Frowning, Emilio Morretti hit Pause on the remote control and glanced over his right shoulder. Sunshine splashed through the windows of his Greensboro estate, filling the living room with a harsh, blinding light. But he could still make out his business manager’s silhouette in the open doorway. Emilio was drained, but he nodded his head in greeting. Today was the second anniversary of his nephew’s death, and although his spirits were low, he slapped a smile on his face.
“Hey, man, what’s up?”
“Sorry for barging in like this, but this couldn’t wait.” Antwan Tate slipped off his aviator sunglasses and rested his leather briefcase at his feet. Antwan reeked of confidence. His black Tom Ford suit didn’t have a wrinkle in sight, and he was wearing more bling than Diddy. The men had known each other for years—ever since Emilio relocated from Italy to Atlanta in 2006—and he could tell by his manager’s creased brow and stiff posture that he was stressed-out. Over the years, they’d become closer than brothers, and Emilio considered Antwan family. Antwan had been there for him during his darkest days, and he trusted him wholeheartedly.
“What’s going on?”
“You need to look at this,” Antwan said, offering him a large manila envelope.
Emilio stared at it but didn’t touch it. “What is it?”
“It’s a letter from the Internal Revenue Service. It arrived at my office this morning by courier, and once I spoke to the other parties involved I drove straight here.”
Reluctantly, Emilio took the envelope from Antwan’s outstretched hand and opened it. As he scanned the letter, his heart began beating harder, faster. Unable to believe what he was reading, he looked at his manager closely, searched his face for signs of deception. A known prankster, Antwan took great delight in punking his friends, but this time Emilio wasn’t falling for it.
Determined to beat Antwan at his own game, Emilio crumpled the paper, tossed it over his shoulder and hit Play on the remote control. Cheers, laughter and shrieks of joy filled the room. Emilio never got tired of replaying his nephew’s soccer games, and he grinned every time Lucca’s image filled the eighty-inch TV screen. Two years had passed, but Emilio still couldn’t believe that Lucca—his adorable nephew with the curly hair and high-pitched giggle—was gone.
Emilio leaned forward, gazing intently at the TV. The DVD was cutting in and out from being played so much, but his nephew’s celebration dance at the end of the game was his favorite part of the video. He chuckled at Lucca’s antics. Emilio wondered what he’d be like today if he were alive. He would have been in the second grade, and no doubt faster on the soccer field.
“Throwing away the letter isn’t going to make the problem go away…”
Emilio tuned his manager out, pretended he wasn’t there. Pain stabbed his heart like a knife. His throat closed up, becoming dry and sore. Emilio stared at the TV with a heavy feeling in his chest, wondering for the umpteenth time how he could have been so irresponsible that afternoon, so damned reckless. I screwed up, and it cost me everything I hold dear, he thought. I’d do anything to have Lucca here. Anything at all.
Hanging his head, he raked a hand through his short, thick hair. He tried to channel positive thoughts, but nothing came to mind. Every morning, he woke up thinking the accident had been a horrible dream, but the moment he realized his nephew was really gone, he broke down. Why did Lucca have to die? He looked up at the ceiling as if the answers to his questions were written there. I miss him so much it hurts.
“We need to come up with a plan,” Antwan continued. “Before it’s too late.”
Emilio lowered his head and kept his gaze on the marble floor. He didn’t want Antwan to know his emotions had gotten the best of him—again. When he least expected it, grief overwhelmed him, and there was nothing he could do about it. He was a broken man, consumed with regret, and his pain was constant, always there. Pulling himself together, he straightened his shoulders and cleared his throat. “Nice try, but I’m too old to fall for your stupid pranks.”
“This isn’t a prank.” Antwan picked up the wad of paper, dropped down in the chocolate-brown armchair and flattened the letter on the glass coffee table. “This letter from the IRS is real, and so is this 2.5-milliondollar tax bill.”
“That’s impossible,” he said, convinced his manager was trying to pull the wool over his eyes. “Monroe Accounting has been doing my taxes since I moved to Atlanta, and every year they assure me that everything is kosher.”
“Well, it isn’t.” Antwan undid the buttons on his suit jacket and leaned forward anxiously, as if he were waiting for Emilio to bring him up to speed.
“I had an hour-long conversation with the IRS. Monroe Accounting claimed tax shelters that the IRS disallowed, and because of the error you owe the IRS 2.5 million dollars.”
