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~SHADOW RIDER CHAPTER ONE~ Last Updated: May 08, 2017 13:05:35

Shadow Rider by Christine Feehan

Stefano Ferraro pulled on soft leather driving gloves, his dark blue eyes taking a long, slow scan around the neighborhood. His neighborhood. His family knew everything that happened there. It was a good place to live, the people loyal. A close-knit community. It was safe because his family kept it safe. Women could walk the streets alone at night. Children could play outside without parents fearing for them.

He knew every shop owner, every homeowner by name. The Ferraro family territory started just on the edge of Little Italy. He knew every inch of Little Italy as well, and those residing and working there knew him and his family. Crime stopped at the edge of the Ferraro territory. That invisible line was known by even the most hardened of criminals and no one dared to cross it because retaliation was always swift and brutal.

He glanced at his watch, knowing he didn’t have a lot of time. The jet was fueled and waiting for his arrival. He needed to get into his car and get the hell to the airport, but something held him there. Whatever it was, the feeling he had was disturbing. The compulsion to stay was strong, and anytime that happened, every Ferraro knew there was trouble coming. He carefully and very quietly shut the door to his Maserati, rounding the hood, and then retreating to the sidewalk.

Urgency was always about work, and nothing ever interfered with the Ferraro family business. Nothing. He played hard when he played, but work was important and dangerous and he kept his head in the game when it was time to get down to business. He needed to get his ass moving, but he still couldn’t force himself, in spite of all the years of discipline, to get into his car and get to the airport. The compulsion in him was strong, not to be ignored, and he had no choice but to give in to it.

A voice drifted to him above the normal sounds of the street. Elusive. Mysterious. Musical. He turned his head as two women rounded the corner just at the very edge of his territory and began walking deeper into it. He recognized Joanna Masci immediately. Her uncle, Pietro Masci, was a longtime resident in Ferraro territory, born and raised there. He owned the local deli, a very popular place for residents to buy their produce and meats. A good man, everyone in the neighborhood liked Pietro and respected him. Pietro had taken Joanna in when his brother died years earlier.

It wasn’t Joanna who caught his interest. The woman walking beside her was dressed totally inappropriately for the weather. No coat. No sweater. There were rips in her blue jeans, which clung lovingly to her body. And she had a figure. She wasn’t thin like most girls preferred, she actually had curves. Her hair was wild. Thick. Very shiny. She wore part of it pulled back from her face in an intricate, thick braid, but the rest tumbled down her back in waves. The color was rich. Vibrant. A true black. He couldn’t see her eyes from that distance, but she was shivering in the cold Chicago weather and for some reason, he had an entirely primal reaction to her constant shivering. His gut knotted and a slow burn of rage began in his belly.

It wasn’t her looks that caught his interest or made him stand utterly still. It was her shadow. The sun was throwing light perfectly to create tall, full shadows. Hers leaked long tentacles. Thin. Like streaks reaching out toward the shadows around her. Everywhere there was a shadow, hers connected to it with the long feelers—with long tubes. His breath hitched. His lungs seized.

She was the last thing he ever expected to happen because ... frankly ... a woman like her was so rare. He didn’t know how to feel about it, but suddenly there was nothing else more important, not even Ferraro family business.

He had his cell phone out and punched in numbers without taking his gaze off of her. “Franco, I’m going to need to take the helicopter this morning. I have business to attend to before I can leave. Half an hour. Yeah. I’ll meet you.” He ended the call, still watching the two women and the strange shadow the stranger cast as he punched in another number. “Henry. I’m not going to use the car after all. Please return it to the garage for me.” The Ferraro family had a temperature controlled garage with a fleet of various cars and motorcycles. They all liked them fast. Henry took care of all the vehicles and kept them in top running order.

Stefano snapped the phone shut and stepped off the sidewalk to cross the street. He held up his hand imperiously and of course the cars stopped for him. Everything stopped for him when he demanded it.

***************************

Francesca Capello prayed she wouldn’t pass out as she walked with Joanna toward the deli. She’d never felt so weak in her life. She was hungry. She’d made tomato soup using ketchup and water, but that was all she’d had to eat for the last two days. If she didn’t get this job she was going to have to do something desperate, like ask the homeless woman she’d given her coat to where the nearest soup kitchen was.

