Release Date: January 6, 2019
Buy the Book:
Amazon US Amazon UK Amazon CA Amazon AU Audiobook Paperback Add on Goodreads
They say your first kiss should be earned.
Mine was stolen by a devil in a masquerade mask under the black Chicago sky.
They say the vows you take on your wedding day are sacred.
Mine were broken before we left church.
They say your heart only beats for one man.
Mine split and bled for two rivals who fought for it until the bitter end.
I was promised to Angelo Bandini, the heir to one of the most powerful families in the Chicago Outfit.
Then taken by Senator Wolfe Keaton, who held my father’s sins over his head to force me into marriage.
They say that all great love stories have a happy ending.
I, Francesca Rossi, found myself erasing and rewriting mine until the very last chapter.
And somewhere between these two men, I had to find my forever.
What sucked the most was that I, Francesca Rossi, had my entire future locked inside an unremarkable old wooden box.
Since the day I’d been made aware of it—at six years old—I knew that whatever waited for me inside was going to either kill or save me. So it was no wonder that yesterday at dawn, when the sun kissed the sky, I decided to rush fate and open it.
I wasn’t supposed to know where my mother kept the key.
I wasn’t supposed to know where my father kept the box.
But the thing about sitting at home all day and grooming yourself to death so you could meet your parents’ next-to-impossible standards? You have time—in spades.
“Hold still, Francesca, or I’ll prick you with the needle,” Veronica whined underneath me.
My eyes ran across the yellow note for the hundredth time as my mother’s stylist helped me get into my dress as if I was an invalid. I inked the words to memory, locking them in a drawer in my brain no one else had access to.
Excitement blasted through my veins like a jazzy tune, my eyes zinging with determination in the mirror in front of me. I folded the piece of paper with shaky fingers and shoved it into the cleavage under my unlaced corset.
I started pacing in the room again, too animated to stand still, making Mama’s hairdresser and stylist bark at me as they chased me around the dressing room comically.
I am Groucho Marx in Duck Soup. Catch me if you can.
Veronica tugged at the end of my corset, pulling me back to the mirror as if I were on a leash.
“Hey, ouch.” I winced.
“Stand still, I said!”
It was not uncommon for my parents’ employees to treat me like a glorified, well-bred poodle. Not that it mattered. I was going to kiss Angelo Bandini tonight. More specifically—I was going to let him kiss me.
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about kissing Angelo every night since I returned a year ago from the Swiss boarding school my parents threw me in. At nineteen, Arthur and Sofia Rossi had officially decided to introduce me to the Chicagoan society and let me have my pick of a future husband from the hundreds of eligible Italian-American men who were affiliated with The Outfit. Tonight was going to kick-start a chain of events and social calls, but I already knew whom I wanted to marry.
Papa and Mama had informed me that college wasn’t in the cards for me. I needed to attend to the task of finding the perfect husband, seeing as I was an only child and the sole heir to the Rossi businesses. Being the first woman in my family to ever earn a degree had been a dream of mine, but I was nowhere near dumb enough to defy them. Our maid, Clara, often said, “You don’t need to meet a husband, Frankie. You need to meet your parents’ expectations.”
She wasn’t wrong. I was born into a gilded cage. It was spacious, but locked, nonetheless. Trying to escape it was risking death. I didn’t like being a prisoner, but I imagined I’d like it much less than being six feet under. And so I’d never even dared to peek through the bars of my prison and see what was on the other side.
My father, Arthur Rossi, was the head of The Outfit.
The title sounded painfully merciless for a man who’d braided my hair, taught me how to play the piano, and even shed a fierce tear at my London recital when I played the piano in front of an audience of thousands.
Angelo—you guessed it—was the perfect husband in the eyes of my parents. Attractive, well-heeled, and thoroughly moneyed. His family owned every second building on University Village, and most of the properties were used by my father for his many illicit projects.
I’d known Angelo since birth. We watched each other grow the way flowers blossom. Slowly, yet fast at the same time. During luxurious summer vacations and under the strict supervision of our relatives, Made Men—men who had been formally induced as full members of the mafia—and bodyguards.
