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Bound by Honor (Born in Blood Mafia Chronicles, #1) Cora Reilly Copyright ©2014 Cora Reilly All Rights Reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, events and places are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Subscribe to Cora’s newsletter to find out about her next books, bonus content and giveaways! ( http://corareillyauthor.blogspot.de/p/newsletter.html ) Cover design by Romantic Book Affairs Design Prologue My fingers shook like leaves in the breeze as I raised them, my heartbeat hummingbird quick. Luca’s strong hand was firm and steady as he took mine and slipped the ring onto my finger. White gold with twenty small diamonds. What was meant as a sign of love and devotion for other couples was nothing but a testament of his ownership of me. A daily reminder of the golden cage I’d be trapped in for the rest of my life. Until death do us part wasn’t an empty promise as with so many other couples that entered the holy bond of marriage. There was no way out of this union for me. I was Luca’s until the bitter end. The last few words of the oath that men swore when they were inducted into the mafia could just as well have been the closing of my wedding vow: “I enter alive and I will have to get out dead.” I should have run when I still had the chance. Now, as hundreds of faces from the Chicago and New York Familias stared back at us, flight was no longer an option. Nor was divorce. Death was the only acceptable end to a marriage in our world. Even if I still managed to escape Luca’s watchful eyes and that of his henchmen, my breach of our agreement would mean war. Nothing my father could say would prevent Luca’s Familia from exercising vengeance for making them lose face. My feelings didn’t matter, never had. I’d been growing; up in a world where no choices were given, especially to women. This wedding wasn’t about love or trust or choice. It was about duty and honor, about doing what was expected. A bond to ensure peace. I wasn’t an idiot. I knew what else this was about: money and power. Both were dwindling since the Russian Mob ‘The Bratva’, the Taiwanese Triad, and other crime organizations had been trying to expand their influence into our territories. The Italian Familias across the US needed to lay their feuds to rest and work together to beat down their enemies. I should be honored to marry the oldest son of the New York Familia. That’s what my father and every other male relative had tried to tell me since my betrothal to Luca. I knew that, and it wasn’t as if I hadn’t had time to prepare for this exact moment, and yet fear corseted my body in a relentless grip. “You may kiss the bride,” the priest said. I raised my head. Every pair of eyes in the pavilion scrutinized me, waiting for a flicker of weakness. Father would be furious if I let my terror show, and Luca’s Familia would use it against us. But I had grown up in a world where a perfect mask was the only protection afforded to women and had no trouble forcing my face into a placid expression. Nobody would know how much I wanted to escape. Nobody but Luca. I couldn’t hide from him, no matter how much I tried. My body wouldn’t stop shaking. As my gaze met Luca’s cold gray eyes, I could tell that he knew. How often had he instilled fear in others? Recognizing it was probably second nature to him. He bent down to bridge the ten inches he towered over me. There was no sign of hesitation, fear or doubt on his face. My lips trembled against his mouth as his eyes bored into me. Their message was clear: You are mine. CHAPTER ONE Three years prior I was curled up on the chaise longue in our library, reading, when a knock sounded. Liliana’s head rested in my lap and she didn’t even stir when the dark wooden door opened and our mother stepped in, her dark blond hair pulled back tightly and fasted in a bun at the back of her head. Mother was pale, her face drawn with worry. “Did something happen?” I asked. She smiled, but it was her fake smile. “Your father wants to talk to you in his office.” I carefully moved out from under Lily’s head and put it down on the chaise. She drew her legs up against her body. She was small for an eleven year old, but I wasn’t exactly tall either with five foot four. None of the women in our family were. Mother avoided my eyes as I walked toward her. “Am I in trouble?” I didn’t know what I could have done wrong. Usually Lily and I were the obedient ones; Gianna was the one who always broke the rules and got punished. “Hurry. Don’t let your father wait,” Mother said simply. My stomach was in knots when I arrived in front of Father’s office. After a moment to stifle my nerves, I knocked. “Come in.” I entered, forcing my face to be carefully guarded. Father sat behind his mahogany desk in a wide black leather armchair; behind him rose the mahogany shelves filled with books that Father had never read, but they hid a secret entrance to the basement and a corridor leading off the premises. He looked up from a pile of sheets, grey hair slicked back. “Sit.” I sank down on one of the chairs across from his desk and folded my hands in my lap, trying not to gnaw on my lower lip. Father hated that. I waited for him to start talking. He had a strange expression on his face as he scrutinized me. “The Bratva and the Triad are trying to claim our territories. They are getting bolder by the day. We’re luckier than the Las Vegas familia who also has to deal with the Mexicans but we can’t ignore the threat the Russians and the Taiwanese pose any longer.” Confusion filled me. Father never talked about business to us. Girls didn’t need to know about the finer details of the mob business. I knew better than to interrupt him. “We have to lay our feud with the New York Familia to rest and combine forces if we want to fight back the Bratva and the Triad.” Peace with the Familia? Father and every other member of the Chicago Outfit hated the Familia. They had been killing each other for decades and only recently decided on ignoring each other in favor of killing off the members of other crime organizations, like the Bratva and the Triad. “There is no stronger bond than blood. At least the Familia got that right.” I frowned. “Born in blood. Sworn in blood. That’s their motto.” I nodded but my confusion only grew. “I met with Salvatore Vitiello yesterday.” Father met with the Capo dei Capi, the head of the New York mob? A meeting between New York and Chicago hadn’t taken place in a decade and the last time hadn’t ended well. It was still referred to as the Bloody Thursday. And Father wasn’t even the Boss. He was only the Consigliere, the adviser to Fiore Cavallaro who ruled over the Outfit and with it the crime in the Midwest. “We agreed that for peace to be an option we had to become family.” Father’s eyes bored into me and suddenly I didn’t want to hear what else he had to say. “Cavallaro and I agreed that you would marry his oldest son Luca, the future Capo dei Capi of the Familia.” I felt like I was falling. “Why me?” “Vitiello and Fiore have been talking on the phone several times in the last few weeks, and Vitiello wanted the most beautiful girl for his son. Of course, we couldn’t give him the daughter of one of our soldiers. Fiore doesn’t have daughters, so he said you were the most beautiful girl available.” Gianna was just as beautiful, but she was younger. That probably saved her. “There are so many beautiful girls,” I choked. I couldn’t breathe. Father looked at me as if I was his most prized possession. “There aren’t many Italian girls with hair like yours. Fiore described it as golden.” Father guffawed. “You are our door into the New York Familia.” “But, Father, I’m fifteen. I can’t marry.” Father made a dismissive gesture. “If I were to agree, you could. What do we care for laws?” I gripped the armrests so tightly, my knuckles were turning white, but I didn’t feel pain. Numbness was working its way through my body. “But I told Salvatore that the wedding would have to wait until you turn eighteen. Your mother was adamant you be of age and finish school. Fiore let her begging get to him.” So the Boss had told my father the wedding had to wait. My own father would have thrown me into the arms of my future husband now. My husband. A wave of sickness crashed over me. I knew only two things about Luca Vitiello; he would become the head of the New York mob once his father retired or died, and he got his nickname ‘The Vice’ for crushing a man’s throat with his bare hands. I didn’t know how old he was. My cousin Bibiana had to marry a man thirty years her senior. Luca couldn’t be that old, if his father hadn’t retired yet. At least, that’s what I hoped. Was he cruel? He’d crushed a man’s throat. He’ll be the head of the New York mob. “Father,” I whispered. “Please don’t force me to marry that man.” Father’s expression tightened. “You will marry Luca Vitiello. I shook hands on it with his father Salvatore. You will be a good wife to Luca, and when you meet him for the Engagement celebrations, you’ll act like an obedient lady.” “Engagement party?” I echoed. My voice sounded distant, as if a veil of fog covered my ears. “Of course. It’s a good way to establish bonds between our families, and it’ll give Luca the chance to see what he’s getting out of the deal. We don’t want to disappoint him.” “When?” I cleared my throat but the lump remained. “When is the engagement party?” “August. We haven’t set a date yet.” That was in two months. I nodded numbly. I loved reading romance novels and whenever the couples in them married, I’d imagined how my wedding would be. I’d always imagined it would be filled with excitement and love. Empty dreams of a stupid girl. “So I’m allowed to keep attending school?” What did it even matter if I graduated? I would never go to college, never work. All I’d be allowed to do was to warm my husband’s bed. My throat tightened further and tears prickled in my eyes, but I willed them not to fall. Father hated it when we lost control. “Yes. I told Vitiello that you attend an all-girls Catholic school, which seemed to please him.” Of course, it did. Couldn’t risk that I got anywhere near boys. “Is that all?” “For now.” I walked out of the office as if in trance. I’d turned fifteen four months ago. My birthday had felt like a huge step toward my future, and I’d been excited. Silly me. My life was already over before it even began. Everything was decided for me. *** I couldn’t stop crying. Gianna stroked my hair as my head lay in her lap. She was thirteen, only eighteen months younger than me, but today those eighteen months meant the difference between freedom and a life in a loveless prison. I tried very hard not to resent her for it. It wasn’t her fault. “You could try to talk to Father again. Maybe he’ll change his mind,” Gianna said in a soft voice. “He won’t.” “Maybe Mama will be able to convince him.” As if Father would ever let a woman make a decision for him. “Nothing anyone could say or do will make a difference,” I said miserably. I hadn’t seen Mother since she’d sent me into Father’s office. She probably couldn’t face me, knowing what she’d condemned me to. “But Aria—” I lifted my head and wiped the tears from my face. Gianna stared at me with pitiful blue eyes, the same cloudless summer sky blue as my own. But where my hair was light blond hers was red. Father sometimes called her witch; it wasn’t an endearment. “He shook hands on it with Luca’s father.” “They met?” That’s what I’d wondered as well. Why had he found time to meet with the head of the New York Familia but not to tell me about his plans to sell me off like a better whore? I shook off the frustration and despair trying to claw their way out of my body. “That’s what Father told me.” “There has to be something we can do,” Gianna said. “There isn’t.” “But you haven’t even met the guy. You don’t even know how he looks! He could be ugly, fat and old.” Ugly, fat and old. I wished that were the only features of Luca I had to worry about. “Let’s google him. There have to be photos of him on the internet.” Gianna jumped up and took my laptop from my desk, then she sat down beside me, our sides pressed against each other. We found several photos and articles about Luca. He had the coldest gray eyes I’d ever seen. I could imagine only too well how those eyes looked down at his victims before he put a bullet in their heads. “He’s taller than everyone,” Gianna said in amazement. He was; in all the photos he was several inches taller than whoever stood beside him, and he was muscled. That probably explained why some people called him