EnshrineChelle Bliss / Romance & Love
This book is dedicated to my father, grandmother,
cousins, and countless other family members and
friends who have looked into the eyes of
death with strength and dignity.
“Your illness does not define you,
your grace and courage do.” ~Unknown
Happy Fuckin’ New Year’s
4 Years Earlier
As I roll over and run my hands across the sheets, I realize she’s gone. After a night of alcohol-induced sex, she left without a word.
The smell of her still lingers on the pillow as I pull it over my face and block the sunlight. I thought she was different. There was an unmistakable connection between us that I’d never felt before.
This was the first New Year’s Eve I was hammered in longer than I could remember. I’ve never allowed myself to lose control. Too much is on my shoulders for me to let my guard down and get drunk. But I did it. One drink turned into more, and we wound up at my place. The drinks flowed, the clothes came off, and the passion was off the charts. I’m not a fool. I didn’t fall in love with her, but I felt something for the first time since I’d lost Maggie, my fiancée.
Inhaling her scent, I groan because I have to spend the day with my family, and the fact that I have a hangover doesn’t make the experience any more pleasurable.
My phone starts to vibrate, dancing across my nightstand wildly. Each clatter against the wood feels like someone is shoving spikes into my brain. Ignoring it, I kick off the blankets and throw the pillow across the room before I sit up. I blink away the sleep and rub my eyes before grabbing my phone and seeing the call was from my mother.
As I stand and am about to head toward the bathroom, my phone rings again. “Hey,” I say after hitting answer. The one thing I know about Franci is that she won’t stop calling until I answer.
“When’s my baby boy going to be here?” she asks without even greeting me properly.
“Mom, give me a bit. I just woke up.” I stretch, my body shaking when I yawn.
“Tough night?” She laughs, covering up the phone to yell at my father.
“You can say that.”
“Baby, you need to unwind sometimes. You deserve a reckless night out.”
“My life is too dangerous to get piss-ass drunk, Mom.”
“You work too hard. So come up here and relax. When will you be here?” she asks again because it’s the only thing she cares about.
“Do you care if I skip this year?” I ask and wince, readying myself for her response.
“Get your ass up here and stop with the bullshit. New Year’s is part of our family tradition. I already have to deal with Lee showing up three hours late for some nonsense reason. You cannot miss it. Take some aspirin, drink some water, and get in the fuckin’ car.”
I stalk toward the bathroom to find the aspirin I so badly need, especially if I’m going to deal with them today. “Fine. I’ll leave in an hour.”
“Thirty,” she replies and hangs up.
Families are a pain in the ass, but I have the best one in the world. I have a little brother and two sisters, and they’ve kept me on my toes for years. I miss them, living hours away from home. But in the end, it is better for them.
My work isn’t safe. I’m always careful to keep work and family separate. No way in hell would I let them get tied up in my bullshit. People think I have everyone cowering at my feet, but even I have enemies. Being on top makes me a target, along with anyone else tied to me.
I don’t waste any more time thinking about my family, job, or the girl who left without a word this morning. I have to get out of here before Franci starts to blow up my phone.
* * *
Walking into my parents’ house an hour late doesn’t earn me any accolades. “Oh, look who decided to grace us with his presence,” Gabby, my little sister, says with so much sarcasm I instantly feel guilty.
Mostly because I haven’t been around for much of her life and we don’t have a close relationship. I love her dearly, but she doesn’t know enough about me, like most brothers and sisters often do. I’m much closer—in age and emotionally—to my sister, Angelique, who we call Lee.
“Ah, the big guy is here.” Lucca, my little brother, climbs off the couch with a smug grin.
Lucca and I are tighter. He was older by the time I left home. Lucca was planned, and Gabby came about from a “night of passion,” my parents’ words not mine.
“You just saw me at Christmas. Don’t act like I’m never around.” I shrug off my coat and hang it on the hook near the door.
My mother’s in the kitchen, banging pots and pans, probably making more of a mess than a meal. “You’re late!”
