مرکزی صفحہ Bound by Duty

Bound by Duty

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Dante – The Boss –
Cavallaro’s wife died four years ago. On the verge of becoming the
youngest head in the history of the Chicago mafia, Dante needs a new
wife and Valentina was chosen for the role.
Valentina lost her
husband, too, but her first marriage had always been for show. When she
was eighteen, she agreed to marry Antonio in order to hide the truth:
that he was gay and in love with an outsider. Even after his death, she
kept his secret, not only to preserve the honor of a dead man, but also
to protect herself. But now that she’s about to marry Dante, her castle
of lies threatens to crash. Dante is only thirty-six but already feared
and respected in the Outfit, and he’s notorious for always getting what
he wants. Valentina is terrified of the wedding night that might reveal
her secret, but her worries prove unfounded when Dante shows her the
cold shoulder. Soon her fear is replaced by confusion and indignation.
Valentina is tired of being ignored. She’s determined to get Dante’s
attention and desire, even if she can’t get his heart that still belongs
to his dead wife.
جلد:
2
سال:
2015
زبان:
english
صفحات:
318
سیریز:
Born in Blood Mafia Chronicles
فائل:
EPUB, 260 KB
ڈاؤن لوڈ کریں (epub, 260 KB)

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Morgan
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09 May 2021 (20:17) 

آپ کتاب کا معائنہ کر سکتے ہیں اور اپنے تجربات شیئر کرسکتے ہیں۔ دوسرے قارئین کتابوں کے بارے میں آپ کی رائے میں ہمیشہ دلچسپی رکھیں گے۔ چاہے آپ کو کتاب پسند ہے یا نہیں ، اگر آپ اپنے دیانتدار اور تفصیلی خیالات دیںگے تو لوگوں کو نئی کتابیں ملیںگی جو ان کے لئے صحیح ہیں۔
1

Bound by Duty

Year:
2014
Language:
english
File:
EPUB, 280 KB
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Bound by Dreams

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Bound by Duty



(Born in Blood Mafia Chronicles, #2)





Cora Reilly





Copyright ©2015 Cora Reilly

All Rights Reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, events and places are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.



Subscribe to Cora’s newsletter to find out about her next books, bonus content and giveaways! ( http://corareillyauthor.blogspot.de/p/newsletter.html )



Cover design by Romantic Book Affairs Design





Table of Contents



Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Epilogue





PROLOGUE





“Don’t turn your back on me. Look at me. I think I deserve at least that small decency, Dante.”

Tension radiated off of him when he turned around to me. He didn’t move closer but he was looking at me. For once, he didn’t pretend I was invisible. His blue eyes wandered over my exposed body.

My nipples hardened in the cool air of his office but I didn’t close my silk bathrobe, despite the overwhelming urge to cover myself against Dante’s cold scrutiny. His gaze lingered on the apex of my thighs slightly longer than on the rest of my body and a small burst of hope filled me. “Am I your wife?”

His blond brows drew together. “Of course, you are.” There was the hint of something I couldn’t place in his voice.

“Then claim your rights, Dante. Make me yours.”

He didn’t move, but his eyes slid down to my erect nipples. His gaze was almost something physical, like a ghost touch on my naked skin.

I wasn’t above begging. I knew I almost h; ad him. I wanted to have sex tonight. “I have needs too. Would you prefer if I found a lover who relieved you of the burden to touch me?” I wasn’t sure I could go through with it. No, I knew I couldn’t go through with it, but this act of provocation was my last option. If Dante didn’t react to that, then I didn’t know what else to do.

“No,” he said sharply, something angry and possessive breaking through his perfect mask. He pressed his lips together, jaw locked, and walked toward me. I shivered with need and excitement when he stopped in front of me. He didn’t reach for me but I thought I detected the hint of desire in his eyes. It wasn’t much, but enough to embolden me. I bridged the remaining distance between us and curled my fingers over his strong shoulders, pressing my naked body against his front. The rough material of his business suit rubbed deliciously against my sensitive nipples and I let out a small moan. The pressure between my legs was almost unbearable. Dante’s eyes flashed as he looked down at me. Slowly he wrapped an arm around me and rested his palm flat against my lower back.

Triumph flooded me. He wasn’t ignoring me now.





CHAPTER ONE





Of course I’d known it would happen. My father had made his standpoint clear the moment my first husband Antonio had been buried. I was too young to stay unmarried. But I hadn’t expected my father to find a new husband for me so quickly, and I definitely hadn’t expected my new husband to be Dante – The Boss – Cavallaro.

Antonio’s funeral had taken place only nine months ago, which made my new engagement teeter on the brink of inappropriateness. Mother was usually among the first to pounce on anyone who committed a social faux-pas and yet she couldn’t see anything wrong with the fact that today, less than a year after saying good-bye to Antonio, I was going to meet my next husband. I’d never loved Antonio as a woman loved a man, even if I’d believed it at one time, and our marriage had never been real, but I’d hoped to get more time before I was forced into another union, especially as I didn’t even get to choose for myself this time.

“You are so lucky Dante Cavallaro agreed to marry you. It came as a surprise for many that he decided to take a woman who has already been married. He could have chosen from a line of eager young women after all,” my mother said as she brushed my dark-brown hair. She didn’t mean to hurt my feelings; she was only stating the obvious. I knew it was true. Everyone did.

A man in Dante’s position didn’t have to content himself with the leftovers of another, a lesser man. That’s what most people probably thought, and yet I was supposed to marry him. I, who didn’t even want to marry someone as powerful and cunning as Dante Cavallaro. I, who wished to stay alone, if only to protect Antonio’s secret. How was I supposed to keep up the lie? Dante was known as a man who always knew when someone was lying.

“He’ll be the Boss of the Outfit in two months, and when you’ll marry him you’ll be the most influential woman in Chicago and the Midwest. And if you keep up your good friendship with Aria, you’ll have connections to New York as well.”

As usual my mother was way ahead, already planning world domination, while I was still trying to wrap my mind around the fact that I was supposed to marry The Boss. This was too dangerous. I wasn’t a bad liar. In the years of my marriage to Antonio I’d improved my skills continuously, but there was a big difference between lying to the outside world and lying to your husband. Anger toward Antonio resurfaced as it had so often in the past months. He’d forced me into this situation.

Mamma stepped back, admiring her work. My dark hair fell in soft glossy curls over my shoulders and back. I pushed to my feet. For the occasion, I’d chosen a cream-colored pencil skirt and a plum blouse that was tugged into my waistband, as well as black modest heals. I was one of the tallest women in the Outfit with five foot eight and naturally my mother worried Dante would be put off if I wore high-heels. I didn’t bother to point out that Dante was still at least five inches taller than me; I wouldn’t have been taller than him even with high heels. And this wasn’t the first time he saw me anyway. We’d met a couple of times on mafia functions and had even shared a brief dance at Aria’s wedding in August three months ago. But we’d never exchanged more than the expected pleasantries and I’d certainly never gotten the impression that Dante was even remotely interested in me, but he was known for being closed-off, so who knew what was really going on in that head of his?

“Has he dated since his wife died?” I asked. Usually that kind of gossip spread quickly in our circles but maybe I missed it. The older women of the family often knew about the dirty laundry of others first. To be honest, gossiping was the main occupation for most of them.

Mamma smiled sadly. “Not officially. Rumor has it he couldn’t let go of his wife, but it’s been more than three years and now that he’s about to become the Boss of the Outfit he can’t hang onto the memory of a dead woman. He needs to move on and produce a heir.” She put her hands on my shoulders and beamed at me. “And you’ll be the one to give him a beautiful son, sweetheart.”

My stomach dropped. “Not today.”

My mother shook her head with a laugh. “Soon enough. The wedding is in two months.” If it were up to Mamma and Papà, the marriage would have taken place weeks ago. They were probably worried Dante might change his mind about me.

“Valentina! Livia! Dante’s car pulled just up.”

Mamma clapped her hands, then winked. “Let’s make him forget his wife.”

I hoped she wouldn’t say something that tasteless when Dante was around. I followed her downstairs and tried to put on my most sophisticated expression. Papà opened the door. I couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually answered the door. Usually he let mother or me do it, or our maid, but even I could tell that he was practically bouncing with eagerness. Did he really have to make it so obvious that he was desperate to marry me off again? It made me feel like the last puppy of a litter that the pet shop couldn’t wait to get rid off.

Dante’s blond hair appeared in the doorway as my mother and I stopped in the middle of our lobby. It was snowing outside and the soft veil of snowflakes on Dante’s head made his hair look almost golden. I got why some people had been frustrated about Aria’s marriage to Luca. Dante and she would have been the golden couple.

Papà opened the door wider with a broad smile. Dante shook my father’s hand and they exchanged a few low words. Mamma was practically bouncing on her feet beside me. She turned on her thousand-watt smile when Dante and Papà finally headed our way. I forced my own lips into a smile that was far less radiant.

As was tradition, Dante greeted my mother first, with a bow and a hand kiss, before facing me. He gave me a curt smile that didn’t reach his blue eyes, then kissed my hand. “Valentina,” he said in his smooth, emotionless voice.

From a solely physical standpoint, I found Dante more than a little attractive. He was tall and slightly muscled, impeccably dressed in a dark gray three-piece suit, white shirt and light blue tie, and had full, blond hair that was loosely combed back. But everyone called him a cold fish, and from our short encounters I knew they were right.

“It’s wonderful to meet you again,” I said with a small tilt of my head.

Dante let go of my hand. “Yes, it is.” He turned his blank gaze toward my father. “I’d like to talk to Valentina alone.” No pleasantries were wasted as usual.

“Of course,” Papà said eagerly, taking my mother’s arm and already leading her away. If I hadn’t been married before, they would never have let me alone with a man, but as it was they thought they didn’t have to protect my virtue anymore. And I couldn’t tell them that Antonio and I had never consummated our marriage. I couldn’t tell anyone, least of all Dante.

When Mamma and Papà had disappeared into my father’s office, Dante turned to me. “This is acceptable for you, I assume.”

He seemed so restrained and controlled, as if his emotions were bottled up so deep inside, not even he could reach them. I wondered how much of it was the result of his wife’s death and how much was his natural disposition.

“Yes,” I said, hoping he couldn’t see how nervous I was. I gestured toward a door to our left. “Would you like to sit down for our talk?”

Dante nodded and I led him into the living room. I sank down on the sofa, and Dante took the armchair across from me. I’d have thought he’d sit beside me, but he seemed content to keep as much space between us as was acceptable. Apart from the brief hand kiss, he made sure not to touch me. He probably found it inappropriate as long as we weren’t married. That’s what I hoped at least.

“I assume your father told you that our wedding is planned for January 5th.”

I searched for a flicker of sadness or wistfulness in his voice, but there was nothing. I rested my hands in my lap, linking my fingers. There was less chance of Dante notice my trembling that way. “Yes. He told me a few days ago.”

“I realize that’s less than a year after your husband’s funeral, but my father retires at the end of the year and it’s expected of me to be married when I take over his place.”

