(Two years ago)
"Why do we have to have bodyguards?" Isabelle Lucino muttered at her elder brother as they walked down the hall to their father's office. At nineteen, she was four years younger than her brother's age of twenty-three. She was also a whole foot shorter. She blamed their mother's genes; she had been short too.
Rafael sighed deeply. "I am not happy about it either, Bella," he admitted, "but Papa was insistent that it is needed. Do you remember the embezzlement sting that he and I helped the police set up? It worked, but the man we caught is certifiably nuts. He made some rather serious threats against us."
"Have the cops caught him?" She fought a chill.
"He got away before they could." He opened the door to their father's office and walked inside. "We have our wardens, do we?"
Antonio Lucino smiled wryly. "Rafe, I would not do this if it was not necessary. You should have heard your grandfather when I told him. I think he wanted to hire hitmen. I managed to talk him out of it, but if you see any mushroom shaped clouds in the general direction of Italy, hide under the table."
"Have I mentioned that I am glad we are in NYC and not Rome?" Isabelle sat down on the edge of her father's desk. "When do we meet the poor saps who have to follow us everywhere?"
He lifted a brow. "Right now."
Rafael glanced at the door and winced good-naturedly as he saw the two males standing there. One was a young man who couldn't be much older than himself, and the other looked to be in his late twenties. "My apologies."
The younger male grinned. He had an interestingly androgynous face, lively baby blue eyes, and unruly short blond hair. He appeared tall and slender but stood with a casual confidence that Rafael most often saw in exceptionally talented street fighters and martial artists. "I would resent things too, if I was in your shoes," the bodyguard said dryly.
Even his voice seemed an interesting blend of male and female, as if nature simply hadn't been able to decide which to give him. Rafael liked him instantly. "My shoes would not fit you."
"And it's a good thing. My feet complain when inside anything other than sneakers or boots." He gave a slightly cocky salute but his smile looked genuine. "Tori Li."
"Rafael Lucino." He gestured to his sister. "Isabelle."
Isabelle eyed the taller male beside Tori warily. He stood the same height as Rafael, and was roughly the same size, so he would easily tower over her. He was also uncomfortably handsome with dark red hair and chocolate colored eyes. Morosely, she sighed mentally. She could all but see her hormones jumping up and singing hosannas in Italian. They would make things so much more troublesome. "Hello." It was all she offered.
"Hi." His voice sounded calm and amused, and very masculine. The way he stood beside Tori made them into a study in opposites. "My name is Alexander LaGuardia. Everyone calls me Alex."
"Your friends do at least," Tori murmured. "Have you heard what your enemies call you?"
"It's no worse than what you call me."
Antonio just smiled. "Alex, you will be in charge of Isabelle's safety. Tori, you will be in charge of Rafael's."
"What on Earth made you decide that?" Isabelle demanded. She pointed at Tori. "He is shorter than Rafe!"
Rafael stepped closer to Tori and held a hand out from the top of his head to over the top of the shorter male's. "It is by only half a foot or so. Besides, it is not your size but how you use it. He looks as if he knows what he is doing, and an easily underestimated bodyguard works for me." He eyed Alex. "Yours looks like he eats nails for lunch."
"As a matter of fact," Antonio offered, trying not to smile, "part of the application process included a personality quiz. Not only were Alex and Tori the ones with the highest qualifications, they also had the best matches to your personalities."
"A personality quiz?" Rafael asked warily. "They are our bodyguards, not our dates."
"Very true, but if I want peace in my household, I want to be sure you will get along with each other." Antonio lifted his brows. "Is that understood?"
Isabelle sighed. "Sì, Papa."
"Yes, sir." Rafael offered a hand to Tori. "I will try not to make your life too hard."
"That's okay." He shook his hand with a smile. "I need to earn my pay."
Alex walked closer to Isabelle and held out his hand. When she reluctantly took it, he bowed gracefully. "Don't worry," he said sympathetically. "It shouldn't be too long to endure. As soon as the threat is gone, I'll be out of your hair."
"Are you sure we cannot let Nonno hire hitmen?" Isabelle muttered at her father. He just laughed, and she withheld another sigh. Dealing with a bodyguard would be bad enough. Dealing with one she was attracted to would be worse. Their personalities matched? What a joke. The sooner things ended, the better.
