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Ricco Ferraro wanted to punch something. Hard. No, he needed to punch something-or someone, preferably his brother. It would be satisfying to feel the crunch of his knuckles splitting open flesh. Cracking bone. Yeah. He could get behind that if his brother didn't shut the hell up. They were in a hospital with doctors and nurses surrounding them on every floor. If he really went to town and made it real, Stefano wouldn't suffer for too long.
"Ricco," Stefano hissed again, using his low, annoying, big-brother tone that made Ricco feel crazier than he already was feeling. "Are you even listening to me? This has got to stop. The next time you might not make it."
Stefano had been lecturing him for the last ten minutes; Ricco figured no one could listen that long, let alone him. He didn't have the patience. He knew damn well how close he'd come to dying. They'd replaced every drop of blood he had in his body not once, but twice. He'd been in the fucking hospital for weeks.
His car had hit the wall at over two hundred miles an hour, but he knew he hadn't driven into it. Something broke and the suspension went, driving pieces of metal through his body like shrapnel. He'd lived it. He still felt it. Every muscle and bone in his body hurt like hell.
"I'll listen when you make sense, Stefano," Ricco snapped and finished buttoning up his shirt. It wasn't easy. The pain was excruciating when he made the slightest movement, but he was getting out of this damn hospital whether the doctor signed the release papers or not. He'd had enough of all of them-especially his older brother.
He turned to face them-his four brothers and one sister with their expressions so concerned. Grim. But there was Francesca, Stefano's wife. He focused on her and the compassion in her eyes. She had nudged Stefano several times to get him to stop. It had worked twice, but only for a moment or two.
"I'm going to say this one more time and never again. You don't have to believe me." He spoke to Francesca, because surprisingly, it was Francesca who believed him. They all should have-they could hear lies. That gave him pause. He could hear lies. If no one believed him, it was because he had to be lying to them-and to himself.
He turned his back on them. Just that little motion hurt. His body protested the slightest thing he did. "At least wait until you get the report on the car before you jump to conclusions. I didn't have control. The car's system just shut down." That much he was certain of. He drove at speeds of over two hundred miles per hour and had no trouble; his hand-eye coordination and his reflexes never failed him. The car had failed. He knew that with absolute certainty, so why couldn't he convince his brothers and sister that he hadn't tried to end his life? Why couldn't he convince himself?
It took everything he had to stand there, trying not to sway when his body broke out in a sweat and he could count his heartbeats through the pain swamping his muscles. What had he done to try to save himself? Nothing. He'd done nothing. He'd let fate decide, closing his eyes and giving himself up to the judgment of the universe. He'd woken up in the hospital with needles in his arm and bags of blood going into him.
His room was filled with flowers. There were boxes of cards, all from people in Ferraro territory, the blocks of city considered off-limits to any criminal. Their people, all good and decent. He hadn't looked at the cards, but he wanted to keep them. He didn't deserve those cards any more than he deserved the concern on his brothers' and sister's faces, or the compassion Francesca showed. Still, he was alive and he had to continue.
"Something went wrong with the car, Stefano," he repeated, turning back to look his brother in the eye.
"We're checking the car," Vittorio assured him. He was always the peacemaker in the family, and Ricco appreciated him. "We towed it immediately to our personal garage and it's been under guard. Only our trusted people are working on it."
Ricco flicked his brother a quick glance that was meant to serve as a thank-you. He didn't say it aloud, not with Stefano breathing down his neck.
"You almost died," Stefano said, and this time the anger was gone from his voice and there was strain. Apprehension. Caring.
That was Ricco's undoing. It was impossible to see or hear the stoic Stefano torn up. He was the acknowledged head of the family for a reason. Ricco didn't deserve the way they cared so much. There were too many secrets, too many omissions. He'd put them all in jeopardy and they had no idea. Worse, he couldn't tell them. He just had to watch over them night and day, a duty he took very seriously.
