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Bound by Duty(2)

By:Cora Reilly

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.