“Clearly I should have invested in pizzerias instead of strip joints and sex clubs.”
Elie Archambault paused in the act of bringing a slice of pizza dripping with cheese, salami and olives to his mouth, staring at the speaker before he burst out laughing.¬† “No one makes pizza the way Tito and his father, Benito, do.¬† There isn’t a pizzeria in the world that can top this one, right, Emme?”
Emmanuelle Ferraro Saldi reached over and casually took the slice of pizza from his hand and took a bite, nodding to agree with him.
“Hey.¬† That’s the last piece of salami and olive,” Elie protested.¬† “Dario,” he added, “You shouldn’t talk about strip joints and sex clubs in front of Emmanuelle.”
Dario Bosco rolled his eyes.¬† “Emme frequents strip joints and sex clubs.¬† She knows more about what goes on in them then I do.”
Emmanuelle ignored the statement, making moaning noises deliberately as she ate the slice of pizza and hastily gathered up the remaining olives that were loose on the platter.
Elie shoved his shoulder into hers.¬† “You’re a demon, woman.¬† I don’t know how your husband puts up with you.”
“He thinks she’s an angel,” Dario said, feigned disgust in his voice.
Emmanuelle wasn’t in the least bit fazed.¬† She continued to eat the slice of pizza as if she was enjoying it immensely‚ÄĒwhich she was.
“Val never did have good sense that I could see,” Elie said.
Emme kicked him under the table.
Elie laughed.¬† “We need our waitress back so we can order more pizza, but there’re so many people in here, I don’t think we’ll ever see her again.”
Petrov’s Pizzeria was packed, as it always was regardless of the day of the week.¬† Saturday nights just happened to double the traffic.¬† Fortunately, Benito always reserved two large booths, back in the shadows, for the Ferraro family and their bodyguards, just in case they decided to drop in.
Ferraro territory started right on the edge of what some people referred to as ‘little Italy’.¬† Most of the land, businesses, and homes, were rented or leased by the Ferraro family.¬† All were protected by them.¬† For years it was whispered that if one went to the Ferraros with a problem, that problem would inexplicably disappear.¬†
Rumors swirled around the mysterious family, six brothers and one sister.¬† They always wore their signature pinstriped suits and were often surrounded by bodyguards, although no one ever thought they needed them.¬† Wealthy, arrogant and formidable, the members of the Ferraro family were known to be lethal if crossed.
Now, after Emmanuelle Ferraro, the youngest and only female had married a Saldi, uniting the two families, the neighborhood was doubly safe.¬† The Saldi family was a crime family, no two ways about it.¬† No guessing.¬† No rumors.¬† Valentino headed the Saldi family when his father, Giuseppe had stepped down after his own brother had tried to assassinate him and take over. The neighborhood might not know why the Ferraros had helped the Saldi family, but Elie knew.¬† He’d helped when Val had worked to bring down his uncle’s human trafficking ring.
“You sure you want to go through with this marriage of yours?” Dario asked Elie.¬† “You haven’t even seen this woman.”
“Yes.” Elie’s reply was clipped, indicating he didn’t want to continue the discussion.
¬† Dario sighed.¬† “Since I can’t talk you out of it, at least come to the club tonight.¬† It’s your last night of freedom before you’re stuck with some woman who might have a fucking headache every night.”
“Dario.” Emmanuelle sat up straight, glaring at him in protest.¬†
“Some men have certain needs, Emme,” Dario said, shrugging.¬† “I’m not going to pretend I don’t and I won’t apologize for who I am.¬† Arranged marriages for business or otherwise rarely work for someone like me because the woman isn’t going to like who they get.¬† I’m just being honest.”
“You’re suggesting that Elie go out to a kink club the night before he marries.¬† Is that very honorable?” Emmanuelle demanded.
“It’s a moot point,” Elie interrupted the argument.¬†
Emmanuelle was the tie that bound the two men together.¬† Elie regarded her as a sister.¬† He had grown up an only child, moving from one household to another in his native France.¬† Elie and Emme had clicked some years earlier and everyone expected them to marry when he’d come to the United States.¬† Emmanuelle’s heart was already taken by Valentino Saldi, Dario’s cousin.¬† Elie loved Emme but there had only ever been a sibling relationship between them.
