Heart of Stone
1 | Engagement Party
© Copyright C.K. Bennett 2021–2022
I drowned out the incessant droning of the crowd with my thoughts. It was something I had taught myself to do over the years. Being a child of one of the ‘Five Firms’ of London meant growing up in the spotlight with events to attend left, right and centre.
Today was a bit different, however, because today, the occasion was mine and Leo’s engagement party.
And he was late.
‘I just knew he would do this,’ my future sister-in-law, Donna, said with a sigh after a glance at her diamond-decorated gold wristwatch. Donna had soft, small features, and they radiated sympathy when she looked at me. Her glossy, plump lips protruded, her dark eyes shining with apologies on her eldest brother’s behalf.
I gave her a reassuring smile. ‘I’d hoped he would. Ferro owes me a hundred quid now.’ I jerked my head to my left at her and Leo’s half-brother, who was younger than my fiancé by one day.
‘A hundred quid?’ Ferro echoed. His dark eyebrows curled upward as he sized me up in my golden dress. ‘Like that’s any compensation for his tardiness.’ He shook his head and gazed at the entrance. ‘I swear, that bastard couldn’t detect a diamond even if I shoved one in his face.’
‘Are you calling me a diamond?’ I asked, amused.
‘I am.’ He grinned. ‘An uncut one, though,’ he teased with a wink.
I laughed. I didn’t care in the slightest that Leo was late. It equalled fewer seconds to spend with him. Besides, having Ferro here was making me forget all about him, but then Ferro had always done that. He’d treated me like a sister ever since my parents left me in the Cifarelli family’s care when I was two years old.
I was Leo’s intended, but, sometimes, I genuinely wished I were Ferro’s instead. I wasn’t in love with Ferro either, but at least he had always been a friend to me. Leo, on the other hand, had always excluded me from everything with the preconceived notion that I was unworthy of his time and attention, that I was incorrigibly weak, and that our families’ enterprises would not be in safe hands with me.
So, if my fate was to be trapped in a marriage without love, I’d have preferred it to be with Ferro – at least our friendship would have filled a portion of the void. With Leo, there was nothing but hostility and scepticism toward each other, which had continued to fester over the years. Our union would only make the absence of love more apparent than ever.
I was just about to reply to Ferro that only another diamond could polish one, but the sudden pause in the crowd made me acutely aware of my fiancé’s arrival.
I froze, my senses sharpening. Keenly attuned to his presence, I experienced a strange pull, urging me to come to him.
He felt so much like gravity. He always had.
But it was a destructive force, like a black hole that would suck me in and crush me completely – not the type that kept me grounded.
I glanced at the entrance, where dark eyes gleaming with mystery and aloofness instantly trapped my gaze. That darkness had enveloped me for as long as I could remember, its shadows spreading toward me like greedy arms about to choke my fire.
His straight eyebrows were furrowed as he analysed me from afar, as if sharply judging my attire – or perhaps my appearance overall – while his full lips were pressed together. It was difficult to decipher his thoughts from his cryptic expression, but I could at least gauge that he wasn’t over the moon to be here, much less to see me.
‘There he is,’ Donna said, looking relieved.
He approached, scanning the room as if he was detecting potential threats. In his black dinner suit, he looked edible. Yes, that was something I couldn’t deny: Leo was sizzling hot. His raven black hair had a side part, and it formed beautiful, glistening waves that were drawn back from his chiselled face. His strong, square jaw was flexed.
As he moved gracefully through the room, my heart sank. I dreaded this so much. I knew there were lots of women out there who were dying to be in my shoes, dying to be Leo’s prospective wife, but it didn’t help at all. Other women’s envy didn’t give me any satisfaction. After all, it was no reward when taking into account what I was sacrificing – a chance at love.
Still, I could understand why Leo had so many admirers. Aside from being remarkably intelligent, obscenely rich and strikingly handsome, he was robust and tall. He spent every morning lifting weights or practising martial arts with his personal trainers, and it showed on his toned body. Tattoos covered his bronzed skin in several places, from his chest to his fingers, but they suited him.
I remembered when he’d got his first one – he’d been sixteen and it was an interesting depiction of an hourglass; a human skull was at the top, and it had the text memento mori. It covered his left pectoral muscle, where his heart rested beneath his skin.