"I was just talking to your nonno on the phone," Antonio said wryly from the head of the table. "He wants great-grandbabies."
As one, Isabelle and Rafael groaned and dropped their heads onto the dining room table. Antonio didn't blame them in the slightest.
It was a beautiful Saturday morning in October. The Lucino household was in full swing as usual. Though a weekend, there were fifty million things to be done. Isabelle had a fitting for her wedding dress. Rafael had a luncheon with clients. Antonio had to go in to the office to put out the fires that had cropped up over his day off. Both he and his son were in charge of the family advertising business, Just In Time, Inc., and though they had tried to coax Isabelle into coming on board as well, she had declined. She had no head for art of any kind.
"Who was he aiming his ire at this time?" Rafael asked dryly.
"Well, certainly not Bella since she is engaged, so presumably he meant you, my boy." Antonio grinned when his son groaned anew. "He married your grandmother when he was nineteen. He assumes things are still the same these days. I tried to explain, but you know he never listens to me."
"Does Nonno know that Isabelle probably will not be giving him grandbabies either?" Rafael asked dryly. "It is just a business marriage." One that he hoped would eventually be a marriage of love as well, but he kept his thoughts to himself. His sister acted a bit touchy on the subject of her pending nuptials.
"Do I look mad?" his father asked politely. "He does not even believe in business marriages." He cleared his throat and then said passionately, "It is about love, 'Tonio! Love is what is great in this world! Passion drives people and gives your poor father his bambini to hold and cherish! I married your mother for love, and we have stayed together more than fifty years!"
Isabelle dissolved into giggles. "You sound just like him!"
He laughed. "After fifty years, I would hope I could make my impressions credible." He glanced over as the door opened, and he smiled instantly. "Ah, there you are. We were waiting to eat until you got here."
"Hey, Tori." Rafael grinned as he saw his friend walking over to sit beside him. Tori had been his bodyguard for two years now. They were the same age, and Tori was slightly smaller, but Rafael had seen him in action. He knew he could be no safer with anyone else. "Did you oversleep again?"
Tori snorted softly. "That would be Alex's shtick. I was just sneaking in an early workout." He took his seat beside Rafael. "Alex is the over sleeper."
Alex just lifted a brow as he sat beside Isabelle. He was ten years her elder, thirty-one to her twenty-one, and after two years, there was nothing he didn't know about her. Because of it, he said dryly, "I was just testing to see if Isabelle's temper would flare, and she'd come track me down. You keep swearing she has a temper and I've yet to see it."
Her elbow landed sharply in his side. "Be glad," she countered haughtily. "My temper is a force to be reckoned with."
"You're Italian," Tori noted. "It's a force of nature."
Servants came in with breakfast and began to serve dishes. All wore smiles. The Lucinos did everything loud and passionately. It was one of the reasons it could be so much fun to work for them. The other was the fact that Signor Antonio always gave them holidays off with generous bonuses. Even just working for the Lucinos made you part of the family.
After breakfast, Isabelle escaped the table as fast as humanly possible. She hurried upstairs to her room, threw herself onto her bed, and screamed as loud as she could into her pillow. If people didn't stop talking about her marriage, she would kill someone! She liked Roberto, but he was as much a brother to her as Rafael. She didn't want to marry either of them!
When Alex stepped into the doorway, he felt entirely unsurprised with the scene. He walked with surprising silence over to the bed and sat on the side. Her ashy brown hair was coming out of its braid, and he resisted an urge to help it be even freer. "Would you like to talk?" he asked her. "I think we're friends too, aren't we?"
She lifted her head, her piercing blue eyes both resigned and reluctant all at once. She was, in his opinion, one of the most beautiful women in the city. It wasn't a passive pretty or a normal lovely. She had a fierce and striking beauty, a nearly sultry one in fact, that turned heads wherever she went. It was mark of her Lucino bloodline being enhanced by her mother's genes; the gene pool had been covetously guarded for centuries until Antonio had married a Caucasian woman and finally brought in some diversity.
"We are friends," she told him, "but you work for Papa. I know you spy on me for him!"
