Shadow Flight

Chicago's Ferraro crime family will do anything to protect one of their own in this thrilling entry in the Shadow Riders series from #1 New York Times bestselling author Christine Feehan.

Nicoletta Gomez was a terrified teenager when Taviano Ferraro and his brother saved her life. Ever since, she's been trying to rise above what was done to her, molding herself into a survivor under the protective eyes of the Ferraro family. All the while, she's been falling hopelessly in love with the man who knows her darkest secrets...

With one look, Taviano knew that Nicoletta was his, just as he felt their shadows connect. But no matter how much he wanted to claim her, he knew she needed time to become her own woman. But when Nicoletta once again finds herself in the sights of dangerous men, a split second decision has Taviano breaking all of the Ferraro family's rules to keep her safe. And as far as he's concerned, the reward is more than worth the risk.

Christine's Notes

Christine Feehan
I've looked forward to writing Taviano and Nicoletta's story for a long time. I knew Nicoletta would have to come to terms with her past. She was raised by loving parents and then lost it all and ended up having a brutal life before the Ferraros saved her.

I knew Taviano had been keeping his own secrets. This wasn't going to be easy for him. He had to be patient and he had to keep his famous temper in check.

The story ended up being the most romantic of my Shadow Riders series to date.

Christine regularly writes about her books (and all kinds of subjects) in the following places:


Shadow Flight

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Shadow Series ,
Book 5

Release Date: May 5, 2020
Number of Pages: 368 pages
Publisher: Berkley
Language: English
ISBN: 0593099796

Shadow Flight (Shadow Series, #5)

Excerpt: Chapter 1

Nicoletta Gomez sat in her very luxurious leather seat trying not to look as if she were staring or even noticing Taviano Ferraro. She’d asked him for this and as always, when she’d asked anything of the Ferraro family, they had given her whatever she wanted. This was the first time she’d asked for something so ridiculous she was embarrassed, but it hadn’t mattered. The family hadn’t flinched or hesitated. She sat in their private jet with three of her friends headed to Los Angeles to see a Kain Diakos concert because it was Pia Basso’s birthday and that was her greatest wish.

Nicoletta was ashamed she’d asked. She didn’t much like the way the three girls were acting in front of Taviano. They flirted relentlessly with him, and constantly were ordering his staff around. She sat silently staring out the window, wishing she’d never made the decision. As as much as she loved Kain’s music and thought it sounded so fun, asking a favor of the Ferraros wasn’t worth it, not after all they’d done for her. Everything felt like a nightmare, almost from the first when she’d told Pia the Ferraro’s had acquired tickets for them and would fly them to Los Angeles and secure a hotel suite for the night.

Within hours, Pia, her sister Bianca, and their closest friend Clariss Naples were on Nicoletta about asking the Ferraro’s for an expense account to go shopping for clothes. Nicoletta was horrified. The girls came from affluent families and she was not going to ask the Ferraro’s for money for them to purchase new outfits for their trip, not when they were already providing a jet, a suite at a luxury hotel and the tickets to a concert. She found it a little shocking that they would even consider it reasonable for her to ask.

They whined at her, reminding her that it was Pia’s birthday and then when she absolutely refused, wanted her to ask her foster parents, Lucia and Amo Fausti to open their boutique, Lucia’s Treasures, to allow the three to choose free clothing from them. That horrified her even more. She considered cancelling the entire birthday event right then, but Clariss must have read her expression because she immediately burst out laughing and said it was all a joke and of course they were kidding. Nicoletta had been relieved, but now, thinking it over, she wasn’t quite so certain.

The truth was, she didn’t know or understand people. She’d spent the last few years avoiding getting close to anyone. She had too many secrets and was terrified of anyone finding out anything about her past. Now, she was beginning to have more confidence in herself thanks to her foster parents, counseling and, she had to admit, the Ferraro family.

Giggles broke out and she glanced up to see Pia almost fall into Taviano’s lap. He caught her gallantly, his strong hands around her waist, steadying her, but there was no expression on his face. She knew that look from vast experience. Taviano wasn’t happy. He never showed it. Never. But he had a temper and she didn’t want to be on the wrong side of it, as she had been more than once.

She knew her friends thought he was absolutely the hottest man they’d ever seen, and she didn’t blame them because—well—he was. He was tall with broad shoulders and like his other brothers, totally ripped. Muscles everywhere, although, saying that, they looked amazing in the suits they wore. He had very dark hair, always just a little messy which she loved, just the way she did the dark bluish shadow that seemed to be permanently on his strong jaw. She couldn’t imagine him looking like a boy. He always looked like a man. He had the bluest eyes. A dark blue surrounded by very long black lashes.

