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To stop my wife from smiling
08 April 2021 (15:20)
Spoilers Alert ***
The guy gets the girl. Classic telling of jaded and cynical older guy meeting and melting before warm, naive and sheltered younger woman... With a box, a mafia family and years of calculated revenge in between.
The guy gets the girl. Classic telling of jaded and cynical older guy meeting and melting before warm, naive and sheltered younger woman... With a box, a mafia family and years of calculated revenge in between.
19 April 2021 (10:26)
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09 May 2021 (20:14)
It was worth reading. Beautifully written.
30 May 2021 (11:28)
Where did BeastMaster64 go? WE NEED ANSWERS
18 June 2021 (23:21)
I'm telling you this is l j Shen best book for sure! The characters, the plot, the love ughh everything was written so well! Highly recommended
20 July 2021 (20:16)
If you love a good romance, this books is definitely worth, one of the l j shen's best
25 August 2021 (03:13)
This was so cute and well constructed i loved it!!!
24 October 2021 (01:02)
What is wrong with Morgan over there
01 December 2021 (21:37)
Copyright © 2019 by L.J. Shen All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. Resemblance to actual persons, things, living or dead, locales or events is entirely coincidental. The Kiss Thief Cover Designer: Letitia Hasser, RBA Designs Interior Formatting: Stacey Ryan Blake, Champagne Book Design Table of Contents Title Page Copyright Epigraph Dedication Soundtrack Synopsis 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 Epilogue Preview of Vicious Acknowledgements Also by L.J. Shen “It is amazing how complete is the delusion that beauty is goodness.” —Leo Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata To Brittany Danielle Christina and Jacquie Czech Martin, and to strong women everywhere. May we be them, may we raise them, may we support them. “Young and Beautiful”—Lana Del Rey “Take Me to Church”—Hozier “Young God”—Halsey “Can’t Truss it”—Public Enemy “Back to Black”—Amy Winehouse “Nothing Compares 2 U”—Sinead O’Connor “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”—Tears for Fears “I’m Shipping Up to Boston”—Dropkick Murphys They say your first kiss should be earned. Mine was stolen by a devil in a masquerade mask under the black Chicago sky. They say the vows you take on your wedding day are sacred. Mine were broken before we left church. They say your heart only beats for one man. Mine split and bled for two rivals who fought for it until the bitter end. I was promised ; to Angelo Bandini, the heir to one of the most powerful families in the Chicago Outfit. Then taken by Senator Wolfe Keaton, who held my father’s sins over his head to force me into marriage. They say that all great love stories have a happy ending. I, Francesca Rossi, found myself erasing and rewriting mine until the very last chapter. One kiss. Two men. Three lives. Entwined together. And somewhere between these two men, I had to find my forever. W HAT SUCKED THE MOST WAS that I, Francesca Rossi, had my entire future locked inside an unremarkable old wooden box. Since the day I’d been made aware of it—at six years old—I knew that whatever waited for me inside was going to either kill or save me. So it was no wonder that yesterday at dawn, when the sun kissed the sky, I decided to rush fate and open it. I wasn’t supposed to know where my mother kept the key. I wasn’t supposed to know where my father kept the box. But the thing about sitting at home all day and grooming yourself to death so you could meet your parents’ next-to-impossible standards? You have time—in spades. “Hold still, Francesca, or I’ll prick you with the needle,” Veronica whined underneath me. My eyes ran across the yellow note for the hundredth time as my mother’s stylist helped me get into my dress as if I was an invalid. I inked the words to memory, locking them in a drawer in my brain no one else had access to. Excitement blasted through my veins like a jazzy tune, my eyes zinging with determination in the mirror in front of me. I folded the piece of paper with shaky fingers and shoved it into the cleavage under my unlaced corset. I started pacing in the room again, too animated to stand still, making Mama’s hairdresser and stylist bark at me as they chased me around the dressing room comically. I am Groucho Marx in Duck Soup. Catch me if you can. Veronica tugged at the end of my corset, pulling me back to the mirror as if I were on a leash. “Hey, ouch.” I winced. “Stand still, I said!” It was not uncommon for my parents’ employees to treat me like a glorified, well-bred poodle. Not that it mattered. I was going to kiss Angelo Bandini tonight. More specifically—I was going to let him kiss me . I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about kissing Angelo every night since I returned a year ago from the Swiss boarding school my parents threw me in. At nineteen, Arthur and Sofia Rossi had officially decided to introduce me to the Chicagoan society and let me have my pick of a future husband from the hundreds of eligible Italian-American men who were affiliated with The Outfit. Tonight was going to kick-start a chain of events and social calls, but I already knew whom I wanted to marry. Papa and Mama had informed me that college wasn’t in the cards for me. I needed to attend to the task of finding the perfect husband, seeing as I was an only child and the sole heir to the Rossi businesses. Being the first woman in my family to ever earn a degree had been a dream of mine, but I was nowhere near dumb enough to defy them. Our maid, Clara, often said, “You don’t need to meet a husband, Frankie. You need to meet your parents’ expectations.” She wasn’t wrong. I was born into a gilded cage. It was spacious, but locked, nonetheless. Trying to escape it was risking death. I didn’t like being a prisoner, but I imagined I’d like it much less than being six feet under. And so I’d never even dared to peek through the bars of my prison and see what was on the other side. My father, Arthur Rossi, was the head of The Outfit. The title sounded painfully merciless for a man who’d braided my hair, taught me how to play the piano, and even shed a fierce tear at my London recital when I played the piano in front of an audience of thousands. Angelo—you guessed it—was the perfect husband in the eyes of my parents. Attractive, well-heeled, and thoroughly moneyed. His family owned every second building on University Village, and most of the properties were used by my father for his many illicit projects. I’d known Angelo since birth. We watched each other grow the way flowers blossom. Slowly, yet fast at the same time. During luxurious summer vacations and under the strict supervision of our relatives, Made Men—men who had been formally induced as full members of the mafia—and bodyguards. Angelo had four siblings, two dogs, and a smile that would melt the Italian ice cream in your palm. His father ran the accounting firm that worked with my family, and we both took the same annual Sicilian vacations in Syracuse. Over the years, I’d watched as Angelo’s soft blond curls darkened and were tamed with a trim. How his glittering, ocean-blue eyes became less playful and broodier, hardened by the things his father no doubt had shown and taught him. How his voice had deepened, his Italian accent sharpened, and he began to fill his slender boy-frame with muscles and height and confidence. He became more mysterious and less impulsive, spoke less often, but when he did, his words liquefied my insides. Falling in love was so tragic. No wonder it made people so sad. And while I looked at Angelo as if he could melt ice cream, I wasn’t the only girl who melted from his constant frown whenever he looked at me. It made me sick to think that when I went back to my all-girls’ Catholic school, he’d gone back to Chicago to hang out and talk and kiss other girls. But he’d always made me feel like I was The Girl. He sneaked flowers into my hair, let me sip some of his wine when no one was looking, and laughed with his eyes whenever I spoke. When his younger brothers taunted me, he flicked their ears and warned them off. And every summer, he found a way to steal a moment with me and kiss the tip of my nose. “Francesca Rossi, you’re even prettier than you were last summer.” “You always say that.” “And I always mean it. I’m not in the habit of wasting words.” “Tell me something important, then.” “You, my goddess, will one day be my wife.” I tended to every memory from each summer like it was a sacred garden, guarded it with fenced affection, and watered it until it grew to a fairy-tale-like recollection. More than anything, I remembered how, each summer, I’d hold my breath until he snuck into my room, or the shop I’d visit, or the tree I’d read a book under. How he began to prolong our “moments” as the years ticked by and we entered adolescence, watching me with open amusement as I tried—and failed—to act like one of the boys when I was so painfully and brutally a girl. I tucked the note deeper into my bra just as Veronica dug her meaty fingers into my ivory flesh, gathering the corset behind me from both ends and tightening it around my waist. “To be nineteen and gorgeous again,” she bellowed rather dramatically. The silky cream strings strained against one another, and I gasped. Only the royal crust of the Italian Outfit still used stylists and maids to get ready for an event. But as far as my parents were concerned—we were the Windsors. “Remember the days, Alma?” The hairdresser snorted, pinning my bangs sideways as she completed my wavy chignon updo. “Honey, get off your high horse. You were pretty like a Hallmark card when you were nineteen. Francesca, here, is The Creation of Adam . Not the same league. Not even the same ball game.” I felt my skin flare with embarrassment. I had a sense that people enjoyed what they saw when they looked at me, but I was mortified by the idea of beauty. It was powerful yet slippery. A beautifully wrapped gift I was bound to lose one day. I didn’t want to open it or ravish in its perks. It would only make parting ways with it more difficult. The only person I wanted to notice my appearance tonight at the Art Institute of Chicago masquerade was Angelo. The theme of the gala was Gods and Goddesses through the Greek and Roman mythologies. I knew most women would show up as Aphrodite or Venus. Maybe Hera or Rhea, if originality struck them. Not me. I was Nemesis, the goddess of retribution. Angelo had always called me a deity, and tonight, I was going to justify my pet name by showing up as the most powerful goddess of them all. It may have been silly in the 21st century to want to get married at nineteen in an arranged marriage, but in The Outfit, we all bowed to tradition. Ours happened to belong firmly in the 1800s. “What was in the note?” Veronica clipped a set of velvety black wings to my back after sliding my dress over my body. It was a strapless gown the color of the clear summer sky with magnificent organza blue scallops. The tulle trailed two feet behind me, pooling like an ocean at my maids’ feet. “You know, the one you stuck in your corset for safekeeping.” She snickered, sliding golden feather-wing earrings into my ears. “That”—I smiled dramatically, meeting her gaze in the mirror in front of us, my hand fluttering over my chest where the note rested—“is the beginning of the rest of my life.” “I DIDN’T KNOW VENUS HAD wings.” Angelo kissed the back of my hand at the doors to the Art Institute of Chicago. My heart sank before I pushed the silly disappointment aside. He was only baiting me. Besides, he looked so dazzlingly handsome in his tux tonight, I could forgive any mistake he made, short of coldhearted murder. The men, unlike the women at the gala, wore a uniform of tuxedos and demi-masks. Angelo complemented his suit with a golden-leafed Venetian masquerade mask that took over most of his face. Our parents exchanged pleasantries while we stood in front of each other, drinking in every freckle and inch of flesh on one another. I didn’t explain my Nemesis costume to him. We’d have time—an entire lifetime—to discuss mythology. I just needed to make sure that tonight we’d have another fleeting summer moment. Only this time, when he kissed my nose, I’d look up and lock our lips, and fate, together. I am Cupid, shooting an arrow of love straight into Angelo’s heart. “You look more beautiful than the last time I saw you.” Angelo clutched the fabric of his suit over where his heart beat, feigning surrender. Everyone around us had gone quiet, and I noticed our fathers staring at one another conspiratorially. Two powerful, wealthy