Holy fucking shit.
Gabriella slapped a hand on her face, the thump of the action inflicting her more pain than she already felt - if that was possible. The sound of her heart beating was headache-inducing. Was her head supposed to pound like this?
Heavy. Her body was so freaking heavy. She tried to flip to her side, hoping the new position might relieve some of the tension building in the back of her head. But she couldn’t. A rock was on her, preventing her from moving.
She cracked her eyes open, the light assaulting the sensitive irises the instant she lifted her eyelids. Fucking hell. She kept fluttering her eyelids, trying to create a shield, and then she glanced down.
There was an arm around her waist.
Son of a…
He slid his arm off her, allowing her to flop to her side like a floppy fish - so much for being gracious. An hmpf was knocked out of her lungs, and she groaned. Though she could see Niccolo’s bare chest and the sheet around his waist prevented her from seeing if he was wearing anything down there, she could tell she was dressed.
So how did she end up in the bed with him?
She remembered running back to the girls but everything after was quite hazy.
“Were you expecting someone else?” he asked, propping himself up on his elbow.
“You were already in here passed out when I got here.”
That explained it. She was used to sleeping in his bed. It made sense that while running on automatic, she came here to sleep.
“So, are we gonna talk about your little stunt last night?”
She left him hanging - quite literally.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she replied, sitting herself up properly in the bed. He had teased her before, he had his fun in the past. It was only fair that she was allowed to do the same.
“Is that how we’re gonna play it?”
“Seems like it.” Gabriella swung her legs over the edge of the bed, her bare feet touching the cold ground. Holy that felt good. Why did it feel like she was a million degrees? “This isn’t just your game anymore?”
She nodded. “You decide everything. You leave when you want. You have me taken away. It’s enough. You can’t decide the rules anymore - not by yourself.”
He did not say anything, but he removed himself from the bed and then walked around until he was standing in front of her. All she could see were his bare legs and black briefs. She did not lift her head to look at him.
“What does that mean, Gabriella?”
She offered him a shrug. “I thought about it. Sure, this helps me. Sure, I don’t know the Mancini. This helps me. But, we both know you don’t do anything out of the kindness of your heart.” She stood up, her eyes gazing up from his chest to his face. “The way I see it, there’s one of two things going on here. Either you’re scared of them, meaning I could take my chances with them if I wanted to and you’d lose. Or you’ve got something to gain here, which again means this needs to be a partnership or you will lose.”
It benefited her. It was why she agreed, why she went along with it. Based on the information she had at the time, it did feel like the better option. However, it did not mean that things could not change.
And this? Between them? It needed to change.
He grabbed her chin, tilting her head back enough that the tip of her hair was tickling the bare skin of her back. “You think you have it all figured out?”
Of course, she didn’t; that was half of the freaking problem.
“What makes you think I’m not doing this out of the kindness of my heart? Maybe it’s all for love?”
Gabriella couldn’t stop the fit of laughter that burst out of her. “Love?” she asked, tugging her chin free of his hold. “Niccolo, we both know you’re incapable of love.”
“I can love.”
She scoffed. “Yourself maybe. You love to get your way. You love to own everyone. You love to own people’s body, their lives in the palm of your hands. You love the chase. But you don’t love people.”
His lips stretched into a grin. “See, you know me so well.”
There had to be more to Niccolo, something she was missing. Perhaps it was wishful thinking. Maybe he was an empty shell, filled with need, greed, and lust. She used to think people couldn’t be pure evil, but her vision of life had changed now.
She knew better.
“What did you do after you sent me away?”
He clicked his tongue against his teeth. “I took care of the fallout from our marriage.”
She crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Why couldn’t I be there for it?”
“Do you not remember our little talk? You weren’t supposed to be there. Do you think they wouldn’t have tried to convince you otherwise? To stop it?”
“So I don’t have all the power there. I do here. They couldn’t do anything to me.”
She scoffed. “They clearly did something.” She hadn’t noticed last night, probably because she was too drunk to notice - or care. He had gotten a black eye, there was no doubt about that, and there were remnants of other bruises decorating his skin.
What did they do to me?
“Nothing new, sweetheart.”
Gabriella lifted a hand, approaching his face so that she could trace one of his bruises with her index fingers. “Is that how it works? Someone doesn’t do what you want, you beat them into submission?”
Her relationship with Niccolo was… complicated. They were close… physically. She had killed to protect him. He had lost people trying to save her. Yet neither trusted the other - not fully. There was always a mind game at play, and he always kept her at bay.
