Ricco Ferraro wanted to punch something. Hard. No, he needed to punch something – or someone, preferably his brother. It would be satisfying to feel the crunch of his knuckles splitting open flesh. Cracking bone. Yeah. He could get behind that if his brother didn’t shut the hell up. They were in a hospital with doctors and nurses surrounding them on every floor. If he really went to town and made it real, Stefano wouldn’t suffer for too long.
“Ricco,” Stefano hissed again, using his low, annoying, big-brother tone that made Ricco feel crazier than he already was feeling. “Are you even listening to me? This has got to stop. The next time you might not make it.”
Stefano had been lecturing him for the last ten minutes; Ricco figured no one could listen that long, let alone him. He didn’t have the patience. He knew damn well how close he’d come to dying. They’d replaced every drop of blood he had in his body not once, but twice. He’d been in the fucking hospital for weeks.
His car had hit the wall at over two hundred miles an hour, but he knew he hadn’t driven into it. Something broke and the suspension went, driving pieces of metal through his body like shrapnel. He’d lived it. He still felt it. Every muscle and bone in his body hurt like hell.
“I’ll listen when you make sense, Stefano,” Ricco snapped and finished buttoning up his shirt. It wasn’t easy. The pain was excruciating when he made the slightest movement, but he was getting out of this damn hospital whether the doctor signed the release papers or not. He’d had enough of all of them – especially his older brother.
He turned to face them – his four brothers and one sister with their expressions so concerned. Grim. But there was Francesca, Stefano’s wife. He focused on her and the compassion in her eyes. She had nudged Stefano several times to get him to stop. It had worked twice, but only for a moment or two.
“I’m going to say this one more time and never again. You don’t have to believe me.” He spoke to Francesca, because surprisingly, it was Francesca who believed him. They all should have – they could hear lies. That gave him pause. He could hear lies. If no one believed him, it was because he had to be lying to them – and to himself.
He turned his back on them. Just that little motion hurt. His body protested the slightest thing he did. “At least wait until you get the report on the car before you jump to conclusions. I didn’t have control. The car’s system just shut down.” That much he was certain of. He drove at speeds of over two hundred miles per hour and had no trouble; his hand-eye coordination and his reflexes never failed him. The car had failed. He knew that with absolute certainty, so why couldn’t he convince his brothers and sister that he hadn’t tried to end his life? Why couldn’t he convince himself?
It took everything he had to stand there, trying not to sway when his body broke out in a sweat and he could count his heartbeats through the pain swamping his muscles. What had he done to try to save himself? Nothing. He’d done nothing. He’d let fate decide, closing his eyes and giving himself up to the judgment of the universe. He’d woken up in the hospital with needles in his arm and bags of blood going into him.
His room was filled with flowers. There were boxes of cards, all from people in Ferraro territory, the blocks of city considered off-limits to any criminal. Their people, all good and decent. He hadn’t looked at the cards, but he wanted to keep them. He didn’t deserve those cards any more than he deserved the concern on his brothers’ and sister’s faces, or the compassion Francesca showed. Still, he was alive and he had to continue.
“Something went wrong with the car, Stefano,” he repeated, turning back to look his brother in the eye.
“We’re checking the car,” Vittorio assured him. He was always the peacemaker in the family, and Ricco appreciated him. “We towed it immediately to our personal garage and it’s been under guard. Only our trusted people are working on it.”
Ricco flicked his brother a quick glance that was meant to serve as a thank-you. He didn’t say it aloud, not with Stefano breathing down his neck.
“You almost died,” Stefano said, and this time the anger was gone from his voice and there was strain. Apprehension. Caring.
That was Ricco’s undoing. It was impossible to see or hear the stoic Stefano torn up. He was the acknowledged head of the family for a reason. Ricco didn’t deserve the way they cared so much. There were too many secrets, too many omissions. He’d put them all in jeopardy and they had no idea. Worse, he couldn’t tell them. He just had to watch over them night and day, a duty he took very seriously.
He shook his head, sighing. “I know, Stefano. I’m sorry. I lost control of the car.” That was true. He had. He remembered very little of the aftermath, but in that moment when he realized the car wasn’t an extension of him anymore, that it was a beast roaring for supremacy, separate from him, he had felt relief that it was over. If he had died, it all would have been over and the danger to his family gone.
