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Excerpt for How Deep is Your Love? by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




HOW DEEP IS YOUR LOVE?

The Gentileschi Sisters

Book 4



Kathryn Shay

How Deep is Your Love?

Copyright © 2019 by Kathryn Shay

All Rights Reserved


Smashwords Edition


Published by Ocean View Books

Cover Design by Shelley Kay at Web Crafters


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to the bookseller and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Introduction



Once upon a time, in a faraway land called Casarina, lived King Alessio Gentileschi and Queen Renata. Their seven girls are the center of their lives. All grown up now, these women journeyed to the United States to train or educate themselves but the king and queen fear they will never return home.



Who are the princesses of Casarina?


Callandra (Calla) Gentileschi, 31, heroine in NO OTHER LOVE, in the To Serve and Protect series. Married, with one child, Razim, she resides in the U.S. for six months and in Casarina for the other half of the year.


Francesca (Frankie) Gentileschi, 29, cop in Baltimore City, just transferred to a new task force. She uses the queen’s surname, Marcello.


Gabriella (Brie) Gentileschi, 27, grade school teacher in a low income area, plans to open her own school in the U.S.


Ravenna (Raven) Gentileschi, 26, artist, art therapy practice, and has illustrated her sister’s children’s book. She uses the queen’s surname, Marcello.


Evangelina (Evvie) Gentileschi, 24, dedicated neonatal nurse, main hobby is watching major league baseball.


Mariela (Mari) Gentileschi, 23, widowed at 20, she’s now in Georgetown Law School and has a five-year-old daughter, Lilliana. She uses her married name Moretti.


Alexandra (Lexy} Gentileschi, 21, has just sold her children’s book to an American publisher. She uses the queen’s name, Marcello.



The men of The Gentileschi Sisters:


Connor Marino, husband of Callandra, hero of NO OTHER LOVE.


Tyrell Beauregard Collingsworth, cop in Baltimore, on the same task force as Francesca.


Dante Federico, new Physical Education teacher at Gabriella’s school.


Blake Parker, gallery owner, plans a show of Ravenna’s art.


Mike Jagielski, star player on the Baltimore Raiders major league baseball team, meets Evangelina at a game.


Jordan Dubois, professor at Georgetown Law School, has Mariela as a student.


Ryder Reynolds, vice president of Reynolds Publishing, buys Alexandra’s children’s book.

Chapter 1



Praying she’d be able to keep her eyes open for the drive home, Brie Gentileschi started her Volvo’s engine, checked the mirrors for any traffic in the teacher’s lot and backed up slowly. Oh my God! Another car was barreling down at her from the left. Her heart pounding, Brie put her foot on the brake so she could switch the gear to drive. Oh, God, she didn’t stop moving…

A loud crash.

A jarring bump.

The impact threw Brie back, then inertia thrust her forward into the steering wheel. Her head spun. When she recovered, she realized what happened.

Releasing the seatbelt, she exited the car. A coworker leapt out of the oncoming vehicle that had halted a few feet away and rushed over. “I’m so sorry, Brie. I was in a hurry because my kid’s sick. Are you hurt?”

“I’m, um, no I’m not hurt, Betsy. It’s my fault anyway. I thought I put my foot on the brake, to go back into where I was parked, but I must have kept it on reverse. Are you hurt?”

“No. I stopped short but I’m okay. What do you want me to do?”

“Nothing. The near accident wasn’t your fault. Go pick up your son.”

Betsy angled her head to the side. “I don’t recognize the car you hit. I’ve never seen it here before.” The staff was small at Elizabeth Cady Stanton Elementary School. “Whose is it?”

“I—”

A deep voice came from behind. “It’s mine.”

Brie glanced over her shoulder.

Betsy said, “Dante?”

He crossed to them. “Are either of you hurt?”

Shaking her head, Betsy shot a glance at Brie.

“I’m fine. But your car...” Brie looked at the white vehicle more closely. “The whole back end is smashed in.”

“What happened?” Dante’s voice was calm, but concerned.

Betsy explained about her part in the accident.

“Go then. You can get around Brie’s Volvo.”

After Betsy left, he said, “Gabriella, don’t worry about the car.”

“Are you kidding? This is going to cost a bundle. It’s a classic, isn’t it? I hope the back end can be fixed. I’ll pay for the repairs.”

“My sisters and I own a collision shop. One of them will come tow it, and we’ll do the work.”

She stared at the crumpled back end. “I’ve never seen this one in the parking lot.”

He hesitated. “First time I’ve driven it to school. My Chevy wouldn’t start this morning, so I took this one.”

“And I crash into the trunk.” She felt tears in her eyes but willed them back. She’d spent sixteen months building up her confidence and inner strength, and she wasn’t going to be fragile ever again. Especially for something like this.

Reaching out, he touched her arm. “You okay?”

“Definitely. I’m so sorry, Dante. I’m exhausted. I didn’t sleep well and barely made it through the day. I should have called an Uber to get home.”

Leaning back on his heels, he jammed his hands into his pockets. “Back-to-school this year has to be hard for you.”

“It shouldn’t be. So, how do you want to handle the car?”

“I’ll phone Tris right now. She’ll have somebody out here in no time. I hope your car is okay. Why don’t you try to pull it away and see?”

She peered down at her hands. They were shaking.

