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Silent Vows: Chapter 17

Noemi

Dinner with Shae continued without interruption. Umberto never noticed my split lip, and my father didn’t show up in my room to interrogate me about my night. I waited for him, certain he would appear any second. But as the minutes ticked by, and the buzz from two glasses of wine settled my nerves, I lay back in my bed and relished the brief sensation of happiness until sleep took me.

Despite everything going on around me, I’d had fun with Shae. I’d been in dire need of the escape. A chance to hang out with a friend and pretend my life wasn’t in tatters.

After Mom died and I was released from the hospital, I spent days in bed hiding from the world. From my reality and a father who had gone from absent to abscess, infecting my life with his venomous cruelty. I’d always known he wasn’t a good man—that his relationship with Mom was all show and no substance—but I hadn’t realized just how wrong things truly were. Not until that day.

I wasn’t supposed to be in the car with her, but I thanked God I was, or I never would have known the truth. I knew my father had orchestrated the whole thing and why he’d wanted my beautiful mother dead. She’d told me everything seconds before she took her last breaths.

I knew everything, and I’d been deciding what to do with that knowledge ever since.

For now, the answer was … nothing. I couldn’t afford such a gamble until I could ensure Sante and I would both survive the fallout. And the more time that passed, the greater my anger and resolve. I would find a way.

In the meantime, I had a bullheaded Irishman to deal with. I couldn’t believe Conner had crashed my dinner or the way he’d laid claim to me. Marked me.

Why had he felt the need to make such a bold statement? No matter how long I lay in bed the next morning and pondered his motivations, nothing made sense. I knew he wanted sex, but he’d said in the beginning that he didn’t want the marriage any more than I did. So why the jealousy? Was he merely wanting to ensure others knew I was his? Men could be territorial like that. It didn’t necessarily mean he truly wanted me beyond the physical. Right?

I didn’t understand him, nor could I get the seductive taste of him from my tongue—cinnamon spiked with the burn of whiskey and temptation. I needed to brush my teeth and maybe Listerine my brain. I couldn’t keep losing myself in thoughts of him. Scraps of memory enhanced with a healthy dose of fantasy.

Sucking in a deep lungful of air, I finally forced myself from bed and into the shower. Dwelling on the infinite mysteries of Conner Reid would get me nowhere, and I had a bridal shower to prepare for. Aunt Etta was hosting a last-minute luncheon for me. Ladies from my family as well as Conner’s had been invited.

My aunt had insisted that a bride needed at least one shower. I knew she felt responsible for taking on the things my mother would have done, so I didn’t argue with her. In her eyes, a shower was a sign of celebration. A show of support and a source of joy. Personally, I would rather have shaved my armpits with a rusty razor than sit among the awkward assortment of women, but as with most things these days, my preference wasn’t important.

Umberto drove me to the tearoom Aunt Etta had booked for the gathering. There was a moment at the house before we left when I thought Sante might be allowed to accompany me. It would have provided a rare unguarded moment together away from the house, but my father ordered me to stay put until Umberto returned home to take me. My father was meticulous about keeping us apart. And if I hadn’t been so certain my father used microphones and cameras in the house, I would have tried telling Sante the truth at home. Hell, even the cars were suspect. I wouldn’t have put anything past my father.

Outfitted in my best designer sheath dress and a heavy swathe of confidence, I entered the restaurant with my shoulders back and a smile on my painted lips.

No soldier went to battle without armor, and this would be nothing less than an hour in the trenches. The silent freak set on a stage under blinding lights for everyone to gawk at. Hopefully, they would at least be too distracted by me and my circumstances to argue among themselves. As far as I knew, no one had ever attempted an alliance like ours.

The Italians and Irish meshed about as well as gasoline and a Zippo. They couldn’t even go to the same Catholic churches. Everyone knew the old St. Patrick’s Basilica was property of the Irish, while The Church of the Blessed Sacrament was Italian territory. Not even the priests deigned to cross those lines. I had wondered if anyone would even show up to such a highly precarious event as my shower, but I should have known better.

Curiosity was even more potent than fear.

The wives and daughters of New York’s underworld weren’t about to miss out on the tantalizing prospect of such juicy gossip. All but a handful of invitees showed up, packing the entire tearoom with women. A mountain of gifts filled two tables near the entrance, and every set of eyes in the building took turns glancing my way. Everything about it was overwhelming, but I knew better than to show any fear. Not among these people. That was exactly what they’d want to see.

Instead, I kept my head high despite my silence and pretended I was the queen who was under no obligation to talk to the peons. Ladies congratulated me and prattled on about who they were and how thrilled they were about the upcoming nuptials. I smiled and nodded, clasped my hand with theirs, then dismissed them with a glance at the next guest.