Those lashes suddenly lifted, and she found herself staring into all that blue. Her heart nearly stopped and then began pounding. He did that to her. Always. She’d been a terrified teenager when he and his brother Stefano had saved her life and brought her to her foster parents, Lucia and Amo, the two most wonderful people on the entire planet. Just thinking about them made her want to cry.

Her foster parents knew all about her, everything that had happened to her and they loved her through her nightmares and loved her through her insanity of parties and rebellion and trying to outrun herself. Taviano and his family had put up with her, watching over her, seeing to her education, even sending her to Europe and making certain she had the best of counseling.

The moment Taviano released Pia, he shifted out of his seat and around her, ignoring the woman batting her eyelashes at him and came straight to Nicoletta. When he did that, looking so directly at her, she immediately felt shy. She’d acted so crazy sometimes around him when she was younger, said things, and there had been that one terrible night...

She wanted to groan in shame, and it took all she had not to turn red with embarrassment remembering how drunk she’d been and how she’d thrown herself at him. It had been a really, really horrible night. They’d been very careful with one another over the next couple of years, and she always felt awkward around him. For the most part, Taviano had avoided her, but he’d watched over her, just like the other Ferraros had done.

“What’s wrong, piccola, you look upset. Your friends are having fun but you’re over here staring out a window.”

There was no reprimand in his voice. She realized there rarely was anymore. She looked for disapproval of herself often in others and was especially sensitive around Taviano. His sister, Emmanuelle, had pointed that out to her. She had given that a lot of thought and realized it was true. She looked down on herself and any little nuance others used was interpreted as disapproval.

“I feel bad that I got you into this, Taviano. I know you pulled the short straw coming with us. I didn’t think that one of the family would be coming with the jet.” She hadn’t. She knew they’d send bodyguards, cousins, of the Ferraros, but it hadn’t occurred to her that a family member would deem it necessary to travel along.

He reached out to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear. The pads of his fingers were gentle as they moved along her cheek in a whisper and then over her ear. Her heart accelerated into a frenzy and her sex clenched. She was fairly certain if he kept it up her panties might melt off, but she didn’t dare move or even breathe deep.

“I came because I wanted to come, not because I drew a short straw. When you go somewhere, Nicoletta, a member of the family goes, or we send a cousin, someone trusted. We don’t let strangers watch over a treasure and you are that to us. To me. Have your fun with your friends. You never ask for anything for yourself. It is always for Lucia and Amo or someone else. Even this was for,” he glanced over his shoulder and gestured. “Enjoy your time with your friends while you can,” he reiterated.

She forced herself to draw in air even though she knew it was a mistake. Taviano always had a distinctive masculine scent about him. She would be able to find him in the dark. The scent wasn’t strong, and she didn’t think it was a cologne, it was his skin, a faint spicy trail she wanted to follow that made her feel safe every time she got near him. Intellectually, she was certain she felt that way because he was the one who had come at her darkest hour, and when she inhaled and drew air—and him—into her lungs, she felt that sense of well-being.

“Thank you, Taviano. You’re always so generous. You and your family.” She nodded toward Pia and Bianca who were dancing to one of Kain’s most popular songs. Clariss was downing a strawberry-filled flute of champagne. “They’re having a fabulous time, drinking your best champagne.”

“That’s what it’s for. I see you’re not drinking.”

This time she couldn’t control the blush. It started somewhere low and crept steadily up her neck to her face. She avoided his eyes. “I stopped drinking some time ago.”

There was a small silence. “Nicoletta.”

“Mmmm?” It was the best she could do. She fiddled with her phone, pretending she was occupied with a text message.

“Look at me.”

It was a command, nothing less and she was used to obeying a Ferraro command. No one disobeyed them. It just didn’t happen. She had to steel herself to meet his gaze. It took courage but she managed to raise her lashes and meet all that dark blue. It was like looking at a turbulent night sky. Every time she did it, he robbed her of her ability to breathe.

Nicoletta was so hopelessly in love with him and there was nothing she could do about it so she didn’t even try anymore to fight it. She had made up her mind a couple of years earlier just what she was going to do with her life—she was going to be like Emmanuelle and Mariko Ferraro. They were quiet about it, but they were warriors, exuding confidence, commanding respect, and she slowly was coming to find that belief in herself thanks to them.

