Without me, p.12
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       Without Me, p.12
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         Part #5 of Men of Inked series by Chelle Bliss
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  had accepted my future until I met you.” She blew out a shaky breath and continued, “Meeting you made me curse the gods and question my faith, Anthony.”

  “I didn’t do anything to you, but love you.”

  “I tried to push you away,” she whispered as her bottom lip quivered. “You wouldn’t let me. You chased me, making me give in. God, how I want to change everything, Anthony, but I can’t. I don’t want the future I’ve been dealt. I had accepted it, but you fucked everything up.”

  “Is that why you keep getting rid of me?” It all started to click.

  “Yes!” she wailed, and closed her eyes.

  I reached out. “Come on, Kitty Cat. Come inside so we can talk.”

  She didn’t speak as she let me guide her inside.

  I sat down and pulled her into my lap. “Why would you do that, Max? Push me away.”

  As she wiped her cheeks, she said, “I decided years ago, when I saw my father wither away, that I wouldn’t do that to another person. I avoided relationships, promising to never have to subject someone to that kind of life. I want you, Anthony. I crave you. Being with you brings me so much happiness.”

  “Then why not let me make the decision for myself?” I asked. One thing I’d never done well with was people making decisions for me.

  “Because you wouldn’t make a clear decision. You don’t know what you’re dealing with.” She laid her head on my shoulder as I pulled her closer.

  “I always think clearly, Max. It’s my decision to make if I want to love you, not yours.”

  “But—”

  I put my finger over her lips. “Max, you’ve made my head spin since the day I met you. People would think I’m fucking nuts for always going back for more. There was something that drew me to you at the bar that night. That spark between us had me wanting more. Nothing has changed. I need to know if that’s the only reason you kept trying to push me away.”

  “Yes,” she replied as she peered up at me. I moved my fingers, giving her a chance to speak. “I was having a battle with myself. I kept telling myself to give us a shot and that maybe you could handle my illness when I was older. That’s if we stayed together, of course,” she added, and tried to crack a smile, but it was forced. “Then doubt would creep in and I’d try to be as mean as possible to get rid of you.”

  “You did a good job.” I snickered as I brushed the hair away from her face.

  “Watching my father disintegrate before my eyes changed me. I look healthy now, but I know what the disease can do to a person.”

  “Tell me what happens.” I played with her hair between my fingertips and listened.

  “It affects a person’s ability to walk, making them unsteady and weak. It also alters their ability to speak. I’ll sound like I’m drunk even when I’m not. My hands will have a hard time grasping objects and I will be robbed of my ability to write. My coordination will be off. I may want to walk to the left but my mind won’t get the signal and may go right.”

  I took in everything she had to say as she continued laying out the severity of the condition and how she’d be changed physically. I knew I had to learn everything I could about it as soon as possible.

  “Does it affect your mind?”

  “No, I’ll still be the same person on the inside.”

  “You’ll still be the same person on the outside too, Max.”

  “Not really, Anthony. I’ll be a shell of my former self.”

  “Max,” I said as I turned her in my lap to face me, “I don’t care what your future may be like. I’ve never loved a woman before I met you. Never. I don’t care if we have five years or fifty, I wanted all of them, every second you have on this planet, to be spent with me. I’m a selfish prick, remember? I can’t let you push me away again. I won’t let you be alone. You’ve caused enough pain in my life by trying to get rid of me. I won’t allow you to do it again.”

  “Anthony, you don’t know what you’re saying. You don’t want a woman confined to a wheelchair. It’s so much more than that. Everything about me will be different. There won’t be a thing in my life that won’t be a struggle. Someday, I’ll need constant care. Do you really want to live like that? With the knowledge that you’ll have to take care of me.” Her eyes bored into me as they questioned the depths of my love.

  I could understand her worry. We both knew I had been an asshole. Love wasn’t something I’d wanted or asked for in my life, but it had fallen in my lap.

  “I know you think I’m not man enough to love you. I was an asshole. The most selfish prick to grace the planet, but you changed me. Your love has ruined me. I’m not the same man I was when I bought you that drink. Your love seeped into my veins and altered my world forever. If I had to pick between a life without you and one with you, even in a wheelchair, I’d pick you every time, Max. Every time I’d want you in my life.”

