“Did you really think you were falling in love with her?” Giovanni Ferraro asked his cousin. “Seriously, Salvatore?” He pulled his gaze from the little cocktail waitress winding her way through the VIP tables on the second tier. He’d been watching her for most of the night. Each time something captured his attention, he found his gaze straying back to her.
It was her smile. She could light up the room despite the darkness of the nightclub. There was something innocent and wholesome about her, even wearing the club uniform. She was just the type of woman he would never ever get near, but he couldn’t stop watching her until the hurt in his cousin’s voice dragged his attention back to the those around the table.
Salvatore Ferraro shrugged. He was from New York and had a slight accent his Chicago cousin didn’t have. “I wanted the chance at least. I’ve given up thinking I’m going to find the perfect one, the one my family wants.”
There was an edge of bitterness in his voice Giovanni had never heard before, but he understood it. They were shadow riders and unlike anyone else in their families, their lives were not their own. They meted out justice and protected their people. They were required to begin training at the age of two, so they didn’t have childhoods or friendships outside their family. They were assigned bodyguards because, although they were lethal by the time they were in their teens, they were considered too valuable to their families to risk. They also weren’t allowed to fall in love with just anyone.
“We don’t have that luxury and you know it,” Geno, Salvatore’s brother pointed out.
“She was just like every other woman I’ve met,” Salvatore said.
Giovanni hated the underlying hurt in his voice. “What happened?” He already knew because it happened to all of them. A woman professed undying love when in reality she was after their money. The Ferraros owned international banks, hotels, nightclubs and casinos as well as many other businesses. They lived life in the fast lane and that was a draw to a certain type of woman.
“She used the ‘I’ll take the condom to the bathroom for you’ ploy. Of course, she had a syringe. Then it was she loved me so much she would do anything for a baby.” Salvatore pushed the heel of his hand against his forehead. “Dio, this life is fucked.”
“Stefano found someone,” Taviano, Giovanni’s youngest brother pointed out. “It could happen. Francesca just walked into his life, right there off the street. You never know.”
“I know I won’t find her here,” Salvatore said bitterly, looking around the club at the women flashing smiles at them and trying to get their attention by shifting in their seats and opening their legs to show they wore no panties under their club clothing.
“I’ve got something that might cheer you up,” Giovanni said. “And you could make a little money. We all have to agree to the payout.”
Salvatore looked up, interested. Vittorio, Giovanni’s brother, groaned. “Not again.”
“We need to cheer him up,” Giovanni insisted.
“I’m all for getting drunk if we’re betting on shots,” Salvatore said.
“Something a little more interesting,” Taviano said. “It’s a game with a point system. Each point is worth a thousand dollars from each of us. Well, not the first point, that’s only worth a hundred just to make life better.”
“I have to keep track of points?” Salvatore asked, groaning.
“A thousand dollars from each of you?” Geno grinned at them. “I’m in.”
“The point system is easy, Salvatore,” Giovanni said, leaning across the table toward his cousin. He had to raise his voice a little to be heard above the music. “It’s an honor system. One point when a woman asks to dance with you. You can’t ask her, she has to ask you. Every single thing has to be the woman’s idea. Two points if she lets you feel her breasts on the dance floor. She has to initiate it by giving you the signal, rubbing herself all over you or guiding your hands to her. Three for feeling her breasts under her clothes, skin to skin. Again, she has to be the one to expose herself to you. Undo her buttons, take your hand and put it on her, anything like that. Four is hands on her ass or pussy over panties. Five, the goal is under the panties. It has to be on the dance floor or it doesn’t count. She absolutely has to initiate every step at all times. There’s no going into the dark, because just about any little fortune-hunter will let you feel her up if she knows who you are.”
Salvatore sank back in his chair, shaking his head, his white teeth flashing as he grinned at Giovanni, Vittorio and Taviano, and his brother. “I should have known you’d invent a game out of this. You’re so competitive.”
“Had to do something or I would have gone out of my mind.” Giovanni looked around him at the crowd of writhing bodies. “Easy pickings. They’re all out to trap you, so have fun turning the tables.”
“What if we manage a blow job?” Salvatore asked.
“Seven points,” Giovanni said.
“Only seven?” Geno asked. “I’m guessing she still has to initiate.”
“It has to be her idea. You’re getting a blowjob, and the possibility of a whole hell of a lot of money from the rest of us,” Giovanni said. “It’s ten if you manage to nab one that will go all the way, but you have to be willing to be out in the open. No bathroom stalls. A thousand a point from everyone playing. Put your names in the pot and happy hunting because I assure you, gentlemen, you are being hunted right now.” Giovanni leaned back in his chair, smirking.
“Should be easy enough,” Geno said. “There’s a lot of women who are on the hunt to land a big fish and I’m always willing to oblige them, but somehow slip right off that hook.”
