The Forbidden Step-brother
No one wants a mob princess as their child’s kindergarten teacher.
Come to the dark side, where the romance is sweet and thrilling…
My new step-brother is the same man I danced with under the stars and teased in the parking lot with promises of what-if – a week ago! I never thought I’d see him again so I said and did things I DON’T do in my real life.
Now, he’s calling me out on being a fraud, but I have responsibilities that the real me will mess up and two families I can’t embarrass. As if that wasn’t enough, I’m expected to accept Leonardo Capone as part of one of those families.
Now I have to explain to my dad, the head of THE Rossi family, why I don’t want to marry the men he offers me. Papa will never forgive me, if I marry a Capone. He still hasn’t recovered from his ex-wife doing exactly that.
The REAL ME is warring with who I NEED to be… and she’s winning.
Be careful, Mia Rossi, your heart is on the line and your step-brother might be the one to run away with it.
“Morning, Mia!” The older woman’s voice startled me and I jerked around as if I’d been caught breaking into my own home.
I jerked my overnight bag behind me and waved at Mrs. Costanza with her owl-glasses and bright red lipstick. “Hi, Mrs. Costanza.” I needed to hurry. I didn’t want her to look too closely at the way I was dressed or my makeup. I’d be the talk of the neighborhood before lunch.
Without waiting for a conversation to start, I jiggled the door handle behind me and shoved open the door, pushing my luggage inside with my rear end.
Wiggling my fingers at my more-than-normal-nosy neighbor, I stepped over the threshold and closed the door before she could ask any questions.
I was more than off-kilter from my week away. Portland wasn’t far from Seattle, but it was far enough I’d opted to stay with a girlfriend who I could be myself with. A little too much myself, if you asked me. Georgianna had a habit of pushing me into doing things the me from Seattle would never consider.
The house was quiet and dark. Dropping my keys on the table in the foyer, I glanced around my home. “Mama? I’m home.” My mom lived with me. She’d moved in a few years ago with the promise that it was temporary, but we’d both enjoyed the arrangement. Neither of us had felt the need to rush things along. Plus, Mom didn’t make a lot of money and the cost of living in Seattle could be outrageous, even in the suburbs.
My day job as a teacher didn’t support my lifestyle in Bellevue, but my background and family did. Even though I didn’t want the two to mix, I wasn’t above using the perks that came from my paternal side of the family.
No reply had me furrowing my brow. “Mama?” She didn’t work, so I didn’t know where she would be on a Monday morning. I carried my bag into the spacious living room and looked around. Nothing was out of place.
A tendril of fear laced around my throat, making it difficult to breathe normally. I tried not to get worked up. It wasn’t a big deal. Setting my bag down, I pulled out my phone and move into the kitchen, all the while looking for a sign of my mom’s whereabouts.
The kitchen was spotless. No evidence that anything had been cooked or prepared since I left the Tuesday before. I hadn’t even been gone a week, but the bread hadn’t been touched and the glass decanter stuffed with rosemary and garlic cloves and filled with olive oil was at the same level I’d left it in.
Mom hadn’t cooked there in a week. I whirled, rushing upstairs with my phone gripped in my hand. “Mom!” Where was she?
I swiped the screen on my phone and bit my lip as I climbed the stairs. The house had a musty smell – not unpleasant, just like it hadn’t been used in a couple days. We didn’t have any pets. I leaned against the wall for a minute and called my mom’s phone. The line didn’t ring as it went straight to voicemail that said the inbox was full.
She never would have let the inbox get so full of messages. Something was wrong and I didn’t know what it was. I tamped down the ever-present guilt that shifted to fit the situation. I couldn’t blame myself right then. I’d left to be with a girlfriend during her wedding week. That wasn’t something bad.
Whatever happened to Mom hadn’t been my fault. I couldn’t think of it as my fault. Not yet, anyway.
While walking through the upper hallway, I texted my brother, Angelo, even though I swore a long time ago I’d never ask him for anything.
Angelo, Mama isn’t here. Her phone is going straight to voicemail. What’d I miss?
I chewed on my inner cheek as I peeked into the guest bathroom, guest bedroom, and then her rooms. Nothing. No sign of her being there with the bed made and her nightly face cream sitting on the bathroom counter. She wouldn’t have left the face cream, if she’d gone willingly.
