F O R T Y - F O U R
My heart was beating so fast within the confines of my chest I thought I would explode.
I have been to the Romano Mansion countless times, but not once for an occasion as special as the one dedicated to me. Dominic and I have been through so many trials of love and hate that anything beyond the realm of our perfect little world scared me.
“You are nervous,” my brother’s voice pulled me out of my thoughts.
Ralph caught a last-minute emergency, which was why Marco was accompanying me to the Romano Mansion for the gracious dinner invitation.
“I have every reason to be,” I reminded him. Despite the chill in Chicago’s night, I felt the shimmering beads of sweat forming on my skin.
“Validation from the Romano family means that much to you?”
“It doesn’t. I just don’t want to be looked down upon, you know.” I had no qualms of my unfortunate past and the fact that I paid the price of this union in blood, sweat, and heartbreak. But I didn’t want to be presented as a chance of luck.
“If you don’t want to be looked down upon, then you’d walk in there like your presence means something. There shouldn’t be room for dissent.”
For a moment, I regarded Marco in awe. The words were rich, especially when they were coming from him. As far as our interaction went, this was by far the most personal one.
“Thank you,” I said on an exhale. “That should help.”
The car ride was short, and just when we were about to enter through the gates, Marco rattled out something unexpected. “Memorize this well: you are Ralph’s daughter and my sister, born and brought up in Boston. You came to Chicago to settle down when you happen to meet Dominic. And it was love at first sight.”
A small panic crept up my spine. “Why are you telling me this crap?”
“Just stick to the story if you need it.” He quickly climbed out of the car before I could inquire any further and held open the door to my side.
“Dominic, if you have invited your ex-girlfriends, I am going to kill you,” was my first thought as I placed my hand on Marco’s and walked stiffly towards the mansion and through the front door, held open by two guards.
The sight before my eyes was unnerving. The well-remembered living space of the exquisite mansion was revamped and decorated with accents of white and gilt with wine red carpets and curtains to put up a striking contrast. Vast chandeliers suspended from the ceiling and the lights all over the place, but the most blinding of them were the flashes of the camera.
“Smile,” Marco reminded me in a whisper, pressing his palm to the small of my back and urged me forward.
To my credit, I did manage to flash a smile, not before muttering, “Sonofabitch duped me.”
It wasn’t just the Romano family or the pack of ex-girlfriends as I had presumed, but the entire city of Chicago who was even worth a salt. There was the Mayor, with his wife tucked beside him, whose election campaign was wholly funded by the Romanos. Among others were a few noteworthy senators, public officials, judges, Alderman, and businessmen.
That moment to me was the testimony of the enormous power of the name Romano and what it meant to this city.
Chicago was no more in the clutches of dark, slick, and old-fashioned mafia rulers squabbling for territories or evading the law enforcement. In fact, the control was right at the back of their hands.
I was well-aware of the collective pair of eyes on me, some watching me in dazed curiosity and some in snickering judgment, until the crowd made way for a striking build of a man in a charcoal grey attire.
I had to blink a couple of times to believe that this man was mine.
Donned in a meticulous double-breasted suit, Dominic cleaned up pretty well with his neat, clean-shaven look that made his jaw look sharper, with gelled-hair that made the dark strands glimmering under the reflections of golden light. He silently made his way towards me with a solemn expression and purposeful gait. Every one of his physical attributes could be associated with a man of power and decision.
As he stopped before me, my mouth parched, and my heart trembled. This evening was so much bolder and bigger than I could comprehend, and I didn’t know if my introvert-being was ready for exposure as magnificent as this.
Dominic leaned in to press a chaste kiss on my cheek, and then whispered only for my ears, “Sweetheart, I can easily steal you away from all of this, but I would rather have the world see you by my side.”
I managed to smile into his words to hide my stunned expression. I had almost forgotten about my brother to my side before he clapped a hand on Dominic’s shoulder and sauntered off.
“I don’t know if I am shocked or surprised, or both,” I told Dominic when his arm hooked around my waist and pulled me closer. I inhaled a lungful of the air around him, the familiar whiff of the wood, animalistic tone of his Clive Christian cologne that seemed to calm my senses soothingly.
“And here I thought I’d have to work extra hard to sweep you off your feet,” he muttered with smiling eyes.
“Lilliana,” Mia separated herself from the crowd as she glided forward in one-of-a-kind champagne gold gown with cape sleeves, attire, I believe, well-suited for the queen. “You look like a vision.” She graced her compliment with a hug.
“Thank you, Mrs. Romano.” I smiled, pulling back. “It’s an honor to be here tonight.”
“Well, seeing you will sharing the last name as mine and very soon,” she drawled, flicking a glance at Dominic, “Please call me Mia. It would be very awkward otherwise.”
We shared a small laugh before Dominic leaned down to offer a customary peck on her cheeks. “Someone’s looking gorgeous. It’s a miracle my brother let you out of his sight.”