Another round of laughter went up. Giovanni felt eyes on him and glanced up, across the table, to the waitress standing there with her tray of drinks. It was the one he’d been watching all night. She didn’t blush when he winked at her, if anything she gave him a look of pure disgust. She’d heard every word. He didn’t change expression. Who cared if she heard? She worked for him. He stared her right in the eye.
She had gorgeous eyes. Blue. Not just any blue, but sapphire blue. Like the gems. Her eyes were framed with impossibly long lashes and right now the contempt in them wasn’t working for him at all. She lowered her gaze to the table as she put the drinks there. She turned away without picking up the money for her tips. All five men at the table had thrown in bills so it was a fair amount of money. There was no running tab at their table, so the tips had to be cash for their server.
She felt so much contempt for them she walked away from her tip—one Giovanni instinctively knew she needed. Who the hell was she to judge him? She didn’t know the first thing about his life. And why did he care what she thought? What did he care that she didn’t know why he was sent over and over into the clubs so he could cause enough of a thrill ride for the paparazzi to photograph his cousins with him. None knew that the third cousin, Salvatore and Geno’s brother had also come. Lucca was riding the shadows there in Chicago, meting out justice. They were the alibis.
“Fuck,” he hissed under his breath and then he raised his voice, not loud, just pitched to carry. “Stop.” He made it an order. A command in a low tone.
She had her back to them and he watched her stiffen. She had a fantastic ass. Exceptional. Giovanni sat up straighter. The table went quiet as his brothers and cousins realized Giovanni was doing something completely out of character.
She turned slowly back to them. She was wearing the standard uniform of the waitresses at his night club. They were all required to wear them. Hers fit her body like a glove. The swell of her breasts could barely be contained in the tight corset. The skirt was short, a little black swingy thing, the corset red, laced up the front. She wore the fishnet stockings, black, of course held up by a red garter. The heels were red. He’d always liked the uniform, somewhere between classy and sexy, but on her…
He pointed to his left side, forcing her to walk around the table to him. He was being a first-class dick. He knew it too, but that look of contempt on her face, all that soft skin and the wealth of blonde curls just barely contained by something red, made him lose all sense of propriety. He wanted to jerk that red thing right out of her hair to send it tumbling down so he could bury his fingers in all those curls. Or maybe it was her mouth. Fuck. That mouth. She wore red lipstick, and she had a perfect mouth. Full lower lip. Full upper lip.
His cock reacted and there was no stopping it once she stood close and he caught a whiff of her scent. She smelled like cinnamon candy. A cinnamon candy-covered apple. Hot and sweet. Her lashes really were her own, and so were those luscious breasts. He hadn’t been so aroused by a woman in a very long time.
She was angry, holding her temper by a thread. She looked straight through him. He didn’t say a word. If she had been one of the servers trained to deal with the top two tiers, celebrities who often had a sense of entitlement, she would have known exactly what to do. And where the hell was security? The moment she looked uncomfortable, they should have been at the table regardless of who he was. The rule was absolute. No woman—or man for that matter—was sexually or otherwise harassed in their club. He was going to go on the warpath over this incident.
Still, he couldn’t exactly pretend to himself that he was testing their policies, as much as he wanted to. He didn’t understand his own feelings. It had never mattered to him what others thought. His family was secretive and they only had each other. They all knew it from the time they were toddlers and had already begun preparing for their lives. Others thought they were a crime family, criminals, maybe mafia, but no one could prove anything because they were too careful. There was no way for investigators to find the money they laundered through their many businesses.
Playing a game with the women in the club was a dick move, pure and simple, even if they deserved it. She had every right to feel contempt. He was in every gossip rag there was, purposefully. He courted the paparazzi and he was a favorite. Any member of his famous family was sought after. Everything they did was photographed. They often partied with their cousins out of town or when their cousins flew in to see them. Everything they did had a purpose.
They were handsome men with too much money and far too much charm. They liked to live dangerously and thought nothing of gambling insane amounts of money. They had different women on their arms every night and the stories of their exploits were in every tabloid. She might blame him all she wanted, but it was the women who threw themselves at the Ferraro brothers and cousins. Not because they cared. Not even for the sex and if he did say so himself, it was exceptional. Women threw themselves at them for the money.
Should he respect women like that? Essentially, they were trading their bodies for sex. They didn’t care which brother or cousin they got, they cared about what they could get out of them at the end of their journey. It was like that day after day, year after year.
The waitress held out a long time, but finally—finally—she shifted her gaze to his. The jolt hit him right in his cock. It jerked. Pulsed. It was so hard it hurt. He was grateful the table hid his thick length straining against the material of his suit. It felt as though nothing could contain that very healthy erection. He knew better than to continue with what he was doing, but he couldn’t stop himself. By now, he should have called security himself and demanded to know why they weren’t there, pulling a Ferraro server out of the situation if she couldn’t get out herself.
