Without me, p.21
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       Without Me, p.21
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         Part #5 of Men of Inked series by Chelle Bliss
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  “Max is my daughter, Sal.”

  Pops eyes grew wide as a giant smile crept across his face. “What a small world. I never put two and two together.”

  “We’re going to be related,” Ma added as she clapped her hands.

  “Who would’ve known, Maria? Those times when we shared pictures of our kids and bitched about them that they’d end up together.”

  “You bitched about us?” Max asked as her body stiffened.

  “You two were a handful, if I remember correctly. Don’t even get me started on the other kids.” Ma laughed and was quickly joined by Ruth.

  “I’m sorry I never called, Maria. Time got away from me after he passed and I barely made it through most days.”

  “All is forgiven, Ruth. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you through that time in your life.”

  “Let’s make sure to get back to lunch and drinks. We’re going to have so much fun planning this wedding.”

  “Right?” Ma agreed. “I’m not letting you out of my life again. We’re going to be family. I can’t wait to have more grandbabies.”

  “Can we get married first?” I asked as I watched the two grow excited at the thought of more little ones.

  “Phew,” Earl called out as he walked into the private room at Morton’s Steakhouse and stared at my mother. “That right there is a fine specimen.”

  Clara gave him a crack in the back of the head. “Behave, Earl.”

  “Clara, I was talking about the steak,” he said as he pointed at the display sitting behind where my mother stood.

  “You’re a horrible liar.”

  “I’m Earl,” he said as he held out his hand to Ma.

  “Maria,” she replied as she slid her hand into his.

  “I’m Sal, Maria’s husband,” Pop interjected before Earl had a chance to kiss Ma’s hand.

  “Lucky bastard,” he whispered against Ma’s hand. “That’s mine,” he said as he tipped his head backward. “Clara.”

  “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Clara.” Pop wrapped her into a hug and kissed her cheek.

  Clara slid her hands up and down my father’s back as he embraced her. The entire time, a giant smile clung to her face. “There’s entirely too many good-looking men in this room,” Clara added as she glanced around and zoomed in on my brothers.

  “We’re Gallos,” I added, being my cocky asshole self.

  “You sure do grow them right,” she said as she cleared her throat.

  “What did you say?” Earl asked as he stared at her and then followed her line of sight.

  “I said I don’t wanna fight.”

  “What would we fight about?” he asked as he glared at her.

  “Everything.”

  Watching the two of them made my head hurt. I wondered if they ever had a serious conversation.

  He slapped her on the ass as her body jolted forward. “Get me a drink, woman.”

  “That right there,” she said as she looked down at his arm, “will make you never wake up from your sleep again.”

  “You keep promising, but I always wake up to your sparkling personality.”

  “Why don’t we find our seats,” I said as I held out my arm, hoping to get everyone moving. They followed my cue and headed toward the tables.

  “Thank you,” Max whispered as she slid her arm around mine.

  “Can you believe our mothers know each other?”

  “It’s so weird. How did we not know about each other and how did they not notice us when we met them?” I asked, thinking about how funny life could be.

  “I’ve seen the pictures of you when you were younger, Anthony. You weren’t quite as handsome as you are now.”

  “Puhlease. I’ve always been a lady-killer.” I pinched her ass as she yelped.

  “Keep telling yourself that. It’s a good thing teenage girls don’t have such high standards.”

  “Yeah, ’cause you were hot with your mouth filled with metal and your dorky oversized glasses.”

  “I was in style even then.”

  “Max, baby. You’re a beautiful woman today, but then, I would’ve run away from you,” I teased as I pulled out her chair.

  “Keep believing that, Anthony.”

  I was lying through my teeth. Even in the pictures where she looked like a gawky teenager, she was still stunning. Her features were so pronounced and exotic that not even giant glasses could hide her beauty.

  I moved my chair closer to hers as we faced the room full of our closest friends and family.

  Pop stood, tapping a knife against his wineglass. “I’d like to propose a toast.” The room grew silent as all eyes focused on him. “I want to thank each and every one of you for coming tonight to celebrate the joining of our two families. Until tonight Maria and I hadn’t realized that we’d known Max for many years. Ruth and Maria had been close friends who had lost touch. This is not only a joining of Max and Anthony, but a reunion of families. We couldn’t be happier to be gaining a daughter as beautiful and loving as Max to our oldest son, Anthony.” He raised his glass and finished with a “salute.”

  Max grabbed my thigh under the table and gave it a hard squeeze as we sipped our champagne.

  “Kiss,” Nita said, clanking her silverware against the glass.

  Without hesitation, I grabbed Max by the back of the neck before she had a chance to set the glass down on the table and crushed my lips to hers.

  “Babies,” Ma called out from down the table.

  I laughed, pulling away from Max. “And so it begins,” I whispered, and looked into the eyes of my future.

  20

  Life Changes When We Least Expect It

  The Reception

  “Jesus. I was so nervous,” I said as Max and I took a moment to ourselves in my parents’ bedroom. I had been more than nervous. I had sweated through my dress shirt as my heart hammered in my chest. I had been worried it would burst before I heard her say “I do.”

