mother stamped her tiny foot on the bottom step in warning. “You must be strong at all times.”
“Strong?” Her voice was barely a croak, so Tulah tried again. “Strong? He killed Papa.”
“And if you’re not strong, he’ll kill you, too. Get down here. Now!”
It took Tulah another minute to move. Confused and angry, defiant and stubborn, she stared at her mother. Chelsea glared back with the same emotions in her eyes, looking like a little doll whose face was painted to show determination.
She stepped down and her stomach shriveled. Tulah was beyond fear—there was no name for what she felt. Her legs almost gave out, and she pressed both hands to the walls, grateful—for the first time—to the medieval architect who’d built the cramped house. She usually considered the stairwell to be a horrid, constricted passageway, being no more than two feet wide. Now, the narrowness was all that held Tulah up.
“Listen to me.” Her mother banged on the wall to get her wandering attention. “You get that petrified look off your face, right now!”
The words snapped into her spine. Tulah drew herself up and fought to find a blank mask to slip over her features. Her cheekbones ached with the effort and her teeth sank into her lower lip, but her mother nodded sharply, giving her approval.
There was a knock at the door.
Tulah dragged in a deep breath and held it until she was dizzy. Still bracing her hands against the clammy walls, she descended the rest of the steps. Her mother twirled and reached for the door that nearly pressed against her back in the tiny house.
Fully expecting to see her uncle, Tulah was shocked to find Charles Ngozi standing on the other side instead. The man was big and intimidating, his pale skin a striking contrast to the black braids falling down his back in blatant challenge to any rival. Pull those braids and die. Try to use them to gain the advantage in a fight, and die. People generally died around him—which suited his job for the Family.
He was an enforcer who broke all the rules for his out-of-bounds leader.
His brown eyes found Tulah’s and the sensation of a thousand wriggling cockroaches crawled over her. His eyes brightened and sparked with lust as they made their leisurely way over her body. Both women were forced to ignore the sudden tenting of his pants, though his slow smile prompted Tulah’s mother into a tone that came too close to derision.
“Charles. Why are you here?”
“Come to collect Tulah.” He waved his hand toward the dark car idling at the curb, nearly blocking the traffic in the narrow street. “Graves will explain.”
Tulah’s heart sank. The spell her mother had cast at either end of the street let them know if any Ngozi Family member came close. She’d felt the cold stirring that warned her of the man’s presence, but she’d found a spark of hope when only Charles had been revealed behind the door. He was big, fast and murderous, but not the most intelligent man that ever walked the Earth. She could’ve handled him.
Graves was a different matter, entirely.
She looked beyond Charles toward the car, where another man hopped out of the passenger seat and hurried to open the back door. The vehicle’s tires boasted shockingly green hubcaps, its windows were tinted dark enough to match the exterior paint and tiny green designs trailed down the hood, the roof and the boot, defiling the once-sleek luxury sedan.
It suited the man emerging from its depths perfectly. Tulah swallowed hard, holding tight to her composure as Charles watched her closely. She could do nothing but stare at the man who’d killed her father. The man who had unrepentantly killed his own nephew and tossed his wife and daughter into the streets to fend for themselves.
Graves Ngozi was a monster. Arrogant and cunning, tyrannical and deadly, he was a man who pit himself against the Family Father and stirred the shit everywhere he went. He was on full display today, the darkness of his skin emphasized by a white linen suit set off by a poison green tie and matching green saddle shoes. The white fedora on his head was perched at a cocky angle and he swung a heavy, emerald-tipped walking stick carelessly.
Tulah made a mental note to watch what he did with that stick.
He strolled up the path and into the house as if he owned it, disgustedly peering over dark sunglasses made needless by the thick London fog. Tulah lifted her chin as Graves stopped before her, looking her up and down.
“Well, well,” he purred, “look at what the years can do.”
Tulah couldn’t help herself. “Not enough years, if you ask me.”
Chelsea pinched Tulah’s arm but spoke to Graves. “What brings you to our door? I thought you were happy to see the last of us.”
He licked his teeth in an odd gesture that threatened the impassivity of Tulah’s expression and smirked. He turned in a tight circle to survey the tiny foyer before moving under a low arch into the square sitting room. The women had no choice but to follow him. He threw himself back onto the fragile sofa, a second-hand piece Tulah feared would crumple under his abuse.
“Congratulations.” Her mother’s tone was devoid of any joy.
