Vittorio Ferraro is a man whose family loyalty knows no bounds. He would die for his siblings and the people they love, but what he really wants is to start a family of his own. Deep down, Vittorio has always known finding a woman who could ride shadows would be nearly impossible—let alone one who could accept his particular needs—and he never expected to find her in the middle of a kidnapping.…
Grace Murphy has always been drawn to Vittorio Ferraro—or at least to the billionaire’s public bad-boy persona. Now that she’s under his"protect"on and the sole focus of his intense caring, she can’t help wanting to get as close to him as possible. But Grace knows her presence is putting the entire Ferraro family in danger. Her monster of a brother will never let her go, but Vittorio has no intention of losing the woman whose shadow matches his own.
Praise for Shadow Keeper
“Shadow Keeper is, in a word, a keeper! If you love hot men, sexy women, the good guys winning against the bad guys, love (both sweet and ultra steamy), and family that stands together, then this book is all that and even more.”—Fresh Fiction
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Vittorio Ferraro stood in the shadows, his skin crawling with the need to move. Something was wrong. Not just wrong. Whatever his churning gut was about, he’d never quite felt the urgency of finding the source of the trouble as he did right then.
He’d come home from work exhausted. Work had been in Los Angeles this time. He’d been there numerous times, but this particular one had been a bloodbath. He was a shadow rider, one of the very few in existence worldwide. With that came tremendous responsibilities and absolute secrecy. He’d begun his training at the age of two and continued every day of his life since. Now, after carrying out justice in Los Angeles, he’d been more than happy to get home. His house was his sanctuary, and usually, once inside, he felt peace, not this terrible sense of impending doom.
He hadn’t been able to shake the feeling, so he got dressed and followed the dark dread that strengthened as he approached the nightclub his family owned. The Ferraro Club was in full swing, the music loud, the laughter and conversation blending with the energy of the music.
The nightclub was the most popular in Chicago and people stood in lines, sometimes for hours, on the chance of getting in. Celebrities frequented the Ferraro Club, and there was always the possibility that one might catch a glimpse of a member of the famous Ferraro family. Tonight, the place was packed.
As a rule, his family didn’t make it a habit to interfere in the running of the club— hey had managers who ran the place far better than any of them ever could— ut they dropped in when they needed to be visible. The paparazzi always swarmed around them, giving them better alibis for their work than anything else ever could. Right now, visibility was the last thing Vittorio wanted. The sense of urgency was growing stronger, not weaker, and that meant he needed to find whatever was wrong and fix it before it was too late. That something was here. In his club. Close now.
He moved from shadow to shadow without being seen. It was a slow process and his body was already torn up from doing this very thing in Los Angeles. Still, this wasn’t about work. This wasn’t about bringing justice to criminals no one else could get to. This was about the knots in his gut that coiled tighter and tighter, and felt personal. Very personal. And that in itself was shocking.
Vittorio was the largest of the Ferraro men. He was tall, broad- shouldered and very fit, as all riders had to be. He was also a man who knew himself very well. Every strength. Every flaw. What he wanted in life, what he needed— oth were impossible, and he’d accepted that he would never have a wife and family the way his brothers Stefano, Ricco and Giovanni had. Even Taviano had a much better chance than he would ever have. It was just this growing feeling that this portent of trouble was connected to him personally.
He was a man apart— ven within his family, he stood apart. Maybe they all did. It was possible their women strengthened the connection between them in some way.
Certainly, Francesca, Stefano’s wife, did. Vittorio loved her— hey all did— ut at the same time, it only emphasized his loneliness.
He knew it would already be nearly impossible to find a woman he could love the way he needed to love her. Finding a woman who could ride shadows was in and of itself extremely difficult, but finding one who would suit his peculiarities, that was asking far too much. He knew the odds, and they weren’t in his favor.
Shadow riders were obligated to have children, so if they weren’t married to a suitable woman by a certain age— ne he was approaching— n arranged marriage would follow. For a man like Vittorio, that would be an utter disaster.
