The Sweetest Oblivion Pages 301-350 - Flip PDF Download (2024)

He stilled for a moment, and with a sinking sensation in my belly Iwondered if I’d taken it too far. If he would say no.“That’s what you want?”No. I want to be enough for you.I want you to want only me.“Yes.”In the next moment of silence, the anticipation of his answerwrapped around my lungs and squeezed.His face came up to mine. Our gazes met. Lips inches apart.I wouldn’t take a simple ring off when he’d asked, nor would I kisshim. The knowledge settled between us, mixed with the smell ofmotor oil and summer.What he didn’t know was that soon I would ruin everything to thepoint he’d never trust me again.A thumb ran across my lips, down my chin. “Done.”The band around my lungs released, though a tainted feelingremained. Thick as tar and black as night. Like a venomous snake ina tropical paradise.“So loyal to your family,” he said quietly. “Yet you listened to meand not your papà. Why? Preventing a war?”That’s what he expected. I could read it in the way he looked atme with a sort of forced detachment.I did it because it felt right.An unfamiliar ache began in my chest. A need for him to know.I met his gaze, as golden as the glass of whiskey beside me.“Maybe I wanted to,” I whispered.He watched me for so many seconds it made my pulse race. Heclosed his eyes and shook his head. “Come on. Let’s go inside.” Hegrabbed my hand and tugged me along.I followed.He was comfort, security, and need, all in one.It had a name.Home.

“A kiss that is never tasted, is forever and everwasted.”—Billie HolidayHE HELD MY HAND AS he shut the back door behind us.My breaths turned shallow as he pulled me to the couch. He sat,and I stood between his legs, waiting to see what he wanted. I woulddo it all, anything he told me to. Maybe it was my submissive heart,or maybe it was the romantic one trying to find a way to thrive.His palms skimmed my legs, pushing my dress up until he foundbare thigh. My skin danced with anticipation. His hands fit me soright, were the perfect roughness and the warmest heat. I suddenlydidn’t know what I would do if I could never feel them again.He tugged the backs of my knees, pulling me closer until Istraddled him.Chest to chest. Heartbeat to heartbeat. My pink dress to his blackdress shirt and tie. We were so different, I realized then. Big andsmall. Hard and soft. Demanding and docile.We breathed each other’s air for a moment before he leaned inand ran his lips down the length of my throat. “You smell so good,”he rasped. His scruff tickled my neck as he trailed downward pastmy collarbone and then pressed his face into my breasts. “And f*ck,these tit*.”I sighed, my hands running down his chest. “My nonna said youonly want to marry me for my boobs.”

“Not true.” I felt him smile against my skin. “This too.” I yelped atthe sharp smack on my ass. He tugged my dress off my shoulders,baring my white strapless bra. My breasts tingled as he palmed andsqueezed them through the fabric.“My boobs and ass, then?” My words ended on a moan as hefolded a cup down and ran his tongue across a nipple beforesucking. My head lolled, a breathless haze overcoming me.He cupped me between the legs. “This is also the nicest puss—”“Nico,” I cut him off, every inch of my skin warming.He chuckled.I loved the sound of his laugh, the way the warm timbre ghosteddown my spine.I shivered.He ran a thumb across the goose bumps on my arm. “Cold?”I shook my head, pulling my bottom lip between my teeth.“Nervous.”He unclipped the back of my bra, his eyes darkening as Istraddled him topless with my dress around my waist. “Why?”My hands slid downward, his abs tightening under my touch, toeven lower. I traced his belt buckle with a finger. “I want to dosomething,” I whispered. The insinuation that I wanted to please him,to taste him, was heavy and thick in the air.His gaze immediately flicked to my face. Nerves danced in myveins as I began to undo his belt. He tensed. I leaned forward,pressing my breasts against his dress shirt and my lips to his neck.God, he smelled so good it made me dizzy. I nuzzled him, trying tosoak it all up.His hand cupped the back of my head, sliding downward to mynape. “Why would that make you nervous?”I swallowed. “Because I haven’t done it before.”I tried to slide backward to my knees in front of the couch, but hesuddenly grabbed me by a fistful of hair. His gaze swam with turmoiland disbelief.“You’re lying.” His voice was sharp.I laughed weakly, though in truth his words pierced my chest. “I’msure you’ll find out soon enough that I’m not.” I was so nervous itvibrated beneath my skin. My hands were clammy, and I fought not

to wipe them on my dress. Like an idiot, I wondered how manyblowj*bs this man had gotten and from how many experiencedwomen.I tried to pull away again, but his grip only tightened. He watchedme with a tension that radiated from his gaze. I swallowed asawareness settled between us. Keeping his stare, I slipped the ringoff and let it fall from my fingers. His fist loosened, and I slid to thefloor.He stretched out, like he was getting comfortable, like a womanon her knees at his feet was a daily routine. God, this man. He nevermade anything easy.I unbuttoned his pants, and the sound of the zipper sent aseductive echo through the room. He rested his elbow on thearmrest and watched me.I hesitated. I knew I couldn’t do this with perfection, and I wishedI’d had more practice so I could. He certainly knew what he wasdoing in the oral department, and I was scared I’d be adisappointment.“You gonna stare at my crotch all day or take it out?”He looked like a king sitting there, demanding and impatient.Though, I believed he was close to unraveling by a tightness in hisshoulders and the tension passing through his eyes.My hands trembled as I pulled his briefs down and wrapped myfingers around his erection. How was I going to get this thing in mymouth? Even though a part of me was apprehensive, an unexpectedtenacity demanded I try. He was so smooth and warm. Hard andthick. He felt so good inside me, and I wanted to thank him for it. Ileaned in and rubbed his erection across my cheek.His thighs spread further, a hand running across his mouth whilethe other clamped into a fist on the armrest.My mouth watered as I rubbed my face, my lips, all over him. Idrew my tongue out and licked him like an experiment. I did it again,all the way from the base to the top. His stomach tightened, a quietgroan escaping him. His reaction was so hot that a hum ofsatisfaction traveled up my throat as I gave him little lickseverywhere, not missing a spot.“Quit playing with it,” he said harshly.

Jeez, he was moody about his blowj*bs.I shot him a narrowed gaze.“Suck,” he demanded.In an unhealthy way, his bossy tone sent a warm wave betweenmy legs. I obeyed, running my tongue around the head beforesucking it into my mouth.His head fell back with a “f*ck, that’s it.”My breasts rubbed against his thighs, and sparks of pleasurefluttered through me. I sucked him again, taking more in my mouthand gliding up and down.“Just like that,” he hissed, his hand grabbing a fistful of my hair.He moved my head, controlling the rhythm. Up and down, anddeeper into my mouth every time. “Look at me,” he ordered roughly.My gaze flicked to him.“f*ck,” he muttered.When he pushed himself deep enough it hit the back of mythroat, I gagged and my eyes watered. With a groan, he pulled meaway from him. His breaths came out heavy as he rested his headagainst the couch and watched me with a half-lidded gaze.I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. “What’s wrong?”“Gonna come,” was all he said.My brows pulled together. “That was quick.”I meant it as I wasn’t ready to be done, but as soon as I said it Irealized it sounded like he was a two-pump chump.He let out a laugh. “I’m going to f*ck you hard for that.”I flushed.His gaze burned hot and lazy. “Take it all off and come here.”I stood and slipped my dress and thong down my legs. As soonas I straddled him, his mouth latched onto my breast. Feverconsumed me, a shot pouring straight in my bloodstream. Hetouched me, rough and urgent, and it only fed the fire.My hands buried in his hair as he sucked and nipped on mybreasts, on my throat and neck. He squeezed and smacked my ass,grinding me against his erection.“Stand up,” he rasped. He barely got the words out before hewas jerking me upward and then pulling me down on his face. Igroaned, bracing a thigh on the back of the couch and a hand on his

shoulder. He sucked and licked while I rolled my hips against hismouth. My skin burned. Pressure built and built.“So close,” I moaned.I gripped a fistful of his hair right before the release shot throughme, buckling my legs and stealing my breath. I slid to his lap,gasping for air. Before I realized his intentions, he grabbed my hipsand slammed inside of me.I choked as pain spread through me. “Nico, I’m so sore.”His hands gentled on me. “f*ck, baby, I’m sorry.” He leanedforward and captured my top lip between his, kissing me with asweet pull.We both realized what had happened the second his mouth leftmine.He froze.My pulse skidded to an awkward stop.Unease poured into my bloodstream; warm as whiskey neat, yetas cold as ice. He was deep inside of me, so deep it stung, but all Icould focus on was how my mouth tingled where he’d kissed me. Ilicked my lips, and his gaze darkened as he followed the motion. Icould taste a hint of myself, but not enough of him.The air stilled. Indecision shook in my hands. My heartbeatsdanced, warmed, pulsed like they were finally alive.I couldn’t stop myself.A tremor ran through me as I leaned forward, close enough ourbreaths intermixed. And then closer until my mouth brushed his. Sosoft, so him, so mine. When he parted his lips, I pressed mine to hisand slid my tongue inside. A groan came from deep in his chest, hishands tightening on my hips.I pulled back, trying to catch my breath. But before I caught it, Ileaned in and kissed him again. Lazy and wet, I licked inside hismouth. His hand cupped the back of my head, and he sucked on mytongue. I moaned, my fingers running down his tie. The next kisswas rough, with a scrape of his teeth before easing into a wet slide.My blood drummed in my ears, rushed through my veins, incineratedlike fuel and flame.I was so full of him, and with his mouth on mine I feltoverwhelmed. Complete. Consumed. And I never wanted to come