I lowered my eyes as my chest tightened with buried emotions. Antonio hadn’t been a good husband, he hadn’t been any kind of husband, but he’d been my friend and I’d known him all my life, which was why I’d agreed to marry him. Of course, I’d been naïve, hadn’t realized what it would really mean to marry a man who wasn’t interested in me, or women in general. I’d wanted to help him. Being gay wasn’t something that was tolerated in the mafia. If someone had found out Antonio liked men that way, they would have killed him. When he’d asked for my help, I’d jumped at the chance, had secretly hoped I could win him over. I’d thought he could decide not to be gay anymore, I’d thought we could have a real marriage at some point, but that hope was quickly shattered. That’s why a nasty, selfish part of me had been relieved when Antonio had died. I’d thought I was finally free to find a man who loved me, or at least desired me. Thankfully, it was only a very small part, and I felt guilty whenever I was reminded of it. And yet, maybe this was my chance. Maybe my second marriage would finally provide me with a husband who saw me as more than a necessary evil.

Dante seemed to misunderstand my silence. “If it’s too soon for you, we can still cancel our arrangements.”

Mamma would kill me, and Papà would probably suffer a stroke. “No,” I said quickly. “It’s okay. I was lost in memories for a moment.” I gave him a smile. He didn’t return it, only regarded me with cold scrutiny.

“Very well,” he said eventually. “I’d like to discuss the preparations as well as the time leading up to the event with you. Two months isn’t a long time, but since this wedding isn’t going to be a big affair we should be fine.”

I nodded. Part of me was sad that this wedding was going to be a quiet affair, but so fast after Antonio’s death anything bigger would have been in bad taste, and since it was the second marriage for both Dante and me, for me to insist on a splendid feast would have been ridiculous.

“Why did you choose me? I’m sure there were many other viable options.” I’d been wondering about this ever since Papà had told me about his agreement with Dante. I knew it was a question I wasn’t supposed to ask. Mamma would have thrown a fit if she were present.

Dante’s expression didn’t change. “Of course. My father suggested your cousin Gianna, but I didn’t want a wife who’s barely of age. Unfortunately, most women in their twenties are already married, and most widows are older than me or have children, both unacceptable for a man in my position as you will probably understand.”

I nodded. There were so many rules of etiquette when it came to finding the right spouse, especially for a man in Dante’s position, which was why so many were shocked when I was announced as his future wife. Dante had stepped on many toes with that decision.

“So you were the only logical choice. You are, of course, still quite young, but that can’t be changed.”

For a moment I was stunned into silence by his emotionless reasoning. I wasn’t as naïve as I used to be, but I’d hoped at least part of the reason why Dante had chosen me was that he was attracted to me, found me pretty, or at least fascinating to some extent, but this cold explanation destroyed that small flicker of hope.

“I’m twenty-three,” I said in a surprisingly calm voice. Maybe Dante’s aloofness rubbed off on me. If so, I would be known as the ice queen in no time. “That’s not young by our marriage standards.”

“Twelve-years younger than me. That’s more than I would have liked.” His deceased wife had been only two years younger than him and they’d been married for almost twelve years before she’d died from cancer. Still the way he said it made it sound as if I’d forced him into a marriage with me. Most men in our world took on young mistresses once their wives got older, and yet Dante was displeased that I was too young.

“Then maybe you should look for another wife. I didn’t ask you to marry me.” The moment the words were out, I clamped a hand over my mouth, then met Dante’s gaze. He didn’t look angry, he didn’t look anything. His face was as it always was. Stoic and emotionless. “I’m sorry. That was very rude. I shouldn’t have said that.”

Dante shook his head. Not a single hair moved out of line. There wasn’t even a speck of dirt on his trouser legs, despite the snowy November weather. “It’s alright. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

I wished he didn’t sound so blasé, but there was nothing I could do about it, at least not until we were married. “You didn’t. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have snapped at you.”

“Let’s get back on track. There are a few more things we need to discuss and unfortunately I have a meeting scheduled for tonight and an early flight tomorrow morning.”

“You’re heading to New York for the engagement of Matteo and Gianna.” My family hadn’t gotten an invitation. As with Aria’s engagement party, only the closest family and the respective heads of the New York and Chicago mob had been invited. I was actually glad. It would have been the first social even after my betrothal to Dante had been made public. Gossip and curious glances would have followed me everywhere.

A hint of surprise flickered in his eyes, but then it was gone. “Yes, indeed.” He reached into his jacket pocket and held out a small velvet box. I took it from him and opened it. A diamond engagement ring was inside. Only a few weeks ago, I’d taken off the wedding ring and engagement ring that Antonio had gotten for me. They’d never meant much to me anyway.

“I hope you like the design.”

“Yes, thank you.” After a moment of hesitation, I took the ring out and put it on my finger. Dante hadn’t given any indication that he wanted to do it for me. My gaze flickered toward his right hand and my stomach plummeted. He was still wearing his old wedding ring. Another strange burst of disappointment filled me. If he wore it after all this time, he must still be in love with his dead wife, or was it a simple matter of habit?

He noticed my gaze and for the first time his stoic mask slipped but it was gone so quickly that I wasn’t sure I’d actually seen it. He didn’t give me an explanation or an apology, but I hadn’t expected one from a man like him.

“Your father requests that we do a social outing before the actual wedding. As we all agreed that an actual engagement party is unnecessary…” I’d never been asked, but I wasn’t even surprised. “…I suggest we attend the annual Christmas party of the Scuderi family together.”

For as long as I could remember, my family had been at the Scuderi house on the first Sunday in advent. “That sounds like a reasonable idea.”

Dante gave me a cool smile. “Then that’s settled. I’ll let your father know when I’ll pick you up.”

“You can tell me. I have a phone and am capable of operating it.”

Dante stared. There was a flicker of something like amusement on his face for a second. “Of course. If that’s what you prefer.” He pulled his phone out of his pocket. “What’s your number?”

I needed a moment to suppress an unladylike snort of laughter before I could give it to him.

When he was done typing, he stuffed his phone back into his jacket, then he straightened without another word. I rose as well and took my time smoothing out the nonexistent wrinkles in my skirt to mask my annoyance behind schooled pleasantness.

“Thank you for your time,” he said formally. I really hoped he’d loosen up after our wedding. He wasn’t always so restrained. I’d heard the stories about how he’d established his position as the heir to his father’s title and how efficient he was when it came to dealing with traitors and enemies. There was something dark and feral behind his ice prince demeanor.

“You’re welcome.” I walked toward the door but Dante beat me to it and held it open for me. I said a quick thanks before I stepped into our lobby. “I’ll get my parents so they can say goodbye.”

“Actually, I would like to have a word with your father in private before I leave.”

It was futile trying to get any information from his expression, so I didn’t bother. Instead I strode to the end of the corridor and knocked at my father’s office door. The voices inside died down and a moment later, my father opened the door. Mamma stood directly behind him. From the look on her face I could tell that she was eager to bombard me with questions, but Dante was close behind me.

“Dante would like to have a word with you,” I said, then turned around to Dante. “Until the Christmas party.” I considered brushing his cheeks with my lips but discarded that idea immediately. Instead I tilted my head with a smile before walking away. My mother’s heels clacked behind me, then she fell into step beside me. She linked our arms. “How did it go? Dante didn’t look too pleased. Did you do something that offended him?”

I gave her a look. “Of course not. Dante’s face is frozen in one expression.”

“Shhh.” Mamma looked behind us. “What if he hears you?”

I didn’t think he’d care.

Mamma scanned my face. “You should be happy, Valentina. You won the husband lottery, and I’m sure there’s a passionate lover hidden beneath Dante’s cold exterior.”

“Mamma, please.” I’d suffered through two sex talks with my mother in my life so far: the one where she tried to tell me about the birds and the bees when I was fifteen and already well aware of the mechanics of sex. Even in a catholic girls school that information got around at some point. And the second, shortly before my wedding to Antonio. I didn’t think I’d survive a third one.

But I hoped she was right. Thanks to Antonio’s disinterest in women, I’d never had the chance to enjoy a passionate lover, or any lover really. I was more than ready to finally be rid of my virginity, even if that would pose the risk of Dante finding out my first marriage had been for show, but I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.





CHAPTER TWO





Dante picked me up at quarter to six as promised. Not a minute too late or too soon. I hadn’t expected anything else. My parents had already left a few minutes ago. As the future head of the Outfit, Dante couldn’t arrive too early to the party.

He was wearing another three-piece suit in navy blue with light blue pinstripes and a matching tie. I froze for a moment when I saw him. My dress was navy too. People would think we’d done it on purpose, but there was nothing to be done about it now. I’d followed a strict detox diet for three days to fit into the tight backless dress; I wasn’t going to wear something else. Despite its long pencil skirt reaching my calves, the slit up to my thigh allowed me to walk stairs without too much trouble.

Dante’s eyes did a quick scan. “You look beautiful, Valentina.” He was being polite. There was absolutely no sign that he actually found me attractive.

“Thank you.” I smiled and stepped up to him. He touched my lower back to lead me toward his black Porsche parked at the curb and tensed as his palm came into contact with my naked skin. I wasn’t sure but I thought I heard him release a rushed breath, and the thought that he might be affected by me, coupled with the feel of his touch sent a shiver of delight down my spine. He planted his hand lightly on my back and gave no further indication that I’d taken him by surprise with my partial nakedness as he guided me toward the passenger door and held it open for me. I slid in, almost giddy with triumph over the fact that I’d managed to get a reaction out of the iceman. Once we were married, I’d try to do it more often.

***

The other guests had already arrived when we pulled up in front of the Scuderi mansion. We could have walked, if it weren’t for the four inches of snow, safety concerns and my high heels. Dante hadn’t bothered with small talk during our drive. His mind seemed far away anyway. When Dante put his hand on my naked back this time, there was no outward reaction.

Ludevica Scuderi opened the door for us. Her husband Rocco, the current Consigliere to Dante’s father, hovered behind her, his hands on her shoulders. They both smiled brightly as they ushered us into the pleasantly warm foyer. An eight-foot Christmas tree, decorated with red and silver baubles, dominated the space.

“We’re delighted that you could make it,” Ludevica said warmly.

Rocco shook Dante’s hand. “I have to congratulate you on your excellent taste. Your future wife looks marvelous, Dante.”

It was obvious that they were going out of their way to be nice. Although it was desirable for a new Capo to keep the Consigliere of his predecessor, it wasn’t tradition, so Dante could nominate a new Cosigliere when he took over from his father.

Dante inclined his head and returned his hand to my back. “That she is,” he said simply while all I could do was smile.

Ludevica clutched my hands. “We were pleased when we found out Dante had chosen you. After all you’ve gone through, it’s only fair that fate makes it up to you.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that. Maybe she was being sincere. It was hard to tell. After all, they’d originally tried to marry Gianna off to Dante. “Thank you. That’s very kind of you.”

“Come on in. The party isn’t happening in our foyer,” Rocco said, gesturing for us to head for the living room. Laughter and voices were coming from inside.

“Aria is very excited to see you again,” Ludovica said as we entered the living room. I had no time to express my surprise at Aria’s presence because the moment we were spotted by the crowd, people flocked around us to congratulate us to our betrothal and upcoming wedding. In between shaking hands, I scanned the room. Aria stood at the other end of the vast room next to another massive Christmas tree and her not less massive husband Luca who had a possessive hand on her waist. I didn’t see Gianna and her fiancé Matteo anywhere. If my mother’s gossip was to be believed the Scuderis were concerned their middle daughter might cause a scene.