My panic grew and I needed to sit down. I trailed my hand on the wall in the hallway to steady myself as I made my way to my room. My phone vibrated in my hand.
I’ve been busy. Haven’t heard from her. I’ll make some calls.
If Angelo was making some calls, then the family would know that there was something wrong. I’d be getting a call from Papa soon. Not how I wanted to start my week. As it was, I was already late to work. I texted my boss that I was running late and pushed through my bedroom door.
A slip of white paper sat on the dark blue duvet cover on my bed. A ransom note? Whoever had taken my mom had had the audacity to come in my room? I approached the bed cautiously. I’d once heard of this woman’s house exploding because she’d nudged a piece of gum on the nightstand. It was one of the urban myths told often in Little Italy families in Seattle. Just one of many to keep the children in line.
I had no idea how the story was meant to keep us in line, but it worked. Slowly, I picked up the piece of paper, recognizing Mom’s scrawling handwriting instantly.
I’ll be back Tuesday morning. Meet me for dinner at Giovanni’s Italy Tuesday at seven. I have some fun news. Don’t worry! This will be great!
Love your Mama
The note didn’t make me feel better, instead it shifted my worry from someone had taken her to something was wrong with my mother. She was carefree and loving, but she didn’t stray from her routine. She was a lot like I was.
All of this was out of the ordinary. Plus, why hadn’t she mentioned this over the hundreds of texts we’d exchanged over the last week? Or when we’d talked on the phone Friday morning?
For whatever reason, she wanted me not to worry. That wasn’t something I did willingly or naturally.
Glancing at the clock on my phone, I rushed into the bathroom off the master bedroom and flipped on the light.
There I was in all my late-night glory, and yet it wasn’t the me I would allow to hang around. The me staring back in the mirror had her black Italian tresses curled and fluffed to within an inch of its life. Dark eyeliner and black mascara outlined my onyx eyes and I had given over to the pressure of going out with Georgianna with my full Italian showing. Bright red lipstick stained my full lips and I didn’t fight the call of the bright dance clothes, silver and gold bangle bracelets on my wrists, and glitzy chains around my neck. I didn’t remember ever having so much fun or needing a shower so bad or longing to go back to the fun nightlife my friend had attempted to drown me in.
And the man I could still smell.
I texted Angelo before he got the Company looking for Mom.
She left a note that she’s fine. I’ll get back to you, if I find out otherwise.
Angelo didn’t respond and that was fine. He would more than likely prefer I leave him alone. This would just free up more of his time to do whatever things he did for my dad.
I wasn’t out of line worrying about Mom though. While my mom’s maiden name was Rogers and that was the name I’d taken on for my day-to-day life, she hadn’t always been a Rogers.
No, Mom had been a Rossi for a while and that meant certain things, one of which was the fact that if the Capones or the Bianchis had a bone to pick with the Rossis, Mom and I were fair game. They didn’t usually travel into Bellevue since they would stand out like Italian thugs, but nothing was impossible.
I’d needed a break for exactly that reason. A break from being a Rossi in a world that didn’t want the Rossi family stereotype staring them in the face. But every once in a while I needed a break from the smothering lifestyle of demure outfits, little to no makeup, quiet speaking, and no heels that I’d chosen when I’d moved to Bellevue.
The no heels rule was almost enough to be the death of me.
Most of the weekend had been spent dancing in shoes I could have married with their bright straps and pointy stilettos. I hated that I had to take them off. But the clock wasn’t going in reverse and I wasn’t late for another night out. Instead, I was late for work.
I kicked off my heels and stripped off the dress and jewelry. “It was fun, Mia. See you next time.” Almost teasingly, I blew myself a kiss in the mirror then leaned in the shower and turned on the hot water.
Hopefully, I got to be Mia Rossi again sometime soon. Mia Rogers didn’t dance until the sun came up, she didn’t flirt with men, and she didn’t go out onto a bridge overlooking a river with the moon overhead and allow a man named Leonardo to kiss her under the stars.
I closed my eyes as the hot water from the showerhead poured over me, working its magic to leave the thrill of romance to swirl down the drain.