“Are you convincing me? Or yourself?” Stefano asked quietly. “We’re taking you out of here, but you have to pull yourself together. Enough with the craziness, Ricco, or I’ll have no choice but to pull you off rotation even when you’re physically fit and have the doctor’s okay to work.”
Gasps went up from his brothers and Emmanuelle, his sister. Francesca uttered a soft “no” and shook her head. Ricco’s heart nearly seized. He was a rider. A shadow rider. It was who he was. What he was. A rider had no choice but to do what he’d been trained for from the age of two – even before that. It was in his bones, in his blood, he couldn’t live without it. He dispensed justice to those the law couldn’t touch.
Stefano stepped directly in front of him, close, so they were eye to eye. “Understand me, Ricco. I won’t lose you. I’ll do anything to save you. Anything. Give anything, including my life. I’ll use every weapon in my arsenal to protect you from yourself and any enemy that comes your way. You do something about this, whatever it takes, and that includes counseling. But there aren’t going to be any more accidents. You get me, brother? There will be no more accidents.”
Ricco nodded his head. What else could he do? When Stefano laid down the law he meant every word he said. It wasn’t often Stefano spoke like this to them, but no one would ever defy him, including Ricco. He loved his brother. His family. He’d sacrificed most of his life for them gladly, but Stefano was more than a brother. He was mom, dad, big brother, protector, all of it rolled into one.
It had been Stefano who had always been there for him. His own mother and father hadn’t even come to the hospital to visit him after the accident, but Stefano had barely left even to eat. He looked haggard and worn. Every time the pain had awakened Ricco from his semiconscious state, Stefano and his brothers and Emmanuelle had been right there with him. That solidarity only reinforced Ricco’s decision to keep them safe. They were everything to him.
“I get you,” he assured softly.
“It’s done then. When the doctor okays it, you resume training, but you don’t train any more than the regular hours. You sleep even if you have to take something to get you to sleep. You stop drinking so fucking much, and you talk to me if you are having trouble doing those things.”
Ricco’s heart was pounding overtime now. He couldn’t promise Stefano that he would stop with his extra training hours. He had to make certain he was in top form at all times, that he didn’t – couldn’t – ever make a mistake. That was part of him as well. But how did he explain that to his brother when he couldn’t explain why? He just nodded, remaining silent so no one could hear his lie.
He drank sometimes to put himself to sleep, but he could stop with no problem, he just wouldn’t be able to sleep. He wasn’t about to say anything more to Stefano. It was impossible to lie to him and he didn’t want his brother to worry any more than he already did.
Staring into the mirror as he finished buttoning his dove-gray shirt, he looked at the vicious bruises and the swelling, the side of his head that had nearly been caved in. Beneath the shirt his muscles rippled with every movement, a testimony to his strength – and he was unbelievably strong. It had been his superb physical condition that had saved him from certain death – at least that was what the surgeon said, his strength and a miracle. His frame was deceptive in that his roped muscles weren’t so obvious, the way his cousins’ were, but they were there beneath the skin of his wide shoulders and powerful arms.
He reached for his suit jacket. The Ferraro family of riders always wore pin-striped suits. Always. It was their signature. Even Emmanuelle wore the suit, fitted and making her look like a million bucks, but then she could wear anything and look beautiful. He sent his sister a reassuring smile because she looked as if she might cry. He knew he looked rough. He felt worse than rough, but his sister didn’t have to know that.
“I’m fine, Emme,” he reassured softly. He wasn’t, but then he hadn’t been for a long, long time.
“Of course you are,” she said briskly, but she looked strained. “Walking away from a crash like that is easy for a Ferraro.”
He hadn’t exactly walked away from it, but he was standing now. He forced himself not to wince as he donned his jacket. Once the material settled over his arms and shoulders, he looked the way his brothers looked, a fit male, intimidating, imposing even.
There was a rustle at the door. His brothers Giovanni and Taviano moved aside to allow the doctor and nurse to enter. The doctor glared at all of them. The nurse kept her eyes on the floor. He noted her hands were shaking. She didn’t want to confront the Ferraros, but had no choice when the surgeon insisted on saying his piece.
“You shouldn’t be up, Mr. Ferraro,” Dr. Townsend said.
“I’m fine,” Ricco assured. “And very grateful to you.” That had to be said whether it was a lie or not – and he honestly didn’t know if it was.
