Without me, p.6
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       Without Me, p.6
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         Part #5 of Men of Inked series by Chelle Bliss
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  chasing.”

  She gaped at me, and I swear I could see a tear in her eye, but she hid it well. I was so fucking mad that I didn’t have time to ask.

  As I opened the front door, taking a step outside, I finished my statement and gave her a warning. “I’m coming for you. I won’t stop until I get what I want. You haven’t seen how big of an asshole I can be!”

  I slammed the door and headed back to the center of Ybor to get my car. Tucking my hands in my pockets, I silently cursed God for being a bigger asshole than I was. Fuck him and fate. Karma was a cunt, and she had come for me, getting the last laugh. The problem with their plan was they hadn’t given me enough credit.

  I’d have Max again.

  Even if I had to cross the line from asshole to prick, I’d do it.

  When I started my car, “Thing for You” by Hinder was playing. I slammed my hand down on the radio, silencing it.

  I wouldn’t let her out of my life.

  I’d make a plan and do everything I could to infiltrate her life, giving her no other option than to let me in.

  Fuck her.

  Next time, I’d be the one to kick her ass out of bed and give her a taste of her own medicine.

  When he left, I slid down the door, crumpled to the floor, and sobbed. Seeing the pain in his eyes tore me apart. Anthony was a breath of fresh air. Carefree and fun loving besides being a wild man in the sack, but I had to kick him out like a piece of trash.

  I could easily fall in love with the man. I liked them strong, and he was that and more. Not just physically, but he didn’t take no for an answer. The way he treated my friends and the way he handled me drove me wild.

  In the morning, when I opened my eyes and watched him sleep, I knew I had to be cruel. I had forgotten how much I loved waking up to someone. The smell of him still on my skin had me questioning everything I’d decided long ago. I allowed myself to daydream about the future, being with him and calling him mine. He smelled amazing and looked even more beautiful as he slept.

  I let my fingers wander across his body, feeling the hardness of his muscles underneath the softness of his skin. The soft snores that fell from his lips made my heart go pitter-patter and I knew I was doomed. All I wanted to do was curl into his side and feel him against my body. It had been ages since I’d let a man make me feel safe. Anthony could be that for me. He could be my rock if I allowed him to.

  The problem with that, though, is that it wasn’t fair to him. He couldn’t love me.

  I wouldn’t allow that.

  In the end, we’d both be hurt and alone.

  As soon as he started to stir, I knew what I had to do.

  Through the entire fight my insides clenched, and not in the way he’d made them the night before. Never before had I felt physical pain from telling someone goodbye. It was better to do it now before I got in too deep and couldn’t allow myself to save him and myself later.

  When his footsteps were no longer audible, I slammed my fists against the floor and let out a cry so visceral and uninhibited that I lost my breath. It took everything in me to stop myself from running after him and begging his forgiveness.

  I’d done it.

  He was gone.

  We were both better off. Right?

  4

  Misery

  Misery.

  It could’ve been my new nickname.

  Over the next two weeks, I tried to put Max out of my mind and rid myself of her entirely. It had sounded easy, but I found out it was impossible.

  She invaded my thoughts and filled my dreams. Even when I was flipping through the channels on television after work, I’d find her. Goddamn cable television and their late-night reruns of The Cosby Show.

  Friday and Saturday night, I found myself wandering through Ybor City, but I couldn’t find her. I even went to Liquid and had a drink. If someone I knew had seen me sitting by myself, nursing a beer in a gay bar, it would’ve spread like wildfire.

  Sunday morning, I woke up irritated and crabby as hell. All I wanted to do was stay in bed or drink myself into a coma, but I couldn’t. It was the official Gallo Family Dinner, and my mother would kick my ass if I missed it.

  When I walked through the door, I put on my best face. I had to pretend that everything was normal. There was no way in hell I’d let on that I was upset. My family would eat me alive if they found out, especially Izzy. She might have been my younger sister, but that didn’t mean that she didn’t scare the crap out of me.

  I sat in my usual chair and ignored everyone, but that wasn’t anything new. They barely noticed I was there as I stared at my phone.

  How had I not gotten her number? I couldn’t just show up at her door. There was no way in hell I wanted to be that guy. I didn’t even know Max’s last name. Tracking her down would be an issue with only a first name. There was only one way I knew I could possibly find her. Most people had a Facebook profile, and if I were lucky, I’d find her. I started to type Maxine into the search field, but it brought up a bunch of random people. Not one of the photos matched her.

