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Silent Vows: Chapter 19

Noemi

I put a wet rag on my wrist, unwilling to go back downstairs for ice. By morning, an ugly purple ring had formed beneath the surface of my skin.

I hated that this had become my life.

I’d never had to hide bruises before, but it made me wonder if my mother had. Was this the life she’d led before he’d taken her from me? Could he have been this cruel to her without me knowing?

I might never know the answer, though it would likely haunt me forever. Mom was the rainbow in a stormy sky. She was the sugar in lemonade and the pink stretchy bandage that made everything better. I had adored everything about her and hated to think she could have suffered right under my nose.

A suffocating cloud darkened my mood as I got ready for the day, but I did my best to sweep it away, knowing I would be spending the morning dress shopping with Aunt Etta and Pip. Just knowing I would see them helped lighten my heart. I briefly considered asking my aunt if she ever suspected Dad of abuse, but the question would only have stirred up an interrogation. Quelling my curiosity wasn’t worth opening that can of worms. Not yet, anyway.

I selected an outfit that suited the only wide gold cuff bracelet I owned and used the accessory to hide my bruise. Hair in a ponytail and hope in my heart, I went downstairs to find Umberto. It was time to pick out a wedding dress.

The boutique dress shop didn’t look like much from the outside, sandwiched between two modern buildings near Lenox Hill and Midtown East, but the interior was all modern elegance with dark wood floors and crystal chandeliers. Pippa and her mom were already inside when I arrived, along with Pip’s two younger sisters. I left Umberto at the door and joined the group on a green velour sofa.

“Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening.” Pip jumped up and hugged me the second she saw me.

It was so tempting to share my own disbelief by blurting all the crazy I’d experienced in recent weeks, but I forced my lips to remain sealed.

“I know,” added Aunt Etta. “I swore I wouldn’t say it because I don’t want this to be a sad occasion, but I sure wish Nora could have been here for this.” My aunt hugged me but quickly pulled away and waved her hands in the air. “Okay, enough of that. Only happy thoughts today!”

Pip and I both laughed. The other girls sat on their phones, oblivious to the world around them.

“This must be our beautiful bride!” A very tall, very thin woman joined us in the sitting area with a smile. “I’m Stella. I’ll be working with you to find the perfect dress.”

I shook her hand, letting Aunt Etta introduce us.

“I explained when I made the appointment that we’re working with somewhat unusual time constraints,” Etta said.

“Noemi here isn’t the first and won’t be the last. It shouldn’t be an issue. We may just have to be open-minded and a touch creative.” Stella lifted her brows at me as if to make sure I was on the same page.

I nodded readily.

“Great! Now, tell me what you’re envisioning.”


Two hours later, I had a wedding dress. Even more astounding, I actually loved it. The gown was simple but elegant—no bows or bustles or flouncing skirt. The delicate lace top layer was accented with just the right amount of beadwork to sparkle but not make me feel like a disco ball. The straps of the sleeveless bodice sat at the far edges of my shoulders while the neckline plunged low between my breasts, working well with my modest chest. The back mirrored the front but dipped all the way down to the waist, and the A-line skirt flared just enough not to cling to me and trailed into a very short train.

The dress had been altered for a recent bridal expo where it was displayed, so it already fit almost perfectly. I’d walked into the shop not expecting to care about any of it and fully prepared to pick whatever looked halfway decent, considering my fast-approaching deadline. Now, I couldn’t stop wondering what Conner would think of me in the dress.

That line of thinking was dangerous. It implied that I cared, and I shouldn’t have.

Aunt Etta scooted closer to where I sat on the shop sofa and leaned toward me, snagging my attention. “Em, honey. I doubt your dad has talked to you about this, and I have no idea if Nora handled it before she passed, so I thought I’d ask about birth control.” She looked at me awkwardly while I gaped back at her.

She’d caught me completely off guard.

