Deceptive by M.D. Melai & C.S. Leigh

“Liliana,” my mother’s voice snapped me back to reality. “How would you like your eggs?”

All morning the only thing I could think about was my nightmare. It felt so real. I had woken up with my heart racing and drenched in sweat, and the scariest part? I felt connected to that man in such a strong, indescribable way.
Deceptive
Deceptive by M.D. Melai & C.S. Leigh
“Scrambled please,” I replied. My mother was a wonderful cook and a beautiful woman, even standing there in her dirty, old apron. Her long dark brown hair, which usually flowed to the middle of her back, was pulled up into a bun and her full lips were pressed firmly together. It was a look that I had known for a long time—the look of someone who took cooking as serious as death. “So, Liliana,” my father said, his dark blue eyes glaring at me from atop his newspaper. I quickly dropped my eyes back to the sale ad I held in my hands. Unlike my mother, my father looked his age. He had dark gray hair that faded to white at the ends. He was average height and had a strong frame for being in his sixties. Anyone would be able to tell in his younger years he was a handsome man. “Are you prepared for the trip to New York this weekend?” he asked. “Papà, I told you I can’t go to New York this weekend.” I could feel his eyes boring holes into the top of my head, and I refused to lift mine to meet them. “I have four projects due this next week. I don’t have time to take a four day vacation.” “We already had this conversation, Liliana, and you’re going to go.” His voice was stern. “And I told you Papà, I’m busy.” I retorted. “You’re going to go and that is final.” His tone didn’t change, but I could tell by his facial expression he was getting heated. “I helped pay for your business, and when I ask you to go check out a few new buildings that I am going to acquire, you will go. Do you understand me?” “Massimo!” My mother’s voice was firm as she tried to get his attention. “I told you I can go next weekend. There are several things that can’t be finished unless I am here to finalize them. I can’t reschedule contractors. It could put me behind schedule, and I would lose money and clients. I have a reputation to uphold!” I was starting to lose my temper—a trait that I had received from him. “It must be done this week. I need to make sure the buildings are going to be worth the time and effort.” We had this same argument every time my father acquired or bought a new building. I was always sent in to check it out before he renovated it—he wanted to see what I envisioned it to be. I never minded going, but my father had the worst timing ever, on top of being the most impatient man I know. When it was something he needed done, he expected everyone to drop what they were doing and start on it. But he did give Violet, my best friend, and me our first break in the interior design business. We owed him for it, and he always used that to his advantage. “Why don’t you have someone else do the walk-through with the realtor and then they can bring me the pictures?” I offered as an alternative. “I haven’t met a building of yours that I haven’t transformed into exactly what you wanted.” “I want you to do it,” he said. “We do not have time to waste on this. You will go! We will not discuss this matter any further.” “Massimo, enough!” my mother said, attempting to get my father to listen. He looked at her and they exchanged a silently heated moment. “Do you understand?” he asked, looking back at me. My mother stared at me with pleading eyes, knowing good and well the only thing to do was to concede to his demand. “Yes, I understand.” I scowled back at him unhappy with the outcome. No matter how hard I tried to fight back, the results would be the same. He never took no for an answer, but that didn’t stop me from pushing nor him from pulling. I never wanted him to doubt how I was feeling about any situation. Over the years, I had seen my brothers cower to his every word and never put up a fight. They always did exactly what he said, and I did not want to be that person. “I will go,” I stated, “but do not expect me to be happy about it. And Violet is going with me. She is a part of the business, too, and her opinions matter.” I didn’t even give him time to retort as I stood up from the breakfast table, laid my napkin down, walked toward the entry hall, and grabbed my purse, nearly knocking over a family portrait. For the first time in a while I heard my mother raise her voice at him. In all the years I lived at home, and even to this day, I could count on one hand the number of times I've heard her upset with him. My mother never yelled at him. Out of respect for my father, she would mind her own business and wouldn’t get caught up in whatever disagreement he was having at that moment. But when it came to an argument between me and him and he was clearly in the wrong, she made her feelings known. I could still hear their voices as I slammed the door shut. Why did I walk down here today? I thought to myself as I took off down their driveway. The faster I got out of here, the better—I wanted to get home as soon as possible. Luckily, I lived right down the street. Most of the time, my father was a thorn in my side. Other times, when he took off his business hat and became just my father, he was actually really pleasant. Those days were far and few in between. He played two sides on me, telling me “be your own person, Liliana,” and then “do as I say, Liliana.” I never knew which side I was going to encounter. It was going to be a nightmare leaving town with four projects due next week. Violet had already left the house when I made it up our driveway. I was already dressed for the day, and the only person I wanted to talk to was her. I had my phone dialing before I reached my car. “Sometimes my father makes me so mad!” I said into the phone just as Violet answered. She didn’t even get the chance to say hello. “What did he do this time?” she asked with a slight giggle. Violet was no stranger to these types of calls—it happened too often. “We have to rearrange our schedule from Thursday on. We are going to New York this weekend.” “Again!” she protested. "I’m really sick of this.” She paused for a moment as she took in what I had just said. “Did you say we?” “Yes, I said we.” “We are going to New York this weekend!” she excitedly yelled, damaging my eardrum. “Calm down, jeez.” I shook my head and pulled at my ear to make sure I still had hearing. “I thought you might like to go with me. Summer is around the corner and I don’t know about you, but I’m in dire need of a new wardrobe.” She was elated with excitement—it was contagious. “As happy as I am that we’re going to New York, I’m not very pleased with your father. He needs to stop pulling me and you around. He isn’t our only client.” “I know that, but he thinks since he was our investor that he deserves special treatment above anyone and everyone.” “Of course he does,” she sighed. “I just get aggravated when he does this to us.” “Trust me, so do I. Anyways, I’m on my way to the office. We can nail out the details later.” She agreed and I hung up. This week had started off terribly, and even though it would be cut short, I could tell it was going to feel long. *** It was a busy next couple of days. I had meetings with new clients and a few returning ones. We added six new projects to our ever growing list. Business was good, and as much as I hated to admit it, we wouldn’t be where we were if it wasn’t for my father. He let two eighteen year old college freshmen talk him into an adventure of a lifetime. We had always been into fashion and design. Our rooms always looked like something the Extreme Makeover: Home Edition crew might imagine, and our closets were even more glamorous. My house was still being renovated during our first semester of college, so Violet and I decided that we would stay in the campus dorms to get the entire college experience. We ended up spending more time decorating room after room than we actually spent studying, and we made quite a bit of money from it. We decorated our home when the renovation was done and received many comments and questions about who designed the house. When we told them it was Violet and me that had decorated the house, they were shocked. After our first year in college, we talked my father into letting us go to New York and spend the summer with the interior designer he had been using. He told her to give us free reign over everything and to just help guide us to the right people. By the end of the summer, we had completed a restaurant and a salon studio. My father was so impressed with the work Violet and I had accomplished that he hired us permanently as his interior designers. And that small dream of ours got us to where we are now. *** It was already Wednesday morning and I woke up later than planned and headed downstairs. I was so tired that I hadn’t noticed the two suitcases at the bottom of the stairs, which I proceeded to trip over. I murmured a few choice words as I tried to catch my balance. “You’re awake!” I heard Violet’s voice before I saw her fair face peek out of the kitchen. Her long blonde hair was already fixed in big beautiful waves. She had on a sky blue sleeveless blouse and dark skinny jeans that hugged her slim figure perfectly. Her outfit complemented her blue eyes and sparkling smile. Violet and I matched each other in height, but I definitely fit in with the rest of my Italian family in looks. I had dark brown hair and was the only one in my family with green eyes. My brothers, mother, and father all had blue. I didn’t look like anyone particular in my family, though. I had soft features, high cheek bones, and heart shaped lips with straight white teeth, thanks to the braces I had in junior high. Somehow, I was the only one out of all my siblings to have braces, too. “I see you’re already packed,” I growled at her as I motioned to the suitcases now on their sides. I wasn’t in the mood to pick them up, so I just left them laying there and stepped around them. “Yeah! I have been up since six-thirty.” Violet smiled at me, and I scrunched my face at her. She was always the early riser. “Actually I was about to come wake you. I know you like to wait until the last minute to pack, so I went ahead and packed mostly everything for you. All you need to do is pack your clothes.” She turned around, smiled, and winked. “You’re welcome, by the way.” Now that right there was one of the reasons I loved Violet. I was able to drink a cup of coffee before she started pushing me up the stairs. I thought I had plenty of time left to pack, but according to Violet’s schedule I did not. She was always so organized and handled the scheduling for our business, so it didn’t surprise me when she told me I had to be ready soon. I got ready and dressed before I even began packing. I threw a couple of outfits and a few pairs of shoes in my suitcases, not filling them up all the way. I planned on having them bursting with an entire new summer wardrobe I’d be getting in New York. Violet was asking me when I thought my brother, Dante, might arrive, when a knock sounded at the front door. Why was he always on time? I hurried and zipped my suitcases up as Violet headed downstairs to meet him. It was quiet for a minute before I heard her shriek with delight and footsteps of someone coming up the stairs. “Oh, my gosh,” she squealed as she came bursting through my bedroom door, almost knocking me over. “Change your outfit! We're going on the yacht today!” I looked at her jumbled, but she wasn’t paying attention. “Lily, your brother is so awesome! Oh, and by the way, Roman came with him.” That was the end of that conversation—she was out the door. I quickly undressed and put on my bathing suit underneath my outfit. I stopped and looked in the mirror on my way out the door. I thought I looked pretty cute in my black shorts and turquoise halter top. It matched the bathing suit I was wearing underneath. Violet was right, though. As soon as I turned to come down the stairs, there stood my brother and our best friend Roman. Dante had on a wife beater tank top and a pair of blue and white plaid swim shorts. He was the youngest of my five brothers and my favorite. He and I were close in age, so I shared a special bond with him that I didn’t have with the rest of my brothers. My other four brothers were all much older than me. Benito was the oldest at forty-one, followed by the twins Giorgio and Giovanni at thirty-nine, and then Marcello at thirty-seven. Dante was twenty-three and two years older than me. When I asked my mother why she had Dante and me at an older age, her only reply was that we were blessed accidents. Dante was his own kind of handsome, although all my brothers were handsome, Dante was different. He had more of a short, athletic build with medium brown hair. His bangs were long and usually pushed to the right. Dante had the darkest blue eyes of all my brothers with semi full lips and he usually sported a little bit of scruff. Roman was dressed exactly like Dante except that he had on red and black plaid swim shorts instead. Roman was just as handsome as Dante. He had shaggy, black hair that curled at the ends, hazel eyes that were more brown than green, and a strong jaw line with full lips, or kissable lips as Violet would say. For those who do not know him, he can be a bit mysterious, but to those who do know him, he was a fun and loving friend. “Aww don’t you two look adorable in your matching swimsuits,” I laughed as I came down the stairs. “Shut up,” Dante said. “It’s not our fault we have excellent taste in swim apparel.” “I thought you said bring our swimsuits not wear them,” I said. “Well, maybe if you weren’t pitching a fit about leaving earlier in the day, you would have been paying attention,” Roman chimed in. I rolled my eyes at him and turned my attention toward Dante. “I thought I was leaving with papà and mamma,” I stated. “Roman and I thought you and Violet might need to work on your summer tans,” Dante said as he smiled and looked at my arm. “And by the looks of it, I’m right.” I rubbed my arm for a second examining how light my olive skin actually was. “Shut up, it’s been a long, busy winter,” I said. Dante ignored me and turned his attention to the stairs as Violet came bouncing down them. She was so excited she didn’t even stop to notice he was watching her every move. “Come on, boys!” she said with enthusiasm as she passed by, grabbed her bags, and headed out the door. Seeing her excited always made me smile. It was the little things that mattered to her—I could take a few lessons. The ride to the docks was entertaining. Dante and Roman kept cracking jokes about anything and everything. Violet and I sat in the back laughing so hard we had tears streaming down our faces. We parked the car in our designated parking spot, unloaded our luggage, and then headed to the yacht. The only way to tell our yacht apart from all the others was its name, Rosaria Maria, which my father had named after my mother. Violet squealed as Dante helped her aboard. “Now let’s keep ourselves together this time, Violet,” he said with a smile. “We can’t have you getting tipsy and accidently falling off the front of the yacht again.” The first time Violet ever rode on the yacht, she had a little bit too much to drink and leaned over the bow of the boat too far and ended up diving head first into the cold water of Lake Ontario. Dante was the one who dove in to fish her out. “It was one time, Dante,” Violet proclaimed with her index finger held inches from his face. “One time!” He laughed as she walked away. I gave him a sarcastic look as he helped me aboard. “What?” he asked. “Nothing.” I smirked. I was immediately greeted by our captain. Roger was an older gentleman who today was wearing his Hawaiian t-shirt and khaki shorts. My father hired him years ago to captain the yacht for us, and every time we hit the water, Roger was there with us. He was a quiet man and never really bothered us. As soon as I was on board, Roman started handing Dante the luggage. Once our luggage was on board and the anchor and ties were pulled off, we were on our way. Violet and I sat at the back of the boat and watched the shoreline disappear. After about an hour, the yacht slowed down before fully coming to a stop. Roger let the anchor down, and Roman and Dante emerged from the top deck where they had been talking to him. “Why did we stop?” I asked confused. “This is where you’re going to spend the next couple of hours,” Dante said as he motioned around. “Relaxing in the middle of nowhere with no one telling you what to do.” I seriously had the best brother in the world. Violet and I relaxed, tanned, and each started reading a book. The boys decided they wanted to fish, so that was how they spent their afternoon. Violet and I even took a nap. The sound of the yacht’s engine roaring back to life was what eventually woke us up. “Did you have a nice nap?” Roman asked, towering over us. “Why yes, I think I did,” Violet said as she sat up. “We are heading out,” he said. “We have about another hour and a half before we reach Giorgio’s house.” Giorgio’s house was right on the lake. It was faster for us to take the yacht straight across the lake than to drive on land, and frankly, it was a much better view. Chapter 2 The sun was starting to set when Giorgio’s lake house came into view. His house was beautiful and designed by Giorgio himself. It was two-story and overlooked the lake. It had two wrap around