  I sighed as I turned the phone over in my hand. There had to be a way. A commercial caught my attention as I stared at the television while deep in thought. Next weekend was Festa Italiana in Ybor. It was a giant street festival celebrating Tampa’s Italian culture and heritage. It would be the perfect time to find her. I knew that, if I lived within walking distance, I’d be there every night eating and drinking. Who doesn’t love a party?

  It was a week away, though. It was too damn long to wait. I had to at least try to find her before then. Every moment without her seemed wasted. I knew she had told me to fuck off and that she didn’t want to see me again, but I didn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. There was no way we could have the electricity we did and just throw it away.

  I mean, hell, I hated relationships. The last thing I wanted was to be tied down to anyone, but I wanted to see her again. I opened up Facebook again and decided to take a new approach. I visited fan pages for local establishments and scrolled through their followers. Some places had thousands of people. Instead of choosing randomly, I started at one end of the street and looked up each business in order.

  “Anthony,” Joe barked from his spot on the couch.

  I kept scrolling and didn’t bother to look at him.

  “Hey, douchebag. Are you paying attention?” he asked, and clapped his hands.

  “I’m listening, asshat. I’m busy.”

  “Your face is always buried in that goddamn phone. If you were listening, what do you think?”

  “Of what?” I asked, totally busted. I hadn’t heard a thing they had been talking about.

  Over the years, I’d become very good at shutting them out. You can’t have a large family and pay attention all the time. Fuck, I worked with them too. My ability to selectively hear shit was better than most married people’s.

  “I knew it,” Joe grumbled.

  A piece of candy hit me in the head. “You’re lucky Ma didn’t see that,” I said, flicking the candy from my phone screen to the floor.

  “She wouldn’t care. Izzy asked us a question.”

  I glanced up and looked over at my sister. She glared at me as she snuggled into James’s side. James had weaseled his way into her life. I didn’t know if that was the right term, but Izzy hadn’t always seemed to like him too much. More than likely, it was just her tough-ass exterior. She was like me—she knew any weakness could and would be exploited. We were the lone holdouts in the relationship department, but I feared I’d lost her. More than likely, I was a casualty too.

  “What’s up, Iz?” I asked, placing the phone on my leg.

  She cleared her throat before she took a deep sigh, and her face softened. “I wanted to know about having an open house next weekend. A way to thank our customers for their loyalty.”

  I shook my head, knowing I wouldn’t miss spending next weekend stalking Max in Ybor. “I can’t make it.”

  “What? Why not?
” she shot back, and crossed her arms.

  “I have shit to do. In fact, I need to clear my entire schedule next weekend.” I looked out the corners of my eyes and saw everyone staring in my direction. “I have a gig out of town.”

  Why in the hell had I said that? Not only had I not been honest about meeting someone, now I had to stay out of sight for a weekend. I’d have to stay far away and pray that my family decided not to attend Festa Italiana. What was the likelihood I’d see them there anyway?

  “You do? Where?”

  Izzy knew me best. I shared everything with her. But I couldn’t tell her about Max. I’d hold on to that information like it was the secret to the universe.

  “Vegas.” It was the first city that popped in my head.

  “Can I come, bro?” Mike asked, causing me to glance at him. “I fuckin’ love that city. I could be your roadie or some shit.” He smiled, giving me a hopeful look.

  “Nope. There’s no room. We’re booked up and bunking together. Sorry, man.”

  “I can get my own room. I just want to get away and hang out with you for a while.”

  He never went anywhere with me. Not since Mia, his lovely, sexy doctor girlfriend, had entered the picture. The one time I’d lied through my teeth, he was willing to hop on a plane and have a brothers’ weekend.

  “We could have a brothers-only weekend,” Joe chimed in, clapping his hands. “The girls can get a break from us and we can blow off some steam.”

  “No!” I yelled.

  The tone of my voice made Pop turn and give me a funny look.

  “Sorry, Pop. I can’t next weekend, guys. I already have plans. Maybe we can all hit Vegas next time.” I grinned, praying that they’d drop the idea of joining me in Vegas. I knew I should’ve said Branson or some sleepy town no one would want to go to, but my big, fat mouth had dug a hole.

  “It’s cool, Anth. If you didn’t want us to come, you just needed to say so. No need to get your panties in a bunch,” Mike said as he squared his shoulders.