up for air.He tried to slow the kiss, but I didn’t want to stop. Couldn’t.I pressed my mouth to his, gave his top lip a gentle lick, stole hisbreath straight from his lungs. He tasted so good. Like me, andwarm vanilla whiskey.He nipped my bottom lip, telling me enough.“f*ck me or get off.”I faltered at his sudden change of mood. However, I soonrealized what this was. He was pissed that I’d never kissed him andnow he was going to withhold it from me. My eyes narrowed, thoughI wasn’t that moved. Another man in the Cosa Nostra would’ve neverrespected my wish not to kiss him, and this one had. Now that I wastrying to eat him alive, the proud boss was reminded of it.I rolled my hips, slow and lazy at first. The soreness was likestanding near a fire that was a bit too hot but you’d die without itswarmth. I wrapped my arms around his shoulders and pressed myface into his neck.A shiver rolled through me, pressure and heat sparking as Iground my cl*t against his pelvis. His hands ran down my back,gripping my ass and pulling me harder against him. I was onlyrubbing myself against him, not f*cking him yet, but he didn’t seemto mind.The sensation of him deep and still inside of me drove me to theedge. An mmm sound escaped me as I rose an inch and then slidback down.“f*ck, those noises.” He captured the next one in his mouth. Hispalms ran to my ribs, spanning my waist. A shudder rolled under hisskin as I began to slowly move up and down.Rough hands held me tightly.Teeth nipped my jaw.Lips ran up my neck before pressing to my ear.“You gonna keep your mouth from me again?”I shook my head.“Because it’s mine?”“Yes,” I breathed.He groaned from his throat before grabbing the back of my neckand kissing me hard. Wet and messy. Wild and rough. And then

slow, wet glides and licks, like he was trying to taste every inch of mymouth. Warmth spilled into my chest and spread outward.He let me get used to f*cking him before his hands startedmoving me up and down. Sweet, hot pressure began to build. Imoaned in his mouth. He kissed me and kissed me until I couldn’tbreathe anything but him.When his head lowered and he sucked a nipple into his mouth,the pressure boiled over. A shudder shook me as pleasure burst andfinally dissipated. My breath came out heavy and erratic, myforehead resting on his.His body tensed, and his hands tightened on my waist as herocked me.“Ask me to come inside you.”“Please come inside me,” I sighed against his lips.He pressed his face against my throat, let out a masculine groanthat sent goose bumps down my body, and bit my neck hard enoughit would leave a mark.I sat there with my arms around his shoulders, my breath fanninghis throat. His presence soaked through my skin with each inhale.His touch and taste and smell sank so deep they filled the cracks ofmy heart. He was becoming a drug, an addiction I would have tofeed every day. From the recent hit, euphoria filled my veins andrelaxed my limbs.He was an infatuation, a craving, a need, and I was sure it wasunrequited. But as my fingers ran down his tie and rested on hischest—Bu-bum.Bu-bum.Bu-bum.His heartbeats raced for me.

“We do not remember days, we remembermoments.”—Cesare PaveseI RAN MY HANDS DOWN her back, marveling at the softness. She wasso small and breakable in my arms—I could snuff the life right out ofher with little effort. The thought made something tighten in mythroat.I didn’t know what to do with this woman, but I did know I waskeeping her. Every time I saw her, my blood burned hotter, searingthe word mine into my chest. If it were only the greedy Russo in medriving this infatuation, it would’ve gone away the moment she leftmy bed. Everyone at the Abelli house today knew that hadn’t f*ckinghappened.I’d come to the conclusion I didn’t give a sh*t if she wanted to bewith another: she couldn’t. It was that simple. I kept myself fromdigging into her past because I knew if I found something I didn’t like—specifically, a lover—I wouldn’t be able to handle it with a clearmind. And the thought of earning her hatred sent a hollow achethroughout my chest.Her breath fanned my neck, and I ran my fingers through her hair.There was so f*cking much of it. I’d had to hold it out of her facewhile she sucked my dick. She hadn’t been lying—that was the firsttime she’d done it. A heady rush consumed me. Maybe she wasn’tas experienced as I’d believed.

What else hadn’t she done? I wanted it all. Everything. The urgeto demand she tell me was on the tip of my tongue, but I forcedmyself to keep it in. I didn’t want to talk—or even think—about hersexual history. I had a feeling it would only end up with anotherbroken piece of furniture.She chose me instead of her papà.And f*ck, if that hadn’t filled me with a warm wave of satisfaction.Her fingernails ran into the hair at my nape, and it sent a chilldown my spine. “Nico, are our families going to kill each other at thewedding?”Amusem*nt rose in me. “Maybe.”She tilted her head, and all of her silky hair slid across my hands.“I don’t think my papà likes you.”I laughed. “I don’t think many Abellis do.”“I do,” she whispered.f*ck. “Yeah?”“Yeah.”Warmth flamed to life inside me. “You’ll be a Russo soon, so itdoesn’t count.”She trailed a finger down my neck. “Next weekend.”Tomorrow. But she didn’t need to know that yet.After her papà had threatened to change his mind, I’d decided Iwasn’t risking waiting. Elena was mine, and tomorrow she’d take myname to prove it.“I think we should have a couple more functions before then,” shesaid. “Somewhere our families have to interact.” She paused. “Likethe casino.”I chuckled. “Probably not the best idea, baby.”“Oh,” she laughed, and the sound hit me in the chest. “I forgotyou’re a bunch of cheats.”“We’re,” I corrected.“We,” she whispered, as though she was trying it out on hertongue. I wanted to know how it tasted.She leaned back, and my dick began to harden from the sight ofher tit* in my face. I pulled my briefs over my growing erection andrestrained from touching her. She was sore, and I felt bad enough

about hurting her earlier. Though, I didn’t regret it now that her mouthwas mine.She smoothed my tie, running her fingers down my chest andstomach. I could sit here and let this woman touch me all day and I’dnever grow bored. She lifted my hand, brushing my knuckles with athumb. “Am I ever going to see these not busted up?”I gave them a glance. “Probably not.”She put her palm to mine, measuring the difference. “You hitLuca?”“Yeah.” I’d hit him so hard I was surprised I didn’t break morethan skin. f*cker had a hard face.She smiled. “So honest.”“Always.”Her gaze came to mine, a little crease between her brows. Damn,she was too beautiful. It f*cking hurt to look at her.“Really? You’d answer honestly to anything I asked?”I tucked a piece of hair behind her ear. “I’ll be honest, but somethings you don’t need to know.”Her hand faltered against mine, and I suddenly realized how thatcame off. She thought I meant women. Jesus, I didn’t think I’d f*ckedanother woman since I’d met this girl. Truthfully, I was pretty sure Iwas obsessed, and I didn’t give a single f*ck about it anymore. I justwanted to keep feeding it. f*cking her, kissing her, eating her out,over and over, until I was dead. The idea that I couldn’t made mefeel sick, like I was catching a bad case of the flu or something.“I’m talking about business, Elena.”She focused on our hands, interlocking her fingers with mine.Resting her head on my shoulder, she quietly said, “I hear you’re abad man.”A smile tugged at my lips. “You believe everything you hear?”“Just what I see. Why did you kill your cousin?”My lips pressed against her ear. “He had a gun to your head.”A shiver rolled through her. I’d known she was mine even then.“Nico?”“What?”“Your come is running down my thigh,” she whispered.f*ck. That was the hottest thing I’d ever heard. My dick throbbed.

I found the wetness dripping down her leg. Running a fingerupward, I pushed it back inside her. She made that breathy mmmnoise of hers that drove me crazy. Damn, I was turned on. If shedidn’t get off me, I was going to f*ck her again, and I’d already toldmyself I wouldn’t.“I have to go to work for a while,” I told her. “I have a meeting withyour brother.”She tensed. “Please don’t kill him.”A noise of sardonic amusem*nt escaped me. I hated how thatbastard had her loyalty. I wanted it all. It was irrational, I knew, but Ididn’t know how to deal with how I felt about this girl. Everything wasamplified. Burning hot. And impulsive.“I’m not going to kill him. Your papà and I decided not to workwith each other anymore. Tony will be an intermediary of sorts.”“Oh.” She swallowed. “Try not to let him kill you either.”“And if he did?”She paused, like she hadn’t considered it and didn’t know. Irealized she didn’t want to answer the question when she pressedher mouth to my throat and slowly kissed her way up. Her lipsskimmed my jawline before settling on mine. Heat erupted in mygroin. She deepened the kiss, sliding her tongue into my mouth, andmy co*ck went hard as a rock. sh*t. I grabbed a fistful of her hair andpulled her back.Her eyes were dark as night, her mouth swollen and pink.“And if he did?” I repeated.She went silent for a moment, pulling her bottom lip between herteeth. “I’m sure when people find out I’ve lived here there won’t beone man who would want me.”Irritation ignited in my chest. Not the answer I was looking for,and not even true. Any man would give up his life savings and leftnut for Elena. My eyes narrowed.“There is no other man for you.”Her lips quirked. “You’d make sure of that even in death?”“Yes,” I told her, though I didn’t know what the f*ck I was saying.“If anyone would go to those extremes, it would be you.”My glare intensified, because I didn’t believe she meant that as acompliment. “Are you on the pill?”