Italian-American families with strong mutual ties. Don Vito Corleone would be proud. “You saw me a week ago at Gianna’s wedding.” I fought the urge to lick my lips as Angelo stared me straight in the eyes. “Weddings suit you, but having you all to myself suits you more,” he said simply, throwing my heart into fifth gear, before twisting toward my father. “Mr. Rossi, may I escort your daughter to the table?” My father clasped my shoulder from behind. I was only vaguely aware of his presence as a thick fog of euphoria engulfed me. “Keep your hands where I can see them.” “Always, sir.” Angelo and I entwined our arms together as one of the dozens of waiters showed us to our seats at the table clothed in gold and graced with fine black china. Angelo leaned and whispered in my ear, “Or at least until you’re officially mine.” The Rossis and Bandinis had been placed a few seats away from each other—much to my disappointment, but not to my surprise. My father was always at the heart of every party and paid a pretty penny to have the best seats everywhere he went. Across from me, the governor of Illinois, Preston Bishop, and his wife fretted over the wine list. Next to them was a man I didn’t know. He wore a simple all-black demi-mask and a tux that must’ve cost a fortune by its rich fabric and impeccable cut. He was seated next to a boisterous blonde in a white French tulle camisole gown. One of dozens of Venuses who arrived in the same number. The man looked bored to death, swirling the whiskey in his glass as he ignored the beautiful woman by his side. When she tried to lean in and speak to him, he turned the other way and checked his phone, before completely losing interest in all things combined and staring at the wall behind me. A pang of sorrow sliced through me. She deserved better than what he was offering. Better than a cold, foreboding man who sent chills down your spine without even looking at you. I bet he could keep ice cream chilled for days on end. “You and Angelo seem to be taken with one another,” Papa remarked conversationally, glancing at my elbows, which were propped on the table. I withdrew them immediately, smiling politely. “He’s nice.” I’d say ‘super nice’, but my father absolutely detested modern slang. “He fits the puzzle,” Papa snipped. “He asked if he could take you out next week, and I said yes. With Mario’s supervision, of course.” Of course. Mario was one of Dad’s dozens of musclemen. He had the shape and IQ of a brick. I had a feeling Papa wasn’t going to let me sneak anywhere he couldn’t see me tonight, precisely because he knew Angelo and I got along a little too well. Papa was overall supportive, but he wanted things to be done a certain way. A way most people my age would find backward or maybe even borderline barbaric. I wasn’t stupid. I knew I was digging myself a hole by not fighting for my right for education and gainful employment. I knew that I should be the one to decide whom I wanted to marry. But I also knew that it was his way or the highway. Breaking free came with the price of leaving my family behind—and my family was my entire world. Other than tradition, The Chicagoan Outfit was vastly different from the version they portrayed in the movies. No gritty alleyways, slimy drug addicts, and bloody combats with the law. Nowadays, it was all about money laundering, acquisition, and recycling. My father openly courted the police, mingled with top-tier politicians, and even helped the FBI nail high-profile suspects. In fact, that was precisely why we were here tonight. Papa had agreed to donate a staggering amount of money to a new charity foundation designed to help at-risk youth acquire a higher education. Oh, irony, my loyal friend. I sipped champagne and stared across the table at Angelo, making conversation with a girl named Emily whose father owned the biggest baseball stadium in Illinois. Angelo told her he was about to enroll into a master’s program at Northwestern, while simultaneously joining his father’s accounting firm. The truth was, he was going to launder money for my father and serve The Outfit until the rest of his days. I was getting lost in their conversation when Governor Bishop turned his attention to me. “And what about you, Little Rossi? Are you attending college?” Everyone around us was conversing and laughing, other than the man in front of me. He still ignored his date in favor of downing his drink and disregarding his phone, which flashed with a hundred messages a minute. Now that he looked at me, he also looked through me. I vaguely wondered how old he was. He looked older than me, but not quite Papa’s age. “Me?” I smiled courteously, my spine stiffening. I smoothed my napkin over my lap. My manners were flawless, and I was well versed in mindless conversations. I’d learned Latin, etiquette, and general knowledge at school. I could entertain anyone, from world leaders to a piece of chewed gum. “Oh, I just graduated a year ago. I’m now working toward expanding my social repertoire and forming connections here in Chicago.” “In other words, you neither work nor study,” the man in front of me commented flatly, knocking his drink back and shooting my father a vicious grin. I felt my ears pinking as I blinked at my father for help. He mustn’t have heard because he seemed to let the remark brush him by. “Jesus Christ,” the blond woman next to the rude man growled, reddening. He waved her off. “We’re among friends. No one would leak this.” Leak this? Who the hell was he? I perked up, taking a sip of my drink. “There are other things I do, of course.” “Do share,” he taunted in mock fascination. Our side of the table fell silent. It was a grim kind of silence. The type that hinted a cringeworthy moment was upon us. “I love charities…” “That’s not an actual activity. What do you do? ” Verbs, Francesca. Think verbs. “I ride horses and enjoy gardening. I play the piano. I…ah, shop for all the things I need.” I was making it worse, and I knew it. But he wouldn’t let me divert the conversation elsewhere, and no one else stepped in to my rescue. “Those are hobbies and luxuries. What’s your contribution to society, Miss Rossi, other than supporting the US economy by buying enough clothes to cover North America?” Utensils cluttered on fine china. A woman gasped. The leftovers of chatter stopped completely. “That’s enough,” my father hissed, his voice frosty, his eyes dead. I flinched, but the man in the mask remained composed, straight-spined and, if anything, gaily amused at the turn the conversation had taken. “I tend to agree, Arthur. I think I’ve learned everything there is to know about your daughter. And in a minute, no less.” “Have you forgotten your political and public duties at home, along with your manners?” my father remarked, forever well mannered. The man grinned wolfishly. “On the contrary, Mr. Rossi. I think I remember them quite clearly, much to your future disappointment.” Preston Bishop and his wife extinguished the social disaster by asking me more questions about my upbringing in Europe, my recitals, and what I wanted to study (botany, though I wasn’t stupid enough to point out that college was not in my cards). My parents smiled at my flawless conduct, and even the woman next to the rude stranger tentatively joined the conversation, talking about her European trip during her gap year. She was a journalist and had traveled all over the world. But no matter how nice everyone was, I couldn’t shake the terrible humiliation I’d suffered under the sharp tongue of her date, who—by the way—got back to staring at the bottom of his freshly poured tumbler with an expression that oozed boredom. I contemplated telling him he didn’t need another drink but professional help could work wonders. After dinner came the dancing. Each woman in attendance had a dance card filled with names of those who made an undisclosed bid. All the profits went to charity. I went to check my card on the long table containing the names of the women who’d attended. My heart beat faster as I scanned it, spotting Angelo’s name. My exhilaration was quickly replaced with dread when I realized my card was full to the brim with Italian-sounding names, much longer than the others scattered around it, and I would likely spend the rest of the night dancing until my feet were numb. Sneaking a kiss with Angelo was going to be tricky. My first dance was with a federal judge. Then a raging Italian-American playboy from New York, who told me he’d come here just to see if the rumors about my looks were true. He kissed the hem of my skirt like a medieval duke before his friends dragged his drunken butt back to their table. Please don’t ask my father for a date , I groaned inwardly. He seemed like the kind of rich tool who’d make my life some variation of The Godfather. The third was Governor Bishop, and the fourth was Angelo. It was a relatively short waltz, but I tried not to let it dampen my mood. “There she is.” Angelo’s face lit up when he approached me and the governor for our dance. Chandeliers seeped from the ceiling, and the marble floor sang with the clinking heels of the dancers. Angelo dipped his head to mine, taking my hand in his, and placing his other hand on my waist. “You look beautiful. Even more so than two hours ago,” he breathed, sending warm air to my face. Tiny, velvety butterfly wings tickled at my heart. “Good to know, because I can’t breathe in this thing.” I laughed, my eyes wildly searching his. I knew he couldn’t kiss me now, and a dash of panic washed over the butterflies, drowning them in dread. What if we couldn’t catch each other at all? Then the note would be useless. This wooden box will save me or kill me. “I’d love to give you mouth-to-mouth whenever you’re out of breath.” He skimmed my face, his throat bobbing with a swallow. “But I would start with a simple date next week, if you are interested.” “I’m interested,” I said much too quickly. He laughed, his forehead falling to mine. “Would you like to know when?” “When we’re going out?” I asked dumbly. “That, too. Friday, by the way. But I meant when was the point in which I knew you were going to be my wife?” he asked without missing a beat. I could barely bring myself to nod. I wanted to cry. I felt his hand tightening around my waist and realized I was losing my balance. “It was the summer you turned sixteen. I was twenty. Cradle snatcher.” He laughed. “We arrived at our Sicilian cabin late. I was rolling my suitcase by the river next to our adjoined cabins when I spotted you threading flowers into a crown on the dock. You were smiling at the flowers, so pretty and elusive, and I didn’t want to break the spell by talking to you. Then the wind swiped the flowers everywhere. You didn’t even hesitate. You jumped headfirst into the river and retrieved every single flower that had drifted from the crown, even though you knew it wouldn’t survive. Why did you do that?” “It was my mother’s birthday,” I admitted. “Failure was not an option. The birthday crown turned out pretty, by the way.” My eyes drifted to the useless space between our chests. “Failure is not an option,” Angelo repeated thoughtfully. “You kissed my nose in the restroom of that restaurant that day,” I pointed out. “I remember.” “Are you going to steal a nose-kiss tonight?” I asked. “I would never steal from you, Frankie. I’d buy my kiss from you at full price, down to the penny,” he sparred good-naturedly, winking at me, “but I’m afraid that between your shockingly full card and my obligations to mingle with every Made Man who was lucky enough to snatch an invitation to this thing, a raincheck may be required. Don’t worry, I’ve already told Mario I’d tip him generously for taking his time fetching our car from the valet on Friday.” The trickle of panic was now a full-blown downpour of terror. If he wasn’t going to kiss me tonight, the note’s prediction would go to waste. “Please?” I tried to smile brighter, masking my terror with eagerness. “My legs could use the break.” He bit his fist and laughed. “So many sexual innuendos, Francesca.” I didn’t know if I wanted to cry with despair or scream with frustration. Probably both. The song hadn’t ended yet, and we were still swaying in each other’s arms, lulled inside a dark spell, when I felt a firm, strong hand plastered on the bare part of my upper back. “I believe it’s my turn.” I heard the low voice booming behind me. I turned around with a scowl to find the rude man in the black demi-mask staring back at me. He was tall—six-foot-three or four—with tousled ink-black hair smoothed back to tantalizing perfection. His sinewy, hard physique was slim yet broad. His eyes were pebble gray, slanted, and menacing, and his too-square jaw framed his bowed