Tough Love (Stripped 0.50) - Page 2

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I reach into the pockets of my jeans and pull out two cigars. I hold them up and grin. “Didn’t even break a sweat.”

He rolls his eyes, but I think he’s relieved. “This was a bad idea.”

“It was my idea,” I remind him, and his cheeks turn dark.

Of course the little homework assignment was my idea. I’m the one ridiculously sheltered up in my room with the tutors and the gilded locks. Fifteen years old and I’ve never even been out to the movies. Giovanni gets to go to regular school. He’s too young to get inducted, but I know he gets to be at some of the sit-ins.

“I just want to try them,” I say. “I’m not going to get addicted or anything.”

He snorts. “More likely you’ll get a hangover. How are you going to explain puking to your padre?”

“Honor will cover for me.” My sister always covers for me. She takes the brunt of my father’s anger. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I love the way she protects me. But one percent of the time, it feels like a straitjacket. That’s why I started coming to the pool house. And I’m glad I did. This is where I met Giovanni.

He examines the cigar, eyes narrowed.

“How do you even light it?” I ask. I’ve seen my father do it a hundred times, but I’m still not clear on how the whole thing doesn’t just catch fire. Isn’t it made from dried plants?

He puts the cigar to his lips experimentally. It looks strange seeing his full lips around something I’ve mostly seen my father use. Then he blows out a breath, miming how it would be. I imagine white smoke curling in front of his tanned skin.

“They don’t let you use them when they do?” I ask.

He gives me a dark look. I’m not supposed to talk about the side jobs he does for his father. “I mostly sit in a corner and hope no one notices me. It’s boring.”

“If it’s boring, then why won’t you talk about it?” I know it’s not a good thing to be noticed by men like our father, to be groomed by them, but sometimes that seems better than being ignored. I’m the younger one. And a girl. And there are rumors that I’m not even my father’s legitimate child. In other words, I’m lucky my sister remembers to feed me.

He swears in Italian. “That’s no life for you, Clara.”

“And it’s a life for you?”

“I would leave if I could,” he says. “You know that.”

“You turn eighteen in a year. Will you leave then?” My stomach clenches at the thought of him gone. I’m two years younger than him. And even when I turn eighteen, I won’t be leaving. By then I’ll be engaged to whoever my father picks for me.

Just like my sister. I shudder at the thought of her fiancé.

He shrugs. “We’ll see.”

I roll my eyes. I suspect he’s making plans, but he isn’t sharing them with me. That’s how the men around here operate, keeping girls in the dark. Honor only found out she was engaged when Byron was invited over for dinner. He has the money and the power. She doesn’t get a choice. Neither will I.

“If you go, you should take me with you,” I say.

“I don’t think Honor would appreciate me taking you away.”

No, she wouldn’t. And the thought of being without my sister makes my heart ache. Sometimes I give her a hard time, but I love her. I’d never leave her behind. “She can come with us. It will be like an adventure.”

“Don’t talk stupid, Clara.” His eyes flash with anger and something else I can’t define.

I jerk back, hurt. “It was just an idea.”

“Well, it’s a bad idea. Your father is never gonna let you leave.”

Deep inside, I turn cold. I know that’s true. Of course it is. Giovanni doesn’t have the money or the resources to take us away from here. And even if he did, why would he want to?

I hate myself for even suggesting it. How desperate can I look?

Shaking inside, I stand up and grab the bottle of Jack Daniels. It’s heavier than I would have expected, but I carry it over to a wet bar still stocked with decanters and wine glasses. No liquor though. There used to be huge parties here. When my mother died, they stopped.

We’re supposed to have a party in a few days, though, to celebrate my sister’s engagement. I’m not even allowed to go. I’ll just be able to see the fireworks from the window.


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