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Bound By The Past

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Born in Blood Mafia Chronicles
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Copyright ©2020 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.

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Cover design by Hang Le


Title Page


About This Book

Author’s note


The First Betrayal

The Second Betrayal

The Third Betrayal

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

Part 9

Part 10

The Fourth Betrayal

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

The Fifth Betrayal

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

Part 7

Part 8

The Aftermath

Part 1

Part 2

Other Books

About the Author


My life’s a tale of betrayal.

I killed so many because they betrayed our cause, because they betrayed the Outfit.

A hypocrite. A liar. A murderer.

That’s what I am.

Five times I betrayed the Outfit. With my blood I made a vow to our cause, swore my life to it, promised to put the Outfit first. Above all else.

Five times I chose a woman over the good of the Outfit. I betrayed my father. My vow. My men.

You reap what you sow.

Would my betrayals destroy everything I swore to protect?

On our wedding day I made a vow to stand by Dante’s side.

In good and in bad times.

To love him through it all.

Growing up in the mafia, I knew the challenges in our life would be numerous. I never expected them to tear at the very base of our family, of our existence.

Author’s note

This book isn’t a standalone. You should read (at least) Bound By Duty before starting Bound By The Past. It is, however, recommended that you read Bound By Honor, Bound By Duty, Bound By Hatred, Bound By Temptation and Bound By Love, as well as Twisted Loyalties and ; Twisted Pride in advance because this book entails spoilers for all of the aforementioned books.

Betrayal is punishable by death.

I killed so many because they betrayed our cause, because they betrayed the Outfit.

A hypocrite. A liar. A murderer.

That’s what I was.

Capo. Boss. Judge over life and death.

That’s why I was still here, not dead for my crimes, for my betrayal.

Five times I betrayed the Outfit. With my blood, I’d made a vow to our cause, had sworn my life to it, promised to put the Outfit first. Above all else.

Five times I’d chosen a woman over the good of the Outfit. I had betrayed my father. My vow. My men.

Some Capos considered themselves above the law, above failure. They couldn’t betray the cause because they were the cause. They couldn’t fail because they were without failure. I didn’t share those beliefs. A Capo wasn’t the cause in itself. The Outfit was, and I was accountable for my actions.

And yet my betrayals remained unpunished, at least by the laws of our world. But I’d paid with every betrayal with a betrayal in turn. I’d betrayed and been betrayed. Justice in its purest form.

You reap what you sow.

My life was a tale of betrayal. Eventually I’d have to make sacrifices that could cost me everything if I wanted to preserve what mattered the most.

Dante, nineteen years old

Muffled cries made me stop in my tracks in the hallway. The wails came from the library. I followed the sound and opened the heavy wood door. Ines sat in the armchair in her favorite reading nook, a book in her lap, but I doubted she could see a single letter of the words on the pages before her. Tears stained her cheeks.

My sister wasn’t a crier, had never been, and except for a few occasions when she’d been a young girl, I had never seen her cry. Our father had taught us to suppress any kind of emotional turmoil.

I stepped in, making my presence known. Ines’ blue eyes flew up, her body tensing, but she relaxed when she spotted me. “Oh, it’s you.” She wiped at her tears quickly, avoiding my gaze. I closed the door before I walked over to her and sank down on the small poof she usually used to prop up her feet while reading.

“What’s the matter?” I asked, forcing my voice to remain calm even as my worry and protectiveness made it difficult.

She fumbled with the pages of her book, swallowing hard. “Father decided to whom I’ll be given in marriage.”

Ines was sixteen, so it was time to make that decision. That Father had put it off for so long was only because it gave him leverage. The tremor in her voice raised my worry. “Pietro asked for your hand.”

He was a good choice. He was a quiet, restrained man, unleashing his dark side only when required, like me. I had a feeling he’d keep it well contained in a marriage.

She nodded then threw herself at me. After a moment of shock, I wrapped my arm around her shoulders. “Ines, tell me what’s the matter. Now.”

“He’s giving me to Jacopo Scuderi!”

Tension radiated through my body. “What?” I growled.

Ines sniffled, her tears soaking my collar and my throat. She didn’t stop trembling and shivering. I’d never seen her like this, but given what she’d revealed, it seemed the appropriate reaction.

Jacopo and I had worked together often in the past, not by choice on my part. Father wanted me to work with the Scuderis seeing as they were his Consigliere’s sons, but I abhorred Jacopo deeply. He was a cruel, vengeful being that thrived on demeaning people he considered less—women, low soldiers subject to his command, and his younger brother—and while I was a cruel and vengeful man, I didn’t find satisfaction in humiliating others, least of all women.

The few times I’d been forced to visit one of our whorehouses, I’d seen firsthand what Jacopo considered fun. I’d heard even more horror stories from his younger brother Rocco whenever he had been drunk and unable to shut his big mouth. Jacopo was a sadist, in bed and otherwise. I couldn’t imagine Ines knew the extent of his depravity, and yet she knew he was the worst choice.

Stifling my fury, I said, “Are you sure it’s decided on? Father didn’t tell me.”

Ines pulled back, her eyes full of misery. “It’s settled. He told me this morning right after his meeting with the Scuderis.”

I nodded, realizing why Father had made his choice. It was because I’d refused to marry anyone but Carla. I’d defied him and he’d realized he had no way of forcing or punishing me, so he’d finally given in to his Consigliere’s demand. Father knew what kind of men the Scuderis were. He knew what kind of man Jacopo was, and yet he gave Ines to him. He’d more than once dangled my sister’s fate over my head.

I touched Ines’ shoulder gently. “I’ll have a talk with him.”

“He won’t change his mind. He gave the Scuderis his word,” she whispered, her shoulders starting to shake under more sobs.

I stood and walked out. Ines was a trophy for Jacopo. He and his father had been asking Father to give her hand in marriage to Jacopo for years.

I headed for Father’s office, trying to remain calm. Nothing infuriated Father more than when he couldn’t draw a reaction out of me. In recent years a power shift had happened, it was gradual, but definitely there. He couldn’t punish me with pain anymore, not after years of numbing me to it. I knocked at his door, my knuckles stinging from the force of it. Barging in and demanding answers was what I really wanted to do, but Father was still Capo, still master of this house, and expected respect from everyone around.

“Come in,” Father drawled.

I schooled my face into a mask of calm. It wouldn’t be wise to give Father ammunition against me. Stepping inside, my eyes fell on Father who was sitting in his desk chair and looking down at his calendar. We looked very much alike—a fact people never stopped mentioning. Same cold blue eyes, blond hair, and aloof attitude. Every morning I woke, I swore to myself I’d be a better man. A better Capo. A better husband. A better father.

“I’m trying to decide when we’ll hold both weddings. Your sister’s next year and yours the year after.” He looked up with a calculating smile. Ines was too young to marry. “Or would you prefer to wait a couple more years before marrying? You’re only nineteen. Twenty-one then. Maybe you need a bit more time to enjoy other women.”

Carla would be nineteen in two years, one year older than Ines, and it would be unfair toward her to make her wait, and I didn’t want to. I wanted Carla. “No. I don’t need to wait.” I paused. “But I’m not here to discuss my wedding.”

Father tilted his head in mock curiosity. “Why are you here then?”

He knew damn well why I was here. Stifling my annoyance, I said, “To discuss Ines’ marriage with you. Jacopo isn’t someone we should consider bringing into our family.”

“As the son of my Consigliere and your future Consigliere, it’s the expected bond. The Scuderis have been waiting for Ines. Jacopo is very eager to marry your sister. He’s been refusing every other woman so far. Rocco is already married and will certainly soon have an heir. Jacopo deserves to be rewarded for his patience.”

I didn’t mention that Rocco already had two daughters. For my father, girls weren’t worth anything, which was why he treated Ines like a trophy to hand around. I shook my head. “He’s too old for Ines, Father. And his reputation leaves a lot to be desired. Maybe you haven’t heard the rumors but I’ve been working with Jacopo long enough to know he’s a sadist and psychopath. You can’t allow Ines to be at his mercy.”

Father gave me a look as if I didn’t understand the first thing about life. “If Ines answers to his demands, she’ll be fine. Each of us has to make sacrifices. She should be proud that she’s given to someone of his status.”

I regarded him, realizing he wouldn’t let me talk him out of this. “You’re making a mistake.”

He raised his finger. “And you should remember your place, Dante. You are my heir, true, but I’m still the Capo of the Outfit, still the master of this house.”

I swallowed my anger. I needed to be clever about this. Arguing with Father wouldn’t change a thing. I gave a terse nod.

“You’re working with Jacopo and Rocco tomorrow. You should congratulate him.”

“I will,” I gritted out.

Later that day Pietro called me and asked for a meeting. I knew what this was about. Given Jacopo’s tendency to brag about everything, he’d likely told everyone about his bond to Ines.

We met at the bar of one of our riverboat casinos for a drink. After dropping off my drink in front of me, the bartender kept his distance, sensing my dark mood.

Pietro was a little over two years older than me and currently working in Chicago before he’d take over as Underboss of Minneapolis from his father in a few years. I was nursing my whiskey when he sank down on the stool beside me, motioning for the barkeeper to give him the same I had.

I glanced toward him.

His shirt was wrinkled and his dark hair all over the place. The second the tumbler sat in front of him, he grabbed it and downed it in one gulp. Then his somber eyes met mine. “Don’t let Jacopo get his hands on Ines, Dante.”

I turned the glass around on the bar. Pietro had asked for Ines’ hand twice. As future Underboss of Minneapolis, he was a good choice. He was only six years older than her, not twelve like Jacopo, and most importantly, he wasn’t a sadist. “Why do you want Ines?” I asked him tiredly.

He frowned. “Because I respect her. Despite her age, she knows how to carry herself. She’s proud and elegant and beautiful.”

“And a good match.”

It was an indisputable fact. Every man in our circles who wanted Ines would be stupid not to consider the positive effect a marriage would have on his future.

“Of course, that too. My family wants a union with your family. But since I danced with Ines a few months ago, I knew I wanted her as my wife.” Pietro grabbed my arm, forcing me to meet his gaze. The honest concern in his eyes surprised me. It wasn’t love. He didn’t know Ines well enough for that, but he obviously cared about her. “Dante, you and I know what kind of man Jacopo is.”

Everyone knew what kind of man Jacopo was. He got off on torture. I, too, occasionally appreciated the power rush it gave, especially if I dealt with traitors or enemies, but Jacopo enjoyed it on a sexual level, which didn’t bode well in a marriage.

I inclined my head, trying to suppress the rage flooding my body.

“How can you be this calm? How can you not be raging?”

I almost smiled. My fury was bottled up deep inside where it would remain until I chose to unleash it. It had taken years to perfect my emotionless mask, now it was as impenetrable as steel. “My father is the Boss. You know it’s his decision, not mine.”

Pietro’s eyes were fierce. “But you disapprove of it.”

