All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Chapter One: Cappy’s
Approximately four point eight seconds prior to impact, Tommy Cappelletti spat the raw edge of his mustache from the side of his mouth and said, “The first thing you need to know about the 328i? It’s touchy. You hear what I’m sayin’, Caesar? The accelerator is probably more responsive than what you’re used to.” He gave me a sideways look. “She’ll go zero to sixty in under four point eight seconds. So go ahead. Tap it.”
The word seemed innocent enough, but this kind of manly camaraderie isn’t really my thing, and I swear he was throwing down the gauntlet. Subtly challenging my masculinity from the relative safety of his passenger seat. His cowboy hat was cocked, his mustache drooped, and he seemed slyer than your average car salesman. When he winked, I couldn’t stop myself from tapping the gas with a stomp. How fast could this thing go in reverse anyway?
Gravel flew, tires squealed and we pealed out with far more enthusiasm than the Pish Posh Nosh delivery van had ever shown. Before my foot could even touch the brake, I was thrown into my seat belt. A nauseating crunch filled the plush interior of the car.
I’d never hit another vehicle in my life, but that sound was unmistakable. We’d—I’d—cleared the parking space and crossed the driveway in under…well in under four point eight seconds. “Crap.”
“Holy crap,” Tommy agreed, clutching his seat belt with a chubby hand. His wedding ring was imbedded on a sausage-thick finger, and his limp string tie draped his knuckles. He whipped around and stared bug-eyed at me. “Did you…? Did you just? Did you…?”
I found some comfort in his stuttering, as I’m afflicted with the same tendency. “I…think…yes…I…”
An alarm binged from somewhere inside the car—there was an astonishing array of whistles and bells and all of them seemed to ring at once. On the video screen, the backup camera’s dotted red line indicated stop. I had stopped, all right—stopped on the bumper of another Beemer. Thank God the air bag hadn’t deployed.
“I…I…I am so sorry. I’m…I’m not much of a driver. I may have mentioned that?” I shouldn’t be behind the wheel at all. I should be watching the dealership. Watching in case someone walked in. Someone whose photo Dan had handed me fifteen minutes earlier—a slender redhead with a splash of freckles across her nose. She looked twelve. I was at Cappy’s doing a favor for my new boyfriend, PI and former NYC Detective, Dan Green Albright. He said, Text me if she shows up. However, with no viable excuse for loitering in the empty showroom, a desperate car salesman had appropriated me.
“Holy Christ.” Tommy Cappelletti’s panic was on the rise. He sucked half his mustache in on a breath and blew it back out. With the stutter, the low-riding cowboy hat and the long, bushy brows—and those now-bulging eyes in his flaming red face—the man was a dead ringer for Yosemite Sam. “You hit that car.” With a click he freed himself from the seat belt, his mustache flaring like bellows. The metal seat belt buckle clacked against the passenger window as he tossed the strap from his waist and gripped the door handle. “What did you do?”
“Well, I…I…didn’t realize the car was so fast in reverse. I drive a delivery van and you have to wrestle the gas pedal. You said tap and I thought you meant punch.”
“If I meant punch it, I would have said punch!” Tommy hollered as if somehow his anger could change the recent course of events. I was still immobilized by the accident. He was flailing and furious. “I told you it was responsive. What did you think that meant?” His pallor shifted from pale to ruddy and back again. Did he have high blood pressure? He was flashing like a neon sign.
“Let me move forward an inch so we can see the damage.” I gathered my wits and, grinding the gears until I found first, I released the clutch and jabbed the accelerator as Tommy fell from the open car door.
The door slammed. Tommy sprang to his feet, jaw swinging open again.
Pop! I jerked against the seat belt and everything went white. The air bag exploded from the steering column and smacked my chest like a damn two by four. Stars. Lights. Pain. My top tooth pierced my bottom lip and the acrid scent of chemicals filled my nose.
I punched the air bag away and sucked oxygen into my lungs. It took only a few tries.
