Without me, p.17
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       Without Me, p.17
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         Part #5 of Men of Inked series by Chelle Bliss
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  “I may make no sense, but I still like them round and juicy.”

  “There are other important things on a woman, Earl,” Bob interrupted.

  “Like what?” Earl said as he flicked the can to the ground.

  “Tits,” Bob answered with a smile.

  “Jesus,” Denzel muttered.

  Just as I felt comfortable, I heard, “Dinner!”

  As I climbed from my chair, I saw Max standing near the back door with her hand above her eyes to block the sun. She looked stunning as her skirt blew in the warm breeze.

  With each step, butterflies filled my stomach. If they were anything like the Gallo family, the real questions wouldn’t begin until we were at the dinner table.

  “Everything go okay?” Max asked as I walked up to her.

  “It went fine, love.” I brushed my fingers along her cheek and gave her a small kiss.

  “Earl behave?” she asked on my lips.

  “He’s a funny man.”

  “Earl may seem like he’s crazy, but he’s sharp as a tack.”

  “Noted.” I held her hand as I gave her one more kiss.

  “Enough of that now. Food’s going to get cold,” Bob said as he walked by us.

  “Ever have chitlins?” Denzel asked as he bumped my shoulder.

  I looked at Max with panic in my eyes. I knew exactly what chitlins were and I couldn’t stomach them. If I had to eat them, I’d vomit right at the dinner table.

  “I can’t eat those, Max.” I could already feel my stomach turning over in my body.

  “Don’t listen to him, baby. Mama didn’t make chitlins.”

  “Phew.” I placed my forehead on hers. “I thought we were going to have a problem.”

  “Come on. You think your ma is bad when you take too long, you haven’t seen that side of Ruth.” She pulled on my hand to get my ass in gear.

  We made our way through the family room to a dining room that had a card table set up at the end of the long wooden table. The table was covered with food. Unlike Ma, who would make a couple of dishes each week but in mass quantities, Ruth had prepared a feast. Ham, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, fried okra, collard greens, cornbread, and more were waiting to be devoured.

  When Ruth walked in, everyone grew silent. I thought we were about to dig in, but then Max bowed her head.

  “Heavenly Father, thank you for this amazing feast,” she began.

  My family never said a prayer. It was eat or be hungry. No one waited for a prayer to dig in.

  “Thank you for bringing Anthony to be with us today. Lord, look over each of us and bless this family.”

  “Amen,” Earl called out.

  The rest of the family echoed his statement. I thought the prayer would have been longer, but I was happy it wasn’t. My stomach was about to start speaking.

  My plate was overflowing by the time I took a scoop of each food that had been prepared. I ate slowly, savoring the flavors. Just like the Gallos, the Washington family busted each other’s balls, but they left me alone. No one asked me questions or put me on the spot. Maybe it was the way I was enjoying my food that told them to leave me alone.

  “You enjoyin’ what you’re eating, Anthony?” Ruth asked as I polished off the mac and cheese first.

  The cheese was gooey and warm. It was the best mac and cheese I’d ever had in my life. I wanted more, but I didn’t want to seem like a pig.

  “It’s amazing, Ruth. Best ever, in fact.”

  “You know what to say to tug at a girl’s heartstrings,” she said as she smiled. “Now I know why my Max loves you.”

  “Mama,” Max said, and held up her hand.

  “Actually, she thinks I’m a jerk most of the time.” I wiped my mouth, hiding the amusement.

  “I second that.” Malia laughed as she slopped a heaping spoonful of macaroni and cheese on her plate.

  “Max isn’t happy unless she’s complaining,” Denzel teased before he was smacked in the head. “What the hell was that for?”

  Ruth glared at him. “Be nice, Denzel.”

  “Denzel Washington. Seriously? Are you named after the actor?”

  “That man is sin,” Ruth said as she took a deep breath. “I loved him on St. Elsewhere, and I knew when I had a boy I’d name him after him.”

  “Thanks, Ma. I get a lot of shit for it too.”

