Greetings from the endless coronapocalypse!
If you enjoy historical romance, and/or enjoy my writing, perhaps I’ve got some good news. Today I’m announcing my last releases of 2020: a duet set in New York’s Little Italy, in the first years of the 20th century.
The Golden Door Duet is the story of a brother and sister who leave Sicily and travel to America in search of a better life, as so many people from all over the world have done.
New York has a painful welcome for them, but there is a good life waiting up ahead, if they can survive the journey to it.
La Bellezza (The Beauty), Book I, features Caterina Romano. Il Bestione (The Beast), Book II, features her older brother, Paolo.
And yes, by the second book, you might find some echoes of the fairy tale The Beauty and the Beast, though it is not the driving force behind the duet or behind the titles.
When I had this idea and began the story, I expected it to be a standalone novel about Caterina–and I even thought her brother would die early on. But then I got to know Paolo, and not only did I not want to kill him, I wanted to know his story, too. And then it occurred to me that there was a pretty interesting potential for a link to another series.
Most of my books occur in the same universe, though the connections are sometimes quite subtle and more in my head than anywhere else. But this connection is explicit.
If you’ve read The Pagano Brothers, you’ve met two families who feature fairly prominently in that overarching series story and are integral here: The Cuccias and the Romanos. The Golden Door Duet is the origin story of The Romano Family of Long Island, and their generations-long feud with the Cuccia Family of Sicily.
La Bellezza, Book I, goes live on Saturday, 5 September. Il Bestione, Book II, goes live two weeks later, on Saturday, 19 September. Preorders for both will be available on Saturday, 15 August.
If you’re interested in seeing some of my visual inspirations, for the characters and settings, you can check out my Pinterest board for the duet.
Here’s the duet description:
At the turn of the twentieth century, a brother and sister flee the dangers of their life in Sicily for the golden promise of America. But the promise shatters as soon as their feet touch solid ground again. What they find in that new world will test their faith—in life, and in each other.
America’s rough welcome tears them apart. As they struggle to find their own ways and build full lives in an unfamiliar, incomprehensible place, they each, in their own time, discover true love.
In the strength of that love, they might find a way back to each other as well.
The description for La Bellezza:
For as long as she can remember, Caterina Romano has drawn notice for her beauty, and that notice has been more burden than boon. Leering eyes and groping hands have bedeviled her since she was a young girl. As she’s grown to adulthood, the danger has grown as well. It’s the reason her family finally flees Sicily, in search of a safer life in the golden dream of America.
But the dream becomes a nightmare before their first dawn in the new world, and Caterina and her brother are left hopeless and clinging to life in an alien land.
Dario Laterza is a baker in Little Italy, his home for the past six years. When he sees the skinny, desperate woman the neighborhood has taken to calling La Bellezza, a phantom in the shadows stealing crumbs and rifling through garbage, he feels compelled to help her.
The help Caterina needs will test Dario’s mettle and change his life in ways he could not have imagined.
But she is beautiful inside and out, and true love might heal them both.
And the description for Il Bestione:
When Paolo Romano was fifteen, his father fled Sicily, leaving his mother and younger sister under his protection. He tried to be the man his family needed and shield them from the horrors of the world. When he couldn’t do that at home, he took them to America in the hopes that they’d find their father and make a better life in the new world.
But America is not the shining beacon of hope the stories promised, and his family was torn apart before they understood where they’d landed.
Paolo was alone, broken and full of rage and loathing for the world. He learned bitter lessons: that love is an illusion, that pain is a constant, and only the hardest, most ruthless soul can survive on the tarnished streets of New York.
So that is the man he became.
Now they call him Il Bestione: The Beast. For years, he’s thrived under that name, his heart growing harder as his power expands.
Mirabella Montanari is new to America, arriving in New York with her father, under the sponsorship of her uncle. But her uncle is on the wrong side of Il Bestione.
When she witnesses the Beast’s brutality firsthand, Mirabella decides to take revenge.
