“Hello, little bird.” A deep voice skated over the back of my neck like velvet, making my nerves jump. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
I whirled, heart jumping into my throat at the man’s proximity. In a hurry to obey my father’s demand for a meeting in his study, I hadn’t noticed the stranger lurking in the shadows of our cavernous foyer. He leaned casually against the mahogany banister of the curved double staircase, his head tipped at a curious angle. Vibrant green eyes clashed with my shocked hazel gaze, his glittering with amusement that held an arrogant edge. His square jaw was darkened by stubble, which matched the slightly untidy tumble of dark curls around his angelically perfect face.
A fallen angel, judging by the way he was looking at me. His eyes roved over each of my facial features before dipping lower for a fraction of a heartbeat: a brief but intimate appraisal. His white teeth flashed in a purely predatory smile, and he prowled toward me. As he stepped fully into the light, the shadows cleared from beneath his high cheekbones, and recognition finally dawned.
Dante Torrio. I’d seen him at my father’s parties, but I didn’t truly know him. He was too painfully beautiful to look straight at him, like staring into the sun. And Father never allowed us to interact with men beyond a polite smile and demure nod.
He reached the edge of my personal space, then stepped into it as though he had every right. He towered over me, almost a foot taller than my five-foot five frame.
Those striking eyes pinned me in place, peering straight into me. The slightly cruel twist of his full lips sliced into my chest, stealing my breath. His sudden nearness was shocking, his masculine scent suffusing the air around me with a foreign, enticing perfume. I’d never stood so close to a man; men were forbidden. Well, the only time I was this close was when Father tasked one of his goons with punishing me.
But this was different. Dante wasn’t looking at me with malice in his glittering eyes. The sharpness that pierced my soul was something hungrier than violence. My belly flipped, and I took a wary step back.
His grin turned lopsided, amused by my trepidation. A shiver raced down my spine, and warmth suffused my cheeks.
I took another step back, licking my suddenly dry lips. Dante’s gaze darkened as he watched the flick of my tongue and focused on my mouth. Something clenched between my legs, and my face burned with an embarrassed flush. His intense attention made me squirm, and judging by the perverse pleasure that illuminated his sharp features, he was enjoying my apprehension.
I lifted my chin and met his taunting gaze head-on. All my life, my will had been crushed by brutal men, any signs of defiance quickly obliterated by a harsh slap or thundering shout. But no matter how many times I had to swallow my pride and bend, I kept my righteous rage stoked deep inside my chest.
Dante wasn’t one of my father’s men. He had no right to punish me. And I didn’t have to stand in his imposing shadow, shrinking beneath his cocky, self-assured stare.
His smile sharpened to something almost feral, and he grasped my hand with thick fingers, drawing my arm through his with a gentle but unbreakable grip. Sparks tingled where our skin touched, his rough callouses rasping over my softer palm. He rested my hand on his forearm, and I felt the raw power of his corded muscles even through his perfectly tailored suit.
Something tugged at the pit of my stomach, as though pulling me closer to his heat, his intoxicating scent.
I swallowed hard. “I have to go.” I hated the way my voice wavered, and I didn’t pull away from his allure.
I had to go meet my father in his study, or I would definitely be punished for my tardiness. No matter how fascinating I found this unnerving connection to Dante, it was dangerous. In so many ways. If Father saw me touching him…
I tried to yank my hand free, but his fingers firmed around mine, gluing my palm to his arm. He started walking with sure, confident strides, as though he was escorting me to a ball.
“We’re going to the same place,” he informed me, his voice still lilting with amusement. He liked that he was making me hot and flustered.
Defiant anger spiked, and I jerked away from him. “Let me go!”
I stumbled as he abruptly released me. His mocking chuckle rolled over my skin, making my flesh pebble and dance as though at a physical touch.
My cheeks burned with anger and embarrassment, and I quickly righted myself. I walked stiffly toward my father’s study, my low, sensible heels clicking across the marble foyer. Dante kept step beside me, half an inch too close for polite company. I could still smell his heady cologne, and his body heat caressed my side. His dark pleasure and masculine power pulsed over me, and I suppressed the tremor that teased along my bones.