The one thing the Ferraros had drilled into her over and over, wanted her to believe and gave her as a gift, was that she could rise above everything that had been done to her—everything that had been taken from her. She could be a phoenix, rising like that fire-bird from the ashes of who she had been. She was determined that no one would ever be able to hurt her like that again, destroy her or anyone she loved. She would be a strong, confident woman and ensure her daughters would be as well. If she had sons, she was determined, they would be like the men in the Ferraro family, because she didn’t know better men.

“That night was not your fault. It was mine,” Taviano said, his voice very firm, but his tone was low, gentle, just the way he almost always spoke to her now, ever since that horrible night when she’d acted such a fool. “We are careful in our family not to drink to excess. You are aware of that. You’re one of the few we allow close to us. Only one of us can do so at a time, that night was my night and I indulged too much. I should never have gone after you when you were partying, and I was angry. I knew better. My brothers should have stopped me. You have to let it go.”

She shook her head, her gaze flicking past him to her friends who fortunately, weren’t paying much attention to their conversation. “I’m ashamed of the way I treated you after all you did for me. I really am, Taviano. I think I wanted to run away from myself.” She knew that was what she’d been doing. She loathed herself and didn’t think she was worth anything. In some weird way she was punishing herself for the things her step-uncles had done to her—things she had been helpless to stop. “Every time I saw you, you were a reminder...”

“You don’t have to explain. I’m well aware.” Taviano brushed his fingers down her cheek very gently.

She caught her breath. There was something about the way he touched her that got to her every time. He put goosebumps on her skin. Sent a rush of heat through her veins. Fire always danced low and wicked at that touch. It had been that way almost since the first time she’d opened her eyes and stared into his. She’d been so young and so old. So terrified of living, and humiliated that he knew what had happened to her over the last few years. She could barely stand looking at him or his brothers. At any of his family. They knew.

Yet, because of them, because of his family, because of Taviano, she had learned to have confidence in herself. To believe she was worth something. Her recovery was due to the Ferraro’s and their endless patience with her, and of course, the counseling they paid for. But also, she was certain, it was due to her foster parents Lucia and Amo Fausti, the family the Ferraros had chosen for her. Her foster parents had loved her through the worst of her striking out at everyone—mostly striking out at herself.

“Just have fun, tesoro. We’re going to worry about us and our relationship another day, but this day is for you and your friends.”

Her heart jumped and then clenched hard. It took discipline not to rub her chest. She was acutely aware of his declaration but had no idea what he meant. Their relationship? He rarely spoke to her, in fact he usually avoided being alone with her, not that she blamed him. The family relationship? She hoped they weren’t thinking of cutting ties with her. She’d toed the line, done more than what they’d expected of her.
Nicoletta glanced at the three girls. Pia was glaring at her. It was her birthday and she wanted the attention, especially Taviano’s. He was wealthy and gorgeous and reputed to be dangerous. The combination was heady. She was embarrassed that her three friends were throwing themselves at him—but she couldn’t throw proverbial stones—she’d done it. She’d been younger and drunk and feeling worthless, but she’d done it. The results had been disastrous and she would never forget that lesson. Never. Not for as long as she lived.

The blush was back and immediately Taviano reacted as if he knew exactly what she was thinking, and he probably did. She could swear he read minds—at least he seemed to read hers.

“You have to let it go, Nicoletta. We were both very drunk that night.”

“I was very drunk. You at least didn’t lose your mind completely.” She whispered it to him, afraid the others might here, even though they were a good distance away and the music was loud.

His eyes, already so blue, darkened with something that looked so close to desire her stomach dropped and her sex clenched. His breath was suddenly warm on her neck, her ear, sending a shiver of need down her spine. She couldn’t look at him. She didn’t dare. Not when every cell in her body was alive with need and awareness and he was so experienced he could read a woman like an open book.

“You might think of it that way. I look back on that night often and wish I had a little bit more to drink.” His voice, as always, was low. Velvet soft. He murmured the declaration into her ear and the words burned into her mind, etched there like some beautiful calligraphy that was written in stone.

Her gaze jumped to his and she couldn’t look away. He could seduce her so easily, and yet, she’d offered herself to him and he had rejected her completely. She knew women came easily to him. He was in every glossy magazine, photographed with models and actresses on his arm. He went to charity events, and parties and women were all over him. The paparazzi managed to capture his life almost daily.

The paparazzi hung around the Ferraro Hotel and the Ferraro Territory as well as anywhere any of the Ferraro family might be in order to capture pictures of them, especially if they might be able to get them in compromising situations. Taviano was the last eligible bachelor, the last single Ferraro brother and women flocked around him, hopeful that he would choose one of them as his bride. He didn’t date. He didn’t even hook up for a night, at least no photographs had proven that lately, so he seemed to be pursued all the more, as if he had a secret life and the world was determined to uncover what it was.

