Without me, p.15
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       Without Me, p.15
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         Part #5 of Men of Inked series by Chelle Bliss
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  Before I could get to her side, she opened the door and stood.

  “Hey,” I said. “I was going to get that for you.”

  “I got it, Anthony. I’m a big girl.”

  “I know,” I said, nodding. “But my mother may be watching.” I looked toward the house, trying to see if I could spot her face in the windows.

  “You’re really scared of her, aren’t you?” she asked before laughing softly as she placed her hand in mine.

  “No. I’m not scared of Ma. I just never want to disappoint her, Max.”

  She stopped walking, pulling me back by our connected hands. “Anthony, you’re making it really hard today for me to see that asshole I met in the bar.”

  I grinned as I looked down at her. “I don’t ever want to be that man again, Max.”

  “I like him. He’s frisky. Bring him out every once in a while for me. He’s a freak in the sheets, and I adore the hell out of him.”

  “I can do that,” I responded before brushing my thumb along her jaw line.

  “Lipstick,” she reminded me.

  I blew out a breath and looked toward the sky. Today would be an exercise in self-control, and I could already feel it slipping.

  I reached for the door handle as Max said, “You can’t just go inside.”

  I looked at her, confused. “Yeah, I can. We do it all the time. I grew up in this house. Trust me. Everyone is beyond knocking at this point.”

  “Okay.” She smiled at me and gave my hand a quick squeeze.

  “Here we go,” I said as I opened the door and took a step inside. “Ma! Pop!” I yelled in the foyer, and waited for them to come to us.

  “Should I take my shoes off?” Max whispered as she glanced down at her feet.

  “Nah. You’re a guest.”

  “Anthony!” Pop called out before I heard the squeak of the recliner being righted.

  Ma walked out of the kitchen, entering the foyer with her arms outstretched. “Baby,” she said, motioning for us to come to her with her fingers.

  As I reached for her, she grabbed Max and wrapped her into a giant hug. I stood there watching it as it happened. I no longer was the center of attention when I walked in the door. I now had another half, one who captured my parents’ attention more than I did.

  “Hi,” Max said quietly. There was no doubt that the hug had cut off her ability to speak any louder.

  “Son,” Pop called out as he walked in and held his hand out to me.

  “Pop.” I shook his hand, stealing glances at the two most important women in my life.

  “Let me get a good look at you,” Ma said, holding Max by the shoulders and looking her over. “You’re so beautiful.”

  Max beamed at the compliment. “Thank you, Mrs. Gallo.”

  “Maria, please. You’re prettier than Anthony described you.”

  Max shot me a look over her shoulder. For the love of God, why had Ma had to say that? I’d told everyone she was drop-dead gorgeous.

  “Anthony said you looked like a grown-up Rudy from The Cosby Show, but I say you’re a prettier version of Gabrielle Union.”

  Hold up a second. I couldn’t believe that my mother had just told her about my Rudy comparison. I wanted to crawl into a hole. I’d never uttered those words to Max. I had been too worried about my balls to even drop it in passing. Beyond that, I was shocked my mother knew who Gabrielle Union was. The woman was full of surprises.

  “He did, did he?” Max asked, glancing at me as I made my way next to them.

  “Ma, we can drop the BET references. I think Pop needs to take away the controller.”

  Ma smiled and slapped me on the arm. “Baby, I don’t know what BET is, but I know a beautiful woman when I see one.”

  “Who do I look like, Ma?” I asked, fishing for a compliment.

  “What’s that boy’s name?” She tapped her lip as I pulled Max to my side.

  “A boy? I’m kind of old for that.” I squeezed her waist, feeling her body shake from laughter.

  I glanced down at Max and smiled. I was glad she was enjoying herself. She looked more relaxed than she had when we’d walked in.

  “Ahhh. Zac Efron. You look like him.” She nodded excitedly.

  “Ma, he’s, like, twelve.”

  “Oh, no. He’s all grown up now, Anthony. Your sister Googled him. He’s almost thirty. He’s very grown up,” she said as she wiggled her eyebrows.

  “Jesus,” I mumbled. “Kind of pervy, Ma. Don’t you think?” I felt a little uncomfortable.

  “I may be old, son, but I’m not dead.”

  “Pop,” I said, turning to face him. “What do you think of this?” I motioned toward Ma with my head.