Leonardo… Leonardo… with his smooth, firm lips and hands that I would have let hold me forever. If Leonardo was an option for Mia Rossi, I didn’t want to be Mia Rogers…
No, that type of romantic adventure was reserved for Mia Rossi. Mia Rogers had a different life to lead full of predictability and kindergartners. I couldn’t be both. Not in Bellevue, Washington, and not if I wanted to keep my job which was the one thing keeping me from having to go back to live with my father.
As long as I was independent, I could do what I wanted. The second I needed my father or called in any favors, all bets were off.
I was Mia Rossi, a princess of the Rossi family. If I went back to that lifestyle, I’d never see normal again.
“Your weekend was solid, si, Leonardo?” My cousin tugged on the brim of his hat and wiggled his thick bushy eyebrows at me.
I rolled my eyes. “I stayed in and read War and Peace. How was yours?” I couldn’t hold back the glee in my grin though. My weekend had been more than solid, but I would never talk about my exploits with family. They wouldn’t get it.
“Yeah, I bet.” Destin rolled his eyes and folded his arms, leaning against the doorway of the pub we’d stopped at. Early morning in Seattle left a chill in the air as the breeze came off Puget Sound. The ocean, even in summer months, didn’t warm up, which meant spring didn’t hold much hope of being warm or sunny.
With March upon us, I was out making my first quarter pickups. Tapping my knuckles on the backdoor, I yawned.
The weekend had been anything but boring. There was no way I’d share that information with the family gossip. I didn’t need the information to get back to my father who I hadn’t heard from since Friday. Mia Rogers had been tantalizing and fun and all the things I wanted to get away from and yet couldn’t stop thinking about.
As much as I trusted Destin, something like my weekend exploits were better left unspoken.
I checked my phone again, noting I still hadn’t gotten a text from my father which was weird. He usually checked up on the collections first thing every Monday. It was weird he wasn’t checking in on me yet.
Destin reached around me and banged on the door with the side of his fist. He raised his eyebrows as I turned to look at him, the rebuke clear in my expression. I could bang on the door myself, if that’s the tone I wanted to give off.
As it was, it was the first time that particular business was under my family’s protection. They didn’t need to be inducted to the realities of what that meant so soon.
The door opened and a portly man wearing a red t-shirt and black slacks blinked at us. “Deliveries aren’t until Tuesday. What can I do for you?” He rubbed at his eyes, probably trying to get used to the light filtering through the ever-present Seattle cloud cover.
I could empathize. Bright sunlight would be more than welcome with the pounding headache I fought. At least people would understand the need for sunglasses. If I started wearing sunglasses and there was no need, they’d think I was emulating the Irish rock singer who wore sunglasses everywhere. That would never do for the reputation I worked on.
Smiling, I glanced at Destin and stepped into the back of the bar. Destin pulled out my business card and handed it to the man, then stepped back outside. He reached in and closed the door, under the assumption that I would be working out my fists. Destin, along with the rest of the family, believed I liked to beat our newest acquisitions to get them broken in.
Truth was, I didn’t like beating anyone. I preferred a different approach that seemed to work well – so far.
As soon as the door closed, the man glanced down at the card, confusion fading to fear and worry. He lifted wide eyes to study me with more understanding. “I… I didn’t know pick up was today. I was told I had until the end of March.” He probably had been told that to be fair, but my father liked to keep everyone on their toes. He said it kept things interesting.
I stepped forward, holding my hands up as if to calm an unruly mare. “Look, Johnny. It’s not a personal thing. It’s business. You hired us to protect you from the Rossis and the Bianchis, and let’s be honest, your debts to either family aren’t going away any time soon which is why my father agreed to pay them off. We don’t do favors for free. You need to understand that.”
If the man was unreasonable, I would leave him to Destin who had learned from the hardest members of the Capone family. I wasn’t against it. I just preferred to keep the peace, when I could.
Johnny blinked at me, gripping the small card in his fingers. He swallowed, a fine layer of perspiration reflecting light from the ceiling bulb off his forehead. “I… I… How much is it?” He turned, his jowls quivering as he moved toward the bar under the lights.