  Throwing Max under the proverbial bus with my mother had worked. After the day at the hospital, we started to plan the wedding. Actually, I left the planning up to the women in my life, including Max’s mother.

  They decided we’d marry on my parents’ property in their backyard. Max wanted a nighttime wedding and dancing under the stars.

  Who was I to say no?

  The fact that she had agreed to be my wife was enough for me to cave into anything she ever wanted.

  I was wearing a suit instead of a tuxedo. Her choice, not mine, but I couldn’t have been happier. I loosened my tie and stared at my wife. My wife. She was now my wife. There was a Mrs. Anthony Gallo in the world.

  She had on a strapless Stella York gown with jewels decorating the waist. It showed off her curves and accentuated her breasts. The bottom of the dress puffed out with layers of material. The ivory color made her skin look more radiant. She was simply stunning. She had said that the dress was timeless and wanted it to be something she could hand down to our future daughter someday.

  No, we weren’t pregnant yet, but I took every opportunity to make it happen.

  “We did it,” I said as I pulled her to me. “You’re mine forever.”

  “No, baby. You’re mine.” She kissed my cheek without having to stand on her tiptoes for once. The heels she had on made her only a couple of inches shorter than I was, but they had to be painful.

  I smiled down at her, feeling content. The only other time in my life that I’d felt that way was when I was on stage. I felt everything else melt away and it was just my music and me. No one had ever given me that feeling before I’d met her.

  She had torn me down, making me a better man than I used to be. I hadn’t known I had been missing something in my life until I’d found her and then she’d gotten rid of me.

  The pain she’d caused me had been necessary. It had made me love her more, cherish our time together, and altered how I looked at life and love.

  “Thank you,” she whispered into my neck as she squeezed me.
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  “For what?” I asked as I squeezed her tight and toyed with the ends of her hair that had cascaded down her back.

  “For saving me, Anthony.”

  All the warm, gushy feelings I already had amplified. “Max, you’re the one who saved me.”

  “I was such a pissed-off person. You don’t even understand how angry I was about everything in my life. When I found you, I felt even more upset. I cursed God for letting me find you when I knew it wasn’t right for me to have you. I could have dealt with being alone when there wasn’t someone out there for me.”

  “I didn’t know what love was until I met you. You drove me crazy, but I knew there was something I couldn’t let go. The moment I kissed your lips, I knew life would never be the same.”

  “We did it, huh?” she said, resting her hand on my ass.

  “I plan to do it a lot tonight. I mean a lot. If you’re not knocked up by the end of the honeymoon, I’m tying your ass to the bed until you have my seed growing inside you.”

  “I was talking about being husband and wife.” She shrieked as she pinched my ass.

  “I know.” I kissed the top of her hair.

  “Do not mess up my hair, Anthony Gallo.”

  “Shhh,” I whispered. “You look beautiful, Maxine Gallo. I meant what I said, too, about the tying you to the bed.”

  “It sounds like the perfect way to spend a honeymoon,” she replied, groping my ass cheeks in her hands.

  “You guys ready?” my ma asked as she knocked on the door and stood in the doorway.

  “Yeah, Ma. I think we are.”

  “Yes, Mrs. Gallo. We’re ready.”

  “Ma.”

  “Ma.” Max smiled brightly as she released my ass from her grip.

  “I’ll tell the band to make the announcement for your first dance.”

  “Okay,” I said as she grinned at us and walked away.

  “What song did you pick?” Max asked me as she smoothed out her dress.

  “I’m not telling. It’s a surprise.”

  It was the only thing I’d asked to plan for the entire wedding. I had wanted to be in charge of the music. I’d needed the song to be special, and I’d found the perfect one for us.

  “Am I going to cry?” she asked, checking her makeup in the mirror over my parents’ dresser.

  “Maybe.” I smiled and shrugged.

  “Damn it, Anthony. I don’t want to mess up my face.”

  I gripped her from behind, staring at her reflection in the mirror. “You look amazing, Max. You couldn’t mess up that beautiful face with a few tears.”

  “Thank God I wore waterproof mascara. It would be running down my face by now.” She glided a fresh coat of lipstick on and then smacked her lips together.

  “Come on, Mrs. Gallo. I want to hold you in my arms and dance with you tonight.”

  She smiled, setting the lipstick on the dresser, and turned in my arms. “I love you, Anthony.”

  “I love you too, Max,” I whispered as I gently kissed her on the lips, trying to avoid leaving the room with a fresh coat on my lips too.

  When we made our way to the dance floor, I took in the beauty of the backyard. Small lanterns were strung through the trees along with white, twinkling lights. Round white tables filled with the guests framed the makeshift wooden dance floor in the center. We hadn’t done assigned seating, hoping that the families would mingle.

  Our families seemed to be getting along as they had drinks and chatted. Our mothers had formed a solid bond while planning the wedding. They had chatted daily on the phone and met for lunch once a week. It was something my mother hadn’t had the chance to do with the other women’s parents.

