Edward sat forward in his large leather office chair. “Don’t you dare take that tone with me, son. I told you to be careful laundering money, but once again…”
“I know, I know, we’ve been through all of this before, Pop,” he said, reclining backward with his fingers interlocked behind his head. “So, what are the arrangements?”
“Vincent Salerno has agreed to provide protection for your safety, and he owns a place where no one will find you.”
“With his wife and stepdaughter in Florence?”
“This is not a laughing matter,” Edward bit out, tapping his thick fingertips on the credenza. “Vincent owns a couple of villas tucked away off the beaten path in Tuscany, and he’s already arranged for you to stay in one of them.”
Anthony exhaled an exasperated sigh. “For how long?”
“For six months,” Edward growled, tipping his head.
“But I haven’t been implicated…”
His father pursed his lips. “It’s only a matter of time before the Feds start looking for you. And if someone rubs out this banker you’ve been dealing with, we’ll have an air-tight alibi. Get it?”
“Arrangements have been made for a bodyguard, so you can take trips into town. Perhaps you’ll do some custom suit shopping…”
“If I’m lucky, maybe some of the ladies will ask me to join their bridge game,” he snarked, rubbing the back of his neck. “Hey, doesn’t Vincent have a stepdaughter who lives near that town?”
“She’s nineteen, she’s beautiful, and she lives all alone in another villa that Vincent owns. But the lady comes with a warning label, Anthony…”
“Why would you think I’d be interested in a sweet young piece of ass?”
“Yeah, tough guy, go ahead and make jokes. But if you touch one curly hair on her virginal pussy, he’ll make you wish you were living in a fucking federal prison. I’ve heard there’s a match to be made between Vincent’s stepdaughter and the Chicago boss’s son—which means she’s off limits to you. Don’t even think about becoming her friend. Capiche?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it,” Anthony mocked, waving his hand in the air. “Don’t touch the adorable nineteen-year-old virgin. Is this a joke, or is this Vincent’s twisted idea of a dare?”
Edward shook his finger adamantly. “I’m warning you, son. Whatever it is, it’s better than going to the slammer, so don’t fuck it up.”
“Okay, Pop. So, when do I leave?”
“Tomorrow. You’ll take a direct flight to Rome where you will be picked up at the airport by one of Vincent’s men, and he’ll drive you straight to Penzano.”
“How long do I have to put my affairs in order here?”
Edward glanced at his watch and then peered up at Anthony. “Eighteen hours to be precise. You’ll leave at sunrise—and you will tell no one where you’re going.”
Anthony rubbed his hands together sardonically. “I can hardly wait to get this crazy Italian party started.”
“Just be thankful you have a place to hide out, smart ass—and if you’d like to make it to your thirty-sixth birthday, you’ll keep your fucking hands to yourself. You and I both know Vincent is famous for his short fuse, so don’t test him. Remember, he’s keeping you safe as a favor to me—Salerno has owed me this payback for a long time.”
“I thought you didn’t like him.”
“Vincent is no friend of mine, but he’s offering a clean house for you to stay in right now, and one of his bodyguards to keep you safe. Look, I’m working on another place for you to live, and as soon as I can make it happen, you’ll be moved out. Just keep your nose clean, and we’ll have nothing to worry about.”
Standing at the baggage claim in the Rome airport, Anthony watched for his luggage on the carousel while recalling a conversation he’d had with the man known as ‘The Big Boss.’ It had been twelve hours earlier, and he was on his way to the JFK International Airport when his cell phone rang.
“It’s been years since I’ve seen you, Anthony,” Vincent Salerno drawled in a heavy Italian accent, “and I hear you’ve grown into a quite a handsome man.”
“I’ll pass the compliment onto my dad. Everyone says I look just like he did in his younger days.”
“Yep. Your dad had a woman in almost every town of Italy back then. He was quite popular with the ladies before he married your mother…”
“So I’ve heard,” Anthony interrupted, knowing full well what was coming next.