Maybe it hadn’t been such a great idea to give the woman her coat. Her clothes weren’t the best for a job interview, but they were all she had. She needed the job, and she definitely wasn’t looking very professional in her faded but very soft vintage blue jeans, a perfect fit, which was rare for her to find in the thrift stores. There were holes in the knees and one small one on her upper thigh, but some of the designer jeans featured rips. The tears in her jeans just happened to be from real wear.

“Wow, the deli’s packed,” Joanna observed as they stopped in front of a glass door. She yanked it open and ushered Francesca inside.

Francesca thought she might faint from all the smells of food. Her stomach growled and she pushed on it with one hand, hoping to quiet it. People were three deep at the counter and every small table throughout the room was filled.

“Popular place,” she observed, because she had to say something. She’d let Joanna do most of the talking because— well— she couldn’t talk. She wasn’t bursting into tears in front of her friend. Not after all Joanna had done for her.

“I told you.” Joanna flashed a grin, caught her arm and tugged her through the crowd to the window on the far side opposite the door. “We can wait here until Zio Pietro has a couple of minutes.”

Francesca didn’t think he was going to be free anytime soon. Now all the smells blended together, making her feel nauseous. She didn’t want to throw up right there in his deli. She was fairly certain that wouldn’t get her the job, but her stomach was so empty.

Her lungs burned from holding her breath, waiting for Joanna’s uncle to get free enough to come interview her. Joanna had promised her the job. Francesca had spent nearly every cent she had— the money she’d borrowed from Joanna— getting to Chicago, and into the tiny apartment right on the very edge of Little Italy. She had nothing left for food or clothing. She had to get this job. She could survive another week if she was very, very careful, but not much longer. She’d be living on the street with Dina, the homeless woman. She’d done that already once and it wasn’t fun. Truthfully, she wasn’t altogether certain that her apartment was better than the street. Still, it had a roof.

Francesca couldn’t stop shivering, no matter how hard she tried. The cold was biting and penetrated right to the bone. It didn’t help that after the wild storm, there were puddles everywhere, impossible to avoid, and her shoes and socks were soaking wet. The soles were thin and the water easily had gotten inside her shoes. Not only were her feet wet, but her toes were numb.

Still, if she got the job, this was the perfect place for her. The neighborhood was small. Everything was in walking distance. She didn’t own a car, or anything else for that matter. She was starting over, determined to rise from the ashes like the phoenix, but seriously, if Pietro didn’t hurry up, she’d be on the floor soon.

If she didn’t need food and to warm up so badly, she would have been happy with the evidence that the store was popular as a small specialty grocery and sandwich shop. Clearly, Pietro needed help. She could handle a cash register no problem. She could make sandwiches. She’d held a job in a deli while putting herself through school and she was certain this would be a piece of cake.

The door opened and a blast of cold air swept into the shop, chilling her further. She turned her head and froze. She had never in her life seen a man more gorgeous or more dangerous. He was tall, broa​​d shouldered, tough as nails and totally ripped. His hair was jet black and seemed messy, but artfully so, as if even it refused to disobey him.

He wore a three ​piece dark charcoal, pin ​striped suit that had to have been tailor made in Italy or France and looked to be worth a fortune. His tie was a darker gray to match the thin stripes in his suit and was worn over a lighter shade of charcoal shirt. He wore butter ​soft gloves and a long, dark cashmere overcoat. Even the shoes on his feet looked like he’d paid a fortune for them. He made her acutely aware of her shabby clothes.

She wasn’t the only one who noticed him. The moment he entered, all chatter in the shop ceased. Completely. No one so much as whispered. No one moved, as if they were all frozen in place. Pietro came to attention. Beside her, Joanna took a deep breath. The atmosphere in the store went from friendly chatter and lighthearted gossip to one of danger.

His face was carved in masculine lines and set in stone. He had a strong jaw covered by a dark shadow. He was easily the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen. His eyes were such an intense blue she almost didn’t believe it was his natural color. The blue eyes swept the room, taking in everything and everyone. She knew he did. So did everyone in the room. Just like her, they were all staring at him. The eyes came back to her. Settled. Narrowed.