Dante moved his thumb over my back, startling me. My eyes snapped to him, then to the couple in front of us, whom I’d completely ignored because of my staring. I gave my brightest smile and pulled Bibiana in a hug. “How are you?” I whispered. She squeezed me briefly, then drew back with her forced smile. That was as much of an answer as I would get in the presence of other people.

Her husband Tommaso, who was thirty years her senior, bald and overweight, kissed my hand, which would have been fine except for the look in his eyes. Leery was the best word to describe it. Dante’s fingers on my back tensed and I risked a peek at him, but his expression was the same aloof mask as usual. He fixed Tommaso with his eyes and the man quickly took off with Bibiana.

A waiter carrying a tray of drinks stopped beside us, and Dante gripped a glass of Champagne for me and a Scotch for himself. Now that the onslaught of well-wishers had finally abated, Luca and Aria crossed the room toward us. Dante’s demeanor changed ever so slightly like a tiger that got wind of another predator in his territory. Instead of tensing, he relaxed as if to show that he wasn’t concerned, but his eyes were alert and calculating.

Luca and Dante shook hands, both with those unnerving shark-smiles on their faces. Ignoring them, I grinned at Aria, honestly happy to see her again. It had been months. She looked much more relaxed than at her wedding. “You look amazing,” I told her as I embraced her. She was wearing a dark red dress that set off her blond hair and pale skin beautifully. No wonder Luca couldn’t stop glancing her way.

“You too,” she said as she stepped back. “Can I see the back?”

I turned around for her.

“Wow. Doesn’t she look amazing?”

That question was directed at Luca and led to an awkward pause in which the tension skyrocketed. Dante wrapped his arm around my waist, his cold eyes on Luca, who took Aria’s hand, kissed it and said in a low voice. “I have only eyes for you.”

Aria gave me an embarrassed smile. “I need to look for Gianna, but I’d love to talk to you later?”

“Okay,” I said, glad when she and Luca walked off. With the men around, Aria and I wouldn’t be able to talk anyway.

I turned to Dante. “You don’t like him.”

“It’s not a matter of like. It’s about self-preservation and a healthy dose of suspicion.”

“That’s the Christmas spirit,” I said, not trying to hide my sarcasm.

Again a hint of amusement made the corners of Dante’s mouth twitch, then it was gone. “Would you like to grab something to eat?”

“Definitely.” After the last few days of torturous diet, I was starving. As we made our way through the crowd, I noticed that the current head of the Outfit wasn’t present. “Where’s your father?”

“He didn’t want to steal the show from us. Now that he’s as good as retired he prefers to stay out of the public eye,” Dante said wryly.

“Understandable.” These social functions were exhausting. You had to be careful what you said and did, even more so as the head of the Outfit. From the hard looks that some of the women were throwing my way, I knew I was currently their favorite topic. I knew what they were saying behind their hands: Why had Dante Cavallaro chosen a widow instead of a young innocent bride?

I glimpsed up into his emotionless face, the hard angles of his cheekbones, the calculation and vigilance in his eyes, and found myself wishing once more that the answer to that question were something else than pure logic.

The buffet was loaded with Italian delicacies. I took a slice of Panettone for myself as I was in desperate need of some sugary treats. As usual it tasted like heaven. I’d made it a few times but it had never been as good as the one from Ludevica Scuderi.

“Dante,” came a pleasant female voice from behind us.

Dante and I turned at the same time. His sister Ines, with whom I’d exchanged only a few words over the years as we were nine years apart, stood in front of us. She was pregnant, probably third trimester if my guess was correct. Across the room, her twins, a boy and girl, were busy playing with Fabiano Scuderi who was their age. Ines had the same fair hair as Dante and she carried herself with the same cold aloofness, but as her eyes settled on me, they were, not necessarily warm, but friendly. “And Valentina. It’s good to see you.”

“Ines,” I said with a smile. “You look radiant.”

She touched her belly. “Thank you. It’s been a challenge finding nice dresses that fit me with my belly. Maybe you can help me go shopping for one for your wedding?”

“I’d love to. And if you don’t mind, I’d be delighted if you would join me when I go looking for a wedding dress.”

Her blue eyes grew wide. “You don’t have one yet?”

I shrugged. Of course I still had the one from my last wedding, but I didn’t intend to wear it again. That would mean bad luck. “Not yet, but I’ll go looking for one next week, so if you’re free?”

“Count me in,” she said. Her eyes had become much warmer. She looked much younger than thirty-two and even though she was pregnant she didn’t seem to have gained an ounce of weight. I wondered how she did it. Maybe good genes. I definitely hadn’t been blessed with those. Without the occasional detox day or week, and regular workouts, I’d be gaining weight in no time.

“Wonderful.” From the corner of my eye, I saw Dante watching us with mild interest. I hoped he was happy that his sister and I got along. I knew his deceased wife and Ines had been friends. I’d often seen them laughing together at social events.

“Where’s your husband?” he asked eventually.

“Oh, Pietro went outside for a smoke with Rocco Scuderi. They didn’t want to disturb you and your future wife.”

A muscle in Dante’s cheek flexed.

“You can go after them, if you have business to settle,” I said quickly. “I’ll be fine on my own. I should probably talk to Aria. Maybe you’d like to join me, Ines?”

Ines shook her head, her eyes on her twins who were in a heated argument with each other. “I need to break this up or there will be tears and bloody noses.” She gave me a quick smile, then rushed off toward her arguing kids.

Dante hadn’t moved from my side yet. “Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

He nodded. “I’ll be back soon.” I watched him head toward the terrace door and disappear outside. Now that he was gone, I could see that several women turned their attention more openly to me. I had to find Aria or Bibiana quickly before one of them engaged me in an awkward conversation. I meandered through the other guests, sparing them only the briefest smile. Eventually I found both Aria and Bibiana in the lobby in a quiet corner. “There you are,” I said, not trying to hide my relief.

“What’s wrong?” Aria asked with a frown.

“I feel as if everyone’s talking about me and Dante. Tell me I’m imagining things.”

Bibiana shook her head. “You don’t. Most widows aren’t as lucky as you are.”

“I know, but still. I wish they wouldn’t act quite so shocked about my engagement.”

“It’ll pass,” Aria said, then grimaced. “Soon Gianna will be back on the prime spot of daily gossip.”

“Sorry. I heard there was a scene at Gianna’s engagement party.”

Aria nodded. “Yeah. Gianna has trouble hiding her unwillingness to marry.”

“Is that why Matteo Vitiello isn’t here?” Bibiana asked. I’d wondered that as well, but I didn’t want to be nosy.

“No. But since Salvatore Vitiello’s death, Matteo is second in charge and he has to stay in New York when Luca isn’t there.” I searched her face for a sign of the tension I’d heard in her voice, but she’d learned to hide her emotions. Was Luca having trouble in New York? He was young for a Capo. Maybe some forces in New York were trying to mutiny. Once Aria might have told me, but now that I was the fiancée of the future Boss of the Chicago Outfit, she’d have to be careful what she let slip. Maybe we were trying to work together, but New York and Chicago definitely weren’t friends.

“That makes sense,” I said. Bibiana gave me a look. She too must have picked up on the strain in Aria’s words.

Aria’s blue eyes widened. “You didn’t even show me your engagement ring yet!”

I held my hand out.

“It’s beautiful,” Aria said.

“It is. Dante chose it for me.” My second engagement ring, and the second time that it wasn’t a sign of love. “How long will you be staying in Chicago? Do you have time to come over for a coffee?”

“We’ll be leaving tomorrow morning. Luca wants to return to New York. But we’re coming over to your wedding a few days early so maybe we could meet for coffee then, unless you’ll be too busy?”

“No, it won’t be a big celebration, so I’ll have time to meet you for coffee. Give me a call when you know more.”

“I’ll do that.”

“What about you Bibiana, do you have time to come over tomorrow? We haven’t had the chance to talk in a while as well.”

Bibiana bit her lip. “I think I can. Now that you’re as good as the wife of the Boss, Tommaso can hardly say no.”

“Exactly,” I said before turning to Aria again. “Where’s Luca?”

Aria looked around. “He wanted to talk to my parents about Matteo’s wedding to Gianna. It’s taking longer than expected.”

Would they cancel the engagement? That would be the gossip of the year. I couldn’t imagine they’d risk it, no matter how unwilling Gianna was.

Dante appeared in the doorway to the living room, eyes settling on me.

“I think I need to leave,” I said. I hugged Aria and Bibiana before I moved toward Dante. I stopped in front of him. “Are we leaving?”

Dante looked incredibly tense. “Yes. But if you want to stay, you can drive with your parents.”

That would lead to more gossip. You couldn’t appear at a party with your fiancé and leave without him. “I don’t think that would be wise.”

Understanding settled on Dante’s face. “Of course.”

***

Back in the car, I asked. “Is everything okay?” Now that we were engaged, I thought it was okay for me to ask him.

His fingers around the steering wheel tensed. “The Russians are giving us more trouble than usual, and it certainly doesn’t help that Salvatore Vitiello died at this critical time and New York has to deal with a new Capo.”

I stared at him, surprised. When I’d asked him, I hadn’t expected a detailed reply. Most men didn’t like to talk about business with their wife, and I wasn’t even married to Dante yet.

Dante’s eyes snapped toward me. “You look surprised.”

“I am,” I admitted. “Thank you for giving me an honest answer.”

“I think honesty is the key to a functioning marriage.”

“Not in the marriages I know,” I said wryly.

Dante tilted his head. “True.”

“So you don’t think Luca is a good Capo?”

“He is a good Capo, or he will be once he’s weeded out his adversaries.”

He’d said it clinically. As if weeding out didn’t mean killing other people because they were uncomfortable or a risk to one’s power.

“Is that what you are going to do once you become the Boss of the Outfit?”

“Yes, if necessary, but I’ve proven my claim to leadership in the last few years. I’m considerably older than Luca.”

But still the youngest Boss in the history of the Outfit. People would test him too.

Dante pulled up in front of my parents’ house. He killed the engine, got out and walked around the hood of the car before opening my door. I took his hand and stood, bringing our bodies so close for a moment that it would have been easy to kiss him. Then he took a step back, reestablishing the proper distance between us before he led me toward the door. I turned to face him. “I never see you with a bodyguard. Isn’t it risky to be outside on your own?”

Dante smiled darkly. “I’m armed, and if someone wants to take me by surprise, let them try.”

“You are the best shot in the Outfit.”

“Among the best, yes.”

“Good, I suppose then I can feel safe.” It was meant as a joke, but Dante looked deathly serious. “You are safe.”

I hesitated. Wouldn’t he try to kiss me? We would marry in four weeks. It wasn’t as if we needed to stay away from each other for decorum’s sake. When it became clear that Dante wouldn’t make the first move, I stepped up to him and kissed his cheek. I didn’t dare look at his face, instead I unlocked the door, slipped in and let it fall shut behind me. I waited a few moments before I peered through the window beside the door. Dante’s car pulled away. I wondered why he hadn’t tried to kiss me. Was it because we weren’t married yet? Maybe he thought it wasn’t appropriate for us to get close physically before our wedding. Or maybe he was still in love with his wife? I hadn’t even looked at his hand to see if he had taken off his old wedding ring. Was that why people had talked about me today?





