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Silent Vows: Chapter 21


I lay awake for hours. At first, my body vibrated with anger that Conner had forced me to reveal my secret. He’d been curious about why I was still silent around everyone else, but I never dreamed he’d out me like that. Then I was hit with a wave of despair when I realized that despite my fury, I didn’t hate him for what he’d done. Maybe it was the dawning realization in his eyes when he saw my wrists. He had no idea of the repercussions of his actions.

Now he knew.

He knew I wasn’t just being childish. He also had confirmation that my father wasn’t an honorable man. Would that cause him to reconsider the alliance?

God, I hope not.

I needed Conner and the escape he provided. He might have been brutish and been married to his career in corruption, but I knew in my gut that he wasn’t the same as my dad. Not by a long shot. Conner was every shade of gray, preventing me from giving him any one sweeping label. It made it hard to know just how I should feel about him. The only thing I knew for sure was how he made my body feel. My core had remained swollen and sensitive in the most delicious way for ages after he’d left.

I’d never had an orgasm before. Maybe I was weird, but I’d never really touched myself. I hadn’t felt the need when I was younger, and after Mom’s death, that was the last thing on my mind. I’d made out with boyfriends and been felt up, but it had never gone any further. I’d had no idea release would cause such an explosive need to cry out. If I had … would I have stopped him?

I wasn’t sure I liked the answer to that question.

My need for him at that moment had outweighed just about everything else. Perhaps somewhere down deep, I’d anticipated the relief I’d feel knowing the charade was at an end. The weightlessness of that relief helped counteract my crushing anxiety.

One more week.

Surely, I could survive a week until the wedding.

The wedding.

A shiver rocked my entire body.

On August first, I’d be forever joined to the man who broke into my room, seduced, then coerced me. Did I have any chance at holding my own against him?

I’d thought I could marry Conner and keep love and marriage separate, but now … I wasn’t so sure. Nothing about the Irishman was neat and tidy enough to fit into a safe little box like I’d hoped. Like trying to contain an earthquake. Impossible. I felt like I had zero control over myself or my situation. That was why I decided to go with Keir despite Conner’s objections. I needed to feel like I had a shred of control over my life.

The other reason behind my decision was more childish, but I didn’t care in the slightest. Conner’s actions reeked of jealousy. Why else keep me from spending time with his cousin? Conner wanted me to himself, and a messed-up part of me liked it. A shrink would probably blame years of an absentee father and substantial daddy issues. I didn’t care. Knowing Conner wanted me all to himself filled my chest with a strange warmth.

And besides that, I liked knowing I could make him feel just as powerless as he made me feel. Something about misery loved company, yada yada.

I was probably poking the dragon, but I couldn’t help myself. The way Conner pushed my buttons made it impossible not to push back.

Rather than dissect why that was, I finally forced myself back to sleep. I should have been hazy the next morning from sleep deprivation, but adrenaline surged through my veins the second my eyes opened.

It was judgment day.

I spent extra time on my hair and makeup. Anything to delay the inevitable. Once I’d preened and primped as long as I dared, I reluctantly made my way downstairs. Dad sat at the dining table with his newspaper and coffee like he did most mornings. Sante scrolled on his phone, a wide smile on his face when I entered the room.

“Hey, Em!” He stilled in breathless anticipation.

I gave a shy smile. “Hey, Sante.”

“See, Dad! Told you. Isn’t it amazing?”

We both peered at our father, me with far less enthusiasm than my brother.

Dad’s stare cut me to the quick as he slowly lowered the paper to his lap. “It’s astounding. After all this time.”

I dropped my gaze and eased into my designated seat.

“We should have a party to celebrate,” my brother suggested.

“I think we’re already doing enough for the wedding,” I replied, praying he’d let it rest. The last thing I wanted was to bring more attention to myself.

“Well, we could at least go to dinner,” he countered.

“That’s a lovely idea,” Dad said, making the hair on the back of my neck stand tall. “Why don’t you find Umberto and tell him to clear my calendar? Then you can see about a reservation at Carbone.”

Sante winked at me, oblivious to the tension in the room. It was as though we lived in two separate parallel dimensions. In his, Dad was a tough but loving father who did his best to be strong for his family. In mine, we were both just puppets dancing to our father’s maniacal melody.

Of course, as the male heir, Sante had always received more of Dad’s attention. In a way, we had grown up in two very different realities. When I got the chance to tell him what I knew, I hoped he’d be willing to consider an alternate truth.

I reached for my water glass, hoping my tremble was too slight to notice. The table served as a barrier between my father and me. It was something, but I would have preferred several feet of reinforced concrete instead.

“Don’t think I can’t see beyond the coincidence in your voice returning right before you’re about to leave this family.” His softly spoken words snaked around my throat and squeezed.

If I played dumb or refuted him, I’d make myself a target. All I could do was play dead and hope he moved on quickly.

“Maybe you believe you hold some sort of power with them at your back.”