“Want me to I do it?”

“No. Call your sister.” She went to her car, opened the door and slid inside. He’d turned his back to her so she breathed in deeply for a few moments to calm herself, then started the engine, made sure the car was in drive, and moved forward into the space it had occupied.

When she approached him, he was still on the phone. “Yeah, I know, honey. Just send somebody. It isn’t drivable.”

“I’m so sorry,” Brie reiterated when he clicked off. “As I said, I’ll pay for everything.”

“Not necessary. Like I said, my sisters and I...”

“Stop it, Dante.” Her words were sharp so she softened her tone. “I have lots of money and I insist.”

His dark chocolate eyes twinkled, a bright spot in the dismal situation. “Yeah, somebody told me about the princess stuff.”

“So I’ll take care of the cost.”

“I have another idea. You can pay me back by having coffee with me every day in school for the rest of the week.”

She was about to object, but she remembered what he told Lexy last spring when she came to talk to Brie’s students about her books....

I replaced him, you know.

Eddie Smith? The man who’d kidnapped her.

Yeah.

That’s right, he taught physical education.

I’m afraid nobody here likes me.

I’m so sorry.

That’s okay. I’ll win them over.

Ashamed that she hadn’t done anything last spring about the shunning, she said, “I’ll have coffee with you if that’s what you want, but I’m paying for repairs, too.”

“That’s something we can discuss when we meet tomorrow.”

She hoped agreeing to spend time with Dante Federico wasn’t a mistake. In all honesty, she’d avoided him because he caused her to flash back to when she was kidnapped. The last thing she needed was to make the nightmares return.


* * *


“Hell, Federico, what happened to The Pony?”

Dante shrugged at his colleague in the physical education department who’d come out of the gym and over to them. “An accident.”

Will Casey whistled. “A damned serious one.”

Brie stepped forward. “I backed into him. I’m going to pay for repairs.”

“Oh, okay. But, geez, Dante, you been working on this car for the whole time I’ve known you. Even before, you said. You finally got the thing up to speed. It’s your baby.”

Will’s comment was well-intended, but Dante didn’t want to make Brie feel any worse than she obviously did. “No one was hurt. That’s the most important thing.”

Will’s eyes widened. “Sure. Glad you’re okay, Brie.”

She gave Will a weak smile, then he left. She leaned against her car. Today her hair was up in some kind of knot, making her seem younger. Her appearance was contrary to the buzz around school that Brie was older than her years. “Why did he call it a pony?”

“That’s a term to describe a compact, highly stylized car with a sporty or performance image. Like a racehorse, I guess.”

“Interesting. Are you a classic car buff?”

“Damn straight I am, and proud of it.”

“My father was, too.”

“Your father the king?”

This time her smile reached her eyes. They were blue like the water in Cancun where he went on spring break last year. “Having a hobby like that is good.”

“What about you, Brie? Do you have a hobby?”

“Yoga. But that’s therapy now, I guess.”

“Yoga’s great for physical fitness. Our district is offering some classes this year at the high school. How often do you go?”

“At least three times a week.”

She had a sculpted body, without an ounce of fat on her. The dark blue sundress she wore today revealed tanned and toned skin. “I-”

He got distracted from her body—thank God—when a truck drove into the parking lot. Pride swelled inside him like it always did when he saw the slogan. Federico’s: Fast, Frugal, Friendly!

Tris opened the door and hopped down. He was surprised when sister number two, Lucy, exited the other side. Why would they both come? When they approached him, Tris slid an arm around his shoulders. “Sorry, buddy.”

Lucy kissed his cheek. “You weren’t involved, right?” She spared Brie a glance. “She crashed into your car when it was parked.”

“Yes.”

Turning her attention to the vehicle, Tris whistled. “Lots of damage.”

“It’s cosmetic. She wasn’t going that fast.”

“Let’s hope there’s no frame damage.” Lucy went around the side and squatted down to inspect the undercarriage.

Tris turned to Brie. “Hi, I’m Tris. Dante’s older sister.”

“Gabriella Gentileschi.”

Arching a brow, she moved closer to him. “Ah, the princess who doesn’t like Dante.”

Lucy stood. “Who doesn’t like Dante?”
“Nobody,” he said, embarrassed. “Girls, enough!”

“I don’t really know him. Look, can we talk about the car?”

“Yes, your highness.” Again, Tris, this time with an edge in her voice. Because she was the oldest, she’d never liked being bossed around. “We’ll tow and fix it.”

“I want to pay for the repairs.”

“Fine by me. But we’re doing the work.”

“Keep a tab on your hours and parts needed and give it to me when you’re done. Or I can write you a check in advance to get the material.”

“No. We got it covered.” She watched Brie and frowned. “Sorry I didn’t ask sooner. You all right?”

“I’m fine. I’m upset that I did this, but at least the car can be fixed.”

Tris turned to Dante. “Let’s get our baby loaded.” She and Lucy returned to the truck.

“Go ahead and leave, Brie. We’ll take care of everything.” He touched her arm. “You can drive, right?”

“Yeah, I’m wide-awake now. Again, I apologize for the accident.”

“I’ll come see you in the morning to schedule our coffee.”

She nodded, then headed to her car. Her grim expression told him this was far from over for her.

Man, she was one complicated woman.


