Shadow Rider: Chapter 23

Stefano woke with the dawn creeping into the bedroom and urgent need clawing at his belly. His cock was hard and thick, desperate to be inside Francesca’s warm, wet ch
annel. Francesca’s long hair moved in a sensual slide over his thighs and belly, so much silk, building a wild urgency as her mouth moved between his legs. Up his thighs, spreading kisses and little bites right up to his aching balls. She licked his sac and his cock jerked hard. Her fingers found him, rolling and caressing his tight balls even as her tongue slowly bathed them in warmth. She made little moaning sounds that added to the dark fantasy.

“Dolce cuore.” It was all he could manage when she licked up his shaft. Greedy. Hungry. He reached down to bunch silk into his fist. Her mouth slid over the wide, flared head of his cock and she engulfed him. Completely. Taking him deep. Unexpectedly. The inside of her mouth was wet and slick, hotter than hell. “Fucking paradise.” He groaned. Tugged at her hair to raise her head. He wanted to see her eyes. He loved holding her gaze while she went down on him.

“Gotta look at me, bambina. I have to see your eyes.” He loved how she was ravenous for him in the same way he always felt insatiable for her. How her eyes conveyed her excitement and her love of what she was doing. He needed that almost as much as he needed her mouth on him. Her hair, moving over his thighs and belly, made him ultrasensitive so that every nerve ending in his body leapt to life. Fire danced over his skin, adding to the sensations her mouth and hands created.

He waited for the impact, holding his breath. When it came, when she lifted her lashes and her eyes met his, his heart contracted in his chest and deep inside, where no one could see, she shattered him. That look. So full of love. So full of lust. For him. The man. Not the name. Not the money. Not for any other reason. Just for him. His fists tightened in her hair. He wanted to jerk her up to him, but she chose that moment to take him in her mouth.

Watching him watch her, she parted her lips and slowly, inch by inch, took him deep. It was the hottest thing he’d ever seen. She kept her gaze on his, letting the hunger burn in her eyes as she hollowed her cheeks and sucked hard, her tongue lashing him with strokes that felt like white lightning.

Her mouth felt like a fist of scorching velvet wrapped around his cock. Hot. Tight. Wet. Perfect. He knew what paradise was, right there in his woman’s mouth. She slid her mouth up his shaft and then engulfed him again in a tight, wet hold that rocked him.

“Fuck.” It burst out of him. Crude. But still. He couldn’t think with his blood thundering in his ears and roaring through his shaft. Her hands were doing wicked, sinful things to his balls while her mouth did them to his cock. He gripped her hair harder and began to tug. “You gotta stop, bella. Right. The fuck. Now.” Because if she didn’t, he was going to pour everything he had in him right down her throat, and he didn’t want this to end.

Francesca showed no signs of stopping. Her mouth tightened even more, the suction stronger than ever, sending heat waves storming through him. Desire tightened his thigh muscles, drew up his balls and danced in his belly. He held her head in place with her hair, his fists on either side of her head, guiding her now, his hips thrusting into that hot, wet tunnel.

Stefano stared down into her eyes, sinking there, letting her take him, the fire consuming him. He thrust deep and held himself there, locked in that paradise, her mouth closing around him like a vise. He didn’t pull back until he saw the first hint of panic in her eyes. He let her take a breath and he thrust again and couldn’t believe when her tongue lashed him with the lightning streaks, she suckled hard and once again took him deep, all the while her gaze clinging to his.

His breath caught in his throat. Not only was she giving him fucking paradise, but she looked at him with adoration, as if he was the only man in her world. He held himself there a beat or two longer, watching her take it, seeing the trust in her eyes. With a crude oath, he withdrew, transferred his hold to under her arms and yanked her up.

“Get on your knees–face the headboard,” he commanded.

Already he was up on his knees, his cock in his fist, using rough strokes to keep that fire hot and burning. It wasn’t that difficult when she rolled onto her belly and crawled up the bed toward the headboard. She looked the epitome of sensuous, her beautiful ass in the air for him, her head bending toward the mattress.

