الرئيسية Sweet Temptation
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أكثر المصطلحات والعبارات المستخدمة
The novels are excellent when I read my first one it was superb
03 November 2020 (01:54)
I hope this novels are complete
13 November 2020 (00:41)
I hope it's a complete version
25 November 2020 (16:09)
Part 2 of marry to the devil son
02 December 2020 (18:33)
This book was AMAZING. Their relationship development was *chef kiss* Also, I love Giulia so much
24 June 2021 (07:46)
Does anyone have a book rev like it
01 July 2021 (20:22)
Can arranged marriage work with an underboss who lost his wife just a few months ago, possibly to his wrath, and has two kids to look after and more importantly, is at least 14 years older to you?
Guilia is 17 and always knew she would marry some underboss, but Cassio is not what she expected as a husband. He required complete obedience and she isn't exactly the type to follow rules. She is young, and enthusiastic. And he is cold and known for his brutality amongst the underbosses. She not only has to become a lady like wife for him, but also a mother figure to his young kids. But that's her least of the problems.
Personally speaking, it is a very much exploited plot, but I relished their chemistry together. They were "CUTE" and perfect epitomes of successful arranged marriage.
Beautiful scenes accompanied by delicious moments of togetherness.
This is was my first experience reading Cora's book and it really left a good first impression on me. And I'm looking forward to read more of her works.
Guilia is 17 and always knew she would marry some underboss, but Cassio is not what she expected as a husband. He required complete obedience and she isn't exactly the type to follow rules. She is young, and enthusiastic. And he is cold and known for his brutality amongst the underbosses. She not only has to become a lady like wife for him, but also a mother figure to his young kids. But that's her least of the problems.
Personally speaking, it is a very much exploited plot, but I relished their chemistry together. They were "CUTE" and perfect epitomes of successful arranged marriage.
Beautiful scenes accompanied by delicious moments of togetherness.
This is was my first experience reading Cora's book and it really left a good first impression on me. And I'm looking forward to read more of her works.
21 July 2021 (17:07)
This book was so wholesome ? I love the way Giulia and Cassio were complete opposites but they were exactly perfect for each other. Btw I don’t recommend reading this book or any of corin’s books, if you are hardcore feminist ?
01 August 2021 (10:41)
I loved this book 10/10 reccomend
07 August 2021 (06:25)
I really enjoyed this book. It’s hella wholesome and the character development between the two main leads is on point.
15 August 2021 (06:42)
Wow, I'm 18 myself and reading this book I am really impressed with the author. I read 1 chapter and I couldn't remove my eyes from my ipad, I finished this book in less than a day. Highly recommend.
21 August 2021 (13:07)
Copyright ©2020 Cora Reilly All Rights Reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, events and places are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Cover design by Hang Le Title Page Copyright About This Book Prologue Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two Chapter Twenty-Three Chapter Twenty-Four Chapter Twenty-Five Epilogue Other Books Acknowledgements About the Author The first time Cassio meets his fiancée, she calls him “sir.” After losing his wife, Cassio is left to take care of two small children while trying to establish his rule over Philadelphia. Now he needs a mother for his children and someone who can warm his bed at night. But in a world as traditional as his, choosing your wife is duty, not pleasure. Rules have to be followed, traditions heeded. That’s how he ends up with a woman—a girl—barely of age. She may not be what he and his children need, but she’s lovely and a sweet temptation he can’t resist. Giulia has always known she’ll marry the man her father chooses for her, but she never expects to be given to someone so much older. Suddenly she’s supposed to be a mother to two small children when she hasn’t even held a baby before. Giulia quickly realizes that Cassio isn’t interested in a relationship on equal footing. Her mother has warned her that men of power, like Cassio, don’t tolerate insolence. Tired of being treated as a nanny and clueless child-bride, Giulia decides to fight for he; r version of a happy family. I stared down at my blood-covered hands and then at the lifeless body of my wife. Slowly, I closed the door in case Daniele came by. He didn’t need to see more of this. The red roses the maid had bought for Gaia as a gift for our eighth anniversary lay crumpled beside the limp body. Red roses to match the blood that stained the sheets and her white dress. Picking up my phone, I called Father. “Cassio, don’t you have a dinner reservation with Gaia?” “Gaia is dead.” Silence. “Can you repeat that?” “Gaia is dead.” “Cassio—” “Someone needs to clean this up before the kids see it. Send a clean-up crew and inform Luca.” When your wife died, sadness and despair were the expected emotions, but I felt only anger and resentment as I watched the coffin being lowered into her grave. Gaia and I had been married for eight years. On the day of our anniversary, death ended our marriage. A fitting end to a bond that had been doomed from the very start. Maybe it was fate that today was the hottest day of the summer. Sweat trickled down my forehead and temple, but the tears wouldn’t join in. Father tightened his grip on my shoulder. Was it to steady himself or me? His skin had been pale since his third heart attack, and Gaia’s death didn’t help matters. He met my gaze, worried. Cataracts clouded his eyes. Each day that passed had him fading away even more. The weaker he got, the stronger I needed to be. If you appeared vulnerable, the mafia would eat you whole. I gave him a small nod then turned back to the grave, my expression steel. Every Underboss of the Famiglia was in attendance. Even Luca Vitiello, our Capo, had come from New York with his wife. They all wore their solemn faces—perfect masks, just like mine. They’d soon give me their condolences, whispering fake words of reassurance, when rumors about my wife’s early death were already making the rounds. I was glad that neither Daniele nor Simona were old enough to understand what was being said. They didn’t realize their mother was dead. Even Daniele, at two years old, couldn’t grasp the finality of the word “dead.” And Simona… left without a mother at only four months old. A new wave of fury raced through my body, but I shoved it down. Few of the men around me were friends; most of them were looking for a sign of weakness. I was a young Underboss, too young in many eyes, but Luca trusted me to rule over Philadelphia with an iron fist. I wouldn’t fail him or my father. After the funeral, we gathered in my mansion for lunch. Sybil, my maid, handed Simona to me. My baby girl had cried all night, but now slept soundly in my arms. Daniele clung to my leg, looking confused. It was the first time he’d sought my closeness since Gaia’s death. I could feel all the compassionate looks. Alone with two small kids, a young Underboss… they were looking for any small crack in my façade. Mother came over with a sad smile and took Simona from me. She’d offered to take care of my children, but she was sixty-four and had my father to take care of. My sisters gathered around us, cooing at Daniele. Mia picked him up and pressed him to her chest. My sisters, too, had offered their help, but each of them had their own small children to take care of, and they didn’t live close by—except for Mia. “You look tired, son,” Father said quietly. “I didn’t get much sleep these last few nights.” Since their mother’s death, neither Daniele nor Simona had slept more than two hours at a time. The image of Gaia’s bloody dress crossed my mind, but I shoved it away. “You need to look for a mother for your children,” Father said, leaning heavily on his walking stick. “Mansueto!” Mother exclaimed under her breath. “We buried Gaia today.” Father patted her arm but looked at me. He knew I didn’t need time to mourn Gaia, but we needed to keep decorum in mind. Not to mention that I wasn’t sure I wanted another woman in my life. What I wanted was irrelevant, though. Every aspect of my life was dictated by ironclad rules and traditions. “The children need a mother, and you need someone who’ll take care of you,” Father said. “Gaia never took care of him,” Mia muttered. She, too, hadn’t forgiven my late wife. “Not here, not today,” I clipped. She snapped her mouth shut. “I suppose you already have someone in mind for Cassio,” my eldest sister Ilaria told Father with a roll of her eyes. “Every Captain and Underboss with a daughter of marrying age will already have contacted Dad,” Mia said quietly. Father hadn’t talked to me about it yet, because he knew I wouldn’t have listened. However, Mia was likely right. I was a hot commodity—the only unmarried Underboss in the Famiglia. Luca and his wife Aria came over. I gave my family a sign to be silent. Luca shook my hand again, and Aria smiled at my children. “If you need to step back from your duties for a while, let me know,” Luca said. “No,” I said immediately. If I gave up my position now, I’d never get it back. Philadelphia was my city, and I would rule over it. Luca inclined his head. “I know it’s not a good day to discuss matters, but my uncle Felix approached me.” Father nodded, as if he knew what Luca was going to say. “It’s a reasonable idea.” I motioned for them to follow me outside into the garden. “What is it?” “If I didn’t know of the circumstances of your wife’s death, I wouldn’t have broached the subject today. It’s disrespectful.” Luca only knew what I’d told him. Father shook his head. “We can’t wait the expected year. My grandchildren need a mother.” “What is it you have to discuss?” I asked Luca, tired of my father and him knowing what was going on and leaving me in the dark. “My uncle Felix has a daughter who isn’t promised. She could become your wife. A union between Philadelphia and Baltimore would solidify your power, Cassio,” Luca said. Felix Rizzo ruled as Underboss over Baltimore. He’d gained the position by marrying one of Luca’s aunts—not because he was good at the job—but he was a tolerable man. I didn’t remember his daughter. “Why isn’t she married yet?” As the daughter of a high-ranking Made Man, she would have been promised to someone in the Famiglia for years… unless something was wrong with her. Luca and Father exchanged a look which raised my alarms. “She was promised to the son of a Captain, but he got killed during a Bratva attack last year.” Quickly recognizing my troubled expression, Father added, “She didn’t know him. She only met him once when she was twelve.” There was more. “You could marry her in early November. That way the wedding wouldn’t be too close to Gaia’s funeral.” “Why November?” “That’s when she turns eighteen,” Luca said. I stared at him and my father. Had they lost their minds? “The girl is almost fourteen years younger than me!” “Given your circumstances, she’s the best option, Cassio,” Father said imploringly. “All the other available daughters of high-ranking Made Men are even younger, and I doubt you’d be willing to marry a widow, given your past experiences.” My expression became hard. “Today isn’t the right time to discuss this.” Luca inclined his head. “Don’t wait too long. Felix wants to find a match for Giulia as quickly as possible.” I gave a terse nod then returned inside. Mother was trying to calm Simona who’d started crying, and Mia was on her way out of the living room with Daniele in mid-tantrum. I needed a wife. However, today I didn’t have the mental capability to make that kind of decision. Faro handed me a martini before he sank down in the armchair across from mine in my office. “You look like shit, Cassio.” I gave him a tight smile. “Another sleepless night.” Taking a sip from his drink, he gave me a disapproving look. “Say yes to Rizzo. You need a wife. You could have one in less than four months. He desperately wants you in his family, saving his sorry ass, or else he wouldn’t have waited all these weeks for you to make up your mind. I’m sure he could have found another husband for his daughter by now.” I drank half of my martini in one sip. “Almost fourteen years between us. You realize I’ll be waiting for that girl to turn eighteen.” “Then you’ll have to marry a widow. Do you really want a woman who’s hung up on another man after the thing with Gaia?” he asked quietly. I grimaced. Most of these days I tried to forget Gaia, and even Daniele had stopped asking for his mother, realizing she wouldn’t be coming back. He’d become awfully quiet ever since, never saying a single word. “No,” I said