Angelo had four siblings, two dogs, and a smile that would melt the Italian ice cream in your palm. His father ran the accounting firm that worked with my family, and we both took the same annual Sicilian vacations in Syracuse.
Over the years, I’d watched as Angelo’s soft blond curls darkened and were tamed with a trim. How his glittering, ocean-blue eyes became less playful and broodier, hardened by the things his father no doubt had shown and taught him. How his voice had deepened, his Italian accent sharpened, and he began to fill his slender boy-frame with muscles and height and confidence. He became more mysterious and less impulsive, spoke less often, but when he did, his words liquefied my insides.
Falling in love was so tragic. No wonder it made people so sad.
And while I looked at Angelo as if he could melt ice cream, I was the only girl who melted from his constant frown whenever he looked at me.
It made me sick to think that when I went back to my all-girls’ Catholic school, he’d gone back to Chicago to hang out and talk and kiss other girls. But he’d always made me feel like I was The Girl. He sneaked flowers into my hair, let me sip some of his wine when no one was looking, and laughed with his eyes whenever I spoke. When his younger brothers taunted me, he flicked their ears and warned them off. And every summer, he found a way to steal a moment with me and kiss the tip of my nose.
“Francesca Rossi, you’re even prettier than you were last summer.”
“You always say that.”
“And I always mean it. I’m not in the habit of wasting words.”
“Tell me something important, then.”
“You, my goddess, will one day be my wife.”
I tended to every memory from each summer like it was a sacred garden, guarded it with fenced affection, and watered it until it grew to a fairy-tale-like recollection.
More than anything, I remembered how, each summer, I’d hold my breath until he snuck into my room, or the shop I’d visit, or the tree I’d read a book under. How he began to prolong our “moments” as the years ticked by and we entered adolescence, watching me with open amusement as I tried—and failed—to act like one of the boys when I was so painfully and brutally a girl.
I tucked the note deeper into my bra just as Veronica dug her meaty fingers into my ivory flesh, gathering the corset behind me from both ends and tightening it around my waist.
“To be nineteen and gorgeous again,” she bellowed rather dramatically. The silky cream strings strained against one another, and I gasped. Only the royal crust of the Italian Outfit still used stylists and maids to get ready for an event. But as far as my parents were concerned—we were the Windsors. “Remember the days, Alma?”
The hairdresser snorted, pinning my bangs sideways as she completed my wavy chignon updo. “Honey, get off your high horse. You were pretty like a Hallmark card when you were nineteen. Francesca, here, is The Creation of Adam. Not the same league. Not even the same ball game.”
I felt my skin flare with embarrassment. I had a sense that people enjoyed what they saw when they looked at me, but I was mortified by the idea of beauty. It was powerful yet slippery. A beautifully wrapped gift I was bound to lose one day. I didn’t want to open it or ravish in its perks. It would only make parting ways with it more difficult.
The only person I wanted to notice my appearance tonight at the Art Institute of Chicago masquerade was Angelo. The theme of the gala was Gods and Goddesses through the Greek and Roman mythologies. I knew most women would show up as Aphrodite or Venus. Maybe Hera or Rhea, if originality struck them. Not me. I was Nemesis, the goddess of retribution. Angelo had always called me a deity, and tonight, I was going to justify my pet name by showing up as the most powerful goddess of them all.
It may have been silly in the 21st century to want to get married at nineteen in an arranged marriage, but in The Outfit, we all bowed to tradition. Ours happened to belong firmly in the 1800s.
“What was in the note?” Veronica clipped a set of velvety black wings to my back after sliding my dress over my body. It was a strapless gown the color of the clear summer sky with magnificent organza blue scallops. The tulle trailed two feet behind me, pooling like an ocean at my maids’ feet. “You know, the one you stuck in your corset for safekeeping.” She snickered, sliding golden feather-wing earrings into my ears.