“I refuse to release you. You could have blood clots, an aneurism, any number of complications,” the doctor continued.
“I won’t.” Ricco gave them the look every Ferraro had perfected before their tenth birthday. His eyes were cold and flat and hard. Both the doctor and nurse immediately moved back. That, at least, was satisfying. He took another step toward them and they parted to allow him through. He might look like hell, and feel worse, but he was still formidable.
“I want the boxes of cards, but you can distribute the flowers to other hospital patients,” Ricco continued, ignoring Stefano’s frown. He knew what that meant. Stefano would want to talk to his doctor. A shadow rider could hear lies and compel truth – even from someone in the medical field. He kept walking, knowing his brother would never let him walk out to face the reporters alone.
“You’re leaving against medical advice,” the doctor reiterated.
Ricco didn’t slow down. Immediately, his brothers and Emmanuelle fell into step around him. Surrounding him. Shoulder to shoulder. Solidarity. The moment he was outside his hospital room, his cousins Emilio and Enzo Gallo moved in front of them. Tomas and Cosimo Abatangelo, also first cousins, dropped in behind. The cousins always acted as bodyguards for the Ferraros, and Ricco knew he needed them. He might say he was ready to leave the hospital, but he wasn’t. His body needed rest desperately as well as time to heal. He just couldn’t do it there.
The press had been all over the accident, trying to sneak into the hospital and get photographs of him covered in bandages. One nurse had been suspended while they investigated the fact that she’d taken numerous pictures of Ricco unconscious and sold them to the tabloids. There had been several other attempts by orderlies and a janitor. Anyone getting a picture of playboy billionaire Ricco Ferraro after he’d crashed his race car in a fiery display stood to make hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Did Eloisa come to visit you?” Stefano asked, walking in perfect step with him.
Ricco glanced at him, one eyebrow raised. “I crashed, Stefano. Not perfect. Why would you think our mother would ever come to visit me when I showed the world I was less than perfect?” Stefano had raised them, not Eloisa.
Stefano glanced at Francesca. “I thought she was attempting to turn over a new leaf. Guess I was wrong.”
Ricco didn’t answer. He knew Francesca had been trying to make peace with Eloisa, but his mother didn’t have one maternal instinct in her body. He couldn’t care less. They’d had Stefano growing up, and he’d watched out for them – just as he was doing now. His oldest brother might be annoying, but Stefano loved his siblings. A. Lot. And he looked after them. It was something they all counted on.
Ricco hated that he’d caused his brothers and sister so much concern. He knew he had to change, turn his life around. It was time. He just didn’t know how.
“Ready?” Stefano asked as they approached the double doors leading to the parking lot. No one broke stride, all moving with the same confident step. The town car had already been brought to the entrance. It was only a few feet away, but the paparazzi, several rows deep, had flashes already going off.
“Yeah,” Ricco said. He wasn’t. He could barely walk upright. Every single step jarred his body and reminded him he was human.
He was afraid he would fall before he reached the privacy of the car, but he kept walking. He had to get out of the hospital before he lost his mind. He’d had his own private wing complete with bodyguards, but that hadn’t stopped the madness of the press or his fear that they’d catch him at his most vulnerable.
Stefano and the rest of his siblings had stayed the three weeks he was kept unconscious, at least that was what Francesca had whispered to him. They only left if a job was imperative. Once he was awake, it was mainly Stefano with him while the others took care of work. He felt their love, and in that moment, facing the paparazzi with his siblings surrounding him, he knew it had been worth every sacrifice he’d made to protect them. He’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Ricco kept his head up as they moved as a single unit to the town car with its tinted windows. Emilio and Enzo cleared a path through the reporters. None of the Ferraros even looked at them. Ordinarily they were friendly with the paparazzi. They needed the reporters and photographers to provide alibis for them. Today, the family just wanted to get Ricco home.
To his dismay, Stefano slid into the car with him. Ricco sighed and shook his head as Tomas shut the door on the frantic cameras and shouted questions.
“Stefano.” God, he was tired. He lifted a hand to wipe at the beads of sweat dotting his forehead. “You don’t have to escort me home.”
“I wanted a private word with you.”
Evidently the fact that his first cousin was driving the vehicle and Emilio was in the front seat didn’t matter.
Ricco laid his head against the cool leather. “I’m listening.”
“I’ve been patient since you returned from Japan.”
