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Luke Savarini took a second bite of the lobster ravioli, just to be sure he hadn't judged too hastily. He'd been right the first time, he decided, letting the flavors dissolve on his tongue. There was too much oregano, and the sauce splashed over everything was weighted down with excess cream.
Anna, his sister, watched his reaction and then gave a crooked smile. "Not up to scratch, huh? My veal is okay, but not spectacular. Want to taste?"
"I'll take your word for it." Luke put down his fork, pushing away his heaped plate. With all the food there was in his life, he avoided eating anything he didn't completely enjoy. His waistline and his taste buds both thanked him.
"Why did you insist on bringing me here, Annie? You're not usually a fan of second-rate Italian."
"The restaurant is owned by Bruno Savarini. He's a cousin of ours, sort of. His grandfather and our great-grandfather were brothers."
Luke rolled his eyes. The most remote and fragile twigs of the family tree all made perfect sense to his sister, whereas he had his work cut out simply keeping track of the names and birthdays of his six nieces and nephews.
He mentally reviewed the vast clan of Savarini cousins. "Okay, I'm working hard, but I can't place a Cousin Bruno."
"He's Great-Uncle Joe's grandson. You must have run into each other at a wedding."
Luke grinned. "Yeah, but that's almost the same as saying I've never met him. Can you ever recall a Savarini wedding with less than two hundred relatives milling around and at least half of the men singing 'O Sole Mio' at the top of their lungs?"
Anna returned his grin, tacitly acknowledging the cheerful mob scenes that passed for family gatherings in the Savarini clan. "Bruno had his sixty-fifth birthday last month. He's short and stocky, with brown eyes and an olive complexion"
Luke laughed. "Well now, that narrows it right down. Short, stocky, brown eyes. I guess only ninety percent of Savarini men fit that description."
Anna tried to look severe. "Just because you're a six-foot, gray-eyed genetic freak, there's no need to get snooty. Anyway, I brought you here because Bruno plans to retire as soon as he can find a buyer for his restaurant. He has crippling arthritis and he only comes into the restaurant occasionally nowadays. You'd be astonished at how much better the food tastes on the days when he's here."
"I wouldn't be astonished," Luke protested. "I'm a chef, remember? I know just how much difference it makes when you have somebody talented in charge of the kitchen."
"The restaurant is in a fabulous location," Anna continued as if he hadn't spoken. "The decor is attractive and the kitchen is state-of-the-art. And Bruno has plenty of loyal customers. Look around you. The place is full. That's pretty good on a Wednesday, especially since we're eating late."
Far from looking around the restaurant, Luke's gaze fixed on his sister with suddenly narrowed focus. "Wait. I must be slow on the uptake tonight because I've only just realized why we're here. You want me to buy this place, don't you?"
Anna had the grace to blush. "Well, you're a chef. You own restaurants. Bruno wants to retire and he's our cousin. It seems a natural fit."
Luke felt a surge of affectionate exasperation. It was a familiar sensation in Anna's vicinity. She was a brilliant physicist, working for a government agency that she claimed was part of the Department of Education, although he'd believe crayfish grew on trees before he believed that. He loved her more than any of his four other siblings, which was saying a lot. But whereas she found quantum mechanics and string theory simple concepts, the economics of running a family business had always dangled far beyond her ability to grasp.
He took a sip of Chianti and then toasted his sister with the glass. "I appreciate your good intentions, Annie, but I can't just randomly acquire restaurants all over the country. I live in Chicago, remember?"
"News flash. Have you noticed there must be thirty flights a day between Chicago and Washington, D.C.? A thousand miles isn't so far."
Luke laughed, genuinely amused. "From your perspective, maybe. That's what comes of working all day with astronomers who consider Alpha Centauri to be practically banging on the back door because it's only a billion miles away"
"You're missing several zeroes," Anna said. "And it is banging on the back door as stars go."
"Yeah, well, that's my point, Annie. A billion or a gazillion, it's all in a day's work for you. However, when you're running a restaurant, a thousand miles is a long way. You need to be on the spot so you can keep an iron grip on quality control, not to mention you have to be on hand to step in whenever there's a crisis."
His sister wasn't ready to give up. "But you have three restaurants in the Chicago area already, and you can only be in one of them at a time. And they're doing so well "
Luke mentally crossed his fingers; he was superstitious where his restaurants were concerned. "You're right, Luciano's is succeeding beyond my wildest hopes. And part of the reason the restaurants are doing well is because they're all in the Chicago area. Where I live." And where he was already working a minimum of sixty hours a week.
She sighed. "I hoped that the lure of opening a restaurant in the D.C. area might be enough to tempt you to visit more often. I miss you, Luke, much as I hate to admit it, seeing as how when we were growing up you were a totally annoying snot."
He raised his eyebrow. "Me? A snot? You must have me confused with one of your other brothers. Tom, maybe. He has major league snot potential."
She shook her head. "Uh-uh. No confusion. I'm talking about you."
"How quickly good deeds are forgotten." Luke gave an exaggerated sigh. "What about the time I saved you from being discovered with the captain of the baseball team in Mom and Dad's whirlpool tub? When you were both naked, no less. I figure that ought to have earned me at least a decade or two of gratitude."
"My God, Robert O'Toole and the hot tub."Anna's expression was suddenly arrested. "I'd forgotten about that."