“Reach behind you with your hands.”

She did so, turning her head to peek at him through the mass of hair tumbling on the sheets. He caught up his belt and used it to secure her hands behind her back. “I love the way you look right now. That’s not too tight?”

“No.” Excitement or trepidation made her voice tremble; he wasn’t certain which, but she pushed back her hips in invitation.

He waited a few moments, jacking his cock while he watched her in silence, allowing anticipation to build. He loved that his woman gave him this–gave him everything he asked for and more. Her breathing turned ragged and he slid his palm up the inside of her thighs and then opened her wider with his knees. She shivered. He reached between her legs and found her wet and hot. He knew she would be. She’d enjoyed going down on him. Lusted after him.

She gave a low moan when his palm swiped over her slick entrance, but she didn’t move. She just waited. Giving herself to him. He slapped her ass hard, a sharp sting and then rubbed the red spot soothingly. He bent and pressed a kiss right in the middle of his palm print. His tongue found her entrance and he licked up, all the way, a long stroke of heat searing her.

Francesca cried out, and he repeated the entire sequence on her left cheek. He spent time there, building the heat in her, using his hands, his tongue, varying the rhythm and strength, making certain to soothe her and keep her honey spilling into his mouth, onto his tongue, down her thighs so he could lick them clean.

She sobbed his name over and over, her breath hitching on every moan or cry he elicited from her. He took his time, enjoying building that heat in her body. His cock pulsed and throbbed with every single smack and caress to her beautiful rounded ass. He couldn’t resist taking a bite out of her, his teeth finding the center of his palm print on her right cheek and then stroking over his mark with his tongue.

She exploded, screaming his name, her entire body shuddering. He drove into her, using her hips like handles, dragging her back into him so he could slam deep and hard, feeling the viselike grip of her body as she clamped down on him, stroking and strangling him with her inner muscles as she convulsed around his cock.

He didn’t make love to her as he often did. He fucked her. Hard. Deep. Rough. He reached down and caught her hair, dragging her head up and back while he jackhammered into her, pistoning hard. All the while fire streaked through him, raced up his spine and boiled like a fury in his balls. It was exquisite. Fucking perfection. Her body responded to his rough treatment with another strong quake, rippling with shocks, gripping and teasing his cock as he drove into her over and over.

He dragged her up farther, using her hair, so he could see her breasts swaying through each hard jolt of her body. He wished he had two cocks so he could be in her mouth at the same time as he fucked her sweet, scorching hot tunnel. He didn’t let up for a minute, a kind of sexual fury riding him hard. He drove into her again and again, nearly lifting her up off her knees with each stroke.

“You want more?”

She nodded.

“Harder? Rougher?”

She nodded again. Cried out when he complied.

“You’re going to give it to me again, Francesca.” He made it a command. “Come for me right now.”

She did the moment he told her to, her body already his, exploding around him, clamping down hard so the friction was nearly unbearable. He rode through it, his teeth clenched, the fire building and building until he thought it was impossible to get any hotter. “Again,” he demanded, not stopping. Not letting up. Driving as deep as possible, as fast and hard as possible.

“I can’t,” she gasped.

“You will.” He made it a demand once again, knowing she’d comply. “Now.”

He felt his balls tighten to the point of pain. The fire rushed down his spine to his hips and buttocks, up his toes and calves, into his thighs. The two fires came together, crowning in his cock as her body suddenly gripped him hard. Her sheath was scorching hot, burning him with a fiery strangling clasp. She screamed as her body milked his, and her orgasm tore through her and his through him in a vicious, brutal climax that rocked both of them. His seed jetted deep, filling her, pouring into her, triggering more aftershocks nearly as brutal as the original orgasm.

He loosened his hold in her hair, locked his arm around her waist and both of them collapsed onto the mattress. He breathed deeply, trying to recover, floating in a kind of bliss, his heart pumping wildly and his cock still jerking deep inside of her. “Give me a minute,” he managed to rasp out. “I’ll get your hands free.”