porches, was painted white with blue trim, and had a red front door. As usual, and for some odd reason, the yacht slowed, flashed its lights, and waited. Once Roger saw three flashes back, he headed for the dock. Giorgio was waiting for us at the bottom of the ramp as we coasted into our spot. I was so excited to see him—it had been too long. He still looked the same, though, maybe a little grayer on the sides. “Which one is that?” Violet asked as we pulled in. “I can never tell those two apart.” “That’s Giorgio.” I smiled. It was hard to tell Giorgio and Giovanni apart, especially if they were not seen on a daily basis. They were both five foot eleven, athletic but slender build, with dark, wavy hair that had a hint of gray, along with arched eyebrows. They both had very distinct round faces with blue eyes that had just a hint of danger in them. The only difference between the two was Giorgio had a kind, sweet smile, where Giovanni had a mischievous one. “Hey, Lily,” Giorgio said when I was a few feet away from him. “Hey!” I said as I jumped into his arms and hugged him as tightly as I could. “I have missed you so much.” “Me too,” he said as he put me down. “Hey, Violet, it’s nice to see you again.” She smiled, probably stunned by his greeting. On more than one occasion she had exaggerated how hot my brothers all were. I obviously didn’t share the same exact thoughts as she did, but all five were very handsome men. “I can tell you’re still a lady of few words.” He flashed his pearly whites at her, which didn’t help. She could be a little embarrassing when it came to my brothers. Dante and Roman finally caught up, looking out of breath as they approached us. It could have been the fact they were each carrying four suitcases apiece. “Roman, Dante,” Giorgio chuckled. “They,” Dante said as he motioned his head toward Violet and me, “should have a limit on how much shit they can bring on trips. It’s four damn days.” “You’re just jealous because you don’t have as many options as we do,” Violet spat back at him. “She speaks!” Giorgio said, throwing his hands up in surprise. Then he took my hand and started toward the house. “Oh, by the way, Pop, Mamma, and Benito arrived a few hours ago.” My whole demeanor changed, and he could tell. He squeezed my hand and then brought me close. “It will be okay,” he whispered. “You’re independent. That’s why the rest of us love you so much.” The rest of the evening went surprisingly well. Giorgio’s wife cooked dinner for us and we had decent conversations. Violet and I talked about our day on the lake, and Roman and Dante embellished their fishing stories by about a foot each. It was entertaining as each one tried to one up the other—somehow the first kept getting bigger in size. Weird. I even sat curled up on the couch next to Benito. I rarely saw him, so being able to spend time with him was always nice. He was a very handsome man and stood a little over six feet. He had a chiseled face with short salt and pepper hair that made his crystal blue eyes stand out. Out of my father, mother, and brothers, I looked most like Benito. I just wished we shared a similar personality—it would make it easier to be around him since we were so far apart in age. “You ladies should head to bed soon,” Giorgio spoke up. “Especially you two over there, you both look a little rough.” It took me and Violet a moment to realize he was talking about us. We grumbled at him as we rose from the couch and headed up the stairs, too tired to retaliate. “Don’t forget we’re leaving at seven!” he called after us. “In the morning?” we asked in unison, our sleepy eyes getting that much weaker. “Yes, in the morning!” Benito said. Violet and I silently complained as we walked up the steps to our room. I hated waking up early, but it didn’t take too long after that to shower, crawl into bed, and fall fast asleep. *** Not even a few hours later a bang came so loud that I almost fell out of bed. I scrambled to compose myself when a light flashed through the window. The clock showed one in the morning. What’s going on? I debated on whether or not to look, mostly because I didn’t know what to expect, and I was a little frightened. I turned to see if it woke Violet up, but she was still asleep. That girl could sleep through anything. Curiosity eventually got the best of me and the fact that the lights were shining straight into our room. When I pulled back the curtain, it wasn’t as bright as I thought it would be. The yacht was lit up and I could see all five of my brothers now, with Roman and a few others. They were unloading something from the yacht. I wasn’t aware that we had brought anything with us, so I watched for a few minutes as they unloaded a couple of carts and loaded them onto a truck. I had my suspicions, so I made a mental note to ask Dante what was going on in the morning. *** “Get up you sleepy heads.” I heard just before something hit the bed with such force it sent Violet and me flying into the air. I was already irritated from not getting a good night’s sleep, thanks to my reoccurring nightmare, and now I had to deal with this? “What the…?” Violet and I yelled. We were trapped beneath the covers by two of my brothers. I could tell by their laughter which two they were. “Marcello?” I asked curiously, even though I already knew the answer. “Marcello?” Violet sounded confused for a moment and then yelled out his name again, not confused that time. His laughter rang out the loudest, but Giovanni was there, too. I was more excited now, and I struggled against their strong hold. I wanted to see them—it had been too long. “Let us out of here, now!” I demanded. They laughed harder, but I was tough, smart, and used to them doing this. It was only a matter of seconds before I freed myself and tackled them. It amazed me how two grown men could have such un-adult moments. Their antics took me back to when I was five and used to get picked on by these two. “Hey, that’s my face,” Giovanni shouted as I accidently hit him. “Now what was that for?” Marcello exclaimed. “That’s my hair,” I bellowed. “Get up!” my father’s voice rang out. We all immediately stopped and looked up to see him standing in the doorway. “How old do you think you are?” “We’re just giving Violet and Lily a hard time,” Giovanni said, looking at him as Marcello nodded in agreement to his statement. Marcello nodded in agreement. “Let Violet and your sister get dressed. We’re leaving in thirty minutes on the dot.” He headed back downstairs, but not before he turned around and looked straight at me. “I mean it Liliana, thirty minutes.” Marcello and Giovanni both got up and headed out the door without another word. Benito and Giorgio met them in the hallway and they all headed downstairs together. Seeing them altogether made me smile. It had been so long since the whole family was together. I loved being around all my brothers, each one had a distinct personality. Benito was the leader, very smart and business wise just like my father. He was the one who ran my father’s business affairs. Giorgio and Giovanni ran construction crews. They were good at getting people to do things. Giorgio, though, was sweet and caring, whereas Giovanni was trouble with a capital “T”. Marcello was the persuader, which makes sense why he got a law degree from NYU. He could make anyone believe they stole something even if they had just watched their best friend do it. It was a hypnotic gift, which he used wisely. Dante was the happy go lucky one. He was always in a good mood and never let anything get to him. I assume that was why my father had Dante working so closely with him. Not even my father’s rage could affect him. A major thing all my brothers had in common was their undying love and need to protect the women in their lives. On my part, it can be annoying, but with having five older brothers, one of them was bound to be protective. In my case, it was all of them. Everyone was already down in the living room chatting when Violet and I entered. My father was not in a good mood. I was on time, so it definitely wasn’t of my doing. “Alright, settle down,” my father’s voice broke through the conversations. “Everyone have their hotel information?” “Yes,” some of us said while others nodded. I never understood our morning meetings for trips. My brothers always seemed different on these days—all were unusually quiet. They loaded the luggage and everyone split up in their separate cars. Roman, Dante, Violet, and I were in one. My father, Benito, Giovanni, Giorgio, and Marcello were in the other. My mother had decided she was going to stay behind and spend time with the grandkids. *** Five hours later we pulled up to the Plaza Hotel. I thought Violet was going to pass out from pure excitement. As we were walking up to the front desk, her hyperventilating caught the eye of almost everyone in the lobby. I knew this was going to be a shock for her. This wasn’t our normal hotel, so it would be her first time here. Roman and Dante checked us in while I tried to calm her. “She’s going to die when she finds out we’re in the Plaza Suite,” I whispered to Dante as we got on the elevator. Just as I expected, as soon as the elevator door to the suite opened, Violet went wild. We let her explore while Roman tipped the bellhop, and Dante called to let the others know we had made it to the hotel. There were three bedrooms, so Violet and I took one, and Dante and Roman each had their own. We figured that would be the best arrangement. “What are you two going to do for the rest of the day?” Dante asked as he entered our room. “Shopping!” we both shouted eagerly at him. We weren’t scheduled to meet with the contractors until tomorrow. “That doesn’t surprise me,” he chuckled. “Roman and I are headed out. Don’t wait on us for dinner, we’ll get something later,” he called behind him as he headed toward the elevator. *** Violet and I had spent the next couple of hours buying anything and everything we could get our hands on. We still had one more stop before we headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. The store was quaint and quiet. I could tell immediately it was more for business men and women. It was more upscale than I usually shopped at, but I figured I should at least look around. We weren’t in there very long before Violet was trying to get my attention. “Lily.” Violet tapped me on the shoulder. “Look over there.” I was more interested in the pant suit I was looking at than whatever caught her attention. “Lily.” She tapped me again, this time harder. “What?” I was annoyed at this point. I thought she was just being her normal Violet self, giddy and excited over just a color of an outfit. But when I looked up at her, she was fixated not on something, but someone. Even I couldn’t help but take notice of him. He was handsome—breathtaking actually. He stood over six feet tall, had short dirty blonde hair that was spiked toward the front, and his eyes were the brightest blue I’d ever seen. His muscles were toned and outlined by his snug, light blue t-shirt. I would have to say the feature that set my heart racing was when he looked up at us and smiled. “Violet.” I nudged her. “Stop staring at him!” She didn’t budge. “Violet,” I whispered harshly trying to catch her attention again. She slowly turned toward me. I had to admit it was hard to peel my eyes away from him, but I also didn’t want to be caught staring. That would have been uncomfortable for me. Violet, on the other hand, didn’t care. “He is beyond gorgeous!” she said. “I'm going to talk to him.” I didn’t even have time to stop her. Why did she need to talk to him anyways? She had Dante! Well, sort of—she just didn’t know it yet. As she made her way to him, she accidently tripped on a rug in the center of the room. She grabbed onto the closest clothing rack to catch her balance, which shifted with her weight and tipped over a mannequin that became disassembled as it hit the ground. Violet didn’t skip a beat, though. Only her wrath of destruction was left. The mystery man had seen the incident unfold and was laughing to himself by the time she reached him. All I wanted to do was direct my attention elsewhere and pretend I didn’t know her, but, as usual, I couldn’t help myself. I slowly made my way to the side of the store where they were at. Close enough to hear them, but far enough away to not be noticed. “Hello there,” Violet said with a chipper voice while fluttering her eyelashes. “Hello,” he said, looking up from the suit he was handling. I could tell he was trying not to laugh in her face. “You okay, Miss?” He glanced behind Violet at her path of destruction. “Yeah, I'm fine.” She waved her hand like nothing had happened. “I'm Violet,” she said as she stuck her hand out. “Lucas,” he said as he smoothly glided his hand on hers and shook it. “Wow, your hand is soft.” Violet’s face and hand dropped as soon as she realized what she just said. I had to raise my hand to my mouth to muffle my laughter. “Sorry,” she said, her cheeks turning bright red. She cleared her throat obviously remembering why she went over there. “My friend and I saw you when you walked in, and we were wondering if you didn’t have plans tonight, would you like to join us for dinner?” I cannot believe she just asked a total stranger to come to dinner with us tonight! What the hell was she thinking? Violet was pointing in my direction by now, and I could feel my cheeks turn pink as I started to blush. I didn’t know what to do, so I politely smiled and waved in his direction. His smile widened once our eyes met and he returned the wave with a small gesture. “Well, I did have plans for tonight, but I think I can cancel them,” he said, still staring at me. My heart, for the first time in a long time, actually skipped a beat as they exchanged numbers. “Well, I better get going, but I will see you later tonight, Violet.” He smiled at me once more before turning toward the door. “Great, we’ll see you later,” Violet called back to him. We both watched him walk out the door. As soon as he was out of sight, Violet turned around with sparkles in her eyes. “What the hell were you thinking?” I hissed at her. “Are you insane?” “Oh, come on, you know you would have done the same thing if you were as wonderful as me.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder, to which I gave her a scolding look. “Lily, you need this! Plus he is hot, and he seems really sweet. We are going to go and have a good time, I promise,” she assured me. “What do you mean I need this?” I asked. “Really? Are you going to make me spell it out for you?” I stared at her, dumbfounded. “You need to date! You need to fall in love! And most importantly, you need to get over him!” “I am over him!” I looked down at the ground and played with my fingers. Talking about him made me nervous and uncomfortable. “I don’t want to go out. You’re the one who asked him, you go.” “No, I said we would meet him.” She pointed back and forth between the two of us. “We means you and me. You of all people know I didn’t ask him out for myself.” “I'm not going,” I said as I headed toward the door. “Yes, you are,” Violet said matter of fact. The taxi ride back to the hotel was quiet. I knew the conversation about Lucas was not over with, but I didn’t want to talk about it, and I definitely didn’t want to talk about him either. I did think about Lucas, though. He was handsome and he did seem very sweet—I just didn’t want to meet anyone from the city. I didn’t want to deal with a long distance relationship, and the longer I stayed in the city, the greater chance I had of running into him. After a long day of traveling and shopping, the only thing I wanted to do was shower and have a nice dinner with my friend, the perfect ending to a perfect day. Tomorrow was going to be busy with looking at each property. “So where do you want to go for dinner? I’m up for anything.” We weren’t back in our hotel room for more than two minutes and Violet was already asking about dinner. “Honestly,” I laughed, “anywhere Italian.” “That sounds good to me, too,” she said as she picked up her phone. “I hope Lucas likes Italian.” “Violet,” I said in a disapproving tone. “I told you no.” “And I’m overriding your no.” “Violet!” “I’m going to win this argument, so just go get in the shower and get ready. We’re going to go hang out with a total stranger and have fun!” She was standing her ground, and I sighed disapprovingly. “Fine, but if he ends up on America’s Most Wanted with me being the murdered victim, I’m coming back to haunt you.” “You just do that,” she said, rolling her eyes. Chapter 3 “Come on, Vi! What’s taking you so long?” I asked aggravated. “This was your idea in the first place.” “I'm coming,” she said as she walked out of the bathroom looking like a movie star. She had on a short V-neck black dress and matching six inch pumps with a silver necklace that matched her dangling earrings. “You’re wearing that?” she asked me. I looked down at my floral sundress. I didn’t see anything wrong with it. I was comfortable, and we were only going out to eat. “Yes,” I replied. “I thought you would dress nice to impress him,” she said. “He saw me sweaty from shopping all day, and I’m pretty sure I look much better now. Plus, I look hot in anything.” I grinned devilishly at her. “Yes, you do! Let’s go, we’re late.” She pushed me toward the elevator. We made it to the lobby before all the men started staring at us. The bellboy almost ran an elderly couple over, the concierge dropped the phone in his lap, and the clerk stood paralyzed behind the