Of course I did. How could I not? “Ines is my sister,” I said merely. I wouldn’t say more in public, even if I liked Pietro.

“Can you stand by and watch her being given to a monster?”

“Jacopo is cocky and arrogant. It might get him killed eventually.”

Pietro ordered another drink for himself while I still twisted my first in my hands. I’d never enjoyed getting drunk. The loss of control and inhibitions abhorred me deeply.

“Eventually could be too late for Ines.”

I emptied my whiskey. “They won’t marry until next summer…”

“Next summer? She’s only seventeen then. Won’t they wait until she’s of age?”

The barkeeper held up the bottle but I shook my head. I didn’t want to get a buzz. “One year is a long time, Pietro.” I met his gaze.

He searched my eyes, trying to make sense of my words. I wouldn’t get more explicit than that.

“You can trust me. I can help.”

I gave him a cold smile, not saying anything. I wouldn’t spill my guts to him, or share more than I already had. Pietro was one of the few men I trusted to some extent but definitely not enough to tell him more than was absolutely necessary. “I don’t need your help.”

Rocco and Jacopo waited beside the car when Enzo and I arrived. Jacopo smiled broadly, his head even higher and his chest puffed up. I gave him and his brother a sharp nod. If I uttered a word now, it wouldn’t be anywhere close to the sophisticated cold I was famous for. Enzo shook their hands but from the way his mouth thinned when he touched Jacopo it was obvious what he thought of him. Few people liked Jacopo. I didn’t trust any of them.

Without a word, I slipped into the backseat. Enzo took the steering wheel as usual.

“You’re in the back, Squirt,” Jacopo said to Rocco whose ears turned red. In the past, his entire face had turned the same color but he’d learned to school his features over the years.

Rocco sank down beside me, silent but glaring daggers at the back of his brother’s head. Their animosity went beyond sibling rivalry. It was pure, undiluted hatred.

“Why do you still call him by that name?” Enzo asked in his low rumble as he started the car.

“Didn’t I tell you the story?”

“You told it to everyone repeatedly,” Rocco said quietly.

I gritted my teeth. “Indeed.”

Jacopo threw his brother and me a cruel smile through the rearview mirror. “It is too good a story to forget.”

I hadn’t been present when the name was born. But the story still made the rounds, mostly due to Jacopo bringing it up as soon as it died down. Rocco had been fourteen when Jacopo and his similarly depraved friends had taken him to a whorehouse for the first time. Apparently, Jacopo ordered two dancers to give Rocco very intense lap dances, which made him come in his pants. Naturally, that wasn’t the end of Rocco’s humiliation. Jacopo and his friends then forced Rocco to undress, to wipe his cum on a cracker and eat it. They probably would have found more ways to torture him if Giovanni Aresco, our Underboss here in Chicago, hadn’t intervened.

“We have a task to focus on and don’t have time to dwell in the past,” I clipped, ensuring silence in the remaining ride to our target.

Enzo parked a block away from the fabric building and went scouting the area with Rocco. My father disapproved of me taking part in attacks but I insisted. Still, I was rarely allowed to be at the forefront.

The moment Jacopo and I were alone, leaning against the car, he let out a sigh and smiled in a way that suggested he didn’t know why humans used the gesture but he’d adopted it. “Your father made me wait for a long time. Even my brother is already married, and I had to wait years for your sister. But she’ll make it worthwhile for me, I’m sure.” The smile turned darker, leering.

Rage boiled over, past my ironclad defenses. I rammed my elbow into his throat. My knife was right under my jacket. A jab was all it would take to save Ines from a cruel fate—a fate no woman deserved.

Challenge and fear flickered in Jacopo’s eyes. “You want to kill me because of a cunt?”

I tightened my hold. One slash and his blood would coat my hands. It would feel good, better than any kill before him. “Careful,” I said quietly. “This cunt is my sister, and you’d do well to remember that I will be your Capo in a few years. Show respect.”

“And I’ll be your Consigliere. It’s always been that way. Our fathers are friends. You can’t kill me.”

It was true. As long as my father lived, I couldn’t kill Jacopo, and even then it would be difficult to explain to my men. Scuderi was a name that carried power, that belonged to the Outfit. They were loyal. A good reason was necessary to dispose of one of them, and protecting my sister from marital rape and torture wouldn’t be considered one. The mere idea that Ines would have to suffer under Jacopo’s sadism made my blood boil.

I released him. All my life I’d worked to become Capo, to follow in my father’s footsteps. I was meant to rule over the Outfit, and I would. Nothing would stop my rise in power, least of all Jacopo Scuderi. I stepped back with a cold smile. “I won’t kill you, you are right.”

His smile turned more triumphant, certain in his inherited immunity. Steps rang out when Rocco and Enzo turned the corner, done scouting the area.

“All clear?” I asked.

They nodded, and I gave the sign to attack. As expected, we found six Bratva soldiers inside the fabric building, guarding their last drug delivery. We split up into pairs of two as we tried to eliminate our opponents as quickly and effectively as possible. Jacopo and I ended up in a smaller storage hall with three of the higher ranking Bratva soldiers, while Rocco and Enzo were busy dealing with the rest in the main storage.

When I’d struck down the first opponent, I advanced into the room and ducked behind a crate close to my next opponent. Jacopo stayed closer to the door, off to the left and dealt with enemy number three.

I could tell that my opponent was getting impatient and nervous. His aim was off and he kept raising his head to look toward the door for a way to escape. Would he really risk a dash for freedom? It was futile.

I aimed calmly, my arm steady as I waited for his next mistake. He finally raised his head again and I sent a bullet through the Bratva bastard’s head, sending his brain flying everywhere. He tumbled sideways to the ground, dropping his gun, a Russian model.

Jacopo was still in a shooting match with his opponent. My eyes were drawn to the Bratva gun. I tugged one of my leather gloves out of my jacket and slipped it on before I picked up the discarded gun. Then I raised my own Barretta and shot the last Bratva man with it. Jacopo whirled around with a triumphant grin, which died when he saw me pointing the Russian gun at him. “A marriage to you won’t be my sister’s fate.”

He jerked up his gun at the same time as I pulled the trigger. The bullet tore through his left eye, throwing his head back. His body fell backward. For a moment silence reigned around me, an eerie nothingness that resonated in my ears.


I’d killed an Outfit soldier. A man who was loyal to the cause, to my father, to the Outfit.

A sharp intake of breath made my eyes dart toward the door, where Rocco Scuderi stood. One look at his expression and I knew he’d witnessed my murder of his brother. For several moments neither of us moved. I was still pointing the Russian gun at the place where Jacopo’s head had been.

Rocco’s face morphed from shock to… relief.

Rocco looked relieved, no, ecstatic to see his older brother dead. There had been no love between the two but this unguarded show of joy came as a surprise. I pointed my gun straight at Rocco’s skull but he hardly seemed to care. With wide eyes, he walked closer to his dead brother, a disturbing smile on his face. He spit on the corpse then kicked it hard several times.

I lowered my gun slowly, narrowing my eyes at the display of emotionality.

“See! See! You got what you deserve!” he raged, his head red and perspiring. “You got it!”

Breathing harshly, he turned around to me. My gun was leveled at his chest by now, as I was trying to decide if I could risk killing him as well. Rocco Scuderi wasn’t a good man, but he was as loyal as his brother, maybe even more so, and he didn’t share his brother’s sadism, at least he hadn’t openly displayed it until now.

Rocco’s gaze dropped to the gun in my hand, the Russian model that had ended his brother’s life, realizing it could end his as well. “I won’t tell anyone,” he said.

I moved closer to him, stepping over the dead Russian in the process. I didn’t take my eyes off Rocco. “You won’t?” I asked coldly. “Honor dictates that you tell your father the truth about who killed his heir, your vow binds you to reveal any betrayal of the Outfit to your Capo, my father.”

Rocco grimaced, his eyes shining with hatred. “For as long as I can remember, I wanted him dead. I would have killed him myself…” He shook his head. “I’m grateful that you did it. I’ll forever be grateful, Dante. I’ll take the secret to the grave with me, I swear it.”

“Why?” I stopped a few steps from him, the gun still trained on his heart.

“Because you gave me everything I ever wanted. Jacopo is dead, and I’ll be Consigliere.”

I tilted my head. “True. You’ll take over for your father eventually.”

Rocco frowned. “If he allows it. Jacopo was his favorite child.”

Jacopo’s brain decorated the bare concrete floor. “I can’t trust anyone with a secret of that proportion, you certainly understand.”

Rocco’s gaze became frantic. I could practically see his thoughts racing in his head. He took a step closer and I raised my gun higher. “Dante, I’m going to give my father poison, something that’s difficult to detect unless you’re looking for it specifically. Something that’ll make his end look like a heart attack. He’s had one before and it’s only natural for him to suffer another one after his heir, his favorite child is cruelly killed by a Bratva bastard. You’ll convince your father that I was devastated and that my father’s death was a natural cause and I’ll convince everyone the enemy killed my brother. That way I’m not the only one guarding a secret.”

Rocco had the potential to be a useful Consigliere, more so than Jacopo could ever have been. His father was only marginally better than Jacopo and too strongly entwined with my father. If I wanted a gradual power shift, I’d have to change the key players now. Killing Rocco would raise suspicions and leave me with Scuderi Senior to deal with for a decade or longer. I needed to diminish my father’s power now, in subtle but effective ways. “Wait a week or two. Let him die after the funeral.”

Rocco nodded, relief blatant on his face. “Thank you, Dante. You won’t regret it. I’ll be a loyal Consigliere, if you want me.”

“You’ll be Consigliere when I claim power, that’s my promise to you.” I paused. “But if you ever mention this event again, I’ll finish what I didn’t today. You’ll take this secret to your grave either way.”

“Nobody will find out from me.” Rocco regarded me with admiration and respect. I couldn’t detect deceit in his demeanor. I lowered the gun and put it back down beside the Russian.

“You need to move him to the side a bit so the angle is right,” Rocco said.

He was right. I dragged the Russian to the left then shoved my glove back into my pocket. Rocco gave a satisfied nod.

Enzo stormed inside, looking disheveled. His eyes landed on Jacopo. “Fuck. The fuckers got him?”

I nodded. “He was struck by a Russian bullet. We will have to avenge him. The Bratva needs to pay with blood,” I said firmly.

Rocco smiled grimly. “They will for killing my brother.”

A shared lie. I didn’t trust Rocco, but I trusted in his hatred for his brother and his eagerness to become Consigliere. Both would ensure his silence… for the time being.

One betrayal was always followed by another. It would take years for me to realize it.

After a late-night meeting with my father, the old Scuderi, and our Captains, I finally headed up to my room. I wasn’t sure if Father really believed that Jacopo had been shot so shortly after I’d found out he was to marry Ines. I had a feeling he knew of my betrayal but chose to ignore it. Or maybe he’d hold it over my head later. I wasn’t sure of his motives. He had only one heir, me, and he and Mother were too old for another child. He was bound to me like I was bound to him if I wanted to keep the respect of the Outfit. Patricide was something that wouldn’t be accepted in our traditional circles.