  “He sure is pretty,” he replied, and snorted.

  “Nice.” I shook my head.

  Pop cleared his throat, reminding me that I hadn’t introduced him to Max. “Max, this is my pop, Mr. Gallo, and Pop, this is Max.”

  “Max,” Pop said, holding out his arms for a hug.

  “Mr. Gallo.” Max smiled and returned the hug he’d wrapped her in.

  “Sal.” Pop smiled at me over her shoulder and gave a thumbs-up.

  I chuckled to myself, trying not to ruin their moment.

  “Sal,” Max repeated.

  “Shall we go into the living room?” Pop asked as he released Max.

  “Sure.” I nodded, holding Max. “Where is everyone?” I asked, surprised no one else had come barging through the door.

  “I told them to come fifteen minutes later today,” said Ma.

  “You did?” I asked, in complete shock. Never, ever had that happened before.

  “Yes. I wanted to meet Max before everyone arrived. I didn’t want it to be crazy. I thought we could have a few minutes to ourselves before they showed up.”

  “But that’s, like, sacrilegious or something, Ma.”

  “We don’t want to overwhelm her, Anthony.”

  “I’m not breakable, Mrs. Gallo,” Max said. “I have a very large, loud family. I’m used to a lot of people.”

  I knew about her mother and brother, but I didn’t know how large the rest of her family was. Soon enough, I’d find out, and then neither of us would ever have a peaceful weekend alone.

  “We’re good, Max. It was for purely selfish reasons, I assure you,” Ma said. “Why don’t you and Sal go sit down and Anthony and I will grab some drinks before the others arrive.”

  I knew that confusion was written all over my face. My mother never needed help getting drinks. She must have wanted something or had something to say.

  “Sure,” Max said, giving me a small smile before following my pop into the living room.

  “What are you up to?” I asked Ma.

  “Nothing,” she said flatly before turning her back and walking into the kitchen.

  I followed her in and propped myself up on the counter. “Don’t lie, Ma. You have something to say.”

  “She’s beautiful, Anthony. Stunning, actually. I’m so happy for you, son.”

  “That’s it?” I asked with one eyebrow raised.

  “Did you find out her test results yet?” Ma asked as she pulled down four drinking glasses from the cabinet.

  “Not yet. It’s been a couple of weeks, but we possibly still have weeks to go before we hear anything.”

  She sighed. “Tears me up, baby.”

  “What does, Ma?”

  “Thinking of that beautiful girl and what she has to be going through inside.”

  “She’s okay.” I crossed my arms over my chest, knowing that I’d get swatted if I tried to help. My mother never liked any of her boys touching things in her kitchen when it could be avoided.

  “Son. You’ve had good health your entire life. You’ve never had to wait for a test to hear your fate. I’ve been there. Your father has been there. I know how it’s eating her up on the inside.”

  “What?” I asked. “When did you and Pop wait on test results?” I was confused. Clearly, there were things my paren
ts had held out on in the sharing department.

  “Sweetheart, you don’t get to our age without a couple of scares. Don’t worry. We’re healthy. I’ve just been there. I know how it feels to wait to hear if you’re going to be okay or if you should start planning a funeral. It’s horrible.” She shook her head as she poured the drinks.

  “I know. It’s eating me alive. Waiting to hear what her future holds is killing me slowly—I can’t imagine what it’s doing to her. I forced her into taking the test. I feel like shit because of it, too.”

  “Anthony,” she said as she set the bottle of Pepsi on the counter and looked at me. “You’re only doing what’s best. Living with the assumption that you’re going to be sick isn’t a way to live. It’s like a noose around your neck and waiting for the bottom to fall out. Once you two know the results, you can either rejoice in the good fortune or move forward with the knowledge and live every day like it’s the most important day of your life. Things can change in an instant, but knowledge is power, baby.”

  “Yeah, you’re right. I’ve always been a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of guy.” I pushed off the counter and grabbed two glasses. “Thanks, Ma.”

  “For what?” she asked as she picked up the last two drinks.

  “For being you.” I smiled down at her. “You always know the right thing to say to make me feel better.”

  “I love you, Anthony. I only want the best for you. I’ll always support you in everything you do, even if that meant loving a man.” She grinned and winked at me as she walked passed me into the living room.

  “Jesus,” I muttered to myself as I followed her.

