**Only .99 cents!!**
“You better say something. And fast.”
Valerio turned back to his cappuccino for a moment, counting the seconds as the froth passed through his lips, swirled about his tongue, and slid down his throat. No way he could stall for any more time, and now he had to lengthen up the back of his spine and explain himself.
“You know what’s going on,” Valerio started. “The bookies are hungry, but it’s all about doing the online thing.”
“For the bambinos, sure,” Adamo said. “What about everyone else?”
“Are you going to tell me that someone like Jackie Bendetto suddenly figured out how to place his bets on a computer?”
“Maybe not him, but—”
“He’s got kids, Zio,” Valerio interjected, pushing his cup aside and leaning across the table. Even if a part of him feared his uncle and the power that he still wielded, he also knew that the older man would never harm him. It was not in the code.
Add to that, who was Valerio to conquer online gambling in one fell swoop?
“Kids,” Adamo echoed as he lit a cigar and sucked in deep before letting a thin stream of smoke pass through his lips. “You’re always thinking of something.”
“I’m not thinking it,” Valerio insisted. “If it were up to me, we’d go back to having the guys lined up right here. Placing their bets with us.”
At that, Adamo laughed. What would come next? Would he get angry? Valerio recalled the first time his uncle was outbid on the rowhouse that had always provided him a steady stream of income. Rather than let the earliest outsiders come in and take what was rightfully his, he sent Valerio to torch the place, to send a message, and collect the insurance money. As of late, Adamo was not striking as many matches or pouring as much gasoline. But now there was a glint in his eye, and Valerio sat silently, ready for any set of orders along the lines of destruction and more than prepared to follow them to the letter.
“Can’t beat back progress, Val,” Adamo finally said.
“What?” Valerio asked. What was happening? His uncle was never one to give up the fight while he still had breath in lungs—albeit tinged with tobacco, as he took another puff of his cigar—and motioned toward Junior yet again.
“It gives me no pleasure to say as much,” Adamo continued. “I’m with you, kid. Nothing more I would like than to see things back the way they were.”
“Then let’s make that happen,” Valerio argued.
“How do you propose that we do that?” Adamo challenged.
It was tricky at best. In a perfect world, they would have the power to shut down the sites or at least cut off the power. Anything to bring the gamblers back to brick and mortar and keep them in line.
“I’ve talked to your brother about this,” Adamo said.
“Enzo?” Valerio asked, hearing the surprise in his own voice. So many times, he had dismissed his Ivy League-educated sibling out of habit. Book smart was worlds away from street smart, but even as he completed his degree, Lorenzo knew that he owed the family and Adamo for every chance that came his way in the world.
“He suggested something along the lines of setting up our own… what do you call it? Site?”
Valerio tensed at the direction in which the conversation was heading. Maybe Lorenzo was creative, but Valerio hardly had the time to learn code or whatever the hell was required to beat their new rivals at their own game.
“Zio, I don’t know.”
“I didn’t either,” Adamo admitted as he stamped out his cigar and rubbed a large hand across his face. “To hear Enzo tell it, it was all gibberish. And not at all in your wheelhouse.”
It was a veiled insult. Because Enzo was the “smart one.” Their youngest brother, Frankie, was the charmer who could make friends with the bambinos and keep them in line if the need presented itself. But this was Valerio’s piece of the pie. It wasn’t like the envelope was empty, and he loathed the idea that his territory within the family was about to fly from his hands.
Seeming to sense his nephew’s discomfort, Adamo reached across the table and placed a reassuring hand on his nephew’s shoulder.
“I’d never cut you out,” he swore. “You know that. On his deathbed, I promised your Pop that I’d always look after you boys.”
Valerio nodded and remembered that Adamo was barely twenty-two when he took that vow. Now the older man was nearing forty, and Valerio was only two years away from thirty. In all the years that had passed, Adamo never did him or his brothers wrong.
“What are you planning now, Zio?”
The older man kept his hand on Valerio’s shoulder for another second before pulling his palm away and smoothing his fingers down his slacks as he stood.
“Something that you need to get on board with,” Adamo admitted. Both men looked to a side door as it opened, and Valerio held his breath as a woman emerged.
She was short and curvy with rainbow-colored hair and bespectacled eyes. Her bright blue dress did not mask the tattoos running down her legs, trailing up her arms. On the streets, this would be someone that Valerio would turn away from, lest he have even one more reminder of the ways in which the world was changing. But Adamo beckoned the girl closer and now placed his palm on her shoulder before he spoke.
“Val,” he started, “this is Caitlin.”
The girl raised her hand by way of a wave hello, but Valerio was not put at ease by the gesture, rising from his seat to stare the girl down.