“That”—I smiled dramatically, meeting her gaze in the mirror in front of us, my hand fluttering over my chest where the note rested—“is the beginning of the rest of my life.”
“I didn’t know Venus had wings.”
Angelo kissed the back of my hand at the doors to the Art Institute of Chicago. My heart sank before I pushed the silly disappointment aside. He was only baiting me. Besides, he looked so dazzlingly handsome in his tux tonight, I could forgive any mistake he made, short of coldhearted murder.
The men, unlike the women at the gala, wore a uniform of tuxedos and demi-masks. Angelo complemented his suit with a golden-leafed Venetian masquerade mask that took over most of his face. Our parents exchanged pleasantries while we stood in front of each other, drinking in every freckle and inch of flesh on one another. I didn’t explain my Nemesis costume to him. We’d have time—an entire lifetime—to discuss mythology. I just needed to make sure that tonight we’d have another fleeting summer moment. Only this time, when he kissed my nose, I’d look up and lock our lips, and fate, together.
I am Cupid, shooting an arrow of love straight into Angelo’s heart.
“You look more beautiful than the last time I saw you.” Angelo clutched the fabric of his suit over where his heart beat, feigning surrender. Everyone around us had gone quiet, and I noticed our fathers staring at one another conspiratorially.
Two powerful, wealthy Italian-American families with strong mutual ties.
Don Vito Corleone would be proud.
“You saw me a week ago at Gianna’s wedding.” I fought the urge to lick my lips as Angelo stared me straight in the eyes.
“Weddings suit you, but having you all to myself suits you more,” he said simply, throwing my heart into fifth gear, before twisting toward my father. “Mr. Rossi, may I escort your daughter to the table?”
My father clasped my shoulder from behind. I was only vaguely aware of his presence as a thick fog of euphoria engulfed me. “Keep your hands where I can see them.”
Angelo and I entwined our arms together as one of the dozens of waiters showed us to our seats at the table clothed in gold and graced with fine black china. Angelo leaned and whispered in my ear, “Or at least until you’re officially mine.”
The Rossis and Bandinis had been placed a few seats away from each other—much to my disappointment, but not to my surprise. My father was always at the heart of every party and paid a pretty penny to have the best seats everywhere he went. Across from me, the governor of Illinois, Preston Bishop, and his wife fretted over the wine list. Next to them was a man I didn’t know. He wore a simple all-black demi-mask and a tux that must’ve cost a fortune by its rich fabric and impeccable cut. He was seated next to a boisterous blonde in a white French tulle camisole gown. One of dozens of Venuses who arrived in the same number.
The man looked bored to death, swirling the whiskey in his glass as he ignored the beautiful woman by his side. When she tried to lean in and speak to him, he turned the other way and checked his phone, before completely losing interest in all things combined and staring at the wall behind me.
A pang of sorrow sliced through me. She deserved better than what he was offering. Better than a cold, foreboding man who sent chills down your spine without even looking at you.
I bet he could keep ice cream chilled for days on end.
“You and Angelo seem to be taken with one another,” Papa remarked conversationally, glancing at my elbows, which were propped on the table. I withdrew them immediately, smiling politely.
“He’s nice.” I’d say ‘super nice’, but my father absolutely detested modern slang.
“He fits the puzzle,” Papa snipped. “He asked if he could take you out next week, and I said yes. With Mario’s supervision, of course.”
Of course. Mario was one of Dad’s dozens of musclemen. He had the shape and IQ of a brick. I had a feeling Papa wasn’t going to let me sneak anywhere he couldn’t see me tonight, precisely because he knew Angelo and I got along a little too well. Papa was overall supportive, but he wanted things to be done a certain way. A way most people my age would find backward or maybe even borderline barbaric. I wasn’t stupid. I knew I was digging myself a hole by not fighting for my right for education and gainful employment. I knew that I should be the one to decide whom I wanted to marry.
But I also knew that it was his way or the highway. Breaking free came with the price of leaving my family behind—and my family was my entire world.