Graves stretched himself out on the couch, his arms across the back of it, his knees spread wide. “I’ve always thought it was a marvelous thing that your parents settled in Chelsea when they came to England, rather than, say…Liverpool. What on earth would they have named you then?”
Tulah’s mother took it in stride. “I suppose they would have thought of something.”
“I’ve come for your daughter, Chelsea.”
“For what reason?”
“To take her to her rightful home, of course.”
“Rightful home?” Tulah lifted her eyebrow. “Graves, you sold the Ngozi estate out from under all the Family and bought a hotel, instead.”
“It’s convenient, pet. When the rooms aren’t full of Family, I fill them with tourists. It’s an investment.”
Chelsea took a deep breath. “Why do you want her presence in your…residence?”
Graves dropped his arrogant smirk. “I told you, I’m betrothed. Pay some fucking attention.”
Tulah saw the flash of helpless anger cross her mother’s delicate face and reached out to take her hand. “What she means, is why do you require me to be there? I have been banished from your presence for eleven years.”
Graves stood up and leaned against his walking stick. “I am the head of the secondary branch of the Family. If I require your presence, it is not for you to question me.”
Tulah took a step forward, indiscreet with the anger clamping down around the knots of fear in her belly. “I think it is, you murderous son of a bitch. I’m not going anywhere with you.”
The back of his hand slammed against her cheekbone before her words could fully leave her mouth. The crack of his knuckles stilled her, even as fire swept over her teary eye. Her mother grabbed her shoulder and pulled Tulah behind her. Ludicrous, as Chelsea was so very tiny and Tulah had gotten her father’s height.
It had happened so quickly, immediately tossing Tulah back into her childhood. Old fears poured over her, blinding her for an instant as her cheek throbbed, mocking her moment of confidence. It was a brutal reminder of how fast Graves was, how ruthless. Tulah struggled to hold on to her strength and tried to remember how hard her mother had worked to make her into a strong, confident woman.
Not a patriarch’s chattel to be abused, or a weakling prone to tears.
Graves tugged at the cuff of his jacket. “There will be a great gathering. Ngozis and Levys both, with a few other guests specially invited.”
Chelsea took an audible breath. “What does that have to do with us?”
Graves took a step forward and both women took an instinctive step back. He smiled. “Muso Ngozi is coming to the betrothal celebration. He has requested your presence.”
“He’s not coming to England.” Chelsea shook her head. “He swore he’d never return here, after…after…”
She wasn’t willing to finish her thought, and neither was Tulah. Graves was too intimidating to voice the truth to. Even saying as much as she had was enough to have his face closing down, his skin tightening until his cheekbones shone nearly blue. His black eyes became an abyss of rage.
“Well, here he comes, darlings. He wants to meet the bride, apparently.”
“Who?” Tulah managed to ask. Hearing the shakiness in her own voice, she stepped to her mother’s side, unwilling to continue cowering behind her. She needed a greater show of strength than girlish tears and wobbling words.
“Constance Gage-Levy. She’s on her way to London as we speak.”
Tulah shared a look with her mother. This was huge news—not the bride, though Graves’ voice had softened to a surprising degree when he’d said her name, but the Father. This could be a chance to gain his ear, to find recompense for all they’d lost.
Her mother went rigid, eerily calm. “I see. Then we’ll go pack our bags.”
“Oh, no, no, no, darling Chelsea, not you.” Graves smiled wickedly. “Muso didn’t even mention you at all. Just Joseph’s daughter.”
Tulah’s heart stopped. She’d never been away from her mother, not even for the night. It was much too dangerous for them, in the heart of Ngozi territory. Ice clogged her veins but fire licked the inside of her skull. Tulah struggled to keep breathing, ignoring the ragged edge of every pant.
“I’m not letting you just take her!” Her mother’s hands clenched.
Chelsea tried again. “She can’t go without me.”
Graves made a patently false moue of apology. “Darling, you have so many more things to concern your pretty head with.”
“I promise you, I don’t! She’s my daughter.”
“Mmm, but you’ll need to spend time searching for lodgings. Preferably in France.”
Both women stilled. Tulah grabbed for her mother’s hand again, squeezing her fingers as she tried to decipher the cold slide of Graves’ tone. Moving to stand at his leader’s side, his big body blocking the weak light from the window, Charles grinned. Tulah didn’t trust the look in his eye.