Only a few months later, I found out that Romero wasn’t who I thought he was, who I wanted him to be and had made him out to be. That day still haunts me after all this time. It could have been the moment that my crush on Romero disappeared for good.
My parents had taken Gianna, Fabiano and me to New York with them to attend Salvatore Vitiello’s funeral, even though I didn’t know Luca’s and Matteo’s father. I’d been so very excited to see Aria again. But that trip turned into a nightmare, my first real taste of what it meant to be part of our world.
After the Russians attacked the Vitiello mansion, I was alone with my brother Fabi in a room where Romero had taken us after the Famiglia under Luca’s lead had come to our rescue. Someone had given my brother a tranquilizer because he’d completely lost it after he’d seen our bodyguard getting shot in the head. I was oddly calm, almost in trance as I huddled beside him on the bed, staring at nothing and listening for noises. Every time someone walked past our room, I tensed, prepared for another attack. But then Gianna texted, asking me where I was. I’d never moved as fast in my life. It took me less than two seconds to jump off the bed, cross the room and rip the door open. Gianna stood in the corridor, her red hair all over the place. The moment I jumped into her arms, I felt better and safer. Since Aria had moved, Gianna had taken over the role as substitute mother while our own mother was busy taking care of her social responsibilities and catering to Father’s every whim.
When Gianna decided to look around downstairs, panic overcame me. I didn’t want to be alone right now, and Fabi really wasn’t going to wake for another couple of hours, so despite my fear of what we’d find on the first floor, I followed my sister. Most of the furniture in the living room was ruined from the fight with the Russians and blood covered almost every surface. I’d never been very queasy about blood, or anything really. Fabi had always come to me to show me his wounds, especially when there was pus because he hadn’t properly cleaned them. And even now, as we strolled past all the red on the white carpets and sofas, it wasn’t the blood itself that made my stomach turn. It was the memory of the events. I couldn’t even smell blood anymore because the floors had been cleaned with some kind of disinfectant. I was glad when Gianna headed for another part of the house but then I heard the first scream from the basement. I would have turned on my heel and pretended there was nothing. Not Gianna though.
She opened the steel door, which led to a room below the surface. The staircase was dark but from somewhere in the depth of the basement light spilled out. I shivered. “You don’t want to go down there, right?” I whispered. I should have known the answer. This was Gianna.
“Yes, but you will stay on the stairs,” Gianna said before she started her descent. I hesitated only a second before I went after her. Nobody had ever said I was good at following orders.
Gianna glared. “Stay there. Promise me.”
I wanted to argue. I wasn’t a little kid anymore. But then someone cried out below us, and the hairs in the back of my neck rose. “Okay. I promise,” I said quickly. Gianna turned and moved down the remaining steps. She froze when she reached the last step before she finally stepped into the basement. I could only see part of her back but from the way her muscles tensed I knew she was upset. There was a muffled cry and Gianna flinched. Despite the fear pounding in my temples, I crept downstairs. I needed to know what my sister saw. She wasn’t someone who freaked out easily.
Even as I did I knew I’d regret it, but I couldn’t resist. I was tired of being left out of everything, of always being too young, of being reminded every day that I needed protection from myself and everything around me.
The moment my feet hit the basement floor, my eyes settled on the center of the room. At first, I couldn’t even comprehend what was going on. It was as if my brain was giving me a chance to leave and be none the wiser, but instead of rushing off, I stayed and stared. My mind went into overdrive, soaking in every detail, every gruesome detail before me. Details I still remembered vividly years later.
There were two of the Russians who’d attacked us, tied to chairs, and then there was blood. Matteo and another man were beating and cutting them, hurting them. My vision tunneled, and terror rose up my throat. And then my gaze settled on Romero, his kind brown eyes, which weren’t as kind as I remembered them. His hands, too, were covered in blood. The good guy and knight in shining armor I’d fantasized about, that guy he wasn’t. A scream ripped from my body, but I could only tell because of the pressure in my chest and throat. I didn’t hear anything beyond the rushing in my ears. Everyone stared at me like I was the crazy one. I wasn’t sure what happened after that. I remembered fragments. Hands grasping me, arms holding tight. Soothing words that did nothing. I remembered a warm chest against my back and the smell of blood. There was a brief burning pain when Matteo injected me with something before my world transformed into eerie calm. The terror was still there, but it was blanketed. My vision was blurry but I could make out Romero kneeling beside me. He picked me up and straightened with me in his arms. The forced calm won out and I relaxed against his chest. Right in front of my eyes a red blotch disfigured his white shirt. Blood from the men that had been tortured. Sluggishly, terror tried to rip through the medication, but it was futile and I gave up the fight. My eyes fluttered shut as I resigned myself to my fate.