"To some extent," he admitted readily. "Your safety is, first and foremost, my primary duty. But if you told me something in private that had nothing to do with your safety, it would go nowhere else, Bella." He offered a hand to help her sit up. "Now, talk to me."
She sighed deeply as she sat beside him. To be honest, she liked talking to him. In fact, she liked far too much about her bodyguard for her own sanity. His height, his strength, his heart, and his handsome face that just could not be ignored. Two years had done nothing to make her attraction ebb for him; in fact, it had only gotten worse.
The curious thing was that he didn't even technically look that handsome. She had never been able to put her finger on it. He had red hair and chocolate brown eyes—he blamed the combination on a combustible Irish/Italian combined bloodline—and his features went together nicely, but he wasn't classically handsome like Roberto or strikingly beautiful like Rafael. He was just . . . Alex.
He was also as immovable as a mountain, stubborn as a mule, and gentle as a kitten. She had been beating her head against the brick wall of his over-protectiveness for two years. She would be doing it for many more at their current rate. The idiot who had caused all the trouble by making threats against the family still had yet to be caught.
"Is it Roberto?" Alex asked her.
"Yes and no. I mean, I like him. I would not hesitate to say that I love him. He has been Rafe's friend since they were five. But . . . I am not in love with him. I know that it is just a business marriage, and that he would not pressure me to become his—his lover, but . . ."
"You're not happy at not marrying for love," he noted shrewdly. "I think you have more of your grandfather in you than you thought."
"Is it too much to ask?" she muttered.
"No," he decided after a moment of thought. "Have you tried telling anyone?"
"Ha. You imply they would listen. They are too happy at making the merger between our companies. 'We have to keep up with that Dease family, Bella. Ever since those boys took over, they have taken some of our clients!' Feh!" She fell onto her back and covered her face with her hands. "I could scream!"
"You did. But I won't tell anyone I noticed."
"Grazie." She groaned when she heard the doorbell ring. "Roberto."
"It's bad form for a bride to be so underwhelmed by her groom's presence."
"Do you have sisters?" she shot at him.
"Contemplate marrying one of them and tell me how you would feel!" She reluctantly let him pull her to her feet and crossed her arms tightly as she followed him downstairs. Somehow she found a smile as she saw the dark-haired man waiting for her at the bottom of the steps. "Ciao, Roberto."
Roberto Viani smiled and leaned in to kiss her cheek. "Ciao, Bella." He tweaked her nose lightly. "Do not look so happy to see me. It is not good for my heart."
She smiled suddenly. "You are going to be miserable married to me. You know you are. You always hated me nagging you, and now I will have a legal reason to do it."
"Yes, but I will have a legal reason to tell you to shush." He hugged her with one arm and smiled at Alex. "Hello, Alex. How are you today?"
"Despite Tori poking fun at me and Isabelle accusing me of treason, quite well." He smiled as he said it. He liked Roberto despite the fact that he had an urge to rearrange his too handsome face. Ever since the marriage had been decided months before, Alex had been struggling to keep his jealousy hidden.
"When do we leave for the bridal shop?" Isabelle asked Roberto. "The fitting is in an hour, correct?"
He raked a hand through his black hair. "Isabelle . . . Hell. I told Rafe I did not want to be the one to tell you."
"Tell me what?" she demanded. "Now what are you going on about?"
"Isabelle." Antonio stepped into the doorway to his study. "I am sorry, cara, but you are being put on house arrest for an indefinite time." When her mouth fell open, he held up his hands. "I am afraid I do not have a choice. There was a very specific threat that arrived only minutes ago. I have called the police, but there is not much they can do right now."
"What threat?" Alex asked very softly. His hands lightly settled on Isabelle's shoulders protectively.
"'Don't let her out of your sight, old man,'" Rafael quoted from where he leaned in the doorway to the parlor. "'You never know what might happen to such a pretty girl.' The detective that we talked to said that we need to take it very seriously. It could be a prank, but it might not. We would rather find out later it was a prank and have overreacted than see something happen to you because we assumed wrong."
"Your dress is being delivered here for your fitting," Antonio said firmly. "And you do not step foot out of this house unless we are sure the immediate danger is past."
Isabelle's hands slowly curled into fists at her side but she withheld her temper as carefully as she could. Calling the men names and throwing things would be entirely undignified.
Satisfying, but undignified.
