Alessio Salvatore. Enchanting, breathtaking, and wholly forbidden. I witnessed his proposal and considered myself fortunate when my sister accepted the notorious gangster's proposal. My aspirations are set. None of them encompass bedding the adversary, even if it's to forge harmony between our clans. Yet, with my sister's untimely passing, my world flips upside-down. I'm thrust into the role of inheritor to my father's wealth. Without a predetermined union, our families teeter on the edge of conflict. Then, my father extends Alessio an offer he cannot turn down.
Everything was gone.
I’d trashed my sister’s wedding invitations, deleted our Pinterest gallery, and emptied the kitchen of save-the-dates. Alessio & Carmela monograms went into the garbage, along with every marriage-related detail concerning venues, florists, and bakeries.
Mom didn’t need the reminders.
A lump lodged in my throat as I buried my sister’s beautiful future. Her hopes and dreams joined bits of eggshell, banana peel, and leftover pasta. My fists clenched her engagement photos, which were the hardest to destroy. I’d spent too many hours dwelling over the what-ifs of the path she’d never take.
It was self-inflicted torture. A wound I kept reopening.
Carmela was never coming back.
How did someone go from engaged to dead?
My sister went missing six months ago. The police had found enough of her blood in a wooded area to investigate her disappearance as a homicide. It was three weeks since her empty coffin was lowered into the ground, dragging with it a piece of my soul.
I still couldn’t believe it.
The girl who’d nagged at me, taught me how to use lip liner, and seemed indestructible with her iron-clad confidence, had left this world. She’d never again belt out an Italian ballad or fight me over a pair of heels.
Day after day, the finality rang inside like the hollow beating of a drum. Gone, gone, gone.
The bag of wedding memorabilia weighed down more than just my arm as I took it outside. I descended the porch and headed into the street filled with Cadillacs. The sickly-sweet aroma of jasmine, which surrounded the property, clung to my skin.
It rained last night, leaving everything darker, especially the herb garden, which burst with tomato vines and basil. I pushed the swing gate into the side yard, where a tall mafioso leaned against the fence. As the door swung, he snapped to attention. He’d won the Italian genetic lottery with his linebacker body and the elegant ridges over his eyes that begged for a kiss.
A fitted gray T-shirt with a deep V-neck wrapped his muscled chest, which was sprinkled with fine hair. A soft widow’s peak gave way to a thick, neatly combed, black mane. It was shortened at the sides, and sideburns swooped to a beard that covered his jaw and upper lip. Gorgeous from all angles.
Alessio Salvatore was a drink of a man.
He was also my late sister’s fiancé.
I admired him from a distance because he terrified me up close.
I’d heard so many ugly things about Alessio. Horrible rumors. Graphic anecdotes whispered from one spouse to another until they penetrated our gossip circle. The Costa underboss had an instinct for brutality, and whenever I’d felt a twinge of jealousy, I’d remember the sordid details. It didn’t matter anyway; his gaze had always seemed to slide past me. Around him, I was invisible.
It made it easier to try to pretend he didn’t exist. A fool’s errand, considering the world disappeared to a distant murmur with him in the room. Until recently, every interaction with him left me feeling helpless. Now he looked at me like a hunter through his scope.
Please leave me alone.
Men like him didn’t answer prayers. Men like him were the reason we needed them.
The gravel cracked as Alessio loped toward me. Before I shoved the bag into the recycling bin, he lifted it from my hands and trashed it.
I stepped around him, but he stopped me.
“How are you?”
I shrugged, hoping he’d disappear.
His hardened eyes told me he wasn’t budging. I couldn’t escape without touching him.
“Aren’t you going to ask how I am?”
I allowed my gaze to travel up his leather shoes to the collar of his blazer. “You seem okay. Excuse me.”
Alessio grabbed the gate post before I moved, his white-knuckled grip blocking my way. “We should talk.”
“Avoiding me won’t change what our families have planned.” A thin mist swirled in the air as the sun hid behind clouds. Drops collected on Alessio’s ebony waves as he leaned in, mouth set in a grim line. “This self-denial makes it harder for everyone.”
“I’m not in denial.”
“Then look at me.”
I’d feel something, and I didn’t want to.
The rain fell, darkening spots on my T-shirt. A drop smacked my forehead. I fingered the latch and pulled, but he refused to give.
“I just buried my sister.” Metaphorically, at least. “Leave me alone.”
“We don’t have time for this.”
Fuck him for talking about my grief like it was a head cold. “Carmela wasn’t a pet fish.”
“Life goes on, stellina. Whether or not you want it to.”
I seized the gate and yanked. He released it, allowing us through. I returned to the house, Alessio quick on my heels. Wiping my feet, I drifted to where a handful of Ricci and Costa soldiers mingled.
Alessio followed me past my parents’ bedroom that stayed locked because Mom had barricaded herself inside, and shot into my room. Alessio caught the door on his elbow, shutting it.
The lock slid home.
A thrill rode my spine. “What are you doing? You can’t be in here.”
Dad was uncompromising about men with his daughter. One reason I never brought them over.
Alessio acted as if he had nothing to fear. “Yes, I can.”
Crazy asshole. “My father will shit a brick, and I’d rather not deal with the drama.”