He couldn’t move for the longest time, a fine sheen of sweat covering his body and dampening his hair. He felt great. Better than great. After a few minutes he slipped from her body, the sensation sending another heat wave coursing through his veins.

“You still with me, bella?” He pressed a kiss into her back. She hadn’t moved, hadn’t made a sound, not since that ragged scream that tore through her along with the fury of her orgasm.

She nodded her head, but didn’t speak. He gathered her hair and twisted it, getting it off her back so he could sweep his palm down the curve of her spine and over her buttocks. He liked seeing his marks there. He pressed kisses all along her spine, down to the small of her back and then over both cheeks of her bottom. Undoing the belt buckle, he freed her wrists and rubbed at them gently, inspecting them for marks before rolling onto his back, taking her with him.

Francesca lay up against his side, curled into him, one hand on his belly, fingers splayed wide. “I don’t think I can move.”

“Me either,” he admitted.

“I’m glad you’re home.”

“I noticed. You can wake me up anytime,” he added.

“You’ve really never done the tying the hands with any other woman?”

“Nope. I wouldn’t share my fantasies with any woman who wasn’t mine. They don’t belong to another woman, only you.”

She turned even more towa
rd him. Her breast slid along his rib cage, sending a curl of heat spiraling through him. “And if you never found the right woman?”

“Then my fantasies would go to the grave with me.”

“I’m glad you found me. I like everything you do to me.”

“Tonight,” he stated, “I’m going to fuck you with a vibrator while you suck me off. If I don’t, I’ll be waking up every night with that particular fantasy. I’ll use handcuffs this time. Ones that are padded so there are no bruises. When I was fucking you, all I could think about for a few minutes there was how I wished I had two dicks instead of just one.”

“I don’t think I could handle two. As for your intentions for tonight, I don’t have any objections,” she said, licking along his rib cage. “Not that I mind you waking up every night with a fantasy. I’m more than happy to oblige you in all things. And I don’t mind the handcuffs, but don’t think I’m not well aware my ass is bruised, so don’t sound so self-righteous.”

He laughed and flicked her nipple with his tongue. “I want my mark on you. Not some object’s mark.” His hand found her bottom and he caressed her with his palm. “Are you sore?”

“A little.”

“Good.” There was a wealth of satisfaction in his voice he didn’t try to hide. “I want you thinking of me every time you sit down today.”

“I think you’re imprinted so deep inside me, Stefano, I’m going to feel you there for weeks.”

He used his arm to sweep her in closer to him so he could lean over her and look into her eyes. “You tell me if I ever get too rough or if our play gets too much for you.”

“I will. You weren’t too rough. I loved it. My body loved it. Couldn’t you tell?”

“That was why I kept going. But you stop me if you don’t like anything I’m doing to you.”

“I will. I promise.” She pressed a kiss to his throat. “I need a shower. So do you. And food. This time, I might even order us up something.”

“I’ll carry you if you can’t walk,” he offered.

“We’re going to shower together?”

“Yes. I’m a conservationist. Conserving water is high on my priority list.”

“I’ll just bet it is. If you shower with me, we’ll never get to breakfast,” she pointed out.

“You will. You started something earlier that I want you to finish.”

She laughed, her eyes sparkling. “I’m all for that. Carry me.”

He was all for it, too. She took him right back to paradise with the hot water pouring down on him, her eyes clinging to his as he took her mouth. He thought himself well sated after riding her so ferociously, but the moment she began to suckle him, he was lost again. Hard and thick and needy again. This time she finished what she’d started.


They ordered up breakfast and ate it in the room Stefano liked to call his “sunroom.” It was all glass on one side, the sliding doors opening onto a balcony that was wide and long. The walls jutted outward on both sides to help with wind and there was a small table and two comfortable chairs where they took their food and ate. He had sex on the brain, because he’d decided he’d have her out on the balcony and inside the sunroom, pressed up against the glass.