For a moment he stood in the shadows watching the women dancing, knowing not a single one of them would ever tolerate him as a life partner. He had to find a woman who would have the genetics to produce children capable of riding the shadows and carrying on their work. That was his obligation. He could never simply fall in love; he had to fall in love with the right person. The odds of finding that were so slim, most riders never believed it could happen.
For Vittorio, the odds were even slimmer. He didn’t want a traditional partnership. He didn’t have that kind of personality. He needed his woman to trust him implicitly and allow him to care for her. For every aspect of her life. Where, in the modern world, could a woman like that be found? That would be impossible as well. Two impossibilities meant it wasn’t going to happen for him. He would be in a loveless, arranged marriage for the rest of his life.
He sighed and turned his attention back to that whisper of impending danger that had drawn him to the club. The floor plan had three tiers. The top tier was extremely expensive but provided the most privacy. Most of the celebrities stayed there to party. Bodyguards were prevalent, and the club’s highly trained security were visible as well. The third tier wasn’t a place Vittorio would expect to have any real trouble, but his every instinct pointed him in that direction.
He waited for the music to change and the light show to begin. The dancing colors cast all kinds of shadows throughout the large club, giving him plenty of choices. He selected a shadow that cut through the bar on the second- tier landing and zigzagged its way up to the highest tier where the Ferraros kept a table reserved just for family.
He stepped into a thin, dark streak and instantly his body was sucked into the tube, pulled apart and flung through tables and chairs and up two winding staircases to the top tier. Standing in the mouth of the tube, he needed a few seconds for his body to feel as if it had come back together. There was always the sick feeling that came with fast travel, with being pulled apart and put back together.
The moment Vittorio was up on the top floor, the sense of conspiracy, of danger, became overwhelming. He closed himself off from the noise and concentrated on that feeling of trouble. Of a fated doom. At the third table from the Ferraros’ exclusive seating sat three men. He recognized two as enforcers for the Saldi family. Just seeing them in his club caused the knots in his gut to tighten.
No one could keep drugs out of a club, but they didn’t allow sales there. The Saldis, a notorious crime family, brought drugs in and sold them from streets and alleys to the private parties of the rich. Every kind of drug anyone could possibly want, they provided. But not in a Ferraro club. It was one of the few things the Saldis knew the Ferraros would go to war with them over.
The Saldis were recognized as a branch of the largest crime family in the States. Giuseppi Saldi was the acknowledged leader and was certainly the biggest crime boss in Chicago. These particular men worked for his brother, Miceli Saldi. The big question was, why were two of Saldi’s goons sitting in the Ferraro nightclub making a deal with some lowlife junkie? Clearly they were conducting business of sorts. The Saldi enforcers blended in, with their expensive suits and Rolex watches, but the man sitting across from them was, by comparison, in disheveled clothes that had seen better days.
Vittorio was going to have to review the security tapes. There were certain protocols in place. Every doorman, every bouncer and every security guard was required to be familiar with the Saldis and their employees. If they entered the nightclub, the Ferraro family was to be informed immediately. That hadn’t happened.
The fact that the two Saldi enforcers sat in the VIP section on the third tier and no one had called a family member to let them know added an additional sin against the club’s security measures— r the Saldis had paid off someone high enough up in the nightclub’s management that they were able to sneak through. If that were the case, who else had they allowed in?
Vittorio needed to move around and listen to the conversations. The sale of drugs was always going to be a problem in clubs the world over, but the Saldis blatantly selling in the Ferraro nightclub was going to start a war no one wanted, and it didn’t make sense.
Vittorio stayed in the shadows and moved as close as possible in order to hear the conversation over the pounding beat of the music. He recognized Ale Sarto and Lando Gori, Miceli Saldi’s top enforcers. If either or both showed up at your door, chances were you weren’t going to survive the encounter. They were dressed in suits and looked sharp and handsome, but Vittorio had seen their work. There was nothing remotely civilized or benevolent about what they did to human beings. They wouldn’t be sent on some small errand. Not ever.