On my way to my bedroom, I stopped in front of Ines’ door. I rapped my knuckles against the wood.


“Yes,” I answered.

“Come in.”

I pushed the door open, slipped in and closed it. Ines stood in front of her window, already dressed for bed in a long nightgown, her long blonde hair trailing down her back. Jacopo’s disgusting words of what he’d do to her flashed through my mind, followed by the grim satisfaction that he would never touch an inch of my sister.

“I wanted to tell you…” I said but trailed off when Ines turned around to me. She knew Jacopo was dead. The utter relief shone on her face. “You aren’t supposed to listen in on meetings, Ines. Father will punish you.”

Father expected me to punish her as well, but I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t hit her, or hurt her in some other way. He’d never tortured her as he had me, but he hit her and treated her like she was less. My refusal to do the same infuriated him.

Ines rushed toward me and flung herself into my arms, hugging me tightly. “I’m so happy, so happy he’s dead. It’s horrid of me to be happy about something like that, but I am. I could dance from joy. I prayed every day since I found out about the marriage that he’d die, and now my wish came true. I know it was you. I know you killed him so he couldn’t hurt me.”

“Ines,” I hissed in warning. “What are you talking about?”

She raised her blue eyes filled with gratefulness. “I know it was you. Don’t lie to me. I know you did it to save me from him.”

I didn’t say anything because Ines knew me too well. No matter what I said, it wouldn’t change her mind.

“Thank you for saving me. Thank you, Dante. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Tears filled her eyes again, and my chest tightened. She rested her forehead against my chest, releasing a shuddering breath. “Thank you for killing him.”

“Ines,” I rasped. “Shhh. Nobody must know. Jacopo was killed by the Bratva, all right?”

She pulled back, smiling softly. “Carla is so lucky to become your wife. If she knew how honorable you are, she would stop worrying so much.”

My brows drew together. “Carla’s worried about marrying me?”

Ines and Carla had been friends for as long as I could remember, which was why I knew Carla despite her low status as only second daughter of a Captain—according to my father. The knowledge that they talked about me behind my back didn’t sit well with me. I hadn’t started noticing Carla until a year ago when I’d taken her home after she’d visited our home. It was inappropriate but Ines hadn’t felt well enough to join us. The thirty-minute drive during rush hour had forced us to talk and her soft lullaby voice as she talked to me about mundane things like stitching or cooking had given me a feeling of calm. While calm always reflected on my outside, true calm on the inside had eluded me. I’d started paying closer attention to her. She was beautiful but very shy about it, naturally submissive, kind and religious, almost pious. She was good in a way I strived to be every morning when I swore not to become like my father and yet failed to be already at breakfast when I entertained thoughts of how to remove the old man without losing the Outfit’s respect. If anyone could bring out whatever good there was in me, then it was someone like Carla.

Ines smiled. “You are hard to read, and quite frankly scary for people who don’t know you, so… everyone except for me.”

“She agreed to marry me.”

“Her father agreed, and any Captain would be insane not to agree if he could marry his daughter off to the future Boss of the Outfit.”

I stiffened. “If Carla doesn’t want me—”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Then what is it you’re saying, Ines? Tell me.”

She lowered her arms, her smile falling. “Don’t—” She swallowed. “Don’t sound like him. You scare me when you do.”

I released a low breath and touched her arm lightly. “You don’t have any reason to be scared of me and neither does Carla. But I need to know if she doesn’t want to marry me, if she isn’t attracted to me.”

Ines shook her head. “Of course, Carla wants to marry you. Almost all the girls are attracted to you, even if you act like you don’t notice. Your aloofness is driving them crazy. You should hear the speculations making the rounds. It’s cringe worthy. Even Carla sometimes falls trap to them.”

“What rumors?”

Ines bit her lip. “I’d rather not say.”

“Ines,” I said firmly.

“Honestly,” Ines said, flushing. “I’d rather not say.”

“I need to know the rumors making the rounds about me, especially if Carla buys into them.”

Ines looked away. “It’s making the rounds that you’re so obsessed with work and so untouched by human emotion that you don’t require any kind of physical closeness, which is why some people believe you’re…” Ines cringed.

I raised my eyebrows.

“…you’re a virgin. Carla actually asked me if you’re saving yourself for marriage.”

I stared at my sister. Her cheeks were red. She covered her mouth with her palm and laughed, eyes crinkling with amusement. Her shoulders shook. “Sorry.”

This was very typical for our society, especially for our women. They tried to spin stories around me to make me out to be some kind of dream-worthy hero when I was anything but.

“I know you’re not, which is what I told Carla—”

“You know?” I tilted my head, narrowing my eyes. While I wasn’t entirely comfortable discussing my sexuality with my sister, her certainty intrigued me.

She blinked, lowering her hand. “You are?” Her shock made the corner of my mouth twitch. I only looked at her and slowly her face morphed to confusion. “You’re toying with me.”

I was, but it was good to see the weight of the last few days fall off her.

She shook her head. “You can’t be. Why would you be? If I could choose the person and even enjoy it like men do, then I wouldn’t wait either.” Her eyes widened. “I’ll wait of course. You know I will. It’s not like it’s something I’m looking forward to.”

She grimaced and turned her back to me. “I’m sorry. You should go now.”

I touched her shoulder. “Ines, calm down. I understand. You don’t have to fear my reaction. I’m not Father.”

She nodded slowly and peered up.

I felt compelled to give her a bit of the truth. “You are right, I’m not saving myself for marriage. Even if I wanted to, it wouldn’t be allowed in our circles. My first experience wasn’t by my choice nor did I enjoy it. As is habit, our father like every father in the Outfit takes his son to a whorehouse and pays for his first woman. I was very young, and would have preferred choosing a woman for myself.”

Ines turned to me slowly, her face shifting to compassion.

“Don’t feel sorry for me. You are right, as a man, I have the chance to enjoy myself before marriage, but marriage doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy yourself too. Pietro is a good man.”

“Dante!” Ines cried and pointed at the door. “Now you really must leave.”

I walked out and she followed, her fingers gripping the edge of the door tightly as she closed it until only a sliver of her face peeked out. “Will Father allow me to marry Pietro?”

“Do you want to marry Pietro?”

“He’s good looking.” She swallowed. “He’s a good man?”

He was a Made Man. “He’ll be good to you.”

“Then I want to marry him.”

I nodded. “You will.”

After breakfast, I went into Father’s office. Mother was there as well. She wrung her hands. “People consider it bad luck.”

“What do they consider bad luck?” I asked as I stepped in.

“That Jacopo died so soon after your father agreed to give Ines to him. She could be cursed.”

Mother’s superstition astonished me, even after all this time.

Father’s eyes pierced me. “A curse requires a higher power having a hand in Jacopo’s end, but it wasn’t God who struck him down, right, Dante?”

“Right. The Bratva isn’t any more heaven-sent than we are.”

Father’s smile was stiff, his eyes reptile-like in their scrutiny of me.

“I worry—” Mother began.

“Worry about clothes and stitching, not about things beyond your understanding,” Father said.

Mother nodded and scurried away.

“Pietro asked for Ines’ hand twice. Even this ridiculous curse rumor won’t dissuade him.”

“I have other offers I need to take into consideration as well.”

I stepped close to the desk. Maybe he was trying to punish me through Ines once more. I’d not allow it. “Say yes to Pietro.”

His eyes flashed with anger. “Careful.”

“A king without an heir reigns over a kingdom doomed to fall. I’m willing to risk the plunge. Are you?”

It was the only threat I’d utter. Father held my gaze, trying to gauge my seriousness then he smiled stiffly. “Pietro is the best choice on the table anyway. Why don’t you tell him the good news? He can have Ines next year. We’d set the wedding date for August.”

“Father, Ines will be only seventeen then.”

“And marriage age and age of consent are sixteen in Minnesota where she’ll live with Pietro. I expect him to move to Minneapolis and prepare to take over from his father in the next couple of years.”

“Do you expect me to take over as Capo soon after my wedding to Carla as well?” Of course, I knew the answer. My pleasant question was meant to provoke.

“Being the Boss of the Outfit is quite a different matter.”

Father thought it would draw less negative attention to him if he was referred to as Boss, not Capo, as if anyone was fooled by the false packaging. I gave a curt nod. “I’ll meet with Pietro now.”

I didn’t wait for his dismissal and left. On my way to my car, I sent Pietro a short text asking him to meet me in fifteen minutes at the bar in the Bologna, the casino he managed at the moment. When I entered the place, which had an annoying lava lamp theme, Pietro already perched on a stool. I headed for him and sat down beside him. He turned. Today his hair was immaculate and his clothes perfectly ironed. “I heard Jacopo was killed by a Bratva bullet yesterday.”

A Bratva bullet, not a Bratva soldier. “It was unfortunate.”

Pietro smiled. I motioned for the barkeeper to give me an espresso like Pietro.

“Father agreed to give Ines to you.”

Pietro’s expression brightened. “He does?”

“Next year, August.”

Pietro froze. “I’d prefer to marry her the year after when she’s eighteen, Dante.”

“My father insists on the date, and that you move to Minneapolis right after the wedding and prepare to become Underboss.”

Pietro looked away, running a hand through his hair. “I don’t feel comfortable being married to Ines when she’s only seventeen.”

“I assume because of the sexual aspect of your marriage,” I said in a low voice, even if I bristled at the idea of it.

Pietro gave me a pained look.

“We don’t have the bloody sheets tradition anymore. You can wait the ten months until Ines’ birthday. Marriage doesn’t mean you have to have sex.”

Pietro stared down at the bar. “Dante,” he said quietly, but the doubt rang loud in that one word. He raised his head.

I wasn’t blind. Ines was a very beautiful woman. Her blonde hair and blue eyes were desired by many men, and her tall frame added to her appeal. Pietro would be as good a husband as a man of his or my disposition could be. He was also a man—a man who’d have the right to a very beautiful woman he’d share a house and bed with.

“I’d never force Ines, you know that.”

“Ines has been brought up to be dutiful and her duty is to give her body to you. Force won’t be necessary, Pietro. You know that as well as I do.” My voice had become sharper.

“I don’t know if… if I’m strong enough to resist that long.” He searched my eyes. “Could you resist for months if your beautiful wife shared a bed with you every night?”

I prided myself on my self-control. Was I absolutely sure I could resist? No, but I wouldn’t reveal that to Pietro. “Yes.”

Pietro shook his head with a chuckle. “Then you’re a stronger man than me.”

Their wedding took place next year in August as Father insisted.

I kept an eye on Ines and Pietro at the wedding, trying to read their interactions to gauge how forceful my warning for Pietro would have to be. My eyes drifted to Carla who stood by herself, clinging to a glass of water. Her parents were dancing. I made a beeline for her. She spotted me and quickly averted her eyes in the demure way she had. I held out my hand. “Would you dance with me?”