Paolo’s ruthlessness and Mirabella’s revenge force them together in a way neither could have imagined. What happens then depends on whether there is still a good man inside the hardened shell of the Beast.
If so, true love might heal them both.
Finally, the first chapter of La Bellezza as a preview:
The new morning’s bright sun washed over the yard, and a faint breeze wafted from the west, carrying a hint of sea even so far from the Sicilian coast. The leaves of olive trees rustled in their grove, and the cattle lowed as Paolo and his dog led them out onto the hillside.
Caterina loved this early morning hour in summer, when the sun was fresh and the problems of the day before had faded with the night’s rest. It was in this moment, and only this one, she could feel that life still held hope. The beauty of the world washed over her in this one moment, fresh and new and bright.
Such great beauty, so easily sullied by people’s daily cruelties and pettiness. And yet each day started in this fresh new way.
Gatto Giallo, the huge, ugly tom cat who lorded over the villa and his little realm of barn cats, perched on a fence post, licking a paw to wipe his whiskers. Every now and then, he lifted his pale, scarred face and blinked at the sun.
Caterina smiled as she watched him enjoy the warming morning. He was a sweet boy, unless you were a mouse. Or another tom with ideas about taking over the villa.
She stood in the chickenyard, her apron full, and scattered grains for the flock at her feet. They clucked and chattered happily, scratching in the yellow dust. Occasionally, two or three hens would bicker with each other, and she went to shoo them apart.
“Come, little ladies. Let’s all get along. The world is too unkind to fight with family.”
“Caterina! I need the eggs!” her mother called from the kitchen window.
“I’m almost finished, Mamma!” She scooped bigger handfuls and tossed the grain in the yard, careful to strew it about so the hens didn’t cluster too closely and fight over a single kernel of dried corn when there were so many to be had.
She dropped her empty apron and brushed the seed dust away, then swiped her hands together before she headed to the coop to gather the day’s eggs. Caterina and her mother cooked for all who worked here at the Villa Cuccia, and for the Cuccia family as well, and they never had eggs left over from one day to the next. Indeed, sometimes, Caterina had to go looking to borrow more from nearby kitchens, or even into the village to buy some.
This morning, she collected almost two dozen eggs and carried the basket back into the kitchen with both hands.
Her mother took the basket from her at once and went to the pump at the sink to wash them. “Wash up and prepare the flours, little treasure. Don Cuccia has guests this evening, remember.”
Enrico Cuccia was the most powerful, and most dangerous, man in their little village and for some distance beyond it. He officially owned this vast estate, with its many hectares of olive groves and cattle pastures, but in truth he owned their whole village and everyone in it. Some were more ‘owned’ than others, but no one was truly free of Don Cuccia’s influence, or his will.
Caterina’s family was one of those more owned than others, but they had secret, terrifying plans to change those circumstances. Her father was already free. They’d bought his freedom at the cost of Caterina’s, and her brother’s, and her mother’s, but it was a choice they’d made willingly, to save his life, and in the hopes that they all might follow him soon to the golden streets of America.
Five years had passed since her father had left them, and they’d had word from him only once. They didn’t know if his letters simply couldn’t get through, or if he’d stopped trying, or if harm had befallen him. But their plans continued, in secret and in risk. Someday, they would leave this place for a better one.
Caterina washed her hands. She saw the big pot on the massive iron cookstove and checked the corn porridge, stirring it with a thick wooden spoon. The Cuccia family was at their breakfast now, an elaborate meal with many dishes to choose from. The porridge would sit on the stove for an hour or more; it was for the workers, who would come in when they could and ladle out a wooden bowlful for themselves.
Seeing that the porridge was thickening, she added some fresh milk and stirred until it had new life.
“The flours, Caterina. We need to start the breads.”
“Yes, Mamma.” She went to the wooden cook table and began to sort and measure out the flours for the breads they’d bake today. They milled the grains once a week, on Saturdays, so today she was able to measure from their bins.