“What is it I can do for you?” She waited a heartbeat. Two. “Sir.”
The tone, sweet, musical, pushed right through his chest, shifting something hard and tight inside of him. That note in her voice spoke to something in him, a key to unlock a part of him that was protecting his true identity. He felt as if something inside him ripped apart, leaving him exposed and vulnerable. The feeling was so acute he put his hand over his chest to try to stop the persistent ache.
“I’m Giovanni Ferraro and you are?”
Like all the waitresses, her name tag was worn on her waist band, right side, but he didn’t drop his gaze to look. He forced her to stare right into his eyes. It was like looking at two blue flames, she was that angry—and that beautiful.
She narrowed her eyes at him and he almost pulled her into his lap. Almost. He had some discipline left. What the hell was wrong with him? He was intentionally taunting his own employee. There was just something about her little flair of temper that got to him right in his gut—or maybe it was his cock again.
“Sasha.” Deliberately she didn’t give him her last name. “Would you like something else, Mr. Ferraro?”
“Sasha what?” He insisted.
He loved that little snippy voice. Princess reprimanding the peasant. It didn’t matter to her that he was the richest man in the room, good looking and owned the nightclub where she worked, she lifted her chin and gave him a superior you’re-a-jerk look. And he was. His brothers and cousins seated at the table with him, were utterly silent. He was certain at any moment she would throw a punch at him—and he wanted her to. No one had the right to treat her the way he was treating her. Damn it all to hell. She should have had their training. If she did, something was really wrong and they needed something better for their servers in place.
“Provis.” That was almost a hiss.
“Dance with me, Sasha.” Whatever possessed him to ask her to dance? He was really stepping over the line. He hadn’t intended to ask her. He wanted her to pick up her tip. He wanted her anger with him to boil over so that she simply walked away and asked another server, or the manager to take over.
“I’m working, Mr. Ferraro, and according to the employee’s manual, we are not allowed to fraternize with the owners. If this is a test to see if I read the rules, I can assure you, I have.” She tugged to get her wrist loose, but his fingers tightened, preventing her from leaving.
His conscience was screaming at him, but Giovanni couldn’t let her go. “I could fire you. Dance with you and then rehire you,” he offered. And the offer was more sincere than he wanted to believe.
“I see. Part of your little game where you win money for treating women with disrespect? I don’t think so, Mr. Ferraro. You’re not that charming.” She leaned down, very close to his ear. “This is called sexual harassment.”
Before she could straighten, he caught her by the nape of her neck and turned his head to bring his mouth against her ear. “Baby,” he whispered. “Clearly, you don’t know the first thing about sexual harassment, but I’d be more than happy to teach you.” Every word he formed had his lips brushing over her ear. So delicate. Her scent enveloped him, drove him wild. Temptation and sin were wrapped around this exotic creature and he was falling over the edge fast. Where the fuck was security?
She straightened abruptly, quickly, as if he’d bit her, which he considered doing. The enticement had been so strong his teeth had snapped together just missing her earlobe. A little shiver went through her body telling him she was far from unaffected.
“Your tip, Sasha,” he forced himself to say. “You forgot it.” He released her, his fingers sliding over the pulse beating frantically in her wrist. He sat back in his chair, looking as bored as he was capable—and he’d perfected that look when he was a teen.
Taviano gathered the bills into a pile and handed them to her. She sent him a smile and Giovanni wanted to slam his fist right into his brother’s face. He was playing the game too. Why didn’t she give him a lecture? She didn’t look at Giovanni as she walked away. He knew, because he watched her the entire time, or maybe she did, because more precisely, he watched her sweet ass walk away.
He became aware of the silence at the table and eyes on him. He looked around at his family, keeping his expression carefully blank. “What?”
“What the hell was that, Gee?” Taviano demanded. “You were acting the big bad wolf to that girl’s red riding hood.”
“Just fuckin’ bored,” he lied, rubbing his chest where it felt as if she’d ripped it open. “One more nightclub and I’m going to shoot myself.”
It took discipline not to watch her as she went to two more tables to collect glasses and ask if the occupants wanted more drinks—and apparently, he didn’t have any discipline because he watched her the entire time.
“She’s gorgeous,” Salvatore said. “Wouldn’t mind getting to know that woman.”
Giovanni’s head snapped up and he glared at his cousin. “You touch that and you’re a dead man. Or at least maimed.”
A roar of laughter went up, but he could feel Taviano’s eyes on him. His brother saw too much and he didn’t like it. Until he knew why he was so drawn in by Sasha Provis, he didn’t want to discuss it with anyone.
“So, your little waitress is off limits,” Geno said. Salvatore’s brother was every bit as good looking and reputed to be the playboy of New York.
