The Promise (The 'Burg #5)
Kristen Ashley / July 8, 2014 / $3.99 digital
Since his brother’s death, Benny Bianchi has been nursing his grudge against the woman he thinks led to his brother’s downfall. He does this to bury the feelings he has for Francesca Concetti, his brother’s girl. But when Frankie takes a bullet while on the run with Benny’s cousin’s woman, Benny has to face those feelings.
The problem is Frankie has decided she’s paid her penance. Penance she didn’t deserve to pay. She’s done with Benny and the Bianchi family. She’s starting a new life away from Chicago and her heartbreaking history.
Benny has decided differently.
But Frankie has more demons she’s battling. Demons Benny wants to help her face. But life has landed so many hard knocks on Frankie she’s terrified of believing in the promise of Benny Bianchi and the good life he’s offering.
Frankie’s new life leads her to The ‘Burg, where Benny has ties, and she finds she not only hasn’t succeeded in getting away, she’s doesn’t want to.
The Promise opens with our heroine in the hospital, recovering from a GSW (gunshot wound for the uninitiated). Ashley takes us right into Frankie’s head, which is teeming with memories, self-censure, longings, and a lot of common-sense sass. We learn,
So, although I used to sleep on my back all the time, I trained myself to sleep on my stomach or side so I wouldn’t snore.
Yes, I did this, even though I hadn’t had a man in my bed in seven years.
Seven years is a long time to have no man beside you in bed but Frankie’s drought is over. The Bianchi family, with Benny leading the way, is in the hospital waiting room; they’re pestering the nurses, and they’re not letting another moment go by in their zeal to make amends to Frankie. The phrase resistance is futile comes to mind. Certainly Benny sees right through Frankie’s pretense at falling asleep whenever a Bianchi is in the vicinity of her hospital bed.
He had, on more than one occasion the last week and a half, said right in my ear, his lips so close to my skin I could nearly feel them, “Babe, open your eyes. I know you’re fakin’.” Usually, he would do this and wait. But not for long. I knew Benito Bianchi. I knew all the Bianchis. They were not patient by nature. And Benny was a male Bianchi so his span of patience was akin to the attention of a gnat. Therefore, I could wait him out, no sweat.
One of the pleasures of The Promise is seeing two people who knew each other very well years ago—who think they know each other very well still—readjusting their impressions of one another. Contrary to Frankie’s wait ‘em out game plan, Benny’s attention span for something he wants is strong and determined. His first goal is to disabuse Frankie of her mistaken belief that their complicated past makes a future impossible. Running through Frankie’s mind, “I was already perving on him, and he was my dead boyfriend’s brother, so this made it wrong to perv on him, as in wrong.” But she’s wrong here as she is in so many things (like Benny finds her snoring endearing!).
No one creates a cast of fabulous female acquaintances, friends, and fairy godmothers better than Kristen Ashley. Frankie’s crew is dy-no-mite! Like Cindy, the nurse who tends her through the worst of her painful recovery, when she asks Frankie why she pulled a Sleeping Beauty act when Benny Bianchi came a’ calling.
“That boy came every day to see me,” she started as she began to push me out of the elevators, “I’d be on the phone with my stylist like a shot. I’d have my hair done. My nails done. My toenails done. And I’d be in a negligee.”
After Cindy says that, it comes as no surprise when she hands over Frankie to Benny’s care, instead of putting her in a taxi. It’s shades of Linda Howard’s A Game of Chance when Chance Mackenzie insists on taking Sunny Miller home to family matriarch Mary after Sunny is shot. Benny as a care-giver takes a hands-on treatment to a new and scary level. What recuperating patient can resist the sight of “Benny Bianchi in a white t-shirt that hugged his muscular torso in a way that made you jealous of that tee?” Frankie smells his spicy aftershave, admires his “thick, black, wavy hair” and when she says that she “doesn’t need this” because she’s just been shot, Benny calls her on her logic.
“You were shot a week and a half ago, babe. And if you felt shit, you wouldn’t be able to mouth off.”
I clamped my mouth shut. Ben grinned. My clit pulsed. Yes. God so totally hated me. He was punishing me. Doing it on earth before He sent me to the fiery depths of hell.