She sipped at her coffee and teased him about being an exhibitionist. He just sent her a grin and began to run through his morning reports while she opened the tablet he’d bought for her and read the local news. He liked sitting beside her, reading together, sipping coffee and being locked away from the rest of the world. He reached out and caught her hand, bringing her knuckles to his mouth.

“I can’t wait for our wedding.”

His phone chimed before she could respond. He knew by the ringtone that it was Lucia or Amo. He could feel Francesca’s eyes on him as he talked on the phone, reassuring Lucia he would come. It was what he did, not what he wanted. When he snapped the phone closed, she let out a little sigh and shook her head.

“I was hoping you could stay home today, Stefano. I feel like we haven’t been able to talk or spend time together, and this wedding . . .” She trailed off, and his heart jumped.

“I want to stay home with you, bambina,” Stefano said, “more than anything. I’d like a day for us as well. Just the two of us.” He stood up and pulled her to her feet, leaving the dishes for the maids. She would have to get used to that; if he wasn’t mistaken, she’d probably gather them up the moment he was gone.

She smiled at him, that smile that always took his breath. The one he’d always wait for. “Me, too. But I can tell from your tone it isn’t going to be today.”

He shook his head, walking them into the great room. “No. Unfortunately. Lucia called and needs me to get over there. Nicoletta is having a difficult time believing we aren’t some human trafficking ring, or worse, that Lucia and Amo are the real thing, wonderful good people, and she’s going to get them killed by staying with them.”

“Oh no. I know what that feels like. It’s the worst feeling ever. Of course you have to go.” She licked at her lower lip for a moment and then lifted her chin. “I could go with you. I want to meet her. Don’t you think feeling as if she had a friend would help settle her?”

He detested disappointing her. And was she getting cold feet? Was that what this was about? He sank into the wide armchair and beckoned her with his finger. “Come here, dolce cuore.”

She hesitated, just for a second, but it was there. He was very good at seeing every detail. He’d been trained from the time he was two. All those years of having to describe everything he saw in rooms or outside. All those years of looking at people and having to describe them and every emotion that crossed their face. There was no way he would ever miss hesitation on his woman’s part.

He pulled her onto his lap and locked his arms around her. “Relax, Francesca. You’re upset about something and you need to tell me.”

“I’m not upset. I’m really not.”

It was a denial, but her eyes didn’t meet his. She did settle into him, relaxing enough that he slid one hand up her back to the nape of her neck. He loved holding her like this. Close. Feeling her body melting into his as if they shared one skin.

“Tell me, Francesca.” That was a command, and if she didn’t comply, he wasn’t going to be responsible for any words slipping out of his mouth she didn’t like. He’d been making an effort for her, although, he had to admit, he didn’t always succeed.

“I’m just nervous, that’s all. We haven’t known each other for very long, and this life you lead is very overwhelming.”

He sighed. He knew once she thought about it, the idea of living outside the law was going to get to her. “Being a shadow rider is a responsibility I can’t . . .” He broke off when she shook her head.

“It’s not that, Stefano. It’s the money.” She made the confession in a little rush. “All that money. Living in a hotel. Having bodyguards. The clothes. I don’t know how to act the way you and Emme act. I’m not sophisticated and I can’t handle the paparazzi on every street corner waiting to snap pictures of me. It makes me sick to my stomach to think I’m going to embarrass you or your family.”

“Fucking Eloisa.” He burst out with it, fury moving through him. “You overheard the shit she was throwing at me and it got to you.” So much for his resolve to not use foul language, but really, what the fuck? Why the hell would his own mother undermine his woman’s confidence? He wanted to strangle Eloisa.

“Stefano. Really.”

That was her little prim-and-proper-schoolmarm voice and he fucking loved it. He thought it best to keep that knowledge to himself.

