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.
“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, Aileen,” Mamma said, stirring the sauce on the stove. “All that nonsense is depressing.”
Mamma was married to Salvador 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.”
Earlier this week, Papà had announced that Lyanna would be marrying Nikolai 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.
"Nico, is a perfect gentleman. If you had stayed behind after church and met him, 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.
Besides, I was sure Nikolai 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.
"Aileen go call your sister down for lunch."
"She told me last night she wasn't going to come."
“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 Nikolai'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.
Almost home free with one hand on the banister, my father’s voice sounded behind me. “Aileen, 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.
"Aileen, this is Nikolai Russo. Nico this is Aileen, my eldest daughter.
"We've already met."
Papa frowned. "When did you two have the chance to meet?"
Something amused and dangerous played in Nikolai’s gaze. “Earlier at church. Remember, Aileen?”
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?
"Yes we've met, Papa. I forgot my shawl in the church and ran into him inside."
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 Lyanna. You know her best.”
"Yes, of course, Papà"
I would rather eat a handful of dirt. My father says a parting word and goes to greet his other guests.
"We have not met."
He cocked a brow in a cavalier way. “You sure? Here I was under the impression you had me all figured out.”
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, Aileen.” 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.