counter. As we headed out the front doors, every guy was watching Violet. I could tell she was enjoying the attention. She did look stunning. Maybe Lucas would be too focused on her to pay any attention to me. She was trying to be calm and collected, but in true Violet fashion she had to have a mishap. As she was getting into the car, she tried to snake herself inside, but instead of being smooth, she bumped her head on the door frame and stumbled back, almost falling into the door. Then her heel slipped and became lodged in the drain. She tried pulling it out, which just made her that much more embarrassed. Four men ran up to help her, making her immediately turn crimson. We eventually got her unstuck, and she thanked the guys and sent them on their way. “Are you okay?” I asked once we were in the cab and on our way. “Yes, I’m fine,” she said, rubbing her head. “I can’t believe I just made a complete fool of myself.” “I wouldn’t worry about it. As long as you’re okay, that’s all that matters,” I finally laughed. “At least you did it in style.” “Ha-ha very funny. I’m glad that my humiliation amuses you.” “You’re accident prone, embrace it.” I put my arm around her. “At least we will have a nice story to tell Lucas once we get there. There is no denying that bump on your forehead.” *** When we arrived at the restaurant there was already a long wait. I wasn’t surprised—it was the most popular place in New York. I had personally never been here before, but I had heard positive reviews from my brothers. Violet was already searching for Lucas while I was trying to figure out which line was waiting and which line was to sign in. “Hello,” a voice said from behind me—I already had his voice memorized. I heard Violet giggle and return the hello before I turned around. “Hi!” I had promised myself that I was going to try really hard to have a good time. “I’m Lily.” I stuck my hand out for him to shake it. Violet was right, his hands were soft. “Lucas.” He smiled at me. “Nice to meet you.” Seeing him up close was something I wasn’t prepared for. If he was handsome from fifteen feet away, he was gorgeous up close. “You too,” I said finally and let go of his hand. “I was just about to go sign us in. It looks like it might be awhile.” “Yeah, this place is great, but there is always a wait. It’s worth it, though,” Lucas said as he made his way to the front. Violet and I followed him. “Welcome,” the hostess greeted us. “How many will be dining with us tonight?” “Three,” Lucas spoke before me. “Okay, it will be a two hour wait,” she said. “That will be fine,” I answered back. “May I have a name please?” “Yes, last name Dapprima.” The hostess started writing it down, but stopped. “Did you say Dapprima?” Her eyes widened. I got nervous for a second, and I almost didn’t want to answer back. I looked at Violet, who was as confused as I was. “Umm, yes,” I said less confident than the first time. “Oh, please forgive me, Mrs. Dapprima, I didn’t know. I will be right back,” she said. Before I could say anything, she was gone, and I turned toward Lucas and Violet. He didn’t say anything, and she just shrugged her shoulders. “If you could please follow me,” the hostess said as she returned. “We have a table right over here for you, Mrs. Dapprima.” “It’s Ms., actually,” I corrected her. “Ms., yes, I'm sorry.” She seated us at a great table, handed us our menus, and wished us well before she left. The waiter came by shortly after. We ordered our drinks and food before we even had a chance to start a conversation. Neither Violet nor Lucas brought up what had just happened, and I didn’t feel the need to bring it up myself. “So Lucas, what do you do for a living?” I eventually asked. “I manage several clubs here in New York,” he replied. “That seems like an interesting job,” Violet chimed in. “It is.” He adjusted himself in his chair. “It pays the bills. What about you two? What do you do?” “We’re interior designers,” Violet blurted. “We live in Toronto, though.” Shit, why doesn’t she just give him our home address while she’s at it? “We’re here on a business trip. Liliana’s father owns several properties and we renovate them,” Violet added. “Wow, it sounds like you’re both very successful for being so young.” Lucas asked us a few questions about our work. Violet and I took turns explaining exactly what we did while Lucas intently listened to every word we said. He genuinely seemed interested. I started to settle down as the conversation and dinner went on. We talked about what we liked to do for fun and what our interests were. Violet and I, of course, sounded like typical girls. We told him how we liked shopping, fashion, cooking, and party planning. Lucas was a typical guy. He liked to play pool, hang out with his friends, and he loved sports. He also had a degree in management from NYU. On top of that, he was charming and funny. He continuously made us laugh, and I was genuinely excited when he asked us to join him on a sightseeing adventure after dinner. *** Times Square was just as beautiful as it was the first time I had seen it. Of course, neither Violet nor I told Lucas we had been there multiple times. Lucas and I did most of the talking, conversing about our lives and what we wanted to do in the future. He said he would love to come and see Toronto some time and I told him maybe one day he could. He grinned in response, and his contagious smile caused me to light up. We hadn’t been sight-seeing for long when I noticed what time it was. Time had flown by so fast that I couldn’t believe it was already one in the morning. “Well, ladies, I hope to see you again,” Lucas said as the cab pulled up. “Call me anytime, you have my number.” “Oh, I’m sure we will.” Violet smiled at him as she climbed into the cab. “We will be here until Sunday. Maybe we can meet up sometime before then?” “I would like that very much. Thank you for a lovely evening.” He grinned at Violet and then turned his attention toward me again. “Promise me you will call?” “I promise.” I meant it, too. “I’m glad Violet asked you to come out with us tonight. I had a nice time.” I was about to get in the cab when Lucas took my hand and softly kissed it. My heart fluttered immediately, and I knew he could feel my pulse rising as his grin grew wider. “Goodnight, Lily,” he said as he helped me into the cab and shut the door. I couldn’t help myself—I turned around and looked out the back window until he was out of sight. My spirit was in a daze on the way back to the hotel. The sensation of his kiss still lingered on my hand. I ran my fingers around the spot, hoping that it would seal it there forever. Lucas was so easy to talk to. He never let our conversation die, and kept asking both Violet and I questions, never once acting like he was bored. His personality was anything but typical, the perfect mix of a witty sense of humor, playfulness, and intelligence. Along with his good looks, he was the perfect gentleman. “I told you,” Violet’s voice broke my thoughts, “that you would have a great time tonight.” “Okay,” I huffed, “you were right, and I was wrong.” It was so hard to admit that because I really thought something bad was going to happen tonight. But something did happen tonight, something wonderful! My heart started beating again, and I have Lucas to thank for that. *** “Oh my gosh, Lily, wake up!” Violet’s voice jarred me from the first good dream that I have had in month. Damn her. “We’re going to be late!” she continued. “Your father is going to kill us if we miss the meetings!” “What time is it?” I asked as I jumped out of bed. “Nine-thirty!” Shit, I was going to be late! I grabbed my phone and noticed I had ten missed calls from my father. Great, now I was really going to be in trouble. Dante came storming through the door about that time. “Why aren’t you ready yet?” he scolded. “Never mind. You have ten minutes to get out of here. Roman is finding you a cab as we speak.” I was so taken aback that I just stood there for a second in a daze. “Liliana,” Dante yelled at me, “hurry up.” Violet was already dressed and throwing clothes at me. I dressed as fast as I could and ran to brush my teeth. “I have makeup and hair stuff in my bag,” Violet said as we rushed out the door. I was glad she was on top of it, because I hadn’t even thought about that stuff. Roman and Dante were holding the cab as we ran out the front doors of the hotel, neither one of us stopping as we slid across the seats. Dante jumped in the back seat with us and Roman rode upfront. “Where the hell were you two last night?” Roman blurted out angrily at us. “We went to eat dinner with a friend and then we hung out with him for a while,” Violet spat back at him. “What do you mean you hung out with him?” Dante asked offended. “It was for Lily,” she said, grabbing his hand. “Don’t get upset.” Dante seemed okay with that answer and he immediately calmed down. We were a few minutes late as we pulled up to our first stop of the day—the restaurant. We met the realtor, inspection guy, and contractor who would be accompanying us today. This was going to be an all-day process. Violet and I were going to be busy taking notes, looking over things, and making sure this was really a building worth my father’s time and money. Dante and Roman didn’t usually stay with us, but I understood about halfway through our inspection why they were here. The realtor guy was a real creep. He wasn’t the original one we were used to working with—this one made my skin crawl. He hovered too close and said things that caused Violet and me to question his experience. Mid-morning, Roman and Dante received a phone call and immediately had to leave. I begged them to stay, but they said they had to go and would return shortly. The afternoon dragged on and on. We took a short break for lunch after building number two and resumed at three and four, both were future night clubs. By the time we ended the day at building four, both Violet and I were tired and sweaty from being in the buildings with no air conditioning. I was on my last nerve with the realtor and pissed off that Dante and Roman hadn’t returned yet. They had been gone well over eight hours. What could possibly be taking them so long? I took a few pictures and extra measurements before we left for the day. Violet and I thanked everyone for coming out and apologized for it taking so long. We waved down a cab and headed back to the hotel. “I’m so tired…,” Violet said as we settled into the back of the cab. “And I’m hungry, too.” I felt her pain. Unfortunately, we had at least a forty-five minute drive back. “Dante and Roman are so dead,” I griped. Violet silently nodded her head in agreement with me. “They are so going to pay for this tomorrow,” she responded. *** “Hey, Lucas,” I squealed when he answered the phone the next morning. I took half a second and pulled myself together, making sure my voice was an octave lower. “It’s Lily.” “I know,” he chuckled. “What’s up?” “Oh, not much, just getting ready for the day,” I began. “Anyways, I was calling to see if you were busy tonight. Violet and I are going to Insanity, the dance club, and we were wondering if you would like to come and hang out before we leave tomorrow.” I finally took a breath, not wanting to lose my nerve. “Sure, why not?” He sounded excited. “Okay great. Do you know where it is?” “Yes, I have been there a time or two,” Lucas said, chuckling to himself. “Alright, we’ll meet you there about ten?” I know he couldn’t see me, but I was already smiling ear to ear. “Sounds great, I will see you and Violet later on this evening.” We ended the call with a goodbye and I hung up. Even though we spent most of Thursday night with Lucas I was anxious to see him again. Violet and I had the entire Saturday planned. We would be visiting the Museum of Natural History. When we told Roman and Dante where we were going, they were not pleased about it, but Violet and I made a pact that whenever we went somewhere different, we would try to visit somewhere educational, and we needed to get back at them for leaving us yesterday. There were so many things to look at. We were there from open to close and still didn’t get to see all the exhibits. It was fascinating. Each one of us had a certain exhibit that was our favorite. By the time we left the museum it was almost six o’clock. We had a big breakfast and a small snack mid-day, so the boys dropped us off at the hotel to get ready for the evening. Roman had received a call as we were pulling up in front of the hotel. Apparently it couldn’t wait. “We will be back at eight to pick you both up,” Dante yelled out the window as Roman sped off. I wasn’t going to hold them to that after their disappearing act yesterday. We dashed through the door when we reached our hotel suite. The first thing we did was shower. Violet took Dante’s and I took ours. We rushed through them and started on our hair and makeup soon after. Getting dressed, though, took longer than expected. I eventually decided on my new skort that I had bought yesterday. I guess Violet had the same idea, because when she joined me in the living room, she was wearing hers. She matched her white lace skort with a pink sequined tank top and pink pumps. She decided on loose curls for her hair and finished it off with smoky eye shadow and light pink lipstick. I had on the same skort, but mine was black. I added a one-shoulder red blouse to go with it and some rockin’ red high heels. My hair fell straight down my back and my lips were the same color as my outfit, jungle red. I had to admit we looked hot. It wasn’t often we would get all dolled up to go out. “It’s seven fifty-five,” Violet announced as we took one last look at each other. “We better hurry or they will leave us here.” Somehow we timed it perfectly. They pulled up as we walked out the front doors of the hotel. Dante and Roman stepped out of the car to hold the doors open for us. I noticed that they did have time to change their clothes, or at least their shirts. They were still in jeans, but now they were wearing collared button down shirts, Roman in black and Dante in blue. They both looked handsome. I caught Violet glancing in Dante’s direction. He returned the look, but tonight was different. His eyes were practically glued to Violet and showed no signs of wavering. Chapter 4 The club was packed as the bouncer waved us in. It really wasn’t my scene anymore, but Violet and I promised the boys if they went with us to the museum today, we would go do whatever they wanted tonight. We had to walk down a long hallway before we reached the main area. On each side of the hallway, I noticed there were pictures of celebrities that had been here. I hadn’t realized this club was that popular. When we reached the main part, it was much bigger than I expected. The entire rim of the club was aligned with a bar and in the center was the dance floor. In between the bar and the dance floor were tables and booths for seating. The ceiling was covered in mirrors that helped reflect the colorful LED lights. Off to the left behind the bar, I noticed an elevated floor, most likely the VIP room. Roman wasn’t in the place two minutes when he hit the dance floor with some red head, whose clothes were way too tight. Dante and Violet stayed with me as we headed to the bar to grab some drinks. When we finally reached it, I noticed the bar was made completely of stainless steel and the back wall was lined with hundreds of liquor bottles. “So what’ll it be?” the bartender asked as we finally made our way to the front. “Two cherry vodka sours,” Violet answered, ordering for her and Dante. “And you, Miss?” The bartender directed his question at me. I really wasn’t a drinker, so I said the first thing that came to my mind. “I’ll have Sex on the Beach.” “I’m in! That sounds amazing.” I heard his teasing voice behind me and his hand touched the small of my back. I turned around to see Lucas take a step beside me. He looked handsome tonight with his bright blue button-up shirt and jeans. He bent down and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I smiled up at him and when he smiled back, I thought my heart was going to leap out of my chest. Yeah, it was definitely beating again. I had been nervous since dinner, but suddenly I was focused on his blue eyes glistening back at me and the nerves vanished. I could stare at him all day long. Dante cleared his throat to bring me down from cloud nine. “Umm, what did you say?” I turned shyly toward Dante. “I said we’re hitting the dance floor, you coming?” “Yes.” I smiled. “Would you like to dance?” I turned to Lucas who already had his hand out waiting for me to take it. The club was packed and trying to find a place to dance was going to be hard. But as we all hit the dance floor, everyone strangely cleared a way for us. Somehow we ended up beside Roman, who was now dancing quite graphically with a tall brunette. I smiled and shook my head at him. He never ceased to amaze me. It was a fast song, so it was easy to start dancing to the music. Lucas put his hands on my hips and pulled me in close to him. As soon as our bodies touched, I felt an electric sensation spread throughout me and I vowed to myself that I’d let him hold me all night long. Because after something that intense, I knew I’d become an addict that would crave it more than I was willing to admit. We had been dancing for a while when Lucas decided he needed a drink. I agreed and followed him to the bar. We had to wait a few minutes, because it was really crowded tonight. The bartenders were working overtime