* * *


This isn’t a big deal, Brie. It can be fixed.

She was calm now as she slid into the front seat and closed the door. But Vittorino’s face swam before her eyes as it so often did when something went wrong. What the man who’d been sent by Callandra’s ex had done to her—mostly emotionally—wasn’t as easy as this hiccup.

Also, the encounter with Dante made her remember the man whose position he’d taken at school—Eddie Smith, the PE teacher who’d helped Vittorino grab her.

Her therapist had made her realize she could manage the symptoms. So she knew how to do that today. She’d checked the schedule on her phone and started the car. In ten minutes, she arrived at Yoga Vision. The sight of the place calmed her, like always.

Grabbing the duffle bag she always kept in her trunk, she walked inside. The small entry conveyed a hushed atmosphere. “Brie, hello.”

Most of the staff knew her by name. “Hi, Cindy. I’m not too late for this class, am I?”

“If you hurry and change, you can make it. I’ll sign you in.”

Brie changed quickly into black capris and an ice-blue top. Once out on the floor, barefoot, she rolled out her teal mat with a peacock prancing across it and sat in a lotus position. Her hands on her knees, she breathed in, then let the air out. The calming Dalai Lama chant that filled the room seeped into her pores for a few minutes, then it stopped. She opened her eyes.

The large loft sported cedar wood covering every inch of the walls and ceiling, except for two skylights and several windows around the perimeter. Up front sat a tall, slender man, but with the long, lean muscles common to yogis—Caleb, one of her favorite teachers. Instruction was the most important element in a good yoga session.

The mellowness of his voice washed over her. “Happy yoga, class, all. Whether you come from a stressful job, from being cooped up all day, or from a state of relaxation already, welcome.

“We’ll start with pranayama. Close your eyes and breathe normally but concentrate on what you’re doing.” After thirty seconds, he added, “Now increase the length of the inhale, but keep the exhale the same.” About a minute for this. “Now, increase the exhale. Slowly, take in air...slowly let it out.” Two minutes for this. Time passed. “Finally, we’ll inhale slowly, hold for four seconds, exhale slowly, then hold for four more seconds.”

By the end of pranayama, Brie was in the zone and feeling better.

By the end of the class, she’d put Vittorino, the accident and Dante and his pony in the back of her mind. She drove home in the same state and just pulled into her garage when her cell rang. She picked up as soon as she parked.

“Brie, so sorry to bother you, but I need to talk to you before the day starts tomorrow.”

“Madelyn,” she said to the principal who she’d become friends with, “you can call me at home anytime. What do you need?”

“You’re getting a new student in your class. The guidance counselors and I chose you as his subject area teacher because we believe you’ll be the most sensitive to him.”

“What are his issues?”

“There’s no other way to say this than outright. His father is a registered sex offender.”

Chapter 2



“Hey, buddy, ready for a new year?”

Dante gave his colleague Will a nod. “Yeah. I love my summers, but I’m happy about getting back into the swing.”

Except today, he’d come with a heavy heart. Madelyn had called him last night to tell him a student who was the child of a sex offender had enrolled yesterday. He was to keep it under wraps until the faculty meeting.

“You’re something else, man. I could have used another month off.”

They discussed what they’d each done, the condition of his car, then Dante stood. “I gotta go get my mail.” He left the office, plagued by thoughts of the new student. Could any situation be worse for the boy? Sure, it would be hard for the staff, but that was secondary.

Think about something fun. Gabriella. She’d committed to having coffee sometime today. Score one for the good guys. In the teacher’s lounge, he slid memos and envelopes out of his long skinny box, turned and bumped into somebody. Reflexively, he grabbed the person’s arm. “Sorry.”

“My fault. I wasn’t watching where I was going.” Gabriella looked at him with troubled eyes. “Can you talk for a few minutes?”

She wanted to talk to him? He hoped it wasn’t to renege on their deal. He squeezed her arm and let go. “Sure.”

As they found an isolated corner of the room, he noticed the beige skirt she wore with a sea-green blue knit top. They fit well. “Madelyn phoned me last night,” she said simply. “She told me you have the new student, Sammy Simpson, too. I feel so bad.”

“Yeah, she called me, too. All his teachers I’d guess. She sounded concerned.”

“That poor child. I’m preoccupied with his situation. We’re having a faculty meeting at the end of the day.” Brie bit her lip. “I’m sure the staff has to be told.”

“They do. All thirty teachers and aides and staff need to pull through for him.”

The ten-minute warning bell rang. “Thanks for talking to me. I feel a bit better.”

“Good.” He raised his brows. “Now, which hours are you free?”

A small smile. “At ten and two.” Teachers had a lunch and a planning period and sometimes a free period when the kids go to music or art. They were short breaks from the kids, but needed.

“Let me check my schedule.” He rifled through his papers. Slid out one. Scanned it. Five age levels, each needed physical education twice a week. He, Will and a female PE teacher who traveled from the Middle School to Stanton Elementary for four of the classes would cover them. “I’m free at two today.”

“Meet you back here, then?”

“It’s fine if you want to get together in your room. Nobody would see us there.”

“That’s precisely why I want to meet here. I should have done something about people alienating you last year.”

“It wasn’t too bad.” Which wasn’t quite true. “I’m a big, tough guy after all.”