“He’s coming!” Isabella, who served the family meals and helped with the cleaning of the villa, bustled into the kitchen with a tray laden with dirtied breakfast dishes. She spoke under her breath but with an edge of anxiety. “He’s coming!”
Caterina and her mother stood straight and smoothed their aprons and skirts as Don Cuccia came into the kitchen.
He was not an ugly man, nor fat, nor bald, nor short. In fact, he was fine enough looking. At casual glance, a stranger might deem him unremarkably attractive. He was old enough to be entirely grey, head and beard alike, and his face showed the wrinkles of a life lived in the Sicilian sun, but nothing in his looks showed darkness or cruelty. When he smiled, as he did now, one might even think him capable of kindness.
And he was. But that kindness was reserved for his family and friends. When he was kind to those he considered beneath him, it always came with a bitter cost.
“The breakfast was excellent this morning, Maddalena,” he said to Caterina’s mother.
“Thank you, my don. I’m happy it satisfied you.”
“It did. Very good.”
It was not his custom to praise his servants. The atmosphere in the kitchen was thick and tense, with Caterina, her mother, and Isabella standing perfectly still, waiting to know what the don really intended by coming into the kitchen. Normally, it was his wife who gave the food orders.
There was a wooden bowl of apples, yellow with a blush of pink, on the worktable, near Caterina’s elbow. They were intended for that evening’s dessert. The don leaned close beside her and plucked one from the bowl, then turned and rested with studied nonchalance on the edge of the table. He slipped a pocketknife from his trousers and popped it open. As he sliced pieces from the apple and ate each one off the knife, he said, “I’ve had word in the morning post—we’ll have three more for dinner this evening.”
“Very good, my don,” Caterina’s mother said, her head bowed.
“Berto is coming home. His travels are over, and he’ll be home this afternoon.” He turned to Caterina, with the smile that could be mistaken for kind. “What do you think of that, Caterina?”
Berto was Don Cuccia’s fifth child and only son. He had been raised like a prince, free to chase his whims, until he was past twenty, and then sent out to learn the world before he took his seat at his father’s side.
When she was younger, before she’d known better, while she’d still had her father here and didn’t understand the way things worked in this world, she, like most of the girls in their village, had thought Roberto Cuccia a dashing figure—handsome and mysterious, free with his wealth and with his smiles. He’d been like an idol, something to be worshipped.
Since those young days, she’d learned there was nothing worthy of worship in the Cuccia family, though they all themselves believed otherwise.
When Berto was last home, for the long December holiday, he’d paid Caterina a great deal of attention, despite her best efforts to avoid him once she’d realized that she’d gained his notice. On the eve of the new year, he’d forced her into a corner and kissed her. He might have done more, his hands had grasped for more, but she’d been saved by a group of drunken revelers coming upon the shadows he’d shoved her into, and she’d managed to slip away and stay scarce until he left the villa again.
That had been her first, and so far only, kiss. She’d been seventeen.
She’d had a birthday since.
Her mother knew about that forced kiss, and Paolo, her brother, knew as well; Caterina had never been good at keeping secrets, and she’d been badly shaken and in need of comfort afterward, with the bruising clutch of Berto’s fingers and the wet slick of his drunk lips and tongue still ghosts on her skin.
Paolo had wanted to kill him; he’d been on fire with manly offense, a fire that he’d kept banked for five years, since their father left. But it was trouble with the don that had sent their father away, and Caterina and their mother had desperately persuaded Paolo to forbear. It was then that their plans for escaping Sicily and the reach of Don Cuccia had taken on an urgency, despite the lack of word from her father.
Now, at the don’s remark, like then, when his son had grabbed her, Caterina was frozen with dread. Why did he think she would have especial interest in his son’s return? Did the don know, too, about that awful kiss? Did he think she would welcome Berto’s attention?
