It was obvious that they were going out of their way to be nice. Although it was desirable for a new Capo to keep the Consigliere of his predecessor, it wasn’t tradition, so Dante could nominate a new Cosigliere when he took over from his father.
Dante inclined his head and returned his hand to my back. “That she is,” he said simply while all I could do was smile.
Ludevica clutched my hands. “We were pleased when we found out Dante had chosen you. After all you’ve gone through, it’s only fair that fate makes it up to you.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that. Maybe she was being sincere. It was hard to tell. After all, they’d originally tried to marry Gianna off to Dante. “Thank you. That’s very kind of you.”
“Come on in. The party isn’t happening in our foyer,” Rocco said, gesturing for us to head for the living room. Laughter and voices were coming from inside.
“Aria is very excited to see you again,” Ludovica said as we entered the living room. I had no time to express my surprise at Aria’s presence because the moment we were spotted by the crowd, people flocked around us to congratulate us to our betrothal and upcoming wedding. In between shaking hands, I scanned the room. Aria stood at the other end of the vast room next to another massive Christmas tree and her not less massive husband Luca who had a possessive hand on her waist. I didn’t see Gianna and her fiancé Matteo anywhere. If my mother’s gossip was to be believed the Scuderis were concerned their middle daughter might cause a scene.
Dante moved his thumb over my back, startling me. My eyes snapped to him, then to the couple in front of us, whom I’d completely ignored because of my staring. I gave my brightest smile and pulled Bibiana in a hug. “How are you?” I whispered. She squeezed me briefly, then drew back with her forced smile. That was as much of an answer as I would get in the presence of other people.
Her husband Tommaso, who was thirty years her senior, bald and overweight, kissed my hand, which would have been fine except for the look in his eyes. Leery was the best word to describe it. Dante’s fingers on my back tensed and I risked a peek at him, but his expression was the same aloof mask as usual. He fixed Tommaso with his eyes and the man quickly took off with Bibiana.
A waiter carrying a tray of drinks stopped beside us, and Dante gripped a glass of Champagne for me and a Scotch for himself. Now that the onslaught of well-wishers had finally abated, Luca and Aria crossed the room toward us. Dante’s demeanor changed ever so slightly like a tiger that got wind of another predator in his territory. Instead of tensing, he relaxed as if to show that he wasn’t concerned, but his eyes were alert and calculating.
Luca and Dante shook hands, both with those unnerving shark-smiles on their faces. Ignoring them, I grinned at Aria, honestly happy to see her again. It had been months. She looked much more relaxed than at her wedding. “You look amazing,” I told her as I embraced her. She was wearing a dark red dress that set off her blond hair and pale skin beautifully. No wonder Luca couldn’t stop glancing her way.
“You too,” she said as she stepped back. “Can I see the back?”
I turned around for her.
“Wow. Doesn’t she look amazing?”
That question was directed at Luca and led to an awkward pause in which the tension skyrocketed. Dante wrapped his arm around my waist, his cold eyes on Luca, who took Aria’s hand, kissed it and said in a low voice. “I have only eyes for you.”
Aria gave me an embarrassed smile. “I need to look for Gianna, but I’d love to talk to you later?”
“Okay,” I said, glad when she and Luca walked off. With the men around, Aria and I wouldn’t be able to talk anyway.
I turned to Dante. “You don’t like him.”
“It’s not a matter of like. It’s about self-preservation and a healthy dose of suspicion.”
“That’s the Christmas spirit,” I said, not trying to hide my sarcasm.
Again a hint of amusement made the corners of Dante’s mouth twitch, then it was gone. “Would you like to grab something to eat?”
“Definitely.” After the last few days of torturous diet, I was starving. As we made our way through the crowd, I noticed that the current head of the Outfit wasn’t present. “Where’s your father?”
“He didn’t want to steal the show from us. Now that he’s as good as retired he prefers to stay out of the public eye,” Dante said wryly.
“Understandable.” These social functions were exhausting. You had to be careful what you said and did, even more so as the head of the Outfit. From the hard looks that some of the women were throwing my way, I knew I was currently their favorite topic. I knew what they were saying behind their hands: Why had Dante Cavallaro chosen a widow instead of a young innocent bride?
I glimpsed up into his emotionless face, the hard angles of his cheekbones, the calculation and vigilance in his eyes, and found myself wishing once more that the answer to that question were something else than pure logic.
The buffet was loaded with Italian delicacies. I took a slice of Panettone for myself as I was in desperate need of some sugary treats. As usual it tasted like heaven. I’d made it a few times but it had never been as good as the one from Ludevica Scuderi.
“Dante,” came a pleasant female voice from behind us.
Dante and I turned at the same time. His sister Ines, with whom I’d exchanged only a few words over the years as we were nine years apart, stood in front of us. She was pregnant, probably third trimester if my guess was correct. Across the room, her twins, a boy and girl, were busy playing with Fabiano Scuderi who was their age. Ines had the same fair hair as Dante and she carried herself with the same cold aloofness, but as her eyes settled on me, they were, not necessarily warm, but friendly. “And Valentina. It’s good to see you.”