My head shook a fraction, desperate to keep him from getting angry.

My father lifted his phone and glanced at the screen. “I suppose that would be easy enough to fix, if it were the case. I could always remind you of the precariousness of your situation.” He typed out a short message, then set the phone down, his soulless stare returning to me.

I cleared the terror from my throat before speaking. “I love my family too much to ever put them at risk,” I offered softly. My words seemed to freeze in the arctic air around us and clatter to the floor. It meant nothing to a man who trusted so little.

A roaring curse sliced through the tension from down the hall, snatching my heart straight from my chest. I shot to my feet, recognizing Sante’s voice. The murmur of his continued curses coming closer was the only thing that kept a total meltdown of panic at bay.

“You okay?” I called out, hearing my brother enter the kitchen.

“Yeah, just my hand,” he grumbled back. “Umberto accidentally caught my fingers in the door. Just an accident, but it hurt like a bitch. May have broken a finger.”

The freezer door and rustling in the ice box drifted into the dining room. The entire time, Dad never moved a muscle. I glanced over at him, my eyes flicking to his phone and back at him in time to catch a glint of spite flash in his eyes.

He’d done this.

He’d hurt Sante—his son and heir—as a message to me.

I wanted to vomit all over the pristine white tablecloth. A part of me had hoped he wasn’t truly as ruthless as I suspected, but he successfully shattered that delusion. Fausto Mancini was a pure-blooded monster.

My jaw clenched against my rebelling stomach, and a sudden urge to hurl a stream of insults at my wretched father. I couldn’t let him see the defiance boiling up inside me. If he ever suspected I’d act against him, I couldn’t predict what he’d do.

“Perhaps it would be best if you waited in your room for your ride to show up. It would give you time to think about the precariousness of your current situation.” A not-so-subtle order but I was more than happy to comply. I wanted nothing more than to escape his toxic presence forever.

An hour later, I slid into Keir Byrne’s gunmetal-gray Mercedes. I’d practically dragged him from the house after Umberto let him in. Dad had disappeared, and I’d had no desire to wait around and chance an awkward encounter. Fortunately, Umberto hadn’t argued when I’d fled with our guest, and Keir had wisely waited until we were in the car for questions.

“Call me crazy, but weren’t you mute just yesterday?” he asked without even looking my way.

I took a deep breath, relaxing into the leather seat with each turn of the wheels taking me farther from home. “Yeah, it’s kind of wild, but I had a nightmare last night that drew out a scream. It seemed to jar loose my voice.” I shrugged.

“Sounds like a reason to celebrate.” His eyes cut over to me, keen intelligence reflecting in those blue depths.

I got the oddest sense he wasn’t remotely surprised, as though he’d already known. Had Conner told him? They seemed to be more rivals than confidants, but what did I know? These Irish men were such a flipping mystery.

“It was unexpected, for sure.”

He slid on black sunglasses that wrapped around the sides, acting as a barrier between us. Not that it made much difference. His eyes were more mirrors than windows. Everything about him seemed designed to shield and confuse, like those 3D images you had to cross your eyes to see the hidden image. He was mirage and illusion, decked out in dark jeans and leather boots. His tight T-shirt exposed a plethora of colorful tattoos that were a stark contrast to his tightly controlled persona—yet another piece of the Viking’s puzzle. I wondered if anyone ever saw the full picture.

“You know, not many people would push my dad like you did, arguing against his request to send one of his men with us.” I was curious about him. Enough to embolden me to ask questions.

Keir smirked. “I wasn’t arguing; I just didn’t roll over. You’ll never get anything in this world if you don’t fight for it.”

“That implies you didn’t want Umberto with us. Why did it matter to you?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” he asked. “I wanted you alone.” His eyes cut to me before returning to the road.

My stomach dipped and swerved as though we’d taken a hard turn. Keir had answered my question while simultaneously remaining vague. Unease flitted at the base of my spine.

“Are you close with Conner?” I asked, hoping that if I better understood their relationship, I might understand why Conner had been so adamant against me taking this jaunt with his cousin. I prayed I hadn’t overlooked a threat to my safety. I’d been convinced Conner’s objection lay rooted in jealousy, but I was in trouble if there’d been more to it.

“We grew up together—all of us Byrne kids. Our family is close.” Again, he glanced at me, and I got the sense he was feeling me out, but I wasn’t sure in what way. “I imagine parting from your family has been an imposing prospect.”

I swiped at invisible lint on my dress and shrugged. “Life is all about change. And I’m not exactly moving across the country or anything.”

“Still, I can’t imagine you were raised to think highly of other … families. Other organizations. This had to be a big shock.”

Was he … questioning my loyalty? Did he think I was acting as some sort of mole?

“Dad wasn’t around much growing up, so that type of stuff wasn’t really a part of my world,” I explained in a firm tone, my spine stiffening.

“Sometimes it doesn’t take much. A few subtle undertones can color the way someone views the world,” he pushed.