“Sweetheart, you need to wake up.” He smoothed his wet hair and wiped the moisture on his blazer. “Do you not realize what’s at stake? Do you want more family members to die? They will if you don’t—”
“Shut up. Just stop.”
Agony pricked my chest as I turned from him. I couldn’t fight it much longer. My future had rewritten itself the moment my sister’s had ended, but accepting her death was impossible. I grabbed a photo of us from my nightstand and stared at our happy faces. The emotional release wouldn’t come. Tension clenched my guts. It was a hell like I’d never experienced.
His touch rolled over my shoulder and squeezed, which through the damp T-shirt felt insanely intimate. It was as though he’d caressed my skin, and jolts zapped across my body. I leaned away, hating how his decade-older gaze absorbed every detail in my room. He was such a predator. There was no subtlety in how he smirked at my Aerosmith poster or the accounting textbooks stacked on the bookshelf. Then his attention landed on the save-the-date pinned to my corkboard, and the arrogance wiped from his face.
“Why did you keep this?”
A fist-sized lump lodged in my throat. “I’m her maid of honor. I picked the design.”
“Carmela and I are done.”
A pang struck my heart. “Forgive me for clinging to what’s left of her.”
Nothing about Alessio was soft, but he dropped his voice so there was less gravel. “I get that you’re in pain, but we have things to do. Together.”
“I won’t do anything with you.”
“Don’t make me be an asshole, Mia. It’s pointless. You know I could snap your spine like a wishbone. This posturing is a waste of time.”
His mouth thinned as I blasted a shotgun to his peace offering. Alessio yanked the save-the-date from the pin and ripped it into quarters. Pieces of my soul drifted to the floor. “I’ve tried being patient. I’m not a patient man, but I’ve allowed you time. Time we don’t have.”
“Six months isn’t enough—”
“Sorry. That’s all I’ve got.”
I’d numbed my feelings since Carmela died, but his callousness hurt.
He was a prick.
“You never cared about her.”
“You know that’s not true. I liked her. I won’t pretend I loved her, but she was a nice girl.”
He converged on me like the clouds outside. I swallowed hard when he sank into the mattress, his body crowding mine. Harder than denying my sister’s death was rejecting him. Every time he kissed my cheek, said hello, touched me, a flight of butterflies took flight, and I burned from the inside out.
That didn’t mean I respected him.
A part of me hated him for not loving her.
Alessio’s calluses grazed my jaw as he turned me toward him, setting off a chain of electric impulses that didn’t care about loyalty.
Our gazes clashed.
“I’m going to say three things. They won’t be easy for you to accept, but you have to because there’s no way out of this. Number one. We are getting married in a month.”
A hot wave of fear bulldozed my steel walls.
“Yes, Mia. You’ll be my wife.”
My stomach clenched as I imagined walking down the aisle with him. I could barely handle his presence. How would I tolerate a marriage?
“Two. I know about David.” His voice hardened as he dropped the words like a hammer.
I sucked in a tight breath, prepared to deny, deny, deny. “Who?”
“Sorry to tell you, but it’s common knowledge. I’m amazed Ignacio hasn’t chopped off his head, because the bastard tells anyone who’ll listen he’s banging the boss’s daughter.” An apologetic smile flashed across his face. “Don’t take it personally. He doesn’t have much else to brag about.”
“We’re not a couple.”
“I don’t give a fuck. You’re not to see him anymore. If you do, I will find out. And if he touches you while you’re wearing my ring, I’ll kill him.”
“You’re not serious.”
He was horrible. I would never marry him.
Alessio didn’t speak for several moments, as if he wanted to brace me. “Three, I want kids. When we’re married, we’ll start trying.”
That nailed me with a gut-punch. My whole body went limp. The three bombshells exploded in a massive wreck. Men like him didn’t want kids. They tolerated them.
“You want a baby. With me.”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Are you fucking crazy?”
“No, I’m practical. In a few years, maybe less, I’ll be boss. My boys—or girls—will be the faces of my legitimate businesses when they’re in their twenties. Plus, I need to be able to play with my children. I’m thirty-three. Do the math. I can’t wait too long.”
Water plinked against the large windows as I stared at Alessio. He didn’t grin, laugh, or hint that he was joking. My stomach sank. It made sense, but there was no way in hell.
“You’re out of your damned mind. I’m not your baby machine. And I won’t marry you.”
Alessio smiled as though my protests amused him. “Tick-tock, Mia. It’s happening.”
A polite man would’ve obeyed, but the smile carving his cheeks proved he was anything but decent.
Dad’s voice boomed through the wall. “Everything okay in there?”
“We’re fine.” Alessio turned toward the sound. “No need to worry.”
“Are you staying for dinner?”
“No, he’s not!” I stormed to the door and threw it open, snarling. “Dad, make him leave!”
“It’s all right, Ignacio.” Alessio cut off the words about to fall from my dad’s mouth. “I’ll go. I think she’s gotten the message.”
No, she hasn’t.
He said goodbye to Dad, who shook his hand. “I’ll have her ready for you tomorrow.”
“Good.” Alessio buttoned his jacket and caught my gaze. “See you.”
Fuck you. Fuck you both.