I feel the tall boy’s hand on my sweater and I jerk away. Again, he laughs at me, “What are you so scared of? I told you we’re going to have fun.”
Could I run? There’s no way. They’d catch me. Could I scream and get someone’s attention? I glance at the windows of a nearby building, which are all boarded up. Who in this neighborhood would stop these boys from doing what they want to do? The bum who wanted to touch my hair? Nobody, that’s who.
“Hey!” The voice comes from all the way down the block, but it carries loud and clear. “Hey, assholes! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
They back away from me, if only just to see who’s yelling. I look down the block and I blink a few times in recognition.
I noticed the boy with the dark hair and eyes staring at me across the cafeteria during lunch today. I was sitting with two girls from my class, Ashley and Chrissy, and I asked them who he was.
“That’s Nick Moretti!” Ashley exclaimed.
“Nick Moretti,” Chrissy repeated and smiled secretly.
Ashley wagged her finger at me. “You want to stay away from Nick, Jess. Everyone knows his dad’s in the mob.”
I frowned at her. “The mob?”
“Like he’s a gangster,” Ashley said. “Like, you know, Al Capone. Or the Godfather.”
“That’s just a stupid rumor,” Chrissy snorted.
“It’s not a rumor—it’s totally true,” Ashley insisted. She glared at her friend. “Just because you think he’s cute, that doesn’t make it not true.”
“Nick’s a little more than cute,” Chrissy said.
Chrissy was right—Nick was a little more than cute. He was way cuter than any boy I ever met back in Milwaukee. He was cute enough that I didn’t mind the intense way he was staring at me.
And now he’s walking toward me.
He’s walking with his bike, striding closer to us every second. His eyes are pools of darkness, staring at the tallest of the boys. He’s got to be at least a year or two younger than that kid and a couple of inches shorter, but he doesn’t look scared at all. Nick walks right up to the kid and glares at him.
“You leave her alone,” Nick snaps at the tall boy. “You got me?”
“Look who it is!” The tall boy flashes a toothy grin. “Nick Moretti! ‘Sup? How’s your brother doing? He in juvie yet?”
Nick doesn’t flinch or budge. “Shut up, Mike.”
The tall boy, apparently named Mike, pats my ass affectionately. I flinch, and I can see Nick’s hand ball into a fist. But still, he just stands there, his dark eyes staring down the older, bigger boy. Mike is the one who hedges first.
“Relax, Nick,” Mike says. “We were just joking around with the new girl.” He smiles at me, “Isn’t that right, new girl?”
I don’t say anything.
Nick shakes his head in disgust at the older boy, and then nods his head in my direction. “Let’s go.”
I follow him blindly. Really, I have no reason to trust Nick more than those other kids, but somehow I know that he’d never do anything to hurt me. After all, he just saved me. Plus, I might be a little prejudiced based on the way he looks. Up close, Nick Moretti is even more handsome than he was across the length of the classroom. Every time he glances at me to make sure I’m following him, I get that fluttering in my chest.
We walk next to each other, him leading his bike along next to him, not saying a word. When we get to the end of the block, Nick focuses his dark eyes on me and says, “Where do you live?”
I tell him my address and his eyes widen. “Well, what the hell were you doing in this shitty neighborhood?”
“I got lost.” I shrug helplessly. “What are you doing in this shitty neighborhood?”
I wonder if he was following me.
“They got a good arcade,” he says. “I was meeting my friend there. But then I saw those assholes giving you a hard time. So I stopped.” He motions to me and we both turn left. “And now I’m going to walk you home.”
“You don’t have to,” I say, even though I’m desperately glad he’s here and I’d probably cry if he left me. “Just point me in the right direction.”
“You’re crazy if you think I’m leaving you alone here,” he says.
The neighborhood may be terrible, but I feel a hundred percent safe with Nick Moretti by my side.
“I’m Nick, by the way,” he says.
I suppress the urge to say “I know,” and instead say, “I’m Jessie.”
“You’re new.” He kicks his sneaker into the sidewalk as he acknowledges this piece of information. He’s got expensive-looking sneakers. Air Jordans. “Where you from?”
“Milwaukee,” I say. Then I remember how confused Chrissy and Ashley got, and I add, “It’s in Wisconsin. The Midwest.”
He raises his eyebrows, which are as dark as his eyes. “What’s it like there? Is it a lot different than Bensonhurst?”
“Yes,” I answer quickly. “Totally different.”
I don’t want to start complaining about how much I hate it here, so instead I say, “It’s colder there.”
