Shadow Reaper: Chapter 20

“It’s been a month,” Mariko said softly. She’d filled her days with making Ricco’s house her home. He’d told her to change anything she wanted and she took him at his word. The International Council had decreed that the families pay restitution to her and Ricco. Hers was an enormous sum, one she could barely deal with. She’d turned the headache of all that money to Ricco’s financial people.

She made her way through the house to the Japanese garden. It had become her favorite place since her brother’s death. There was no reason to go back to Japan, although she would always love her country. She couldn’t bear going there when there was no one to go to. She crossed the bridge over the koi pond, pausing to watch the fish swimming lazily. She found peace in watching them, naming them, studying the variety of koi and trying to identify them.

Ricco had been more than good to her–always patient–never asking anything of her. They shared the same bed and he hadn’t touched her until she’d turned to him. He was gentle with her, loving, never going wild, and she often sensed the restraint in him but hadn’t had the energy to tell him she wanted his wild. Or his Shibari. She’d heard him several times in the workout room, hitting the heavy bag, and she hadn’t gone to him. She should have.


Emmanuelle’s voice made her smile. She looked up and both Emmanuelle and Francesca were walking toward her. She stopped at the entrance to the elaborate tea house that Ricco had built in his garden. It was traditional style and very beautiful. She loved it and spent quite a bit of time there meditating. Emmanuelle and Francesca came every day to see her and knew to find her in the tea house.

She flashed a genuine smile, the first she’d felt in a month. “I’m glad you’ve come,” she greeted. “I’ll make us tea. There are things that need to be said.”

Emmanuelle and Francesca exchanged a worried frown. “Things that need to be said?” Francesca echoed. “Do you need us to get Ricco? Are you all right?”

“Finally. I’m finally all right.” Mariko stepped into the tea house and looked around it. There was peace and serenity in this building. “Ricco told me he’d built this place of meditation hoping someday to find a woman who would enjoy it with him. I know I’m that woman. I was born to be that woman.” She said it with absolute confidence.

Francesca and Emmanuelle looked relieved. They followed her into the building and sank down onto the comfortable low chairs across from her. The sound of the waterfall traveling downhill over the rocks to fall into the pool soothed her. She looked at their faces. She had come to love them in the last month. They’d been as patient as Ricco with her. Neither pushed, but they let her know they were there.

“I have to let Ryuu go. The brother I loved so much died that day when I lost the rest of my family. He never had the chance to have a normal life. I was clinging to the man I wanted him to be, the one I made up in my head in order to survive. That man wasn’t my brother.” She looked down at her hands. “I’ve grieved long enough for someone who didn’t exist.”

She looked up at the two women who had been her constant support. “I have a family now, and I’m not going to risk losing it to cling to someone who never actually existed. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come to that realization.”

“You have the right to take all the time you need,” Emmanuelle assured. “We are your family and we’ll always be here for you.”

The dark shadow in Mariko, the one that had been weighing her down for so many weeks, lifted even further. “I’ve never been a part of a family that I can remember, so I’m going to make mistakes. I hope you both will find it in you to be tolerant.”

Francesca laughed softly. “We’re Ferraros. We have to be tolerant of one another. You might want to remember that today.”

“Today? What’s different about today?”

Francesca and Emmanuelle exchanged another look and then both turned their full attention on her, eyes sparkling with mischief, reminding her of Ricco when he was up to something–which was often.

“Oh dear. What are you up to now? If you make me a part of it, how upset is Ricco going to be?”

“Ricco isn’t as patient as he might be, not when it comes to you,” Francesca said.

Mariko shook her head. “No, he’s been amazing. Far better than I deserve. I lost sight of what I had right in front of me. I’m lucky he is so patient. Another man might have walked away.”

“If he walked away, Mariko,” Emmanuelle said, “he didn’t really love you in the first place and you’d be better off without him.”

There was something in her voice that had both women looking sharply at her. She flashed them a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. She shook her head and forced a smile. “We’ve come to help you get ready.”

“Ready for what? There’s nothing on the calendar. Did I miss an important event?” Her stomach tightened. They really were up to something, and her gut told her it was big.

“Just the fact that you’re getting married today.”