The impact was physical. Her breath rushed from her lungs. He could see right through her. She had far too many secrets for him to be looking at her and seeing so much. Worse, his gaze drifted over her, taking in the cropped sweater that molded to her breasts and just barely reached her waist. Her jeans rode a little lower than her waist so she had to resist pulling at the hem of the sweater, although her fingers automatically curled around the hem to do just that. The sweater was one of the few things she owned that was warm.

His gaze traveled down her holey jeans to her wet shoes and back up to her face. She wished the earth would open up and swallow her. The tension in the deli went up several more notches. Francesca knew why. Not only was this man gorgeous and dangerous, he was angry. A black wall of intense heat filled the room until no one seemed able to breathe. She could actually feel his anger shimmering in the air. The room vibrated with his fury.

She found herself trembling and shrinking back under that brilliant blue stare. She didn’t understand why he’d singled her out, but he had. His diamond hard gaze was fixed on her, not on any of the other customers— just her. She took a deep breath and let it out, tugging self consciously on the hem of her sweater. When she did, his scowl deepened.

“Mr. Ferraro.” Pietro stepped around the counter.

Pietro’s shoulders were square, his face a mask of concern, his tone respectful. He looked as if he might faint any moment. Everyone did. Francesca didn’t understand what was happening, but clearly Joanna was very aware. Her friend trembled and put one hand on Francesca’s arm as if to steady herself.

They were all afraid of him. Francesca could see why— he looked and felt dangerous. But every single person in the store? Afraid? Of. This. Man. That was a little terrifying. She wished fervently he would stop looking at her.

The man, Mr. Ferraro, stepped in her direction. He looked— predatory. His gaze didn’t waver. Not for one moment. If she wasn’t mistaken, he didn’t blink, either. The crowd instantly parted, just like the Red Sea, leaving open a path straight to her. She felt more vulnerable and exposed than ever. She couldn’t even ask Joanna who he was and why everyone was afraid of him or even how they all knew him. Or why his anger would be directed at her.

Everything in her stilled. Unless he knew. Oh, God. He couldn’t know. She had nothing left, nowhere to go. If she didn’t get this job, she’d be on the street again. Her face burned under his scrutiny. She knew he saw everything. Her thrift store clothes. Her wet shoes. Her lack of makeup. His suit easily cost thousands, as did his coat. His gloves probably cost more than her entire outfit when it had been brand ​new. What he spent on his watch could probably buy a car.

She felt her color rise, and she couldn’t stop it. Her gaze lowered, although she felt defiant. Just because he was wealthy— and he was more than wealthy— anyone with eyes could see that— he had no right to judge her.

God, but he was good ​looking. Italian American. Olive skin. Gorgeous blue eyes and thick black hair that made a woman want to run her fingers through it. No man should be able to look like he did. She tried to look away from him, but something in his steady gaze warned her not to and she didn’t dare defy him. She couldn’t imagine anyone crossing him. He didn’t exactly walk up to her. He stalked, like a great jungle cat emerging from the shadows. Silent. Fluid. Breathtaking.

“Poetry in motion,” she murmured under her breath. She’d heard the expression, but now she knew what it meant, how the words could come alive with a man moving.

He stopped abruptly. Right in front of her. Had he heard? She felt more color creeping into her face. A deep red. She was mortified to be singled out of the crowd. That was bad enough, but if he’d heard her ...

“I’m Stefano Ferraro. You are?” It was a demand, nothing less.

She opened her mouth. Nothing came out. She actually felt paralyzed with fear. Of what she wasn’t certain. Joanna’s fingers dug into her arm hard, hard enough to get her to blurt out her name. “Francesca. Francesca Capello.”

“Where the fuck is your coat?” His voice was pitched low. Soft. It sounded menacing, as if all his anger was directed at her because she didn’t have on a coat.

She winced at his language and the abruptness of his completely shocking question. She tipped her chin up and instantly his eyes were on her face, following that gesture of defiance. “It isn’t your business,” she said, keeping her voice as equally low.

A collective gasp went up in her store, reminding her they weren’t alone. She felt alone, as if there were only the two of them.

“It is my business,” he returned. “You’re shivering so badly your teeth are chattering. Where the fuck is your coat?”

She opened her mouth to tell him to go to hell, but nothing came out. Not one single word. “She gave her coat to the homeless woman,” Joanna supplied hastily. “On our way here. We were walking along Franklin and there was a woman sitting under the eaves there and she was cold so Francesca gave her coat to her.”