“Hey, love. How are you holding up?” Aunt Etta gave me a quick hug during a brief lull.

I nodded and grinned through the pain in my cheeks, sore from so much smiling.

“Good, good. You might not get another lull for a while, so I’d suggest you hit the restroom while you can.” She didn’t have to tell me twice.

I grabbed my clutch and hurried off in the direction she indicated, blowing her a kiss in thanks. Once I was in the stall relieving my suddenly full bladder, my adrenaline ebbed, making me reluctant to abandon the reprieve of my solitude.

Dropping my head into my hands, I rested my elbows on my knees and tried to motivate myself to rejoin the shower attendees. Before I could muster the energy, a couple of women entered the restroom, giggling voices hushed in confidence.

“It’s such a shame—that god of a man getting shackled to a demure mute—but at least that means he’ll still be available. There’s no way she’ll keep him satisfied. I should know.” The feminine voice curled with a catty grin. I didn’t know who exactly was speaking, but I knew the type well enough. Gorgeous. Ruthless. Completely self-serving.

“That’s so gross, Ivy,” said the other. “Isn’t he your cousin?

“By marriage,” the first one scoffed. “And besides, he’s adopted, you prude. It’s not like we’re actually related.”

Adopted? Pippa hadn’t mentioned that. I wondered how that fact had slipped past her radar.

Still,” said the prude. “It sounds icky.” She paused. “Do you think all adopted people have to worry about whether they’re dating a family member?”

The women quietly contemplated the question as they preened in front of the mirrors. I continued to gnaw on the assertion that I’d never keep Conner satisfied.

Why did that statement itch and claw its way beneath my skin?

I’d never intended to satisfy him. I wasn’t a brokered commodity to be consumed. If my husband wasn’t faithful, that was a reflection of him, not me.

Nothing these vapid women said should have mattered, but I couldn’t help my need to defend myself and the relationship. Surprisingly enough, someone else beat me to it.

A third voice pipped up as the stall next to mine swung open. “What’s icky is the sound of one woman tearing down another when she’s obviously in a tough position already. In this day and age, we should be supporting one another, not stabbing each other in the back.”

Sensing my moment had arrived, I used the pause created by her reprimand to exit the stall with my shoulders squared. Their eyes were instantly on me, but I didn’t acknowledge any of them. Instead, I applied a perfect coat of crimson lipstick in the most seductive manner possible, gave my lips one good smack, then shot a wink at my audience in the mirror before walking out.

I’d never felt so triumphant and wrecked at the same time.

Everything about my display had been on point. I’d never appeared more confident. But on the inside, I was a rattled mess.

When the time came, what exactly would Conner want from me as his wife? The wedding night and weeks thereafter were intimidating enough, but what about five and ten years from then? Would we ever form any true connection? Did I care?

I imagined seeing Conner return home late at night, a touch of unfamiliar lipstick staining the skin on his neck.

Scalding anger seared upward from beneath my asymmetric neckline.

I didn’t want my husband fucking other women. Why? Because of the embarrassment it would cause, of course. My stomach churned with uncertainty. Embarrassment was part of the reason but not the whole picture. I hated to admit it, but I didn’t want him to stray because I wanted him to want me.

Hell, I’m in trouble.

All I should have wanted was for Conner to leave me alone. To live out our lives peaceably in parallel worlds that rarely intersected. But that wasn’t the case. I wanted more from him, which meant I was opening myself up to heartbreak.

“Hey, wait a sec,” called the woman who had supported me in the bathroom. She had rushed out after me and was hurrying to catch up with me. When I turned, she grinned broadly with crimson lips even brighter than mine and eyes so green, mine paled in comparison. She was absolutely stunning.

She held out her hand to shake. “Sorry about that. I got a little fired up. My name’s Giada. Giada Genovese. I’m Conner’s half sister. And don’t mind those shrews. They’re just jealous. My sisters are just over there, and they’d love to meet you if you have a minute.”

If I wasn’t already mute, I’d have been rendered speechless. Half sister? I wasn’t sure if I was more overwhelmed by her boisterous personality or the fact of who she was. The Genoveses were Italian. How did Conner have an Italian half sister?

I nodded dazedly, stumbling alongside her when she took my arm and towed me toward a table in the back of the room.

“Cam and Val, look who I found.” Giada grinned. “Noemi, this is Camilla and Valentina, my two younger sisters.”

I nodded to each and smiled. More demure than the eldest, the two younger women greeted me with kind eyes and a gentle wave.