“Of course.”

We danced for a while in silence before I bridged the subject that had been bothering me. “Are you sure you want to marry me?”

Her eyes grew wide. “Absolutely. We marry in three months… do we?”

I inclined my head. It had taken considerable effort to convince Father to have the wedding the same year as Ines’ but I didn’t want to wait. Carla’s parents were very conservative and she had already turned eighteen several months ago. “You seemed reluctant.”

“I’m not, honestly. I’m only keeping my distance considering we’re not married yet.” She gave me her first honest smile of the day.

“Three months.”

She smiled a bit wider, blushing, and nodded, and as usual, a sense of calm flooded me in her presence. After my dance with Carla, I headed toward my brother-in-law to deal with the second matter on my list.

Pietro laughed at something Rocco said. Since the old Scuderi’s death and Rocco had taken over as Consigliere his demeanor had changed. Now nobody called him Squirt anymore. Freed of his father and brother, he showed that he was a Scuderi through and through, not as depraved as them but cunning and brutal. A good Consigliere, one who was loyal to me, not my father.

“I’d like to have a word with you.”

Pietro nodded and followed me to a secluded area.

“You remember a year ago you told me Jacopo was a monster and that Ines shouldn’t be given to him.”

Pietro watched Ines talk to Carla before he turned back to me, brows pulling together. “Of course. I’m glad he got killed.”

“I hope you’ll prove tonight and every day that follows that you are a better man than Jacopo, that you deserve my sister,” I said quietly, stepping closer to him.

Pietro held my gaze. “If I don’t, will the Bratva give me an early end as well?”

“I hope it won’t come to it.”

“It won’t. And not because I fear the consequences.” His expression was hard. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to talk to my wife.”

I was tense, had been all night and all morning. Pietro and Ines finally stepped in and applause sounded. I didn’t join in. Pietro had his arm wrapped possessively around Ines’ waist, but Ines was leaning into him, seeking his closeness and protection as the force of everyone’s attention hit her. She held her head high despite the slight blush on her cheeks. She peered up at Pietro without a hint of fear and he returned her gaze with adoration. When he noticed my attention, his expression smoothed, turned into blank calm. He gave me a curt nod, and I returned it because one look at my sister told me he’d treated her the way she deserved it. Maybe betraying the Outfit for my sister would eventually come with a price, but I was willing to pay it.

Ines—the first woman I betrayed the Outfit for.

It was only the beginning.

12 years later

I held Carla’s hand, pressed my lips against her knuckles. Her skin was ashen, her breathing labored, pained… I raised my eyes, found her watching me with tired, sad eyes. “I’m sorry I could never give you children.”

I shook my head, touched her cheek and pressed a kiss to her dry lips. “Carla, nothing of this matters.”

“This is all a part of God’s plan, my love.”

I didn’t say anything. In all the years, Carla’s faith had never rubbed off on me, no matter how hard she’d tried. I wasn’t a believer, now less than ever. If there was a God and this was his plan, I’d never forgive him.

“Don’t… don’t be angry. Don’t let it consume you.”

I’d have given her the world. But this wasn’t something I could promise. Anger was already boiling in my chest, waiting to spill forth.

“Will you pray with me?”

I cupped her hands, nodding and lowered my head. Carla’s whispered prayers bounced off my rising despair. Carla was everything good in my life. She contrasted me. Without her… what would I become?

The morphine wasn’t strong enough to make Carla’s waking hours bearable—unless the doctors gave her so much that her state was almost comatose.

I held her hand as she whimpered, her face sunken in completely. Few of my enemies had suffered under my torture as much as Carla did in the last days of her life. It wasn’t fair. Nothing could make me believe otherwise.

“I know suicide is sin, but I want this to be over. I just want it to stop.” She swallowed. “I can’t… take anymore.”

I froze. I’d known it was only a matter of time before we’d have to say goodbye, but Carla’s words threw the stark reality of it into my face.

I kissed her hand. “It’s not really suicide if death comes through my hand, my love.”


“I’ve done worse.” That was a lie. This would break the last human part in me, but if anyone was worth that sacrifice, it was Carla.

“Are you sure?” In the past she would have argued with me, recited Bible passages, appealed to the good in me. That she didn’t even try showed how bad it was.

I nodded.

“You can shoot me. That’s quick and easy for you.”

Nothing about this would be easy. And I’d never disgrace Carla by killing her like I would a goddamn traitor. “Don’t worry about it. Tomorrow everything will be over and you’ll be at a better place.”

I didn’t believe in Heaven or Hell. If there was, our goodbye would be eternal.

That evening was the last I spent with Carla.

When I stepped up to the bed, Carla smiled weakly. She knew what I was about to do and relief shone in her eyes. I hadn’t discussed the details with her. She’d always preferred to stay in the dark regarding the brutal sides of life. I reached into my pant pocket and pulled out the syringe with the insulin. I lay down on the bed beside Carla and stroked a few strands of her soft hair. Streaks of gray mingled in it, like the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, they were marks of her battle against this demonic sickness. A battle she’d lost. “It’s okay,” she whispered. “You’ll find new happiness.”

I didn’t say anything because every word would have either made Carla sad or been a lie.

With shaking hands, I prepared the syringe. Hands that were always steady no matter what happened. Not now. “I love you, Dante.”

I swallowed. “And I love you, will always only love you, Carla.”

She squeezed my hand with sad eyes then gave a small nod.

Looking into her eyes, I pushed the syringe into her arm. Before I injected her, I cradled her in my arms and kissed her once more. Seconds after the injection, Carla lost consciousness and as I held her in my arms, her breathing stopped.

I kept holding her even as she became cold, even as the silence in the room echoed loudly in my head. Night fell outside and then it became light again, and I still cradled her in my arms. Steps sounded in the house. Slowly, I slid my arm out from under her body and put her head down on the pillow. After I pulled out the syringe and thrust it into the bin, I kissed her eyelids and stood.

I couldn’t look away from her lifeless body, even though the sight of it crushed my heart.

“Master?” Zita called, and for a moment I considered sending her away so I could be alone with Carla’s body and my sorrow, but I couldn’t hide like this forever. I couldn’t do what I wanted—lay down beside my wife again and wait for death to claim me as well. Life needed to go on. I wasn’t sure how it could though.

Ines squeezed my hand under the table as she kept on her conversation with Mother. I didn’t react to her attempt at consoling me, instead I excused myself and headed for the gardens, needing to get away from all the people who pretended they cared about Carla’s death when all they wanted was to get into my good graces, knowing it was only a matter of time before I’d take over as the Boss officially from my father as well.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been this angry but without an outlet to release my emotions. Carla’s death had been like a cluster bomb and since then my insides felt frayed, torn, irrevocably damaged. My sorrow hadn’t diminished, if possible it had grown in the days since I’d killed her and with it my fury, my need to share this agony the only way I could, by inflicting it on others.

Steps raised my protective walls but I didn’t have to mask my face into one of calm, it always was. My muscles seemed perfectly frozen even as my insides burnt with emotions that threatened to unravel me and with it possibly the Outfit.

Pietro stopped beside me, not saying a word and stared up at the night sky like I did. After a couple of minutes, he slanted me a look. “We’ll stay for a week. Your mother is happy to have the twins around and Ines thought it would do you good to have family close by.”

I gave a terse nod.

“Dante,” Pietro said quietly, angling his body toward me and I knew his words wouldn’t do what they were intended to do even before he spoke them. “If you need someone to talk, you know you can come to me. You don’t have to bear this loss by yourself.”

One hand curled to a fist at my side, I nodded again, and Pietro finally retreated.

The night sky seemed endless and foreboding tonight. I wanted to believe Carla was up there somewhere, looking down at me. Maybe it would have offered me a flicker of consolation if I believed in an existence after death. I didn’t, and consolation was unreachable. The images of Carla’s lifeless body, of her casket being lowered into the dank soil slithered through my mind like poisonous snakes.

Two days later, my parents invited the Scuderis over for dinner and despite my need to be alone, I attended the gathering. There was no one at home waiting for me and my duty to the Outfit bound me to be present. It wouldn’t do good to appear weak, not so shortly before my rise to become Capo.

Ines, Pietro, and the twins were there as well. The Scuderi sisters were too old to play with them but Fabiano was only a year older and so he joined Serafina and Samuel in a corner of the room after dinner to play. I barely listened to the conversation, even if it was about the Famiglia and how to assure peace with them.

“A marriage would bind us. Salvatore is eager to find a beautiful bride for his son Luca,” Father said.

“He’s interested in Aria,” Rocco said. “An immediate wedding preferably.”

My gaze turned to the girl who was chatting with her sisters on the sofa. She was fifteen, too young for marriage and too innocent for someone of Vitiello’s disposition.

“That man killed his cousin with his bare hands. I’m not sure if a union between him and one of our girls can be the foundation of peace,” Ines said.

Father’s brows tightened with disapproval, and Mother made a small shush noise toward Ines. “Your opinion isn’t appreciated at this table, Ines. You better concern yourself with how to please your husband and control your children, especially your daughter, she needs to learn her place.”

Serafina was brawling with the boys, holding her own despite her angelic appearance.

In the past, Ines would have ducked her head but as Pietro’s wife, she only had to obey him, not Father, and Pietro didn’t appear annoyed by her speaking up.

“I’ll teach my daughter her place, don’t worry.” Ines had mastered the art of subtle defiance and polite criticism, and so she smiled even though her eyes reflected the same aversion I felt toward our father.

Father’s mouth pinched and he looked at me as if he waited for me to rebuke Ines. He knew my sister valued my opinion more than his. I lifted my glass and took a sip of my wine, not in the slightest interested to get involved in this, not today, not when my mind kept replaying Carla’s last smile, her last breath, the moment her fingers went slack in mine.

“There’s of course something to consider before we decide to give Aria to Luca.” Father’s smile was reptile-like, and my muscles tightened in preparation for his next words. “Aria could give the Outfit beautiful blond children. You need a new wife and an heir.”

Despite my best intentions, the words hit me like a sledgehammer. After so many years, Father had finally found something to cut me once more. Keeping my face neutral was an agonizing struggle.

“Carla’s funeral was only two days ago!” Ines hissed, glancing toward me in blatant concern. “Don’t you have an ounce of respect for her memory and for Dante’s sorrow?”

“You’d do well to respect the man who decides over life and death in this territory,” Father said.

Pietro grabbed Ines’ hand and from the look in his eyes, I knew he was about to say something that would get him in trouble with my father, and while Father would hesitate before disposing of an Underboss, he would never dispose of me because he wanted his blood to live on and I was his only option. I stood and thrust my palm down on the table, letting my anger out and balling my sadness into a tight knot inside of me. “This conversation isn’t happening.”

Even the kids fell silent as they watched me open-mouthed.

I stepped back and stalked out of the room, seething, and continued toward the front door, needing fresh air. Father wouldn’t give up that easily.