“Well, what happened was not right. And I’m sorry for my part in it.”

“Then I accept the apology.”

On their way to their respective rooms, Dante peered down at the woman next to him. It felt damned good to be with Gabriella Gentileschi. She was a bright spot in the day!


* * *


Twenty students filed into Brie’s room, jostling, razzing each other, talking about new sneakers and backpacks. They took seats. Brie didn’t start out with assigned seating, and she’d guessed they’d heard the news by fourth grade.

“Hello, everyone. I’m Ms. Gentileschi. Some of you know my name, but some of you may not. It’s on the side white board written out for its pronunciation...”

She gave them time to read Gen-till-s-ski.

“So, welcome back to school.”

Some moans.

Some frowns.

And some shy grins.

“I’m going to make a chart based on where you want to sit today. I’d like everyone to stand, look around and pick a seat you’re not in at the moment. Please do this without talking.”

There was mild chaos for a few moments, then they all found desks.

She held up a sheet of paper. “I’m passing around this chart. Print your names in the appropriate boxes.” She pointed to where the first in each row should start. “As you do that, I’ll call roll aloud. Raise your hand to tell me who you are. Just so you know, if you don’t behave where you’ve located yourselves, I’ll move you.”

She called their names, and focused on each student for a few seconds. Near the end of the roster she said, “Sam Simpson,” and he looked up. She wasn’t surprised to see he sat in the back with an empty seat in front and next to him. A little bigger than the average size fourth grader, his hair was a bit shaggy but the Nationals baseball T-shirt was crisp and clean. In short, he seemed like any other kid. She was glad for that.

“On each desk is a lined sheet of paper. Put your name at the top and answer the questions on the middle of the whiteboard.”

What is your favorite subject in school?

What did you do this summer?

What is one thing you’d like to do this year in class? That can include field trips.

Strolling around while they worked, she tried to memorize names. They finished, and she lifted up a screen she’d covered one side of the whiteboard with. It revealed sets of three, and she asked them to join together in those groups. Not allowing them to choose their own this time was crucial so no one would be left out. They were shy at first, but eventually managed to move desks together. She asked them to share their answers with the two others, then they’d share with the whole class. Answers included:

Gym class as favorite subject for five boys and four girls. She’d have to tell Dante.

Several of them liked reading and writing.

Swimming, traveling and birthday parties topped the list for activities this summer.

Many put field trips to museums, the Capitol and one jokester piped up with “Raiders Stadium.”

“Funny,” she glanced down, “Tim.”

The exercise lasted until it was time to go to gym class. The ice had been broken, most of them seemed comfortable and she was, too. Dante appeared at her door, as he’d done last year. “I came to get my little buddies.”

There were cheers among the students. He was very popular with them, if not the staff. That meant something.


* * *


Geez, she looks pretty today, Dante thought as Brie walked into the teacher’s lounge at two o’clock. When she located him, she gave him a genuine smile and crossed to his table.

“Hi.” In the August sun beaming through the window, her hair seemed lighter, probably from the summer sun. Should he ask her about that?

“Hi.” He stood. “I’ll get you coffee.”

“I can do that.”

“Let me.” She had an independent streak that he’d respect—later.

“Great. Black.”

After he retrieved the brew, she sipped and said, “What shall we talk about?”

“Sam, first, then no more school stuff.”

“He seemed interested in our activities. He never volunteered to share out loud, though I read his responses. He likes baseball and basketball.”

“Important to know. I did some quick exercises to see how limber the kids were, and he’s relatively fit. Truthfully, he seems like he’s trying to blend in.” Dante frowned, deep and meaningful. “Man, I wish I could help him.”

“We will, I hope. So, what’s going on with your car?”

“Lucia’s pounding out the dents today. I’m heading over after school to help assess internal damage. There shouldn’t be any,” he added quickly, “since you hit the trunk.”

“I hope not. For your sake. Remember, I’m paying.”

He guessed he had to let her. He’d want to do the same if their roles were reversed, and Lucia said he needed to listen more when women wanted to do things he didn’t think they should do.

She cocked her head at him. “Dante, is Tris short for Beatrice and Lucy for Lucia? And of course your name. All from the Divine Comedy?”

“Afraid so.”

“Were your parents fans of Mr. Alighieri?” The author of the famous epic poem.

“Ha! Dad never read poetry. He was busy starting our business.”

“Was?”

“He died when I was in high school. It was one of the worst times in my life.”

“I’m sorry. It must have been hard for you. So your mom chose your names?”

“Yeah, she’s a college prof of English.”

“Their relationship sounds like a real opposites attract love story.”

“It was. And they were love birds right up until the day he died. So, what’s your family like, other than being royal?”

“Don’t you want to know about me being a princess?”

“Nah. I can find that online.”

“Did you?”

“Nope. I want to get to know you myself.”

“Mamá had children, but she managed to open progressive schools all over the country. Papá runs the government. He’s not a figurehead.”

“Now that’s intimidating.”

“It gets worse. I have six sisters.”

“Seriously? I can hardly handle two. Do they live in...what’s the name of the island?”

“Casarina. No, they’re all in the U.S. right now, but two plan to go back. We have a doctor, a cop, a teacher, a NICU nurse, a law student, and you met Lexy, the children’s author. The last is an artist.”