  I paused, feeling my eyes begin to water. This wasn’t how I wanted my love to be. I didn’t want this to be true.

  “No one has made me as happy and pissed off as you have. I’ve never felt a spark when I touched anyone. It’s only you.”

  “You don’t know what you’re saying,” she said, shaking her head in my hands.

  “I fucking do. The last few times you threw me out, I was gutted. Remember what I told you when I asked you to give us a chance?”

  She nodded, remaining quiet.

  “I said I never wanted to live wondering what could’ve been. I don’t want to have any regrets. I’m in too deep, baby. If I run away from you now, I know I’ll be alone for the rest of my life. No one will ever fill my heart the way you have. No one could love me the way you do, both good and bad. When I’m with you, everything in the world seems right. I can’t let you push me away. It’s not happening.”

  “Anthony,” she pleaded as she touched my hand.

  “No, Max. I won’t let you ruin our chance at happiness. You’ve been calling all the shots, and that shit’s about to change,” I said as I brushed a tear off her cheek.

  “But—”

  “No. I’m not leaving your side. We’re going to figure this out together. Medicine changes every day. They could find a cure before you start experiencing symptoms. Never give up hope. The one thing I now believe is to never give up hope.”

  “I’m scared to let myself be happy,” she whispered.

  “Why?”

  “Because it’ll make it more painful when I start getting sick, Anthony. I’ll know everything I’ll miss out on once I’m unable to walk.” Tears streamed down her face, dropping on my shirt.

  “Like what?”

  “Like dancing with you.”

  “Max, I can hold you in my arms and dance. I have the strength for the both of us.”

  “I won’t be able to make love to you the way I do now.”

  “How many years are we talking about before you start getting sick?”

  “I don’t know. It could be tomorrow, next week, or in twenty years!”

  “If I can still get it up when I’m sixty, we’ll figure something out.” I laughed.

  “Don’t be silly.” She shook her head, but a tiny smile crawled across her face.

  “I’m not. Let’s be honest about our future. I can do it all night now, but in twenty years, who knows. I may not even live that long, Max. Most people don’t know their future and wander through life holding on to any happiness they can grasp. You think you know what your future will be, but we could both die tomorrow. Why not hold on to the happiness we’ve found and face whatever comes next together?” I sounded so grown up that I almost shocked myself. I felt like I was channeling the words of wisdom my mother would say, but for once, I was okay with it.

  “Maybe you’re right.”

  “I am. Let’s take it day by day. Can we agree on that?” I asked. “If I’m being an asshole, then call me out, but never try to get rid of me because you’re scared. When it becomes overwhelming, I’ll be there for you.”

  “I don’t dese
rve you,” she whispered.

  “I know.” I laughed and watched her face break out into the most beautiful, heart-stopping smile.

  “You’re an asshole.”

  “I know that too, but that’s why you like me.”

  She rolled her eyes and laughed.

  “So, your family doesn’t hate me?” I had to bring it up. It was something that needed to be discussed.

  “No,” she confessed, and grimaced.

  “It was wrong of you to use the color of our skin to keep us apart.”

  “I know. It’s the only thing I could think of.”

  “That was a huge lie, Kitty Cat. A hurtful untruth.”

  “I know. I’m sorry.”

  “If your mother hadn’t shown up and spilled the truth, would you have ever told me about being sick?”

  “I don’t know.” She glanced down and exhaled. “I’d like to think that I would. I wanted to tell you, but I just couldn’t bring myself to.”

  I raised her face and stared at her, taking in her beauty. “No more lies, Max. We won’t survive this if you do.”

  “Okay, Anthony. I promise.”

  The one thing I needed was to feel connected to her. Gripping her hair in my hands, I lost myself in her kiss.

  “I need to make love to you,” I murmured on her lips.

  “Yes,” she panted.

  I lifted her, carrying her to my bedroom without breaking the passionate kiss. Everything we felt but didn’t say poured out through our lips as we silently conveyed the emotion of the moment.