It’s like Frankie can’t, or won’t, take in what Benny is saying to her,
“You’re crazy-brave, babe,” he said quietly. “You proved that a week and a half ago. You’re crazy beautiful and I ‘spect you been that way all your life. You’re crazy-funny. You’re crazy-sweet. But you’re just plain crazy if you think you can do what you did for this family, be the way you were with me that night before they took Cal and Vi, and think I’m lettin’ you move to fuckin’ Indianapolis without us havin’ a conversation.”
Benny keeps it simple when he says want he wants in a partner, saying he’s absolutely not,
“… gonna settle for somethin’ that doesn’t feel right, doesn’t feel good, doesn’t bring me joy, doesn’t have my back, doesn’t know how to cook, keep house, listen, laugh, make me laugh, give great head, or ask me why I do shit.”
Benny will hear none of Frankie’s arguments that because she was once in a relationship with his brother, that there’s no chance for them. She gives it her best and last shot, calling out Benny and all the Bianchis for abandoning her, for turning on her, when Vinnie was shot and killed: “Family doesn’t turn their back on family for seven years, especially doin’ that shit when one of their own loses the man in her bed.” But Benny apologizes, his mother and father and all his family move heaven and earth to make amends and make it right. Most importantly, Benny knows Frankie cares about him and that she’s lying when she says she doesn’t want to have a relationship with him.
Suddenly, his face was in my face and all I could smell was his aftershave, all I could see were his eyes. “So you’re sayin’ I kissed you right now, you would not want that?”
I stopped breathing.
It may seem like Frankie and Benny are racing to a happy ending, but sadly, Frankie’s pain goes way deeper than even her seven years in exile from her beloved Bianchi clan. It takes her “generous, very funny” girlfriend and co-worker Asheeka, a woman who “could read an eye gesture or a hair flip at twenty paces,” to explain to Benny that Frankie is really messed up. Frankie had asked Asheeka how she could move past the grudge she held against the Bianchi family, and Asheeka shakes her head,
“Only God can judge him and his family for the way they treated you. Here, on earth, the right thing to do is forgive.  That’s why forgiveness is divine. ‘Cause someone wrongs us, we live with that wrong right alongside them, but it’s us who has to find the strength to let them off the hook.”
Asheeka warns Benny, in the saddest words he’s ever heard, that Frankie is faking it. Yes, she has forgiven him and his exuberant loving family. Yes, she’s getting stronger every day and sashaying around with her big hair and her tight dresses and her killer heels. But that’s all on the outside. Asheeka is praying that Benny can fill Frankie full of life but she has her doubts and she lays it all out:
“… I’ve known her years and she can fake it real good. But you watch. You listen. She laughs half a laugh, even as she’s tryin’ to convince you it comes full. And every breath she takes is half a breath. Nobody can live like that, half breathing. And no person like Frankie Concetti should.”
The third person who reaches out to Frankie with advice from the heart is Mrs. Zambino who has known Frankie since she was a child in their Italian neighborhood. The savvy octogenarian knows that Frankie’s family put the D in Dysfunctional; that her selfish, fun-loving, perpetually immature parents pretty much let their children raise themselves. She shares with Frankie what her late husband Al said about them, “Broke his heart knowin’ you and your sisters looked in the mirror and saw what your father taught you to see. Not what’s there.”
Frankie’s deepest darkest secret is that she doesn’t think she’s deserving of the good things life has to offer. When Mrs. Zambino says “Good girls earn good things,” Frankie doesn’t think that good news applies to her. Knowing she is not getting through to Frankie, Mrs. Zambino reaches out one last time:
She let my jaw go, her eyes going beyond me toward Benny’s house, then coming back to me. “Let yourself have good things.”
“It’s not right,” I told her quietly.
“Know one thing on God’s beautiful earth, and that is” –she leaned into me— “love is never wrong.”
It’s been said that alpha men aren’t great on talking about their feelings, what they want, what they need. Maybe Benny Bianchi is a new breed, because he lays it all out to Frankie, like when he sees her after a shower, after she’s done her hair, wearing a bright coral nightgown and a bra with turquoise lace underneath. He seems to read a message in her appearance, even though he confirms that Frankie’s doctors have put sex off limits for now, “Babe, you want me to fuck you, you give me big hair, a hint of a bra I’ll wanna see covering your tits before I’ll wanna take it off, and skin.”
But, all sex aside, perhaps the most intuitive thing Benny asks Frankie is this:
“What makes you happy?” he asked suddenly, and I felt my body jolt at the question, not just because it was sudden, but because it was unexpectedly weighty …
“Why do you ask?”