lips perfectly, giving his otherwise too-handsome appearance a gritty edge. A scornful, impersonal smirk graced his lips and I wanted to slap it off his face. He was obviously still amused with what he thought was a bunch of nonsense I spat out at the dinner table. And we clearly had an audience as I noticed half the room was now glaring at us with open interest. The women looked at him like hungry sharks in a fishbowl. The men had half-curved grins of hilarity. “Mind your hands,” Angelo snarled when the song changed, and he could no longer keep me in his arms. “Mind your business,” the man deadpanned. “Are you sure you’re on my card?” I turned to the man with a polite yet distant smile. I was still disoriented from the exchange with Angelo when the stranger pulled me against his hard body and pressed a possessive hand lower than socially acceptable on my back, a second from groping my butt. “Answer me,” I hissed. “My bid on your card was the highest,” he replied dryly. “The bids are anonymous. You don’t know how much other people have paid,” I kept my lips pursed to keep myself from yelling. “I know it’s nowhere near the realm of what this dance is worth.” Un-freaking-believable. We began to waltz around the room as other couples were not only spinning and mingling but also stealing envious glances at us. Naked, raw ogles that told me that whomever the blonde he’d come to the masquerade with was, she wasn’t his wife. And that I might have been all the rage in The Outfit, but the rude man was in high demand, too. I was stiff and cold in his arms, but he didn’t seem to notice—or mind. He knew how to waltz better than most men, but he was technical, and lacked warmth and Angelo’s playfulness. “Nemesis.” He took me by surprise, his rapacious gaze stripping me bare. “Distributing glee and dealing misery. Seems at odds with the submissive girl who entertained Bishop and his horsey wife at the table.” I choked on my own saliva. Did he just call the governor’s wife horsey? And me submissive? I looked away, ignoring the addictive scent of his cologne, and the way his marble body felt against mine. “Nemesis is my spirit animal. She was the one to lure Narcissus to a pool where he saw his own reflection and died of vanity. Pride is a terrible illness.” I flashed him a taunting smirk. “Some of us could use catching it.” He bared his straight white teeth. “Arrogance is a disease. Compassion is the cure. Most gods didn’t like Nemesis, but that’s because she had a backbone.” “Do you?” He arched a dark eyebrow. “Do I…?” I blinked, the courteous grin on my face crumpling. He was even ruder when we were alone. “Have a backbone,” he provided. He stared at me so boldly and intimately, it felt like he breathed fire into my soul. I wanted to step out of his touch and jump into a pool full of ice. “Of course, I do,” I responded, my spine stiffening. “What’s with the manners? Were you raised by wild coyotes?” “Give me an example,” he said, ignoring my quip. I was beginning to draw away from him, but he jerked me back into his arms. The glitzy ballroom distorted into a backdrop, and even though I was starting to notice that the man behind the demi-mask was unusually beautiful, the ugliness of his behavior was the only thing that stood out. I am a warrior and a lady…and a sane person who can deal with this horrid man. “I really like Angelo Bandini.” I dropped my voice, slicing my gaze from his eyes and toward the table where Angelo’s family had been seated. My father was sitting a few seats away, staring at us coldly, surrounded by Made Men who chatted away. “And see, in my family, we have a tradition dating back ten generations. Prior to her wedding, a Rossi bride is to open a wooden chest—carved and made by a witch who lived in my ancestors’ Italian village—and read three notes written to her by the last Rossi girl to marry. It’s kind of a good luck charm mixed with a talisman and a bit of fortunetelling. I stole the chest tonight and opened one of the notes, all so I could rush fate. It said that tonight I was going to be kissed by the love of my life, and well…” I drew my lower lip into my mouth and sucked it, peering under my eyelashes at Angelo’s empty seat. The man stared at me stoically, as though I was a foreign film he couldn’t understand. “I’m going to kiss him tonight.” “That’s your backbone?” “When I have an ambition, I go for it.” A conceited frown crinkled his mask, as if to say I was a complete and utter moron. I looked him straight in the eye. My father taught me that the best way to deal with men like him was to confront, not run. Because, this man? He’d chase. Yes, I believe in that tradition. No, I don’t care what you think. Then it occurred to me that over the course of the evening, I’d offered him my entire life story and didn’t even ask for his name. I didn’t want to know, but etiquette demanded that I at least pretend. “I forgot to ask who you are.” “That’s because you didn’t care,” he quipped. He regarded me with the same taciturnity. It was an oxymoron of fierce boredom. I said nothing because it was true. “Senator Wolfe Keaton.” The words rolled off his tongue sharply. “Aren’t you a little young to be a senator?” I complimented him on principal to see if I could defrost the thick layer of asshole he’d built around himself. Some people just needed a tight hug. Around the neck. Wait, I was actually thinking about choking him. Not the same thing. “Thirty. Celebrated in September. Got elected this November.” “Congratulations.” I couldn’t care less . “You must be thrilled.” “Over the goddamn moon.” He drew me even closer, pulling my body flush against his. “Can I ask you a personal question?” I cleared my throat. “Only if I can do the same,” he shot. I considered it. “You can.” He dipped his chin down, giving me permission to continue. “Why did you ask to dance with me, not to mention paid good money for the dubious pleasure, if you obviously think everything I stand for is shallow and distasteful?” For the first time tonight, something that resembled a smile crossed his face. It looked unnatural, almost illusory. I decided he was not in the habit of laughing often. Or at all. “I wanted to see for myself if the rumors about your beauty were true.” That again. I resisted the urge to stomp on his foot. Men were such simple creatures. But, I reminded myself, Angelo thought I was pretty even before . When I still had braces, a blanket of freckles covering my nose and cheeks, and unruly, mousy-brown hair I had yet to learn how to tame. “My turn,” he said, without voicing his verdict on my looks. “Have you picked out names for your children with your Bangini yet?” It was an odd question, one that was no doubt designed to make fun of me. I wanted to turn around and walk away from him right there and then. But the music was fading, and it was stupid to throw in the towel on an encounter that would end shortly. Besides, everything that came out of my mouth seemed to bother him. Why ruin a perfect strike? “Bandini . And yes, I have, as a matter of fact. Christian, Joshua, and Emmaline.” Okay, I might’ve picked the sexes, too. That was what happened when you had too much time on your hands. Now the stranger in the demi-mask was grinning fully, and if my anger didn’t make it feel as though pure venom ran through my veins, I could appreciate his commercial-worthy dental hygiene. Instead of bowing his head and kissing my hand, as the brochure for the masquerade had indicated was compulsory, he took a step back and saluted me in mockery. “Thank you, Francesca Rossi.” “For the dance?” “For the insight.” The night became progressively worse after the cursed dance with Senator Keaton. Angelo was sitting at a table with a group of men, locked in a heated argument, as I was tossed from one pair of arms to the other, mingling and smiling and losing my hope and sanity, one song at a time. I couldn’t believe the absurdity of my situation. I stole my mother’s wooden box—the one and only thing I’d ever stolen—to read my note and get the courage to show Angelo how I felt. If he wasn’t going to kiss me tonight—if no one was going to kiss me tonight—did that mean I was doomed to live a loveless life? Three hours into the masquerade, I managed to slip out the entrance of the museum and stood on the wide concrete steps, breathing in the crisp spring night. My last dance had to leave early. Thankfully, his wife had gone into labor. I hugged my own arms, braving the Chicago wind and laughing sadly at nothing in particular. One yellow cab zipped by the tall buildings, and a couple huddled together were zigzagging giddily to their destination. Click. It sounded like someone shut down the universe. The lampposts along the street turned off unexpectedly, and all the light faded from view. It was morbidly beautiful; the only light visible was the shimmering lonely crescent above my head. I felt an arm wrap around my waist from behind. The touch was confident and strong, curving around my body like the man it belonged to had studied it for a while. For years. I turned around. Angelo’s gold and black masquerade mask stared back at me. All the air left my lungs, my body turning into goo, slacking in his arms with relief. “You came,” I whispered. His thumb brushed my cheeks. A soft, wordless nod. Yes. He leaned down and pressed his lips to mine. My heart squealed inside my chest. Shut the front door. This is happening. I grabbed the edges of his suit, pulling him closer. I’d imagined our kiss countless times before, but I’d never expected it to feel like this. Like home. Like oxygen. Like forever. His full lips fluttered over mine, sending hot air into my mouth, and he explored, and nipped, and bit my lower lip before claiming my mouth with his, slanting his head sideways and dipping down for a ferocious caress. He opened his mouth, his tongue peeking out and swiping mine. I returned the favor. He drew me close, devouring me slowly and passionately, pressing his hand to the small of my back and groaning into my mouth like I was water in the desert. I moaned into his lips and licked every corner of his mouth with zero expertise, feeling embarrassed, aroused, and more importantly, free. Free. In his arms. Was there anything more liberating than feeling loved? I swayed in the security of his arms, kissing him for a good three minutes before my senses crawled back into my foggy brain. He tasted of whiskey and not the wine Angelo had been drinking all night. He was significantly taller than me—taller than Angelo—even if not by much. Then his aftershave drifted into my nose, and I remembered the icy pebble eyes, raw power, and dark sensuality that licked flames of anger inside my guts. I took a slow breath and felt the burn inside me. No. I tore my lips from his and stumbled back, tripping over a stair. He grabbed my wrist and yanked me back to prevent my fall but made no effort to resume our kiss. “You!” I cried out, my voice shaking. With perfect timing, the streetlamps came back to life, illuminating the sharp curves of his face. Angelo had soft curves over a defined jaw. This man was all harsh streaks and cut edges. He looked nothing like my crush, even with a demi-mask on. How did he do that? Why did he do that? Tears pooled in my eyes, but I held them back. I didn’t want to give this complete stranger the satisfaction of seeing me crumple. “How dare you,” I said quietly, biting my cheeks until the taste of warm blood filled my mouth to keep from screaming. He took a step back, sliding Angelo’s mask off—God knows how he got his hands on it—and tossing it on the stairs like it was contaminated. His unmasked face was unveiled like a piece of art. Brutal and intimidating, it demanded my attention. I took a step sideways, putting more space between us. “How? Easily.” He was so dismissive; he was flirting with open disdain. “A smart girl, however, would have asked for the why. ” “The why?” I scoffed, refusing to let the last five minutes register. I’d been kissed by someone else. Angelo—according to my family tradition—was not going to be the love of my life. This jerk, however… Now it was his turn to take a step sideways. His broad back had been blocking the entrance to the museum, so I failed to see who was standing there, his shoulders slack, his mouth agape, his face gloriously unmasked, drinking in the scene. Angelo took one look at my swollen lips, turned around, and stalked back in with Emily running after him. The Wolfe was no longer in sheep’s clothing as he made his way up the stairs, giving me his back. When he reached the doors, his date poured out as if on cue. Wolfe took her arm in his and led her downstairs, not sparing me a look as I wilted on the cement stairs. I could hear his date