“What the hell is someone like her doing here?”
Adamo patted Lorenzo’s cheek. “The last thing I want is you boys going at it,” he said. “We’ll find another place for you. Somewhere that is worthy of your talents.”
Relaxing a bit as his shoulders slumped, Lorenzo tried to tell himself that coming home could be its own kind of steppingstone. There were other aspects to the business, and his collar would stay white and his hands would remain clean, to an extent. Not every associate carried a gun and bloodied his knuckles. Maybe this was the place where Lorenzo belonged most, and he nodded his head.
“I’m thinking of Driggs Avenue,” Adamo continued. “You know I have a vested interest in the last real restaurant in Brooklyn.”
“Yeah. Hanging on by a thread,” Lorenzo said.
“Think you should use it to get started,” he said. “Maybe we can be legitimate yet.”
The label passed through his lips with a tone of wistfulness, because a part of Adamo wanted to get his hands clean. But the dirty tang of organized crime had a way of seeping into the pores, and Lorenzo suddenly realized that he was meant to be here. Maybe he had sent Caitlin into Val’s orbit to bring him to this moment.
“I like the sound of it,” Lorenzo said. “Now what? Will you make me the manager?”
Lorenzo stood up straighter as he watched his uncle turn away and examine his nails. “You won’t?” Lorenzo asked. “Then what?”
Why drag him so far from the edge only to pull the rug out from under his feet? Lorenzo felt his face turn red, so he took a deep breath and was ready to stand strong. He wanted respect and—
“You’re in charge, kid,” Adamo said. “So just calm down.”
Okay. Okay. Things were still turning in the right direction, and Lorenzo was nothing if not full of ideas. A broader menu could entice the hipsters. But a dash of old school here and there could bring Adamo’s friends and rivals back into the fold. Once everyone felt secure to the point where they could lick their fingers clean, it was only a matter of time until Adamo made his move to take back control.
And Lorenzo didn’t have to ever fire a gun.
“I won’t let you down, Zio,” Lorenzo promised.
“I know you won’t,” Adamo said. “But you’ll have to make nice with the chef.”
“I… sure,” Lorenzo said. “Fine cuisine is like a secret weapon, no?”
“Finest for miles,” Adamo said. “I’ll arrange for you two to meet.”
“Thank you,” Lorenzo said solemnly.
He hugged his uncle before taking the several flights down to the street with a lightness in his step. This was something that Adamo would never trust his brothers with; it was far too important. He treated himself to a latte and pictured the chef. Men like that were always a bit too fragile for their own good, always wailing about the quality of the provisions and claiming that they could not go one day without fresh fish. But Lorenzo would be strong. He would remind the man behind the apron that he had to work with what he had and keep the plates looking perfect. An artist had nothing on a Parisi. He laughed again, feeling confident as he finished his coffee and started back to the studio apartment that he had secured on Leonard Street. Lorenzo was barely through the door when his phone dinged, and he saw a message from Adamo.
It’s set. Go to Moretti’s tomorrow around one.
Lorenzo shot a quick text back and envisioned his uncle telling some tattooed hipster that he had no choice but to listen to the new man in charge. Vowing to be firm but fair, the next day Lorenzo reached the restaurant as the sun still hung high in the sky. The aroma of garlic met his nostrils as he made his way in through the back, where he spied a slim girl with honey-colored hair and brown eyes. What was this? A waitress looking for the rest of last night’s tips?
He cleared his throat.
“Excuse me, miss?”
The girl turned to face him with a raised eyebrow and an enigmatic expression on her pink lips.” Are you Lorenzo?” she asked.
“I… yes,” he said. “And you are?”
The woman stepped toward him, her eye catching a ray of fresh sunlight as she looked him up and down and finally sighed.
“Moretti. So, you—”
“I’m the chef.”
Franco stirred first.
Shifting to his side on the battered mattress, the first few rays of the rising sun fell over his face. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he sat up slowly, stretching his arms over his head as his jaw went slack in a yawn, and his head lolled to the other side of the bed.
The absence of another warm body confused him for the briefest of seconds, but everything clicked into place at the smell of coffee brewing from the next room. Franco’s lips quickly curled into a smile and as he swung his legs over the other side of the bed, he caught a whiff of the familiar lavender perfume that still mingled with the rumpled sheets. Before his feet hit the floor, he pulled his discarded jeans on and tiptoed slowly toward the source of the smell.
As anticipated, Giulietta was there, her flowing floral robe draped over her slender frame as she poured one cup of java and then another. He watched her start to reach for a small silver spoon, licking his lips at the thought of the tips of her fingers touching his flesh. And he took care to make like a cat burglar with only one prize in mind as he snuck up behind her, hearing her gasp when he ultimately wound his arms around her small, supple waist.