Mariko’s breath stilled in her lungs. Ricco had been watching her closely, but he hadn’t brought up marriage other than to have her fill out the necessary papers to apply for residency since she wasn’t from the United States. “That’s impossible.”

“Ricco is a Ferraro. Nothing is impossible. We brought everything for you to get ready. Stefano is giving you away and we’re standing up for you.” Emmanuelle looked immensely pleased at the idea.

“But I’ve been so difficult lately,” Mariko said. “No.” She shook her head. “I need to talk to him first.” She had to tell him she was sorry for spending so much time mourning a brother, mother and father who were never real in her life.

Francesca flashed another smile. “At least you aren’t protesting getting married. If you did, he said we were to remind you of your promise.”

Mariko rolled her eyes. Of course he would throw that silly promise at her–that she’d marry him at the time he chose. So, he was choosing now. She was thankful that she’d come to the realization that the family she had right in front of her, the people willing to love her, were worth far more than the ones who had rejected her.

If he was insisting on marrying her without any preparation, at least the wedding would have to be small, not the huge event the paparazzi would attend and splash across the cover of every magazine. She didn’t want a billionaire’s wedding. Or even a celebrity’s wedding. She wanted the ceremony to be about them, not about the hundred-thousand-dollar dress and fifty-thousand-dollar cake.

“We need to get started,” Emmanuelle said. “Ricco might have decreed you get married today, but he doesn’t know what we’ve got planned.”

“Rose petals for your bed. Tons of them,” Francesca said.

“I’ve got a few plans as well,” Mariko said. “Let’s get started. At least I’ve just bathed.” She’d been late getting up and Ricco had already been gone. She was upset with herself over that. He liked early morning sex and yet he hadn’t disturbed her. That might have been the catalyst for her finally realizing she was throwing away something good over something unreal.

The next two hours went by very quickly. The two women styled her hair simply, pulling it back to let it hang in loose curls down her neck. They did her makeup flawlessly, smoky eyes and an accent of dark lipstick that made her look terribly sexy.

Her gown was her dream gown, one
from a designer, Yumi Katsuri. She’d loved her work and often looked at the gowns online, never thinking she’d actually get married in one of her creations. She had mentioned the designer one time to Ricco, in passing, and he must have remembered. Of course he had. He remembered everything she said to him. If he thought it important enough, he took the time to get whatever it was, or do it for her immediately. He had discussed having the designer make her a one-of-a-kind gown, but she didn’t want to spend that kind of money.

Even though she now could buy anything she wanted, she had been very frugal growing up and living on the tiny amount she was given. Everything she bought had been carefully chosen. She’d seen so much poverty and so many others in need that she’d been very grateful for what she had. She wanted to stay that way, and she wanted her children to value what they had and be aware of what others didn’t. In her mind, it was a splurge to have a wedding gown so beautiful, and as it was, she knew the gown chosen was expensive, just not by Ferraro standards.

It had a modified ivory halter top, fitted to her perfectly. The dress dropped into swirls of white tulle, layer after layer, so it appeared light and airy.

Mariko touched the dress reverently and then brushed her hand along the Swarovski crystals adorning the top. “I love the crystals.” It was becoming real now that she had the dress on. Her heart began to pound. She was marrying Ricco Ferraro. She would be his wife, beloved by him, cherished by him. It seemed a fairy tale, something she might have read about in one of the thousands of books she’d read. She never believed she would find a man who would really love her, let alone make her the center of his universe.

“Um, honey,” Francesca said. “Those aren’t crystals.”

Mariko frowned, her eyes meeting Francesca’s in the mirror. “They are. Believe me, I’ve read the description of this dress a million times. I’ve always loved it.”

“This dress was specially made for you. Those are diamonds.”

Mariko’s breath caught in her throat. “He didn’t.”

“I’m afraid he did,” Emmanuelle said. “It was fitted just for you and the neckline made with diamonds. He said something about how he loved the way diamonds looked on your bare skin and he wanted to see that when you came up the aisle toward him. He also sent these earrings and a necklace.”

She produced chandelier earrings dripping with diamonds and a matching necklace. They felt cool against her skin, and when she looked in the mirror she was shocked at how beautiful she appeared. She had to blink back tears. Ricco had given that to her as well. She never would have considered herself beautiful if he hadn’t made her see herself that way.