He shook his head, sighing. "I know, Stefano. I'm sorry. I lost control of the car." That was true. He had. He remembered very little of the aftermath, but in that moment when he realized the car wasn't an extension of him anymore, that it was a beast roaring for supremacy, separate from him, he had felt relief that it was over. If he had died, it all would have been over and the danger to his family gone.
"Are you convincing me? Or yourself?" Stefano asked quietly. "We're taking you out of here, but you have to pull yourself together. Enough with the craziness, Ricco, or I'll have no choice but to pull you off rotation even when you're physically fit and have the doctor's okay to work."
Gasps went up from his brothers and Emmanuelle, his sister. Francesca uttered a soft "no" and shook her head. Ricco's heart nearly seized. He was a rider. A shadow rider. It was who he was. What he was. A rider had no choice but to do what he'd been trained for from the age of two-even before that. It was in his bones, in his blood, he couldn't live without it. He dispensed justice to those the law couldn't touch.
Stefano stepped directly in front of him, close, so they were eye to eye. "Understand me, Ricco. I won't lose you. I'll do anything to save you. Anything. Give anything, including my life. I'll use every weapon in my arsenal to protect you from yourself and any enemy that comes your way. You do something about this, whatever it takes, and that includes counseling. But there aren't going to be any more accidents. You get me, brother? There will be no more accidents."
Ricco nodded his head. What else could he do? When Stefano laid down the law he meant every word he said. It wasn't often Stefano spoke like this to them, but no one would ever defy him, including Ricco. He loved his brother. His family. He'd sacrificed most of his life for them gladly, but Stefano was more than a brother. He was mom, dad, big brother, protector, all of it rolled into one.
It had been Stefano who had always been there for him. His own mother and father hadn't even come to the hospital to visit him after the accident, but Stefano had barely left even to eat. He looked haggard and worn. Every time the pain had awakened Ricco from his semiconscious state, Stefano and his brothers and Emmanuelle had been right there with him. That solidarity only reinforced Ricco's decision to keep them safe. They were everything to him.
"I get you," he assured softly.
"It's done then. When the doctor okays it, you resume training, but you don't train any more than the regular hours. You sleep even if you have to take something to get you to sleep. You stop drinking so fucking much, and you talk to me if you are having trouble doing those things."
Ricco's heart was pounding overtime now. He couldn't promise Stefano that he would stop with his extra training hours. He had to make certain he was in top form at all times, that he didn't-couldn't-ever make a mistake. That was part of him as well. But how did he explain that to his brother when he couldn't explain why? He just nodded, remaining silent so no one could hear his lie.
He drank sometimes to put himself to sleep, but he could stop with no problem, he just wouldn't be able to sleep. He wasn't about to say anything more to Stefano. It was impossible to lie to him and he didn't want his brother to worry any more than he already did.
Staring into the mirror as he finished buttoning his dove-gray shirt, he looked at the vicious bruises and the swelling, the side of his head that had nearly been caved in. Beneath the shirt his muscles rippled with every movement, a testimony to his strength-and he was unbelievably strong. It had been his superb physical condition that had saved him from certain death-at least that was what the surgeon said, his strength and a miracle. His frame was deceptive in that his roped muscles weren't so obvious, the way his cousins' were, but they were there beneath the skin of his wide shoulders and powerful arms.
He reached for his suit jacket. The Ferraro family of riders always wore pin-striped suits. Always. It was their signature. Even Emmanuelle wore the suit, fitted and making her look like a million bucks, but then she could wear anything and look beautiful. He sent his sister a reassuring smile because she looked as if she might cry. He knew he looked rough. He felt worse than rough, but his sister didn't have to know that.
"I'm fine, Emme," he reassured softly. He wasn't, but then he hadn't been for a long, long time.
"Of course you are," she said briskly, but she looked strained. "Walking away from a crash like that is easy for a Ferraro."
He hadn't exactly walked away from it, but he was standing now. He forced himself not to wince as he donned his jacket. Once the material settled over his arms and shoulders, he looked the way his brothers looked, a fit male, intimidating, imposing even.