I wasn’t on birth control, as it so happened, but only because I hadn’t needed it. I’d never made any special pledge to save myself for marriage. Sex just hadn’t come up. I didn’t date much in high school, then Mom died only seven months after graduation. That was just the way my life had unfolded.

Now, I was days away from being a twenty-year-old virgin bride, and no, I hadn’t considered birth control. After my first official meeting with Conner, I would have said it wasn’t an issue. But things had changed. He’d made it clear he wanted me. I’d been so worried about the emotional impact that might have that I’d completely forgotten about any other complications.

I was NOT ready for children.

“…and maybe he’s not even Catholic,” Aunt Etta continued her rambling speech. “I mean, he’s Irish, but they aren’t all Catholic, and even then, he may still be okay with birth control. Sometimes we have to do what we think is right, or we’d all be swimming in a sea of children,” she whispered conspiratorially.

A giggle nearly bubbled past my lips. It was getting harder and harder to keep my voice to myself now that I’d started talking to Conner.

Just a little longer. You can do it.

“But anyway, you’ll have plenty of time to figure it out. I just thought I’d mention it so you could mentally prepare. And make sure you knew I’d be happy to help if you needed it.” She patted my hand and nodded to herself, seemingly satisfied.

I jotted a note thanking her and ensuring I’d take care of it. I wasn’t sure how, but I swore to myself that was one compromise I was unwilling to concede.

Our shopping concluded, Aunt Etta convinced Umberto to let me join them for lunch. We had such a fabulous time together that I could have mistaken it for before—before Mom died and my world came crashing down around me. Before my father threatened my life and I suddenly had a fiancé.

That slice of the past was enough to keep me distracted with happy memories for the rest of the afternoon once I’d returned home. I listened to music and watched a home renovation show. Anything to keep my thoughts in the happy beyond where there were no deadlines or fathers or fiancés.

Sometimes a girl needed to stick her head in the sand for a day.

I was remarkably successful at it, too, until the chime of the doorbell echoed into my room that evening. I moved to the top of the stairs, staying just out of sight of the entry below. We didn’t get visitors often. I wondered if it was Conner but couldn’t be sure. The velvet strands of a baritone voice were too soft to recognize.

I was desperately curious but afraid I’d earn my father’s wrath again if I showed my face downstairs without an invitation. I had no desire to poke that dragon. Fortunately, fate intervened to assuage my curiosity.

“Noemi, come down and meet someone.” My father’s voice boomed in my ears, echoing inside the hollow of my chest.

I waited for just a second to ensure it didn’t look like I’d been eavesdropping, then glided gracefully downstairs, nearly stumbling on the steps when my eyes landed on one of the most savagely handsome men I’d ever seen. He looked like his ancestors had only recently abandoned their Viking ship to raid boardrooms instead of villages. A heavy brow casting harsh shadows over ocean eyes gave him a foreboding look, while his thick blond hair styled back in a perfect pompadour would get him inside any upscale club. Unshaved scruff on his square jaw contrasted with his perfectly tailored suit the same way he showed just a tiny bit more incisor than appropriate when he smiled. Like the wolf greeting Little Red. Everything about this man was a contradiction. An enigma. He was utterly mesmerizing and perfectly terrifying.

I forced a smile.

“Noemi, this is Keir Byrne, Conner’s cousin. You met his father briefly at the engagement dinner—Jimmy Byrne.”

I tore my eyes from the man, sensing my father communicating an unspoken message. I dropped my chin a fraction to let him know I understood.

This man was important. A power player in the Irish organization.

“It’s a pleasure.” He extended his hand. “I apologize for missing the engagement dinner, but I was otherwise detained.” Hearing his voice up close and the power it wielded sent a shiver down my spine. Every softly spoken word forced those around him to listen carefully. To dance to his tune. The subtle exercise of dominance was impressive.

“As you know,” my father cut in. “Noemi here lost her voice in a tragic accident. Conversations with her aren’t easy, so we can just head back to my office.”