CHAPTER THREE





Bibiana came over the next afternoon, her eyes red from crying. I ushered her into the library and made her settle down on the leather sofa. “What happened?”

“Tommaso is angry that I’m not pregnant yet. He wants me to go to a doctor to see what’s wrong.”

They’d been married for almost four years now, but Bibiana had been taking contraceptives in secret. “Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to get pregnant. If you have a baby, you’d have someone to love and who loves you back.” I wrapped my arm around her. The last few years of seeing Bibiana growing more and more depressed because of her marriage to Tommaso had been heartbreaking. I wished there was something I could do for her.

“Maybe you’re right. And maybe Tommaso won’t touch me if I have a big belly.” She shook her head. “Let’s not talk about this. I want to forget about my troubles for a bit. So what about you? How are the wedding preparations going?”

I shrugged. “My mother booked a ballroom in a hotel. The only thing I need to do is buy a wedding gown.”

“Will you get a white dress again?”

“I don’t think so. My mother doesn’t think it’s appropriate. Maybe cream colored. That should be fine.”

Bibiana huffed. “I think it’s ridiculous that you can’t wear a white dress only because you’ve been married before. It’s not like it was a real marriage.”

“Shhh,” I hissed, my eyes darting to the closed door of the library. I’d told Bibiana about the true nature of my marriage to Antonio a while ago. “You know nobody can know.”

“I don’t understand why you’re trying to protect him. He’s dead. And he used you as a means to an end. You should look out for yourself now.”

“I am looking out for myself. I’ve helped Antonio betray the Outfit. Being gay is a crime, you know that.”

“It’s ridiculous.”

“I know, but the mob won’t change any time soon, no matter how much we want it to.”

“If you don’t want to tell Dante about it, then what are you going to do about your wedding night? Aren’t you worried he’s going to realize you never consummated your marriage with Antonio?”

“Maybe he won’t notice.”

“If it’s anything like my first time, then he will notice.”

“Tommasio treated you horribly. You didn’t want it, so of course you bled. I’m still so mad when I think about it.”

Bibiana swallowed. “What’s done is done. I really wish I’d have been married to a gay man.” She laughed bitterly. I took her hand. “Maybe you’re lucky and Tommasio has a heart attack or gets shot down by the Russians.” It wasn’t even a joke. I wanted Bibiana to be free of that man.

Bibiana grinned. “How sad is it that I’m actually hoping for that to happen?”

“Of course you want him gone. I get it. Everyone would.”

She scanned my face. “So what about you? You want to sleep with Dante?”

“Definitely. I can’t wait.” My cheeks grew warm, but it was the truth and I did see nothing wrong with wanting to have sex with your soon-to-be husband. Dante was an attractive man after all.

“Then maybe you should take preparations that ensure Dante doesn’t realize your first marriage was for show.”

“What? Find a guy to sleep with? I won’t cheat on Dante. I think sex belongs in marriage.” Despite my best intentions not to take everything my mother taught me by heart and not to let the strict words of my catholic teachers worm their way into my brain, I couldn’t imagine being close to someone I wasn’t committed to.

Bibiana let out a choked laugh. “That’s not what I meant.” She lowered her voice, her skin turning red. “I thought you could use a dildo.”

For a moment I didn’t know what to say. I’d never considered something like that. “Where would I get a dildo? I can hardly ask my father’s bodyguards to take me to a sex shop. My mother would die of embarrassment if she found out.” And I would most likely die from embarrassment when I entered said shop.

“I wish I could get it for you, but if Tommaso found out, he’d be furious.” The bruises on Bibiana’s cheekbones from Tommaso’s last outburst hadn’t quite faded yet.

“It’s probably for the best. I don’t like the idea of having sex with an inanimate object anyway. I’ll figure it out.”

“Dante will probably be too wrapped up in his own needs to notice anyway. Men are like that.”

That wasn’t much of a comfort. I hoped Dante would be concerned about my needs too.

***

When January 5th, my wedding day finally rolled around, I felt a flicker of nervousness; not only because of my wedding night. I knew this was my second chance at a happy marriage. Most people in our world didn’t get that. They lived their lives in miserable unions until death finally separated them.

As I walked down the aisle in my cream sequins dress, I felt more hopeful than I had in a long time. Dante looked sophisticated in his black suit and vest. His eyes never left me, and as my father handed me over to him, I was sure I saw a hint of approval and appreciation in his expression. His hand was warm around mine and the small smile he gave me before the priest started his sermon made me want to stand on my toes and kiss him.

My mother was crying loudly in the first row. She looked like she couldn’t be happier, and my father was practically beaming with pride. Only my brother Orazio, who’d arrived only two hours ago from Cleveland where he had work to do for the Outfit, looked like he couldn’t wait to leave. I preferred the sight of Bibiana’s and Aria’s encouraging smiles. While the priest spoke, I kept throwing glances at Dante and what I saw on his face tore at my heart. Every so often sorrow marred his expression. We had both lost someone, but for Dante the person had been the love of his life, if rumors could be believed. Could I ever compete with that?

When it was time for our kiss, Dante bent down without hesitation and pressed his warm lips against mine. He definitely didn’t feel like an iceman. Mamma’s words popped into my mind and a thrill of excitement rushed through me. Maybe I couldn’t make Dante forget his first wife, and I didn’t want to, but I could help him move on.

***

After church, we all drove to the hotel for the following celebrations. It was the first moment of privacy Dante and I got as a married couple. He didn’t hold my hand as he drove but he probably wasn’t the touchy-feely kind of guy. What worried me more were the tension in his jaw and the steel in his eyes.

“I think it went well, don’t you think?” I said when the silence got too oppressive.

Dante’s eyes snapped to me. “Yes, the priest did a good job.”

“I wished my mother hadn’t been crying so much. Usually she’s better at composing herself.”

Dante smiled tensely. “She’s happy for you.’”

“I know.” I paused. “Are you happy?” I knew it was a risky question.

His face closed off visibly. “Of course I’m happy with this union.”

I waited for something more but the rest of the drive passed in silence. I didn’t want to start our marriage with a fight, so I let it drop.

When we got out of the car and headed toward the entrance, Dante touched my back. “You look very beautiful, Valentina.” I peered up at him, but his gaze was directed straight ahead. Maybe he’d realized how cold he’d been acting in the car and had felt guilty.

The ballroom of the hotel was beautifully decorated with pink and white roses. Dante kept his hand on my lower back as we made our way to our table under the cheers of our guests. Most of them had arrived before us and had already settled at their tables. We shared a table with my parents and brother, and Dante’s parents as well as his sister and her husband. I hadn’t talked to Dante’s parents, except for a few occasions of smalltalk. They’d been nice enough though. My brother Orazio pretended he was busy with something on his iPhone, but I knew he was only trying to avoid our father’s questions.

Aria and Luca, and Matteo and Gianna, as well as the Scuderi family occupied the table to our right. Aria gave me a smile before she returned her watchful gaze to her sister and Matteo who seemed on the verge of an argument. Those two would have one hell of a marriage. Matteo didn’t seem to mind the glowers Gianna was sending his way.

“You look beautiful together,” Ines said, drawing my attention back to our table.

Dante regarded me with an unreadable expression.

The servers chose that moment to enter the ballroom with plates.

After the four-course dinner, it was finally time for our dance. Dante led me toward the dance floor and pulled me against his chest. I smiled up at him. He felt warm and strong, and was a good dancer. He smelled perfect like a warm summer breeze and something very masculine. I couldn’t wait to share a bed with him, to see what he hid beneath the fabric of his expensive suit. If we had been alone, I would have rested my cheek against his shoulder, but everyone was watching us, and I didn’t think Dante liked to show intimacy in public.

Of course our guests didn’t care. Soon they started calling. “Bacio, bacio!”

Dante peered down at me with one cocked eyebrow. “Do we honor their wishes, or ignore them?”

“I think we should honor their wishes.” I really really wanted to honor their wishes.

Dante tightened his hold on my back and firmly pressed his lips against mine. His blue eyes were fixed on me and for a moment I was sure I saw something like warmth in them. But then the guests flooded the dancefloor to join in the dancing and our kiss was over. Shortly after, Fiore Cavallaro asked me to dance and Dante had to dance with his mother. I smiled at my father-in-law, unsure how to act around him. He had the same cold aloofness going as Dante. “My wife and I had hoped Dante would choose someone who wasn’t married before.”

The smile on my face became difficult to maintain, but I didn’t want people to realize that Fiore had said something that hurt me. “I understand,” I said quietly.

“But his reasoning convinced us. Dante needs a heir soon and someone not quite as young might prove a better mother to our grandchildren.”

I nodded. Their cold logic was something I hated with every ounce of my being. Not that I could tell him that.

“I don’t intend to sound cruel, but this is a marriage of convenience, and I’m sure you know what’s expected of you.”

“I do. And I’m looking forward to having children with Dante.” It was true. I’d always wanted children. I’d even considered in-vitro fertilization when I’d still been married to Antonio, but I wanted the chance to get to know Dante better before I tried to get pregnant. Naturally, I couldn’t tell his father that either. My brother took over from Fiore as was expected. “I’m glad you could come,” I told him as I looked up at him. He had my dark green eyes and almost black hair but those were the only similarities between us. We’d never been close, not for lack of trying on my part however. I wasn’t sure if that would ever change. He resented our father for coddling me, and sometimes I thought he resented me for having had it easier than him.

“I can’t stay long,” he said simply. I nodded, having expected nothing else. Orazio avoided our father as much as possible.

I was glad when Pietro, Ines’ husband, asked me to dance. He was a quiet man and didn’t step on my feet, so I wouldn’t have minded to dance with him until the end of the evening to avoid awkward conversation. Of course that would have been beyond inappropriate. After my dance with Pietro, hospitality dictated that I had to dance with the head of New York. While Aria looked perfectly comfortable around Luca now, I definitely wasn’t. Nevertheless, I accepted his hand when he held it out for me. He wasn’t smiling. I’d only ever seen glimpses of a real smile when he looked at Aria. Dante was tall and muscled, but with Luca even I had to tilt my head back to maintain eye-contact. I knew people were watching us as we danced. Especially Dante’s steely gaze followed every move we made, even though he was dancing with Aria. Not that Luca seemed much happier about the fact that Dante was embracing Aria. Men in our world were possessive. Men like Dante and Luca were something else entirely.

When one song ended and the next began, I could hardly hide my relief. Luca had a knowing expression on his face. He was probably used to people being uncomfortable in his presence. My next dance partner was Matteo. I didn’t know him very well, but I’d heard about his temper and his skill with the knife.

“May I?” he asked with an exaggerated bow.

I curtsied mockingly in turn. “Of course.”

Surprise flashed in his eyes. He pulled me against him with a shark-grin. Closer than Luca had risked. Closer than any sane man would risk.

