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The Sweetest Oblivion: Chapter 1

Long Island, New York - Elena

“There’s no such thing as good money or bad money. There’s just money.”

—Lucky Luciano


MY HOME WAS PICTURESQUE. A red front door with a golden knocker. Black and white checkered flooring. A wooden staircase with a lacquer shine and a sparkling chandelier. However, I’d always wondered, If I pulled back a corner of the wallpaper . . . would it bleed red? If this world was as transparent as glass, soft splats would drip a pool to the marble floors.

I stared at the TV in the corner of the kitchen, hardly processing the newscaster’s voice, but when murder passed her ruby red lips, the word resounded in my mind. My throat tightened as I twisted the ring on my middle finger.

While my home, my life, was built on piles of dirty money, I’d always been able to say I hadn’t contributed to the balance. Not until earlier this year, that is. Now, blood was on my hands and guilt watched me while I slept.

Voices from the foyer drifted to my ears every time the swinging door opened as our servants came in and out, preparing for lunch.

A feminine trill of a laugh, my cousin Benito’s lively timbre, and a voice I’d vaguely recognized as I left the church this morning. It was low, smooth, and indifferent. The hair on the back of my neck rose. I knew it belonged to my future brother-in-law.

And it was partly—wholly—the reason I was hiding in the kitchen, though I would never admit it.

“You are too beautiful for that frown, Sweet Abelli,” my mamma said, as she entered the room with the cacophony of our guests’ conversations following her.

I shifted under the weight of her words. For obvious reasons, I hadn’t heard that nickname in a while. I’d grown out of the name some, especially when I realized I was the girl adored for all the wrong reasons: I wasn’t hard to look at, I was quiet when I should be and polite when I wasn’t. Like a childhood dress that didn’t fit anymore, I was stuck in the world’s expectations for me. It took years of feeling like a pretty bird in a cage until it all became too much . . . and I escaped.

“I don’t know why you watch this, Elena,” Mamma said, stirring the sauce on the stove. “All that nonsense is depressing.”

Mamma was married to Salvatore Abelli—a high-profile boss of one of the biggest organized crime syndicates in the United States. Sometimes I wondered if the naivety was denial, or if she would truly rather watch Days of Our Lives than worry about my papà’s affairs.

“I’m not sure who to vote for in the election,” I answered absently.

She shook her head in disbelief, and I guessed it was odd for the daughter of a mob boss to care about the legalities of the government.

“Your papà isn’t happy with you,” she said, looking at me under her dark eyelashes with that pursed-lips-you’re-in-trouble expression.

“When isn’t Papà unhappy with me lately?”

“What do you expect after what you did?”

Six months had passed, and I swore she brought it up every day. She was like a dog with a bone, and I honestly thought she enjoyed the mistake I’d made because she finally had something to chastise me about.

“Why didn’t you come meet the Russo after church today?” She pointed her spoon at me. “I’m not buying the act that you forgot and were waiting innocently in the car.”

I crossed my arms. “I just didn’t want to. He’s . . . rude.”

Elena,” she scolded. “You don’t even know him.”

“You don’t need to meet someone with his reputation to know his character, Mamma.”

Oh, Madonna, salvami,” she muttered.

“And he won’t understand Adriana,” I added tersely.

She snorted. “Not many will understand your sister, figlia mia.”

The gardener did . . . but I wasn’t going to share that with Mamma, or by the end of the day he’d be at the bottom of the Hudson.

Earlier this week, Papà had announced that Adriana would be marrying Nicolas Russo, the don of one of the five families in New York. My past transgressions were still tender wounds, but with this news added to the list it was like they’d been cut back open.

I was the eldest sister; therefore, it was my responsibility to marry first. But because of my mistake, my sister had been thrown under the bus—and to a man with a reputation. Everyone knew that when someone had a reputation in this world it meant one thing: stay the hell away from them.

“Besides, Nico is a perfect gentleman. If you would’ve met him this morning after church like you were supposed to, you would know that.”

I’d strode right out of the church doors and to the car before I could be corralled to meet my future brother-in-law. I was practically a pariah to my papà, so I was surprised he’d even noticed my absence. Besides, I was sure Nicolas Russo’s gentleman act was nothing but smoke and mirrors.