I’d always liked that tattoo, even if I would never admit it to him. I doubted Leo thought I knew what memento mori even meant.
‘Leo. There you are!’ Lauren called. She was one of Leo’s closest female friends and I’d always liked her, even if she’d rarely spoken to me. ‘What kept you?’
‘A meeting,’ I heard him vaguely murmur as he halted to greet her.
‘It went fine.’
She smiled, stroking his strong arm. ‘I bet it did.’
‘If you’ll excuse me, Lauren. I need to apologise to my fiancée.’
She glanced in my direction with a crooked, almost knowing smile. ‘Of course.’
He had barely managed three strides when another friend of his called, ‘Leo!’
I couldn’t fight the smile that stretched my lips when Leo lingered for half a second, clearly weighing up whether to acknowledge his friend. But then he continued toward me.
Unlike me, Leo had always been popular. I had never understood why. He wasn’t affable, didn’t talk much, nor did he take up much space. I made a little more noise than he did, but only marginally. I supposed the biggest difference between us in that regard was that Leo had charisma. Although he presented it only on the rarest occasions, he had a million-dollar smile that could bewitch any audience. And, while it was sad to admit it, men were usually perceived as mysterious when they were quiet. Women, on the other hand, were often considered boring. Thus, I was boring, and Leo was enthralling.
‘Adella,’ he greeted me. Was that an apology in the bottomless darkness of his eyes?
Reaching forward, his tattooed fingers curled around my hand, squeezing as if he actually cared, but it was all for show. He might have banged a girl in the limousine on his way here for all I knew. It was unlikely, though. I’d known Leo essentially all my life, and while he was certainly one of the most undesirable men I’d ever met, it wasn’t because he was a Casanova. In fact, I had never seen Leo with a woman.
Leo just wasn’t . . . interested. In anything. Well, I should say anyone. When it came to our families’ business empires and ventures, he was transfixed.
‘I’m sorry I’m late,’ he said, lips skimming across my knuckles. I quickly jerked my hand out of his grasp.
‘Don’t worry about it.’ I smiled. ‘Ferro’s been keeping me company.’ I reached over and stroked his younger brother’s arm.
‘Did you say a meeting kept you?’ Ferro asked.
‘Yeah.’ Leo tucked his hands into his pockets.
‘The one with Beckett?’
Leo had never been generous with his words.
‘Well? How did it go?’ Ferro probed.
Leo glanced around, and part of me thought he seemed a bit on edge. ‘Well, I think.’ He directed his cavernous eyes to mine. ‘Teso’, where’s Dom?’ he asked, referring to my father.
I looked up the double staircase in the grand foyer of the Cifarelli mansion. ‘I think I saw him head upstairs with Gio just a minute ago.’
He immediately turned toward the nearest staircase.
‘You should probably join him, Ferro,’ Donna said.
‘Yes.’ Leo halted abruptly. Turning slightly, he locked eyes with Ferro. ‘You should come, Ferro. Donna will look after Ade.’
‘Shouldn’t you be looking after Ade? It’s your bloody engagement party, Leo.’
Leo’s eyes swivelled toward me. ‘I don’t think she minds.’
I smiled. ‘Of course not. Take all the time you need. I’ll be spending the rest of my life with you, after all. We’ll have a whole lifetime to look after one another.’ And ignore each other.
To any eavesdropping guests, I sounded loving, but Leo, Ferro and Donna would have picked up on the searing sarcasm.
I thought I caught a glint of emotion in Leo’s eyes – resentment, perhaps? – but it vanished too quickly for me to be sure. Turning, he continued up the stairs.
Ferro sighed next to me. ‘Should have been born with a dick, Ade,’ he joked.
‘You think Leo would like it up the arse?’ I replied. Donna gasped and Ferro burst into laughter.
‘That wasn’t what I was getting at, but I love the turn it took!’ Ferro chuckled.
Humour aside, Ferro was right. Then again, I would probably have had to marry Donna if I’d been born a man, so, in the end, there was no escape. As the only living child of the Valentino family, I was bound to marry a Cifarelli.
Now I just had to make the best of it.