Shadow Rider Elie Archambault has been called many things: domineering, brash, loyal, but most of all fast. And there’s nothing faster than choosing to marry a woman you’ve never met. All he has is a signed contract and a list of his new bride’s expectations for their arranged marriage. He’s not expecting love or some happy ever after, just a partner that knows exactly what she signed up for. He’ll be faithful because he’s a man of honor, but she’ll never have his heart....
Elie knows who he is. A privileged member of the Archambault family. A skilled rider and fighter. A man who's always had things easy for all the wrong reasons. He's made his mistakes and lost his chance at real, true passion with his other half thanks to his own careless arrogance. Now he just wants to do his duty as a Shadow Rider and leave the past behind.
But Elie has no idea that his choice is about to spark a blaze that will burn all his carefully laid plans to the ground....
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Clearly I should have invested in pizzerias instead of strip joints and sex clubs."
Elie Archambault paused in the act of bringing a slice of pizza dripping with cheese, salami and olives to his mouth, staring at the speaker before he burst out laughing. "No one makes pizza the way Tito and his father, Benito, do. There isn't a pizzeria in the world that can top this one, right, Emme?"
Emmanuelle Ferraro Saldi reached over and casually grabbed the slice of pizza from his hand and took a bite, nodding to agree with him.
"Hey. That's the last piece of salami and olive," Elie protested. "Dario," he added, "you shouldn't talk about strip joints and sex clubs in front of Emmanuelle."
Dario Bosco rolled his eyes. "Emme frequents strip joints and sex clubs. She knows more about what goes on in them then I do."
Emmanuelle ignored the statement, making moaning noises deliberately as she ate the slice of pizza, and hastily gathered up the remaining olives that were loose on the platter.
Elie shoved his shoulder into hers. "You're a demon, woman. I don't know how your husband puts up with you."
"He thinks she's an angel," Dario said, feigned disgust in his voice.
Emmanuelle wasn't in the least bit fazed. She continued to eat the slice of pizza as if she was enjoying it immensely-which she was.
"Val never did have good sense that I could see," Elie said.
Emme kicked him under the table.
Elie laughed. "We need our waitress back so we can order more pizza, but there're so many people in here, I don't think we'll ever see her again."
Petrov's Pizzeria was packed, as it always was regardless of the day of the week. Saturday nights just happened to double the traffic. Fortunately, Benito always reserved two large booths, back in the shadows, for the Ferraro family and their bodyguards, just in case they decided to drop in.
Ferraro territory started right on the edge of what some people referred to as "Little Italy." Most of the land, businesses and homes were rented or leased by the Ferraro family. All were protected by them. For years it was whispered that if one went to the Ferraros with a problem, that problem would inexplicably disappear.
Rumors swirled around the mysterious family, six brothers and one sister. They always wore their signature pinstriped suits and were often surrounded by bodyguards, although no one ever thought they needed them. Wealthy, arrogant and formidable, the members of the Ferraro family were known to be lethal if crossed.
Now, after Emmanuelle Ferraro, the youngest and only female, had married a Saldi, uniting the two families, the neighborhood was doubly safe. The Saldi family was a crime family, no two ways about it. No guessing. No rumors. Valentino headed the Saldi family now that his father, Giuseppi, had stepped down after his own brother had tried to assassinate him and take over. The neighborhood might not know why the Ferraros had helped the Saldi family, but Elie knew. He'd helped when Val had worked to bring down his uncle's human trafficking ring.
"You sure you want to go through with this marriage of yours?" Dario asked Elie. "You haven't even seen this woman."
"Yes." Elie's reply was clipped, indicating he didn't want to continue the discussion.
Dario sighed. "Since I can't talk you out of it, at least come to the club tonight. It's your last night of freedom before you're stuck with some woman who might have a fucking headache every night."
"Dario." Emmanuelle sat up straight, glaring at him in protest.
"Some men have certain needs, Emme," Dario said, shrugging. "I'm not going to pretend I don't, and I won't apologize for who I am. Arranged marriages for business or otherwise rarely work for someone like me because the woman isn't going to like who they get. I'm just being honest."
"You're suggesting that Elie go out to a kink club the night before he marries. Is that very honorable?" Emmanuelle demanded.