“You’ll be staying in the same town as my stepdaughter, so there’s a chance you might run into her. I’m sure your dad told you about the marriage contract that the Chicago don and I are about to draw up between her and Paulo, his oldest son.”
“He told me to keep my hands to myself, if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s exactly what I mean,” he snapped in a raspy voice. “My Jennie’s a virgin, and I need her to stay that way for the deal to go through.”
“Don’t get cute with me, Anthony. I told your dad that you’d be safe from the Feds in my town, but there will be nowhere to hide if you break the rules.”
“I get it, Vincent. You’re the boss.”
“Good. I’m glad we understand each other. Francesco will be picking you up from the airport with a sign that reads Anthony Coppola. I’ve arranged for you to have a new identity, and he’ll attend to all your needs during your stay here.”
Anthony sighed as he retrieved his bags from the revolving carousel and rolled them through the automatic doors looking for Vincent’s driver, until he spotted a broad, muscular man in uniform holding the sign that he’d been told about. “I’m Anthony,” he said, putting down a bag to reach for his phone. “Give me a minute while I text your boss. I want to make sure I’m getting into the right car.”
“Tell him Francesco is here to pick you up.”
He nodded as his text was answered in record time. “No offense, man. I just needed to be sure.”
The massive man mumbled as he loaded two large suitcases in the trunk. “Of course you do. I hear you’re what they call a type A personality, or to be perfectly blunt—a bit anal,” he managed through a smirk.
Anthony angled his head toward the window as their car climbed the steep dirt road and approached the small villa. “Home sweet home, right?”
“It was a pleasure meeting you, and I’m sure we’ll see each other again. Well, that is if you behave yourself. Otherwise, it’ll be the undertaker who’ll be seeing you,” Francesco snarked.
“For a chauffeur, you seem to know quite a bit about my business.”
The man’s beady eyes narrowed as he glared at him in the rearview mirror. “Did you think my boss would just send anyone to pick up the son of Edward DiPasquale from the airport?” Francesco taunted, popping the trunk before opening his car door to retrieve the luggage.
Sighing, Anthony exited the backseat. “Right. Well, thanks for the ride and the wonderful advice.”
“Would you like me to carry your bags in for you and unpack them? I could arrange your socks in rows by colors, just the way you like them…”
Anthony quickly snatched his suitcases and narrowed his eyes.
“You won’t have access to a car during your stay, so text me when you need a lift, and I’ll be at your service. Have a lovely day, Mr. Coppola,” Francesco sneered, dangling the house key.
Jennie’s mood was pensive as she watched the handsome stranger roll his baggage toward the villa. Vincent always expected her to be out of the safe house before his guests arrived, but Francesco must have driven faster than usual. “This house was cleaned yesterday, but I forgot to put out fresh towels for you,” she admitted, opening the door as he approached with a bag in each hand. “I wasn’t supposed to be here when you arrived, so please don’t tell Vincent we met.”
“Your secret is safe with me, Cinderella.”
Stepping aside, she peered at the broom in her hand and frowned. “Well, I better be going now…”
He set his bags onto the tile floor and inclined his head toward her. “I’m Anthony.”
“Jennie,” she said, her gaze dragging from the buttons on his starched white shirt up to the golden-brown hue in his deep-set eyes.
As one side of his mouth curved upward, he studied every inch of her petite, feminine frame. “So, you’re Jennie Salerno. I didn’t expect to run into you so soon.”
Nervously, she crossed her slender arms over her low-cut cotton tee-shirt. “It’s my responsibility to have this house ready for my stepdad’s guests, but I’m supposed to be gone by the time they arrive.”
He nonchalantly leaned against the door frame. “I heard about your upcoming marriage arrangement, so congratulations! I’m guessing that Vincent doesn’t want you making any new friends…”
“You guessed correctly,” she stated in a heavy Italian accent, bolting past him through the walkway.
“Hey, where’s your car? How far away do you live?”
She turned to wave goodbye, and then she darted down the hill.