She might have protested the diamonds, but she knew he was referring to his Shibari–no–their Shibari. He was talking to her the way he had with his ropes. Telling her he loved her, and she heard every word. She refused to dwell one moment longer in her past. She hoped he heard her when she told him back.

She didn’t ask questions, but let Francesca and Emmanuelle get her ready. They spent time getting ready and then the limousine was there to pick them up. Enzo was driving and he whistled softly as she was escorted out. Stefano was already inside and he smiled at her as Emilio handed her in.

“You look beautiful, Mariko,” he greeted.

“Thank you. You look quite handsome in that tuxedo.” He did. Ferraro men were made for suits.

“Are you ready for this? He’s railroading you.”

“You’re helping.”

He laughed. “Of course I’m helping him. You don’t think I’m going to chance the best thing he’s ever had in his life getting away from him, do you?”

“Your family is the best thing that ever happened to him, Stefano. Maybe within that family, it’s you. You’re the one who gave your siblings that closeness.”

Francesca and Emmanuelle had both slipped into the limousine as well. “You got that right,” Emmanuelle agreed, flashing a loving smile at her brother. “Of course, he’s terribly bossy.”

Stefano’s eyebrows shot up. “Bossy isn’t the same thing as boss.”

“You’re both,” Francesca and Emmanuelle said in unison.

Even Emilio smirked a little at that. Mariko looked down at her hands. She felt the love in the vehicle, emanating from the others. Even Stefano’s cousins. She was part of that circle because they’d made room for her. The brothers treated her just as they did Francesca and Emmanuelle, as if she were the most precious treasure in all the world. It was a little disconcerting after she’d been ignored, beaten or shamed for her entire life. Some days she wasn’t certain how to respond so she stayed very quiet.

After realizing that her depression and grief over losing her brother were keeping her from enjoying what she had, she was determined to grab life with both hands. Every single day with Ricco would be a miracle to her. She knew she loved him and she believed he loved her. She knew there would be doubts, she was conditioned to doubt herself, but she would use the ropes to stop the voices, just as Ricco did.

She should have asked where they were going. She didn’t because it hadn’t mattered–until she got there. She thought a small ceremony, just the family. It was a church, and not only the family but half or more than half the people living and working in the Ferraro territory were seated, waiting for the bride. She knew because she peeked out the door where she waited with Stefano, Emmanuelle and Francesca. She should have known. They were so loyal to the Ferraros, going so far as to try to defend them when they were under attack. It stood to reason that the family would invite them. She recognized Nicoletta, Lucia and Amo near the front, right behind the family pew. Signora Moretti was there as well. That was all she recognized in the sea of faces because she began to feel a little faint.

She was a woman of the shadows, not just when she was working but when she was home. She tried to disappear into corners, not be in the spotlight. She didn’t know if she could follow through and walk out there, even under Stefano’s protection. She shut the door and leaned against it, fighting for air.

“He invited everyone.”

Emmanuelle nodded, going to her side to urge her to sit. Francesca brought her a glass of water. “Our cousins from New York are here, that’s why the church seems so full. We have a lot of family. We wanted all the cousins to know you.”

She knew why. They were all close and they protected one another, unlike the family she grew up in. “I need him.”

“He can’t see you before the wedding,” Francesca protested.

“I need him right now,” Mariko said, desperate. If he didn’t get there, she didn’t know what she would do. Run? She’d never humiliate him that way, but she might faint, or worse, throw up on her way down the aisle to him. “Please go get him.”

Stefano slipped out the door, and Mariko counted her heartbeats until Ricco came in. He looked a little wary, as if she might be about to tell him she was going to run, but he went straight to her. She stood and he gasped, his eyes moving over her. Something in her settled at the look on his face. She had no idea how he had come to love her so much, but she not only saw the intensity in the naked emotion on his face, she felt it as well.

“Dio, farfallina mia, you are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

He believed that, too. She let her breath out, not realizing she’d been holding it, waiting for him. “I needed to see you. I know it’s supposed to be bad luck before the wedding, but . . .” She trailed off. She didn’t know exactly what she needed from him or why, only that it was imperative or she couldn’t walk out of the safety of the room.

He smiled, and his smile was gorgeous. He took the step separating them and pulled her into his arms. He smelled like Ricco. Wonderful. Familiar. Hers.