"It's a moot point," Elie interrupted the argument.
Emmanuelle was the tie that bound the two men together. Elie regarded her as a sister. He had grown up an only child, moving from one household to another in his native France. Elie and Emme had clicked some years earlier and everyone expected them to marry when he'd come to the United States. Emmanuelle's heart was already taken by Valentino Saldi, Dario's cousin. Elie loved Emme but there had only ever been a sibling relationship between them.
Dario had come to love her through his relationship with Valentino. Who couldn't love Emmanuelle? Dario wasn't an easy man to be around. He had served as Valentino's bodyguard for years. He rarely talked to anyone outside the circle of people he accepted as family. Elie felt lucky to be included. The Ferraros had a way of taking over those they chose to bring into their inner circle and Dario, like Elie, had found his way in when Emmanuelle had married Val.
"A moot point?" Emme repeated, raising an eyebrow suspiciously.
Elie held up his left hand, where a ring circled his finger. "Technically, I'm already married. The lawyers took care of the paperwork and we were married by proxy yesterday. I signed here. She signed in France. So, no kink club, but thank you for the offer, Dario. It was considerate. I don't cheat on my wife."
"What does she look like?" Dario asked.
Elie shrugged. "I have no idea. The lawyers took care of it. I didn't even look at the papers. I signed on the dotted line and walked away. I presume she did the same. She'll be here tomorrow and we'll have a very brief private ceremony just for the sake of photos and formality, but the paperwork is already done."
Emmanuelle brushed her hand down his arm. "Congratulations, Elie. I hope she makes you very happy. I know you believe you can make this work."
Dario's dark brows drew together. "Won't understand you in a million years, Elie. This complete stranger comes into your life. You don't know a thing about her and you expect your marriage to work. Emme is one in a million. Maybe one in a billion. Odds could be even higher than that. Val is so fuckin' lucky, he doesn't even know how lucky he is."
He stated his opinion without looking at Emmanuelle and he spoke in a flat, matter-of-fact tone. "I'm aware a man like me is never going to find a woman who can put up with my . . . proclivities." He shrugged. "But then I don't trust anyone enough to have more than an hour encounter with them and only on my terms, especially now that Valentino forced me to take over this idiotic role in the family. He's only made my suspicious nature worse."
"Your point being?" Elie said.
"You're like me."
Elie couldn't deny it. Maybe he wasn't exactly like Dario. He wasn't nearly as dark. He didn't know too many people who were. Dario had demons. Elie liked his way and he knew how to get it. He already knew he intended for his bride to learn that lesson about him very quickly. He'd been honest in every answer he'd given to the questions asked of him when filling out the pages and pages of very explicit material needed for his arranged marriage. He had her answers and she had his. She should know that about him and what he expected of her.
He had read her answers dozens of times and knew what she expected of him. He had her sexual answers laminated and put up on the master bedroom wall right over the bed to remind her of what she said so there were no mistakes. His were there beside hers. Supposedly he would be matched with the perfect compatible woman to give them the highest odds of a successful marriage. Divorce for shadow riders was nearly a death sentence. It would mean the end of shadow riding. He wouldn't, for one moment, put up with that.
Shadow riders had a unique ability to utilize portals within shadows to travel from one place undetected to another. They were required to begin training as toddlers in order to acquire the necessary skills to become deadly assassins to mete out justice to the criminals who managed to escape the law.
"I might be a bit like you are, Dario," Elie admitted. "She'll have to learn to accept me. I bought us a house on the lake," he added. "I spent so much time at your home with Val, Emme, that I started looking for a piece of property I wanted for myself. It took quite a long time to find the perfect place and I had to really negotiate with the owners to get it." His eyes lit up when he referred to the negotiations. He'd had fun with that part of it.
"In other words, the property wasn't on the market," Emmanuelle interpreted.
"Exactly. And I wanted the property around it so I could make sure we were protected," he added. "One stubborn old coot was a holdout. In the end he caved, but I paid more for his property than I did for the original one I wanted. The nice part was, he owned more actual land. The house I wanted came with a hundred feet of river frontage with two permanent docks. The old coot gave me an additional three hundred feet of river frontage with several additional docks. Plus, the property behind his place. His house needs work, but the property itself was worth every penny of the fortune I paid him."