“She’s worth every cent of the money,” the stranger in disheveled clothes assured. He twitched a couple of times but kept direct eye contact.
Anyone sitting with Sarto and Gori should have been intimidated, especially a two- bit pimp who seemed to be talking about his prostitute.
Ale Sarto hitched forward. “You’re pushing your luck, Haydon. Her service is for your past debts, not any new ones you incur.”
Vittorio suppressed a groan of annoyance. The Saldis had stooped to an all- time low, negotiating for prostitutes in the Ferraro Club. He didn’t turn away, his gut still screaming at him. Nothing really made sense about the small exchange he’d overheard. Top- level enforcers like Sarto and Gori didn’t get involved in such mundane matters as acquiring another prostitute for the Saldi stables.
“I can get her to see reason and go along with you without any trouble,” Haydon responded. “She’ll do whatever I tell her.” He poured confidence into his voice. “That’s got to be worth another two hundred and fifty thousand.”
Lando Gori drew back and pinned Haydon with cold, dead eyes. “You’re really pushing your luck. We’re taking her tonight, and this new crap you’re trying to pull is going to get you killed. Take the deal wiping out your past debt for the woman’s services and walk away. We don’t need you. We can pick her up anytime and just cut you out of the transaction altogether.”
Haydon sat back immediately and threw his hands into the air as if in surrender. “Fine. Fine. But at least talk to him about the possibility of giving me a two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand- dollar credit. I brought the deal to him.”
Lando stood up, ending the conversation. “You didn’t bring the deal to him, Haydon. He gave you no choice. The woman, or we break every bone in your body. Personally, I think it should be both, but he’s a compassionate man.”
“Where is she?” Ale Sarto demanded, standing as well.
Haydon flashed a grin, revealing dark, stained teeth. “She wasn’t as cooperative as I would have liked, and I didn’t think she’d sit through negotiations, so I stashed her somewhere safe.”
“You’re a lying asshole, Haydon. You just told us she’d do anything for you. Now she’s not being cooperative. Which is it?” Lando snapped.
Vittorio stiffened. That didn’t sound like the woman was privy to what these men had said. Worse, it didn’t sound as if she was in any way cooperating.
“You’d better not be playing games, Haydon,” Ale warned. “Let’s go. I want to see her right now.”
Haydon’s cocky smile faded as he got to his feet as well. “You don’t understand. Grace would do just about anything for me, but she can get stubborn. Sometimes she needs a little persuasion.”
Lando Gori reached out and jerked Haydon close. “Stop stalling and get walking. We can be very persuasive if the situation calls for it.”
Vittorio rode the shadows down the winding stairs to the main dance floor, keeping the three men in sight at all times. They were clearly headed for the nearest exit. He wove his way through the shadows, choosing to leave through a private door that spilled him into the darkest corner of the parking lot. The reserved family parking was just in front of him, empty of course, because he’d ridden the shadows there, not wanting anyone to know he was around.
The three men he followed were halfway across the parking lot to his left. They stopped beside an old, beat‑up Honda. Haydon reached down and unlatched the trunk.
Vittorio’s breath hissed out between his teeth. He wasn’t a man to get angry. It wasn’t in his nature. Ordinarily, he was the peacemaker, the solution- finder. He watched as Haydon jumped back. A small ball of whirling fury exploded out of the truck, hitting the man directly in the chest.
The overhead light was out, something not tolerated in any of the Ferraro parking garages or lots, so the figures were no more than darker silhouettes as he neared them.
“What is wrong with you, Haydon? Get your hands off me.”
The woman shoved at the man, but he caught both her wrists and yanked hard. “Stop, Grace. Just listen for a minute. I’m in trouble.”
“You’re always in trouble. Always, Haydon. I told you the last time if you kept gambling you were on your own. I can’t take out any more loans. I can’t work any more hours. You messed up, you’re going to have to fix it yourself.”
Vittorio’s breath left his lungs in a long rush of shock. Something tight in his chest loosened. Someplace vulnerable. Someplace guarded and"protect"d. He pressed his hand tightly over the spot, feeling as if that voice had been a key, fitting perfectly into the lock and turning it before he had a chance to react— nd he had lightning- fast reflexes.
