Heart of Stone

2 | First Kiss

© Copyright C.K. Bennett 2021–2022

While Leo and Ferro attended to business upstairs, Donna and I discussed the details of the upcoming wedding, which was to be held on the Amalfi Coast in Italy, where Leo’s family had roots. I wanted to get married by Lake Garda, but Isabella, Leo’s mother, had denied me the pleasure.

Just as I thought of her, she climbed the stairs to the second floor, her wide hips swaying from side to side in her crimson mermaid gown. Her long black hair cascaded down her back, swinging with her smooth and attractive movements.

Ten years her husband’s junior, Isabella Cifarelli had always been an intriguing woman. She exuded a unique sense of maternalism – I’d always experienced it as something conditional, like she would only treat me favourably if I obeyed her every command.

However, considering how she’d always treated Ferro, perhaps I was wrong. When Ferro’s mother, Rosetta, had disappeared a decade ago, Isabella had taken Ferro under her wing as though he were her own son, and I’d always appreciated her for that. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that the same love didn’t extend to me. I’d always felt as though she viewed me as her pupil, not as her daughter.

I was still admiring her poise and curvaceous figure when she glanced at me over her shoulder. A crooked smile crept over her lips.

‘Adella.’ She paused on the stairs, turning somewhat, and extended her hand toward me. ‘Cara mia, please.’ She beckoned to me.

I looked at Donna, who nodded repeatedly.

‘Will you be alright by yourself?’ I asked.

Tucking a lock of her dyed blonde mane behind her ear, Donna gazed around. ‘Yeah.’ She met my eyes. ‘I’ll go talk to Roman,’ she said, referring to their cousin who also happened to be Leo’s best friend.

Nodding, I gripped my gown, lifted it slightly, and made my way toward Isabella. I took her extended hand. Her cold, slender fingers clenched around mine and she smiled.

‘You look marvellous tonight, dear.’

‘Well, of course I do. You picked my dress.’ My compliment didn’t seem to reach her. She merely scanned the crowd before meeting my eyes again.

‘Leo’s finally arrived, so it’s time we welcomed the guests properly.’ She guided me up the remaining steps and down the corridor, to an area of the mansion I’d never been allowed to enter. It contained Giovanni’s – Leo’s father’s – office, as well as his and Isabella’s bedchambers.

She knocked on the office door three times, turned the handle and walked in. My eyes instantly travelled around the room, drinking in the dark shades of the leather furniture, the rich colours of the Persian carpets, and the big Renaissance paintings crowding the walls.

Apart from Leo, who stood facing the windows, Ferro, Giovanni and Dad sat at a big round table of dark wood, drinking brown spirits from glasses that were adorned with meticulous engravings.

‘Isabella,’ Giovanni said sternly but somehow lovingly, looking straight at his wife. His brows were furrowed, his dark grey hair trimmed to perfection, highlighting his chiselled face. Giovanni was a handsome man, especially for his age.

‘It’s time we welcomed the guests.’ Isabella raised her chin. ‘You can resume your business later.’

Isabella had always been preoccupied with façades. In that, she and Giovanni were a great match, because she reminded him to nurture relationships and to treat people as humans rather than as transactions. I’d always considered them a power couple, even if they didn’t outmatch my own parents.

Unlike Giovanni, my father treated my mother as a partner rather than as just a lover. I doubted Isabella was allowed to be part of Giovanni’s ventures the same way my mother, Victoria, was.

Giovanni sighed and glanced at his wristwatch.

‘She’s right, you know,’ Ferro said.

‘She is indeed,’ Dad said and smiled in my direction. ‘Ade, you look fantastic.’

‘Thanks.’ I curtsied. ‘Isabella styled me.’

‘Leo,’ Isabella said. ‘Come.’

Leo barely turned at his mother’s call. His eyes flickered between our figures and his lips twitched slightly downward. That he dreaded this could not have been more apparent.

When our gazes suddenly collided, I quickly looked away. Leo’s stare had always unnerved me. It was so intense.

He sighed and put his glass on the table. ‘Let’s get this over with,’ he muttered.

I still hadn’t met his eyes when he offered his strong arm to me. I looked at it for a beat, not taking it until Isabella nudged me.

Isabella led us to the section between the two staircases and gazed at the herd of people below us. From up here, it felt like Leo and I were a royal couple about to address our subjects.

I was tense, but as soon as Dad and Ferro stopped behind me, I relaxed somewhat. I noticed Mum then, making her way up the stairs in her purple gown. She must have sensed what was about to happen, or perhaps Isabella had already alerted her.

Stella,’ she cooed when she reached my side. I faced her with a small smile, adoring the sight of her familiar features and sympathetic gaze. I had already spoken with her earlier that night, but it helped to have her next to me. She knew better than anyone how much I dreaded this.

