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By KARIN TABKE JAMI ALDEN
APHRODISIA BOOKS Copyright © 2008 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter One "Now, that's a rack!"
"Shut the hell up, Gordo. You're going to have the whole family breathing down our necks," Gabe hoarsely whispered. He didn't bother looking at his hormone-infused partner. Instead he glanced around them, ascertaining that no one had bothered to look over at the cluster of oleander bushes they were hiding in, focused his binoculars, and zeroed in on the object of Gordo's comment. Gianna Michaela Cipriani. Grieving daughter of the recently departed Alberto "Cappy" Cipriani.
A soft breeze stirred her long dark hair. With her head bent, her hands clasped tightly in prayer as the good padre's deep melodic voice droned last rites, he could only catch a glimpse of her flushed cheeks and full lips. Gathered tightly around Gianna was her extended family and half of San Francisco's Italian population. If Gabe was a betting man, he'd lay odds his Southern California Italian family shared some of the same gene pool.
From Gabe's vantage point, all he could see was a body shrouded in a shapeless dark dress his nona wouldn't be caught dead in.
"How the hell can you tell she has a rack in that bag-lady dress?"
Gordo chuckled. "I have X-ray vision."
"Well shut it down. We're not here to sniff out your next lay."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. You watch Tucci; I'll watch the girl."
Reluctantly, Gabe dragged his binoculars from the demure Gianna Cipriani to every God-fearing Italian's nemesis, Don Fabio "the Blade" to those who knew the true nature of the man. Tucci however preferred the Don "Juan" moniker. The prick fancied himself a lover and connoisseur of all things female. Gabe scowled hard. The mob boss, was, in Gabe's highly trained estimation, looking a bit too long and too predatorily at the bereaved daughter. The smarmy bastard! "I bet that prick tries to swindle that restaurant right out from under her," Gabe mused out loud.
"Yeah, and if his lover-boy approach doesn't work, you think he'll take her out like he did her old man?"
Gabe swung his binocs back to look at Gianna. Her pale face was practically hidden behind huge dark sunglasses. Not that she needed them. The low clouds were dark and ominous in the sky hovering over Holy Cross Cemetery, typical October weather for the Bay Area. The wind picked up, lifting Gianna's long black skirt. He caught a glimpse of a shapely ankle and calf before she hastily pushed it back into place.
"Nice legs too!" Gordo exalted.
Gabe looked at his partner's grinning face and shook his head. Gordo's flushed fleshy jowls and wet lips reminded him of a slobbering St. Bernard. He turned back to his job. Surveilling Tucci. "Next time, jerk off before we go into the field."
"Nah, jerking off ain't half as fun as the real thing. I think maybe tonight I'll go over to Ciao Bella and have me a bite or two." Gordo wagged his eyebrows, and Gabe just shook his head again.
"You do that, but don't blow your cover. I don't feel like breaking in a new asshole."
Gordo harrumphed at the insult but continued to watch the Cipriani girl. Gabe watched Tucci watch Gia. His blood warmed. Tucci had a nasty way with women. Hence "the Blade" moniker. Gabe had seen firsthand the aftermath of the hookers he liked to tenderize after he sliced and diced them. The man lived at his strip joint impersonating a steak house, Roberto's, where he had his pick of the crème de la crème. Fear, drug addiction, and the promise of starring in one of Tucci's notorious X-rated film noirs was a strong aphrodisiac for many women. It always amazed Gabe how low one would sink for a buck or the promise of fame and fortune.
Gabe hadn't much minded hanging out at a high-class strip joint and keeping a watchful eye on the lothario who presided in his upstairs office overlooking the main dance floor like Julius Caesar lording over a harem. It was part of his undercover. The eye candy was primo, and the info he racked up while the flavor of the night ground away on him in a lap dance was as good as reading it in the Chronicle. And the food? Roberto's did have one hell of a steak. So, yeah, as strip joints went, Roberto's was top-notch.
Gabe shook his head. But the girls. They might look as good as any Victoria's Secret model when they stepped on the dance floor for the first time, but it didn't take long for that vacant look to appear in their eyes. He'd seen more than a few girls show up to work with bruises covered with makeup. Some never came back. They dummied up the minute one of his task force partners popped in for a chat. Gabe knew he could get more out of them than could a female agent, but if he did that, his cover was in serious jeopardy of being blown. And no way was he going to see almost two years of hard work go down the drain. So, he did what he always did. Kept his head down, his ears open, and the cash flowing from his wallet into the strippers' G-strings, courtesy of the U.S. government. Gabe cringed. He'd been catching a lot of heat for his flamboyant expense requisitions. But in his mind it was worth every penny and then some to nail Tucci's ass to the concrete walls of Leavenworth.
His brows furrowed. Tucci was a slippery scumbag of the highest order, and if his task force didn't nail him this time around, Gabe was tempted just to relieve the taxpayers of another trial that would cost them a fortune only to see the slippery Don waltz out of the courtroom for the third time.