I watched him, tucking my hands into my slack pant pockets, near the gun tucked into the holster at the small of my back. I ambled closer, ready for whatever Johnny had in store. Usually, they fought to keep the twenty percent fee the Capones charged. I didn’t blame them, but at the same time I just wanted them to pay so I could get on with my day.
Bending over a safe, Johnny twirled the lock back and forth to get inside the black box. He turned and I slid my fingers around the butt of my gun, the metal warm in my fingers. I stilled.
Johnny stared at me, knitting his eyebrows together above the bridge of his bulbous nose. “What do you need from me?” That was it? No gun? No anger?
Things weren’t this easy… ever. That fact put me on edge. Maybe I was on camera. How was that possible, though? Most bartenders didn’t have their cameras on until after opening. Part of the reason why the Capones made their visits in the early mornings. Catching the clients off guard was the best way to keep them submissive. Plus, there was less violence when they opened the door tired or bored from doing inventory.
I glanced around and cocked my head, eyeing the bartender as if he had some kind of secret and I knew what it was. “Your books and twenty percent. It will drop to fifteen when you’ve paid off your debt.” That wasn’t true. My dad would never lower the rate. That’s not how it worked in Little Italy. Not then, not ever.
His shoulders slumped forward but he nodded and turned back to the case. The inside of the bar was quiet, so quiet. Usually there was music or something playing, but six in the morning suggested the owner/bartender might not have even gone home yet for the night. He’d probably stayed to do inventory and would leave after ten.
The scrape of metal on metal snapped me to attention. In one move, I had my gun in my hand and I leaned over the bar, pointing it at his head – easily seen in the mirror behind the bar. He caught the movement and stilled. His hand shook and he replaced the revolver into the safe.
I spoke softly, a chilliness to my tone that didn’t accept argument. “I’m not like the rest of the Capones. I won’t bully you or beat you. I won’t tear up your business or scare your clientele.” I sighed, shaking my head as I spoke with conviction. “But I will turn you over to my cousins like Destin outside, if you irritate me. I don’t take on many to check personally, which means once that spot is full, it’s full. I’m offering you a spot to be protected by me from the rest of the Capones. The offer is only good for an hour. Once you pass it up, you’ll never get it again.”
“How much is that going to cost me?” He met my eyes in the mirror, fear and a streak of pride in his eyes.
I grinned and patted his head with the muzzle of my gun. “Ah, you’re catching on to how this works, Johnny. I don’t charge, but if you want to keep me, you don’t say a word of how things work with me. Destin will check in here in a little bit and you’ll sit on that stool over there with your head in your hands. The second you betray me, I’ll stop being lenient. Do we understand each other?” I stared at him, holding his gaze until he swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing under the weight of his double chin.
He nodded and reached into the lower shelf of the safe. He pulled out a spiral notebook and a yellow envelope marked with four digits. I flipped through the notebook he set on the counter and did some fast math. Everything seemed in order. I nodded, and collected the envelope, tucking it into the inner pocket of my tailored suit jacket.
I wasn’t a bad guy but I lived in a bad world. It was what it was. My phone buzzed as I turned to leave.
A text from my father. Finally.
Dinner tomorrow night at Giovanni’s Italy. I have some news. No business.
The last phrase threw me off. Business was apart of everything with my father – unless a woman was involved. He hadn’t tried setting me up in a while. Could he be trying again?
I wasn’t receptive to that right now. Especially after the weekend I’d had with a woman I couldn’t stop thinking about. Her curves, her hair, her eyes, everything about her screamed Italian royalty.
The problem was I’d already been captivated by her when I found out she was a Rossi.
Rossis and Capones didn’t mix. In fact, the two families were embroiled in one of the longest running Seattle feuds in history.
Too bad our bodies hadn’t known we were supposed to be like oil and water and instead, they’d been drawn together like magnets on the dance floor and later on the bridge. She’d been everything I could have imagined to be perfect until I’d heard her last name from her friend.
Rossi. Good thing I wouldn’t see her again. She was one I could fall for. I didn’t need that kind of issue in my life. Falling for a Rossi was the last thing I needed as a Capone. I didn’t share my last name with her. Why create drama when it wasn’t necessary?