  I hung my head and exhaled. My patience was very low today. I’d never been described as a patient person, but with all the shit with Max, I was dangling by a thread.

  “I thought I did say no…repeatedly,” I deadpanned, lifting my head. “My weekend is packed. Otherwise, I’d say yes. I’ll be back by Sunday.”

  “What the fuck? Are you just going for two nights?” Izzy asked as she gave me the “you’re full of shit” look I’d grown accustomed to over the years.

  “Yes,” I replied without blinking.

  She still had her arms crossed, one shoulder slumped. Yep, she knew I was lying. I could read her as well as she could read me. Even though we had the biggest age difference, there was something about Izzy and me that just clicked. Since we were best friends, she was going to be pissed off that I hadn’t told her about Max.

  “I’ll be back before Ma has the food on the table next Sunday.” I grabbed my phone and went back to my Facebook search, but kept an eye on Izzy.

  “How convenient,” she said quietly, but loud enough for me to hear.

  “Shut it, Iz,” I snapped. Not my shining moment. There would be hell to pay for being snippy with her.

  She turned as James began to snicker, giving him her full attention. “Jimmy, did I even invite you here?” she hissed.

  He slid his arm behind her back and pulled her toward him. “You know you did. Put the claws away, love. Your brother is old enough to do what he wants. Stop being so damn nosy.” He grinned at Izzy, stroking her stomach underneath her shirt.

  “This is family business.” She pouted but didn’t say anything more.

  “How about the weekend after? I think more people would come if we made it an all-day event,” Joe said.

  “Yeah, whatever,” I replied, too busy trying to find Max.

  “Anyone have plans that weekend?”

  “Nope. Sounds good, Joe,” Mike replied as he pushed off the couch. “I’m so damn hungry. I’m going to check on Ma.”

  “Izzy?” Joe asked.

  “Yep. It’s good.” I peeked over my phone to see if she was still giving me the stink eye or if she had already forgotten it.

  I caught her glaring at me. Nope. She hadn’t forgotten. There was something about Italian women. I swear to God, they had a filing system in their head. There wasn’t a thing they forgot. Especially when it was a fuck-up. Izzy didn’t forget easily, and I was in her crosshairs.

  “Dinner!” Mike yelled from the kitchen just as I got to King Corona, the place where I met Nita and Malia.

  “Fuck,” I muttered before I turned my phone off.

  Ma was known for flipping her shit if we used any type of electronic device at the table. Sometimes I’d get away with it, but it depended on her mood. As I walked into the dining room, I tucked my phone in my pocket.

  Before I could sit, Izzy grabbed my shirtsleeve. “I’m not stupid, Anth. You have some shit to tell me later. Got me?” She glared at me as she fisted my shirt.

  Looking down at her hand, I said, “I’ll tell you tomorrow before work.” I was trying to give myself a sliver of peace for the rest of the day.

  “Fine,” she snapped, releasing my shirt and sitting in the chair James had pulled out for her.

  When he pushed in her chair, he looked at me and shrugged. I shook my head and rolled my eyes as I sat down. I noticed that everyone sat in pairs except for me. I was alone. The way I’d always wanted it to be. But for some reason, it bothered me today.

  “Suzy,” Ma said as she placed the giant bowl of angel hair pasta on the table. “You get the first serving.”

  Suzy licked her lips and rubbed her hands together. She’d grown huge over the last so many months. How in the hell a woman as small as she was had expanded so fast was beyond me. Everyone clamored to feel the baby when it moved, but I didn’t. That shit was creepy. Straight out of the movie Alien. I thought for sure it would break through her skin and try to kill us all. The one thing I knew for sure was that Suzy now ate more than any person at the table.

  “I’m starving, Ma,” Suzy whined as she rubbed her belly.

  “Aren’t you always,” I mumbled as I laid the napkin across my lap. When I looked up, Joe was staring at me.

  “What the hell is your problem today, Anth?” he asked, resting his arms on the table.

  “I don’t have one. I’m hungry too, but no one’s offering me the first serving,” I grumbled as I stared back at him, placing my elbows on the edge of the table.

  “Get pregnant and then you’ll get served first,” Suzy teased as she stuck her tongue out at me.

  I opened my mouth, about to say something, but when I glanced at Joe, I changed my mind. I had pissed every one of my siblings off at some point since I’d arrived. I needed to eat and get back to my cyber-stalking.

