Standing outside my father’s office door, I hear him talking to someone. Knowing how much he hates to be disturbed when he has someone in his office, I start to walk away but then turn back when I hear my name. He’s talking about me with someone, but with whom? I know I shouldn’t be eavesdropping, but now my curiosity is piqued, and I must listen to more.
“Are you sure Zaira is who you want?” he asks.
“Yes, I’ve wanted this alliance for some time now. You’ve known for a while now that I’ve been building to have my own family, and having Zaira in the mix will seal the bond between our two families,” the other man replies. I know his voice—Victor Masserie, one of my father’s caporegimes. But why are they talking about me? I think to myself.
“Marriage?” my father questions. Marriage? To Victor? Absolutely not!
“Yes, marriage, of course,” Victor replies.
“And how does this alliance ensure an increase in my power? From what I can see, the only one benefiting from this arrangement is you.”
“It would appear that way, but you’re missing the hierarchy of business, Alberto. When my power increases, your power increases because you are and will always be my Don.”
“And what about the Vitalis?” my father asks.
“Alberto, they don’t stand a chance against the alliance between our two families. Actually, I’m surprised they haven’t tried to push that old hope for a marriage contract of their own with Zaira and Michael.”
“Actually, it surprises me as well. Zaira is beautiful, and I am sure hard to resist. But when I accused them of killing my Maria—God rest her soul—all bets were off.”
I know my father blames Michael and his family for my mother’s death. He swears the Vitalis put a hit out on her, but I know Michael, and I know his father. They would never do such a thing. If they wanted to come after my family, they would not take a coward’s way out and go after my mother. They would go directly to the top and get my father.
He’s quiet for a few minutes and then he says to Victor, “So you are guaranteeing I will benefit from this?”
“You have my word,” Victor replies.
Victor has been part of our family my entire life. My father raised him and doted on him as if he was the firstborn son. My brother, Vince, never stood a chance and never got the same attention from my father as Victor did. As a child, I remember Victor never playing with us and always keeping his distance. My father even offered to educate him, but he refused. He wanted to be a made man and work his way up in the family. And he never hid the fact he wanted his own family, which is why this conversation comes as no surprise to me. Victor has always wanted this, but for some reason, I seem to be the key to make it happen. But why?
I’ve never liked Victor, nor have I ever trusted him. In fact, he’s always scared me. He’s never been pleasant or nice to anyone but my father, and the last thing I can imagine for my future is being married to him. Why would an alliance with Victor increase my father’s power? Victor didn’t have the muscle behind him, so why would he think he would add power to the Bonita family?
“However, Alberto, I think it is important to know what you are subjecting your daughter to. I’m not a nice man,” Victor says.
My father replies with a chuckle. “I’m not a nice man either. When did that ever stop me?”
“This is not a laughing matter, Alberto. You need to heed my words.”
“Fine, what is it you have to say?”
Listen well ’cause I will only say this once.” He pauses and then says, “Zaira will not be a wife who is treasured and doted on—or loved for that matter. She will satisfy my needs, both in the bedroom and out. This is a marriage of convenience and nothing else.”
His words terrify me. I cannot marry Victor. My father will insist. I’m desperate; I have to do something to stop this arrangement. Without thinking of how I’ll explain to them I was less than a little interested, I don’t knock and instead barge in.
When I open the door to my father’s office to protest, I catch him waving his hand in the air, shrugging Victor’s words away, and then he says, “You know I care nothing about that. Once she belongs to you, I wash my hands of her.”
I should have known. My father doesn’t care. If it helps his business or increases his power, then my wellbeing be damned.
He pauses when he sees me. “Zaira, my dear. Your timing is perfect, but you know better than to just walk into my office, especially when I have someone in here, even if it is only Victor.” He gives me a wary look, and I know I will have to pay for my intrusion. “Victor and I have something to share with you.” He says it so sweetly, with so much love in his voice.
I smile at him, but inside I am falling apart. How could my own father do this? I won’t argue with him about this so-called marriage for many reasons, one being that I’m already in trouble for walking uninvited into his office. Then, if I give myself away and reveal what I’ve heard, he will punish me for eavesdropping. Yes, it’s a rather odd concept for a woman of twenty-one but a definite occurrence in the Bonita family. Secondly, I know I won’t win if I did. My father’s word is law, and if he insists I marry Victor, then I have no choice but to marry Victor. Did I mention that when you are a Bonita, you have no free will, just my father’s will?
