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I was confused.
At least, I remember being confused.
Being called away from school to join my father in the office is not a good thing. The office is where he conducts business. I have been there before but it is no place for a girl like me, or so he says.
The hall somehow looks longer than it ever has before. I walk it not knowing what to expect, clutching my schoolbag to me tightly.
Have I done something wrong? Why did he sound so tense on the phone?
My feet shuffle forward. I swallow hard, looking down at my shoes. My shoelace is undone.
He won’t like that.
I stop where I am to make sure my appearance is near stellar, running my hands through my long, straight black hair and smoothing my hands over the skirt of my private school uniform. I take my time, pulling my white socks up to my knees and being careful not to mark them.
My father didn’t raise a pack of animals. He raised ladies, and in my brothers case, a gentleman.
My siblings and I pride ourselves on being everything my father wished for. The only mob family with grace and humility, I’m sure.
At eighteen, I know my place. My place is to make my father happy. And I do.
At least, I think I do. So far there have been no complaints.
I study hard to maintain an A average, I dress appropriately, never showing too much skin and I watch over my younger sisters with love and care, molding them into the ladies they should be. Even I have to admit, I’m a pretty decent person and I love my family.
There are six of us in total. In order of age, we are: Miguel, who is twenty-four, myself, Veronica, who is sixteen, Carmen, who is fifteen, Patricia, who is thirteen, and Rosa, who is only nine. She was the last of us, born only a year before Mama died. I know Rosa doesn’t remember her. I know it hurts her. She has photos like the rest of us do, but it’s not enough.
My mother’s name was Dorina, affectionately known as Dori to anyone she liked. She met my father when they were both just kids, running around, playing on the street. He threw dirt in her face. Instead of crying like the other girls did, she simply stood and shook the dirt off of her. She walked home that day and told her mama about the silly boy who threw dirt at her. Her mother, my grandmother, laughed joyously and hugged her little girl. She explained, “Oh, gatito, boys are funny in the way they do things. And the worse they treat a girl usually means the more they like them.”
Mama heard this and was set.
She was going to marry that boy.
Fourteen years later, Mama became Mrs. Eduardo Castillo. They lived happily for the length of my mother’s life. She was the only woman in the world who could make my father laugh. He loved her so much that when she died, he mourned. And it scared the crap out of me.
My father is a reasonable man, but something changed during his mourning period. He became colder, more closed off. He started to shut us out.
The only person who can make him see reason is my brother, Miguel.
As I reach the office door, I knock lightly with a shaking hand.
“Come in,” calls a familiar voice.
My brother? My body turns rigid. What is he doing here?
Pushing the door open, I step inside and quietly close the door behind me. I walk to stand in front of the desk my father sits at but look up at my brother who stands behind my father. I haven’t seen him in a year. He looks good. Papa holds a hand at his forehead. He has yet to acknowledge me. I spare a sweet smile for my brother. When he doesn’t return it, my chest aches. Instead, his eyes turn soft and apologetic.
He looks like he’s about to cry.
It’s here I’d like to note that the men in my family don’t cry.
When my father lifts his face, my skin prickles at the look in his eyes. There is something there I haven’t seen before. Something calculating.
I know Papa isn’t a good man, but he is good to us. He’s a family man. He would do anything for us.
He would kill for us.
In fact, I know he has.
I clear my throat and ask gently, “Papa? Is everything okay?”
Surprised at my own ability to hide the quiver in my voice, I stand taller, feigning my calm. My father looks me in the eye. I haven’t noticed till now how much he’s aged since Mama died. The lines in his tanned face have deepened so much that he looks ten years older than his fifty years. The dark skin under his eyes seems as though he mustn’t have slept in months. But the laugh lines around his eyes… they’re gone.
I suppose he doesn’t use them as much as he used to. With my mother gone, he has no one to make him laugh.
“Alejandra,” he motions to the chair opposite his. His rough voice commands, “Sit.”
I don’t want to sit.
I want to run.
Looking to my brother for help. He shakes his head, eyeing the chair. I swallow hard, my heart pounding in time with my steps till I finally seat myself.
Papa sighs then stands. He paces. “I have called you here today to discuss something with you. Something of importance. I’m afraid we need to discuss this quickly. There isn’t much time.”