the Bull behind his back. That was the nickname the articles used and they called him the heir of businessman and club owner Salvatore Vitiello. Businessman. Maybe on the outside. Everybody knew what Salvatore Vitiello really was, but of course nobody was stupid enough to write about it. “He’s with a new girl in every photo.” I stared down at the emotionless face of my future husband. The newspaper called him the most sought after bachelor in New York, heir to hundreds of millions of dollars. Heir to an imperium of death and blood, that’s what it should say. Gianna huffed. “God, girls are throwing themselves at him. I suppose he’s good looking.” “They can have him,” I said bitterly. In our world a handsome exterior often hid the monster within. The society girls saw his good looks and wealth. They thought the bad boy aura was a game. They fawned over his predator-like charisma because it radiated power. But what they didn’t know was that blood and death lurked beneath the arrogant smile. I stood abruptly. “I need to talk to Umberto.” Umberto was almost fifty and my father’s loyal soldier. He was also Gianna’s and my bodyguard. He knew everything about everyone. Mother called him a scandalmonger. But if anyone knew more about Luca, it was Umberto. *** “He became a Made Man at eleven,” Umberto said, sharpening his knife on a grinder as he did every day. The smell of tomato and oregano filled the kitchen, but it didn’t give me a sense of comfort as it usually did. “At eleven?” I asked, trying to keep my voice even. Most people didn’t become fully initiated members of the Mafia until they were sixteen. “Because of his father?” Umberto grinned, revealing a gold incisor, and paused in his movements. “You think he got it easy because he’s the Boss’s son? He killed his first man at eleven, that’s why it was decided to initiate him early.” Gianna gasped. “He’s a monster.” Umberto shrugged. “He’s what he needs to be. Ruling over New York, you can’t be a pussy.” He gave an apologetic smile. “A wuss.” “What happened?” I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know. If Luca had killed his first man at eleven, then how many more had he killed in the nine years since? Umberto shook his shaved head, and scratched the long scar that ran from his temple down to his chin. He was thin, and didn’t look like much, but Mother told me few were faster with a knife than him. I’d never seen him fight. “Can’t say. I’m not that familiar with New York.” I watched our cook as she prepared dinner, trying to focus on something that wasn’t my churning stomach and my overwhelming fear. Umberto scanned my face. “He’s a good catch. He’ll be the most powerful man on the East coast soon enough. He’ll protect you.” “And who will protect me from him?” I hissed. Umberto didn’t say anything because the answer was clear: nobody could protect me from Luca after our wedding. Not Umberto, and not my father if he felt so inclined. Women in our world belonged to their husband. They were his property to deal with however he pleased. CHAPTER TWO The last couple of months had gone by too fast no matter how much I wanted time to slow, to give me more time to prepare. Only two days until my engagement party. Mother was busy ordering the servants around, making sure the house was spotless and nothing went wrong. It wasn’t even a big celebration. Only our family, Luca’s family and the families of the respective heads of New York and Chicago were invited. Umberto said it was for safety reasons. The truce was still too fresh to risk a gathering of hundreds of guests. I wished they’d cancel it altogether. For all I cared, I didn’t have to meet Luca until the day of our wedding. Fabiano jumped up and down on my bed, a pout on his face. He was only five and had entirely too much energy. “I want to play!” “Mother doesn’t want you to race through the house. Everything needs to be perfect for the guests.” “But they aren’t even here!” Thank God. Luca and the rest of the New York guests would arrive tomorrow. Only one more night until I’d be meeting my future husband, a man who killed with his bare hands. I closed my eyes. “Are you crying again?” Fabiano hopped off the bed and walked up to me, slipping his hand into mine. His dark blonde hair was a mess. I tried to smooth it down but Fabiano jerked his head away. “What do you mean?” I’d tried to hide my tears from him. Mostly I cried at night when I was protected by darkness. “Lily says you cry all the time because Luca has bought you.” I froze. I’d have to tell Liliana to stop saying such things. It would only get me in trouble. “He didn’t buy me.” Liar. Liar. “Same difference,” Gianna said from the doorway, startling me. “Shhh. What if Father hears us?” Gianna shrugged. “He knows that I hate how he sold you like a cow.” “Gianna,” I warned, nodding toward Fabiano. He peered up at me. “I don’t want you to leave,” he whispered. “I’m not leaving for a long time, Fabi.” He seemed satisfied with my answer and the worry disappeared from his face and was replaced by his up-to-no good expression. “Catch me!” he screamed and stormed off, pushing Gianna aside as he darted past her. Gianna tore after him. “I’ll kick your ass, you little monster!” I rushed into the corridor. Liliana poked her head out of her door and then she too ran after my brother and sister. Mother would have my head if they smashed another family heirloom. I flew down the stairs. Fabiano was still in the lead. He was fast, but Liliana had almost caught him while Gianna and I were too slow in the high heels my mother forced us to wear for practice. Fabiano dashed into the corridor leading into the west wing of the house and the rest of us followed. I wanted to shout at him to stop. Father’s office was in this part of the house. We’d be in so much trouble if he caught us playing around. Fabiano was supposed to act like a man. What five-year-old acted like a man? We passed Father’s door and relief washed over me, but then three men rounded the corner at the end of the corridor. I parted my lips to shout a warning, but it was too late. Fabiano skidded to a halt but Liliana ran into the man in the middle with full force. Most people would have lost their balance. Most people weren’t six foot five and built like a bull. I jerked to a halt as time seemed to grind to a stop around me. Gianna gasped beside me, but my gaze was frozen on my future husband. He was looking down at the blond head of my little sister, steadying her with his strong hands. Hands he’d used to crush a man’s throat. “Liliana,” I said, my voice shrill with fear. I never called my sister by her full name unless she was in trouble or something was seriously wrong. I wished I was better at hiding my terror. Now everyone was staring at me, including Luca. His cold gray eyes scanned me from head to toe, lingering on my hair. God, he was tall. The men beside him were both over six feet but he dwarfed them. His hands were still on Lily’s shoulders. “Liliana, come here,” I said firmly, holding out a hand. I wanted her far away from Luca. She stumbled backward, then flew into my arms, burying her face against my shoulder. Luca raised one black eyebrow. “That’s Luca Vitiello!” Gianna said helpfully, not even bothering to hide her disgust. Fabiano made a sound like an enraged wildcat and stormed toward Luca, and started pummeling his legs and stomach with his small fists. “Leave Aria alone! You don’t get her!” My heart stopped right then. The man to Luca’s side took a step forward. The outline of a gun was visible under his vest. He had to be Luca’s bodyguard, though I really couldn’t see why he needed one. “No, Cesare,” Luca said simply and the man stilled. Luca caught my brother’s hands in one of his, stopping the assault. I doubted he’d even felt the blows. I pushed Lily toward Gianna who wrapped a protective arm around her, then I approached Luca. I was scared out of my mind, but I needed to get Fabiano away from him. Maybe New York and Chicago were trying to lay their feud to rest, but alliances could break in a blink. It wouldn’t be the first time. Luca and his men were still the enemy. “What a warm welcome we get. That’s the infamous hospitality of the Outfit,” said the other man with Luca; he had the same black hair but his eyes were darker. He was a couple of inches smaller than Luca and not as broad, but it was unmistakable that they were brothers. “Matteo,” Luca said in a low voice that made me shiver. Fabiano was still snarling and struggling like a wild animal, but Luca held him at arm-length. “Fabiano,” I said firmly, gripping his upper arm. “It’s enough. That’s not how we treat guests.” Fabiano froze, then gazed up at me over his shoulder. “He’s not a guest. He wants to steal you away, Aria.” Matteo chuckled. “This is too good. I’m glad Father convinced me to come.” “Ordered you,” Luca corrected, but he didn’t take his eyes off of me. I couldn’t return his gaze. My cheeks blazed with heat at his scrutiny. My father and his bodyguards made sure that Gianna, Lily and I weren’t around men very often, and the ones he let near us were either family or ancient. Luca was neither family, nor old. He was only five years older than me, but he looked like a man and made me feel like a small girl in comparison. Luca let go of Fabiano and I pulled him toward me, his back against my legs. I folded my hands over his small heaving chest. He didn’t stop glaring at Luca. I wished I had his courage, but he was a boy, an heir to my father’s title. He wouldn’t be forced to obey anyone, except for the Boss. He could afford courage. “I’m sorry,” I said, even if the words tasted foul. “My brother didn’t mean to be disrespectful.” “I did!” Fabiano shouted. I covered his mouth with my palm and he squirmed in my hold but I didn’t let him go. “Don’t apologize,” Gianna said sharply, ignoring the warning look I shot her. “It’s not our fault that he and his bodyguards take up so much room in the corridor. At least, Fabiano speaks the truth. Everyone else thinks they need to blow sugar up his ass because he’s going to be Capo—” “Gianna!” My voice was like a whip. She snapped her lips shut, staring at me with wide eyes. “Take Lily and Fabiano to their rooms. Now.” “But—” She glanced behind me. I was glad I couldn’t see Luca’s expression. “Now!” She grabbed Fabiano’s hand and dragged him and Lily away. I didn’t think my first encounter with my future husband could possibly have gone any worse. Bracing myself, I faced him and his men. I expected to be greeted by fury, but I found a smirk on Luca’s face instead. My cheeks were burning with embarrassment, and now that I was alone with the three men, nerves twisted my stomach. Mother would freak out if she found out I wasn’t dressed up for my first meeting with Luca. I was wearing one of my favorite maxi dresses with sleeves that reached my elbows, and I was silently glad for the protection all the fabric offered me. I folded my arms in front of my body, unsure of what to do. “I apologize for my sister and brother. They are—” I struggled for a word other than rude. “Protective of you,” Luca said simply. His voice was even, deep, emotionless. “This is my brother Matteo.” Matteo’s lips were pulled into a wide grin. I was glad he didn’t try to take my hand. I didn’t think I could have kept my composure if either of them had moved any closer. “And this is my right hand, Cesare.” Cesare gave me the briefest nod before he returned to his task of scanning the corridor. What was he waiting for? We didn’t have assassins stashed in secret trap doors. I focused on Luca’s chin and hoped it appeared as if I was actually looking at his eyes. I took a step back. “I should go to my siblings.” Luca had a knowing expression on his face, but I didn’t care if he saw how uncomfortable, how scared he made me. Not waiting for him to excuse me – he wasn’t my husband nor my fiancé yet – I turned and quickly walked off, proud that I hadn’t given in to the urge to run. *** Mother tugged at the dress Father had chosen for the occasion. For the meat show, as Gianna called it. No matter how much Mother tugged though, the dress didn’t get any longer. I stared at myself in the mirror uncertainly. I’d never worn anything that revealing. The black dress was clinging to my butt and waist, and ended at my upper thighs; the top was a glittery golden bustier with black tulle straps. “I can’t wear that, Mother.” Mother met my gaze in the mirror. Her hair was pinned up; it was a few shades darker than mine. She was wearing a floor-length elegant dress. I wished I was allowed something that modest. “You look like a woman,” she whispered. I