“What does that mean?” She managed to choke out the question. Because what did it mean? She had been totally humiliated that night. She’d thrown herself at him and he had rejected her.

There had been kissing. So hot. He’d devoured her. She hadn’t known anyone could kiss like that. She thought she knew what kissing was. She thought she could control sex, but she suddenly realized she knew nothing at all about it. Taviano had kissed her like she was someone special. Someone who meant something to him. He had held her with care. His mouth had been gentle, but firm. He had taken control, leading her, not the other way around. Then things just spiraled out of control.

She had shed clothes. She remembered that, offering him everything. Wanting him with every breath she took. She needed him to erase everything that had gone before. His mouth had done that, so hot, so strong, she hadn’t known her body could feel that way just with his mouth on her breast. His fingers on her nipple, his hair brushing over her skin. The way the bristles on his jaw rubbed along the curves of her breasts. She’d had the marks of that stubble, his teeth and fingers for a night and day and she wanted them forever.

“It means I can still taste you. I go to bed with your taste on my tongue and wake up with it there. I ache thinking about you. It means you aren’t safe forever so you’d best have your fun with your friends while you can because you aren’t a child anymore.”

It was a declaration. A challenge. Maybe even a throwing down of a gauntlet. Nicoletta drew back in her seat, uncertain how to react. It was the last thing she expected him to say. He meant it too. Taviano didn’t say things he didn’t mean. His blue eyes glittered at her until she held her breath, afraid of moving.

She sat for a look time trying to figure out what she was going to do. If Taviano really persisted in attempting to seduce her, he wouldn’t have to try too hard. She knew that. How could she ever forget what it felt like with his mouth on her? Traveling down her body? His tongue on her skin? His lips worshiping her? Then moving up between her thighs so slowly she wanted to scream. Nothing had ever prepared her for such a thing. She had no idea sex could make her body feel so good.

Then he had abruptly stopped. He’d pulled away, cursing. She’d chased after him, hands on his trousers, feeling his thick arousal, tugging on his zipper, desperate and determined to get at him. His hands caught at her wrists and stopped her, pulling her off him. The moment he let go of her, she was back, knowing he was aroused, knowing he couldn’t hide that he wanted her. She knew what she could do, that he wouldn’t be able to stop once she had her mouth on him, but he’d been furious with her, once again stopping her, giving her a little shake.

They’d exchanged words. Her taunting, trying to tempt him, using her body shamelessly, pointing out that he wanted her, trying to get to him with how good she could make him feel with her mouth, with her body. He had tried to stop her. Looking back, she was utterly humiliated remembering just how often, just how he had tried to dress her himself, the different ways he’d tried to diffuse the situation between them.
She was so hurt and angry and drunk that she continued to escalate it. She could barely make herself face the things she’d said and done that night until, he’d suddenly dragged her naked body right over his lap and delivered a spanking onto her bare bottom. It should have reduced her to child. It should have humiliated her beyond reason. The last thing is should have been was erotic and made her want to weep with need.
Taviano caught her chin in his hand. “You have to stop. If you don’t, you’re going to give me no choice, but to shock your friends. I promised myself I’d wait until you turned twenty-one and that’s in a few more weeks. I already know that’s too damned far away.”

She wasn’t about to ask him what that meant either. She simply nodded to indicate she’d do her best to forget that horrible night ever happened, but she knew she never would. She thought of it every single day. It had been the catalyst for her to change her life. To want to make something of herself. She had given up drinking and trying to hurt herself for things in her past she hadn’t been able to control. She decided to control herself and take responsibility for herself at least.

She wanted to protect Lucia and Amo and make certain they were never harmed. She knew she could never have Taviano Ferraro, but she could take advantage of the hand the Ferraro family held out to her, and the education they were offering. She was intelligent and learned quickly and she pushed herself from that day forward. All of the Ferraros helped her. Taviano was around, because the family was very close. She avoided him as best she could, and he seemed to avoid her which was helpful when she didn’t know how to act around him.

She searched for a safe topic. “How is Cristo?”

Taviano laughed softly. “I’m not going to let you be a coward forever, Nicoletta, but any time we can talk about my nephew, I’m all for it. And Crispino is doing quite well, as you should know since you watch him for Francesca every chance you get.”