“’Cause I wanna know if it’s in me to give it to you.” God. Benny.
Benny and Frankie, after dancing around their lust and longing for each other, finally get on with getting it on, and it promises to be as hot and torrid and exciting as anyone could imagine until they hear Benny’s mother Theresa coming into the house and shouting up the stairs: “I heard Ben bite out, “Jesus, Ma, seriously?” and it bolted through me. Vicious. Hateful. Destructive. Panic. Desperation.” That does it for Frankie—she tells Benny she has to leave, that she’s moving out of Chicago to start over.
His look turned cautious when he said quietly, “I don’t get that, honey.”
“If you don’t, you haven’t been paying very close attention.”
His back shot straight. “There’s a lot to you, Francesca.”
“There’s nothing to me, Benny.”
He doesn’t understand why they can’t make it work, but Benny gives Frankie the greatest gift a man can give a woman—his love and understanding as she leaves him—saying,
“You need this, I’ll give it to you. You need to come back, this is a promise I can keep, Frankie: I will not make you work for it.” He moved in even closer and whispered, “But please, fuck, take this time to dig out whatever is fucked to shit inside you.”
Five months later, Frankie makes the call. She’s back in Chicago on a business trip and she asks Benny to come to her. Thank you Lord Jesus, he knocks on her door at two in the morning, and Frankie, “wearing nothing but a lilac nightie that was made of near-sheer, stretchy material,” throws herself into his arms. At long last,
Benny inside me, Benny all around me. Almost eight years without any goodness but what I could give myself, now finally having it and it being Benny. The instant his thumb rolled, my head shot back and I cried out, sharp and hard, as my orgasm powered through me.
Finally, Frankie has herself together. She listens to her heart, especially the part that says “love is never wrong.” She gets it now, that Benny has always wanted her just the way she is, sweet, spicy, smart, and sassy. He had said it all when he brought her back to his house after she was shot,
“So it boils down to this: I don’t want easy, Frankie. I had my shot at that. I wanna work at getting’ the sweet, enjoyin’ my time with the spicy along the way, ‘cause the sweet’s a fuckuva lot sweeter when you gotta earn it.”
Benny’s no pushover though, he wants it all—a wife, a family, his name on the sign of his family’s pizzeria—and he’s looking for a partner who’ll stand beside him and fill up their calendar with a life of family birthdays and soccer games and ballet recitals. He tells Frankie,
“Now, what you gotta get is that I will not allow you to walk away from me again.”
“… saying softly, “Baby, simple yes or no. With what we just shared, you meant to share it with me or not, did you come back to me?”
Frankie needed time after her gunshot wound, after her reconciliation with all the Bianchis, to figure out what she needed in life. She risked everything to take the time she needed, but now she and Benny put their “eyes on the prize.” Each other.
It was about hands and mouths and noises. Touch and taste. The scent of his aftershave. The titillating sound of him pulling the zipper down at the back of my dress. His hands moving in to glide skin against skin along my sides. The taste of his neck. The feel of his hardness against my thigh, my belly, my hip. The silky caress of the lining of my dress as he yanked it over my head. His tongue at my nipple over my bra. The excitement of him tearing my panties down my legs.
One last image of Frankie and Benny carving out a life together, while she’s still working four hours away from Chicago, with all that being-in-love and separated entails—one weekend when Frankie is visiting she sees,
A white sheet of paper, on the top in bold script, Francesca, and on the bottom in slashed scribbles, dates and times.
My schedule. On Ben’s fridge. Yes. I was falling in love with Benny. And fast.
They’re in it for the long haul. It’s not an Ashley without an epilogue, so the last look at Frankie and Benny is on a chaotic morning, where they’re getting out the door to their jobs, in the midst of raising their kids, and loving each other and the life they’ve built. Benny said once to Frankie, “Babe, you cannot plan life,” but these two know how to make the most of the unplanned and let the loving times roll.
Learn more about or order a copy of The Promise by Kristen Ashley, available July 8, 2014:
Janet Webb aka @janetnorcal has unpredictable opinions on books. Season ticket holder of the Oakland Athletics baseball team. Social media devotee. Stories on royals and politics catch my eye. Ottawa born. Grew up on Georgette Heyer and Mary Stewart. When I rediscovered the world of romance, my spirit guide was All About Romance's Desert Island Keepers — I started with the “A” authors and never looked back.