Nick raises an eyebrow. “Colder? Sorry to disappoint you, but it gets pretty cold here in January and February.”
“Not like in Wisconsin,” I say. “It’s really cold there. Like, they have to close school sometimes just because it’s cold. Not snow—just cold.”
“Close school because of the cold,” he muses. He smiles at me and it makes my heart do a little flip. “You know, I think you’re just a bunch of wusses out in Wisconsin.”
I laugh. “You know another thing that’s different here? You guys all have accents.”
He blinks at me. “Accents? What are you talking about, Jessie? I don’t got an accent. You do.”
“No, I don’t!”
“Yeah, you do.”
Except maybe I do. Maybe to him, I have a raging accent. Either way, he doesn’t seem to mind.
“Also,” I add, “you guys don’t have Friday fish fries here.”
He looks at me blankly. “Friday… fish fry? What the hell is that?”
“It’s great!” I smile as I conjure up memories of years of fish fries. “Every Friday night, we’d go to a restaurant and they’d have this fried fish meal.”
“We got fried fish in Brooklyn,” Nick says. “We got it at McDonald’s.”
“Yeah, but this is different,” I explain. “It comes with, like, French fries or potato pancakes, a little cup of tartar sauce, a little cup of cole slaw, some lemon slices, and a slice of rye bread. It’s sooo good.”
“I’m sure there’s a place here that can make you up some fried fish and French fries.”
“But what about the rye bread?”
“There’s a Jewish deli two blocks over.” He points in off to the right. “Don’t worry, we got good food here. And better pizza, that’s for damn sure.”
He could be right. I loved the local pizza place in our neighborhood in Milwaukee, but we got delivered pizza two nights ago that was way better than Sammy’s Pizza at its best.
Nick turns a corner and I finally recognize the neighborhood as my own. I want to fall to my knees and kiss the ground. I didn’t think I’d ever make it back here in a million years. Nick is officially my hero.
“That’s my building up there,” I tell him, pointing to the short, ugly brownstone that I now call my home.
“Okay,” he says, but he keeps walking next to me.
“You don’t have to walk me to the door,” I tell him.
“I don’t have to,” he concedes, “but I’m gunna.”
I don’t object further. I let him walk me to the steps of my building. Apartment 2A is where I live these days. I’m almost embarrassed for him to see. I wonder what kind of place Nick lives in. If his dad is some big important guy, he probably lives in a place a whole lot nicer than this.
“Thank you,” I say to him.
“No problem,” he says.
“I’m sure tomorrow I’ll be fine,” I add.
He frowns at me thoughtfully. “I’m gonna walk you home again tomorrow.”
I squeeze my fists together. “You don’t have to do that.”
“Yeah, I do.” He shakes his head. “It’s not safe for you to be wandering around here. I’ll walk you till you know the way.”
I don’t suppress a smile. “Okay. If you don’t mind.”
“It’s my pleasure, Jessie,” Nick says. And even though he has an olive complexion, I swear I can see him blush.
I stand at the steps to my building, watching as Nick hops on his bike and peddles off in the direction of his own house, wherever that is. I’m glad he’s going to walk me home tomorrow—it’ll be a relief not to have to worry about getting lost. After a week, I’m sure I’ll have the hang of it though, and we can go our separate ways.
It’s a business lunch, but I can see that my guest is having trouble focusing on business. The waitresses in this joint are wearing skirts so short that you can nearly see their underwear and shirts so low-cut that you almost get a flash of nipple. Carlo Bianchi is old enough to be the father of any one of these girls, but he can’t stop staring.
And that’s just fine. Anything that makes Bianchi happy works for me.
“I can’t believe I never been here before!” Bianchi says to me, although his eyes are trained on the ass of a blond waitress. He’s even forgotten about the juicy, medium-rare steak sitting in front of him. “Where’d you hear about this place?”
“I own it, actually. The building, at least.”
My family owns a handful of buildings that house restaurants, and this is one of them. It’s good when I want to take a suit out for a meal and make sure we get the VIP treatment. I’m hitting Bianchi up for a lot of money right now, so he’s gotta know I’m important—someone he can trust to hand over his money to.
And he can trust me. I’m not some idiot who’s gonna lose him his money.
“You got great taste, Moretti,” Bianchi says with an approving nod that causes his jowls to shake.
“Thanks.” I grin at him. “Means a lot coming from you.”