I wouldn’t show further weakness. And I wouldn’t let him touch me again. Not when I knew he wouldn’t be the one to suffer the consequences; Father would have a fit if he knew I’d allowed a man to touch me.
Familiar dread weighed in my stomach, growing heavier with each step toward the study. Nothing good ever happened to me in that room. I was either called in for a reprimand or unpleasant news. My fingers flexed at my sides in a fruitless attempt to release some of the mounting anxiety that wound my muscles tighter with each passing second.
“Do I make you nervous, little bird?” That mocking, amused tone again, but slightly deeper this time, another velvet caress.
I’d almost forgotten about his imposing presence at my side as my worry escalated, and I jolted slightly at his question.
“You’re not the one I’m worried about,” I answered snappishly before I could think better of telling the truth.
I didn’t know Dante at all, and showing any man a shred of vulnerability usually ended in more pain. Father’s men liked inflicting pain. He selected them as his guards for their sadistic tendencies; he liked to inspire fear.
I edged away from Dante. I’d heard stories about his sadistic nature too. The urbane man strolling casually at my side was capable of shocking, brutal violence that made even the hardest men in our organization tread lightly in his presence.
He made a low humming sound that was almost a growl. It rumbled along my bones, drawing another shiver to the surface of my skin.
Too soon, we reached the threshold to the study. Instinct made me want to draw in a deep breath to fortify myself, but I didn’t dare. I arranged my face in a careful, neutral mask and lifted my chin as I stepped inside.
Father sat behind his enormous, imposing mahogany desk, flanked by Giorgio, his most vicious foot solider and bodyguard. My father was still fearsome and ruthless, but age stooped his shoulders, and the beginnings of arthritis curled his fingers. He wasn’t physically capable of doling out the violence he’d once been renowned for. There was a reason he’d earned his place as consigliere of the Vitale crime family, Tommaso Vitale’s right-hand man.
Tommaso, the boss of our organization, was in even poorer health than my father, on his deathbed if the rumors were to be believed. Cancer didn’t discriminate between the weak and the powerful. The disease would take down the terrifying crime boss more cruelly than any bullet he’d dodged over the years.
I ignored the sharp glint in my father’s hazel eyes—more green than brown, like my own—and went to join my sister, Giana. Her tanned features were nearly identical to mine, but her trepidation made her appear slighter than me, younger despite the fact that she’d been born eighteen months earlier. The glimmers of golden strands shone through her brown hair, making her appear like a delicate, ethereal nymph in the low lighting of the opulent study.
Wood paneled walls surrounded us, closing in tighter with each of my carefully measured breaths. I wanted to take Giana’s hand in mine and give it a reassuring squeeze, but I knew Giorgio’s black eyes would immediately take note of the small show of weakness. Giana was fragile enough as it was, almost trembling in the burly guard’s shadow; she didn’t need any sign of comfort from me to signal further vulnerability.
“Dante, thank you for coming,” Father greeted as the impossibly handsome, disconcerting man entered the study behind me. I felt his heat at my back, still a little too close for polite company.
I released a small breath when he strolled past me, and the sense that I was being watched like prey finally eased. His focus was on my father now, and I nearly sagged with relief; I hadn’t realized how his attention had put all my survival instincts on high alert, and now that his intense gaze shifted, I felt almost lightheaded at the release.
Dante tipped his head in an almost imperceptible nod, the barest show of submission. “I’m always happy to accept an invitation from you, Giuseppe.”
My father steepled his fingers and leaned forward on his elbows, his sharp gaze skewering the younger man. Dante didn’t so much as flinch. He met Father’s bone-quaking stare head on.
“Tommaso is dying,” Father said bluntly, cutting right to the chase with his usual battering ram approach to negotiations. “As you know, he expects his son, Luca, to take his place at the head of our family.”
The hint of a shadow flickered across Dante’s stubble-shaded jaw, so fast I might have imagined it.