it seemed, but I guess it was normal for them. “What can I get you guys tonight?” the bartender asked. “Bourbon,” Lucas said and then turned toward me. “And she will have?” “Water please,” I said. “Just water?” Lucas smirked at me. “Just water,” I sarcastically replied. “I will take water, too,” Violet spoke up. I didn’t realize she was behind us. “Pepsi, for me,” Dante chimed in. “Pepsi!” Violet and I said in unison before we both started laughing hysterically. “Bourbon, two waters, and a Pepsi coming up,” the bartender confirmed, although I was sure his thoughts mimicked lightweights. “Pepsi?” Violet snorted out. “Why Pepsi?” “I already had one.” He shrugged before pointing to Roman on the dance floor. “And because that asshole beat me to the bar twice tonight. He’s had more than one drink, so now I become the designated lookout.” “You mean designated driver?” Lucas asked. “Nope, the lookout.” Dante played it off like it was no big deal. Violet and I just looked at each other and grabbed our bottles of water that had arrived. It didn’t take us long to suck down our drinks and hit the dance floor again. I was having so much fun. The music was rocking and the company was amazing. We somehow always ended up in the middle of the crowd again. Roman kept us entertained. He had several dance partners throughout the night and was clearly feeling good. I think we had spent the majority of the last song laughing at him. I was thankful for after every few fast songs, the DJ would play at least one or two slow ones so we could catch our breath. “So…,” Lucas lingered as he pulled me in close when the song changed tempo. It was nice to feel Lucas’s arms around me—the craving was once again fulfilled. “So...what?” I smiled back at him. “You’re leaving tomorrow, huh?” He looked disappointed. “Yeah,” I sighed. “Violet and I have to get back to work. Our clients wouldn’t be happy with us if we left them with half a project done.” He laughed. “You mean that isn’t business-like?” Sarcasm rang in his voice. “Apparently not.” I grinned back. He pulled me in closer, and I leaned in and placed my head on his shoulder. I hadn’t heard the song before, but I loved it. I got lost in the words, and Lucas must have, too, because he was quiet for a few minutes. “Be my girlfriend for the night?” Lucas whispered in my ear. I tilted my head up so I could catch a glimpse of his face. He was serious. “For tonight?” I asked with interest. “Yes, just for tonight.” “Why just tonight?” I was curious to hear his answer. It wasn’t every day I got asked to be someone’s girlfriend for just one night. “Well,” he began, “we just met a few days ago and you are going home, so I figured you weren’t looking for anything serious at the moment, but I like you and just want to know what it’s like to be your boyfriend for a night.” I just stared at him for a moment. I didn’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting that. He was charming, and I really did like him, probably more than I should. What could one night hurt? I could tell by Lucas’s face that he was wondering if he had just made a mistake. “One night.” I nodded, and there went the butterflies again. He smiled at me and we went back to dancing like we had never even had a conversation. Even though I was skeptical at first, meeting him was the highlight of this trip. I planned on keeping in touch with him and coming back to see him soon. Violet looked like she was lost in wonderland when I peeked over at her. She and Dante were dancing so close it looked as if they melted into one person. I wished they would just admit that they loved each other. I wondered if I would ever look at another the way Violet looked at Dante, so sweet, innocent, and very much in love. Maybe Lucas would be that for me. As the song came to an end, Lucas pulled out his phone and quickly typed a text before looking up at me. “My boss is here in the VIP area. He said I could bring you all up, if you want?” “Sure.” I shrugged. I needed a break anyways—my feet and thighs were starting to cramp. I looked over at Dante, Violet, and Roman to see if they had heard Lucas. “You guys coming?” I asked. All three of them said yes, and Roman grabbed the girl he was dancing with. Lucas led the way off the dance floor and to the side of the club. Behind the bar was a staircase that led up to the second floor. As we were walking up, Violet and I were linked arm in arm and exchanged a telepathic look of curiosity. We didn’t know what to expect in the VIP room at a club. We reached the top of the stairs and walked into a foyer. Lucas guided us to a door on the opposite side and knocked three times. Then the door opened. “Hey, Boss, this is my girlfriend, Lily,” Lucas said. Violet’s smile faded as she saw Lucas’s boss. Her face turned red and her jaw dropped. I didn’t even think—I automatically turned to face the doorway. I wanted to know who or what had changed Violet’s mood in only seconds. I wasn’t prepared for who was standing in front of me. He was the very person I tried to avoid seeing at all costs. My heart felt like it was going to pound out of my chest as I peered into those eyes I knew so well. He looked different than he did when I saw him a year ago. His dark brown hair was shorter than I remember. His thick eyebrows were raised and his stormy gray eyes, with those long eye lashes, were staring back at me with such intensity. I honestly didn’t even know if I was still breathing at the moment. His square jaw was set and his thick lips were pressed firmly together. I could see his muscles were flexed under his long sleeved button-up shirt as he clenched his fists. He always did love to work out. I could feel the once light atmosphere in the room being replaced by a much more unsettling feeling. He was about to lose control—I knew him like the back of my hand. Emilio Amante. The man who broke my heart into a million pieces and still carried them around in his pocket was standing there glancing back and forth from me to Lucas. Lucas stood there confused and shocked by Emilio’s reaction. His grip on my hand was getting tighter, to which I started to rub it with my thumb, providing a small dose of support. I wondered if he was contemplating running by his stance. A few more tense seconds passed before I finally spoke up. “I’m not his girlfriend,” I finally blurted out. Lucas turned to me, looking offended, but he was misreading the situation. “It’s nice to see you again, Emilio.” “You know him?” Lucas asked, stunned. “Hey, Emilio!” Dante said as he threw his arm around Emilio’s neck, trying to defuse the situation. “It’s good to see you again man!” Emilio finally tore his eyes away from Lucas and me. “Emilio and our family go way back,” Dante explained. “Really?” Lucas asked. “Yeah,” I found my voice. “Emilio’s father and my father were good friends. We grew up together.” “Wow, small world,” Lucas said, amazed. “He has been my boss now for a couple of years.” He wrapped his arm around my shoulders and pulled me in tight. “He is a pretty good guy.” “Girlfriend, huh?” Emilio asked smirking at Lucas and ignoring his comment. “Ye…,” was all Lucas could get out before I cut him off. “No. Lucas just asked me to be his girlfriend for the evening. He must have just wanted to show me off or something, right Lucas?” I turned to meet his eyes with mine, demanding that he agree with me. It took Lucas a second, but he finally caught on. “Yeah, I wanted to show her off and make you jealous, but apparently you already know her so…” He frowned before he tried to smile again, but it came out more strained than natural. Dante and Violet were trying to talk to Emilio, but he wasn’t interested in whatever they had to say. I stood there frozen. I wanted to run, run as far away from this place as I could get. “Do you want to leave?” Lucas whispered in my ear, to which I nodded. “Well, I think we’re going to call it a night,” he half yelled over the music. “Lily’s tired and she has a long day tomorrow.” I turned, wanting to get out of there as soon as possible, when Emilio’s hand wrapped around my upper arm. “We need to talk!” Emilio demanded, not waiting for an answer. He tugged on my arm to follow him. Lucas grabbed my free hand, and I could see the concern in his eyes. I pulled it back, not wanting him to get caught up in whatever argument I was about to have with Emilio—he didn’t need to see this. Dante and Violet stood there as I passed them, knowing how these next few minutes with Emilio were going to go. “I’m sorry,” Violet mouthed at me as she vanished out of sight. We went out an exit door, down a staircase, and out another door into the alley. Emilio finally released my arm when the door shut behind us. He paced for a few minutes with his hand around his mouth, contemplating what he was going to say. My chest heaved up and down as I struggled to keep my breaths even. I was still trying to get my head wrapped around seeing him. He was still so handsome, but the pain in my heart had returned, scaring the butterflies away. “What are you doing with him, Lily?” Emilio asked casually, his voice calmer than I expected. “Not that it’s any of your business, Violet and I met him when we got in to town.” I thought that was a good enough answer. “So now you’re his girlfriend?” He was trying to keep his voice from escalating. “No! I’m not his girlfriend at the moment, but some part of me wants to be.” “He isn’t good enough for you,” he said, his voice rising with each word. “Again, it’s NOT any of your business. And by the way, you left me!” It was a low blow, and I knew it would hit him where it hurts. “I like Lucas. He is sweet, smart, and he makes me laugh. And who are you to say that he’s not good enough for me? You only know what’s bad for me and it stares at you every day in the mirror.” “You don’t even know him!” Emilio closed the gap between us and was in my face before I could even blink. His eyes were wide with rage. “Of course I don’t know him! We just met! That’s the entire purpose of dating. You don’t know them, but you get to know them!” “Stay away from him, Lily!” he commanded. “I don’t take orders from you anymore. You lost the privilege to control me a long time ago.” He stepped back and his face softened for a moment. “He isn’t good enough for you.” This time, he almost whispered it at me. “No one,” I tried to even out my breaths. “No one will ever be good enough for me in your eyes.” He moved closer to me and softly placed his hand on my face. “Don’t,” I said as he moved in closer, his nose brushing against mine. “I said don’t!” I yelled and pushed him away before I started crying. “Don’t touch me—” The exit door flew open and Lucas was in front of me in two swift moves. “She said don’t touch her!” Lucas was firm in his stance and voice. “Stay out of this, Lucas! This is none of your business!” Emilio tried to move around Lucas to get to me, but Lucas pushed him back with such force Emilio almost lost his balance. “Stop it!” I yelled at both of them before I saw Emilio push Lucas once he found his footing. Lucas bowed up to Emilio as I was still trying to go around him to get in between them. Before I was successful, Emilio hauled off and punched Lucas in the face, causing him to crash into me with such force that I lost my balance and the side of my face collided with the building. “What the…?” It was Violet. “How did this happen?” I felt Dante’s arm reach around me and pull me up. “It was his fault!” Lucas said, pointing at Emilio and rubbing his jaw. “My fault?” Emilio sounded outraged. “I don’t care whose fault it is,” Dante roared at them. “This should never have happened!” My head was throbbing and blood started trickling down my face. “Violet, go get some ice and a towel. Lucas go find Roman, we need to go.” Violet took off immediately. Lucas hovered for a moment before he left. “Are you okay?” Dante finally asked me. “I’m hurting.” I winced as Dante moved the hair from my face. “Son of a bitch!” He was not happy.—it must have looked bad. “What the hell Emilio?” “I’m sorry. I lost my temper,” Emilio said defensively. “I don’t care if you lost your temper, Emilio. You know you have to watch yourself around her!” Dante shouted. Violet returned with some ice and a towel. She immediately started bandaging my head, cheek, and lip. My stomach started turning—I probably had a concussion. “I don’t feel so good. Can we please go home now?” I could see Dante nod out of the corner of my good eye. “What’s taking Roman so long?” Dante griped. “I’ll go get the car, stay here.” Roman busted through the door not too long after Dante took off with Lucas behind him. He headed straight for me to make sure I was okay. Once I assured him I was indeed okay, he pulled Lucas and Emilio aside. He yelled at them for what seemed like forever. My head was pounding and my stomach was turning so bad I didn’t catch a word anyone was saying. The headlights of the car approaching sent my headache into overdrive. I tried to shield my eyes to stop the pounding, but it didn’t help. I don’t remember much after that. *** Blinding light woke me up the next morning. I reached down and pulled the covers over my head. It was still pounding, but my stomach felt better. I laid there trying to reimagine the events from last night. I don’t remember the ride back to the hotel, but I remember hearing the ding of the elevator and being woken up throughout the night. A few moments later, I heard a familiar noise. Was that snoring? I heard the soft snore again and my body tensed up. I would know that sound anywhere. Emilio. I hadn’t heard it in such a long time. What was he doing here? I slowly pulled down the covers and let my eyes adjust, seeing the outline of his body sitting up in a chair beside my bed. It took my eyes a few seconds to focus, but his face soon came in to view. He looked so peaceful and his features were so soft. It had been a while since I had seen him so relaxed. I didn’t know how long I laid there watching him sleep before Violet quietly entered the room. “Hey, you’re awake,” she whispered as she approached me and sat on the edge of the bed. “Yeah.” I turned to look at her. “I’ve been awake for a while.” She touched my forehead softly. I flinched as the pain shot through my head. “Oops, sorry,” she said as she quickly pulled back her hand. I turned my attention back to Emilio. “He insisted he stay with you.” It didn’t surprise me. “He has been waking you up all night.” “I remember someone calling my name and shaking me awake, but I was pretty out of it.” “You were,” she kind of giggled. “That’s why we won’t hold anything you said against you.” “Do I even want to know?” I asked, and Violet just shook her head. I was going to take her word for it. “Do you want to see your face?” she asked. “It’s not bad,” she added as she helped me up. I felt very dizzy and almost lost my balance for a moment, but she steadied me and helped me into our bathroom. I didn’t immediately look at myself—I was scared of what I might see. But when I did get the courage to look in the mirror, it looked better than I expected. I had a small gash above my right eyebrow that Violet had gauze over. My right cheek was scratched up and the right side of my lip was busted. All in all, it didn’t look bad. The worst looking part was the baseball sized knot protruding from my forehead. “I’m going to have a scar,” I pouted. “Battle wound,” Violet giggled. “You can look at it and think, damn, I had two men fighting over me when I got this one.” I shook my head at her. Emilio’s phone went off and he jumped to his feet. I could see him from the mirror in the bathroom. He looked at the bed and panic crossed his face. “We’re in here,” Violet called out. He quickly turned to find us staring back at him through the mirror. “Good, you’re awake.” He cleared his throat. “That’s good.” I shied away from his glare for a moment, but then I turned to face him. “Violet said you stayed beside me all night,” I stated. “Yeah, I wanted to make sure you were okay. It was my fault.” “It wasn’t your fault.” He tried to speak again, but I cut him off. “It was an accident.” I didn’t want him to feel bad, although I knew he was still beating himself up about it. He usually let his temper get the best of him. I knew that. It was just the person he was, and I accepted that. He was the one who couldn’t. The rest of the morning flew by quickly. Dante and Roman showed up shortly after Emilio woke up. Roman looked like death. Dante was as bright as ever. We had a plane to catch and Dante knew Violet was going to need help packing. We always took more home than what we came with. Violet stayed with me while I took a shower and got dressed. She insisted on fixing my hair and helping me put my makeup on. The makeup was a challenge, so it was nice to have her there to help. I personally think it was her excuse to get out of packing. Dante, Roman, and Emilio decided to pack for us. It had been a long time since I had seen all three of them together. They were always together back home until Emilio was sent to New York to work for my father. Dante and Roman didn’t talk about him around me anymore since Emilio and I parted ways, but I knew they missed him like crazy. The men were done packing and I was almost ready when Lucas called to check on me. It was so sweet of him. He apologized profusely and I told him, as I told Emilio, it was an accident. I told him I would call him once I got back to Toronto, and that on my next trip to New York, I definitely wanted to see him again. “Okay ladies,” Dante said as he came back in to pick up