“How can I be punished for their mistake?” Emilio fumed, struggling to control his temper. It wasn’t about the money. He’d trusted his accounting firm, and now they’d screwed him over—big-time.
What else is new? said his inner voice. People have been screwing you over ever since you won your first championship race. You should be used to it by now!
“I didn’t do my taxes,” he pointed out. “Monroe Accounting did.”
“I know, it sucks, and I’m all for suing their asses, but first we have to get the tax man off your back.” Antwan loosened the knot on his royal blue tie. “I’ve had clients in trouble with the IRS before, but nothing like this. This is bad, Emilio, real bad.”
No, it’s not. Bad is giving the eulogy at a five-year-old’s funeral.
“If you disregard the letter, the IRS could seize your bank accounts, freeze your assets and sell them at auction. I’ve seen it happen, and it isn’t pretty…”
Fear pulsed through Emilio’s veins. I can’t lose my estate. It’s filled with great memories of Lucca and I sense his presence here. He thought of all the times they’d played air hockey in the media room, the nights they’d camped out in the backyard, the Spider-Man-themed birthday party years earlier. He had raised the child as his own and cherished the times they’d spent together. Losing his estate was unthinkable.
“Pay the bill, and fire those idiots at Monroe Accounting ASAP.”
“We can’t. It isn’t feasible right now.”
“Because the bulk of your fortune is tied up in real estate and long-term investments, and if you liquidate your stocks, you’ll lose hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
It took a moment for Antwan’s words to sink in. They hadn’t talked about his finances in months, not since the last time they’d argued about Emilio’s spending.
“Am I broke?”
“No, but if you pay the IRS you’ll only have a million dollars left in your bank account.”
“I can live off of that money for years.” Antwan scoffed. “Not if you continue supporting Francesca and your other relatives. You’ll be lucky if that money lasts three months.”
His manager was right. His kid sister was always asking him for money, begging and pleading for short-term loans she never paid back. But Emilio didn’t mind. He enjoyed spoiling her, figured it was the least he could do after what had happened to Lucca. His family meant the world to him, and he wasn’t going to stop helping them because his stingy business manager had a problem with it. “Like I said, that’s plenty. If I need more funds, I’ll let you know.”
“Or you can come out of retirement and make more money. You could compete in the World Series Racing All-Star Race in August. A win would catapult you back to the top, where you belong.”
“It’s not going to happen, so save your breath.”
“Why not?” he pressed, his eyebrows raised. “If you get back in racing shape you can compete for another five or six years. That’s a ton of cash and championships.”
Emilio didn’t respond. Staring out the window, he watched birds soar across the clear blue sky. He hadn’t been outside in weeks—not since his run-in with that crazed photographer on his estate. He considered going for a jog once Antwan finally left. But when his manager started talking business, there was just no stopping him, and Emilio feared he’d badger him about coming out of retirement for the rest of the day.
“Don’t you want to see if you still got it? If you still have what it takes to compete at the highest level, with the best competitors in the world?”
“No. I’m content here, and I don’t want to return to the track.” It was a lie, one he’d been repeating for the past two years. But he couldn’t tell Antwan the truth—not without feeling ashamed. So he shut his mouth and dodged his manager’s gaze.
“I’m worried about you.”
“Don’t be. I can take care of myself.”
“Don’t you think you’ve punished yourself long enough?” Antwan gave him a stern look. “It’s time to quit moping around the house and rejoin the land of the living.”
Emilio strangled a groan. This wasn’t the first time Antwan had talked to him about his future, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. Deep down, he missed working on his beloved race car, traveling the globe with his pit crew and meeting the die-hard World Series Racing fans who followed him from one city to the next. But his devotion to the sport had cost him Lucca, and he’d never forgive himself for what had happened to his nephew. I don’t deserve to be happy. Not after causing the death of such a fantastic kid.
“I have a surefire plan to rejuvenate your career,” Antwan insisted. “And it starts with the All-Star race. To get the ball rolling, I’ve arranged a meeting with Ferrari next month, and they’re pretty stoked about seeing you again.”
Curiosity got the best of him. “They are?”
“Of course they are! You’re one of the greatest World Series Racing drivers of all time, and your old sponsors are desperate to have you back.”