Before I could reply, Giovanni clapped his hands together to silence the crowd.

‘Dear guests,’ he greeted them when all eyes turned to us. ‘First of all, thanks for coming tonight. As you all know, Adella has said yes to marry my eldest son, Leo, and we are so glad you’re here to celebrate it with us.’

The crowd cheered, but I was too shy to maintain eye contact with anyone. Giovanni continued to elaborate on the agenda for tonight while my pulse skyrocketed. It was strange to see all these people full of enthusiasm. They clearly had no idea that Leo and I did not want to marry one another.

Leo’s arm tensed in my hold. For some reason, it comforted me; at least I wasn’t alone in my misery. This was perhaps one of the few things we had in common: how much we sincerely dreaded spending the rest of our lives with one another.

Giovanni gave the floor to Leo, and my heartbeat grew more rapid.

What was he going to say? What lies would he spill now? Would he profess undying love for me in front of all these people? Could he really bring himself to do such a thing?

Could I?

He turned sideways, breaking my weak hold on his arm.

‘Adella, amore mio,’ he started, and my stomach’s contents rose toward my throat. I was anything but his ‘amore’.

Our eyes met, and my breath locked in my throat. Darkness spun within his irises, hypnotising me. Their shadows reached for me, like thick, evil branches about to whip my soul to pieces.

‘I’ve waited for this moment for what feels like an eternity,’ he continued, his voice ringing with surprising sincerity. ‘While we’ve still got a few months to go until we’re married, you’ve already made me the happiest man by agreeing to be my wife. I’ve no doubt that, with you by my side, my life will be the best it could ever be.’

‘Aw,’ the crowd uttered below.

Leo’s lips twitched into a vague, lopsided smile. ‘We’ve known each other since you were only two, so if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that you’re a gift that just keeps on giving.’ He reached into his pocket. ‘I’d like to return that favour, starting with this.’ He brought out a gorgeous bracelet of white gold, adorned with several sapphires.

In the eighteen years I’d known Leo, I had seldom felt positive emotions around him. But sometimes when he touched me, I could have sworn the contact of our skin ignited an invisible spark. The electricity would bolt through my veins until it tingled in my chest.

This time was no exception. His fingers – very gently – reached for my hand, and the same intoxicating energy surged into me. I drew in a sharp breath, but my chest felt full already – with something far more invigorating than air.

As he fastened the beautiful jewellery around my wrist, his magnetic gaze held me captive. He had me trapped in his darkness.

When he finally let go, the sudden cheer of the crowd pulled me back to the present. The shadows of Leo’s power waned from around me. Suddenly I was enveloped in light again, rescued from danger.

I looked at my wrist. His touch had felt like fire, and yet my skin was unscathed. Nothing hurt. On the contrary, I’d felt lighter on my feet during the brief moment it had lasted.

My eyebrows twitched as I examined my wrist.

‘Thank you,’ I managed to say. That was when he proceeded to completely shock me. He leaned in, lips drawing closer and closer to my own.

My stomach flipped. I thought I would vomit. Leo and I had never kissed before.

I knew I couldn’t turn away – that would create a scandal – but I didn’t want to kiss him. What was he doing? A peck on the cheek would have sufficed! Why was he going for my lips? Nobody had asked us to do that. In fact, I was confident nobody expected us to, either!

Then his warm mouth landed on mine.

I stopped thinking, I stopped breathing. Hell, I wished I could have stopped existing. But, as he lingered on my mouth, I was taken aback by how soft his lips were. They were like the most comfortable pillows, gently encompassing my own lips in a way I hadn’t thought possible. Leo was a hard man, both within and without. How could he kiss so softly?

He pulled away, leaving me in a daze. What had just happened? Nothing made sense to me anymore, much less myself.

Why had he decided to actually kiss me? Just for show? Was that really necessary?

Our eyes locked again and his mouth formed a crooked smile. I had a vicious urge to slap him, because the answer to all my questions shone from his eyes: he had done it solely to throw me off.

And he had managed. What made it worse was that he knew full well that I couldn’t throw a fit in front of all these people. He had deliberately exploited the situation just to prove to me that he had the upper hand, that I was nothing but a puppet to him. He was establishing dominance, and I hated him for it.

I breathed deeply to steady myself while I stared daggers at him. He would pay for this later. Two could play this game. I was not his puppet, and I would show him that he’d do well to remember that.

While the crowd applauded, Leo leaned closer to whisper, ‘Smile, Ade. You’ll give us away. Besides, I reckon your first kiss could have been worse.’

I stared at him with eyes of steel. ‘You’re not my first kiss,’ I enlightened him quietly.

His eyebrows corrugated in a frown. A smirk arrived on my mouth.

Glancing in Ferro’s direction, who was watching us with wide eyes, I said, ‘Your brother was.’

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