Her cheeks flushed a pale pink. She sat on my lap with her tit* inmy face and my come running down her thighs, and still she blushedfrom a simple question.“Yeah,” she answered, fingering the end of my tie.“When are you going to stop taking it?”She blinked, and then she laughed in disbelief. “You’re crazy,”she announced, before dropping my tie and getting to her feet.“I asked a question, Elena.”“And I chose not to answer, Nico,” she parried as she walkedtoward the bathroom completely f*cking naked.I internally groaned at the view. “You’re not going to stay on itforever.”“No, but I think I’d like to be married first before I even considerit.”I rubbed my jaw.Fine. We’ll discuss it tomorrow then.“Stupid move today, Ace.” Tony sat on my office couch with an armresting on the back.I flicked a glance toward him. “Did I ask for your opinion?”He rubbed a hand across his smile. “Just assumed you’d want it,is all.”“You assumed wrong,” I said dryly. “If we wrote down all thestupid sh*t you’ve done, that book would be thicker than the f*ckingBible.”He sank a little further into the couch. “Everything I do ispremeditated. Just have a quicker thought process than most.”“I can smell your bullsh*t from here. Honestly, I don’t know howthe f*ck you’re still alive.”

He smirked. “You’re just upset you can’t kill me.”“Never tried to kill you.”“Debatable. But I know you won’t now. You like my sister and mysister loves me.”I like his sister? Was that what it was? Sounded mediocre incomparison to what I felt about Elena.Gianna’s words suddenly filled my mind.Because you’ll fall in love with her. And she won’t love you back.Well, Jesus H. Christ. Gianna was right.f*ck. This was inconvenient.I tapped my pen on the desk, leaned back, and refused to replyto that ridiculous statement. Tony laughed, and I gritted my teeth.“Finally, the black-hearted Russo knows what it’s like to bewhipped.”I gave my head a small shake. “There’s a big difference betweenyou and me, Tony. Whipped or not, I’m not a f*cking doormat.”Tony’s gaze hardened, but he only lifted his feet onto the coffeetable.“Jenny pulls you around by your co*ck and you let her. Might aswell buy her a strap-on.”“You know,” he said, “I could live without you saying her f*ckingname.”“And I could live without your shoes on my coffee table.”He left them there, smoothed his tie, and rested a bandagedhand on his stomach. “I got a hot date tonight.”“I think ‘hot’ loses its steam after every man in a ten-mile radiushas had a piece of it.”His jaw ticked. “I love my sister, Ace, but it’s not like you’regetting a cherry with your fiancée either.”Annoyance unfurled in my chest, and his gaze flickered withpleasure when he noticed he’d gotten to me.“If you want to sit around and talk about me f*cking your sister,be my guest. Brings back good memories.”He picked a piece of lint off his suit jacket. “If it was up to me, I’dnever have let Elena stay with you until the wedding.”“Good thing not much is up to you,” I said dryly. “New York wouldburn under one of your massive tantrums.”

“If I lit fire to the city, it would deserve to burn.”I let out a half laugh. “More likely a man tossed your girlfriendsome quarters and took her for a ride.”He pulled on his collar, his gaze heated. “She’s not a f*ckinghooker.”“Coulda’ fooled me. If I gave her the watch off my wrist, shewould’ve done anything I asked of her.”“Any woman would. You look like a tool walking around with thatthirty-five-thousand-dollar watch.”I would’ve easily agreed with him before I met Elena—the anywoman would part, not the f*cking tool comment—but now I couldn’timagine her giving it up for a large sum of money. And it wasn’tbecause she already had plenty of it.Jesus, we hadn’t even gotten to business yet and a headachealready bloomed behind my eyes. “Maybe we could get this overwith?”“Sure thing, Ace. But I gotta say something first.”I tossed my pen on the desk. “Can hardly wait to hear it.”“For whatever reason—most likely Stockholm—Elena chose you,and I respect her choice. But if you hurt her, I’ll have to kill you.”I laughed. I was pretty sure I’d rather cut off my left arm than everhurt her, but f*ck if I was going to let him know she was my biggestweakness.My gaze froze to ice. “Since we’re getting the threats out of theway—if you ever do anything stupid enough to get another gunpointed at her head, I’ll skin you alive. Got it?”He smirked. “Got it, bro.”Jesus. As of tomorrow, this idiot was my f*cking brother-in-law.

The clock said two a.m. when I got home. Tony and I had finishedthe meeting without trying to kill each other—a success in my book—and then I had some other business to take care of. Annoyingbusiness that left a red stain on my shirt.The trashcans near the garage were full of bags, and a smallsmile came to my lips when I realized what Elena had thrown away.She was like a fascinating creature in my house, and I’d never knowwhat she would do next.Luca left after filling me in on Elena’s amusing activities today. Iknew he was getting tired of having to stay here—and I also neededhim back at work—but I wasn’t sure who else to trust. Usually, Iwould have left Lorenzo with this kind of sh*t—but with Elena? f*ckno. I briefly wondered if eunuchs were still a thing.Truthfully, I hated the idea of leaving her with another man at all,but her safety was more important to me than that. Also, there wasan itch in the back of my head that kept reminding me she’d tried torun only six months ago. Did she leave because her papà was af*cking scrooge, or for another man who possibly still lived? My teethclenched.I headed upstairs and decided I needed to do something aboutthe creak in the stairs. It was loud as sh*t.I’d been chafing to come home. Just so I could f*ck Elena softand easy, all night long. I wanted to draw it out, soak up her moans,make her sweat and shake beneath me. I was f*cking rock hard atthe idea.After going to my room and finding my bed empty, a growlsounded in my throat. I pushed open the spare bedroom door to seeher fast asleep. The window was cracked, letting a breeze in thatrustled the sheer curtains. The streetlight shone a yellow glowacross her face, and my chest ached at the sight.I dropped to my haunches next to her. She slept on her side,facing me. One smooth thigh was outside of the covers. She had ona tiny t-shirt that had ridden up to right below her tit* and a f*ckingthong. The curve of her bare ass was right there, begging me to biteit. My dick insisted that I be an asshole and wake her up. sh*t. Irubbed my face and gave my head a shake. I couldn’t do it.

Her lips were slightly parted, and her breaths came out even andshallow. Dark eyelashes fanned her cheeks. I stared at her for amoment. How peaceful it must be in that head of hers to have such asweet expression. I wanted to keep it that way, to make sure shenever worried about anything again.f*ck, I was whipped.If perfection had a face, a body, a voice—this girl would be it.I skimmed a thumb across her soft cheekbone.My gaze found her ring and my throat tightened. Gianna’s wordsfilled my mouth with a bitter taste.I would make this girl want me, need me, love me, because f*ckif I was going it alone.

“We are most alive when we’re in love.”—John UpdikeIT SMELLED LIKE FRESH AIR and expectation. A warm breeze flowedthrough the cracked window and I realized I left it open all night. Thatwouldn’t be good for Nico’s electricity bill, though I was sure he hadenough money to power New York City for years.I got up and closed the window, and then padded toward thebathroom. After I appeared halfway presentable, I headeddownstairs. My feet froze at the base of the stairs, but unfortunately,this time it wasn’t due to a half-naked Nico.A quiet “No” escaped my lips.“Yes,” Nico said.My heartbeats ricocheted like pinballs in my chest.I glanced from him in his black three-piece suit to the white dresslying over the back of the couch. A cool rush of unease driftedthrough my body, but there was something else intertwined. A warmkernel of pleasure, of relief, expanding like a balloon. I didn’t realizethat living with this man unmarried had bothered me until now—andit wasn’t because of what it would do to my reputation. As much as Iloved the freedoms such a liberal world provided for others, my heartbled for the Cosa Nostra, for everything romantic, and for thestructured walls of tradition. Also, the idea that he would grow boredand decide not to marry me had been a cold whistle of alarm in myblood.