  “Watch your mouth, Denzel. You know you love it.”

  “I do get good reservations when I call a restaurant and give them my name. I’m better looking than he is too.” He tipped his beer toward me and smiled.

  Denzel reminded me of myself. The way he mouthed off during dinner and was met with a hand to the back of the head—I’d been there more times than I cared to remember.

  By the time we finished eating, I thought I’d need to be rolled out of the Washington house. I wanted to sprawl out on the couch and fall into a food coma.

  “Thank you for dinner, Ruth,” I said as I rubbed my stomach. “It was the best meal I’ve had in a long time. Just don’t tell my mother I said that.”

  “My mama always told me the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach,” Ruth replied.

  “Your daughter hasn’t learned that yet.” I winked at Max.

  “My girl is so beautiful she doesn’t need to use food.”

  “I agree,” I said as I pulled Max’s hand to my mouth and kissed her soft skin. She smelled like cornbread and butter.

  Denzel pushed back from the table and stretched. “I’m ready for a nap,” he announced. “Anthony, want to come outside?”

  I glimpsed at Max and received a brief nod of approval. “Just yell for me if you want help with the dishes, Max.” I swept my hand behind her neck and kissed her.

  “You go talk with Denzel.” She smiled on my lips. “You two need to make friends.”

  “Okay.” I placed my napkin on the table and followed Denzel outside.

  He tossed me a beer as I approached the picnic table in the backyard. “I wanted to explain what I meant earlier.”

  “Good. I was a little confused,” I admitted as I cracked the top open and sat down.

  “Ataxia is complicated.” He took a giant gulp of beer before he set the can on the table. “There are only a couple of forms that are actually testable. If you have a possibility of having one of those forms, then your test results will be accurate. The problem lies in the types that do not fall in that spectrum. My results were negative, but maybe my dad had one of the untestable types. If that’s the case, I can still develop it later in life even with the negative test.”

  “I get that.” I moved the can between my palms, rubbing it back and forth. “What were you saying about Max?”

  “If she tests positive, then that means my dad had a type that could be tested. It means she is positive and that I’ll always be negative because it’s a testable type and I didn’t have it. Shit, does that make sense?”

  “It does. I’m praying to God it’s negative, Denzel.” I took a sip, welcoming the ice-cold feeling of the beer sliding down my throat.

  “Remember, even if she’s negative, she could develop it later in life.” He gave me a weak smile.

  “But it’s better than a positive result right away.”

  “True.”

  “Hey,” I said. “I wanted to apologize for the night I met you.”

  He waved his hands. “It’s forgotten.”

  “No,” I said as I shook my head. “I want to apologize. I wasn’t trying to be an asshole. I really liked your sister from the moment I saw her, man.”

  “I know that now. I thought she needed rescuing that night, but I think she had the situation under control. You have a sister, right?” He placed his elbows on the table and clasped his hands together.

  “I do.”

  “So you understand. I’d protect my sister with my life.”

  “I do.”

  “We’re cool, then.”

  I blew out a breath, feeling better about the whole situation.
The last thing I needed was a pissed-off brother to deal with for years.

  “As long as you keep my sister happy, we’ll have no problems.”

  “I’m trying, Denzel. I’m trying.”

  We drank our beer as the sun began to set. For the first time that day, I felt calm. I liked her family, even Earl. When dinner was over and the kitchen was cleaned, we sat in the backyard and talked.

  By the end of the night, I felt like I’d known them forever. It doesn’t matter what color people are, family is family, and I could feel the love they had for each other. The Washingtons were good people. They’d welcomed me into their home and made me feel comfortable. Well, maybe not Earl right away.

  As we walked down the driveway, I stopped and pulled Max to me. “I love your family,” I whispered against her lips.

  She smiled and smashed her lips to my mouth. She still tasted of sweet potato pie as her tongue mingled with mine.

  “Take me home,” she murmured into my mouth. “Make love to me.”