  When Izzy hadn’t brought anybody home, no one had thought she was gay. Nope. She was a strong, independent woman. But me? My parents assumed I liked dick. Amazing how that worked.

  Just as I was about to hand the pop to Max, the door opened and carried in loud voices. The rest of the Gallo crew had finally arrived. I wanted more time with my parents. The four of us was nice for a change, but it was too late at this point.

  “Hey!” Izzy’s voiced echoed through the house as the front door slammed. A couple of seconds later, she strolled into the living room, trying to act nonchalant.

  I knew she was dying to meet Max. It had to take everything in her to keep calm. James walked in behind her wearing his typical workout shorts and tank top. Over time, his outfit had become more casual as he’d felt more comfortable. It’d been comical to watch the transition.

  Izzy had dressed up for the occasion. Typically on Sunday, she wore jeans or sweats, but today, she had on dress pants and a pretty off-the-shoulder top. It wasn’t her usual outfit. Max being a stylist was her wet dream. Not only was she ecstatic about me finally being “pussy-whipped,” as she’d said, but another female in the family made her insides sing.

  She kissed our parents and went right for Max. “Hi. I’m Izzy.” She extended her hand. “Anthony’s sister.”

  Max smiled and stood before placing her hand in Izzy’s. “I’m Max, Anthony’s friend.” She looked out of the corner of her eye, glancing at me.

  “Friend?” I asked as I crossed my arms over my chest.

  “Fine,” Max replied as she rolled her eyes. “He’s my boyfriend.” She gave me an “are you happy now” smile before turning her attention back to Izzy.

  “I feel ya, Max. Men constantly need the affirmation.” Izzy laughed and rolled her eyes like Max just had.

  I sighed. The two of them together with their attitudes could only be trouble. Suzy and Mia were calmer women, more easygoing. Max and Izzy were spitfires and could cause trouble in any circumstance. I knew that the best course of action was to not let the two of them hang out too often together without male supervision.

  “Max, this is my friend James.” She grinned at Max before looking at James over her shoulder.

  His eyes darted to mine. I knew by the single look that he was thinking exactly the same thing I had been thinking. They were trouble with a capital T.

  “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Max.” James gently took her hand, bringing it to his lips. “I’m Izzy’s man. Maybe I need to remind her of that later.”

  “Oh, you know I love your lessons, Jimmy.” Izzy blew him a kiss and laughed.

  Pop cleared his throat. Most likely, he wasn’t entirely happy about the blatant sex talk in front of him. “Hey, baby girl. Come give your father a hug,” he said, holding out his arms.

  Izzy walked over to Pop and touched his shoulder. “Hey, Daddy.”

  I looked at James and mouthed, “Nice job.”

  He grinned at me and shrugged. James seemed to get away with more than anyone. Maybe my family feared he was the only person who could put up with Izzy’s shit. Either way, he got a pass more often than not.

  “We’re here,” Joe called out as the front door opened.

  Max walked over to me and nestled into my side.

  “You okay?” I whispered as I looked at her.

  She nodded, giving me a small smile. “I’m good.”

  Suzy waddled in first, looking like she was ready to burst. I hadn’t known that the human body could expand that much and not explode. She still had some time left before the baby was due, but I didn’t know how she could possibly grow more.

  Joe rushed to her side, grabbing her by the arm as she stopped in the middle of the living room.

  “I swear I’ve turned into a walking whale,” Suzy whined as she rubbed her stomach. “I can’t do this anymore.”

  “Sugar, you can do this. You look more beautiful than ever before.” Joe kissed her on the forehead as he cradled her face.

  I silently gagged. Suzy was stunning, but not more beautiful than she had been before the alien had started growing inside her. That statement could only come from a man who clearly loved his wife. Or maybe he liked his balls and had decided to give her a compliment to make his life simpler. Whatever his reason was, Suzy’s face changed as he kissed her.

  “Joe and Suzy, this is Max,” I said, breaking up their moment.

  They both turned as smiles crept across their faces. “Max,” they both whispered, and glanced at each other.

  “What?” I asked, confused by their response.

  “Oh, nothing,” Suzy sang, and shook her head.

  “We thought Max was a dude. We made a bet,” Joe added with a shit-eating grin on his face.

  “Oh, go fuck yourself,” I hissed. “You knew Max is a woman.