I wanted to be married, to have a husband of my own, but thesunny, white picket fence dream I’d always envisioned would bemarred by the shadows of other women. I couldn’t share. Not thisman. The idea made me feel sick to my stomach, cut my breaths inhalf, sent an ache radiating through my chest.“Why did you kill Oscar Perez?” I blurted.Nico stood with his hands in his pockets as he leaned against theisland. His gaze was as calm and deep as the sea. “Because youwere mine.”I swallowed the lump in my throat. I didn’t think he would lie aboutthe question, but I did believe he’d evade it. I suddenly knew that thisthrob in my heart would be worse than any physical pain Oscar couldhave inflicted upon me.“Maybe you screwed fate.” My voice was a whisper as I stared atthe white summer dress on the couch.I didn’t look at him, but I didn’t have to, to know that my wordsstruck a nerve. The heat of his stare burned my cheek.“There is no such thing as fate,” he snapped. “And even if therewere, the last thing anyone would ever do is pair you with OscarPerez.”“The Fates would pair me with you? You’re no saint.”“Do you want a saint, Elena?”No, I want you. But I don’t want the heartache you’ll bring along.“Nico, we don’t know each other . . . I don’t even know yourmiddle name.”“Angelo. Now, go upstairs and get ready. We leave in an hour.”I didn’t move. “I’ve already picked out my dress, Nico . . . it’sperfect.” I sounded like a frivolous girl, but that’s who I was. Heshould know what he was signing up for. I wondered how he’d gottena marriage license without me, but realized it was probably theeasiest of illegal things he’d done.“I want my wedding,” I said firmly.“You sure you want two ceremonies with me? Looks like you canhardly stomach the first.” His tone seeped with irritation as he pulledout his phone to reply to a text.“No, I’d prefer one. Next weekend. I’m not going anywheretoday.” I turned around but didn’t make it up three stairs before an

arm wrapped around my waist and my feet left the floor.“We’re getting married today, Elena. Not tomorrow, not f*ckingnext weekend. Today.”My back was pressed to his front, my toes skimming the floor.This wasn’t exactly how I imagined a man would profess his desireto marry me; in fact, it was kind of rude and totalitarian.I tried to fight my way out of his grip. I did it just so I could seehow I couldn’t get away.“Let me go, Nico.” Hold me tighter.“You gonna take this dress upstairs and put it on?”“You want a virgin,” I protested. “You chose Adriana over me.” Itried to pull his arm off me, but it was like trying to pry steel.His laugh rumbled down my back. “Is that what you think? That Ichose your weird sister over you?”My teeth gritted as he dropped me to my feet. “She’s not weird.”“Your papà told me you were unfit for marriage. I didn’t pickbetween the two of you.”Soaking that in, my chest grew lighter. I turned to face him andmet his gaze. It looked like he wanted to f*ck me into my place andwas barely holding himself back. A shiver coasted through me.I fingered the hem of my t-shirt. “I want my wedding, Nico.”His rough palm brushed my face. “Then it’s yours. But you’ll beElena Russo today, no later.”Pressing my cheek against his hand, I whispered, “Elena Russo.”It tasted like hope and happiness. But as the words faded fromexistence, the slightest aftertaste of heartbreak remained.Honking, the shouts of someone arguing with a cab driver, and thebustle of the Bronx’s Grand Concourse converged into white noise in

my mind. My pulse beat in my throat as we walked toward theSupreme Court Building. As we reached the doors, I turned around.Nico grabbed my clammy hand with a quiet chuckle and pulled meinside. I didn’t miss Luca’s eye roll. He was our witness, but I thoughtI’d prefer the homeless man we passed a block over.We didn’t have to wait. A receptionist with a blond chignonwalked us to where we needed to be, and by the uneasy, flighty airabout her, she knew who we were. I wondered how much Nico hadpaid the City of New York to get such service on a busy Tuesdayafternoon. Or maybe he hadn’t needed to fork over a dime. He wasKing of the Cosa Nostra.My rapid heartbeats counted the ceremony from start to finish. Iremembered the gurgle of the judge’s words, the cold sweatencasing my body, and Nico. His presence and the light scent of hiscologne consumed me in familiarity and broke through the thumpingmantra of my pulse.“I do.” The two words were spoken by a don, but his gaze burnedlike warm vanilla whiskey. And then he promised to love, honor,cherish and protect me, forsaking all others and holding onto onlyme. By the way he’d said it, you’d almost believe him.I repeated the words as I was told to, and then the exchange ofrings came. I stared at the fifty-cent ring already on my left hand. Itwas much cheaper than the one Nico had told me was his mamma’son the drive over. The room’s awkward silence touched my skin. Thejudge cleared his throat. Luca looked at his watch. I wore the ring onmy middle finger, but it looked like Nico was going to stand here andmake a scene until I removed it, so I pulled it off and put it on myright hand. Nico slipped his mamma’s on my finger, echoing thejudge’s words.He loved his mamma. My heartbeats latched onto the thought,flipping, turning, and burning it into my skin.I kissed him on the lips. Soft and sweet and heartbreaking.And then I was Mrs. Nicolas Russo.Outside, New York sun shined bright, like fiery rays in a cloudlesssky.“You did good,” Luca drawled. “Only made the judge think we’dkidnapped you a couple different times.”

I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. The nerves still vibratedin my veins and were slowly replaced with a heady rush of relief.Nico stepped in front of me, and my gaze lifted to his. It felt like I’dbeen twisted inside out in the past twenty minutes, but now, in themiddle of my city with this man next to me, it felt like I’d broken afinish line ribbon.“Nico, what if the Three Fates were real and I’d been destined foranother?”He slipped his hands into his pockets, his gaze igniting with aspark. “I guess I’d have to find those Fates and burn them to theground.”I bit my cheek to hold in a smile and gave my head a smallshake. “You’re crazy.”He let out a laugh, looked at the sky, and muttered almostinaudibly, “Crazy about something.”My entire body froze except my heart. It grew twice its size. Iwanted to pretend I hadn’t heard it, but I was stuck like a deer inheadlights. His heavy gaze met mine, and it grew more intense whenhe realized that comment didn’t get past me. He stared at me,making me squirm with his indifference.Luca stood nearby, a grimace pulling on his lips as though hewas watching a Christmas movie on Lifetime.I swallowed and then announced, “I’m hungry.”Luca let out a noise of amusem*nt. “Plenty of stuff at Ace’s if youwouldn’t have thrown it all away.”I did do that, and then I made Luca carry all the bags outside. Ipulled my bottom lip between my teeth. I wasn’t going to sit aroundand eat Isabel’s prepared meals. It’d seemed like a rational reactionat the time . . .Nico’s gaze flickered with amusem*nt, though he wasn’tsurprised. He must have noticed the empty fridge this morning.As we walked to lunch, my reservations about this marriagedisappeared under the glow of the sun, the gentle breeze, and Crazyabout something. Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for a foreboding tocreep in with the reminder of one slip of paper in the bottom of myduffel bag.

“If I’m honest I have to tell you I still read fairy-talesand I like them best of all.”—Audrey HepburnTHE QUIET ON THE WAY home could be chipped at with an ice pick.Luca drove himself, so it was only Nico and me, husband and wife,engulfed in a plague of thoughtful silence.I was desperate to know what he was thinking. Did he regrettoday? I’d experienced many feelings across the board, but I couldn’tsay I would take it back. Maybe, at first, marriage was a high like adrug, because even within the turmoil, I felt revived, unbreakable.Was this how it felt to be a Russo?Nico had one hand on the wheel, and the sun glinted off his silverwedding band. I guessed he would carry around a reminder of me onhis finger everywhere he went. I hadn’t realized he would bemarrying me as much as I would be him. I might not be able tocontrol him like he could me, but in a way, I owned an importantpiece of Nicolas Russo.As soon as we got home, Nico headed straight for the minibar.He had a drink at lunch too, and I was beginning to think he neededalcohol to deal with marrying me. What a confidence boost. Though,I couldn’t exactly talk when I’d acted like I was stuck in a cloud ofterror. To be honest, I was glad I got another wedding because I’dreally screwed the first one up.

Bracing a hand on the door, I slipped my heels off. “I’ve neverbeen married before.”Nico pulled the top off a whiskey decanter. “Me neither.”“Really?” I asked with mock surprise. “I was sure with yourreputation you’d have a harem of wives you killed off one by onewhen you got bored.”He turned around, a smile pulling on his lips. “Nah, I got men todo my dirty work for me.”I nodded like I understood. “Killing wives is dirty business.”Grabbing a hair tie from the island, I pulled my long strands up andoff my neck. “Well, I hope when you get bored of me, you’ll give me ahead start.”He slipped a hand into his pocket, watching me. His gaze burnedlike a lit match, just as it had days ago when he’d said: There’snowhere you could go that I couldn’t find you. A shiver, equal partshot and cold, ran down my back. It suddenly felt like I was in atwisted fairy-tale where the princess becomes infatuated with the evilking, and she chooses to stay in her tower even though the door isnever locked.I’d been right from the beginning. I’d never survive this man . . .but it was too late now. I would just have to enjoy my time while itlasted.Goose bumps trailed down my arms as I padded toward him onbare feet. It was too damn cold in this house, and Nico was alwaysas hot as a furnace. He could share some of his warmth.“You’re not bored with me yet, are you?”He ran a hand across his jaw. “I think you’ve got a few days, giveor take.”Stepping into his space, I gripped the end of his tie. “Only a fewdays?” I inhaled a deep breath of him. “I guess I better make themlast then.” Rising to my tiptoes, I tried to kiss him, but he turned hishead.Maybe I would’ve been dismayed by his reaction not long ago,but I knew him better now. It also helped that he had a hard-on Icould feel against my stomach. So I ignored his rejection andpressed my lips to his jawline instead. He’d shaved this morning and