“I think I saw your husband twitch a little just now,” he murmured. “That’s the equivalent of an emotional outburst for a cold fish like him, I suppose.”

I exhaled, trying to stifle laughter. “You don’t like to beat around the bush, do you?”

His dark eyes twinkled with mirth. “Oh, I like bushes well enough, don’t worry.”

I burst out laughing. And not a ladylike restrained chuckle. It was high-pitched laughter. “I’m pretty sure that was inappropriate.”

I could feel a few heads turning our way, but I couldn’t restrain myself.

“You’re right. I was warned to behave myself around the wife of The Boss as not to cause a rift between New York and Chicago,” he said lightly.

“Don’t worry. I won’t tell on you.”

Matteo winked. “I fear it’s too late for that.”

“I think it’s my turn again,” Dante said, appearing beside us, his hard glare fixed on Matteo, who seemed thoroughly unperturbed.

Matteo took a step back. “Of course. Who could stay away from such dark beauty for long?” He bent over my hand and kissed it. I stiffened, not because of the kiss, but because of the look in Dante’s eyes. I slipped my hand into his quickly and squeezed, and suddenly Aria was at our side. “Matteo, you should dance with me now.” He did and Aria cleverly moved them away from Dante and me.

“I thought you wanted to dance with me?” I said in a forced casual tone, peering up at Dante’s hard face.

His blue eyes settled on me. He wrapped his arm around me and started to move us to the rhythm of the music. I wasn’t sure what had been the source of his anger: jealousy, or Matteo’s disrespect. “What did he say?” Dante asked eventually.

“Hm?”

“What made you laugh?”

Maybe jealousy was the major driving force after all. That made me unreasonably happy. “He made a joke about bushes.”

Realization filled Dante’s face. “He should be more careful.” The threat was obvious. Good thing Matteo and Luca hadn’t heard it.

“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,” I said pointedly.

He raised his eyebrows but didn’t say anything in return.

***

Shortly after midnight, Dante and I excused ourselves. The hotel had offered us their biggest suite for the night, but Dante preferred to return home and I was actually glad. I was eager to finally move into Dante’s house. Although, I was also worried since he’d shared it with deceased wife. It was probably filled with many memories. Bibiana crossed her fingers as I walked past her and I couldn’t help but smile.





CHAPTER FOUR





I was glad it was time for our wedding night. My first real wedding night. I’d waited too long.

On the drive to Dante’s mansion at Chicago’s Goldcoast, neither of us spoke. It seemed to become a loathsome tradition for us. I busied myself watching traffic through the passenger window while I desperately tried to hide my rising nervousness. Was it possible to feel excitement and dread at the same time?

Dante slowed as we approached a huge light-brown three-story mansion. Wrought iron gates swung open when Dante pressed a button in the dashboard and we drove through, then headed for the double garage. My family’s mansion wasn’t too far away. It was smaller than Dante’s home, as was to be expected. The Underboss couldn’t have a bigger house than his Capo.

After Dante had parked next to a Mercedes SUV, he got out. He walked around the car and opened my door for me, then held out his hand and helped me out of the car, which was difficult with my dress. His hand was warm and steady. I was always surprised not to find his skin ice-cold as his persona. He released me the moment I stood, and I almost reached for his hand but stopped myself. I didn’t want to push him. Maybe he could only ever let loose behind closed doors.

He led me through a side door into the lobby of the mansion. The floor and the staircase were dark hardwood and a chandelier cast a soft glow down on us. It was strangely quiet. I knew Dante had a maid and a cook, who handled the household for him.

“I gave Zita and Gaby the day off,” he said off-handedly. Could he read me that easily?

“That’s good,” I said, then cringed at how that might have sounded. It wasn’t as if I thought we’d entertain the entire house with our bedroom noises, but I preferred to have total privacy for our first night together.

Dante headed straight for the staircase, then stopped with a hand on the banister to look back at me. I’d halted in the middle of the lobby but quickly rushed toward him and followed him upstairs. My stomach fluttered with nerves.

This was my second wedding night, but I was almost as inexperienced as I’d been all those years ago, something I really hoped would change tonight. Antonio and I had kissed occasionally at the beginning of our marriage, and he’d even touched my breasts through my nightgown a few times, but when it became clear to me that he wasn’t into it, we abandoned those futile attempts at intimacy.

I wanted to become a real wife, a real woman, and unlike Antonio, I knew Dante was perfectly capable of consuming our marriage. But that was also my problem. What if Dante noticed I was a virgin? Could I hide it from him? Maybe if I asked him to extinguish the lights, I could hide my discomfort or blame it on nerves over being with someone other than Antonio. But what if he felt my hymen? What would I tell him then? I should have used a vibrator to get rid of it, but the romantic part didn’t want to lose my virginity to a device. It was ridiculous.

My thoughts were interrupted when Dante opened the door to the master bedroom and made an inviting gesture for me to go in. I walked past him, my wedding dress swooshing gently with the movement. I flashed him a quick glance in passing to gauge his mood, but as usual his expression was unreadable. The king sized bed was black wood with black satin covers. For a moment I wondered if he’d kept it black since his wife’s death. And then a worse thought took its place: was it the same bed he’d shared with his first wife?

“The bathroom is through that door,” Dante said with a nod toward a dark wood door to my right.

I hesitated. Did he want me to freshen up? He closed the bedroom door and started loosening his tie. Didn’t he want to undress me? He headed toward the window and looked out, his back to me. I got the hint. Disappointed, I walked into the marble bathroom. It was black marble, so maybe Dante simply liked black. I strode toward the window that faced the same direction as the one in the bedroom, wondering if Dante saw the same view I did; the boisterous lake, the black clouds dotting the night-blue sky and blotting out the full moon, or was he far away, lost in memories? The idea made me uncomfortable and so I turned away from the window and began to undress before I took a quick shower. I’d waxed my legs in preparation for the wedding as was tradition, so I didn’t need to shave. After I’d dried off, I put on the plum satin nightgown I’d bought for the occasion and brushed out my hair. My stomach fluttered again with nerves and excitement. I took a few moments to gather myself, to look all the way the experienced woman I was supposed to be; then I stepped back into the bedroom. Dante hadn’t moved from his spot at the window. I allowed myself a moment to admire him in his black suit. He looked strong and sophisticated, untouchable, with his hands pushed into his pockets. An iceman, cold, emotionless, controlled.

I cleared my throat nervously and he turned toward me. His cold blue eyes scanned my body briefly but his expression didn’t change. There wasn’t even the flicker of desire. There was nothing. He might as well have been carved from stone. Antonio had at least complimented me on my beauty on our wedding night. He’d even kissed me, had tried to pretend he could desire me, but it had become obvious pretty quickly that the kiss had done nothing for him.

But what stopped Dante? I deflated inwardly at his reaction. I knew many men found me pleasant to look at and they had never seen me this scantily dressed, but Dante didn’t seem to be interested in me. I knew his wife hadn’t looked anything like me. Where I was tall and dark, she’d been petite with light brown hair.

“You can lie down. I’ll grab a shower,” he said. His gaze shifted for the barest moment but then he stalked into the bathroom and closed the door after him.

Trying to fight my frustration, I walked up to the bed and slid under the covers. With Antonio, I’d known that he wouldn’t react to my body the way I wanted him to, but I’d thought it would be different with Dante. Maybe he needed a moment to gather his thoughts. It couldn’t have been easy for him today. He’d loved his wife and marrying again must have been really tough for him. Maybe he needed a shower to prepare himself mentally for the wedding night.

The shower ran for a long time and eventually my eyelids became heavy. I tried to fight the tiredness but at some point I must have dozed off because I jerked awake when the bed dipped. My eyes darted to the side where Dante was stretching out. His chest was naked and I wanted nothing more than to run my hands over his slightly tanned, firm stomach and chest. His cool eyes settled on me. It was impossible to say what he was thinking. Would he reach out for me now?

I lay on my back, waiting for him to do something, nervous and excited and scared. I had to stop myself from making the first move. That would have been too forward.

“I have an early day tomorrow,” he said simply and then he turned the light off and rolled away from me. I was glad the darkness hid my shock and disappointment. I waited for a few more minutes for him to change his mind, to claim his rights, but he didn’t. He lay beside me quiet and unmoving, his back a few inches from my arm.

Hurt welled in me and I rolled over, away from him. Dante was into women, so why didn’t he want to sleep with me? What was wrong with me that after two wedding nights I was still as untouched as the virgin snow? I wasn’t sure I could go through this again. I wanted to experience lust, wanted to be desired. With Antonio, I’d known trying to seduce him was a losing battle from the start, but with Dante I had to try at least. Even if he still loved his wife, he was a man. He had desires and I was perfectly capable of giving him what he physically needed, even if he kept his emotions locked away.

I listened to his calm breathing. Although we weren’t touching, I could feel the heat radiating off of him. He wasn’t an iceman. There had to be a way to crack his mask.





CHAPTER FIVE





Dante wasn’t in bed when I woke the next morning. His side of the bed was cold as I pressed my palm against it. Forcing my anger down, I made sure the door was closed before I slipped my hand into my panties. Over the years with Antonio, I’d learned to give myself pleasure with my fingers. I buried my face in Dante’s pillow, inhaling his musky scent and imagined he was touching me as I stroked myself to an orgasm. Afterward, I lay on my back for a while, staring at the ceiling, wanting to cry and laugh at the same time.

I slipped out of bed and headed into the bathroom and took my time making myself presentable. I chose a form-fitting brown dress that ended above my knees and a cute red cashmere cardigan. Even if Dante didn’t care, I felt more comfortable if I put an effort into my outfits. I left the bedroom, hesitated and looked down the long corridor, wondering what hid behind the other doors. I’d have to explore at another time. Instead I headed down the staircase. I wasn’t sure if I was expected downstairs for breakfast. I didn’t know my new home, didn’t know the people who worked here, and worst of all: didn’t know the master of the house, my husband.

The double doors were ajar and I approached them, then lingered in front of them for a moment before I walked inside. I’d expected Dante to be gone already and was surprised when I found him sitting at the dining table in the vast living and dining room. As with the rest of the house, the floor was dark wood, the walls light beige, and the furniture dark and imposing.

The newspaper hid Dante’s face but he lowered it when he heard me entering. My brown heels clicked on the hardwood floor as I approached the table slowly, unsure of how to act around him. Antonio had been my friend first, and then my husband, but there was nothing between Dante and me. We were strangers.

The table was set for two people, but my plate wasn’t next to Dante, instead it had been set at the other end of the table. I stared at the distance between Dante and me, considering to ignore the set-up and to sit beside Dante, but then I lost courage and took my seat at the end of the table.

“I hope you slept well?” Dante asked in his smooth voice. He hadn’t put down the newspaper, still held onto it, and I had a feeling it would come up as a barrier between us again soon.

Was he being serious? “Too well,” I said, not able to stop the jibe. Didn’t he realize I’d expected a bit more from our first night together?

“I still have to prepare for a meeting with Luca. He’ll be here soon as he heads back to New York tonight, but I told him you’d be delighted to keep Aria company while we discuss business.”