What the hell was I doing in this deathtrap German car? It was filled with fog and I had an air bag deflating on my lap. White particles floated around me. Another first. I’d never seen an air bag explode. There was a dull ringing in my ears and my face felt funny. In the rearview mirror I could see a bright spot of blood welling on my lower lip. I licked it, the taste a mix of tin and salt. Maybe it was baking powder. Although, who knew what that white powder really was? For all I knew, it was anthrax.
The crumpled hood of the car gleamed at me through the windshield. I’d bounced off a large silver sedan. 750Li read the chunky silver letters on the now-crooked trunk of the car in front of me. BMW. Zero to sixty held new meaning for me and, as Dan would probably add later, I was unsafe at any speed.
I unbuckled and searched the door for the handle, feeling for the latch or lever or bar that would free me from this nightmare.
A massive palm slapped the window next to my nose—as if I wasn’t scared enough?—and I reared back.
Outside the car, an angry young man with a five o’clock shadow at nine in the morning glared through the window. I hadn’t seen him before, because I would have remembered the pugnacious jaw, the equally prominent brow and the bleached buzz cut. He looked like he’d recently escaped from tenure on death row. His green coveralls named him Stew. His tattoo was homage to his mother. His arms were huge and his reach was flipping long—those knuckles nearly scraped the asphalt.
For some reason, call it self-preservation, I sat put and swiped at my lip with the heel of my hand. The smoky interior of the car might be carcinogenic, but I could deal with that. I looked at Stew and my mind registered immediate threat. Therefore, I settled back in my seat, air bag on my lap, no hurry to move. Stew could hurt me far worse than the two consecutive fender benders combined. I wiped my lip again, this time with my finger. It came away bright with blood.
“Get out of the car.” Stew rattled the door handle, but I was safely locked in. Tiny flecks of his spittle sprayed the glass. “Open the door, asshole, you’re bleeding on the upholstery.”
Right. Did he think I was stupid? Not that I’d given him any reason to think otherwise.
Ignoring Stew, I rattled through my what to do in the event of a car accident list.
Remain with the vehicle. Check. The spittle flecking the driver’s side window ensured that I wasn’t going anywhere.
Exchange insurance information. Insurance? Yosemite Sam should have asked me for a card or something before I got in. He’d been so eager, bordering on desperate—luxury car sales must be down—and he hadn’t asked to see my license. I was at fault, but in a court of law, who was responsible? We were still on the lot. I should probably call an attorney, or my cousin Joey who was studying to become an attorney.
I licked at my lip and stared at the row of buttons on the door. There were eight. Which was overkill, in my opinion. Why did they need so many? The van had one button, a crank for the window and a handle to open the door. Simple enough for the most reluctant driver. Dan’s bike required nothing more than a leg over the seat and hanging on for dear life.
Dan. Where was he? Was I dazed? My ears clanged, chalky dust coated my hands, and it hurt to breathe. How hard had that air bag hit me?
Employees in sport coats and polo shirts wandered the dealership. They joined the cowboy-hat-wearing Tommy Cappelletti. The growing group fanned in a horseshoe, staring goggle-eyed at the car. Periodically, they’d squint through the privacy glass to check me out—talking or pointing and shaking their heads.
Call law enforcement. That one was tricky. I sighed, prepared to call the only law enforcement I knew. I wouldn’t be in this mess if Detective Dan Albright had dropped me off at work in the first place, which had been the plan prior to a phone call he’d received minutes after we’d engaged in some scalding hot sex in the shower this morning. My thighs were still sore from that stunt he pulled with the shower rod.
Dan was somewhere inside the dealership meeting with a suspiciously attractive man from the service department—I bet it was the same man who called us five minutes post coital. We’d been a block from Cappy’s Luxury Auto Sales when he gave me that funny hitched smile of his—the one that made my chest a little too tight—and said in a way sure to get a rise out of me, “This might take a few minutes, baby. Try not to break anything.”
Break anything? At the time I’d responded with a huffy, “I don’t know what you mean.”
