Thin Lies: Chapter One - #MafiaRomance
'm sharing Chapter One of Thin Lies today!
I'm so excited for Calisto and Emma to be out in the world, but for those who haven't picked it up yet, here's a little taste of how this all begins for these two.
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“Duty” was the first word a Mafioso principessa learned growing up. Be good to the family. Bring them no shame. Smile for the crowd.
And when the time comes, do your duty.
At only twenty, Emma Sorrento was not ready to do hers.
“You look wonderful, Emmy,” Maximo said.
Somehow, Emma managed a smile for her uncle. “Thank you.”
Maximo waved her closer. Emma followed his unspoken demand until she was standing in front of him with her hands clasped behind her back. Maximo looked over the silver, flared dress that fell just above Emma’s knees, and the black pumps on her feet.
“Your hair is down,” Maximo said.
“You asked for it to be like this, zio.”
“I did. I like it better this way. I’m sure Affonso will appreciate it as well. And your mother made sure you toned down the red lipstick, I see.”
“Sì.” Emma swallowed back the disgust rising in her throat. It burned like bile on her tongue, acidic and full of shame.
“Smile, Emma. That frown does nothing for your pretty face.”
Her uncle’s words had been spoken lightly, as if he were amused, but a heavy ring of warning lingered right behind them. Immediately, Emma fixed her frown to a smile.
Fake and bright.
Enough to distract a man.
She could do this.
“She’s a little nervous,” came a voice from behind her. “It’s a big day for our little Emma.”
Emma found her father, George, leaning in the doorway with a cigar dangling from his fingertips and a glass of brandy in his other hand.
Maximo chuckled. “How much of a fight did she put up this morning, brother?” A single finger ticked under Emma’s chin, making her stare up at her uncle’s face. “What is there to fight about, hmm?”
“Nothing,” Emma said.
“Surprisingly, very little,” George said.
Maximo smiled. The sight was almost predatory in nature. Her uncle had always treated her well, especially considering that she was the only daughter in their small family. George had no other children but Emma, and the other Sorrento brother had died in a childhood accident when he rode a bicycle out onto the street and was hit by a car.
The Sorrento family was one of many Italian-based organized crime families in Vegas. Over the years, the Sorrentos and other syndicates across the country strengthened their ties by mixing their names and blood. In Cosa Nostra, girls were fodder to a bigger plan. That plan being a man, the one with the best last name for a contract, the family to push them higher, make them safer, or earn them business.
Because that’s all her life was worth.
Emma knew this day was coming.
“It’s just business,” Maximo said as if he could read Emma’s mind.
“Business,” she echoed.
“The Donati family had a long night getting here. Some issue with the plane caused them a layover. It ended up connecting them to a redeye. I expect you to be pleasant and respectful, Emmy.”
Emma felt the spark of anger stab through her heart. She had done all that she could to ignore the lingering rage simmering in her blood, never mind the resentment burning through her soul.
Maximo didn’t give her a chance to voice her inner war. Her uncle left the large office. He passed by his brother in the doorway without so much as a goodbye, and disappeared into the hall. When Emma was sure that she couldn’t hear her uncle’s footsteps anymore, she finally took a real breath.
For two months, Emma had felt like she couldn’t breathe. Ever since her uncle had visited her parents’ home one evening, sat down at the dinner table, and calmly explained that she would be married off to a man nearly thirty years her senior.
Affonso Donati was forty-nine, but his fiftieth birthday was right around the corner. Apparently, the man’s wife had passed away a few months earlier after three separate battles with cancer. Every good Cosa Nostra Don needed a wife and so, Affonso went shopping for one.
Emma’s father and uncle—without her knowing or giving input—had placed her name, picture, and pedigree directly in Affonso’s path.
It pissed Emma off like nothing else. The Donati family certainly wasn’t the biggest or best syndicate for her uncle and father to marry her off to. They were small-time in New York compared to the Marcellos or even the Calabrese family. Affonso could be her father, for Christ’s sake.