Ricco stiffened despite all his training. It was the last thing he expected Stefano to bring up. He’d been barely fourteen when he’d been sent to Japan, and had just had his sixteenth birthday when he returned. It seemed a lifetime ago. He’d tried to bury those memories, but nightmares refused to go away. They haunted him no matter how much liquor he consumed.
“You have to talk to someone about what went on there. It’s colored your life. You’re the best rider we have, Ricco, but you’re too reckless. You don’t care about your own life, and that’s something I won’t allow you to risk. You’ve gotten worse, not better.”
He couldn’t deny that. “I’ve never once failed a mission. Not one single time, Stefano.” Ricco could barely breathe. His brother couldn’t possibly be saying what he thought he was.
“No, but you don’t give a damn about whether you live or die.”
It was the fucking truth, and if he opened his mouth, Stefano would hear it. Ricco forced air through his lungs and stared out the window at the buildings as they drove through the streets of Chicago. Outwardly, he looked calm. Confident. There was one truth he could give his brother. He turned back to face him. “There is no surviving without being a shadow rider. You take that away from me and I’ve got nothing to hang on to.”
Swift anger crossed Stefano’s face. “That’s fucking bullshit, Ricco. You have us. Your family. How do you think I will do without you? Or Emme? The rest of them? You’re important to us. Do you even give a damn about us?”
He loved his brothers and sister fiercely. Protectively. He’d alienated himself from them – for them. Fury burst through him, that rage that sometimes threatened to consume him. “What does that mean? You think I would do this if I had a choice —” He broke off. That was a mistake, and shadow riders didn’t make mistakes. He couldn’t afford to have Stefano launch an investigation. It was the painkillers, loosening his tongue when he knew better.
Stefano fell silent. That was a really bad sign. He was highly intelligent and little got by him. Ricco tried desperately to think of something that might distract his brother, but nothing came to mind. He hurt too much. Every muscle. Every bone.
Most people didn’t realize how physically demanding it was to race a car for the length of time a race took, let alone wrecking at such a high speed. Even with all the safety measures built into the car, the jolting and spinning on one’s body was incredible. Add an actual crash into the wall and his body felt as if he’d been beaten by an assembly line of strong men with baseball bats – or run over by several very large trucks.
“I get what you’re saying to me, Stefano, and I’ll do something about it. I must be a rider. You won’t have to replace me in the rotation. As soon as I’m healed, I’ll be back to work.” He poured truth into his voice, knowing his brother could hear it.
That wasn’t going to be enough and he knew it. He made a show of sighing, so it would be more believable when he caved. “I need to change my life.” There was nothing truer than that. “I can’t wait for a woman to walk down our streets throwing shadows out like Francesca did. I need to find someone now. I’ve been giving it some thought, but I had decided it wouldn’t be fair to find someone, allow them to fall in love with me and then have to give them up to marry a rider just so I can produce children.”
All riders were expected to marry another capable of producing riders, even if that meant an arranged marriage. Emme had it the worst because she was a woman, and if she didn’t find her man by the time she was thirty, her marriage would be arranged. The men had a few more years, but there was no just falling in love and getting married to anyone. That was one of the prices they paid being shadow riders.
Stefano’s dark gaze never left his and Ricco forced himself to continue. “I’ve thought a lot about this. I’m an artist. I’ve continued studying Shibari and I love the artistic elements, but the only place to actually display or practice my art is in one of the clubs.” Ricco felt grounded when he practiced rope art using the human body as a canvas.
Stefano blinked, his only reaction.
Ricco nodded. “I know I can’t be protected in the kinds of clubs I’d have to frequent. Sooner or later the paparazzi would find out and it would be in every magazine from here to hell and back. But if I find a good rope model, one I can work with in the privacy of my home, I can photograph my art. I’ve always wanted to do that. I have my own darkroom and can develop the photographs myself. You know I’m a good photographer. Eventually I can put the photos on canvas or in book form. I just need to find the right model. I’m hoping if I do, I’ll feel a strong connection with her.”
Stefano rubbed the bridge of his nose as the car slowed and then turned through the heavy throng of paparazzi standing on the sidewalk nearly blocking the drive leading up to Ricco’s home. Both men ignored them as the driver inched his way through the crowd to the high iron gates. “It’s a risk, Ricco. Not the art. The woman.”
