Petrov’s Pizzeria was owned and operated by Benito Petrov, a great bear of a man, and his son, Tito. Those who frequented the Pizzeria and stood in line, sometimes for an hour just to get in, considered it the best pizza in Chicago—and that was saying a lot. It didn’t seem to matter what night of the week it was, getting a table was always difficult and weekends, it was nearly impossible. Takeout was a brisk business and that was always a wait as well.
The Pizzeria was right in the heart of Ferraro territory, a large section of businesses and homes that were owned, rented, or leased and protected by the Ferraro family. There were whispers and rumors about the family and had been for years. It was said one could go to them with a problem and that problem would mysteriously go away.
Stefano Ferraro was head of the family and he ruled with an iron fist. They owned banks and hotels, race cars and nightclubs, and they ran all sorts of other businesses, but they could be counted on to take care of the small problems in their territory. They knew the business owners by name and often were seen patronizing the local deli or pizzeria.
Benito kept a booth just for their family and a smaller table set aside for their bodyguards. It was always empty for them, even at his busiest times. They’d never asked him to do so, but then they’d helped him out of more than one problem and he liked their business. They always insisted on paying and they tipped his waitresses and waiters more than fairly. It was a win-win situation.
Tonight, only the youngest Ferraro had slipped into the pizzeria through the side door, her bodyguards and Elie Archambault with her. Everyone hoped there would be an announcement very soon of an engagement between Emmanuelle and Elie. Emme was a favorite of everyone in the Ferraro territory and she’d seemed far too sad lately. Elie seemed to make her laugh and they wanted Emme happy.
Emmanuelle Ferraro laughed as she dipped a salty breadstick into oil and took a bite. The booth in the shadows managed to hide her from most of the other patrons in the restaurant which was why this particular table was always held in reserve for the Ferraro family. She was extremely grateful they had a place to go just to be ‘normal’ when she never felt as if she could truly relax anywhere else. Eating pizza at Petrov’s with Elie Archambault was the most relaxed she could ever get and she was extremely happy that she could have this little time to pretend her life was ordinary.
“I can’t believe the first thing you put on the plus side of this list was having babies.” Elie glared at her.
Her laughter spilled out again at the feigned horror on his face. He was handsome. Shockingly so. All masculine and hard edges. That black hair that spilled across his forehead and made women want to tame it.
“I am not just a sperm donor,” he stated with great dignity.
She waved the breadstick at him. “Don’t be such a baby. This is very serious stuff. My mother expects little Archambaults running around. Tons of them. Like maybe a dozen. Think about that, Elie. We would make beautiful babies. And since my mother and the devil have some sort of pact between them, and she loves you and the thought of your babies, that tops the list for pros. I hope you’re really good with kids and like the idea of staying home with them. I’m sure she’ll be around a lot because she’s not allowed in any of my brothers’ homes. She’s been banned from every single one of their houses.”
Elie groaned. “That goes on the con list. The staying home with the kids and your mother.”
“You already wrote my mother. She’s at the very top of the con list,” Emme pointed with her breadstick. “Number one.”
“Your mother warrants putting down there twice. Add staying home with a dozen children to that con list. I’m a shadow rider. I don’t stay home with children. That would be your job.”
Emmanuelle made a face at him. “Why? Because I’m a woman?”
“No, because you’re the one with the mother insisting on twelve children. Move on or we’re never getting through the list,” Elie commanded, helping himself to salami and olives. He glanced down at the list and sighed. “Your second pro is that I like the same pizza you do? Emme. Couldn’t it be that I’m really damn good-looking?”
“No, because you already know you’re good-looking and that makes you arrogant.” She gestured toward the ‘con’ list. “I think that’s number like six or seven. Arrogance. I had a difficult time deciding whether or not to put it up at the top of the list. I think I should have.”
He stared at her with his dark, gorgeous eyes. They looked almost velvet in the dim lighting. “Really? You put arrogant on the ‘con’ list?”
“You put moody.”
“You are moody,” he pointed out matter-of-factly and took the rest of the salami and olives without a qualm.
She made a face at him. “I suppose that could be true. But I have reason to be. See your number one reason on the con list, Elie. My mother.”
“I have reason to be arrogant. My hot good looks that you left off the pro list. That’s an asset to you at any event we attend together. Think of all the women you can make jealous.”
Emme rolled her eyes. “You just ate the last of the olives. That makes me jealous. You know I love olives. I’ve told you a million times to stop hogging all the olives.” She wadded up a napkin and threw it at him.