“You know why you’re here,” Father continued. “Luca isn’t strong enough to hold off the Russians when they come circling in the wake of Tommaso’s death.”
“Agreed,” Dante replied coolly, dark brows lowering slightly over his keen eyes.
“And that little shit will get rid of me as soon as he can manage to stick a knife in my back.”
I jolted at that revelation. I was mostly kept apart from family politics. I knew my father was as close as a brother to Tommaso, but I’d had no idea that Tommaso’s son would turn on him at the first opportunity. What had Father done to incite his ire?
“You want an alliance,” Dante said it like it was a foregone conclusion, a fact that had been established before we’d stepped into this meeting.
Father tipped his head in acknowledgement, but the direction of his gaze flicked to Giana and me. I stiffened, unease coiling in the pit of my stomach. Why were we here? There was no reason for my sister and me to silently witness this meeting; we certainly hadn’t been called here to offer our opinions or input.
“I’m backing you,” Father announced, his attention spearing Dante once again. “I will keep my place in the family. I will be your consigliere, and you will take control of the organization. I’m too old to be boss. My health is already failing. You’re strong enough to push back the Bratva and even take more territory from them. You have the instincts and temperament for the job. You came up from nothing, and you’re our most powerful capo now. I choose you to be Tommaso’s successor, even if he thinks his son should come to power after his death.” His eyes lifted in a brief prayer, as though asking for forgiveness for betraying his closest friend’s wishes.
I continued to watch the exchange in tense silence, my mind racing. Giana and I shouldn’t be here. We shouldn’t know about Father’s planned coup. It put us in danger, and for all my father’s cruelty, he’d always protected us from the worst aspects of his criminal lifestyle. The violence we suffered at home was nothing compared to his vicious capabilities when it came to his enemies.
Or, it seemed, his supposed allies. He was prepared to turn on Luca and upend the family’s power structure in order to cling to his position as consigliere.
Dante’s vibrant eyes cut into me before flicking back to my father. “And how do you propose we seal this alliance?” Again, that almost bored tone, as though he’d known exactly how this conversation would go before he’d even arrived at my house.
Father’s edict dropped like a stone between us: “You will marry my eldest daughter, Giana.”
My sister’s sharp gasp spiked through my heart, her fear lancing me with rage. My fingers curled at my sides, and my spine stiffened. She might be the eldest, but I’d always been her protector. She trembled at my side, wilting at the prospect of my father’s command.
I stepped in front of her, shielding her from him and from Dante’s arrogant gaze. How dare they treat my sister like an object to be traded? She was kind and gentle, and she deserved to be loved, not used like a pawn in a mobster’s power play.
“I won’t let you do this,” I seethed, my defiant stare clashing with Dante’s intense green eyes. The flared slightly, darkening with some emotion I didn’t fully understand. I ignored the strange look and took a step toward him, getting in his personal space as though I could physically intimidate the mountain of a man. “I won’t let you anywhere near my sister.”
The capo was a monster with a fearsome reputation. He would be cold and possibly abusive to Giana, and she was far too frail to withstand that kind of cruelty. She would wither and waste away if I allowed them to cage her in an arranged marriage with a heartless bastard.
Dante had unnerved me during our brief exchange in the foyer; Giana would crumble if he turned that intense attention on her.
I dared to take my eyes off the threat so that I could glare at my father. “You can’t sell Giana to this bastard. I won’t allow it. If Mother were here—”
“Don’t talk to me about your mother!” Father boomed. “I won’t tolerate this disrespect.”
He nodded at Giorgio, and suddenly the beast was looming over me. Pain cracked through my skull when his meaty hand collided with my cheek. I reeled back, black flickering over my vision as a thousand bees stung my face. My eyes watered, blurring the room. Giana’s arms were around me, holding me upright when the world tilted.
In the heartbeat of dizziness, a terrible snarl ripped through the study, followed by a booming thud. I blinked hard, desperate to assess my surroundings and avoid the worst of the next blow.