“I’m done with you. With your gambling and debts. I’m out of it, Haydon. I mean it. You’ve had more chances than anyone in life should expect to have.” Grace threw her hands into the air and turned away from him.
She was small. Vittorio would have been surprised if she was much more than five feet or five one. She had a figure, full breasts and a very nice ass on her. He appreciated that. He could see why these men would be interested in her. Her skin was very pale, and her hair was a true red. She had it pulled back in a long ponytail. There was something about that thick length of hair that got to him. The woman, as small as she was, standing valiantly in the face of the threat the Saldi enforcers presented, sent heat rushing through his veins.
Lando blocked her exit, stepping directly in front of her, a solid mass of muscle. “You’re going to have to come with us. The car is right over there.” He pointed to a town car with tinted windows.
She shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere with you. I have nothing to do with his debts. Nothing at all.”
“You’re his sister. Family pays debts.”
“I’m not his sister,” Grace denied, sending a furious look at Haydon. “We were raised in the same foster home. That’s our connection. Whatever he’s into, he’s in it alone.”
“Really?” Ale whipped out a gun, pressing it against Haydon’s temple. “You want me to kill him right now? That’s the second option.”
“Gracie.” Haydon squeaked her name.
Vittorio could see Haydon wasn’t worried in the least. He didn’t believe Ale would kill him. Vittorio knew better.
Grace froze when she saw the gun, turning slowly toward Ale. “What are you doing? Are you crazy?” She whispered it. “Put that away.”
Lando grinned at Ale. “I think she’s beginning to get the picture. Your friend Haydon made a deal. You pay his debts for him. You’re going to come work for us. A close friend of our boss wants you as his companion for a few weeks. Maybe longer. You make him happy and the debt goes away. It’s that simple.”
Grace’s gaze flicked to Haydon. “You sold me into prostitution? For your debts?”
Lando’s fingers settled around Grace’s arm. “Get in the car.”
“I’m not a prostitute.” She stubbornly refused to walk.
“I don’t give a damn what you are. The boss says bring you to him, you go to him,” Lando said. His fingers tightened like a vise and he yanked her toward the car.
Vittorio rode the shadow that would bring him straight to Ale Sarto. He wrenched the gun from Sarto’s hand and flung it away from them, so that it skittered across the parking lot, coming to rest under a BMW some distance away. He slammed his elbow into Ale’s jaw, breaking it, and swept his legs out from under him, stomping on his ribs to keep him down.
He leapt for the shadow, let it sweep him straight to Lando, and was on him so fast, Lando hadn’t had time to react to seeing his partner put on the ground. Vittorio wrenched Grace from Lando’s grip and thrust her behind him, out of harm’s way, as he attacked. Vittorio, always the one to seek solutions verbally, had no middle gear. Either he was talking logically, or he was acting, and when he went into action, he made every blow count.
He wasn’t trying to kill Lando Gori, but he wanted him down and out. Every punch, every kick, every single blow was a punishment. Vittorio was strong, and he trained every single day, as did the other riders. They trained against one another, and that meant speed and strength as well as technique. They all studied anatomy so they knew exactly where to strike to do the most damage. He broke bones when he hit or kicked, and Lando was on the ground, trying to reach inside his jacket for his weapon within seconds.
Grace tried to call out a warning, but Vittorio was already on it, kicking the gun from his hand.
“You’d better stop while you can, Lando,” Vittorio cautioned, using his soothing voice. He could calm with that voice and he did so now. “You know the Ferraro Club is off- limits. You were out of line, and you don’t put your hands on a woman on our property ever. You got your ass handed to you and you deserved it.”
Grace cried out. “Haydon, don’t. He helped us.”
Vittorio spun around to see the woman in motion, racing to get between him and Haydon. The gun from under the BMW was in his hand and he was aiming at Vittorio. Not at either of the Saldi enforcers, but at Vittorio. The bullet slammed Grace back into Vittorio and he caught her, turning so his body"protect"d her against another shot.