Ricco nodded. “I’m aware of that. I want to find someone I can fall in love with. Someone who could love me and maybe understand if I have to be with another woman.”
“That’s highly unlikely.”
“I know. I know that. I just can’t live like this anymore.” Staying up all night, drinking himself into a stupor or partying until the sun came up with multiple women at the same time. Never feeling anything. He watched as the gates swung open to allow them inside. He didn’t realize he was holding his breath until they closed behind the car, locking out the paparazzi.
“Someone threatened us, didn’t they?”
Stefano asked it quietly – so quietly Ricco almost missed it and almost asked what he meant. Stefano said it like he already knew, that he was just confirming. Of course he would figure it out. He’d been the head of the family for years, since he was a teenager. He’d taken care of them all when he was even younger than that. He would know. He’d probably considered that possibility all along.
“I can’t talk about it.” That was confirmation and it wasn’t.
Stefano swore, a long tirade of Italian. He kept his voice low, vicious, and Ricco heard the promise of retaliation there.
He shook his head. “Just let it go.”
“Let it go?” Stefano looked at him as if he had grown two heads. “They threaten my brother, a fellow rider, and you want me to let it go. We have a council —”
“Don’t. I mean it, Stefano. Let it go. There are reasons.”
“There are never reasons for one family of riders to threaten another family.”
“It was a long time ago. I’m asking you to let it go.” He didn’t allow desperation to show on his face, no matter that he was feeling it. Stefano would go to war in a heartbeat over him, but there was no way to know how many families in Japan would unite against them. Ricco wasn’t willing to risk his brothers, sister, or cousins.
He’d remained silent for years. They’d been long, hard years of always looking over his shoulder and training harder than ever. Often, when he couldn’t sleep, he’d go to one of his brothers’ homes and watch over them, paranoid something might happen to them. After several years had gone by, he was certain they were safe, and he didn’t want Stefano to stir up trouble.
“I think finding a partner for your art is a positive move, Ricco.” Stefano switched subjects again. “Looking for a woman to be your partner when you know you’ll have to walk away later is something else altogether.”
Ricco already knew that, but he was losing too much of himself. Going too wild in a desperate attempt to feel something. Anything. He was already too far gone and didn’t know if there was anyone who could bring him back. He’d deliberately separated himself from his family, spending less time in public with them and more time racing or partying in the hopes that others would think he didn’t care about them. He must have done a good job for Stefano to ask him if the family mattered to him.
Ricco dropped his hand to the door, needing to escape. Stefano shifted in his seat as if he might follow him. “I need to lie down,” he said, knowing his brother would hear the ring of truth. He did need a bed and fast or he was going to topple right over.
Stefano subsided. “Angelina Laconi is going to come check on you, and don’t give me any trouble over it. She’s a nurse.”
“She makes eyes at me.” Now she’d have excuses to touch him. Life sucked. He wasn’t going to get out of having a nurse drop by, he could tell by Stefano’s expression.
“Live with it. Emmanuelle made certain your fridge was stocked and Francesca made several meals for you. They’re in the freezer. One’s in the fridge.”
“Please thank them for me.” Ricco shoved open the door and forced his legs to work. It wasn’t easy, but he had discipline in abundance, a trait every rider needed. He was very, very aware of Stefano’s eyes on him as he made his way up to the door.
“Francesca.” Ricco bent his head to brush a kiss along his sister-in-law’s cheek. The weeks of healing and physical therapy had helped. Pain didn’t crash through him every time he took a step, and he’d begun training again, although Stefano watched him closely. His older brother was still unaware of the training hall Ricco had installed in his home a few years earlier. Most gatherings were in Stefano’s penthouse in the Ferraro Hotel.
“Ricco.” Francesca flashed her amused smile, the one that mocked him a little for his greeting.
He rarely said hello or good-bye. He said her name, and she retaliated by saying his. He loved that about her. He loved everything about her, mainly that she loved his brother more than anything or anyone.
He’d never learned the art of relaxing. He could play his part out in public, but at home, with his brothers and sister, he had always been the one to pace around, help Taviano, his youngest brother, in the kitchen, or find his way to the training room and work out while the others conversed. Since the accident, he’d made a few attempts at being better.