He caught it one-handed without even looking up. “You shouldn’t talk so much,” Elie said, glancing down at the pro side of the list. “You’re right, we do like all the same things. That’s a big plus. And I can dance. That’s a plus on my list too. I like that you can.”
“Pie’s up, you two.” Tito Petrov placed a large pizza on the table top. “Need a refill on your wine?”
“Olives,” They both said simultaneously and then burst out laughing.
“The double order of olives on your pie isn’t enough?” Tito asked, one eyebrow raised. When they shook their heads, he sighed. “There’s something seriously wrong with the two of you, you know that, right?”
Elie waited until Tito walked away and then he nudged Emme with his knee. “He’s right. We’re sitting in here like two idiots going over a list of pros and cons to decide whether or not we should get married. Bottom line, we can’t have sex with each other. Where does leave us? I can’t cheat on you, because I love and respect you too much to do that to you and I’m not going the rest of my life without sex.”
Emme sighed heavily. “I know. I feel the same. What’s wrong with us, Elie? You are gorgeous. Totally attractive. Hot as hell. Why do I have to think of you as a sibling? It’s just not fair.”
“I guess we’re going to have to marry strangers. That just sucks.” Elie picked up a piece of very hot pizza and regarded her with his expressive dark eyes.
“And then what? We cheat on some poor innocent partner because we don’t love them? How fair is that to them?” Emme asked. She broke off a piece of the pizza as well, picked up several loose pieces of olives and added them to the slice.
“When I go with an arranged marriage, I’m not cheating,” Elie said.
Emmanuelle noticed he was already acting as if he’d made up his mind. Really, what was there left to them? She tried to make a joke out of it. Keep the night fun. “So, have you considered bringing in partners to live with us? It would be horrifying to my mother.”
She danced her eyebrows up and down, a wide smile on her face at that mere thought. “As well as scandalous to the rider community. Can you imagine? It would solve all our problems. They could stay home and take care of the dozens of little shadow rider babies my mother will insist we have. And, we won’t be the good couple. All my brothers have managed to be so deliciously bad that my mother wouldn’t dare go unannounced to their homes. If we don’t do something equally as bad, she would be turning up uninvited at all hours of the day or night. Bringing in lovers for us would be so perfect.”
Elie threw his back and laughed. “Emmanuelle Ferraro, you are a handful.”
She took a bite of the pizza and nodded her head feeling very pleased with herself. “I am. I had to be, growing up with all those brothers. Stefano especially. No one crosses Stefano, not even my mother. Not even when he was a kid. Now, of course, she doesn’t dare ‘drop in’. She’s been banned for being so mean to Francesca, but even if she hadn’t been, she wouldn’t have dared just showed up. When Stefano wants sex, it doesn’t matter where he is, what room he’s in, he’s all over that and he’s very inventive and unapologetic. He’s a crazy man, so Eloisa would never drop in on him.”
Elie laughed again. “I have to admire your oldest brother. It feels like he’s always been in charge of the Ferraro riders. Everyone defers to him.”
Shadow Riders meted out justice to criminals who fell through the cracks —those with too much money, power or were just too dangerous to be convicted. Safeguards were in place to ensure no mistakes and those they assassinated had committed horrendous crimes, at the end of the day, they were trained killers. They had begun their training as toddlers.
There were portals in the shadows. A very few people were born with the ability to be drawn into those portals and move from place to place. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation, in fact it felt as if one’s entire body was being pulled apart, skin, bones, every cell, as one was taken at high speed from an area to another. Those riders had to be trained physically from an early age and have a tremendous amount of stamina to be able to withstand the pressure of the shadow tubes.
“Stefano’s been in charge of our family and our riders since I was born. He was the one taking care of me, not my parents,” Emme said. “My mother wasn’t in the least bit maternal. Stefano got up with me in the middle of the night. He was the one who set all the rules. Once, I remember, when I was about four, she was really angry with me and slapped me. He came roaring out of nowhere, and she backed right out of the room when he scooped me up. She actually left the house he was so angry. I realized then the balance of power had shifted from her to him.”
“How interesting. Stefano had to have been so young when he started taking care of all of you.”