I doubted Aria was in need of my company. She had her family here. This was a way to keep me occupied, nothing else. If he’d wanted a naïve wife, maybe he should have agreed to marry someone younger. But I liked Aria and it would have been rude to retract the invitation, so I smiled tightly. “That’s very considerate of you.” Sarcasm tinged my words. Now that we were married, it would be more difficult to keep up the polite mask.

Dante met my gaze, and there was something in them that made me lower my eyes and grab a Croissant. I wasn’t hungry, but it was better than doing nothing. The rustling of paper drew my attention back to the other end of the table. As expected, Dante had disappeared behind his newspaper. Was this how he wanted our marriage to go? He hadn’t even showed me around the house yet. “Will you give me a tour of the premises? I can hardly host guests without knowing my way around the house.”

Dante lowered his newspaper again and folded it on the table. I felt the unreasonable urge to rip it into shreds. “You are right.”

Excitement bubbled up in me but quickly dissipated at his next words. “Gaby!”

A moment later a door half hidden behind a massive cupboard opened and a short teenage girl entered the room and headed toward Dante. “Yes, sir, how can I help you?”

I had trouble masking my surprise. Gaby looked like she belonged in high school. How could she be the maid in this house?

“My wife,” Dante said with a nod in my direction. Gaby turned toward me briefly with a shy smile. “Would like to get a tour of the house. I’m busy, so please show her around.”

Gaby nodded and walked toward me. “Would you like to go now?” Her voice was hesitant, but I could see curiosity in her eyes. I swallowed the last crumb of my Croissant and poured coffee into my mug. “Yes, please. I’m going to take my coffee with me if that’s okay?”

Gaby’s eyes grew wide and she darted a look toward Dante, who was back to reading his newspaper. He didn’t look busy to me. If he had time to read the news why couldn’t he show me around? But I wouldn’t cause a scene in front of Gaby. Dante must have felt Gaby and me watching him expectantly because he raised his eyes. “This is your home now, Valentina. You can do whatever you want.”

So he had been listening to our conversation. And I wondered if what he said was really the case. I wished I were more courageous so I could test the theory. I turned back to Gaby and cradled my mug in my hands. “Then let’s go.”

She nodded and led me toward the door she’d come through earlier. “We could start in the kitchen and staff room?”

“Do whatever you think is best,” I said. “You know the house better than I do.”

Again a shy smile flitted across her face. Behind the door was a narrow corridor, which led into a vast kitchen. Potts hung from hooks attached to the ceiling. Everything was stainless steel and it reminded me more of a canteen kitchen than a place where family meals were prepared. A round older woman stood at the oven and checked the temperature. Inside what looked like a lamb roast was cooking. I assumed this was the cook, Zita. She turned around as she heard us enter and wiped her hands on her white apron. Her black hair had gray streaks in it and was secured in a hair net atop her head. I guessed she was in her mid-fifties.

“I’m giving our mistress a tour of the house,” Gaby said excitedly. I startled at the use of mistress. That sounded like I was a whip wielding dominatrix. Maybe Dante was comfortable being called ‘Sir’, but I definitely couldn’t live with ‘mistress’.

“Please call me Valentina,” I said quickly. “Both of you.” I smiled at Zita but she didn’t return the gesture. Her lips were pursed and she was scanning me from head to toe with a look of disapproval on her face.

“It would have been nice to meet you before the wedding,” Zita said haughtily.

I forced my face to remain calm even if I didn’t like her tone. I didn’t want to start off on the wrong foot with the service personnel in the house. “Dante never invited me, and I didn’t think it appropriate to invite myself.”

She huffed. “He introduced Mistress Carla to us before the wedding.”

I stiffened at the mentioning of Dante’s first wife, couldn’t help it. I could hear the judgment in her voice. She thought me less worthy than Carla. I had a feeling she wouldn’t let me forget it. I wasn’t looking forward to a battle of wills with her, and I definitely didn’t have the patience for it today. I looked around the kitchen instead, trying to pretend I wasn’t bothered by her comment. “So did Carla cook here often?”

Zita gave me a shocked look. “Of course not. She was the mistress of the house. She didn’t cook or clean. That’s what I and Febe did, before Gaby took Febe’s place.”

Gaby shifted nervously. It was clear that she didn’t know what to do.

“Well, you can expect me in the kitchen often. I love to cook,” I said.

Zita straightened her shoulders. “I don’t know if Master Dante will allow it.”

I took a sip from my coffee, returning her gaze steadily. “Dante told me I could do whatever I want.” She looked away from me with a frown. I knew it wasn’t over yet.

“Why don’t you show me the rest of the house, Gaby? I need to make sure I’m ready when Aria arrives.”

Gaby bobbed her head quickly. “Of course, Mis…Valentina.”

She led me into the room behind the kitchen. It seemed to be a sort of common room for the staff. There were two cots, a small TV and a couch. No chairs or table, but I assumed the staff usually gathered around the wooden table in the kitchen, since it obviously wasn’t used for Dante’s meals. There was also a small bathroom with a shower behind a white door. “Is this where you and Zita spend your time when you don’t work?”

Gaby shook her head. “We stay in the kitchen. This is mostly for the guards because they spend the nights.”

“Where are they now?” I hadn’t seen any guards so far.

“They are outside. Either patrolling the grounds or in their guardhouse.”

“Are there security cameras?”

“Oh no, Mr. Cavallaro didn’t want them. He’s a very private man.” No surprise there.

She headed toward another door. “This way.” We stepped into the back part of the lobby. Gaby pointed at the two doors in the hall. “This is Mr. Cavallaro’s office, and that’s the library. Mr. Cavallaro doesn’t like to be disturbed when he’s in his office.” She flushed. “By us, I mean. He’s probably happy to be disturbed by you.” She bit her lip.

I touched her shoulder. “I understand. So are there other rooms on this floor?”

“Only the living and dining room, and the guest bathroom.”

As Gaby led me upstairs, I asked. “How old are you?”

“I’m seventeen.”

“Shouldn’t you still be going to school?” I sounded like my mother, but Gaby’s shy nature brought out my motherly side even though she was only six years younger than me.”

“I’ve been working for Mr. Cavallaro for three years. I came into this house shorty after his wife died. I never met her but Zita really misses her, that’s why she was rude to you.”

My eyes grew wide. “For three years? That’s horrible.”

“Oh no,” Gaby said quickly. “I’m thankful. Without Mr. Cavallaro I’d probably be dead, or worse.” She shuddered, a dark look passing in her eyes. I could tell that she didn’t want to talk about it. I’d have to talk to Dante about her later. She quickened her pace and pointed at doors on this floor. “These are guest bedrooms. And beside your Master bedroom, there’s a room you could use for your own purposes. The nursery and two additional rooms are on the third floor.”

My eyes rested on a door at the end of the corridor that Gaby had ignored. I headed in its direction. “What about this one?”

Gaby gripped my arm before I could turn the handle. “That’s where Mr. Cavallaro keeps his first wife’s things.”

I had trouble keeping a straight face. “Of course,” I said instead. It couldn’t be locked or Gaby wouldn’t have stopped me from opening it. I’d have to return alone, and find out more about the woman who was casting such a huge shadow on my marriage.

***

One hour later I showed Aria into the living room. It felt strange to act like the mistress of the house; as if I was an impostor. Aria looked tired when she sank down on the sofa beside me. Dark shadows spread under her eyes. I supposed she had a longer night than I did.

“Coffee?” I asked her. Gaby had set up a pot on the table, as well as assorted cookies.

“God yes,” Aria said, then smiled apologetically. “I didn’t even ask you about your night. You probably got less sleep than me.”

I poured her coffee and handed her the cup as I tried to come up with a reply. “I slept okay,” I said evasively.

Aria watched me curiously but she didn’t push the matter. “So have you and Dante had the chance to get to know each other better?”

“Not yet. There wasn’t any time.”

“Because of us?” Aria asked worriedly. “Luca and your husband have to discuss a few things regarding Matteo’s and Gianna’s wedding.” I could hear the strain in her voice.

“Gianna’s still not happy about it.”

Aria laughed into her cup. “That’s an understatement.”

“Maybe she just needs a bit more time. I remember how scared you were before your marriage to Luca and now you two seem to get along just fine.” Of course I knew that appearances were deceiving. I didn’t know what went on behind closed doors.

“I know, but both Luca and I wanted to make it work. Right now, I think Gianna’s main goal is to make Matteo so sick of her that he cancels the wedding.”

“Not every couple works well together,” I said quietly.

“I’m sure you and Dante will make it work. You are both always so poised and controlled.”

I snorted. “I’m not nearly as poised as Dante.”

Aria smiled. “He is a bit cold on the outside, but as long as he thaws when he’s around you, everything’s alright.”

“So Luca isn’t always this scary?” I joked.

Aria’s cheeks tinged red. “No, he isn’t.”

Seeing Aria’s happiness gave me hope. If she could make it work with someone like Luca, then I could make it work with Dante.

Luca’s and Dante’s conversation lasted longer than expected and I was starting to worry. They weren’t exactly friends, but eventually they emerged and we decided to have lunch together. That’s why Zita had prepared a lamb roast after all.

We settled down at the table. Unlike this morning, Dante didn’t sit at the head of the table. Instead he and I sat on one side while Luca and Aria took the seats across from us. The tension between Dante and Luca was palpable, and I started to wonder if lunch was really the best idea. Fortunately, Zita served food only moments after we’d sat down, so we were busy enjoying the lamb, which lifted the spirits at least for a short while, but the moment our plates were empty things went downhill quickly.

Dante’s face was even colder than usual. He looked as if it had been carved out of marble. Luca didn’t look much happier, but the hardness of his mouth was accompanied by a fiery fire in his eyes. I glanced between them, but it was obvious that they didn’t have anything else to say to each other beyond what had been discussed during their meeting.

Aria gave me a beseeching look.

As the hostess, it was my job to salvage the situation. “So when’s the wedding?”

Dante made a dismissive sound. “If things progress as they do now, never.”

“If things progress as they do now, there will be a red wedding,” Luca said sharply.

My eyebrows shot up, and Gaby who’d come in with a new bottle of wine froze.

“There won’t be a red wedding,” Aria said. She turned to Dante. “You could give Matteo another bride from the Outfit.”

I almost choked.

“Aria,” Luca said in warning. “Matteo won’t accept another bride. It’s either Gianna or no one.” He turned his hard gaze on Dante, who looked unimpressed. “I’m sure the Boss has enough control over his Familia to make sure Gianna complies.”

I waved Gaby toward the table. Maybe wine would distract the men from ripping into each other.

“I’m not concerned about the extent of my control. There are no members of the Outfit trying to overthrow me.” He bared his teeth in a smile that sent a shiver down my back. The two men looked like they were seconds away from pulling guns. I wasn’t sure who’d go out as the winner in such a fight. They’d probably both die, and plunge the Outfit and the New York Familia back into open war with each other.

Luca rose, pushing back his chair in the process. Gaby, who had been about to fill his glass, yelped and dropped the wine bottle, her hands raised protectively in front of her face. For a moment, nobody moved. Dante stood as well. Only Aria and I were still sitting, almost frozen on our chairs.