cringed. “I look like a hooker.” “Hookers can’t afford a dress like that.” Father’s mistress had clothes that cost more than some people spent on a car. Mother put her hands on my waist. “You have a wasp waist, and the dress makes your legs look very long. I’m sure Luca will appreciate it.” I stared down at my cleavage. I had small breasts, even the push-up effect of the bustier couldn’t change that. I was a fifteen-year-old dressed up to look like a woman. “Here.” Mother handed me five-inch black heels. Maybe I’d reach Luca’s chin when I wore them. I slipped into them. Mother forced her fake smile onto her face and smoothed down my long hair. “Hold your head high. Fiore Cavallaro called you the most beautiful woman of Chicago. Show Luca and his entourage that you are more beautiful than any women in New York too. After all, Luca’s knows almost all of them.” The way she said it I was sure she’d read the articles about Luca’s conquests as well, or maybe Father had told her something. “Mother,” I said hesitantly, but she stepped back. “Now go. I’ll come after you, but this is your day. You should enter the room alone. The men will be waiting. Your father will present you to Luca and then we’ll all come together in the dining room for dinner.” She’d told me this dozens of times already. For a moment, I wanted to take her hand and beg her to accompany me; instead I turned and walked out of my room. I was glad that my mother had forced me to wear heels in the last few weeks. When I arrived in front of the door to the fireplace lounge on the first floor in the west wing, my heart was beating in my throat. I wished Gianna was at my side, but Mother was probably warning her to behave right now. I had to go through this alone. Nobody was supposed to steal the show from the bride-to-be. I stared at the dark wood of the door and considered running away. Male laughter rang out behind it, my father and the Boss. A room filled with the most powerful and dangerous men in the country and I was supposed to go in. A lamb alone with wolves. I shook my head. I needed to stop thinking like that. I’d made them wait too long already. I gripped the handle and pressed down. I slipped in, not yet looking at anyone as I closed the door. Gathering my courage, I faced the room. Conversation died. Was I supposed to say something? I shivered and hoped they couldn’t see it. My father looked like the cat that got the cream. My eyes sought Luca and his piercing stare rendered me motionless. I held my breath. He put down a glass with a dark liquid with an audible clank. If nobody said something soon, I’d flee the room. I quickly scanned the faces of the gathered men. From New York there were Matteo, Luca and Salvatore Vitiello, and two bodyguards: Cesare and a young man I didn’t know. From the Chicago Outfit there were my Father, Fiore Cavallaro, and his son, the future head Dante Cavallaro, as well as Umberto and my cousin Raffaele whom I hated with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. And off to the side stood poor Fabiano who had to wear a black suit like everyone else. I could see that he wanted to run toward me to seek solace, but he knew what Father would say to that. Father finally moved toward me, put a hand on my back and led me toward the gathered men like a lamb toward slaughter. The only man who looked positively bored out of his mind was Dante Cavallaro; he had only eyes for his Scotch. Our family had attended the funeral of his wife two months ago. A widower in his thirties. I would have felt pity for him if he didn’t scare me senseless, almost as much as Luca scared me. Of course Father steered me straight toward my future husband with a challenging expression as if he expected Luca to fall on his knees from awe. Going from his expression, Luca might as well have been staring at a rock. His gray eyes were hard and cold as they focused on my father. “This is my daughter, Aria.” Apparently, Luca hadn’t mentioned our embarrassing encounter. Fiore Cavallaro spoke up. “I didn’t promise too much, did I?” I wished the ground would open and swallow me whole. I had never been submitted to so much…attention. The way Raffaele looked at me made my skin crawl. He’d been initiated only recently and had turned eighteen two weeks ago. Since then he’d been even more obnoxious than before. “You didn’t,” Luca said simply. Father looked obviously put off. Without anyone noticing Fabiano had snuck up behind me and slipped his hand into mine. Well, Luca had noticed and was staring at my brother, which brought his gaze entirely too close to my naked thighs. I shifted nervously and Luca looked away. “Maybe the future bride and husband want to be alone for a few minutes?” Salvatore Vitiello suggested. My eyes jerked in his direction and I didn’t manage to hide my shock fast enough. Luca had noticed but he didn’t seem to care. My father smiled and turned to leave. I couldn’t believe it. “Should I stay?” Umberto asked. I gave him a quick smile, which disappeared when my father shook his head. “Give them a few minutes alone,” he said. Salvatore Vitiello actually winked at Luca. They all filed out until only Luca, Fabiano and I were left. “Fabiano,” came my father’s sharp voice. “Get out of there now.” Fabiano reluctantly let go of my hand and left, but not before sending Luca the deadliest look a five-year old could manage. Luca’s lips quirked. Then the door closed and we were alone. What had Luca’s father’s wink meant? I peeked up at Luca. I had been right: with my high heels, the top of my head graced his chin. He looked out of the window. He didn’t spare me a single glance. Dressing me up like a hooker didn’t make Luca any more interested in me. Why would he be? I’d seen the women he dated in New York. They would have filled out the bustier better. “Did you choose the dress?” I jumped, startled that he’d spoken. His voice was deep and calm. Was he ever anything but? “No,” I admitted. “My father did.” Luca’s jaw twitched. I couldn’t read him and it was making me increasingly nervous. He reached into the inside of his jacket and for a ridiculous second I actually thought he was pulling a gun on me. Instead he held a black box in his hand. He turned toward me and I stared intently at his black shirt. Black shirt, black tie, black jacket. Black like his soul. This was a moment millions of women dreamed off, but I felt cold when Luca opened the box. Inside sat a white gold ring with a big diamond in the center sandwiched between two marginally smaller diamonds. I didn’t move. Luca held out his hand when the awkwardness between us reached its peak. I flushed and extended my hand. I flinched when his skin brushed mine. He slipped the engagement ring on my finger, then released me. “Thank you,” I felt obligated to say the words and even look up into his face, which was impassive, though the same couldn’t be said for his eyes. They looked angry. Had I done something wrong? He held out his arm and I linked mine through it, letting him lead me out of the lounge and toward the dining room. We didn’t speak. Maybe Luca was disappointed enough with me that he’d cancel the arrangement? But he wouldn’t have put the ring on my finger if that were the case. When we stepped into the dining room, the women of my family had joined the men. The Vitiellos hadn’t brought female company. Maybe because they didn’t trust my Father and the Cavallaros enough to risk bringing women into our house. I couldn’t blame them. I wouldn’t trust my father or the Boss either. Luca dropped his arm and I quickly joined my mother and sisters, who pretended to admire my ring. Gianna gave me a look. I didn’t know what my mother had threatened her with to keep her silent. I could tell that Gianna had a scathing comment on the tip of her tongue. I shook my head at her and she rolled her eyes. Dinner was a blur. The men discussed business while we women remained quiet. My eyes kept drifting toward the ring on my finger. It felt too heavy, too tight, entirely too much. Luca had marked me as his possession. *** After dinner the men moved on to the lounge to drink and smoke and discuss whatever else needed to be discussed. I returned to my room, but couldn’t fall asleep. Eventually, I put a bathrobe over my pajamas, slipped out of my room and crept downstairs. In a fit of craziness, I took the passage that led to the secret door behind the wall in the lounge. My Grandfather thought it was necessary to have secret escapes in the office and the fireplace lounge because that’s where the men of the family usually held their meetings. I wondered what he thought would happen to the women after the men had all fled through the secret passage? I found Gianna with her eyes pressed against the peephole of the disguised door. Of course, she was already there. She whirled around, eyes wide but relaxed when she spotted me. “What’s going on in there?” I said in a bare whisper, worried the men in the lounge would overhear us. Gianna moved to the side, so I could peer through the second peephole. “Almost everyone’s already gone. Father and Cavallaro have details to discuss with Salvatore Vitiello. It’s only Luca and his entourage now.” I squinted through the hole, which gave me a perfect view of the chairs crowded around the fireplace. Luca leaned against the marble ledge of the fireplace, legs casually crossed, a glass of Scotch in his hand. His brother Matteo lounged in an armchair beside him, legs wide apart and that wolfish grin on his face. Cesare and the second bodyguard they’d called Romero during dinner sat in the other armchairs. Romero looked to be the same age of Matteo, so around eighteen. Barely men by society’s standard, but not in our world. “It could have been worse,” Matteo said, grinning. He might not have looked quite as deadly as Luca, but something in his eyes told me he was only able to hide it better. “She could have been ugly. But, holy fuck, your little fiancée is an apparition. That dress. That body. That hair and face.” Matteo whistled. It seemed as if he was provoking his brother on purpose. “She’s a child,” Luca said dismissively. Indignation rose in me, but I knew I should be glad that he didn’t look at me like a man looked at a woman. “She didn’t look like a child to me,” Matteo said, then clucked his tongue. He nudged the older man, Cesare. “What do you say? Is Luca blind?” Cesare shrugged with a careful glance at Luca. “I didn’t look at her closely.” “What about you, Romero? You got functioning eyes in your head?” Romero looked up, then quickly looked back down to his drink. Matteo threw his head back and laughed. “Fuck, Luca, did you tell your men you’d cut their dicks off if they looked at that girl? You aren’t even married to her.” “She’s mine,” Luca said quietly, sending a chill down my back with his voice, not to mention his eyes. He looked at Matteo, who shook his head. “For the next three years, you’ll be in New York and she will be here. You can’t always keep an eye on her, or do you intend to threaten every man in the Outfit. You can’t cut off all of their dicks. Maybe Scuderi knows of a few Eunuchs who can keep watch over her.” “I’ll do what I have to,” Luca said, swirling the drink in his glass. “Cesare, find the two idiots who are supposed to guard Aria.” The way my name rolled off his tongue made me shiver. I didn’t even know I had two guards now. Umberto had always protected me and my sisters. Cesare left immediately and returned ten minutes later with Umberto and Raffaele, both looked butt-hurt that they’d been summoned like dogs by someone from New York. Father was a step behind them. “What’s the meaning of this?” Father asked. “I want to have a word with the men you chose to protect what’s mine.” Gianna huffed beside me, but I pinched her. Nobody could know we were listening in on this conversation. Father would throw a fit if we revealed the position of his secret door. “They are good soldiers, both of them. Raffaele is Aria’s cousin, and Umberto has worked for me for almost two decades.” “I’d like to decide for myself if I trust them,” Luca said. I held my breath. That was as close to an insult as he could get without actually insulting my father openly. Father’s lips thinned, but he gave a curt nod. He remained in the room. Luca stepped up to Umberto. “I hear you are good with the knife.” “The best,” Father interjected. A muscle in Luca’s jaw twitched. “Not as good as your brother, as rumor has it,” Umberto said with a nod toward Matteo who flashed him a shark grin. “But better than any other man in our territory,” Umberto admitted eventually. “Are you married?” Umberto nodded. “For