“I hope it tastes good. I’ve been working with a few new recipes for the artichoke sauce you said you liked and I think I’ve got it for you now. I’m serving homemade pasta with artichoke sauce, zucchini flan, guinea fowl and stuffed flowers fried. Oh, and for dessert, tiramisu.”
“Nice. I’ve never had anything you’ve ever cooked that I didn’t like.” It was the truth. He wasn’t into flattery, but Francesca was truly the nicest woman he’d ever met. She loved and accepted them all right along with her demanding husband. “Where’s the boss?”
She laughed. “He only thinks he’s the boss. I still have my job at the deli, don’t I? You know how much he hates me working.”
“Here’s a little news flash for you, honey,” Ricco said. “We all hate you working. We’ve got enemies.”
They’d taken care of her enemy. Permanently. “They can get to us through you,” he pointed out. It was an old argument and one he was certain Stefano had tried many times. Francesca might be the sweetest woman he knew, but she was no pushover.
The fact that Francesca still had her job surprised him. He couldn’t imagine his oldest brother allowing his woman to put herself in danger, and Stefano had no trouble bossing all his siblings around.
Ricco shrugged out of his jacket and let her take it to hang up along with his tie. “Just us tonight?” He was already unbuttoning the top three buttons of his shirt.
“Yes.” She made a face at him. “Family business.”
He found himself relaxing. He was good at family business. Francesca would have told him if Eloisa was present. As a rule, his mother didn’t show up for family events at Stefano’s – which meant she was almost never present.
Taviano had come to him three weeks earlier with his findings. A casing had cracked on the shock absorber. Stefano had yet to talk to him about it, so he was fairly certain that was what this night was all about. He didn’t really care what it was that brought the family together, only that they were together.
“Stefano told me you’re advertising for a rope model,” Francesca continued. “How’s that coming?”
“There’s a lot of fucked-up women in the world,” he replied.
She laughed. “You’re just finding that out?”
“Since meeting you, I had high hopes.” That was partly true, but mostly he was teasing her. Something new for him with an outsider, although he’d never considered her that. Francesca fit right in with his brothers and Emmanuelle. She was family, and every one of them would lay down their lives for her.
She gave him another smile. She really was a beautiful woman. Stefano was lucky to find her. Not only was she sweet, intelligent and beautiful, but she also could have been a rider, had she been found and trained from the time she was a child. She was rare. Very rare. She had accepted their way of life, shrouded in secrecy and living outside the accepted laws of the land.
Ricco sighed. He’d secretly hoped that by advertising for a rope model, the woman of his dreams would appear. She would be tall, with red hair, because he liked that look, slim like a model and very willing to accept him as the focus of her life. More, she would be an untrained rider, one who could give him children so his family would be happy. So far he’d gotten every body type, hair color and a variety of curves, a lot of women willing to do kink and more who wanted money. A lot of money. He hadn’t connected with any of them – not even physically.
He hadn’t conducted the interviews, but he’d been there, in the shadows, watching where the parade of women couldn’t see him. He was determined to find one woman that aroused him at least emotionally, if not physically, but nothing happened. It was depressing.
He’d always liked women – especially when he came out of the shadow tubes after a job. He never connected with them on any level but physical. He never wanted to spend any time with them outside of having sex. He was adventurous sexually and surrounded himself with women who were the same way, but he played and he left. He always made that clear. He wasn’t a man who stayed. Lately, even that was fading. He played with the Lacey twins occasionally, but he wasn’t into it anymore.
He envied Stefano his ability to have a relationship. He wasn’t certain he could do it. Now that he’d been in on the interviews with the various women applying to be a rope model, he was fairly positive he would never be that man. He wanted it, but he just felt indifference or annoyance. None of the women knew who the rope master was, but they’d tried to find out. He’d been careful to have Emilio conduct the interviews in a neutral location – the conference room of the Ferraro Hotel where many interviews for a variety of jobs were often conducted.
“It’s going to happen for you, Ricco,” Francesca said, walking with him through the enormous open room toward the kitchen where the family usually gathered. “I know you don’t think it will, but I feel it. She’s close.”
He glanced at her sharply. Francesca wasn’t given to fantasy. He shook his head in denial. He’d given up that dream a long time ago. “Done too many things in my life to ever have a decent woman throw in with me.”
“I’m a decent woman and I love you,” Francesca said.
“Yeah, but you’re my sister.”