Emme inclined her head. She’d often wondered if her oldest sibling had ever had a childhood at all. Sometimes, it made her sad to think of all the responsibilities Stefano had taken on at such a young age. Still, he had met Francesca, the love of his life and the heart of the Ferraro family. All of them loved her. Who could not? Well, maybe not Eloisa, Emmanuelle’s mother. But then, Emmanuelle wasn’t certain if Eloisa was capable of loving anyone. Now, Stefano had Francesca who doted on him, adored him and had provided him with Crispino, a beautiful son.
“What about Ricco?” Elie asked. “How does he keep your mother from showing up without an invitation? I can’t imagine Eloisa not respecting Mariko. She’s a shadow rider and a darn good one. I’ve seen your mother with her. She’s curt, but at least respectful.”
Emme had a mouthful of pizza so she nodded while she chewed to indicate Elie was on the right track. Ricco was her second to the oldest sibling and he was a powerful, fast shadow rider married to a very respected rider who looked like a delicate beautiful woman when in fact she was a warrior who could cut out the heart of a monster. When Emme managed to swallow the pizza she flashed Elie a wide smile.
“Shibari. My brother practices the art of Shibari and loves to tie his beautiful wife up without a stitch on. It’s a very erotic practice when they do it together and apparently after warning Eloisa several times to stop dropping in on them, he didn’t put any of the safety precautions in the shadows to stop her and she walked in on them. As you can imagine, it was embarrassing for her. Ricco was in the zone and acted as if he didn’t even notice her there. She was livid and left, but she never went back.” She took another bite of pizza and watched his face as she chewed.
“Sex seems to be a recurring theme here.”
“You have no idea. Stop putting all the extra olives on your slice. I’m watching you.”
“There are plenty of olives. Giovanni and Sasha? She’s a sweet little country girl.”
Emmanuelle nearly dropped her wine glass. “Really, Elie? You’ve been around our family for how long now? There is no way one of my brothers is going to be madly in love with a woman who doesn’t have the kind of wicked sex drive he does. And if she doesn’t start out that way, he’s going to teach her.”
Elie expression shifted. It was subtle, but Emmanuelle had been trained from the time she was a child to notice every detail of anyone around her and she had come to love Elie Archambault almost as much as she loved her brothers. She hurt for him because, like her, she knew he was heartbroken and he believed whatever had happened couldn’t be fixed. Elie had aligned himself with her almost from the time he had come to Chicago seeking to be trained by her cousin Enzo as a bodyguard. Why, one of the best shadow riders in the world would want to be a bodyguard instead of a rider was a mystery, but eventually, when Stefano realized who he was, being Stefano, he had managed to get Elie to take rotations as a rider, pulling him back into their world.
Emmanuelle was grateful Stefano had done so. Elie had improved their speed and technique. He was amazing to train with, but more importantly, Stefano had brought him into the family. He’d needed them as much as she had needed Elie. Shadow Riders had to provide children. It was as simple as that. There weren’t enough of them left and Emmanuelle was getting too close to the age where she would have to accept an arranged marriage.
She had fallen in love. The curse of every Ferraro —they fell in love once and never again. She had very bad taste in men and her choice had turned out to be a liar, a cheat and worse, he’d been playing her all along. The pain was still excruciating. Sometimes, she could barely breathe it hurt so bad, but she was a Ferraro and a rider and she had purpose.
Elie never said what happened —why he had come to Chicago and said he would accept an arranged marriage. By turns there was anger, guilt and pain in him. Of all her brothers —and Emme had six —Elie reminded her most of Stefano. He could be very bossy. Very arrogant. He had charm, but beneath that charm was pure steel.
“I think Sasha and Giovanni are exhibitionists at heart. You don’t dare go to their house, because they aren’t going to be indoors. If you walk up to their car, they might be going at it in their back seat, or front seat. They’re both crazy. Sasha has no inhibitions what-so-ever. I called down the elevator once and he had her pinned against the wall right there. Did he stop? No. He told me to shut the doors and go away.”
Elie laughed. “Yeah, I actually had a little incident with Gee and Sasha once, but I thought it was just me. Caught them going at it in the parking garage. It’s private, but still.” He smacked her hand as she scooped up olives faster than he could get at them. “Woman, that’s going to cost you.”
“You’re lucky it was just once. They’re very inventive.”
“And Vittorio?” Elie lifted one eyebrow. “Grace is as sweet as they come. Well, other than Francesca. Although, she’s hell on wheels in that event planning business of hers.”
“Vittorio is very dominant with Grace. He takes excellent care of her. Grace adores him and gives him anything he wants. It drives Eloisa right up the wall. She thinks Grace is a pushover because she doesn’t oppose Vittorio on much. I think Grace brings him much-needed peace and I love her for that.”