harshly. “No widow.” Not only did I not want to risk a repeat performance, but all the widows on the market had kids and I didn’t want my children to have to share her attention. They needed all the care and love they could get. They were suffering, and no matter how much I tried, I wasn’t the person who could give them what they needed. “For Heaven’s sake, call Rizzo. What’s the problem? The girl will be of age soon.” I gave him a look. “Other men would kill for a chance to have a sexy young girl in their bed once more, yet you play woe-is-me when one is offered to you on a silver platter.” “If we weren’t childhood friends, I would have relieved you of one of your fingers for that tone,” I said. “Good thing we’re friends, then,” Faro said, raising his glass. After yet another night full of screaming, I called Felix in the morning. “Hello, Felix. It’s Cassio.” “Cassio, what a pleasure. I assume you’ve come to a decision regarding a bond with my daughter?” “I’d like to marry her.” That wasn’t exactly the truth. She was the only option to save my sanity. “I can’t wait long. You know I have two small children who need a mother.” “Of course. Giulia is very caring. We could set up the wedding for early November, a day after Giulia’s eighteenth birthday?” I gritted my teeth. “All right. That’s reasonable.” “I’d like you to meet her before so we can discuss the details for the feast. It’ll be a lot of work to set up a grand wedding on such short notice.” “You insist on a big celebration?” “Yes. Giulia is our only daughter, and my wife wants to organize something special for her. With our son, she couldn’t really plan as much as she wanted. Not to mention considering our status, it’ll be an important social gathering, Cassio.” “I can’t be involved in the planning. I have enough on my plate as it is, so your wife would have to do everything.” “That won’t be a problem. Let’s discuss the details when you come over, shall we? When can you make it?” Sybil planned to spend the weekend at my house to keep an eye on the kids. “In two days, but I can’t stay long.” “Perfect. You made the right decision, Cassio. Giulia is wonderful.” Dad was acting strange during dinner. He kept staring at me as if he was on the verge of saying something but never did. Mom looked like she’d gotten an invitation to an exclusive Chanel summer sale. When I was done with dinner, I waited for Dad to excuse me. I wanted to finish the painting I began this morning. Now that I was finished with high school, I’d been using my free time to improve my painting skills. He cleared his throat. “We need to talk to you.” “Okay,” I said slowly. The last time Dad began a conversation like that, he’d told me that my fiancé had been killed during a Bratva attack. It hadn’t hit me like it should have, considering our planned future, but I’d only met him once and that had been many years ago. Mom had been the only one who’d cried bitter tears, mainly because his death meant I was left without a fiancé at seventeen. That was a scandal in the making. “We’ve found you a new husband.” “Oh,” I said. It wasn’t that I hadn’t expected to be married off soon, but given my age, I was hoping they would have involved me in the process of finding my future husband. “He’s Underboss!” It burst out of Mom as she beamed at me. My eyebrows rose. No wonder she was enthusiastic. My late fiancé had only been the son of a Captain, nothing to get too excited about—in Mom’s opinion. I wracked my brain for an Underboss close to my age, but came up empty-handed. “Who is he?” Dad avoided my eyes. “Cassio Moretti.” My mouth dropped open. Dad often talked to me about business if he needed to vent because Mom wasn’t interested in the details. The name Moretti had been making the rounds for months now. The cruelest Underboss of the Famiglia had lost his wife and was now left to raise his two little kids alone. Speculations on how and why his wife had died were rampant, but only the Capo knew the details. Some said Moretti had killed his wife in a rage, while others said she’d become sick living under his strict rule. There were even people that speculated she’d killed herself to escape his cruelty. Neither rumor made me want to meet the man, much less marry him. “He’s much older than me,” I said eventually. “Thirteen years, Giulia. He’s a man in his prime,” Mom admonished. “Why does he want me?” I hadn’t even met him. He didn’t know me. And what was worse: I had no clue how to raise kids. “You are a Rizzo. The joining of two important families is always desirable,” Mom said. I looked at Dad, but he was staring at his wine glass. The last thing he’d said to me about Cassio Moretti was that Luca made him Underboss because the two of them were alike—both irrevocably cruel, pitiless, and built like bulls. And now he was giving me to a man like that. “When?” I asked. Given Mom’s excitement, all the details must have already been decided. “One day after your birthday,” Mom said. “I’m surprised you waited for me to become of age. It’s not like we’re a law-abiding society in general.” Mom pursed her lips. “I hope you get rid of that snappiness before you meet Cassio. A man like him won’t tolerate your insolence.” My hands curled into fists under the table. Mom was likely the driving force behind the marriage. She was always trying to better our position in the Famiglia. She smiled then stood. “I better start looking for a location. This will be the event of the year.” She patted my cheek like I was a cute little poodle who’d won her a trophy in a dog show. Noticing my sour expression, she frowned. “I’m not sure Cassio will approve of your sullenness… or your bangs.” “She looks fine, Egidia,” Dad said firmly. “She looks pretty and young, not sophisticated and ladylike.” “If Cassio wants a lady, he should stop robbing cradles,” I muttered. Mom gasped, clapping a hand over her heart like I would single-handedly put her into an early grave. Dad tried to mask a laugh by coughing. Mom wasn’t fooled. She pointed a warning finger at him. “Talk some sense into your daughter. You know Cassio. I always told you to be stricter with her.” She turned and left with a swoosh of her long skirt. Dad sighed. He gave me a tired smile. “Your mother only wants what’s best for you.” “She wants what’s best for our standing. How’s marrying a cruel old man good for me, Dad?” “Come on,” Dad said, standing. “Let’s take a walk in the garden.” I followed him. He held out his arm, and I took it. The air was warm and humid and hit me like a wrecking ball. “Cassio isn’t that old, Giulia. Only thirty-one.” I tried to think of men his age, but I never really paid attention to men. Wasn’t Luca around his age? Thinking of my cousin wasn’t a consolation; he scared me senseless. If Cassio was like that… What if he was a disgusting fat brute? I looked up at Dad. His brown eyes softened. “Don’t look at me like I betrayed you. Becoming Cassio’s wife isn’t as bad as you might think.” “Irrevocably cruel. That’s what you called him. Do you remember?” Dad nodded guiltily. “To his men and the enemy, not you.” “How can you be sure? Why did his wife die? How? What if he killed her? Or abused her so horribly that she took her own life?” I sucked in a deep breath, trying to calm myself. Dad pushed my bangs out of my face. “I’ve never seen you so scared.” He sighed. “Luca assured me that Cassio didn’t have a hand in his wife’s death.” “Do you trust Luca? Didn’t you tell me he’s trying to establish his power?” “I shouldn’t have told you so much.” “And how can Luca be sure of what happened to Mrs. Moretti? You know how it is. Even a Capo doesn’t get involved in family matters.” Dad gripped my shoulders. “Cassio won’t lay a hand on you if he knows what’s good for him.” We both knew Dad couldn’t do anything once I was married to Cassio. And if we were being honest, he wasn’t someone who would risk getting into a conflict he would lose. Luca preferred Cassio to my father. If he had to choose between the two, Dad would find a quick end. “He’ll come to meet you tomorrow.” I took a step back, shocked. “Tomorrow?” Mom had been very clear that I wouldn’t meet Cassio until our official introduction during dinner. I was supposed to stay in my room all afternoon while my parents and my future husband discussed my future as if I was a two-year-old without an opinion. Dressed in my favorite denim overall dress, and beneath it a white tank top with sunflowers, I crept out of my room when I heard the bell. Barefoot, I made no noise as I tiptoed toward the upper landing, avoiding every creaking board. I knelt down to make myself smaller and peered through the banister. From the sound of the voices, my parents were exchanging pleasantries with two men. Dad came into view, smiling his official smile, followed by Mother who radiated delight. Then two men came into my field of vision. It wasn’t difficult to guess which one was Cassio. He towered over Dad and the second man. Now I got why they compared him to Luca. He was broad and tall, and the dark-blue three-piece suit made him appear even more imposing. His expression was steel. Even my mother batting her eyelashes didn’t tease a smile out of him. At least his companion looked like he wanted to be here. Cassio didn’t look old—and definitely not fat. His muscles showed even through the layers of fabric he wore. His face was all sharp angles and dark stubble. It was an intentional stubble, not the one screaming lack of time or care. Cassio was a grown man, a very imposing, powerful man, and I had only just finished high school. What were he and I supposed to talk about? I loved modern art, drawing, and Pilates. I doubted any of those things mattered to a man like him. Torture and laundering money were most likely his favorite pastimes—and maybe the occasional whore. Anxiety tightened my insides. In less than four months, I’d have to sleep with this man, with this stranger. With a man who might have driven his wife into death. A flicker of guilt filled me. I was making assumptions. Cassio had lost his wife and was left to tend to his children by himself. What if he was a man in mourning? He didn’t look it, though. Still, considering that men in our world learned to hide their true feelings from a young age, his lack of emotion didn’t mean anything. “Why don’t we go into my office for a glass of my best cognac and chat about the marriage?” Dad motioned down the corridor. Cassio inclined his head. “I’ll make sure everything goes smoothly in the kitchen. Our chef’s preparing a feast for tonight,” Mom said enthusiastically. Both Cassio and his companion gave my mother a tight-lipped smile. Did that man ever truly smile with his eyes and his heart? I waited until they had all disappeared from view before I hurried downstairs and slipped inside the library, which was right beside the office. I pressed my ear against the connecting door to listen in on the conversation. “This union will be good for you and me both,” Dad said. “Have you told Giulia about the bond yet?” Hearing my name in Cassio’s deep voice for the very first time made my heart speed up. I’d hear him say it for the rest of my life. Dad cleared his throat. Even without seeing him, I knew he was uncomfortable. “Yes, last night.” “How did she react?” “Giulia is aware that it’s an honor to marry an Underboss.” I rolled my eyes. I really wished I could see their faces. “That doesn’t answer my question, Felix,” Cassio reminded my father with a hint of annoyance in his voice. “She’ll not only become my wife. I need a mother for my children. You realize that, yes?” “Giulia is a very caring and responsible… woman.” The word didn’t fall easily from Dad’s lips, and it took me a moment to realize he meant me. I didn’t feel like a woman yet. “She’s kept watch over her brother’s child on occasion and enjoyed it.” I’d played with my brother’s toddler for a few minutes when they visited, but I had never changed a diaper or fed a child. “I can assure you Giulia will satisfy you.” My cheeks heated. There was a moment of silence. Had Cassio and his companion misunderstood Dad’s words like I had? Dad cleared his throat again. “Have you told Luca yet?” “Last night, after our call, yes.” They began discussing an upcoming meeting with the Capo, which caused me to zone out for a bit, getting lost in my thoughts. “I need to call home. And Faro and I would like to relax for a bit before dinner. We’ve had a long day,” Cassio said. “Of course. Why don’t you go ahead through that door. The library is quiet. We still have an hour until I introduce you to my daughter.” I stumbled away from the door when steps rang out behind it. The handle moved, and I quickly rushed behind one of the bookshelves, pressing myself against it. I glanced toward the door. Cassio and Faro stepped inside. Dad gave them another fake smile then closed the door, locking me in with them. How was I supposed to get out of the library and upstairs with Cassio and his companion around? “And?” Faro