But the hit didn’t come. Through my watery vision, I saw Dante holding Giorgio up by his neck as though he weighed nothing, pinning him against the bookcase with one huge hand wrapped around the guard’s throat. Shock punched me at the sudden violence, taking my breath away. Dante’s beautiful features were twisted into something almost feral.
“Dante!” Father barked, a thread of fear in his voice.
The younger man didn’t heed the warning. His full lips peeled back from his white teeth as he lowered his face closer to Giorgio’s purple features.
“No one touches what’s mine,” he snarled at the man who’d been my tormentor for years.
My stomach dropped to the floor, and my head spun. I couldn’t fully take in the implications of his furious words.
“That’s enough,” Father boomed, the command hitching slightly.
“Apologize,” Dante hissed in Giorgio’s rapidly darkening face. My assailant twisted and struggled for air.
“I’m…sorry,” he gasped out when Dante loosened his grip a fraction to allow him space to suck in a tiny breath.
“Don’t look at me when you say it,” Dante said, his voice going cold and more tightly controlled, some of the primal ferocity ebbing away. “Look at her.”
Giorgio’s eyes rolled with fear, but he managed to direct them at me. “I’m sorry,” he forced out, tears streaming down his face.
Dante dropped him like garbage, stepped away, and straightened his suit. The snarl had melted away, and he was coolly composed once again, as though he hadn’t just nearly strangled a man to death.
“I accept your alliance,” he told my father. “But I’m marrying Elenora, not Giana.”
As my mind spun, Father’s eyes narrowed, bristling at the challenge. “She’s my youngest. Giana should be married first.”
Dante met him head-on. “It’s Elenora, or the deal is off. She will be my wife, or I walk away right now.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” Father shot back. “You want this too badly. You’ve been working toward it your entire life.”
Dante’s head tipped back, his lip curling with contempt. “I can take control without your help, old man. I’m offering you a seat at the table. All I ask in exchange is your daughter, a price you were already willing to pay.”
My fingernails cut into my palms, and I bit the inside of my cheek as I trapped defiant words behind my pursed lips. I wanted to rail at him that I wasn’t an object to be traded any more than my sister was. But I could see the cold determination in Dante’s glittering eyes. He would take what he wanted, one way or another. He would step over my father’s dead body to seize control of the organization. And then, he could claim anything he desired. Including my sister.
I wouldn’t let him have her. This monster of a man wouldn’t touch Giana. For some reason, he preferred me at the moment, and I wouldn’t give him a chance to change his mind.
“I’ll do it,” I forced out through gritted teeth.
“Nora, no!” Giana exclaimed, her hand suddenly a vise around my clenched fist.
I shook her off and squared my shoulders, facing Dante with defiance and determination. If this beast of a man was going to marry one of us, it would be me. Sparks danced in the depths of his deep green eyes, and his lips curled at the corners, that amused expression once again gracing his painfully handsome face. I suppressed a shudder and kept him locked in my stare.
“I will marry you,” I said, the oath ashes on my tongue.
The words were surreal, as though they were issued from someone else’s lips. But Dante’s intense gaze kept me riveted, rooted in this awful reality so that I felt every aching beat of my racing heart as it hammered against my ribs.
Two thick fingers curled beneath my chin, gently turning my face so that he could inspect my stinging cheek. His dark brows drew low over his eyes, and angry lines appeared around his mouth.
“No one else will touch you ever again, little bird,” he promised, his voice a low rumble. He spoke as though it was a reassurance, not a horrific claim over my future, my forever.
“Girls, leave us,” Father snapped. “Dante and I have a lot to discuss.”
Giana’s small hand wrapped around mine, tugging me away from the predator who held my chin with such shocking gentleness. He’d just strangled Giorgio with the same long fingers that now caressed my face.
My breath stuttered, and I stumbled as Giana pulled me away from the man who’d just condemned me to a life sentence. My husband. I would marry this brute. I would’ve done anything to protect my beloved sister, but my insides began to quake at the reality of the commitment I’d just made.
In the back of my mind, I’d always known such an arranged marriage was a possibility. In our world, a love match was too much to hope for. Especially if my father was the one making the arrangements. He’d never miss an opportunity to secure more power, and if that meant using his own daughters to solidify an alliance, he wouldn’t hesitate.
