“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.

“Yes,” I said, hoping he couldn’t see how nervous I was. I gestured toward a door to our left. “Would you like to sit down for our talk?”

Dante nodded and I led him into the living room. I sank down on the sofa, and Dante took the armchair across from me. I’d have thought he’d sit beside me, but he seemed content to keep as much space between us as was acceptable. Apart from the brief hand kiss, he made sure not to touch me. He probably found it inappropriate as long as we weren’t married. That’s what I hoped at least.

“I assume your father told you that our wedding is planned for January 5th.”

I searched for a flicker of sadness or wistfulness in his voice, but there was nothing. I rested my hands in my lap, linking my fingers. There was less chance of Dante notice my trembling that way. “Yes. He told me a few days ago.”

“I realize that’s less than a year after your husband’s funeral, but my father retires at the end of the year and it’s expected of me to be married when I take over his place.”

I lowered my eyes as my chest tightened with buried emotions. Antonio hadn’t been a good husband, he hadn’t been any kind of husband, but he’d been my friend and I’d known him all my life, which was why I’d agreed to marry him. Of course, I’d been naïve, hadn’t realized what it would really mean to marry a man who wasn’t interested in me, or women in general. I’d wanted to help him. Being gay wasn’t something that was tolerated in the mafia. If someone had found out Antonio liked men that way, they would have killed him. When he’d asked for my help, I’d jumped at the chance, had secretly hoped I could win him over. I’d thought he could decide not to be gay anymore, I’d thought we could have a real marriage at some point, but that hope was quickly shattered. That’s why a nasty, selfish part of me had been relieved when Antonio had died. I’d thought I was finally free to find a man who loved me, or at least desired me. Thankfully, it was only a very small part, and I felt guilty whenever I was reminded of it. And yet, maybe this was my chance. Maybe my second marriage would finally provide me with a husband who saw me as more than a necessary evil.

Tags: Cora Reilly Born in Blood Mafia Chronicles Erotic
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