“Not really, bella. You know damn well she put that shit in your head. You could never embarrass my family or me. I’m marrying you because for me you’re as perfect as a woman could possibly get. I don’t give a flying fuck if the rest of the world doesn’t see you the way I do. And neither does my family. You don’t seem to get this, Francesca, but you’re nearly as important to my siblings as you are to me.”

She raised her face and pressed it into his throat. “See? Right there is why it’s important to spend time with you. You have a way of making me feel beautiful and confident.”

“Let me take care of this thing with Nicoletta. I want you to become her friend. Hell, amore mio, you’re more
her age than mine, but not right now. She’s overwhelmed and needs to settle with just Lucia and Amo for now. I’ve called Taviano–he stayed with her on the jet. I think she’s feeling shame for all that happened to her. Apparently Benito Valdez actually raped her on more than one occasion. He was very brutal and he made certain she knew he would have her permanently. His obsession with her was worse than we first thought. She’s terrified he’ll find her and that Lucia and Amo will be hurt or killed. I’ve got a counselor and a doctor who will be looking in on her daily.”

“That poor girl. Thank God you and Taviano got her out of there.”

“You understand why we’re limiting the people she’s around for now. She’s overwhelmed. I promise the next two we’ll introduce to her will be you and Emme. Just a few new people at a time.”

Francesca sighed, and nodded her agreement. “That makes perfect sense, Stefano. Actually, it’s best anyway. I would have been going for the wrong reasons. I do want to meet her and hopefully become friends with her, but I really wanted to go to be with you.”

“I’m sorry, Francesca.” He was disappointing her and that was the last thing he wanted.

“No, don’t be. I’ll be staying in today, so come back as soon as you can. Take Emilio and Enzo with you. They’ve been doing women things for the last few days and they’re pouting. I’ll be safe here in the penthouse.”

He threw back his head and laughed. She could do that so easily, make him smile. Make him laugh. His arms tightened around her and he nuzzled her neck. “The idea of Emilio in a dress shop or shopping for china is hysterical. I should have asked you and Emme to take pictures or a video of his face.”

Her laughter joined his. “The expression on his face was priceless. In all honesty, Emme and I worked really hard to come up with a dozen places the boys would have to go with us, just so we could see that look on their faces. Enzo was just as bad, if not worse. They looked like a couple of bulls going to their doom.”

“I can imagine the places Emme decided to make them accompany you.”

“We hit every single sexy lingerie store close to us. Emilio and Enzo did a lot of groaning. They were quite the hit in a couple of stores. At one of them, two women insisted on coming out of the dressing room in their sexy getups and asking the boys their opinions. I swear we didn’t pay them to do that, but Emilio and Enzo think we did.”

“Emme probably did behind your back. It’s something she would do. She was always getting the two of them. She likes to get back at all of us for being what she calls ‘overprotective.'”

Francesca laughed at him, her arms circling his neck. “Stefano, you know full well all of you are overprotective of Emme. You probably made her teenage years a nightmare.”

“Ha. She made our lives a nightmare when she was a teen. She’s a rider, bambina. That means she could get out of her room whenever the mood struck her. On top of that she’s a little on the wild side.”

Her eyebrow shot up. “Emmanuelle is wild? I don’t think so. You don’t see her picture splashed in every magazine with two women hanging on her arm. That’s Ricco and your brothers.”

“If she had two men hanging on her arm”–Stefano couldn’t keep the menace or the grim out of his voice–“they’d find those same men in the morgue the next day.”

“That is so not fair,” she declared. “You really are chauvinistic.”

“That’s right,” he said without apology. “Keep that in mind when we have a daughter. You might want to warn her.”

She rolled her eyes at him. “I’m sure she’ll figure it out very quickly. With you for a father and her four uncles as well as cousins everywhere, she’ll most likely know it by the time she’s three.”

“You certain you aren’t going anywhere today? No fittings for your wedding dress? No looking at cakes or flowers?”


Francesca was decisive about it, so much so that he had a hard time not laughing. She wasn’t thrilled with all that making wedding plans entailed, especially on the scale Eloisa and Emmanuelle were making them. There was no point in fighting his mother and sister for control of the wedding, not even for his woman.