twenty-one years.” “That’s a long time,” Matteo said. “Aria must look awfully delicious in comparison to your old wife.” I stifled a gasp. Umberto’s hand twitched an inch toward the holster around his waist. Everyone saw it. Father watched like a hawk but didn’t interfere. Umberto cleared his throat. “I’ve known Aria since her birth. She is a child.” “She won’t be a child for much longer,” Luca said. “She will always be a child in my eyes. And I’m faithful to my wife.” Umberto glared at Matteo. “If you insult my wife again, I’ll ask your father for permission to challenge you in a knife fight to defend her honor and I’ll kill you.” This would end badly. Matteo inclined his head. “You could try.” He bared his white teeth. “But you would not succeed.” Luca crossed his arms, then gave a nod. “I think you are a good choice, Umberto.” Umberto stepped back, but kept his gaze fixed on Matteo who ignored him. Luca’s eyes settled on Raffaele and he dropped whatever civility had cloaked the monster within until that point. He moved so close to Raffaele that my cousin had to tilt his head back to return the stare. Raffaele tried to keep his expression arrogant and self-confident, but he looked like a Chihuahua pup trying to impress a Bengal tiger. Luca and he might as well have been two different species. “He’s family. Are you honestly going to accuse him of having an interest in my daughter?” “I saw how you looked at Aria,” Luca said, never taking his eyes off of Raffaele. “Like a juicy peach you wanted to pluck,” Matteo threw in, enjoying this entirely too much. Raffaele’s eyes darted toward my father, looking for help. “Don’t deny it. I know want when I see it. And you want Aria,” Luca growled. Raffaele didn’t deny it. “If I find out you are looking at her like that again. If I find out you are in a room alone with her. If I find out you touch as much as her hand, I will kill you.” Raffaele flushed red. “You aren’t a member of the Outfit. Nobody would tell you anything even if I raped her. I could break her in for you.” God, Raffaele shut your mouth. Couldn’t he see murder in Luca’s eyes? “Maybe I’ll even film it for you.” Before I could even blink, Luca had thrown Raffaele to the ground and dug a knee into his spine, one of my cousin’s arms twisted back. Raffaele struggled and cursed, but Luca held him fast. One of his hands gripped Raffaele’s wrist while he reached under his vest with the other, pulling out a knife. My legs turned weak. “Leave now,” I told Gianna in a whisper. She didn’t listen. Look away, Aria. But I couldn’t. Father would surely stop Luca. But Father’s expression was disgusted as he stared down at Raffaele. Luca’s eyes sought Father’s gaze – Raffaele wasn’t his soldier. This wasn’t even his territory. Honor demanded he got permission from the Consigliere – and when my father gave a nod, he brought the knife down and cut Raffaele’s pinky off. The screams rang in my ears when my vision turned black. I bit down on my fist to stifle a sound. Gianna didn’t. She let out a screech that could have woken the dead before she threw up. At least, she’d turned and aimed away from me. Her vomit spilled down the steps. Behind the doors, silence reigned. They had heard us. I gripped Gianna’s upper arms when the secret door was ripped open, revealing Father’s furious face. Behind him stood Cesare and Romero, both with their weapons drawn. When they saw Gianna and me, they returned them to the holsters under their jackets. Gianna didn’t cry. She seldom did, but her face was pale and she leaned heavily against me. If I didn’t have to hold her up, my own legs would have crumpled. But I had to be strong for her. “Of course,” Father hissed, scowling at Gianna. “I should have known it was you causing trouble again.” He wrenched her away from me and into the lounge, raised his hand and slapped her hard across the face. I took a step in his direction to protect her and Father lifted his arm again. I braced myself for the slap, but Luca caught my father’s wrist with his left hand. His right hand was still grasping the knife he’d used to cut off Raffaele’s finger. The knife and Luca’s hand were coated with blood. My eyes widened. Father was the master of the house, the master over us. Luca’s intervention was an insult against my father’s honor. Umberto drew his knife and Father had his hand on his gun. Matteo, Romero and Cesare had drawn their own guns. Raffaele was huddled on the floor, bent over his hand, his whimpers the only sound in the room. Had there ever been a red engagement? “I didn’t mean disrespect,” Luca said calmly, as if war between New York and Chicago wasn’t on the verge of breaking out. “But Aria is no longer your responsibility. You lost your right to punish her when you made her my fiancée. She’s mine to deal with now.” Father glanced down at the ring on my finger, then inclined his head. Luca let go of his wrist, and the other men in the room relaxed slightly, but didn’t put their weapons back. “That’s true.” He stepped back and gestured at me. “Then would you like the honor of beating some sense into her?” Luca’s hard gaze settled on me and I stopped breathing. “She didn’t disobey me.” Father’s lips thinned. “You are right. But as I see it Aria will be living under my roof until the wedding and since honor forbids me to raise my hand against her, I’ll have to find another way to make her obey me.” He glowered at Gianna and hit her a second time. “For every of your wrongdoings, Aria, your sister will accept the punishment in your stead.” I pressed my lips together, tears prickling in my eyes. I didn’t look at Luca or Father, not until I could find a way to hide my hatred from them. “Umberto, take Gianna and Aria to their rooms and make sure they stay there.” Umberto sheathed his knife and gestured at us to follow him. I stepped past my father, dragging Gianna with me who had her head bowed. She stiffened as we stepped over the blood on the hardwood floor and the cut-off finger laying abandoned in it. My eyes darted to Raffaele who was clutching his wound to still the bleeding. His hands, his shirt and pants were covered with blood. Gianna retched as if she was going to throw up again. “No,” I said firmly. “Look at me.” She drew her eyes away from the blood and met my gaze. There were tears in her eyes and her lower lip had a cut that was dripping blood on her chin and her nightgown. My hand on hers tightened. I’m here for you. Our locked eyes seemed her only anchor as Umberto led us out of the room. “Women,” my father said in a scoffing tone. “They can’t even bear the sight of a bit of blood.” I could practically feel Luca’s eyes boring into my back before the door closed. Gianna wiped her bleeding lip as we hurried after Umberto through the corridor and up the stairs. “I hate him,” she muttered. “I hate them all.” “Shh.” I didn’t want her to talk like that in front of Umberto. He cared for us, but he was my father’s soldier through and through. He stopped me when I wanted to follow Gianna into her room. I didn’t want her to be alone tonight. And I didn’t want to be alone either. “You heard what your father said.” I glared at Umberto. “I need to help Gianna with her lip.” Umberto shook his head. “It’s nothing. You two in a room together always bodes trouble. Do you think it’s wise to irk your father any more tonight?” Umberto closed Gianna’s door and gently pushed me in the direction of my room next to hers. I stepped in, then turned to him. “A room full of grown men watches a man beat a helpless girl, that’s the famous courage of made men.” “Your future husband stopped your father.” “From hitting me, not Gianna.” Umberto smiled like I was a stupid child. “Luca might rule over New York, but this is Chicago and your father is Consigliere.” “You admire Luca,” I said incredulously. “You watched him cut off Raffaele’s finger and you admire him.” “Your cousin is lucky The Vice didn’t cut off something else. Luca did what every man would have done.” Maybe every man in our world. Umberto patted my head like I was an adorable kitten. “Go to sleep.” “Will you be guarding my door all night to make sure I don’t sneak out again?” I said challengingly. “Better get used to it. Now that Luca’s put a ring on your finger, he’ll make sure you’re always guarded.” I slammed the door shut. Guarded. Even from afar Luca would be controlling my life. I’d thought my life would go on as it used to until the wedding, but how could it when everyone knew what the ring on my finger meant? Raffaele’s pinky was a signal, a warning. Luca had made his claim on me and would enforce it cold-bloodedly. I didn’t extinguish the lights that night, worried the darkness would bring back images of blood and cut-off limbs. They came anyway. CHAPTER THREE My breath clouded as it left my lips. Even my thick coat couldn’t protect me from Chicago’s winter. Snow crunched under my boots as I followed mother along the pavement toward the brick building, which harbored the most luxurious wedding store in the Midwest. Umberto trailed closely behind, my constant shadow. Another of my father’s soldiers made up the rear, behind my sisters. Revolving brass doors let us into the brightly lit inside of the store and the owner and her two assistants immediately greeted us. “Happy birthday, Ms. Scuderi,” she said in her lilting voice. I forced a smile. My eighteenth birthday was supposed to be a day for celebration. Instead it only meant I was another step closer to marrying Luca. I hadn’t seen him since that night he’d cut off Raffaele’s finger. He’d sent me expensive jewelry for my birthdays, Christmas holidays, Valentine’s days and the anniversary of our engagement but that was the extent of our contact in the last thirty months. I’d seen photos of him with other women on the internet, but even that would stop today when our engagement would be leaked to the press. At least in public he wouldn’t flaunt his whores anymore. I didn’t kid myself into thinking he wasn’t still sleeping with them. And I didn’t care. As long as he had other women to screw, he’d hopefully not think about me in that way. “Only six months until your wedding if I’m correctly informed?” the shop owner piped. She was the only person who looked excited. No surprise really, she would make a lot of money today. The wedding that marked the final union of the Chicago and the New York mafia was supposed to be a splendid affair. Money was irrelevant. I inclined my head. 166 days until I had to exchange one golden cage with another. Gianna gave me a look that made it clear what she thought of the matter, but she kept her mouth shut. At sixteen and a half, Gianna had finally learned to reign in her outbursts, mostly. The shop owner led us into the fitting room. Umberto and the other man stayed outside the drawn curtains. Lily and Gianna plopped down on the plush white couch while Mother began browsing the wedding gowns on display. I stood in the middle of the room. The sight of all the white tulle, silk, gossamer, brocade and what it stood for, corded up my throat. I’d be a married woman soon. Quotes about love decorated the walls of the fitting room; they felt like a taunt considering the harsh reality that was my life. What was love but a silly dream? I could feel the eyes of the shop owner and her assistants on me, and squared my shoulders before I joined my mother. Nobody could know that I wasn’t the happy bride-to-be but a pawn in a game of power. Eventually, the shop owner approached us and showed us her most expensive gowns. “What kind of gown would your future husband prefer?” she asked pleasantly. “The naked kind,” Gianna said, and my mother shot her a glare. I flushed, but the shop owner laughed as if it was all too delightful. “There’s time for that on the wedding night, don’t you think?” She winked. I reached for the most expensive dress in the collection, a dream of brocade; the bustier was embroidered with pearls and silvery threads forming a delicate flower pattern. “Those are platinum threads,” the shop owner said. That explained the price. “I think your groom will be pleased with your choice.” Then she knew him better than I did. Luca was as much as stranger to me today as he had been almost three years ago. *** The wedding would be held in the vast gardens of the Vitiello mansion in the Hamptons. Everyone was already abuzz with the preparations. I hadn’t set foot into the house or even the premises yet, but my mother kept me up-to-date, not that I’d asked her to. The moment my family had arrived in New York a few hours ago, my sisters and I had huddled together in our suite in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Manhattan. Salvatore