My suspicion proved correct when Father and I were invited over to the Scuderi mansion a few days later to discuss the newest developments of a possible union with the Famiglia.

Father had talked to Salvatore Vitiello several times in the last few days while I’d stepped back to gather myself. My mental state wouldn’t do us any favors in business negotiations at the time being. Luca and Salvatore could smell weakness from miles away.

“I sent Salvatore photos of Aria and Gianna,” Father said. “He’d accept either of them but he prefers Aria.”

Rocco shook his head. “Gianna’s too boisterous. He’ll beat her to death and then we’ll be left with the problem of how to react appropriately. She needs someone who knows how to control his impulses and break her without killing her. Luca isn’t that kind of man.”

His eyes slanted to me. I ignored the subtle suggestion. I wouldn’t marry Aria or Gianna. Those girls were thirteen and fifteen, mere children, and I was a man who only harbored darkness after Carla’s death.

“We have to make tactical choices that benefit the Outfit, son.”

I nodded. “That’s true. Giving Aria to Luca seems the wiser choice. I think she’ll be less likely to provoke him than Gianna.” Considering how I’d killed Jacopo to protect Ines from a monster, it was ironic how I agreed to give another innocent girl to a monster for the sake of the Outfit. Sacrifices needed to be made, it was Father’s credo. I knew there was only one way to save Aria from Luca’s clutches and that was if I wanted her for myself. Father and Rocco would readily agree. It would spare her the cruelty under Luca’s hand and it would get Father off my back, allow me to bury myself in my grief without constant surveillance. I could insist on a marriage in three years, and even if Father demanded a closer date, I knew Aria would be glad if I didn’t act like a husband, if I didn’t try to lay claim on her. My insides tightened at the mere idea of being with someone other than Carla, of making a vow of that proportion when Carla was the only woman I wanted to be bound to.

As if he could smell my train of thought, Rocco got up and walked toward the door, opening it. “Aria! Come down here for a moment.” Rocco returned to the table and exchanged a look with Father. I knew what they were thinking, what so many people in the Outfit were thinking.

The Golden Couple. The name carried in whispers through our circles, had started to do so even before Carla’s body had turned cold, had begun the moment word about her cancer had gotten out. I’d ignored it but it had grown to a dimension that made it impossible to keep doing so. I was left with two choices if I didn’t want to appear weak, because grieving a dead woman was nothing but weakness in the eyes of so many of Father’s loyal men. Either I married Aria, or I gave her to Luca.

Within a couple of minutes, she walked into the living room, dressed in a pale blue dress, her blonde hair up in a messy ponytail. Her eyes widened as she spotted us, too young to school her features quick enough. She came over, hands clasped in front of her belly, trepidation reflecting on her face. For a moment, her eyes met mine before she ducked her head and turned to Rocco. “Yes, Father?”

My eyes trailed over her, trying to imagine how I could be a husband to that girl. I couldn’t possibly allow closeness in the physical, much less the emotional sense to her. The idea of sharing a bed with her, of pretending I could care about her, it stirred up my insides, until anger and sorrow were inseparable until my need to dish out the same pain that consumed me got overwhelming. Maybe Luca would break her with cruelty, but maybe he wouldn’t. I didn’t know.

What I knew without a doubt was that I would break her with my sorrow-tinged darkness, that I’d eventually vent my anger on her because she dared to take the spot at my side nobody deserved but the woman that I’d buried mere days ago.

“We want a drink. Head over to the cigar lounge and get glasses and the bottle of my favorite scotch for us.”

She nodded quickly before she turned and walked off. I wouldn’t marry Aria. I couldn’t.

“She’s beautiful and young,” Father said to me.

“She is.” My voice didn’t reflect my inner turmoil. “Which is why we need to give her to Luca Vitiello. It’ll send him the message that we’re determined to give him the best we can offer. If peace is our intention, we don’t have a choice.”

Disappointment flickered across Father’s wrinkled face but he inclined his head. Rocco didn’t seem too sad either, after all, his daughter would be given to a future Capo either way. “There’s still Gianna.”

“Father,” I said firmly. “I won’t marry Gianna either, or anyone else. We have other things to focus on.”

He knew me well enough to realize I wouldn’t budge on the subject now that I had made up my mind. I didn’t want to marry again soon, or ever. The memory of Carla was my companion and the success of the Outfit my mission in life, there was no room for anything else.

I’d sworn to put the Outfit above all else, especially a woman, but here I was refusing a bond because of my love for Carla. Not marrying posed a risk in our circles. It suggested I was struggling with my late wife’s death and that was admittance of weakness above all else. If the Outfit appeared weak, our enemies might try to attack. Not to mention that I needed an heir, a boy who could become Capo when I retired or got killed.

Yet I couldn’t marry, not yet. Maybe never.

It was betrayal of my oath, but the vows to Carla meant more to me. They always would.

Three years later

I regarded Aria as she huddled beside Luca. Despite the splendid white dress and her bright smile, it was obvious to me that her wedding wasn’t a day of joy for her. It didn’t come as a surprise, considering her husband. Luca’s vigilant eyes kept returning to me, like a lion who smelled another predator in his territory.

He wasn’t someone I would have tolerated in my vicinity under normal circumstances, but normal had become an even harder to grasp concept in these last three years.

Mother put her hand over mine. “Don’t you think it’s time for you to take it off?”

I released my wedding band, which I had been twisting around my finger, pulled my hand away and stood. “Excuse me, I think it’s expected of me to grace the dance floor with my presence.” My mother’s face reflected the same reproach her words had carried but guilt trips had long lost their impact on me.

But her interference was appreciated anyway. I needed to keep up appearances at a time like this and hanging on to the past publicly wasn’t something I could risk. Ines and Pietro had barely left the dance floor, one of the few couples who were as happy behind closed doors as they appeared on the outside, like Carla and I had been.

I shoved the thoughts aside and my eyes came to rest on Valentina once more. She stood off to the side, talking to Bibiana Bonello. I purposefully went over to her and her demeanor changed from relaxed to sophisticated tension the moment she noticed my approach. She’d lost her husband less than a year ago and her father had started looking for a new husband for her a couple of weeks ago. I held out my hand. “Would you like to dance?”

Surprise flickered in her green eyes but she accepted my invitation and let me lead her toward the dance floor. Silence stretched between us as we began to sway to the music, and I considered the woman in my arms. From the moment Valentina’s father Giovanni had started looking for a new husband for his daughter, an idea had started forming in my mind. Valentina had lost her husband recently, and would still be crippled by her own sorrow, which in turn would make her reluctant to seek my closeness, at least emotional. As for the physical aspect of a possible bond, I had no trouble admitting that I was attracted to her, as were most of the men present tonight. Valentina was elegant and beautiful.

Moreover, she was experienced, which might make her undesirable in my parents’ eyes but perfect for my purposes. A virgin bride required gentleness and care I didn’t have to spare but Valentina might be up for the angry sex I craved if only to battle her own demons into silence.

“I’m sorry for your loss. I haven’t told you personally so far.”

Sadness flickered in her eyes. “Thank you. It means a lot coming from someone who understands what it means.”

My chest constricted but my mask remained perfectly still.

“Not everyone comprehends that it takes time to overcome sorrow.” Her eyes darted briefly to her father who talked to Rocco.

She was obviously unhappy about his attempts to remarry her so quickly, another fact that made her the perfect option. After the dance ended, my decision was made. I’d discuss a possible union with her father as soon as my own had agreed.

As expected, Father wasn’t excited about my choice. “She’s been married before, Dante. Do you really want a woman that’s been claimed by another man? In a few months, you’ll be Capo. You can have any girl you desire, why opt for second-hand ware?”

I stifled my annoyance and kept up my stern expression as I shoved my hands into my pockets. “It’s either her or no one. I don’t want a young girl at my side. Valentina is perfectly capable to give me what I need.”

Father sighed, his milky blue eyes trying to stare me down, but he’d grown old and the only thing that protected him from an early grave was the fact that I respected Mother and knew that many men looked up to my father despite his many faults.

“Talk to Giovanni. I’m sure he’ll jump at the chance to make the match.”

Without another word, I headed out of his office and continued out of my parents’ house toward my car as I sent Giovanni a message that I’d be coming over for a business matter.

I didn’t see Valentina or her mother anywhere when Giovanni led me into his office, obviously confused by my appearance. “Is something the matter, Dante? I’m confident that our men will keep Grigory’s soldiers in check.”

“That’s not why I’m here.” I accepted the drink he held out to me before I sank down on the sofa. Giovanni sat across from me, a flicker of unease in his eyes. Did he think I was here because I’d remove him from his position as Underboss now that I’d become the Boss of the Outfit? After all, we were the only mob family where the Capo allowed an Underboss in his own city.

“Have you found a husband for your daughter yet?”

He lowered his glass with a look of confusion. “I have a couple of suitors who’d be willing to accept a widow. They are soldiers like Antonio but I hadn’t really expected that I’d manage to find a better match for her. I should have never agreed to her marriage to Antonio in the first place, but I wanted to see her happy and now see where it’s gotten us.” He shook his head and opened the button of his jacket as he relaxed in the chair.

I nodded even if it didn’t matter to me. “If she isn’t promised to someone yet, I’d ask you to give me her hand in marriage.”

Giovanni coughed as he choked on his scotch, his eyes watering. “Excuse me?”

“I’d like to marry your daughter, if that’s agreeable for you.”

Giovanni stared at me for so long, I wondered if he’d suffered a stroke, then he laughed. When I didn’t fall in, he fell silent and he cleared his throat. “You’re being serious.”

“I am. I want to marry Valentina in January before I take over as Boss.”

Giovanni sank back against the backrest, releasing a low breath as he ran a hand through his hair, looking seriously stunned. “I didn’t expect that.”

“I can see that.”

“Does your father agree to you marrying someone who isn’t pure?”

My lips tightened. “I don’t ask for permission, Giovanni. You know as well as I do that I already rule over the Outfit. My word is law.”

Giovanni nodded, swirling his drink in its glass and shaking his head again. “Why my daughter, Dante?”

I hadn’t expected that question. “I thought you’d be happy about a union between Valentina and me.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I am, and Livia will undoubtedly be ecstatic to have you as her son-in-law, especially after all the trouble Orazio has been giving us,” he said quickly, but he didn’t look it. He took another sip, obviously weighing his next words. “But you have nothing to gain from a union like that.”

“I’ll gain a beautiful wife and a mother for my children.”

“There are dozens of girls in our territory that could give you the same thing with the added bonus of you being their first husband.”

“I’m not interested in having a teenage girl at my side, nor do I see an advantage of being with a virgin.”

Giovanni grimaced and something in his eyes changed. It was a subtle change but one I noticed because I’d learned to pay attention to the little details. He was a man who’d switched from asking as my Underboss to interrogating me as Valentina’s father. “You know me, Dante, I mind my own business, but in my position, I’d have to be deaf not to hear the occasional tidbit of gossip.” His eyes held mine. “I know you used to frequent the Palermo. Tommaso and Raffaele are men who like to hear themselves talk, you know that.”