asked. Cassio moved farther into the room and closer to me. He was frowning, but some of the vigilance had disappeared. “Exhausting. Mrs. Rizzo in particular. I hope her daughter doesn’t take after her.” I pursed my lips in indignation. Mom was exhausting, true, but his words rubbed me the wrong way. “Have you seen a photo of her?” Faro picked up one of the frames from the side table, chuckling. Peering through the gap in the books, my eyes widened in horror. He held it up for Cassio to see. I was nine years old in that photo and grinning widely, showing off my braces. Two small sunflowers were attached to the sides of my pigtails, and I was dressed in a polka-dotted dress with red rubber boots. Dad loved that photo of me and had refused to remove it despite Mom’s nagging. Now I wished he’d listened to her. “Fuck it, Faro. Put that down,” Cassio said sharply, making me wince. “I feel like a fucking pedophile looking at that child.” Faro put the frame down. “She’s a cute kid. It could be worse.” “I sincerely hope she got rid of those braces and awful bangs.” My hand flew to my bangs. A mix of anger and mortification washed over me. “It works for the schoolgirl look,” Faro said. “I don’t want to fuck a goddamn schoolgirl.” I flinched and my elbow collided with a book. It fell over in the shelf. Oh no. Silence descended over the room. I looked around frantically for an escape. Ducking my head, I tried to slip into the next aisle. Too late. A shadow fell over me, and I collided with a hard body. I stumbled back into the shelf. My tailbone hit the hard wood, causing me to cry out in pain. My head shot up, my cheeks flaming. “I’m sorry, sir,” I blurted. My proper upbringing be damned. Cassio stared down at me, glowering. Then realization settled on his features. As far as first impressions went, this could have gone smoother. “I’m sorry, sir.” I looked down at the girl before me. She watched me with huge blue eyes and parted lips. Then I realized who the girl was. Giulia Rizzo, my future wife. I stared. Beside me, Faro was holding back laughter, but I wasn’t close to fucking amusement. The woman—the girl—who would become my wife in less than three months had just called me “sir.” My eyes raked over her body, taking in her bare feet, slender legs, ugly denim dress, and the flowery atrocity she wore as a top. Finally, my eyes settled on her face. She still had bangs, but the rest of her hair was long and wavy, trailing down her bare shoulders. She raised her eyes when I didn’t make a move to let her past and stiffened, obviously surprised by my unwavering attention. I had to admit that the bangs didn’t look half bad. She was very pretty. A lovely girl. That was the problem. Dressed as she was, she looked like a teenage girl, not a woman—definitely not a wife and mother. She touched her bangs with shaking fingers, a blush creeping over her cheeks. She must have heard everything we’d said. I sighed. This was a bad idea. I knew it from the start, but things had been agreed upon and now there was no going back. She would become my wife and hopefully never call me sir again. She dropped her hand and straightened. “Excuse me, sir, I don’t mean to offend you, but you shouldn’t be alone with me without supervision, much less stand this close to me.” Faro gave me a look that made it clear he was close to pissing himself. I narrowed my eyes at Giulia, not stepping back, but I had to admit I liked that she stood up to me despite the power I held. “You know who I am?” “Yes, you are Underboss in Philadelphia, but I fall under the rule of my father, not yours, and even if I did, honor forbids me to be alone with a man I’m not married to.” “That’s true,” I said quietly. “But in less than four months you will be my wife.” She tipped her chin up, trying to look taller. Her show was impressive, but her shaking fingers and wide eyes betrayed her fear. “How I see it… you spied on us. We had a confidential conversation that you barged in on without permission,” I said in a low voice. She looked away. “I was in the library when you came in and startled me.” Faro started laughing beside me. I silenced him with a glare and heaved a sigh. I didn’t have the patience for drama. For weeks, I’d hardly slept through a night. The maids took most of the work off my hands, but Simona’s crying woke me anyway. I needed a mother for my children, not another child to take care of. “Faro, can you give us a moment?” Giulia regarded me with uncertainty, still backed into that shelf. I took a step away from her, giving her the appropriate space. Faro left and closed the door. “This is inappropriate,” she said in her soft voice. “I want to have a quick word with you. Later, your parents will be around and we won’t have time to talk.” “My mother will do all the talking. She’s exhausting like that.” Was she teasing me? Her face was curious and cautious. “That wasn’t meant for your ears.” I motioned toward the armchairs. “Will you talk to me?” She tilted her head as if she tried to understand me. “Of course.” I waited for her to sit before I took my own seat. She crossed her legs, then smoothed her bangs again, but flushed when she saw me watching. Her nose twitched. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell my mother about this—” “Don’t call me sir,” I growled. She winced, stunned. “What am I supposed to call you?” “How about you call me Cassio? I’ll be your husband soon.” She released a shaky breath. “November.” “Yes. Once you turn eighteen.” “Does it make a difference? How do a few more months make me a viable wife when I’m not now?” “You’re too young either way, but I’ll feel more comfortable marrying you when you’re of age officially.” She pursed her lips and shook her head. “I have two small children who need taking care of. Daniele is two, almost three then, and Simona will be ten months when we marry.” “Can you show me photos?” she asked, surprising me. I took out my phone and showed her my background: a photo taken shortly before Gaia’s death, but she wasn’t in it. Daniele was cradling his four-month-old sister in his arms. I watched Giulia’s face. Her expression softened, and she smiled—an unguarded, honest smile. Not like the smiles I was used to from the women in our circles. That, too, showed how young she was. Not yet jaded and guarded. “They are adorable. And how cute he’s holding her.” She smiled at me then became serious. “I’m sorry for your loss. I—” “I don’t want to talk about my dead wife,” I clipped. She nodded quickly and bit her lip. Fuck, why did she have to look cute and innocent. There were so many teenage girls who plastered their faces with enough makeup to add ten years to their true age—not Giulia. She looked like seventeen, and she wouldn’t miraculously look older in four months when she turned eighteen. I’d have to ask her mother to put lots of makeup on her face for the wedding day. She tugged her hair behind one ear, revealing a sunflower earring. “Do you always dress like this?” I motioned at her attire. She glanced down her body with a small frown. “I like dresses.” The blush on her cheeks darkened when she looked at me. “I like dresses too,” I said. “Elegant dresses, fitting for a woman. I expect you to dress more elegant in the future. You have to convey a certain image to the outside. If you give me your measurements, I’ll send someone out to buy you a new wardrobe.” She stared. “Understood?” I asked when she remained silent. She blinked then nodded. “Good,” I said. “There won’t be an official engagement celebration. I don’t have time for it, and I don’t want us to be seen together in public before you are of age.” “Will I meet your children before we marry? Or see your mansion?” “No. We won’t see each other until November, and you will meet Daniele and Simona the day after our wedding.” “Don’t you think it would be good if we got to know each other before we marry?” “I don’t see how that matters,” I said sharply. She looked away. “Is there anything else you expect from me, except for a change in wardrobe?” I considered asking her to start the pill because I didn’t want any more children, but I couldn’t bring myself to talk to a girl her age about it, which was ridiculous considering I’d have to bed her on our wedding night. I stood. “No. Now you should probably leave before your parents realize we were alone.” She stood then regarded me for a moment, cupping her elbows in her palms. She turned and left without another word. After she’d left, Faro came back inside. He raised his eyebrows. “What did you say? The girl looked like she was going to cry.” My brows drew together. “Nothing.” “I doubt it, but if you say so.” I was still shaking when I entered my bedroom after my first encounter with Cassio. He had been intense and cold, not to mention dominant. Ordering me to change my wardrobe? How dare he? “There you are! Where have you been?” Mom asked, ushering me toward my walk-in closet. “We need to get you ready. For God’s sake, Giulia, what are you wearing?” She tugged at my clothes until I started undressing, still in a trance. Mom gave me a curious look. “What’s with you?” “Nothing,” I said quietly. Mom turned to the selection of dresses she must have spread out on the bench before I’d arrived. “I can’t believe you don’t own a single decent dress.” I’d always avoided going to official events because I hated the insincere schmoozing and backstabbing attitude of those who attended them. “What’s wrong with the dresses I own?” Mom had chosen the three least quirky dresses from my collection. All of them were in my favorite retro Audrey Hepburn style. Mom picked up a sky-blue dress with white dots. “Don’t you have anything solid-colored?” “No,” I said. Had she never paid attention to my clothes? I had Dad to thank for the freedom to wear what I liked. While he was conservative, he had trouble saying no to me. Mom had no choice but to bow to his command. Mom sighed then handed the blue dress to me. “This matches your eyes. Let’s hope Cassio isn’t put off by the ridiculous style.” I put the dress on without a word, remembering Cassio’s words about my clothes and my bangs. “Put on makeup, Giulia. You need to look older.” I gave her an exasperated expression, but she was already on her way out. “And wear heels!” Taking a deep breath, I blinked to stop the tears from falling. I’d been lucky so far. I preferred to turn a blind eye to the realities of mob life, but I knew what went on behind closed doors. Our world was a cruel one. Dad had been good to me, but I’d seen how many of my cousins had been abused by their fathers, how my uncles treated their wives. My last fiancé had been close to my age, a quiet almost shy boy that Dad had chosen to protect me. I could have held my ground against him in a marriage. That would be a difficult task with Cassio. I didn’t like to give in to negative emotions, but my fear was an acute pain in my chest. Grabbing blue heels, I headed for my vanity. My eyes were glassy when I checked my reflection. I put on more makeup than usual, but still much less than Mom and Cassio probably expected. When I made my way downstairs for the official introductions, I’d managed to calm myself. My eyes still felt too warm from almost crying, but my smile didn’t waver when I descended the stairs toward Dad, Cassio, and his companion Faro. Dad took my hand, squeezing it as he led me toward my future husband. Cassio’s expression was a masterpiece of controlled politeness as he regarded me. His eyes were dark blue, like the depth of the ocean, and gave the impression that they could swallow you just as easily as the bottomless sea. Disapproval flashed across his face when he took in my dress. “Cassio, meet my daughter, Giulia.” A hint of warning rang in Dad’s voice, which bounced right off Cassio’s stoic demeanor. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Giulia.” His mouth pulled into an almost non-existent smile as he took my hand and kissed it. I trembled. Dark blue eyes flashed up to mine, and I straightened my spine. “The pleasure is all mine, s—Cassio.” Dad glanced between Cassio and me, worried. Maybe he finally realized that he’d thrown me to a wolf. Dad tried to intimidate my future husband with a dark look, but a sheep didn’t become a predator by wearing a wolf fur, and Dad had never been more than prey among the blood-thirsty monsters in our circles. Cassio straightened, ignoring Dad, and motioned toward his companion. “That’s my right hand and Consigliere, Faro.” I held out my hand, but Faro didn’t take it and only politely inclined his head. Dropping my arm, I shifted closer to Dad, who scanned my face. He looked torn, and I felt sick satisfaction over his obvious conflict. “I’ll send a new wardrobe over for Giulia. Please tell your wife to take your daughter’s measurements,” Cassio said. “I need a woman at my side, not a girl.” That was too much for Dad. “Maybe this was a mistake, and I should cancel our agreement.” Cassio moved in front of Dad, staring down at him with a look that turned my stomach. “We shook hands on the engagement, Felix. We settled matters with Luca. Everything is agreed upon. Given that we decided against a separate engagement, that makes Giulia my fiancée, and I’m telling you now that nobody, least of all you, will prevent this marriage.” Maybe Cassio hadn’t wanted me, but he certainly wouldn’t allow anyone to take me away from him. I held my breath. This was Dad’s home, and he ruled over this city. He only bowed down to Luca, certainly not to another Underboss. At least, that was how it should have been. Yet Dad cleared his throat and lowered his eyes. “I have no intention of canceling our arrangement. I was only making a point.” What point? Cassio’s expression asked the same question. Mom barged in that moment, completely oblivious to what was going on. “Dinner is ready!” Her smile fell when she saw us. Cassio held out his arm for me to take. I glanced at Dad, but he avoided my eyes. The message was clear: from this day on, Cassio would lead the way. I put my palm on my fiancé’s strong forearm. If Dad couldn’t protect me anymore, that meant I’d have to protect myself. Cassio led me into the dining room, following Mom, who was babbling about possible color schemes for our wedding. Cassio probably didn’t care the slightest bit. As a man, he wouldn’t even have to pretend otherwise—unlike me, the happy future bride. When we arrived at the dining table, he pulled out the chair for me. “Thank you.” I sank down, smoothing out my dress. Cassio took the seat across from me. His eyes lingered on my bangs before they moved on to my flower earrings, probably deciding what new haircut he’d order me to get and what jewelry to buy for me. He wanted to turn me into the wife he wanted, mold me like clay. Maybe he thought my age made me a spineless marionette that would bow down to her master at the slightest tug at her strings. I met his gaze. I’d learned the subtle art of getting my way with a smile and kindness, the only way a woman could get what she wanted in our world. Would it work with Cassio? Dad always melted when I batted my lashes, but I had a feeling Cassio wouldn’t be easily swayed. A week later, two packages filled with dresses, skirts, and blouses arrived on our doorstep. Mom could hardly contain her excitement as she unpacked clothes by Max Mara, Chanel, Ted Baker, and many other of her favorite designers. The dresses were pretty and elegant. They weren’t me at all. I understood Cassio’s need to portray a certain image to the public, and at official events I definitely wouldn’t have worn my sunflower dress, I just wished he’d asked me to buy a few elegant clothes and not bought them for me as if he didn’t value my opinion—which was, of course, the case. The four months until November flew by—an endless row of sleepless nights, teary tantrums, and hard workdays. On the morning of my bachelor night, I squatted in front of Daniele. He was staring down at the iPad, watching a series he liked. His hair was tousled in the front and knotted in the back, but he refused to let Sybil comb it. I hadn’t had the patience to hold him while she did it. We’d have to buzz it short once the wedding was over. “Daniele, I need to talk to you.” He didn’t look up. I reached for the iPad, but he twisted around. “Give it to me.” His small shoulders rounded in. It was his only reaction. I grabbed the device and pulled it away. “Soon someone will move in with us. She’ll be your new mom. She’ll take care of you and Simona.” Daniele’s face scrunched up, and he threw himself at me, pummeling my legs with his little fists. “That’s enough,” I thundered, grabbing his arms. My anger disappeared seeing tears running down his face. “Daniele.” I tried to hug him to my chest, but he squirmed away. Eventually, I released him. In the days after Gaia’s death, Daniele had sought my closeness; now he was back to ignoring me. I wasn’t sure what Gaia had told him before her death, but it was clear that it made Daniele resent me. I put the iPad down in front of him then straightened. Without another word, I left and went upstairs to Simona’s room. The nanny hurried out. In a few days, I’d finally be able to get rid of the nannies, and Giulia would take care of Simona. I bent over the crib. Simona stared up at me and smiled a toothless grin. I gently slipped my palms under her tiny body and lifted her into my arms. Cradling her against my chest, I stroked her dark blond head. Both Daniele and she had inherited their mother’s hair color and eyes. Pressing a kiss to Simona’s forehead, I remembered the first time I did it two days after she was born. Gaia had refused to have me present while she gave birth to our daughter and only allowed me near her on the second day. Anger resurfaced as it always did when I remembered the past. Simona babbled, and I kissed her forehead again. She cried when someone other than my sisters, mother, or I held her. I could only hope she’d quickly grow used to Giulia’s presence. I put her back down even though her cries tore at my heart. I needed to get ready for a meeting with Luca and then my bachelor night after. An hour before the official start of my bachelor night, which Faro had organized for me, I met with Luca in my office. He and his wife Aria had arrived a day early so he could see how business was going in Philadelphia. He wouldn’t find reason to worry. I’d forgone sleep to make sure everything worked smoothly in my city. Luca and I settled on the armchairs in my office. I was surprised he’d agreed to come along to my stag party. Since his marriage to Aria, he’d pulled back a bit. “My aunt went all out with the wedding planning,” Luca said as he lounged in the armchair. “She thought of everything from doves and ice sculptures to silk bed linen.” White silk bed linen. Linen I was supposed to stain with my young wife’s blood on our wedding night. I took a sip from my scotch then lowered it. “There won’t be a presentation of the sheets because I won’t be sleeping with Giulia.” Luca lowered his glass slowly, his gray eyes narrowing. He knew it wasn’t because of Gaia, even if I hadn’t been with another woman since her death. “It’s tradition. It has been for centuries.” “I know and I honor our traditions, but there won’t be a presentation of sheets this time.” Those words could very well mean my downfall. It wasn’t my choice to ignore our traditions. Only Luca could make that decision, and it was clear he wouldn’t. I’d considered sleeping with Giulia. She was pretty, but I couldn’t get the image of her innocent, wide eyes out of my head or how young she’d looked in her ridiculous clothes without a touch of makeup. The women of my past had been my age—grown women that could take what I gave. “With your first marriage, you had no trouble following our tradition. It’s not something you can follow as you see fit,” Luca said sharply. “The last time I married, the woman was close to me in age. I’m almost fourteen years older than my future wife. She called me ‘sir’ the first time she saw me. She’s a girl.” “She is of age, Cassio. Today is her birthday.” I nodded. “You know I do what you ask me to do. You know I rule over Philadelphia without mercy as you expect me to do, but even I have certain lines I’m not willing to cross, and I won’t force myself on a girl.” “She’s of age and nobody says you have to use force,” Luca repeated and I lost my shit. I crashed the glass down on the table. “That she is, but I’d still feel like I was manhandling her. You can’t honestly believe she will come willingly into my bed. Perhaps she will submit because she knows it’s her only option, but that’s not willing. I have a daughter, Luca, and I wouldn’t want her to be with a man thirteen years her senior.” Luca regarded me for a long time, maybe considering putting a bullet in my head. He didn’t tolerate defiance. “You will present sheets after your wedding night, Cassio.” I opened my mouth to refuse him again. “No discussion. How you create bloody sheets is up to you.” I sat back, wary. “What is it you are suggesting?” “I’m not suggesting anything,” Luca said. “I’m only telling you that I want to see bloody sheets, and I and everyone else will take them as proof of your wife’s honor and your ruthlessness as is expected.” Maybe I was wrong, but I was fairly certain Luca was suggesting I fake the bloody sheets. I took another sip of my scotch, wondering if Luca had experience faking blood stains. I had been at the presentation of the sheets after his wedding night with Aria, but even as I tried, I couldn’t imagine Luca sparing anyone. I had seen him ripping out a man’s tongue for disrespecting Aria and had been there when he’d crushed his uncle’s throat. Maybe he was testing me. Maybe he was suggesting something like that so he could see if I was too weak to bed my wife. Growing up in our world, I’d learned to see the warning signs. If I failed a test given by my Capo, the end result was inevitable. I’d be removed from my position in the only acceptable way—by death. While I didn’t fear dying, I loathed the idea of what that would mean for Daniele and Simona. They’d cruelly lost their mother. If I, too, abandoned them, it would cause horrible trauma to my kids. Showing any kind of weakness in this situation would be fatal. I would not risk my children’s health nor my position as Underboss. I took a sip. “I’ll do what you ask of me, Luca, like my father and I have always done.” Luca inclined his head, but the tension lingered between us. I’d have to watch my back until I’d proven myself again. Faro handed me a flask. “For you.” I tugged my tie into place before taking the gift. “I won’t drink hard liquor today.” “I thought you could use it to hit yourself over the head if you consider something as stupid as refusing the bloody sheet tradition again.” I shoved the flask into the pocket on the inside of my jacket. “Don’t get started again.” Faro glared. “Just promise you won’t try this faking blood stains bullshit. Luca was baiting you. Trust me, he fucked that wife of his on their wedding night, even if she cried bitter tears. That’s who he is and who he expects you to be. And come on, Cassio, you are that man, so stop trying to be a better man only because you feel guilty over Gaia.” I gripped his throat. “We are friends, Faro, but I’m also your boss, so show some respect.” Faro spluttered, his brown eyes watering. “I’m trying to keep you alive. Giulia is a grown woman by age. That’s all that should matter.” “I’m going to fuck her, so get off my back,” I gritted out, releasing him. I hadn’t seen her since our first and only encounter four months ago, but I knew she still looked young—younger than I preferred. A few months wouldn’t change that. I could only hope that her mother had followed my instructions and put enough makeup on her face to make her look older. Faro grinned. “Do me a favor and enjoy it, will you? Tonight, you’ll have a tight young pussy around your cock.” He left the room before I could grab him again. I waited at the front of the church for Giulia. Faro stood to my right and across from him waited one of Giulia’s friends, who looked awfully young. A reminder of my own future wife’s age. When the music started, I turned my attention to the entrance of the church where Felix entered with Giulia at his side. She was dressed in an elegant long white dress with a long-sleeved lace top. Her hair was pulled up, except for her bangs. She was smiling slightly as her father led her toward me, but her tension was unmistakable. When she arrived in front of me, I noticed the small sunflowers woven into her hair and bridal bouquet. Her eyes met mine, and for a moment I caught the hint of defiance in them, surprising me. Then her father handed her to me, and Giulia became tenser, her smile wavering. She looked marginally older thanks to the makeup and her elegant dress. Still, her fine-boned, clammy hand in mine and the innocence in her eyes reminded me of her age. Despite her youth, she kept her head high, appearing at ease with the situation. Only I could feel her trembling. Her “I do” was firm, as if this bond was really her choice. While we exchanged the rings, Giulia kept throwing uncertain glances up at me. I wasn’t sure what she was looking for. Maybe wistfulness or even sadness. I remembered my first wedding. Sadness wasn’t part of my feelings when I thought of Gaia. “You may kiss the bride,” the priest said. Giulia’s eyes widened a fraction, as if that part of the ceremony came as a surprise. Hundreds of eyes watched us, one set belonging to my Capo. I cupped the back of her head and bent low. She remained frozen, except for her eyes which fluttered shut a moment before I firmly pressed my mouth against hers. Until this moment, physical closeness with Giulia had seemed like something that I’d have to force myself to allow, a struggle forgetting her age and the baggage I carried with me. Now, as her soft lips touched mine and her sweet scent