Emma forced back the sickness beginning to rise again. She took a deep breath, needing to calm the torrent of panic starting to well all over again.
That stupid word kept ringing louder and louder.
“Your mother is waiting for you downstairs,” her father said.
His voice reminded Emma of George’s presence.
“Thanks,” she said, spinning around.
“You know I appreciate how good you’re being about all of this, don’t you, Emmy?”
Emma refused to even grace her father with a smile. The man knew how angry and disgusted she was over this entire agreement between the Sorrento and Donati families. “Yes, I know, Dad.”
George smiled, taking another step into the room. Her father reached out and snagged Emma’s hand, drawing it away from her side. He glanced over her bare ring finger and said nothing about the slight tremor rocking her hand. Then, her father’s grip tightened to an almost painful point. His fingernails dug into the skin of her palm with enough pressure to leave marks behind.
Emma sucked in a sharp breath. “Ouch.”
“Remember that feeling, sweetheart. I hear Affonso has a taste for pain where his women are concerned. At least, he does if they don’t behave.”
“And the ones who do behave?” she asked quietly.
“He treats them like little queens.” George smiled again. “I have given you everything you have ever wanted, Emmy. You have been spoiled rotten, treated like a princess, and handed over every bit of respect you deserved as a Sorrento daughter. It’s time for you to repay me for that. Be a good girl, and do this for your family without issue.”
Emma had never been particularly close to her parents. Both George and Minnie Sorrento had been far more focused on their social lives and la famiglia business, than they had been about Emma as she grew up. Her parents’ way of making up for neglecting her of love and attention was by giving her things.
Lots of things. Love couldn’t be bought. Emma ignored the pain in her chest. Her screaming mind was louder.
Loyalty is bought all the time.
Her parents were the perfect example of how people attempted to do just that. They’d birthed a daughter they didn’t really know, gave her a glamourous life that placated and tricked her into comfort, and now she didn’t have a choice but to do what they wanted. Emma had no money of her own, no status to keep her safe or provided for unless she did what her parents demanded. Even her apartment and car were not hers to keep unless she did what she was told.
Emma hadn’t realized how controlled she was by her parents and Cosa Nostra until a choice was placed on the table. A choice that wasn’t really a choice at all.
“What is Mom waiting on me for?” Emma asked her father.
“She brought along your birthday gift. The diamond and pearl set she wore for our wedding. She wants to see you wearing them for yours. Happy twentieth, sweetheart. Another month to go, and you’ll be a married woman.”
Emma stifled her shudder.
“Smile,” George reminded her sharply, his fingernails cutting into her palm again.
And blinked back her tears at the same time.
Her life was not her own.
She didn’t get to choose.
Emma had always known this.
It didn’t make it easier.
Spinning on her heel, Emma came face-to-face with a gentleman who was taller than her by a half of a foot. His black hair was peppered with gray just behind his ears, and his easy smile spoke of kindness and grace. His eyes, however, were an emotionless, cold brown.
Emma reminded herself that people were watching the exchange. A whole houseful of people, actually.
“Hello,” Emma said, offering the man the best smile she could muster up. She held her hand out and Affonso took it instantly to press a feather-light kiss on her knuckles. “I’m sorry there was a problem with your plane yesterday.”
Affonso raised a single shoulder in response, like he didn’t give a damn either way. “Me too. I was hoping to get a decent night’s rest before meeting you and taking you to church. But non è importante. You, however, are very important, bella.”
Emma wished the man’s charming smile and his sweet words was enough to lull her into some sense of comfort around him. They didn’t. She didn’t know Affonso from a goddamn hole in the ground. She was thirty years younger than his nearly fifty, and she couldn’t forget that she had essentially been sold to the man like cattle.
The price for her hand was still a mystery.