Haydon threw the gun and ran. Vittorio dropped down on one knee, taking Grace to the asphalt. She was fully awake and looking at him. She had green eyes, the color of jewels, although shock was wearing off and excruciating pain settling in.
“Don’t move. Just let me handle this.” He gave the command without thinking, already mass texting his family and calling for an ambulance. “I’m going to take a look at the wound. Keep looking at me. At my face.” He could already see the bullet had done damage. His worst fear was that it had severed an artery and she would bleed out before help could get there.
She swallowed hard. Her lashes fluttered, but she was definitely courageous. Tears swam. He leaned closer, keeping his hand over the wound.
“This isn’t anything we can’t deal with. I’m Vittorio Ferraro. You are?”
Her lips trembled. She opened her mouth twice to try to form words. He would have told her to stay quiet, but he was a little terrified of her losing consciousness. “Grace. Grace Murphy.”
“An ambulance is on its way. I’m going to tell them you’re my fiancée, just to make things easier in the ER. We’ll get faster results that way. Let me take over for you and get this done.”
Vittorio stared down into her eyes, willing her to stay alert, to stay alive. He needed her to live, more than he needed to breathe. Very gently he pushed the hair spilling into her eyes from her face, his thumb as soothing as his voice.
“Just stay with me, kitten. I’ll get you through this.” She was writhing, her feet pushing up on the asphalt, trying to get away from the pain. Every movement only made it worse.
“You have to stay still, Grace. You can do that. I know it’s hard, but look at me. I’m right here with you. You can do it because I’m asking you to. Just stay still. Don’t let your body move.”
Every nerve ending had to be screaming at her. There were broken bones. His hand pressing on the wound couldn’t be helping. In the distance he heard the scream of the siren, but the ambulance wasn’t coming fast enough.
Her gaze jumped to his and stayed there. She swallowed hard, but he could see her make a brave attempt to stop the fight her body was making to run. He smiled at her. “That’s my girl. Keep breathing for me. They’re on their way.”
His oldest brother, Stefano, emerged from the shadows first, took in the scene with a quick look and then was on the other side of Grace, leaning down with his Ferraro smile and that way he had with women.
“This is Grace,” Vittorio said. “My fiancée.” That should tell his brother everything, and it did. Stefano glanced at him sharply and then down at the woman lying on the ground, trying desperately not to move in spite of the agonizing pain because Vittorio had asked her not to.
“What the hell are the Saldis doing here? The cops will be here any moment.”
Ricco and Taviano converged from two different locations in the parking lot. Both scanned their brother first to ensure Vittorio was free from wounds and then took in the entire scene.
“They do this?” Ricco demanded.
Vittorio shook his head. “His gun.” He nodded toward Ale Sarto. “It’s over there. Her foster brother, Haydon— don’t know his last name yet— ried to sell her for his gambling debts. Had her in the trunk of his car. They were going to take her, too. Haydon tried to shoot me after I dealt with Ale and Lando. She stepped between us. Her last name is Murphy. She was raised in a foster home with this Haydon. Check the trunk of the Honda for her purse. Get this information to Rosina immediately. As her fiancé I will be expected to know everything about her.”
Taviano was already up, on his phone and hurrying to the Honda where he recovered Grace’s purse. Vittorio kept his eyes locked with Grace’s. Shudders went through her body. Tears tracked down her face. Several times she started to move, but the moment he murmured softly to her, she fought back the urge.
“That’s my girl. Stay with me. You’re doing great. They’re here.”
She looked desperate. He felt that way. He wasn’t about to be separated from her. “No matter what, I’ll be with you,” he promised. He glanced at his brother. Stefano made things happen, even impossible things.
His oldest brother was on the phone to Giuseppi Saldi and the conversation wasn’t pleasant. Stefano was pissed as all hell and the cold, clipped way he was talking to Giuseppi let the man know there were going to be repercussions.
