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A Dance of War, Page 2

Ellie R. Hunter

  Those piercing blue eyes I once found intoxicating now do nothing but irritate me. His black hair is swept back and clipped short around the sides. His suit—no doubt as expensive as my floor-length black dress—fits snugly over his body.

  The mayor takes a seat to his left, and my gaze moves from Raphael to Alexander, whose lips are moving, relaying my proposition. I then look back to the smirking man who ruined my life.

  “What do you think his reply will be this year?” Trey asks, topping my glass.

  Trey is my right-hand man, for a better term. He came to me ten years ago after my father was killed on his way home from a business trip, vowing to never let anyone get that close to himself or me. His loyalty, commitment, and resolve to keep me safe drew me in.

  Marocchi’s reply last year to my offer was for me to surrender myself to him and choose whether he put a bullet in the back of my head or between my eyes.

  “I have no idea, but I’m sure his answer will amuse us.”

  “Say the word, and I’ll walk over there and put a bullet through his brain.”

  Trey would be killed in seconds for his actions; it wouldn’t be worth it to me.

  Raphael’s eyes stray from mine and go to Trey, then focus back on me as he offers his reply, seeming almost pleased with himself.

  The mayor is on his feet, making his way back to my table. At this point last year, he’d already looked defeated. Yet tonight, he looks hopeful as he takes his seat across from me.

  I look back to Raphael, who’s still staring, so I maintain eye contact with him as Alexander begins to speak.

  “As expected, Mr. Marocchi politely declined your offer, but has proposed one of his own. One he wants you to take your time in considering.”

  This is new. I give the mayor my full attention. “What is it I should consider, Mayor Salvatore?”

  “Since neither of you are willing to give up control, he suggested going back to your original plan?”

  My eyes cut across the room to Raphael, whose smirk has turned into a full-blown grin. Inhaling deeply, I make sure not to give anything away. He has to be joking. We were silly kids back then who knew nothing of what we spoke of.

  “Announce the dance, Alexander.”

  The mayor’s surprise is overridden by Trey’s disapproval. “You can’t be serious, Mila?”

  I’ve had enough of his input for one night. “I wouldn’t say it if I wasn’t.” Turning to the mayor, I repeat myself, hating that I have to do so. “Announce the dance.”

  Raphael isn’t going to be the only one throwing a curveball tonight.

  “Mila, no Camarco has ever accepted a compromise for peace in over two hundred years. If you accept tonight, it can never be undone.”

  How absurd. The dance was introduced ten years ago by the mayor at the time to adhere to a vow of peace, if taken. Before that, there was never a woman at the head of the family; it was always men facing off with men. Before the dance, if a deal was brokered, they would be made to exchange weapons—a sign of willingness to end the bloodshed.

  Rising from my chair, I smooth out my dress and narrow my eyes. “Have I ever needed you to remind me of historical facts or to point out the obvious?”

  Leaning back in his chair, he downs his whiskey in an acquiescence. Good.

  “Surely you’ve felt times are changing. He’s becoming bolder, greedier. I want him and everyone here to see I won’t be viewed as less than him.”

  His chest deflates with a heavy sigh, and I wait for him to say his piece. Instead, he queries, “What was your original plan?”

  There are only three people who know of it: Raphael, Father Luke—now an old man, tucked away somewhere safe—and I. It was ambitious and absurd to believe love could conquer all. Such foolish minds of children.

  “If I could have the attention of the good people of Vita,” Mayor Alexander announces over the mic, the crowd immediately quieting. “It’s time I call Ms. Camarco and Mr. Marocchi to the floor in a single dance of hope for peace.”

  The murmurs fade to silence, the buzz of shock and astonishment drifting around me as I take the first step. As I make my way toward the dance floor, the crowd parts, their wide eyes following my every move.

  Not one guest accepted the invitation tonight expecting it to end in peace. And as I stand with my head held high, my hands clasped in front of me, I focus on the head of the Marocchi family.