“What you’re really telling me is that Vittorio is a bondage kind of man.”
Emmanuelle rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to stay that out loud in a public place ever. Sheesh. He’s my brother. I’m going to pretend I never heard that word.”
Elie flashed another grin. “No wonder I fit in so well with your family. Bondage. Exhibition. Shibari. Having my way whenever and however I want it. Yeah, I fit.”
She glared at him. “Shibari? What do you know about Shibari? Don’t tell me you actually knew what Ricco did all along?”
“Of course. He’s a proven artist. One of the best. I’ve been interested in it for a long time and have gone to him and his mentor since I first came here. I was practicing when I was in Paris.” He sent her a quick grin.
“I’m covering my delicate ears. I don’t want to know anything else you do.”
Elie laughed, but his eyes didn’t light up. They stayed dark, almost lifeless. She hated that for him.
He changed the subject. “Taviano and Nicoletta? They just got married.”
“I honestly have no idea, but I imagine he isn’t any different from my other brothers, although he has to be gentler with Nicoletta.” Her brothers were all very dominant men. Shadow riders had to be and when one came out of the shadows, the hormones and adrenaline raged. The combination was a very powerful aphrodisiac. She experienced it all the time.
Riding the shadows was extremely dangerous. Moving from one place to another at breakneck speed. Choosing the right tube and ending up at the correct address, usually in a city, far from one’s own in order to bring justice to a criminal who otherwise would get away with a major crime. There was no doubt that shadow riding was both exhilarating and dangerous.
They had lost Ettore, her youngest brother in the shadows. Stefano had gone in after him, found his body and brought him out. He had warned Eloisa over and over that Ettore had no business in the shadows, that his lungs couldn’t take it, but in their family, imperfections weren’t tolerated. Ettore had been forced to work out longer and harder, to prove himself worthy of being a Ferraro. Had Stefano been aware of what their mother was doing, he would have put a stop to it, but Ettore never told him. He practiced and practiced and, in the end, his frail body didn’t hold up under the terrible severity of the shadows.
Emmanuelle leaned toward Elie, taking a chance. Looking at him directly. “Are you going to tell me what you actually did, Elie?” She asked softly. “You don’t have to, but I think you should tell someone and you know I’ll love you no matter what.”
Elie hesitated. Looked away from her. It was the first time she ever saw shame in his eyes. She didn’t like it and felt that particular expression didn’t belong on him.
“I love you, Emme. If I tell you, it doesn’t put me in a very good light. You’re going to think less of me. A hell of a lot less of me and I deserve it. It isn’t like I have that many people in my life who do love me. I count on you.”
“We all do things we’re ashamed of, Elie,” she assured him. “Everyone. There isn’t a person on earth immune. We’d all like to think so, but we’re not. You don’t have to tell me, but I’m here. I just want you to know that. You’ve held it in a long time.”
He sighed. “You get a lot of pressure being a Ferraro. You have to be the best of the best and train all the time. Can you imagine what it’s like being an Archambault? We go from family member to family member even as toddlers. There’s a hierarchy within the family and depending on your abilities —and you’re continually assessed —you’re sent to various families to train. They’re all extremely strict, very exacting.”
He stopped when Berta, the waitress approached to take the empty pizza pan from the table. “Dessert?” She asked brightly.
Both nodded. “The usual,” Elie said.
“Same with drinks?” Berta asked.
“Yes,” Emme confirmed.
Berta went away happy.
“I never had a chance to know my father. I was one of the really promising Archambaults. I picked up everything fast. Languages, art, anything I studied, including how to kill. First time out. It didn’t matter what it was. That meant I was sent from one family to the next. I liked being in the shadows and I liked learning. But it didn’t give me a feeling of home. It didn’t ground me.”
Elie rubbed the bridge of his nose and looked at her. “I was taught languages and how to kill. I was taught to ride shadows and keep maps in my head. I didn’t know the first thing about being in a family. Growing up as teen, you can imagine how they encouraged me to be the best at what I did. Faster, stronger. No one ever one time, mentioned family. Not even my own parents. My mother or father. I became arrogant and full of myself. You know how you get coming out of the shadows, coming off a job, so hot you just want to grab the nearest partner and fuck. Well it was easy for me. I was good at that too. Really good at it and from a very young age. That made me more than arrogant in that department.”