murmuring something, his dry response to her, and her laughter ringing in the air like a wind chime. When the door to their limo slammed shut, my lips stung so bad I had to touch them to make sure he didn’t set them on fire. The power outage wasn’t coincidental. He did it. He took the power. My power. I yanked the note out of my corset and threw it against the stair, stomping over it like a tantrum-prone kid. Wolfe Keaton was a kiss thief. A WAR RAGED INSIDE ME as I studied every cobweb and imperfection on my bedroom ceiling that night, puffing on a cigarette. It was just a stupid, fun tradition. Hardly a scientific fact. Surely, not all the predictions written in the notes turned out to be true. I probably wouldn’t even see Wolfe Keaton ever again. However, I was bound to see Angelo soon. Even if he canceled our date next Friday, there were many weddings, holidays, and community functions we were both attending this month. I could explain everything, face to face. One stupid kiss wasn’t going to erase years of verbal foreplay. I’d even gone so far as imagining his remorse once he found out that I only kissed Senator Keaton because I thought it was him. I put out my cigarette and lit another one. I didn’t touch my phone, resisting the urge to send Angelo an over-apologetic, hysterical message. I needed to talk to my cousin Andrea about this. She lived across town and, since she was in her early twenties, was my sole, albeit reluctant, advisor when it came to the opposite sex. A curtain of pinks and yellows fell over the sky as the morning rolled in. Birds sang outside our limestone manor, perched on my window ledge. I flung an arm over my eyes and winced, my mouth tasting of ash and disappointment. It was Saturday, and I needed to leave the house before my mother got any ideas. Ideas like taking me shopping for expensive dresses and grilling me about Angelo Bandini. For all the tacky clothes and shoes in my wardrobe, I was a pretty simple gal by Italian-American royalty standards. I played my part because I had to, but I absolutely hated being treated like an invalid, airhead princess. I wore little to no makeup and liked my hair the best when it was wild. I preferred horseback riding and gardening to shopping and getting my nails done. Playing the piano was my favorite outlet. Spending hours standing in a dressing room and being assessed by my mother and her friends was my personal definition of hell. I washed my face and slipped into my black breeches, riding boots, and a white pullover jacket. I went down to the kitchen and took out my pack of Vogues, lighting one up as I nursed a cappuccino and two Advils. A plume of blue smoke rose from my mouth as I tapped my chewed-up fingernails over the dining table. I inwardly cursed Senator Keaton again. Yesterday, at the dinner table, he had the audacity to assume that not only did I choose my way of life, but I loved it, too. He never once contemplated that maybe I merely made peace with it, choosing instead to pick my battles where I would emerge the victor over those that were already lost. I knew I wasn’t allowed to have a career. I’d come to terms with that heartbreaking reality, so why, then, couldn’t I have the only thing I still wanted? A life with Angelo, the only man in The Outfit I actually liked. I could hear my mother’s heels clanking upstairs as she fussed about, and the whiny old door of my father’s office pushing open. Then I heard Papa barking at someone in Italian on the phone, and my mother bursting into tears. My mother wasn’t a spontaneous crier, and my father wasn’t in the habit of raising his voice, so both of these reactions piqued my interest. I scanned the first floor with the open-plan kitchen and large living room bleeding into an immense balcony and spotted Mario and Stefano whisper-shouting between themselves in Italian. They stopped when they saw me looking. I checked the overhead clock. It wasn’t quite eleven. Know that feeling of an impending calamity? The first shake of the ground beneath you, the first rattle of the coffee mug on the table before the brutal storm? That was what this moment felt like. “Frankie!” Mama called out, her voice pitching high, “we’re expecting guests. Don’t go anywhere.” As if I could just up and leave. This was a warning. My skin began to crawl. “Who’s coming?” I hollered back. The answer to my question presented itself not a second after I asked, when the doorbell rang just as I was about to climb upstairs and ask them what was going on. I flung the door open to find my new archenemy, Wolfe Keaton, standing on the other side, wearing a spiteful sneer on his face. I recognized him without the mask even though he’d worn one for most of the evening yesterday. As much as I hated the man, he was born with an unforgettable face. Decidedly aloof and infuriatingly elegant, he bulldozed into the landing in a Regent fit plaid suit and a tailored blazer. He immediately shook the morning dew from his loafers as his bodyguards trailed in after him. “Nemesis. ” He spat out the word as if I was the one to wrong him . “How are you feeling this morning?” Shitty, thanks to you . Of course, he didn’t need to know that he had any impact on my mood. It was bad enough that he deprived me of my first kiss with Angelo. I closed the door behind him without sparing him a look, welcoming him as much as I would the Grim Reaper. “I’m doing fantastic, Senator Keaton. In fact, I wanted to thank you for yesterday,” I mentioned as I slapped my grossly polite smile on. “You did?” He arched a skeptical eyebrow, getting rid of his jacket and handing it to one of his bodyguards since I hadn’t offered to take it. “Yes. You showed me how a real man shouldn’t behave, proving Angelo Bandini is the man for me.” His security guy hung Wolfe’s jacket on one of our hangers, ignoring my presence. Keaton’s bodyguards were different than Dad’s. They wore actual uniforms and most likely had a military background. “As a gentleman, you have failed me. As a con, however, I give you an A plus. Highly impressive.” I gave him two thumbs-up. “You are funny.” His lips were pulled tight in a flat line. “And you are…?” I started, but he cut me off sharply. “An attorney at law, and therefore extremely impatient when it comes to irrelevant chatter. As much as I would love to stand here and talk to you about our lackluster first base, Francesca, I have some business to attend to. I would advise you wait until I’m done because our little banter today was just the preview.” “That was a pretty bad preview. I wouldn’t be surprised if the movie tanked.” He leaned forward, entering my personal space, and chucked me under the chin, his silver eyes lighting up like Christmas. “Sarcasm is an unbecoming trait on well-bred girls, Miss Rossi.” “Kiss-thieving wouldn’t go on my list of gentlemanly things to do, either.” “You kissed me very willingly, Nemesis.” “Before I knew who you were, Villain .” “There will be other kisses and all of them you’ll give without my asking, so I wouldn’t go around making promises that are destined to be broken.” I opened my mouth to tell him that he needed to get his head checked, but he saw himself upstairs before I could speak, leaving me on the landing, blinking away my shock. How did he even know where to go? But the answer was clear. He’d been here before. He knew my father. And he didn’t like him one bit. I spent the next two hours chain-smoking in the kitchen, pacing back and forth, and making myself cappuccinos only to throw them away after one sip. Smoking was the only bad habit I was permitted to maintain. My mother said it helped with curbing my appetite, and my father was still of a generation where it was seen as sophisticated and worldly. It made me feel grown-up, when otherwise, I knew I was being babied and sheltered. Two of my father’s lawyers, and two other people who also looked like attorneys, entered our house twenty minutes after Wolfe went up the stairs. Mama was behaving strangely, too. For the first time since I was born, she entered Dad’s office during a business meeting. She came out twice. Once to provide refreshments—a task our housekeeper Clara was normally assigned to do. The second time, she got out to the hallway upstairs, mumbling hysterically to herself and accidentally knocking down a vase. When the office door finally clicked open after what felt like days, Wolfe was the only one who came downstairs. I stood, as if awaiting some life-threatening medical verdict. His last remark had put snakes in my stomach, and their bites were lethal and full of venom. He thought I’d kiss him again. If he asked my father for a date, though, he was going to be sorely disappointed. He wasn’t Italian, wasn’t from an Outfit family, and I didn’t like him one bit. Three things my father ought to have taken into consideration. Wolfe stopped at the curve of our stairs, still on the last step, silently stressing how tall and imperial he was. How small and insignificant I was. “Are you ready for the verdict, Nem ?” The corner of his lips curved sinfully. The hairs on my arms stood on end, and I felt like I was on a roller coaster the second before it dipped. I had to take a shuddering breath and brave the waves of fear crashing against my ribcage. “Dying for it.” I rolled my eyes. “Follow me out,” he ordered. “No, thank you.” “I’m not asking,” he clipped. “Good because I’m not accepting.” The harsh words felt violent on my lips. I’d never been so rude to anyone. But Wolfe Keaton earned my wrath, fair and square. “Pack a suitcase, Francesca.” “Excuse me?” “Pack. A. Suitcase,” he repeated slowly as though my deciphering his words was the issue, and not their irrational content. “As of fifteen minutes ago, you’re officially betrothed to yours truly. The wedding is at the end of the month, which means your silly box tradition—thanks for the story, it was a nice touch in my proposal—is intact,” he delivered the news coldly as the floor beneath my feet quaked and shattered, sending me spiraling into an oblivion of anger and shock. “My dad would never do that to me.” My feet seemed to glue to the ground, too scared to go upstairs and test my own words. “He wouldn’t sell me to the highest bidder.” A slow smirk spread across his face. He feasted on my rage with open hunger. “Who said my bid was the highest?” I launched at him with everything I had. I’d never hit anyone—was taught that as a woman, making a scene was the most common form of the lower class. So, the slap on his cheek didn’t come quite with the force I was hoping for. It was more of a swat, almost friendly, that feathered his square jaw. He didn’t flinch. Pity and disinterest swirled in his bottomless, sterling eyes. “I’m giving you a couple of hours to get your things in order. Whatever’s left here will stay here. Do not test me on the issue of punctuality, Miss Rossi.” He entered my personal space and clasped a golden watch over my wrist. “How could you do this?” In a heartbeat, I moved from defying him to sobbing, pushing at his chest now. I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t even entirely sure I was breathing. “How did you convince my parents to give you their approval?” I was an only child. My mother was prone to miscarriages. She called me her priceless jewel—but here I was, marked with a Gucci wristwatch by a stranger, the watch obviously a small portion of a much larger dowry that had been promised. My parents cherry-picked every admirer who approached me at public functions and were notoriously protective when it came to my friends. So much so, in fact, that I didn’t have any friends of my own, only females who shared the Rossi name. Every time I met girls my age, they deemed them too provocative or not sophisticated enough. This seemed surreal. But for some reason, I didn’t doubt for one moment that it was also the truth. For the first time ever, I considered my father less than a deity. He had weaknesses, too. And Wolfe Keaton had just found every one of them and exploited them to his benefit. He shrugged into his blazer and strolled through the door, his bodyguards at his feet like loyal Labrador puppies. I shot up to the second floor, my legs on fire, adrenaline coursing through them. “How could you!” The first person I aimed my anger at was Mama, who promised to have my back on the subject of marriage. I sprinted toward her, but my dad held me down and Mario grabbed my other arm. It was the first time his men were physical with me—the first time he was physical with me. I kicked and screamed as they pulled me out of Dad’s office while my mom stood there with unshed tears brewing in her eyes. The lawyers were all hunched in a corner of the room, staring at papers and pretending that nothing unusual had