Dario had come to love her through his relationship with Valentino.¬† Who couldn’t love Emmanuelle?¬† Dario wasn’t an easy man to be around.¬† He had served as Valentino’s bodyguard for years.¬† He rarely talked to anyone outside the circle of people he accepted as family.¬† Elie felt lucky to be included.¬† The Ferraros had a way of taking over those they chose to bring into their inner circle and Dario, like Elie, had found his way in when Emmanuelle had married Val.
“A moot point?” Emme repeated, raising an eyebrow suspiciously.
Elie held up his left hand where a ring circled his finger.¬† “Technically, I’m already married.¬† The lawyers took care of the paperwork and we were married by proxie yesterday.¬† I signed here.¬† She signed in France.¬† So, no kink club, but thank you for the offer, Dario.¬† It was considerate.¬† I don’t cheat on my wife.”
“What does she look like?” Dario asked.
Elie shrugged.¬† “I have no idea.¬† The lawyers took care of it.¬† I didn’t even look at the papers. I signed on the dotted line and walked away.¬† I presume she did the same. ¬†She’ll be here tomorrow and we’ll have a very brief private ceremony just for the sake of photos and formality, but the paperwork is already done.”
Emmanuelle brushed her hand down his arm.¬† “Congratulations, Elie.¬† I hope she makes you very happy.¬† I know you believe you can make this work.”
Dario’s dark brows drew together.¬† “Won’t understand you in a million years, Elie.¬† This complete stranger comes into your life.¬† You don’t know a thing about her and you expect your marriage to work.¬† Emme is one in a million.¬† Maybe one in a billion.¬† Odds could be even higher than that.¬† Val is so fuckin’ lucky he doesn’t even know how lucky he is.”
He stated his opinion without looking at Emmanuelle and he spoke in a flat, matter-of-fact tone.¬† “I’m aware a man like me is never going to find a woman who can put up with my‚Ä¶proclivities.”¬† He shrugged.¬† “But then I don’t trust anyone enough to have more than an hour encounter with them and only on my terms, especially now that Valentino forced me to take over this idiotic role in the family.¬† He’s only made my suspicious nature worse.”
“Your point being?” Elie said.
“You’re like me.”
Elie couldn’t deny it.¬† Maybe he wasn’t exactly like Dario.¬† He wasn’t nearly as dark.¬† He didn’t know too many people who were.¬† Dario had demons.¬† Elie liked his way and he knew how to get it.¬† He already knew he intended for his bride to learn that lesson about him very quickly.¬† He’d been honest in every answer he’d given to the questions asked of him when filling out the pages and pages of very explicit material needed for his arranged marriage.¬† He had her answers and she had his.¬† She should know that about him and what he expected of her.
He had read her answers dozens of times and knew what she expected of him.¬† He had her sexual answers laminated and put up on the master bedroom wall right over the bed to remind her of what she said so there were no mistakes.¬† His were there beside hers.¬† Supposedly he would be matched with the perfect compatible woman to give them the highest odds of a successful marriage.¬† Divorce for shadow riders was nearly a death sentence.¬† It would mean the end of shadow riding.¬† He wouldn’t, for one moment, put up with that.
Shadow riders had a unique ability to utilize portals within shadows to travel from one place undetected to another.¬† They were required to begin training as toddlers in order to acquire the necessary skills to become the deadly assassins to mete out justice to the criminals who managed to escape the law.
“I might be a bit like you are, Dario,” Elie admitted.¬† “She’ll have to learn to accept me.¬† I bought us a house on the lake,” he added.¬† “I spent so much time at your home with Val, Emme, that I started looking for a piece of property I wanted for myself.¬† It took quite a long time to find the perfect place and I had to really negotiate with the owners to get it.”¬† His eyes lit up when he referred to the negotiations.¬† He’d had fun with that part of it.
“In other words, the property wasn’t on the market,” Emmanuelle interpreted.