Keir didn’t budge. “That’s not an issue. Conner won’t be here for a few minutes. I thought that might give me time to get to know the newest addition to our family. It’s not every day we take in an outsider.” The entire time he spoke, his eyes held mine captive. Studying. Assessing.

What was he looking for? What did he think he’d find?

I wasn’t too worried because I had no malicious intent—not toward him or his family. Any negativity I felt was reserved for my own flesh and blood.

My father agreed, albeit reluctantly. He’d clearly hoped to make the introduction and be rid of my presence as quickly as possible, but Keir had other plans.

Dad’s lips thinned. “Let’s have a seat in the living room. Noemi, you’ll have to get your pad and paper.” He peered back at Keir. “That’s how she communicates,” he explained as though I were a trained ape. “She should probably learn sign language at some point, but it’s hardly been a priority so soon after her mother’s death.”

I gritted my teeth at the manufactured grief he forced into his voice. As if my father had given one minute’s thought to her death except to cover up what he’d done. Suddenly realizing I was being watched, my eyes cut to Keir. He’d seen the glare I’d shot at my father’s back.

I wondered if it was possible to keep anything from his keen eye. If he was curious about my reaction, I couldn’t tell. He gave absolutely nothing away. The man was the Dalai Lama of calm and control. It was unnerving. Conner was contained, but his composure wasn’t so absolute, at least not when I was around. Like last night. I’d had the sense he was seconds from complete chaos, and I sort of relished knowing I had that effect on him. Keir held so tightly to his reins that I didn’t think anything could rattle him.

Forcing a smile, I tried to rid myself of emotion. If I didn’t feel it, I couldn’t show it.

“There are two more members of the family who would love to meet you,” Keir informed me as he sat on one end of the sofa, an arm draped along the back cushion like a king on his throne. He motioned for me to sit with him. “Paddy and Nana Byrne, our grandparents and the founders of our family. It’s hard for them to get out these days, but they’ve requested a visit. If it’s agreeable to you, Fausto, I thought I could run Noemi over to their house tomorrow to meet them. They rarely get out anymore.”

My heart hammered against my ribs, unsure of what to do.

Keir and I both looked at my father, whose black eyes cut to me.

“I’m not sure it’s appropriate for her to be alone with another man before the wedding.” Dad shifted uncomfortably just as Sante entered the room, inserting himself into our conversation.

“I’d be happy to go with Noemi.” My brother leaned in to shake hands with Keir. “Sante Mancini, Noemi’s brother. You must be Keir Byrne.” He so desperately wanted to be a man and to help me. It broke my heart because he was so clueless. Dad would never agree to us going without supervision.

“That’s kind of you to offer, Sante,” Keir responded. “But surely your father wouldn’t be giving his daughter away if he thought we didn’t have the ability to keep her safe.”

Displeasure deepened the creases of my father’s face. Any argument on his behalf would be a blatant disrespect to Keir and the entire Byrne family. He had no choice but to agree, and Keir knew it.

“Of course, I trust you. But she is my only baby girl. I’d hate to damage her reputation so close to the wedding. If we sent one of my men along with you, that would ease my mind.” Dad tried another tack.

Keir stared unflinchingly at my father. “And I would understand your concern if anyone beyond our two families had asked, but Conner is my cousin. It’s hardly inappropriate for me to aid in escorting her.”

I couldn’t believe Keir was arguing with my father. Most men wouldn’t have bothered pushing the issue, but Keir clearly wasn’t most men. He wasn’t about to back down, and my father must have sensed it.

“I suppose a quick visit to your grandparents won’t be a problem.” His eyes cut to mine, and I wondered what this would mean for me. No doubt I’d find out later once our guest had left.

My hand absently covered the cuff bracelet I’d worn over my right wrist all day to hide the mottled bruising.