Which was our way. He liked to yank my tail, and I pretended to dislike it.
We’d walked into Cappy’s and Dan ditched me. He’d sauntered to the service desk, his leather jacket over his shoulder, his smile crooked—those brown eyes steadfast on a blue-collar blond. The two men shook hands and then they slipped from view.
I’d ground my teeth and waited. Watching the door vigilantly and pretending to flip through a slick catalog of dangerously fast cars—and secretly hoping to eavesdrop on Dan’s covert conversation with the smiling, strapping mechanic—when Tommy literally latched onto me. The overzealous car salesman seized my elbow and steered me outside. I had to hand it to him, he was good. He smooth-talked me, hypnotized me with his silver-tipped cowboy boots and dreams of freedom on the open road. It had all been a fine distraction…and the entire lot was visible from there. If the girl in the photo arrived, I’d have seen her—I mean her hair was the color of cayenne pepper. Impossible to miss.
A beefy hand slapped the glass again and I, brave lad, located my cell phone.
“You need to open the door!” the big man yelled.
I held up my index finger. “Just a sec. I need to make sure I don’t have whiplash.” I pretended to roll my neck—which was a little stiff—and watched Tommy through the rearview mirror as he stared mournfully at the back end of the car. Regret washed his features.
It couldn’t be that bad.
The thug outside the window stepped in front of the car. A crowd followed him. The front bumper had to be worse than the back.
What would my father do in this situation? He’d open the sunroof and let the chemical gas out. I should do that. I found the button on the roof console and let the sunroof open a scant inch. New York City air wasn’t exactly a clean exchange, but at least my eyes stopped tearing.
I speed-dialed Dan with my thumb as a row of jaunty, colorful beach balls swayed in the summer breeze. Each ball was speared by a thin metal rod. They lined the sidewalk cheerfully—I guess they were supposed to resemble festive balloons there to beckon would-be car buyers onto the lot. Come and see what we’ve got.
Dan answered his phone, that deep voice resonating over the line. “Romano? Where are you? There’s something going on outside.”
“Yeah. That would be me. Where are you? You’re taking a long time.” I would not be jealous or suspicious. He was working on a new case. He was Dan Green Albright and the warmth in his voice reminded me that I trusted him.
“John did me a favor. We’re almost done, but you should call Poppy and tell her you’re running a half hour behind. I know you two are busy.”
“I think I’ll be running later than that…”
“Give me five. I’ll buy you a donut.”
That sounded promising. “Sure…” Stalling. I was stalling with a deflated air bag in my lap, a bloody lip and a minor blow to the sternum. “But I want one with the cream on the inside.”
“You do, huh? So what’s going on out there?”
“I… See… You were taking so long…I…”
I took a breath and choked on the air in the car.
He barked, “What? Did someone get hurt?” I pictured him morphing into cop mode, glaring through the plate-glass window of the car dealership ready to take names and issue warnings.
“Not yet.” Although Stew was seething on the tarmac. “I’ve had an accident. I was test-driving a car.”
There was a muffled cough.
I wiped my lip again. The blood had stopped. “You should probably help me before the locals remember where they keep the torches and pitchforks.”
“Sit tight. I’ll be right there.”
“Will do. I’m not leaving the car.”
Tommy knocked on the driver’s window, his hat mashed in one freckled hand. His string tie was undone and so was he. His forehead glistened in the morning humidity. He said very loudly through clenched teeth, “Mr.…”
And then he paused.
Tommy sucked on his mustache and slid a look to his fellow employees. They waited expectantly. And waited. Waited until it became patently obvious to everyone on the lot that Tommy had failed to get my full name before allowing me to drive a forty-five thousand dollar car. I felt marginally better, although goddamn it, I was still mortified.
My cell phone vibrated with a text message from my business partner and best friend, Poppy McNamara.
Do you think the pickles-and-ice-cream thing is true? Can you stop at Guss’ on the way in? Get me one of those big pickles. We have an appt at 11.