“Dina,” Francesca muttered.

“Dina?” he repeated.

“She has a name. It’s Dina,” she repeated, before she could stop herself. She knew she sounded snippy, but she didn’t care.

“I’m well aware who she is,” he said. “I’d like to know who you are.” Francesca was both horrified at his interest and mortified that she was in the spotlight. She sent up a little prayer for the floor to open up and swallow her right there.

This was met with silence so Joanna jumped to fill the breach. “She’s a friend of mine, and I talked her into coming here to live from California. Uncle Pietro needed someone to help in the deli and she has tons of experience.” The words tripped over one another in her haste to get the information out. “That’s what we’re doing now, applying for the job.”

Francesca was well aware everyone in the store was staring at her, including Pietro. She was certain she looked homeless in her thrift store clothes, but really, the woman in the street had been freezing. Francesca, at least, had four walls to protect her— until the end of the month, and then she’d be sharing a cardboard box with Dina.

“I see.” Stefano Ferraro said the words thoughtfully, his eyes still fixed on her. “You know her, Joanna? You vouch for her?” Joanna nodded her head vigorously, her dark cap of hair flying around her face. Francesca could feel her trembling, which was unusual. Joanna had always had tons of confidence in herself. She’d been popular at school and always, always had an opinion to give. Everyone liked her, yet she was definitely shaking.

Stefano, still watching Francesca’s face, pulled out his wallet, shoved a handful of bills into his coat pocket and then removed the coat. He held it open in front of Francesca.

Her lungs seized. She shook her head and tried to step back but she ran into Joanna’s trembling body. Who was this man that everyone was so afraid of? Francesca knew the blood drained from her face, she could feel it. She shook her head again, more vigorously so there could be no mistake the answer was a resounding, emphatic no.

Impatience crossed his face. “I don’t have time to fuck around, bambina. Get your arms in the coat and come outside with me for a moment. We’ll talk.” He glanced at his very expensive watch. “I have about two minutes and then I have to be somewhere.”

She considered stalling for the two minutes so he’d have to leave, but both Joanna and Pietro looked desperate. He had to be a criminal. Mafia. One of the strong ​arm men who came in and took all the money from the stores, like on television. He looked far too elegant for that, but he also looked as if he could easily break bones and not break a sweat.

Joanna actually pushed her toward Stefano. Resigned, Francesca turned her back to him, slipping her arms in the sleeves. To her horror he reached around her to button up the long coat. Around her. Caging her in. Her back was against his chest and his arms were long, enclosing her while he buttoned the coat. She felt his warmth. His strength. For the first time that morning, she stopped shivering.

His arms felt enormously strong, his chest an iron wall. More, with every single breath she took in, she breathed him in. His scent. Very masculine. Spicy. He turned her around to face him and then stepped in close to her— too close— because again, she couldn’t breathe. The coat was warm. Heaven. Soft. It smelled like him. And he smelled good. He actually made her weak in the knees, unless really, he had nothing to do with it and she was just hungry.

His hand slipped down her arm and his fingers shackled her wrist in a firm grip. She looked up at him, bracing herself for the moment their eyes would meet, but he was looking at Joanna’s uncle. He wasn’t smiling, but he offered his other hand.

“Pietro. Good to see you. I trust you’ll take good care of what’s mine.” His voice was low, sexy. She actually felt a strange answering vibration move through her body, like a song, a note tuned only to him.

He looked down at her again, and the impact of his eyes was enough to send her into a mini ​orgasm. It was the truth whether she liked it or not. Joanna made a little sound in her throat, saving her, allowing her to turn her head toward her friend at Stefano’s declaration. Pietro’s head jerked up and his gaze shot to Francesca’s face. Francesca frowned, trying to read the local language, but she had no idea what had passed as conversation between Pietro and Stefano Ferraro.

Gritting her teeth, she went with Stefano because it was time to give the man a piece of her mind and she couldn’t do that in front of everyone. And also because he didn’t really give her any other choice. Not only were Pietro and Joanna staring at her, but once again, everyone in the store was as well. She didn’t like or need attention on her.

The blast of cold hit her as Stefano opened the door and allowed her to emerge first. She was too aware of him, of that hard, muscular body moving so close to hers. He kept her close with his grip, so that when she took a step, her body brushed against his continuously.

