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Ruined Secrets: Part 1 – Chapter 1

Isabella

Three Years Ago
(Isabella 16 y.o.)
“Isa!” Andrea yells my name as her loud footsteps pound up the stairs.
I turn in my chair to see my younger sister running into my room. She’s only two years younger than me, but sometimes behaves like she’s starting elementary rather than high school. By the time she reaches me, she’s out of breath.
“You can’t run through the house yelling.” I point a pencil at her. “You’re fourteen, not four.”
“He’s here!” She grabs my hand and starts dragging me out of the room, a face-splitting smile lighting up her eyes.
“Who?”
“Luca Rossi.”
My heartbeat quickens, just like it does every time his name comes up, and I scurry after my sister, ignoring my own words of warning. We run down the hallway and the big stone staircase. As expected, we get several disapproving looks from the maid and two of my grandfather’s men along the way, but I can’t make myself think about etiquette now. He’s here!
We dash through the front double doors and circle the house until we reach the big azalea bush on the back side, just a few yards from the French window outside my grandfather’s study. Like we’ve done so many times before, I crouch behind it and pull Andrea down beside me. It’s an ideal hiding spot, with a clear view into Nonno Giuseppe’s office.
“I should have changed,” I mumble, looking down at my cut-off jeans shorts and plain T-shirt. “I can’t let Luca see me like this.”
Andrea sizes me up and raises an eyebrow. “What’s wrong with your clothes?”
“I look like a schoolgirl,” I say, quickly removing my hair tie and combing my fingers through my hair. Mom says wearing my hair down adds a few years to my appearance.
“Oh?” Andrea chuckles. “Newsflash, Isa—you are.”
“Well, I don’t have to dress the part.” I pout and look up at the window, waiting. “If I’d known Luca was coming over, I would’ve put on that beige dress.”
The door to the study opens and Luca Rossi, one of my grandfather’s capos, enters the room. I grab Andrea’s hand and squeeze. I’ve been obsessing over him since I was six years old, when he jumped into the pool and saved my life after that idiot Enzo threw me in it. I don’t remember ever being as scared as when my head dipped below the water, and my socked, fancy dress pulled me down. I wasn’t a good swimmer, and I fruitlessly kicked my legs, trying to get to the surface. When I was sure I would die, two large hands suddenly grabbed me and pulled me up.
Never will I forget those smiling eyes as Luca carried me toward my hysterical mother. His expensive suit was dripping wet, and the strands of his long dark hair were plastered to his face.  That evening, I told my mother that when I grew up, I would marry Luca Rossi. Maybe I fell in love with him that day.
“He’s even hotter than last time I saw him.” I sigh.
Luca has always been beautiful, and girls and women have often fallen over their own feet when he entered a room. It must have been his serious, slightly indifferent stance where other people were concerned, women included, that made him so interesting. He would walk into the room, do what he came for, and leave. No meaningless conversations. No lingering for gossip. If he had to stay longer for some event, because it was expected, he would either sit with my grandfather talking business, or lurk in one of the corners, observing the crowd. I loved watching him then, his huge body leaning on the wall, his dark eyes skimming over the room, observing everyone. Every sharp line of his perfect face has been carved into my brain. Over the years, however, his features have changed. His face matured, the lines becoming harsher and partially hidden with a short beard. His dark eyes have changed as well, getting a somehow harder, more sinister look in them. The only thing that has remained the same is his long, dark hair gathered in a bun on the top of his head. In our circle, it takes a certain kind of character for a man to wear his hair long and not be judged. But Luca Rossi has always been something else. Something more than other men.
“You’re nuts.” Andrea elbows me into my side, “He’s double your age.”
“I don’t care.”
“And he is married, Isa.”
Pain pierces my heart at the mention of Simona, Luca’s wife. Four years ago, I spent a week in bed, crying my eyes out, when I heard he was getting married. Although only twelve at the time, all I wanted was to be his wife one day. Like most girls, I dreamed about my wedding and in each of those childhood fantasies, it was always Luca standing next to me as my groom. People said Simona got pregnant on purpose to manipulate him into marriage, but it didn’t make it hurt any less. I felt betrayed. He was mine!
I grab the branch in front of me and squeeze. “I hate that woman.”
“I heard Aunt Agata telling Mama that she saw them fighting again,” Andrea whispers, “in a restaurant full of people.”
“About what?” I ask, without taking my eyes off Luca’s handsome face.
“It sounded like they fought because Simona forgot to pick up Rosa from preschool.” Andrea mumbles.
“How can a mother forget her child?” I stare disbelievingly at her. Even though Simona is a bitch, I didn’t think she’d be capable of doing that.
“She was probably at one of her Botox appointments.” My sister laughs.
I shake my head and turn back to watch Luca. He’s sitting in a chair on the other side of my grandfather’s desk, with his profile to us. Based on the grim expression on both of their faces, something serious is going on. I know my grandfather very well. When Giuseppe Agostini, the don of Chicago’s Cosa Nostra Family, has that face on, it means nothing good is cooking. A scowl on Luca’s face isn’t new, though, but this time, it causes a lump to form in my throat. I haven’t seen him smile in years, and he’s been around the house a lot since becoming a capo.
“I’m going back.” I brush away a stray tear and turn to leave.
Every time I see him, it gets harder. It’s as if a weight settles over my chest. I know he’ll never be with me. And still, I can’t make myself stay away. Andrea calls me crazy for obsessing over someone so much older. Maybe I am. But I can’t help it. It started as hero-worshipping when he saved my life. In the last couple of years, however, that child adoration has transformed into something else entirely.
