New York, 1978
“Some…one… has a birthday next week.” Nic says the words as though this year’s birthday is a happy occasion and something to be celebrated.
It isn’t. Not by a long shot.
“God, Nic. Why’d you have to bring that up and right now of all times?”
His kisses against my neck, his warm breath skimming my skin, his hands gripping my waist. I was enjoying all of it, and now he’s completely killed the mood.
I push at his shoulders, but the big oaf doesn’t budge. Pulling me closer, he presses his mouth to my ear and whispers, “Twenty-one, Em. It’s an important birthday.”
I may be turning twenty-one, but that milestone means nothing for me. I still won’t be allowed to make my own choices or decisions. I’ll transition from being told what to do by my father to being told what to do by my husband. Literally. I’ll be trading one cage for another. My wings will remain forever clipped.
I don’t want to talk about this now. “Nothing.”
“You know you can’t do that with me.” Nic places his finger beneath my chin and lifts, forcing me to look up at him. “Tell me what’s going on.”
I don’t want to tell him about the conversation between my parents I overheard last night. But I know in my heart that he deserves to know the truth. Nic and I don’t keep secrets from each other. We never have.
“It’s not good news.”
“Judging by the expression on your face, I wasn’t expecting it to be good.”
Despite pretending that it would never come, the day has arrived. “The Rossinis are coming to see Papà next week. I overheard him and Mamma talking about it.”
Nic inhales deeply and slowly releases the breath, his cheeks puffing out. “Wow. I thought you were going to tell me that you didn’t get the lead in the new production.”
“I’d give up the lead a million times over if it meant avoiding—” I can’t even finish the sentence. Saying the words makes it all too real.
Nic pulls me against his chest, squeezes hard, and kisses the top of my head. “I won’t let him have you.” Him.
Luca Rossini. Regal. Mafia. Bastard.
“Unfortunately, you don’t get a say about it.” And neither do I.
Nic was born into this life but at a very different level than me. He understands how things work. He’s known his entire life that I was promised to another man. We both knew, but it didn’t keep us from falling in love.
“This isn’t the way I wanted to have this conversation,” he says.
Nic loosens his embrace and cradles my face with his hands. “I have loved you for as long as I can remember. In fact, I can’t remember ever not loving you. Even when we were twelve and you kicked me in the nuts for kissing you.”
In spite of the pain and fear I feel in the moment, I giggle under my breath as I recall the incident.
“It may not have felt like it at the time, but I loved you then too.”
“There’s never been a time when you weren’t by my side. I don’t want to know what it feels like to not have you there anymore.”
“I don’t want to know what it feels like either.” But I’m going to know. And I’m going to know very soon.
“You’re my Em, not his.”
“I will always be your Em. There’s nothing he or anyone else can do to take that away from us.”
“I’m not a Rossini. I don’t have an empire, and I never will. I can’t give you the lifestyle that he can. But I’m the one who loves you with all of his heart.”
Our fathers are best friends, and we’ve been raised together since birth. I, a Mafia princess. He, the son of a soldier in my Italian family’s organized-crime outfit—Cosa Nostra. And now he’s on the inevitable path to becoming a soldier for my father.
I’ve never cared that he was at the bottom of our strict hierarchical structure. He’s always just been my Nic, the beautiful boy I love.
“You know empires mean nothing to me.”
With his hands still cradling my face, his thumbs stroke my cheeks. “I want you to marry me. Not him.” My head spins with elation. My gut flutters with joy.
And my heart breaks.
“I know what you’re thinking: it isn’t possible. But I want to try. We have to try… that is, if you’ll have me as your husband.”
I’ve dreamed so many times of a moment like this one —being with a man who wanted me for me. Emilia Bellini, the woman, not the Mafia princess.
“This is a very dangerous conversation to be having.”
“I don’t care. I will not be intimidated by the Rossinis.”
Maybe not, but he should be. They’re a very powerful family. I don’t want to think about what would happen to Nic if the wrong person overheard him saying such a thing.