  Even Denzel, Max’s brother and the man who had threatened to knock my teeth out, was part of the wedding party. He’d given me his blessing to marry his sister, and it had meant more to me than anything else in the world.

  As the lead singer of the band announced us, we walked to the center of the dance floor. All eyes moved in our direction, and the chatter of the guests stopped.

  The song I’d picked for our dance was to be played via recording. I wanted the original, not a version recreated by the band that had been hired to play for our reception.

  As the music began, I moved my mouth next to her ear. I wanted to sing the words to her.

  I could feel her breathing change as her chest moved with mine. Her heartbeat sped up and thundered so hard that I could feel the vibration in my torso.

  I brushed my lips to her ear and began to sing along with the music—“Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran. It fit our relationship and the love we had for each other perfectly.

  I sang softly as I moved with her in my arms.

  “Oh, Anthony,” she whispered as she peered up at me with tears in her eyes.

  I kissed her forehead, swaying with her in my grip. I kept singing and blocked everyone else out.

  God, I loved this woman. I didn’t care what happened in our future. I was too lost in the here and now to worry about anything else. I wanted to enjoy every day we had together. I wanted to dance with her as long as I could and hold her in my arms.

  Even if she was confined to a wheelchair, I’d carry her in my arms and dance with her. I’d never let her be alone.

  “Anthony,” she cried as I sang the last lines of the song.

  When the song ended, I kissed her on the lips, holding her face in my hands. Max had become my everything. I’d remember this night for the rest of my life.

  I’d remember it as the day I married my soul mate.

  The day I’d become a different man.

  She’d forever changed me.

  I’d had to fall hard and deep to come out on the other side a changed man.

  I’d never go back to where I had been before Max.

  I didn’t want to be that man.

  I had a purpose in life, and she was in my arms.

  Nothing else mattered but living every day to the fullest and never regretting a moment of our lives together.

  She was my salvation.

  Epilogue

  Five Years Later

  “Daddy.” A tiny hand tugged on my pants leg. “Daddy,” she repeated.

  I looked down at her, and instantly, my heart melted. The little girl had me wrapped around her finger. Her wild, curly black hair framed her face and made her look bigger than she was. Her hazel eyes sparkled with mischief, and she puffed her lips into a frown. At almost four years old, she could already play me like a fiddle.

  “What, baby doll?” I asked her as I picked her up and set her on my lap.

  “Gigi is being mean, Daddy.” She hugged me, resting her forehead on my cheek. Her tiny fingers found my ear and tugged on my earlobe.

  “What’s that bad Gigi doing, Tamara?” I kissed her soft tanned cheeks, inhaling the sweet candy smell of her skin.

  We’d made a monster out of Gigi. For a long while she was the only baby in the family. We doted on her and gave her everything she wanted. Even after Tamara was born, Gigi was still spoiled. Everything she did was a big deal. The first time she walked, I swear my mother called everyone in the family and had a celebration.

  Even today, I still look at Gigi with a special love. She wasn’t mine, but she was the first baby that tugged at my heartstrings. She was the reason that Max said she wanted a baby. Without Gigi we wouldn’t have Tamara. The first time I held Gigi I knew I’d never be the same. The first time she smiled at me when I made a funny face, I was a total goner.

  When Tamara came into my life I thanked my lucky stars. I’d felt a little jealous of Joe when he became a father. I wasn’t through the entire Suzy “eat everything in my wake” pregnancy, but when I saw that little girl, I understood it. He’d have someone who would love him unconditionally and for life. I wanted that. That pure love and someone to call me “Daddy” until the day I died.

  “She won’t let me play with her dolly.” She pouted and glanced toward the floor as she toyed with my ear.
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  “Sweetheart, you have a doll too,” I replied, brushing the stray hairs away from her face.

  “I like hers more.” She batted her eyelashes, something she had learned at a young age from her mother.

  “It’s Gigi’s doll, Tamara. If she doesn’t want to share it, she doesn’t have to, and it looks just like yours.”

  “But hers has a pink dress, Daddy.” She laid her head on my shoulder, resting her forehead on my neck.

  “Want to stay with me and watch television?”

  “Frozen?” she asked.

  “Baseball,” I replied.

  “Ew.” She picked her head up and pulled at her lips.

  “Why don’t you go see if Aunt Izzy is okay or go see Nona outside with the girls?” I rubbed Tamara’s back as I looked out the sliding glass doors and watched my wife.

  Max sat outside, talking as she unconsciously stroked her belly. After Tamara had been born, we’d decided we wanted one more child, but we wanted to wait until we were past the diaper point to have another.

  When I’d held Tamara in my arms the first time, I had known I wanted more. As she had grown, she’d become more and more like her mother. Both girls had me. They could get away with murder, and I’d help them cover it up too. I loved them so much, more than I had ever thought possible.

  Max’s greatest fear was passing on the disease to her baby, but we decided it was a risk worth taking. No one had a certain future, and we all walked through life with an unexpected fate.

 
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