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Silent Vows: Chapter 11

Noemi

Never in a million years did I think I’d find myself sitting next to my father while meeting with my wedding planner. He hadn’t attended a single school performance or been present at any of the most memorable events in my life. Planning my wedding alongside him seemed ludicrous.

Then again, so would the prospect of my dad killing my mom.

But Mom was dead, Dad was to blame, and I was stuck next to him in wedding hell. The one silver lining was my soon-to-be mother-in-law. Mirren Reid was remarkably gracious and friendly. Maybe I’d swung too far toward optimism, but I had a feeling she could be a valuable ally for me. Maybe even a friend.

We spent almost two hours hashing out details. Mostly, we gave the planner as much guidance as we could, and she was going to handle the logistics of making it all happen. When we finished, Dad announced he had a meeting to get to and instructed Umberto to drive me home after we made a quick stop to drop off paperwork at Conner’s office.

All traces of the exhaustion I’d felt seconds before vanished.

Would we be going to one of the Irish gambling clubs? Would I see him on our brief visit?

An undeniable sense of excitement assaulted me on the way across town. Was it purely curiosity that set my blood flowing, or something even more destructive? Was I actually looking forward to seeing him? I told myself that if the answer was yes, it was only because I was rarely allowed out of the house. Any social interaction at all was a refreshing change of pace for me. It had nothing to do with the man himself.

Yeah…

Umberto parked in front of a four-story brick building that didn’t look like much from the outside. After fussing at me to stay close and behave, he led us inside. The lobby was admittedly more modern than the outside had been, but it was still nothing to write home about. The walls were painted black, and a reception desk built from the original brick sat in the center. Large artistic photos of the city at night dotted the walls, lit by dozens of small track lights hanging from the ceiling.

“Can I help you?” A beautiful woman with short dark hair greeted us. She was outfitted entirely in black satin—snug pants that sculpted perfectly to her athletic frame and a matching cropped top with one strap sweeping over her right shoulder. It was a confident, bold look that I admired.

Umberto grunted. “Hell yeah, you can.” He muttered the words under his breath but loud enough that he knew we’d both heard him.

I had the clawing urge to kick my foot into the back of his knee and send him careening to the ground. Instead, I thinned my lips and shot her an apologetic look.

The woman flashed a feline grin of amusement. “You here for Reid?”

“Yeah, he around?”

“Let’s see. Follow me.” She led us back through a set of double doors and down a hallway containing a series of offices.

We followed her into the last office, which contained a modern executive setup complete with monitors and a fancy fireplace but no Conner.

“Guess he’s upstairs on the floor,” she said breezily. “If you want, we ladies can wait here while you look for him.”

Umberto peered at me as though he were conflicted, so I shot him an exasperated look that said, what trouble could I possibly get into here?

“Don’t move,” he snapped before disappearing down the hall.

The woman, whose eyes were a striking combination of turquoise and gold, laughed from deep in her belly. “What a buffoon. I’m sorry. Guess he could be a friend of yours.”

I shook my head adamantly.

“Good.” She held out her hand. “I’m Shae.”

Once my hand was free, I pulled out my notepad and wrote my name.

She grinned. “I know who you are, Noemi. Everyone in the family knows you.”

Super.

I held up the paper, relieved when she burst out laughing.

“It’s not so bad.”

Are you related to Conner?

“Cousin, but I also work with him here at the club. My dad was Brody Byrne.”

My face fell, recalling what I’d learned from Pippa.

I’m so sorry for your loss.

She shrugged and motioned to a red leather sofa in front of the fireplace. “That’s just a part of the life, I guess.” She sat angled toward me, one arm over the back of the sofa. “You try to guard against these things, but shit happens.”

I got the distinct impression that Shae was a badass. I didn’t know of many women who worked alongside the men in our family, and I figured the Irish were probably the same.

“I wasn’t supposed to come in this evening,” she continued. “But I’m glad I did. I’ve been curious to meet the silent Mancini.” She tilted her head, kaleidoscopic eyes studying me. “Not exactly what I expected.”

I arched a brow, encouraging her to explain.

Shae chuckled. “Guess I expected someone shy and demure, but that’s not you, is it?”

I scrolled neatly on my notepad. No voice doesn’t mean no opinions.

Her eyes sparked with amusement. “No, it certainly doesn’t. And that right there is why I think I’m going to like you, Noemi.” Her fingers toyed with the long silver earring dangling from her ear. “So tell me, how do you feel about all this? Conner and the wedding?”

That’s just a part of the life. I smirked when I flashed her words back at her.

“No shit.” She grinned but quickly sobered. Watching how the blue and gold in her eyes fought for dominance with the change in her mood was fascinating. When she reached out to rest a hand on mine, her irises were all molten amber. “I’m sure none of this is easy. You ever need someone to talk to, I’m here. Anytime.”

I was surprised by her forwardness and the sincerity of her offer. I gave her a small smile and nodded.

The door burst open at that moment. All my attention was instantly redirected to the doorway where Conner stood, murder blazing in his eyes.