Reaching up, I place my fingertips over his lips. “Shh… don’t say those words so loudly. You never know who’s listening.”
He kisses the tips of my fingers and takes them away from his lips. “I have to say it because it’s how I feel. I can’t hold it in any longer, Em. I want you to be mine. My wife.”
I look into Nic’s beautiful deep-brown eyes, and I only see one thing: my soul mate. “I would be the luckiest woman in the world to have you as my husband, but it isn’t possible. I belong to Luca Rossini. It might as well be written in stone.”
Stone and blood.
“Help me chisel away those stupid words. Say yes, and together we’ll write our own fate.”
All I’ve ever wanted was to marry for love. But girls like me don’t have that luxury. We are used as pawns in a game we can’t control.
But it’s 1978. We live in a modern world, completely different from that of my parents and grandparents. And I want to try and change the rules.
“Let’s do it.”
Grasping the sides of my face, Nic presses a soft kiss against my mouth. “Did you really just say yes to being my wife?”
“I did, but you have to ask for a meeting with Papà. Soon. Before he meets with Marco and Luca Rossini next week.”
Could this really work? Is it possible that my father would give me to Nic instead of Luca Rossini?
He loves Nic’s father like a brother, so maybe.
I wrap my arms around Nic and jump, circling my legs around his waist. “I love you. God, I love you.”
“I love you too.”
Nic’s mouth devours mine, and my back thuds against the house when he pushes me against the exterior wall.
“Shit… sorry… did I hurt you?”
“I would hate myself if I ever hurt you.”
“You would never hurt me.” I dig my heels into his flanks, coaxing him onward like a jockey on horseback.
“Just shut up and kiss me.”
And kiss me he does, like never before.
Light-headed, I break our kiss and gasp for air. “If we don’t stop, we’re going to need to go to confession and visit Father Michael.”
“I want to do a lot of things with you that’ll require a confession with Father Michael.”
My laughter sounds like a squawking bird. “Nicol
Moretti! You… you are so—”
“I’m so what?”
“Naughty.” And beautiful and lovable and perfect.
“Naughty doesn’t begin to cover what’s on my mind. You’d blush if you could read my thoughts right now.”
“I bet they’re the exact same thoughts going through my head.”
Releasing the hold of my legs around Nic’s waist, I slide down his body, deliberately dragging my crotch over the bulge of his jeans. The contact only lasts a second, but it’s enough to elicit a deep, throaty groan from him.
“I don’t have to read your mind. I can read your body just fine.”
He tightens his grip and squeezes me against him.
“You can feel that, huh?”
Is he kidding me? “Of course, I can feel that.”
“You cause this to happen to me more often than you know.”
“You’re confused if you believe that I don’t know when it happens.”
Turning my hand over, I flatten my palm against the zipper of his jeans and slowly move it up and down the bulge.
“Damn, Em —”
“Does that feel good?”
“Yes,” he croaks out, and the break in his voice reminds me of a boy going through puberty. But Nic is well beyond puberty. He is a man. And I am a woman who doesn’t want to stop touching him. Consequences be damned.
Nic murmurs a profanity under his breath when I tug open the button on his jeans.
“Do you want me to stop?”
“No.” He shakes his head. “Keep going.”
Gripping the tab of his zipper between my thumb and index finger, I pull downward, slowly separating the brass teeth holding his pants together. His breath becomes a warm pant against my ear, and the anticipation of touching him makes my hands tremble.
This is wrong in the eyes of God. I know that, but I don’t want to stop.
Flashes of light. Once. Twice. Three times.
Not lightning in the sky above. Not a flickering bulb on the porch.
Jolting, I yank my hand away from Nic’s fly when I register that headlights are approaching the house. “Someone’s coming.”
Would the Rossinis show up early and unannounced at this time of night on a Thursday? I don’t know anything about them, so I have no idea what they’re capable of.
“You need to go before someone sees us.”
Nic steps away from me and goes to work refastening his jeans while muttering profanities beneath his breath.
Smoldering one minute.
Snuffed out the next.
“I love you.”