“Emmanuelle said she’d drop by and check on Theresa Vitale today, see if she needs more soup, or anything at all in the way of medicine. I think she’s on the mend, but even with her grandson watching over her, we decided not to take chances. With Emme taking care of that, I don’t have a thing to do but veg out.”

“All right, dolce cuore, I won’t be gone too long. I’ll take Emilio and Enzo with me and we’ll drop by the office to collect everything I need on the way back so I can work from here for a couple of days.”

“I’d love that,” she agreed instantly.

Stefano changed to his three-piece suit, standard wear when outside his home. It was a drawback at times being a rider and always wearing the suit, as classy as it was. Wearing it meant he could disappear at any time into the shadows, but it also meant he was overdressed on occasion.

“Walk me to the elevator, Francesca.”

Francesca reached up to straighten his tie, leaning her body into his. “Don’t be long, but make certain Nicoletta feels safe, Stefano. You did that for me–even when I was a little afraid of you, you managed to make me feel safe.”

He kissed her thoroughly. “I’m really sorry I have to go,” he repeated.

“It’s for a good cause.” She wrapped her arm around him as they walked together toward the elevator. “Are Emilio and Enzo waiting for you downstairs?”

“Yes, I texted them. I’ll be safe. Don’t worry.”

Francesca took a deep breath and nodded, watching as the elevator doors closed and she was alone again. She really didn’t want him to go. She’d felt strange the last couple of days without him. The wedding preparations had become extravagant as far as she was concerned. Neither Eloisa nor Emmanuelle seemed to know how to put the brakes on when it came to the wedding, not even when she objected to things. She had envisioned a very small wedding, with just his family. She didn’t have any family of her own, but suddenly there were tons of aunts and uncles who had to be invited as well as cousins. First cousins. Second cousins. And then there were the people in the neighborhood. She had wanted to talk to Stefano about it, but he was so exhausted when he’d first gotten home and then they were all over each other. Now he was gone again.

She sighed again and found her way back to the sunroom to collect the dishes off of the balcony. She liked the penthouse, but living in a hotel wasn’t really her idea of a home. She’d seen his “office.” It was inside the family home. His family home was extremely intimidating. It was a huge estate, even by Chicago’s elite standards. Just the front door was intimidating. It was thick and wide and painted a violent red. It should have been ugly, but instead, it managed to be elegant, just like the Ferraro family.

She stood for a long time staring out over the city. The family as a whole had many respected businesses. Each business was legitimate and made them millions, some more than millions. Still, the one small branch of the family–the shadow riders–wasn’t at all legitimate; in fact, their activities would be considered criminal. Within the family they were almost revered. Outside the family many people, just as she had, assumed they were part of a crime family. She was one of them. Or she would be in a couple of short weeks.

Her phone went off, a musical melody that told her Emmanuelle was calling. She sighed, considering not answering. She didn’t want one more discussion of flowers or cake. Still, she liked Stefano’s sister a lot, and truthfully, it was nice to have someone be excited about the wedding and seeing to all the details.

“Hey, girl, what’s up?” she greeted.

“I’m on my way to see Signora Vitale. Then I’m heading to the family home. I’ve been summoned by Eloisa.” Her voice changed from annoyance to speculation. “She sounded . . . upset. She never sounds that way. In any case, I had planned to come to see you today to discuss music, but Stefano called and said you needed the day off.”

Francesca realized there was a question in there. “Yes. I’m sorry. I do. I’m just going to rest and read and try not to think too much about everything happening so fast.”

“Bridal jitters. They say it happens to everyone.” Emmanuelle laughed as she hung up.

Maybe she was right and the restless feeling that just wouldn’t leave her alone was just that–cold feet. After all, committing a lifetime to a man like Stefano was a little daunting. She would always have to work to stand up to him. That crazy protective side of him would be difficult. He’d want to build a fortress around her and their children. She was well aware that she would have to temper that quality in him for all their sakes.