“Exactly.¬† And I wanted the property around it so I could make sure we were protected,” he added.¬† “One stubborn old coot was a hold-out.¬† In the end he caved, but I paid more for his property than I did for the original one I wanted.¬† The nice part was, he owned more actual land.¬† The house I wanted came with a hundred feet of river frontage with two permanent docks.¬† The old coot gave me an addition three hundred feet of river frontage with several additional docks.¬† Plus, the property behind his place.¬† His house needs work, but the property itself was worth every penny of the fortune I paid him.”
Berta, their waitress, came to their table looking a little harassed.¬† Given that every table seemed to be filled and the long line of waiting customers, they couldn’t really blame her.¬† “Anything else I can get you?”
“Place is hopping as usual,” Emmanuelle greeted.¬† “Never slows down around here.”
Berta shook her head.¬† “We’ve hired three more waiters.¬† It’s that crazy.¬† Still looking for someone else.¬† I heard construction was finished and Masci’s Deli was back in business after the fire.¬† Did your family keep the apartments above the deli?¬† Are they looking for renters?”
“The deli’s open and running,” Emmanuelle said, “but the apartments aren’t quite finished.¬† There’s only two of them, but we wanted to upgrade them. ¬†Signor Pietro needed Masci’s finished fast and we concentrated on his business first.¬† The rentals should be finished soon.¬† If you have someone in mind, have them fill out an application and make sure they put your recommendation on it so my cousin will flag it.”
“Thanks, Emme,” Berta said.¬† “Where’s Val?¬† I never see you without him.”
“On his way.¬† He’ll want his usual ridiculous pizza and Elie hogged all the salami and olive pizza so we need another with double olives.”
Dario didn’t look up from his phone but pointed toward the empty antipasti plate.¬† Emmanuelle rolled her eyes.¬† “More antipasti as well. ¬†You might double up on the salami and olives there too.”
Berta laughed.¬† “All of you are going to turn into olives if you don’t watch out.”
“Wine,” Elie reminded.¬† “Same as before.”
“Our family wine,” Emme added for clarity, indicating the bottle.¬† “Same year.¬† Same vineyard.¬† It’s our favorite.”
“Got it.” Berta hurried away, shaking her head.
“Dario, how do you order if I’m not with you?” Emme demanded. She clearly was trying to sound exasperated but she sounded more amused than anything else.
He raised an eyebrow.¬† “Val insists I have bodyguards.¬† They’re practically useless.¬† I have to give them something to do.”
Emmanuelle heaved a sigh.¬† “I don’t know how any of you get away with being in this century.¬† Why did you buy the house before your wife arrived, Elie?¬† Did it occur to you she might want to choose her own house with you?¬† It’s kind of a big thing, where a person is going to live for the rest of their life.”
Dario made a little sound of total disgust.¬† “Emme, seriously?¬† A man needs to lay down the law to a woman from the beginning or she thinks she can get away with everything.”
“That is so ridiculous and archaic, Dario.¬† You just say things like that to get a rise out of me.¬† You don’t really believe that.”
He looked up from his phone, his expression deadpan, one eyebrow lifted.¬† “If I ever find a woman, which I won’t, she will do what I say when I say it.”
Emmanuelle might think Dario was joking, but Elie knew he wasn’t.¬† Dario would rule his world with an iron hand.¬† He was all about control.¬† Elie could tell him‚ÄĒjust as Val could‚ÄĒthat it didn’t always work that way when it came to those you loved, but Dario would have to find that out for himself.¬† Elie didn’t know Dario’s past.¬† He only knew that something very traumatic had taken place that only Valentino was aware of.¬† Whatever it was had shaped Dario into being extremely protective of those he cared for, and a vicious killing machine when it came to their enemies.
“Dario, I swear, if you even look at a friend of mine, I’m going to put a sack over her head,” Emmanuelle threatened.
The briefest of smiles flirted with Dario’s hard mouth.¬† Elie couldn’t help but laugh.¬† Emme had a way about her.¬† It was impossible not to love her.
He glanced over to the table where her bodyguards covered their grins behind their hands, pretending they couldn’t hear the conversation.¬† Levi and Axel, ex-military, ex-mercenary, trained by Dario and always assigned to be Emme’s personal protectors.¬† Elie knew them to be serious, astute and very intelligent men.¬† Dario trusted few men and if he trusted these with Emmanuelle’s protection, they had to be good men.¬† More, the Ferraro family had investigated them thoroughly, not for criminal activity, but for their ability to protect Emme.¬† No one found them wanting.¬† It was easy to see, they not only were good at what they did, but they had developed a real affection for Emmanuelle.