the skin was smooth for a change. I kissed a line down his throat,growing dizzy from his taste and smell.He brought the tumbler to his mouth like I wasn’t making out withhis neck. “Thought you’d rather jump off the Brooklyn Bridge than gothrough with it today.”“No.” I shook my head, running my tongue up his throat and mypalm down to cup his erection. He pushed my hand away. “Maybethe Washington Bridge, though,” I added. “It’s much closer to theground.”I rested my hand over his hard-on again, rubbing the entirelength of him. He let me, but still held that stupid glass of whiskey. Ikissed my way up to the corner of his lips, and he finally turned hishead and swallowed my sigh in his mouth. The kiss was wet andrough, maybe a little annoyed. My tongue slid against his, and aflame pulsed to life in my lower belly.He nipped my bottom lip. “You make me f*cking crazy.”“Don’t blame me for your psychosis.”“You are my psychosis.”“Rude,” I breathed against his lips.He set his glass down, grabbed the back of my neck, and thenkissed me deep and slow. He kissed me until my heartbeat throbbedbetween my legs. A frenzy burned through my blood. I pressed mybody to his, raked my blunt nails down his stomach and tugged at hisbelt buckle. He made a rough sound in his throat, but his lips beganto slow against mine. When I realized he was pulling away, I moanedin frustration.“Nico . . .”His thumb brushed over my mouth. “Surely a woman who actslike she’s at a funeral instead of getting married doesn’t want herhusband to f*ck her.”“She does,” I protested.Sex was sex and marriage was marriage.Why was he always interweaving the two?Didn’t he understand how much I wanted him? The wordsescaped me before I could stop them.“I thought about you, you know . . . before we were engaged.” Myblush was so intense it burned in my chest and made my heart race.

His body stilled for a split second. “Yeah?”A tight sensation wrapped around my lungs—a mixture of fear,embarrassment, and vulnerability—but I needed him to know Iwanted him. The truth was, I needed him in a way I couldn’t evenfathom, but I couldn’t let anyone know it was that severe, especiallyhim. Finding the courage somewhere deep inside of me, I rose to mytoes and pressed my lips to his ear.“After that moment in the kitchen at my parents’, I was so hot Icouldn’t even think . . . so I went to my room and lay on my bed. Andthen I slipped my fingers inside me and pretended they were yours.”Three heartbeats drummed in my ears.“f*ck me,” he groaned, before grabbing my hips, lifting me, andmeeting my mouth with his. Finally. My legs wrapped around hiswaist and my hands buried in his hair.Walking me backward toward the stairs, he kissed me like hewas trying to eat me alive. He was such a selfish kisser. Kissing meonly when he wanted, biting me, controlling every dip, lick, and pressof our lips.He trailed his mouth down my neck, and I worked on his vest andshirt buttons. I wanted his skin against mine, something I’d only feltonce, and something I ached for. I got all of them but the cuffs, whichwere impossible since his hands were kneading my ass. I tugged thewhite undershirt out of his pants and ran my hands beneath it. Overthe hot skin of his stomach and chest. He hissed through his teeth,and a lungful of air escaped me when he fell on top of me on thebed.He yanked on my dress, and a rip sounded as the straps cameloose. “That was Chanel,” I breathed against his lips, but all thoughtsvanished when he pulled down my bra and sucked on my breasts.His hands gripped low on my ass, and I sighed when his fingers slidbeneath my panties, brushing my cl*t and teasing my entrance.“f*ck, you’re wet,” he groaned.I tensed when his finger inched into the wrong hole.“Nico,” I gasped.Beneath my palms, a tremor rolled through his chest. He slowed,kissed my cheek, and murmured against my lips, “Tell me to stopand I will.”

I didn’t believe I was an adventurous girl, but I suddenly knew Iwould do anything to feel this man shudder like that.His gaze liquefied when I didn’t say a word. He watched my faceas his finger pushed further inside of me. It was a strange feeling,but I grew hotter than I’d ever been at the way his breathing turnedragged and his body grew tense, as though he struggled with holdinghimself back.Two of his fingers slid inside while one still filled my ass. Igroaned when he began to move them in and out slowly. Thefullness was intense, delicious, and close to tipping me over theedge. He kissed my throat, and I shook beneath him as his fingersf*cked me agonizingly slow.I fisted the sheets, dug my heels into the bed, and when I camehe swallowed my noises in his mouth. The finesse of the kiss faded.He nipped at my lips and jaw. Sucked on my tongue. Clinked myteeth.It was messy and dirty. And everything him.“I’m going to f*ck you slowly,” he breathed in my ear.He did as he said.And in every possible way.The kitchen. The living room. The shower. The hallway. His bed.Seven days passed, and I grew very familiar with Nico, sex, andevery possible place and position to have it.I didn’t think it was healthy.I breathed, slept, and consumed everything Nicolas Russo.The first time I attempted to leave his bed after we were married,he grabbed my wrist and watched me with that lazy stare again. Thistime, he would hold me there forever. Not once had he complained

about the ring, and I could only assume he felt better about it nowthat his was on my finger as well.I slept in his bed. Sometimes with my face in his chest.Sometimes with his body spooning mine and his arm around me.Always with him pressed against me. Always with his hands on meand his smell everywhere. I didn’t know how or even when ithappened, but somehow, he’d found a way to tear down myboundaries and embed himself in every piece of me.Something touched me deep in the chest.Something warm and fragile.Something unraveling like a rope.He didn’t go to work those seven days.He taught me how to cheat at cards. How to f*ck. And how tomake an omelet.His mamma was a good cook, he said. When she wasn’t high, hewas quick to specify.I soaked up any and all information he shared, no matter howsmall it was. Soon I would have every piece of the puzzle.Slowly but surely, I was learning how to cook.“I’m telling you, Mamma, it’s all watery,” I sighed into the phone.“You didn’t make the roux right.”“I did it exactly how you told me!”“My recipes are buono, Elena. It is you who’s the problem.”After a few of those similar conversations, I learned Google wasa much better teacher. Nico might be able to make an omelet, but hewas just as inept at everything else.We ate a lot of takeout, but he never complained. In fact, henever complained about anything. Not when that itch for his attentionbegan and I bothered him in his office, and not as I sat on his lapwhen he was on the phone talking business. While that bossy,totalitarian side of him was never going away, I was beginning tolearn he was more laidback, more gentle, than I’d ever imagined aman like him could be.I wished he was awful. Because I would soon deserve it.He kissed me soft and slow. Ran his fingers through my hair. Letme pick the movie, though we never got through one film the entireweek. Once his thumb started tracing circles around my belly button,

I was dying for his hand in lower places and he always gave mewhat I wanted.His body covered mine, so heavy, so perfect.Skin against skin. The demanding way he tilted my head to kissme deeper. The roughness of his palm sliding down my throat. Hishandprints burning me like brands.It was all a blur. A feeling that coalesced in my chest.I pressed my face into his neck and breathed him in. His smellwas like nicotine, the drug burning through every capillary andspreading through my bloodstream.The last thread of the rope snapped.And then it was nothing but me, him, and a long way to theground.Thrilling, she’d told me.She never said it would hurt.

“I fell off my pink cloud with a thud.”—Elizabeth TaylorTHE SUN SHONE A WARM glow against my skin, but it couldn’t thawthe coldness that had slid into my stomach throughout the night. I’dlain awake for hours, listening to Nico breathe and debating what Iwould do.For my conscience, for my sanity, for him, doing nothing wasn’tan option.I wished I was a different person, one who could put it past meand forget, just so I didn’t have to ruin the small amount of trust Nicohad in me and push him into another woman’s arms. Just so I didn’thave to destroy the contentment that filled me whenever he wasnear.He was awake and, by the dip in the mattress, sitting on the sideof the bed. His gaze touched my skin, but I didn’t open my eyes.What if he saw everything I was thinking?His thumb brushed my cheekbone. “You gonna laze the wholeday away?”I nodded.“Been craving your famous runny soup, though.”“Don’t be an asshole,” I murmured.He chuckled.“I told you I couldn’t cook, and you still chose to marry me,” Icomplained.

