Bound by Duty(4)By: Cora Reilly
“Shhh.” Mamma looked behind us. “What if he hears you?”
I didn’t think he’d care.
Mamma scanned my face. “You should be happy, Valentina. You won the husband lottery, and I’m sure there’s a passionate lover hidden beneath Dante’s cold exterior.”
“Mamma, please.” I’d suffered through two sex talks with my mother in my life so far: the one where she tried to tell me about the birds and the bees when I was fifteen and already well aware of the mechanics of sex. Even in a catholic girls school that information got around at some point. And the second, shortly before my wedding to Antonio. I didn’t think I’d survive a third one.
But I hoped she was right. Thanks to Antonio’s disinterest in women, I’d never had the chance to enjoy a passionate lover, or any lover really. I was more than ready to finally be rid of my virginity, even if that would pose the risk of Dante finding out my first marriage had been for show, but I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.
Dante picked me up at quarter to six as promised. Not a minute too late or too soon. I hadn’t expected anything else. My parents had already left a few minutes ago. As the future head of the Outfit, Dante couldn’t arrive too early to the party.
He was wearing another three-piece suit in navy blue with light blue pinstripes and a matching tie. I froze for a moment when I saw him. My dress was navy too. People would think we’d done it on purpose, but there was nothing to be done about it now. I’d followed a strict detox diet for three days to fit into the tight backless dress; I wasn’t going to wear something else. Despite its long pencil skirt reaching my calves, the slit up to my thigh allowed me to walk stairs without too much trouble.
Dante’s eyes did a quick scan. “You look beautiful, Valentina.” He was being polite. There was absolutely no sign that he actually found me attractive.
“Thank you.” I smiled and stepped up to him. He touched my lower back to lead me toward his black Porsche parked at the curb and tensed as his palm came into contact with my naked skin. I wasn’t sure but I thought I heard him release a rushed breath, and the thought that he might be affected by me, coupled with the feel of his touch sent a shiver of delight down my spine. He planted his hand lightly on my back and gave no further indication that I’d taken him by surprise with my partial nakedness as he guided me toward the passenger door and held it open for me. I slid in, almost giddy with triumph over the fact that I’d managed to get a reaction out of the iceman. Once we were married, I’d try to do it more often.
The other guests had already arrived when we pulled up in front of the Scuderi mansion. We could have walked, if it weren’t for the four inches of snow, safety concerns and my high heels. Dante hadn’t bothered with small talk during our drive. His mind seemed far away anyway. When Dante put his hand on my naked back this time, there was no outward reaction.
Ludevica Scuderi opened the door for us. Her husband Rocco, the current Consigliere to Dante’s father, hovered behind her, his hands on her shoulders. They both smiled brightly as they ushered us into the pleasantly warm foyer. An eight-foot Christmas tree, decorated with red and silver baubles, dominated the space.
“We’re delighted that you could make it,” Ludevica said warmly.
Rocco shook Dante’s hand. “I have to congratulate you on your excellent taste. Your future wife looks marvelous, Dante.”
It was obvious that they were going out of their way to be nice. Although it was desirable for a new Capo to keep the Consigliere of his predecessor, it wasn’t tradition, so Dante could nominate a new Cosigliere when he took over from his father.
Dante inclined his head and returned his hand to my back. “That she is,” he said simply while all I could do was smile.
Ludevica clutched my hands. “We were pleased when we found out Dante had chosen you. After all you’ve gone through, it’s only fair that fate makes it up to you.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that. Maybe she was being sincere. It was hard to tell. After all, they’d originally tried to marry Gianna off to Dante. “Thank you. That’s very kind of you.”
“Come on in. The party isn’t happening in our foyer,” Rocco said, gesturing for us to head for the living room. Laughter and voices were coming from inside.
“Aria is very excited to see you again,” Ludovica said as we entered the living room. I had no time to express my surprise at Aria’s presence because the moment we were spotted by the crowd, people flocked around us to congratulate us to our betrothal and upcoming wedding. In between shaking hands, I scanned the room. Aria stood at the other end of the vast room next to another massive Christmas tree and her not less massive husband Luca who had a possessive hand on her waist. I didn’t see Gianna and her fiancé Matteo anywhere. If my mother’s gossip was to be believed the Scuderis were concerned their middle daughter might cause a scene.
Dante moved his thumb over my back, startling me. My eyes snapped to him, then to the couple in front of us, whom I’d completely ignored because of my staring. I gave my brightest smile and pulled Bibiana in a hug. “How are you?” I whispered. She squeezed me briefly, then drew back with her forced smile. That was as much of an answer as I would get in the presence of other people.
Her husband Tommaso, who was thirty years her senior, bald and overweight, kissed my hand, which would have been fine except for the look in his eyes. Leery was the best word to describe it. Dante’s fingers on my back tensed and I risked a peek at him, but his expression was the same aloof mask as usual. He fixed Tommaso with his eyes and the man quickly took off with Bibiana.
A waiter carrying a tray of drinks stopped beside us, and Dante gripped a glass of Champagne for me and a Scotch for himself. Now that the onslaught of well-wishers had finally abated, Luca and Aria crossed the room toward us. Dante’s demeanor changed ever so slightly like a tiger that got wind of another predator in his territory. Instead of tensing, he relaxed as if to show that he wasn’t concerned, but his eyes were alert and calculating.
Luca and Dante shook hands, both with those unnerving shark-smiles on their faces. Ignoring them, I grinned at Aria, honestly happy to see her again. It had been months. She looked much more relaxed than at her wedding. “You look amazing,” I told her as I embraced her. She was wearing a dark red dress that set off her blond hair and pale skin beautifully. No wonder Luca couldn’t stop glancing her way.