Elie rubbed the ring on his finger.¬† It had been made by one of the Ferraro’s many cousins, Damian Ferraro, a gifted jeweler who knew the exact ring needed before his customer did.¬† In this case, his ring had to be able to travel with him into the shadows.¬† Elie had been surprised to find his bride’s engagement ring had been fashioned from gems incapable of traveling into the shadows.¬† He’d even questioned Damian as her papers declared her a rider.¬† That would mean she would have to remove her ring before entering the shadows.¬† Her actual wedding ring could be left on.¬† Elie supposed it didn’t matter if she removed her engagement ring.¬† He just found it odd that Damian had given his woman a more traditional gemstone, a blazing flawless emerald surrounded by several diamonds.
“You only say that because you know your friends won’t be able to resist me,” Dario said, reaching for his wine glass.
“What’s to resist?¬† You never talk to anyone.¬† You don’t look up from your phone.¬† And you’re bossy beyond belief.¬† I’m not even going to talk about your rather scary and unbelievable sexual preferences.”
Elie had taken a drink of water and immediately choked on it.
“You don’t know the first thing about my sexual preferences.”¬† There was no change in Dario’s expression, on his face or in his voice.
“You don’t know that,” Emme challenged.
Those dark eyes that at times reminded Elie of twin pits of hell moved over Emmanuelle’s face.¬† “Babe.¬† Be serious.”
Emme leaned across the table and lowered her voice to a mere thread of sound.¬† “You wouldn’t know if I was around in one of your kink clubs.”
“Don’t bet on it, Emme.¬† I have a sixth sense when it comes to you.¬† And you would never invade my privacy.”
Dario had her there.¬† Elie knew, just as well as Dario did, that Emmanuelle might tease both men, but she would never use her ability to spy on them.
She did accompany her husband when he conducted business meetings in the strip or sex clubs.¬† She was always in the shadows, unseen by his associates, or the many women who worked the clubs and did their best to entice their boss into lap dances or blowjobs.¬† Elie knew it was particularly painful for Emmanuelle in the beginning to see the women fawning all over her husband, especially if Emme had helped them earlier and they’d pretended to be her friend.¬† It also made it difficult to fully have faith that if Val didn’t know she was right there watching his every move that he wouldn’t take advantage of the many offers thrown at him.¬† She’d confided in Elie that it worried her if she became pregnant and couldn’t ride the shadows or accommodate Valentino’s rather demanding sex drive, what he might do.
Elie thought a lot about her concerns.¬† His wife would no doubt have similar concerns given the fact that she would know he didn’t love her.¬† He had an extremely strong sex drive.¬† Not only that, but he would be inclined to take his wife to a club if he could guarantee privacy and no cameras.¬† He trusted Dario to give that to him so the chances were good that it would happen.¬† She might have those same insecurities.¬† He would have to find a way to make sure his wife didn’t feel uncertain of him.
Elie had advised Emmanuelle to talk to Val, to be open with him and he hoped she’d done so.¬† He wanted to establish from the very beginning with his bride, that they would be talking over every possible concern she had.¬† He would expect her to communicate those with him and if she didn’t, the longer she waited, the more the consequences.¬† He hoped she had read every single one of his answers to the questions posed by the computer to make their match.¬† He’d been honest.¬† Very honest, just as he expected her to be.¬† He’d read her answers so many times, he practically had them memorized.¬† If she’d read his, there would be no surprises.¬† She would know what kind of man she was getting.
“Fine, Dario,” Emme said.¬† “But you spend far too much time at that silly club of yours.”
“That’s not possible when I’m always at your house eating,” Dario countered, back to looking at his phone.
There was a mild disturbance, hushed whispers moving through the pizzeria.¬† Elie knew without looking that Valentino had made his entrance.¬† He was an impressive figure, tall, with wide shoulders, thick, glossy dark hair and intense green eyes.¬† He came straight to the booth, making it difficult for his bodyguards to keep up with him, although they managed.¬† Both men, Lando Regio and Pace Detti were experienced, trained by Dario and given the job when Val had insisted Dario take over the territory Val’s uncle’s death had left open.
