Gabriel has served the Valentino family since he was five years old, and has loved Nicolai Valentino almost as long. In the public eye, Nico is a ruthless, cruel, and violent killer, the perfect scion for the powerful mafia family, while Gabriel is his chauffeur and housekeeper. Back at home, behind closed doors, the prince bows his head at Gabriel’s command, kneeling at his feet in obedient submission. Gabriel loves painting the canvas of Nico’s flesh with a palette of bruised purples and blues with the lash of a belt, striking his lover’s skin with the rich, brilliant red of blood.
This is a dark story taking place within the shadowy underworld of the mafia. There are graphic moments, such as a sex worker being mutilated and mentions of horrific murders. None of these scenes are actually portrayed, but they are there and sensitive readers may not find them to their taste.
Nico straddles two worlds as the son of a powerful Mafia leader. Not the worlds of good and evil, or even the worlds of law an order, but the worlds of blood and power. His father is Italian from a long line of powerful and violent men, while his mother was a Japanese woman who died when Nico was quite young. He has to work twice as hard to gain respect, and even now the men who come to him for favors or forgiveness will call him a “half-breed.” Needless to say, Nico’s temper is almost always in evidence and many within the Valentino crime network fear for him, and fear for Gabriel’s life.
Gabriel was an orphan taken in by the Valentino family. They paid for his education, sent him to an Ivy League college, and pay for his apartment. They also, for the most part, turn a blind eye to his relationship with Nico, though no one knows that behind closed doors it’s Nico doing the screaming and not Gabriel. He is melancholic, prone to nostalgia and the wish that life was … other than it was. He loves Nico, loves being with him, but he wishes it were a little less complicated. Sleeping with the boss’ son isn’t the brightest thing he’s ever done, but there’s nothing in the world that will keep him from Nico.
As the story is told from Gabe’s point of view, it’s hard to really get to know either Nico, or Gabe’s relationship with Nico. While Gabe is the more dominant partner in bed, outside of it he’s very much as Nico’s beck and call, making breakfast, picking up after him, getting him to calm down before meetings … but most of what Gabe does is think. And reminisce. And marvel at his past sexual exploits. He and Nico never really have a conversation beyond what’s for dinner and if Nico still hurts after Gabriel lashed him with a belt. Halfway through the book, when the plot gets going, I still had no clear image of who Nico is other than a beautiful man with a temper who enjoys getting beaten. And, to be honest, I didn’t get to know much more about Gabe other than he’s introspective, selfish, and is really not good at his job.
Unbeknownst to Gabe, Nico has been visiting a leather bar and talking with the sex workers there. There’s no set-up for it, no hint from Gabe that Nico ever goes off and does anything without him. It doesn’t make Nico look more suspicious; for me, it makes Gabe look incompetent that he doesn’t know this is happening. I found it very hard to keep interested in Gabe. His main focus throughout the book was on sex with Nico and it got repetitive. By the time the action picked up, I was already losing interest in the story.
The writing isn’t bad, but there are clumsy and confusion sections, such as:
There were scars crisscrossing his skin, leaving perfectly puckered and raised lines for Gabriel to stare down at in complete and utter awe. They were mostly pale brown, not deep enough to leave lasting damage or scars, but enough for Nico to feel, enough for Gabriel to revel in every time he caught a glimpse of his lover’s skin.
So … were there scars, or not? Since scars are mentioned later, I’m guessing something got cut out — or, given Gabriel’s tendency to wool-gather — Gabe just changed his focus from the scars to some bruises without making it clear that he’d done so. Like the above paragraph, the book is such a confused mishmash that it’s hard to quite put my finger on why I couldn’t connect with it. It wasn’t violent or grim enough to be dark, and the plot felt convenient and predictable. That, along with my inability to connect with Gabriel, and the lack of any real conversation or scenes with Nico to showcase his personality beyond screaming insults at someone or begging to be fucked, makes it hard to recommend this book, and I can’t say that I have any interest in picking up the sequel.