my last suitcase. “It’s time to go. We packed up all your shit and are ready to roll.” Violet and I smiled at him. “By the way you’re welcome.” “Thank you!” we both yelled at him. I took one more look in the mirror. Violet had done a great job on my face. She was an expert with concealer. Most of my cuts were barely noticeable. “Are you doing alright?” Violet asked me as we stepped onto the elevator. “I’m good.” I smiled at her. “I meant with Emilio.” “Yeah, I’m good.” I nodded, convincingly. “Sure.” She smirked. “I am.” I cleared my throat. “I mean it’s weird. It’s easier to hate him when he isn’t around me, you know?” “I can understand that.” Violet threw her arm around my shoulders. “But it doesn’t make it any less awkward,” she added. We both decided to leave it at that for now. The guys were waiting for us outside. They had already brought the car around and loaded it. Emilio was in the driver’s seat and Roman in the passenger. Dante was holding the door open for us, so I let Violet slide into the middle and I took the door. Dante hurried over to the driver’s side and took the seat beside Violet. The traffic was horrible on the way to the airport. We tried listening to music to help pass the time, but any sound just made my head hurt even worse, so we all had to settle for silence. Emilio would glance at me in the rearview mirror every once in a while. I did my share of looking when I knew he was focused on the road. I wondered where that beautiful soul of a boy went after he turned into a man. Emilio drove us right up to our gate. He didn’t turn the car off, which meant he wasn’t staying long. I didn’t know why I expected him to. We gathered up our luggage and the men said their goodbyes. Violet and I made our way toward the door. I wanted to get back home as soon as possible. “Liliana!” Emilio’s voice came from behind me. I slowly turned and watched him jog up to me. “I’m really sorry,” he said apologetically. “I know you are,” I said, placing my right hand on his arm. “It was so stupid. I lost my temper.” He paused for a second and shook his head in shame. “I’m an asshole...” “I told you it was an accident!” “It wasn’t an accident! It was a direct consequence to my actions.” “What do you want me to say?” I started raising my voice. “That you always let your temper get the best of you. That I always end up hurt in some way or another, because you can’t get a grip! That this is one of the many reasons we don’t work!” My heart started beating faster and my adrenaline was increasing. “Does that make you feel better?” “I’m an ass, I know that. I’m so sorry, Liliana.” he said. “I love you,” he whispered as he kissed my bruised cheek. “I know you do,” I said as I put my hand of his chest and started to back away from him. Violet was standing a few feet away from me as she waited. She wrapped her arms around my waist as I walked to her side. Don’t look back. I knew he would be standing there watching us. I couldn’t stop myself. I turned and faced him. “La mia vita, il mio cuore,” ‘My life, my heart.’ I said loud enough for him to hear. He looked at me, shocked. I used to say it to him all the time. I turned and headed toward the doors. “Ti amo più della vito stessa,” ‘I love you more than life itself.’ He called back just as Violet and I reached them. I stopped in my tracks for a moment, but willed myself not to turn around. “Come on, let’s go home,” Violet said as she tugged on my arm. Home sounded great, back where I belonged. I had everything I needed to start working on the projects my father had brought me to New York for. Hopefully, I wouldn’t have to come back for a while, and if I did, the goal would be once again… avoid Emilio at all costs. I could do that—I had to do that, because I can’t hurt anymore—mentally, emotionally, or physically. I took a deep breath and leaned into Violet. “Let’s go home,” I replied. Chapter 5 The next week was beyond busy. Violet and I had two homes, a restaurant, and a new club downtown to finish by the end of the week. We both spent the week bouncing back and forth from project to project making sure the painters, carpenters, and staff were getting their jobs done, so all we had to do was finalize everything. Plus between all of that, we had to make sure all the curtains, pillows, and decor were made and ready to roll, and that the furniture was purchased and delivered. By the time Friday afternoon rolled around, we finalized everything and had very satisfied clients. That night Violet and I plopped on the couch, exhausted. We didn’t even care that it looked like a tornado had blown through our house. Since the plane landed, we literally had been home maybe a total of twenty hours in six days. “I’m so going to sleep in tomorrow morning, just to let you know,” Violet yawned. I was thinking the same thing. “I think we will be lucky if we make it to our rooms tonight,” I laughed. “It’s been one of those weeks.” We must have fallen asleep in the living room, because when my cell started ringing, we both jumped. “Lucas seriously calls at the worst times!” Violet griped. I picked up my phone, a smile on my face, thinking it was him, too, but it wasn’t. “It’s not Lucas.” I grimaced. “It’s my father.” Violet even huffed over that herself. “Hello,” I said still half asleep. “Are you sleeping?” Really, that’s the first thing he asks? “Yes, Papà,” I yawned. “Vi and I worked almost a hundred hours this week, and it’s only ten.” “Oh good, I expect to see the layouts for the new real estate at dinner tomorrow night.” “Okay… wait, what?” I was confused. “Papà I haven’t done them yet. I had four places I had to finish this week. I will have them for you by next week.” “That is unacceptable, Liliana,” he firmly said. “You will have them to me tomorrow!” I didn’t even have time to answer back—he hung up the phone. “Damn it!” I threw my head back into the cushion. “That man irritates me!” “Yes, I know,” Violet mumbled. She was already on her way back to sleep. I sat there for a minute in silence before I got up. I was agitated, and apparently, I had more work to do. I hadn’t even loaded all the information and pictures into my computer yet, so I dragged myself up off the couch and headed to our office. The office, too, was a mess. Fabric was all over the room and vision boards were stacked up against the wall. I sat down at my computer and found my camera and measurements. If I could get all the pictures uploaded and all the measurements entered, then tomorrow morning I would brainstorm ideas. Apparently the real estate business my family had was starting to really take off. I didn’t know how they found the time to deal with all the businesses they owned. Between the construction companies, restaurants, clubs, and homes they constantly flipped and sold, it definitely took four out of the five of my brothers to run everything. I got straight to work. I loved the program we had on the computer—it would take all the data I entered and help me make a blueprint of the building. The pictures helped me remember where the windows, doors, and walls were, so I could get a mental image of how the place was arranged. I was almost done when my phone dinged. It was a new text from Lucas. Are you up? Yes. Hopefully I didn’t wake you up? You didn’t. My father did. :/ I’m sorry. Are you up for a video chat? Always. =) His face popped up on my computer screen seconds later. I missed his face. For the past week I hadn’t had any time to really sit down and talk to him. He looked as handsome as ever. “Hey.” He smiled and waved. “Hi.” I smiled and waved back. “It’s good to see your face finally.” I could feel the heat rise in my cheeks. “You too,” I said sheepishly. “Are you just getting home?” “Yeah, I had to do inventory at the club. It sucked.” I laughed. “Sounds like it.” We spent the next couple of hours catching up on everything that happened this past week. I told him more about Emilio, without going into great detail about our relationship. He figured we had dated, so I left it at that. He asked when I was going to be back in New York, and I figured it would be in a month or so. I would make a weekend trip to talk to the contractors and do a few more walk-throughs of the places to get them started. Lucas seemed really excited about that. We made plans to go and have dinner together. We said our goodbyes just as the sun was starting to set. It was hard to see him go, but I needed to get some sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a hectic day. I didn’t even change out of my clothes before I crawled into bed. I set my alarm for 9:00 a.m, which gave me enough time to get a good night’s sleep. My last thought was of Lucas and how much I missed him already. I was anxious about getting to know him, hoping that this was going to turn into something incredible. *** I slept through most of the night, but my nightmare woke me up sooner than I wanted. I hadn’t had it in over a week. It scared me that it was back. Just like the other times, I woke up in a cold sweat with my heart racing. I sat in bed for a while, trying to calm myself down. I didn’t understand why I kept having the same nightmare over and over again. I dragged myself out of bed, took a shower, got dressed, and had the coffee pot running by nine. Violet was still asleep, but I knew as soon as she smelt coffee, she would be up. I made myself a cup, headed to our office, and got straight to work. I was right, though. As soon as Violet smelt coffee, she was awake. We spent the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon working on sketches and the presentation boards. It was close to five when we stopped and looked at our progress. We had colors, fabrics, and designs ready to roll. I knew there would be a couple of changes, but at least we had a place to start. I hurried to get ready while Violet called out the time to me every fifteen minutes. When I finally came running down the steps, she was standing there with my computer bag and vision boards. “You got this, you’ll do great!” she said as she pushed me out the door. She was staying home to get the house in order—I wasn’t sure which of our jobs was worse. Running late, as usual, I headed down the street carrying everything. I was dreading walking into my parents’ house. I knew my father would be standing there waiting to give me a lecture about being punctual. When I arrived, he was waiting by the door, but he didn’t mention my tardiness, and I wasn’t going to bring it up. Dinner went great, even Benito joined us mid-dinner. Apparently he was in town for the next week. My mother made homemade pizza, which was delicious. And after we ate, we retired to the living room. I pulled out my computer and sat up the boards. They all sat there quietly through the presentation and nodded at appropriate times. We had conversations about certain details and the meeting went very well. Something was up, though. I had a feeling—the meetings never went this smoothly. Sure enough, I was right. After we had discussed the two restaurants and the two nightclubs, my father’s voice changed from pleasant to stern, and I knew he was finally going to tell me why he actually invited me over for dinner tonight. I would have loved to have believed it was because he loved me and wanted to spend time with me, but it wasn’t. He always had a hidden agenda. “Liliana,” he began. “I think with all the work that needs to be done in New York, along with several more businesses we will hopefully be acquiring soon, you’re needed in the city permanently.” He paused for a moment and waited for my reaction. I was speechless. “You will be in charge of all the construction and remodeling, along with helping with the books when needed.” “Excuse me?” I finally blurted out. “To make it more clear,” Benito chimed in sounding just like my father, “you will be moving to New York…permanently.” “Thank you, Benito, for that clarification,” I snapped at him. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! I never imagined that this was what my father had planned for me, not even in my wildest dreams. “I… I can’t move. What about my business, my life?” I was not going to back down. I loved New York City on an occasional visit, but I didn’t want to live there. I grew up in Toronto—it was my home. I had plenty to fight for, especially Violet. I argued with my father for over an hour. I told him I wasn’t going—I wasn’t leaving Violet or my business. A move to New York would be hard for me. Leaving everything behind wasn’t something I was willing to do. He didn’t listen to a word I said, and didn’t care that I was leaving behind my business and Violet. “I want you. You are smart, have strong business ethics, and can influence those around you better than anyone I know.” He was straight with it and that was that. For the second time in two weeks I barged out of my parents’ house, but this time I didn’t go straight home. I circled the block once… twice… five times. I don’t know why I thought running around the block was going to help me. I finally ran out of breath and energy halfway through my fifth lap and walked the rest of the way home. My frustration was still boiling inside me. I tried to get it under control, but I inevitably failed and before I knew it, I was crying hysterically. Violet had been sitting on the couch eating. As soon as she turned to see the look on my face, it didn’t take her long to jump up and rush to me. “Lily, what’s wrong? What happened?” She already sounded borderline hysterical and I hadn’t even told her anything. I was sure her seeing me in a state of complete devastation wasn’t helping the situation. “I… I…” I was struggling to tell her. How was I going to tell her? I searched for the right way, but I ended up just blurting it out. “I’m moving!” “What are you talking about? You’re moving?” It took me a while, but finally through my sobs I told her what had happened. “Are you serious? This can’t be happening! Your whole life is here! What’s going to happen to our business? I can’t run it by myself!” Violet was weeping. She was hurt, confused, and scared. “I don’t know, Vi,” I cried. We sat in the entry way with our backs against the wall holding and comforting each other as we tried to make sense of our futures together as friends and business partners. We would talk about it more later, but right now was time to just cry and let the shock out of our systems. *** I woke up early the next morning. The sun was rising and the sky was a beautiful orange glow. We had stopped crying long enough last night to get showers and crawl into our beds. I had slept, but it was restless. During the time I was awake I tried to think of something, anything that would fix my problem. I finally thought of a decent idea that my father might approve of. It took me a few more minutes, but I finally willed myself out of bed. I was hungry, so I headed down to the kitchen. I pulled out the pancake mix, sausage, and bacon and sat it on the counter. Then I made a pot of coffee and pulled out the skillets. I needed comfort food. I was halfway through my second batch of pancakes when Violet joined me in the kitchen. She looked like she had a rough night, too, so I smiled at her. “What are you so freaking happy about?” she mumbled at me. I raised my eyebrow at her. “I’m sorry that came out ruder than I expected,” she said. “It’s all good.” I stopped and flipped the pancakes over. “I think I have come up with a solution.” I picked up a plate and placed two pancakes on it with some sausage and bacon and handed it to her along with some syrup. She raised her eyebrow in suspicion. “What’s your master plan?” She grimaced at me. I don’t think she had any faith in me—she should know me better than that. “Well…” I paused for a moment. “I think you should move to New York with me!” I couldn’t contain my excitement any longer. She perked up with those words. “I was thinking last night. It won’t be right off the bat, because we still have some things to wrap up around here, but after you’re done you should come and live with me.” I had her full attention now. She was beaming. “We have projects to finish that run until mid-October and this is almost June so you wouldn’t be here for that much longer and I could still help out via video chat. What do you think?” Violet loved the idea! We spent the rest of the morning brainstorming our future plans. I would stay two more weeks and make sure she had everything in place and ready to roll. Then after all the projects were done and the final paperwork was completed, she could move in with me. “Lily, I’m so excited!” She was gushing with enthusiasm. “This could be a brand new start for us! Oh my gosh, can you imagine opening up a new design company in New York?” She was literally bouncing in her chair. The afternoon was uneventful. My mother brought my computer and vision boards to me. She didn’t mention anything from last night, except if I had an idea about when I might be leaving. The way she asked, I knew she wasn’t the one asking, she looked too pained. This was going to be hard on her. I was her only daughter and best friend. She ended up staying until the late evening, even eating dinner with us. It was nice to spend time with her. We filled her in on our plans, and she was very pleased with them. When she left she gave me a big hug and told me how much she loved me and not to forget we needed to do lunch before I left. *** The next week flew by, and before I knew it, Violet and I had everything ready for her to take over. I told her not to take on any more clients unless they were short projects