I want to kiss him before he goes, but I don’t dare risk it.
“I love you too, but you need to get out of here before something really bad happens.”
Relieved when Nic makes his escape without incident, I enter my dark house and tiptoe across the floor. My heart leaps into my throat when I hear my father say my name.
Oh shit. Was he at the window watching? Listening?
“Come into the living room please.”
I navigate through the dark by holding out my hands. A quick double-click later, the lamp in the corner suddenly illuminates the room, and I see my father sitting in his favorite chair.
I’m afraid to ask, but I force out the words. “What are you doing?”
“I sometimes sit alone in the dark when I have a lot on my mind. It helps to quiet the chaos in my head.”
“Is everything all right?”
Papà points to the sofa next to him. “Come join me. Let’s talk.”
My father’s face is typically devoid of emotion, giving nothing away. He’s the most stoic man in the world when it comes to dealing with his men, but with me he’s different. I can always read the turmoil brewing beneath his surface.
“With your twenty-first birthday around the corner, the time is here. The Rossinis have called, and they’re coming to see me next week. They’re going to insist on a wedding.” “I know.” And it’s so unfair.
“Your grandfather and I made a promise to the
Rossinis twenty years ago, and it’s time to deliver on it. You understand that, don’t you?”
I actually don’t understand why anyone would think it was a good idea to decide that a one-year-old and fiveyear-old should marry when they grow up. It’s ridiculous.
“I don’t want to marry him.” I look down at my hands on my lap, the same hands that just unzipped Nic’s pants and almost touched him for the first time. “I’m in love with someone, Papà.”
“Love doesn’t matter, Emilia. You’re promised to Luca
Rossini. You’ve known this your entire life.”
“I didn’t set out to fall in love. It just happened.”
“Who is it?”
I nod. “He wants to marry me. And I want to marry him. We’re in love.”
Lines form over my father’s face, and he shakes his head. “I’m sorry, but that’s not possible.”
“Nic is strong and intelligent and loyal, more loyal to you than Luca Rossini will ever be. He’s already like a son to you. Wouldn’t you want him to be your son-in-law?” “You know how much I love Nicol . I would like nothing more than to formally make him part of this family, but it can’t happen. Too many things have been set into motion with the Rossinis. Those things can’t be stopped. It’s too late.”
“Nic is coming to see you. He’s going to ask permission to marry me.”
“My agreement with the Rossinis goes back two decades. They’ve delivered on their part of our agreement over the years, and now it’s our turn to reciprocate. We can’t back out.”
“There are plenty of other girls out there. Prettier girls. Smarter girls. He’s a Rossini. He can have whomever he wants.”
“But he wants you.”
I’m the eldest Bellini granddaughter, and Luca is the eldest Rossini grandson. Of the five Italian crime families in New York, our marriage will join the two most powerful. The power is what they’re after.
“So you’d condemn me to a loveless marriage and make me the glue joining our two families for the purpose of becoming more powerful?”
“It’s a matter of honor. I can’t go back on my word.”
“They want me because they’re greedy people. Offer them something of value in exchange for my hand.”
“It doesn’t work like that and you know it.”
“Try for me and Nic? Please Papà.”
“They’ll never agree to anything less than a marriage.”
“I’ve never asked you for anything in my life, but I’m begging you for this favor.”
He’s bending. I sense it. Now isn’t the time to let up. “Do this for your passerotta, and I’ll never ask you for another thing as long as I live.”
Passerotta. Papà’s special pet name for me, meaning little sparrow. Yes, it may be a dirty trick to use that endearment to persuade him, but I’m desperate.
“I can’t marry Luca.” I won’t.
My father sighs. “All right. I will make Marco an offer, passerotta.”
Relief pulsates through my body with each beat of my heart. “Thank you, Papà. I will never forget this.”
This is going to work. I have a very good feeling about it. Because love has a beautiful way of making you believe that everything is going to be okay.
And if it doesn’t work, Nic and I can run away and elope. Marco and Luca Rossini won’t be able to do a damn thing about that.
No one can.