“I love all that curly hair he has. It’s so beautiful,” Nicoletta said. She did. Francesca told her the moment Stefano saw his son born with thick black curls all over his head, he immediately named him Crispino. His uncles and Emmanuelle, his aunt, adored him, and all of them spoiled him, but Nicoletta was determined she was going to be the favorite. He was the sweetest boy ever.

“It’s good that you spend so much time with him,” Taviano said.

“Francesca needed a lot of help after he was born,” Nicoletta said, “and I was there with Mariko and Emmanuelle, working on self-defense. It was natural to help her with the baby. There’s no way not to fall in love with him. He’s just so adorable. I’m there nearly every day.”

It was a silly thing to say. Taviano would have that information. She might work at Lucia’s Treasures for her foster parents and also at the flower shop occasionally, but she never missed a lesson in self-defense. She took her training very seriously and studied with one of the women or one of Taviano’s brothers. They weren’t easy on her either. She went home with bruises, and every muscle in her body aching, but she didn’t care. She wanted to be as good as they were—which seemed unattainable—but didn’t deter her from trying. Everyone had to start somewhere.

She recognized she was fast. Very fast. She had good hand–eye coordination. She could hit hard and accurately, the same with kicking. She picked up the techniques they taught her quickly and was always thirsty for more. She didn’t want praise, she wanted critiques that would make her better. She never wanted to be a victim again. Never. She was determined to learn to turn her mind and body into the best weapon possible to defend herself and others if needed.

“He’s already got Stefano wrapped around his little fingers,” Taviano pointed out. “That little boy is going to rule us all.”

Nicoletta laughed. She couldn’t help herself. Taviano sounded so rueful and he looked so handsome with his dark hair spilling across his forehead and his blue eyes mournful as if all of them loving his nephew so much they could never speak harshly to him was a bad thing. Not a single Ferraro raised their voice to Crispino. The child was told ‘no’ when he was too adventurous and might have gotten into something that could harm him, but the ‘no’ was never delivered in a harsh manner and he was removed gently if he refused to obey.

Nicoletta followed the lead of the Ferraro family when she watched the boy, treating him exactly the same and sometimes dancing him to sleep or cuddling him longer than necessary just because she needed it more than he did. Often Lucia and Amo would come over just to hold the boy as well. They loved watching him grow.

“I was astonished at how quickly he grew in weeks and months from rolling over to crawling and sitting and then standing. Sometimes I think I was less prepared than Francesca and Stefano,” Nicoletta admitted to Taviano. “He would cuddle with me at night and I just felt this amazing closeness with him. He made my heart feel so...” She broke off, feeling silly again.

When she lifted her lashes, Taviano was looking at her with that focused stare that always made her stomach do a slow rolling pitch that ended up with a million butterflies taking wing and fluttering so that she wanted to press her hand there and give it away that he was wreaking havoc on her body with just a look. He was dangerous to women and in particular, to her.

“What?” she demanded.

“I like that Crispino makes you feel that way. You dance with him.”

“How did you know?” She demanded. She did, all the time. “You’re never there when I dance with him.”

Piccola, Stefano has security cameras everywhere, you know that. He has apps on his phone so that at any given moment he can see his boy and know that he’s safe. We make certain you’re safe at all times. You have always known this. We’ve never hidden that from you.”

His voice was gentle. That velvet moving over her skin. She didn’t know if he spoke to everyone like that or just to her. Maybe she was the only one who actually got that sensation when he talked in that low voice, but it was so real it was physical.

“I just forget,” she admitted. “I’m glad Stefano watches out for Cristo that way.” She’d shortened the baby’s name right away and Lucia and even Francesca called him Cristo, but the men in the family rarely shortened his name.

“He likes you to dance with him, but Stefano said the other night when he was fussy, he was forced to do some dancing to put him to sleep.” Taviano sounded pleased with that. In fact, he smirked a little. “All of us are hoping Francesca managed to get a video of that.”

“You know she did,” Nicoletta couldn’t help laughing. “Stefano’s going to give me another lecture. He’s always telling me that Cristo needs to be able to soothe himself to sleep and I shouldn’t dance or cuddle him to sleep.”

Taviano’s smile faded. “Don’t let him fool you. He still rocks that boy to sleep sometimes if he wakes up more than once in the middle of the night. He did all of us when we woke up. Is he giving you lectures? Harsh ones? Because Stefano can sound harsh even when he doesn’t mean it that way. If he does, Nicoletta, I’ll have a word with him.”