hit me, a deeply buried desire kindled inside me. Claiming her tonight wouldn’t be a problem. Being a better man definitely wasn’t in my future. I pulled back, causing Giulia to open her eyes. She held my gaze, a blush creeping up her cheeks. Then she gave me a small, shy smile. So goddamn innocent. I straightened, looking away from her pretty, young face. From the corner of my eye, I saw her puzzled expression before I led her down the aisle and out of the church for the congratulations. Faro, of course, was the first to congratulate me. He clapped my shoulder with a challenging smile. “And how was the first taste of your young wife?” he asked in a low voice. I scowled. He knew very well that I rarely shared information like that. It didn’t stop him from asking, of course. He stepped back and faced Giulia, giving a small bow. Her answering smile was the kind of unguarded friendliness that gave proof of her age. As my wife, she’d have to learn to be more restrained. Gaia had been the perfect hostess and trophy wife, poised and a master of social etiquette, a quick liar, someone who smiled at you one moment only to stab you in the back the next. Giulia wasn’t like that. She’d have to grow up quickly, learn the ins and outs of being an Underboss’s wife. My eyes lingered on the small sunflowers in her updo. Those would have to go first. Too lighthearted, too quirky. Nothing I appreciated. The sunflower earrings were even worse. She should have worn the jewelry I sent her. I leaned down to her. “Why didn’t you wear the diamond earrings I bought for you?” I jumped at the cold disapproval in his voice. Mom and Dad headed toward us to congratulate us, which didn’t give me much time for a reply. “They didn’t match the flower arrangement.” I’d fought Mom for weeks over having sunflowers as part of my bridal flowers. Eventually, Dad had settled the matter in my favor, as he usually did. “You shouldn’t have chosen sunflowers. Next time I send you something to wear, I expect you to do it.” I blinked, too stunned for a reply. He straightened. For him, this matter was settled. He’d given an order and naturally expected me to obey. There was no doubt in his mind that I would. His expression was steel when he shook Dad’s hand. Mom pulled me into an embrace, dragging my eyes away from my husband. A frown appeared on her face. “Look happy, Giulia,” she whispered. “Don’t you realize how lucky you are? I’d have never thought we’d manage to marry you off to an Underboss, considering all of them were already married. This is such a stroke of luck.” My smile felt stiff. What was a stroke of luck? That Gaia Moretti had died, leaving two small children behind? That I was married to the man who might be responsible for her death? Mom’s expression pinched. “For God’s sake, try harder to look happy. Don’t ruin this for us.” Mom didn’t even realize how cruel she was. Luckily, Dad stepped up to me and hugged me. I sank into him. He and I had always been closer, but recently my resentment had clouded our relationship. “You look beautiful.” “I don’t think Cassio agrees,” I muttered. Dad pulled back, searching my face. His guilt and worry added another weight to my already heavy heart. “I’m sure he appreciates your beauty,” Dad said quietly. I kissed Dad’s cheek, and he reluctantly moved away to make room for Cassio’s parents. I’d never talked to them and had only seen them from afar at a couple of social functions. Mr. Moretti shared Cassio’s dark blue eyes, but his were clouded and his impressive size was diminished by the fact that he supported his weight on a cane. Cassio’s mother was elegant and beautiful with dark blond hair pulled up into a perfect chignon. Behind her, Cassio’s sisters waited, no less graceful and poised. That was how I was supposed to be. Cassio didn’t want me for myself. He wanted me to become someone he required. Accessories in his life. I could hardly force food down my tight throat during dinner. Cassio didn’t talk to me, only to his father and Luca. I sat beside him like arm candy. Maybe it was for the best. Every time he’d talked to me so far, he ordered me around and intimidated me only more. Considering that I’d have to share a bed with him tonight, I preferred his silence. The chances of me passing out were high anyway. I slanted a look at Cassio. His facial features were attractive in an edgy way. Sharp cheekbones, a strong jaw, and the dark stubble. I’d never seen him in less than a three-piece suit, but his muscles were unmistakable. “My brother played football in high school,” Mia whispered, surprising me. I hadn’t said much to her yet. We were strangers, despite being sisters-in-law, not to mention she was ten years older than me. Heat rose into my cheeks, realizing she must have noticed me staring at Cassio. I couldn’t even imagine Cassio going to high school. “You finished this summer, right?” Mia asked. I nodded with a small smile. “Yes. I thought I’d go to college, but…” “But you had to marry my brother.” “I would have had to marry either way, but as a wife of an Underboss, going to college is out of the question,” I said quietly. My mother would have had a heart attack if she’d heard me being this honest with Cassio’s sister, but I was tired of trying to pretend. “That’s true. You’ll be busy raising his kids, so you won’t be bored.” My heart sped up like it always did thinking of being responsible for two tiny humans. I had absolutely no clue about kids. I’d read countless articles about raising kids in the last four months, but reading and doing were two very different things. Most of the time I felt like a girl, not a woman, much less a mother. Mia touched my hand. “You’ll be fine. I live close by. I can help if you don’t know what to do.” Cassio must have heard because he frowned. “You have two small kids of your own with a third on the way. You’ll have your hands full. Giulia can handle everything.” He seemed to know me better than I did. Or maybe he’d just order me to be a good mother? Mia sighed, but she didn’t talk back to him. My stomach knotted even more. I was wound so tightly when it was time for the first dance, I hardly noticed Cassio leading me to the center of the ballroom. The guests gathered around it, watching. My smile was in place. If I’d learned one thing from my mother, it was to smile in the face of adversity. With our difference in height, dancing wasn’t easy. If we’d been a real couple, I could have rested my cheek against his sternum. Right now we were casual acquaintances at best. Cassio led me over the dance floor without a hitch, sure in his leadership like in every other aspect of our life. My mind was spinning a hundred miles an hour, imagining our future, imagining tonight. “Why are you trembling?” Cassio asked, startling me. I regarded his emotionless eyes. Did he really not know? “Why don’t you order me to stop? Maybe my body obeys your command.” Cassio’s expression hardened. “I expect you to choose your words more carefully in public. I’m your husband and you’ll respect me.” I lowered my eyes to his chest, the smile still frozen on my face. Cassio’s mouth pressed to my ear as the dance ended. “Understood?” “Understood, sir.” Cassio’s grip on me tightened, but he didn’t get the chance to say more because it was Dad’s turn to dance with me. He kept asking what was wrong, but I really didn’t see any reason to tell him. There was nothing he could do, nothing he would do. Mom’s lips were moving nonstop during her dance with my husband. From her delighted expression, you’d think she was the happy bride. “It’s my turn,” Christian said. My smile became less stiff as my brother took over. He gave me a quick smile as we began to dance. I rarely saw him anymore since he’d moved out five years ago at eighteen. Unlike many sons from Underbosses, he’d chosen not to work under Dad in Baltimore until he inherited the title himself. Christian had wanted to make a name for himself and had gone to work under the Morettis. “It’s so good to see you,” I said, hugging him tighter. He gave a terse nod. “It is.” “You don’t look happy that I’ll live in the same city as you soon.” Christian shook his head. “Not at this price.” “You mean me being married to Cassio?” Christian looked around, but Cassio was dancing with one of his sisters a good distance away. “He’s not the right man for you.” “Because he’s too old.” Christian let out a derisive laugh. “That’s only a small part of why.” “Do you know what happened to Gaia?” I hadn’t seen my brother since I’d found out I’d marry Cassio. Asking that kind of question over the phone was too dangerous. You never knew if the FBI was listening. “Only Luca, Mansueto, and Cassio know.” He hesitated. “And?” “The clean-up crew. Both of them died shortly after in a tragic car accident.” For a moment I was sure I hadn’t heard him right. My vision was starting to tunnel. “Dad said Cassio didn’t have a hand in his wife’s death.” Anger flashed across Christian’s face. “Dad needs Cassio’s support to stay in power. Dad’s a weak boss. It’s only a matter of time before others will try to have him removed. With Cassio in the family, people will hesitate. If I already were in power, I wouldn’t have given you to him. I would have controlled our men myself.” Power plays. It wasn’t something I wanted to be part of, but without my own doing, I’d become the pawn in this deadly game. “You’ve worked under Cassio the last few years. Is he really that bad?” Christian’s expression flickered with regret. “I shouldn’t have said anything.” I dug my fingers into his arm. “Tell me, please. I need to prepare myself.” Though, how could you prepare for that? “He’s effective and brutal. He doesn’t tolerate disobedience. He’s got his men under control. Few men in our circles are as well respected as him. He’s the best Underboss that the Famiglia has at the moment.” Christian shook his head. “I should talk to him.” “No,” I whispered, terrified. If what Christian had said was true, Cassio wouldn’t allow my brother to get involved. Christian was a brave man, and he’d be a good Underboss one day, but risking his life for me? I wouldn’t allow it. “Promise, you won’t say anything. Swear it.” “I want to help you.” “Then tell me what to do to make this marriage with him work.” He laughed mirthlessly. “How would I know?” Our dance ended, and he fell silent, his mouth twisting in disgust. “Obey him.” Despair weighed down on me. Four months ago, my main concern was what kind of Pilates course I’d do and if I’d find time to finish a painting. Today, I had to worry about how to please a husband, who might have killed his wife and probably the men who’d cleaned up the scene afterward. After the dance with my brother, I wanted nothing more than to find a quiet corner to get a grip, but Cassio’s father limped toward me. I gave him a smile as my brother slinked away after a curt nod. Mr. Moretti held out his hand. “Will you give this old man the honor of dancing with the bride?” “Of course, Mr. Moretti,” I said with a small curtsy. “Mansueto, please. We’re family now.” I nodded and took his hand, wondering how this was going to work with his cane. He smiled wistfully. “We’ll have to dance in one spot if you’re all right with that, young lady.” Again, I nodded and stepped a bit closer. He handed his cane to a man I didn’t know and lightly touched my back. Then we began to sway to the music. “You’re very quiet. From what I hear, you’re not a quiet girl.” My cheeks heated, wondering who had given him that piece of information. Christian? Definitely not my mother. Mansueto’s eyes were kind, but like his son, his reputation was chilling. “My son’s reputation makes me proud,” he began as if he could read my mind, which freaked me out. “I know he’ll rule over Philadelphia without trouble, even once I’m gone. But it’s a reputation that might unsettle a young woman, especially as young as yourself.” I wasn’t sure what to say. I felt like I should contradict him because tradition dictated that I pretend I wasn’t unsettled by my husband, but that would have been a lie, and unfortunately, I was a bad liar, much to Mom’s chagrin. “My wife and I raised my son to respect women, and from what I know, he does.” From what I knew, the bets on him killing his wife in a rampant rage were winning. He didn’t appear like someone who would lose control like that, but he had earned his reputation as one of the cruelest leaders in our circles for a reason, and Christian’s words had only confirmed my fears. “Thank you for telling me,” I said, because I had to say something. I didn’t feel consoled. The song ended and we stopped our swaying. Faro stood with his last dance partner to my left. I caught his eye, thinking as best man and Consigliere, he’d want a dance. He shook his head with an apologetic smile. “If I ever tire of life, I’ll ask for that dance.” He turned and asked another woman. Flabbergasted, I stared at Mansueto. He laughed. “Come on, let’s head back to the table.” “What was that?” I asked