  My heart was full along with my stomach. Even if I hadn’t liked her family, I’d still have loved her. Knowing that they were good people and much like my family made me happier than I already was. No matter what the test said, I wanted Max to be mine. I wanted to spend my life loving her and making her happy. Soon, we’d have the results and better know what we faced. Either way, as long as we had each other, I’d do my best to make her life happy.

  15

  Patience Isn’t My Middle Name

  Six motherfuckin’ weeks.

  Forty-two goddamn days.

  One thousand eight freakin’ hours.

  Sixty thousand, four hundred and eighty excruciating minutes.

  That’s how long we waited until the doctor’s office called to say that they’d received the results. Even though Max begged to be told the results, they wouldn’t divulge the information over the phone. They stated that it was standard office procedure for her to come to the office to “discuss” the results with the doctor.

  We’d already been stressed to the maximum level possible. Every day, I’d felt like I could touch the tension and cut it with a knife. The time that felt the longest was when we sat in the waiting room at the doctor’s office. I wanted to burst through the doors and demand to see the results.

  To have come this far and know that the information was close enough to touch drove me crazier than I’d ever felt before. I couldn’t stop shaking my legs and fidgeting in my seat. I didn’t even have the patience to look at my phone. The only thing I could think about was the goddamn test.

  I was the one who had made her do it. I’d been selfish in demanding her to get it done. The last six weeks had been absolute torture. We hadn’t talked about it much, but it was always there.

  I held her hand, which was stuck to mine from the nervous sweat that had formed. I could feel her trembling next to me as our arms and shoulders touched.

  “It’ll be okay, Max,” I tried to reassure her with a small smile.

  “Yep,” she responded in a clipped tone as she stared straight ahead and didn’t return my glance.

  To the casual observer in the room, it would have seemed that we were here for me. I was the one more visibly nervous, but I knew she was a mess inside.

  “We’ve been waiting here an hour. What’s taking so damn long?” I complained as I looked at my watch.

  “Look at all the people, Anthony. It’s a busy office. It always takes this long here.”

  “Bullshit,” I mumbled as I gnashed my teeth together.

  “What’s a couple more minutes when I’ve waited this long?”

  “You can’t mean that, Max. I know you’re nervous.”

  “I am, Anthony. I know I have it. I can feel it. You wouldn’t understand.”

  “I won’t believe it until she says the words.”

  “Prepare yourself, then, Anthony. Are you ready for it?”

  “We’ll get a second opinion.”

  “No!” she yelled, causing people in the waiting room to look at us.

  “Max,” I said, leaning closer to her. “I’ll go to the ends of the earth to give you a different fate.”

  “Can you give me a different body?” she asked as she looked at me.

  “I’m in love with the one you have now, Max.”

  “Then it’s what you need to accept.”

  “Ms. Washington,” a nurse called out from across the room, standing near the doorway.

  “Here,” Max said as she stood.

  I took a deep breath, holding it in as I climbed to my feet. I felt like I was doing the long march to the electric chair. I dreaded what I might hear in a few short minutes. Some invisible fist was inside my stomach and punching it. I could barely breathe as I moved on shaky legs.

  I repeated to myself, “She will be okay,” over and over again. Max squeezed my hand, never breaking contact as we were shown to the doctor’s office.

  “Please take a seat. The doctor will be in in a moment,” the nurse said before she gave Max a small smile and left us alone.

  “I can’t sit,” I said as she started to move toward the seat.

  “We can’t just stand here,” Max replied as she closed her eyes and exhaled.

  “Let me hold you, Max. I need to hold you.” I pulled her hand, bringing her to my chest.

  I tried to memorize possibly the last normal moment we’d have. The moment where I felt we were just Max and Anthony. It would all change. We could be Max, Anthony, and ataxia. Not a relationship I wanted to enter into, but I might not have a choice.

  “I’m scared,” Max confessed into my shirt.

  “I know, baby. Me too,” I admitted. “Either way, I’m with you through it all, Max.”

  “Anthony,” she whispered as she moved to look at me. As she toyed with my shirt, she said, “I don’t blame you if you leave me. It’s okay if you leave me. I’ll totally understand.”