Other than tradition, The Chicagoan Outfit was vastly different from the version they portrayed in the movies. No gritty alleyways, slimy drug addicts, and bloody combats with the law. Nowadays, it was all about money laundering, acquisition, and recycling. My father openly courted the police, mingled with top-tier politicians, and even helped the FBI nail high-profile suspects.
In fact, that was precisely why we were here tonight. Papa had agreed to donate a staggering amount of money to a new charity foundation designed to help at-risk youth acquire a higher education.
Oh, irony, my loyal friend.
I sipped champagne and stared across the table at Angelo, making conversation with a girl named Emily whose father owned the biggest baseball stadium in Illinois. Angelo told her he was about to enroll into a master’s program at Northwestern, while simultaneously joining his father’s accounting firm. The truth was, he was going to launder money for my father and serve The Outfit until the rest of his days. I was getting lost in their conversation when Governor Bishop turned his attention to me.
“And what about you, Little Rossi? Are you attending college?”
Everyone around us was conversing and laughing, other than the man in front of me. He still ignored his date in favor of downing his drink and disregarding his phone, which flashed with a hundred messages a minute. Now that he looked at me, he also looked through me. I vaguely wondered how old he was. He looked older than me, but not quite Papa’s age.
“Me?” I smiled courteously, my spine stiffening. I smoothed my napkin over my lap. My manners were flawless, and I was well versed in mindless conversations. I’d learned Latin, etiquette, and general knowledge at school. I could entertain anyone, from world leaders to a piece of chewed gum. “Oh, I just graduated a year ago. I’m now working toward expanding my social repertoire and forming connections here in Chicago.”
“In other words, you neither work nor study,” the man in front of me commented flatly, knocking his drink back and shooting my father a vicious grin. I felt my ears pinking as I blinked at my father for help. He mustn’t have heard because he seemed to let the remark brush him by.
“Jesus Christ,” the blond woman next to the rude man growled, reddening. He waved her off.
“We’re among friends. No one would leak this.”
Leak this? Who the hell was he?
I perked up, taking a sip of my drink. “There are other things I do, of course.”
“Do share,” he taunted in mock fascination. Our side of the table fell silent. It was a grim kind of silence. The type that hinted a cringeworthy moment was upon us.
“I love charities…”
“That’s not an actual activity. What do you do?”
Verbs, Francesca. Think verbs.
“I ride horses and enjoy gardening. I play the piano. I…ah, shop for all the things I need.” I was making it worse, and I knew it. But he wouldn’t let me divert the conversation elsewhere, and no one else stepped in to my rescue.
“Those are hobbies and luxuries. What’s your contribution to society, Miss Rossi, other than supporting the US economy by buying enough clothes to cover North America?”
Utensils cluttered on fine china. A woman gasped. The leftovers of chatter stopped completely.
“That’s enough,” my father hissed, his voice frosty, his eyes dead. I flinched, but the man in the mask remained composed, straight-spined and, if anything, gaily amused at the turn the conversation had taken.
“I tend to agree, Arthur. I think I’ve learned everything there is to know about your daughter. And in a minute, no less.”
“Have you forgotten your political and public duties at home, along with your manners?” my father remarked, forever well mannered.
The man grinned wolfishly. “On the contrary, Mr. Rossi. I think I remember them quite clearly, much to your future disappointment.”
Preston Bishop and his wife extinguished the social disaster by asking me more questions about my upbringing in Europe, my recitals, and what I wanted to study (botany, though I wasn’t stupid enough to point out that college was not in my cards). My parents smiled at my flawless conduct, and even the woman next to the rude stranger tentatively joined the conversation, talking about her European trip during her gap year. She was a journalist and had traveled all over the world. But no matter how nice everyone was, I couldn’t shake the terrible humiliation I’d suffered under the sharp tongue of her date, who—by the way—got back to staring at the bottom of his freshly poured tumbler with an expression that oozed boredom.
I contemplated telling him he didn’t need another drink but professional help could work wonders.