happened. I wanted to scream until the entire house crumbled and buried all of us under its ruins. To shame them, to fight them. I’m nineteen. I can run away. But run away to what? I was completely isolated. I knew no one and nothing other than my parents. Besides, what resources would I have? “Francesca,” Papa said with a tone etched with stony determination. “Not that it matters, but it is not your mother’s fault. I chose Wolfe Keaton because he’s the better choice. Angelo is nice but almost a commoner. His father’s father was a simple butcher. Keaton is the most eligible bachelor in Chicago, and possibly the future president of the United States. He is also considerably wealthier, older, and more beneficial to The Outfit in the long run.” “I’m not The Outfit!” I could feel my vocal cords shaking as the words tore from my mouth. “I’m a person.” “You’re both,” he retorted. “And as the daughter of the man who rebuilt the Chicago Outfit from scratch, you are to make sacrifices, whether you want to or not.” They carried me toward my room at the end of the hall. Mama trailed behind us, mumbling apologies I was too freaked out to decipher. I didn’t, for one second, believe that my father chose Keaton without consulting me first. But I also knew he was too proud to ever admit it. Keaton held the power here, and I had no idea why. “I don’t want the most eligible bachelor in Chicago, the president of the United States, or the Vatican pope. I want Angelo!” I barked, but no one was listening. I am air. Invisible and insignificant, but vital all the same. They stopped in front of my room, their grip on my wrists tightening. My body went slack when I realized they were no longer moving, and I ventured to peer inside. Clara was stuffing my clothes and shoes into open suitcases on my bed, wiping away her tears. Mama grabbed my shoulders and turned me around to face her. “The note said whoever kissed you would be the love of your life, didn’t it?” Her red, puffy eyes danced in their sockets. She was grasping at straws. “He kissed you, Frankie.” “He tricked me!” “You don’t even really know Angelo, vita mia.” “I know Senator Keaton even less.” And what I did know of him, I hated. “He’s wealthy, good looking, and has a bright future ahead of him,” Mom explained. “You don’t know each other, but you will. I didn’t know your father before we wed. Vita mia, what is love without a little risk?” Comfort, I thought and knew, no matter what, that Wolfe Keaton would make it his mission to make my life very uncomfortable. Two hours later, I rolled through the black, wrought-iron gates of Keaton’s estate in a black Cadillac DTS. Throughout the drive, I had begged the young, pimply driver in the cheap suit to take me to the nearest police station, but he pretended not to hear me. I rummaged through my bag for my phone, but it wasn’t there. “Shoot!” I sighed. A man in the passenger’s seat sneered, and I noticed, for the first time, that there was also a security guard in the vehicle. Where my parents lived in Little Italy, you could find Catholic churches galore, quaint restaurants, and busy parks overflowing with kids and students. Wolfe Keaton, however, resided on the clinical and prestigious Burling Street. His was a stark white, hulking mansion, which, even among other huge houses, looked comically big. By its size, I guessed that it had required the demolition of the properties next to it. Running over others to get his way seemed to be a pattern. Manicured lawns and elaborative medieval-styled windows greeted me, ivy and ferns crawling through the colossal structure like a woman’s possessive fingers over a man’s body. Wolfe Keaton might have been a senator, but his money did not come from politics. After we rolled past the entrance, two servants opened the trunk and pulled out my numerous suitcases. A woman who looked like an older and scrawnier version of Clara appeared at the door in a stern, all-black dress and pinned silver do. She raised her chin, scanning me with a sneer. “Miss Rossi?” I got out of the car, hugging my bag to my chest. The jerk wasn’t even present to welcome me. She strolled toward me, her spine ramrod straight and her hands linked behind her back as she tossed an open palm in my direction. “I’m Ms. Sterling.” I stared at her hand without taking it. She was helping Wolfe Keaton with kidnapping and forcing me into marriage. The fact that I wasn’t clubbing her with my Louboutin bag stretched my extent of civility. “Let me show you to your wing.” “My wing?” I followed her on autopilot, telling myself—no, promising myself—that this was all temporary. I just needed to gather my wits and formulate a plan. This was the twenty-first century. I would be next to a cell phone and a laptop and a police station soon enough, and this nightmare would be over before it could even begin. And then what? You’ll defy your father and risk death? “Yes, dear, wing. I was pleasantly surprised by how old-fashioned Mr. Keaton was in regards to his new bride. No sharing a bed before marriage.” A ghost of a smile passed her lips. She was obviously a fan of the idea. That made the two of us. I’d rather scratch my own eyeballs out than share a bed with the devil. The marbled white landing presented two separate stairways leading left and right. The portrait-adorned mint-green walls of former presidents, high, elaborate ceilings, fireplaces, and lavish courtyards peeking through the tall windows all blurred together. I gasped when we passed by open double doors with a constructed Steinway piano surrounded by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and what looked like thousands of books. The entire room was accented in cream and black. “You seem young.” “That’s an observation, not a question…your point?” I said unkindly. “I was under the impression he liked his female companion older.” “Perhaps he should start by liking his female companion willing.” Jesus. I actually said that. I slapped a hand over my mouth. “Senator Keaton never had an issue attracting women. Quite the contrary,” Ms. Sterling blabbed as we made our way to the eastern side of the house. “Too many women and too much variety made him jaded. I was beginning to worry.” She shook her head, a reminiscing smile on her thin lips. So on top of everything else, he was a playboy. I cringed. Angelo, for all his life experience and ruthless upbringing, was a true gentleman. Not a virginal one—I knew—but not a skirt chaser, either. “Then, perhaps, I should be the one worried now since I’m expected to share a bed with him,” I bit out. I’d apparently checked my manners at the door, along with my freedom. When we got to my room, I didn’t stop to appreciate the canopy four-poster bed, rich velvet purple curtains, vast walk-in closet, large vanity, or even the carved oak desk and leather chair overlooking the garden. It was pushed against the window, and I had no doubt the view was mesmerizing. But I didn’t care for the best view in Chicago. I wanted to be back in my childhood home, dreaming of my wedding to Angelo. “Make yourself comfortable. Mr. Keaton had to fly out to Springfield. He’s on his way home now.” She smoothed the hem of her dress. So he was a US senator. And I didn’t have to ask—I knew he had purchased a private jet prior to his political gig. I knew the Members’ Representational Allowance by heart because my father talked about rules often. He said that in order to break them, you had to know them by heart, too. Father had paid off a lot of political figures in his lifetime. For some reason, his having a private jet made me even more bitter. Going to work alone left a carbon footprint that would require planting a medium-sized forest to rectify. What kind of world did he want to leave for his children and grandchildren when, at a moment’s notice, he was on a jet headed to Springfield or DC? It occurred to me that I hadn’t tried to lure her into helping me. In fact, she might not even know I was in trouble. I caught her cold, fragile hand in mine and pulled her back as she made her way to the door. “Please,” I urged. “I know it sounds crazy, but your boss just bought me from my parents. I need to get out of here.” She stared at me and blinked. “Oh, dear, I think I forgot to turn off the oven.” She rushed outside, the door closing behind her. I ran after her, yanking at the door handle. She locked me in. Shoot! I paced back and forth, then grabbed the curtain and tore it from its rails. I didn’t know why I did it. I wanted to ruin something in his house the way he ruined me . I flung myself over the bed, a scream tearing at my lungs. I cried myself to sleep that day. In my dream, I imagined Angelo dropping in for a visit at my parents’, finding out what happened with Wolfe, and then looking for me all over town. In my dream, he drove here, unable to bear the thought of me being with another man, and confronted Wolfe. In my dream, he took me away, somewhere far and tropic. Somewhere safe. This was the part where I knew it was a fantasy—if my father couldn’t stop Wolfe, no man could. When I stirred awake, the last rays of the sun lazily filtered through the tall, bare windows. My throat felt groggy and dry, and my eyes were so puffy I couldn’t even open them all the way. I would kill for a glass of water, but I would die before asking for one. The bed was dipped to one side. When I cracked my eyes open, I found out why. Wolfe was sitting on the edge of the queen-size mattress. He stared at me with his piercing gaze and seemed to burn past skin and bones and hearts, turning them all to ash. I narrowed my eyes, then opened my mouth to give him a piece of my mind. “Before you say anything,” he warned, pushing the sleeves of his crisp white shirt up his elbows to expose veiny, muscular, and tan forearms, “I believe an apology is in order.” “You think an apology is going to fix this?” I snapped acidly, tugging at the blanket to cover more of my body even though I was fully dressed. He smirked, and I realized he liked our exchanges very much. “It’d be a nice start. You said I was not being a gentleman, and I beg to differ. I honored your tradition and demanded your hand after kissing you.” Unbelievable. Now I was fully awake, my back pressing against the headboard. “You want me to apologize to you ?” He smoothed the soft fabric of the pressed linen, taking his time to answer me. “Shame your parents are set in their wish to keep you an obedient little housewife. You have a natural, fast grip on things.” “You’re a fool if you think I’m just going to accept you as a husband.” I folded my arms over my chest. Wolfe considered my words gravely, his fingers traveling near my ankle but not quite touching it. I’d kick him if I didn’t think he’d enjoy my anger even more. “The notion that you can touch me or what’s mine in any way, other than sucking my cock whenever I’m generous enough to allow it, amuses me. Why don’t we get to know each other over dinner tonight before you make any more declarations you can’t back up? There are some house rules you need to obey.” Lord, I wanted to hurt him so badly it burned at my fingertips. “Why? Because I’d rather eat rotten fruit and drink sewer water than have a meal with you,” I snarled. “Very well.” He produced something from behind his back. A simple white calendar. He reached over and placed it on the nightstand next to me. It was a nice touch, after giving me the watch that felt more like a shackle than a gift. When he spoke, he looked at the calendar, not me. “It takes twenty-one days to form a habit. I recommend you make me a pattern of sorts. Because come August twenty-second,” he announced, rising up from the bed, “you will be standing at the altar, promising me the rest of your days. A promise I intend to take seriously. You’re a collected debt, a retaliation, and, quite frankly, pretty decent arm candy. Good night, Miss Rossi.” He turned around and sauntered toward the door, kicking aside the curtain on his way out. A short hour later, Ms. Sterling arrived with a silver tray containing squashed, rotten-looking fruit, and a glass of water that was freakishly gray. She stared at me with crushing misery that made her already wrinkled face appear even older. There was an apology in those eyes. I didn’t accept it or the food. F UCK . Shit. Cocksucker. Asshole. Clusterfuck. Nutsackdouchebagbuttfuck. Those were just some of the words I could no longer allow myself to utter, in public or otherwise, as a senator representing the state of Illinois. Serving my state—my country —was my only real passion. The problem was, my real upbringing was quite different from the one portrayed in the media. In my mind, I cussed. A lot. And I especially wanted to swear right now when my bride had exasperated