Since Nicolas’s papà had died five years ago, the twenty-nine-year-old and youngest sitting don had become well-known in the underworld. Following his father’s footsteps, he was a cheat, had more blood on his hands than the entirety of the New York State Penitentiary, and was unremorseful about it all. At least I imagined he was unapologetic. The newscaster wouldn’t have reported a new victim with the name “Zanetti” every morning for a year—the family Nicolas had once feuded with for killing his papà—if he felt at all guilty. He was going straight to Hell with that attitude if you asked me.

“I did meet him, Mamma.”

She raised a brow. “You did?”

“Well, no.”

Her expression darkened.

“But I shared a look with him,” I insisted. “And that was all I needed to see to know he wouldn’t be good for Adriana.”

She rolled her eyes. “Ridicolo.”

A glare and a look were the same things . . . right? It was an accident, really. It was as I was walking down the church steps that my gaze caught on the meeting I was supposed to be attending. Papà and Mamma stood on either side of Adriana and across from Nicolas Russo—and that was usually how a bride and groom met in this life. Arranged marriages were par for the course in the Cosa Nostra.

In annoyance at the entire situation, my eyes had narrowed slightly before glancing at my future brother-in-law, only to find he was already looking at me. That was how the glaring occurred—an accident, you see. But I could hardly convey that to the man, and if I had smiled it would’ve come off condescending, so I just . . . went with the glare and hoped it wouldn’t get me killed.

Nicolas’s gaze had hardened a flicker to show he didn’t like it, but after a second of heavy eye contact, he returned his attention to my papà like I was nothing but a leaf blowing by. I’d let out the breath I was holding and went to hide in the car. There was no way I was meeting him after that exchange. I’d just avoid him until the end of my days.

“Stop worrying and trust your papà.”

I made a hmm noise because I’d overheard from my cousin Benito that the alliance was for collaboration on some weapons deal, nothing more. My sister was a pawn in some large-scale trafficking agreement. How romantic. Even so, we knew this day would come. I held no expectations for a marriage of love, and neither did Adriana.

The problem was, my sister believed she was already in love.

With the gardener.

“Elena, go see if Adriana is ready for lunch.”

“She told me last night she wasn’t coming.”

“She’s coming!” Mamma snapped, followed by muttering in Italian.

With reluctance, I pushed off the counter and headed out of the kitchen. The newscaster’s voice trailed me out the swinging door, and, like a warning, that word murder spilled from red lips once more.

On an Evening in Roma played from the antique record player as I headed toward the staircase and took in the guests in the foyer. My papà’s sister and husband, a few male cousins, and my brother Tony, who was shooting an intense glare in Nicolas’s direction. Tony leaned against the wall with his hands in his black suit pockets, alone. His girlfriend wasn’t Italian and was rarely invited over. My mamma disliked her just because she was dating her son.

I loved my brother, but he was reckless, impulsive, and lived by the code, “If I don’t like it then I’ll fucking shoot it.” And it looked like he wanted to shoot Nicolas Russo. There was some history between the two, and it wasn’t the good kind.

My gaze caught on a striking woman with . . . interesting style. She stood next to a man who I assumed to be her grandfather, but then he slid a hand onto her ass. She only pursed her lips like it was an annoyance.

She wore a mink shawl in July, over a thin olive-green dress, and thigh-high boots. Long dark hair fell in smooth waves, and with her fake eyelashes and large hoop earrings she was like an ad to the seventies era. And, as if she wasn’t doing her job well enough, she blew a pink bubble and popped it, her eyes narrowing on me like I was the one whose style was four decades too late. If polar opposites were ever in the same room, it was her and me, undoubtedly.

Almost home free with one hand on the banister, my father’s voice sounded behind me. “Elena, come here.”

My stomach dipped and I closed my eyes in defeat, but I only hesitated for a second because that voice was non-negotiable.

My hands grew clammy as I made my way to where my papà stood next to Nicolas. When I reached my father’s side, he took my arm and gave me a smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes. Papà looked ten years younger than his fifty-five, with small streaks of silver through his black hair. He was always in a suit, and you’d never find a wrinkle in it, but that gentleman look was just a façade. I’d first seen how he’d gotten his reputation when I was seven, through a crack in his office door.

“Elena, this is Nicolas Russo. Nico, this is Elena, my eldest daughter.”