“I love you, too.” Emmanuelle joined them, slipping her arm around his waist as well. “But then, I’m your sister, too, and it’s well known by the lot of you that I have no sense.”
Ricco couldn’t help but laugh. Emmanuelle could always make him smile, no matter how bad his nights had been. She was a ray of sunshine to all of them.
She turned her face up to his, her eyes moving over his features, seeing things he didn’t want her to see. At once the smile disappeared. “You aren’t sleeping.”
He shrugged, trying to look casual. “Never been good at sleeping, honey. Tell me what’s happening in our neighborhood. I’ve been out of the loop for a while.”
“Francesca knows far more than any of us. Working at Masci’s she hears everything, don’t you?”
Francesca went to the stove, where Taviano was turning the guinea fowl in the frying pan. Using olive oil, he’d sautéed garlic and scallions and then placed the fowl skin side down before adding sage. He glanced up and winked at Ricco. “Francesca was just going to let this burn.”
“She never burns anything,” Giovanni objected. He mixed the homemade pasta noodles with the artichoke sauce. “Stefano scored big-time with this one. He just needs a few bambinos running around, her pregnant and barefoot, and the man will be happy.”
“He’s already happy,” Francesca said smugly.
“Well, I’d be happy,” Giovanni clarified. “I’d make a great uncle.”
Francesca blew him a kiss and sat on the barstool between her brothers-in-law. “Lucia and Amo are having the time of their lives with their new daughter, Nicoletta. Extremely happy.”
“Is she going to a regular school yet?” Stefano asked, coming up behind his wife and circling her around the waist with his arms.
Ricco had noticed Stefano couldn’t get near Francesca without touching her. He envied his brother that and wanted it for himself. He just wanted to feel for someone. Connect with someone.
“She’s smart,” Vittorio said. He stabbed his fork into the pasta and took a bite, then held up his thumb, indicating it was good. “But she doesn’t want to go to a regular school. Amo asked me to talk to her. I did, but I don’t think she was impressed. She didn’t say much, just looked at me. I don’t envy them. The girl is gorgeous. Every young man from here to hell and back is going to be knocking at their door.”
“Why do you all want her in a regular school?” Taviano asked. “More trouble if you ask me. All those horny bastards leering at her. Do we really want that kind of problem? One of us would have to go scare the crap out of them and then she’d be embarrassed or pissed and we’d get the blame. Keep her home. Locked up. It’s for her own good.”
“It’s her last year of high school,” Francesca said. “She deserves to have fun.”
Ricco wasn’t positive Francesca was right about sending her to the local high school. Nicoletta had come from New York, from a terrible situation. She’d been brutally abused, physically, sexually and emotionally. Stefano and Taviano had rescued her, but the damage had been done and it had been severe. Ricco knew the girl, like him, didn’t sleep. He knew because he often pulled guard duty at night.
Nicoletta was one of the rare potential riders, her shadow throwing out feeler tubes to connect with the other shadows around her. The riders all took turns watching over her. He took the night shift because it suited him, and she went out her bedroom window and sat on the rooftop listening to music. He kept watch, but he didn’t interfere. She looked so young and alone, and he knew he’d just scare her if he suddenly appeared beside her.
“She likes being with Lucia and Amo,” Stefano said. “I’ve talked to her often, and she wants to stay with them.”
“Who wouldn’t want to be with them?” Taviano asked. “They’ll spoil her rotten. She’s good for them as well.”
“It was a cracked casing, Ricco,” Stefano said abruptly. “On the shock absorber. Not you, a cracked casing. The wrong metal alloy was used and passed off to us as the real deal. I’ve already informed the other racing teams.”
Ricco didn’t look at his brother. That was the most Stefano was going to give him, when both knew that everything else that had been said between them still stood. He just nodded and sank down into the chair at the table beside Emmanuelle. It wasn’t exactly news, anyway. Taviano had come to him immediately a good three weeks earlier and told him. Taviano preferred to race Indy cars, and he was the one, along with Vittorio and Emmanuelle, who designed their engines.
“How you coming on your hunt for a partner?” Vittorio asked, sliding into a chair at the long table.
Ricco shrugged. “I guess I’ve got to choose someone soon. I’m doing one more round of interviews in a few days and then I’ll have to pick someone.”
“Or not,” Francesca said. “Seriously, hon, don’t hook up with just anyone. It won’t work.”
He knew that, but he was determined to try.