“You also said you spend a lot of money and you haven’t.”“Just wait until I go shopping.”He laughed, and then I gasped when he ripped the covers off me.My eyes flew open. “Nico, it’s cold!”I was naked. If I wasn’t naked in the past week, I was onlywearing a t-shirt and panties. Best days ever.His body came down on mine. I slid my arms beneath his white tshirt to steal some of his warmth. I was sure this man could survive anight in the Arctic without a coat by the amount of heat he put off.I loved how big he was and how I always felt small and safe withhim. The truth was, I loved everything about him and there was nogoing back. It was full speed ahead, like a train that couldn’t stop forthe girl standing with wide eyes on the tracks.Bliss hummed beneath my skin as he lay on top of me. He ran arough palm across my cheek and cupped the nape of my neck. Hislips brushed mine. “You’re so f*cking beautiful.”The rasp of his voice wrapped around my heart and squeezed.Seared it with warmth and the acidic bite of guilt. I used to hate thatword, beautiful. How dirty it sounded no matter which language itwas spoken in. However, the deep, sincere way it rolled off his lipswas how my romantic heart had always imagined it to be said.He kissed me, and I melted beneath him, running my hands overthe smooth muscles of his back.His lips trailed down my neck. “You know what you mean to me,don’t you?”My heartbeats slowed to nothing, while my conscience spun sofast everything blurred.Why?Why was he doing this to me?So many feelings, from happiness to anger at my situation,roared to the surface and vibrated beneath my skin. Tears burnedthe backs of my eyes. I was so tense there wasn’t a chance he didn’tnotice, but he only kissed my throat as though he’d anticipated thisreaction.An ache cut through my chest.His forehead rested on mine. Inhaling a breath from between mylips, he kissed me softly. And then he was on his feet, saying he’d be

in the garage, before walking out of the room and leaving me cold inhis wake.I’d lain in his bed for two minutes after he left, listening to the tick of adistant clock and letting the cold seep through my skin until anumbness spread.If I didn’t do it now I never would.Not if he kept saying things like that to me.Especially not if he said them as though he’d never been moresure about anything.With trembling hands, I slipped on a pair of jeans, running shoes,and a jacket while watching through the spare room window. Nicohad grease up to his elbows as he walked to his worktable. Hehadn’t been in his garage once in the past seven days, but last nighthe’d said he needed to finish rebuilding the valve train, or somethinglike it. That sounded like a project. Hours, maybe, with Nico busy,without Luca watching me like a hawk. I knew it was the best shot Ihad.Digging through my duffel bag, I found the note I’d copied and aletter I wrote months ago and slipped them in my back pocket. Myheartbeat matched the patter of my steps as I trod downstairs. Igrabbed some cash from the counter and then stopped to eye mycell phone nearby. A strong desire demanded I take it; I told him Iwould always keep it on me. I also promised not to leave the housewithout telling him. It felt like I was going to be sick by not listening,but I knew he’d have GPS on my phone.Leaving out the front, I shut the screen door quietly.I headed down the steps but froze as my gaze clashed with aman’s, who stood on the porch of the house to the left of us, smoking

a cigarette. The neighbor who always had baseball filtering throughhis open windows. He had the Cosa Nostra in his eyes.My stomach swam with unease.He let out a breath of smoke and watched me.If I didn’t make this look normal I was going to be stopped beforeI made it to the sidewalk. I gave him the shy Sweet Abelli smile, asthough I’d been caught doing the walk of shame. I didn’t think Nicohad announced our marriage yet, but it was all over if he had.After a second, the man gave me a small nod.The tiniest amount of relief spread through me, but I didn’t trusthim yet. He worked for my husband, after all. As I headed down thestreet in the most normal pace I could muster, his gaze touched myspine with every step. The hair on the back of my neck rose.Once I was past sight of the house, I speed-walked around thecorner to the bus stop. Only two Asian girls and one black man withhis headphones in waited. According to my app, the bus wasscheduled to be here now, on the dot.Three minutes passed.I shifted. Come on.Two more minutes.A cold sweat drifted down my spine.A small part of me believed Nico might have helped me with thisif I asked him—but there was also a larger possibility he wouldn’t.And in that case, I would lose the opportunity for good.I could never forget who my husband was, that if it was hisfemale relative found with a man, Nico would’ve been the one toshoot him in the head.I could taste the respite when the bus pulled up to the curb with ascreeching grind. I climbed on and sat far in the back.Slipping the ring off my finger, I turned the piece of jewelry in myhands. The relief I believed I would feel was now mixed with regretas I watched home fade from view. But I had to do this, to removethe weight pressing on my shoulders, to right a wrong in the onlyway I could. I put the ring in my pocket and prayed Nico wouldunderstand. He had to.

I stood in front of Francesco’s double green doors. The window wasalready replaced and most likely now bulletproof. The Closed signhung in the window and the bread rack sat empty, but when I triedthe doorknob it was unlocked.My eyes adjusted to the dim room. Goose bumps ran up my armsas the memory of rapid gunshots filled my mind. The restaurant wasimmaculate, however. Nothing to hint at the shooting that had takenplace. The clank of pots and pans came from the kitchen and I heardmy uncle’s voice amongst the commotion.As I took a step toward my destination, a girl with a swingingblond ponytail came out of the back room, carrying a tub of newglasses. “Elena. Hi!”I internally cringed. Her voice was loud enough to be heard inKorea. “Hi, Sarah. Is my uncle around?”“Yes! He’s in the kitchen. I’ll go get him!”“No, that’s okay,” I blurted. “I’ll go surprise him.”“Oh, perfect! Mum’s the word!” She locked her lips and threwaway the key. Setting the tub on the bar, she smiled at me like weshared a big secret before disappearing into the back room. Sarahhad worked here for a few years. Zio liked to say she was sole checammina. Walking sunshine. It was the best way to describe her.No matter the whole display of locking her lips, I didn’t believeshe was going to keep quiet long. The secret would burst from herlike pure sunlight. Heading into the hallway near the bathroom andprivate dining rooms, I stopped before a wooden door.Please be unlocked. Please be unlocked.The door pushed open and I exhaled, taking the stairs two at atime. The apartment was half the size of the restaurant below andalways a bit too warm with how heavily the sun streamed in. I foundmy way into Zio’s office and sat at his desk.A drop of sweat ran a lazy path down my back.

Tapping a few keys, I woke the computer up. When the screenasked for the password, I said a quick prayer that Zio hadn’tchanged it in the past six years.Dulce. His late wife.The rainbow spinning wheel went round and round, and as thecomputer opened to the home screen, another heavy breath rushedpast my lips.When Adriana and I were younger and Mamma and Papà haddinners to attend, they’d drop us off here. Most kids watched Disneymovies and ate fruit snacks at the babysitter’s. I sat on Zio’s lap athis desk while he cooked books and let me have tiny sips of scotch.I’d watched him transfer money a hundred different times, but Ididn’t remember there being so many programs as there was now.Please, Memory, don’t fail me now.Five minutes later, I found what I was looking for just as my nerveendings threatened to jump out of my skin.I typed in the information from Nico’s personal bank account andthen mine.Entered a seven-digit number.And pressed Transfer.On my way out of the bank, my shoulder collided with another’s. “Oh,I’m sorry,” I said, giving the man a glance. My stomach dropped likean anchor to my toes.Sebastian.“My, my, what do we have here?” Intrigue glinted in his dark eyesas he ran a hand down his navy blue tie.My heart beat in my throat. This was probably the worst thing thatcould have happened—running into one of my husband’s newest

business partners—but I didn’t come this far to stop now.“You know you sound like a cliché villain, don’t you?” Iresponded, continuing down the sidewalk and into the bustle of thecity.Sebastian caught up to me, his Ferragamos in sync with mysneakers. “Oh, Elena. I am the villain.” A dark undertone slipped intohis light Colombian accent. His gaze coasted the area. “Why do Ihave a feeling you’re out here all alone?”I ignored his question. “Have you gotten laid yet?”A soft laugh escaped him. He ran a thumb across his bottom lip,his gold watch glinting in the sun. “Sí. I found the mostaccommodating ladies.”“Ladies, huh? Not prostitutes?”“Ay, Elena.” He pressed a hand to his chest. “You wound me.Give me twenty minutes and I could charm you out of those . . .” Hiseyes drifted down. “. . . Jeans.”“And you’re starting by stalking me?”“No. I’m stalking you because I’m beginning to believe you reallyare alone, and if I didn’t, my new business partner would try to shootme.”I raised a brow. “Try?”“I’m hard to kill.” He winked.We stopped at a stoplight and Sebastian rolled his shoulders inthe smooth lines of his gray suit as the corner filled with people.“How do you speak such good English?” I asked. If he was goingto be invasive by following me around, so was I.He slipped his hands into his pockets. “My mother’s Australian. Iwent to school in Sydney.” That made sense. No wonder Oscar wasso fair. His brother received the goldenness of a Colombian,however.I scrunched my nose. “They have a lot of snakes and spidersthere.”“They do. But I think you have bigger problems here,” he said,grimacing as a taxi driver screamed at a man on a bike to get out ofthe way.The light turned green and Sebastian continued to follow me allthe way to the bus station. I stopped at the kiosk to get my ticket, but

my fingers faltered on the screen when Sebastian coolly said, “Two.”“No,” I breathed. “Thank you for offering though.”“If that’s how you want it, Elena. I was planning to give Ace a callanyway.” He reached for his pocket, but before he could get hisphone out I turned and grabbed his hand. A smirk pulled on his lips.“See what I mean? I’ve hardly begun charming you and you’realready dying to touch me.”I swallowed. “Don’t call him.”Darkness flashed through his eyes. “Why not, Elena?”“Just . . . you can’t.”“Are you running?”“No,” I insisted. “I swear it. But there’s something I need to do.”“With thousands of dollars in your pocket?” he asked with asardonic tone.I only nodded.“And a thoroughly pissed don on your trail?”Another nod.He gave his head a shake, tightening his jaw. “What the hell,” hemuttered. “This city was beginning to bore me anyway.” His handdropped from his pocket and his dark gaze met mine. “Two. Tickets.Elena.”With no other choice in the matter, two tickets it was.