“All our waitresses are off limit,” Giovanni said, knowing he was trying to deflect.
“I’m going to make some money tonight,” Geno stated. “You all will be paying me a fortune before the night is through.” He stood up.
Salvatore and Vittorio, stood up with him. Taviano remained seated with Giovanni. When they looked at him expectantly, Giovanni gestured toward the dance floor. “Go have some fun. My leg’s aching tonight. I’ll wait awhile, see if it’s going to get better and then join you. You’re going to need the head start.”
“You’ve got it bad, bro,” Vittorio said and started down the stairs.
Salvatore and Geno followed their cousin, leaving Giovanni and Taviano alone. Giovanni tried to look like he didn’t have a care in the world, but the problem was, he couldn’t stop watching Sasha as she moved from table to table and he was furious that no one had stepped forward to protect her.
Sasha wasn’t even that good of a waitress. She was pleasant, and it was her smile that drew him from the beginning. She seemed to remember drinks, but she occasionally tipped the glass slightly as she put it down. No one seemed to care because they were too busy looking at her, but one of the women might get jealous and object. He had to guess that she had no training what-so-ever dealing with sharks like him.
She had no business serving the VIP customers. Usually their most experienced waitresses or waiters were given the two top tiers to attend. New servers were given the floor. Spilled drinks weren’t noticed as much there. Not only hadn’t he seen Sasha before, but it was clear from the way she fumbled several glasses that she was relatively new.
VIP’s could be pains in the ass. Right now, there were two tables he was keeping an eye on. One was the MMA fighters, gathered to celebrate a major win by Aaron Anderson. He was a star in that community and garnered a lot of tabloid attention. He was good-looking and had come up out of the streets, always a great story. At this very moment, he had three women fawning all over him, and he was making out with all three very publicly. The other men at his table were getting similar notice, due to the fact that they were champions in other weight divisions or up and coming fighters on their way to stardom in Aaron’s division.
Twice, Giovanni saw Aaron put his hand on Sasha’s ass. Both times he’d nearly risen, clenching his teeth, furious that anyone would touch her like that. She moved the first time, a subtle hint to stop and one of the other women moved into position quickly, afraid of losing her place with the fighter.
The second time Aaron grabbed her, she moved back quickly. That put her directly in the path of James Corlege, a fighter on his way up. The man was a friend of Aarons and running right behind him in rank. Corlege tried pulling her onto his lap. Next to him was Tom Mariland, another fighter in Aaron’s division working his way up. He grabbed at Sasha as well, laughing at her struggled to get away.
That brought Giovanni to his feet but security was already there. They didn’t have to intervene because Aaron immediately said something to Corlege and he let her go. Aaron clearly apologized and Sasha nodded and moved away to the next table, the other one causing Giovanni concern.
“Taviano, who’s managing tonight?”
“Gee…” Taviano’s voice held a warning. “We don’t interfere with management. What’s going on with you tonight?”
“She shouldn’t be trying to serve drinks to those assholes, let alone us,” Giovanni snapped. “And you know it. It takes specialized training, which she clearly hasn’t had. Even coming to our table and putting up with my bullshit. She should have told me to go to hell, or laughed it off. At the very least she should have called security to help her. She didn’t know what to do. Who’s on?”
“West. He knows what he’s doing and it’s obvious he has security watching closely for her safety.”
“It’s not obvious to me. They didn’t come to her rescue when I was harassing her.”
“Come on, Gee. You own the fucking place.”
“It doesn’t give me the right to harass a woman. Especially one in my employ. Which means security needs more training as well. They should have been all over our table, owners or not. What I did was pure bullshit and no server should have to put up with it. They know that. It’s supposed to be part of their training. We made that clear to our managers. We got the best training possible to spot harassment. Where the fuck were they if West has them watching her?”
Giovanni pulled out his phone, slid his thumb down the list of contacts and tapped a curt demand of West, summoning him to their table. He put the phone away and met his brother’s eyes. “I’ve had it with this job,” he said. “I belong out there working, not pretending to be the world’s biggest playboy.”
“We all have to play that role when it’s needed, Gee, you know that.”
“I know I’ve done it longer than any of the rest of you. I have to get this hardware out of my leg so I can work again.”
Being shot was no fun. He’d taken two bullets in his left leg, one in the thigh and one in the calf. Extensive surgery saved his life, but left him with metal in his leg—and that meant he couldn’t do his job. He couldn’t go into the shadows as he was born to do. He’d trained his entire life. It didn’t matter all the training he had, he’d been reduced to the resident playboy.
He was the decoy. His cousins had flown into town, using their private jet. They were splashy as hell and he was showing them a good time. The best restaurants, the hottest nightclub, which just happened to be the one the Ferraro’s owned. No one saw the third cousin, Lucca, who had also come in on that jet. He was out doing his job, meting out justice to someone who thought he’d escaped it. No one would ever see him, or know that he’d made the trip from New York to Chicago. The paparazzi made certain to keep that glaring spotlight on the ones in the club, never realizing they saw only what the Ferraros wanted them to see.