There was a rustle at the door. His brothers Giovanni and Taviano moved aside to allow the doctor and nurse to enter. The doctor glared at all of them. The nurse kept her eyes on the floor. He noted her hands were shaking. She didn't want to confront the Ferraros, but had no choice when the surgeon insisted on saying his piece.
"You shouldn't be up, Mr. Ferraro," Dr. Townsend said.
"I'm fine," Ricco assured. "And very grateful to you." That had to be said whether it was a lie or not-and he honestly didn't know if it was.
"I refuse to release you. You could have blood clots, an aneurism, any number of complications," the doctor continued.
"I won't." Ricco gave them the look every Ferraro had perfected before their tenth birthday. His eyes were cold and flat and hard. Both the doctor and nurse immediately moved back. That, at least, was satisfying. He took another step toward them and they parted to allow him through. He might look like hell, and feel worse, but he was still formidable.
"I want the boxes of cards, but you can distribute the flowers to other hospital patients," Ricco continued, ignoring Stefano's frown. He knew what that meant. Stefano would want to talk to his doctor. A shadow rider could hear lies and compel truth-even from someone in the medical field. He kept walking, knowing his brother would never let him walk out to face the reporters alone.
"You're leaving against medical advice," the doctor reiterated.
Ricco didn't slow down. Immediately, his brothers and Emmanuelle fell into step around him. Surrounding him. Shoulder to shoulder. Solidarity. The moment he was outside his hospital room, his cousins Emilio and Enzo Gallo moved in front of them. Tomas and Cosimo Abatangelo, also first cousins, dropped in behind. The cousins always acted as bodyguards for the Ferraros, and Ricco knew he needed them. He might say he was ready to leave the hospital, but he wasn't. His body needed rest desperately as well as time to heal. He just couldn't do it there.
The press had been all over the accident, trying to sneak into the hospital and get photographs of him covered in bandages. One nurse had been suspended while they investigated the fact that she'd taken numerous pictures of Ricco unconscious and sold them to the tabloids. There had been several other attempts by orderlies and a janitor. Anyone getting a picture of playboy billionaire Ricco Ferraro after he'd crashed his race car in a fiery display stood to make hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"Did Eloisa come to visit you?" Stefano asked, walking in perfect step with him.
Ricco glanced at him, one eyebrow raised. "I crashed, Stefano. Not perfect. Why would you think our mother would ever come to visit me when I showed the world I was less than perfect?" Stefano had raised them, not Eloisa.
Stefano glanced at Francesca. "I thought she was attempting to turn over a new leaf. Guess I was wrong."
Ricco didn't answer. He knew Francesca had been trying to make peace with Eloisa, but his mother didn't have one maternal instinct in her body. He could'nt care less. They'd had Stefano growing up, and he'd watched out for them-just as he was doing now. His oldest brother might be annoying, but Stefano loved his siblings. A. Lot. And he looked after them. It was something they all counted on.
Ricco hated that he'd caused his brothers and sister so much concern. He knew he had to change, turn his life around. It was time. He just didn't know how.
"Ready?" Stefano asked as they approached the double doors leading to the parking lot. No one broke stride, all moving with the same confident step. The town car had already been brought to the entrance. It was only a few feet away, but the paparazzi, several rows deep, had flashes already going off.
"Yeah," Ricco said. He wasn't. He could barely walk upright. Every single step jarred his body and reminded him he was human.
He was afraid he would fall before he reached the privacy of the car, but he kept walking. He had to get out of the hospital before he lost his mind. He'd had his own private wing complete with bodyguards, but that hadn't stopped the madness of the press or his fear that they'd catch him at his most vulnerable.
Stefano and the rest of his siblings had stayed the three weeks he was kept unconscious, at least that was what Francesca had whispered to him. They only left if a job was imperative. Once he was awake, it was mainly Stefano with him while the others took care of work. He felt their love, and in that moment, facing the paparazzi with his siblings surrounding him, he knew it had been worth every sacrifice he'd made to protect them. He'd do it all over again in a heartbeat.