After dinner came the dancing. Each woman in attendance had a dance card filled with names of those who made an undisclosed bid. All the profits went to charity.
I went to check my card on the long table containing the names of the women who’d attended. My heart beat faster as I scanned it, spotting Angelo’s name. My exhilaration was quickly replaced with dread when I realized my card was full to the brim with Italian-sounding names, much longer than the others scattered around it, and I would likely spend the rest of the night dancing until my feet were numb. Sneaking a kiss with Angelo was going to be tricky.
My first dance was with a federal judge. Then a raging Italian-American playboy from New York, who told me he’d come here just to see if the rumors about my looks were true. He kissed the hem of my skirt like a medieval duke before his friends dragged his drunken butt back to their table. Please don’t ask my father for a date, I groaned inwardly. He seemed like the kind of rich tool who’d make my life some variation of The Godfather. The third was Governor Bishop, and the fourth was Angelo. It was a relatively short waltz, but I tried not to let it dampen my mood.
“There she is.” Angelo’s face lit up when he approached me and the governor for our dance.
Chandeliers seeped from the ceiling, and the marble floor sang with the clinking heels of the dancers. Angelo dipped his head to mine, taking my hand in his, and placing his other hand on my waist.
“You look beautiful. Even more so than two hours ago,” he breathed, sending warm air to my face. Tiny, velvety butterfly wings tickled at my heart.
“Good to know, because I can’t breathe in this thing.” I laughed, my eyes wildly searching his. I knew he couldn’t kiss me now, and a dash of panic washed over the butterflies, drowning them in dread. What if we couldn’t catch each other at all? Then the note would be useless.
This wooden box will save me or kill me.
“I’d love to give you mouth-to-mouth whenever you’re out of breath.” He skimmed my face, his throat bobbing with a swallow. “But I would start with a simple date next week, if you are interested.”
“I’m interested,” I said much too quickly. He laughed, his forehead falling to mine.
“Would you like to know when?”
“When we’re going out?” I asked dumbly.
“That, too. Friday, by the way. But I meant when was the point in which I knew you were going to be my wife?” he asked without missing a beat. I could barely bring myself to nod. I wanted to cry. I felt his hand tightening around my waist and realized I was losing my balance.
“It was the summer you turned sixteen. I was twenty. Cradle snatcher.” He laughed. “We arrived at our Sicilian cabin late. I was rolling my suitcase by the river next to our adjoined cabins when I spotted you threading flowers into a crown on the dock. You were smiling at the flowers, so pretty and elusive, and I didn’t want to break the spell by talking to you. Then the wind swiped the flowers everywhere. You didn’t even hesitate. You jumped headfirst into the river and retrieved every single flower that had drifted from the crown, even though you knew it wouldn’t survive. Why did you do that?”
“It was my mother’s birthday,” I admitted. “Failure was not an option. The birthday crown turned out pretty, by the way.”
My eyes drifted to the useless space between our chests.
“Failure is not an option,” Angelo repeated thoughtfully.
“You kissed my nose in the restroom of that restaurant that day,” I pointed out.
“Are you going to steal a nose-kiss tonight?” I asked.
“I would never steal from you, Frankie. I’d buy my kiss from you at full price, down to the penny,” he sparred good-naturedly, winking at me, “but I’m afraid that between your shockingly full card and my obligations to mingle with every Made Man who was lucky enough to snatch an invitation to this thing, a raincheck may be required. Don’t worry, I’ve already told Mario I’d tip him generously for taking his time fetching our car from the valet on Friday.”
The trickle of panic was now a full-blown downpour of terror. If he wasn’t going to kiss me tonight, the note’s prediction would go to waste.
“Please?” I tried to smile brighter, masking my terror with eagerness. “My legs could use the break.”
He bit his fist and laughed. “So many sexual innuendos, Francesca.”
I didn’t know if I wanted to cry with despair or scream with frustration. Probably both. The song hadn’t ended yet, and we were still swaying in each other’s arms, lulled inside a dark spell, when I felt a firm, strong hand plastered on the bare part of my upper back.