Francesca took a deep breath and let it out, sweeping her hair back from her face. She’d dressed in a pair of vintage blue jeans. They were soft and molded to her body nicely, but were very comfortable. They weren’t from a thrift store and she didn’t want to know what Stefano had paid for them. It seemed like her clothes multiplied on a daily basis. She never saw him put things in her drawers or hang them in her closet, but she was fairly certain Stefano had someone shopping for her.

Still. She ran her hand down her thigh. The jeans were perfect. She wore a T-shirt, equally as soft, that was more fitted than she would have chosen for herself. Her underwear was the best part of the shopaholic who seemed to never quit. The lingerie was absolutely beautiful and she loved the way it made her feel sexy, even in a pair of jeans and a tee.

She made herself a cup of tea, flooded the house with soft music and sank into one of the luxurious, overstuffed chairs to read. She lost herself in a book for a long time, grateful for the chance to just be still. It was the phone that brought her back from the grand adventure she was on along with the characters in the book. This time it was the Vitale home.

Bruno, Theresa’s grandson, told her that Emme had just left and Theresa had taken a fall. She was in the bathroom and refusing to come out. He’d heard her fall but she’d locked him out and was asking for Francesca. His grandmother was crying and upset and nothing he said or did would make her budge. Francesca assured him she would come immediately.

Francesca immediately texted Enrica to let her know that she would be needed after all, and to meet her downstairs. Then she called Stefano and told him what had happened. She was very proud of the fact that she remembered already to have her bodyguard in place so her man wouldn’t lose his mind. She promised she’d text him the minute she got to the Vitales’ and let him know what was going on.

Enrica w
as waiting at the elevator and escorted her out to the car. “I don’t like driving and watching over you. We should have a two-man team on you,” she said as she slipped behind the driver’s seat.

“I could drive,” Francesca offered. She hadn’t driven in a very long time and traffic in Chicago was intimidating.

Enrica sent her a look and Francesca grinned at her as her bodyguard started the car. “We could have walked. The house isn’t that far.”

“There’s a big storm coming.” Enrica indicated the sky. “It’s supposed to be bad. Thunder and lightning. Pouring rain. I don’t want to get caught in that, but more, I don’t want my cousin to kill me, which he would if I let you walk around with only one bodyguard. Believe me, Francesca, he wouldn’t like that.”

Francesca rolled her eyes. “He has a serious problem and needs help. I think for his birthday I’m getting him a counselor.”

Enrica laughed. “You’re good for him. He didn’t smile much before he found you. Now he’s more relaxed and he laughs a lot. I love that for him. I love that he has you. We’re hoping the others will find someone to love them.”

Francesca thought it was a very odd way of putting it. “Why do you all guard them so carefully? They’re so well trained.”

“So are we,” Enrica said. “Don’t you understand how important they are? Not just to our family, but to the world? Things have changed so much, and the laws allow criminals to slip through the cracks all the time. The gangs keep getting more violent and claiming more territory. The cartels are recruiting our young kids and using them to assassinate anyone in their way. The riders can slip in and out of anywhere without being detected. No one knows how they get in or who they are. They can get to anyone at any time. That’s important. It’s important to someone whose family has been wiped out by the cartel and just as important to someone like Signora Vitale. We revere the riders.”

“Every life is important, Enrica, including yours. I’m uncomfortable with having bodyguards. I’m not a rider, you know, and I never will be.”

Enrica pulled the car into the Vitales’ driveway. “You’re not a rider, but you’re going to marry one. You complete his life and can give him children. They sacrifice all choices when they’re born. Their lives aren’t like ours. I have a choice in what I do. I can marry whomever I please. If they don’t find the one they can love, they’re forced, through duty, to be with someone they don’t. They don’t have normal childhoods. Stefano and the others had crap childhoods. So bad. You can’t imagine.”