Val came up behind his wife and bent over Emmanuelle to tip back her head and take her mouth, kissing her intimately right there in the pizzeria.¬† Emmanuelle laughed softly when he lifted his head.¬† “You’ll get us kicked out.¬† I heard Benito has some kind of rule, no PDA or we’re thrown out.¬† Taviano told me.”¬† Taviano was her brother.
Valentino nudged her over with his hip and sank down onto the seat, up close, thigh to thigh.¬† “Did Taviano and Nicoletta get kicked out?¬† If they didn’t, we’ll have to see if we can make that happen.”¬† Deliberately, he leaned into her and bit down on her neck.
She squealed and pushed rather half-heartedly at him.¬† “You can’t get us kicked out until after I eat more pizza.¬† Elie ate nearly all the olives.”
Val laughed.¬† “I doubt that.¬† You would have put a fork through his hand.”
Even Dario smirked at that while Emme tried to look indignant.¬† Elie nudged her foot under the table.
“What have you three been up to while I’ve been working?” Val asked.¬† “I see you didn’t leave anything for me.¬† Not even wine.”
“Ordered you fresh, babe,” Emmanuelle said.
“Talked about your wife hanging out in the sex clubs,” Dario said.¬† “Told Elie she knew far too much about them.”
“Stop saying that,” Emme protested, wadding up her napkin and throwing it at Dario.
“Well, you do.”
“I guard my husband, you cretin.¬† Someone has to.¬† You’re too busy looking at your phone.¬† And you aren’t fooling anyone, Dario.¬† You’re playing games on it.¬† No one has that many emails."
Dario lifted an eyebrow as he crumbled the napkin he’d caught in his hand. ¬†“I’m answering letters from women, turning them down as gently as possible, nosy woman.”
“You are not,” Emmanuelle snipped.¬† “There is no way you’re on a dating site.”¬† There was a small silence.¬† “Are you?”¬† Dario didn’t deign to answer.¬† She looked suspiciously up at her husband.¬† “Tell me you didn’t sign him up on a dating site, because I know he didn’t sign himself up.”
Val nuzzled her neck.¬† “He needs a good woman to settle him down, Emme.”¬† He sounded innocent‚ÄĒtoo innocent.
Elie tried not to laugh.¬† There were snorts of derision and various other forms of amusement coming from the large table of bodyguards behind them.
“Don’t think anyone believes your bullshit, Val,” Dario said.¬† “I should forward you all these crap responses.¬† These women are nuts.”
“Then why haven’t you deleted your account?” Emmanuelle demanded.
“I can tell you,” Elie said.¬† “It’s like watching a train wreck.¬† You know you should look away, but you can’t.”
“Is that speaking from experience, Elie?” Val asked, sliding his arm around the back of the booth.
Tito arrived, grinning as he placed an all-meat pizza in front of Val and the salami and double-olive in front of Emmanuelle and Elie.¬† Berta followed with the antipasti, a bottle of wine and another pizza which she placed in front of Dario with a tentative smile.
“I thought you might still be hungry, Dario.¬† It’s on the house.”
He barely glanced up, but he did acknowledge her with a nod.¬† She beamed at that small gesture and hurried off.¬†
Emmanuelle sighed.¬† “Don’t you dare encourage her.”
“Encourage who?” Dario frowned and looked up from his phone.
“Never mind.” Valentino reached for a piece of pizza.¬† “You’re hopeless, Dario.¬† There’s no need to worry, Princess.¬† Every woman is safe around him.¬† Now that he’s got that dating app to stare at, that’s all he wants to do.¬† He’d never see a flesh and blood woman flirting with him.”
Dario shoved his phone in his pocket.¬† “Elie is really going through with his marriage tomorrow, Val.¬† I couldn’t talk him out of it.”
“Did he try, Elie?” Val studied Elie’s expression.
“He offered to let me come to the kink club free to give me one last night of freedom.”