Tuesday came with a vengeance and it was like I had never left for a break. My hair had been twisted into a tight modest braid and I’d left my need for Rossi makeup in Portland. Checking my watch, I’m one of the last people alive who wore a watch, I swear, I patted the steering wheel and glared at the other motorists. “Come on. Come on. Take your foot off the brakes!”
I wasn’t a fan of the Seattle traffic and going from Bellevue to Little Italy wasn’t the best thing to attempt right after work. The bridge alone was a nightmare. I didn’t have anyone else in the car so I couldn’t try for the carpool lane and everyone in front of me had to be taking a nap.
My phone rang as I got close to the exit. Pushing the answer key, I spoke in the general direction of the phone mic and glanced quickly over my shoulder for anyone in my blind spot. “This is Mia.” I took work calls until nine at night because parents had to work, too.
“Mia! I have someone for you. I think you’re going to like this guy.” My papa’s voice boomed through the car. I scrambled to turn the volume down and flicked on my blinker to take the exit. He’d been trying to match me with a husband for years. I wasn’t even that old and I’d had more blind dates since I was in high school than there were residents on the south side.
I took a deep breath and applied the brakes before answering. “Papa, I don’t need anyone. The guys you have me date… well, they’re not exactly my type.” The red light turned green and I hoped I would be one of the few who would get to go through before it flickered to red again. These lights were notorious for playing games.
“What’s not your type? Italian family men with an eye on the business?” My father’s husky voice rang with incredulity.
“Well, yeah. I’m not interested in a family business man, Dad. I’m a big girl. I can find someone on my own. Not that I don’t appreciate your help. I love that you’re willing to help me.” But I knew why he was. He used me and my sisters as pieces in a chess game. We would be matched with an influential suitor whose family would be full of beneficial connections. That’s all my dad truly cared about.
No, he claimed to love us which was fine, but he only gave us attention when he thought we could do something for him. I was from his first marriage. The attention I got was less than a quarter of the attention he gave the other kids.
I’m not jealous or even bitter. I grew up outside the Rossi lifestyle so I was more apt to be able to adjust into society easier, like my day job of teaching kindergarten. The other women of the Rossi family or any of the business families didn’t take on jobs like that.
For a while, I was safe doing what I was doing. As soon as I got married, I could change my name again and be even more safe. It was all just a matter of time. Except my father wasn’t going to allow that, it seemed. He wanted me as embroiled in the business as my other brothers and sisters.
There were eight of us. I know. Papa is a Catholic man with urges he liked to say. I always added that he was a Catholic man with urges and an inability to succeed at marriage. He always frowned at me for that.
“Please, Mia, mi amore. You do this for me, and I’ll come up with something I can do for you. How about a new car? I could have one delivered to you tomorrow. What do you like? Ferraris? Those little Mini Coopers?” He said it as if he were talking about dropping a box of chocolates at my doorstep.
I didn’t want a new car. My Subaru worked just fine. I already used my part of the family money to pay for the Bellevue home. I didn’t need more of his money to add guilt to my plate. I wore enough guilt as it was.
Sighing, I distractedly noticed Giovanni’s Italy sign broadcasting the location on the side of the road. “Okay, Papa. I’ll do it. No more talk about what you can get me. I can’t tomorrow night. I have work.” I really wanted to tell him I wasn’t available for the next year, but that would be rude and I’d never do it.
“Perfect. He can do it Thursday at six. Maybe you could meet him down in Little Italy at the carousel.” It wasn’t a question and I was already feeling the tightening hold of The Rossi hand clamp around my neck. Everyone referred to my father as The Rossi. It made him even more intimidating which was always his goal.
I cleared my throat. “Yeah, that’s fine, but remember, I have to work that day, so I won’t have time to go home to change.” Dad’s favorite thing to do was tell me how to look more like a Rossi, more like the Italian princess I was. Dad just didn’t know how much I needed to break away from that side of my life and be the person who was wrapped up in normal. I might even have to get a dog to even out my normalcy a bit more.
Dad’s grumble told me more than if he’d spoken his displeasure out loud.