“Don’t be sad, Isa.” Andrea wraps her arm around my waist. “There are other men who’d worship the ground you walk on. You are the granddaughter to the don of the Cosa Nostra. When the time comes for you to marry, there will be a line of suitors waiting here for you. Someone will come by, sweep you off your feet, and you’ll forget all about Luca Rossi. It’s just a teenage crush.”
“Yeah.” I nod and put a fake smile on my face, the one I’ve been practicing with Mom. “You’re right. Let’s go back.”
* * *
One year ago
(Isabella 18 y.o.)
The crowd is scattered around the garden, drinking and laughing. My grandfather must have invited everyone in the Chicago area with Italian blood to my birthday party.
“That waiter is super cute.” Catalina, my best friend, nudges me with her elbow. “I think I’m going to grab another piece of cake and check him out a bit better. You want to tag along?”
“Nope, I’m good,” I say.
“But, look at him! He’s got dimples when he laughs.”
I glance over at the man standing next to the food table, conversing with one of the guests. He’s in his early twenties, with short blond hair and a really nice smile.
“You go.” I nod toward the cutie who’s captured her interest. “I’ll wait for you here.”
Catalina giggles, winks at me, and rushes to the tables laden with food. She approaches the cute waiter and starts to flirt, and for a moment, I wish I were able to do the same. Too bad I only have eyes for one man.
I look toward the opposite side of the garden where Luca is sitting with my grandfather and Lorenzo Barbini, my nonno’s underboss. They seem to be discussing business, not really paying too much attention to the festive atmosphere around them. Luca hasn’t even glanced my way since he got here, which is nothing new.
It wasn’t always like this. When I was little, I’d run across the lawn the moment I saw him arrive. He would catch and spin me around when I jumped into his arms, making me squeal in delight. But he stopped doing that the summer I turned thirteen.
I remember that day as if it happened yesterday. The moment I saw him exiting his car, I dashed outside and ran across the driveway to him. He didn’t open his arms to catch me that day. Instead, he just brushed his hand down my hair and went inside the house. That’s all I got during his next few visits—a light brush of my hair. I guess he decided I was too old for spinning around, or maybe that it wasn’t proper. Then, even those light stokes of my hair stopped. In the last few years, I was left with simply watching him from a distance.
Like now.
“Isabella!”
I throw a look over my shoulder to find Enzo, Catalina’s idiot cousin, barreling in my direction.
“Shit,” I murmur and turn around, intending to head inside the house. Before I can make my escape, he comes around and steps into my path.
“So beautiful.” He wraps his hand around my wrist and bends his head to rest on mine, inhaling as he does so. “And smelling like flowers.”
“Leave me alone, Enzo.” I try to wriggle free, but his grip is strong, and he pulls me tighter.
“Oh, come on, Isa! Why are you always acting like an iceberg?”
“Enzo! You’re drunk!” I look around, searching for Andrea or anyone else who could get me away from him. There are dozens of guests milling across the garden, but no one is close enough to come to my aid. I could yell, but I don’t want to make a scene because there are too many important people here tonight.
“Of course, I am.” He laughs. “It’s your eighteenth birthday. It’s only natural to drink to that, yeah? Come on, let me give you a birthday kiss.”
“Get away from me.” I sneer and try to wiggle away again.
“But it’s just one kiss. Come on, Isa, don’t be such a—”
He stops midsentence, his eyes focusing on something behind me, then he tilts his head up until his gaze stops well above my own. The color in his face starts rapidly draining. A hand adorned with a thin, white gold wedding band reaches from behind me and wraps around Enzo’s wrist in a vice-like grip. Enzo lets go of me, but the newcomer’s long, strong fingers squeeze the idiot’s wrist tighter until he whimpers. I don’t pay attention to Enzo. My heartbeat picks up as I stare at the two bracelets encircling the other person’s wrist. One is a wide silver cuff and the other a black leather band. I bought both with my pocket money five years ago and gave them to him. I didn’t know he actually wore them.
I take a deep breath, trying to keep my racing heart from exploding as I move my eyes from the bracelets back to the wedding band on his finger. Something dies in me again, just like the first time I saw the ring on his hand.
“Touch her again,” Luca’s smooth, whiskey-like voice says above me, “and you die.”
Enzo nods maniacally and whimpers again. “Yes, Mr. Rossi.”
“Get lost,” Luca barks and releases Enzo’s hand.
I stare at Enzo’s back as he runs toward the gate. I don’t dare face my savior. If I do, I might fall apart. Until this morning, I still believed there might be a small chance I would get to be with Luca someday. That sliver of hope evaporated the moment my father informed me that he agreed to give my hand in marriage to Angelo Scardoni, the youngest of my grandfather’s capos, when I turn twenty-one. I always knew I would end up in an arranged marriage because it was the only option for the Cosa Nostra don’s granddaughter, but I still hoped.
“Everything okay, tesoro?”
“Yes.” I nod, keeping my eyes fixed on the gate. “Thank you, Luca.”
“If he pesters you again, let me know.”
“I will.”
“Okay.” There’s a slight touch at the back of my head as if he lightly brushed my hair. “Happy birthday, Isabella.”
I wait until I no longer feel Luca behind me, then turn around slowly and watch him as he walks away, leaving me to stand with an overload of emotions brewing within, with nowhere to go. Something squeezes in my chest. I wonder how it would feel to have him walking toward me for once. Maybe start a meaningless conversation, even if it’s only in passing. This is the most we’ve spoken to each other in the past two years. I’ve often feared he’s forgotten I exist.
I hear my name being called and turn to see Catalina waving at me to come over. Throwing one last look at Luca’s retreating form over my shoulder, I head toward the tables with food, running my fingers along my hair where his hand brushed it.

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