Emmanuelle scooped up olives before Elie could get to them.¬† “Not this again.¬† We’ve had this conversation. ¬†Elie’s already married.¬† Tomorrow is just a formality.¬† Stefano will walk his bride down the aisle and I’ll be her matron of honor.¬† Pictures will be taken.¬† Cake, that sort of thing.¬† The family will be there for you, Elie.”¬† She narrowed her gaze on Dario.¬† “By family, that includes you.¬† Wear a suit.”
Elie found himself watching Emmanuelle and Valentino as they cuddled close together, his knuckles occasionally brushing her cheek.¬† She looked up at Val and he would smile down at her with far too much open love.¬† Elie wasn’t certain it was good for Val to show that much real affection for his wife in public.¬† Valentino was head of the Saldi crime family.¬† Loving his wife the way he did, could be a major liability for him.¬†
Still, Elie wondered if maybe he’d acted too hastily in deciding to pursue an arranged marriage.¬† He had done so because the woman he was supposed to marry had rejected him, refusing to see him.¬† She had returned his letters unopened.¬† She wouldn’t open her door to him.¬† Eventually, knowing he would have to make a decision, he had made the trip back to France with the intention of confronting her, but she was gone.
She had a sister and father, but they no longer lived in the same house and Brielle, the woman he should have been marrying, wasn’t with either of them.¬† Her sister, Fayette, was considered by her parents to be the beauty of the family. When Brielle had come home and told her father that she wasn’t going to marry Elie Archambault, her father, Gaspard, apparently, had been furious.
Gaspard had gone to the head of the Archambault family and offered his daughter, Fayette.¬† It was such an honor to marry into the Archambault line.¬† To have Fayette politely turned down had made him even angrier with Brielle and he had disowned her unless she agreed to go to Elie and insist he marry her.¬† She had not done so.¬† At eighteen, she had gone off on her own, refusing to give in to her father’s demands, and ignoring Elie’s many attempts to contact her.
Now, he was married to a woman he didn’t know and didn’t love.¬† He would be faithful to her, because he was a man of honor, but he would never have would Emme and Val had.¬† And damn Brielle to hell for not listening to him.¬† He made a mistake.¬† Granted, it was a bad mistake, but he’d been young and his world had been turned upside down.¬† It wasn’t an excuse to act the way he had, but she could have just heard him out.¬† Neither one of them would be in the mess she’d landed them in.¬† Not only them, but at least two other riders.
“You find anything out, Val?” Dario lowered his voice as he leaned over the table to snag a piece of pizza.
Elie leaned in on the pretense of catching up the bottle of wine to pour everyone a glass. ¬†He counted himself lucky that he was regarded as a sibling in the Ferraro family and therefore whatever Val and Dario allowed them to be privy to, he was as well.¬† They had broken up a human trafficking ring together.¬† Elie had taken great satisfaction in helping to rid the world of even a small branch of that depraved network.
“Unfortunately, yes.¬† We delivered a blow to the trafficking ring, no doubt about it, a pretty good one. I met with Tibberiu Messina and it appears as if the rumors might be true.¬† Before we ever started trying to ferret out who was behind the ring in our territory, Dario and I discussed the possibility that we would be put on a hit list, but we thought getting rid of the ring was worth the danger to us.”
Valentino dropped his free arm around Emmanuelle’s shoulders when she turned her face up to his, a look of alarm hastily hidden when she ducked her head.
“Messina said someone else has been investigating this same ring as well, very aggressively, but so far no one seems to be able to uncover their identity.¬† The fact that the scrutiny has been so intense has put enough pressure on them that they’ve slowed bringing in girls from Europe and have turned their attention to stopping those opposing them.”
“Does Messina have any idea who was in bed with Jason Caruso?” Dario asked.
“I thought when you got Jason, he was the head of it all here and that would be the end of it,” Emmanuelle said softly.¬† “Wasn’t the trafficking ring all his idea?”
Elie heard the unconscious plea in her voice.¬† She didn’t want Val or Dario to be in anymore danger than they had been in.¬† He could have told her that both men, as head of the crime families, would always be in danger.¬† He could tell, like him, Dario and Val, wanted to comfort her and assure her they would be fine, but they couldn’t do that and be truthful.
