Read an excerpt from Collateral: an Arranged Marriage Mafia Romance!
It’s almost one in the morning when we drive up to the house in the posh Todt Hill neighborhood of Staten Island. The tall iron gates stand open, which surprises me. Security isn’t something my father takes lightly.
As we slow to a stop, the guard greets the driver then shines his flashlight in through the open car window.
I turn away from the bright light when he flashes it in my face.
“You’re to take her directly to her room. She’s to stay there,” he tells the driver.
Translation: lock her in.
“What’s going on?” the driver asks.
I catch the guard’s eye. “He’s got company.”
The driver nods then pushes the button to close the window and we drive toward the house. It’s a beautiful mansion, one many people stop to look twice at, but I’ve always thought of it as more of a prison.
And tonight, I’m being brought back like an escaped convict.
Two SUVs I don’t recognize are parked alongside the circular drive. I can see from here there’s a driver sitting inside each one. Cigarette smoke wafts out of the open window of the first vehicle.
“Who’s here?” I ask.
Neither my driver nor John, the man my father sent to retrieve me, answer. Instead, we pull to a stop and John climbs out, opens my door.
I step out, grab my duffel bag.
He takes it from me in one hand and closes the other around my upper arm.
“Don’t touch me,” I tell him.
He neither lets me go nor bothers to reply. Why should he? He doesn’t answer to me. He answers to my father and he knows what happened to the other soldier who tried to help me. I’m sure they all know.
Tonight, an example was made to show what happens when someone crosses Gabriel Marchese.
Guilt makes me nauseous. He made me watch. Part of my punishment. Only the beginning of it, I’m sure. I’ll take what I have coming but Alex didn’t deserve what they did to him. That’s on me.
We climb the stairs to the wide portico, John’s grip harder than it needs to be as I walk along, my steps slower than his. I’m in no hurry to get inside.
The men stationed at the door open it, only sparing me a quick glance because I don’t matter, even if I am the daughter of the boss. I’m just a pawn and everyone knows it.
Once inside, I glance down the hall toward my father’s study. Two men I don’t recognize stand just outside the door. They don’t work for him. I know it just from the way they’re dressed.
When we near the stairs, the study door opens and my father’s attorney, Mark Waverly, steps into the hallway. He takes a few steps toward us, studies me for a long moment before turning to John.
“Bring her in here,” he says.
“I was told to take her upstairs.”
“Change of plans.” He gestures to the study with a quick sideways nod of his head.
My father doesn’t often call me into his study and certainly not when he’s doing business.
When I don’t move, John tugs at my arm.
“Gabriela,” Waverly says. “You’ll want to walk in.”
“Then tell my father’s goon to get his hands off me.”
Waverly gestures to John to let me go.
I brush my hair back, steel my spine. I try to ignore the splatters of red on my white T-shirt. My father ordered the beating, after all. I’m sure his business associates will neither be surprised nor offended by the evidence of such violence.
But as I near the study, I feel my heartbeat pick up. I force a bored expression on my face. I’ve worked on it for years and still, I don’t know if they see right through it.
When I’m a few feet from the door, I take a deep breath in, hoping it will calm me. It doesn’t.
I take two steps into the dimly lit study and stop. John and Waverly enter behind me and close the door.
There’s an older man I don’t recognize sitting in one of the armchairs. He’s dressed in a three-piece suit and I wonder how he’s not burning up even with the air-conditioning. But maybe it’s anxiety that has me sweating.
My father is seated behind his huge desk leaning back in his chair. If he’s trying to look relaxed, it’s not working. I see how the corner of his left eye is twitching. It’s his tell. I wonder who else has picked that up.
I watch as he scans my face, takes in my shorter hair. I cut about six inches off since he last saw me. I hated to do it, but I didn’t want to risk being found.
And still, I was found.
But disappearing when you’re Gabriel Marchese’s daughter is not an easy thing.
On the upside, I do like my new bangs, although they’re a little too long and I keep having to tuck them behind my ear.
I shift my weight to one leg and look back at him.
He eyes my dirty T-shirt, shorts and army boots. It’s not my usual attire, and I know he hates it. There are expectations for how his daughter should be seen, after all.
“Gabriela,” he says, his voice elegant and rich. “How’s Alex?”
“You know how he is.”
His reply is a mean grin.
“I’m tired. If you don’t mind, I’ll go to bed. You can punish me tomorrow if that’s why I’m here.”
For as close as I was to my mother, so am I distant from my father.
Someone clears their throat and my head snaps to the far-right corner.
There’s a man standing there, leaning against the wall. I hadn’t realized there was anyone else in the room. I can’t tell who it is. His arms are folded across his chest and his face is hidden in shadow.
He’s tall, and built. I can see the thickness of his arms, his wide shoulders. He’s dressed in a dark suit and from here, I can see his shoes are expensive.
He moves, unfolding his arms, checking his watch. When he drops his hand to his side and I see the ring on his finger, I gasp.
I know this man.
“The McKinney deal is off,” my father says, forcing me to turn my attention to him.
“What?” I ask, my gaze shifting back to the stranger.
To his hand.
To that ring on his finger.
What’s he doing here? In my father’s study in the middle of the night?
“McKinney. The contract with the boy. It’s off,” my father says.
I face my father, confused. By contract, he means my forced marriage because to my father, everything is business, even his daughter’s life.
Not that I’m surprised.
And that contract he’s referring to is why I’d run.
I’ve had to do a lot of things in my life that I didn’t want to do, but I won’t marry someone just because my father deems it good for business.
“Waverly has drawn up a new contract.”
“What are you talking about?” I ask. I can’t seem to process what he’s saying.
There’s a sound behind me and I turn to find the man stepping out of the shadows. He’s adjusting the cuff of his shirt and a gold cufflink glints in the lamplight.