Affonso moved closer, tugging on Emma’s hand at the same time. He drew her just inches from his tall frame, slid a finger under her chin, and tilted her head up. “You don’t seem happy, my dear.”
His words had been spoken far too quietly for anyone else to hear.
“I am,” Emma lied.
Affonso chuckled. “Well, you’re a good liar. I will give you that. You’ll certainly need that, being my wife. I was promised a girl who knew her place as long as she was kept and spoiled properly. Can you turn your cheek as well as you can tell a lie and smile, bella?”
Emma blinked, stunned. “Why?”
“I didn’t ask for a question. I suggest you learn quickly to answer what I do ask, and without any other frilly nonsense to waste time. I hate wasting time, Emma.”
A sliver of dread drove into Emma’s spine.
“Okay,” Emma said, looking down to drop the man’s gaze.
“I simply want a good, young wife, Emma Sorrento. Nothing more. A young woman who can birth me the healthy boy my first wife didn’t give me, and my mistresses seem unable to produce. I have daughters galore. No boys. Give me the boy, and you can live your life in a spoiled, peaceful bliss. Does that sound good to you, bella?”
Emma’s air caught painfully in her chest.
That’s what this man wanted from her?
A boy, for that matter.
Was that all she was worth to this man? Her ability to carry him a child, one with the gender of his preference? Didn’t he realize that the man decided the sex of a baby and not the woman?
Affonso’s smile faltered for a split second. “You’re overthinking, Emma. I can see it in your face. Your father and uncle have gone through great hoops to get one of theirs tangled in marriage with a New York family. You’re not going to ruin it for them, are you?”
“I don’t really have a choice, do I?”
The man sighed.
She’d asked another question. “I mean no. Of course not, Affonso,” Emma said quickly.
“Well done. You’re young, and so I will give you a pass on your behavior. I imagine this is still a shock to you. A huge change. Am I right?”
Emma’s emotions thickened in her throat. “Sì.”
She glanced away from the man and the softness in his tone. “I’ll do what you need for me to do, Affonso.”
“You really are just a girl, hmm?” he asked. “Twenty is still a child in many ways.”
Maybe to him and his nearly fifty years.
Emma didn’t feel like a girl. She was simply trying to let her mind and heart catch up to this awful day and begin to work together.
Even still, she didn’t answer the man.
Apparently, Affonso wasn’t looking for an answer. He dragged his gaze from the heels on her feet to the bareness of her legs, and up to the swell of her breasts.
“I like this dress,” he told her.
Always thank a man when he gives you a compliment, her mother used to say. Smile for him, sweet girl. Men need to feel respected.
Emma’s lessons over the years came rushing back to her like a tidal wave of memories. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, she had been groomed for this very moment ever since she was just a young child.
“Thank you,” Emma said with a smile.
“I’ll have you a dozen more dresses like this one waiting in your closet at home.”
The one word was enough to make Emma sick.
“As I was saying,” Affonso continued, smiling slyly as his leer traveled over her body again. “… you’re still young in many ways, but you’re old enough in all the ways that count, bella. I hope you know how to use those ways. I’m not interested in teaching and, let me just say, you wouldn’t enjoy the way I would teach you.”
Emma felt her cheeks pink. Was he asking what she thought he was? That he hoped she wasn’t innocent to a man and sex?
She bit the inside of her cheek before muttering, “I don’t need to be taught.”
Stepping away from Emma, Affonso spun on his heel to face the waiting people. His hand hadn’t released Emma’s, and he pulled her with him. She found the familiar faces of her family and a few of her uncle’s men watching the exchange with curious, but wary, expressions.
“Maximo,” Affonso said, “are we just about ready to leave for the church?”
Emma was shocked that her uncle was going to church at all. He hadn’t returned to the Catholic church since he divorced his first wife. Maybe it was another way for Maximo to extend a hand to Affonso in friendship. She wasn’t sure.
Her uncle nodded. “Yes, we are. The cars are waiting.”