Gabe's hands tightened around the thick black plastic. It wasn't that they didn't have the evidence. It was the star witnesses. Even with them in deep witness protection, the bastard had managed to get to them every single time. Fucking mistrial after mistrial. He was sick of it. And he was positive that the Don had made sure Alberto had accidentally fallen down the stairway into his basement wine cellar, and then intentionally made sure his neck was broken in three places.
"Hey? Who's that?" Gordo asked.
Gabe shifted his binocs back to Gianna and the woman who had maneuvered through the voluminous crowd to take the girl's hand. "Theresa Bellesi, cousin on the mother's side. She arrived from New York last night."
Gordo put his glasses down and looked at Gabe. "Don't you sleep, man?"
Gabe shook his head and continued to look at the cousins. "Nope. I want Tucci."
Gordo looked back through his glasses at the voluptuous Theresa, smacked his lips, and said, "I want the cousin."
"Miss Cipriani, my sincerest condolences on your loss."
Gianna looked from the perfectly manicured hand extended to her, up his arm, to his neck, then to the face attached to it. Olive skin pulled tight over severe features that reminded her of a hawk, complete with dark predatory eyes that regarded her with what her gut told her was false concern. A hard shiver sprinted down her spine. Intuitively she knew this man was not someone her father would approve of. She sniffed back a sob. Papa. Gone. Just like that. One minute they were laughing about Zia Cece sneaking cannoli when she thought no one was looking, then Gianna returned from the bank thirty minutes later to find her father dead at the bottom of the wine cellar stairway.
She swiped a tear away and looked harder at the man. She supposed many women would find his classic, albeit sharp, Italian features handsome. She did not. Malice lurked behind the dark eyes. This was not a man to say no to. Even though her experience with men was nil, Gianna intuitively knew that even under the most urgent, desperate duress, she would never succumb to this man's manufactured charm.
But she was not stupid either. Slowly she took the extended hand. Long, thin, cold fingers wrapped around her hand and pulled her ever closer to his overcologned body. "My name is Fabio Tucci. Your father was a distant business associate of mine. I will miss his good humor."
Gianna flinched under the unrelenting grip and the cloying scent of his cologne. "Thank you, Mr. Tucci." She pulled her hand from his grasp; he tightened it.
"Miss Cipriani, I understand you are grieving right now, and I will certainly respect that with a day or two of time to yourself, but I need for you to understand." His voice lowered to a threatening pitch. "Alberto and I had some unfinished business."
Gianna's heart thumped harder against her chest. As far as she knew, her father's only business interests lay with the restaurant, and as his sole heir, she was aware of every dime coming and going.
She yanked her hand from his grasp and shoved it into her jacket pocket. "I'm sure I don't understand."
Tucci grinned, showing straight white teeth, the canines elongated, reminding her of a hungry dog. "Come to my restaurant, Roberto's, tomorrow night. I have an excellent chef who will prepare whatever dish you desire. We'll have a glass of wine and discuss your options."
"I'm afraid that isn't possible. I'm needed at my own restaurant. Perhaps you could stop by Ciao Bella and we can discuss this 'business' you speak of."
Tucci shook his head and moved in closer. "No, bella." He lowered his voice and continued. "You strike me as a smart girl. So understand right now-my word is law. Do not turn me down again."
He strode past her then. Slack-jawed, Gianna turned and watched the smarmy man, along with the goombahs who circled around him protectively, stride to a waiting black stretch limo.
"Who was that?" Theresa asked.
Gianna turned to her cousin. While she wanted to shrug the answer off nonchalantly, the icy fingers of doom scratched at her arms. "Some guy named Fabio Tucci."
Theresa's eyes widened. "Don Juan Tucci."
A sudden creepy feeling encompassed Gianna's body. Of course! Don Juan! The man was notorious for his womanizing. What the hell did he want with her? She hadn't earned the moniker "Madonna" for nothing.
"What did he say?"
Emotion sprang up in Gianna's chest. Fresh warm tears welled in her eyes. "He said Papa and he had some type of un- finished business."
Theresa's perfectly arched brows furrowed. "Doesn't sound good to me, Gia."
"He wants me to go to his restaurant tomorrow night to discuss my 'options.'"
"You aren't going, are you?"
Gianna swiped at the nagging tears and shook her head. "No. I invited him to Ciao Bella, and he told me he calls the shots." She pulled a damp hanky from inside her long-sleeved shirt and blew her nose. "I don't like him."
Theresa looked past Gianna's shoulder to the big black stretch pulling away from the curb. "Me either."
Before Gianna could comment further, she was swarmed with genuine friends and family who offered their condolences. She held back her tears and stood stalwart as she always had. For the sake of her father and the rest of the mourners, Gianna would once again put her own feelings aside for the greater good of the family.