“I need to get going, Papa. Can you text me the information on this guy I’m meeting, please? I don’t want to just show up and leave with the wrong person.” I turned into the parking lot and parked next to a flashy metallic gray truck with the nicest set of chrome wheels I’d seen – and I lived in Bellevue! “Love you.”
“I’m not texting. I’ll send over a dossier.” He hung up without returning the sentiment, but that was fine. I didn’t expect him to say he loved me. He probably didn’t, if I was being truthful. He loved his business. He loved his power. He loved his money. None of that made room for people.
He’d always been like that. I wasn’t sure I was bothered by it anymore.
I slid from my aspen green car and swung my purse over my shoulder, locking the door behind me. Glancing around as the sun decided to descend in the sky, I reached up and tucked a stray lock of hair behind my hair. My hair was unruly and by the end of the day, it wanted out of its restrictions.
Luckily, I’d made it a couple minutes early. I could duck into the ladies’ room and fix my hair as well as relieve myself. The door was just a bit past the entrance, so I availed myself of the facilities and washed my hands, using the water on my fingers to retame my hair.
Pulling the door open to head back into the dining hall, I ran into something that had to be made of concrete. I raised my hands to steady myself, pressing my fingers against a chest smoothed over with a linen button-up shirt and a suit jacket that was light and well-tailored. “Scusi.” My informal excuses tumbled from my mouth before I realized my weekend in Portland might have followed me home.
In more ways than one.
I glanced up into Leonardo’s eyes, the gold-flecked ebony orbs that had captivated me at the dance club that last night. Catching my breath, I took in as much of him as I could with my eyes and breathed, “Leonardo, I…”
Something in his eyes told me he was as surprised as I was and as deeply affected. He grabbed me by the elbows and twirled us into a small nook between the bathrooms. My hip hit a decorative vase that stood to my waist, but I didn’t look away from Leonardo.
“What are you doing here? I… I don’t understand. I thought you were in Portland.” Seeing him, I couldn’t believe I’d been able to leave.
He searched my face as if he hadn’t seen anything as beautiful in a long time. I blushed at the way he looked at me. I had no makeup on. He had to think me plain and yet he didn’t stop looking at me. He raised his hand, running a knuckle down the side of my cheek. “Cara, you’re so beautiful.” His husky voice pulled at me and I leaned in, eager for another kiss like the one we’d shared under the stars. The use of the Italian endearment added to the heat in my belly.
Leaning down, he pressed his warm mouth to mine and for the briefest moment I could imagine both Mia’s being happy, being loved just for being her.
We broke apart, panting and I self-consciously smoothed my hair. “I’m here for dinner with my mother. Are you…” I didn’t know how to ask if he was there with another woman. Although, if he was, that sucked for her since he was by the bathrooms making out with me.
Or maybe that sucked for me. I wasn’t sure.
I readjusted my purse on my shoulder and glanced around the small piece of the restaurant I could see, searching for a woman who would have a claim on a man like Leonardo.
“I’m here for dinner with my father. I’m glad there’s no one else that you’re searching for, Mia.” He reached down and placed his hand on the small of my back, gently guiding me into the dining area.
I stepped away from him when we reached the hostess stand and murmured, quietly, “I’m here for the Rogers party.” I looked back at Leonardo and offered him a sad flirty smile. I didn’t know when I would see him again, but maybe I could slip him my phone number before we left that night. I was already late to dinner with my mom.
As I followed the woman in the black apron and white shirt, I searched the room but really wanted to turn around and run back into Leonardo’s strong arms. I fit there, perfectly. Why couldn’t my dad set me up on a blind date with him? That would make everything better and I would have The Rossi’s blessing which meant no problems for me and my family.
The woman pointed toward a chair at a table for four and as I pulled out the seat I blinked in surprise. My mom pulled her head away from kissing a good-looking man with eyes I’d seen before, but I couldn’t place them.
She giggled – my mom giggled! – and then pressed her hand to her mouth when she spotted me. “Mia. I… Um…” She pushed from her chair and the man next to her stood as well, his cheeks crimson but he was otherwise unaffected.
Then he looked past me and smiled nervously at someone approaching the table. Maybe the server was already there. I wouldn’t mind ordering some good Italian wine at that point.
I turned and my polite smile froze on my face.
Why was Leonardo being ushered to the same table I was