Emilio balked, told himself he didn’t care. He couldn’t do it, wouldn’t do it, and there was nothing his manager could say to change his mind. He was sick of his family and friends giving him unsolicited advice, and he wished everyone would leave him the hell alone. Annoyed, he considered asking Antwan to leave, but he wisely bit his tongue. His manager had been in his corner for almost a decade, and without his steadfast support Emilio wouldn’t be a three-time champion, or one of the most recognized athletes in the world.
“Have you given any thought to the TV interview with Italia Sports?” Antwan asked. “If I don’t give them an answer by four o’clock today the deal is off the table.”
“Tell them no dice.”
“But they doubled their offer.”
“Am I supposed to be impressed?”
“Man, do it,” Antwan implored. “That’s a hundred grand for an hour of your time, and they’re willing to interview you here at the house. That’s a sweet deal.”
Emilio stood his ground. “Tell Italia Sports I said thanks, but no thanks.”
“Are you attending the Exotic Car Show in Miami on Memorial Day weekend, or is that out of the question, too?”
“Maybe next year.”
Antwan nodded, said he understood, but he looked sadder than a kid who’d lost his lunch money on the playground. A terse, awkward silence ensued. To break the tension, Emilio clapped his friend on the shoulder and said, “Let me get you a drink.” He stood, dropped the remote control on the couch and strode purposely across the living room. After entering the bar, Emilio opened the fridge, grabbed two beers and unscrewed the tab from one.
“You hung up more pictures of Lucca,” Antwan said, glancing around the room.
“Yeah, I found them on my old BlackBerry device and printed them off.”
“You’ve made this place your own personal shrine to him.”
Ignoring the dig, Emilio admired the picture prominently displayed on the fireplace mantel. It had been taken the day of Lucca’s preschool graduation, and every time his gaze landed on the photograph he felt an overwhelming sense of pride…and guilt. His nephew had been on cloud nine that day, and even after all these years he could still hear Lucca’s laughter as they ran around the jungle gym playing tag.
“Are you going to the cemetery this afternoon with Francesca to release balloons?”
Emilio nodded. “Yes, I’m going to pick her up at two o’clock—”
The telephone rang, and a long-distance number flashed on the TV screen. It was his cousin Rafael calling from Washington, DC, and although they hadn’t spoken in months, Emilio didn’t answer the phone. Francesca loved family gossip and had told him just yesterday about the birth of Rafael’s first child—a baby girl named Violet—with his wife, Paris St. Clair-Morretti. The news still boggled his mind. His cousins Demetri, Nicco and Rafael had found true love and were completely devoted to their partners. And according to Francesca, Nicco and his wife, Jariah, were expecting, and Demetri was planning the wedding of the century with his fiancée, Angela Kelly. I hope my invitation gets lost in the mail, because there’s no way in hell I’m going to Demetri’s over-the-top wedding.
“The guys are meeting at Halftime Bar on Friday night to celebrate Jamieson’s promotion.” Antwan sat down on a stool, grabbed one of the beers and took a swig. “You promised you’d be there, so don’t even think about flaking on us.”
Antwan’s concerns were valid. Emilio often broke plans at the last minute, and it had earned him a reputation for being a mood killer. Going out in public made him nervous, and on the rare occasions that he met up with his golf buddies, he always regretted it. Gold diggers flocked to him in droves, and the more he spurned their advances, the more aggressive they were. “I’ll come, but I can’t stay long.”
“Why? Got a hot date with Ginger?”
“Man, please, she’s ten years my junior. And she’s my sister’s best friend.”
“I know,” Antwan said with a sly wink. “But you like curvy women, and that girl has booty for days!”
Yeah, and a thirst for wealth and stardom that could rival a reality TV star! Emilio wasn’t interested in the British nanny, and every time she dropped by his estate unannounced, he ordered his butler to send her away. Francesca was determined to hook them up, but Emilio was even more determined to keep his distance. Ginger was nipping at his heels for one reason and one reason only: to get her hands on his fortune. But Emilio wasn’t having it. He hadn’t been intimate with anyone since his nephew’s death, and he’d rather watch home videos of Lucca than hook up with his sister’s pushy roommate. “I’ll be there.”
“You better, or I’ll drive back out here and kick your ass.”
“I thought you were a lover, not a fighter?” Emilio joked.
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