"If Dad had found the two of you, trust me, it would be one of your more vivid teenage memories."
She chuckled in wry acknowledgment. "Love is weird, isn't it? For two whole months I was convinced my life would be over if Rob didn't ask me to the senior prom. And I haven't given him a single thought since the day I left for college."
"He would be devastated to hear that," Luke said dryly. "Rob definitely fancied himself."
She gave a nostalgic grin and her gaze became wistful. "Damn, I miss you, Luke. Are you sure you don't want to reconsider buying Bruno out?"
Luke quelled a moment of temptation. "I wish, Annie, but I'm already stretched way too thin, time-wise. I'm sorry."
She gave a resigned shrug that didn't quite conceal her disappointment. "Oh, well. It was worth a try."
He leaned across the table and briefly rested his hand on his sister's. The movement shifted his perspective and his gaze happened to land on a couple seated at the table closest to the entrance. The man's back was turned toward their table, but as Luke watched, the man laughed and reached out to put his arm around the woman's shoulder so that Luke glimpsed him in profile. The man listened to his companion for a moment, and then laughed again at whatever she had said. A sudden lull in the noise allowed Luke to hear the sound. It was teasing and low, a throaty chuckle. It was also eerily familiar.
Shock momentarily froze Luke in his seat. Then he jumped to his feet, grabbing his chair just in time to prevent it toppling over. "Be right back," he told his sister, moving swiftly toward the couple.
"Luke, what's wrong? Where are you going?"
He didn't answer, partly because he was having a hard time catching his breath, partly because he was focused with hypnotic intensity on the couple by the door. The man must have sensed that he was being observed. He glanced up and his head jerked in visible shock. He immediately rose to his feet, putting his hand in the small of his companion's back and hustling her toward the exit. She followed without a word of protest, oddly compliant.
A waiter carrying a heavy tray crossed Luke's path, obscuring his view. He wished he could push the waiter violently aside, the way they did in the movies, and to hell with the food arrayed on the tray. But the habit of deferring to a server carrying dishes was ingrained and Luke skirted the waiter, losing another crucial few seconds in his journey toward the exit. He had to excuse himself twice to an oblivious woman whose chair stuck far out from the table, forming an impromptu barricade. When he'd negotiated that obstacle, he squeezed past the two final tables separating him from the hostess station and reached empty floor space. The man and his companion were nowhere in sight.
Luke ran outside, cursing himself for having wasted too much time being polite. Why hadn't he just elbowed and shoved his way across the dining room, and to hell with flying dishes? Unfortunately, the parking lot was crowded and he couldn't immediately spot the couple. Dammit, surely there hadn't been time for them to drive off?
The lot served several specialty stores in addition to Bruno's restaurant, and there were at least a dozen people strolling around, as well as a van pulled up to the curb, collecting trash. Although the lot was rimmed by lights, the humidity was high and there was a slight mist hanging in the night air, making it frustratingly hard to see. Luke finally picked out his quarry simply because the man was running, his companion jogging awkwardly in his wake, hampered by her high heels.
"Stop!" Luke yelled, ignoring the interested stares of passersby. "Stop, for God's sake! Ron Raven, is that you? Ron, stop!"
The man didn't answer. If anything his pace got faster. The woman, indifferent to the damp pavement, tugged off her shoes and ran barefoot across the lot.
Luke tore down the aisle of parked cars, catching up as the man clicked the car locks with his remote and slid behind the wheel of a silver-gray Mercedes. Ron, or his look-alike, didn't even wait for his female companion to get into the car before turning on the ignition. He was already backing out of his parking space before she closed her door, and long before she could have latched her seat belt.
Luke gave a final burst of speed and caught up with the couple. He stood behind the car, waving his arms. It was impossible for the driver not to have seen him, but the car continued to back up.
Jesus! The guy was going to run him over if he didn't move, Luke realized with a flash of total incredulity. At the last minute, he had no choice other than to jump to one side. Without a backward glance, the driver swung around on squealing tires and dashed for the exit.
"That man sure was in a hurry." A middle-aged woman stared at the disappearing Mercedes, her frown disapproving. "Crazy drivers. He could've killed you. If he keeps driving like that he's going to cause an accident for sure. You okay?"
"Yes, thanks." Luke realized just in time that if he could get the license plate number, the police would have a way to track down the owner. "Excuse me. Really, I'm fine."
He squeezed between two parked cars and dashed into the next aisle where he had a better view of the Mercedes racing toward the exit. It was a Virginia plate, he saw, with the license number AB7 4K3. Or maybe it was 4K8. He squinted, trying to confirm one number or the other, but the plate was dirty, the night dark, and the car was rapidly receding. The Mercedes sped down the block and made a sharp left turn at the first corner. Luke was a fast runner, but he knew he didn't have a chance in hell of catching up with it. He reached into his jacket and pulled out his Palm Pilot, jotting down the license plate numbers before he could forget them.
When he realized he'd been staring at the empty road for a full minute, he walked back into the restaurant and wove his way around servers and crowded tables, returning to his sister. His legs felt surprisingly shaky and he slumped into his seat, breathing hard. Anna started to lecture him, but changed her mind when she got a good look at him.
"What is it?" she asked. "For heaven's sake, what happened just now? Are you okay?"
"I'm not sure." He reached for his wineglass and then pushed it aside and took a gulp of water instead. He put the incredible truth into words. "I think I just saw Ron Raven."