That sounded ominous. More than ominous. By his tone, he was upset with Stefano just at the thought of him lecturing Nicoletta which was ridiculous since Taviano did it all the time. Well…until that night. Since then, he’d kept his distance. He had a temper and she didn’t want him at odds with Stefano, especially over her. Not with the Ferraros always being so good to her and to the Faustis’. She knew they made her foster parents lives so much easier and she appreciated everything they did for them because she loved Lucia and Amo so much.

“Stefano has been wonderful to me, Taviano. He doesn’t really mind me dancing around with Cristo, he just likes to sound all tough when he tells me that he has to do it because of me. He loves getting up with his son in the middle of the night. Francesca says any alone time he gets with that boy is his favorite time because he’s always so busy.”

“I believe it. He took care of all of us when we were little. Our parents weren’t much on babies or toddlers,” Taviano disclosed. “It was always Stefano who changed diapers and fed us bottles or comforted us in the middle of the night. God forbid a Ferraro child dare have a nightmare, or not know how to use a toilet at birth.”

Nicoletta put her hand on his without thinking about what she was doing. She never thought in terms that Taviano might need comfort. That he might have come from an imperfect situation because he seemed so omnipotent. He was always so completely uncaring what others thought of him. He didn’t seem to need anyone at all. The moment she touched him, she realized what she’d done and started to pull her hand away. He covered her hand with his, pressing down, holding hers trapped between his.

“You’ve met Eloisa. She’s as cold as ice.”

Taviano, like the rest of his brothers and his sister, rarely called his mother by any other title than Eloisa, her given name. They referred to her in public as ‘mother’ but she had been around them in private too long to not catch on to the fact that to the siblings she was always Eloisa.
“I thought she was just that way to me.”

“No, she’s that way to everyone, her sons included. She’s worse to Emmanuelle and even more so to her daughters-in-law. She saves her venom for you because you mean something to all of us and she knows it.”

She wasn’t touching that one either. There was just too many things Taviano was eluding to and she couldn’t keep up with him, or even have hope. He’d totally shot her down once and that had been enough to shatter her heart. She wasn’t going there again. She couldn’t and keep her hard-won confidence. She had been around him and his family for three years. In that time, no matter how big a fool she made of herself, or how much she hated herself for what had happened to her, the Ferraros had been patient with her.

Taviano had never told anyone of her conduct that night. He could have. He could have told her foster parents. He could have told his family. He had never changed his patient ways with her. Or his caring. He had been careful not to be alone with her and truthfully, that hurt, but she understood and even was grateful. She had made changes, studying the way she should have. Listening to the counselor and trying to implement what was said. Putting her trust in Lucia and talking things over with her when she found herself particularly upset and having nightmares. Opening herself to loving again. And that meant herself as well.

She had to find her own strengths and weaknesses. The Ferraros had offered to train her in self-defense and she took them up on that offer. That meant getting close to their family and she wasn’t sorry. They took her in and acted as if she was part of them. They didn’t hold back at all—other than Eloisa who treated her with the utmost disdain, but she was never at Francesca and Stefano’s penthouse which was where Nicoletta went for training. She only ran into Eloisa when the woman came to visit Lucia.

Nicoletta was in love with Taviano. It wasn’t just about sex. It wasn’t just about him saving her life. There was a difference in the way the Ferraros were in private with their family and the way they appeared in public. She was always treated like family. Always. She saw the real Taviano and she loved everything about him. How gentle and kind he was. How he could get that flash of temper that could erupt and burn hot and go away just as fast, so he was laughing. The way he held his nephew, so gently, whispering to him, laughing, pushing a stroller down the street, and later, holding his little hand.

Taviano sat on the floor and played instruments with Crispino or raced little cars, sometimes rolled balls across the floor. It didn’t matter what kind of toys his nephew wanted to play with, he was ready, and he had infinite patience. She loved that about him. All of his brothers and Emmanuelle appeared to be the same, but she could never quite take her eyes off of Taviano when he was with Crispino.

Nicoletta also loved his relationship with Emmanuelle. The two laughed often together. All the brothers were protective of their sister. She envied Emmanuelle that at first, but then realized, they seemed equally as protective of her. Then she became aware of a deep sadness in Emmanuelle and she found herself growing protective of Taviano’s sister for no reason she really understood other than she seemed very sad at times.

Emmanuelle traveled quite often, staying in New York with her cousins, and sometimes going to Italy to stay with relatives there, but after a few months, she would return and bury her face in little Crispino’s neck and proclaim he was the love of her life and she could never leave him again.

“Why is Eloisa so cutting to Emmanuelle, Taviano? She visits Lucia often and sometimes Emmanuelle comes with her and when she does, Eloisa says really snarky things to put her down in front of Lucia. I mean, she says them about me, but I expect that.”