“I believe it’s my turn.” I heard the low voice booming behind me. I turned around with a scowl to find the rude man in the black demi-mask staring back at me.
He was tall—six-foot-three or four—with tousled ink-black hair smoothed back to tantalizing perfection. His sinewy, hard physique was slim yet broad. His eyes were pebble gray, slanted, and menacing, and his too-square jaw framed his bowed lips perfectly, giving his otherwise too-handsome appearance a gritty edge. A scornful, impersonal smirk graced his lips and I wanted to slap it off his face. He was obviously still amused with what he thought was a bunch of nonsense I spat out at the dinner table. And we clearly had an audience as I noticed half the room was now glaring at us with open interest. The women looked at him like hungry sharks in a fishbowl. The men had half-curved grins of hilarity.
“Mind your hands,” Angelo snarled when the song changed, and he could no longer keep me in his arms.
“Mind your business,” the man deadpanned.
“Are you sure you’re on my card?” I turned to the man with a polite yet distant smile. I was still disoriented from the exchange with Angelo when the stranger pulled me against his hard body and pressed a possessive hand lower than socially acceptable on my back, a second from groping my butt.
“Answer me,” I hissed.
“My bid on your card was the highest,” he replied dryly.
“The bids are undisclosed. You don’t know how much other people have paid,” I kept my lips pursed to keep myself from yelling.
“I know it’s nowhere near the realm of what this dance is worth.”
We began to waltz around the room as other couples were not only spinning and mingling but also stealing envious glances at us. Naked, raw ogles that told me that whomever the blonde he’d come to the masquerade with was, she wasn’t his wife. And that I might have been all the rage in The Outfit, but the rude man was in high demand, too.
I was stiff and cold in his arms, but he didn’t seem to notice—or mind. He knew how to waltz better than most men, but he was technical, and lacked warmth and Angelo’s playfulness.
“Nemesis.” He took me by surprise, his rapacious gaze stripping me bare. “Distributing glee and dealing misery. Seems at odds with the submissive girl who entertained Bishop and his horsey wife at the table.”
I choked on my own saliva. Did he just call the governor’s wife horsey? And me submissive? I looked away, ignoring the addictive scent of his cologne, and the way his marble body felt against mine.
“Nemesis is my spirit animal. She was the one to lure Narcissus to a pool where he saw his own reflection and died of vanity. Pride is a terrible illness.” I flashed him a taunting smirk.
“Some of us could use catching it.” He bared his straight white teeth.
“Arrogance is a disease. Compassion is the cure. Most gods didn’t like Nemesis, but that’s because she had a backbone.”
“Do you?” He arched a dark eyebrow.
“Do I…?” I blinked, the courteous grin on my face crumpling. He was even ruder when we were alone.
“Have a backbone,” he provided. He stared at me so boldly and intimately, it felt like he breathed fire into my soul. I wanted to step out of his touch and jump into a pool full of ice.
“Of course, I do,” I responded, my spine stiffening. “What’s with the manners? Were you raised by wild coyotes?”
“Give me an example,” he said, ignoring my quip. I was beginning to draw away from him, but he jerked me back into his arms. The glitzy ballroom distorted into a backdrop, and even though I was starting to notice that the man behind the demi-mask was unusually beautiful, the ugliness of his behavior was the only thing that stood out.
I am a warrior and a lady…and a sane person who can deal with this horrid man.
“I really like Angelo Bandini.” I dropped my voice, slicing my gaze from his eyes and toward the table where Angelo’s family had been seated. My father was sitting a few seats away, staring at us coldly, surrounded by Made Men who chatted away.
“And see, in my family, we have a tradition dating back ten generations. Prior to her wedding, a Rossi bride is to open a wooden chest—carved and made by a witch who lived in my ancestors’ Italian village—and read three notes written to her by the last Rossi girl to marry. It’s kind of a good luck charm mixed with a talisman and a bit of fortunetelling. I stole the chest tonight and opened one of the notes, all so I could rush fate. It said that tonight I was going to be kissed by the love of my life, and well…” I drew my lower lip into my mouth and sucked it, peering under my eyelashes at Angelo’s empty seat. The man stared at me stoically, as though I was a foreign film he couldn’t understand. “I’m going to kiss him tonight.”
