" I'm pretty skilled at making coffee." As the word "coffee" left Jenny Stone's lips, the intelligent, resilient, and sharp-witted young woman found herself entangled in a situation she hadn't expected. She was now repaying her father's debt by becoming a maid for the mafia boss, Giovanni Dente – a man with an obsessive-compulsive coffee habit and the looks of a movie star. And this marked just the beginning of Jenny's new life. Balancing the role of serving him his favorite brew at ungodly hours and carrying out his questionable tasks, she also juggled college, acing her exams, and desperately trying to reconnect with her father and sister who had abandoned her. Caught within the intricate web woven by Giovanni, when the time comes for her to break free, she's unsure if she can emerge unscathed. Especially as she begins to realize that her heart has been completely captured along the way.
14 Years Ago
“Hello? Are you hurt?”
The teenaged boy raised his eyes upon hearing a little girl’s voice. He immediately scowled when he saw her gawking at him with curiosity, with half a licorice hanging from her lips. She was a wee thing, no more than five, he estimated, with light-brown hair—a dull, boring color for sure—tied into pigtails.
“Hurt?” He found himself asking.
“Mm.” She nodded furiously. “Are you in pain? You want me to ring the doctor for you or something?”
A foreign word for sure. A word that had never been directed at him in his fourteen years of life.
Oh, right. Of course she would ask such a question. He was hunched over, after all, resting himself against the tall American beech tree in this secluded part of the national park, hands clenching his stomach. Not to mention his lips were split and bleeding and his face was cut and bruised from a fight. Any idiot could tell he was in pain and suffering severely.
Oddly enough, the thought of him truly in so much pain that it seared his soul amused him. Amused him enough, in fact, that it made him laugh. He laughed so hard that he started to cry, truly cried in a mixture of anger, frustration, and sorrow. He knew he looked like shit, but what the heck!
“Why are you laughing like that?” the little girl queried in confusion. “Is it so painful that you laugh just to forget about it? The pain? I do that, too, when I’m in pain.” She even nodded, to prove her point.
Oh God! Shit! A mere child who didn’t know him cared about him, whereas his own family hadn’t given a fuck.
When he managed to calm down, he looked at her straight in the eye and said coldly, “You shouldn’t talk to a person like me.” There was sarcasm in his voice that the girl didn’t understand.
She cocked her head to one side, assessing him. “I know I shouldn’t talk to a stranger, but you’re in pain and must be very sick. I’m being a good sama—” She paused, trying to get her word right. “A good samari—”
“Samaritan?” He finished for her.
She nodded furiously. “That’s it. And you look like a good person. You wouldn’t hurt me, would you?”
Hurt her? He’d definitely hurt her if she didn’t get the hell out of his way. It was in his blood after all, to hurt people. To make money that way. That was his family’s ultimate goal, wasn’t it? That’s what his family did. So why not him?
“Look here, little girl,” he began. “I’m a bad guy. You got that? I’m not a good person. So, get out of here!” he growled, hoping to scare her so she would run off and leave him be.
He closed his eyes, fighting hard to breathe. Fuck, one of his ribs must be broken. Even breathing was taking its toll. He felt pain all over, from his split lips to the bruise on his knuckles. It was a fight that was gruesome yet so satisfying. He knew he was slowly turning into the very facade of his family, and bile rose up his throat.
No. No. He didn’t want anything to do with them. He hated that he was born in this fucked-up family. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. No mincing words; just fight and kill. That was his family motto. The Bianchi mafia clan.
Fuck. Wasn’t he trying to run away from his own heritage? So, why did he behave like them when a little provocation from his classmate caused him to unleash his inner demon?
God, he needed to flog that nightmare from his mind. He needed to be alone, wanted to be alone, so he could wallow in this misery. He didn’t need some little girl to console him. But no matter how hard he tried to shove back those memories, it still played bright in his head like that insistent lonely pain in his heart.
They were in this park just hours prior. Four against one. Him against them. The son of a mafia boss against four policemen’s sons. The unlawful verses the lawful. Fuck, what a tip of the scales. He’d used his fists to punch them. But they held him back, restraining him and punching him until what remained was a bloody pulp.
“What are you going to do?” He could hear them taunt him. “Just ’cause you’re the son of a thug, you think you can hurt me? My old man’s in the police force. He’s not going to let a thug like you run America.”
That was the last straw. He was spurred into action and punched the living daylights out of those four. Yeah, four against one. But this one won. This one made four of them unconscious. Fuck. What had he become? A monster. Just like his family.
I control my own destiny. I control my own destiny, he chanted to himself, trying to erase that image from his head.
He flinched suddenly when he felt small fingers tracing his hair, patting his head like he needed it. He looked up and met mossy green eyes. Fuck. She still didn’t leave him. And her next words almost made tears leak from his eyes.
“Is it sore? Does it hurt a lot?”
What was she referring to? His cut lips, his blue-black eyes, or the pain in his chest?
What a pathetic kid. What did she know about pain? From the look of her pink dress, she looked to be from a normal family, one he’d never experienced. But his heart burned with that insistent threading of her fingers through his hair. And now he felt something else. Warmth, like he wanted her to caress his hair for real, with the love and care that one bestowed on someone you loved.
“Please don’t look so sad.” She consoled him, crouching down to sit in front of him. And then she looked up at him with a beaming smile on her face. “Ah. I got it. Wait here. Hold my licorice. I’ll be right back.”
She shoved the half-eaten black licorice into his palm and raced across the field. He saw her disappear into one of the cafés lining the streets opposite the national park.