“Caterina?” He set the side of his knife’s blade under her chin and lifted. She felt the sticky cool of apple juice and the harsh sharp of metal. “I asked you a question.”
She swallowed, and the knife pressed harder at her throat. “I wish your son a safe journey home, my don. I know you will be glad to have him back.”
“Do you? Am I the only one who will be glad?”
Caterina didn’t know what to say. No word was safe to say. She looked into the dark eyes of the smiling man with a knife at her throat and said what she guessed he wished to hear: “No, my don. You aren’t the only one.”
Still grinning, the don dropped the knife from her throat. He picked up the corner of her apron, wiped the blade dry with it, then folded it and returned it to his pocket. “Carry on, ladies,” he said as he walked from the kitchen as if he’d already forgotten why he was in there at all.
For a long time, her mother stared at the doorway he’d gone through. Then she turned to Caterina. “Call your brother in. You and he must go into the village. I’ll give you a list for the shops.”
Paolo drove as if it had been the horse who’d held a knife to Caterina’s throat. “Mamma should have let me kill that bastard that night!” He snapped the reins, and the poor mare grunted and found more speed. They would arrive at the village square in half the time it normally took if he forced the horse to keep this pace—if the poor old soul didn’t collapse in the harness before they made it.
She set her hand on his arm. “Bellina isn’t to blame, Paolo. Be easy.”
Her brother looked sidelong at her and found some compassion for the beast. “Forgive me, Bellina,” he muttered and eased back a little. “I hate these arrogant bastards with the whole fire of my soul, Rina. They take everything from us and comb through the ashes for more.”
Paolo was two years older than Caterina and had taken on the role of her protector even before their father had left them. Since then, he’d been nearly militant, despite his comparative powerlessness. They were only peasants, servants to the don. There was a severe limit to how much protecting he could do, especially when the don’s son turned his attention her way.
But one of the reasons she’d never had a suitor, other than, it appeared, Roberto Cuccia, was that her brother wouldn’t let any boys of their own station near her.
She could have had attention otherwise, if she’d wanted it. When she was still a girl, not even in her teens, boys had turned their heads when she’d walked by. Then, when her understanding of the world had been simpler, more innocent, she’d enjoyed their goggling faces and kept fantasies of love in her heart. She’d imagined a simple village life, like that her parents had had, with a small, cozy cottage with red flowers in the windows, and a strong, good man to love, who’d tend their little flock while she made their home well and raised their babies.
But now, she was glad of her brother’s shield, and that no one asked after her. Another reason she’d never had a suitor was that she no longer wanted one. Her life was not here in Cuccia. Since their father had left, they had all had their sights set on the day he would send for them, when they would make their better, safer new life in the wonder of America.
“You can’t kill a Cuccia, Paolo. That’s how we got where we are now.”
Their father had killed a man who wasn’t even a true Cuccia. Only one of the don’s trusted men, who’d been drunk in the village square in broad daylight, shooting off his gun for no reason but his whim. The don’s men all carried guns wherever they went.
One of his bullets had gone through the front window of their cottage and killed Paolo and Caterina’s little sister, Sophia, as she sat at the table, learning to weave a basket.
Rather than seek redress from Don Cuccia, their grief-stricken father had taken matters into his own hands and stabbed Sophia’s killer in the heart, outside the church on the day of her funeral.
If their father had gone to the villa instead, likely there would have been some kind of restitution, but nothing that could recompense the death of a child. So their father had taken his own justice.
It was a grievous offense, to kill a man under the don’s protection.
The people of the village had come together, pooling every resource they could, goods and coins and a safe contact in Napoli for papers, to send him away before the don retaliated.
On such short notice there had been barely enough to send him, certainly not enough for any others of their family. He’d had to go or die, so he’d left, in the black of a night, with the promise to send for them as soon as he could. They’d heard from him once since.
Don Cuccia had gotten his thwarted vengeance by burning their little cottage, killing their tiny herd of goats, having their mother brutally raped in the village square, and taking them all into servitude.