me to no end. Eyes the color of crushed wildflowers and glossy, chestnut tresses so soft they were practically begging for a fist to wrap around them and pull. Chicago’s elite fell to their knees at Francesca Rossi’s beauty from the moment she set foot in Chicago a year ago, and for once in their miserable lives, the hype they created wasn’t completely unwarranted. Unfortunately for me, my bride-to-be was also a spoiled, naïve, overpampered kid with an ego the size of Connecticut and zero desire to do anything that did not include horseback riding, sulking, and—this one’s a wild, albeit educated, guess—popping out fair-eyed, just-as-entitled kids. Fortunately for her , my bride-to-be was going to get exactly the kind of cushioned life she’d been designed to lead by her parents. Right after the wedding, I intended to shove her into a glitzy mansion on the other side of town, pad her wallet with credit cards and cash, and check in on her only when I’d need her to attend a public function with me or when I needed to tug on her father’s leash. Offspring were out of the question, although, depending on her level of cooperation, which, right now, could use much improvement, she was welcome to have some through a sperm donor. Not me. Sterling reported back that Francesca hadn’t touched her dirty water and crushed fruit and made no move to eat the breakfast that had been ushered to her room this morning. I wasn’t worried. The teenybopper would eat when her discomfort turned into pain. I leaned against the Theodore Alexander executive desk in my study, hands shoved deep inside my pockets, and watched as Governor Bishop and the police commissioner of Chicago’s Police Department, Felix White, verbally sparred for twenty mind-numbing minutes. The weekend I’d found myself engaged to Francesca Rossi on a whim also marked the bloodiest weekend on the streets of Chicago since the mid-eighties. Another reason my marriage was essential for the survival of this city. Bishop and veteran cop White both circled around the fact that Arthur Rossi was to blame, directly and indirectly, for each of the twenty-three murders between Friday and Sunday. Though neither of them said his name. “A penny for your thoughts, Senator.” White sat back in his leather chair, tossing a penny between his thumb and index toward me. I let it drop on the floor, my gaze fixed on him. “Funny you should mention money. That’s exactly what you need to fight the rising crime rate.” “Meaning?” “Arthur Rossi.” Bishop and White swapped uneasy expressions, their faces turning a nice shade of gray. I released a chuckle. I’d take care of Arthur myself, but I needed to do it gradually. I’d just taken his most prized possession. Easing him into the new situation was essential in order to crush him in the long run. The decision to marry Francesca Rossi—unlike the takedown of her father, which I’d planned since age thirteen—was spontaneous. First, she showed up as Nemesis, an ironic twist that put a grin on my face. Then I noticed the twinkle in Arthur’s eyes as he followed her at the masquerade. He looked proud and watching him happy grated on my nerves. She was obviously his Achilles’ heel. Then she caused a stir. Her beauty and good manners hadn’t gone unnoticed. I therefore deduced that Francesca would be useful both for hanging our marriage over Arthur’s head as an ongoing threat and as a way to clean up my Lothario reputation. Bonus points: she and I were going to be the sole inheritors of the Rossi Empire. Rossi would practically sign over his business to me whether he wanted to or not. “Sins of the father shall not be visited upon his children.” Arthur’s lips trembled when I showed up at his house the morning after the masquerade. I’d texted him that same night as my date unzipped my dress pants in the limo, getting ready to suck my cock. I advised Arthur to rise early. Now, he was so pale, I thought he was going to have heart failure. Wishful thinking on my part. Bastard was still on both feet, staring right back at me, his gaze asking me for a solid. “Paraphrasing from the Bible, are we?” I offered a provocative yawn. “Pretty sure there were a few commandments written there you have broken once or a thousand times.” “Leave her out of this, Keaton.” “Beg for her, Arthur. On your knees. I want to see you stripped of your pride and dignity over your silver-spooned daughter who has never known hardship. The apple of your eye, the belle of every ball in Chicago, and, quite frankly, the runner-up to be my lawful wife.” He knew exactly what I was asking—and why I was asking it. “She is nineteen; you are thirty.” He tried to reason with me. Big mistake. Once upon a time, when I tried to reason with him, it didn’t work. At all. “Still legal. A wholesome, well-mannered beauty on my arm is exactly what the doctor ordered to clean up my rather dirty reputation.” “She’s no arm candy, and unless you want your first term as senator to be your last…” He balled his fists so tight, I knew they’d draw blood from his palms. I cut him off midsentence. “You will do nothing to harm my career, seeing as we both know what I have on you. On your knees, Arthur. If you’re convincing enough, I might let you keep her.” “Name your price.” “Your daughter. Next question.” “Three million dollars.” The tic of his jaw matched the rhythm of his pulsing heart. “Oh, Arthur.” I cocked my head, chuckling. “Five.” His lips thinned, and I could practically hear his teeth grinding against one another. He was a powerful man—too powerful to yield—and for the first time in his life, he had to. Because what I had on him could jeopardize not only the entire Outfit, but also his precious wife and daughter, who’d be left penniless once I threw him in the slammer for the rest of his days. I rolled my eyes. “I thought love was priceless. How about you give me what I really want, Rossi? Your pride.” Slowly, the man in front of me—the smug mob lord whom I hated with ferocious passion—lowered himself to his knees, his face a cool mask of hatred. His wife and our respective attorneys looked down at their feet, their deafening silence ringing in the air. He was beneath me now, humble and lost and undignified. Through gritted teeth, he said. “I am begging you to spare my daughter. Go after me in any way you want. Drag me through court. Strip me of my properties. You want war? I will fight you clean and honorably. But do not touch Francesca.” I rolled my mint gum inside my mouth, resisting the urge to lock my jaw. I could unleash the secret I’d been holding over his head and get it over with, but the anguish Rossi had put me through stretched just like the thing in my mouth. A gum that dragged achingly slow across the years. An eye for an eye and all that bullshit. No? “Request denied. Sign the papers, Rossi,” I pushed the NDA in his direction. “I’m taking the brat with me.” Back in the present, Bishop and White had somehow managed to raise their voices to heights that would deafen whales, bickering like two schoolgirls who showed up at prom wearing the same Forever 21 dress. “…should have been alerted months ago!” “If I had more staff to work with …” “Shut up, both of you.” I cut their stream of words with a snap of my fingers. “We need more police presence in the areas prone to trouble, end of story.” “And with what budget, pray tell, should I fund your suggestion?” Felix rubbed his wobbly chin, sleek with sweat. His face was scarred, the result of bad acne, and the top of his head was shiny, his graying hair peppered around the temples. I pinned him with a look that wiped the smug off his face. He had some extra cash lying around, and we both knew where it came from. “You have extras,” I shot dryly. “Brilliant.” Preston Bishop flung himself back on the headrest. “Captain Ethic’s here to save the day.” “I’d settle for ruining yours. Which reminds me—you have extras, too,” I deadpanned, just as the door to the study flew open. Kristen, my masquerade date, world-class BJ giver, and a royal pain in the ass, stormed in, her eyes as wild as her hair. Since I carefully chose my female companions with zero flair for dramatics, I knew she was privy to what the gentlemen in the room hadn’t found out yet. Nothing else would get her so worked up, and she did, after all, work in finding out important information. “Really, Wolfe?” She wiped blond strands of hair from her forehead, her eyes dancing in their sockets. Her shabby appearance explained why Sterling came rushing through the door behind her, muttering redundant apologies. I shooed my housekeeper away, focusing on Kristen. “Let’s take this outside before you burst an artery on my marble floors,” I suggested cordially. “Don’t be so sure I’ll be the one shedding blood in this exchange,” she said, wiggling her finger at me. Poor form. That was the thing about girls who came to the big city from a small Kansas town and became successful career women. That girl from Kansas? She’d always live inside her. My office was on the west wing of my mansion, next to my bedroom and a handful of guestrooms. I led Kristen into my bedroom, leaving the door open on the off-chance she was in the mood for more than talking. She paced, hands parked on her hips. My king-size bed stood out as a reminder of the place I never had her in. I quite liked fucking women in compromising positions. Sharing a bed with someone else was not an idea I’d ever entertained seriously. I’d learned people come and go out of your life frequently and without notice. Solitude was more than a life choice. It was a virtue. A vow of sorts. “You screw me the night of the masquerade and then get engaged the next day? Are you fucking kidding me?” Kristen finally burst, the words gushing from her mouth as she pushed my chest, giving it her all. She did a better job than Francesca, but her wrath still left me unimpressed—and more importantly, unmoved. I shot her a pitiful stare. She knew as well as I did that we were about as far from monogamy as humanly possible. I promised her nothing. Not even orgasms. They required minor work on my part and, therefore, were a terrible waste of my time. “Your point, Miss Rhys?” I asked. “Why her?” “Why not?” “She’s nineteen!” Kristen roared again, kicking the leg of my bed. Her wince told me she’d just found out that, like my conviction, it was made of steel. I had quite the taste for expensive, unlikely furniture, something she’d know if she’d ever been invited to my house. “May I ask how you became privy to my personal business?” I wiped at the speckles of saliva she’d left on my dress shirt. Humans, as a concept, were not among my ten favorite things in the world. Hysterical women were not even in the top thousand. Kristen was being highly emotional, considering the circumstances. She was therefore a liability in my way to the presidency and serving my country. “My agency retrieved images of your young bride moving into your mansion, complete with pictures of her watching like a princess as your staff carried her many, many bags. I’m guessing she’s a soon-to-be trophy wife. Speaks five languages, looks like an angel, and probably fucks like a siren.” Kristen continued pacing, pushing the sleeves of her smart suit up her elbows. Francesca, despite her many shortcomings, was not unpleasant on the eye. And she probably did have extensive sexual experience, considering her very strict daddy had been a continent away for most of her youth, leaving her to her frivolous ways. Which reminded me, I needed to arrange for her to get drug tested and checked for STDs. Slipups were not an option, and public disgrace would earn her a spot on my shit list, a place her father could confirm was less than picturesque. “Are you here to ask questions and answer them yourself?” I shoved her shoulder lightly, and she fell to an upholstered cream seat below me. She growled, darting back up. So much for trying to calm her down. “I’m here to tell you that I want an exclusive Bishop piece, or I will tell everyone who is willing to listen that your new blushing extremely young bride is also the daughter of the number-one mobster in Chicago. I’d hate for it to be tomorrow’s leading headline, but—as you must agree—gossip sells copies, right?” I rubbed my chin. “Do what you gotta do, Miss Rhys.” “Are you serious?” “As serious as someone can be without filing a restraining order against you for attempting to blackmail a member of the senate. Let me show you to the door.” I had to give her some credit—Kristen wasn’t here to grieve the untimely death of our fling. She was all business. She wanted me to compromise the governor in order to save my own ass and give her a scoop that would likely get her an offer from CNN—or TMZ—the next day. Unfortunately for Kristen, I