My brother’s warm brown eyes darken a shade. I see him bite the inside of his cheek. His face turns a deep shade of red and the vein at his temple throbs. It looks as though he’s about to snap.
The sight causes ice-cold fear to coil deep in my belly. Miguel doesn’t lose his temper. He’s a gentleman, patient and controlled.
My heart races. Something is very wrong here.
Not sure what to say, I nod once to let him know I’m listening. He continues. “Grave times we’re in. It’s not enough to be your own people anymore. There’s safety in numbers.” He pauses, planting his palms flat on his desk, leaning toward me. “There is a time in every persons life where sacrifices must be made for the sake of the greater good. Understand?”
I nod. I do understand. I understand that my father spends a lot of time away from home to maintain the good life we have. This is his sacrifice and he makes it without complaint.
I appreciate what he does for us, not that I know for sure what he does. It’s not my business. I’m just a woman.
His lips curve in what I’m sure is an attempt at a smile but it comes off as a grimace. He mutters, “Always a good girl. I’m so lucky to have you.”
My heart beams as warmth spreads through me, melting away some of the frozen fear inside of me, it warms me to my very toes. But my brother’s fists ball so hard that his knuckles turn white. Miguel hisses behind my father, “Tell her.”
Papa’s feeble smile wanes, looking mildly irritated by the interruption. “Yes. Of course.” Moving around the desk, my father sits on the edge of his desk and takes my hand in one of his, patting it gently with the other. As a girl, this was my everything. Looking up into my father’s smiling eyes while he spoke about this and that, it never really mattered what he was talking about, only that his attention was warm and unwavering.
But then he drops a bomb. “You’re going to marry, Dino, son of Vito Gambino.”
He says this without feeling, without reaction, without emotion.
My grip on his hand weakens but he holds it firm, in support? I don’t know. The blood drains from my face. My lips part and my breathing shallows.
My stomach is coiled tighter than a knot. It feels as though my body is attempting to strangle itself.
Licking my dry lips, I utter a quivering and hushed, “Why?”
“The Gambino’s aren’t unlike us. The Italians are family people, but they have some issues amongst themselves. Can’t trust each other. Each family has a different motive. Vito came to me seeking peace. And his offer was welcome. He treated me with respect and spoke to me about where he sees our families in ten years. And his vision,” he squeezes my hand, “is one I share.”
The bridge of my nose aches and my eyes sting. “Papa, I’m only eighteen…”
I’m grasping at straws here. This statement makes no sense even to me. Thankfully, my brother comes to my aid.
Miguel cuts in with, “Raul has been courting Alejandra since they were sixteen, Papa. You gave your blessing. This is…” his anger gets the better of him when he spits, “This is ridiculous. It’s just not… It’s just not done.”
Yes! Oh God, yes!
In the five minutes I’ve been here, I forgot about my boyfriend. He’ll help me. I know he will.
My father stands and spins facing Miguel. In deathly calm, he utters, “You have a better idea? This is an alliance we need, mi hijo. Alejandra understands. Sacrifices must be made. She does this for the family.” He turns to me, eyes full of pride. “It is an honor.”
The first of my tears falls. My throat thick, I whisper, “I don’t want to marry Dino. I want to marry Raul.”
My father turns back to me. “I called Raul in this morning. In promising him Veronica’s hand, he will give you up.”
The words are a slap to my face. Over and over, the pain fills me, crushing me.
Closing my eyes, I don’t even try to be graceful. I lift my hands to cover my face while I sob. “How… c-c-could… he?”
But rather than comfort me, my father just throws salt into the crevice where my heart has been ripped from. “Do not be like that, Alejandra. His father wanted a connection to our family. It’s a privilege.” My father sniffs a laugh. “You didn’t think he loved you, did you?”
Sobs are torn from my throat. My life is falling apart around me.
Miguel appears at my feet, kneeling down but looking up at me. He removes my hands from my face. “If there is a way out of this, I swear to you, Ana, I will find it. I swear it.”
Papa rolls his eyes. “It is marriage. Not murder. We have cause to rejoice, not mourn.”
Right now, I’d prefer murder to marriage.
I can’t seem to breathe properly. Every time I try to suck in a breath, my chest convulses as another sob is wrenched out of me.
