Home > The Kiss Thief

The Kiss Thief
Author: L.J. Shen

WHAT SUCKED THE MOST WAS that I, Francesca Rossi, had my entire future locked inside an unremarkable old wooden box.

Since the day I’d been made aware of it—at six years old—I knew that whatever waited for me inside was going to either kill or save me. So it was no wonder that yesterday at dawn, when the sun kissed the sky, I decided to rush fate and open it.

I wasn’t supposed to know where my mother kept the key.

I wasn’t supposed to know where my father kept the box.

But the thing about sitting at home all day and grooming yourself to death so you could meet your parents’ next-to-impossible standards? You have time—in spades.

“Hold still, Francesca, or I’ll prick you with the needle,” Veronica whined underneath me.

My eyes ran across the yellow note for the hundredth time as my mother’s stylist helped me get into my dress as if I was an invalid. I inked the words to memory, locking them in a drawer in my brain no one else had access to.

Excitement blasted through my veins like a jazzy tune, my eyes zinging with determination in the mirror in front of me. I folded the piece of paper with shaky fingers and shoved it into the cleavage under my unlaced corset.

I started pacing in the room again, too animated to stand still, making Mama’s hairdresser and stylist bark at me as they chased me around the dressing room comically.

I am Groucho Marx in Duck Soup. Catch me if you can.

Veronica tugged at the end of my corset, pulling me back to the mirror as if I were on a leash.

“Hey, ouch.” I winced.

“Stand still, I said!”

It was not uncommon for my parents’ employees to treat me like a glorified, well-bred poodle. Not that it mattered. I was going to kiss Angelo Bandini tonight. More specifically—I was going to let him kiss me.

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about kissing Angelo every night since I returned a year ago from the Swiss boarding school my parents threw me in. At nineteen, Arthur and Sofia Rossi had officially decided to introduce me to the Chicagoan society and let me have my pick of a future husband from the hundreds of eligible Italian-American men who were affiliated with The Outfit. Tonight was going to kick-start a chain of events and social calls, but I already knew whom I wanted to marry.

Papa and Mama had informed me that college wasn’t in the cards for me. I needed to attend to the task of finding the perfect husband, seeing as I was an only child and the sole heir to the Rossi businesses. Being the first woman in my family to ever earn a degree had been a dream of mine, but I was nowhere near dumb enough to defy them. Our maid, Clara, often said, “You don’t need to meet a husband, Frankie. You need to meet your parents’ expectations.”

She wasn’t wrong. I was born into a gilded cage. It was spacious, but locked, nonetheless. Trying to escape it was risking death. I didn’t like being a prisoner, but I imagined I’d like it much less than being six feet under. And so I’d never even dared to peek through the bars of my prison and see what was on the other side.

My father, Arthur Rossi, was the head of The Outfit.

The title sounded painfully merciless for a man who’d braided my hair, taught me how to play the piano, and even shed a fierce tear at my London recital when I played the piano in front of an audience of thousands.

Angelo—you guessed it—was the perfect husband in the eyes of my parents. Attractive, well-heeled, and thoroughly moneyed. His family owned every second building on University Village, and most of the properties were used by my father for his many illicit projects.

I’d known Angelo since birth. We watched each other grow the way flowers blossom. Slowly, yet fast at the same time. During luxurious summer vacations and under the strict supervision of our relatives, Made Men—men who had been formally induced as full members of the mafia—and bodyguards.

Angelo had four siblings, two dogs, and a smile that would melt the Italian ice cream in your palm. His father ran the accounting firm that worked with my family, and we both took the same annual Sicilian vacations in Syracuse.

Over the years, I’d watched as Angelo’s soft blond curls darkened and were tamed with a trim. How his glittering, ocean-blue eyes became less playful and broodier, hardened by the things his father no doubt had shown and taught him. How his voice had deepened, his Italian accent sharpened, and he began to fill his slender boy-frame with muscles and height and confidence. He became more mysterious and less impulsive, spoke less often, but when he did, his words liquefied my insides.

Falling in love was so tragic. No wonder it made people so sad.

And while I looked at Angelo as if he could melt ice cream, I wasn’t the only girl who melted from his constant frown whenever he looked at me.

It made me sick to think that when I went back to my all-girls’ Catholic school, he’d gone back to Chicago to hang out and talk and kiss other girls. But he’d always made me feel like I was The Girl. He sneaked flowers into my hair, let me sip some of his wine when no one was looking, and laughed with his eyes whenever I spoke. When his younger brothers taunted me, he flicked their ears and warned them off. And every summer, he found a way to steal a moment with me and kiss the tip of my nose.