Putting on the invisible mask I wear in situations such as this—the one I have grown accustomed to wearing when I am around my father—I reply, “Good morning, Father.” I pause and turn toward Victor to address him. “Victor. Hope you both are well this morning.”
“We are, and we have good news for you,” my father says.
Victor rises from his chair and walks over and stands before me. “Zaira, your father and I have just spoken, and he has given us his blessing.”
“Blessing?” I reply. I figure it’s better to show ignorance than to give any clue that I know what he is about to say.
“Yes, Zaira, his blessing. We’re getting married,” he says confidently because he knows if my father wishes it, I must acquiesce.
“Oh, I see.” I’m cautious with my reply because the last thing I want to convey to my father right now is that I am apprehensive about this.
Victor reaches in his pocket and pulls out a small jewelry box. Oh hell, he already has the ring! Oh God no. This can’t be happening, I think to myself, and all the while I have a smile on my face.
“Here, wear this,” he says as he hands me the box.
I really didn’t expect romance—you know, the hearts-and-flowers thing—but it sure would have been nice to at least get a decent proposal of marriage instead of “here, wear this.” I take the box from him, still smiling ’cause it is what a good Bonita daughter should do, and open it. Inside is the most ostentatious, gaudy diamond ring I have ever seen. Victor has known me all my life; of course he would know this ring is not something I would choose. But based on what I heard from the other side of that door, it’s best I learn early on that, going forward, nothing about me matters anymore. It never really did. I never mattered to my father, and now I will never matter to my husband. What was it he said? I am only his wife to satisfy his needs, both in the bedroom and out? The thought makes me cringe. But, at least he won’t be getting a virgin. It was the one thing I was able to control about my future. During my senior year in high school, I made a point to give my virginity away to a boy that I had been secretly dating at the time. Although it wasn’t the most pleasant experience of my life, I was overjoyed that I had taken matters into my own hands.
“We’ll have a quick engagement. Six months work for you?” he asks.
Does he really care what I think? I nod ’cause I really don’t have a choice. In today’s world, women aren’t subjected to dowries and arranged marriages anymore, but in a traditional Italian family, like my own, this is our life. My father is the Don of a powerful family, and if he says I will marry and we will have a quick engagement, then I will do as he says.
After the decision is made for a quick engagement, I politely excuse myself from both men. Once in the hallway, I make it my mission to find Vince. Vince is my older brother and the closest thing I have to a best friend. Well, I had Michael at one time, but after his family was accused of murdering my mother, that friendship went to hell. Not only did my father forbid me to see Michael, I knew it was easier to avoid him. I mean really, how could we be friends after the accusations had been made? The damage was done.
I know Vince would not be able to change my father’s mind, but I need him to know and to know how I am feeling about all this. I can’t speak with Mia, my sister. She’s too immature to understand the ramifications of such an arrangement, and she has loose lips. I’d be terrified she would slip and confess my confidences. Vince is my confidant, and I know whatever I tell him he will take to his grave. And, if he wants to help, at least he’s in a position where he can do something, unlike me.
I find him in the kitchen harassing Greta, our housekeeper, cook, and nanny. Greta is the one who really raised Vince, Mia, and me. She is like a second mother to us all, especially after our mom was killed five years ago.
“Come on, Greta, just a taste of the cookie dough, for your favorite?” He teases. It makes me smile ’cause I can see Greta is making chocolate chip cookies, and even though Vince is twenty-eight, he is still mimicking his childhood antics by begging for cookie dough.
“No. No, Vince, no. Cookie dough has raw eggs, and you should not eat raw eggs. And you’re not my favorite. I don’t have favorites.” She’s admonishing him, no doubt.
“But, Greta, you know I’m your favorite, and I think it is important to note that I’ve been eating raw cookie dough for as long as I can remember. Just look at me. I’m as healthy as a horse!” He walks to her and puts his arm around her. “Come on, love, you know you’re gonna cave.” He’s smiling, and I can see the myrrh in his eyes.
Greta completely gives in and waves her hand, saying, “Fine, one taste.”