  Max and I were back, and nothing would tear us apart.

  Karma could fuck off.

  11

  Crystal Ball

  “What are you so damn happy about?” Mike asked from across the table as I stole a glance at my cell phone.

  “I’m not happy. I’m always like this.”

  I knew that it was bullshit. I usually was a cranky fucker. Typically, I had a headache or not enough sleep and my siblings would make me crazy. At the shop, I could busy myself with something to keep my mind occupied, but sitting at my parents’ made it impossible to ignore them.

  Max had softened since she’d told me about her illness, and things were smoother. She hadn’t thrown me out, either. We talked whenever we had a chance and texted throughout the day. We took turns sleeping at the other’s house at least every couple of days. When Sunday had finally arrived, I’d begged her to come to my family’s house for dinner, but she’d said that she couldn’t make it.

  “You’re happy. You keep smiling every time you look in your lap. Find something down there finally?”

  “Shut up, Mikey.” I glared at him, but I didn’t feel the anger behind the look. Things were too good right now to be pissed off about anything.

  “Get the shit straightened out with the girl?” Thomas asked as he grabbed a piece of garlic bread.

  “I think so,” I replied, hoping that everyone had been too busy eating to hear what he’d asked.

  “A girl?” Ma asked as she stopped eating.

  There went the hope that no one had heard. Ma had girlfriend radar, with her overeagerness to be a grandmother many times over. Thanks to Thomas, I was now on it after having remained free and clear for years.

  Even though I wanted to lie to Ma, I couldn’t. Plus, she’d see through any fib I told. “Yeah,” I answered as I placed a forkful of eggplant parmigiana in my mouth. As I chewed, I saw everyone looking at each other before their eyes fell on me. “What?” I asked with a garbled voice.

  My mother corrected her previous question. “As in a girlfriend?”

  There was no reason to hold back. Soon, I wanted to bring her to dinner, and it would be better if the shit hit the proverbial fan now instead of in front of her.

  I sipped my water, washing down the food in my mouth and making them wait for my answer. They stared at me as they patiently waited for my reply.

  “Yes, she’s my girlfriend.”

  “So, you’re not gay?” Ma asked as her mouth hung open and the entire table erupted into laughter.

  “What?” I replied.

  Honestly, I could see her point. I was the only one in the family who’d never had a significant other, and I sure as hell never talked in front of my parents about any of the women I banged.

  “I mean, it’s okay if you are, sweetie. I’ll still love you. Don’t be ashamed of who you are,” Ma said as she gave me a very serious look. It was the type of look she’d used when we had been kids and tried to lie. She’d lull us into a sense of security to get us to confess.

  “Ma, I am not gay.” I shook my head, feeling my face turn red.

  “If you say so, honey.” Ma smiled at me and the laughter grew louder.

  “I’m happy everyone is getting a kick out of this,” I said as I stabbed at my eggplant.

  Ma wiped her lips, laying the napkin back in her lap before she looked at me. “Anthony, you’re the only one who hasn’t brought someone home. As the oldest, I thought you’d be married with children by now. Hell, I’ve never, ever heard you talk about a girl.”

  “Listen, just because I don’t kiss and tell doesn’t mean I haven’t had women.”

  “Lord has he,” Izzy interjected before starting to laugh again.

  “Izzy,” I said, shooting a “shut the fuck up” glare in her direction. “Ma, I’ve just never met anyone who was worthy of meeting the family.”

  “That’s silly,” Ma replied as she started to play with the food on her plate.

  “I’m not gay, I’ve had women, and I have a girlfriend. Are we clear? I just want to make sure everyone has their details correct.”

  “Bro, chill out,” Joe said.

  “I am, Joe. Cool as a cucumber.” I placed a forkful of food in my mouth because I knew another question was coming. Nothing in this family was quick or easy.

  “Same girl you mentioned before?” Izzy asked as she drew her lips into her mouth, trying to stop her laughter.

  I nodded, unable to talk with so much food in my mouth.

  “Things change since the last time we talked?” Thomas asked as he stared at me.