“Don’t worry about New York. Just make sure you hold up your part of the bargain,” Luca snarled. He held out a hand and Aria took it, rising from her chair. “We need to catch a flight.” She gave me an apologetic smile.

I straightened, then glanced at Gabi. She still stood paralyzed beside the table, red wine pooling around her shoes. “I’ll show you out,” I said to Luca and Aria. As I led them into the lobby, Dante followed close behind as if he was worried Luca would do something to me, which was highly unlikely.

Dante and Luca didn’t shake hands, but I hugged Aria tightly. I wouldn’t let our husband’s fighting get in the way of our friendship. Or at least I’d try. If things really went downhill between Chicago and New York, I wouldn’t even be allowed to talk to Aria anymore. I watched them drive off, then I turned around to Dante who was still standing behind me. “What was that all about?”

Dante shook his head. “My father should never have agreed to marry the second Scuderi daughter off to New York. This won’t end well.”

“But things between Aria and Luca seem to be going well, and the Outfit has worked together peacefully with New York for years now.”

“Theirs was a marriage of convenience, but Matteo Vitiello wants Gianna Scuderi because he’s gotten it in his head that he needs to have her. That’s not a good base for a decision. Emotions are a liability in our world.”

I blinked. Again his cool reasoning. “Have you never wanted something so badly you would have done anything to have it?” I knew it was the wrong question the moment the words left my mouth but I couldn’t take it back.

His cool eyes met mine. “Yes. But we don’t always get what we want.” He was talking about his wife. He wanted her back.

I swallowed hard and nodded. “I should call Bibiana. I want to meet her tomorrow.”

I turned around and headed up the stairs, feeling Dante’s gaze on me the entire time. I was glad he couldn’t see my face.





CHAPTER SIX





After my short call with Bibiana, I’d retired into the library. It was stocked mainly with non-fiction and old classics, nothing I was usually drawn to, but I didn’t want to go in search for Dante, nor did I want to ask my mother if she wanted to come over. She would have thought something was wrong, and even though that was probably the case, I didn’t want her to find out. She’d been so happy since she found out I was going to be Dante’s wife. I didn’t want to ruin it for her by admitting that Dante couldn’t care less about my presence.

I grabbed a book that taught basic Russian. The only languages I spoke were Italian and English. I might as well get familiar with the language our enemies spoke, and it would keep me occupied in the hours Dante was busy ignoring me.

Eventually, the growling of my stomach lured me in the direction of the kitchen. It was already almost seven but nobody had called me for dinner. As I entered the kitchen, I found Zita, Gaby and two men gathered around the wooden table, eating dinner together.

I hesitated in the doorway, unsure if I should enter, but then Zita glanced my way and I couldn’t back out anymore. I slipped inside, feeling acutely overdressed in my sleek brown dress. Everyone turned my way, and the two men rose immediately. They wore gun and knife holsters over their black shirts. Both were in their late thirties, and probably the guards.

“The Master has already had dinner in his office,” Zita informed me.

“I was busy reading anyway,” I said, hoping I sounded indifferent. I focused on the two men still standing and watching me. “We haven’t met yet.”

I strode toward them and I extended my hand to the taller man with a buzz cut and a scar in his eyebrow. “I’m Valentina.”

“Enzo,” he said.

“Taft,” said the other man. He was a couple of inches smaller but much bulkier.

“Can I join you for a quick dinner?” I might just as well try to get familiar with the people I would see every day in the next few years, maybe longer.

Both men agreed at once. Gaby, too, seemed excited about the prospect of my presence; only Zita had trouble hiding her disapproval. “Are you sure this is what you want?” She gestured at the spread of cheeses, the Parma ham and the lovely Italian bread.

“I wouldn’t have asked if I wasn’t,” I said as I took the seat beside Taft. He held up a bottle of wine. I nodded and took one of the rustic wine glasses from a tray at the end of the table. The wine was delicious and so was the food. I kept my eyes on Gaby, who thankfully wasn’t drinking wine. Taft and Enzo didn’t look at her in any way that would suggest they were interested in her, which calmed me further, but I couldn’t forget the look of fear on her face when Luca had jumped to his feet. Of course he was a scary guy on the best of days, but there had been more. I had a feeling that Gaby had learned to fear men. I only needed to find out why. Taft and Enzo stopped after their second glass of wine; they still had guard duty until the morning and could hardly do their job drunk, but Zita and I emptied the bottle. With alcohol in her bloodstream, Zita seemed much nicer. Or maybe my own tipsiness made me blind to her rudeness. Either way, I enjoyed myself thoroughly. The men knew how to tell dirty jokes, and soon forgot that I was practically their boss.

After another particularly lewd joke that had Gaby hiding her face in her hands and me laughing like I hadn’t laughed in a long time, the door to the kitchen opened and Dante stepped in. His eyes did a quick scan of the room until they settled on his men, then me. His jaw tensed as he glowered at Taft and Enzo. “Shouldn’t you be outside keeping guard?” Dante asked in a dangerously quiet voice.

Both men stood at once. They fled the kitchen without another word.

“Gaby and I should head home too. We’ll clean the kitchen tomorrow,” Zita said as she grabbed her coat and put it on. “Come on, Gaby.” Gaby shot me an apologetic look, although she’d done nothing wrong.

Two minutes later, Dante and I were alone in the kitchen. I had done nothing forbidden, so I had no intention of apologizing. I emptied my red wine, my eyes on Dante, who seemed to become perfectly still as he watched me. Preparing to pounce, it shot through my head. I rose from my chair. In a standing position, at least, I didn’t have to tilt my head all the way back to look Dante in the eyes.

“Why did you eat with Enzo and Taft?”

I almost laughed. “Gaby and Zita were there too.” Was he jealous? Or did he think I was distracting the men from work?

“You could have eaten in the dining room.”

“Alone?” I asked in a challenging tone.

Dante advanced on me, and despite my best intentions I froze. “I don’t play games, Valentina. If there’s something you don’t like, then say it and don’t try to provoke me.”

He stood so close, the spicy scent of his aftershave flooded my nose. I had to fight the urge to grab him by his lapels and pull him in for a kiss.

“I wasn’t trying to provoke you,” I said matter-of-factly. “I was hungry and I didn’t want to eat by myself, so I decided to eat in the kitchen.”

“You should keep your distance to the guards. I don’t want people to misconstrue your friendliness with something else.”

I took a step back. “Are you accusing me of flirting with your men?”

“No,” he said simply. “We would have a different kind of conversation if I thought you were flirting with them.”

I raised my chin, unwilling to let him intimidate me, no matter how intimidating he was. “I won’t eat alone.”

“Would you prefer we have dinner together every night?”

“Of course, I do,” I said exasperatedly. There were many things I wanted to do together with him at night. “We are married. Isn’t that what married people do?”

“Did you and Antonio eat together?”

“Yes, unless he was away for work.” Or had a date with his lover Frank.

Dante nodded, as if he was filing away the information. I’d heard someone once say that he had a photographic memory, which made him a difficult opponent to outsmart, but I wasn’t sure if it was true.

I softened my voice. “What about you and your first wife? Did you eat together?”

I could practically see his defenses coming up. A veil of cold emotionlessness seemed to slide over his face. He pushed up his sleeve, revealing his gold watch. “It’s late. I have an early morning with meetings in our casinos.”

“Oh, sure.”

“You don’t have to go to bed if you’re not tired.”

“No, the wine’s making me sleepy.” We both walked out of the kitchen and headed upstairs. This time Dante disappeared in the bathroom first. I rummaged in my drawer for a skimpy satin camisole and matching panties that barely covered my butt. Maybe that would get Dante’s cold blood boiling.

I nervously paced the bedroom, wondering if tonight would be the night. Maybe yesterday had been a sort of grace period. The door of the bathroom opened and Dante stepped back into the bedroom. Like yesterday he was naked from the waist up. I allowed myself a few moments to admire his body. Even the scars didn’t make him any less gorgeous. If possible they added to his sexiness. Dante paused and I quickly tore my eyes away and rushed into the bathroom.

I took a quick shower and brushed my teeth before I slipped into my lingerie. Showtime. I stepped out of the bathroom. Dante was already in bed, his iPad in hand and back propped up against the headboard. He looked up, eyes wandering the length of my body, lingering on all the right places. Anticipation mixed with nerves filled me as I slowly walked toward the bed, making sure Dante got a good look at me. He hadn’t looked away yet, but he hadn’t put down his iPad either. I stretched out beside him, my back against the headboard. I didn’t bother pulling the covers up. I wanted Dante to see as much of me as possible.

I met his gaze. As usual his eyes were unreadable, but they weren’t quite as cool as usual. He set the iPad down on his nightstand and I almost sighed with relief, but then he shifted and lay down. Confused, I did the same, but I rolled onto my side, facing his way. He hadn’t turned the lights out yet. That had to be a good sign, and I knew he kept glancing toward my breasts. If I was more experienced, I would have initiated things, but I worried about revealing my inexperience to Dante if I risked it. If he made the first move, I could go along with him and would hopefully appear like the experienced woman I was supposed to be.

Dante tore his gaze away, closed his eyes and crossed his arms in front of his stomach. His jaw was locked tightly. Was he angry? He looked like he was on the verge of bursting. Maybe he didn’t like that I was being so forward and practically shoving my breasts into his face. Maybe he preferred his women demure and scared of their own shadow.

Frustrated, I rolled onto my back as well. “What happened to Gaby?” If we didn’t have sex, we might as well talk. Anything was better than the awkward silence.

Dante kept his eyes closed. “What do you mean?”

“She said she’s been working for you for three years, but she’s only seventeen. Shouldn’t she be going to school?”

Dante’s eyes peeled open, cool and blue, and firmly focused on the ceiling. “Three years ago we attacked two Russian clubs as retribution. They’re making the majority of their money with human trafficking. The women in their clubs are mostly sex slaves. Women and girls who were kidnapped and then forced into prostitution. When we took over the two clubs, we had to figure out what to do with the women. We couldn’t let them run around Chicago after what they’d witnessed.”

My stomach turned. “You killed them?”

Dante didn’t even twitch. “Most of them were illegals. We sent them back into the Ukraine or Russia. The others were relocated. Those who wanted to work in our clubs, we kept.”

“So what about Gaby?”

“She was a child. The younger girls we found were sent to families, where they could work as maids or cooks.”

“Or become mistresses,” I said, because I had no doubt that some Made Men couldn’t let their hands off a helpless girl under their roof.

Dante frowned. “Even among Made Men, pedophilia isn’t tolerated, Valentina.”

“I know, but Gaby doesn’t exactly look like a child anymore, nor do the other girls you captured, I presume.”

Dante fixed me with a hard glare. “Are you suggesting I touched Gaby?”

“She almost died from fear today when Luca moved. Maybe one of your men…”

“No,” Dante said firmly. “She hasn’t been abused in any way since she came into this house. She’s under my protection. My men know that.”

“Okay.” I believed him, and I also believed that none of his men dared to go against Dante’s direct orders. If Gaby was under his protection, she was safe. “I bet those girls would have made you a lot of money. There’s a reason why the Russians kidnap young girls. Why the qualms? It’s not like the Outfit hasn’t its own clubs with prostitutes, and it’s not like those women can just stop working for the mob whenever they want.” I was honestly curious. Dante was a killer after all.