as I followed his slow progress toward the table where Cassio was still conversing with Luca as if this was a business meeting and not our wedding. “My son is a bit territorial, I’m afraid. You can dance with family, but please refrain from approaching other men. I’d hate to witness a conflict at your wedding.” I waited for his laugh, something that indicated he was joking. He didn’t. I stopped and so did he. “I think I’ll freshen up.” He nodded, but his expression showed he knew I wanted to run. With a small smile, I turned on my heel and hurried out of the ballroom. I rushed past the restrooms and turned a corner into a deserted corridor where I leaned against the wall and slowly sank down. My dress bunched around me like a pure white bubble. It wasn’t dignified, and if someone found me, that would be a scandal for which Mom would never forgive me. I couldn’t bring myself to care. This was my life. I wasn’t sure how long I sat like that, considering my few options, when steps echoed down the hall. With my dress, I didn’t have the chance to stand up quickly, so I didn’t bother. Mia turned the corner and upon spotting me, she headed my way with a look of concern. She surprised me when she sank down beside me in her elegant long dress and bulging belly. “Cassio is a difficult man, Giulia. I won’t lie.” I chuckled. Difficult I could deal with. It was the character traits beyond difficult that worried me. All evening, I kept an eye on my wife. She wasn’t comfortable with my close proximity. Her trembling during our dance had made that clear. That reaction didn’t bode well for tonight. After her dance with my father, Giulia hurried out of the room, and Father came over to me. “Would you excuse us for a moment, Luca? I need to have a word with my son.” “I’ll dance with Aria.” Luca gave us a curt nod before he headed over to his wife. “What’s the matter?” “Your girl is terrified. She’s trying to put up a brave front, as she’s been taught, but I can see it in her eyes.” My gaze rested on the door through which Giulia had disappeared. “Don’t call her my girl, Father. It makes me feel even older.” Father chuckled. “Maybe it’s good that you do. That you remember you’ve been given a wife who’s been a child not too long ago, that you need to be good to her.” I frowned. “I have no intention of not being good to her.” Being good to her would be difficult, no doubt. “Maybe you should tell her, talk to her before tonight. It would be wise to take some of her fears away in advance.” My mouth tightened. “Father, I’m not going to discuss my wedding night with you.” Father smiled. “I’ll thank you for that. Go talk to her, Cassio. Do your old man that small favor.” “When she returns, I’ll have a quick word with her.” “Cruelty has a place, Cassio. Marriage isn’t it.” I had enough. “Do you want to have another talk about Gaia? Today?” “My concern is that you forget that Giulia isn’t Gaia.” “It seems you know my wife better than I do.” I walked off, even if it was disrespectful, but Father was no longer Underboss. I didn’t need his guidance in that regard, nor in my marriage. Mia gave me a hard look from across the room and slipped out as well. Giulia had been gone for a while… Sighing, I made my way over to find my young bride. I headed toward the restroom then followed the sound of low female voices around another corner. I stopped. Mia and Giulia were sitting on the ground, their expensive dresses spread out around them. Seeing them beside each other, Giulia’s age became more apparent again. My sister was younger than me yet still looked so much older than my wife. It was a sobering realization. The moment Giulia spotted me, tension spread in her narrow shoulders. I strode closer. “Let me talk to my wife,” I ordered Mia. She glanced between Giulia and me before she held out her hand. I helped her to her feet. “Be a husband, not a mobster for once, how about that?” she whispered under her breath. I ignored her. Once she had turned the corner, I held out my hand. “How about we catch some fresh air?” Giulia put her hand in mine. Her slender, trembling fingers were clammy. I pulled her to her feet then put my hand on her back. She didn’t say anything as I led her back to the ballroom and toward the French doors leading onto the terrace of the hotel. Her mother’s eyes widened, and she glanced at the clock as if I was going to pounce on her daughter outside in the garden before the scheduled bedding time. The guests mingling outside immediately went back inside to give us space. I stopped a good distance away from the windows then looked down at my wife. With those bangs, she looked awfully cute and pretty, both of which would have been fine if they didn’t also make her appear innocent and young. “My father told me you’re scared.” Maybe I should have found a more delicate way to broach the subject, but that wasn’t one of my strengths. Her eyes widened, those red lips falling open. “I… I’m not… I…” She bit her lower lip and looked away. The moonlight highlighted her smooth skin, unblemished and soft-looking. “Will you look at me?” She raised her eyes. I ran my thumb over her fingers to the ring, and she shivered slightly. “This ring makes you mine.” She tensed, and I realized I should have chosen different wording, something that didn’t sound like I was a Neanderthal about to claim her, not that it wasn’t true. I would claim her tonight, if only to follow traditions we both couldn’t evade, and she was mine, but that wasn’t what I meant to say. I wasn’t sure what to say to set her at ease. Gaia and I hadn’t talked much. She’d screamed or cried and sometimes talked sweetly when she wanted something. “Tradition binds us, Giulia. Not just you, but also me.” I’d sworn to protect her, like a husband was supposed to protect his wife, and I would do my best to do a better job this time. “I know of our traditions,” she said quickly, embarrassed. “I’m not talking about the bloody sheets.” She swallowed. “What are you talking about, then?” “That, as my wife, you’re also entitled to my protection.” Giulia tilted her head, regarding me curiously. “Okay.” I wasn’t sure if I got my point across, but I’d never been a man of many words when feelings were concerned. I’d do my best to treat her right. Silence fell over us. I could tell that Giulia wanted to say something, perhaps even wanted me to say more, but I remained silent. I didn’t know my young wife and had no clue what she did all day except for shopping and meeting other women. She was a teenager, and I was not. I hadn’t even acted like one when I’d been her age. “Let’s return. Our guests are waiting. It’s almost midnight.” She tensed, but followed me inside. Luca’s uncles—my fellow Underbosses that I couldn’t stand—were the first to demand I bed my wife. Giulia and I stood with my sisters and her parents when the first shout cut through the music. Appreciative roars and clapping followed and then a chorus of “bed her” came from most of the men. Giulia’s father and brother did not take part in it. Christian gave me a look that bordered on threatening. At another time, I would have reacted accordingly to that kind of disrespect. Now wasn’t the time, however. He was a braver man than his father. I had to give it to him. Giulia clutched her wine glass and gave my sister Mia an embarrassed smile. Mia hugged me tightly. “Don’t make me kick your ass, big brother. Be good to that girl. She’s such a cutie.” I untangled myself from my sister. I would not discuss my sex life with her. Felix gave me a hard look, but we both knew that whatever went on tonight was no longer his responsibility. He certainly loved his daughter, but he also loved power, and if he had to choose between the two… I turned to my wife, tired of everyone shoving their noses into our marriage. Giulia gave me a shy look, her cheeks red. I held out my hand, and she took it without hesitation. Her palms were sweaty. “Are you ready to go upstairs?” I murmured, bending down so only she could hear me. She swallowed, but nodded. I turned to our families. “If you’ll excuse us?” Before Giulia and I could take our leave, Egidia hugged her daughter once more and whispered something in her ear that drove a fierce blush into my wife’s cheeks. Wine glass still clutched in her hand, she allowed me to lead her away. Again, we didn’t talk. I considered saying something reassuring, but the truth was there was nothing to say, and I wasn’t a man for those kinds of words anyway. Giulia took a sip of her wine. She was on her fifth glass—at least. “What did your mother say?” I asked to fill the tense silence between us as we took the elevator up to our suite for the night. The door slid open, and we stepped out. Another sip. I stopped and took the glass from her. If she was intoxicated, I’d have to fake those fucking bloodstains after all. “That’s enough.” “It’s ginger ale.” I took a sip from the glass, surprised. Giulia fumbled with the tiny white purse slung over her shoulder. “I only had one glass of sparkling wine at the reception. I didn’t want to be drunk.” Those big blue eyes hit me. “What did your mother say?” I asked again, leading her the rest of the way to the suite. I unlocked the door. Giulia pursed her lips. “That I should please you and try to mask my inexperience.” She let out a huff. “Right now, I’m just trying not to pass out from fear.” Her eyes widened. I opened the door and motioned for Giulia to go in. I followed and then we were alone in our suite. The living area was vast with two sofas and a dining table, where I set down her glass. It wasn’t a room we’d use, but it was custom to take the biggest suite of the hotel even if all we required was a bedroom. I looked down at my young wife, who’d just been vulnerably honest with me. “You don’t have to be afraid, Giulia. We have all night.” Giulia glanced around, her eyes lingering on the door to the left leading to our bedroom. “Do you think drawing it out will make it better?” I wasn’t sure what would help Giulia. “Tell me what would help ease your fears.” She considered that. “If it felt like I had a choice.” “You have a choice,” I said, stepping close to her. “Do I?” she whispered, peering up at me. “Will you really allow me a choice?” I wanted her to have a choice. But I wouldn’t show weakness, not in front of Luca, not after I’d already displayed such during our meeting. He wouldn’t have reason to doubt me. Not even my wife’s pretty face and her cute smile could soften my resolve. But a nonexistent choice could still feel like a choice. “I know what’s expected, Cassio. I know what it would mean for you and my father if we don’t present sheets in the morning.” She swallowed. I touched her arm, feeling her warmth seep through the thin fabric. “Then make it your choice.” She searched my eyes. “Okay,” she said quietly. Relief filled me at her reasonability. At least that distinguished her from my late wife. She surprised me when she headed to the bedroom without prompting. I followed a couple of steps behind her. For the first time, I allowed myself to see her as a woman—something I’d avoided at all costs until now but was a necessity for tonight. The dress accentuated her narrow waist and the beautiful curve of her hips and butt. Arriving in the bedroom, Giulia stopped and glanced over her shoulder. Despite her obvious nerves, she smiled before she set her purse down on the bench in front of the king-sized bed. Her eyes rested on it for a moment, her blush deepening, then she cleared her throat. I moved closer to her. Her strawberry scent wafted into my nose, making me wonder if she’d taste just as sweet as her choice in perfume suggested. I took in the intricate lace of her long-sleeved bodice, lingering on the swell of her breasts. “I have to cut you out of your dress,” I said as I unsheathed my knife from the holster at my chest. Another tradition we couldn’t evade. She regarded the blade with a small frown before she nodded. Turning around, she tilted her head to the side so her hair wasn’t covering the lace top of her back. Her throat was long and elegant, perfectly unblemished, and I had to resist the urge to press my mouth to it and mark her as mine. Sparing her had appeared easier when we hadn’t been married yet. That I had ever considered it an option seemed ludicrous now. She shifted her face and peered up at me through long lashes, nerves in her eyes. “Everything okay?” she asked quietly. “Of course,” I clipped, my voice harsher than intended because I was annoyed at myself. She averted her eyes and stiffened. An apology teased the tip of my tongue. It never passed. I slid my finger below the lace to lift it off her skin. Goose bumps pimpled every inch of her body when I touched her soft skin. I brought the knife down and cut through the undoubtedly expensive fabric. The resulting hiss made Giulia jump. I stepped back the moment the knife reached her skirt. Giulia pulled her dress down slowly, her back to me, and I couldn’t look away as she revealed