“That’s your backbone?”
“When I have an ambition, I go for it.”
A conceited frown crinkled his mask, as if to say I was a complete and utter moron. I looked him straight in the eye. My father taught me that the best way to deal with men like him was to confront, not run. Because, this man? He’d chase.
Yes, I believe in that tradition.
No, I don’t care what you think.
Then it occurred to me that over the course of the evening, I’d offered him my entire life story and didn’t even ask for his name. I didn’t want to know, but etiquette demanded that I at least pretend.
“I forgot to ask who you are.”
“That’s because you didn’t care,” he quipped.
He regarded me with the same taciturnity. It was an oxymoron of fierce boredom. I said nothing because it was true.
“Senator Wolfe Keaton.” The words rolled off his tongue sharply.
“Aren’t you a little young to be a senator?” I complimented him on principal to see if I could defrost the thick layer of asshole he’d built around himself. Some people just needed a tight hug. Around the neck. Wait, I was actually thinking about choking him. Not the same thing.
“Thirty. Celebrated in September. Got elected this November.”
“Congratulations.” I couldn’t care less. “You must be thrilled.”
“Over the goddamn moon.” He drew me even closer, pulling my body flush against his.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” I cleared my throat.
“Only if I can do the same,” he shot.
I considered it.
He dipped his chin down, giving me permission to continue.
“Why did you ask to dance with me, not to mention paid good money for the dubious pleasure, if you obviously think everything I stand for is shallow and distasteful?”
For the first time tonight, something that resembled a smile crossed his face. It looked unnatural, almost illusory. I decided he was not in the habit of laughing often. Or at all.
“I wanted to see for myself if the rumors about your beauty were true.”
That again. I resisted the urge to stomp on his foot. Men were such simple creatures. But, I reminded myself, Angelo thought I was pretty even before. When I still had braces, a blanket of freckles covering my nose and cheeks, and unruly, mousy-brown hair I had yet to learn how to tame.
“My turn,” he said, without voicing his verdict on my looks. “Have you picked out names for your children with your Bangini yet?”
It was an odd question, one that was no doubt designed to make fun of me. I wanted to turn around and walk away from him right there and then. But the music was fading, and it was stupid to throw in the towel on an encounter that would end shortly. Besides, everything that came out of my mouth seemed to bother him. Why ruin a perfect strike?
“Bandini. And yes, I have, as a matter of fact. Christian, Joshua, and Emmaline.”
Okay, I might’ve picked the sexes, too. That was what happened when you had too much time on your hands.
Now the stranger in the demi-mask was grinning fully, and if my anger didn’t make it feel as though pure venom ran through my veins, I could appreciate his commercial-worthy dental hygiene. Instead of bowing his head and kissing my hand, as the brochure for the masquerade had indicated was compulsory, he took a step back and saluted me in mockery. “Thank you, Francesca Rossi.”
“For the dance?”
“For the insight.”
The night became progressively worse after the cursed dance with Senator Keaton. Angelo was sitting at a table with a group of men, locked in a heated argument, as I was tossed from one pair of arms to the other, mingling and smiling and losing my hope and sanity, one song at a time. I couldn’t believe the absurdity of my situation. I stole my mother’s wooden box—the one and only thing I’d ever stolen—to read my note and get the courage to show Angelo how I felt. If he wasn’t going to kiss me tonight—if no one was going to kiss me tonight—did that mean I was doomed to live a loveless life?
Three hours into the masquerade, I managed to slip out the entrance of the museum and stood on the wide concrete steps, breathing in the crisp spring night. My last dance had to leave early. Thankfully, his wife had gone into labor.
I hugged my own arms, braving the Chicago wind and laughing sadly at nothing in particular. One yellow cab zipped by the tall buildings, and a couple huddled together were zigzagging giddily to their destination.