Tommy knocked on the glass again. “Caesar. If you would please step from the vehicle, we need to assess the damage. No one’s going to harm you.”
Not harm me? Why the hell would he even mention that? The thug at the front of the car met my stare. His eyes were flat. He rolled his neck and shoulders, cracked his knuckles, and nodded.
Screw this. I started the car.
It took three tries before I realized starting wasn’t an option. Tommy said with wire-thin patience, “You can’t turn the car on after the air bag deploys. It’s a BMW.”
“Well, that’s not helpful at all. I’ll just wait here for the police, thanks. Can I still use the battery?”
“You said this has satellite radio? Does it have OnStar? How about air?”
“Mr. Caesar, we don’t need to call the police. Let’s get a copy of your license and check with your insurance company.” His Adam’s apple bobbed. “You are a licensed driver, aren’t you?”
“The name is Romano, and of course I am.” It was even valid, although only just. Poppy kept nagging me to go down to the DMV—damn thing still had my folks’ address listed. I found my aged license in my wallet, rolled the window down an inch and slid it to Tommy. “Here you go.”
He seized it. His gaze flickered between the photo and my face. He worked his mustache again, asking with a hint of disbelief, “This is you?”
It was a bad photo, true. From seven years ago, back when my hair was long and I’d worn it combed to the side. There was also the sparse mustache. What can I say? I was young. At the time, I thought I resembled a dashing young Valentino with my dark eyes and sleek hair—and all the encouragement from my ex, the now-famous TV star, Sheppard McNamara.
The thug sauntered over and took my license from Tommy. “You look like Father Guido Sarducci.” And then he did the most unsettling thing. He fed his meaty fingers into the gap I’d left open in the window. His hands came in to the third knuckle, and he wriggled his squat fingers at me. “Open the door, asshole.”
What was taking Dan so long? It was a tiny lot, for Christ’s sake. “Calm down and get your goddamn hands away from me.”
I hit the door lock as my phone rang. “Yeah?” There was a crunch and a scream from outside and then the tough guy’s fingers vibrated against the glass. His fingers were stuck, that idiot. I jabbed all the buttons on the door. Nothing happened, although the door locks popped—
It was Dan. “Caesar, what the hell—”
The tough guy’s voice was pinched and high. “Open the window! Open the freaking window!”
I hit the window again, this time locking the door. These damn buttons weren’t intuitive. “I think it’s stuck!” I pushed on the thick neck’s fingers and he blubbered, so I let go. Why the hell couldn’t I open the window? “Just pull them out!”
Tommy Cappelletti yelled, “You have to press start. Press start!” He banged on the glass.
The start button was the only thing in the entire vehicle that made any sense—although not currently because it didn’t start the damn car. I drew a breath deep into my lungs. There had to be twenty-five people standing around me, some of them in suits, others dressed in shirts with their names stitched above their breast pockets—not one of them named Dan Albright. All of them yelling advice. I was getting pissed. Correction. I was royally pissed. “Get your effing hand out of the window, asshole.”
I found the button and the window slid down another half inch. Pale fingers disappeared, and I snapped that bastard closed as quickly as possible while Stew doubled over, hand in his crotch.
I hung up on Dan, who stood with his cell phone to his ear, the hot, buff blond beside him at the edge of the crowd. I gazed through the sunroof, although there was no help coming from above. So I did what any self-respecting Italian kid from Brooklyn does when they’re in a bind: I called my cousin Joey—the attorney to be—to find out if I needed legal counsel.
Ten minutes later Dan and I headed toward his bike, which was parked at the mini-market on the opposite side of the street from the car dealership. We left the pandemonium at Cappy’s behind us. The morning was moving swiftly along, much like Dan running from the scene of my accident—accidents. His long legs ate the crosswalk and I quick stepped to keep pace, my face sweaty, my lip puffy, my pride wrinkled. I shook my hair and white powder spotted my work shirt like dandruff.
It would be a stretch, but I’d just pretend this morning—from the time we arrived on the lot until this very minute—had never happened.