“Wow!”

“Yeah. We’re a bit overwhelming.”

“Where are you in order?”

“Third. You?”

“The baby, I’m afraid.” He rolled his eyes. “No brothers.”

“Were you close to your dad?”

“Yep. I promised him before he died I’d work in the business and watch over the girls.”

“Do they let you watch over them?”

A duck of his head. “I think they tolerate it. Which sister are you closest to?”
“That’s hard. Mariella is in D.C. and bought the house next door to me. She’s the law student. Really, I can’t answer that question.”

“I couldn’t either. We’re all close. Too close and too into each other’s business.”

Her quiet laughter wound its way into his heart. “Same here.”

When the bell rang, Dante sighed. “That was fast.”

“Yeah. Our coffee break flew by. I’m glad we didn’t talk about school.”

They rose and walked out of the lounge. “So, what about tomorrow?” he asked. “Same time, same place?”

She agreed.

As they headed to the faculty meeting, Dante had a realization. He liked this woman. Huh. He didn’t expect that. He was only trying to ease her fear of him because it bugged him to have somebody afraid of him, and also, he wanted the other teachers to like him. Maybe they would now. Maybe liking her was just a bonus.


* * *


Madelyn Price was the perfect principal. Open and available to teachers, she still held the line when she needed to. Today, she wore a beige summer suit with a brown shell beneath the jacket. A chunky gold necklace completed the outfit. Her auburn hair was back in a knot. “Could I have everyone’s attention?”

The staff of thirty quieted immediately. Brie had heard high school teachers were difficult to corral in faculty meetings, but luckily her colleagues were more respectful. “I hope your day went well. And thanks for letting me dip into your classes for a bit.” Madelyn had showed up for a few minutes in every classroom today.

“We’ll dispense with the usual first-day information. I’ve sent you all an email containing those necessary facts. We’re going to talk about something else that you all need to know and treat sensitively.” She took in a breath. “The child of a registered sex offender enrolled in school late yesterday.”

Mumbles around the room.

“First, let me say this is to be held in the strictest confidence.”

A second grade teacher who Brie knew was great with kids spoke up. Madelyn encouraged casual communication during these times together. “Students will find out anyway.”

“I know. That’s where we come in.” She clicked on a remote and on the big screen next to her, she called up the PowerPoint presentation. “Read the facts yourselves.”

There are over 600,000 registered sex offenders (RSO) in the United States.

Many families ostracize the RSO, and allow no visits to their children. But some wives choose to live with the man.

A music teacher raised his hand.

“Yes, Ron?”

“I know everybody’s going to think this is sexist. But why

would a woman stay with a sexual molester?”

“There are a myriad reasons. Mostly, the women say they still love the offender. From my quick research last night, experts think a big part of it is financial hardship. The RSO, or Registered Sex Offender, will probably lose his job and find it hard to get another of equal importance and pay.”

A female teacher asked, “Is Sammy’s father living in the house?”

“Yes. Now if you’ll turn your attention to the screen. The most significant thing to us today is how the child is treated by peers and teachers.”

The child may feel embarrassed by his circumstances. This might cause him to retreat from contact and isolate himself. He may not respond in class, even when called on. Group work, which is a major part of most curricula, is difficult for him because many times no one wants to work with him.

Teachers treat him differently, which adds to his embarrassment.

“So, what do we do?” The question came from a teacher aide.

“Let’s ask the counselor.”

The school counselor stood. Amanda Summers was a bright young woman with lots of new ideas. Brie hoped to get someone like Amanda—and Maddie—to work in the school for at-risk kids Brie planned to start. “Most obvious is to stop any bullying we see.

“Second, ahead of class, find kids to work with him without letting on why. If asked, say something like he’s new, he doesn’t know anybody.

“Third, call on him like you would anyone else. If he refuses to answer, so be it.

“I’m visiting all subject area classes next week,” Amanda went on, “so he’ll know he has the opportunity to talk to us.”

Will, Dante’s fellow gym teacher, spoke up. “I don’t think we can stop kids’ reactions to him no matter what we do.”

“Well,” Madelyn said as she took Amanda’s place, “we’re going to have to try.”

The unknown was always hard for people, and Brie was no exception. She’d learned to deal with situations and then let them sit for a while. So as she went back to her room, she decided to think about something pleasant.

Dante Federico came to mind. She never guessed she’d like being with him. But he had a quick wit, and love for his family colored his talk about them.

And he wasn’t bad on the eyes. She particularly liked his hair—it was thick and dark and unruly. He wasn’t stunningly handsome like Ryder Reynolds, but his rugged features and Roman nose were pleasing. Like all Phys Ed. teachers, he usually dressed in shorts and T-shirts or a sweat suit. But yesterday he wore tan chinos with a black shirt. Yummy.

Well, she was cheered up now!


* * *


Federico’s Collison Shop had been established decades ago in Brightwood. The D.C. neighborhood was a diverse place composed of different races and ethnic backgrounds. There were plenty of families with children, couples without kids and older people in single dwellings, shared houses or apartments. Dante loved the spot where he’d grown up and lived in an apartment only a mile away from his sisters and not even that far from his mother. The business was close, too. He pulled into the parking lot, swerved around back, hopped out of his car and entered the garage through the rear entrance.