  He hasn’t moved, though his narrowed eyes don’t stray from mine. I used to be able to read him, but not any longer. However, we both know that at this moment, I’m holding all the power in the eyes of the people. I’m standing here willingly, and he’s not. They’ll see him as the one choosing to continue on with the bloodshed.

  Seconds pass, turning into minutes. A slow, smug smile begins to spread across my lips, but it comes too soon. Raphael rises to his feet, straightens his shoulders, and adjusts his tux jacket. Whispers grow louder as his men move out of his way, allowing him to strut down to the dance floor.

  I’m no fool—this is uncharted territory. One wrong move from either one of us can end this night early, bathing it in blood and butchery.

  “W–We have made history…”

  Mayor Alexander’s voice fades away, lost in the music that grows in volume, as Raphael stands five feet in front of me. Looking into his blue eyes, so many memories shared between us resurface before he holds his hand out to me.

  It’s been ten years since we’ve touched one another, spoken a word to one another. Ten years of death. And for that reason, this dance of war will only end in carnage.

  I step toward him, willing my heart not to race.

  Placing my hand in his, I find the heat of his touch doesn’t affect me like it once did. Pulling me roughly against his solid chest, my hand comes to rest on his upper arm, while his free hand finds its place on my lower back.

  We begin to move.

  He was always a good dancer, so it doesn’t surprise me that we move around the floor with such ease.

  “Is this you accepting my offer?” he questions, his voice deeper than I remember.

  “While I’m intrigued as to why you chose this year to make such an offer, I have no interest in making such a deal. Our forefathers had the right idea—all or nothing. The Camarco’s will never concede or work with the Marocchi’s.”

  Not once do our feet stumble, gracefully taking each step in time with the music. Dipping me low, I tighten my hold on his arm, expecting him to lift me, but instead he holds me where he wants me, which is below him.

  “Then come morning, more will die.”

  In a whoosh, I’m standing upright, and it takes me a brief second to right myself before we’re moving again.

  “I guarantee you, they won’t be mine,” I warn as the watching guests blur around us.

  The beat slows, and after one final spin, the song comes to an end. Parting, we step away from each other, resuming our respective distances.

  “When I get the chance, Mila, I will kill you.” His threat is said with such conviction, I have no doubt in my mind he’ll try.

  Stepping forward, I lean up on my toes, hearing our audience gasp as if expecting to see the two of us share a kiss, but that’s not what this is. Bringing my lips to his ear, I whisper, “And when I get the chance, I’ll destroy all you have and keep you around just so you can watch it all burn.”

  Stepping back, the music changes over. The guests begin milling about, and we go our separate ways, back to our tables.

  “We’re leaving,” I instruct Trey when he arrives at my side.

  “Word’s already spreading. People will be expecting change in the morning.”

  “Then we’ll give it to them.” Not that it’ll happen before Raphael dies, or he’s on his knees, begging for mercy—or death.

  With my men surrounding me, we make our way out of the ballroom without looking back. Tonight was a show I controlled and nothing more, and I intend to keep it that way.

  Trey wisely h
olds his tongue on the drive to the Camarco estate, allowing me to relish in the peace and quiet.

  By morning, everyone in Vita will have heard about the dance, expecting peace to follow. They’ll be sorely disappointed.

  The limo pulls through the cast iron gates, and I finally relax, knowing I’m truly safe.

  The grand house was built two hundred years ago by my ancestors, with extensions added over the years. It’s too big for me, but as the head of the Camarco family, owning it is my birthright. I once hated the halls and rooms behind the ostentatious wooden doors, but after my parents were murdered, I found peace in their absence and have come to love it.

  Wordlessly, I head up to my room, unzipping my dress down the side and discarding it on my bedroom floor. Entering the bathroom, I turn on the faucets to fill up the clawfoot tub.

