My fingers shook like leaves in the breeze as I raised them, my heartbeat hummingbird quick. Luca’s strong hand was firm and steady as he took mine and slipped the ring onto my finger.
White gold with twenty small diamonds.
What was meant as a sign of love and devotion for other couples was nothing but a testament of his ownership of me. A daily reminder of the golden cage I’d be trapped in for the rest of my life. Until death do us part wasn’t an empty promise as with so many other couples that entered the holy bond of marriage. There was no way out of this union for me. I was Luca’s until the bitter end. The last few words of the oath that men swore when they were inducted into the mafia could just as well have been the closing of my wedding vow:
“I enter alive and I will have to get out dead.”
I should have run when I still had the chance. Now, as hundreds of faces from the Chicago and New York Familias stared back at us, flight was no longer an option. Nor was divorce. Death was the only acceptable end to a marriage in our world. Even if I still managed to escape Luca’s watchful eyes and that of his henchmen, my breach of our agreement would mean war. Nothing my father could say would prevent Luca’s Familia from exercising vengeance for making them lose face.
My feelings didn’t matter, never had. I’d been growing up in a world where no choices were given, especially to women.
This wedding wasn’t about love or trust or choice. It was about duty and honor, about doing what was expected.
A bond to ensure peace.
I wasn’t an idiot. I knew what else this was about: money and power. Both were dwindling since the Russian Mob ‘The Bratva’, the Taiwanese Triad, and other crime organizations had been trying to expand their influence into our territories. The Italian Familias across the US needed to lay their feuds to rest and work together to beat down their enemies. I should be honored to marry the oldest son of the New York Familia. That’s what my father and every other male relative had tried to tell me since my betrothal to Luca. I knew that, and it wasn’t as if I hadn’t had time to prepare for this exact moment, and yet fear corseted my body in a relentless grip.
“You may kiss the bride,” the priest said.
I raised my head. Every pair of eyes in the pavilion scrutinized me, waiting for a flicker of weakness. Father would be furious if I let my terror show, and Luca’s Familia would use it against us. But I had grown up in a world where a perfect mask was the only protection afforded to women and had no trouble forcing my face into a placid expression. Nobody would know how much I wanted to escape. Nobody but Luca. I couldn’t hide from him, no matter how much I tried. My body wouldn’t stop shaking. As my gaze met Luca’s cold gray eyes, I could tell that he knew. How often had he instilled fear in others? Recognizing it was probably second nature to him.
He bent down to bridge the ten inches he towered over me. There was no sign of hesitation, fear or doubt on his face. My lips trembled against his mouth as his eyes bored into me. Their message was clear: You are mine.
Three years prior
I was curled up on the chaise longue in our library, reading, when a knock sounded. Liliana’s head rested in my lap and she didn’t even stir when the dark wooden door opened and our mother stepped in, her dark blond hair pulled back tightly and fasted in a bun at the back of her head. Mother was pale, her face drawn with worry.
“Did something happen?” I asked.
She smiled, but it was her fake smile. “Your father wants to talk to you in his office.”
I carefully moved out from under Lily’s head and put it down on the chaise. She drew her legs up against her body. She was small for an eleven year old, but I wasn’t exactly tall either with five foot four. None of the women in our family were. Mother avoided my eyes as I walked toward her.
“Am I in trouble?” I didn’t know what I could have done wrong. Usually Lily and I were the obedient ones; Gianna was the one who always broke the rules and got punished.
“Hurry. Don’t let your father wait,” Mother said simply.
My stomach was in knots when I arrived in front of Father’s office. After a moment to stifle my nerves, I knocked.
I entered, forcing my face to be carefully guarded. Father sat behind his mahogany desk in a wide black leather armchair; behind him rose the mahogany shelves filled with books that Father had never read, but they hid a secret entrance to the basement and a corridor leading off the premises.
He looked up from a pile of sheets, grey hair slicked back. “Sit.”
I sank down on one of the chairs across from his desk and folded my hands in my lap, trying not to gnaw on my lower lip. Father hated that. I waited for him to start talking. He had a strange expression on his face as he scrutinized me. “The Bratva and the Triad are trying to claim our territories. They are getting bolder by the day. We’re luckier than the Las Vegas familia who also has to deal with the Mexicans but we can’t ignore the threat the Russians and the Taiwanese pose any longer.”