“Say what you have to say,” I said coldly, even though I had a feeling I knew where this was going.

“According to their words, and I quote ‘you went there to fuck your anger out of your system’.”

“How I spend my nights is my business and so are my sexual preferences.”

“They are, unless you intend to use Val to get rid of your anger. She isn’t a virgin, all right, but I won’t have her abused because you think your conscience will give you less trouble with an experienced woman.”

Giovanni was a loyal soldier, a good Underboss and a better man than I’d realized. Rocco like so many other men would have handed his daughters over to me no questions asked, but Giovanni wanted to protect Valentina and I respected him for it, which was why I’d cut him slack for the way he’d talked to me. “I don’t have a conscience that could give me trouble,” I bit out. “But I can assure you I won’t abuse Valentina, virgin or not. You know my stance on domestic violence and rape, Giovanni. You were at my side when I tried to rule it over.”

He tilted his head but his expression remained wary.

I considered what to tell him. He had been right that I wanted Valentina because I hoped she’d be willing to settle for a bond of convenience that extended to angry sex. I wasn’t looking for closeness or love but a way to fulfill my duty to the Outfit. If this bond allowed me to fuck my anger out of my system without using whores, that would be an added bonus but only if Valentina wanted the same. “I want your daughter as my wife because we’ve both lost someone and that’s a base we can build a mutually beneficial bond on.”

“That’s a reason I can accept, but I’m not sure if Val shares our views.”

“She seems like a woman who sees reason. I’m sure she’ll agree this is the best solution for both of us.”

“I’m sure she will,” he said slowly. There was a note to his voice I couldn’t place but it was irrelevant.

“Is it settled then?”

He raised his glass. “It is.”

We clinked glasses and downed our drinks then I left, having more pressing business to attend to now that the problem of my marriage was settled.

The wedding wasn’t as splendid as could be expected from a man in my position but it was bigger than I would have liked.

Valentina was a beautiful bride, elegant sophistication in her cream-colored dress. My attention should have been on her—only her—from the moment she set foot inside the church, even more so when she arrived at my side and her father handed her over to me.

And yet, I struggled to stay in the present, to not be taken back many years to another wedding ceremony, to another woman. The woman who still haunted my nights with her sorrow-filled eyes.

When it was time for our kiss, my insides tightened. I hadn’t kissed a woman since Carla’s death. It was too intimate a gesture, too emotional. But Valentina was my wife and everyone expected us to share a kiss.

I didn’t show my conflict, didn’t allow a moment of hesitation, as I lowered my mouth to Valentina’s waiting lips. The reluctance I’d expected at this intimate contact didn’t come, the guilt, however, crashed down on me like an avalanche. I pulled back, catching Valentina’s searching expression, and turned to the guests. Valentina thought our marriage would allow her to pry behind my walls—she’d soon be disillusioned.

The wedding was a string of meaningless conversations, stilted smiles and congratulations I could hardly accept. Dancing was only marginally better.

I released Aria after our obligatory dance and she quickly returned to Luca’s side while I left the dance floor to clear my head for a bit. Orazio stood off to the side by himself and I headed his way. He stood a bit straighter as he noticed my approach. “Dante,” he said, his eyes wary. Our relationship had always been distant, and I doubted it would change now.

“Have you and your father settled your dispute?”

“It can hardly be called a dispute. He told me his opinion and expects me to follow his command.”

I nodded. “Our world is dominated by old rules that can’t be overrun easily. Often it feels like there’s only duty and little choice.”

Orazio’s mouth tightened. “I know. Duty is a word I’m all too familiar with.”

I searched his eyes. “Giving up someone we care about is never easy, but a marriage of convenience can be mutually beneficial.” Even to my own ears the words sounded hollow. My eyes followed Matteo as he bowed in front of Valentina and pulled her close against him. Anger surged through me at his open lack of respect.

“Is that what Valentina is to you—convenient?”

I slanted Orazio a sharp look. “I won’t discuss my marriage with you. Nor will I get involved in your matters.”

Orazio looked away. “If you’d talk to my father, he may see reason.”

“I can’t get involved in family matters. Your father has always been a loyal man.”

Valentina’s laughter carried through the room.

My gaze found her as she smiled broadly over something Matteo must have said.

“Excuse me,” I told Orazio, who merely nodded, and made my way over to Valentina and Matteo. For some unexplainable reason, it didn’t sit well with me that Valentina seemed completely at ease with Matteo. His charm was notorious.

“I think it’s my turn again,” I said as I reached them, my voice clipped.

Matteo’s mouth twitched. “Of course. Who could stay away from such dark beauty for long?” Then he kissed Valentina’s hand in a way that made my blood boil. The open provocation spoke to the dark fury that had lain dormant beneath a thin layer of control all day. Valentina gripped my hand before I could decide if killing Matteo would give me the necessary satisfaction to warrant war with the Famiglia. Aria was clever enough to drag Matteo away.

“I thought you wanted to dance with me?” Valentina’s words interrupted my thoughts.

I pulled her against me and began to lead her over the dance floor, even if the soft music didn’t compliment my pounding pulse.

“What did he say?” I asked.


“What made you laugh?”

“He made a joke about bushes.”

A hint of embarrassment flickered across Valentina’s face.

“He should be more careful.”

“I think he’s a bit tense because of the problems between Gianna and him.”

“From what I hear, he’s always been volatile, even before his engagement to the Scuderi girl.”

“Not everyone is as controlled as you are.”

If she knew how little I wanted to control myself tonight, she wouldn’t have said that.

I was relieved when the celebrations afterward came to an end and Valentina and I sat in the quiet of my Mercedes on our way to my mansion. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d betrayed Carla today, my promise to her, our love, the memory that kept me from losing myself to the darkness completely, but I hoped that at least from the outside I looked composed, in control. But I was sick of being in control, tired of holding onto an appearance of cold when I wanted to rage and destroy.

Many months had passed since I’d last visited the Palermo, last released at least part of the pent-up fury. One would think that my life provided enough opportunity to relieve some tension and I had certainly made sure to take part in more attacks than in the previous years but it didn’t seem enough. Instead of calming the raging fury and sadness in my veins, every act of violence seemed to kindle a new, a hotter fire in my chest. Valentina slanted me a look, perhaps bothered by our lack of conversation but I couldn’t provide her with small talk, not right now.

I was trying to honor her as my wife but that required that I didn’t lose control and as it was my composure was hanging at a threat. All through the evening, I’d battled with myself. I was angry at the situation, at everything, even at Valentina, which was unreasonable since this marriage hadn’t even been her idea. I prided myself on my logical qualities but right now, emotions overruled all else and threatened to pull me and the image I’d built apart at the seams.

I tightened my hold on the steering wheel as I pulled the car up to the mansion that had been Carla’s and my home for almost twelve years, and would now become Valentina’s home too. Even that felt like a sacrilege. Valentina gave me another curious look, but I wouldn’t let her glimpse behind the mask. I led her into the house then up the stairs toward our bedroom.

My eyes found Valentina’s cleavage, her enticing curves. Maybe I could get rid of some of the tension coiling in my body. Ever since Matteo’s dance with her and the appreciative glances other men had thrown her way, I’d felt the depraved need to stake my claim. I’d never been the primal type, never acted on my base needs, but I had been a different man back then, or maybe not different, but my dark nature hadn’t been as in control. With Carla, I had been restrained, never felt the desire for angry sex with her. She had been the calm in my life, the one who spoke to the good in me, to a part of me I wished was more prominent but would never be.

I opened the door to the master bedroom and motioned for Valentina to go in, which she did with another searching look at me. My eyes followed the curve of her back to her ass that the dress accentuated in a very pleasing way as I stepped inside and closed the door. I’d moved into the bedroom days after Carla’s death, unable to sleep in the room I’d spent almost every night with her. I shoved the memories aside, forced down the wave of emotions they evoked, and focused on a safer notion: my desire for my wife.

“The bathroom is through that door,” I said, as I walked past her toward the window, stifling my desire to grab Valentina, throw her down on the bed and fuck her from behind. She was my wife, and deserved at least some semblance of control from me. That I desired her made me already feel guilty. The whores I’d sought in Palermo had been chosen based on their sexual specialties, not their appearance. I hadn’t even given them more than a fleeting glance before I’d fucked them, but I had chosen Valentina, and even if I wanted to pretend it had been based solely on logic, I had to admit to myself that I’d found her desirable.

The soft click told me Valentina had disappeared in the bathroom. I braced myself against the window, staring out into the dark night, focusing on the way my groin tightened, on the desire stirring in my insides, on the dark hunger that screamed louder than sorrow and guilt.

When Valentina finally emerged, I was teetering on the edge. She cleared her throat, causing me to turn and take in the sight of her, dressed in a violet nightgown that hugged her curves. It was elegant and more modest than I’d expected. When my gaze finally settled on her face, I knew I wouldn’t find an outlet for my pent-up fury tonight, not because Valentina wouldn’t answer to my demands but because I couldn’t allow myself to act like that toward my wife, not when she looked at me with a hint of insecurity and shyness, and worse hope. Valentina may have lost a husband but she wanted me to take his place, to give her tenderness and love.

“You can lie down. I’ll grab a shower.” The words came out like an order but I didn’t take them back as I headed into the bathroom and closed the door from Valentina’s confused face.

I tore at my tie then thrust it to the ground before I removed my remaining clothes with the same violence. Only when I stepped inside the shower and released a long breath as the hot water poured down on me did I relax. I grabbed my cock, needing to get rid of the desire simmering under my skin. The woman waiting for me in our shared bed wanted something I couldn’t give her and she wasn’t ready yet to give me what I wanted. Soon she’d realize that this was a bond for outside appearances, no more. My release brought me little satisfaction, not that I’d expected it to, but when I returned to the bedroom fifteen minutes later, I felt more like myself, in control and calm. Valentina reclined on the bed, elegant, beautiful. My eyes took her in, could not stop, but again her expression reminded me why I had tried to control myself in the first place. I stretched out beside her, even though her scent crawled into my nose, calling to the desire I’d tried to quench. I met Valentina’s gaze as she stretched out beside me. She looked embarrassed and insecure, almost innocent, and it threw me off because I’d expected her to be different, because I’d married her in hopes that she’d be different.

“I have an early day tomorrow,” I said, turning off the lights.

Valentina’s even breathing sounded beside me and her scent still tantalized me, but in the dark, the past was stronger than my desire as memories resurfaced against the black canvas of the night. Carla’s sunken face, her raspy last breath, the fear and despair in her eyes, and finally the relief when it all ended.

I avoided my wife like a goddamn coward. I prided myself on my restraint but in her company, I was shown how wrong I’d been. Every new attempt from her to seduce me tore another chunk of my wall down.