  While the water runs, I stand before the mirror, taking in the scent of Raphael’s cologne still lingering on my skin. Closing my eyes, I’m back in the ballroom, floating around the dance floor in his arms—the arms of my enemy.

  But he wasn’t always my enemy.

  “Back straight, Jamila,” my mother whispers angrily, leaning in so no one else can hear.

  Her smile never falters, but her tone is as sharp as a blade.

  Straightening my spine, she leans away, satisfied.

  “Can’t I go dance, Mother?” I ask, a sliver of hope igniting in my gut.

  “Don’t be silly. Your place is here with your father. Remember who you are.”

  How can I forget? There’s not a single day when I’m not reminded of the Camarco family’s place in society, as well as mine when I turn eighteen.

  My father wishes for me to be married to the mayor, so he can have the upper hand against the Marocchi’s, yet I’m foolish enough to believe I’ll marry for love. Maybe I’ll grow to love Mayor Francesco Rossi, as he’s always been kind and courteous to me. But the fact that he’s twenty-six years older than me is a tough pill to swallow. My father didn’t marry my mother for love, but because she came from a large family with plenty of soldiers he could control. They grew to love one another, though his love for her never stopped him from bedding the women who worked in our household. I stopped judging him a long time ago, after I realised the only thing he truly cares for is power. My mother and I are nothing but pawns in his game to gain control of Vita, and my future “marriage” is nothing more than another move on his chessboard.

  Tonight is my first time attending The Annual Peace Ball, and I’m dying to walk around and enjoy being with people I’ve never met, and will likely never meet again. Slipping slowly out of my seat, I duck away from the table, holding my breath until I’m out of the ballroom and wandering around the different rooms in the mayor’s mansion. I find myself weaving through guests standing around with their flutes of champagne, discussing the politics of Vita, and come across a large painting hung on the far wall, away from the guests.

  I’m enthralled by the grey strokes and splashes of paint they used to create the storm clouds. But more than that, the blast of light bursting from a dark figure falling through the sky has me stepping closer.

  It’s an angel, falling from heaven, his wings ripping away from his back. The longer I stare at him, the more I feel his pain and agony. What I wouldn’t give to be cast out of this hell in exchange for somewhere better.

  “They say when the first angel fell to earth, he landed in Vita, hence it being such a wicked place.”

  Turning to the deep voice at my side, the moment is broken by a beautiful boy with dark hair falling haphazardly over his bright blue eyes. He jerks his head, whipping his hair to the side, drawing my gaze to his dazzling smile. When he turns to look up at the painting, I turn back to it as well.

  “Who says that? Vita is a beautiful place to live.”

  I feel his eyes gaze over at me, but I keep mine on the angel.

  “Beauty only exists to mask the ugly. Just like you exist to hide the ugly behind your family name.”

  A sense of unease washes over me, and I give him my full attention, taking a step away from him. He’s quick to close the space between us, and I flinch when he brings his hand up to sweep a stray curl behind my ear.

  “I don’t intend to insult you, as it’s true for me too.” He extends his hand out to me. “My name is Raphael Marocchi, and I’ve waited a long time to meet you, Jamila Camarco.”

  A small gasp bursts from between my lips, but I find myself placing my hand in his. Bringing it up to his lips, he presses a kiss along my knuckles.

  I know who he is. He’s a part of the prophecy, just as I am. He’s the boy who was born on the same day, at the same time as me. I’ve heard it many times over the years, but I’ve never seen the boy I’m supposedly meant to save the city with.

  “Do you believe in the prophecy?” he questions, lowering my hand, yet not letting it go.

  “My father insists it’s nothing but an old man’s wish. An old man who’s lost his marbles.”

  “Do you believe everything your father tells you,”—his gaze lowers to the cross hanging from my neck—“or are you more inclined to believe a man of God?”

  As it happens, I don’t believe everything my father tells me, and I fully believe everything the Father does. But when it comes to the prophecy, I’ve always regarded it as some kind of fairy tale.