“So can cruelty. That puts things into perspective more than anything, focusing a person’s priorities and redefining loyalties.”

Keir stared at me long enough that I worried he’d crash the car. I hoped that if he was feeling out where I stood, my message had been received. I didn’t give a fuck who worked for whom. All that mattered to me was protecting the people I loved.

When he finally looked back to the road, he grunted.

I took that as a sign that I’d passed, and we both remained quiet for the rest of the short journey.

“Nana, Paddy, this is Noemi Mancini. She’s Conner’s fiancée.” Keir stepped aside, presenting me to his grandparents.

I extended my hand toward Padrick Byrne, who ignored my offer and pulled me into a hug.

“An unfortunate Italian birth, but with those green eyes, no doubt you were meant for the Irish.” He pulled back and winked. The Irish lilt to his words added to the playfulness, but a sharpness in his eyes hinted at an underlying strength. They had to be at least eighty, but I had a feeling Paddy had been positively ferocious in his day.

Nana shooed him away and took both my hands in hers, pulling them wide as she swept her gaze down the front of me. “Lovely from top to bottom, ya are, lass. Come here.” She pulled me into a hug.

“We’re delighted to meet ye,” Paddy added. “But why is it not Conner that brought ye?”

My lips parted to answer, but Keir beat me to it.

“He was busy and asked me to bring her by.”

“Ach, too busy for us? Maybe, but surely not for such a lovely bride. I’ll have to give him a piece of my mind next time I see him.” Nana looked at me as she sat back in her recliner. “That’s the first thing you’ll need to learn—never give ’em an inch, not these Byrne men. They’ll take it and run a mile.”

Paddy grunted. “You causin’ problems for the boy before he’s even walked down the aisle, Aine? Hold yer whist.”

She shot him a look that could have withered a newly bloomed flower to ash. I had to bite down on my lips to keep from laughing.

“Now, tell me if I’m wrong,” Paddy went on, “but I could have sworn I was told you were mute.” He rubbed his scruffy jaw with a wrinkled hand and studied me.

“I was,” I explained. “But in a strange twist of fate, my voice returned just last night after six months of absence.”

Nana crossed herself. “Ain’t that just the way of him? Workin’ miracles we can only guess at. Why, just last week, Paddy here took out the trash without me even havin’ to ask.” She cut her eyes wryly to her husband.

I grinned, deciding I officially adored Nana Byrne.

We talked for several minutes before a knock sounded on the front door.

“Well, who could that be?” Paddy said to no one in particular, getting to his feet. Before he could move toward the entrance, the door opened and closed, and Conner joined our little party.

“What a lovely surprise, Paddy,” Nana cried. “Do ye see who it is? Conner’s come to see us.”

“I’m old, not blind,” Paddy grumbled. “Glad you came, son. It’s only fitting.”

Conner hugged his grandparents, a fondness to his soft smile. “I agree, Paddy. It’s only right I’m here to introduce my bride.” He shot a glare at Keir, then me.

Nana clasped my hand and grinned. “And did ye already know the incredible news? Our girl here can talk again!”

“As a matter of fact, I did know. I was lucky enough to be the first to know when she released her first sounds.” Conner’s devilish stare pinned me to my seat, where I suddenly wished I could melt into the floral fabric.

Nana and Paddy seemed oblivious to his innuendo, but Keir smirked.

Flames licked at my cheeks.

If I could have slugged him in the arm without looking insane, I would have. “I’m surprised you’re here,” I shot at Conner instead. “I thought you’d made other plans.”

“Not at all. I try to stop in and visit Nana here whenever I can.”

Nana snorted. “That’s some bollocks if I’ve ever heard any.”

I coughed out a poorly disguised laugh.

“Well,” Conner continued. “If I hadn’t meant to visit, would I have come prepared with these?” He lifted the paper sack I hadn’t noticed he was carrying and handed it to his grandmother.

Her scowl melted to a wry grin. “Yer forgiven.” She took the sack and peeked inside. “Orange slices! Ye know how I love them.” She took out an orange jellied candy and bit off a corner like it was the most precious delicacy known to man. Granted, they were the nice kind of candies you had to go to a specialty candy shop to get, which meant Conner had planned to come. I wondered if that was out of his own free will or if he suspected I’d defy him from the beginning.

“Can’t have sweets without tea,” Nana said. “Have a seat, Con. Paddy,” she barked. “Go an’ fetch us some tea.”

He scowled at her but rose to his feet and shuffled from the room.

“You have to try one of these, lass.” The old woman held out the opened bag. “They’re my absolute favorite.”

Happy to oblige, I reached in and fished out a half-circle slice then took a bite. When I glanced at Conner, feeling his eyes bearing down on me, I was shocked at the unadulterated fury hardening his gaze. Then I realized his stare was trained on my wrist, where I still wore the gold cuff covering the remnants of my bruise. Every ounce of his control was focused on restraint. He would insist on an explanation once we were alone, but I was granted a reprieve for now.


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