I can’t seem to drag my eyes away from his hands. From that ring.
And I don’t want to look up. I don’t want to see his face.
“The marriage will take place in one month’s time,” my father’s words are slow to sink into my brain because I have to do it, have to look up at this man’s face. “In the meantime, you’ll be taken to the Sabbioni estate in Sicily for safe-keeping.”
Still, the words, they’re like physical things. Like they’re lining up, waiting just outside my ears for when I’m ready to hear. To process. Because he can’t be saying what he’s saying.
“Mr. Sabbioni,” Waverly says, his tone neutral.
“We’ll need your initials on this modification,” Waverly continues. He must have moved around the desk when I wasn’t paying attention.
The man—Stefan Sabbioni—takes a step forward and I have to look at him now. I have to meet his strange hazel eyes. And when I do, I think they’re darker than they were that night. Or less bloodshot. Maybe it’s just that tonight, he’s not drunk. Not raging.
“What’s happening?” I ask. I don’t know who I’m asking as I can’t drag my gaze from Stefan Sabbioni.
He gives me a smirk and when he moves past me, I don’t know if it’s on purpose that his arm brushes my shoulder. I smell his cologne and I remember how he smelled that night.
God, I don’t think I’ll ever get that smell out of my head.
He stands taller than all the men here and I watch him lean down, pick up my father’s favorite fountain pen. I see my father’s jaw tighten and I know Stefan did it on purpose, choosing that particular pen.
Before signing, he reads the text, nods, then quickly puts his initials down.
“Dad?” I ask, because I’m starting to understand what my father meant when I watch Waverly turn the page and Stefan puts his signature in the designated spot.
He hands the pen to my father and I take a step backward.
“Dad,” Stefan says, his tone mocking me or my father or both of us.
My father takes the pen and turns the document around to sign it.
When I move backward toward the door, John grips my arm. Maybe he knows that I’m about to bolt, even though I know there’s nowhere for me to go.
“Gabriela,” my father says, holding his pen out for me to take it.
I shake my head as all the men turn to me and my eyes are drawn to Stefan’s. He’s watching me with such intense curiosity I feel like he can see right inside me, see the chaos, the panicked beating of my heart.
“We need your signature, Gabriela,” Waverly says.
Sweat collects under my arms and beads on my forehead. “I’m not—”
“Bring her over here,” my father orders John.
John begins to drag me to the desk, and I know it’s useless, but I dig my heels in and try to pull him off.
“Get off me!”
Waverly and my father watch, expressionless. I can’t see the other, older man’s face. Stefan’s blocking him. But Stefan’s eyes narrow as they zero in on where John’s hand is digging into my skin.
“Let go!” My voice is higher, thinner than usual, and I hate that they must hear the panic in it.
Stefan steps forward almost too quickly for me to process and an instant later, he clamps his hand over John’s wrist. At first, all I can do is look at that ring and remember that night. Remember him the night of my sixteenth birthday.
“Let. Her. Go.” He pauses between each word as if each is its own command.
“How chivalrous,” my father’s words are pierced with a strange sort of laugh, but I can’t drag my eyes from Stefan to look at him now. I can’t look away from Stefan’s face as he cows my father’s soldier.
Stefan squeezes his fist and John’s grip on me loosens. Then it’s gone, and he’s got a pained expression on his face as Stefan twists his arm.
“Youdon’t touch her again, am I clear?”
“John,” my father interjects.
But Stefan doesn’t relent. “Am I clear, John?”
Stefan shoves him backward, releasing him, then shifts his gaze to me.
I watch his eyes drop to my blood-splattered T-shirt then back to my face. I touch my cheek, wondering if there are specks of blood there too.
I can’t read him. He’s completely closed.
He steps to the side, making a path for me to move toward the desk.
“Your signature is required,” he says, tone level, the words cold.
I turn to Waverly, to my father.
“Don’t be fooled, Gabriela,” my father starts. “He’s not going to save you. He’s the beast in whose bed you’ll sleep.”
An icy chill runs down my spine.
I don’t know if my father means to insult Stefan with his comment but if that’s his point, then he fails. Stefan just smiles, checks his watch for the second time that night, then looks at me.
“Sign,” he says, like maybe I’m keeping him. Like maybe he has somewhere else to be.
I turn to my father and for a moment, I see something I have never seen before. It’s fleeting and I know no one else sees it, but for the first time in my life, and for as awful as he is, I’m scared.
Because that look on his face, in his eyes, it’s defeat.
He blinks and it’s gone, and I don’t remember the last time I called him daddy when I wasn’t being sarcastic. Maybe when I was five.
Before I can think, Stefan’s back at my side and his grip, I think it’s harder than John’s. Or it can be, at least. Maybe he’s letting me know it can be.
He takes me by my wrist and walks me to the desk. Snatching the pen out of my father’s hand and pushing it into mine, he closes his fist over my fingers, forcing my signature on the contract and I feel that rage inside him again, like I did that first night I met him in the shadows of my bedroom. I feel that terrifying, deep hate.
“Dad?” I ask.
But it’s done.
Whatever this is, it’s done.
And my father with all his power can’t save me now. I know it. I’m sure of it.
Because Stefan Sabbioni is more powerful.
Stefan drops my hand and I have moments to look at the scratchy signature, at the blob of a teardrop that lands on it before he collects the pages and the other stranger in the too-heavy suit stands.
“I’ll be back for you early in the morning. Be ready,” Stefan tells me.
Then, without another word, the two of them are gone and all I can do is watch the empty space. I listen to the sound of their retreating footsteps and remember his whispered promise from two years ago.
“Tell your father I’ll be back to take something precious too.”
Tonight, Stefan Sabbioni made good on his promise.