Elie knew Dario had interrogated Jason before the man had died.¬† Dario wasn’t gentle in his interrogations and in the end, few men held out any secrets.¬† Jason wasn’t the kind of man able to even try to hold out.¬† Stefano had been apprised immediately of what Dario and Valentino had suspected when they realized Jason Caruso was the man behind the trafficking ring.¬† It had been virtually impossible for him to have been the one to have set up such a widespread and successful business.¬† It was clear they hadn’t conveyed everything they’d learned to Emmanuelle, and Elie didn’t blame them.¬† What good would it do, other than to worry her?
“Princess, even if it was his idea initially, he would have needed someone else to help him get started,” Val said.¬† “Someone to back him financially.¬† The entire thing was far too widespread, in too many states for someone like Jason to have run it on his own.”
Emme pressed her lips together and then started to drink from the wine glass.¬† Val took it out of her hand.¬† She didn’t drink as a rule.¬† If she did, it was rarely more than one glass of wine.¬† He picked up the glass of water and handed it to her.¬† “Baby, you know you’ll have a headache if you keep drinking wine.”
“Maybe it will be worth it.”
He brushed his lips along her temple very gently.¬† “Don’t be stubborn.¬† I know this is upsetting.”
“You think?¬† There’s a hit out on you again, Val.¬† Both you and Dario.”
“And Elie,” Valentino said.¬† “He’s included on the list.”
“There’s a list?¬† As in my family?¬† Stefano?¬† All of my brothers?” Emmanuelle pushed.
“No, your family isn’t included on the list, Princess.¬† Your family has a reputation and very few people understand them or want to mess with them.¬† You aren’t on the list.¬† Elie is.¬† I am.¬† Dario is.¬† Four of my men are.¬† I find the choices interesting.”
“Well, I don’t.”¬† Emmanuelle looked down at the table.¬† “Damn it, Val.¬† Why is it that there’s always someone wanting to kill you?”
“I told you he’s a complete bastard,” Dario answered in his monotone.¬† “Absolute complete bastard.¬† No one but you likes him, Emme.¬† Even Stefano had him at the head of his list of men to do in until you made your plea to save him.¬† Then that put me at the top of the hit list, which, quite frankly, I didn’t appreciate.¬† But, to answer your question, he’s a bastard.”
Elie nodded his head and took another slice of pizza.¬† “I have to agree with Dario, Emmanuelle.¬† His own men will tell you the same.¬† If you were telling the truth, you just really like him for sex.¬† Remember when we were making those pro and con lists?¬† Even my good looks won out.¬† I’m a better dancer. ¬†I’m not as arrogant.”
“But I’m better at sex,” Val pointed out complacently.¬† “I’ll take it.”
Dario smirked.¬† “Yeah, you kind of lost out on that one, Elie.”
Elie laughed.¬† “I guess I did.”
He was gratified to see that even Emmanuelle laughed.¬† It might not be her normal laugh, but she definitely found the exchange funny.¬† Elie had learned, after the disastrous loss of Brielle, that ego wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.¬† Sometimes sacrificing for those he loved was worth taking a hit now and then.
“Not that you better know anything about Elie and his abilities when it comes to sex,” Val said suddenly.
Elie laughed again, this time with Emme.¬† Dario’s smirk was just a little more noticeable, even though brief. ¬†“They don’t even equate me with the Ferraro family,” Elie said.¬† “Sheesh.¬† I’m an Archambault.¬† In the grand scheme of things, that should trump the Ferraros but no one is in the least bit intimidated by me.”
Dario swirled a breadstick in oil and salt.¬† “I don’t exactly get that entire Archambault thing.¬† What does that mean?”
Elie had been kidding.¬† He didn’t want to explain and make himself sound like he was bragging.¬† He took a bite of pizza and chewed, stalling for time, trying to think how to answer.
“The Archambault family as you know, come from France,” Emmanuelle said.¬† “ What you might not know is, without a doubt, they are the fastest riders in the world.¬† They are the only riders who can police other riders.¬† If a rider has committed a crime, the Archambault family investigates and are the ones tasked with dealing with the criminal no matter where he or she is in the world.¬† Elie has always been considered one of, if not, the fastest and the most skilled rider and fighter in the family.¬† We’ve been lucky to have him train with us.”