I roll my eyes and stalk into the living room, ready to hear bullshit for the next twelve hours until I drive back into the city. “Sorry, Mom,” I yell back, walking past the kitchen and heading toward the chair next to the fireplace. “Good to see you, Dad.” I slap him on the shoulder and disrupt his thought process. “Mom has you working on another project?”
He drops the instruction sheet to the floor. “This damn lamp is like a jigsaw puzzle. Why can’t she buy shit that’s already put together like normal people?”
I laugh and slink down to the floor next to him. “I’ll help.”
He smiles and his shoulders relax. His hair looks uncombed, but I know it’s probably from the five hundred times he’s yanked on it out of frustration. He’s one of the smartest people I know, but putting together furniture has never been his forte. “Thanks.”
“How’s life in the big city?” Gabby asks, looking up from her phone. “I’m going to come visit you for spring break.”
My jaw ticks because the thought of my sister in the city and near my life can never happen. “Gab, we’ve gone over this before. You can’t come visit me.”
“Why?” she sneers, dropping her phone on the cushion next to her and crossing her arms.
My father glances at me with a grimace.
“Because I said so. What do you think, Dad?” I throw it on his shoulders to back me up because I know he will.
We’ve gone round and round with her about this. Ever since she turned sixteen, she’s felt that she’s a ”big” enough girl to handle New York City and my friends. But no matter how old she is, she’ll never be a part of my world. To her, I’m her big brother, bigger than life. But to others, I’m just a criminal with one of the nastiest reputations in town.
“You’re not going, Gab,” Dad tells her sternly. “Never.”
“Soon, I’ll be old enough that neither of you can stop me.”
I fuckin’ hate teenage girls. They’re the worst type of human beings on the planet. It’s easier to reason with a stick of butter than a hormonal female teen. “Case closed, Gabby,” I say and stare at the directions because I can’t look her in the eye.
“What do you do that’s so—” she waves her hands in the air and rolls her eyes “—dangerous that I can’t be around?”
My little sister doesn’t need to know anything about my life. Besides being bitchy, she’s a talker. The thing I value most is my privacy. “You don’t need to know.”
“Dad,” Gabby whines and climbs off the couch like she’s physically in pain. “It’s so unfair.”
“It’s on a need-to-know basis,” I tell her and pick up the half-constructed lamp to try to figure out which step he left off on.
“And you don’t need to know,” Lucca tells her with laughter as he walks past her and smacks her on the back of the head. She screeches, running after him as he races up the stairs.
My father sighs and leans back against the couch. “See all the fun you miss around here?”
I keep my head down, snapping in the pieces quickly that he hasn’t finished. “Yep. I’m so sad about it too.” I laugh and turn the lamp in my hands to make sure it’s correct before placing the final section. “Voilà.” Holding it up, I show it to my father and earn his nod of approval.
“That’s one ugly-ass lamp.” He laughs and shakes his head. “Only your mother.”
Just then, she breezes into the living room with a towel over her shoulder and with what seems like half the dinner on her apron. “Are you two talking about me?”
I bite my lip to stifle my laughter because, even though I’m grown, I know my mom will smack me upside my head if I dare to mouth off to her. “Never, Mom.”
“Oh, it’s so pretty,” she exclaims, snatching it from my hand and twirling around in a circle, holding it like a trophy.
“Clearly, your mother has been drinking today,” Dad whispers quiet enough that Mom can’t hear.
“Clearly,” I reply but still don’t dare laugh.
The smoke alarm goes off in the kitchen, and my mother hands the lamp back to me. “The roast. Oh, my God,” she yells and takes off toward the kitchen. “The roast!” Smoke is billowing out of the kitchen, parting as she runs through it.
“Here we go again. Chinese?” Dad asks and shakes his head. “After over thirty years of marriage and more cooking lessons than I’d like to admit, you’d think she’d learn how to use a timer.”
“Dad.” I laugh and glance toward the kitchen, checking to see if my mom is out of earshot. “You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself if she didn’t burn everything in sight.”
“Tell that to my stomach,” he says, resting his hand on my shoulder and using me for leverage as he stands. “Go check on Luc and Gab for me, please. Tell them dinner is ready.”
“No Chinese?” I ask and laugh as I push myself off the floor.