I instinctively yanked my hand from beneath hers. I wasn’t even sure why. We weren’t doing anything wrong, but something told me it wouldn’t matter to this man.

He stalked into the room, Umberto behind him. “Shae, I wasn’t expecting you today.”

“Looks like you have all sorts of unexpected guests,” she responded boldly. “Lucky for me, I got the chance to meet your bride-to-be. She’s stunning, Reid. You’re a lucky man.”

Conner popped his neck one direction, then the other. “You’re walking a fine fucking line, Shae. I suggest you make yourself scarce.”

I flinched at his harsh words, confused about why he would be so ugly to his cousin being kind to me. Maybe he was moody like that because Shae didn’t seem surprised. She grinned as she stood—a victorious flash of teeth and audacity.

Yeah, I liked her.

“You too, Berto,” Conner barked at my guard, though his eyes were locked on me. “I’d like a moment alone with my fiancée.”

“Huh?” Umberto pulled his eyes away from Shae’s retreating backside.

“Out. Now,” Conner snapped.

Umberto scowled, his eyes sliding to me for only the briefest moment of contemplation. “Whatever, man. Just make it quick,” he grumbled, then plodded from the room.

With a flick of his wrist, Conner swept the door shut. For the first time, he wasn’t wearing his suit jacket, and the sleeves of his light blue dress shirt were rolled to his elbows, giving me a view of the ink covering his skin. I was surprised to see that the other forearm was bare, devoid of ink. What was beneath the rest of his shirt? I had a feeling I’d find out in two weeks’ time, whether I wanted to or not.

I rose from the sofa, the mounting tension in the room urging me to my feet. I got the sense Conner was furious, but I had no idea why. I scrambled for my pad, hoping to distract him.

Met with the wedding planner this morning.

I held up the note, but his eyes never left mine as he stalked close. Never in my life had anyone looked at me with such ardent intensity. It stole my breath. In a good or a bad way, I wasn’t sure.

“I don’t ever want to see anyone touching you like that again.”

I flinched backward in surprise. She was just being kind.

“That’s bullshit, but regardless, I don’t care. Man or woman, I see someone touching you in a way I don’t like, I’ll cut their fucking fingers off.”

I gaped at him, totally flabbergasted. Where had this caveman attitude come from? He was the one who’d told me we could have lovers and this whole marriage was a professional arrangement. Where had that man gone?

So many colliding thoughts bombarded me. I didn’t know what to say, so I went with the first thing to rise to the surface. We have dancing at the reception. You going to cut all their fingers off?

It was meant as a challenge. A means to point out how absurd he was being.

My intent escaped him.

“Then I suggest you call the wedding planner and strike dancing from the agenda.” He said it with absolute seriousness.

She’s your cousin, Conner. Nothing happened.

“And for that, I’ll just take it up with her in the ring, but anyone else is fair game. I know her better than you, and I know for a certainty she wasn’t simply being nice.”

My brows narrowed at his insinuation. Had Shae been hitting on me?

“Now you’re getting it,” he murmured.

Ohhh.

I flipped the page of my notepad and scribbled again.

Even so, you said we were both allowed lovers.

I held the page out with less force, bewilderment softening my fight. I’d started to think of Conner as a somewhat better alternative than my father. Had I been wrong? Would a life with him be even more oppressive than these last months in my family home?

My de-escalation only seemed to anger him further. He got even closer, his piercing eyes inches from mine. “No, I said turnabout was fair play. That means if I stray, you can, too. But for right now, there’s only one set of legs I want between, and as long as that’s the case, I expect the same in return.” He took my hand and tugged me out of the office, not giving me a chance for a response.

Stumbling behind him, I could hardly string together thoughts I was so beside myself in surprise. He expected exclusivity? What if I didn’t want to have sex with him? My body did, but my mind wasn’t so sure. He made it sound like he could lose interest one day—that was exactly the sort of thing I’d feared. If I developed feelings for him, a betrayal like that would be heartbreaking. I didn’t want to hand myself over to a man who wasn’t committed to me.

Conner handed me over to Umberto. I slipped into the back seat of his car but hardly registered anything around me. I thought of Conner’s thumb on my lips. His hand on my thigh and his dirty words whispered close to my ear. He wanted me and had been intensely possessive in response to Shae’s hand on mine. But would that translate to long-term devotion? Or was his interest in me just a momentary craving?

His undeniable intensity made me think that maybe our relationship had potential. That it might be … more. Conner didn’t strike me as the flighty type. He was more all or nothing. And if he had his sights set on me … would that mean he wanted all of me?

Maybe it was just wishful thinking. I couldn’t be sure.

The strange flutter in my chest terrified me. I should have been scared of Conner himself, but it was the feelings he’d evoked that scared me more. The fact that I had any hope at all that he might care for me was a dangerous sign. He’d admitted to burning a man alive—was someone like that even capable of love? Why was I even entertaining that question?

If I didn’t get control of my wayward emotions, I would land myself in a heap of trouble. The only problem was, I didn’t know how. Conner was chipping away at my defenses one small crack at a time. He wasn’t the sort of man to give up. If he’d set his sights on conquering me, I was doomed.


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