Taviano frowned. “What do you mean, she says them about you? I specifically asked Lucia to report to me if Eloisa was upsetting you with her visits.”

“She isn’t upsetting me. I was asking you about Emmanuelle.”

“I was asking you about what Eloisa says to or about you,” Taviano said, his voice turning hard. “Answer me, Nicoletta.”
She rolled her eyes. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Taviano. You know very well the kind of sneering voice she uses and the cutting remarks she makes.”

He stood up, towering over her. His face became stone, eyes glittering down at her, two twin gems that looked suddenly frightening. “Answer me, Nicoletta,” he reiterated.

She didn’t hesitate, heart kicking into overdrive. “I’m beneath Lucia and Eloisa has no idea why Lucia and Amo would take me in. I’m old enough now for them to kick me out and they’ve done their good deed and don’t have to continue to flog themselves mercilessly for sins they never committed in the first place. I’m going to turn on them and rob them blind. I’m going to stab them in their sleep. I’ve already brought trouble on the Ferraro family, look what happened to Vittorio right outside their home because I was crawling out the window trying to have a rendezvous with some boy. I’m a slut and whore and sleep around, she has that on good word and she’s only trying to spare Lucia heartache. Naturally that isn’t all said on the same visit, she spreads it around. Lucia, of course, stands up to her, but there it is.”

His face darkened as she spoke, and she could tell he was having trouble holding the infamous Ferraro temper in check. “You should have told me. Lucia should have told me.”

“It doesn’t bother me. Eloisa is never going to like me. A lot of her friends don’t like me.” She gestured toward Pia and Bianca. “Their mother pretends to like me, but she doesn’t. Pia and Bianca are probably my friends because I’m a stepping stone to you. Their mother is hoping you’ll marry one of them.”

“Are you fucking kidding me, Nicoletta? Why would you arrange to take them on this trip if you know that?”

She gave him a half smile. “I’m a little slow on the uptake. I didn’t get that until I watched them with you just now. I could be wrong. I hope that I am. I think Clariss is a genuine friend, but at this point, I’m still not sure I’m that good a judge of character. Lucia is still helping me with that. She’s amazing in that department.”

“Don’t do that again, keep something from me, like Eloisa talking shit about you.”

“She talks shit about Emmanuelle, Taviano. I would think you’d be more concerned about that.”

“She’s done that since the day Emmanuelle was born, Tesoro. My sister has never been good enough for our mother, and she never will be. Francesca will never be good enough. I don’t suppose any female ever will be in Eloisa’s eyes.” He shrugged his shoulders. “You don’t see her at Stefano’s home for a reason. If she keeps talking shit about you, you won’t see her at Lucia’s either.”

“She’s Lucia’s friend, Taviano,” Nicoletta said, trying to be gentle. She could feel his fury. He was really angry with his mother.

“I don’t much give a damn. Go have fun with your friends. I’m going to talk to Lucia and find out how long this bullshit has been going on.”

“Please don’t upset Lucia.”

“I would never upset Lucia,” Taviano said, his voice softening. “I mean it, piccola, go have fun. You have this one more night and then we’re talking.” Abruptly he was gone, walking down the aisle toward the front of the plane where Demetrio and Drago, his second cousins, were sitting looking very relaxed, but again, Nicoletta knew better. They might be related to Taviano, young and good-looking, but they were trained bodyguards and they were very good at their jobs. Her friends weren’t any more of a distraction to them than she was.

Nicoletta stared after Taviano unsure what to think. She pulled out her cell phone wanting to call Lucia for reassurance. She’d come to rely on her. Lucia was an older woman, steady, sweet, and unfailingly strong. She’d had tragedy in her life. First the loss of her young daughter to cancer and then the loss of her remaining son after he came home from the serving in the military to being shot by a random murderer outside a theater.

Nicoletta came to Lucia and Amo, seventeen wild with grief at the loss of her parents and striking out with anger at the terrible things done to her by her three step-uncles for the past three years while she’d been in their custody. Her foster parents seemed to understand her and had the patience needed to let her grieve and strike out. They connected to her on every level and it was impossible not to love them any more than she did.

“Aren’t you going to join us?” Pia asked, her voice petulant. “I thought this was supposed to be a party.”

Nicoletta looked up with a small smile. “You look like you’re partying to me. For your twenty-first birthday, on a private jet, drinking the best champagne, going to the concert of your choice, I’d say you’re partying.”

“What was all that?”