Several hours later, after the last mourner left the restaurant, Gianna climbed the back staircase to the spacious apartment she shared with her father. It was the only home she'd ever known. After her gypsy mother told her and her father she was going out to the store and never returned, it had been Gianna and Alberto against the world.
As she kicked off her sensible heels, Gianna groaned. Her feet were killing her. She plopped down on the sofa and rubbed them, thinking how terrified she was when her mother didn't return home that night. They called the cops, along with the entire family.
Never suspecting Tina would have deserted them, Alberto nearly died on the spot when the cops pointed out his wife's empty closet and dresser. Alberto later discovered that the secret cash stash only he and his wife knew about had disappeared with her.
It was crystal clear to everyone what had happened.
To a seven-year-old girl, it was the harshest of betrayals. Her father had sunk to his knees and cried inconsolably for weeks. Gianna knew a new terror. What if Papa left her too?
When he finally came back to reality, he begged Gianna never to leave him. And she had given her word, begging the same promise from him. Twenty years later, she now felt completely alone. No siblings. No living grandparents. Just cousins, aunts, and uncles, but mainly her father's sister Cece, who had failed filling in as a mother figure, though she had tried valiantly. Cece was lovable, but she was more interested in letting the world know what a horrible woman Tina Cipriani was. For that, Gianna could not forgive her. Tina had abandoned her, true, but at the end of the day, she was the woman who had given birth to her, and that counted for something in Gianna's book.
Tears welled again, and Gianna moved over to her father's recliner, took the afghan her nona had made years ago, and wrapped it around her shoulders. She curled up into a ball, closed her eyes, inhaling the warm spicy scent of the only man who had been in her life, and cried.
Gabe sat across the street from Ciao Bella, hunkered down in a battered black van. From behind a half-empty cup of coffee, he watched the upstairs apartment light go on, then a slender shadow pass in front of the window. He knew it was Gianna, and he knew she was alone. He also knew she was in for a whole lot more hurt.
Gabe's eyes moved from the window down the street to his left to the blacked-out Escalade hugging the curb on the same side of the street as he. Tucci had his own men keeping an eye on the little Italian girl. He wondered how far the Blade would go to get what he wanted from her. Which broached the question: What did Tucci want with the girl?
Gabe took a big swig of his coffee and contemplated the answer. One of two things. He wanted to extort the money from Gianna that Alberto owed him, or he wanted the quiet demure virgin. It was an open secret on the streets that "Madonna" Cipriani was as cloistered as any nun in a convent. Now that her overprotective father was out of the way, the ocean was teeming with circling predators. At the gravesite, he'd watched the way the men, including his partner, had salivated over the prospect of popping such a sweet cherry.
A twinge of heat speared Gabe's dick. He pushed against the rise in his slacks. "Down boy," he muttered. He finished off his coffee and tossed the empty cup into the black hole of the back of the van. His dick reared its head again. Gabe groaned but didn't bother pushing it down. It had been months since he'd come inside of a woman. And that was no easy feat considering where he spent most of his evenings. He looked up at the now-darkened window.
He had a yearning all right, but he realized it wasn't for those sleek, high-end, world-class bodies. No, he was in the mood for a good old-fashioned home-cooked girl. The kind of woman who had some meat on her bones and, more than that, a genuine smile and a zest for the same pleasures he craved. Good food, good wine, and some lusty, twisting-the-sheet-still-they-were-ringing-wet sex.
Blood surged to his dick. And this time Gabe fought back. With the heel of his hand, he pushed down firmly against his hard-on. He closed his eyes and groaned. Not helping. "Son of a bitch!" he growled. He fought the urge to take the matter into his own hands but somehow couldn't justify it on company time. Instead, he rearranged himself and willed his hard-on to go away.
Chapter Two Gianna lay in bed for several long moments. She squinted as the glare of the morning sun blinded her. It was supposed to rain. Instead sunshine greeted her. She rolled over and stuck her head under the pillow, not wanting to open the restaurant. She let out a long relieved sigh when she remembered she told the employees she was going to close today. She needed time before she could pretend to the world her heart was not broken. What surprised her most about her decision was the fact that she was, for the first time, doing something for herself and not thinking of others first.
Gianna flung the covers from her body and sat up in bed. She looked down at the thin beige flannel nightgown she'd worn for the last two years with sudden contempt. Such was her life. Colorless, but safe and warm. Her shoulders slumped forward. It wasn't so bad.
She lay still for a long time and realization dawned. She was taking the time off because it wasn't what she wanted, she was being forced to by her family! She sprang up straight in the bed as a shot of rebellion surged inside. Was she destined to do what was deemed best for her by others? Her entire life she'd gone with the flow. If Papa said it were to be, it was to be. Zia Cece was an indomitable force, and well, Gianna had always done the right thing. It never occured to her to rebel. Why should she?
Excerpted from Italian Stallions by KARIN TABKE JAMI ALDEN Copyright © 2008 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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