“Nope. Well-done roast for us.” He grimaces before heading toward the smoky kitchen and a cursing Franci.
I take the stairs two at a time and knock on Lucca’s door. I can hear them talking inside, but their voices die quickly.
“Yeah?” Lucca yells without bothering to answer the door. The lazy fucker never likes to move unless he has to.
Rubbing my forehead, I can feel the headache I had earlier starting to come back. “Can I come in?”
“Sure,” Lucca says, but the tone is anything but sure.
“Asshole,” Gabby says just as I open the door.
“What are you two doing?” I smile and pretend to be the brother they deserve.
“Talkin’ shit about you,” Gabby fires in my direction but stares at the ceiling.
Lucca punches her in the shoulder, and her body jerks back from the impact. “Shut up, Gab.”
I take the open spot on the end of the bed and look back and forth between them. “What’s the problem here?”
Gabby crosses her arms in front of her, blowing a curl out of her eye that had fallen when Lucca hit her. “Everyone seems to know about you except for me. I don’t even know who my brother is, and it pisses me off.”
My fist tightens, and I try to control my anger. “There are reasons for that.”
She’s had questions for years, but we’ve always been able to pacify her until now. “I don’t know how to explain it.”
“Are you a good guy or bad guy?” She pushes herself backward, crawling up the bed on her butt and resting against the headboard as she stares at me.
“I’m a little of each.” I wince because I know it sounds like bullshit.
“Are you a criminal?” she asks, tilting her head and pursing her lips. “Because I hear Mom and Dad talking about you sometimes, and it doesn’t sound like it’s anything good.”
I rub my hands on my pants and think very carefully how I should answer her. “Do I seem like a criminal?”
“Don’t give me that bullshit. You can’t answer my question with a question, brother. Do you hurt people?”
Her words are like a punch to the gut. I always wanted to be her hero. I’d give my life to save hers. “Only if they deserve it.”
“Evasive,” she bites out and her lip snarls. “So you kill people?”
“Gabby, just know whatever I do is for a reason. I can’t say more than that.”
“Great. I’m related to Vito Corleone.”
“He’s more like Michael,” Lucca adds before looking at me with the biggest smile.
“I’m neither. Soon, it’ll all be over, and I’ll just be me.”
“I thought that shit was for life.” She fumbles with the ring on her finger and keeps her eyes off me.
Lucca smacks her leg. “You’re such a girl. He’s too big to be kept down. He can do whatever the hell he pleases.”
“Gabby, baby, I know you want to visit me in the city, but it’s not safe. Someday, when you’re older and I’m not the man I am now, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go.”
“Are you embarrassed by me?” She brings her eyes to mine, and her bottom lip quivers.
For fuck’s sake. “I’m not embarrassed by you, sis. I love you more than anything. I just want to see you grow up and not get involved in my world.”
“Great,” Lucca huffs and rolls his eyes, making a gagging sound. “I thought you loved me more.”
I shake my head, telling him it isn’t the time to be funny. My biggest fear lately has been that I’ll open the door and Gabby will be at my doorstep uninvited. “When my life is different, I’ll show you around the town.”
She wipes away her tears, but her lip is still shaking. “Promise?”
I make a cross over my heart. “I promise. Someday, I’ll be around so much, you’ll get sick of me.” She hurls herself into my lap and wraps her arms around my neck. I’m stunned. “Gabby,” I whisper and hold her tightly.
“I worry about you, big brother. Something could happen to you. I don’t want to lose you.” She cries into my neck.
“Sweetie,” I whisper, stroking her hair gently, “nothing will happen to me.”
She squeezes me tighter. “I’m scared for you.”
“Don’t worry. No one can touch me.”
Of course, that’s a complete lie. I’m not untouchable. I’m as vulnerable as the next person—in fact, probably more so. I have a huge target on my back. I’m at the top of my game, and someone is always anxious to step into my shoes.
Someday, I hope to put this part of my life behind me. The longer I stay in it, the more I worry there’s no coming back. Sinking deeper into the shadowy criminal world makes the light at the end of the tunnel seem farther away and even more unreachable.
Soon, I’ll break free and try to find my way back.