“The Outfit isn’t in the business of sex slaves. The women in our clubs start working for us on their own free will and they know that they’ll be bound to us forever. We make enough money with our casinos and drugs, we don’t need sex slaves or illegal racing like the Russians and the Familia in Las Vegas.”

“What about New York, do they deal in sex slaves?”

“No. That’s really only the Vegas Familia. I’m not saying that there aren’t voices in the Outfit who would like to change that, but as long as I’m Capo that won’t happen.”

“That’s good,” I said.

Dante’s eyes softened for a moment but then he turned away and extinguished the lights.

“Good night,” I whispered. I was still disappointed that Dante didn’t touch me, but at least he’d talked to me as if we were equals, not like I was a brainless woman who didn’t need to know anything about the business.

“Good night, Valentina,” Dante said into the dark. There was something in his voice I couldn’t identify and I was too tired to try.





CHAPTER SEVEN





If I’d thought last night’s chat with Dante would make him reconsider our seating arrangements during breakfast or even make him want to talk to me, I’d been horribly wrong. Like yesterday he disappeared behind his newspaper after a quick greeting. I wasn’t in the mood to fight for his attention. I was too confused and hurt by his continued disinterest in me. I only picked some fruit and drank a cup of coffee before I decided to excuse myself. Dante didn’t even look up from his newspaper when I walked out.

Usually I would have asked him if he wanted me to take one of his men as guard with me to Bibiana’s house, but I was too angry. I had a driver’s license. Antonio had wanted me to get one after we married, which sadly wasn’t the norm for men in our world. After I’d put on a coat and grabbed my purse, I walked into the garage. Dante had given me keys for the house and the garage. Of the three cars parked in the garage, the Mercedes GL was the least attention-grabbing. I took the car keys from a hook at the wall and slipped into the car. It took me a moment to find the button in the dashboard that opened the garage, but finally I steered the car outside and down the driveway. A guard I didn’t know patrolled the fence but didn’t try to stop me when I opened the gate with a press of another button. I drove off the premises and the gate closed automatically behind me.

It felt good to drive again, even if I didn’t like Chicago traffic, but it had been too long since I had been allowed to drive by myself. My parents had been too determined to keep me under their watch after Antonio’s death to let me go out alone. I knew the way to Bibiana’s home by heart, had driven it countless times over the years, and it took me only ten minutes from Dante’s mansion.

Bibiana’s and Tommaso’s house was much smaller than that of Dante and of my parents. They didn’t have a long driveway where I could have parked. Instead I had to leave my car in the street. Not that I was worried someone might steal it. Streets where mob members lived were usually quite safe, unless you counted the risk of attacks from the Bratva or Triad. I walked up to their front door, noticing one of Tommaso’s men sitting in a car on the other side of the street and watching the house. Tommaso wasn’t as highly ranked as the men in my family or the Scuderis, but he wasn’t a simple soldier either. He always kept a guard near the house to watch over Bibiana, or what I suspected: to make sure she didn’t run away.

He didn’t stop me, only tilted his head in a gesture of respect. I rang the bell. Bibiana opened the door, then glimpsed behind me. “Where are your guards?”

I shrugged. “I didn’t take any. Dante never said I had to take guards.”

“Won’t you get in trouble?” she asked as she closed the door and led me into their living room. As usual her husband wasn’t home. Bibiana of course didn’t mind. She’d gained a couple of pounds since Tommaso had been forced to work long hours. Now she didn’t look quite as emaciated anymore.

“Why would I?” I said. I wasn’t even sure if Dante cared if I left the house without protection. He seemed too busy with God knows what.

Bibiana gave me a worried look. “You should be careful. Dante is a dangerous man. He always looks so calm and in control, but Tommaso told me Dante doesn’t tolerate disobedience.”

That didn’t really come as a surprise, but I couldn’t really disobey him if he didn’t give me an order in the first place. “I’m not one of his soldiers.”

I sank down on the sofa. Bibiana took a seat beside me, curiosity filling her face. “So how was your wedding night?”

My lips twisted. “I slept well,” I said sarcastically.

Bibiana blinked at me. “Huh? That’s not what I meant.”

“I know what you meant,” I said, frustrated. “Nothing happened. Dante gave me the cold shoulder.”

“He didn’t try to sleep with you? What about last night?” I wished Bibiana didn’t sound so stunned; it made me feel even worse. As if somehow it was my fault that I hadn’t managed to make Dante want me. I knew she didn’t mean it that way.

“He didn’t even kiss me. He just lay down beside me and said he had an early day, and then he turned off the light and fell asleep. What kind of wedding night is that?” I leaned my head against the backrest. “I don’t get it.”

“Maybe he was really tired,” Bibiana said tentatively.

I gave her a look. “Do you really believe that? He looked fit enough to me. And what about yesterday? Was he tired then too?” I bit my lip. “Do you think it’s still because of his wife?”

Bibiana twisted a strand of her brown hair around her finger nervously. “Maybe. I hear he adored her. They were the dream couple in Chicago.”

I’d never paid much attention to Dante and his wife in the past, but I remembered seeing them together at social gatherings. I remembered thinking they looked like they belonged together. There were few couples in our world who looked like they were together because they loved each other. Most of them married for convenience, but with Dante and his wife Carla you had seen that they were meant to be together. Fate was cruel for ripping them apart, and even crueler for throwing me into the arms of a man who’d already found the love of his life once. “Maybe he hasn’t been with a woman since his wife died. That could be the reason why he didn’t try to consummate our marriage.”

Bibiana avoided my gaze and reached for a macaron on the silver étagère on the table in front of us. She shoved it into her mouth and chewed as if it afforded all of her concentration. Dread filled my stomach. “Bibi?”

Her eyes darted to me, then they were gone again. She swallowed and reached for another sweet, but I grabbed her wrist, stopping her. “You know something. Did Dante have a lover since his wife’s death?”

Bibiana sighed. “I didn’t want to tell you.”

The words hollowed me out. “Didn’t want to tell me what?”

What if Dante had a steady lover? Someone he couldn’t marry for social and political reasons. Maybe that’s why he chose me, a widow, because he didn’t want to screw over a poor innocent girl like that. My head started spinning.

Bibiana gripped my hand tightly. “Hey, it’s not that bad. Calm down. You look like you’re going to pass out any moment.”

I reached for a green macaron and stuffed it into my mouth. The sweet taste of pistachio spread on my tongue and I relaxed slightly. “So spill before I come up with more horrible scenarios.” I could tell Bibiana wanted to ask what kind of scenarios had popped into my mind, but thankfully she didn’t. Bibiana knew me well enough to guess anyway. We’d been friends since we could both walk. She was the cousin closest in age to me and we’d always spend every free minute together. Even in school we’d been inseparable, except for the classes that we didn’t share because I was a year ahead. But it was difficult to make friends among normal people, so we’d stuck together. That hadn’t changed after we’d married. If possible we’d gotten even closer because we both could share our marriage troubles with each other without having to worry that anything would get out.

“My husband told me Dante frequented Club Palermo for a while.”

I froze. Club Palermo was a mob-owned night club with pole dancing, striptease and prostitution. Bibiana’s husband was the manager of the club. “What do you mean?”

Bibiana’s cheeks turned red. She looked like she regretted ever having brought it up. “He used prostitutes for sex.”

I pressed my lips together, trying to figure out why this hurt so much. Only last night we’d talked about prostitution, why hadn’t he mentioned something? I could almost see how that conversation would have gone. “Not anymore, right?”

“Oh no, it happened a while ago. About a year after his wife’s death, he had a rough stretch and came into the Club a couple of times per week to ‘let off some steam’, as Tommaso put it.”

It had been way before our marriage, and yet the knowledge that Dante had slept with prostitutes, but hadn’t even tried to kiss me hurt a lot. “So he has no problem sleeping with other women, he just doesn’t want to sleep with me.”

“No, that’s not true. And like I said, he hasn’t visited Club Palermo in a long time.”

“Okay, but that doesn’t change the fact that he didn’t want to sleep with me. With Antonio, I could deal with it. I knew it was nothing personal. He wasn’t into me, because he wasn’t into women, but what is the reason for Dante’s disinterest? Maybe he doesn’t find me attractive.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Val. You’re gorgeous. He’d have to be blind not to be into you. Maybe he didn’t want to push you? You lost your husband less than a year ago and Dante doesn’t know that you and Antonio were never a real couple.”

“It’s not like I don’t miss, Antonio,” I said defensively. “I miss our conversations, and that he confided in me.”

“I know you do, but you don’t miss him physically. Maybe Dante thinks you’re not ready to get physical with another man.”

I pondered that. It seemed like a logical explanation, and Dante was nothing if not a logical man. On the other hand, Dante was a Made Man and they usually didn’t suffer from excessive sensitivity. “How many men do you know who would care about that?”

Bibiana grimaced. “Tommaso definitely wouldn’t.”

“See,” I said, feeling even more miserable. “It’s unlikely that Dante’s conscience is keeping him from sleeping with me. He’s a killer, and a skilled one at that. He’s the Boss for a reason.”

“That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have some scruples. I know that he strongly disapproves of rape.”

I snorted. “He disapproves?”

Bibiana gave me a stern look. “I’m serious. Dante told his men that he’d castrate anyone who would use rape as a form of torture, punishment or entertainment. Tommaso hates it because he thinks he should be allowed to do whatever he wants with the women in Club Palermo.”

I didn’t doubt that for one second. I’d lost count of the times he’d raped Bibiana. Of course, nobody called it rape in our world because she was his wife and her body belonged to him. Thinking about it made me sick. “Okay, so he has qualms about a couple of things.” It made sense after what he’d said about Gabi yesterday. Maybe he really didn’t want to initiate anything with me because he thought I was still mourning Antonio.

“Maybe you should make the first move?” Bibiana said.

“I pranced around him half-naked yesterday, what else can I do?”

“You could kiss him. Touch him.”

I knew how to kiss. Antonio had kissed me a few times. It had been nice. For me at least, so kissing Dante was definitely something I could do. “Touch him? Do you mean his you know what?”

Bibiana flushed. “I guess so? I never initiated anything with Tommaso but he always wants me to touch him there and blow him.” Bibiana took another macaron. I knew she hated talking about sex with Tommaso. Who wouldn’t?

“Touching him can’t be too hard.”

“Oh, it’ll be hard.”

I laughed. “Dirty jokes already? The macarons really get you going.”

Bibiana giggled and shook her head. “You will be fine. Even if you blow him, you can’t do anything wrong. Use no teeth and you should swallow, that are the two most important things.”

I had to hide a grimace. I wasn’t so much disgusted by the idea of giving Dante a blowjob, but the image of Bibiana having to swallow Tommaso’s stuff made me want to hurl.

“The good thing about blowjobs is that most men love them, so if you’re not into the actual sex, then you can keep them happy that way.”

I really hoped it didn’t come to that. I knew the only orgasm Bibiana’s ever experienced was by her own hand, but I really didn’t want to share her fate.

“I’ll give it a try tonight,” I said, suddenly feeling more hopeful.

“Call me tomorrow. I want to kno