Less than ten miles from the Lucino villa, there was a small area of New York City known as the 3rd District.
You couldn't find it on a map. It didn't show up on Google. Even most of NYC was unsure if it really existed. Those who knew of it spoke of it in hushed whispers. The 3rd District, it was said, was the place of magic. No one who lived there was normal. No one who was born there was entirely human.
It was overseen by an immensely large corporation known as the Enforcers. The company had existed since before the Revolutionary War, and some suspicious historians felt sure it had been there in some form even before Columbus had landed on North America's shores. To be sure, Enforcers had a very great amount of power, both corporate and political. People suspected they might even have federal backing, but no one was gutsy enough to ask.
Among the many other things they did, Enforcers' main duty was to watch over the District. Every business in the District was either overseen or owned by Enforcers. In fact, quite a few immediately outside the District were as well, but not as many people knew about those.
The District was mostly commercial, and the people who worked there lived in homes attached to their place of work. The entire place looked like a slice of history; none of the exteriors had been modernized except for Enforcers Headquarters. The purely residential area always looked rundown, but it was deliberately done. No one wanted outsiders coming in. If you wanted to stay, you had always belonged.
It was that simple.
Gabrielle Wisteria was one of the ones who had been born there, but she would have belonged regardless. She was half water elf, and as such had some rather . . . interesting powers over water, and an interesting physical trait she strove to hide by deliberately keeping her ashy brown hair long in the front so that it covered her ears. They were just pointed enough to cause lifted brows if seen. She also wore headbands made by a weaver in the District if she was unsure her hair would stay where it belonged.
At twenty-one, she was a legal adult, which was to her advantage because she was also an orphan. She had lost her parents years before in the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. She would have become a ward of the state, but Rhianna Taber and Eric Mason from Enforcers had smoothly stepped in and made sure she stayed in the District.
Brie had paid them back in as many ways as she could. She had worked part-time as front desk support, and she still went in willingly if they needed an extra pair of hands for anything. Normally, however, she worked as a waitress at a small restaurant that catered to the tourists who came through the Gentle Brook Inn, the District's primary hub.
She looked up from collecting empty plates and smiled as she saw her manager. As always, he looked far too rushed and far too preoccupied. "Yes?"
"Kitchen, now." He took the plates from her. "Please!"
She just shook her head and headed for the kitchen. She knew, even before walking in, what she would see. And sure enough, the sink was on strike again. Water spewed in the air and pooled on the floor. The cooks were trying desperately to protect their food by using umbrellas to block the spraying water.
"Oh geez." She walked over to the sink and put her hand over the fountain. "Grab that tub." When it was brought over, she held her hand over it. The water flowed obediently up one arm and then down the other into the tub. In moments, the spray had stopped. "When is he going to replace this thing?"
"When you quit," another waiter said with a grin. He was mopping up the mess on the floor. "If he doesn't have to worry about it, he won't."
"He should pay me extra. Sheesh." She fixed the broken spout on the faucet and turned the water back on. Everything worked fine. "I should have been a plumber. But nooo. I had to be an artist."
The sink incident set the tone for the entire morning. It was a very busy morning, and she found herself practically running to clear dishes from one table before serving people at another. It wouldn't have been so bad if she hadn't been doing the job for two years. She felt so bored with it. Nothing ever changed.
"Brie, help!" It was the manager again.
She sighed. Nothing ever changed.
Isabelle was in the parlor reading a book when Rafael walked in with a cheerful seamstress from Bridal Dreams, the wedding boutique, following him. "Here you go," he told her with a smile. "And ignore her if she snaps at you."
"I do not take out my anger on the innocent messenger," Isabelle muttered as her brother walked out whistling. She found a smile for the other woman. "I am sorry that you were called out here on such short notice."
"I get paid either way," she assured her. The tag on her blouse said her name was Demi. "Now let's get this gown on you and see if the last alterations are exactly what they need to be. You're so lucky," she added on a sigh. "I'd kill to wear a B. R. Matthews dress down the aisle."
"It just seemed made for me," Isabelle admitted as she locked the parlor door. She didn't trust her brother, or her fiancé, to not pull a prank on her. They could be fifteen, twenty-five, or fifty-five, and they would still be tormenting her.