He stopped just outside the deli, to the right of the door, under the eaves. Her hands dropped to the buttons of his coat. Instantly his hand covered hers, preventing her from sliding the buttons open. His body blocked hers from the wind, crowding her. He put one hand to her belly and pushed gently until she took the three steps necessary for her back to be against the wall of the building, and then he easily caged her in.

“Use the money to eat something. Buy a decent pair of shoes. Do not give my coat away. I’m rather fond of it.”

His voice was a little impatient, definitely authoritative, as if everyone in the world would obey his every command— and they probably did. She detested that she was standing in front of the world’s hottest man and he could see she had nothing. Absolutely nothing. She wasn’t taking anything from him, either.

“I am not taking your money or your coat,” she snapped. His hands kept hers trapped. His thumb slid over the back of her hand and even through the soft, buttery leather of the glove, the gesture sent a tingle of awareness down her spine.

“The coat is a loan, and the money ...” He shrugged.

“I’m not taking it,” she reiterated.

“Is there a reason why you’re allowed to be kind, but I’m condemned for the same gesture?” he asked softly. Her eyes met his and that was a mistake. A huge mistake. She felt as if she was falling into those hard, piercing eyes. She knew instantly he hadn’t given her the coat because he was being kind. She just didn’t know why he’d given it to her. Or why he’d taken an interest in her at all.

“Francesca?” he prompted.

She tried not to scowl at him. “No, of course not. It’s just difficult to accept charity.” She took a breath.

“It isn’t charity.” That’s what she’d been afraid of. Her gaze slid away from his. “I can’t accept ... That is ... From you ... Because you’re ...” God. She couldn’t even talk. He was too close. Surrounding her with heat. Too handsome. Too dangerous. Too everything she wasn’t and would never be.

His jaw hardened even more if that was possible. She had her eyes fixed on his very sexy five o’clock shadow so she saw very plainly his impatience. Her belly tightened into little hard, apprehensive knots. She couldn’t help herself, she pressed her hand deep to try to stop the tension coiling there. His gaze dropped to her hand and then came back up to her face.

“It’s because I have money.” He made it a statement.

His accusation stung, mostly because it was the truth. The color deepened in her face. He made her sound prejudiced. She hated that he called her on it, but the truth was she would have been much more able to accept the coat from someone who had far less. She caught her lower lip between her teeth. Of course that wasn’t the only reason, but she couldn’t innumerate those reasons, either. That he was gorgeous, superhot. Or that he was dangerous and she thought he might be a member of organized crime.

“Francesca.”

Her stomach somersaulted. He said her name low. Commanding. He was used to deference. Obedience. She took a breath.

“Look at me.”

She let her breath out slowly and forced her gaze up his handsome face until her eyes collided with his. Then the breath slammed out of her lungs, leaving her fighting for air.

“Keep. The. Fucking. Coat.” He bit out each word.

He scared the crap out of her. He wasn’t touching her or threatening her, but she felt menace rolling off of him in waves. There was no use fighting him on it. He was going to get his way. Both of them knew it.

“Thank you.” The words tasted a little bitter, but she managed to choke them out.

He nodded his head and glanced at his watch again. “Get something to eat,” he added, turning away from her. “I’ll be back for my coat.”

She cleared her throat. “Mr. Ferraro?”

He spun back. Graceful. Impatient. “Got things to do, Francesca.”

She didn’t care. She had to know the truth. “Why is everyone afraid of you?

His blue eyes held hers captive for so long she heard her heart pound. “Because I’m not a man you ever fuck with.”

She blinked up at him, a little shocked at the honesty in his answer. She was fairly certain he was right. He’d brought an entire roomful of people to a standstill. No one had moved. No one had spoken. He definitely looked like a man no one would dare fuck with. Least of all her.

She cleared her throat. “I don’t like that sort of thing.”

He pressed one hand to her belly again, pushing her back against the wall, stepping in close to her until his heat and the scent of him surrounded her. “What sort of thing?” His gaze dropped to her mouth. Held there.

Her lips trembled, and a million butterflies took wing in her stomach. Her heart pounded. God. He was so close. Too close. He was taller than her by at least a head and a half. His shoulders blotted out the street behind him. He smelled— delicious. She didn’t know a man could smell that good. It was freezing cold outside and he wasn’t even shivering when she had his coat.