Berta, their waitress, came to their table looking a little harassed. Given that every table seemed to be filled and the long line of waiting customers, they couldn't really blame her. "Anything else I can get you?"
"Place is hopping as usual," Emmanuelle greeted. "Never slows down around here."
Berta shook her head. "We've hired three more waiters. It's that crazy. Still looking for someone else. I heard construction was finished and Masci's Deli was back in business after the fire. Did your family keep the apartments above the deli? Are they looking for renters?"
"The deli's open and running," Emmanuelle said, "but the apartments aren't quite finished. There's only two of them, but we wanted to upgrade them. Signor Pietro needed Masci's finished fast and we concentrated on his business first. The rentals should be finished soon. If you have someone in mind, have them fill out an application and make sure they put your recommendation on it so my cousin will flag it."
"Thanks, Emme," Berta said. "Where's Val? I never see you without him."
"On his way. He'll want his usual ridiculous pizza and Elie hogged all the salami and olive pizza so we need another with double olives."
Dario didn't look up from his phone but pointed toward the empty antipasti plate. Emmanuelle rolled her eyes. "More antipasti as well. You might double up on the salami and olives there, too."
Berta laughed. "All of you are going to turn into olives if you don't watch out."
"Wine," Elie reminded. "Same as before."
"Our family wine," Emme added for clarity, indicating the bottle. "Same year. Same vineyard. It's our favorite."
"Got it." Berta hurried away, shaking her head.
"Dario, how do you order if I'm not with you?" Emme demanded. She clearly was trying to sound exasperated but she sounded more amused than anything else.
He raised an eyebrow. "Val insists I have bodyguards. They're practically useless. I have to give them something to do."
Emmanuelle heaved a sigh. "I don't know how any of you get away with being in this century. Why did you buy the house before your wife arrived, Elie? Did it occur to you she might want to choose her own house with you? It's kind of a big thing, where a person is going to live for the rest of their life."
Dario made a little sound of total disgust. "Emme, seriously? A man needs to lay down the law to a woman from the beginning or she thinks she can get away with everything."
"That is so ridiculous and archaic, Dario. You just say things like that to get a rise out of me. You don't really believe that."
He looked up from his phone, his expression deadpan, one eyebrow lifted. "If I ever find a woman, which I won't, she will do what I say when I say it."
Emmanuelle might think Dario was joking, but Elie knew he wasn't. Dario would rule his world with an iron hand. He was all about control. Elie could tell him-just as Val could-that it didn't always work that way when it came to those you loved, but Dario would have to find that out for himself. Elie didn't know Dario's past. He only knew that something very traumatic had taken place that only Valentino was aware of. Whatever it was had shaped Dario into being extremely protective of those he cared for, and a vicious killing machine when it came to their enemies.
"Dario, I swear, if you even look at a friend of mine, I'm going to put a sack over her head," Emmanuelle threatened.
The briefest of smiles flirted with Dario's hard mouth. Elie couldn't help but laugh. Emme had a way about her. It was impossible not to love her.
He glanced over to the table where her bodyguards covered their grins behind their hands, pretending they couldn't hear the conversation. Levi and Axel, ex-military, ex-mercenary, trained by Dario and always assigned to be Emme's personal protectors. Elie knew them to be serious, astute and very intelligent men. Dario trusted few men, and if he trusted these with Emmanuelle's protection, they had to be good men. More, the Ferraro family had investigated them thoroughly, not for criminal activity, but for their ability to protect Emme. No one found them wanting. It was easy to see they not only were good at what they did, but had developed a real affection for Emmanuelle.
Elie rubbed the ring on his finger. It had been made by one of the Ferraros' many cousins, Damian Ferraro, a gifted jeweler who knew the exact ring needed before his customer did. In this case, his ring had to be able to travel with him into the shadows. Elie had been surprised to find his bride's engagement ring had been fashioned from gems incapable of traveling into the shadows. He'd even questioned Damian as her papers declared her a rider. That would mean she would have to remove her ring before entering the shadows. Her actual wedding ring could be left on. Elie supposed it didn't matter if she removed her engagement ring. He just found it odd that Damian had given his woman a more traditional gemstone, a blazing flawless emerald surrounded by several diamonds.