“Two of your men are here in my parking lot. My brother’s fiancée has been shot with one of their guns and the cops are crawling all over my club. What the fuck, Giuseppi? You making a move on my family?”
There was silence. Vittorio continued to murmur to Grace as the ambulance screamed into the parking lot.
“Some asshole threw her into the trunk of his car, her foster brother or something, and these two clowns were going to take her as payment for his gambling debts. Since when has that been going on? Just letting you know, they’re both going to the hospital and then to jail, and if I see them on the fucking street, they’re dead. You get me, Giuseppi? You come at my family, we’re coming back at you and yours. And we’ll come back hard.”
Stefano ended the call and strode back to Grace and Vittorio. The EMTs were already running IV lines to Grace. Stefano was back on the phone, calling their surgeon, demanding he get his team ready and be waiting for Grace when they brought her in. Then he was diverting the police, while Taviano and Ricco kept a loose barrier between Vittorio and anyone coming into the parking lot. Bodyguards showed up. Three carloads, led by Emilio and Enzo Gallo. They were out and taking charge of the entire lot.
Two detectives arrived, and Stefano beckoned them through the security line. Art Maverick and Jason Bradshaw had investigated the Ferraro family on more than one occasion. Vittorio, like the rest of his family, considered them fair and decent men. They weren’t egotistical, and they always remained polite, even when frustrated. The family tried to cooperate with them as best they could. When the Ferraros had evidence involving a crime that they could pass on, they always saw to it that the evidence ended up with Maverick and Bradshaw.
“Who beat the shit out of Gori and Sarto?” Art Maverick asked. There was a trace of amusement in his voice that he tried his best to hide. EMTs were working on both men.
“Vittorio,” Stefano said immediately. “He came out into the parking lot to see Grace’s foster brother dragging her out of the trunk of the Honda.” He indicated the car with the open trunk. “Apparently, Haydon was going to sell her to the two morons in exchange for his gambling debt. In other words, sell her into prostitution.”
Art and Jason exchanged a long look of smoldering anger. “Are you certain about that?” Jason asked.
“Vittorio overheard them, and Grace can verify if she lives through this.”
“Who shot her?” Art directed the question at Vittorio.
Vittorio was on his feet following the gurney to the ambulance, grateful for the information coming so fast to his phone. “Haydon Phillips, her foster brother. Ale put a gun to Haydon’s head to scare Grace into complying. I knocked it away, beat the crap out of him and then went after Lando because he had his hands on Grace. While I had him down, Haydon picked up the gun and went to shoot me, and she took the bullet.” He pushed past the detective and slid into the ambulance. No one tried to stop him.
As the door was being closed he spotted his sister, Emmanuelle, running across the parking lot toward the ambulance. Then the door was slammed shut and the ambulance was moving fast through the streets of Chicago toward the hospital. His phone was blowing up with information regarding his woman. He didn’t glance down, not yet. Her eyes were locked with his again and he wasn’t about to let her down.
“I’m with you, baby,” he said softly. “The OR is set up and our surgeon is standing by. He’s the best and his team are miracle workers. You’re going to be fine.”
She tried to form words, but he leaned in close, staying out of the EMTs’ way in the tight quarters. “Don’t talk, Grace. Save your strength. I’ve got this. All you have to do is stay alive for me. I’ll take care of everything else. Will you do that for me? Just stay alive.”
Her nod was nearly imperceptible, but it was there. He was a complete stranger to her, but he knew that connection between them had started there in the parking lot, their shadows touching, coiling together, their eyes meeting. His hands buried in the blood and massive damage to her shoulder. His voice connected them. His compelling promises. He meant every word he said, and she had to feel that. It was all he could give her before she went alone into that cold operating room.
Her foster brother had betrayed her. No matter that she’d known he was a gambler and a drug addict, he still had meant something to her. That had been clear. She’d taken out loans to pay his debt. Took on extra work. He’d heard that very clearly. This was a woman who knew what it was to be loyal, and yet someone close to her would have sold her into prostitution. He wanted to rip the man in half.