  Between bites, I said, “Yeah.”

  “Tell us about her, Anthony. Stop holding out on me,” Ma demanded.

  “For you, Ma, anything. I met her a while ago, but we were just friends.”

  “With benefits,” Mike mumbled.

  I scowled at him before I began to speak again. “It took us a while to get on the same page. She wasn’t too keen on the idea of dating. I’m hoping to bring her with me next weekend.”

  “Thank would be lovely, Anthony. Who is she?” Ma asked as she set her fork down, giving me her full attention.

  “I’m sure there are better things to talk about. I can tell you later, Ma.”

  “No.” Izzy shook her head and waved her hand over the table. “We all want to hear this, Mr. I Hate Everything About Relationships. Do tell.”

  I mouthed the word “traitor” at Izzy before turning my attention to Ma. “Her name is Maxine, but I call her Max. She’s a stylist or something like that. Has a little shop down in Tampa.”

  “I love her already,” Izzy said, tilting her head.

  “She’s black,” I blurted out like it mattered, even though I knew it didn’t.

  “And?” Pop asked nonchalantly as if I’d divulged a secret that weren’t so secret or important.

  “Just throwing it out there,” I replied as I sucked in air. I had known they wouldn’t give a shit, but I wanted the information out there from the get-go.

  “I don’t care if she’s blue,” Ma said. “Tell me more about her. Why haven’t you brought her over sooner?”

  “Did you think we’d care about the color of her skin, son?” Pop asked with a raised eyebrow.

  Where should I even begin in my explanation? “No, no. I knew you wouldn’t care. It’s complicated,” I replied, because it was the truth.

  Ma crossed her arms and tilted her head as her eyes bore
d into me. “All relationships are. Who at this table had an easy relationship?”

  “Joe and Suzy,” I offered, because they’d had that insta-love thing.

  “Hell no,” Joe interrupted.

  “Anthony,” Suzy said as she stopped eating for a moment. She must’ve had something important to say, because Suzy hadn’t stopped eating since she’d become pregnant. “Your brother and I didn’t have an easy love. Mostly because I was an idiot. But it wasn’t easy. He was just persistent.” She giggled, glancing at Joe and winking.

  I slouched back in my chair, trying to remember what happened back then. It felt like ages ago, even though not even a couple of years had passed.

  “I guess,” I said as I shrugged.

  “I’m still waiting to hear why you haven’t brought her here for dinner,” Ma said.

  “We weren’t dating a couple of weeks ago. She didn’t want a boyfriend and she sure as hell didn’t want me.”

  “Ah, another one like you,” Mike mumbled.

  “Yes, another one like me, but for different reasons. I just didn’t want to be led by the balls like everyone at the table.” I laughed, slapping the table. No one else was laughing with me. “You know what I mean,” I added, feeling a little embarrassed.

  “So now your balls are in the hands of another,” Izzy said with a satisfied look on her face.

  “Yes.” I sighed, knowing I’d succumbed and become one of the sappy fuckers who’d do anything for the woman they loved.

  “Why wouldn’t she want to date you? You’re such a handsome man with a kind heart,” Ma said as she frowned.

  “Ma, I’m not. I mean, I am a handsome devil, but kind? Most women would never use that word to describe me.” I smiled at her. “Max had reasons to not want to be in a relationship. Plus, she said I was an asshole.”

  “Oh, I really like her,” Izzy muttered with the fork of pasta resting on her lips.

  “She called you that?” Ma asked.

  I nodded but kept the smile plastered to my face. “I am, though. I mean, I was. I have a reputation that follows me.”

  I wasn’t ashamed of it. It cut down on the bullshit. I didn’t have to go into a long spiel about not wanting a relationship. Women knew and I never promised more.

  “I thought I raised you better than that,” Ma added with a tone of judgment.

  “Ma, I didn’t treat the women badly. I gave them what they wanted and took what I needed. I never promised more.”

  “Dirty bird,” Pop chimed in, with a small laugh.

  Ma glanced at him and shot him a warning glance. “Sal.”

  “What? There’s no reason for the boy to be tied down, Mar.”

 
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