“The F word sort of thing.” She blurted it out, saying the first thing that came into her mind without thinking. His eyebrow shot up. She hadn’t thought that anyone really could do that. Shoot up one eyebrow. It was incredibly hot— at least on him.

“The F word?” he repeated. “Dolce cuore, you can’t even say fuck, for fuck’s sake.”

She felt the color creeping into her face, although she didn’t know why. She wasn’t the one spouting off inappropriate language to a complete stranger. She wasn’t staring at his mouth, although she wanted to. She resisted, because that was what was polite. She wasn’t pressing him against a wall and holding him there with a hand on his belly and another by his head. She wouldn’t dare touch him.

There was nothing to say to that so she didn’t say anything. She just stood there waiting for him to release her.

He glanced at his watch again. “I really have to go. Eat. I mean it, Francesca. Don’t give the money or the coat to anyone else. I’ll know, and I won’t like it.” She made a face.

“Should I be afraid of you?” For the first time amusement softened his features.

“Only if it keeps you from giving away my coat and ensures you eat today.” He reached out and bunched her hair in his hand and then allowed the strands to slip out of his fist. “Don’t forget to buy a decent pair of shoes.”

“I’ll use your coat, but the money ... I don’t know when I can pay you back.”

“Pietro pays a decent wage.” He turned away from her.

“I don’t have the job yet.”

“You have the job.” He lifted a hand and started down the street, moving easily, quietly. Looking more gorgeous than ever.

“Wait. How do I return the coat?” she asked a little desperately. He’d made it clear he wanted his coat back.

“I’ll find you.”

She watched him striding away. Watched how people on the sidewalk moved out of his way. He seemed to flow across the sidewalk, a force to be reckoned with. She felt a little bit battered, as if she’d been in the middle of the sea during a terrible storm. She didn’t move, not for a long time. She huddled there in his long coat and forced herself to breathe deeply, trying not to feel faint.

Joanna caught her by the arm. “Oh. My. God. Did that just happen? Tell me that didn’t just happen.” She practically shook Francesca in her shock.

Francesca glanced through the window of the deli. No one had moved. The attention of every individual in the store remained completely riveted on Stefano Ferraro. She ducked deeper into the warmth of the coat. The cashmere smelled like him. Was warm like him. Elegant like he was.

“What did just happen?” Francesca asked Joanna. “Because I have no idea.”

“He just told Zio Pietro to hire you. Ordered him.” “He can’t do that.” Francesca frowned, alarmed.

“Yes he can and he did. No one goes against a Ferraro. No one, Francesca.”

“Great. Your uncle is going to blame me for having someone step in and tell him what to do in his own store.”

“No he won’t. He’s excited that he got to do a favor for Stefano. That’s rare and it means something. You do a favor for one and they all feel they owe you. The entire family. That’s huge, to have a Ferraro owe you. Zio Pietro was practically dancing around the shop.”

“Why would that man get so angry because I didn’t have a coat?”

Joanna looked confused. “I have no idea. I just know it’s supercool that you attracted his attention. I’ve been around for years, since I was a little girl, and they all know my name and they know me, but they’ve never taken that kind of interest in me.”

Francesca clenched her teeth. “Why would that be?” Already knowing the answer and not liking it.

“We don’t exactly run in the same social circles. That family is total celebrity. Everyone knows them.”

That didn’t make Francesca the least bit predisposed to feeling better about Stefano Ferraro’s interest in her. “I don’t know them. I don’t want to know them.” Which wasn’t altogether true. She’d heard the name. She knew the name was associated with an international bank and a very prestigious hotel as well as a racing team.

Joanna caught her arm and tugged in the direction of the deli’s door. “Come on, it’s cold out here. Zio Pietro wants to meet you.”

“You said them. There’s more than one of him?” She knew a Ferraro drove a race car, but surely the name wasn’t that uncommon.

Joanna nodded solemnly. “And they’re all that gorgeous. I kid you not. Stefano’s the oldest. He has four brothers, equally hot. One sister, totally beautiful. When they walk around together, people just stare at them. That’s how hot they are. Each one of them is supercool as well, which makes them all scorching hot. I’m a little in love with them, including their sister. That’s how totally gorgeous they are.”