and only if she had the time. The week before I left, we lived in a maze of boxes. We had decided to go ahead and put our office building up for sale and move everything to the house. It was a really hard time for the both of us, and we cried a lot. Everything was starting to feel real. After we moved everything from the office to our house, we started packing up my things at the house. I was leaving everything there and only taking the stuff I needed. It took ten boxes just to pack my clothes and five for my shoes. I also packed two suitcases with everything I would need for a week, just in case my things didn’t make it there in time. I still refused to talk to my father. I had seen my mother several times—she was always supportive and had a smile on her face. Violet and I would be going to the spa with her this weekend and having a girl’s getaway before I left on Monday. Sunday morning came all too fast. We checked out of the hotel’s spa and headed back to reality. The car brought us straight to my parents’ house where I had to say goodbye to my mother. We stood in the driveway holding each other for a good ten minutes. “I love you,” she finally said as she let go of me. “I love you too, mamma,” I said as I kissed her on the cheek. “I’m going to miss you so much,” she whispered in my ear. “I will miss you, too.” I squeezed her one last time. “Bye.” She waved at me. “See you soon.” I waved and smiled with tears in my eyes. When Violet and I arrived back home, I did a few last minute things, but spent the rest of the evening hanging out with Violet. We didn’t talk much. We just watched chick flicks that made us cry, ate pizza, and splurged on sundaes. I needed to spend time with her. “What am I going to do without you?” Violet asked as we headed up to our rooms. I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her in. “I don’t know,” I said. “Who’s going to keep you from trying to kill yourself every day now that I won’t be here?” She shoved me away playfully. “I'm going to miss you,” she said, laying her head on my shoulder. “I will miss you more,” I whispered. Chapter 6 The flight to New York was quiet. Benito was my only companion as I made my way to my new life. He had flown in last night so he could ‘escort’ me to my new house. I had never flown by myself before, so I didn’t know why I thought this time would be different. “Are you ever going to forgive Pop?” Benito asked halfway through the flight. I hadn’t said a word since he picked me up this morning. Silence was the only thing that was going to get me through this. “Nope,” I said. “Not any time soon.” I gave him a stern look and went back to staring out the window. The good thing about Benito was he didn’t push the subject. It also helped that he was older than me. I wasn’t raised around him, and he didn’t know how to handle me. He usually avoided any conflict with me, and for that I was thankful. After we landed, gathered up our luggage, and headed for the car, I figured we wouldn’t have too long of a drive to my new place. I was hoping for a penthouse, or a cute apartment overlooking Central Park, or maybe a condo in West Village. How wrong I was. “Why are we going through the Holland Tunnel?” I asked as we left New York City and headed into New Jersey. Benito looked at me like I was naïve, but I didn’t understand why we needed to change our course. “Why are we going to Jersey?” I asked again a little louder than before. “Because,” he paused for a second, “your new home is there.” “Are you kidding me?” I was instantly livid, because my father specifically said that I was going to be living in New York. “No,” he said firmly and before I could speak again he held out his finger to hush me. “You’re living there because it’s safer. The house is beautiful and we found a great neighborhood for you to live in.” “So, I’m supposed to commute?” “Yes, like normal people who have a job in the city,” he said. “I promise you, once you see this house, you will love it. So let’s try to be an adult about this.” I looked out the window as tears greeted my eyes. Most of my surroundings were blurred by the tears, but I did happen to catch the Welcome to Hoboken, NJ sign. “I know this is hard Lily, but please, try—all I ask is that you just try,” Benito finally broke our silence. “We’re almost there.” I sat up, wiped my face, and looked around. I couldn’t believe my eyes as we turned into a community of homes. It was absolutely incredible! All the houses were big and beautiful. It wasn’t what I was expecting. “See that one on the right with the black shutters?” He pointed as it came into view. “That’s your new home.” “Wow!” was all I could say when we pulled into the driveway and the car came to a stop. I couldn’t get out fast enough. The house was a beautiful two-story home. It was painted in light gray with white trim and black shutters. The driveway led up to a separate two car garage that was painted white and had a curved walkway that led up to the front porch, which was enclosed with a white fence and had a light gray porch swing. “Shall we go in?” Benito asked as he guided me up the steps. I was in total awe as we walked through the front door and entered into a two-story foyer. We were quickly greeted on our left by the staircase to the second floor. The house, as much as I could see at the moment, looked like it was completely furnished and decorated. The walls were a neutral color with white trim. I was happy about that, because I could hang colorful artwork. As I turned to my right, I saw the living room, which was beautifully furnished with a black leather couch and love seat. In the center was a glass coffee table with black iron legs and a vase full of fresh purple lilies. The walls were decorated with black and white photos of my favorite places in the world: Rome, Athens, Venice, and Barcelona. They complemented the room’s décor very well. I noticed there wasn’t a television in here, so I figured this would be a nice sitting room. I couldn’t wait to see the rest of the house after seeing this one room. On my left was the dining room. A beautiful six seated chocolate brown dining table was in the middle of the room. The table was neatly set with crème placemats and light brown plates and silverware. Against the left wall was a china cabinet that matched the table and chairs, and it had the most gorgeous set of china. The design was beautiful and something I had never seen before. The rims of the plates, cups, saucers, and bowls were light brown and the center of each had a pink almond blossom. I pulled back in amazement and thought about when we would ever use them. They were too lovely to touch. Benito led the way to the kitchen that was connected to the dining room by a swinging door. The counters were done in black and gray granite and the cabinets were white with a simple yet elegant design. There was also a long center island that had four stools underneath. The decorations were small, simple purple accents. I smiled because I finally realized who decorated the house. It was hard not to notice her eloquent style. Violet. Next to the kitchen was a breakfast nook. It had a gray wraparound bench with a white table in the center. The cushions and pillows were black, gray, white, and purple striped. I could certainly get used to eating there every day! The breakfast nook area also opened into the main part of the house. The family room was next. There was a large brown and crème sectional that sat along the right wall, which faced a chic handcrafted entertainment center. There was a massive flat screen television in the middle of the entertainment center that was surrounded by multiple pictures ranging from Violet and me to my family. The wooden coffee table was in between the couch and entertainment center. It was already filled with my favorite magazines. The fireplace caught my attention next. I walked over to it and noticed that I could see all the way through it into another room. I wondered how I would get into that room, when I noticed a door to my left. I opened it and found that the room was a study, which had been turned into an office. It only had a corner desk and a white board in it. I was glad Violet hadn’t decorated my new office yet. I already had a million ideas of how I was going to design it. Benito showed me the laundry room and the downstairs bathroom. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the house was. And it was all mine! “Liliana?” Benito looked a little concerned. “Is everything okay? Do you not like it?” “I love it…” My eyes flickered around the family room. “I was just wondering what I was going to do with myself here. It’s kind of big for one person. I was hoping for an apartment.” “I don’t think you will have to worry about living here by yourself,” he said with a smirk. “I don’t understand.” “Hello, Lily.” His voice came from behind me. I didn’t even have to turn around to know who it was. I would know that voice anywhere. “Emilio?” I slowly twisted around. “What are you doing here?” I asked. “Your father didn’t tell you?” He sounded shocked. “Tell me what?” I tilted my head, confused. “I'm moving in,” he said, a slight grin spread across his face. I felt my eyes widen as I turned to Benito. “It wasn’t my idea,” Benito said as he threw his hands up in the air. “I was only supposed to make sure you got here in one piece.” “Benito! Are you kidding me?” My voice rose with every word I said. “I can’t live with him!” I could feel my body shaking with anger. What was my father thinking? “Oh, wow,” Benito said as he looked down at his watch. “Would you look at the time? I have a meeting in an hour.” He rushed over and kissed the top of my head as he gave me an apologetic look. “Benito, don’t you…,” I didn’t even get to finish my sentence before the front door slammed. Of course no one told me. Who would want to tell me that I was going to be punished even further when I arrived? I was in complete disbelief. Emilio quietly stood there, while I tried to wrap my head around the situation. After a few seconds, he quietly spoke up. “So, have you picked out a room yet?” I shook my head. “I haven’t been upstairs yet.” “Well, why don’t you head upstairs and take a look around while I get the rest of the boxes from my car and your luggage.” I looked at him for a moment, trying to think of something to say. He innocently smiled at me and gestured with his head for me to head upstairs. What the hell was I going to do now? This was not what I had in mind. I thought I’d move to New York, work a lot, avoid Emilio, and date Lucas. I was going to have to figure out a way to handle myself and still work on trying to have a normal relationship with Lucas. Lucas had been so excited about the news of my return. He told me about all the plans he had for us. This wasn’t going to be easy. When I made it upstairs, I looked around and noticed it was similar to the bottom, simply decorated with things that made me smile. The first door opened into a full-sized bathroom decorated in a beach theme. The next three doors I entered were all three bedrooms, each one individually decorated in their own way. None of them had caught my eye, though. Where was the one I would call my own? I had one more door to open and I was hoping this one would be it. I hesitated before I opened the last door. When I finally did, I knew immediately this was my room. It took me a moment to take in the room itself—I didn’t even know where to begin to explore. It was painted lavender with white trim and a white chandelier, representing a sitting room. It had a plush white loveseat, a small white coffee table, and an entertainment center that held a nice sized flat screen and a stack of chick flick movies. I turned to my left and found the master bath. It, too, was decorated in lavender with gray countertops and white tile. I loved how it had his and her sinks, a spa bath tub, and a stand-alone shower. I made my way back into the sitting room and found the master closet. It was huge! I was certain that my wardrobe could possibly fit in there, even though my shoes alone were going to take up an entire side. I turned and saw the best part of the entire room, my new bed. The gray king-sized bed frame took up most of the room. The bedspread was purple with gray swirls. I ran through the sitting room and jumped straight into the middle of the bed. I was in heaven. I rolled onto my left side and saw a nightstand beside my bed with a white and purple lamp, a picture of Violet and me, and a couple of my favorite books. I took a few deep breaths and finally sat up. I turned to my right and saw, what was now the best part of the room—the window seat. It was my own little oasis in my room. Everything was perfect. “Thought I might find you in here.” I turned to find Emilio leaning against the door frame with his hands in his pockets. Why was he so handsome? “It’s really stunning in here,” I spoke softly tearing my eyes away from him to look back out the window. I could feel him staring at me. “I remember you saying you really wanted a window seat in your house in Toronto and you didn’t get it, so I made sure that this house had one.” “You?” I turned and looked at him in wonder. “You made sure I had this?” “Yeah...” “Wow! Thank you, I love it.” I was very impressed. All those times I thought he wasn’t listening, he was. “Violet helped decorate the house. She sent sketches and color schemes. Your brothers helped me paint and hang everything just like she told us to.” He grinned. “She’s feisty when it comes to not getting her way. And the scary part was she wasn’t even here in person.” “I’m not surprised. I can see her style throughout the entire house.” I waved my hand around the room. “Especially in here. As for her being feisty, she is usually the more relaxed one.” He smiled, but I could tell he was hesitating on saying something. His eyes started shifting from me to the floor. “Listen, Lily,” he cleared his throat and looked up to make sure I was listening, “I’m really sorry you had to move here. I know this is really hard on you and Toronto is your home and where your life is.” He paused for a moment and then continued. “I know things between us are rocky, but I’m going to try and make you feel as comfortable here as I can. If I step out of line in any way, just let me know and I will try and correct it as fast as possible.” I got up and walked over to him. “Thank you for everything,” I said as I rested my hand on his upper arm. “Well,” he said, taking a step back grabbing my hand. “It’s time for you to see the best part of the entire house! It’s pretty awesome!” I didn’t even know we had a basement until we headed down the steps. It had eight reclining theater chairs set up in front of a projector screen, a foosball table, a pool table, and a gorgeous half kitchen. The kitchen had a sink, microwave, and full-sized refrigerator. Watching movies just went from awesome to epic. “That’s my office there.” He pointed toward a mahogany desk in the back corner of the room, and beside it was a set of filing cabinets. “What does that door go to?” I asked, pointing toward it. “It’s the outside entrance to the basement,” he said. “It’s for the guys to use. I told them to not go through the house—that’s your area.” And with that, he changed subject. “You hungry?” “Yes,” I gushed. “I’m starving. I just didn’t want to say anything.” The growling of my stomach only confirmed my need for food. We both laughed as he said, “well, let’s go eat, and tomorrow we can make a grocery list.” *** The first week in New Jersey wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Emilio went straight back to work on that Tuesday morning, so after I got up and around, I googled the nearest stores and found plenty of grocery stores. I made my lists and plugged the addresses into my GPS. Emilio made me promise to stay in New Jersey this week. He didn’t elaborate why, probably wanting me to get to know the area. I was about to leave the house when I realized I had no idea what my transportation was going to be. “Hey,” Emilio answered the phone after just one ring, “everything okay?” “Yes,” I half laughed. “I do have an issue, though.” “Okay, what is it?” He sounded concerned. “I don’t have a car.” “Oh, yeah,” he chuckled in relief. “I forgot to tell you, a present arrived for you this morning. Keys are by the front door…,” was all I heard before I ran down the hall and threw open the front door. I jumped off of the steps, not wasting any time walking down them, and turned the corner to see it. It was the definition of a sexy car. I squealed and danced around my brand new black Chevy Camaro. My excitement was about to lead me to a mini heart attack. “Oh my gosh! This is amazing!” I shrieked, totally forgetting I still had the phone up to my face. “That’s my ear!” Emilio shouted at me. “I'm sorry,” I said, trying to contain my excitement. “This is my dream car!” “Yes, I know. Your father had it delivered this morning to the house just for you.” “Papà?” I asked. “Yes, your father. Now have fun.” Then he was gone. I was still speechless over the car, and the fact that my father was the one who had sent it to me. I debated on calling him and telling him thank you, but I settled for a text instead. I didn’t want him to think that he could give me a car and everything would be set right between us. I kept it short, sweet, and to the point. Thank you, Papà, for the new car, I love it. I’m about to take it for a spin now. That seemed appropriate enough. I did take pictures of me with the car and the car by itself to