Mia rolled her eyes. “Like I gave him a choice.”
Even though the words were uttered jovially, I knew the truth behind them. Viktor Romano might rule Chicago with an iron fist, but his heart and soul were trapped into this woman.
“Speak of the devil...” Mia smirked, her eyes glued over our shoulder as Viktor appeared from behind us to stamp a possessive kiss over her lips.
It most assuredly took her breath away. When he was thoroughly satisfied that he dragged his gaze on us.
“Of all the other times we have met,” Viktor told me, “I am glad this isn’t an unfortunate one. Welcome to the family, Lilliana. I hope we would see more of my brother from now on.” The last sentence was obviously directed at Dominic who emitted a low groan.
“Funny, I could say the same about you, big brother, but I would rather see less of you. Let Mia be the insufferable case here.” Dominic winked at Mia.
A man came forward to whisper something into Viktor’s ears as he stiffened and excused himself. A series of formal introductions ensued. From politicians to highly pretentious socialites, journalists and a few officials, the list was endless, and at one point, my jaw was aching with all the smiles I put up with. I even recognized some of the Cosa Nosta members of New York, Las Vegas and Sicily from the top echelon.
“I am so overwhelmed that I almost forgot that I was mad at you,” I told Dominic when we strolled to a corner, farther away from prying eyes for the time being even the sight of the crowd was available.
“That was the point—to overwhelm you.” He grinned wolfishly.
“I would have almost run,” I exhaled.
He pressed his body closer, cupping my hips with his capable hands and kissed the exposed skin of my neck. “I would never let you run away from me, sweetheart. Never,” he said with conviction.
“This house has eight bedrooms, in case you have forgotten your way,” came a cool voice as I looked over Dominic’s shoulder. Marco approached us with a glass of red wine and a jaded expression. “Would it kill you to use one of the rooms, rather than mauling her publicly?”
Dominic, much to his annoyance, let go of my hips and grabbed a glass of red from a server. “This is why I want this marriage to get it over with,” he huffed out.
“Our mother would be so proud to listen to you from above, to have his son get over with marriage.” A polished feminine voice spoke out as the men turned around.
“Now that’s a sight!” Marco whistled softly.
Samantha Romano stepped up in a Christian Dior black asymmetrical gown with a leg slit and a generous train. She walked with natural grace and accustomed pride like there was an invisible tiara on her head. But it was her eyes, a deeper shade of cobalt than her brothers that held the glacial difference.
Samantha took Marco’s outstretched hand and leaned forward for a customary kiss. Her hand looped around his, and I noticed that she was platonically comfortable with intimacy.
“So she is the one I have heard so much of, and yet meeting for the first time,” she said charmingly, but I detected the stentorian undertone to it.
Our eyes locked for a long second before Dominic came to my rescue. “Lilliana, this is my sister, Sammy,” he introduced us.
I acknowledged with a smile. “It’s a pleasure, Dr. Romano.”
“Sammy would be fine,” she allowed. “I will be honest here: I never thought I’d be attending Dominic’s wedding so soon.” It was a passive-aggressive way of saying that his brother made a hasty choice, and clearly, that didn’t sit very well with her.
“This is why I say that Chicago never fails to surprise me,” Marco jeered.
Samantha gave a quiet smile and a small nod before whisking Marco away for a dance, leaving Dominic and I to ourselves.
“I can see everyone but Aurora. Does she really hate me so much?” I asked as my eyes swept around the roomful of people.
“Don’t take it personally, love.” He chuckled. “She, in general, hate parties unless it is just family members. Besides, concealing her identity is a conscious decision.”
“Figures. I never knew she even existed until…then.” My train of thought halted awkwardly.
But somehow Dominic read into my hesitation. “Lilliana, we have been over this,” he said severely. “We don’t speak of our past.”
We actually didn’t. Our past, specifically mine, was shackled and thrown into some deep, dark corners of our minds where we never visited unless I grew pensive.
I shook my head as if to shrug off the thought. “I know. I am working on it.”
Dominic slanted me one of his disbelieving looks and critical brow lift but dropped it when Mia stomped towards us. “Did you really have me invite her so that you could gossip in a corner like teenagers?” she hissed at him, sufficiently irked.
Dominic smirked. “Teenagers don’t gossip in a corner. They would probably start doing it—”
“Okay, fine.” Mia raised her palm to cut him off. “You are just missing the point. The guests are waiting for your announcement.”
“What announcement?” My eyes bounced between them while they talked as if I were invisible.
“You would know in a minute,” Dominic dismissed me quickly. “Do you mind staying with her until I return?” He asked Mia. “I am afraid she will run for the hills.”
Before I could act on my instinct, Dominic was already moving across the hall, in long, confident strides, and towards the center of the vast expanse. I watched him from my place in stunned silence and frozen stance as he picked up the microphone and gave me a fleeting disarming smile.
“Ladies and gentlemen…” he began and the buzz around the room faded.