Emme nodded. It was the truth. And she couldn’t see too many women turning Elie down. She rested her chin on the heel of her hand and looked at him across the table. His voice was low with self-loathing.
“I’m not exactly Mr. Nice in the sex department either, Emme. Just so you know. All this was going on while my father had cancer. I didn’t know. The powers-that-be decided I shouldn’t be told. They told my mother not to tell me and she didn’t. I wasn’t even there when he died.” There was bitterness in his voice for the first time. “I was eighteen. They were still deciding my life for me and I was still letting them.”
“Eighteen is a kid, Elie, and if you had been moved from family to family, of course you were letting them decide your life. You didn’t know any other way to live.”
“My mother needed me and I didn’t go to her.”
“You barely knew her.” Emmanuelle didn’t point out that his mother had allowed the Archambaults to take her baby from her and send him from family to family, never bringing him home. She guessed it was because, his mother and father liked being alone together. If they visited their son occasionally, that was enough for them. Not all people were meant to have children and riders were forced to. It didn’t always turn out for the best —at least not for the child. His mother hadn’t insisted her son come home to her after her husband had died either —and she could have. Emmanuelle didn’t point that out either.
“I spent another five years working and learning, riding the shadows and building my reputation,” Elie continued. “I built my reputation with women as well. I preferred models. Tall. Elegant. Long legs. Hot as hell.”
She’d seen the photographs. He’d been all over the magazines, escorting the top runway models in Paris. He’d broken hearts —a lot of hearts.
“I was called into Jean-Claude Archambault’s private home for a formal meeting. He was a member of the counsel. I was told it was time I settled down. There was a girl. A girl, Emme, eighteen fucking years old. A rider who couldn’t cut it. He actually said that. Too soft. But good genes. The best genes for producing riders. Good family. A virgin. He said that too. He named her. Brielle Couture.” His voice softened when he said her name.
Elie raked both hands through his hair, shaking his head as if he could somehow stop his thoughts. Take back his history. “I was so damn sick of Jean-Claude and all the rest of the Archambaults running my life. Dictating to me what I could and couldn’t do. They’d been making noises for some time that I’d better stop running through so many models so fast. They’d heard of the nights of I spent in the sex clubs and they didn’t approve. They wanted it stopped.”
Emmanuelle could believe it. The paparazzi were relentless when it came to wealthy bachelors and scandal. Anyone with Elie’s looks, money, his penchant for famous models and sex clubs would definitely attract attention.
“They knew my taste ran pretty dark when it came to sex, but they were going to throw some little girl at me that didn’t know what the hell she was getting into just to prove to me that they were the ones in control of my life. They didn’t like what I was doing, but it didn’t stop them from giving me more rotations than any other rider in Paris, or having to train with younger riders to try to bring them up to skill levels they couldn’t possibly achieve. For Jean-Claude to dictate to me, tell me I had to marry this child who couldn’t possibly handle my brand of sex was the last straw. I wasn’t having it. I told him off. The problem was, when I told him off, I told him off in entirely the wrong way.”
Berta was back with two Italian sodas and the ice cream they both loved. She put it on the table between them and hurried away. to serve the next customers.
Emmanuelle found herself tense, only because Elie was. Whatever had transpired in that house had been bad. It was there on Elie’s face, pressed into the lines that rarely showed.
He picked up a fork and dug at the very outer edge of the ice cream treat, keeping his eyes on the plate in front of them. “I told Jean-Claude that he was out of his fucking mind if he thought he was going to saddle me with a little child that didn’t know the first thing about sex and would faint at the things I’d demand of her. I told him her breasts and hips were too big and once she had a kid, she’d be a cow for certain, that she was well on her way in that department already. I pointed out that I wasn’t in the least attracted to her and what did he want me to do, close my eyes the entire time I fucked her? I ended rather triumphantly, telling him to go fuck himself that I was done with him telling me what to do and I stalked out —right out into his sitting room. Where little Miss eighteen-year virgin Brielle Couture sat with her hands folded in her lap and her face so white it looked like I slapped her. She’d heard every single word.”
“Elie,” Emmanuelle whispered.
“I accidently stepped into a shadow tube that connected with hers. The jolt was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I knew then what I mistake I’d made, not just in hurting her, because I felt that right down to my bones, but I knew she was the one meant for me. I tried to backtrack, but there was no way to do that.”