Valentina didn’t give up. Part of me wanted her to keep up her pursuit until I lost my battle, the other, still stronger part, needed her to stop before I showed her why I’d avoided marriage for so long. Our first kiss awakened something in me I had trouble caging in, a hunger so unrestrained and wild, it threatened to awaken the parts of my nature that had no place in a marriage. And so I kept pushing her way. For my sake, but more than that: for her sake.

I stared into the dark fireplace. The last embers had died unlike the fiery anger inside of me. It was difficult to pinpoint the source of my anger. Most of it was directed at myself but a part was for the woman who didn’t deserve it. Valentina.

I resented her for the desire she stirred in me. She made me feel unhinged in a way I was unfamiliar with. I’d never experienced this kind of sexual desire, this need to consume someone.

The sound of heels on hardwood floor attracted my attention but I didn’t turn. Valentina hovered near the doorway, beautiful as always, a siren calling to my base instincts.

“Is it true that you frequented Club Palermo?”

My fingers around the whiskey glass tightened. I didn’t want to discuss the past, and even less be reminded of my primal needs. “It belongs to the Outfit, but that was a long time before our marriage.”

“So you didn’t mind the company of prostitutes, but you can’t take your own wife’s virginity?”

Shock blasted through my composure. I looked at Valentina. Virginity?

A desire so all-consuming it almost shredded my control took hold of me. With sheer force of will I reined it in.

Valentina fled the room.

With forced calm, I set the glass down and followed her, even if keeping my distance to my far too tempting wife was detrimental.

I found Valentina in the bedroom, staring out of the window. I approached her until I could see her tipped down face in the reflection.

“Virginity?” I asked, standing close behind Valentina who kept looking out of the window, trying to hide her face from me. “You and Antonio were married for four years.”

I thought of Valentina’s attempts to seduce me. She had appeared unpracticed and inexperienced but I had blamed it on her nerves about being with another man than her first husband. Now as I reflected on her actions more thoroughly, I realized that they could more likely be linked to her never having been with a man, but the question remained: why was she a virgin after having been married? “Valentina,” I said more firmly.

“I shouldn’t have said anything,” she whispered. “It was just a figure of speech. I didn’t mean it in the literal sense. As you said, Antonio and I were married for four years. Of course, I’m not a virgin.”

She was lying. I had no trouble detecting the lie and it raised my anger. Few people dared lying to me and they all paid a harsh price for it, but Valentina knew she was safe. Safe from the cruel nature of my being but that didn’t mean I didn’t have other ways to coerce the truth out of her. I touched her hip. She jumped in surprise and bumped into the windowsill with a gasp.

The feel of her warmth through her clothes had a stronger effect on me than I liked.

I focused on Valentina’s reaction, ignoring my own. “Turn around,” I ordered. Valentina turned to face me but she didn’t meet my eyes. I lifted her head, meeting those damn stunning eyes. As always, she shivered ever so slightly under my touch and that reaction went straight to my cock.

Valentina didn’t try to pull away or lower her gaze. She held mine almost stubbornly but her chin tensed. She was nervous, and not just because of our closeness. She held onto a lie. The question was, which one.

“So your words downstairs were simply meant to provoke?” I asked in a low voice. I hardly ever raised my voice, not even when I dealt with my soldiers, and I certainly wouldn’t when dealing with my own wife.

Valentina’s eyes watered and a tear rolled down her smooth cheek, bursting on my index finger. I let go of her. Tears didn’t bother me. I’d had grown men cry on their knees in front of me, but the sight of my wife’s turmoil caused an unpleasant twinge in my chest. Valentina withdrew herself from my closeness at once.

“Why are you crying?” I asked carefully, trying to figure out Valentina’s mood. She didn’t strike me as someone who cried often.

“Because you scare me!”

“Until today you never seemed scared of me,” I said. Evoking fear in others came naturally to me and it was something I’d used to my advantage in the past and still did. Fear certainly would have made Valentina reveal the truth but I didn’t want my wife scared of me.

“Then maybe I’m a good actress.”

“You have no reason to be scared of me, Valentina. What are you hiding?”

Her eyes flitted down to my chin, avoiding my gaze, trying to cling to the lie she had no way of protecting. “Nothing.”

I wrapped my fingers around her wrist, a warning and a request. “You are lying about something. And as your husband, I want to know what it is.”

Valentina’s eyes flashed with anger, surprising me in their vehemence. “You mean as the Boss you want to know, because so far you haven’t exactly been acting like my husband.”

She was right. I hadn’t acted like a husband, not a good one, not even a decent one. I had been trampling on those vows but that wasn’t the point, and I wouldn’t allow her to make it one. “Why would you still be a virgin?”

“I told you I’m not!” She tried to evade the situation by ripping from my hold but I didn’t release her. Instead, I drew her closer until she was pressed up to me, but I regretted my decision the moment her scent hit me, a spicy perfume with a flowery note and Valentina’s very own tantalizing scent. Her pulse sped up, her lips parted, eyes dilated as she stared up at me. She licked her lips, a nervous gesture, and my groin tightened with a new wave of desire for the woman in front of me. I wanted Valentina, there was no denying it.

I shoved the sensation down. “So if I were to take you toward our bed right now—” I said quietly and pressed Valentina closer to our bed. “—and make you mine, I wouldn’t find out that you lied to me just now.”

She wouldn’t be able to hide it from me if she was a virgin. When I’d taken Carla’s virginity, there had been no mistaking it. Pain flared in my chest, burning hot, and I shoved any thought of her out of my mind.

Valentina tugged at my hold. “You wouldn’t because you won’t take me to that bed now.”

I focused on the woman in front of me. She’d tried to sound certain but a hint of uncertainty remained. “I won’t?”

“No, because you wouldn’t take me against my will. You disapprove of rape.”

“That’s what you hear?” I asked with a laugh.

She held my gaze. “Yes. You gave the Underbosses direct orders to tell their men you’d castrate anyone who used rape as a means of revenge or torture.”

“I did. I think a woman should never have to submit to anyone but her husband. But you are my wife.” In our world, a woman’s body belonged to her husband. Nobody would question me no matter what I did to Valentina, not only because my word was law but also because our old-fashioned traditions protected me.

Valentina shivered, the sophisticated mask slipping, revealing what I often forgot: she was much younger than me. “But still,” she whispered.

“Yes, still,” I said firmly and released her. “Now I want you to tell me the truth. I’ll always treat you with respect, but I expect the same from you. I don’t tolerate lies. And eventually, we will share a bed and then, Valentina, I’ll know the truth.”

“When will we ever share a bed like husband and wife, and not just sleep beside each other? Will that ever happen?”

If only she knew how often I’d imagined fucking her, and how desperately I wanted to throw her on the bed. “The truth. And remember I will know eventually.”

Valentina ducked her head, her shoulders tensing.


“What I said in the living room was the truth,” she admitted quietly, looking up at me through her lashes. Her cheeks reddened in embarrassment.

A strange thrill shot through me at her admittance, unexpected and unwanted. “That’s what I thought, but now I ask why?”

“Why is it such a surprising thought that Antonio didn’t want me? Maybe he didn’t find me attractive. You obviously don’t, or you wouldn’t spend most evenings in your office and your nights with your back to me. We both know that if you wanted me, if you found me desirable at all, I’d have lost my virginity on our wedding night.”

Desirable wasn’t a strong enough word to describe Valentina. She was gorgeous, elegant. My eyes dipped to her neckline. During her few seduction attempts in the first days, she’d worn lingerie that had almost broken my resolve. Now I was glad my self-control had won out. If I’d fucked Valentina in those days, it would have been fueled with anger, hard and fast. I would have noticed her innocence too late and might have hurt her. That wasn’t what she deserved. And yet I knew she would never get the lovemaking she wanted for her first time. “I thought we agreed on the fact that I wouldn’t force you,” I said.

Valentina’s chest heaved and she blushed further. “But you wouldn’t have to force me. You are my husband and I want to be with you. I’ve practically thrown myself at you for days now, and you didn’t even notice my body. If you found me attractive, you would have shown some kind of reaction. I guess I’m just lucky to always end up with husbands who find me repulsive.”

Anger filled me. Anger at myself for being incapable of doing what I should have done on our wedding night. “You aren’t repulsive to me. Trust me, I find you attractive.”

Valentina’s eyebrows twitched in doubt. How could she believe I didn’t desire her? Most of my damn thoughts these days revolved around fantasies of how I wanted to claim her pussy and mouth. I stepped closer to her, trying to ignore the way my body screamed to make her mine. “I do. Do not doubt my words. Whenever I catch a glimpse of the creamy white skin of your thighs…” I stroked her soft thigh, feeling goosebumps rise on her skin. She was warm and soft and mine. Shock flashed across Valentina’s face, followed by desire, beckoning to a side of me I was doing my damnedest to suppress. “Or when I see the outline of your breasts through the little nothings you wear to bed…” I continued, unable to stop myself from touching the swell of Valentina’s breasts. “I want to throw you onto our bed and bury myself in you.” The truth lingered between us and I quickly retracted my hand, forcing back my desire.

“You do? Then why—”

I pressed a finger against Valentina’s mouth, silencing her. The feel of her hot breath against my skin raised images of my cock in her mouth. It was a losing battle, I knew it, had known it for a long time. “It’s my turn to ask questions, and you promise not to lie.” She gave a small nod, worry swirling in her eyes. “Why did Antonio not sleep with you?”

Valentina was a woman very few men could resist. I’d seen the way many of my soldiers looked at her when they thought I wasn’t paying attention.

“I promised him not to tell anyone ever.”

“Antonio is dead,” I said. It didn’t sit well with me that she chose loyalty to her dead husband over loyalty to me, but I knew I was being hypocritical. “I’m your husband now, and your promise to me is more important.”

She looked away again. “Valentina?”

“Antonio was gay.”

Surprise washed over me. I’d always prided myself on being a good judge of character and Antonio had never acted in a way that would have suggested he preferred men. Of course, my soldiers knew they had to hide their disposition or leave me no choice but to punish them. “I never suspected anything. Are you sure?”

Valentina gave me an exasperated look. As usual, it angered and thrilled me equally. So very few people dared to show their true feelings in my company. “He brought his lover home sometimes,” she said.

“Why didn’t he sleep with you to create offspring? That would have fended off possible suspicions.” They hadn’t been married very long but eventually, people would have questioned why they were childless. It had been the case with me and Carla. I shoved the thought away.

“I don’t think that would have worked. You know…” She pointed toward my cock.

“He was infertile?”

A dark blush spread on Valentina’s cheeks, making me wonder why I was still bothering holding back. I wasn’t a good man, and trying to be one was a waste of time. I’d claim her, eventually.

“No, he mentioned once that he couldn’t get one up with women.” I returned my attention to Valentina who looked honestly uncomfortable, and her words made me realize something else. She’d never seen an erection.

I needed to focus on protecting the Outfit, not the nature of my desire for my wife.