“It wasn’t that long ago we discovered we had a brother, and now we get a sister-in-law, too! Crazy times, right?” Giada rambled. “We’ll definitely have to get together. I don’t know many people in the Moretti family, so you’ll have to introduce us, though I’m not sure how much Conner wants us all around. It’s all kind of new. Mom’s around here somewhere. I’m sure she’d love to meet you, too.”

My eyes flitted to each of them, trying to figure out what on earth she was talking about. Before I could get out my notepad to start asking questions, the blond sister spoke up.

“There’s time for that later, G. For now, I bet Noemi has guests to get back to. We don’t want to monopolize her time.”

“Of course, sorry. I get carried away. It’s really lovely to meet you, and congratulations!” She pulled me into a quick hug, surprising me yet again.

I waved to the three of them before turning away to find my table. I was so disoriented that I hardly remembered making my way back to my family.

“Hey, Em. You hanging in there?” Pip asked cheerily.

When I turned to meet her gaze, I couldn’t eradicate the dismay widening my eyes.

“Oh, sweetie. It’s going to be okay—all of it. Everything.” She paused, studying me. “Is it the party … or is it him that’s worrying you?”

I just stared at her, unable to untangle my own chaotic thoughts.

She grimaced, seeming to understand. “It’s a lot. And I never should have told you about the burning man. That’s just this life, you know that, right? Just because he lights people on fire doesn’t mean he’s going to hurt you.”

Pip didn’t realize how right she was, except it was me he lit on fire every time he was near, and that was exactly how I’d end up hurt.

Oh, the irony.

I huffed with a silent chuckle.

Pip smiled, relieved. “Come on. Let’s grab a couple of mimosas. That will make us both feel better.”

I nodded, letting her lead me back to the center table before she disappeared in search of drinks. My emotions must have still been lingering on the surface because Aunt Etta also asked if I was okay the second she saw me.

I took out my notepad.

Does Conner have Italian half sisters? I peered at her questioningly.

“Did no one tell you?” she asked, brows knitted together.

I shook my head.

“He was adopted. It all came out in the open just recently. I don’t know the details, really, just that Mia Genovese was his birth mother.”

My head tipped back slowly with understanding before I scribbled again.

I just met his three sisters. I was confused.

She chuckled. “I suppose that’s understandable.” She took my hand in hers. “Hey, I realized we never talked about getting you a dress. I don’t know how we overlooked it. You want to go tomorrow?”

I smiled warmly and nodded. Her answering grin was so heartwarming it could have brought back the dead. “Perfect. I’ll set up an appointment as soon as we’re done here today.”

I nodded and gave her a hug. If I had to lose my mom, there was no better substitute than her twin sister. Being around my aunt these past few days made me realize how cruel it had been for my father to keep us apart for so long. I needed this. I needed her and all the strength her love provided.

Another hour later, I spotted a familiar set of warm brown eyes across the room when the party was finally winding down. Grinning, I hurried over to where Sante leaned against the wall and wrapped him in a crushing hug.

“Whoa, little big. Easy there.” The second he had sprouted taller than me, he started to call me his little big sister. I loved it, and hearing the endearment only made me hug him tighter.

He chuckled and eased from my death grip. “I couldn’t let my only sister get married without giving her a gift of my own, and I figured this was as good a time as any.”

Did Dad know he was here? Had Sante come on his own?

I suddenly sobered, wondering if this could be my chance to tell him the truth about our mom. Or maybe even to run away with him.

My hands trembled as I accepted the small, wrapped package.

“It’s not that exciting. No reason to get all shaky,” he teased, not knowing my tremor had nothing to do with his gift.

I peeled back the wrapping to unveil a white gold bracelet. It had a delicate chain on either side of a flat plaque engraved with Mancini.

“So you don’t forget us,” he said quietly.

His gift was incredibly thoughtful. I hugged him again, this time with tears in my eyes, then signaled to the door in question.

“Yeah, we’re here to get you.”

We? An entire bucket of frigid water drenched me from head to toe.

He must have seen the question written across my face. “Yeah, Dad is waiting outside. You ready?”

I tried to swallow past the sudden lump in my throat. Nodding, I held up my finger for him to wait, then went to tell Pip and Aunt Etta goodbye and thank you. They assured me the gifts would be delivered to my house. I couldn’t have cared less but nodded politely.

Once I got to the car, I slid into the back seat like a criminal being remanded back into custody. Hopelessness was yet another cratering dip in the roller coaster ride of emotions I’d endured that day. By the time I got home, all I wanted was to crawl into bed and sleep for a week, but I should have known better. My life wasn’t my own, and my day was long from over.


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