“How are you being treated?”
“The Outfit treats us very well,” a girl named Amanda said.
“I want the truth. Does Raffaele treat you with respect?”
A few of the girls exchanged amused expressions, and finally one of them said. “We’re whores. Hardly anyone treats us with respect. Raffaele is no exemption.”
“He’s not the worst.”
“That’s your opinion, not mine.”
“Oh shut up.”
I raised my arms and the girls fell silent. “Okay. Who’s worse than Raffaele?”
“A few of the customers are into beating us up. And Tommaso wants some nasty stuff too.” That didn’t come as a surprise. Bibi didn’t tell me everything but the few things she’d shared with me about her sex life with Tommaso had made my stomach turn.
“I like it rough.”
“You like everything, but I don’t.”
“Oh get over yourself. They buy your body so they decide what to do with it.”
“You sound like Raffaele.”
“Okay, okay,” I said slowly. “What exactly is Raffaele doing?”
“He’s like our pimp. He tests us before he decides if we’re good enough to work here. And he makes sure we make the customers happy. And if we don’t, he punishes us.”
“I assume tests mean he’s sleeping with you?”
“Fucking us however he likes is more like it.”
“And what exactly does he do to punish you?” I asked, but the bruises the girls had been about to cover up with make-up before I entered gave me a good idea.
“He slaps us, or fucks us really hard. Or he sends us to one of the whorehouses at the outskirts of town.”
“The johns there are the worst. They are drunk, and brutal, and fat.”
I took a deep breath. “Okay. Any good things you can tell me?”
“The money is great. I can buy nice clothes and rent an amazing apartment. That’s something I could never do without this job.”
Many girls nodded, and I tried to take comfort in it. They all had started working as prostitutes on their own free will and they earned more money than most people with a college degree. I talked to them a bit more and asked them to tell me when a customer was too brutal. They promised to do it but I wasn’t sure if they were only saying it to get me off their backs. I’d have to talk to Leo and Raffaele about the situation.
When I stepped out of the dressing room, Enzo was waiting for me. “Where’s Raffaele?”
Enzo nodded in the direction of the bar. “He’s gone off to sulk. That boy would have been removed from the Outfit a long time ago if it weren’t for his father. Useless fucker.” He shut his mouth. “I apologize for the crude language.”
“No need. I’ve heard worse.”
Surprise crossed his face. Happy that I was making progress with Dante’s men, I headed toward Raffaele. He was perched on one of the bar stools, drinking what looked like a martini. “Isn’t it a bit early to start with the alcohol?”
Raffaele emptied his glass. “We’re the mob, not a convent.”
“I’d still appreciate it if everyone stayed lucid during work.”
“Maybe one glass is enough to get you drunk, but I know how to hold my liquor. I’m not a pampered woman.”
“Raffaele,” Dante’s voice sliced through the room like a knife. I whirled around as Dante walked toward us, his body brimming with angry energy. His cold eyes were focused on Raffaele who quickly slipped off the bar stool and stood, a flicker of nervousness replacing that self-satisfied arrogance. Enzo was grinning menacingly. I had a feeling he had kept Dante updated about the way things had been going so far.
Dante stopped right in front of Raffaele, fixing him with an expression of stark brutality. “If I hear one more word of disrespect from your mouth, I’m going to chop you into tiny pieces and feed you to your father’s dogs. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Boss,” Raffaele said hastily. He turned to me. “I’m sorry if I offended you.” He sounded sincere but there was something vengeful and bitter in his eyes.
Dante finally leveled his gaze on me. “I’d like to have a word with you.”
I fell into step beside him as we headed toward my office and stepped inside. Dante closed the door. Before he could say anything, I muttered, “Did Enzo call you?”
“Enzo didn’t have to call me. I’d intended on checking on you all along. I want to make sure your first day went well.”
I gave him a doubtful look.
“Why are you so surprised?”
“Because so far you didn’t strike me as the caring type of husband.”
Dante didn’t say anything, only watched me with that unnervingly cool gaze.
“I didn’t need you to defend me. I can handle myself,” I said when it became clear that he wouldn’t say anything.
Dante narrowed his eyes. “This is my territory. These are my men, and it’s my job to keep them in line. If they show disrespect toward you it’s only a small step until they dare to disrespect me as well. I won’t allow it.”
“You made me look incapable of doing my job. Raffaele will think I’m weak because I need you to protect me.”
Dante came very close, engulfing me with his aftershave. “Valentina, the only reason why these men respect you is that you’re my wife. I know you don’t like it. I know you are strong, but you can’t exact dominance over these men like I do because you don’t have the same weapons as I do.”
“Cruelness, brutality, and the utter determination to kill anyone who disputes my claim of power.”
I held my breath. “What makes you think I wouldn’t kill someone if I had to? Maybe I’m capable of the same brutality as you.”
Dante smiled a joyless smile. “Maybe, but I doubt it.” He traced a finger down my throat. “Maybe you would have had the potential to survive in the Outfit, if you’d been brought up the same way boys are raised in our world. My father had me kill my first man on his orders when I was fourteen. A traitor that my father had tortured in front of me before I put a bullet in his head. After that, my father had one of his soldiers torture me to see how long I could stand the pain until I broke down and pleaded him to stop. I lasted less than thirty minutes. The second time I already lasted almost two hours. The tenth time my father had to stop the soldier or I would have died. I didn’t beg, not even to save my life. Be glad that you never got the chance to built your cruelness, Valentina.”