“Francesca Rossi, you’re even prettier than you were last summer.”

“You always say that.”

“And I always mean it. I’m not in the habit of wasting words.”

“Tell me something important, then.”

“You, my goddess, will one day be my wife.”

I tended to every memory from each summer like it was a sacred garden, guarded it with fenced affection, and watered it until it grew to a fairy-tale-like recollection.

More than anything, I remembered how, each summer, I’d hold my breath until he snuck into my room, or the shop I’d visit, or the tree I’d read a book under. How he began to prolong our “moments” as the years ticked by and we entered adolescence, watching me with open amusement as I tried—and failed—to act like one of the boys when I was so painfully and brutally a girl.

I tucked the note deeper into my bra just as Veronica dug her meaty fingers into my ivory flesh, gathering the corset behind me from both ends and tightening it around my waist.

“To be nineteen and gorgeous again,” she bellowed rather dramatically. The silky cream strings strained against one another, and I gasped. Only the royal crust of the Italian Outfit still used stylists and maids to get ready for an event. But as far as my parents were concerned—we were the Windsors. “Remember the days, Alma?”

The hairdresser snorted, pinning my bangs sideways as she completed my wavy chignon updo. “Honey, get off your high horse. You were pretty like a Hallmark card when you were nineteen. Francesca, here, is The Creation of Adam. Not the same league. Not even the same ball game.”

I felt my skin flare with embarrassment. I had a sense that people enjoyed what they saw when they looked at me, but I was mortified by the idea of beauty. It was powerful yet slippery. A beautifully wrapped gift I was bound to lose one day. I didn’t want to open it or ravish in its perks. It would only make parting ways with it more difficult.

The only person I wanted to notice my appearance tonight at the Art Institute of Chicago masquerade was Angelo. The theme of the gala was Gods and Goddesses through the Greek and Roman mythologies. I knew most women would show up as Aphrodite or Venus. Maybe Hera or Rhea, if originality struck them. Not me. I was Nemesis, the goddess of retribution. Angelo had always called me a deity, and tonight, I was going to justify my pet name by showing up as the most powerful goddess of them all.

It may have been silly in the 21st century to want to get married at nineteen in an arranged marriage, but in The Outfit, we all bowed to tradition. Ours happened to belong firmly in the 1800s.

“What was in the note?” Veronica clipped a set of velvety black wings to my back after sliding my dress over my body. It was a strapless gown the color of the clear summer sky with magnificent organza blue scallops. The tulle trailed two feet behind me, pooling like an ocean at my maids’ feet. “You know, the one you stuck in your corset for safekeeping.” She snickered, sliding golden feather-wing earrings into my ears.

“That”—I smiled dramatically, meeting her gaze in the mirror in front of us, my hand fluttering over my chest where the note rested—“is the beginning of the rest of my life.”

“I DIDN’T KNOW VENUS HAD wings.”

Angelo kissed the back of my hand at the doors to the Art Institute of Chicago. My heart sank before I pushed the silly disappointment aside. He was only baiting me. Besides, he looked so dazzlingly handsome in his tux tonight, I could forgive any mistake he made, short of coldhearted murder.

The men, unlike the women at the gala, wore a uniform of tuxedos and demi-masks. Angelo complemented his suit with a golden-leafed Venetian masquerade mask that took over most of his face. Our parents exchanged pleasantries while we stood in front of each other, drinking in every freckle and inch of flesh on one another. I didn’t explain my Nemesis costume to him. We’d have time—an entire lifetime—to discuss mythology. I just needed to make sure that tonight we’d have another fleeting summer moment. Only this time, when he kissed my nose, I’d look up and lock our lips, and fate, together.

I am Cupid, shooting an arrow of love straight into Angelo’s heart.

“You look more beautiful than the last time I saw you.” Angelo clutched the fabric of his suit over where his heart beat, feigning surrender. Everyone around us had gone quiet, and I noticed our fathers staring at one another conspiratorially.

Two powerful, wealthy Italian-American families with strong mutual ties.

Don Vito Corleone would be proud.

“You saw me a week ago at Gianna’s wedding.” I fought the urge to lick my lips as Angelo stared me straight in the eyes.

“Weddings suit you, but having you all to myself suits you more,” he said simply, throwing my heart into fifth gear, before twisting toward my father. “Mr. Rossi, may I escort your daughter to the table?”

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