"What is this?" Francesca Albasiano's father wrinkled his nose at the pizza she held.
"It's pizza, Pop. Pesto pizza." Chesca kept her voice light, despite her feelings to the contrary. Her Nonni, hiding in the kitchen doorway out of his sight, made the thumbs up sign.
"Pesto? Annnng. You're the pest. That's what." He shook his head. "This is Al's Pizza and Sangwich, Chesca. We make pizza. The traditional way, with sauce and cheese and little bits of sassige. Our customers don't want any pest' on their appiz'."
Nonni flapped her hands at her son in the universal sign of disgust and turned away, shuffling back into the kitchen. She'd told Chesca he wouldn't bend, but Chesca had tried anyway. How else would she ever get her father to add the mix of traditional and upscale Italian foods to his archaic and greasy menu, if she didn't get him to see it and taste it?
"Just try it, Papa. You'll see. It's delicious!" She tried again.
Al leaned to pat her cheeks with his large flour-covered hands. "Cara mia, when are you going to learn? Our customers don't like that fru-fru food. They want pizza. My pizza. That's what they've been coming here for, for nearly thirty years." He gave her a pitying look. "Why do you want to reinvent the wheel? Go be like your sister. Find yourself a nice doctor. Get married. Have babies." He spun her around and gave her a pat on the behind, pushing her along to the kitchen like a chastised child and not the thirty-year-old woman she was.
She spun back to face him. "Papa! Look around you!" She gestured at the dark paneling, the old formica tabletops and booths with the duct-taped red vinyl seats. Most of them were unpopulated by patrons--except the regulars, old men who shuffled down in the mid-afternoons to play Keno and flirt with Nonni. "There's no one here! No one's eating!"
Papa shook his head. "Cara. This is a neighborhood shop. When the kids get out of school, when the parents get home too tired to cook, then we will have customers. But for now…" He shooed her away.
"Right." Chesca nodded. Pointless. Completely, totally pointless. Trying to convince her father that it was time to upgrade was like trying to turn the grass blue and the sky green.
Chesca walked over to Tony and Max--the keno players--and dropped the pizza on the table between them. "Here," she said. "On the house."
Tony frowned at it. "What's that?"
"Pizza," she told him.
"That don' look like no abbiz I ever seen." He poked it with a bony finger.
"It looks like it’s got mold on it. Don't it, Max?"
"Mold!" Max agreed. "Al! What's this? You servin' your customers moldy pizza, now?"
Enough was enough. Chesca knew when to retreat. She held up her hand so she didn't have to see her father's knowing, "I told you so" gaze, and strode out of the shop.
Out on the sidewalk, her desire to update Al's grew instead of lessening. Her grandfather had opened the pizza parlor years ago when their Silver Lake neighborhood was all-Italian. It had changed since then. Now it was a neighborhood of many ethnicities and tastes, and though Al's made enough to stay open, Chesca knew it wouldn't be long before it would have to close its doors. Papa was still coping with the Mom's death two years before; losing Al's would be a fatal blow for him.
But if she could get him to change the menu, she would be able to entice a different clientele to the restaurant. Eventually, she hoped, she'd create a catering menu, and from there--well, that would be enough, to start. For the family, for him, and especially, for herself.
She started up the hill towards the house she shared with Nonni. If only her father wasn't so entrenched in his ways; it was like his world began and ended in the '50's, in the pizza shop his father had begun. "Married." She muttered. "Like that's all I'm good for." She had a Bachelors in culinary arts. And an MBA. And all her father wanted her to do was get married.
For some reason, he seemed to forget that she’d done the “find a nice boy” routine and it hadn’t worked. Nice boys, especially ones who were doctors, didn’t grow on trees.
Chesca frowned. She'd come home at Nonni's urging, to help out. But her father didn't seem to realize that his youngest daughter's successful track record as a restaurant manager and executive chef meant she could do more than wash trays and wait tables.
Especially tables that were hardly ever filled.
A shout and braying laughter behind her made her turn around to look. There, at the bottom of the hill, a man on a delivery-style bicycle strained to push his unwieldy conveyance up the steep slope, pedal by pedal. A group of teenagers clustered around him in a vicious circle, laughing and jabbing at him. Chesca's blood rose--the man cursed at the kids, but didn't strike out at them. He couldn't, because stopping the bike's momentum up the hill meant it would start rolling backwards down toward busy Pocassett Avenue and certain annihilation.
First it was her father, rejecting her attempts to make things better for him, and now these rotten kids had to pick on an innocent schlep trying to make a living by biking groceries around to the neighborhood's elderly population.
Her blood boiled at the injustice of it all.
Chesca ran down to where the kids clustered around the guy on the bike, and put her hands on her hips. "Hey! Leave him alone!"
The boys turned their attention to her. She gathered herself to her full height. Okay, so five-foot-nothing wasn't so impressive, but she knew height didn't matter. What counted was the attitude you projected. That's what her brother, the cop, had told her when he'd taught her self-defense maneuvers. Good thing, too, she realized. The boys looked like a pack of feral dogs as they moved to surround her.