Anthony stepped onto the porch of the charming brown and yellow stucco two-story house, rang the bell, and took one step backward as Jennie opened the door.
“Francesco dropped these pastries off to me this morning, so I thought sharing would be the neighborly thing to do. My mom is an awesome baker, and her sfogliatelle are delicious. I just hope this local bakery knows what they’re doing…”
After sticking her head outside for a moment, she looked both ways. “Are you out of your mind? Come in before anyone sees you.”
“For God’s sake, Vincent is probably in church with his wife listening to a damn good sermon right now,” he insisted, quickly following her into the house.
She turned and took the bakery box out of his hands. “My stepfather has spies driving up and down this road watching every move I make. How did you know where I lived?”
“I trailed behind you yesterday. Maybe I ought to make a career out of spying for Don Salerno.”
“Maybe you should find a safer hobby,” she retorted, sauntering into the kitchen.
“Do you have any friends around here? It sounds like you’re on a tight leather leash.”
She popped her head around the terracotta stone wall and narrowed her eyes. “I don’t think my social life is your business.”
“You looked quite happy in these pictures,” he noted, tapping on a large framed wall photo. “Much happier than you seem right now.”
“When someone tells you to smile, you do what they ask.”
He crossed his arms and walked through the narrow hallway. “I heard your father committed suicide five years ago. I’m sorry for your loss…”
“Vincent assured him that if he took his own life, his wife and daughters would always be taken care of.”
Anthony took a step toward her. “I figured that, but what I don’t understand is why your mother would marry the man who talked your father into killing himself.”
“It’s a long story, and of course the way Vincent spins it, he’s the hero.”
“Ahh, your stepfather always did have a reputation for being a prince,” he mocked, tilting his head toward hers. “Speaking of royalty, I hear the reason you’re going to be matched with Rocco’s oldest son is to merge the Salerno and Molinari families, but my dad never shared all the romantic details. What are the chances you’ll share the juicy tidbits over a cup of cappuccino?”
“Slim to none. I’ve already said too much.”
His eyes followed her across the kitchen. “Maybe someday, when I’ve earned your trust?”
“Don’t count on it. I may not be the brightest bulb in Tuscany, but I do know that men can’t be trusted. Especially the son of a mafia boss.”
He didn’t like how this beautiful woman viewed herself, and his eyebrow lifted as he stared at her young, innocent face. Jennie’s eyes were dark like her shoulder-length wavy hair, and her full lips pouted as she poured the hot black liquid into the disposable cup.
“That’s interesting coming from the woman who is destined to marry the son of the Midwestern mob boss. Aren’t you happy with the match your stepfather is making for you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course, I’m fine with it,” she mumbled, handing Anthony a steaming cup of coffee along with the remaining box of pastries. “Now, take your sfogliatelle and for fuck’s sake, don’t tell Francesco you were here. I don’t need to get into trouble with Vincent, and neither do you.”
He raised a finger in the air as he turned to walk out of the kitchen. “I’ll go, but just so we’re clear, I happen to know that happy and fine are not the same thing.” Suddenly stopping, he swiveled to face her and spoke in a stern tone. “Though your English is perfect, Jennie, the profanity is not becoming of such a beautiful lady. Capiche?”
That was the first time he watched her cheeks blush, and his cock stirred as he thought about spanking her bare ass for using such foul language.
She glared at the caller ID before clicking the green button. Fuck. It was Vincent checking up on her.
“Good afternoon, my little step princess. Tell me, how is your day going, so far?”
“I-it’s fine,” Jennie managed, trying to mask the trepidation in her voice.
“It’s a beautiful day here in Firenze… how are things in Penzano? Anything new in the neighborhood besides our newest resident moving in?”
“No. Nothing new,” she mumbled, knowing exactly why he asked.
“Did you leave the villa after getting it ready like you’re supposed to, or did you hang around, so you could accidentally bump into Edward’s son, Anthony?”
“I did everything just like you told me to,” she lied.