“I have killed no men, that, in the first place didn’tdeserve killing.”—Mickey CohenTHE FAN WHIRLED AS SWEAT dripped down my back under the heat ofthe sun. I wiped my neck and tossed the rag on the worktable.Tension coiled beneath my skin, and I gave in and grabbed a pack ofsmokes from a drawer and lit one. I inhaled until my lungs burnedand nicotine spread through my veins in one relaxing rush.In all honesty, I didn’t feel like working on my car right now. I feltlike f*cking my wife, or even staring at her. Whatever I could get. ButI came out here for a reason. Inside, she was everywhere. Thesound of her voice. Her soap in my shower and her clothes in myroom. Her hair ties and little wedding notes on every surface. Thesoft scrape of her nails on the back of my neck whenever she sat onmy lap.f*ck, I was in so deep I didn’t know the way up.I needed a few hours to think, or maybe just to stew in spite overnever getting that fifty-cent ring off her finger. I wanted her. Hergenuine smiles. Her loyalty. Every f*cking piece of her. I’d beentesting the waters earlier, but as tense as she got I realized she wasnowhere near where I was. Not by a long shot.I gave my head a small shake.The worst had happened. I loved the f*cking woman. And nowmy biggest weakness walked outside my body, with soft brown eyes

and long black hair. There were a lot of men who would love to hitme in my weak spot; the reason I had never wanted the vulnerability.But what I didn’t expect was this calmness to come with it, this suretythat I would f*cking die before I let them.My cell phone rang on the table, and I picked it up without lookingto see who it was. “Yeah?”“Hello, this is Judy from AMC Gold. Am I speaking to NicolasRusso?”“You are.”“I just need you to verify your birth date before I can proceed.”Jesus, the lady f*cking called me. I rubbed a thumb across abrow and rattled off the information.“Great, thank you. There’s been some suspicious activityreported on your account, and I’m calling to make sure you’veauthorized it.”I leaned against the table and blew out a breath of smoke. “Whatkind of suspicious activity?” Hell, everything I did was suspicious.“A transfer from your savings account today, on August sixteenth,at eleven-forty-two a.m.”I stilled. “The amount?”“Two million dollars even, sir.”I ran my tongue across my teeth, a sardonic breath escaping me.“This transaction already went through?”She hesitated. “Yes, sir. There was a note on your account not toflag transactions, but we appreciate your business here at AMC Goldand wanted to inform you in case it in fact wasn’t authorized. Youhave sixty days to dispute the charge—”“It was authorized.” It goddamn wasn’t. But I didn’t deal withthieves through the normal channels.“Oh, thank goodness,” she said, before awkwardly clearing herthroat. She apparently knew who I was. “That’s great to hear. I’ll goahead and note it on the account. Have a great day, sir.”I ended the call, my gaze coasting to the spare room window.Sunlight glared on the glass, but as I stood there looking at it,something abnormally cold settled in my stomach. I took one lastdrag and then put the cigarette out on the wooden table.

Heading to the house, I opened the back door to see a silentkitchen and living room. A breath of cool air hit my skin, but insidemy bloodstream heated as though held over a burner. The housewas still, nothing but the air-conditioning and my boots against thehardwood sounded as I walked into the kitchen.Her phone sat on the counter and I grabbed it as I walked past.As I made my way up the stairs, that god awful squeak cutthrough the air and somehow settled under my skin with a gratingtexture. I rolled my shoulders to push the odd sensation away.With an unnatural calmness, I searched every room. Mine—ours.The spare rooms. The bathrooms.All empty.Something tightened in my throat and pierced me in the f*ckingchest.She ran. She f*cking stole from me and ran. To be with anotherman? He was the deadest goddamn man to ever exist.Her clothes were here as well as her bag, but maybe she hadn’tneeded them. Maybe they would’ve slowed her down.I inhaled deeply and made my way down the steps while makinga call. The ringing sounded faraway, blurring with the drumming ofblood in my ears.“Allister.” Christian’s cold tone crept through the line.“Find my wife,” I rasped. “She has a bank account downtown.She’s either been there or will be soon.” I gritted my teeth beforeadding, “And then most likely the bus station.”Two quiet moments passed.“Give me an hour.”He hung up, and I slipped my phone into my pocket. I still heldhers in my other hand, and before I knew it, it was flying across theroom and hitting the wall.“f*ck!”I swept all the decanters off the bar before pushing the entirething over. Glass shattered and skidded across the hardwood. Thestrong smell of liquor hit my nose as the liquid spread to my boots.Bitterness bit into my chest. I ran my hands through my hair and let adangerous calm settle over me.Crazy, she called me.

She had no idea how goddamn crazy I could be.I’d give Christian an hour before I started tearing this city apartpiece by piece.The flames flickered and crackled in the fire pit. I sat on the edge ofmy seat, my elbows on my knees and a steady burn radiating in mychest. I heard the back door slam shut but didn’t look up. I didn’teven remember what I’d texted Luca earlier, but he’d gone insidewithout a word when he got here a few minutes ago.“A little warm for a fire,” he commented, sitting in a lawn chairacross from me.I didn’t respond, just watched the blaze eat the pink fabric alive.“Burning her clothes already?”Using the poker, I pushed the Yankees shirt further into theflames.“Look, Ace, I know you’re pissed right now—” He paused when Ishot him a dark look. “But she left all her pink clothes here—”“Shut up, Luca,” I snapped. I didn’t want to hear his stupidtheories about why she left. I didn’t f*cking care. No, that wasn’t true—I cared so much it pissed me the f*ck off.He put his hands up but opened his mouth again. “Just don’t seea girl like her leaving her family behind, is all.”“She’s done it before.”He shook his head. “She wasn’t running. She didn’t even leavethe city.”I let out a bitter laugh when I realized it made more sense thatshe would stay for her family than she ever would for me.“You’re not thinking with your head, Ace. f*ck, walk in yourhouse.”

Been there. That’s why I was sitting out here.My narrowed gaze found his. “Why are you sticking up for her?”“I’m not. She’s making me wear a f*cking pink tie to yourwedding.” He grimaced. “Once her papà finds out you lost her, sheknows it’ll get violent. She’s not dumb. I’m just putting the factstogether and it doesn’t add up.”It made perfect sense to me. That stupid ring. How tense she’dgotten this morning. She loved some other man and had lefteverything behind to be with him. My throat tightened, a hollowf*cking feeling unfurling in my chest.“Two million, Luca. Explain that.”He was silent.I gazed into the flames. I didn’t know what I would do when Ifound her, but Luca was right. My head wasn’t on straight concerningher. She’d always be my wife, but I didn’t need to be in this deep,especially when she wasn’t.My phone rang, and I picked it up.Christian rattled off an address, and my heart rate spiked.“Just a warning, Ace. She’s not alone.”His words hit me like a punch to the chest, and my grip tightenedon the phone.“Got it.”

“I think you have to pay for love with bitter tears.”—Édith Piaf“YOU KNOW,”—SEBASTIAN SCRATCHED HIS jaw—“I don’t know muchabout New York City, but my guess is this neighborhood isn’t one ofthe best.”He sat beside me on a green bench that was sticky with spilledsoda and other things I didn’t want to think about. If there ever was aneon sign flashing “steal from me” it was him, in his crisp gray suitand gold watch and cufflinks that sparkled in the sun. I’d dressed theway I had for a reason, but it was pointless now with him stuck to myside. I wasn’t that concerned for my safety, however. He might lookpreppy and ostentatious, but the darkness of his profession reflectedin his eyes whenever the light hit them just right.He sat back against the bench. “So, what do we do now? Justwait?”“Yes.”Across the trash-littered street sat a row of rundown townhouses.Barred lower windows, chipping paint, and sagging chain-link fences.My focus was on the gray one far enough away we were fairlyhidden by a few trees, but close enough I could still make out thefront door.It had taken thirty minutes to find the right house, the entiretybeing filled with thoughts from seven months ago. I wished I couldsay my memory of him was poignant and unforgettable, but in truth,

he was just a shadow in my mind, the only thread holding himtogether, guilt.A small park sat off to our right, and Sebastian watched as agroup of boys pretended to shoot each other with finger guns.“Maybe they could come work for you and my husband,” I said.He laughed. “I’ll give them a few years.” Resting his arm behindme, he said, “You do know he’s going to try to kill me, don’t you?”“Why did you insist on coming if you believed that?” I shook myhead in disbelief, but a cold sweat drifted through me. “I won’t tellhim you were involved.”He let out a breath of amusem*nt, his gaze following a cop carthat drove past us suspiciously slow. “Oh, Elena, he already knows.”The hair on the back of my neck rose.Movement caught in my periphery, and I fought not to shift to theedge of the bench. I didn’t want to bring more attention to myselfwhen I already had a Colombian drug lord sitting next to me.“Looks like we got a bite,” Sebastian said.She appeared to be in her fifties, with graying blond hair sweptinto a bun at the nape of her neck and a haggard expression thatonly hard work could create. Walking toward us from the other sideof the street, she wore blue scrubs, but I knew she wasn’t in themedical field. She washed laundry at a local nursing home from foura.m. to noon, and then worked at a gas station until midnight.She was blonde, like him, but that was the only similarity I couldsee. Though, to be truthful, I’d mostly forgotten what he looked like.My fingernails dug into my palms as she walked up her porch stepswhile rooting for her keys in her purse. She halted and glanced ather feet. I held my breath as she bent down and picked up the greenmoney bag.I remembered only pieces of that weekend. The whirring sound inmy ears as my uncle shot him in the head and the warm spray ofblood against my face had filtered into the other memories andblurred them in red. But I did remember how much he worked: threejobs and longer hours than I had ever imagined was possible. Mostof the time, I was alone in his friend’s apartment, who’d gone to jailfor petty theft, while he went to work to support his mother and ayounger sister still in high school.