“Eighteen is so young, Elie. She wouldn’t have any confidence in herself, especially if she couldn’t make it as a rider either. And to hear your evaluation of her as a woman, that would humiliate her beyond all comprehension. No, there would be no way to back out of that one.” Emmanuelle felt terrible for him and for the unknown Brielle. “What did you do?”
“I apologized to her. I told her I was talking out of my ass because I was so angry at Jean-Claude, which was the truth and I hoped she heard that, but I could tell she didn’t. She didn’t even look at me. She just nodded her head, said it was all right, that she understood and she left. She didn’t run. She walked. Head up. She was actually quite magnificent. I wrote to her several times. My letters came back unopened. I went to her apartment, but she refused to answer the door. I thought about just going in, but that would be wrong, so in the end, I followed my mother to the United States. She was just as tired of the Archambaults telling her what to do as I was.”
There was something in Elie’s voice that alerted her. “What happened with your mother, Elie?”
“Turns out, she wasn’t all that thrilled to see me either, Emme. She said I look too much like my father. She didn’t really know me. It was nice to have dinner occasionally, but seeing me every day was just a little too much. It was easier for everyone to think my mother and I have this great relationship and that I came here to be with her after my father died so I let all of you think that.”
“I can understand, and actually, in a way it’s the truth. The timeline is a little off. Your mother didn’t come here right after your father died, did she?”
He shook his head. “When I realized she didn’t need me hanging around, and I needed action, I joined the military. You know the rest. While I was in the military, I continued to ride shadows because I couldn’t stay out of them and to stay in practice. I was careful never to get caught. When I came to Chicago, I was going to end my riding career and be a bodyguard, but I guess, once it’s in your blood, you can’t just let it go.”
“And you’re needed, Elie,” Emme reminded gently.
He nodded. There was no denying that fact. There weren’t enough riders. There never would be. “We’re back to needing those babies, aren’t we, Emme? The ones we can’t really have together. Are you going to tell me how you managed to fuck up your life? I can’t imagine that you called your man a cow. And how I ever even came up with such a demeaning term for a woman who looks as beautiful as Brielle, I’ll never know. She isn’t a tall, elegant model, she actually has breasts and hips, but fuck, Emme, what I did to that woman. I hurt her beyond any imagination.” He scrubbed his hand over his face as if he could wipe away the memory.
Emmanuelle studied his expression for a long time and then she sighed. She had to give him something. “I just chose the wrong man. You saw him dozens of times, Elie.”
He lifted his head and looked at her. “Valentino Saldi is not a rider, Emme. Ferraro’s fall in love once, same as an Archambault. Saldi couldn’t compromise your shadow.”
She took a sip of her Italian soda, her gaze darting around to the tables closest to them, landing specifically on the one where their bodyguards ate pizza and drank coffee. “I tried to talk to my brothers about this more than once when I was a kid, but they wouldn’t listen to me, Elie.”
She lowered her voice to the point that he would have to hitch forward. If he really wanted to hear what she had to say, she wasn’t taking any chances. Elie, to his credit leaned toward her, even though he did take a rather large forkful of ice cream.
“You were around the council a lot. Did you ever hear of anything other than pure shadows weaving two people so tightly together they can’t get away?”
Elie sat up straight, his dark, velvet brown eyes moving over her face inch by slow inch as if he was examining her carefully. “What the hell does that even mean, Emme?”
She sighed. “Apparently you haven’t.”
Elie leaned toward her again. “Is there any evidence? When we look at shadows, we can see the knots tangled. Can you see something in the shadows binding you when they’re reflected on a wall?”
She nodded slowly, her teeth biting down on her lower lip. Once again, she glanced toward the table where their bodyguards sat enjoying food. “From the very first time I was ever around him at a party. I snuck out and went with a friend of mine. I wanted to see if I could do it because my brothers were always going places but I wasn’t supposed to.” She flashed him a little grin. “Naturally, I slipped right past them all.”
“They weren’t expecting it, were they?”
“Nope, not from good girl, little Emme.” Her breath caught in her throat. “Val was so good looking and I was so young and impressionable. I stayed across the room. He was a Saldi and I was a Ferraro. I knew I shouldn’t be there. I knew Stefano would lose his mind. I didn’t dance or drink. I stayed in a dark corner. I didn’t want him to see me. I don’t know why I was so afraid of him, but I was and I’ve never been afraid of anyone.”
Elie shook his head. “That should have told you something right there, Emme. You should have acted on your instincts and gotten the hell out of there.”