I’d done this dance a hundred times, just a different day, a different man. However, this time my breath was cut short, as though I was about to be pushed off a plank and into shark-infested water if I looked up at him. He’s just a man, I reminded myself. A man with the worst reputation in New York State, easily.

Why did I glare?

Inhaling for courage, I tipped my head, not being able to see him under the brim of my hat. A warm rush of recognition ran down my spine as I met his heavy gaze. Light brown eyes, the color of whiskey on ice, and thick, dark lashes. It gave him a brooding expression, almost as if he was looking into the sun, yet he was looking at me as though he was being introduced to one of the servants and not someone he would call “sister-in-law.”

I stood a few inches taller than Adriana, and even in my heels the top of my head wouldn’t hit his chin. I had the strong urge to avert my gaze and focus it eye-level on his black tie, but it felt like he’d be winning something if I looked away, so I held his stare. My tone was as polite as it always was in company. “It’s a pleasure—”

“We’ve already met.”

We what?

His indifferent voice ran down my spine, with a strange thrill following in its wake. He’d hardly said anything, but it now felt like I was standing on Russo turf instead of Abelli. As if a six-foot diameter around him was claimed as Russo no matter where he stood.

Papà frowned. “When did you two have the chance to meet?”

I swallowed.

Something amused and dangerous played in Nicolas’s gaze. “Earlier at church. Remember, Elena?”

My heartbeats collided with a crash. Why had my name rolled off his tongue like he was more than familiar with it?

My papà stiffened beside me, and I knew why he did: he thought I’d done something inappropriate with this man, like his tone had suggested. Heat rushed to my cheeks. All because of one mistake I’d made six months ago, my papà thought I’d come on to my sister’s fiancé?

I blinked through my apprehension. This was due to a really short, not even that hostile glare? This man had found out my weakness and was now playing with me.

Frustration clawed at my chest. I couldn’t very well go and make this situation worse by disagreeing with a don my father would most likely believe over me now. And so, I forced my voice into the lightest tone I could muster. “Yes, we’ve met, Papà. I forgot my jacket in the church and ran into him inside.”

I realized my mistake too late. It was July; I hadn’t worn a jacket. And Nicolas knew that.

He pulled a hand out of his pocket and ran a thumb across his bottom lip, giving his head a small shake. He looked impressed I had played along but almost disappointed at what a poor job I’d done.

I did not like this man—not at all.

A cold whisper ran through my blood as my father looked between us like he was unsure.

“Well, all right,” Papà finally responded, patting my arm. “That’s good, then. I’m sure Nico might have some questions for you about Adriana. You know her best.”

My lungs expanded, and I took in a breath. “Yes, of course, Papà.”

I would rather eat a handful of dirt.

The front door opened and my mamma’s brother and Papà’s consigliere, Marco, entered with his wife. My father said a parting word and went to greet them, and just left me with this man, whose presence was beginning to burn.

He stared down at me.

I stared up at him.

As a corner of his lips lifted, I realized I was amusing him. My cheeks heated with annoyance. Before, I would have murmured something sweet and made my leave, but that was before. Now, I couldn’t keep my expression polite as I met Nicolas’s—Nico’s, whatever his name was—gaze.

“We have not met,” I said firmly.

He cocked a brow in a cavalier way. “You sure? Here I was under the impression you had me all figured out.”

My heart fluttered so fast it couldn’t be healthy. I had no idea what to say because he was right. This interaction wasn’t doing anything to prove he wasn’t who I thought he was all along, however.

He smoothed an absent hand down his tie. “Do you know what assuming gets you?”

“Killed?” I breathed.

His eyes fell to my lips. “Smart girl.” The words were deep and soft, and a strange part of me felt like I’d done something good.

My breaths turned shallow when he moved to walk past me but stopped by my side. His arm touched mine and it burned like the lightest licks of a flame. His voice brushed the side of my neck. “It’s nice to meet you, Elena.” He said my name like he should have earlier: without any insinuation. Like I was something he could check off his list before he walked away.

I stood there, staring ahead, while absently returning a couple smiles to family members.

So that was my future brother-in-law. The man my sister would marry.

Maybe I was a horrible person, but some guilt drifted away and out the door another person just entered.

Because I was suddenly glad it was her and not me.


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