  Out of spite, Ma came to me last with the bowl of pasta. “Want some, sweetie?” she asked as she stood beside me, holding the spoon.

  “Please.” I gave her my best “I’m an angel” smile.

  She and Pop were the only two I hadn’t pissed off yet. I’d do everything in my power to keep it that way. But I still caught the slightest glare aimed at me as she dug the spoon into the pasta.

  She placed two heaping spoonfuls of angel hair on my plate before she set it on the table and took her place next to my father.

  “How’s Thomas doing?” Pop asked James as he picked up his fork.

  Pop never started to eat, even if his food became cold, until my mother had sat down unless she told him otherwise. I’d always thought he was pussy-whipped too, but now that I was older, I thought it was a sign of respect. It was the one thing that stuck out the most when I looked at them.

  After I dug into the pasta, bringing it to my mouth, I stopped. I literally froze with my mouth gaping open and my fork hanging in midair. Suddenly, I realized that my thinking process had been altered. Out of nowhere, I’d started to think like my family.

  Max.

  She
had given me more than pussy. She’d changed my thought process. When I’d fucked her, it had to scramble my brains. I never thought like this. Now, my mind was a cluttered mess of pussy bullshit. I almost reached down and grabbed my dick to make sure I hadn’t left that behind when she’d kicked my ass to the curb.

  “What’s wrong?” Joe asked.

  I blinked, clearing my eyes of the “what the fuck” haze I’d fallen into. “Nothing. I just remembered something,” I replied, stuffing the pasta in my mouth.

  “You looked like you saw a ghost,” Izzy added as she gave me a dirty look.

  “Just thought I left my house unlocked,” I said, my mouth full of food.

  “Surrrrre,” she heckled me before turning her attention back to her plate.

  “What did you say about Thomas, James?” I asked after swallowing. I’d missed his response when I’d zoned out.

  My brother had been gone for what had felt like forever. We were all anxious to see him again. James was our only link to him. Without James, we wouldn’t have had any information. He wasn’t able to tell us much, since the DEA forbade information sharing, especially with family.

  “He’s doing well,” James replied after he choked down a mouthful of food. “We’re both hoping for it all to be over soon.”

  “That would be fantastic,” Ma blurted out as she put her hands together in prayer. “God willing.”

  “He misses you all terribly.”

  “I can’t imagine what he’s going through,” Pop said as he wiped his mouth.

  “It’s hell, but he’s getting through it,” James replied.

  I didn’t know much about working undercover. Just the small things Thomas had shared with me before he’d left. He’d promised he would come back home, but even if he were a superhero, he couldn’t make that promise become reality.

  The dinner table and every holiday had felt empty since he’d left. I’d never admit it, but I wanted my brother home. We had always been a fivesome, and being a foursome didn’t feel right. We spent out youth trying to pick up women together.

  He didn’t get as much pussy as I did, but hell, I was a pushy bastard. Being in a band and having my voice alone could make the ladies drop their panties and bend over. It was the one thing Thomas didn’t have. He might have been able to flex his giant muscles, but he wasn’t as hung as I was and he didn’t have my ability to sing.

  I ate the rest of my meal in silence. There wasn’t much to say. I had Max on the brain and the rest of the family had happy shit to talk about. Most of the conversation revolved about Suzy and the baby. Ma could only be described as giddy about the upcoming birth. I didn’t remember her being as excited as she was now even when Izzy was born.

  There hadn’t been a baby in the family in well over twenty years. The only thing I could think of was all the crying. They’re cute, but they shit themselves continuously, they always cried for food, or they were asleep. Babies didn’t have many uses. You couldn’t play with them. You just had to hold them and wait until the next time they cried for attention.

  As soon as I cleared my plate, I excused myself from the table. I needed to get back to my scavenger hunt to find Max. If I could make contact, maybe I could avoid a crowded weekend in Ybor City, prowling the neighborhood like a creep.

  Not that internet stalking wasn’t creepy, but it was the only thing I had to go on without showing up at her door. Before I plopped down in my chair, I pulled my phone out and checked my messages. I didn’t know what I was hoping for, but the blankness of my screen made me scowl.

  I searched Facebook for King Corona and started to scroll through their page. There were hundreds of posts, but I checked each one. I looked for Malia, Nita, or Max as I read each post one by one. As my eyes began to burn and I thought about giving up, I saw it. Malia. Even though I’d hoped to see a comment from Max, I’d take any lifeline to finding her.

 
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