He wanted his sister to go to college, not to live the same life ashim, working hours and hours and never making enough. Forfamilies out here, it was like a merry-go-round that could never bestopped. What I did remember was blood, lifeless eyes, and howpassionately he spoke about his family. He would have doneanything for them, and I couldn’t sit by and do nothing when I hadthe means to help.She unzipped the money bag. Her purse dropped to the porch asa hand flew to cover her mouth. There was fifty-thousand dollarscash in that bag. It was all I could get from the bank on such shortnotice, and even then, probably just because of my last name. It wasstill legally Abelli, and I wondered what they would have done for meif it were Russo. The rest of the money was via a cashier’s check,and I was going out on a limb hoping she would cash it quickly. Nicocould shut down my bank account fast, as well as get the transferreversed if he claimed fraud, though that might take longer.First, she pulled out the ring, and I rubbed my bare finger beforeshe put it back in the bag. Next was the note I’d written. My throatfelt thick as she unfolded it. After a moment, her shoulders shookwith sobs and she slid downward to sit on the steps. A tear ran downmy cheek and I wiped it away. I didn’t deserve to grieve with her; ithad all been my fault.I’d known his name for months now. There was no getting past itwhen I had to research his death so I could find out his mother’sinformation. But we had a deal: he wouldn’t tell me his name until Itold him mine. And as he wasn’t alive to ever hear mine, I’d pretendto never know his.A few minutes later, she stood, wiped her cheeks, and wentinside.Some pressure drifted away like a bird on my shoulder. I couldn’tgive her son back, but I could ease both hers and her daughter’sfutures. Stop the merry-go-round so they could get off before it spunagain for the rest of their neighborhood.Sebastian brushed a piece of lint off his suit. “That’s it? Iexpected something more . . . climatic.”I gave my head a shake, but I couldn’t respond because mybreath caught in my chest and my veins turned to ice.

“Never mind. Here it comes,” he said with a sigh.Nico’s car came to a stop in the middle of the street. He got out,slammed his door, and strode toward us with a blank mask. He wasthe don now, but something all Nico flickered in his eyes. Volatiledepths that made my chest clench.Sebastian got to his feet. “Glad to see you finally show up.”I cringed at his words, but before I could even blink, Nico reachedSebastian, pulled his gun out of the back of his waistband, andbackhanded him with it so hard he fell back two steps.Sebastian froze with his head co*cked to the side. “You know,” hesaid, wiping the blood off his lip with the back of his hand. “I’m takingthis a little personally.”Calmly and without a word, Nico pointed his gun at Sebastian’shead. My heart froze over, and I jumped to my feet and stood in frontof him. “Nico, stop!”“Get in the car,” he said, keeping his gaze on Sebastian.“No,” I breathed. “This had nothing to do with him.”His burning eyes finally met mine. “Did you let him in my club?”I blinked. “What?”“Did you let him into my goddamn club!”I took a step back and bumped into Sebastian. I’d never heardNico so angry, and my heart tried to flee from my chest.“N-no,” I stuttered. “Why would I do that?” Awareness settledover me. He thought I was having an affair with Sebastian? “It’snothing like that at all, I swear. Please, let me explain,” I begged.One glance toward the kids at the park showed they were all staringat us, wide-eyed.Sebastian pushed me out of his way and stepped toward Nicountil the barrel of his gun pressed against his forehead. All hisplayfulness disappeared; nothing but darkness leaked into his gaze.“She wouldn’t need any of your money to run away with me, Russo.Nor to sit in some sh*tty ass neighborhood for an hour.”Luca’s car pulled up behind Nico’s, and I said a quick prayer thathe would talk some sense into Nico. My husband and Sebastianstared at each other. My blood drummed louder in my ears until itwas all I could hear.“Nico—”

His gaze coasted to me. It was cold enough to freeze me to myspot. “Get. In. The. Car.”“Please don’t kill him.”His jaw ticked. “If I have to say it again, he’s dead.”With nausea churning in my stomach, I walked toward his car. AsI put my back toward them, a shiver ran down my spine, every nerveanticipating a gunshot to cut through the air.A few cars idled in the street, not being able to get past Nico’sAudi taking up both lanes. I climbed in and shut the door, closetingmyself in the scent of leather and him. They exchanged more words.Words that appeared to be calm and reasonable. Just as relief creptin, Nico backhanded him with his gun again. Annoyance flared inSebastian’s eyes as he spit out a mouthful of blood. Luca grabbedSebastian’s arm and pushed him toward his car.Nico walked across the street. He still wore jeans and a greasestained white t-shirt. I wished he hadn’t. I could deal with the don in ablack suit, but this Nico intimidated me. He had so much more totake away.He got in and shut the door. Thick tension rolled off him, suckingall the air out of the small space. His fist tightened and releasedbefore he put the car in drive and headed down the street. Theatmosphere was hostile; one tiny spark and it would explode. It tookfive minutes to gain the courage to say anything.“Nico—”“Don’t say another f*cking word to me right now, Elena,” hesnapped.Something grabbed my heart and ripped it into two pieces.After what I had done, I didn’t have it in me to defy him. Nothingbut tire noise, the outside sounds of the city, and my painfulheartbeats filled the car. All I wanted was to go home, press my faceinto his chest, and apologize. To promise I would never keepanything from him ever again.My papà kept his bank information locked in a safe not even Tonyhad the code to, and then Nico’s had been lying there on thecounter. It was too tempting, maybe my only chance. Men like himwere all supposed to be the same. Stealing from Nico should’ve

been like stealing from my papà, but it didn’t feel that way. It felt likethe worst sort of betrayal.We weren’t going home. I didn’t dare say a word, but as theawareness settled in of where we headed, a hollow ache in my chestgrew emptier every mile.He parked, and I got out of the car and followed him. I stood sideby-side with him in the elevator, but he’d yet to even look at me. Aping sounded, and the doors opened to the penthouse apartment.Every shallow breath hurt.A dark-haired man in a suit stood in the small hallway. I vaguelyrecognized him, but couldn’t put a name to the face. He gave myhusband a small nod.Nico unlocked the door and flicked on the lights. Numbly, Istepped inside behind him.He stood by the open door, his gaze focused above my head.“James will be outside. He has a phone you can use if you needanything.” His voice was cold and distant.I wanted to say something, anything, so he would look at me. “Iwant my own phone.”His volatile eyes finally came to me. I ached for him to touch me,for the roughness of his hands on my face, his deep voice in my ear.“You had a phone. You chose not to use it.”“I will now,” was all I could think to say.His jaw tightened. “I’ll have one brought to you then.”He’ll have one brought to me.He was done with me then? He hadn’t even let me explain.Maybe he didn’t care. I stole from him, and that, he couldn’t forgive.My eyes burned, and I blinked to keep the tears at bay. “Thank you.”His bitter laugh was quiet. A small shake of his head.“Luca will bring your bag by soon,” he said, turning to leave.“Nico.”He stopped with his back to me, his shoulders tensing.“I’m sorry,” I breathed.A few seconds passed, and when I thought he might respond, hewalked out and shut the door behind him.I stared blankly until the numbness turned into despair thatscratched at my chest, stole my breath, and bubbled up my throat in

sobs.

“So the lover must struggle for words.”—T.S. EliotMY HEARTBEATS SHATTERED ONE BY one, sending a raw achethrough my chest.My vision blurred behind tears and the shimmer of the sun on themarble floors. Once the crying began, it flowed like I’d just opened adam that had been closed off for years. I stood in the middle of abeautiful apartment and felt nothing but cold and empty. Theemptiness expanded until it threatened to eat me alive.How fitting my belief had been that Nico was an addiction,because this felt like the worst sort of withdrawal. I was beginning torealize it was more than that—it was love, and this was heartbreak.I went to the master bathroom, turned on the shower, climbed in,and cried some more. My mind spun with desperate thoughts of howto fix this, but they all ended on a hopeless note when I thought ofhis coldness today.Nausea rolled in my stomach.I’d tried not to fall in love with him, and I’d fallen so hard I wasphysically sick at his rejection. I could have laughed if I’d had anyenergy leftover from crying.I got out of the shower, wrapped myself in a towel, and walkedinto the bedroom. My bag lay next to the door, and my heartclenched at the sight. A weak sense of vulnerability coasted throughme at the thought of Luca hearing me cry. Any other day it would


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