  “There you are, Ms. Camarco.”

  Raphael and I both turn to find one of my father’s men standing in the doorway across the room.

  “Meet me tomorrow at noon, behind your church.”

  With that, he disappears behind a statue of an old Roman god and out through a second archway.

  I grasp the cross lying against my chest, wondering if it’s possible that the prophecy is true? Is Raphael Marocchi and I destined to bring peace to Vita?

  Chapter Two


  Making the sign of Christ over my chest, I murmur, “Amen,” and look up at Father Antonio, standing behind his podium as he inhales deeply after finishing his daily sermon. The mid-morning sun pours through the stained-glass windows, casting shadows over his face. This is my favourite time of day when in the house of the Lord. The sanctuary feels like a warm, comforting blanket of safety, as if God himself is resting his hands on my shoulders.

  The choir begins their song. Resting my back against the front pew, I close my eyes, enjoying their pure, sweet, innocent voices.

  Not only do they help relax me, but the melodies bring me strength. Being in the church has always brought me a level of peace and stability. I needed it even more after my father was killed, as it left me to step up and take his place. Though I knew some of what he did, he hadn’t educated me in the ways of his world. But I quickly learned that hatred was what fuelled the conflict. I also learned the men who fought for my father not only fought for him, but for the Camarco name. With what little knowledge I had, my father’s closest advisors built on that and taught me everything I needed to know, and I learned fast because I had to survive, and survive I have.

  During the closing hymn, the congregation files out of the room, and the Father walks over, taking a seat behind me.

  “How are you feeling this morning, Mila?” he asks, his voice soft, just as it always is.

  He’s the only one I’ve ever felt comfortable sharing my personal thoughts with, and in my world, that’s a rarity.

  “I’m tired.”

  “Did you not sleep well last night?”

  I refrain from rolling my eyes and watch the young boys sing in perfect unity.

  “I was thinking of the prophecy, which a part of me still believes. I mean, how can you not when two babies are born on the exact date, at the exact same time to families such as ours?”


  “But we vow to kill each other at every opportunity.” Just like last night.

  “I don’t pretend to understand the path the Lord leads us down. However, I do believe our fates were written a long time ago, and what will be,
will be.”

  The choir finishes their hymn and shuffles out through the side door.

  “Our contact in Dermalen has yet to return my calls. It’s making me nervous,” he says now that we’re alone. “I’ve sent two of my men to get answers.”

  Father Antonio DeLuca is not only my confidant, but my go-between with our contacts outside of the city.

  Standing, I straighten my pant suit and bow my head toward the cross.

  “Let me know what you find.”

  I’m halfway down the aisle when he calls out, “Be careful out there. The streets are mean this morning.”

  They always are.

  I find Trey leaning against the stone pillar, smoking a cigarette as I step outside. The forlorn look on his face tells me he has news to share. News I won’t like.

  He keeps quiet and follows me to the car, opening the door for me. I slide in and across the back seat, with him following behind me, slamming the door shut.

  “What is it?”

  “Two of our men were found dead in the market square just after seven this morning.”


  “The Guidice brothers. A couple of witnesses say they were arguing with Marocchi’s men shortly before.”

  Raphael wasted no time in following through with his threat.

  The car rolls by the market square where business is carrying on as usual regardless of the murders, seeing as the people are so used to it.

  “Make sure their families are compensated.”

  Men die in my name—for me—so it’s the least I can do with all the money at my disposal.

  “How do you want to handle this?” he questions, just as his phone rings from inside his jacket pocket.

  Leaving my answer for when he’s done, I watch the streets pass by from my window while I wait. Trey learned long ago to take a call without giving anything away, so I don’t bother listening in. He’ll relay the conversation to me if necessary.

  “Five of Marocchi’s men were just found dead by the north river with bullet holes in their heads.”

  Frowning, I swing my gaze from the streets to him. “Five?”