Alone, he closed his eyes again. Good. She was gone. Finally. Which should make him happy, but he wasn’t. He opened his eyes and looked at the licorice in his hands. He should really throw it away. She was gone, after all. She wasn’t going to come back. But she’d said she would, and something humane within him still grasped onto that licorice like it was his lifeline.
He gazed up into the sky, feeling the heat on his face. The midafternoon sun really was soothing. Such warmth. Such freedom. When would he feel this free again?
He really should head back home, though. And then tell his family what? That he’d had a fight. Trying to defend what he despised all along, only for his mother to taunt him again.
“A leaf never falls far from its branch. You’d better accept your position and embrace your fate.”
A strong coffee scent woke him from those painful memories. He lifted his head and saw the little girl was back. And she was holding a foamy drink in her hand.
“What’s this?” he asked, looking at the cup thrust in his face.
“Coffee. For you.” She beamed.
“I don’t want it.” He shifted his gaze to the sky again. Not a second later, the cup was in his face again. “I said I don’t want it. I don’t drink coffee.”
“But I made it for you.” Her little voice sounded slightly hurt.
Fuck. He hurt her feelings. “Look, I don’t drink coffee. Okay. I don’t like coffee.”
“How do you know if you’ve never drunk it?” she asked.
Because my whole fucking family drinks coffee like water. But he didn’t tell her that. And clearly, she was starting to irritate him. “Look. I just don’t like it, all right. Now leave me alone.”
“Can’t you just try it? It’ll make you happy. Try it. You’ll love it. Ma’s café is just across the road from here. I get to make coffee all I want. It’s really nice. She tells me I make good coffee, and when I grow up, she bets I’ll win a barista award. So, you can be the judge. I just know you’ll like it because I put all my love in this cup. I want to see a smile on your face. Please smile for me?”
She wanted to see him smile? What the fuck for? Why?
“Go on. Drink it,” she urged. “I didn’t put any poison in it, like that queen from Snow White with that apple thingy. Once you taste it, you’ll become addicted to it like cocaine. That’s what Ma always tells me. But I don’t know what cocaine is. I think she should compare it to chocolate. Do you like chocolate? I like chocolate. Taste it and see if my coffee tastes like chocolate.”
She held that black cup of coffee in her small fingers, not pushing him to accept it, but in turn making him feel guilty if he didn’t. He felt miserable, a thousand times worse than when he got into that fight.
“I can’t push you to like it, but you can choose to like it once you’ve tasted it. It’s your choice.”
He reached out his hand and took the coffee cup from her grasp. And he drank it. He’d never tasted anything so bitter, so foul and disgusting. But for that one moment in his life, he felt happy, his heart singing loudly in his chest.
“What’s your name?” he asked, taking another sip, finding he did like the taste after all.
“Jennifer.” She smiled back, sitting next to him, shuffling her body until she was right beside him. Then she took out a series of bandages from her dress pocket and began to plaster it on his face where the cuts and bruises resided.
He blinked, staring at her large green eyes in front of his face as she proceeded with her work. There were two bandages on his left cheek, three on his forehead, one on his right cheek, and now she was trying to cover the side of his cracked lip as he tried to take another sip of that coffee. He wondered where the heck she got all those bandages from. They were rather bright and colorful, too. His face probably looked like a walking neon light.
“Wow, you have nice black eyes,” she said with delight. “I’ve never seen anyone with black eyes before. It’s like looking into the night sky. Have you been outside at night and looked at the sky? It’s very hard to see in the city, but my ma takes us to the country all the time, and there you can see the stars. They’re so bright against the black sky, like your eyes. I like your eyes. I like you.”
He blinked again and shook his head. Jennifer was talking a mile a minute. He couldn’t comprehend what she was saying.
“I like you,” she repeated, like he didn’t hear her declaration the first time. “Can I be your friend?”
Friend. Another foreign word. No one wanted to be your friend when you’re part of that family.
“Well, can I be your friend? Or do you like to be alone? But I mean, who wants to be alone, anyway? Not me. I want to have friends. Don’t you?”
“I don’t know if you want to be my friend, though,” he managed to say at last. “Like I said, I’m not a good person.”
“What did you do? Did you hurt an animal? Ma says if you hurt an animal, you’re a bad person. Humans should never hurt animals. They have feelings, too, you know. They feel the pain. So, did you hurt any animals?”
“No. No, I didn’t hurt any animals.” He wanted to tell her he hurt humans, not animals, but couldn’t get the words out. What happened to those four? Were they still lying there on the ground, unconscious?
“Well, then you’re not a bad person,” she declared. “You’re cool. And I like you. So, let’s be friends. I gotta go now. Ma is waiting for me in the café. Will you come back tomorrow? Meet me here tomorrow, and I’ll share some of my favorite licorice. Did you get to eat some when I gave it to you? They’re so nice. Pa always buys them for me. We’ll meet tomorrow, then. Bye for now.”
And she leaned in to kiss his full plastered cheek. He was so surprised he jumped back and hit his head on a tree branch.
She giggled. “You’re so funny. I want to marry you when I grow up. Do you want to marry me?”
She shoved her face right in front of him and all he could make out were those sparkling green pupils, sucking him into that whirlpool, captivating even his cold heart.
“Don’t answer me just yet. I’ll see you tomorrow. Wait for me, okay? I’ll see you tomorrow.” She raced off the field then. But not a minute went by before he saw her midget body galloping toward him again. “I forgot to ask you for your name. What’s your name?”
“Gio. Call me Gio.” His lips stretched into a smile, again, a foreign expression on his face.
“Okay, Gio. I’ll see you tomorrow.” Another peck on his check and then she was gone again.
Gio’s heart smiled for the first time in his fourteen years. Tomorrow, he’d come. To see his new friend Jennifer.