There he found Lucy and Tris, dressed in green coveralls, staring at his baby, the Pony.

“Hey, ladies.” He kissed each of their foreheads. “Wow, you made progress.”

“We weren’t busy with appointments today,” Lucy told him.

“Ah. So how far are we?”

“Lucy pushed out the dents, but the metal cut the tires when she rammed into the back.”

“New tires, I guess.” He’d put these on only a month ago.

“The good news,” Tris stated, “is that we don’t think there’s anything wrong internally. We’ll realign the chassis, but we checked the undercarriage and it seems to be okay.”

“That’s great.”

After some chitchat, Dante said, “I’m gonna work on the books.” They were his responsibility in the business. He liked working with numbers, so he didn’t mind, but he also itched to get his hands dirty too, which his sisters welcomed. An hour later, he came back out. “What time are you two leaving?” he asked the girls.

“We’re closing in forty-five minutes,” Tris said. “Why?”

“I wanna buy you a beer at Benson’s.”

Tris shrugged. “I’m game.”

“Tim’s home today.” Lucy’s husband was a computer specialist. “He’s getting the kids off the bus.”

“Great. Close up and I’ll meet you there.” Much of Brightwood was within walking distance of everything.

Tris held back his arm when he started to leave. “How come you’re in such a good mood after somebody crashed your car?”

“It’s only a car. I like to be positive.”

Lucy frowned. “It doesn’t have anything to do with the princess, does it?”

“Nah, but I did have a good day at school.” He winked at them. “Hey, make sure you guys lock up.”

Lucia rolled her eyes at her sister. “He still thinks he has to tell us that.”

Tris shook her head. “He always will. Ignore him, as usual.”

“All right, all right, I get it. See you in a bit.”

As Dante hoofed it to Benson’s, he admitted that he was lying to the girls. But they’d rag on him about Brie. Besides, they’d read too much into his relationship with her.

The whole thing was casual, just to make sure she wasn’t afraid of him. Even though she made him smile, there was nothing romantic in his feelings for Gabriella Gentileschi.

Chapter 3



Brie surveyed her class. “So, we covered a lot this morning. When you come back from gym...”

The students started fidgeting before she finished. Then whispers rumbled through the group.

“Geez, is it him?”

“Wow!”

“Cool.”

She tracked their gazes to the doorway where a big, smiling man stood. Mike Jagielski. “Well, hello.”

“Hi, Ms. Gentileschi. I didn’t mean to interrupt.” He nodded to the kids. “Your sister told me you were free at ten.”

“I am. The students are about to go to phys. ed. Come on in and say hello.”

Some of the kids’ mouths dropped. Some had owl-eyes. A few looked confused. And again, the exclamations:

“Oh, man...”

“Geez...”

“Hi, Jag.”

With the grace of a professional athlete, Mike strode inside and waved to the class. “Hi, gang.”

One of her more vocal boys asked, “Ms. Gentileschi, can we stay here? Talk to him?”

She checked the time. “There’s a few minutes before you have to leave. Stay in your seats, though.”

“Can we ask questions?” This from a little girl.

Brie gave Mike a questioning glance.

“Fine by me.”

“Are the Raiders gonna make the playoffs this year?” the girl wanted to know.

“I sure hope so.”

Another hand up. “I saw your walk-off home run last night. It was so cool.”

“I do my best. Like you guys need to do in school.”

“Were you good in school?” someone asked.

“I did my best.”

Evvie had told her Mike had a tough time growing up.

The questions continued until there was a knock on the open door. Dante hung back, though, grinning.

Brie waited for a pause in the dialogue, then said, “Mr. Federico, come on in. We’re ready for you.”

Cocking his head, he said easily, “Doesn’t look that way.”

He surveyed the group. “I got pretty big competition here.”

Brie knew he was used to being enthusiastically welcomed at this time of day. But he was also obviously a good sport.

Dante walked in and held out his hand. “Hello, Mr. Jagielski. I’m a fan.”

They shook. “Pleased to hear it.”

Brie said to the class, “All right, everybody. Line up for Mr. Federico.”

Mike stepped off to the side, and Dante turned to her. “I can’t wait to hear about this later.”

The kids asked, “Will you be here when we get back, Mr. Jag?”

“Um...”

“Sure,” Dante put in. “We’ll head on down here early, if that’s okay with Ms. Gentileschi and the Jag.”

Which it was.

Gently prompting the students, Dante got the kids started out the door. Sammy Simpson was the last to leave. “Hey, Mr. Jag.”

“Hey, there.”

Sam slid a paper from his book bag. “Can he sign this for me, Ms. Gentileschi?”

“It’s up to him.” She hoped Mike would. Sammy was more animated than she’d ever seen him.

“I don’t see why not.”

As Mike put the paper on a kid’s desk and leaned over to sign it, Brie got a glimpse of a newspaper photo, wrinkled as if it had been viewed several times. After the autograph, Sammy left with a lighter step.

When they were alone, Mike turned to her. “Didn’t mean to cause such a fuss.”

“No problem. Your visit brightened their day. You’re much more interesting than decimals.”

Mike laughed.

“Let’s go back to the adult desk and chairs behind the partition.” Brie had set up the section in her classroom for teacher privacy. She intended to provide private areas as part of every room in her own school.