message to all my brothers, rubbing it in their faces. As soon as I headed out to run my errands, the first person I called was Violet. I thanked her for decorating the house, even though I still didn’t know how she had time to do it. We barely had enough time to do our own projects much less taking on another. Wonder Woman doesn’t even come close to her. I then told her about my new car. She squealed, giggled, and shared my joy. She told me she couldn’t wait to take a spin in it herself, and that she was jealous. I told her I missed her and would see her soon. Running errands took most of the day and before I knew it, it was time to make dinner. Emilio and I had a good evening by just eating dinner and talking about our day. He even let me drive him around town, which was pretty awesome. In all our years together, he never let me drive. My father and Emilio’s father had been best friends most of their life and even though they had been best friends for a long time, I didn’t actually get to spend time with Emilio until our teenage years. At least that was the first time I remember spending time with him. My parents moved to Toronto from New York when I was two. I still to this day do not understand why they chose Toronto when he still owned businesses in New York City. My father had always said he just needed the change. Every time I would press him with questions, he would always dismiss me and tell me it was none of my business. Eventually Emilio’s father decided it was time for him and his family to join ours. The day that they arrived was still etched in my memory. I remember hearing the doorbell ring and my father yelling for me and Dante to hurry up and get downstairs. I was already mad that I had spent all day preparing for their arrival. But once I rounded the corner of the stairs and saw him standing there, I completely forgot about everything else. The way Emilio looked at me, those gray eyes captured my heart in one single moment. It was love at first sight for both of us. He was so carefree, and I fell so deeply in love with him. He captivated me for over four years. After he graduated from high school and headed to college, we had already planned out our life. We decided that as soon as I graduated from high school the next year, we would get married. His father passed shortly after that. Emilio dropped out of college and moved to New York and started working with my brothers, taking over his father’s position. At the beginning, he was still my Emilio, but as the months went on, he changed. It was small things at first, and then we started fighting a lot. He would scream at me for no reason and started telling me he didn’t love me anymore and that I needed to move on. I thought it was just the grief of losing his father, but it didn’t stop. Finally he came home and told me it was over for good. I was heartbroken, and it nearly killed me. It took me a long time to move on and start dating other people. But as soon as I got into a decent relationship, Emilio would show up and I would end the relationship quickly, afraid that I would end up in the same position with them as I had with Emilio. Plus every time I would run into Emilio his moods would be off. Sometimes sweet and beautiful, other times mean and unsociable, and his jealousy would get the better part of him. He would lose his temper and turn into a monster anyone would be afraid of. That was the main reason I was a little uneasy about living with him. But, when he was being his wonderful self, it was easy to remember why I fell in love with him in the first place. *** Every day that week I video chatted with Violet, sometimes several times a day. I tried to help her as much as I could, but I knew this next week was going to be a lot more stressful. Not only would I still be helping Violet, I started my new projects in New York. Lucas would text me all day long and sometimes a phone call here and there when Emilio wasn’t purposely keeping him busy. My nights with Emilio consisted of him sitting in the study with me and listening to my plans for the new buildings. He even helped me finish up my cost report for each one. The weekend went by quietly. I spent most of it outside in the backyard reading a book. Emilio was in and out for most of the weekend. He was good about being home in time for dinner and spending the rest of the evening with me. Monday morning started off terribly. My alarm clock didn’t go off on time. Emilio was still at home and just happened to notice I wasn’t up and ready yet. I would like to say he woke me up nicely, but that wasn’t what happened. It was more like, “hey you’re going to be late and I’m leaving,” as he barged into my room and threw the covers off of me. All day long I felt rushed. I hated running late—it made my whole day seem off. I made it to the restaurant in time to meet the contractors. Thankfully, I had already sent in the plans, because today was the day before demolition. They wanted to go over everything in person before they got started, which took the majority of my morning. That afternoon I had to make a stop at my friend Faith’s fabric and furniture store. She had been supplying all the unique fabrics and furniture seen in our designs. Traffic was horrible on the way there. I was not one for road rage, but during heavy traffic I would catch myself cursing. By the time I made it to her store, I vowed I would never drive again. Tomorrow, when I had to come in for the walk-through of the club, I would just grab a taxi. “Hey, sexy mama! It’s good to see you again,” Faith said as she greeted me at the door with a hug. “Hey, girl! I missed you!” I replied. “I heard you were back in the city for good?” She tilted her face down and looked at me with her lips pulled up to one side in a devilish grin. Faith looked a lot like me. We both had brown hair and green eyes with heart shaped lips. The only difference was my skin was darker than hers. “Yeah, looks like I’m here until further notice.” I grimaced. She shrieked with excitement and started talking nonstop while I headed toward the materials. The two hours I was in the store, she talked about anything and everything. When it was finally time to go, I assured her we would definitely have a girls’ night out and that I would be back here in a couple of days with my final selection of material and furniture I was going to need. Tuesday and Wednesday went by in a flash. Between two more walk-throughs and constantly being on the phone with contractors, painters, and architects, the work was starting to overwhelm me and this had only been my first week. I was now more thankful than ever to have Violet as my partner. Wednesday night, Emilio said that after work on Friday he would take me out on the town. I was really looking forward to that. Thursday was better, because I went shopping. I needed to go by Faith’s and order furniture, so that when it was time to have it delivered it would be ready. I got so busy I hadn’t been paying attention to the time. I decided on the way home I would just pick up a hamburger from the cute burger joint not too far from the house. Emilio wasn’t home when I pulled into the garage. I hurried inside to change my clothes and was ready to slip out of my uncomfortable dress clothes and into more relaxing ones. I heard Emilio park in the garage as I was putting my hair up into a loose ponytail. I was glad he was home—I couldn’t wait to tell him about my day. Maybe he wouldn’t worry so much about me knowing that. As I came down the stairs, I was shocked at what I saw. There was blood everywhere, on his face, his shirt, and knuckles. “Emilio, are you okay?” I ran over to check him out, but he held up his hand to stop me. “I'm good. Two guys got in to it at work, and I had to break it up. No big deal.” “Are you sure you’re not hurt?” I pressed. I had never seen him in that state before—it worried me. “I’m not hurt,” he reassured me. “Let me take a shower really quick, and I will meet you downstairs to eat. Those burgers smell delicious.” He smiled at me and headed up the stairs, gesturing toward the kitchen, signifying he’d be there soon. When he joined me for dinner he was as happy as ever and never mentioned anything again. Neither did I—I didn’t want to ruin his good mood. Chapter 7 Friday had finally come. Today was the day Emilio and I decided to get out of the house and have the evening to ourselves. We had been planning on going to dinner and seeing a movie, since we had been cooped up for the last two weeks. The day dragged by really slow. I tried to pass the time with cleaning and laundry—resting was not my idea of fun. Eventually the time ticked away to five and I needed to start getting ready, because Emilio would be home soon. I showered, dried off, and got dressed within thirty minutes, a new record. It took me a little while longer to finish my hair and makeup. When I checked the time, it was almost six-thirty and Emilio wasn’t home yet. That wasn’t like him—he always arrived home between five and six. When I finally found my phone, I had two missed calls. “Hello,” he said, answering on the first ring. “Hey, where are you? I’m ready to go.” “I’m sorry, Lily. I won’t be able to make it tonight. I got held up at work, and I won't be home until later tonight. Could we go tomorrow night instead?” He sounded stressed, but I could tell he felt awful about not being able to make it. “Yeah, I guess that’s okay. I’ll see you when you get home.” Before he could say anything else I hung up. I was disappointed to say the least—I had hurried to get ready and it was going to be a waste. I guess tonight would be spent watching movies, because I didn’t have anything else left to do. I headed upstairs to change my clothes when an unexpected knock came at the front door. I wasn’t expecting anyone since Emilio wasn’t home. I used extra precaution as I looked through the peep hole to find Lucas’s handsome face staring back at me. I quickly brushed my fingers through my curls and checked myself in the foyer mirror before answering the door. I wondered what he was doing here. I swung the door open with excitement. I hadn’t seen him since I moved back. It wasn’t because we weren’t trying—I was just busy and I knew Emilio purposely kept him busy. He was more gorgeous than I remembered. He had on a light blue, button down shirt that accented his arm and chest muscles. His jeans fit perfectly around his hips and his hair was tousled in an impeccable mess. He hypnotized me with his heart stopping stare and I couldn’t look away. “Hey,” he said as he smiled at me. “Hey. You want to come inside?” I finally replied and stepped slightly to the side so he could walk past me and into the house. I caught a whiff of his cologne, and it sent my senses into overdrive, awakening my muscles from paralysis. He followed me to the living room and took a seat on the couch. “You look beautiful. What’s the special occasion?” he asked, breaking the awkward silence. “Well, Emilio and I were supposed to be going out tonight, but he had to stay at work,” I sighed, still feeling disappointed. I was actually looking forward to tonight. “Yeah, that’s what he mentioned. He was pretty upset when I left work earlier and complained about having to stay. I offered to stay at work, but he said it was out of my power to do what needed to be done. I’m sorry for just stopping by, but I really wanted to see you and now was my chance,” he said, filling me with warmth. “Don’t apologize, I’m glad you did,” I replied. “I missed you, too.” If I knew that those three simple words could light up with face like they were doing now, I’d say them all the time. Damn this man and his perfectness. “I have a better idea.” He smiled as he rose from the couch and held out his hand for me to take. *** “Where are we going?” I asked as I looked out the window of Lucas’s car. We had left the house almost thirty minutes ago and he was keeping our destination a secret. “You’ll see,” he said as his smile curled up the side of his face. I couldn’t help but smile back—he mesmerized me. I stared at him for a few moments taking him in. The butterflies were back—oh, how I missed them. My phone buzzing brought me out of my trance. I looked down to see Emilio’s face and noticed he was calling. He must have just returned home and realized I wasn’t there. I did leave him a note saying I would be back later, but knowing Emilio, that wasn’t enough. I didn’t care—I was finally out with Lucas, and I wouldn’t let him ruin this. I denied the call and sent him a reassuring text telling him that I was okay. I turned my phone off for the rest of the night. No more interruptions. We were slowly approaching the shoreline and I knew exactly where we were. “The boardwalk?” I said with excitement. “Yes, but technically I’m taking you to Coney Island,” he explained. *** When we reached Coney Island, I could see why everyone would want to come at night. Every square inch was lit up, giving the whole park a wonderful glow. Noises shot from every direction whether it was from a game or a ride. I had never been to an amusement park before and this was definitely thrilling! “So what do you want to do first?” Lucas asked. “I don’t know. I have never been here before. What are my options?” “Well, my two favorite places to go are Deno’s and Luna Park. At Deno’s there is the Wonder Wheel that we can go on. And at Luna Park there are several roller coasters that are fun. So it’s really up to you.” Well, I’ve never been on a roller coaster before,” I said, which he responded by raising his eyebrow at me in amazement. “You’ve never been on a roller coaster?” He was shocked. “No. My family doesn’t usually go to places like this.” I frowned. “We traveled a lot, but my parents always took me to landmarks and museums. You know, educational places.” “Well, then off to Luna Park we go!” He grabbed my hand and led me in that direction. His excitement was contagious, and I couldn’t help but latch on. After purchasing the wristbands for Luna Park, he wrapped it securely around my wrist. “These wristbands will last for the next four hours, so we can do as much as you’d like,” he explained. “Although there will be a firework display at nine-thirty that I’m sure you don’t want to miss.” “I would love to see that.” I cleared my throat. “Do you mind for my first coaster starting off small? I don’t really know what to expect.” My nerves started shooting throughout my body. Just hearing the loud sounds coming from them made me nervous. “In that case, I recommend we ride the Air Race first and then work our way to the Soarin’ Eagle and finish off with the Cyclone.” “The last one sounds kind of intense.” I hugged myself. It was a nervous habit of mine. “Don’t worry. I’ll be with you the whole time,” Lucas said as he grabbed my hand and pulled it up to his chest as I grinned at him. I would have followed him anywhere at that moment. *** After we got off the Cyclone, adrenaline coursed through my body. I couldn’t help but love everything about roller coasters: my hair slashing across my face, my stomach leaping into my chest, and my body rocking between Lucas and the side of the cart. It was exhilarating! “So how do you like the roller coasters?” Lucas asked as he ran his hand through his hair. “They’re amazing! I never knew something like that could be so much fun!” “Roller coasters are definitely fun,” he agreed. “The fireworks should start in about thirty minutes. Would you like to go and play some carnival games while we wait?” “Sounds good to me.” I nodded in response. This time it was me who took his hand and led the way. He won most of the games and even won a fun-sized stuffed panda for me, which I gave to a little girl who was crying because she hadn’t won anything. I did win a game, but only because Lucas felt sorry for me and let me win. I didn’t care, though. This was one of the best nights I've had in a long time. “Oh, look at the time,” Lucas said, looking at his watch. “We better get settled on the beach soon. The fireworks will be starting in about five minutes.” We walked back through the gates to the boardwalk. The summer breeze was strong and it was helpful in pushing back my hair from my face. Lucas reached for my hand and slowly intertwined our fingers. I glanced down at our hands and then slowly raised my eyes to meet his. “So I hoped I lived up to your expectations for the night,” he said as his thumb brushed up and down my hand. “You exceeded my expectations for the night. It was much better than I could have ever imagined. I’m really happy that you showed up at my doorstep tonight.” “Me too. I’m glad that you had a good night, but it’s not over with yet.” He released my hand and turned to face me. “Wait right here. I have to go to the car and get something.” And in that second, he was gone. I watched him walk away, my eyes transfixed on him. I took a deep breath and felt my heart start to slow down. I didn’t even realize that it was racing—he definitely had an affect on me. Lucas turned one of the most disappointing, inevitably boring nights into one of the best nights of my life. This was the moment that I knew I was falling for him. My first time meeting him was enough to tell me that there was a possibility that something could develop between us. But now I really knew. I turned toward the ocean and watched as the waves crashed one after another. It was refreshing and calming to see and feel the cool summer breeze. I didn’t know if I could ever get used to living here, but luckily I had Lucas who was the light at the center of my misery. “Hey, are