Vitiello had suggested we live in one of the many rooms in the mansion until the wedding in five days, but my father had declined. Three years of tentative cooperation and they still didn’t trust each other. I was glad. I didn’t want to set foot into the mansion until I had to. Father had agreed to let me share a suite with Lily and Gianna, so he and mother had a suite for themselves. Of course, a bodyguard was stationed in front of every of the three doors to our suite. “Do we really have to attend the bridal shower tomorrow?” Lily asked, her bare legs swung over the backrest of the sofa. Mother always said Nabokov must have had Liliana in mind when he wrote Lolita. While Gianna provoked with her words, Lily used her body for that. She’d turned fourteen in April, a child that used her tentative curves to get a rise out of everyone around us. She looked like the teen model Thylane Blondeau, only her hair was a bit lighter and she didn’t have a gap between her front teeth. It worried me. I knew it was her way of rebelling against the gilded cage that was our life, but while Father’s soldiers regarded her flirting with amusement, there were others out there that would love to misunderstand it. “Of course, we have to,” Gianna muttered. “Aria is the happy bride, remember?” Lily snorted. “Sure.” She sat up abruptly. “I’m bored. Let’s go shopping.” Umberto wasn’t enthused about the suggestion, even with another of my father’s bodyguards at his side, he claimed it was almost impossible to keep us under control. Eventually he relented as he always did. *** We were shopping in a store that sold sexy rocker-chick-like outfits that Lily desperately wanted to try on when I got a message from Luca. It was the first time he’d contacted me directly and for a long time I could only stare at my screen. Gianna peered over my shoulder in the dressing room. “’Meet me at your hotel at six. Luca.’ How nice of him to ask.” “What does he want?” I whispered. I’d hoped I wouldn’t have to see him until August 10th, the day of our wedding. “Only one way to find out,” Gianna said, checking her reflection. *** I was nervous. I hadn’t seen Luca in a long time. I smoothed my hair down, then straightened my shirt. Gianna had convinced me to wear the tight black skinny jeans I’d bought today. Now I wondered if something that drew less attention to my body might have been better. I still had fifteen minutes before Luca wanted to meet me. I didn’t even know where yet. I assumed he’d call me once he arrived and ask me to come down into the lobby. “Stop fiddling,” Gianna said from her spot on the sofa, reading a magazine. “I really don’t think this outfit is a good idea.” “It is. It’s easy to manipulate men. Lily is fourteen and has already figured it out. Father always says we’re the weak sex because we don’t carry around guns. We have our own weapons, Aria, and you’ll have to start using them. If you want to survive a marriage with that man, you’ll have to use your body to manipulate him. Men, even cold-hearted bastards like them, have a weakness and it hangs between their legs.” I didn’t think Luca could be manipulated that easily. He didn’t seem like someone who ever lost control, unless he wanted to and I really wasn’t sure I wanted him to notice my body like that. A knock made me jump and my eyes flew to the clock. It was still too early for Luca and he wouldn’t really come up to our suite, would he? Lily dashed out of her bedroom before Gianna or I could even move. She was wearing her rocker-chic outfit, tight leather pants and a tight black tee. She thought she looked so adult with it. Gianna and I thought she looked like a fourteen-year-old trying too hard. She opened the door, jutting her hip out, trying to look sexy. Gianna groaned but I wasn’t paying attention to her. “Hi Luca,” Lily piped. I walked closer so I could see Luca. He was staring down at Lily, obviously trying to figure out who she was. Matteo, Romero and Cesare stood behind him. Wow, he’d brought his entourage. Where was Umberto? “You are Liliana, the youngest sister,” Luca said, ignoring Lily’s flirty expression. Lily frowned. “I’m not that young.” “Yes, you are,” I said firmly, walking up to her and putting my hands on her shoulders. She was only a couple of inches smaller than me. “Go to Gianna.” Lily gave me an incredulous look but then she slinked away. My pulse was racing as I turned to Luca. His gaze lingered on my legs, then slowly moved up until it arrived at my face. That look hadn’t been in his eyes the last time I’d seen him. And I realized with a start it was want. “I didn’t know we’d meet in my suite,” I said, then realized I should have greeted him, or at least tried to sound less rude. “Are you going to let me in?” I hesitated, then I stepped back and let the men walk past me. Only Cesare stayed outside. He closed the door even though I would have preferred to keep it ajar. Matteo sauntered over to Gianna who quickly sat up and gave him her nastiest look. Lily of course smiled at him. “Can I see your gun?” Matteo grinned at her but before he could reply, I said. “No, you can’t.” I could feel Luca’s eyes on me, lingering on my legs and butt again. Gianna gave me an I-told-you-so-look. She wanted me to use my body; the problem was I preferred Luca ignoring my body because everything else terrified me. “You shouldn’t be here alone with us,” Gianna muttered. “It’s not appropriate.” I almost snorted. As if Gianna gave a damn about appropriateness. Luca narrowed his eyes. “Where is Umberto? Shouldn’t he be guarding this door?” “He’s probably on a toilet or cigarette break,” I said, shrugging. “Does it happen often that he leaves you without protection?” “Oh all the time,” Gianna said mockingly. “You see, Lily, Aria and I sneak out every weekend because we have a bet going who can pick up more guys.” Lily let out her bell-like laugh. “I want to have a word with you, Aria,” Luca said fixing me with his cold stare. Gianna rose from the sofa and came toward us. “I was joking, for god’s sake!” she said, trying to step between Luca and me, but Matteo gripped her wrist and pulled her back. Lily watched everything with wide eyes and Romero stood against the door, pretending this didn’t concern him. “Let go of me, or I’ll break your fingers,” Gianna growled. Matteo raised his hands with a wide grin. “Come on,” Luca said, his hand touching my lower back. I swallowed a gasp. If he noticed, he didn’t comment. “Where’s your bedroom?” My heartbeat stuttered as I nodded toward the door to the left. Luca led me in that direction, ignoring Gianna’s protests. “I’ll call our father! You can’t do that.” We stepped into my bedroom and Luca closed the door. I couldn’t help but be afraid. Gianna shouldn’t have said those things. The moment Luca faced me, I said, “Gianna was joking. I haven’t even kissed anyone yet, I swear.” Heat crept into my face at the admission, but I didn’t want Luca to get angry for something I hadn’t even done. Luca’s gray eyes held me with their intensity. “I know.” My lips parted. “Oh. Then why are you angry?” “Do I look angry to you?” I decided not to reply. He smirked. “You don’t know me very well.” “That’s not my fault,” I muttered. He touched my chin and I turned into a pillar of salt. “You are like a skittish doe in the clutches of a wolf.” He didn’t know how close that came to what I thought of him. “I’m not going to maul you.” I must have looked doubtful because he released a small laugh, lowering his head toward mine. “What are you doing?” I whispered nervously. “I’m not going to take you if that’s what you’re worried about. I can wait a few more days. I’ve waited three years after all.” I couldn’t believe he’d said that. Of course, I knew what was expected on a wedding night, but I’d almost convinced myself that Luca wasn’t interested in me that way. “You called me a child last time.” “But you aren’t a child anymore,” Luca said with a predatory smirk. His lips were less than an inch from mine. “You’re making this really hard. I can’t kiss you if you look at me like that.” “Then maybe I should give you that look on our wedding night,” I challenged. “Then maybe I’ll have to take you from behind so I don’t have to see it.” My face fell and I stumbled away, my back colliding with the wall. Luca shook his head. “Relax. I was joking,” he said quietly. “I’m not a monster.” “Aren’t you?” His expression hardened and he straightened, drawing up to his full height again. I regretted my words, even though they were the truth. “I wanted to discuss the matter of your protection with you,” he said in an emotionless, formal voice. “Once you move into my penthouse after the wedding, Cesare and Romero will be responsible for your safety. But I want Romero at your side until then.” “I have Umberto,” I protested, but he shook his head. “Apparently, he’s taking too many toilet breaks. Romero won’t leave your side from now on.” “Will he watch me when I shower too?” “If I want him to.” I raised my chin, trying to quench my anger. “You would let another man see me naked? You must really trust Romero not to take advantage of the situation.” Luca’s eyes blazed. “Romero is loyal.” He leaned close. “Don’t worry I’ll be the only man to ever see you naked. I can’t wait.” His eyes traveled over my body. I crossed my arms over my chest and averted my eyes. “What about Lily? She and Gianna share this suite with me. You saw how Lily can be. She will flirt with Romero. She will do anything to get a rise out of him. She doesn’t realize what she could get herself into. I need to know that she’s save.” “Romero won’t touch your sister. Liliana is playing around. She’s a little girl. Romero likes his women of age and willing.” ‘And you don’t?’ I almost asked but swallowed the words and nodded instead. My eyes darted toward my bed. This was a horrible reminder of what would happen soon. “There’s something else. Are you taking the pill?” Color drained from my face as I stared at him. “Of course not.” Luca scrutinized me with unsettling calm. “Your mother could have made you start it in preparation for the wedding.” I was pretty sure I was going to have a nervous breakdown any moment. “My mother would never do that. She won’t even talk to me about these things.” Luca raised one eyebrow. “But you do know what happens between a man and a woman in a wedding night?” He was mocking me, the bastard. “I do know what happens between normal couples. In our case, I think the word you’re looking for is rape.” Luca’s eyes flashed with emotion. “I want you to start taking the pill.” He handed me a small packet. It was birth control. “Don’t I need to see a doctor before I start taking birth control?” “We have a doctor who’s been working for the Familia for decades. This is from him. You need to start taking the pill immediately. It takes 48 hours for them to start working.” I couldn’t believe him. He seemed really eager to sleep with me. My stomach tightened. “And what if I don’t?” Luca shrugged. “Then I’ll use a condom. Either way, on our wedding night you are mine.” He opened the door and gestured for me to move. As if in trance, I walked into the living area of the suite. I hadn’t meant to make him angry, but now it was too late. It probably wasn’t the last time anyway. Umberto stood beside Gianna and Lily, looking annoyed. He frowned at Luca. “What are you doing here?” “You should pay better attention in the future and keep your breaks to a minimum,” Luca told him. “I was gone for only a few minutes and there were guards in front of the other doors.” Gianna smirked. Matteo’s eyes were locked on her. “What are you looking at?” she snapped. Matteo leaned forward. “At your hot body.” “Then keep looking.” She gave an one shoulder shrug. “Because that’s all you ever get to do with my hot body.” “Stop it,” Umberto warned. I wasn’t looking at him, but at Matteo who had a calculating expression on his face. “Romero will take over the watch duty until the wedding,” Luca said. Umberto opened his mouth, but Luca raised a hand. “It’s done.” He turned to Romero who straightened at once. They walked a few steps away from us. Gianna pressed up to me. “What does he mean?” “Romero is my new bodyguard.” “He just wants to control you.” “Shh.” I was watching Luca and Romero. After a moment, Romero glanced at Lily, then nodded and said something. They finally returned to us. “Romero will stay with you,” Luca said simply. He was so cold since I’d as good as called him a monster. “And what am I supposed to do?” Umberto asked. “You can guard their door.” “Or you can join our stag party,” Matteo suggested. “I’m not interested,” Umberto