She slid out of the car and went around to the passenger door before Francesca could answer. Francesca knew enough to stay in the car until Enrica decided to open the door. She waited, contemplating the idea of having children and making certain their lives were happy and filled with love. She was beginning to realize she had no real knowledge of what Stefano and his siblings had gone through, but she knew Stefano was absolutely determined that his children wouldn’t suffer the same fate. She loved him all the more for that and for the fact that he trusted her to make his life and their children’s lives wonderful. She knew he was counting on her.

They hurried up to the front door, Enrica one step behind her, her gaze on the rooftops, the garage, the street itself. Francesca couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be a bodyguard responsible for the safety of another human being. Bruno opened the door and he looked . . . terrible. He was pale and sweating. There was a bruise by his eye and his lip was swollen and cut. He stepped aside to let them in.

“What happened to you this time, Bruno?” Francesca asked. “Where’s Theresa?”

Bruno closed the door and turned to face them. “I’m sorry, Francesca. Really sorry. I tried to refuse and they beat the shit out of me, put a gun to my grandmother’s head, and Emmanuelle told me to cooperate with them.”

Enrica spun around, her hand going to the gun tucked beneath her shoulder in a holster, but it was too late. A man stepped out of the coat closet behind her and struck her over the head with the butt of his gun. She dropped to the floor like a deadweight. Francesca rushed to her, but the man caught her arm in a tight grip.

“Mr. Anthon requests your presence at a very special event, Francesca,” he greeted.

She recognized him immediately and her heart began to pound. She knew she went pale because the blood drained out of her face. “Harold McFarland. It appears Barry can’t even come to Chicago without bringing his entire entourage. Where’s Theresa?”

“The old lady? Don’t worry about her. You should be worried about yourself and your new friends.” He spat on the floor. “I’m going to enjoy burning down that bullshit deli you worked in. Your boss seemed to think you’re some kind of saint. And the old lady thinks the same. They haven’t seen the havoc you create yet.” He laughed. “I’m going to enjoy showing them just what you’re famous for.”

He put a hand to her back and shoved her toward the bedroom. Another man–one she recognized from Barry’s crew, Arnold Sumi–thrust Bruno in front of him. As he passed Enrica’s crumpled body, he kicked her hard in the ribs.

Harold laughed. “You’re such a prick, Arnold. Get Jimmy to tie the bitch up.”

Francesca had seen the blood coating Enrica’s dark, sleek hair and had been worried they’d hit her too hard and killed her, but they wouldn’t tie her up if she was dead.

“There isn’t any need to hurt anyone, Harold. I’ll go with you.”

“Damn right you’ll go with me,” Harold said. “You don’t have any choice, not with a gun to Grandma’s head. And then there’s your friend. I’ve had a difficult time keeping the boys off of that one. You don’t see bitches like that every day. We’re bringing her along. She’s going to be the main entertainment for us while you entertain the boss.”

Francesca turned her head to see Emmanuelle slumped over in a chair, hands tied behind her back and blood trickling down her face from a laceration on her temple. There was a bruise on the side of her face and her dark gray shirt was torn beneath her pin-striped jacket, revealing the swell of her breasts.

On the floor, groaning, was another of Barry’s crew, Marc Jonsen. He had pushed himself up into a sitting position and was holding his face. Blood poured from his nose and both eyes were swollen. Clearly he’d been the one to tear open Emmanuelle’s blouse and she’d head-butted him.

“Are you hurt?” Francesca asked Theresa. The elderly woman was crying and clutching rosary beads. The blanket was pulled up nearly to her neck.

She shook her head. “Bruno . . .” She trailed off with a little sob.

Francesca turned to Harold. “What are you going to do with them?”

“Lucky for them the boss wants a message delivered to your boyfriend. You and the other bitch are coming with us.”

Francesca glanced at Emmanuelle. Her nod was almost imperceptible, but there was no mistaking the wink she gave Francesca. She appeared nearly out of it to their captors, but clearly she wasn’t as bad off as she was making herself out to be and that made some of the knots in Francesca’s stomach loosen just a little.


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