"Hey, lady, mind your business!" One of the teens snarled.
"I am minding my business, you little creep," Chesca growled up at him. "And you should be ashamed of yourself." She shook her index finger up at him; he grasped it in his sweaty grip.
"Let go of my finger, twerp," she said.
"Make me," he answered.
Oh, great. Connolly Dooley couldn't believe this was happening to him. It was bad enough he had to pull an undercover assignment as a bicycle delivery boy in hill-central USA. And it was worse he couldn't blow his cover by hauling off and laying some serious moves on the brats trying to steal the wretched delivery bike. It had taken weeks to get into the market--a storefront for some major Rhode Island wise guys--by claiming to be connected to a made-guy- by-marriage, a cousin two or three times removed. And secretly cooperating with the Feds to get out of jail time.
But now, all Con’s work was going to go to crap, because of this teeny, tiny woman in tennis shoes and .denim shorts. He turned the bike’s front wheel to the curb in the hopes it wouldn't rocket down the hill into the main road and cause an accident.
One of the punks grabbed at the handles as soon as he let it go. "Hey, kid, cut the crap," he muttered, and reached out to tag the brat. But the little creep let go of the bike and danced away, just out of reach. Taunting him.
I hate kids, Connolly thought, just before hearing a high-pitched scream behind him. The woman! He turned and was startled to see her twisting the big kid's arm up and around his back in superb style; when she kicked out and swiped his legs out from under him in one neat swoop, he nearly broke out into a cheer.
But the little punk behind him took the opportunity to punch him in the side. "Bastard," Connelly gasped and went for him.
After that, everything went crazy. Kids jumped him; the bike went flying down the hill as predicted, the lid opening on the grocery box. When it reached the bottom of the hill, the bike tipped--apples, oranges and fresh Roma tomatoes scattered in all directions on the busy main street. Connolly felt hard knuckles make contact with the side of his face and heard the woman shrieking, in pain or fear he couldn't tell. He struggled to make his way through the crowd of kids to get to her side, but as they moved out of the way he realized she was yelling with exhilaration. And with good reason.
The little woman whirled like a dervish, punching and kicking with vigor. Whoever she was, Connolly thought, she had some great moves. She wasn't a cop--he knew that instinctively--but she'd been trained by one.
One by one, the kids scattered and he was able to get closer to her. "Hey," he said, "Thank--"
But then her shoe made contact with his face and he made contact with the ground.
I feel like I've been hit by a truck.
He knew this because he actually had been hit by a truck on his last assignment.
That had sucked. But not as much as having to ride the delivery bike.
God, he hated bikes.
Con stared up at the sky.
Didn't the gombahs at Rocco's Market know about motorcycles?
How about a freakin' delivery truck? Con had been hit by a truck, for fuck’s sake, and he still liked them a hundred times more than bikes. But no. The goombahs thought those methods of transport used too much gas, required too much maintenance...and it was more old country to use a delivery bike.
It was old country to keep chickens and goats in your yard, too --but Rocco didn't want that much of Italy. Just the quaint, fucking bicycle part. He said it was good for the earth. It was green.
Fucking green my bonny Irish ass, Con thought.
The woman appeared, looming over him to block out his view of the sky. He liked the way the sun shone white on her long dark hair. Tendrils of it escaped from the braid she had tossed over shoulder, and tickled his cheek.
As she reached out to touch him, he smelled the vanilla and sugary-sweet scent of her perfume. Nice. He inhaled deeply.
"O-di!" She said. Her voice was scared and husky enough to tickle his ears. "Your eyes are open. Please tell me you're not dead."
"I'm not dead," Con said, though he wished he was.
But then, he wouldn't be enjoying the solicitations of this angel.
"Thank God." She gently lifted his head and pillowed it on her lap. Warm, Con thought, and he remembered the tanned, toned look of her thighs as she’d kicked at the bad guys trying to get her. He smiled.
"I've got my cell. I'm calling my brother," she told him.
He nodded. Okay. Whatever. He lay still and observed the woman as she flipped open her pink phone.
Wait a minute...who was her brother, and why was she trying to call him? Con frowned and pushed himself off her lap. If her brother was anybody connected, he needed to know. "Why call him? The punks are gone." Con blinked a few times, clearing the cobwebs from his head.
Fast recovery, his instructor from The Academy had always said, will serve you in good stead. No crap, Con had always thought in reply.
"Vito's a cop," the woman said.
Crap! If her brother started snooping, his cover might be blown. He reached out quickly to lift the phone from the woman's hand. "No, really. You don't have to bother him."
"It's not a bother. But if you don't want to catch the punks who did this to you..." she shrugged. "Give me back my phone."
He handed it to her. "Thanks for your help. You were very brave."
"I was mad." She stood up and held out her hand to help him up. He let her; her hands were small on his arm, but felt strong.