“I thought you have figured it out by now.”
“Isn’t there another way?”
She retracted her hand, bringing it close to her chest. “Would they have done that to me?”
He shrugged. “Women and children aren’t usually the first targets. But they really want what Isabella had.”
Everywhere she went, the men were in charge. The women? Accessories. The good little wife. The good little side piece. Yet, despite how little she knew about her grandmother, she got the feeling that it wasn’t her story. She was in charge - to the point that she was still ruling people’s lives from the grave.
Was that the life she wanted? Maybe not. She did want to be in charge, she wanted to be involved. She was done being left in the dark.
“I’m not gonna sit here, planning a fake wedding while you do everything. You said marrying you was my best option. The safest. You didn’t say anything about you getting everything while I was left in the dark again. Plus, if they want something from me, they’ll want to get through me - not you. I have to know things, Niccolo. Or I won’t be able to protect myself.”
The rules had changed. It wasn’t his world anymore. It wasn’t his secrets, his power. She brought her share to the table now.
He rolled his lips, gazing down at her. Then came a chuckle. “You’re right.”
….Just like that? It should be that easy, but it never was with him.
Gabriella cleared her throat. Good. “So what’s next then?”
“I was gonna take a shower, wanna join me?”
“So am I. The next step should be consummating the marriage.”
He was relentless. He didn’t give up. “What’s next in the plan, Niccolo.”
“For once,” she snapped.
He grinned at her. “First, we gotta move you in properly. You have no clothes here, nothing that says this is your home. They’re gonna pick up on that. Second, we have to tell your mother. Together. Third, when your little family gets here, they’re gonna wanna do a DNA test. Can’t test your old man, he’s dead. Your gramps, not a Mancini. They’re gonna match it to one of their own. Unless you can somehow find the trail. Maybe your gramps kept papers, change of name, real birth certificates… the whole thing.”
He palmed the back of his neck, his jaw clenched. “We are gonna need it anyway. We can’t get our hands on the will unless we can prove you are who we say you are. So they hold all the cards. So we either wait on them to prove it, or you figure out how to do it before them.”
Niccolo leaned in and bopped her nose. “Is that enough of a plan for you? Do you think you can handle it?”
She had to prove this? She had to rely on herself? Niccolo couldn’t help her with this. Maybe the DNA test… but that was the bad plan. She couldn’t rely on people she didn’t know or didn’t trust. Gabriella had wanted to keep her grandfather out of it. His mind was long gone, what damage could this do? Could it confuse him more? Could it make him put himself in harm’s way? What if he thought he was still… a killer?
She might not have a choice. There was still the option of raiding the house. She could do it with Niccolo this time. He knew what they were looking for more than she did. But indeed, that did involve telling her mother.
“Now, if you’re done being the lady in charge, a man’s got needs.”
From his words, she expected him to try to get something from her. A touch, a grab, something. She had teased him and she knew Niccolo was always up for revenge. Except, he didn’t. Instead, he walked by her, his shoulder brushing hers as he headed away from her.
He stopped after a few steps. He tilted his head to the side, laughing. “I meant a shower, Gabby. What else did you have in mind?”
Nicely played. Yet, she couldn’t chase away the sour taste in her mouth. For a second, when he said that and left… she did think he might get his needs somewhere else. Which, knowing what he was and what they were to each other… was possible.
“Am I gonna what?”
He was doing it on purpose; he knew exactly what she was talking about. “Are you gonna get what you need… wherever you need to go to get it.”
“Are you asking me if I’m gonna fuck someone else?”
It wasn’t real. This wasn’t a relationship.
She couldn’t voice the words, so all she did was give him a shrug. She was letting him interpret it the way he wanted, that way he would also give the answer that pleased him. Maybe she didn’t want to hear it.
He walked backward for a few steps until he was next to her. His fingers trailed up her forearm, sending tingles down her spine as he worked his way up. His thumb traced circles in the crook of her elbow and she curled her toes. A tickle, a good tickle.
“I don’t think my new in-laws would take kindly to me already going behind my new wife’s back. Might make them think something is wrong - something they could take advantage of…”
Right. Appearances. All for show.
“If no one knows…” She couldn’t give him an inch of power.
“Is that jealousy I hear wifey?”
“No. We never said faithful.”
“Great. So if I go down the hall and stop by Vanessa’s room, that’s alright with you, correct?”