“We’ll catch up in a minute,” Affonso replied to Maximo. “I want a second alone with Emma, if you wouldn’t mind, old friend.”
Maximo passed Emma a look as if to silently ask if she was okay with the request herself. Emma didn’t see how her opinion of things mattered at all. It hadn’t before, so why would it now?
Before long, the house had cleared of people but for Affonso and another man standing at the bay window. The color streaming in through the glass bathed him in bright light, showcasing a tall frame and broad shoulders hugged by a tailored suit. His dark hair was cropped short, but it was still long enough for him to run his fingers through as he lifted a glass of water in his hand to take a drink.
“Now that we’re alone,” Affonso said, turning to Emma.
She shot the quiet man with his back turned a look. “Um—”
“My nephew always stays close by. Ignore him. As I said earlier, I was promised a girl who knew her place, Emma. I want to make sure you understand everything that means.”
“I think you explained it well enough.”
“Then why are you trembling like a little leaf?” he asked.
Emma stilled on the spot. She hadn’t realized that she was still shaking. “I’m nervous.”
Affonso frowned. “Calisto?”
The man at the window turned his head slightly, just enough to stare at his uncle and Emma. Dark brown, almost black, eyes and a strong jaw framed the man’s face. His sharp cheekbones and unsmiling lips hardened his features, but it still stunned Emma.
It stunned her because he was … beautiful.
A hint of something dangerous and sinful wafted from the young man as the corner of his mouth tugged upwards into something resembling a smirk or even a sneer. She couldn’t be sure. Long fingers wrapped tighter around the glass he was holding, drawing Emma’s attention to the fact he wore no wedding band and his hands seemed strong.
She could clearly see the resemblance between the younger man—Calisto, Affonso had said—and his uncle.
“Sì?” Calisto asked.
“Cal, ottenere vino. Fill a glass. Hurry, before someone comes back and bitches about her age and drinking.”
Calisto chuckled deeply. The sound came out dark and heavy, and his tall, fit frame rocked with movement. Emma thought he sounded almost musical, even if the man looked entirely bored with the situation and day.
“Whatever you need, zio.”
Then, Calisto was gone.
“Wine?” Emma asked.
“It’ll take the edge off for you,” Affonso said, smiling widely. “As long as you’re a good girl, Emma, I will always take care of you.”
A good girl.
Emma felt sick again.
“And of course, Cal will always be around to keep an eye on you when I can’t,” Affonso added.
“He’s closer to your age, at twenty-seven. Too bad, really. Had he wanted what I wanted for him, then I wouldn’t need you at all, Emma.”
What was that supposed to mean?
“I prefer Emmy,” she said.
It was the only thing that came to her mind. She felt stupid for even saying it, but it was better than spitting out how disgusted the man made her.
“Emmy,” Affonso echoed. “Sounds a bit girlish and young, doesn’t it?”
Suddenly, a presence was behind Emma. She knew Calisto was back before he’d even said a thing.
“Here,” Calisto said, handing Emma a glass of wine.
Her fingers brushed his and warmth spread up her arm. She pulled her limb and the wine glass back as fast as she could, but not before dropping her gaze.
“Thank you,” she said.
“I prefer Emmy,” Calisto said quietly.
Emma’s head jerked up, finding Calisto watching her curiously.
“Pardon?” Affonso asked.
“Her name. Emmy. I like it.”
Emma tipped her wine glass up and gulped down a mouthful just to keep from smiling. Who was this man? A few minutes ago, he seemed like he didn’t care who she was or if she was even breathing.
“It’s got a nice ring, zio,” Calisto added. “Rolls off the tongue, if you know what I mean.”
Affonso scowled. “You would think so, Cal. Hurry up with the wine, Emma. We have things to do and people to see. A good Don doesn’t keep people waiting. You’ve spent enough time around Maximo to know this.”
Emma drank her wine a little bit slower.