  “Are you giving me permission to leave you?” I tried to keep my voice steady, but inside, I was seething.

  “Yes. No one wants to be with a sick person. Why should you be tied to me forever? I’m giving you an out,” she said with tears in her eyes. “I love you, but I’ll understand.” As she gave me a weak smile, a single tear ran down her cheek.

  “Max. I’m not going anywhere. No matter what the doctor says, I’m here to stay.”

  “Anthony—”

  “Max.” I grabbed her by the shoulders and stared at her. “You don’t understand the depth of my feelings for you. There will never be another woman I’ll ever love.”

  “Oh, that’s horseshit.”

  I shook my head. “It’s not. I’ve never found another person who makes me feel alive like you do. Touching you, kissing your lips is like that shock you get from touching something when the air’s too dry.”

  “Never say never, Anthony.”

  “I would never let you go through this without me,” I stated, holding her stare.

  “Let’s talk about this after the results.” She wiped the tears that had fallen down her face on my shirt.

  Without even thinking, I dropped to one knee. It hadn’t been planned. Fuck, I would’ve been more nervous than I already was if I had come up with the idea ahead of time. I knew what I wanted, and she was in front of me. There was no way I’d let her get away. I wouldn’t let her excuse me or give me an out.

  Her eyes widened as she noticed that I was balanced on one knee. Grabbing her hand, I stroked the top with my thumb. The only shitty part of not having planned this was that I didn’t have a ring.

  “Max,” I said before clearing my throat. My voice was shaky, but I was more nervous about the results than asking her to marry me. “I love you more than anyone in the world. No matter the results, I want to go on the journey with you. It’s taken me my entire life to meet someone who makes me a better person, and I want you to be mine forever. Will you marry me?”

  She covered her mouth, the tears falling faster than they had before. “No,
” she whispered.

  “No?” I asked, the punch in my stomach feeling more like the slice of a knife as it cut up into my chest.

  “Yes,” she said. “Anthony. I just didn’t dream of this being where I’d be proposed to someday.”

  “Thank Christ,” I mumbled. “I don’t care where we are, as long as you say yes.”

  “Anthony, I think I should wait to give you an answer until after we talk to the doctor. Let the information seep in before you ask me again. You may not feel the same once the enormity of the situation settles in your gut.”

  “It’s settled. I’ve never told anyone before that I loved them. No one. Only you. It’ll only ever be you.”

  “Hello,” the doctor said as she walked in and then noticed that I was down on one knee. “Oh, I’m so sorry I interrupted.”

  “You didn’t.” She pulled her hand from my grip.

  As the doctor rounded the desk to sit, Max sat down. I pushed myself off the ground, feeling a bit wounded and even more nervous. I held on to the chair as I sat, making sure I didn’t miss the seat.

  Fuck. Everything about the day could fuck off.

  “Sorry you had to wait so long,” the doctor said as she opened a folder on her desk and began to study the contents.

  I sucked in a breath, unable to release it. There wasn’t a time in my life that I could recall where I’d felt more scared. Not when Angel had been kidnapped or when Thomas had been undercover. I felt completely helpless in this situation. When it came to brute force or kicking ass, I knew how to do it.

  This was up to fate and genetics.

  “It’s okay,” Max said with a fake smile as she looked at me.

  I held her hand, gripping it tight. No matter what the doctor said, I wouldn’t let her down. I needed to be her brace. I needed to be the man she could lean on. I needed to be her rock—the one thing to keep her steady and sane through this time in her life. Fuck, through this time in our lives.

  “Well, let’s get to it,” the doctor said, flipping a page and skimming over it.

  I swallowed hard, sucking in another breath and holding it in my lungs.

  “Based on the results of your test,” She flipped the page, moving over the words with her finger, “it states negative for ataxia, but as you know, there are some forms that can’t be found through testing.”

  “So Max won’t get it,” I blurted out, giving her hand a squeeze.

 
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