said. Luca shrugged. “Suit yourself. Scuderi is coming with us.” My father would go with them? I didn’t even want to know what they were up to. Luca turned to me. “Remember what I told you.” I didn’t say anything, only clutched the pill packet in my hand. Without another word, Luca and Matteo left. Romero held the door open. “You can leave too,” he told Umberto who glared but walked out after a moment. Romero shut the door and locked it. Gianna gaped. “You can’t be serious.” Romero leaned against the door, arms clasped in front of him. He didn’t react. “Come, Gianna.” I pulled her with me toward the couch and plopped down. Lily was already kneeling on the armchair, watching Romero in rapt attention. Gianna’s eyes flitted down to my hand. “What’s this?” “Birth control.” “Don’t tell me that asshole gave it to you just now so he can screw you on your wedding night.” I pressed my lips together. “You aren’t going to take them, right?” “I have to. It won’t stop Luca if I don’t. He’ll only be angry.” Gianna shook her head, but I gave her a pleading look. “I don’t want to argue with you. Let’s watch a movie, okay? I really need the distraction.” After a moment, Gianna nodded. We picked out a random movie, but it was difficult to focus with Romero guarding us. “Are you going to stand there all night?” I asked eventually. “You’re making me nervous. Can’t you sit down at least?” He moved toward the vacant armchair and sank down. He shrugged off his jacket, revealing a white shirt and a holster holding two guns and a long knife. “Wow,” Lily breathed. She stood and walked over to him. He kept his attention on the door. She stepped in his way and he had no choice but to look up at her. She smiled. She quickly slipped into his lap and he tensed. I leaped off the sofa and wrenched her off him. “Lily, what’s matter with you? You can’t act like that. One day a man is going to take advantage of you.” Many men had trouble understanding that provocative clothes and actions didn’t mean a woman was asking for it. Romero straightened in the chair. “He won’t hurt me. Luca forbid him, right?” “He could steal your virtue you and cut your throat afterward, so you can’t tell anyone,” Gianna said off-handedly. I shot her a glare. Lily’s eyes grew wide. “I wouldn’t,” Romero said, startling us with his voice. “You shouldn’t have said that,” Gianna muttered. “Now she’s going to fawn over you.” “Lily, go to bed,” I ordered and she did under loud protest. “I’m sorry,” I said. “She doesn’t know what she’s doing.” Romero nodded. “Don’t worry. I have a sister her age.” “How old are you?” “Twenty.” “And how long have you been working for Luca?” Gianna turned off the TV to focus on her interrogation. I settled against the backrest. “Four years, but I’ve been a made man for six years.” “You must be good if Luca chose you to protect Aria.” Romero shrugged. “Knowing how to handle myself in a fight isn’t the main reason. Luca knows I’m loyal.” “Meaning you won’t paw at Aria.” I rolled my eyes at Gianna. Romero probably regretted ever leaving his spot at the door. “Luca knows he can trust me with what’s his.” Gianna’s lips thinned. Wrong thing to say. “So if Aria came out of her room naked tonight and you got a hard-on because you can’t really help it, Luca wouldn’t cut off your dick?” Romero was obviously taken aback. He stared at me, as if he actually worried I would do that. “Ignore her. I won’t.” “Where are Luca and the other men going for stag night?” Romero didn’t reply. “Probably a strip club and afterward one of the whorehouses the Familia has going,” Gianna muttered. “Why is it that men can whore around while we have to save our virginity for the wedding night? And why can Luca fuck whoever he wants while Aria can’t even kiss a guy?” “I didn’t make the rules,” Romero said simply. “But you make sure that we don’t break them. You aren’t our protector, you are our warden.” “Have you ever considered that I’m protecting guys who don’t know who Aria is?” he asked. I frowned. “Luca would kill anyone who dared to touch you. Of course, you could go out, flirt with a guy and move on, because you wouldn’t be the one Luca would gut.” “Luca isn’t my fiancé,” Gianna said. “Your father would kill any man that got near you, because he wouldn’t want anyone to spoil his most prized possessions.” For the first time, I realized that only because I’d been given to Luca that didn’t mean Gianna wouldn’t be forced to marry someone else. I felt suddenly very tired. “I’m going to bed.” I lay awake most of the night, thinking of ways to get out of the wedding, but the only option would be to run, and while Gianna would definitely come with me, what about Liliana? I couldn’t keep them both save. And what about Fabiano? What about my mother? I couldn’t leave everything behind. This was my life. I didn’t know anything else. Maybe I was a coward, though marrying a man like Luca probably required more courage than running away. CHAPTER FOUR The living room of the suite was decorated for the bridal shower. I’d hoped to be spared that tradition but my mother had insisted it would be an affront to the women of Luca’s family if they couldn’t meet me before the wedding. I smoothed out the green cocktail dress. It was a color that was supposed to bring good luck. I knew my interpretation of what would be good luck at this point differed widely from Luca’s and my father’s interpretation. Lily wasn’t allowed to attend the bridal shower since she was deemed to young, but Gianna had argued her way into staying. Though I worried that there might be another reason behind mother’s agreement. Gianna had turned seventeen a few days ago. That meant she was almost old enough to be married off as well. I pushed the thought aside. I could hear mother and Gianna arguing in the bedroom about what Gianna was supposed to wear when a knock sounded at the suite door. It was a bit early; the guests weren’t supposed to arrive for another ten minutes. I opened the door. Valentina stood in front of me, Umberto behind her. She was my cousin but five years older than me. Her mother and my mother were sisters. She smiled apologetically. “I know I’m early.” “It’s okay,” I said, stepping back so she could walk in. Umberto sat back on the chair outside my door. I really liked Valentina, so I didn’t mind spending some time alone with her. She was tall and graceful, with dark-brown, almost black hair and eyes that were the darkest green imaginable. She wore a black dress with a pencil skirt that reached her knees. Her husband Antonio had died six months ago, and my wedding would be the first time that she’d wear something other than black. Sometimes widows, especially older women, were expected to wear mourning for a year after their husband’s death, but Valentina was only twenty-three. Luca’s age. I caught myself wishing her husband had died sooner so she could have married Luca and then I felt horrible. I shouldn’t be thinking like that. Romero hovered beside the window. “Could you please wait outside? A bridal shower is no place for a man.” He tilted his head, then walked out without another word. “Your husband sent you his own bodyguard?” Valentina asked. “He isn’t my husband yet.” “No, you’re right. You look sad,” she said with a knowing expression as she sank down on the sofa. Champagne, soft drinks and an array of fingerfood were set up on a table behind it. I swallowed. “So do you.” And I felt immediately stupid for saying something like that. “My father wants me to remarry,” she said, twisting her wedding band. My eyes widened. “So soon?” “Not right away. Apparently he’s already talking to someone.” I couldn’t believe it. “Can’t you say no? You were already married.” “But it was a childless marriage, and I’m too young to stay alone. I had to move back in with my family. My father insisted on it to protect me.” We both knew that code. Women always needed protection from the outside world, especially if they were in a marriageable age. “I’m sorry,” I said. “It is what it is. You know that as well as I do.” I laughed bitterly. “Yeah.” “I saw your husband when I visited the Vitiello mansion with my parents yesterday. He’s…imposing.” “Terrifying,” I added quietly. Valentina’s expression softened, but our conversation was cut short when Mother and Gianna came out of the bedroom. And soon after that more guests arrived. The gifts were everything from lingerie over jewelry to certificates for a day in a luxury spa in New York. The lingerie was the worst though, and when I opened the gift from Luca’s stepmother Nina I had trouble keeping a straight face. I lifted the barely-there white nightgown and smiled tightly. The entire middle was see-through and it was so short it wouldn’t even cover much of my legs. Beneath it in the gift box was an even smaller piece of clothing; white lace panties that revealed most of my butt and were held together by a bow in the back. A chorus of appreciative murmurs came from the women around me. I gaped at the lingerie. Gianna tipped her finger inconspicuously against her temple. “This is for your wedding night,” Nina said with a calculating glint in her eyes. “I bet Luca will love unwrapping you. We need to please our husbands. Luca will certainly expect something this daring.” I nodded. “Thank you.” Had Luca maybe set his stepmother up to give this to me? I wouldn’t put it past him. Not after he’d gotten birth control for me. My stomach twisted with worry, and it got only worse when the woman started talking about their wedding nights. “I was so embarrassed when it was time for the presentation of the sheets!” Luca’s cousin Cosima stage-whispered. “The presentation of the sheets?” I asked. Nina’s smile was patronizing when she said, “Didn’t your mother explain it to you?” I glanced at my mother who pressed her lips together, two red blotches appearing on her cheeks. “It’s a Sicilian tradition that the Familia has proudly upheld for generations,” Nina explained, eyes fixed on my face. “After the wedding night, the women of the groom’s family come to the bridal pair to collect the sheets they spent the night on. Then those sheets are presented to the fathers of the bride and the groom and whoever else wants to see proof that the marriage has been consummated and that the bride was pure.” Cosima giggled. “It’s also called tradition of the bloody sheets for that reason.” My face was frozen. “That’s a barbaric tradition!” Gianna hissed. “Mother, you can’t allow it.” “It’s not up to me,” Mother said. “That’s right. We won’t abandon our traditions.” Nina turned to me. “And from what I know you’ve been well protected from male attention so there’s nothing for you to fear. The sheets will prove your honor.” Gianna’s lips curled, but all I could think about was that this tradition meant I definitely had to sleep with Luca. CHAPTER FIVE The afternoon before the wedding day, my family moved out of the Mandarin Oriental and headed for the Vitiello mansion in the Hamptons. It was a huge building inspired by Italian palazzos surrounded by almost three acres of park-like grounds. The driveway was long and winding, and led past four double garages and two guesthouses until it ended in front of the mansion with its white front and red shingled roof. White marble statues stood at the base of the double staircase leading up to the front door. Inside, coffered ceilings, white marble columns and floors, and a view of the bay and the long pool through the panorama windows took my breath away. Luca’s father and stepmother led us toward the second floor of the left wing where our bedrooms were situated. Gianna and I insisted on sharing a room. I didn’t care if it made us look immature. I needed her at my side. From the window we could watch how the workers began setting up the huge pavilion that would serve as church tomorrow. Beyond it the ocean churned. Luca wouldn’t arrive until the next day so we couldn’t cross paths by accident before the wedding, which would mean bad luck. I honestly didn’t know how I could have any more bad luck than I already had. *** “Today’s the day!” Mother said with fake cheer. I dragged myself out of bed. Gianna pulled the blankets over her head, grumbling something about it being too early. Mother sighed. “I can’t believe you shared a room like five year olds.” “Someone had to make sure Luca didn’t sneak in,” Gianna said from beneath the blanket. “Umberto patrolled the corridor.” “As if he would protect Aria from Luca,” Gianna muttered, finally sitting up. Her red hair was a mess. Mother pursed her lips. “Your sister doesn’t need protection from her husband.” Gianna snorted, but Mother ignored her