My father looks at me in disdain before shaking his head, informing me, “Vito promises me that Dino is a good boy and he’ll treat you well. Like a princess. And you will be a princess in their family. Loved and respected by all, much like you are here. Now stop this nonsense. It’s done.” He sends a warning look to Miguel. “Nothing can be done. A deal has been made. The Castillo’s and the Gambino’s united through marriage.” My father laughs. “We should be celebrating,” he places his fingers under my chin, lifting it to look up at him, “not crying, gatito.” He wipes away my tears, kissing my cheek. “You will accompany me to dinner tonight. We meet with Vito and Dino.”
Immediately, Miguel bites out, “I’m coming too.”
My father looks down at his son. After a short while, he nods. “Yes. You should.”
Knowing Miguel will be there eases the tension in my body.
He won’t let anything happen to me.
Later that afternoon, we meet the Gambino’s at one of their many restaurants.
I haven’t met them before but I know who they are as soon as I see them. Men like my father, they have a certain air about them. Their character demands attention. They’re mesmerizing. Men want to be them and women wish to warm their beds.
I never understood this. They never affected me the way they affected other people.
The older man stands a second before the younger man stands. They both smile over at us. A few feet away from the table, Vito holds out his arms to my father. “Eduardo.”
My father, void of expression, steps into Vito’s arms, they slap at each other’s backs in a comfortable man hug. “Vito. Thank you for having us.”
I peek up at the men. Both dressed in exquisite suits, I can’t help but notice how attractive the younger man is. Even for an older man, Vito is handsome, with smiling eyes and salt and pepper hair. I notice the younger man reach up, pulling at the tie around his neck, loosening it. The small gesture makes me realize that I’m not alone in this situation. Dino is likely as pissed about this arrangement as I am.
This calms me somehow.
Vito steps towards me, ushering his son forward. “This must be Alejandra.” Vito reaches out to take my limp hand, kissing the back of it. He looks down to his son. “Lei è così piccola.”
Dino looks down at me, his hazel eyes dancing. He holds out his hand, waiting patiently for me to place my hand in his, unlike his father who took the liberty on his own. Hesitantly, I place my hand in his and his smile widens, dazzling me. “Please excuse my father, he doesn’t mean to be rude, he was merely saying that you’re so small. Petite.”
I know this. My sisters and I all have my mother’s build and coloring. Standing no taller than 5’1 with thick, straight black hair worn to my waist and warm brown eyes, I realize many would consider me pretty. My mother told me that beauty was a gift and to never use my beauty to get what I want, that I must remain humble.
The closer Dino gets, the harder my stomach flutters.
He really is a beautiful man. Tall with broad shoulders and a narrow waist, high cheekbones, a strong chin, full lips and smiling hazel eyes. His large hand cocoons mine, his lips descend and as his lips touch the skin of my knuckles, my stomach is sent into an uproar.
As he lets me back, he mutters, “I can see why your father hides you away. The most precious gems are usually kept locked in a safe place.”
I can almost hear Miguel scoff behind me. Holding out his hand, he introduces himself. Eyeing my brother, Dino smiles while shaking his hand. “You love your sister.”
Miguel, neither confirming nor denying this fact, pulls his hand away. Dino holds up his hands in a placating gesture. “I get it. I got sisters myself. And two brothers.” Dino looks down at me. “I’d do anything to keep them safe.” Pausing a moment, he steps closer to Miguel and utters quietly, “Your sister will be safe with me.” Side-eying me, he goes on, “Hell, maybe one day she’ll even love me. And when we’re married, you and I will be brothers. Which means you and your sisters will be included as such and will be placed under my protection. I’d give my life to keep you all safe.”
As far as winning Miguel over, I think Dino claims first place in his opening argument.
We sit and as my father and Vito chat away, Miguel – deciding he’s given Dino his blessing – talks business with Dino. I watch how Dino conducts himself and I’m impressed. He’s equal parts serious and witty, throwing Miguel off completely. Catching my brother laughing with Dino is unnerving.
This is really happening.
This is the man I’ll be marrying.
My chest squeezes.
I’m not sure I’m ready for this, not that anyone gives a fuck.
Standing suddenly, Dino turns to our fathers and announces, “Excuse me, gentlemen. I’d like a moment with Alejandra.” He turns to me, his lip curving. “I’ve neglected her far too long this evening.”