While Bianchi’s attention is distracted again by a passing waitress, I do a quick weight shift in my chair. Because I can’t feel where I’m sitting, I need to shift my position in the chair every fifteen minutes or so to keep from getting a pressure sore. But I don’t need Bianchi to see that. Right now, I can’t afford anything that will make me look weak. The chair is already a strike against me—I’m trying my best not to call attention to it, but it’s not like I can hide the fact that I need it. That’s not an option.
When I shift my weight, my legs shift too. Since I can’t move them on my own, they just move with my upper body. Thankfully, they usually shift back into place on their own. If they don’t, it’s another quick movement to make sure they’re not crooked—like I said, I don’t need anything to make me look weak. I can’t hide from Bianchi that I can’t walk, but I don’t have to let on that I can’t move or feel anything from the mid-chest down.
“So I had my lawyer look over the papers you sent me,” he says as he chews on a chunk of his steak. A droplet of blood trails down the side of his chin and he wipes it off with the back of his hand. Carlo Bianchi isn’t known for having great manners, but he is known for being very, very rich. I asked Pop once how a guy like Bianchi made himself so much money, but he wouldn’t say. I’m guessing it was through activities a lot less legal than the hotel I’m asking him to front money for.
“Yeah?” I say, like I couldn’t care less. Even though I’m hanging on his every word.
“He knew all about you,” he says between swallows.
My stomach sinks. “Yeah?”
I got a reputation that’s good and bad. Good because I made a lot of money for a lot of people. Bad because I don’t put up with bullshit. You make a deal with me, you’re holding up your end of the deal to my satisfaction. End of story. I got plenty of guys to make sure that’s the case, and I’ve got enough connections now to back myself up, even without my father’s help.
Nobody disrespects me. Nobody calls me “kid” anymore. They better never call me “cripple” if they want to keep their balls.
“Yeah, he knew about you,” Bianchi says darkly. But then his face breaks into a smile. “He said you were one smart sonuvabitch. He said I’d have to be outta my mind not to invest.”
I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. I had other guys I could’ve hit up for money, but once word got out Bianchi said no, it would get a lot harder.
Bianchi holds out his hand and I shake it, making sure my grip strength just matches his. He’s a big guy, but I’m younger and I got a lot more upper body power than he does from my years of pushing my chair around.
“Now that we got business out of the way.” He licks his lips greedily. “You know any of these girls?”
“Sure I do.”
He raises his unruly black eyebrows at me. “You been with any of them?”
I scan the restaurant. My eyes briefly rest on a brunette with big tits carrying a bottle of wine, who I remember having a good time with one night a few months ago. I was here late doing some deal and she joined me after my dinner guest left and her shift ended. We had a couple of drinks together, then before I knew it, she was on my lap. It was just one night, but it was a good night. She told me after that no guy’d ever made her scream that loud.
The waitress notices me looking and she winks at me. “Yeah. A couple,” I say.
He grins. “Got any recommendations?”
Another perk of renting to the owners of this place—I could fix up a date between Bianchi and his waitress of choice. None of them will say no to me—I’m their boss’s boss. Even so, I can’t resist saying, “But isn’t there a Mrs. Bianchi?”
He roars with laughter. “Oh, you’re a funny guy, Moretti! I like you.”
I return his smile. I don’t usually joke around with my business partners, but this deal put me in a good mood.
“How ‘bout you?” Bianchi asks me. “You married?”
I shake my head no. There have been plenty of girls—I don’t even want to admit how many—but I’ve never been married or even close. There’s only one woman I ever met that I wanted to get hitched to. And that’s Jessica Schultz.
I really blew that one.
I fell in love with Jessie nearly twenty years ago. From the moment I first saw her, I knew she was the girl I wanted to marry. For three years, her father kept us apart because he didn’t want his daughter hanging around a gangster—not that I was one. Not then, anyway.
And then… well, this happened to me. I ended up in this goddamn chair and I couldn’t face her anymore.
It took me ten years to get up the nerve to try to see her again. I drove all the way back to Brooklyn for her father’s funeral. And then…
I did the dumbest thing I’d ever done in my whole life. Something where you can’t just send a dozen roses and put it behind you. But I thought I could get her to forgive me. I really believed I could do it.
Yet here I am, three years later. Alone.
“You got the right idea, Moretti.” Bianchi shoves a bite of garlic mashed potatoes into his mouth. “Hold out as long as you can. Enjoy your freedom.”
I don’t want my freedom. I just want Jessie.
But I’m worried that ship has sailed.
To be continued...