“The doctor said a year to eighteen months, Giovanni,” Taviano cautioned.
“It won’t do any good waiting if I lose my mind.”
God, he was in a foul mood. Worse, he couldn’t stop watching the waitress. She was at the second table now. John Darby was hosting his friends as he often did. He liked the cameras on him and didn’t mind a scene in the least. They tore up hotel rooms and started fights in bars. His reality television program was a number one hit because the man was willing to do almost anything to get eyes on him. No way should Sasha be waiting on those tables without the specialized training given to the servers dealing with celebrities who often felt entitled.
“Mr. Ferraro,” West arrived in his immaculate suit, looking every inch the man in charge.
“What’s that, West,” Giovanni swept his hand toward Sasha. “She’s totally green and you’ve got her waiting tables she can’t possibly handle.” He was pissed and it showed in his voice. He let his expression show it as well.
“She has a good memory,” West defended. “Better, even, than the experienced girls. There was an emergency tonight. Nancy called in sick at the last minute and even though some of the others have more experience, they don’t have the memory like she does. You know we can’t have someone trying to write down the orders. Not for those tables. She’s our best for the job tonight.”
It made sense. They didn’t move anyone up to the first and second tier unless they could memorize orders, keep them straight and were fast. Sasha, apparently, was all three.
“She’s not experienced enough to handle the drunks and the attention they’re going to give to someone looking like she does.” He made it a statement. He couldn’t come out and say he didn’t want anyone close to her, not while they were drunk. Who was he kidding? He didn’t want anyone close to her drunk or sober.
“Do you want her replaced? Did she do something that upset you?” West persisted.
“No. Just bring me whatever you have on her.” They didn’t hire without background checks. West and two others were responsible for the hiring.
West frowned. “You mean you want to see the file we have on her?”
“Yeah, West, that’s exactly what I want to see.” Giovanni couldn’t help the sarcasm. What did West think he meant?
West’s lips tightened, but he nodded and turned away, striding through the tables to the wide stairs leading down to the second tier. Giovanni watched him go down the carpeted steps before turning to his brother. “Don’t say it.”
“You’re out of control.”
“Do you think I don’t know that?”
“Over having to play the part of a playboy, which all of us have done since puberty, or because of that waitress?”
Giovanni wished he knew the answer to that. He’d made an ass of himself in front of her, that much was certain. His gaze kept straying to her, watching her as she moved through the tables, doing her job. He wasn’t doing his, but she was doing hers. For some reason, his job suddenly seemed abhorrent. He didn’t want to dance with another woman. He didn’t want to touch one, or kiss one. He had no interest in a blow job by anyone—unless it was from those red lips and that mouth.
He pressed the heel of his hand against his temple, right where the nagging headache persisted. The loud music wasn’t helping and the fact that he was acting so out of character in front of his family made it worse.
“It might be the waitress,” he conceded. He looked at his brother, his hand dropping down to his chest to rub there, right over his heart. “I don’t know what it is about her, but she got to me. I’ve never been this interested in just one. Not like this.”
“Asking her out isn’t going to be easy after that, bro,” Taviano said. “She’ll think everything you say or do is part of our game. Thinking about it, it’s a shit game anyway.”
Giovanni nodded, because it was. His gaze followed Sasha as she once again started up the stairs toward their tier. The more he looked at her, the more beautiful he thought her. Not in a conventional way, it was more than that. Her skin glowed under the lights. There was a softness to her face, as if she didn’t wear much make-up and it was her natural skin he was seeing. She had full breasts and a narrow waist, which only served to emphasize her hips.
He glanced over to the table of mixed martial arts fighters. Aaron had a woman in his lap, kissing his throat while another whispered in his ear. Another one appeared to be trying to put his hand on her breast. In spite of all the attention, the champion had moved his head to the side in order to see around the girl in his lap, his gaze on Sasha as she came up the stairs. Giovanni’s breath hissed out in a rush.
“Here’s her file, Mr. Ferraro,” West said, putting a folder on the table. “I printed out everything for you.” His voice was stiff and very business-like. “Will that be all?”
“I’ve been acting like an ass all evening,” Giovanni said immediately. Deliberately, he rubbed his temples.
“Unfortunately, you got caught up in my protest. You certainly run this place without any hitches, or if there are, like tonight, you find a way to smooth them over. I appreciate that as do the other family members.” As Giovanni apologized, the tension receded from the manager’s face.
“No problem, Mr. Ferraro. I was worried about Sasha as well. I’ll pull her off if you’d prefer,” he added.