"Remind me not to get you mad at me."
"All right." She looked up at him and smiled. Her teeth were white and straight, her eyes were dark brown--almost black--and they twinkled up at him. "Don't make me get mad at you."
Damn, Con thought. She's gorgeous. He tugged his arm out of her grasp. "Sure thing." He turned to move away from her. He was deep undercover and didn't need any hot little distractions. He was risking his life to catch the bad guys. That was enough.
She followed behind him, down to where the bike lay on its side. Connelly surveyed the damage. About thirty-five dollars' worth of fruits and vegetables were scattered all over the road; that was going to be taken from his paycheck by Angelo Roccotelli, the owner of the grocery store. He'd have to act suitably angry—thirty-five bucks would be a lot of money if he really was a delivery boy.
"Son ova’ whore." He practiced.
"What a mess." The woman agreed.
"I'll have to go refill the order and deliver it in double-time." Con righted the bike and straddled it, feeling defenseless and stupid with his crown jewels so dangerously close to the center bar.
I should wear a cup.
The woman touched his arm. His heart bumped.
“You sure you’re all right?” She asked.
"Couldn’t be better." Bullshit. He needed to get away from her. She was just too pretty, and he'd been too long without the company of a woman. Especially one whose eyes sparkled like diamond-studded onyx, one who smelled of sugared vanilla and fought like a blackbelt. "Thanks for your help. You pack a mean kick."
She shrugged. "No problem. Look out for those kids, okay?"
"Sure thing." He waved, and began pushing the pedals, hurrying back to Rocco's Fruit and Deli before he got fired; if he did, would take the Bureau another six months to get a different undercover agent to take his place. And, they'd give him an even worse assignment...probably in a drug lord's bicycle shop. As if risking his life, thwarting daily discovery wasn't enough.
He had all the luck.
"Chesca met a man, today!" Nonni announced as she placed a platter of Osso Bucco on the table.
"Who?" Vito grunted.
"What?" Her sister, Lisa, asked.
"Where?" Papa glowered.
Why? Chesca wanted to scream. Why did Nonni have to make her love life--or lack of one--the topic of dinner table conversation? She fixed Nonni with a stare, but the old lady flicked her mopeen over her shoulder and sat down as demurely as a lady and not the rabble-rousing troublemaker she was. "Pass the meat," she commanded.
Food began to be passed and plates heaped, but that didn't stop Chesca's family.
"So, who's this guy? Anybody I know?" Vito forked a generous portion onto his plate.
"Forget that. What does he do?" Lisa pushed her food around, making it look like she'd eaten something.
"When are we going to meet him?" Papa asked.
Chesca frowned. "He's nobody. I mean, he's somebody, but I don't know his name."
"How can you be seeing a guy if you don't know his name?" Lisa said.
"I'm not seeing him!" Chesca answered.
"That's not what I'm hearing," Vito said.
"Nonni doesn't even know what she's talking about!"
"I do, too. Just because I'm old doesn't mean I'm over the hills," Nonni protested.
Case in point, Chesca thought. She spooned a lamb shank onto her plate and began eating. It tasted perfect. Of course. Nonni drove her crazy, but there was no denying it; the woman was an excellent cook. Even with all her education and experience, Chesca doubted she'd ever have the same skill at the stove.
"I saw them, out the window. Chesca had his head on her lap."
"What?" Papa's eyes widened.
"Really?" Lisa dropped her fork.
Vito said nothing--he just glared.
She hurried to explain. It was nothing--she'd only been helping him save his bike. What she didn't discuss was the way the color of his eyes reminded her of fresh basil. Or the way he'd cocked one of his heavy, dark brows at her. Or how he'd come to her defense when he'd heard her yell...
"He's a delivery boy?" Lisa made a face. "He really is a nobody."
Chesca felt a flush of anger rush over her scalp and crawl over her body until it coiled in her stomach. "He's not a nobody!"
"You just said he was," Vito reminded her.
"I did not!" Chesca wanted to clonk her brother over the head with her half-eaten lamb shank, but she stopped herself. For one thing, hitting someone with food this good was like using The Mona Lisa as a weapon. For another, he wouldn't understand why she'd hit him anyway. In his Neanderthal-like mind, he was protecting his little sister from a potential pervert. So she settled for a glare.
He didn't get that, either.
"Whut?" He mumbled around a mouthful of food.
"You find yourself a nice doctor like Lisa," Papa chided. "He'll take care of you, let you stay home with your children."
"And keep your house clean," Nonni added.
Chesca bit the inside of her lip. She never should have left her job—her career!—to come home. She'd thought Papa needed her. But no, the whole thing felt like a ruse, a setup. Her family had shackled her neatly within their fold and now there was nothing to do but succumb, a lamb for the slaughter. They just wanted to marry her off just like they were doing with Lisa, who was content with her fate.
Thank God, she’d never have to see the delivery boy—guy—again.