wasn’t much of a diplomat. I did not negotiate with terrorists—or worse, journalists. In fact, I would not even negotiate with the president himself. Francesca had pointed out at the masquerade that Nemesis had slayed Narcissus, teaching him a lesson about arrogance. She was about to find out that no one stomped on her husband-to-be’s pride. The irony, of course, was that Francesca’s father was the very person to teach me that lesson. “Huh?” Kristen huffed. “Tell the world. I’ll just spin it as I’m saving my fiancée from the big, bad wolf.” I was the big, bad wolf, but only Francesca and I needed to know that. “You didn’t even like each other at the masquerade.” Kristen threw her arms in the air, trying another tactic. I carefully placed my fingers on the small of her back and led her to the doorway. “Affection has nothing to do with a good marriage. We’re done here.” As I rounded the corner to the entrance, I caught a glimpse of brown curls tossing in the hallway. Francesca had been roaming, and she most likely heard the conversation. I wasn’t worried. As I said before—she was as harmless as a declawed kitten. Whether I’d make her purr or not was entirely up to her. I wasn’t especially keen on her affection and had other places to find it in. “So, just to be clear, this is over?” Kristen stumbled next to me as I led her downstairs and out of my premises. “Sharp as a fucking spoon,” I muttered. I wasn’t against taking mistresses, but I could no longer risk a high-profile affair. And as Kristen was a hungry journalist, everything about her screamed scandal. “You know, Wolfe, you think you’re so untouchable because you had a lucky streak. I’ve been in this business long enough to know you’re too conceited to get much further than you are today. You’re a real piece of work, and you think you can get away with even more.” She stopped in front of the door to my house. We both knew this was her last visit here. I smirked, shooing her away with my hand. “Write the piece, sweetheart.” “This is bad publicity, Keaton.” “A good Catholic summer wedding of two young, high-profile people? I’ll take my chances.” “You’re not that young.” “You’re not that smart, Kristen. Goodbye.” After I got rid of Miss Rhys, I went back to my study to dismiss Bishop and White, before I made my way to the east wing to check on Francesca. Earlier this morning, her mother showed up at the gate holding some of her daughter’s possessions, screaming she wouldn’t leave until she saw her daughter was okay. Although I told Francesca that whatever she didn’t have time to pack would be left behind, pacifying her parents trumped teaching her a valuable lesson about life. Her mother was blameless in the situation. So was Francesca herself. I pushed my bride’s bedroom door open and found that she had not returned from her wanderings. Stuffing my fists in my cigar pants’ pockets, I sauntered across her room to look out her window. I found her in the garden, crouching in a yellow summer dress, muttering to herself as she stabbed a trowel into a flowerpot, her small hands swimming inside a pair of oversized, green gardening gloves. I cracked the window open, half-interested in the nonsense she was spewing. Her voice seeped through the crack of the window. Her ramblings were throaty and feminine, not at all hysterical and teenager-y as I’d expected someone in her situation to be. “Who does he think he is? He will pay for this. I’m not a pawn. I’m not the idiot he thinks I am. I’ll starve until I break him or die trying. Wouldn’t that be a fun headline to try to explain,” she huffed, shaking her head. “But what’s he gonna do—force-feed me? I will get out of here. Oh, P.S. Senator Keaton—you’re not even that good looking. Just tall. Angelo? Now he’s a gorgeous specimen, inside and out. He will forgive me for that silly kiss. Of course, he will. I’m going to make him…” I closed the window. She was going on a hunger strike. Good. Her first lesson would be about my apathy. The blabbing about Bandini did not concern me, either. Puppy love could never threaten a wolf. I made my way back to her door when a carved wooden box sitting on her nightstand caught my attention. I ambled over to it, the echo of her words from the masquerade bouncing in my head. The box was locked, but I instinctively knew she’d taken out another note, desperate to change her fate. I flipped her pillows on a whim and found the note underneath them. My beautiful, predictable, stupid bride. I unfolded it. The next man to feed you chocolate will be the love of your life. I felt the sneer carving on my face and wondered, briefly, when was the last time I smiled. It was about something silly Francesca had briefly told me on the landing at her house before I bent her father’s arm into giving her to me. “Sterling!” I barked from my spot by my bride’s bed. The old maid rushed into the room, the frantic wandering of her erratic pupils telling me she expected the worst. “Send Francesca the biggest Godiva chocolate basket available with a note from me. Leave it blank.” “That’s a wonderful idea,” she squealed, slapping her knees. “She hasn’t eaten in almost twenty-four hours, so I will do that right away.” She dashed downstairs to the kitchen where she kept a Yellow Pages bigger than her frame. I pushed the note back into place, rearranging the pillows in the same, messy heap I’d found them. I cared more about fucking with Francesca Rossi’s head than I did her body. Now that was my idea of foreplay. T WO DAYS OF NOTHINGNESS TICKED by, soaking like blood on the walls of my room. I refused to communicate with anyone. Even the in-desperate-need-for-love garden was left unattended, including the plants and vegetables I’d potted after Mama paid me a visit the day after Wolfe took me. She snuck seeds of begonias in the wooden box. “The most resilient flowers, Francesca. Just like you.” Then Ms. Sterling caught up with my hobby and brought me some radishes, carrot, and cherry tomato seeds, trying to lift my mood and perhaps encourage me to expend some energy and consume something more than tap water. Sleep was short, tormented, and interrupted with a nightmare: a monster prowling in the shadows behind my bedroom door, baring his teeth in a wolfish grin every time I looked its way. The monster’s eyes were mesmerizing, but his smile was frightening. And when I tried to wake up, to unchain myself from the dream, my body was paralyzed to the mattress. There were two things I wanted desperately—for Wolfe to understand we couldn’t get married and for Angelo to realize that the kiss was a misunderstanding. Ms. Sterling brought food, water, and coffee to my bed every few hours, leaving silver trays filled with goodness on my nightstand. I drank the water to keep myself from fainting, but the rest remained untouched. I especially ignored the huge basket of chocolate my future husband had sent to me. It sat in the corner of the room on the fancy desk, collecting dust. Even though the low sugar in my blood made white dots explode in my vision every time I made a sudden move, I still somehow knew that the expensive chocolate would taste of my own surrender. A flavor so bitter, no sugar could sweeten it. Then there were the notes. The cursed, exasperating notes. I’d opened two out of the three, and both pointed at Wolfe as the love of my life. I tried to tell myself that it was clearly coincidental. Keaton might have had a change of heart. Perhaps he decided to worm his way into my good graces with gifts. Though something told me that man had not taken one uncalculated step in his life from the moment he took his first breath. Wolfe demanded my presence at dinner every day. Never in person, though, but through Ms. Sterling. I continuously refused. When he sent one of his bodyguards for me, I locked myself in the bathroom and refused to come out until Ms. Sterling physically kicked the burly man away. When Wolfe stopped sending food—something that made Ms. Sterling raise her voice to piercing levels in the kitchen even though he didn’t budge—I laughed maniacally because I wasn’t eating anyway. Finally, on the third day, Keaton graced me with his regal presence, standing at my doorway with his eyes narrowed to slits of cold menace. Wolfe looked taller and gruffer than I remembered. Clad in a sharp bright navy suit, he was armed with a sardonic smirk that showed no trace of happiness. Light amusement danced across his otherwise dark eyes. Couldn’t blame him. I was starving to death here, trying to prove a point he couldn’t care less about. But I had no choice. I didn’t have my cell phone, and though Mama had called the landline each day to make sure I was okay, I knew by the shallow and even breaths in my ear that Ms. Sterling was listening to our conversations. Even though she cared about my physical well-being, my guess was she was still Team Wolfe all the way. The pleas, the plans, and the promises to be good—to be the greatest daughter in Chicago—if my parents demanded I return sat on the tip of my tongue. I wanted to ask about Angelo and if Dad was doing anything to try to get me back, but all I did was answer her worried questions with yes and no. I pretended to smooth the fabric of my blanket over me and stare at my legs as I ignored him. “Nemesis,” he drawled with lazy cynicism that somehow—somehow —still managed to stab somewhere deep inside me. “Care to wrap your bones in something a little more dignified than pajamas? We’re going out tonight.” “You are going out tonight. Unless you’re taking me back to my parents’, I’m staying here,” I corrected. “Whatever possesses you to think this outing is optional?” He braced the top of the doorframe with his arms, his dress shirt riding up and revealing muscular abs, dusted with dark hair. He was such a man, and that threw me off. I was still in that tattered seam between a woman and a teenager, neither here nor there. I hated all the leverage he had on me. “I’ll run away,” I threatened idly. Where would I go? I knew my father would send me right back to Wolfe’s arms. He knew that, too. This was my glorified prison. Silky sheets and a senator as my future husband. Pretty lies and devastating truths. “With what energy, exactly? You can barely crawl, let alone run. Wear the dark green dress. The one with the slit.” “So I can impress your perverted old politician friends?” I huffed, tossing my hair behind my shoulder. “So you can impress your dramatically underwhelmed future husband.” “Not interested, thank you.” “Your parents will be there.” That made me perk up in an instant—another thing I hated. He had all the power. All the information. The bigger picture. “Where are you going?” “Preston Bishop’s son is getting married. A pony-looking thing with a pair of nice legs.” He pushed off the doorframe and walked over to the foot of my bed. I remembered how he’d referred to Bishop’s wife as ‘horsey’. He was conceited and rude, arrogant and vulgar beyond belief, but only indoors. I’d seen him at the masquerade. And while standoffish and rude to my father and me, he was an impeccable gentleman to everyone else. “It would be a good opportunity to introduce you as the future Mrs. Keaton. Which reminds me…” He produced something from his front pocket, tossing the square, black, and velvety thing across the length of the room. I caught it in my hands and snapped it open. An engagement ring with a Winston Blue diamond the size of my head twinkled inside it, catching every ray of sunshine slipping through the bare windows. I knew every minute in this house brought me closer to marriage with Wolfe Keaton, and escaping wasn’t possible. The only man to save me from my future husband was, quite frankly, my future husband. Begging him to give me up wasn’t an option. Maybe making him see that he didn’t want to marry me was a tactic I needed to explore. “When are we leaving?” I asked. The “you” turned into a “we,” but he still didn’t look pleased. I will embarrass you beyond belief. “Couple of hours. It is my understanding that you’re used to being pampered and catered to, so Sterling will get you ready.” You will regret the day your filthy eyes met mine across the table. “Take that back,” I said. “Excuse you?” “Take that dig back. Stop holding my upbringing and the way I’ve been brought up against me,” I demanded. He smirked, then turned to leave. “I’m not going.” I tossed the engagement ring across the room. Though he could have caught it in his hand, he chose not to, letting it drop on the floor. Fighting for something—least of all for me—was beneath him. “You are unless you want your phone privileges taken. The landline could be cut off. Not to mention, I’d hate to be forced to pierce your pretty veins to hook you up to a feeding tube,” he