Why did he have to say, Vanessa? To get her riled up. “It’s your business. In the same way, you won’t have a problem if I go out there and stop by Tony’s room, right?” She could play that game too if that was what he wanted.
His touch changed - instead of soft, sensual, his grip tightened. He leaned in, lips hovering over her ear. “Is that what you want Gabby, you want Tony to fuck you?”
“Does it matter?” she asked, breathless. “I don’t own you, you don’t own me.”
She heard his sinister chuckle, but he didn’t speak a word. He kept one hand on her arm, but the other moved to her stomach. He slipped his fingers beneath her shirt, palming at the skin of her stomach. She didn’t need to guess where this was going.
Fingers tugged at the hem of her shorts, pulling the underwear away at the same time. He lowered his hand, and she held her breath. She could stop him, she could wrap her fingers around his wrist and stop his descent.
His fingers paused on their way down, circling her clit. Warm lips touched the crook of her neck, peppering their way down to her collarbone. Gabriella knew what he was. She wasn’t stupid enough to think he could be something else. However, she wasn’t stupid enough to think she would never fall again.
Niccolo’s heart was closed. Instead, he played mind and body games.
This could be payback. This could be him wanting to win, wanting to show he could still have her. Unfortunately, Gabriella couldn’t tell which one it was.
His tongue lapped at the top of her breast, forcing her back into reality. He shifted his hand, his thumb teasing her clit while his other digits found her wet entrance. Niccolo dipped inside two fingers, his strokes slow and torturous.
He nipped at her flesh, earning himself a moan. “You want someone else doing this to you, princess?”
He was trying to overpower her. “Why,” she asked, exhaling. “Would you mind?”
“I’m only concerned about your pleasure.” Another nibble. “Would someone else make you this wet? Would they make your knees weak?”
“Maybe. I have nothing else. Can’t compare.”
Teeth grazed the length of her throat. “Now you’re being a bad girl,” he chastised. “We both know you can’t fool me.” He kissed the corner of her jaw. “You think I can’t feel the wobble of your legs? You think I can’t feel how tight your pussy is squeezing my fingers?”
He pumped in and out of her, forcing her to buckle under his touch.
“The body doesn’t lie, Gabby.”
She lifted a hand, grabbing his shoulder for support. Damn it. She had walked away before. She could do it again.
Except her head was pounding, her body was tired and her hangover was making her skin clammy and her urges stronger. A good fuck. That would be a good cure. Gabriella synced to his rhythm, her hips buckling forward every time his fingers disappeared inside of her. He curled a finger, and she jerked her head back in reaction.
“You want more, don’t you?”
Yes. But she wouldn’t say it.
“I know how you like it. I know what kind of dirty girl you are.”
She was going to rebuttal, she was going to argue. But then he added another finger and she clenched around his digits. He dragged them downward, and she curled her toes, her knees buckling.
“Maybe I should use my mouth instead. You like that.” Teeth bit her earlobe, a moan emerging from the depths of her throat.
Right there, right there.
All the tension she had accumulated, all the stress that plagued her and made her heart race? It was vanishing, the knots in her neck untangling. She was holding on to his wrist as if her life depended on it.
She would not stop him.
So close. So fucking close. One more stroke.
Then the air was knocked out of her lungs. His fingers were slipping away and she was clenching, desperate to keep them there. Unfortunately, it was no use. He freed himself, the band of her underwear snapping under the speed of his motions.
“If I’m gonna suffer, so are you, princess.”
Her wobbly legs gave out as she was left empty, forcing her to slam down on the bed. He winked at her, pride puffing his chest, as he walked away from her to head to the bathroom.
She took a deep breath, tilting her head from side to side. It was fine. He thought he had won, he thought he had gotten his pride back. She needed to focus on something else. She had work to do. She had to prove she was who she said she was.
Gabriella needed information to have the power. Right now, she had nothing.
Focus, she had to focus from now on.
“I heard congratulations were in order.”
“News travel fast,” Niccolo replied as he walked around his desk to greet Luca.
“Doesn’t it always? Especially when someone snatches such a prize. I have to be honest, at first, I thought I heard wrong. Niccolo… married. Thank God I’m young. I might have had a heart attack.”
“I can’t be the only one who thought that. You’re making waves out there.”
“Wait until they see what she has around her finger then,” he said, gesturing to the open ring box on his desk.
Luca took a few steps forward, bending over to observe it. It took a few seconds, but eventually, he arched an eyebrow. “Isn’t that…”
“That woman’s ring.”