But that was always a vague future prospect that I hadn’t allowed myself to fully contemplate. I’d allowed my head to fill with fantasies of romance based on the novels I indulged in secret. I’d hoped that my father’s emotional neglect might extend to my future prospects and that he wouldn’t care about my marital preferences. I would never be allowed a match with someone outside our organization, but I might’ve chosen someone gentler than Dante Torrio.
If his scheme with my father worked, Dante would be the boss. He would rule our crime family with an iron fist, and that would include me.
He’d just committed shocking violence to claim me for himself.
No one else will touch you ever again, little bird. From now on, Dante would personally be the one to keep me in line. I no longer had to fear my father’s men, but my future husband was far more terrifying than even Giorgio, his cruelest guard.
My fingers went numb in Giana’s as she urged me out of the study and back into the hall. As our steps quickened across the plush burgundy rug, my chest grew tighter with every step.
“I’ll get you out of this, Nora,” she pledged shakily. “I won’t let this happen.”
“No,” I refused, my tongue feeling strangely thick in my mouth. “He can’t have you. I can handle him.”
She clutched my hand more tightly. “I won’t let you do this for me.” Her voice wavered with tears. “He’s a monster, Nora. You can’t marry him.”
My lungs seized. I couldn’t draw in enough air to argue with her. I rushed toward the front door, bursting out into the crisp fall air. It seared my lungs as I gasped in deep gulps of fresh oxygen.
Dizziness swept over me, and I didn’t see the men coming for us until it was too late. Tires screeched as brakes slammed, and the doors on two black SUVs flew open. A dozen men surged toward us, and Giana’s scream ripped into my chest. The fearful sound sharpened my senses, adrenaline spiking to throw everything into sharp relief. Time slowed, and I saw the huge man who made a grab for her: Luca Vitale. I’d memorized his tanned features over the years, harboring a foolish crush on the charismatic man.
There was nothing charming about his caramel eyes now. They were dark with grim determination as his meaty hand closed around Giana’s arm.
“You saved me the trouble of coming in to get you,” he rumbled, tugging her close.
I threw myself at him, shoving at his brick-hard chest. “Let her go!”
He sneered at me, unmoving under my assault. “I’m here for Dante’s bride. Your father is a traitor. He’ll pay for that. Now, get out of my way.”
My heart leapt into my throat, but I managed to force words past it. “She’s not his bride. I am.”
His brows drew together, and he paused his progress in dragging Giana back to the SUV. “But you’re Elenora.”
“Yes,” I seethed, hating him with every fiber of my being. Hating Dante. Hating my father. “I’m Elenora, and I’m supposed to marry that monster, not Giana.”
I couldn’t let Luca take her away from here. He’d clearly learned of my father’s betrayal somehow, and he’d come to destroy those plans by stealing Dante’s bride away. We truly were nothing more than pawns to these awful men.
“If you’re looking for Dante’s fiancée, I’m right here,” I flung at him, shoving at his chest once again. He didn’t so much as sway beneath the impact.
His lips pressed together in a grim line, and he released Giana. I didn’t have time to draw in a relieved breath before his hands closed around my waist. The world spun, and my abdomen collided with his muscular shoulder. I shrieked and struggled as he carried me away from my sister.
She screamed my name as Luca hauled me toward the waiting SUV, stealing me from Dante as though I was his property, his prize of war.
My fists beat against Luca’s back, my body refusing to simply surrender to this awful fate. His thick fingers dug into my upper thigh, just beneath my bottom. I cursed him and twisted, unable to shift so much as an inch out of his hold.
Then I was in the car, his strong arms caging me as the door slammed shut like a prison cell. We peeled away from the curb, leaving my sister screaming on the pavement outside our family home.
I looked up into my captor’s rich brown eyes, finding no warmth in their ochre depths.
“Where are you taking me?” I demanded, voice shaking almost as violently as my hands.
“To the chapel,” he said coldly. “You’re not Dante’s bride. You’re mine.”