  “I just like to see you get your panties in a wad.” Joe placed his hand on his chest and laughed.

  “Nice to meet you, Max,” Suzy said as she nodded toward Max. Then she smiled at me. “Still love me?”

  “I don’t have another choice, Suz. I’m stuck with your ass for the rest of my life,” I replied as I kissed her cheek. It was almost acrobatic with her belly, but thankfully, Suzy was so short, it wasn’t an issue.

  “You are.” She smiled at me and then looked Max over. “Wow. Your outfit is beautiful.” Suzy touched her own dress, which wasn’t as feminine as she typical wore, but it was of the “about to explode and can’t fit into any other clothes” variety.

  “Yo!” Mike said as he and Mia walked into the room.

  For a moment, I thought the gang was complete, but then I remembered that Thomas and Angel weren’t here yet. We’d been without him for so long that it was still weird and hard to get used to. It was a happy weird, though.

  “Max, this is Mike, my brother, and his girlfriend, Mia,” I said, motioning toward Mike and Mia. “She’s a doctor,” I added for no particular reason, but it had felt necessary.

  She glanced up at me and then looked over at Mike and Mia. “Hi,” she responded with a gracious smile.

  “Max,” Mike said, reaching out and pulling Max into a bear hug.

  Her body looked tiny and fragile in his arms as her feet came off the ground. “Mike,” Max squeaked out as her arms tried to grab on to his body.

  As he set her on the ground, he peered over at m
e. “Good job, bro.”

  Mia smacked him on the shoulder. “Put the poor woman down, Mike. You’re probably crushing her ribs.”

  “Sorry,” Mike said.

  Max shook her head and waved her arms. “I see that this family doesn’t know how to grow a small man.”

  “Nope,” Mia replied. “They’re all big. Don’t let their size scare you, though. They’re all sweet as pie.”

  “So only I get the asshole Gallo?” Max asked as she giggled.

  Her statement caused laughter to break out in the room.

  “I’ll embrace my assholiness, but I’m a changed man.” I wasn’t embarrassed by their statement or by my past. It was who I was, and I still loved myself.

  As Joe sat down, he chimed in, “He acts like an asshole, but he’s just as much of a pushover as the rest of us.”

  I even had them fooled. For my family, I’d give my life, and I treated each of them with respect at times. The other people roaming the earth had to earn my respect. Women, on the other hand, I often had treated like I was a complete asshole. Most of them loved it. When women say they want to settle down with a nice guy and live in a house with a picket fence, it’s all a crock of bullshit.

  I hadn’t wanted to settle down—not until I’d met Max. That was why I’d perfected my asshole persona. I’d give the women what they wanted for a night but didn’t want them coming back for more.

  “I’m learning that fact, Joe,” Max said as she squeezed my waist.

  “Let me go get dinner finished. Who wants to help?” Ma asked as she stood from her chair. She’d been silently watching everyone and sipping her Pepsi.

  “I can,” Suzy said as she tried to get up from the couch, but she fell backward.

  “You rest, Suzy dear. You’re going to need all the strength you have soon enough. Izzy and Mia will help me.”

  “Great,” Izzy mumbled. “What about Max?” she asked as she glanced over at her.

  “She looks too pretty to ruin her outfit,” Ma told Izzy.

  “But—”

  “I’d love to help if you have an apron,” Max answered.

  “I have an apron for you, love. We’d love for you to help.” Ma walked next to me, sliding her arm through Max’s and locking them together.

  Just as my ass hit the couch, Thomas and Angel walked in. “Sorry we’re late. We got caught up doing something.”

  By the way their clothes were rumpled, I’d say they got busy in the car on the way over here. “I can see that,” I said, pointing to his unzipped fly.

  “Shit,” he whispered as he zipped it up.

  Angel blushed, smoothing out her hair. “Where’s your girl?” she asked as she scanned the room.

  “The women are in the kitchen, where they belong,” I said with a grin.

  “You’re lucky Izzy didn’t hear you say that,” Angel said to me as a corner of her mouth twitched.

  “I know.” I stuck my tongue out at her before giving her a quick wink.

  Thomas smacked Angel on the ass. “Go help out the ladies, babe.”

  “Sure,” she said as she stood on her tiptoes and gave him a kiss.

  “Lucky bastard,” I muttered as she walked out of the room.

 
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