When they were settled, she asked, “What can I do for you? Last time I saw Evvie, she bubbled with joy when she talked about you.”

“Thanks. I’m the same way about her. The guys rag on me all the time.”

“Of course I’m thrilled about that. So?”

“Evvie’s birthday is next week. Unfortunately, I have a game that night. I know your family is coming to celebrate when she turns a quarter of a century.”

“Mamá and Papá are still in the country from Lexy’s party. They’ve been visiting with each of us. Everyone’s coming down to D.C. for the birthday weekend. We’ve planned a party on Saturday because Evvie doesn’t want to miss one of your games.”

“Yeah, I heard. Another idea hit me this week and I talked to Lexy about it, but she said I had to run this by you. Would you want to celebrate at the game?”

“Meaning?”

“Here’s my request.”

When he finished, she squeezed his arm. “Oh, Mike, I’m sure Evvie would love that.”

“Music to my ears, Brie. I owe you one.”

Which she might collect someday.

For Sammy Simpson, who apparently had an idol.


* * *


At two, Dante waited in the teacher’s lounge for Brie to join him. As he sipped his coffee, he thought back to the morning, and how the kids buzzed about The Jag. Something that felt like jealousy had curled inside him because of the man who’d visited Brie’s classroom. Dante had been squelching the feeling all day. He only wanted Brie to be comfortable with him, and to meet with her publicly to show the rest of the teachers that he was a nice guy. This morning, one of the guys had already invited him for a drink on Friday, the first payday, at the local hangout.

“Hi.” Brie slid into a chair adjacent to him. He hadn’t seen her arrive.

She’d braided back her hair, and the thick rope inched down her back. The light blue dress she wore was an exact match to her eyes. He got a whiff of something like perfume. “Hi.” He gestured to a cup. “I got your coffee.”

“Thanks.” She sipped.

“Is it hot enough?”

“Uh-huh.”

Lazing back easily in the chair, he clasped his hands behind his neck in a casual pose. “So, Mike Jagielski, huh?”

“What about him?”

“We haven’t talked about dating.”

“No, we haven’t.”

He didn’t want to ask, but he blurted out, “Are you...seeing him?”

“I see him a lot. But not how you mean. He’s my sister’s fiancé.”

Immediately, Dante’s heart lightened. The overreaction didn’t make sense to him. “Which one?”

“Evangelina. She’s a rabid Lions fan.”

“Lions? He plays for the Raiders.”

“That’s a long story. He came to see me today because Evvie turns twenty-five next week and he has a game the same night. He’s figured out how my family and I can celebrate with him. He’s booked a private suite for us.”

“Cool. I’m going to be there, too, that night. My niece is also a rabid fan. Her thirteenth birthday present is tickets to that game.”

“How sweet. I’ll wave to you.”

“So, any other guys in your life?”

“No one serious. You?”

“I date. No one serious.”

“How come? A guy like you?”

“Haven’t met the right person. But a girl, now a woman, and me were pretty serious all through high school. She just came back to town, so maybe.”

“Where did you go to college?”

“When I finally got to go, I attended a public school in upstate New York. Fredonia.”

“What do you mean?”

“After my father died, I got mega depressed. And concerned about my mother and sisters. I put college on hold.”

“Which college did you give up to stay home?”

“How’d you know I did?”

“The inflection of your voice.”

“I had a track scholarship to Yale.”

Reaching out, she squeezed his hand where it rested on the table. He wanted to keep her warm skin on his.

“What about college for you?” he asked.

“I went to university in Casarina. Then I came here to get a Masters at Georgetown and work in a low-income school.”

“Intentionally low-income?”

“Yep. I plan to start my own private school for grades K through four. I’ll be working on it full-time next year, opening the following year.”

“That’s a big goal.”

“I know. But it’s doable.”

When it was time to leave, Dante once again walked down the hall with her and was surprised by the twinge he felt because Brie wouldn’t be teaching with him next year.

Again, his reaction to her stumped him.


* * *


When Brie swerved into her driveway, she noticed Mariella’s car parked at the house next to hers. Instead of going inside her own home, she crossed immediately to Mari’s garage. Without knocking, she walked inside. She found her sister wearing old shorts and a shirt which read Georgetown University. One of those kerchief things covered her hair. “Mari, don’t get scared, it’s Brie.”

Mari looked up from the table and smiled warmly. “Buongiorno.”

Gesturing to encompass the house, Brie asked, “You got it so soon?”

“The sale went through quickly. I transferred the money in a couple of days and we closed this morning.”

“Wow, that was fast.”

Setting down the sketch pad and pencil she’d been using, she crossed to Brie and squeezed her arm. “Is being inside it hard for you?”

“Truthfully, I was so excited to see your car, I didn’t even think about this being Eddie’s house.” She scanned the kitchen. “I didn’t spend much time here.”

“I’m so relieved.”

“I was in this room several times, and the family room, but that’s it.”

Mari’s brow arched. “Not in the bedroom?”

Brie rolled her eyes. “Thankfully, never. But I was beginning to think it might go that way.”

“Coffee?” Mari asked, going to the pot.

“First. Then I could help with whatever you’re doing.”

“You don’t have to ask twice.”

As Mari poured coffee—its pungent scent was wonderful—Brie asked, “Where’s Lilliana?”