“No,” Giovanni shook his head. He was already in her bad graces enough as it was. The top tier of tables earned the most tips. By now, Sasha was aware her take home could be several thousand dollars. He wasn’t about to lose her that, although he’d give her the money to keep her out of harm’s way. He kept his hand on the file to prevent West from taking it away with him.
“I do want more training for security and if she continues to be a fill in, have her given the training for working a tier like this.” He sighed. “I’ll shoot you an email.”
West nodded. “Of course, Mr. Ferraro. If that’s all?”
Giovanni nodded and turned to watch his favorite waitress. Sasha served John Darby’s table first, putting the drinks down in front of each of his guests, mostly out of control college students. Darby’s family was wealthy by most people’s standards and getting wealthier through John’s celebrity. He’d dropped out of college and become the star of his own reality show, bringing his former frat boys with him on all his excursions. The fines he incurred from hotels and restaurants his friends and he tore up were nothing in comparison to the money pouring in for his show. People seemed to love watching a train wreck in action.
Giovanni knew that Darby had been taken aside, away from the cameras and warned not to make trouble in the nightclub. Stefano, Giovanni’s oldest brother was a very scary—and dangerous man. Darby might think he was protected by those cameras, but he wasn’t. There would be retaliation if he dared to cause a scene in any business owned by the Ferraro family.
Still, it was important to Giovanni that his family not find out that the warning wasn’t enough, by Darby doing something to Sasha to increase his television ratings. Darby was getting too much attention and wasn’t taking responsibility for any of his actions. When that happened, Giovanni knew, bad behavior only escalated.
He watched as Sasha shook her head, smiled, and stepped back when Darby tried to stuff the wad of bills down her top. He was half out of his seat when Darby laughed and handed her the money. She nodded and moved away, back down the stairs to get her next round of drinks. She only had to go down to the bar that served the two VIP tiers. It made it easier for the waitresses, not having to carry drinks up or down two flights of stairs.
Seeing she was safe for the moment, Giovanni flipped open the folder and began to read the pertinent facts. She was single, no committed relationship. That was always asked casually in conversation. It helped to determine whether or not the potential server was available in the night hours. No husband, boyfriend or child calling them back home before closing, although many of their servers were married.
She was twenty-two. There was no one listed for an emergency call. She lived in one of the apartments over the Masci’s Deli, so in the heart of Ferraro territory. The family, in fact, owned the building and the apartment she rented. They had a property manager, of course, but there was satisfaction in knowing she was protected.
“Giovanni,” Taviano’s voice was low. A warning.
He lifted his gaze to the stairs. Sasha was just a few feet from the mixed martial art champion’s table. All eyes were on her. The way several of the men, including Aaron, were staring at her in such a predatory way had him on his feet. Sasha set the drinks on the table, each one in front of the men and women. James Corlege’s hand disappeared under her skirt and Sasha leapt back, half turning, dropping the tray. Aaron steadied her with his hands on her waist. He pulled her back onto his lap and nuzzled her throat.
Giovanni and Taviano both were on their feet and moving fast. The MMA’s table was only a few feet away and Giovanni tossed men out of the way as if they were dolls, got to Sasha, pulled her off Aaron and pushed her behind him. Taviano caught her and handed her off to Emilio and Enzo, two of their private bodyguards who had followed them.
Corlege took a swing at Giovanni as Aaron stood up. Giovanni ducked the punch and landed three on Corlege so fast his hands appeared a blur. The first punch doubled Corlege over, the second straightened him up and the third knocked him out. Giovanni turned toward Aaron who backed up, hands in the air. The rest of the fighters were up as well, looking to spring into action. One, Tom Mariland, snapped a round-house kick at Giovanni’s head. Giovanni blocked it so hard, the leg slammed down, dead. Giovanni followed the block with a sweep, taking both legs out from under the man sending him crashing to the floor.
“Wait, wait,” Aaron said. “Everyone stop. Giovanni, man, we’ve been friends for years. We were just celebrating. I’m a little drunk and things got out of hand. Let me apologize to your waitress. It won’t happen again. I swear it won’t.”
Giovanni wanted to deck him on principal, but truthfully, he’d acted nearly as bad. Aaron was a good man and a friend he’d known since childhood. He didn’t know much about James Corlege, or Tom Mariland, but they’d been drinking heavily as well.
“You can leave her a good tip,” Giovanni decreed. “And Aaron, you know me. Your friends don’t.” It was a warning that despite the training, Giovanni could take them. Aaron had come to his house a few times to train. He knew Giovanni could wipe up the floor with any of the fighters. “No more problems tonight. I’m not going to have my waitress lose out on her tips on this tier by sending her somewhere else. Keep your hands off her. You’ll go, not her.”
Aaron nodded. “You got it. Again, I’m really sorry.”
