This is all my fault, Gemma reminded herself, her gut pulsating with the rhythm of a sickened heart.
Leaning over the balcony, she eavesdropped on the group below. The Tyrrhenian Sea licked noisily at the property’s edge as birds trilled a mournful ballad. Words floated only to melt into the cacophony, rendering them indiscernible. Not that she needed them. The topic was no secret.
They discussed the theft of her future.
Had I done what father asked, I would not have been sold to an American.
Because of the stunt she pulled, her father owed no dowry. The other family did not care about her crime. Their concerns involved an intact hymen for consummation, and her ability to bear a son.
Even in 1981, Southern Italy still muzzled its women. After all, God’s law required they remain meek and do as the man of the house commanded. A rule Gemma followed without complaint.
Until a few months ago, when her love asked for her father’s blessing. Because of the young man’s common lineage, Renzo denied Gemma’s hand. “You are a D’Florio,” he told her. “We may not be mafioso, but you will still marry someone of equal station.”
In response, the two seventeen-year-olds disappeared for a week. With reparation weddings still in practice, surely Renzo would require they take vows.
Their fuitina backfired, and Gemma broke under the pressure of Renzo’s fury. A devout Catholic, she confessed to preserving her innocence for the marital bed. This small consolation did not pacify her father.
Unwilling to reward Gemma with the marriage she wanted, Renzo hired a professional to find a suitor. But the scandal had destroyed her reputation and attempts to find an Italian groom failed. Not to be deterred, her father demanded their broker throw nets into foreign waters.
The black car had pulled into their driveway two hours ago. Dread oozed like sludge through Gemma’s veins as the driver had opened the back for a pair of men. Obsidian haired and tan, they wore dark blazers with matching slacks and buttoned shirts. She might mistake them for twins, were it not for the salt in one’s hair.
Business concluded, the four men stood. Her father shook hands with the patriarch, then the twenty-something replica. The formality skipped the driver, whose proximity to negotiations implied he doubled as a bodyguard.
Voice carrying, Renzo called to her, “Unisciti a me. Devi incontrare il tuo fidanzato.”
Join me. You must meet your fiancé. She contemplated a swan dive to the cement at his feet. Instead, she crossed her chambers toward a door that led downstairs.
Where the heir seemed bored, his father’s expression displayed glacial command. Harsh mouths incapable of smiling only emphasized the arrogance in their stiff postures.
The chauffeur’s aluminum gaze cast her in a much softer regard, a stark contradiction.
“I am Michael Manning,” the older clone announced without emotion. “It has been decided. You and my son, William, will wed.”
Measured by her father, Gemma kept her reaction to a minimum and curtsied without sound. Glancing at the suitor she did not want, she saw nothing. No joy. No resentment. Not even resignation or acceptance.
“Shall we let them talk?” her father inquired in a language the foreigners understood.
“Unnecessary.” Michael laid a hard glare on his son, “Give your bride the trinket.”
With an abbreviated nod of assent, William removed a velvet box from his pocket. It popped opened to reveal platinum strands braiding five sparkling diamonds into a necklace. Two sets of pear-shaped gems tilted away from the cushion-cut centerpiece. Goosebumps raced across Gemma’s skin as William fastened his chain of stones around her neck.
“You insult us,” Renzo stated, chest puffed. “She is dishonored.”
The elder scowled, “Your inability to control your female is not our problem. I can assure you we will do a better job.”
Feeling the heaviness of the jewelry at her throat, the patriarch’s declaration stole the air from her breast. What did he mean by control? Certainly, these men would not hurt her. Her father’s anger could not be that potent.
Surprised her voice did not tremble, Gemma asked in Italian, “Is this really what you wish for me, dearest father?”
Glowering, he ordered, “Stai zitto, bambina.”
Gemma’s cheeks grew hot at the reprimand as Michael observed the exchange with obvious mistrust. A desire to flee with her love overwhelmed her. They would not need much to survive. Perhaps they could make a life for themselves in spite of the blacklisting that would follow.
The only thing stopping her was the fate of Serifina. Father be damned, Gemma did not want to worsen the scandal to the point of condemning her younger sister’s future.
“Very well,” Renzo allowed. “My home is open to a private ceremony after she comes of age.”
“The Saturday following her eighteenth birthday,” the patriarch requested.
“We will clear our calendars for that weekend,” Michael responded, though Gemma found it impossible to tell if the date pleased him. “Then she comes with us. You will not see her again.”
To Gemma’s horror, Renzo nodded agreement of the terms.
“Father!” she pleaded, terrified at the finality of never again seeing her family.
Aiming a finger, he slipped back into their native tongue, “You cost us enough. Now you face the consequences of your actions.”
“Sam,” Michael motioned to their chauffeur. “William has business to conduct before our flight back to Seattle.”
The two men turned as their driver approached where she stood. Chrome-plated eyes contrasting his dark coif, Sam extended a hand. His touch warm and soft, he whispered, “I am so very sorry.”
Fingertips grazing her new collar, Gemma watched them leave. Once impressive, the necklace had become a garrote at her throat. The experience of being sold left her feeling disrobed and bare. With shame, unheard tears of insurmountable loss violated her cheeks.
I have only myself to blame.