“Don’t kiss her, you goof,” Emmanuelle ordered. “You’ll mess up her makeup.”

His finger slid down the nape of her neck, a gesture that always steadied her. That’s what she needed. To know she was his. That she belonged. That he thought her strong and confident as a woman, just as she was as a rider.

“Emme, don’t you have more lipstick? You’re killing me here. Look at her. Don’t you want to kiss her?”

“Well, of course, just not quite in the same way,” Emmanuelle replied, her voice droll.

Mariko burst out laughing. “I’m fine now. Go wait for me.”

“That’s it? You’re okay now?” His eyes searched her face.

She nodded. “I just needed to see you. To know.”

He understood. “You should always know. Now that I’ve seen you in that dress, you know every second of the reception is going to be hell.”

The reception was hell. Every touch, every look. The dances. The slow music while he held her in his arms, her body moving in perfect rhythm with his. She loved dancing with him. Loved it. Being in his arms and floating across the floor together was an experience she never thought she’d have. She didn’t know too much about dancing, but he was extremely good at guiding her every move.

“I’m sorry it took me so long to realize that grieving for Ryuu when he didn’t love me, when he conspired to help Osamu kill all of us, me, you, your entire family, even Nao, was ridiculous.” Even saying it still hurt. Her brother. Her one family member wanted her dead, refused to even acknowledge a connection between them.

“Don’t apologize, Mariko. You loved him. There’s nothing wrong with your feelings for him. You loved him all these years, just as you should have. He’s the one who was poisoned.” He brushed her mouth gently with his.

The touch of his lips against hers sent butterflies winging through her stomach. She knew she’d always feel that way just looking at him.

“I’m just sorry it took so long to come to the realization of what I had in my life.”

He whirled her out of danger when another couple came too close. “The truth is, amore, I would wait a lifetime for you.”

There was honesty in his voice and it set her heart beating double time. She had a family. A man who loved her. It was everything she’d ever wanted. They danced the evening away, Mariko feeling like a fairy princess. The limousine took them home. She loved the sight of their house, the high fence and iron gates surrounding the extensive gardens.

“I can’t wait to get you inside,” Ricco said.

The sensual lines carved deep in his face took her breath. She felt as if she’d been waiting a lifetime, her body so sensitive and ready for his. She was grateful she wasn’t alone in the way she was feeling.

He held her hand into the hou
se as if he thought she might run from him. He led her straight to the elevator to the second floor instead of taking the stairs. In the elevator, he began slipping the long row of pearl buttons down her back from their loops. She loved that he was so focused on getting her out of her dress that he stopped in the hallway to finish, encouraging her to step out of the lace concoction. Mariko did so, standing in the hall in her ivory lace, barely there, thong and garters, high heels and stockings. He unsnapped her matching bra at the door of the master bedroom, leaving her breasts bare.

“We’re flying out of here for our honeymoon in the morning,” he promised. “We own an island and we can have it all to ourselves. I won’t mind imposing a no-clothes rule.”

“I’ll just bet you won’t.” She held her breath, waiting.

He turned his head and looked at their bed, dripping with rose petals and covered in bundles of rope of all colors and textures. She was talking to him. Telling him she loved him and she needed his Shibari to ground her as much as he needed it.

Ricco reached for her, pulling her close to him. “You’re certain?”

“Absolutely. I realized we both need it. You’ve been capturing our journey together on film, and this is our wedding night. We should have at least one picture, even if it’s simple.” She hoped he knew what she was saying to him. He’d spent the last month pounding the heavy bag when he needed relief from his demons. She’d gone to the tea house out in the Japanese garden. Shibari joined them together in their struggles.

“It makes me stronger, Ricco. I realized I need it as much as you do.”

He draped her dress across the bed, the rose petals all around it. He placed three coils of rope near the ivory lace and then her bra over one of the coils of rope.

“You already know what you want to do.”

“Get ready.”

His voice was that voice, the one she had become so familiar with. She nodded and headed for the bathroom, excitement coursing through her. She couldn’t wait to see how he tied her. Already her sex was hot, clenching and so damp. She knew her wedding night was going to be spectacular, and then she had the honeymoon to look forward to . . .


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