Giovanni bent down and picked up the tray. The fighters were pulling Corlege off the floor and getting him into a chair. Corlege, looking a little groggy glared up at Giovanni. “That felt like I ran into a fucking freight train. I’ve taken a lot of hard hits, but never felt anything like that.”
A few others helped Tom Mariland up. He didn’t say anything, but he did eye Giovanni warily.
Giovanni ignored the man and turned back to the waitress. Emilio and Enzo made a solid wall on either side of Sasha. Giovanni went up right up to her.
“Are you all right?”
She nodded. He could see the pulse pounding frantically in her throat. He reached for her, taking her out of his bodyguard’s hands. Pulling her in close, until he felt her body pressed to his, he hugged her gently. “I’m sorry this happened. We’re protective of our servers and we definitely should have gotten here faster. Were you hurt?”
She shook her head. He could feel the fine tremors running through her body. He knew he couldn’t hold her forever or she would think he was just as bad as Aaron. Also, the paparazzi were out in force. Flashes had been going off everywhere during the brief exchange. He angled them so his body prevented pictures of her. Very reluctantly he let go of her.
“Take a fifteen-minute break and then come back. No one is going to put their hands on you again. Anyone tries it, you tell me or security immediately and they’re gone.”
“I’ll be fine,” she said, her voice steady. She took the tray. “Thank you. I wasn’t certain what to do. I know they’re regulars and pay a good deal of money for having those tables.”
“That’s all they’re paying for. They don’t get to touch you or any other server. They want that kind of service they can go to a strip joint.” He knew, after overhearing the rules of his ridiculous game, he sounded like a hypocrite, but he had to make her understand. “You’re under our family’s protection, Sasha. The nonsense I was spouting was a load of crap. No one touches you without your consent. Not ever. You understand? Security should have come to our table when it was clear you were uncomfortable with what I was saying to you. You understand? You don’t have to put up with anything.”
She nodded. “Thank you.” She turned away and he nodded to his bodyguards.
Emilio stepped in front of her. “I’ll take you down so the cameras stay out of your face.”
She flashed Emilio the smile Giovanni wished was for him alone. Up close to her, his body reacted. Not just his cock, his entire body. She did something to him he didn’t understand or necessarily want, but it wasn’t going away. It was getting stronger. He went back to his table where West was waiting again.
“You were right. She shouldn’t have been up there.”
“No, that wasn’t her fault. They’ve had a lot to drink. She’s gorgeous though. Let her finish out the night. They’re ordering more drinks because of her. She’s an asset. Just give her the training in what to do if she’s in trouble. Taviano spotted the trouble before it really got off the ground. But, West, you go look at the security tapes. I was harassing her big time. I put my hands on her. Where the fuck was security? They should have been all over that.”
West nodded. He held out his hand for the folder on his employee and Giovanni put it in his hands, detesting giving it up. He hoped he made a little headway with her, but he doubted it, not if the smile she gave Emilio was anything to go by—she hadn’t given him one.
The rest of the night slipped away. He danced because he was supposed to, but he didn’t play the game and he knew he would owe the winner thousands of dollars. It didn’t matter. His gaze followed the waitress until he felt like a creepy stalker. There was nothing he could think of to make things better between them.
She served the drinks to his table every time they sank into their seats, making eye contact with all of them, Taviano, Vittorio, Salvadore, and Geno. It was only Giovanni she didn’t really look at. She remembered every drink and who it belonged to. He switched to coffee and water abruptly right after midnight. They’d learned the trick of appearing to drink a lot, and then hydrating. All riders had to be sharp at all times, and that meant not getting plastered. Only Taviano didn’t have to stay sober because he’d just come off a job. They could drink after a mission or on special occasions, but now, while they were working, and technically, Giovanni and the others were working.
The group at Darby’s table was beginning to get more than rowdy, they had become obnoxious, taunting the mixed martial arts fighters, but Aaron, true to his promise, was keeping those at his table under control. On the dance floor, two of the college boys ended up being thrown out for pushing a woman against the wall and putting their hands on her. Twice, West talked to Darby and security moved a little closer to the table.
“Can’t believe that little bastard is going to risk Stefano coming to see him,” Vittorio said. “He wants the attention, creating a problem in the Ferraro nightclub.”
Giovanni had to agree. He had turned his chair so it put him in a direct line with the Darby table. Only the MMA table was between them. His gut tightened when he saw John whispering to Jerry Higgens, the single cameraman the club had allowed in with them. Around the table, Darby’s frat brothers were grinning, turning their heads toward the stairway and Sasha as she made another trip toward the group. Higgens swung the camera in her direction.
“Fuck,” Giovanni whispered. “They’re planning something.”
He was up and moving, but he knew it was too late. Even if he called out to warn her, it was going to be too late. She was there, bending to put the drinks in front of John. He caught the front of her camisole with all the red laces and jerked. She cried out, pulling back instinctively, and the laces gave way. A roar of approval went up as she stumbled back into the college boys with their outstretched, greedy hands. Several grabbed for her naked breasts wanting to play to the camera. The tray went to the floor, drinks spilling everywhere.