Elie took another bite of pizza, avoiding looking at the two men.¬† He detested anyone talking about his skills.¬† His abilities were what had gotten him in trouble in the first place. He had been born with lightning-fast reflexes and yeah, he was grateful for that.¬† At the same time, he’d been taken from his parents at the age of two and sent from trainer to trainer to develop skills.¬† The more promise he showed and the better he became, the more trainers he was sent to, so that he was never in one household very long.
As an athlete and a rider, it was a great way to develop skills, but as a human being and a child, it didn’t do so much to help him understand relationships.¬† He didn’t really know his parents, even from their occasional and very brief visits.¬† He’d learned to be a brash, arrogant, too full of himself rider, praised for all the wrong reasons.¬† Girls fell for his good looks and his name.¬† He came from a family of a great wealth, so as a young man in Paris, it was easy to find women who would want to be seen with him at all the right events.
He had things easy for all the wrong reasons.¬† He’d gotten into the clubs and then the underground clubs with his money.¬† The kinky sex had at first intrigued him and then become a huge part of his life.¬† It was part of a rider’s life to be written up in magazines, photographed with women on their arms at every opportunity.¬† They were supposed to be in the blaze of lights, hiding right out in the open, always having an alibi if any criminal was assassinated, but eventually, Elie’s lifestyle was too much for those in leadership of the Archambault family.¬† They wanted to rein him in.
“Now, you’re stuck with me, Emme, and by association, Val and Dario, you are as well,” Elie said, striving to look complacent.¬† “And Dario, I do expect you to come to the wedding wearing a suit.”
Dario heaved a sigh.¬† “This family business is such bullshit.¬† Emme, I blame you.¬† Before you seduced Val, all I had to do was beat up a few guys, or kill them.¬† Then you tell me, I’ve got to make nice with your brothers and attend these family dinners every Sunday.¬† Now, you expect me to show up at weddings too.”
“You poor thing,” Emmanuelle cooed, making it clear she had zero sympathy for him.¬† “You love Sunday dinners.¬† You can’t get enough of Taviano’s and Francesca’s cooking.”
“Or yours,” Valentino added.¬† “He practically lives at our home in the evenings just so he can eat.”
“That was the deal,” Dario reminded, unrepentant.¬† “If I took the bullshit position of head of the family until you found someone else you trusted to do it, I could still eat with you.¬† Which reminds me.¬† How come you haven’t found anyone?¬† I’ve cleaned up the territory‚ÄĒwell‚ÄĒmostly cleaned it up.¬† Found new men and brought it all under control.¬† We’re making money for you and I’ve even cleaned up the ports.¬† Isn’t it about time you managed to find someone to take my place so I can guard your ass?”
Valentino shared an amused grin with Elie.¬† Elie knew Val had no intention of finding anyone else to take Dario’s place.¬† He wanted his cousin to stay exactly where he was.
“It isn’t that easy, Dario.”
“I’ll just bet it isn’t.¬† I know you’re not even trying.”
“It has to be the right man.¬† Someone we both trust implicitly,” Val said.¬† “If Elie wasn’t French, I’d suggest him, but we can’t choose a Frenchmen.¬† We’d have a war on our hands.”¬† His grin faded and he leaned closer to his cousin.¬† “I don’t want to lose that territory, Dario, and all the other families are poised to take it if we can’t keep it.”
Dario sighed.¬† “I get it.¬† We’re not losing the territory.¬† I’m holding it for you.”
“For us.¬† This is our famiglia.¬† We own everything together.”¬† Val threaded his fingers through Emmanuelle’s.¬† “We hold it together or we lose it together.”¬† He looked around the table, including Elie.
Stefano Ferraro had been the first man to ever make Elie feel as if he had a home and family, as if he truly belonged somewhere.¬† Now, he had acceptance from Valentino and Dario as well, just as if he was part of their family.¬† He knew that was also due to Stefano taking him in and he would be forever grateful.
Elie nodded his head.¬† He didn’t even mind the hit put out on him so much at that particular moment.