“Ehi!” she cried out, swiftly turning her body in his hold. For a split second, her deep brown eyes brimmed with fear until his face and the feel of his hands registered in her brain. Then, with a light laugh, she playfully slapped his bare chest before securing her arms around his neck.
“You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that,” she chided him.
“Couldn’t help myself,” Franco replied. “Not after last night.”
She arched one eyebrow, her delicate fingers trailing up his chest until the tips of her nails grazed his lips. Kissing her there, Franco pulled her closer, unable to suppress a sigh at the feel of her heart beating against his… and in the same rapid rhythm.
“I wanted to wake up to you,” he said, his kiss foregoing her fingers so his lips could bathe her face.
“What do you call this?” she teased, returning the favor as she nuzzled his neck, her breath hot under his ear before her own kisses claimed his flesh.
“You know what I mean,” Franco said with a small snort. His gaze found her face. Her smirk and her shining cheeks were all that he needed to completely wake up, caffeine be damned.
“My mistake,” she murmured. “Here I was just trying to do something nice for you.”
“You still can,” he said in a thick voice.
She seemed to forget the coffee as she caught his meaning, and he kissed her full on the mouth as he began to guide her back to the bed. Memories of the previous evening were just a preview of what he planned to do to her now in the light of day.
“Wait,” she ordered.
Did his voice crack around the word? Franco felt his cheeks flush as he heard her laugh, and she wiggled out of his hold as she backed up toward the countertop, taking the time to push the untouched coffee aside as she gripped the wooden edge and stared him down.
“Oh. I get it,” he said, wiping the small stream of sweat dotting his upper lip with the back of his hand. “Playing hard to get.”
“Am I?” she challenged.
“What would you call it?” he asked, taking the few steps back to her side as she left him wanting more once again and hopped up on the countertop. Giulietta twirled one lock of ebony hair between her fingers as a low hum left her lips, and he tried to get his head into her game.
“Should I guess?” he wondered aloud.
“Guess?” she echoed. He reached forward, seizing her free hand and nearly meeting her mouth once more when his own light laughter filled the room.
“Do I drag you back to bed now?” he asked. “Throw you over my shoulder?”
He saw her eyes glisten at the prospect of both possibilities when she straightened her shoulders and clicked her tongue.
“What’s wrong with right here?” she asked.
“Sorry,” Adamo began. “I suppose some of this must seem strange to you.”
He seemed taken aback by the cool tone of her statement, and Fiorella liked the look of him speechless.
“What have you heard about me?” she continued. Adamo kept his gaze fixed on her eyes as his lips curled into a tiny smirk.
“That you’re bold and brave and beautiful,” he started. “So far I like what I’m seeing up close.”
“As do I,” Fiorella admitted. His face only sported a few wrinkles, which added to his character. His hair was just graying about the temples, any so-called receding hairline only serving to accentuate his firm brow. His eyes seemed to have not aged a day and held the same gorgeous ocean-blue stare as his nephews. She reached for his hand this time and curled her fingers about his.
“Grazie,” she started. “I like the chance to be here.”
“I like the chance to make you happy,” he said. “And I intend to make that happen.”
The brownstone needed some work. But she could look past that. A quick glance out the window saw Caitlin still trying to make sense of the problem with Web Wager, whatever that was, with her phone. She could also hear Michelle’s voice from the kitchen. The woman was talking excitedly about her new business venture.
“And what is my piece of the pie?” Fiorella asked.
Adamo seemed confused by her comment, but he kept his hand in hers as he licked his lips.
“You’re gonna be my wife,” he said. “There are a lot of perks in that.”
“I’m sure,” she said, her eyes trailing down his torso, the tight muscles still present as he looked infinitely pleased with himself.
“So, what job will you give me?”
“Job?” Adamo echoed. “What need would you have to work?”
“It’s not about need,” she said. “Voglio giocare un ruolo.”
Didn’t he know as much? Had he not heard Franco talk of how she nearly saved the day?
“Carina, listen. And hear me.”
Scooting to the edge of her seat, Fiorella was ready for her marching orders. Why else would this man who had yet to take a bride choose her? He had to know that she could be of help, and she bit her bottom lip as he spoke softly… slowly…
“I don’t need you barefoot and pregnant.”
“What does that… are you saying you want a baby?”
“No,” he said with a hollow laugh. “I mean, not necessarily. I’m just saying that you can have your own interests. For example, there are lots of charities to support in Brooklyn.”
“Okay,” she said, her heart starting to turn back into her chest. “But can’t I help you in other ways?”