Giovanni waded in, decking John as he passed, ripping Sasha out of their hands, already pulling his coat off to wrap her in. Emilio and Enzo went for the cameraman, removing it from his hands, while Salvatore, Geno, Vittorio and Taviano, laid waste to those at the table. It didn’t take much, about four seconds and it was over.
The entire time, the bodyguards for the New York riders stood shoulder to shoulder, preventing anyone from below them seeing Sasha, or what was happening at Darby’s table.
“Get them out of here,” Giovanni said as the club’s security swarmed. He didn’t bother to listen to Jerry Higgens threats as the man was escorted out without his camera. It would be returned to him without a single documentation of the night’s activities. The paparazzi might have photographs of Darby’s party in the club, but not of this incident, it had been contained too fast.
He kept his arm around Sasha, keeping her under the protection of his shoulder. “No one saw that,” he assured.
“You did,” she pointed out.
“One second of it,” he admitted. “I’m taking you out of here. Keep your head down and I’ll shield you with my hand from any other cameras. Emilio and Enzo will clear us a path to the back office. My brothers and cousins will make certain no one gets near us. Got that?”
Her blue eyes looked a little shocked. Her body was trembling again and he had the strange desire to pick her up in his arms and carry her from all danger. The music was going strong and most people hadn’t even been aware that there was drama. Darby’s nasty assault for the cameras hadn’t worked out this time. It was business as usual in the nightclub and one more place John Darby would never be welcome again.
“He’s a horrible little toad,” Sasha burst out.
He glanced down at her. He was a big man, wide shoulders and a strong chest. She was petite, but he could see she was angry as hell. He liked that she was angry instead of wanting to burst into tears.
“It’s called sexual assault, Sasha, and you should press charges.”
She didn’t respond and he wanted to tip her face up to see her expression so he could tell what she was thinking.
“You’re not crying.”
“Not yet. I will. Tonight, when I’m in my apartment and no one can see, especially that nasty little weasel. I’d like to meet him in my hometown. I wanted to punch him right in the face. Hard.”
“You work those tables, they don’t have the right to touch you. I didn’t have the right to touch you. Had you been trained properly, you would have signaled security. But they should have seen you were in trouble. I gave them every chance and they didn’t help you out. There’s going to be hell to pay for that. Next time, Sasha, walk away. The hell with giving them drinks if they’re acting like assholes.”
He kept her walking, aware of a few cameras. The cameramen knew him. He was generally easy to get photographs of. He shook his head at them indicating to back off and all but one did. He noted that man. Chesney Reynolds. They’d never gotten along, but in the club, he’d always cooperated. Why wouldn’t he back off now? Unless?
“Emilio, find Reynolds and talk to him. Money works. A lot of it. If he has footage because Darby paid him, get him to turn it over. Pay him whatever Darby did, the cost of that for a magazine and a bonus.”
Emilio nodded. Sasha looked up at him. “Why would you do that? It could be thousands of dollars.”
“You’re under my family’s protection. You work for us and that should never have happened. We agreed to take the chance with John Darby because our mothers go way back and they asked us, but we were all worried he might try something. It never occurred to us he might assault one of our servers.”
He pulled open the door and found himself alone in an office with her. His brothers and cousins had gone with the bodyguards to make certain there was no film of Sasha anywhere.
Sasha moved away from him immediately, wrapping her arms around her middle. His jacket was huge on her, reaching down to her knees. It made her look smaller, more delicate than ever.
“I don’t think I’m cut out for this environment,” she said. “I don’t understand men like that.” Or you. It was unspoken, but it was there between them. “I made a lot of money tonight, but I don’t think it was worth it. I need it, or I would quit. Which,” she said, “I’m not about to do. I still wish I’d punched that asshole.”
He sure as hell didn’t want her working there, but if she left, she might very well think she had to leave his territory. That wasn’t going to happen, so he was glad she needed the money enough to stay.
“I don’t understand men like Darby either. I’m sorry about what you overheard at my table. I can see why you would think the worst of me and lump me in with him.” It was frustrating. He couldn’t tell her he had no choice but to go to nightclubs in New York, San Francisco, Los Anglos and his hometown, Chicago and play the part of a playboy—that it was his job. They used the women who would use them as tools, just as they did the paparazzi.
“You’re done for the night,” Giovanni said. “Go change and I’ll take you out for something to eat and we can sort this out.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“This happened to you in my establishment. You’re shaken up, which is understandable when someone put their hands on you yet again.” He scrubbed his hand down his face, wishing he could take back the rules of that stupid, insane game he’d made up. He wasn’t about to let her go, he’d have to switch tactics.