and ushered me into the bathroom. “We have to get you ready. The Beautician will be here any second. Grab a quick shower.” As the hot water poured down on me, realization set in. This was it, the day I’d been dreading for so long. Tonight I’d be Aria Vitiello, wife to the future Capo dei Capi, and former virgin. I leaned against the shower cabin. I wished I were like other brides. I wished I could enjoy this day. I wished I didn’t have to look forward to my wedding night with trepidation, but I’d learned a long time ago that wishing didn’t change a thing. When I stepped out of the shower, I felt cold. Even my fluffy bathrobe couldn’t stop my shivering. Someone knocked and Gianna entered with a cup and a bowl in her hand. “Coffee and fruit salad. Apparently you aren’t allowed to have pancakes because it could cause bloating. What bullshit.” I took the coffee but shook my head at the food. “I’m not hungry.” “You can’t go all day without eating or you’ll faint when you walk down the aisle.” She paused. “Though, on second thought, I’d love to see Luca’s face when you do.” I sipped at the coffee, then took the bowl from Gianna and ate a few pieces of banana. I really didn’t want to faint. Father would be furious, and Luca probably wouldn’t be too happy about it either. “The beautician has arrived with her entourage. You could think they need to prettify an army of fishwives.” I smiled weakly. “Let’s not make them wait.” Gianna’s worried gaze followed me as I walked into the bedroom, where Lily and my mother were already waiting with the three beauticians. They began their work at once, waxing our legs and armpits. When I thought the torture was over, the Beautician asked. “Bikini zone? Do you know what your husband prefers?” My cheeks exploded with heat. Mother actually looked at me for an answer. As if I knew the first thing about Luca and his preferences, especially concerning body hair. “Maybe we could call one of his whores,” Gianna suggested. Mother gasped. “Gianna!” Lily looked clueless about the whole situation. She might have been the queen of flirting but that was all. “I’ll remove everything except for a small triangle, okay?” The beautician said in a gentle voice and I nodded, giving her a grateful smile. It took hours to get us ready. When our make-up was in place and my hair was pinned up in an elaborate updo that would later hold the veil and the diamond headpiece, my aunts Livia and Ornatella came in carrying my wedding dress as well as the bridesmaid dresses for Lily and Gianna. There was only one hour left until the wedding ceremony. *** I stared at my reflection. The dress was gorgeous; the chapel train fanned out behind me, the platinum embroidery glittering wherever the sunlight hit it, and the empire waist was accentuated by a white satin ribbon. “I love the sweetheart neckline. It gives you a breathtaking cleavage,” Aunt Livia gushed. She was Valentina’s mother. “Luca will surely appreciate it,” Aunt Ornatella said. Something on my face must have made my mother realize I was close to having a nervous breakdown, so she ushered my aunts out. “Let the three girls have a moment.” Gianna stepped into view beside me. Her red hair contrasted beautifully with the mint dress. She opened the box with the necklace. Diamonds and pearls surrounded by intricate white gold threads. “Luca doesn’t spare any costs, does he? That necklace and your headpiece probably cost more than most people pay for their house.” The conversation and laughter of the gathered guests carried up from the gardens through the open window into the room. Every now and then a clunk could be heard. “What’s that noise?” I asked, trying to distract myself. Gianna walked over to the window and peered out. “The men are taking off their guns and putting them into plastic boxes.” “How many?” Gianna cocked an eyebrow. “How many guns does each man put away?” “One.” She frowned, then it dawned on her, and I nodded grimly. “Only a fool would leave the house with less than two guns.” “Then why the show?” “It’s symbolic,” I said. Like this horrid wedding. “But if they all want peace, why not attend unarmed? It’s a wedding, after all.” “There have been red weddings before. I saw pictures from a wedding where you couldn’t tell the color of the bride’s dress anymore. It was soaked in blood.” Lily shuddered. “That won’t happen today, right?” Anything was possible. “No, Chicago and New York need each other too much. They can’t risk spilling blood among each other as long as the Bratva and the Taiwanese pose a threat.” Gianna snorted. “Oh great, that’s comforting.” “It is,” I said firmly. “At least we know nobody will come to harm today.” My stomach twisted into a knot. Except for me, maybe. Probably. Gianna wrapped her arms around me from behind and rested her chin on my bare shoulder. “We could still run. We could get you out of your dress and sneak out. They’re all busy. Nobody would notice.” Lily nodded her head vigorously and got up from where she’d perched on the bed. Luca would notice. I forced a brave smile. “No. It’s too late.” “It’s not,” Gianna hissed. “Don’t give up.” “There would be blood on my hands if I broke the agreement. They would kill each other in retribution.” “They all have blood on their hands. Every single fucking person in the garden.” “Don’t curse.” “Really? A lady doesn’t curse,” Gianna mimicked our Father’s voice. “Where did it get you to behave like an obedient little lady?” I looked away. She was right. It had brought me straight into the arms of one of the deadliest men in the country. “I’m sorry,” Gianna whispered. “I didn’t mean it.” I linked our fingers. “I know. And you are right. Most of the people in the garden have blood on their hands and would deserve to die, but they are our family, the only one we got. And there are innocents like Fabiano.” “Fabiano will have blood on his hands soon enough,” Gianna said bitterly. “He’ll become a killer.” I didn’t deny it. Fabiano would start his initiation process at twelve. If what Umberto had said was true, Luca had killed his first man at eleven. “But he’s innocent now, and there are other children out there as well, and women.” Gianna fixed me with a hard look in the mirror. “Do you really believe that one of us is innocent?” Being born into our world meant being born with blood on your hands. With every breath we took, sin was engraved deeper into our skin. Born in blood. Sworn in blood like the motto of the New York Cosa Nostra. “No.” Gianna smiled grimly. Lily walked over to the bed and picked up my veil attached to the headpiece. I bent my knees so she could fix it atop my head. She gently smoothed it out. “I wish you were marrying for love. I wish we could giggle about your wedding night. I wish you didn’t look so fucking sad,” Gianna said fiercely. The silence between us stretched. Lily eventually nodded toward the bed. “Is this where you’ll sleep tonight?” My throat tightened. “No, Luca and I will spend the night in the master bedroom.” I didn’t think I’d get much, if any, sleep. A knock sounded and I squared my shoulders, putting on my outside face. Bibiana and Valentina stepped in, followed by mother. “Wow, Aria, you are gorgeous. Your hair looks like spun gold,” Valentina said. She was already wearing her bridesmaid dress and the mint color looked gorgeous with her dark hair. Technically, only unmarried women were allowed to be bridesmaids but my Uncle had insisted we make an exemption for Valentina. He was really keen to find a new husband for her. Bibiana wore a floor-length maroon dress with long sleeves, despite the summer heat. It was probably meant to hide how thin she’d gotten. I forced a smile. Mother took Lily’s arm. “Come on, Liliana, your cousins need to talk to your sister.” She led Lily out of the room, then looked back at Gianna who sat cross-legged on the sofa. “Gianna?” Gianna ignored her. “I’m staying. I won’t leave Aria alone.” Mother knew better than to argue with my sister when she was in a mood and so she closed the door. “What are you supposed to talk to me about?” “Your wedding night,” Valentina said with an apologetic smile. Bibiana made a face, which reminded me how young she was. Only twenty-two. She’d gotten thin. I couldn’t believe they’d chosen to send those two to talk to me about my wedding night. Bibiana’s face spoke of her unhappiness. Since her wedding to a man almost thirty years her senior, she’d been fading away. Was that meant to soothe my fears? And Valentina had lost her husband six months ago in an altercation with the Russians. How could they expect her to talk about wedded bliss? I smoothed my dress nervously. Gianna shook her head. “Who sent you anyway? Luca?” “Your mother,” Bibiana said. “She wants to make sure you know what’s expected of you.” “Expected of her?” Gianna hissed. “What about what Aria wants?” “It’s what it is,” Bibiana said bitterly. “Tonight Luca will expect to claim his rights. At least, he’s good looking and young.” Pity for her kindled in me, but at the same time my own anxiety made it hard to console her. She was right. Luca was good looking. I couldn’t deny it, but that didn’t change the fact that I was terrified of being intimate with him. He didn’t strike me as a man who was gentle in bed. My stomach lurched again. Valentina cleared her throat. “Luca will know what to do.” “You just lie on your back and give him what he wants,” Bibiana added. “Don’t try to fight him; that will only make it worse.” We all stared at her and she looked away. Valentina touched my shoulder. “We’re not doing a good job at consoling you. Sorry. I’m sure it’ll be alright.” Gianna snorted. “Maybe mother should have invited one of the women Luca’s fucked to the wedding. They could have told you what to expect.” “Grace is here,” Bibiana said, then she turned red, and stammered. “I mean, that’s only a rumor. I—” She looked toward Valentina for help. “One of Luca’s old girlfriends is here?” I whispered. Bibiana cringed. “I thought you knew. And she wasn’t really his girlfriend, more like a plaything. Luca’s been with many women.” She snapped her mouth shut. I was fighting for control. I couldn’t let people see how weak I was. Why did I even care if Luca’s whore was at the wedding? “Okay,” Gianna said getting up. “Who the fuck is Grace and why the fuck is she invited to this wedding?” “Grace Parker. She’s the daughter of a New York senator who’s on the payroll of the Mafia,” Valentina explained. “They had to invite his family.” Tears blurred my vision and Gianna rushed toward me. “Oh don’t cry, Aria. It’s not worth it. Luca’s an asshole. You knew that. You can’t let his actions get to you.” Valentina handed me a Kleenex. “You’ll ruin your make-up.” I blinked a few times until I had a grip on my emotions. “I’m sorry. I’m just being emotional.” “I think it’s best if you leave now,” Gianna said sharply, not even looking at Bibiana and Valentina. There was rustling and then the door opened and closed. Gianna wrapped her arms around me. “If he hurts you, I’ll kill him. I swear it. I’ll take one of those fucking guns and put a hole into his head.” I leaned against her. “He survived the Bratva and the Triad, and he’s the most feared fighter in the New York familia, Gianna. He’d kill you first.” Gianna shrugged. “I’d do it for you.” I pulled back. “You’re still my little sister. I should protect you.” “We will protect each other,” she whispered. “Our bond is stronger than their stupid oaths and the Omerta and their blood vows.” “I don’t want to leave you. I hate that I have to move to New York.” Gianna swallowed. “I’ll visit often. Father will be glad to be rid of me.” There was a knock and Mother walked in. “It’s time.” She scanned our faces but didn’t comment. Gianna took a step back, eyes burning into me. Then she turned and walked out. Mother’s eyes zoomed in on the white lace garter on my vanity. “Do you need help putting it on?” I shook my head and slid it up until it came to rest on my upper thigh. Later tonight Luca would remove it with his mouth and throw it into the group of gathered bachelors. I smoothed down my wedding dress. “Come,” Mother said. “Everyone’s waiting.” She handed me my flower bouquet, a beautiful arrangement of white roses, mother of pearl roses, and pink ranunculas. We walked in silence through the empty house, my heels clacking on the marble floors. My heart was pounding in my chest as we stepped through the glass sliding door onto the veranda overlooking the backyard and the beach. The front of the garden was occupied by the huge white pavilion where the wedding ceremony would be held. But behind the pavilion dozens of tables had been