She nodded because it was the truth. “I know. I knew then. I felt trapped. I was afraid if I moved, I’d call attention to myself.” She swallowed hard wondering what to tell him. Elie had been so honest, it was only fair she was just as honest. But he was an Archambault and a rider. She didn’t want Val dead and if she wasn’t very, very careful, if she didn’t walk a fine line, that could be the results of the conversation.
“I could barely breathe, when Valentino Saldi looked across the room and his eyes met mine for the very first time, they were extremely intense, Elie and so damn green. The pit of my stomach dropped away. I couldn’t have moved if my life depended on it. He stood, a casual, almost flowing move, very controlled and my heart accelerated. I was a trained shadow rider, and I couldn’t stop my reaction. I knew he was going to walk right through that crowd straight to me. His shoulders were broad, his hair thick and glossy black. He was the most handsome man I’d ever seen. I remember every single detail so vividly.”
Emmanuelle pressed the heels of her hand to her eyes. Even now, after all this time, after all the things she knew about Val, her memories of him still had the power to move her.
“I had to fight for air when my lungs were burning. The dim lighting threw shadows on the wall. I’d deliberately sat in the corner near a shadow so I could step into a tube to escape if there was an emergency. I remember thinking maybe it wasn’t such a good idea. Something very peculiar was happening as Valentino approached. He stopped, frowning, when his shadow hit mine. I felt an overwhelming jolt and I could see it hit him too. It was a physical, sexual fireball rushing through my entire body straight to my sex.”
“How could that happen when he isn’t a rider?” Elie asked in a low voice, frowning. He looked every inch an Archambault in that moment. A member of the famed French family with many branches —the only family that could bring justice to riders when they went rogue.
“I have no idea. I really don’t.” Emmanuelle couldn’t look at him. “I was sixteen, Elie. I’d never experienced anything like that in my life and I was embarrassed. I looked at the wall expecting to see our shadows knotting. I’d been told what could happen, of course, but I the actual experience was so mind-blowing and frightening for someone so inexperienced, I was stunned.”
She pressed a hand to her hair and found it was trembling, just as it had been that night. “I glanced at our shadows on the wall, expecting to see them tangling together the way it was described to me, but that wasn’t happening.”
Elie frowned, forgetting he had a forkful of ice-cream halfway to his mouth. “It wasn’t?”
She shook her head. “There were these ropes, like a million cords rushing toward my shadow. It was terrifying. I could see them coming out from his shadow. Each time one of those ropes touched my shadow, it wrapped around it really fast, almost like a chain. I knew immediately if I didn’t get out of there, and more managed to attach I was going to be in trouble.”
Her heart had gone crazy. She’d been so scared. “I felt as if I was being taken prisoner. The only thing I could think to do to save myself, was get rid of the light throwing the shadow. That meant I didn’t have a way to escape fast, but whatever was happening to trap me would be stopped. Honestly, the phenomenon was so frightening, I nearly had a panic attack.”
“Emme.” He breathed her name and reached over to take her hand. “You didn’t go directly to Stefano?”
She shook her head. “It wasn’t Valentino’s fault any more than it was mine. I could tell he was just as shocked. The awareness between us was very sexual. He was older and he didn’t like it. We talked for a little while and I found him to be very sweet and gentle. He was a gentleman the entire time and ended up escorting me home. I thought that would be the end of it, but found myself obsessing over him. Evidently, he found himself obsessing over me.”
“Why didn’t you tell Stefano?”
“I actually tried to. He found out I’d snuck out and he was furious. I kept trying to talk to him about what happened, but every time Valentino’s name came up, all of my brothers lost their collective minds. I was afraid they might actually hurt Val if I did manage to describe to them what happened to our shadows and how it made me feel. In the end, I kept it to myself.”
“But you continued to see Val after that?” Elie prompted.
She nodded. “It was difficult to stay away. I tried. I was afraid of him, of the way I was so drawn to him, and I didn’t want my shadow anywhere near his. I was careful to stay in the dark or absolute light where our shadows couldn’t touch. I learned to be very aware all the time.”
“Was he? Did he seem aware of the phenomenon?” Elie asked.
Emmanuelle knew it wasn’t just her friend and almost-sibling questioning her now. This was definitely an Archambault. She pulled back, sitting up straight and drinking her Italian soda to give herself time to think before answering. Was she still protecting Val? Why would she be? That made no sense. Still, she was reluctant to talk about this.