inch over inch of her smooth back. She was topless and only wearing a very skimpy white lace thong. My eyes rested on her perfect ass cheeks, round globes I wanted to sink my teeth into and bury my cock in, a cock that was growing hard watching her. “Is it okay if I freshen up?” Her voice tore through my rising arousal. “Of course.” The gruffness in my voice made Giulia risk a glance up at my face. Then she hurried into the bathroom. Terrifying my young wife before I had to claim her was a fucking stupid thing to do. Loosening my tie, I walked over to the bench and sank down. My wedding ring, similar to my last one, seemed to mock me. I set my tie down beside me, listening to the sound of running water. Giulia would need patience and care. I had never had much of either to begin with. Since the mess with Gaia, even less than before. I propped my arms up on my thighs, trying to reach a state of mind that would allow me to treat my young wife right. I didn’t want her to resent me. The door opened, drawing my attention to it and Giulia. She wore a dark blue silk nightgown that reached her knees and hugged her slender frame. Her hair fell down her shoulders in soft brown curls, freed of the too-cute sunflowers. Giulia didn’t move from her spot in the doorframe and nervously smoothed out her bangs then traced the floor with her bare foot. “What now?” I met her gaze. She looked to me for guidance, and that was the one thing I had no trouble giving her. I straightened to my full height and held out my hand. “Come here.” Taking a visible breath, she moved closer until she stood right in front of me. Without her heels, she only reached my chest. Her strawberry scent was more prominent than before, and even though I’d never been a man for the sweet things in life, I suddenly craved it. I reached up and cupped her head. She held her breath. For a moment, I regarded her pretty face before I leaned down and pressed a simple kiss to her mouth to see how she’d react. She stayed still. Running my thumb over her cheekbone, I repeated the motion. She softened against me. “Why are you still wearing a jacket?” she asked after the third simple kiss. Pulling back, I shrugged out of my jacket and flung it over the bench. Giulia’s eyes took me in. “And the vest?” Stifling a smile, I started unbuttoning the vest. She didn’t act how I’d feared, not how Gaia had acted. The last button gave me trouble, but before my frustration could rise, Giulia pushed my hand away and opened it with her elegant fingers. I dropped the vest to the bench as well. Giulia let out a small breath. “You look really strong.” She reached up as if to feel my bicep then faltered. I gripped her hand and pressed it against my arm then flexed my bicep. Giulia let out a small laugh, and my own lips twitched. She peered up then darted her gaze behind me. Taking her hand again, I led her closer to the bed. “Lie down.” She reclined on the bed, becoming visibly tenser. I pushed off my shoes then stretched out beside her, still almost completely dressed. Gripping her hip, I dragged her closer to me and leaned over her. A hint of nerves crossed her beautiful face. I focused on her body, not her face, and pressed a kiss to her neck. She was still, holding her breath. Not a great reaction but not too bad. I pressed another kiss to the spot right below her ear, and she surprised me by twitching and letting out a giggle. A teenage girl giggle. I paused then raised my eyes. She bit her lower lip, her expression caught between embarrassment and an uncertain smile. She looked like such a fucking girl. Of age, my ass. She was legal, but her antics, her reaction, her expression… they weren’t those of a grown woman but of a girl on her way to becoming a woman. I pushed up, stifling a sigh. “I’m sorry,” she said quickly. “I didn’t mean to laugh. I’m ticklish.” She regarded me with uncertainty, her eyes suddenly filled with anxiety. This wasn’t going how I hoped it would. The makeup and elegant dress had made her look older. Now, without a touch of makeup and dressed in her nightgown, she looked like the teenager that she was. I did what was necessary. I threatened, tortured, killed, so sleeping with my wife should have been a piece of cake. I ignored her apology and stood. The faster I got this over with, the better. I removed my shirt, followed by my pants and socks. When I reached for my boxers, I noticed Giulia’s gaze. Her eyes were huge, which made her look even younger and more innocent, and she stared at me in a mix of fascination and fear. I released my waistband, deciding it was better if I kept my cock covered for now. If she let out a terrified shriek upon seeing it, I’d tell Luca to screw himself on the fucking sheets and then my blood would definitely tinge them red. Perched on the edge of the bed, I reached for her knee, touching it lightly. She twitched again and bit her lip, trying to hold in another giggle. “I’m fairly sure I know one place where you’re not ticklish,” I said sardonically. She pursed her lips. “You can’t know…” Her eyes widened. “You mean…” She sucked in a quick breath. At least she understood my comment. If she’d stared at me blankly, I would have lost it. I knelt on the bed. I wanted to relax her enough to keep her pain to a minimum. My first wife had cried through our first time together, an experience I really didn’t want to repeat. I pushed up her nightgown enough to reach her panties, and my groin tightened in a familiar way seeing the valley between her thighs. I touched my fingers to her hips, sliding them into the waistband of her underwear. She was perfectly still, watching me with parted lips and that damn innocence that was going to kill me. “Can I take them off?” It was a rhetorical question—we both knew what was expected. “What if I say no? Would it matter?” she asked with a hint of insolence. “Would it make you feel better if I continued despite your saying no? It certainly won’t help me.” “I doubt you’d care. It certainly won’t hurt you as much as me.” Anger surged through me. I moved over her, bracing myself beside her shoulders. Her hands came up as if to ward me off, soft palms pressing against my chest. Her eyes widened, and she darted them to my pecs, her fingers shaking against me. “Listen up. You’re right, you’ll be the one who’ll experience discomfort, but I can guarantee you that being bratty about it doesn’t help. If you work with me, it’ll be better.” “It’s not just the pain. Until this moment, men were allowed to kiss my hand or dance with me at social gatherings, nothing more. And now you’re here, over me, half naked, and I’m half naked, and soon we’ll both be naked, and you’re going to…” She sucked in a deep breath. “I know,” I said quietly. “Don’t start to cry.” She drew her lower lip between her teeth. After a moment, she said firmly. “I won’t cry.” Then she peered up at me. “Why do you care? You’ve seen worse than someone crying.” I had. Far worse, and I hadn’t given a shit. But Giulia was young, too young, and my wife, the woman who was supposed to become a mother to my children. Fuck. This was such a mess. She was biting her lip, not looking at me, but at something only she could see. “Giulia,” I murmured, and her gaze settled on me. “Help me with this.” She looked at me with those big eyes and nodded slowly. Relief filled me. Bringing my head down, I kissed her lips lightly. Then again. At the third kiss, Giulia’s lips moved hesitantly against mine, and I sucked her lovely plump lower lip into my mouth. She made the smallest sound and closed her eyes. My tongue stroked her open and dipped in, tasting my wife for the first time. Hell, so unbelievably sweet it was going to kill me. Not stopping the kiss, I rested my palm on her ribcage. Her eyes shot open, and she flinched slightly. I drew back from her mouth, watching her as I stroked my palm down her side then back up—a soft touch, the promise that I’d treat her with care. “Will you let me undress you?” Again, the silent nod. I sat back on my haunches and helped Giulia into a sitting position. Then I hooked my fingers under the hem of her nightgown and dragged it upward. She lifted her arms so I could pull it over her head. I discarded the flimsy thing on the floor and turned my attention back to Giulia. Her arms were loosely crossed over her chest. Biting her lip in that cute way, she lowered them slowly, giving me a perfect view of her breasts. God, she was lovely. I reached for her and gently ran my knuckles down the valley between those pretty breasts. Giulia twitched, nose crinkling, holding back one of those giggles. Her cheeks turned red. “I’m sorry.” “No,” I said in a slightly lower voice. I’d rather she giggled than cried, and right now she thankfully didn’t appear as if she was close to tears. “You’re very beautiful,” I told her. Because it was the truth and because I didn’t want her to be self-conscious. It would only make her tense more. “Thank you.” “You’re welcome,” I murmured as I traced the outside of her breast with my knuckles. Her nipples hardened, and the blush on her cheeks spread all over her face. I was glad that I hadn’t listened to my conscience and asked Luca to cancel the wedding because she was too young for me. Right this moment I knew she’d be mine forever. I swiped my thumb over her nipple, and Giulia sucked in a small breath. I repeated the motion, stifling a groan at the feel of her perfect nub. “Do you like this?” “Yes. It feels good.” I ran my hand down to her panties. “Lie back.” She did and her body became visibly tenser. The muscles in her belly flexed, and she held her breath. “This is no reason to become tense. I’ll only pull down your panties.” Slowly, I dragged them down and relief, followed by desire, flooded me. Most women were waxed completely for the wedding night, and while I enjoyed that, with Giulia it would have only put emphasis on her age. Luckily, she had a small triangle of dark brown hair on her mound. “I know it’s not what’s tradition, but I didn’t want to—” “It’s perfect,” I rasped. She regarded me shyly, her legs pressed together. I allowed myself to admire her then bent down and pressed a kiss to her belly as I drew in a deep breath, catching another whiff of the strawberry lotion she must have applied earlier. Sweet all over, my wife. “Part your legs for me.” “Why?” I peered up, stifling my impatience at her stubbornness when I saw the anxiety on her pretty face. “Giulia.” She parted her legs, but only just, and I had to nudge them a bit wider apart so I could climb between them and stretch out. Then I took in my wife’s pussy. Fuck. My desire returned full force. I leaned forward, but Giulia tensed and her hand shot out, pressing against my forehead, stopping me. For a moment I was sure I’d start laughing. This situation was too much even for my control. “What are you doing?” “I’m trying to help you relax.” She glanced down at me. “But… why?” “Because most women enjoy this very much. I think you might too.” Her nose wrinkled as if I was going to do something nasty. “So you’re going to… kiss me down there?” I chuckled, couldn’t help myself. “Yes, I’m going to kiss you down there, and lick you and suck you, and hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as I will.” Her eyebrows shot up. I lowered my head to her thigh, stifling another chuckle. Her skin was soft against my stubbled cheek, and my eyes found her perfect pussy once more. I wrapped my fingers around her hand and pulled it away from my forehead. “I’m going to kiss you now.” I propped myself up and leaned close. Giulia held her breath, her body becoming so tight I was sure she’d snap in two at any moment. My lips brushed her velvety folds, and she twitched, sucking in a sharp breath. My gaze darted up to her. “Did that tickle?” I rasped. Giulia’s eyes were squeezed shut, and she was very still. “No.” I kissed the same spot, applying a bit more pressure. Her pussy smelled even sweeter and absolutely irresistible. Again, a sharp intake of breath. I planted kiss after kiss all over her pussy, giving her time to get used to my attention. She didn’t respond in any way except for her ragged breathing. I wasn’t sure if she enjoyed it. I brushed my palm along her inner thigh and applied light pressure, wanting to part her for me so I had better access, but she resisted. My frustration spiked once more, but I shoved it down. Eighteen. Young and inexperienced. “Giulia, let me.” I could feel her legs softening, and finally, I parted her all the way. The hint of arousal coated her opening and relief filled me. I dipped my head and ran my tongue along her sensitive folds. Giulia’s hand shot out again, but this time she didn’t shove; she only held on to my head, her fingers shaking. I hovered above her and used the tip of my tongue to circle her clit. She gasped, fingers twitching. I took my time experimenting to figure out what she enjoyed, but she was very quiet and tense, which made it difficult. Her clit definitely