“Who was his lover?”

“I can’t tell you. Please don’t make me.”

I regarded Valentina’s face closely as I touched her upper arms, knowing the effect my closeness had on her. “If it’s someone from the Outfit I need to know, and if he isn’t… the Outfit comes first. I need to protect all those placing their trust in me.”

“I can’t tell you. I won’t. I’m sorry, Dante, but no matter what you do, I won’t give you a name.”

Disobedience wasn’t something I tolerated, not even in my family. Carla had never opposed me, had been naturally submissive, but Valentina was anything but. It made me want to force her into submitting. “You’ve lived a sheltered life, Valentina. I’ve had hardened men say the same to me, and in the end they gave up all their secrets.”

“Then do what you have to do,” she gritted out and withdrew from my hold once more. “Cut off my toes and feed them to me. Beat me, burn me, cut me, but I’d rather die than be responsible for the death of an innocent man.”

Innocent. That wasn’t a term she would have used for a Made Man. “So he’s an outsider.”

Valentina’s expression was all the answer I needed. “I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t have to. If Antonio took his lover home, I assume you’ve met him and know his name and can describe him to me.”

Valentina lifted her chin in defiance. Something deep in my chest stirred, something possessive and primal. I moved close again, forcing her to deal with my presence.

“Aren’t you loyal to me? Don’t you think you owe me the truth? Don’t you think it’s your duty? Not only because I’m the Boss of the Outfit, but because I’m your husband,” I said.

Valentina narrowed her eyes. That wasn’t the reaction I’d expected. “And you owe me a decent wedding night. As my husband, it should be your duty to take care of my needs. I suppose we both will have to live with the disappointment.”

Fuck it all. The problem was I wanted to fuck her, to fuck her into submitting, wanted to domineer and possess her. It wasn’t what she needed, what a husband should do, but fuck, she was pushing my buttons. I’d never felt that urge with Carla. She’d been so gentle-minded and submissive, I could have never fucked her like I wanted to fuck Valentina. I’d only made love to her.

I grabbed Valentina and jerked her against me, so her back was pressed up against my chest and her firm butt against my cock. I considered gripping her neck and bending her over, considered fucking her right here and there from behind. Maybe then she’d stop wanting me to become the husband she desired.

“I’m a patient hunter, Valentina,” I said quietly, stifling my darkness, my anger, and sadness. “You will tell me what I want to know eventually.” I ran my palm down her side, feeling her tremble under the touch and my cock stirring in response. My fingertips grazed her smooth thigh and Valentina held her breath, desperate for my touch, but not as desperate as I felt to claim her. God, I wanted to own this woman.

My hand trailed up her thigh until I reached her panties. The lace was drenched with her juices. Valentina’s arousal was like a siren’s song. She leaned back against me, her breathing deepening, nipples puckering under her flimsy nightgown. Begging me to fuck her. I pushed a finger under her panties, stifling a groan at the feel of her wet, hot slit. My finger stroked over her soft flesh, then delved between her folds, feeling their smoothness and Valentina’s wetness. “You want this?” I growled, my voice drenched with desire. I needed to get a grip on myself, needed to rein this in. Losing control wasn’t an option.

“Yes,” Valentina said. Her voice was throaty, needy. She pressed her pussy against my hand, making my finger glide over her opening. I wrapped my arm around her waist, stopping her movements. Feeling her tight pussy against my fingertip made me want to exchange the digit for my cock. “I want you, Dante.”

“Tell me what I want to know.” I wasn’t even sure if this was still about coercing information out of my wife because I doubted I could have stopped rubbing my fingers over her folds. Valentina’s breathing deepened, her hips making small rocking motions as she got closer to her release. She got wetter, and I had to force myself to keep up the gentle touch and not finger-fuck her like I’d fantasized about. Valentina began to shake, more arousal making my fingertips slide easily between her pussy lips. Valentina leaned her head back against my shoulder. “Don’t you want me?”

Didn’t she see? I wanted to fuck her so hard she couldn’t walk, wanted to spill my cum down her throat, wanted to claim her. Her green eyes swam with need and desire, and that alone might have convinced me to throw her on the bed and show her how much I wanted her. But behind the apparent desire, I detected her insecurity, her anxiety, her need for tenderness. I stroked my finger up to her clit, rubbing it with the pad and Valentina’s eyes widened in shock, her perfect lips falling open, as she came under my hand. My cock was painfully hard as I watched her succumb to pleasure, knowing I could give her so much more, show her different forms of pleasure.

I wanted Valentina, had never desired a woman like I did her. And that was the problem. She was my wife. I’d made a vow to be good to her and I would keep it. I wouldn’t fuck her, not when she deserved lovemaking and tenderness. My wife, not a whore. “I do. That’s the problem.” I released her before I did something I’d regret, and definitely something she would regret. I didn’t look at her again as I strode out of the bedroom, needing to bring distance between my wife and me.

I didn’t slow my steps until I reached my office and closed the door. I went straight to the liquor cabinet, fixing myself a strong drink. The moment I brought up the glass with the whiskey, I released a harsh breath and closed my eyes. Valentina’s scent lingered on my fingers. The sweet scent of her arousal. I wanted to taste it, taste her. I downed the whiskey in one gulp and put the glass back down. My cock pressed against my pants, hard and leaking pre-cum. I resisted the urge to jerk off in the middle of my office. I wasn’t a goddamn teenage boy and even then, I’d possessed more self-control than that.

I walked around the desk and sank down, my eyes going to the picture frame on the mahogany surface. An image of Carla and me shortly after we’d married. My chest tightened as it always did when I looked at the picture. A flicker of guilt filled me. It wasn’t an emotion I was very familiar with.

I’d sworn to Carla that I would always love her, always remember her. I’d sworn it on her deathbed, had made a vow. I had never wanted to marry after she’d died. I’d wanted to live with her memory like I’d sworn.

People thought I was the epitome of control but I wasn’t. It hadn’t taken long after Carla’s death before I’d broken the first promise, before I’d sought whores to fuck. It had been angry, desperate fucking, a way to relieve tension and pain. I’d made peace with my sinful nature, had told myself it didn’t affect the vow I gave because these women were nothing but a fuck thing. They might as well have been rubber dolls for all I cared about them.

But things with Valentina were different. I desired her, wanted to fuck her, but I respected her, not only because she was my wife, but also because of her cleverness and her backbone. She was a good woman. A woman who deserved a good husband. Sighing, I opened my laptop, deciding to bury myself in last month’s numbers to distract myself, and knowing full well it wouldn’t work forever.

It was way after midnight when I moved up to the bedroom. Instead of heading into the bathroom to get ready, I went over to the bed. Valentina lay on her back, face tilted toward my side of the bed. In the sliver of light streaming in from the hallway, her skin glowed enticingly. One long leg peeked out from under the covers, making me want to trace her smooth skin again, to reach higher and slide a finger into her.

I turned and grabbed pajama bottoms on my way outside. It was better if I spent the night in my office as long as I didn’t get a better grip on my desire.

My mind wandered to Valentina, to her admittance.

I’d chosen a married woman because I didn’t want the burden of being with a virgin because I knew I couldn’t be what an inexperienced woman needed. A gentle lover who held them in his arms as he whispered words of adoration in their ear.

The man capable of that kind of thing had died with Carla. That man had only ever existed because of Carla.

It wasn’t in my nature to be gentle or loving, now less than ever.

Still a depraved part of me, the part I hid behind expensive suits and a mask of utter control, rejoiced at the knowledge of Valentina’s innocence. That part of me wanted to lay claim on her.

I fought the desire, held on to my outward control, when I knew it was a losing battle. I wanted Valentina, wanted her like most men would want a woman of her beauty and inexperience. Wanted to own and corrupt her. I hadn’t been with a woman since I’d married Valentina and even before that my visits with whores had been infrequent. My body screamed for release, and not just of my desire, also of the pent-up anger simmering in my veins.

But Valentina was my wife and she deserved better than sex out of anger. I knew I wouldn’t be able to give her much more.

After two cups of black coffee, I hid in my office again the next morning. I’d never avoided someone. It wasn’t in my nature. I thrived on conflict.

My eyes darted to the picture frame with a photo of Carla. I grabbed it. These last few days fewer of my nights had been filled with the memory of her last breath. Instead phantasies of claiming Valentina had occupied my nights.

Valentina opened the door.

I quickly set down the frame. “What are you doing here?”

My voice was harsh.

Valentina froze for a moment before she squared her shoulders. “This is my home too, isn’t it?”

“Of course it is, but this is my office and I need to work.”

“You always do. I wanted to see if you were all right.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Why? Because you acted very strange yesterday. One moment you’re touching me and the next you can’t get away from me fast enough.”

If only she knew… “You don’t know anything about me, Valentina.”

“I know, and I want to change that, but you keep pushing me away.”

My eyes darted to Carla once more. “I never wanted to get married again. For good reason.”

“I didn’t ask you to marry me!” Valentina snapped, surprising me with her unbridled anger, so unrestrained and exhilarating.

She whirled around and rushed off, throwing the door shut with so much force that a book tumbled off the shelf. Like a hunter awakened, I chased her and gripped her wrist. “You have an impossible temper.”

Her eyes narrowed, and fuck, I wanted to sink my cock into her right in the middle of the hallway.

“That’s your fault.”

“This marriage has always been for practical reasons. I told you that.”

“But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to make it a real marriage. There are no logical reasons why we shouldn’t sleep with each other. You slept with prostitutes, so why can’t you sleep with me?”

Her eyes swam with confusion and hurt. Valentina was young and in some regards naïve, even if she often put up a sophisticated front. “Because I was angry and I wanted to fuck someone. I wanted it rough and hard. I wasn’t looking for closeness or tenderness or whatever it is you want. I took whatever pleasure I wanted, and then I left. What you’re looking for, I can’t give you. The part that was capable of it died with my wife, and it won’t come back.”

Valentina shifted closer. “You don’t know what I want. Maybe we want the same thing.”

“I can see in your eyes that’s not true. You want to make love, but I can’t give you that. I do want to possess you, want to own every part of you, but not for the reasons you want me to. I’m a heartless bastard, Valentina. Don’t try to see anything else in me. The business suit and emotionless face is the thin layer covering up the fucking abyss that’s my soul and heart. Don’t try to glimpse beneath it—you won’t like what you find.”

I released her and stalked back into my office.

Getting work done was out of the question after our argument. All I could think about was Valentina.

When a knock sounded around dinnertime, I expected Valentina to ask if I would eat with her. The moment I opened the door, I knew that wasn’t the reason why she was here. Beneath the silky material of her bathrobe she was naked.

“Can I come in?”

I stepped back and walked over to the desk, away from my wife, even as my insides screamed for me to rip away the last piece of clothing.

Steeling my expression, I asked, “What’s going on?”

“I made up my mind.”

“About what?”

Valentina parted her bathrobe, revealing a body straight out of my darkes