set up for the following feast. Voices carried over to me from inside the pavilion where the guests were waiting for my arrival. A path of red rose petals led from the veranda toward the entrance of the pavilion. I followed mother into the small room between the outside and the main part of the pavilion. Father was waiting and straightened when we entered. Mother gave him the briefest nod before slipping into the makeshift chapel. His smile was earnest when he offered me his arm. “You look beautiful,” he said quietly. “Luca won’t know what hit him.” I ducked my head. “Thanks, Father.” “Be a good wife, Aria. Luca is powerful and once he takes his father’s place, his word will be law. Make me proud, make the Outfit proud.” I nodded, my throat too tight for words. The music started to play: a string quartet and a piano. Father lowered my veil. I was glad for the extra layer of protection, no matter how thin. Maybe it would hide my expression from afar. Father led me toward the entrance and gave a low command. The fabric was pulled apart, revealing the long aisle and the many hundred guests to either side of it. My eyes were drawn to the end of the aisle where Luca stood. Tall and imposing in his charcoal suit and vest with the silver tie and the white shirt. His groomsmen were dressed in a vest and dress pants of a lighter grey, and wore no jacket and a bowtie instead of a tie. Fabiano was one of them, with only eight much shorter than the men. My father tugged me along and my legs seemed to carry me on their own accord as my body shook with nerves. I tried not to look at Luca and instead watched Gianna and Liliana from the corner of my eye. They were the first two bridesmaids and seeing them gave me the strength to hold my head high and not bolt for the outside. White rose petals covered my path and were squashed under my shoes. Kind of symbolic in itself, though I was sure it wasn’t meant to be. The walk took forever and yet it was over too soon. Luca extended his hand, palm upwards. My father gripped the corners of my veil and lifted it, then he handed my hand over to Luca, whose gray eyes seemed to burn up with an emotion I couldn’t place. Could he feel me shaking? I didn’t meet his gaze. The priest in his white frock greeted us, then the guests, before he began his opening prayer. I tried not to pass out. Luca’s grip was the one thing keeping me focused. I had to be strong. When the priest finally came to the closing lines of the Gospel, my legs could barely hold me up. He announced the rite of marriage and the guests all rose from their chairs. “Luca and Aria,” the priest addressed us. “Have you come here freely and without reservation to give yourselves to each other in marriage? Will you love and honor each other as man and wife for the rest of your lives?” Lying was a sin, but so was killing. This room breathed sin. “Yes,” Luca said in his deep voice, and a moment later my own ‘yes’ followed. It came out firm. “Since it is your intention to enter into marriage, join your right hands, and declare your consent before God and his Church.” Luca clasped my hands. His were hot against my cold skin. We faced each other and I had no choice but to look up into his eyes. Luca spoke first, “I, Luca Vitiello, take you, Aria Scuderi, to be my wife. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.” How sweet the lies sounded from his mouth. I recited the words expected of me and the priest blessed our rings. Luca picked up my ring off the red cushion. My fingers shook like leaves in the breeze as I raised them, my heartbeat hummingbird quick. Luca’s strong hand was firm and steady as he took mine. “Aria, take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” He slipped the ring onto my finger. White gold with twenty small diamonds. What was meant as a sign of love and devotion for other couples was nothing but a testament of his ownership of me. A daily reminder of the golden cage I’d be trapped in for the rest of my life. Until death do us part wasn’t an empty promise as with so many other couples that entered the holy bond of marriage. There was no way out of this union for me. I was Luca’s until the bitter end. The last few words of the oath men swore when they were inducted into the mafia, could just as well have been the closing of my wedding vow: ‘I enter alive and I will leave dead.’ It was my turn to say the words and slip the ring onto Luca’s finger. For a moment, I wasn’t sure if I could manage. The tremor rocking my body was so strong that Luca had to steady my hand and help me. I hoped nobody had noticed, but as usual Matteo’s keen eyes rested on my fingers. He and Luca were close; they’d probably laugh about my fear for a long time. I should have run when I still had the chance. Now as hundreds of faces from the Chicago and New York Familias stared back at us, flight was no longer an option. Nor was divorce. Death was the only acceptable end to a marriage in our world. Even if I still managed to escape Luca’s watchful eyes and that of his henchmen, my breach of our agreement would mean war. Nothing my father could say would prevent Luca’s Familia from exercising vengeance for making them lose face. My feelings didn’t matter, never had. I’d been growing up in a world where no choices were given, especially to women. This wedding wasn’t about love or trust or choice. It was about duty and honor, about doing what was expected. A bond to ensure peace. I wasn’t an idiot. I knew what else this was about: money and power. Both were dwindling since the Bratva, the Triad and other smaller crime organizations had been trying to expand their influence into our territories. The Italian Familias across the US needed to lay their feuds to rest and work together to beat down their enemies. I should be honored to marry the oldest son of the New York Familia. That’s what my father and every other male relative had tried to tell me since my betrothal to Luca. I knew that, and it wasn’t as if I hadn’t had time to prepare for this exact moment, and yet fear corseted my body in a relentless grip. “You may kiss the bride,” the priest said. I raised my head. Every pair of eyes in the pavilion scrutinized me, waiting for a flicker of weakness. Father would be furious if I let my terror show, and Luca’s Familia would use it against us. But I had grown up in a world where a perfect mask was the only protection afforded to women and had no trouble forcing my face into a placid expression. Nobody would know how much I wanted to escape. Nobody but Luca. I couldn’t hide from him, no matter how much I tried. My body wouldn’t stop shaking and his grip on my hands tightened. As my gaze met Luca’s cold gray eyes, I could tell that he knew. How often had he instilled fear in others? Recognizing it was probably second nature to him. He bent down to bridge the ten inches he towered over me. There was no sign of hesitation, fear or doubt on his face. My lips trembled against his mouth. My first kiss, if it could even be called that. His eyes bored into me, even as he pulled back. Their message was clear: You are mine. Not quite. But I would be tonight. A shudder passed through me, and Luca’s eyes narrowed briefly before his face broke into a tight smile as we faced the applauding guests. He could change his expression in a heartbeat. I had to learn it too if I wanted to stand any chance in this marriage. Luca and I walked down the aisle past the standing and clapping guests, and left the pavilion. Outside, dozens of waiters were waiting with glasses of Champagne and small plates with Canapées. It was now our turn to accept the blessings and congratulations of every guest before we could move on to the tables and sit down for dinner. Luca took two glasses of Champagne and handed one to me. Then he grabbed my hand again and it didn’t appear as if he had any attention to let go any time soon. He bent down, lips brushing my ear and whispered. “Smile. You are the happy bride, remember?” I stiffened, but I forced my brightest smile onto my face as the first guests piled out of the pavilion and lined up to talk to us. My legs began to hurt as we’d made it through half of our guests. The words directed at us were always the same. Praise for me on my beauty and congrats to Luca for having such a beautiful wife – as if that was an achievement – always followed by not so hidden hints about the wedding night. I wasn’t sure if my face remained as bright through all of them. Luca kept glancing at me as if to make sure I kept up the charade. Bibiana and her husband were next. He was small, fat and bald. When he kissed my hand I had to stop myself from shuddering. After a few mandatory words of congrats, Bibiana gripped my arms and pulled me toward her body to whisper into my ear. “Make him be good to you. Make him love you if you can. It’s the only way to get through this.” She let go of me and her husband wrapped his arm around her waist, meaty hand on her hip, then they were gone. “What did she say?” Luca asked. “Nothing,” I said quickly, glad for the next well-wishers that prevented Luca from asking more questions. I nodded and smiled, but my mind whirred around what Bibiana had said. I wasn’t sure if anyone could make Luca do anything he didn’t want to do. Could I make him want to be good to me? Could I make him want to love me? Was he even capable of such an emotion? I risked a glance up at him as he talked to a soldier of the New York mob. He was smiling. Feeling my eyes on him, he turned and for a moment our gazes locked. There was darkness and a burning possessiveness in his eyes that sent a shiver of fear down my back. I doubted there was a flicker of gentleness or love in his black heart. “Congrats, Luca,” a high female voice said. Luca and I turned toward it and something in his demeanor shifted ever so slightly. “Grace,” Luca said with a nod. My eyes froze on the woman, even though her father Senator Parker had started talking to me. She was beautiful in an artificial way with a too narrow nose, full lips and a cleavage that made my moderate chest look like child’s play. I didn’t think any of it was natural. Or maybe my jealousy was talking. I dismissed the thought as quickly as it had come. With a look in my direction, she leaned up and said something to Luca. His face remained a passive mask. Finally, she turned to me and actually pulled me into a hug. I had to force myself not to stiffen. “I should warn you. Luca’s a beast in the bedroom and hung like one too. It’ll hurt when he takes you and he won’t care. He doesn’t care about you or your silly emotions. He will fuck you like an animal. He will fuck you bloody,” she murmured, then she stepped back and followed after her parents. I could feel the color drain from my face. Luca reached for my hand and I flinched, but he clasped it anyway. I steeled myself and ignored him. I couldn’t face him now, not after what that woman had just said. I didn’t care that it was required to invite her and her parents. Luca should have kept them away. I could tell Luca got frustrated with my continued refusal to meet his gaze as we spoke to the last few guests. When we walked toward the tables that had been set up under a roof of garlands attached to wooden beams, he said, “You can’t ignore me forever, Aria. We are married now.” I ignored that as well. I was hanging onto my composure with desperate abandon and still I could feel it slipping through my fingers like sand. I could not, I would not break into tears at my own wedding, especially since nobody would mistake them for tears of happiness. Before we could take our seats, a chorus of ‘Bacio, Bacio’ broke out among our guests. I’d forgotten about that tradition. Whenever the guests shouted the words we’d have to kiss until they were satisfied. Luca pulled me against his rock-hard chest and pressed another kiss against my lips. I tried in vain not to be as stiff as a porcelain doll, to no avail. Luca released me and finally we were allowed to sit down. Gianna took a seat beside me, then leaned over to whisper in my ear. “I’m glad he didn’t shove his tongue down your throat. I don’t think I could get any food down if I had to witness that.” I was glad too. I was already tense enough. If Luca actually tried to deepen a kiss in front of hundreds of guests, I might lose it altogether. Matteo sat beside Luca and said something to him that made both of them laugh. I didn’t even want to know what kind of lewd joke that might have been. The rest of the seats at our table belonged to my parents, Fabiano and Lily, Luca’s father and step-mother, as well as Fiore Cavallaro and his wife and th