worked when I swiped my tongue over it. Her breathing deepened and her body responded to my ministration, but after fifteen minutes, it became quite clear that she was too nervous to come. I kissed her inner thigh. “Do you think you can come?” She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry.” Acute embarrassment showed on her face. “Don’t be. It takes time.” I paused, knowing what would have to happen next. “Are you ready?” I knew she wasn’t, and not because she hadn’t come. She was wet, definitely as wet as I’d get her tonight given the circumstances. Giulia swallowed then gave a small nod. I got off the bed and slid out of my boxers. My cock was definitely ready. Smelling, tasting, seeing her had sent a flood of blood right to it. “Oh shit,” Giulia whispered. My eyebrows shot up and for a second right there, I was sure I’d start roaring with laughter. I stifled the impulse and knelt on the bed. “You’re going to stretch.” Her expression remained doubtful and worse… fearful. Fuck it. We had to get it over with. If she started worrying about all the ways this would hurt, she’d only grow more tense. “Do you take the pill?” I asked. It wasn’t the most romantic thing to say in a situation like this, but before today, I couldn’t bring myself to ask my teenage wife that question. A quick nod. I climbed on top of her and guided my cock to her opening, but she shrank back. I wanted to roar in frustration. “Giulia,” I said imploringly. “Can you hold me?” My heart skipped a fucking beat. I nodded and lowered myself to my elbows then wedged one arm under my wife’s shoulder blades and hugged her to my chest. “Like this?” I murmured. Her face was inches from mine, and she looked up at me, seeking my help, my protection, my closeness. I kissed the corner of her mouth then her lower and upper lip as I shifted my hips so my tip nudged her entrance. She held her breath. I stroked her bangs from her sweaty forehead. “Breathe out.” She did, and I pushed into her about an inch. Her face flashed with discomfort, and she gripped my bicep. “If it’s too much, you tell me, and we’ll figure something out,” I heard myself say, and I wanted to kick myself, but she gave me a grateful small smile, and I could feel her walls loosen very slightly. Slowly, I slid deeper into her, even when she squeezed her eyes shut and exhaled. She got very tight, and I knew this part would hurt the most. Kissing her temple, I thrust forward and slid all the way in. She flinched under me and gasped, her breathing ragged. I shuddered out a breath, trying to stay still, and pretty sure her walls were going to milk my cock any second now. Fuck, she was tight. “Giulia? How are you?” She looked at me. “Okay,” she said shakily. “It’s strange… feeling you inside of me. Really full.” I smiled at her analysis. “I’m talking nonsense, aren’t I?” I shook my head and stroked her cheek then began to move, small shallow thrusts which grew gradually harder. She tensed every time, but she didn’t cry, didn’t whimper or sob, and I was grateful for that. It didn’t take long for me to reach my tipping point, and I didn’t bother holding back, knowing she’d be glad when it was over. My body tightened, my balls expanding, and then I shot my cum into her. She sucked in her breath, and I stilled above her. Then I pressed my forehead into the pillow beside her head. She was very still under me, and I listened for a sob, crying, and again relief filled me when I heard neither. I pulled out very slowly and rolled off her but stayed close. She turned on her side, facing me. “Thank you,” she whispered. I searched her flushed face. “What for?” It couldn’t be for giving her an orgasm because I definitely hadn’t, but I would soon. Many of them. “For being patient and careful.” I frowned. “Why wouldn’t I be?” Gaia had enjoyed playing the guilt card, had cried often to make me feel bad even when I’d tried to do everything to be decent. “Women talk. Some men don’t because it gives them a feeling of dominance, others because they enjoy hurting, and some just want to make sure the blood stain is big so they can impress…” Surprise filled me at her words. She sounded less like a girl then. “I don’t need to show my dominance by hurting you during sex. I’m Underboss, I rule over people on a daily basis. And while I enjoy hurting when it’s called for, I don’t enjoy hurting women or children. As for the last reason, maybe some men think a big blood stain makes the audience believe they have a huge dick, when in truth it only shows that they have no clue how to work that dick.” Giulia laughed. Then her smile became teasing. “Do you?” A low laugh rumbled in my chest. “Know how to work my dick?” She blushed but nodded. “I think I do. I know today wasn’t pleasurable for you, but soon it will be.” She tilted her head in consideration. “Okay.” I glanced down the length of me. My cock was smeared with blood. I sat up then held out my hand to Giulia. “Can you sit up for a moment?” With a small frown, she did. “Why?” Then her eyes widened and her gaze darted down her body. “Oh.” “Just wait a couple of seconds.” Her nose wrinkled. “That’s kind of disgusting.” “I know. But it’s tradition.” I brushed her hair from her face again, and Giulia regarded me curiously. Her eyes were a startling blue like a clear summer sky and her nose had the slightest upward tip, which gave her a coy look. “Do you find me pretty?” she asked, drawing in that plump lower lip between her teeth. “Yes, I do.” My thumb stroked along the back of her hand—which I hadn’t even realized I was still holding. “Oh,” she said. “I wasn’t sure. You didn’t act as if you cared much.” It was a good thing that I’d perfected my poker face over the years and a necessary evil in my line of work. “I did and do find you very attractive.” “Hmm. Usually I’m good at telling those things. Most men are really obvious about their interest. They get that intense look as if they want to devour you.” Something angry and dark curled in my chest. “Did it happen often… that men looked at you like that? As if they wanted to devour you?” Despite my best intention, my voice held an edge it hadn’t before. Giulia tilted her head, considering me in that quiet way of hers. “Occasionally. Sometimes men who visited my father, sometimes strangers when I was out with my bodyguards. It’s not like anyone ever approached me.” “Good,” I growled. Her eyebrows darted up. “Are you jealous?” “Possessive. I don’t share well. Or at all.” She laughed. “That’s funny to you? I’m dead serious.” She rolled her eyes. Rolled. Her. Eyes. I couldn’t even remember the last time someone had dared roll their eyes at me. “You get jealous over men watching me from afar, knowing full well that you gave me my first kiss in church today? You never had to share me, nor will you.” “Have you ever given a man that look?” I questioned. “No,” she said without hesitation. “A sheltered upbringing doesn’t make you blind.” She pursed her lips. “I never looked at men long enough to make up my mind about them. It didn’t seem wise, considering I wasn’t going to be the one choosing my husband.” That was true. She had no say in the matter. Cassio swung his legs out of bed. “I’m going to clean up.” My eyes raked over his muscled body, mesmerized by the hard planes, the ridges of his six-pack, and the narrow V of his hips. I was attracted to his body, which was a relief. My gaze dipped even lower, and the blood on his penis drove heat into my head. I looked away. I had been staring too long anyway. Looking down at myself, I cringed at the sight of my smeared inner thighs—a disgusting mix of blood and sperm. I slid out of bed, taking in the mess on the linens A small mortified sound slipped out of me. “Are you all right?” Cassio rumbled somewhere behind me. I turned, grimacing. “Do we really have to show these sheets?” “That was the point of us sleeping together.” Ouch. “So, you only slept with me because of the presentation of the sheets?” Now that we were married, I wanted Cassio to be attracted to me. It seemed a horrible fate to spend your life with someone who couldn’t bear touching you. I definitely enjoyed the sight of his body. His touch was still unfamiliar and sex had been painful, but it hadn’t been the ordeal my mother and a few of my aunts had made it out to be. I could imagine enjoying it very much, especially Cassio’s mouth between my legs. Cassio regarded me strangely, as if I was an unknown creature. Then he shook his head with a chuckle. “I’m a man.” I headed toward him, also in need of a shower. I felt sticky and sore between my legs. “Is that a reply?” I asked curiously. Cassio stepped into the bathroom, and I followed him. His eyes traveled over my body, sending an unfamiliar shiver down my back. Now that he’d seen me naked, I didn’t really see the point in covering myself, and he didn’t look as if he minded. Quite the contrary. I picked up my pace when I felt something trickling out of me and practically leaped inside the shower. Sighing, I relaxed, glad to have avoided a mess. “You can shower first,” Cassio said. “We can shower together.” I flushed. “I mean, why waste water? There’s enough room for both of us.” The corners of Cassio’s mouth twitched. “Save water, right?” He stepped into the shower. With him inside, there wasn’t as much room as I’d thought, and suddenly the realization set in that despite what had happened, we were still very much strangers. I focused on the shower gel, trying to ignore Cassio’s presence as I soaped up my body. It was impossible. Cassio was everywhere. His heat singed my back. His manly scent still clung to me, overpowering the shower gel. He didn’t say anything, only cleaned himself. From the corner of my eye, I saw him rub his cock clean of my blood. Soon the water at our feet was a soft pink. As I cleaned myself between my legs, I winced at how tender and sore I felt. “It should be better in a couple of days,” he said. I turned halfway so I could look at his face but wouldn’t bump into him—which didn’t even make sense considering we’d been much closer only a few minutes before. “That long? I thought I’d be fine tomorrow.” The shadow of the past crossed his face, his ocean eyes becoming tumultuous. What had happened between his wife and him? “We’ll see,” was all he said, and then he turned off the water. He reached for a towel and handed it to me before he gripped one for himself. He stepped out of the shower and dried himself. I watched him as I wrapped the towel around me. Physically, we’d been as close as two people could get, but emotionally we were worlds apart. We’d share the bed again—because I’d seen the desire in Cassio’s gaze and because I wanted to. On an emotional level, however, getting closer to my husband would be difficult, I could tell already. He moved to the washbasin and brushed his teeth. Watching him doing that felt more intimate than being naked in front of him. His expression was guarded. Only briefly during sex it had been anything else. I slinked out of the bathroom, giving him privacy. I’d already gone through my evening routine. I’d mostly managed to keep my hair dry during our shower and didn’t want to blow-dry it with him in the room. How could all these mundane activities feel too personal after what we’d just done? Dropping the towel on the bench, I grabbed my nightgown from the floor and pulled it over my head. Trying to ignore the stain on the sheet, and still seeing it, because I simply couldn’t not see it, I slipped under the covers. I’d been tired before. I wasn’t now. My body still hummed with adrenaline. When Cassio emerged ten minutes later in low-cut black pajama bottoms, my eyes traveled over him. Many men gained weight once they were married, not enough to be frowned upon by their Capo, but enough to cover up whatever muscles they’d worked hard for in their younger years. Cassio hadn’t. Every inch of him was pure muscle. Nothing soft about this man—not his body, expression, or eyes. If he noticed my silent scrutiny, he didn’t comment. Instead, he got into bed but left enough room to fit another person between us. Weren’t we going to snuggle against each other? It was something I’d wished for from a marriage. In the last few years, snuggles had been absent from my life. I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend, who might have given them to me, and I was too old to seek that kind of closeness with my father. My mother had never been the type to show her affection on a physical level to begin with. I’d hoped that marriage would open the door to affection that went beyond sex. I wanted to be held and cuddled. Maybe I had been foolish to think Cassio was someone who would be up for that. Cassio twisted his head to me, but remained on his back. “What is it? You don’t have to be scared of me seeking you out again. We fulfilled our duty.” Duty. Honor. Duty. I’d lost count of the number of times I’d heard those two words in my life. “That’s not it,” I whispered. “I just… I…” Cassio’s