It sounded like someone shut down the universe. The lampposts along the street turned off unexpectedly, and all the light faded from view.
It was morbidly beautiful; the only light visible was the shimmering lonely crescent above my head. I felt an arm wrap around my waist from behind. The touch was confident and strong, curving around my body like the man it belonged to had studied it for a while.
I turned around. Angelo’s gold and black masquerade mask stared back at me. All the air left my lungs, my body turning into goo, slacking in his arms with relief.
“You came,” I whispered.
His thumb brushed my cheeks. A soft, wordless nod.
He leaned down and pressed his lips to mine. My heart squealed inside my chest.
Shut the front door. This is happening.
I grabbed the edges of his suit, pulling him closer. I’d imagined our kiss countless times before, but I’d never expected it to feel like this. Like home. Like oxygen. Like forever. His full lips fluttered over mine, sending hot air into my mouth, and he explored, and nipped, and bit my lower lip before claiming my mouth with his, slanting his head sideways and dipping down for a ferocious caress. He opened his mouth, his tongue peeking out and swiping mine. I returned the favor. He drew me close, devouring me slowly and passionately, pressing his hand to the small of my back and groaning into my mouth like I was water in the desert. I moaned into his lips and licked every corner of his mouth with zero expertise, feeling embarrassed, aroused, and more importantly, free.
Free. In his arms. Was there anything more liberating than feeling loved?
I swayed in the security of his arms, kissing him for a good three minutes before my senses crawled back into my foggy brain. He tasted of whiskey and not the wine Angelo had been drinking all night. He was significantly taller than me—taller than Angelo—even if not by much. Then his aftershave drifted into my nose, and I remembered the icy pebble eyes, raw power, and dark sensuality that licked flames of anger inside my guts. I took a slow breath and felt the burn inside me.
I tore my lips from his and stumbled back, tripping over a stair. He grabbed my wrist and yanked me back to prevent my fall but made no effort to resume our kiss.
“You!” I cried out, my voice shaking. With perfect timing, the streetlamps came back to life, illuminating the sharp curves of his face.
Angelo had soft curves over a defined jaw. This man was all harsh streaks and cut edges. He looked nothing like my crush, even with a demi-mask on.
How did he do that? Why did he do that? Tears pooled in my eyes, but I held them back. I didn’t want to give this complete stranger the satisfaction of seeing me crumple.
“How dare you,” I said quietly, biting my cheeks until the taste of warm blood filled my mouth to keep from screaming.
He took a step back, sliding Angelo’s mask off—God knows how he got his hands on it—and tossing it on the stairs like it was contaminated. His unmasked face was unveiled like a piece of art. Brutal and intimidating, it demanded my attention. I took a step sideways, putting more space between us.
“How? Easily.” He was so dismissive; he was flirting with open disdain. “A smart girl, however, would have asked for the why.”
“The why?” I scoffed, refusing to let the last five minutes register. I’d been kissed by someone else. Angelo—according to my family tradition—was not going to be the love of my life. This jerk, however…
Now it was his turn to take a step sideways. His broad back had been blocking the entrance to the museum, so I failed to see who was standing there, his shoulders slack, his mouth agape, his face gloriously unmasked, drinking in the scene.
Angelo took one look at my swollen lips, turned around, and stalked back in with Emily running after him.
The Wolfe was no longer in sheep’s clothing as he made his way up the stairs, giving me his back. When he reached the doors, his date poured out as if on cue. Wolfe took her arm in his and led her downstairs, not sparing me a look as I wilted on the cement stairs. I could hear his date murmuring something, his dry response to her, and her laughter ringing in the air like a wind chime.
When the door to their limo slammed shut, my lips stung so bad I had to touch them to make sure he didn’t set them on fire. The power outage wasn’t coincidental. He did it.
He took the power. My power.
I yanked the note out of my corset and threw it against the stair, stomping over it like a tantrum-prone kid.
Wolfe Keaton was a kiss thief.