Francesca couldn’t help it. She started to laugh. She hadn’t laughed in months. It was good to see Joanna again. She was not in the least complicated, nor did she want to be. She always found humor in everything and she loved to party, go to clubs and dance the night away.

“I can’t believe Stefano Ferraro claimed you.” The statement tumbled out, leaving Francesca feeling weak and more confused than ever. As they entered the store, all eyes turned on her. The deli was eerily silent. Color infused her face. She wanted to turn and run.

“Joanna, come behind the counter and help out while I talk to your friend,” Pietro ordered, beckoning to his niece.

Joanna squeezed Francesca’s hand. “Zio Pietro, this is my best friend, Francesca Capello.”

“Yes, yes, you talk about her all the time,” Pietro said, beaming. He waved toward the customers. “Hurry, before they take their business somewhere else. I’ll look after Francesca for you.”

He indicated for Francesca to follow him and she did, winding her way through the throng of people, back behind the counter. Once behind the counter she was up close to the smells of the food and her stomach growled again. She found herself pulling the coat closer around her like a shield, trying to hide from all the eyes staring at her. Trying to hide ] the fact that she was starving. She followed Pietro through a narrow hallway to the rather messy office.

Pietro waved her toward a chair. “Sit. I’ll get you an application, but that’s just because I need your information. A mere formality.”

She winced, wishing it were easy for the average person to get a new identity. She’d actually made inquiries, only to find out it would be impossible when she didn’t have money and didn’t know anyone in the criminal world— well only one someone— so she’d remained Francesca Capello. Her fingers gripped the outside of the coat, gathering the material into her fist, holding so tight her knuckles turned white.

“Tell me how you know Stefano Ferraro. It sounded as if you just met, yet he said ...” he trailed off, clearly looking for more information.

She looked across the desk at Pietro, her heart beginning to pound. She needed this job. She wasn’t good at lying, but ... She didn’t know what to do, how to answer him. “I’m sorry, Mr. Masci, I never laid eyes on him before today.” There. She told the truth. She found she was trembling from head to foot. She had to get the job. She leaned toward him. “Please. I’m a really hard worker. I’ve had tons of experience. Really.” She just couldn’t put down any references. Not a single one.

Pietro sat back in his chair, frowning at her. “You’ve never laid eyes on him before today?” He repeated her denial softly. Thoughtfully. “He claimed you. He asked me to take care of you for him. Do you have any idea what that means for us? How can you not know him?”

She was getting desperate. Food had been scarce for the last few weeks. Hiding in old buildings trying to stay alive when you were being hunted could make food not a first priority. The bus trip had been long. She had to save her money to try to get a place to stay. That didn’t leave a lot for food.

“I met Joanna in school— in college. When ... things happened to me ... to my family, she was kind enough to help me out. I took a bus out here from California because she thought I could work in your store and build a new life here.”

He put both hands on the desk. Flat. Leaning toward her. Eyes piercing. Her heart sank.

“Are you running from the law?” Relief was so strong she wanted to cry. She shook her head. “No sir. I’m not. I did get into some trouble back home, but I’m not in trouble with the law. I really need this job. I don’t have much money left ...” That reminded her of the folded bills Stefano Ferraro had stuffed into the pocket of his very warm coat.

“Why would Stefano Ferraro ask a favor of me for you? Does he know your family?”

She shook her head, feeling dizzy. “I swear to you, I don’t know him. I don’t know why he gave me his coat, or acted the way he did.”

“He took you outside and had a conversation with you. What did he say?”

“Nothing. He didn’t want me to give away his coat. He said I had to buy some shoes with the money. He was being kind.”

Something in his eyes shifted. “The Ferraros are a lot of things, but they are not kind. He wants you taken care of. My niece has asked as well. I’ll hire you. You can start tomorrow. Fill out the papers, and I’ll go get you food. You look as if you haven’t eaten in a while.”

Francesca had to admit she didn’t think Stefano had helped her out of kindness, but certainly Pietro’s expression was kindly and she sagged with relief. She was going to put down the entire incident with Stefano as weird, treat it like he meant the gesture kindly. She wouldn’t spend his money, but she’d wear his coat and then hang it carefully in her apartment until she figured out how to get it back to him.

She filled out the application, leaving just about everything blank. Her name. Her social security number. That was it. There was nothing else she could safely tell him.




CHRISTINE FEEHAN, #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR

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