Nicoletta shook her head. “All what?”

“You and Taviano? You looked as if you two were having a private conversation.”

She shrugged. “Just family stuff. Nothing huge. We were talking about Francesca and Stefano mainly.”

“Family stuff? You’re family now?” Now there was a bite to her voice.

Pia was definitely jealous. She’d had enough to drink to show it. Nicoletta stood up with another smile. “Yep. I’m family. If I wasn’t, we wouldn’t be on the jet, headed to the Kain Diakos concert, now would we? Let’s get some dancing in before we get there.” She caught Pia by the arm and hurried back to the other two girls.

Immediately they were laughing and dancing. Clariss had more strawberries than champagne, but she still pronounced it the best she’d ever tasted. Nicoletta indulged in eating quite a few strawberries, found whipped cream and added that to them just for fun, so she could eat even more. Bianca drank two more flutes filled with strawberries and champagne, but Pia was mostly just drinking. That worried Nicoletta. They weren’t even at the concert yet.

“Slow it down, girl. If you drink too much, they won’t let us in.”

“Who cares,” Pia said. “We can just stay on board and spend the night here. Why did we need the hotel when there’s a bed? Or you three can go to the hotel and I’ll stay here with Mr. Hotness. He’s been looking at my boobs all evening.”

Nicoletta tried not to smile. Taviano was looking down at his phone and even though he was wearing that stone expression the Ferraros tended to wear in public, she knew he was not happy. He certainly wasn’t staring at Pia.

“You wish, Pia,” Clariss said. “We’re going to the concert, so switch to something else. You’re not ruining this for us. Besides you love Kain. I thought you were going to have his babies.”

Pia brightened. “I am. I so am.”

She threw her arms around Nicoletta and hugged her so hard, staggering a little so they both nearly went down. Nicoletta had to balance for both of them.

“I’m sorry. I love you, my friend. I was so jealous for minute because I had this idea that Mr. Hotness was going to marry me and carry me off to a place where my mother couldn’t yell at me anymore and destroy everything I try to do. That was a dream that will never happen though. Instead, I’ll have Kain’s babies.”

Bianca shook her head. “Mom will never stop trying to marry us to the richest men she can find. She’s not happy with dad but she still wants that life for us. I’m absolutely crazy about Enzo Gallo, not that he would ever look at me. If he did ask me out, mom would be so ugly to him that he’d only do it once, but honestly, I’d be willing to sever ties with my family just for a chance with him. Not you, Pia, just her. I’m so tired of never being able talk to a man who interests me.”

“I had no idea,” Nicoletta said. “You live on your own. You both work.”

“It was the only way to get out from under her, but we’re not out from under her. Every time we get a job, she goes to our boss and sabotages it for us,” Pia confessed a little drunkenly. “Then we’re behind on rent and it sucks always looking for jobs because it looks like we keep hopping from one place to the next.”

Clariss sank into one of the seats, reaching for a strawberry, dipping it into the whipped cream. “That’s awful. You should have told us. I would have helped. You could have moved into my apartment. It’s small, but we could make it work.”

“I could have talked to Stefano,” Nicoletta said. “He would have found jobs that she couldn’t sabotage.” She nudged Bianca with her hip. “And I do know Enzo Gallo. He’s the Ferraros cousin. He works as a bodyguard. I can casually introduce you if you haven’t actually met him. In fact, I can arrange a few times to run into him when he’s not working. I kind of know where they’re going to be sometimes.”

Bianca shook her head, but then changed her mind. “You’d do that?”

“I want to know if Stefano could really find us jobs mom can’t screw up for us, Bianca,” Pia said. She slurred her words a bit, but she was looking very sober as she looked directly at Nicoletta.

“I honestly believe he would,” Nicoletta said. “Stefano can do anything. If you and Bianca really want to work, then of course, he’ll find you a good job.”

“One where we make enough money where we can be independent? I don’t mean tons, just enough to pay rent and eat,” Pia persisted. “Not pity money. We’ll work for it.”

Nicoletta nodded. “I’m certain he would, but he’ll only do that kind of favor once. You can’t screw up,” she cautioned. “Stefano isn’t the kind of man you cross.”

Pia nodded. “I get that.” She stuffed a strawberry into her mouth. “That’s an even better birthday present than the Kain concert. And I love him. I’m going to have his babies.”

“No, you’re not,” Bianca protested. “I’m not going to get stuck providing for us while you get all the sex and stay home with the kids, you hussy.”

They all laughed and began dancing again. Nicoletta decided maybe she was better at picking friends than she’d thought.


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