Miguel looks over at me and his eyes shout approval. My father smiles up at Dino as Vito nods in agreement. “Of course. But try not to be too long. We still have much to discuss.”
Not given much of a choice, I stand and smooth down my black dress. Taking my hand, Dino places it in the crook of his elbow, leading me away. We walk slowly, comfortable in our silence and I’m surprised to find myself feeling completely safe walking next to this man. Opening the door for me, I step outside. He motions for me to sit at one of the outside tables, I do as I’m told.
I always do as I’m told.
Dino sits and watches me closely. “You haven’t said a word. Not one.”
I shrug. What does he want me to say?
His eyes soften. “I know this isn’t easy. Believe me, I threw a shit fit when my father told me what he wanted me to do.” He scoffs. “I mean, c’mon, I’m only twenty-five. I don’t want to get married,” for some reason my chest pangs, “and for some reason, I don’t think you want to either.”
I find my voice. “I don’t.”
He smiles warmly. “Please, don’t spare my feelings or anything.”
I can’t help it. I dip my chin to hide my smile, but he catches it. “Would you look at that?” He chuckles before sobering. “You’re very pretty, Alejandra. Gorgeous, actually.”
My face heats quickly as my heart beats faster.
Dino reaches over the table, taking my hand. I look up into his eyes. He asks quietly, “Do you think you can give me a chance? I’d like to try.” He pauses a moment. “We have to try.”
He’s right. We have to.
And it could be worse. I mean, he’s attractive and charming and funny, and he seems to like me.
Averting my eyes, I tangle my fingers through his and whisper, “Yes.” I swallow hard. “I- I want to try.”
Dino stands and wraps his arms around me, holding me tight. My sudden surprise is pushed aside as I realize I need the comfort as much as he does. I gently snake my arms around his middle, resting my head against his chest, clutching at him for support, finding comfort in the soft beating of his heart. He kisses the top of my head. “I know this isn’t an ideal situation but I think we can make it work. We know how our families are. We know what they expect of us. I’d like to be your friend.” He pulls back. “I think-” He clears his throat. “I think I could love you. I think we could love each other.”
My throat thickens. I try to speak but all that comes out is a pained grunt. Lowering my face, wetness trails my cheeks.
I hate myself for crying. But Dino doesn’t.
Lifting my chin, he shushes me, kissing my cheek. “Bella, don’t cry. Please don’t cry.” Before I know what’s happening, his lips cover mine. As quickly as he kisses me, he pulls away, holding me once again. I grip at shirt, crying. He mutters, “Don’t worry, Alejandra. I’ll keep you safe.”
His words calm me.
Like I said… It could be a lot worse.
Fast forward six years…
My stomach presses into the mattress. Fingers dig into my hips, holding me down. I breathe rapidly through my nose, fighting the pain. Biting into the pillow to stop myself from crying out I think back to my grandmothers advice as my husband masturbates on the sofa, smirking at my tear streaked face while watching his brother rape me.
The worse they treat a girl usually means the more they like them.
If that is the case, my husband must really love me.
He must love me to death.
GOD FUCKING DAMN, SHIT, THIS PROLOGUE IS KILLING ME. EVERYTHING IS NICE AT FIRST, AND THEN BAM! MIND-BLOW.
❤ ABOUT THE AUTHOR ❤
Belle Aurora is twenty six years old and was born in the land down under.
At an early age she fell in love with reading. Boredom one summer had her scouring the bookshelves at home. She stumbled across Sandra Brown’s Breath of Scandal and fell in love with romance.
Having been brought up in a loud and boisterous family of Croatian descent, she developed a natural love for dramatics and humor. Only some years ago had she discovered a new love.
Humorous romance novels.
Kristen Ashley and R.L. Mathewson had opened a brand new world where she could lose herself yet feel safe and at home in their stories. Belle has been known to become a screeching banshee while anxiously awaiting their newest titles.
Belle never thought she would write. It had never interested her until recently. Friend-Zoned began to form and in February this year Belle typed the words Chapter One. And she fell in love.
With a creative imagination she never knew she harbored.
Friend-Zoned is the first in the Friend-Zoned series. Keep an eye out for this cheeky author.