Although forgetting was difficult with the evidence of my recent disaster directly at our backs.
Muscle-necked Stew had vanished, which was excellent news. I lost sight of him while Dan calmed Tommy enough to coax me from the vehicle. Unfortunately Tommy Cappelletti was seated behind the wall of glass in the manager’s office—hat in thick-fingered hand—getting what looked like a stern reprimand by Cappy himself. Cappy was a tough customer in a well-cut banker suit and a pricy pinky ring. His calfskin shoes were butter soft and scuff-less—mob shoes.
Obviously we were hightailing it the hell out of there.
“Slow down.” I had a stitch in my side, and something told me that the pain was going to increase upon the arrival of my next insurance bill.
Dan didn’t slow, but he turned to offer me a wink and a smile. His teeth were white in the morning sunshine—and his grin was filled with good humor, which I hoped wasn’t at my expense. He looked cool, calm and collected. I admire that in a person. “C’mon. Let’s get a cup of coffee. You look like you could use one. I know I could.”
“I’m fine.” Which was a white lie. I kept a lid on the subject of my sore ribs, because this crap always seemed to happen when Dan was only one step away. Usually my life was uneventful. “I just want to go to work. Let’s take a rain check on the coffee and you can drop me off at Posh Nosh.” I checked my watch again. “Tick tock.”
“Hey. I’m not the one who held us up.” Dan’s composure finally broke and he choked on a laugh.
He shook his head and tried to cover his amusement with a poorly executed cough. His broad shoulders shook, and I narrowed my eyes. “Do you need me to smack you on the back—?” I left off of your head, but it was clear I’d do that.
“No-no. I’m good. Just wondering how in the hell you managed to hit both cars.”
I held up a hand. “Don’t say another word, I’m embarrassed enough. Let’s just get out of here.”
“What about the donut?” He looked between the mini-mart and me. “You love donuts.”
“I’ll pass. I should get to work. You’re finished here, right? Did you find the redhead?”
He shook his head and unhooked his helmet from the back of the bike. “Nope. I have someone keeping an eye on the place.” He didn’t need to say who—the blond. “If she was here, she’s gone now. You weren’t exactly discreet.”
“She must be timid.”
“Sorry.” I clicked my own hot helmet on my possibly anthrax-encrusted hair and waited for Dan to start the bike. “Tomorrow, it would be better if you drop me off before you start detecting—or I can take the ferry.”
A strange expression flickered across his face—as if he had something to tell me but was weighing every option. It’s not a look I appreciate—though I’d seen this one before. Maybe it was presumptuous of me to expect to spend the night again. We were new at this relationship, tentatively feeling our way into each other’s life; maybe I overstepped. I was about to ask him, but the Harley’s engine roared to life and Dan said over the noise, “Let’s roll,” so I slung a leg over the bike and grabbed on.
Trust Me If You Dare
- December 21, 2010
Romano and AlbrightThis bundle includes ebooks 1 and 2 in the Romano and Albright series by L.B. Gregg!
- 232 Pages
- November 1, 2011
Romano and Albright, Book 2
Feisty New Yorker Caesar Romano has a knack for getting into a jam, and this week is no exception. When his pregnancy-hormone-buzzed business partner sweet talks him into working a solo gig for his famous ex, Caesar attracts the worst kind of attention.
It’s only the beginning. Hit on by a lusty German, stalked by the paparazzi, victim of an unexpected airbag attack—and desperate for some part-time help—Ce’s running out of time, staff and patience. But what’s really got him poised to run? A looming brunch with his sexy lover’s esteemed family.
PI Dan Albright is a man of many gifts: investigation, security, sex talk and driving Caesar nuts in and out of the bedroom. Hired to protect an outrageous soap star from a deranged personal assistant, Dan’s got his hands full refereeing rival actors, locating one four-foot-eleven woman…and convincing Ce that he’s playing for keeps.
Hey, nobody ever said taking a relationship to the next level was a waltz in the park.