“Tell me, Noemi, do you have any hobbies or interests?” Keir asked, putting an end to the debate.

Music. I used to sing all the time but only for myself. I tried to write extra neat, feeling an inexplicable need to gain the Irish mobster’s respect. Something about him induced a desire to impress.

“Any particular genre?”

I appreciated that he didn’t give any empty assurances that I was sure to recover my voice. Deceiving everyone was bad enough. I only felt worse when people tried to console me.

All kinds, but especially ballads with meaningful lyrics. I wasn’t sure why I was sharing any more about myself than the bare minimum. Again, it was just something about him.

Before he could comment, the front door chimed. We all watched Sante stroll to the entrance, then Conner’s baritone voice filtered into the room and feathered across my skin.

When he rounded the corner, he was the epitome of cool indifference. I would have believed it if his gaze hadn’t burned my skin when it drifted from Keir to me.

“Did I have our timing wrong?” Conner asked casually.

“No,” Keir assured him in that perfectly schooled voice of his. “I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to meet your lovely bride previously, so I thought I’d come by a few minutes early.”

Was that challenge in Keir’s aqua gaze?

Most likely, considering the displeasure rolling off Conner in waves. “Had I known you wanted an introduction, I would have been happy to help.”

Finally, the tiniest break in Keir’s icy demeanor—a smile wrought with wicked amusement. “You know better than to think I need your help with an introduction.”

“Speaking of introductions,” my father cut in. “Keir suggested he take Noemi to meet your grandparents tomorrow.”

Keir’s head slowly swiveled to stare at my father. For the first time I could ever recall witnessing, my father blanched.

“That’s very thoughtful of him,” Conner murmured impassively. “Gentlemen, should we get to business?”

“Of course,” Keir agreed. “We can’t have any hostile Albanians causing problems at such an important wedding. Noemi, it’s been a pleasure. I look forward to chatting more in the morning. Say ten?”

I nodded, a wave of awkward uncertainty perching high over my head.

Keir nodded respectfully, then gestured for Dad to lead the way. The two men and my brother followed my father out of the room, Conner searing me with an angry stare on his way.

My bones dissolved like sugar cubes in hot water the second I was alone. I fell back onto the couch and stared at the ceiling, needing a minute to recover before I could throw together a sandwich and drag myself upstairs. It looked like Dad would be working through dinner, and I was more than happy to hide for the rest of the night.

Thinking my drama with overbearing Irishmen was over for the evening, I ate my turkey and cheese, then changed into my pajamas. Growing up with a little brother meant it was habit for me to change in the bathroom. Sante rarely entered my room unannounced anymore, so I was surprised when I opened the door and found my room occupied. Only, it wasn’t my brother standing at my bedroom window.

“Conner, what are you doing up here?” I whispered, my eyes cutting to the open bedroom door.

He slowly turned and leveled me with his unrelenting stare.

I’d worried about dealing with my father after their meeting, but I hadn’t mentally prepared for six feet two of blistering anger devouring me. “You need to stay the fuck away from Keir.” The velvet darkness of his voice raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

“He’s your cousin,” I hissed quietly, eyes again straying to the doorway. “What exactly do you think is going to happen?”

I’d known my father might force me to stay home, but I didn’t have to take this from Conner, too. I refused on principle.

He stepped closer until every inch of his menacing frame towered over me. “I’m telling you to stay away, or you won’t like the consequences.”

“What are you going to do, cut off his fingers?” I spit back at him, recalling his earlier comment about maiming anyone who touched me.

He leaned in even closer, bringing his lips to my ear. “Try me and see.” His words caressed, sensual and excruciating, before his lips tugged at my earlobe with just enough pressure to elicit an avalanche of tingles from my scalp to my fingertips and lower.

I gasped, words escaping me. Outrage mixed with crushing desire to form a dizzying cocktail that stole my breath.

Satisfied with himself, Conner smirked and waltzed away.


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