The ambulance tore into the parking lot and halted at the double doors. A team waited for her, and then he was running with them toward the operating room where one of the best orthopedic surgeons the family had access to waited with his team to put her shoulder back together. Vittorio had no idea whether or not the artery had been nicked but it was possible. He’d applied pressure as best he could until the EMTs had taken over.
“You stay alive, Grace.” He poured command into his voice, his gaze clinging to hers.
For a heartbeat she just stared at him, and then she nodded. Or he thought she did. The doors swung shut and he was left standing there, her blood on his hands and shirt. His heart beating too fast. He had always known he had no chance at finding a woman of his own, one who might be able to love him, to live with him, and in the blink of an eye that had turned around. Just that fast, she was being taken from him.
“Mr. Ferraro?” A nurse indicated he follow her.
“It’s her blood, not mine,” Vittorio explained. He wanted to be alone to look at his phone. He was going to find Haydon Phillips, the name the Ferraros’ investigator, Rosina, had sent to him, and he was going to kill him. He brought justice to all kinds of criminals. The rule had been drilled into him over and over: Never let it be personal. This was as personal as it was going to get.
The nurse indicated a small private bathroom off a waiting room that wasn’t open to the public. The Ferraro family had contributed several million dollars toward the hospital, a wing and equipment. They were kept out of the public eye when they were there. Most of the time they managed to fly under the radar of the paparazzi unless a nurse or orderly sold them out. One photo was often worth thousands of dollars.
When he came out of the private restroom, his sister, Emmanuelle, was waiting for him. She rushed to him, waited until he tore off the bloody shirt and replaced it with the one she’d brought him, and then hugged him tightly. “Vittorio. You could have been shot. Why would that horrible toad want to shoot you when you saved his life?”
He tightened his arms around her, taking comfort in her presence. “I’m okay, honey. Grace ran between us just as I was turning around. She took the bullet, not me. Phillips wanted her to pay his gambling debts and I interfered. That’s the short version.”
“But you can’t deal with men like Sarto or Gori. Everyone knows that.”
“Phillips believed Sarto wouldn’t shoot him, that it was all for effect, so she’d go with Saldi’s men.”
“I can’t believe they would do such a thing. Stefano told me what they were there for. It’s disgusting.”
He was grateful she didn’t protest. She had crushed on Valentine Saldi, Giuseppi’s adopted son, since she was sixteen years old and they’d had an on‑again, off- again relationship for some time. Vittorio was certain Emmanuelle genuinely loved him, which was too bad. The relationship had been doomed from the start. Her brothers had tried to tell her, tried to"protect"her, but until recently, she hadn’t listened to them. His heart ached for her. He could see the genuine sorrow and distress in her eyes.
“Yes, it is. They were blatant about being in the club, Emme. How they got in without any of us being told, or how Haydon slipped through, I have no idea.”
“Tell me about her,” Emme invited. “When did you meet her? Stefano says you’re claiming her as your fiancée. Rosina is sending us information as fast as she gets it so we can answer any questions posed to us by the police or anyone else.”
Vittorio rubbed his chest. He still felt her there. Deep. Her voice had opened something soft in him that had been locked away. “Tonight was the first time I ever laid eyes on her. She was . . . unexpected.”
“Are you certain she’s the one?” Emme whispered. “Do you just know it, Vittorio? In your soul, where you live, do you just know?”
He glanced down at her sharply, his gaze moving over her face. He nodded slowly because she deserved an answer, especially when tears swam in her eyes and the family of the man she loved was involved in kidnapping and forcing a woman into prostitution.
“She’s the one. I never thought it would be possible. I’d just been thinking that, looking around the club at all the women, knowing there wasn’t one out there that would suit me . . . and maybe there isn’t. Maybe she’s a rider and she would be good for someone other than me. I’m not so . . . lovable.”
“Don’t say that.” Emme’s defense of him was fierce. “Don’t ever say that, Vittorio, because it isn’t true.”
“I love you, honey,” Vittorio said. He pulled away from her and looked at the woman waiting so patiently for him to give her details about his fiancée. “I claimed her, but she doesn’t have a clue who I am. If she knows about the Ferraros . . .”