Their mother had healed, and then accepted her lot. She’d done what Don Cuccia demanded and had been his cook ever since. Caterina had worked at her side, trying to avoid notice of any kind, trying to be insignificant. But she had, in her mother’s words, blossomed in these years.
Paolo, too, had done the work demanded of him. But he had seethed bitterly in that servitude for every second of the past five years, waiting for a moment he could avenge his family without putting what was left of it at even greater risk.
There had, of course, been no such moment. Nor would there be. Escape was the only hope they had.
“Berto doesn’t fancy you, Rina,” Paolo said now. “Not truly. Not enough to make you his wife—and his father would never allow it, even if he did. Berto wants a toy, and he thinks he can have anything he wants. All he wants is to dirty you. And his father wants every chance to hurt us. He would stand by and watch his son abuse you. The way he watched Mamma.”
Caterina shuddered. Of course her brother was right.
He noticed her reaction and took the reins in one hand so he could hook his arm around her. “I’m sorry. I won’t let it happen again. This time, I won’t let it happen.”
“What can you do, Paolo? No one can stop them from having what they want.”
He scowled. She knew how he hated his inability to protect his family. Then, he’d been still a boy. Now, he was a man, strong in body and heart, but with no more power than the boy who’d hadn’t been able to save his mother. “Then it’s time to go. That’s what I do today.”
“All three of us? How will that happen?”
“We’ve been planning for years, Rina. Saving all we could, trading for help from our friends. There will be enough. There must be. We’ll send word to Pappa and hope he gets it before we arrive. But we must go.”
She sighed and rested her head on Paolo’s strong shoulder. At the least, they would not escape today. At the least, they would have to return to the villa on this day, and Berto would be there.
Looking for her.
While Paolo did whatever it was he needed to do, Caterina completed the marketing her mother had sent her for. Though it had primarily been a guise, an excuse to send her and Paolo on an unexpected errand in the midst of their work, the fact that the don’s son was returning did, in fact, mean a need for additional, and special, supplies.
The people of their village treated Caterina and her brother kindly but delicately, like distant relations who come to dinner and cannot help but make trouble. What had happened to them was well known—indeed, most of the village had borne witness to the worst horrors of that time. They had helped Caterina’s father run, and they were gentle with those who had been left behind and had suffered so because of it, though they were also glad to have them return to the villa with all speed and take their bad luck with them.
Today, word of the Berto’s coming had clearly reached all the ears that could hear, and Caterina found herself under extra care from all the shopkeepers and the women in the square. She thought their tender attention curious at first, until a few well-intentioned comments made her understand that Berto’s interest in her was known.
That worried her most of all. It was hard enough to know she’d caught the interest of the don’s son. But if he’d also spoken of her—to the men at the villa, most likely—enough for it to become worthy of whispering, then she was in true danger. She occupied his mind in some way.
She’d seen what they’d done to her mother. They’d held her and Paolo in the square while they’d done it. Though she’d tried to keep her eyes closed, each of her mother’s screams had driven them open, so she’d seen.
On the orders of Don Cuccia, while he watched, five men had taken their turn, on the dusty ground near the village well. Her mother had been limp as a half-empty potato sack by the time they dragged her to the wagon and then shoved Paolo and Caterina into it with her, for delivery to the villa.
That wasn’t what was in store for Caterina, certainly. Unless, perhaps, she refused the don’s son what he wanted of her.
She didn’t want to go back. She wanted to run right now, into the mountains if she had to.
But her mother was there, in the villa’s kitchen, waiting. Any disappointment Caterina visited upon the don and his family, her family would be forced to repay. Her mother.
So she did her marketing and waited for her brother. When he helped her onto the wagon for the ride back to the villa and told her everything would be ready by the next nightfall, Caterina nodded and clasped her hands.
She prayed that no more ill would fall upon her family in the next day.
©2019 Susan Fanetti