“Is there something you aren’t telling me? You sound like the cat who just swallowed a canary.”
“There’s nothing to tell. If it’s specific details you’re craving, maybe you should ask your best friend, Francesco.”
He muffled a snicker. “I already have, my dear. I just thought there might be other information you’d like to add.”
“Well, I’m sorry I don’t have more for you, but thanks for checking in—talk to you soon.” She was about to end the call, when he stopped her short.
“Excuse me, but I was under the impression that you were going to start referring to me as Dad,” Vincent snapped. “Truth be told, I did adopt you after your father died.”
Jennie rolled her eyes and forced the respectful words from her mouth. “Goodbye, Father,” she said, clicking the end button on her cell phone. She despised it when he demanded her respect, and she hated it even more when she gave it to him.
The prick didn’t deserve it.
Okay, she’d lied about running into Anthony after he arrived, but for some reason, Vincent’s tone clearly revealed he already had that information, and true to form, the creep was just waiting to see if she’d come clean on her own. The barbaric old man loved nothing more than making her stew before he caught her in a lie, and then he’d grin in satisfaction while beating her—until she admitted her guilt.
Yes, she’d seen the handsome American twice since he’d arrived, but neither meeting was her intention, so there was no point in getting either of them into trouble. Obviously, Anthony was up to his eyeballs in hot water, or he wouldn’t be living in the safe house on the top of the steep hill. And though her core curled every time she thought of him, Jennie knew it would be best if she kept her distance.
Instead of waiting for Francesco to pick him up the next morning, he decided to ride in an official-looking taxi to Orvieto. Although Vincent’s thug was supposed to be the bodyguard who would keep him safe, there was just something Anthony didn’t trust about him and he quickly decided to hire the driver who was a friend of his dad’s.
“Grazie, Domenic,” he said, handing him a wad of cash.
“Prego. Your father mentioned that you might be calling for a ride during your stay here.”
“I shouldn’t be long. Do you mind hanging around for about an hour or so?”
The older man’s wink was subtle. “No problem at all. I’ll be here waiting until you’re ready to leave.”
With a nod, Anthony opened the taxi door and took in a breath of the brisk late October air. Though his father had done business with Vincent Salerno when he was young, he knew his dad never trusted Vinnie or any of the goons who worked for him. And it was a well-known fact that anyone in their type of business always needed to look out for themselves and protect their family.
Taking a moment to stretch his tall frame after the hour and fifteen-minute ride, Anthony headed straight for the open market to watch the vendors prepare lunch for their hungry customers. The outdoor arena was packed with plenty of sightseeing visitors, and as he got closer to the kiosks, the delicious aroma of olive oil and fried potatoes wafted through the air. He’d remembered visiting this area as a young boy and wondered if they still served French fries out of a paper bag.
His arms were crossed, and a large smile lifted the corners of his mouth as his eyes spied a vendor preparing a chicken for the rotisserie with plenty of salt and olive oil. Licking his lips, he watched as a bag brimming with food was handed to a young woman with dark hair who stood a few feet in front of him. But when Anthony approached her from behind, he caught a glimpse of Jennie’s profile and gently tapped her on the shoulder.
“Do you recommend the chicken or the French fries?” he inquired through a lopsided grin.
“Both!” she cooed while pocketing her change. “Have the chicken wrapped for later and eat your fries right now—they’re best hot out of the bag.” But when she whirled her face to meet the friendly stranger, it seemed that a sharp breath caught in her throat. “Jesus Christ. Are you following me? Are you insane?”
“Please don’t go,” he pleaded, touching her shoulder. “If I have to chase you, I’ll lose my place in line.”
Nervously, she glanced around. “Where’s Francesco?”
“Right about now, I’d say he’s running through the safe house muttering very bad words in Italian about me.”
Her eyes narrowed as she reached for a French fry in the bag. “So, how did you get here?”
“Like most tourists, I took a taxi,” he said offhandedly, and then raised one finger toward the man who casually stood beside the rotisserie chicken stand. “I’ll have what she’s having, my good man.”