“Everyone knows about our family or they’ve been living off planet,” Emmanuelle quipped. “She knows. She might not care, but she knows.”
“I’m no bargain, Emme. I need things from a woman most men don’t. She stood up to those men.” He found himself smiling at the memory of her flying out of the trunk of the car, straight at Haydon. “That red hair of hers is natural.”
“Good for her.”
“Yeah. Good for her.” He’d loved that she’d fought back, that she was no pushover. That wasn’t what he wanted in a woman, but maybe it was what he needed.
Hell, he didn’t know. Right now, all he felt was sick inside, his guts twisted into vicious knots. He’d done his best to keep her alive, his hands in that mess that had been her shoulder, trying to stem the tidal wave of blood.
“She’s going to live, Vittorio,” Emmanuelle assured. “She has to, if she’s yours. Shadow riders fight. She may not know she’s capable of riding, but that strength is in her. She’ll pull through and she’ll need lots of help after.”
He was good with that. “I’m going to have to fill out paperwork for her. Rosina has sent me all kinds of information, so most of it will be easy enough.” He rubbed her cheek with his thumb. “What about you, honey? This has to hurt.”
Emmanuelle didn’t pretend she didn’t know what he was talking about. “I broke things off with Val a few weeks ago. I think about him every minute of every day, but I have discipline. I heard him say— heard him, with my own ears— ay that his father had ordered him to seduce me. He told another woman that. A woman he was clearly going to bed with.”
Vittorio wrapped his arm around her again, drawing her under his shoulder, wanting to take the hurt from her. “I’m sorry, Emme. Really, really sorry.”
“It was better to find out now before I made an even bigger fool of myself than I’ve already made.” She paused for a moment. “I would have given up riding the shadows for him. I would have given up everything I am for him and he’s not worth it.”
“No, he’s not.” Vittorio wanted to shake the man until every bone in his body turned to powder, but he refrained from saying so. Emme would have been more upset if she thought he threatened Val with bodily harm. He didn’t want to give her any excuse to champion Valentino Saldi.
“Val was my ‘the one.’ The lesson here is, we can get it wrong. Make certain this woman suits you, Vittorio. If she doesn’t, don’t go there. Don’t let yourself fall too hard. It’s a long road back and every step is painful.”
Vittorio wanted to wrap his sister in a cocoon. She didn’t deserve what Val had put her through. She’d broken it off with him many times and he always managed to get her to come back to him— ntil recently.
“Rosina is searching for everything she can find on Haydon Phillips.” Emmanuelle changed the subject. “Stefano called a meeting at his home at breakfast. Hopefully, your girl will be out of surgery by then and you can join us.”
“I told her I’d be there when she woke up.”
“Ask the surgeon when that will be,” Emme prompted. “That way we can have the meeting, prepare a battle plan and then you can get back here. You have to know, for the Saldis to come to our club, something is up.”
She was right about that. “The footage needs reviewing. Someone let them in. They allowed them onto the third tier. They had to have paid for that, or they couldn’t have gotten up there, unless someone we trust snuck them in.”
“In which case, we know where all the drugs are coming from,” Emmanuelle said.
He nodded. “We can access the recordings from our phones if need be. The managers know we don’t as a rule, so if they can wipe out the recordings, we might get lucky and they overlooked that.”
“But they won’t for long. With Grace getting shot, the two Saldi employees getting arrested and all of us involved, they’re going to be doing damage control. I’ll get on that right now.” Emme pulled away from him, going toward the door. “Try to make the meeting, Vittorio. It won’t do either of you any good to be sitting by her side when she’s out of surgery and unconscious. In any case, if we’re going to war with a major crime family, we have to be prepared.”
It was a huge concession for Emmanuelle to acknowledge that Valentino’s family were criminals.
“I’ll be there if at all possible,” he promised. The meeting was going to be very painful for his sister and he wanted to be there for her. He wouldn’t leave if Grace was awake, but if not, he was determined to be there for Emme.