The alterations were perfect. The dress gathered just right at the bust and fell in shimmering waves past her ankles. As much as she didn't want to marry Roberto, she couldn't help but love her wedding dress. She would have been happier to wear it to marry a man she was in love with, but she would take her enjoyment where she could find it. "The sleeve is a little snug," she noted.
"Let's see . . . ah." Demi used a pin to mark the spot. "The seam was taken in just a bit too far. We can get that fixed just fine. And since it'll be your last fitting, as long as you don't decide to go on a sundae binge, you shouldn't have any more problems."
Isabelle had to laugh at that. "I am allergic to chocolate, so there are no worries about sundaes for me." She got back out of the dress gingerly to avoid the pins and then pulled her regular clothes on once more. Once she had, she unlocked the parlor door. "I do not trust my brother," she explained.
Demi smiled. "I have one too. I know how you feel." She sighed as she gathered up her things. "Your fiancé is so handsome."
"Yes. He is." Isabelle crossed her arms as she followed Demi out into the foyer. Alex and Rafael were waiting for her, and she narrowed her eyes on them both. "What? Is some mysterious person going to attack me in the parlor?" She shot a look at Tori as he approached. "What, are you here to babysit me too?"
Tori backed up carefully, hands in the air. "Easy. I'm unarmed. I only just got here." He bumped into Roberto as the other male came up behind him. "Careful. She's out for blood."
Roberto walked over to Isabelle and caught her shoulders. "It will be over soon, Bella," he said soothingly.
Her blue eyes began to simmer with temper. "The threat or the wedding?"
"Both," he responded calmly. "You are just starting to get nervous."
"I am getting pissed off!" She knocked his hands off her shoulders fiercely. "I do not want to marry you!" she shouted. "I am tired of being told what to do! Did I have a say in any of this? No!" She backed up when he stepped toward her. "Just leave me alone!"
She darted around him and ran up the stairs two at a time. The men remained silent for several moments before, wryly, Tori said to Rafael, "I owe you ten bucks. You're right; she does have a temper worse than yours."
A sinking feeling suddenly filled Alex. He got to his feet and swiftly ran up the stairs toward Isabelle's room. The door was locked. "Bella, open the door!" he ordered. There was no response and he cursed softly.
"Let her be," Rafael suggested from the bottom of the stairs. "If she has not come out by dinner, I will get the key from Marco. He has the master key to all the rooms."
Alex sighed and headed back downstairs. There was no way to explain the feeling he had. It was just a feeling that told him Isabelle was getting herself into trouble somehow. He had become acquainted with the feeling; he just didn't understand how or why he had it. "I need a drink," he muttered.
Roberto laughed at him. "I think we all do. Isabelle certainly keeps things entertaining."
By the time Brie had her lunch break, she was at the point of tearing out her hair. "Ooh." She stalked down the street away from the restaurant before she gave in to the urge to kick her boss. "What I wouldn't give to just get a single day away from here!"
She swung around the corner blindly and walked head-on into someone coming toward her. Both of them fell onto the sidewalk. "I'm so sorry," she started to say, but the words disappeared as she stared in shock at the young woman she had run into. The other female stared at her with just as much astonishment.
From the length of their ashy brown hair to the tilt of their clear blue eyes, the two women were perfectly identical. "Dio," Isabelle breathed, her eyes slowly widening further.
"Whatever you just said," Brie managed to say, "I probably concur. Holy shit." She got to her feet carefully and offered a hand to Isabelle. As the other woman stood, she felt her head spin. They were the same height, the same build . . . Anyone looking at them would easily think that they were identical twins.
"I think we might need to talk," Isabelle said. She gave a shaky laugh. "This is surreal!"
"Tell me! C'mon. My apartment is near here." She studied Isabelle, noted the quality of her clothes and the way she walked, and smiled wryly. "You're so not from around here." She pulled off her hat and plopped it on her companion's head. "Here. So people don't stare at us until we get there. I'm less noticeable than you are."
"Talk about a coincidence," Isabelle said softly.
Brie laughed out loud. "You're definitely not from around here. Let's go. I think this is going to be one heck of a tale, and I've absolutely got to hear it."
©S. J. Garrett. All rights reserved. Do not reprint/publish without permission.