said, drifting out of the room before pausing at the door. His back was still to me when it began to vibrate with soft laughter. “You will also have your engagement ring on at all times.” “Or what?” I challenged, my voice shaking. “Or I’m taking you to elope in Vegas, setting off a chain reaction of pregnancy rumors that will not do your family any good.” I sucked in a breath, realizing for the first time what we were. A story of a Nemesis and a Villain with no chance at a happy ending. Where the prince doesn’t save the princess. He tortures her. And the beauty doesn’t sleep. She’s stuck. In a nightmare. Three hours later, we walked through the doors of a ballroom situated at the Madison, one of the glitziest hotels in Chicago. With a cool wind, the twinkling buildings of the Magnificent Mile and the red Michigan Avenue Bridge reminded me that I was still in my favorite city, breathing hope into my body. I wore an off-the-shoulder blue Armani gown that highlighted my eyes and had my hair twisted in a Dutch braid. Ms. Sterling practically squeaked when she did my hair and makeup, reminding me just how much I missed Clara. Home was just across town, but it felt like oceans away. Things I loved and lived for—my parents, my garden, horseback riding—were untouchable. A distant memory that grew an inch farther away every second of the day. With his dazzling all-black suit, my fiancé put a possessive hand on the small of my back and led me through the entrance of the reception area. Crystal chandeliers and curved stairways greeted us. The room was hued milk and honey, the marble floor a checked black and white. We hadn’t been invited to the ceremony at the Bishop’s local church and spent the drive here in a silence that shredded my nerves. Senator Keaton hardly shared the sentiment. In fact, he answered emails on his phone, barked orders to his young driver, Smithy, and pretended I wasn’t there. The only attention he did give me was when he noted, “That’s not the dress I told you to wear.” “Would you be surprised to hear I have a mind of my own?” I stared out my window as the vehicle slowed through Chicago’s downtown traffic. “After all, I’m nothing but a sheltered teenager.” “And a disobedient one, too,” he said. “A terrible bride,” I concluded. “I can tame a dozen of you before breakfast.” The minute we sauntered through the glitzy wide doors, people began to swarm around Wolfe as though he was the groom himself. He drew me close to him by the waist, making a jolt of heat travel down my belly as he smiled and made polite conversation with his admirers. His personality outside the walls of his house or his car was completely different, his charm turned up to an eleven. With his two bodyguards huddling behind us, he oozed wide grins and polite conversation. A far cry from the formidable man I lived with. The first people to set us apart and corner us into a private tête-à-tête was a fifty-something politician couple who came all the way from DC. Wolfe introduced me as his future bride, then chided me with a good-natured sneer. “Don’t be shy. Show them the ring.” I stood frozen, my heart pushing through my throat and ready to jump out of my mouth before Wolfe pried my hand from the side of my body and showed them the huge engagement band. The woman grasped my hand, examined it, then slapped her chest. “Oh, it is so perfect. How’d he propose?” She batted her eyelashes at me, the suspense obviously killing her. That was my chance to ruin all of Wolfe’s hard work. I grinned, moving my hand slowly, letting the diamond catch the lights in the room and blind everyone in our vicinity. “On the steps of the Art Institute. My poor fiancé made a spectacle of himself. Tore his dress pants from behind as he went down on one knee. His entire butt was on full display.” I sighed, not daring to look up at his reaction. “You did not!” The man burst out laughing, clapping Wolfe’s shoulder. The woman snorted and flashed Wolfe a smile open with both admiration and lust. I chanced a look at Wolfe and saw his lips thinning in irritation. Unlike them, he did not find my story entertaining. Their reaction put me in my element, though, and I couldn’t wait to pull this trick again. For a moment, I considered he might tell them I was lying. But that wasn’t Wolfe’s style. It was an easy way out, and he looked like the kind of man to take the long, winding road to victory. “It was worth the hassle.” He grinned down at me, pulling me so close to him, I thought his body was going to swallow mine whole. “Besides,” he hissed only for me to hear, his warm, minty breath tickling the side of my neck, “if my bride knew me even a little, she’d know I never kneel.” For a while, all we did was break the news of our engagement as more and more people came to congratulate us, thereby ignoring the newly wedded couple. Bishop Junior and his bride didn’t seem to care the attention wasn’t directed at them. In fact, they looked so happy, their eyes twinkling with love, that I couldn’t help but feel even more angry toward Wolfe for depriving me of being with my true love. Senator Wolfe Keaton paraded me like a royal horse around the room, showing me off as though I was an asset. My stomach churned and whined in hunger, and it took everything in me not to sway by his side like a shaking leaf. To make matters worse, Wolfe nudged me when I needed to smile, dragged me into his embrace when I drifted away, and volunteered me to servitude on three different charity events in the upcoming months. Attractive women giggled and slipped their numbers into his hand as they came to congratulate us on separate occasions, thinking I wouldn’t notice. One of them, a UN ambassador, even reminded him about their marvelous time in Brussels two years ago and hinted at staying in town for a while. “We should grab a drink. Catch up,” the mahogany-haired beauty suggested in her syrupy-sweet French accent. He flashed her an Angelo smile. The kind that rearranged the molecules in the air and made your heart flutter. “I’ll have my secretary get in touch with yours tomorrow morning.” Bastard. People praised our engagement and seemed to be comfortable with our age gap. In fact, other than Preston Bishop himself, who was at our table the night of the masquerade and witnessed the verbal bashing Wolfe Keaton had offered me, no one challenged our sudden engagement. Even Bishop settled for a raised eyebrow. “This is a pleasant surprise,” he said. “It is, isn’t it?” Wolfe retorted. “Life seems to be full of them.” His words were casual but held a deeper meaning I wasn’t privy to. Each time I’d been introduced to Wolfe’s peers, I came up with a different story for our engagement. “He forgot his words, then developed a sudden lisp. He had to write them down, and even that had a few grammatical errors. It was so endearing.” “The proposal was so romantic. He asked my father for my hand, the old-fashioned way, and I was so touched when he started crying when I said yes. He was bawling, actually, weren’t you, Wolfey? Nothing a Xanax and a piña colada couldn’t fix. Of course, I’d never have dreamt that this was my future husband’s favorite cocktail.” “I’m so excited to be marrying a senator. I’ve always wanted to visit DC. Did you know that Nirvana was from Washington? Oh, wait, honey, that’s not the same Washington, now, is it?” I was relentless. Even when Wolfe turned from mildly annoyed to positively furious, the tic of his jaw suggesting he was going to snap at me the minute we were alone, I kept spewing nonsense I knew would embarrass him. And he—the perfect gentleman in public—kept chuckling softly and backing me up, all while redirecting the conversation to work and the upcoming elections. Being introduced to half of Chicago’s high society proved to be a time sucker. So much so that I didn’t have time to look for my parents. After what seemed like hours, Wolfe and I finally made our way to our table. I slid into my chair, swallowing hard and trying not to swoon from lack of food. Keaton draped his arm across the back of my chair, brushing my bare shoulder with his fingers. The freshly married couple was at their central table, making a toast. We were seated next to another senator, two diplomats, and the former secretary of state. My eyes began to drift among the tables, searching for my family. I knew I would find them after dessert was served and when the dancing started, but I longed for a glimpse of Mama. I found my parents seated at the table across the room. Papa looked his usual formidable, cutthroat self; the only signs of wariness were the dark circles framing his eyes. Mama looked put together as always, but I noticed the small things no one else would. The way her chin wobbled as she spoke with the woman sitting across from her, or the way her hand shook when she reached for her glass of wine. Next to them sat Angelo’s parents, and next to them… My heart stilled, swelling behind my ribcage like a balloon about to burst. Angelo brought a date. Not just any date, but the date. The one everyone had been expecting him to bring. Her name was Emily Bianchi. Her father, Emmanuel Bianchi, was a well-known businessman and an undeclared member of The Outfit. Emily was twenty-three with silky blond hair and glorious cheekbones. Tall and busty, she could fit my slender, tiny frame in her palm. She was the closest thing to Italian-American royalty after me, but since she was Angelo’s age, their connection was expected—almost prayed for—among the families of The Outfit. I’d met her plenty of times before, and she always treated me with a blend of boredom and dismissal. Not exactly rude but impolite enough to let me know that she didn’t like the amount of attention I was getting. It didn’t help that Emily went to school with Angelo, and that she absolutely despised me for spending my summers with him. She wore a skintight black maxi dress with a deep slit that ran along her right thigh and was adorned with enough gold around her neck and through her ears to open a pawn shop. She had her hand clasped above Angelo’s as she made conversation with the people around her. A small, possessive gesture he did not reject. Not even when his eyes wandered across the room and landed on mine, locking us together in a weird battle in which no one would win. I stiffened in my chair, my heart jackhammering against my sternum. Air. I needed more air. More space. More hope . Because what I saw in his eyes frightened me more than my soon-to-be husband. It was complete and utter acceptance of the situation. They were both in their twenties. They were both beautiful, single, and from the same social circle. They were both ready for marriage. Game over for me. “Francesca?” One of the diplomats whose name I didn’t catch chuckled into his napkin, trying to draw my attention back to the conversation at the table. I broke away from Angelo’s gaze and blinked, looking back and forth between the old man and my future husband. I could see Wolfe’s jaw tensing with frustration that had built throughout the evening and knew he hadn’t missed the moment I’d shared with my childhood friend. I smiled apologetically, smoothing my dress. “Could you repeat the question, please?” “Care to tell us how Senator Keaton popped the question? I have to say, he never struck me as the over-romantic type,” he chortled, stroking his beard like a Harry Potter character. I didn’t even have it in me to taunt Wolfe. I was too caught up in the fact that my life was officially over, and Angelo was going to marry Emily, therefore fulfilling my worst nightmare. “Yeah, of course. He…he…proposed to me on the…” “Staircase to the museum,” Wolfe clipped, chucking my chin in faux affection that made my skin crawl. “I don’t know what I did to deserve her passionate kiss. You stole my breath.” He turned to me, his grays on my blues, two pools of beautiful lies. People gasped around us, enchanted by the magnetic power of his expression as he stared at me. “I stole your heart.” You stole my first kiss. Then my happiness. And finally, my life. “T-that’s right.” I dabbed my neck with a linen napkin, suddenly too nauseous and weak to fight back. My body was finally crumpling under the strain of not eating for days. “I will never forget that night,” I said. “Me neither.” “You make a beautiful couple,” someone remarked. I was too dizzy to even tell if they were male or female. Wolfe smirked, raising his tumbler of whiskey to his lips. Defying him purposely—and undoubtedly stupidly—I allowed my eyes to drift back to the table where I longed to sit. Emily was now grazing her French-manicured fingernails along Angelo’s blazered arm. Angelo looked down at her face, his mouth breaking into a grin. I could see how she defrosted h