“Excellent choice!” the broad gentleman donning a white apron exclaimed while nodding. “It’s our best and most delicious value.”
But as Anthony turned to face her, Jennie wiped her fingers with a napkin and frowned. “I need to get going…”
“Hey, I’m a stranger in this town. Where’s the Italian hospitality I’ve heard so much about?”
“I’m not sure what needs to be said in order make you understand. I can’t be seen with you or any man for any reason. Which means I won’t be giving you a tour of Orvieto right now… or ever.”
Anthony reached for his food and paid the vendor. “If we walk really, really fast, maybe no one in this crowded arena of people will notice that we’re together,” he noted, gazing over his dark blue mirrored aviator sunglasses to stare into her eyes.
Jennie peered around, scanning the area. “I better call for a taxi.”
“Why not ride home with me, and we can eat our lunch while taking some quality time getting to know each other.”
“Weren’t you warned to stay away from me?”
“No worries, this taxi driver is a friend of my dad’s—not your stepfather’s.”
“Is Vincent really an old friend of the DiPasquale family?” she inquired, nervously looking over her shoulder. “It just seems hard to believe.”
“In my experience, everyone has different definitions of the word friend.”
“I don’t understand. Why stay in the safe house if your dad isn’t really a friend of Vincent’s?” Jennie asked, fumbling with the black heavy seatbelt.
Quickly, he placed his bag of food on the floor. “Here, let me help you fasten your belt. It’s difficult to maneuver the buckle with one hand.”
“Thanks. You’re very kind.”
Keeping a straight face, he was obviously thinking about how to answer her question as he snapped the belt in place and retrieved his lunch. “Look, Vincent owed my dad a favor, so he made an offer to keep me safe. But in this business, you always have to sleep with one eye open.”
After a casual shrug, Jennie opened the bag to take a whiff of her roasted chicken. “So, did you follow me, or did we really meet accidentally? Penzano is not exactly around the corner from Orvieto.”
“My dad brought us to Tuscany about twenty years ago, and I’d been wanting to see if this market was as I remembered it. Bumping into you was a bonus to my afternoon.”
Her smile was shy, and she blushed as she felt his eyes roaming her face. “I need to get out sometimes, just to be around people. I don’t have any friends where I’m living.”
“So, besides getting the safe house ready for guests, how else do you keep yourself occupied?”
“Usually, I spend time shopping in these wonderful small towns. But right now, my mother is so invested in matching me with Paulo that we’ve been meeting occasionally to chat about possible wedding ideas.”
“Have you thought about going to school? I hear there are wonderful universities in Italy.”
“I wanted to continue my studies, but Vincent didn’t think I was smart enough to get an undergraduate degree. He said that all I needed was a wealthy husband who would take care of me. I swear, sometimes he acts like we’re living in the eighteenth century. Who believes in arranged marriages anymore?”
“Obviously, your stepfather does.”
As she swallowed hard, tears filled her eyes. “I’ve only met Rocco’s son Paulo once, and he seemed as cold and calculated as his dear old dad. I never expected to have a fairytale marriage, but is it too much for me to want to be loved by my husband?”
Anthony handed her a clean napkin to wipe a tear rolling down her cheek. “I’m sure Paulo will fall head over heels in love with you,” he said, trying to comfort her. “But if you’re around for the next six months, you’ll have a new friend living on the top of your hill. Honestly, I would love for us to spend some time together.”
She gazed up at his handsome strong face through blurry eyes. “I’d like to take you up on your offer, but if you’re smart, you’ll find someone else to be friends with in this town.”
They both stared thoughtfully out the window for the rest of the ride, and then Anthony gave instructions to his driver when they came close to her house.
“We’re about a block from where she lives, so let Jennie out here. Normally, I would walk this beautiful young woman to her door, but I don’t want her to get into trouble because of me.”
“Thanks so much for the ride. It was nice to have known you,” she mumbled, closing the door behind her.