He kisses her on the cheek as he reaches into the bowl with the raw cookie dough, then digs his spoon in to get as much as he can. Once he takes the spoon to his mouth, he turns and sees me standing in the doorway.
“Hey, sis!” he says with a smile. My brother is quite handsome and very much the charmer. I think he would charm the socks off the most prudish woman and get her agreeing to whatever he wanted in less than five minutes. He’s gonna make a great Don someday, and I pray it’s sooner rather than later when it happens. He would never force me to do what my father is planning—never. His green eyes sparkle as he licks the spoon clean.
“Can I talk to you in private?” I ask.
“Of course, Zaira.” He puts his spoon down and walks toward me. “Let’s go outside on the patio and chat.” Turning back toward Greta, he says, “Hey, love, can you have…ugh, what’s her name bring us a couple of ice teas please?”
Greta shakes her head and says, “Her name is Holly, and she is the new housemaid,” Greta says, correcting him. “And yes, I will tell her.”
“I’m sorry, Greta. You know we have more maids running through this house than I care to count. Seriously, I’ve been thinking about changing the door to the servant’s quarters to a revolving one. Might make things easier, don’t ya think?”
She rolls her eyes and says, “Go, and get out of my kitchen!”
He gives her another kiss on the cheek and says, “You may not admit that I am your favorite, Greta, but you’ve always been mine.”
When he leaves the room, I turn back toward Greta with a shrug, and she smiles so big, I think she is gonna burst. That’s my brother, the ultimate charmer. I turn around and follow Vince outside the patio doors.
He sits at the table and looks at me curiously, “So, what’s up?”
“Have you talked to Papa?” I ask.
“About what?” He leans forward, curious about where I’m going with this conversation. We usually don’t discuss our father’s decisions about things because we both know all our complaining and commiserating about his choices won’t change a thing. But this time is different. I’m desperate, and the only one I can turn to is Vince.
“He’s made a match for me,” I say sadly. “Victor and I are engaged.”
“Fuck!” Vince shakes his head. “I had a feeling this was going to happen.”
“Did he tell you what he was planning?”
“No, but some of the conversations I’ve been privy to between him and Victor have alluded to it,” he says.
“What am I gonna do, Vince?” Tears fall from my eyes. “I can’t marry him.”
Vince reaches over and brushes a tear from my cheek. “You know what, I’m done cowering to the animal we call ‘Father,’ and Victor is no better.”
“Vince, I’m not sure there is anything you can do, but if you can think of something, you’re my last hope,” I plead.
He sits there in silence, and I can tell he is in deep thought. Then, as if a light bulb shines in his head, he says, “Actually, Zaira, there is.” He pauses and then looks directly into my eyes. “Do you trust me?”
I nod. “Yes, of course I do. I trust you more than anyone.”
“Good,” he says. “I want you to be the perfect daughter. Go through the motions of being the perfect fiancée and leave the rest to me. I promise you, you will not have to marry Victor.” He gets up from his chair and bends to kiss my forehead. “Can you do that?”
Weary at his ambition, I reply, “Yes, I can do that.” Really at this point I don’t have a choice. “You really think you can help me?”
“Personally, no, I can’t. But I know someone who will be more than happy to take care of it for me.” He pauses. “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” he says in his best Marlon Brando impersonation from the Godfather.
“Please don’t joke, Vince. This is serious.”
He leans over again and kisses my cheek. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I didn’t mean to make fun; I was just trying to lighten the situation. I know it’s serious, and I promise you I’ll fix it. Can you do what I ask?”
It’s not something I am looking forward to, and the thought of being Victor’s fiancée repulses me, but I do trust Vince. If he says he’ll take care of it, then I believe him.
“I have some calls to make,” he says. “Remember what I said. Go through all the motions, Zaira. You have to be convincing. Capisci?”
“I understand,” I reply.
He leaves the patio just as Holly brings our ice teas. She sets them on the table and asks, “Should I take the other one back, Miss Zaira?”
I smile. She’s really sweet, and I hope she sticks around with us a little longer than the last one. With my father at the helm, you never know. “No, Holly, you can leave it. I’ll probably end up drinking it anyway. I’m gonna sit out here for a while. Thank you.”
She smiles and leaves.