“Yes, he was definitely aware of it as well. We both found it disturbing. I couldn’t talk about shadow riding, of course, so I pleaded ignorance as to what it all could mean. Eventually, we couldn’t —or didn’t —ignore the physical pull between us. He waited until I was old eighteen.” That was putting it mildly. The need to be with Val had been raging. Brutal. Irresistible. She had thought he had felt the same way. Most days, she still couldn’t get from one breath to the next without needing him. “I was still as careful as I could be, watching over my shadow.” That was true, although she hadn’t been careful enough.
“Did he, at any time, allude to shadow riding?”
“No. Had he done that, I would have gone to Stefano immediately.” She would have. There was no doubt in her mind. She would never have risked her family. Never. She knew the truth was in her voice for Elie to hear.
“Did he really betray you, Emme? The way you said he did?”
She nodded slowly, the hurt ripping through her every bit as physical as it was emotional. She stood in the shadows, in his bedroom. She hadn’t been able to hold out any longer and she’d gone to him, ready to commit to their relationship.
“I was going to tell him I loved him. I would have given up shadow riding for him. Being a Ferraro. Everything I am to be with him. I went to him and he was with another woman. In his bedroom. She asked about me, told him she heard he was with him. He kind of snickered and said I was just business. He’d been ordered to make me fall in love with him and was fucking me to get me to spill the Ferraro secrets. Did he really want to be with a spoiled baby who didn’t know jack about sex? That’s why Vittorio beat the shit out of him at the hotel that day. I inadvertently said something. I had before, but no one was really listening to what I said, I guess.”
Elie groaned. “For fuck’s sake, Emme. I practically said the same thing about Brielle. How can you even look at me?”
“Clearly, you aren’t Valentino Saldi,” Emme said. “You hate what you did to Brielle and tried to apologize. She just didn’t give you the chance.”
Elie was silent for a long time. He swirled his straw and then looked up at her, his dark eyes pure velvet. “Has Val ever tried to explain to you what he said and did?”
She felt the color drain from her face. Her body went stiff with shock. “Yes. Many times. I can’t listen to him. I don’t dare let myself.” She whispered the confession like a terrified child.
“Why, Emme? You’re a Ferraro. A Shadow Rider. Why are you so afraid of Valentino Saldi? It shouldn’t matter how sexually attracted you are to him or how emotionally attached. You can hear lies. You can hear them. You know if he speaks the truth. Brielle could have heard the truth if she wanted to hear it. She didn’t. She chose to live with that hurt and she condemned me and someone else to an arranged marriage because she didn’t have the courage to at least let me explain. Yeah, what I did was wrong. It was so fucked up it wasn’t funny, but she’s not without blame either because she didn’t even once let me try to explain in all the times I reached out to her.”
Emmanuelle wanted to put her hands over her ears and drown him out. “Sometimes the cut is so deep, Elie, you can’t bear to ever go there again.”
“Maybe you’re right, Emme. But think about the poor bastard you’re condemning to living with you who will never have real love from you. Your loyalty, yes, but never your love and he’ll know it. He’ll feel it, every damn day of his life.”
“That’s not fair and you know it. You can hardly compare Valentino Saldi, a criminal, with your situation. That’s what you’re doing.”
“Technically, Emme,” Elie said, complacent as always. “We’re criminals. We’re assassins. We kill people any way we look at it. You don’t know what Val does or doesn’t do. Even Stefano isn’t certain of Val. I know because I asked him.”
Emmanuelle’s phone vibrated and she pulled it out of her pocket with a little sigh, grateful for the respite. She didn’t want to talk about Valentino Saldi anymore. She didn’t want to think about him. She hadn’t slept in months. She’d cried so many tears she was pretty certain she could have filled a lake. Still, there was an emptiness in her, a pain that just wouldn’t go away. There was no way to explain that to Elie. He’d said hurtful things to a woman, but he didn’t know her. She’d spent time with Valentino for years. He’d made love to her. He’d taken her rough, gentle, slow, fast, looking into her eyes.
She was not going to cry right there in the pizzeria. She clutched her phone like a lifeline and looked down at the message. For a moment she didn’t actually comprehend what she was seeing. Not who it was from or what it meant. Dario. Val’s bodyguard and lieutenant. She thought she’d purged every number. Blocked them all. Why would he reach out to her of all people even if there was an emergency? This made no sense. Her heart began to pound to in alarm.
911. Tell no 1 or he’s dead. Hurry. Place you met last.