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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 it 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?”

My father takes a moment, never letting go of my hand, and he thinks carefully about what he is about to say. “The Gambinos 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. “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 madness. It’s just not… It’s just not done. Not in this day and age.”

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 a 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, gazing at me with dead eyes. “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 as my body jerks in harsh, unladylike sobs. “How… c-c-could… he?”

But rather than comfort me, my father just throws salt into the crevice 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?”

I weep loudly, no longer able to control my emotions. 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 tear-streaked 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 at the determination in my brother’s voice. “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 with 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 Castillos and the Gambinos 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.

He won’t.

Later that afternoon, we meet the Gambinos 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 I’m not alone in this situation. Dino is likely as pissed about this arrangement as I am.

Knowing this calms me somewhat.

Vito steps toward me, ushering his son forward. “This must be Alejandra.” Vito reaches out to take my limp hand, kissing the back of it. He looks 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.”

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