His father’s wife’s ring. His own mother never had a ring. Of course not, the side piece never got the rock. She got money, attention, a good fuck, but never the ring. The bastard children were always an extra bonus.
He shouldn’t be in this seat, but he was. He wasn’t groomed for it, he was never promised anything. A good life - maybe married off to strengthen some ties. After all, children had to be useful, right? Else, what was the point in keeping them around?
But it went down differently, and now it was all his.
Even if some didn’t believe in it, believe in him. They thought he was half of what he was. He wasn’t. His blood wasn’t tainted. His mother - she came from somewhere. If only he knew enough to prove it.
If only he could get his hands on what Francesco was keeping from him. Then he’d have more power - and he wouldn’t need the extra boost from Gabriella. It was too late to take it back though. They were married.
At least he was more decent to her than his father ever was to his mother. At least she had a status, at least she could be something - someone. She had value.
If it hadn’t been for these circumstances, he wouldn’t have gotten married.
He didn’t plan on staying married either. Eventually, they would go their own way. She wouldn’t go back to her old life, she couldn’t, but she was young enough to make a new one… with whatever she would gain from this.
“You’re gonna give it to her?”
“Why not? It’s a De Luca heirloom, am I right?”
“I didn’t think that mattered to you.”
“It doesn’t,” he said, tossing the ring box on the desk. “Not to me anyway. It does to them, so - I’ll play the part.” The same way he always had. He had many things to say about his father, but he never said them to the others.
He upheld the name.
“And how is our dear friend?”
“I’m sure you didn’t come here to say congratulations.”
“You’re right. I wanted to make sure you were both alright.”
“Why wouldn’t we be?”
Luca chuckled. “Yes, god forbid your trauma might affect you.”
Niccolo stopped moving, his body stilling as he glanced at Luca. “What does that mean?” There was no trauma. Sure, his childhood was shit, but it didn’t mean anything. He lived his life how he wanted. Not how someone else shaped him.
“Nothing. My bad.”
“You get a lot of freedom. I wouldn’t put that in jeopardy.”
He let Luca go about his life because he thought he could listen, that he could mind his own business. If he was wrong, he had no problem modifying the parameters of Luca’s so-called freedom. He gave one chance - he didn’t give two.
“What about Gabriella?” he asked, obviously dismissing Niccolo’s threat. “She’s got a bigger target on her back.”
“She’s gonna need to learn more than how to defend herself.”
“Yeah, what do you suggest?”
He wasn’t wrong. Her new status, the growing presence of other families… He could only do so much. Even if he kept his eyes on her every second of every day, it might not be enough. She needed the extra protection.
But he couldn’t leave her with just anybody. And he couldn’t do it. Between prepping for everything and reinforcing security, he wouldn’t have any free time.
“Can you do it?”
“If you trust me enough.”
“Then I’ll do it.”
“Good, you can start tomorrow. I think she’s going shopping in the morning.”
“Shopping huh? Hurting your bank account… Good for her.”
“Yeah, well, she had a little party already.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
Why would something like that bother him? “I’ve got more money than I need.”
It felt like there was more, but Luca didn’t say it. Instead, he nodded. “I’ll set it up with her and Theo. I’m assuming he is still her driver?”
“Yeah, the kid’s loyal to her.” He should be bothered by the fact that he had been more loyal to Gabriella than Niccolo, but, in this case, it could prove to be a good thing. It meant he could trust him with her and trust was about to run thin soon.
“Alright.” He cleared his throat. “Ya sure you’re okay?”
“Are you deaf or stupid?”
“I’ll leave you to… your stuff then.”
“You do that.”
Niccolo turned his back to the door, hearing as Luca walked away, and once the door closed he plopped down in his black leather chair. Why was Luca questioning him so much? Why did it matter to him?
He married Gabriella because it was the best solution to everyone’s problem. It wasn’t a big deal. He glanced at his bottom drawer, hesitation quivering his body. There was another ring - but it wasn’t a wedding ring.
His mother’s ring. A simple ring. She had bought it herself.
Whenever he went out with her, she would wear it on that finger. She would talk about a husband - one she didn’t have… one she would never have.
No. That ring wasn’t good enough.
The other ring would do.
He turned around, grabbing a glass and a bottle of whiskey from the cabinet behind him. He poured himself a glass, bringing the rim to his lips.
Tomorrow. He’d give it to her tomorrow.