“School started and she’s scheduled for the after-school care at Georgetown when I have late classes. But she insisted she go today, even though I’m off.”

“You have to pick her up?”

“Hmm.”

“Let me do that.”

“Maybe.” They sat at the card table and chairs Mari had set up and looked through the sliding doors to the backyard. “I love the view here.”

“Me, too. All those government-owned woods that won’t be knocked down to build houses. The trees are my favorite part, but you have all those flowers, too.” Beautiful pink peonies and blue hydrangeas bloomed in a garden in the yard.

“This place is perfect for us.”

They chatted companionably, then Mari showed her some sketches of the remodeling she planned to do. When she checked the clock, she started to say something, but the phone rang. Mari picked it up. “Hello...hi, Lilliana...yes... Um, no honey. He can’t...I’m sorry, Lill. I’ll be right over.”

“Are you late picking up Lilliana?”

“No. Yvette’s father got there early and wanted to give her a ride home.”

“Yvette’s the little girl who’s teaching Lilly French?”

“Yes. Her dad’s a visiting professor at the law school.”

“Don’t you trust him to drive her here?”

“Of course not! I’ve only met him a couple of times through the girls.”

“Don’t you take his classes?”

“Two, next semester. I’m taking an extra class that I don’t need for graduation, but I really want to learn from him.”

Brie stood. “You put my name on the list to pick her up, right?”

“Yeah, you asked me to.”

“Then let me go. You’ll get another forty minutes’ work here.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yep.”

Brie listened to some jazz on the way over, and got to the school in a half hour. She saw Lilliana and a girl sitting at a desk. With them was the most beautiful man Brie had ever seen. His hair was chestnut brown, thick and wavy, and as she got close, she could see his eyes were as blue as the lagoon on the palace grounds back home. When he stood to greet her, he was tall and trim.

This was Professor Jordan Dubois?


* * *


While her kids were at art class, Brie met Dante in the lounge again and waited by the back door. “Let’s take a walk. We have forty minutes before the kids come back to get on the bus.”

“Shouldn’t you be wearing sneakers? I can get—”

“If I needed sneakers, I would have put mine on. They’re in the trunk of my car.”

“Why don’t you—”

“Dante, I said I didn’t need them.”

She sounded like his sisters—impatient and irked.

Irked himself—he was trying to help out—he lifted his shoulder. “Fine, then.” They headed outside to the campus. Walkways connected the elementary school to the middle school. There was also a long path behind that building which led to the upper grades’ building.

“It’s hot. Why don’t we walk under the shade of those trees?” When he agreed, she led them down the path. “So, exactly how over-protective are you?”

“The women in my family say too much.”

“Ah. You need to address that, Dante. Some women work very hard for their independence, and when it gets stomped on, they get angry.”

“Would that be you?”

“Yes. After the kidnapping, I took self-defense classes. Mamá had an instructor come out and teach us at the palace when we were teens, but I needed more.” She stared over his shoulder. “I’ve also had counseling, and we focused on my confidence and equilibrium.”

“Fair enough.” He asked her, “Brie, our coffee dates are over today. Are we still going to see each other?”

“Before I answer that, we need to talk about payment for the car.”

His sisters had warned him not to push her into doing the work for free, which he wanted to do. So he gave her the details, and they decided on a price. Then he stopped at a bench. “Let’s sit a minute.”

“Okay.”

He decided to be honest. “So, you’re not afraid of me anymore?”

“Afraid?”

“Yeah. Because of Eddie.”

“I was never afraid of you, Dante. Given the circumstances, you reminded me of what happened with Eddie. But now that I know you better, I see you’re not like him at all.”

“How do you mean that?”

“You’re more sensitive, considerate. Eddie had a pretty big ego.”

“And I don’t?”

“Nah, you’re a pussycat.”

“Which hits me smack in my male pride.”

Her face sobered. “I’m not much into macho guys.”

Reaching over, he clasped her hand. “Of course you’re not.”

She squeezed his fingers before she drew away. “Why don’t we have coffee once a week now?”

“You want to?”

“I find that I do.”

“It’s a deal.”


* * *


Laurie opened her apartment door to him. “Dante, hi. I was surprised by your call.”

Yeah, so was I. “My mother met your mother at the grocery store. She said you moved back here and gave Mom your number.”

“An opportunity to go in on a yoga studio with a friend from college came up.” She pushed back the door. “Come on in for a minute. We have time before the movie.”

Inside, he found an apartment similar to his. Living room, dining table and kitchen all open to each other. Bedroom straight ahead. “Didn’t you like New York?”

“Yeah, I did. I went there after college to dance, and got some pretty good gigs. But the life was so hard and physically demanding, I got my Zen on and decided to come home when my roommate called.”

“Good for you. Knowing what you want. Going after it.”

“You didn’t go to Yale, did you?”

“Nah. I was thrown by my father’s death. I stayed in Brightwood to help out my family.”

“But you went to college, right? Later?”

“Yeah, up in Fredonia, then I came back here and worked at the shop for a while. I got my Masters at Hunter in Phys Ed. I have a permanent position, now.”

“You like your job?”

“I love teaching, Laurie. Very much. The trajectory of my life is all going well for me. Besides, I get to be around my family. Mom’s great, and I can interfere with the girls’ lives.”


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