you ready?” His voice startled me. I quickly turned to see him standing with a blanket and a picnic basket in his hand. “Yeah.” I smiled. “But what exactly are we doing?” “We’re going to have dessert on the beach while we watch the fireworks show.” He smiled and gestured for me to follow him. We walked down the beach until we were halfway between the boardwalk and the ocean. Lucas fanned out the blanket before laying it down for us to sit on. He sat down first and placed the basket next to him, and then put out his hand for me to grab. I lowered my body to where we were inches apart. I could smell his cologne wafting toward me along with the ocean breeze. This was perfection. “So, what kind of dessert are we having?” “Well, it took me awhile to decide, but I finally decided on tiramisu. It’s one of my favorites. Is that okay?” he asked. “Tiramisu is perfect,” I said smiling. He pulled out two plastic plates and put a square slice on each. He handed me mine and I instantly took a bite. It was delicious. We sat in silence while we ate, neither of us needing to speak when our actions spoke for us. Throughout those few minutes, we somehow inched closer toward each other. “Are you cold?” His voice broke the silence. I nodded, not realizing that I was shivering. Even though it was July, tonight was chilly with the breeze coming off the ocean. He then spread his legs further apart and pointed for me to sit in between them. I slid over and leaned back into his chest. He wrapped his muscular arms around me and within a few seconds I was already warming up. “Better?” he asked, turning his head toward mine. I nodded and slid back into his chest, relaxing into him, feeling safer than I had ever felt before. I wanted this moment to last for all eternity. I closed my eyes, knowing that this was a moment that I needed to cherish forever. The fireworks started to light up the sky, causing me to open my eyes. Blues, reds, greens, golds, and purples came from different directions and once in a while there would be an outline of a star or heart. The show lasted twenty-five minutes and in that time Lucas and I didn’t budge once. Neither of us wanted to. “Well, it’s getting late. I should probably take you back home before Emilio has a heart attack,” Lucas said as soon as the fireworks show ended. I had completely forgotten about Emilio—he was going to be furious with me. The fact that I turned my phone off probably wasn’t going to help his frustration either. “Wait,” I said as I stopped him from standing up. “I know when I go back that I’m going to get a lecture, so can we please just stay like this for another minute.” There were no arguments—he only pulled me in closer and rested his head against mine, his lips softly kissing my ear and neck. It tickled and I let out a few giggles as he was slowly teased me. “You’re making it really hard to will myself to go back,” I said after his many attempts, and my many failures. “You have no idea…” I could hear the smile in his voice as his excitement mimicked my bearing heart. The moment lasted enough to be Lucas’s phone ringing—both of us knowing who was calling. “I guess now we have to go…” Disappointment wasn’t even a good enough word to describe how I was feeling knowing that I had to leave him and go back home. He reluctantly agreed and helped me up, put everything back in the basket, and folded the blanket, ignoring Emilio’s phone call. He took my hand as we started walking back to the car. He lifted it up to his face and gently placed his lips on my knuckles. I blushed in response, stopped, and tugged on his arm to stop him in his tracks. He turned to face me and locked his blue eyes on mine. As we both leaned in simultaneously, our lips met, and a sensation like I never felt before coursed through me. I moved my hand up to his face, gently touching his scruff as he wrapped his arms around my lower back and pulled me closer. *** When we returned to the car, I had restarted my phone and my notifications bombarded me. I had at least ten full length text messages from Emilio and a dozen voicemails. Lucas said that he would take full responsibility for the evening, since he had also ignored Emilio’s many attempts. I brushed him off telling him not to worry about it—I could handle Emilio. It was his fault for bailing on me anyway. On the car ride back, I trembled in my seat. I knew Emilio would be furious with me, but I had prepared myself for the storm. My wonderful evening wasn’t going to be ruined by him being overbearing. “Well, here we are,” Lucas said as we pulled into the driveway. He hadn’t even put the car in park before Emilio came storming out the front door like a crazed lunatic. He stopped right outside my door, taping on the glass for me to open it. His face was red and hands squeezed tight in fury. I gave Lucas a grimace before telling him goodbye. I took a deep breath and climbed out of the car. “Where the hell have you been? I have tried calling you multiple times. Why would you turn your phone off! Lily, do you realize how worried I was?” He took my arm in his hand and pulled me toward the door. “Lucas you’re excused, I’ll see you in the morning!” Lucas looked like he was about to jump out of the car and tackle Emilio. I waved him off. He looked hesitant for a moment, but he eventually backed out of the driveway and drove off. “Emilio, let go. You’re hurting me.” I said as he pulled me through the front door. He let go of my arm immediately as he spun around to face me. “Lily, what were you thinking?” he questioned me. “I’m sorry I couldn’t go out with you tonight, but that doesn’t mean you can go out with whomever you want!” “Excuse me!” I practically yelled at him. “I'm not a child, I'm a grown woman. I can go out with whomever I want. Plus, I know him! It’s freaking Lucas, Emilio. I was safe the entire time. I even texted you and told you I was with him. Is it because he’s not someone you approve of?” “It’s not the fact that I don’t approve of him. It’s the fact that you decided to run off with him and gave me no warning. Anyone could have sent me a damn text message! Do you have any idea what went through my head when I saw that? I tried calling you and you didn’t answer! I almost called the cops!” “Emilio, I'm not just going to sit around and wait for you to come home every night. I need a life outside of these four walls. You bailed on me tonight. I understand work things happen, but Lucas showed up and I had a free evening. I think that is what is making you so mad. The fact that Lucas was there for me tonight and you weren’t!” I could tell I had just hit him where it hurt, because he immediately backed down. “I’m done talking to you tonight, Lily. I’ll see you in the morning.” He walked up the stairs and within a few seconds I heard his door slam shut. I felt terrible for doing that to Emilio, but it was the truth and the truth sometimes hurts. I took a deep breath and tried to relax, but I was too fired up. I walked into the kitchen, grabbed a water bottle, headed straight to my bedroom, and into my bathroom. I needed a nice, soothing bubble bath to help calm my nerves. Without even another thought, I called Lucas. He profusely asked if I was okay and if he needed to come over as support, but I assured him that I was okay and that him coming over might make everything that much worse. We talked throughout my bath and he even talked me to sleep. Falling asleep to his voice and the safety that it held, I finally slept throughout the night peacefully—that was until it came for me again. “Stop running, Lily. You can’t escape me.” I kept running—I needed to get out of here. The low branches scraped the side of my cheeks. I could feel the blood running down the side of my face. Think, Lily, think. You need to find an escape. I found myself on the side of a cliff and before I could control anything, I was pushed off the edge and falling to my death. *** I woke up in a panic, drenched in my own sweat again. My nightmares were getting worse. I wanted to talk to someone about them, but I was sure they would think I was paranoid and would tell me to just blow it off. I threw the covers off and rushed into the bathroom to wash my face. I glanced at myself in the mirror and saw that my olive skin was now pale white. After I calmed down, I took a shower, got dressed, and headed downstairs. When I stepped off the last step, I could hear more than just Emilio’s voice coming from the kitchen. I hesitantly walked in and saw that he wasn’t alone. Roman was here, and I hadn’t seen him since I moved. “Roman! What are you doing here?” I rushed over and threw my arms around his neck. “Well, Emilio called me last night,” he began as I took the seat next to him, “and said that he needed me to be here. He verified everything with Massimo, so long story short, I’ll be staying with you both for now.” Emilio didn’t say a word—he just let Roman talk. “So what are you going to be doing while you’re here?” I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like the answer I was about to get, but I asked anyway. “Well, Emilio explained everything that happened last night and he felt that you would benefit more if you had someone other than him here with you.” “So, not sugar coating it, are you,” I took a deep breath trying to calm the anger already coursing through my body, “my babysitter?” “I wouldn’t call it that, but he will be watching over you,” Emilio spoke for the first time. “I can’t have you running off like that, Lily. A night like last night won’t happen again. You now have Roman’s full attention.” “What the hell! Are you certifiably insane, because I think so. I can handle things perfectly on my own. I don’t understand why you and my father keep giving me a bodyguard when nothing has ever happened to me. I’m in no danger, and I'm sure Roman has a million other things he would like to do other than constantly following me around.” “Well, Lily, nothing has ever happened to you, because you’ve always had someone with you,” Roman said with a smirk. “Is this funny to you? Have you ever had someone follow you around day and night making sure you were okay? It’s annoying. I’m twenty-one years old, and can take care of myself!” “Lily, please calm down and be reasonable. We wouldn’t be doing this without reason,” Emilio calmly explained. “Then tell me the reason why. No offense Roman, I don’t mind spending time with you, but you all treat me like I'm breakable and I'm not.” I finally took a breath and waited for Emilio to speak. “I'm sorry, Lily, but I can’t. Just know that we care about you, and this is necessary.” “Is this about Lucas? Shit, Emilio get a grip. So I went out with Lucas one night and I returned in perfect condition. I don’t understand why you can’t wrap it around your head that this is my life and who I choose to date is my choice!” I turned to exit the kitchen and Roman’s hand caught my elbow. “Lily, please don’t be angry,” he whispered at me. “I will try not to hover over you, but I still have orders. It will be great, I promise. Just think of it as spending time with your friend and not as a lockdown.” He removed his hand from my arm and looked shyly at me. “I understand. Just please don’t treat me like glass. I’m not as fragile as I may look,” I said. He nodded in agreement, us coming to an understanding. I flung my arms around his neck and gave him a hug. “I’m happy that you’re here—I just don’t like the circumstances.” *** A few weeks had passed and all I was allowed to do was either hang out with Roman or go to work. Having Roman here wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It was actually a relief to have him here. He was a good buffer between my and Emilio’s growing tension. It was also great reconnecting with him, since he was like a brother to me. I was closer to him than my four older brothers, so I tried to not see him as a bodyguard, but as my friend. He kept his promise in keeping his distance. During Roman’s time here, I hadn’t seen Lucas, and I missed him terribly. It was probably at the expense of Emilio’s intervening that he had kept his distance. I can only imagine the conversation Emilio had with him the next day at work. But I knew Lucas could hold his own against Emilio, just like I do. The weekend had finally arrived after a busy week of trying to finish up decorating a few of my father’s properties. Roman and I had planned to go out tonight and spend some much needed time away from the house and Emilio. Roman said that he had a surprise for me tonight and that I would owe him big time. I was ready for a surprise—I needed one. “Lily, are you almost ready?” Roman called as he entered my room. I was held up in the bathroom finishing my hair and makeup, as usual. “Yeah, just give me a few more seconds and I’ll be right down.” I was glad I finally had the chance to get out of the house. It had been awhile since I had to get ready for something other than work. I finished my hair, brushed my teeth, and put on my heels. As I made my way down the stairs, I heard a whistle. “Damn girl, you look good!” Roman laughed as I took the last step. I couldn’t help but smile at his compliment. “You don’t look so bad yourself,” I said. “Are you ready?” he asked, opening up the front door. “Yes, although I would like to know exactly what we are going to do.” “We’re going out to eat. And then I have a little surprise for you.” He smiled as he escorted me out of the house. Chapter 8 We drove into the city and arrived at the restaurant. When we walked in, we were immediately seated and given our menus. I looked it over and noticed that we would be dining on French cuisine. This was definitely a change for me, but I was up for the challenge. I’d try anything once. “So what are you going to get?” Roman asked me as he glanced over his menu. “I really don’t know. I have never eaten French food before. What’s good here? What do you normally get?” “I have no idea. I have never eaten here before either.” I glanced up at him. He was serious. “So why did you choose this place if you’ve never eaten here before?” I questioned. “I didn’t choose the place.” I was about to ask who did when I heard his voice behind me. “Roman, how are you?” Lucas shook Roman’s hand before turning toward me. I was still in shock—this was not what I was expecting the surprise would be. I had mentioned to Roman a few times that I missed Lucas, and I guess he listened. “Lucas,” was the only word I managed to say before he leaned down and touched his lips to my cheek. The contact left a tingle that radiated to the rest of my body. “Lily, you look absolutely gorgeous,” Lucas said as he took the seat next to me. “Wait. I’m confused. Are we all eating dinner together?” I asked. “Well, Lily, I remember you making a few comments that you had been missing Lucas and so, on Wednesday when I ran to the office for Emilio, Lucas was still there. We talked about you and he said he missed you, too. So, I made a deal with him that if he didn’t tell Emilio and if he picked a restaurant that we all knew Emilio would never be at, then I would arrange for you two to see each other again.” I was stunned, and I couldn’t believe that Roman would do that for me. I knew he felt bad about the way Emilio was treating me, but I never would have thought he would go behind his back to let me see Lucas. “Wow, thank you, Roman. I can’t believe you did this. It really means a lot to me.” I hugged Roman and picked up the menu. Lucas took my hand without hesitation and smiled at me. We talked throughout the whole meal, not missing a beat. There was a question I had been burning to ask Roman—I just needed to build up the courage to ask it. “Roman.” I paused for a moment. “I have a question.” It was a change in subject, so I had Roman’s full attention. “I'm not sure if this is even possible, but do you think that Lucas and I could go on a date without you being there? I know that you’re not to leave my side, but I trust Lucas and think that he is more than capable of taking care of me.” I said it all so fast I wasn’t sure if Roman even understood me. It took him longer to respond than I wanted, and a sickening feeling crept in as I feared he’d say no. “I had a feeling one of you was going to ask me that,” he said and then took a deep breath before answering. “It’s a big risk and if Emilio were to find out, I would be in serious trouble.” With each word he spoke it took a chunk of my confidence away. “But I know how you two feel about each other and I can't keep you from that. So, I don’t have a problem with you going on a date, and I will keep my distance, but I need to be somewhere close to you.” I couldn’t believe what I just heard—I could live with that. I truly knew Roman cared about me and he showed it tonight. I leaned over, put my head on his shoulder, and quietly thanked him for this. “So are there any stipulations as to what we can do?” Lucas asked as he smiled. I could tell he was just as happy as I was. “The only thing I ask is for you to stay around this area. New York is the furthest that I will let you go. And Lucas, whatever you plan to do on this date, just run it by me first so I can tell Emilio a time estimate and prepare myself for whatever I need to do while you both are on your date.” “No problem. And thank you Roman. I can’t tell you how much this means to me,” Lucas said. To both of us. I smiled throughout the rest of the night so thankful that I had such an amazing friend like Roman to help me out with what was left of my love life. Roman paid our bill and Lucas walked us back to our car. “I can’t wait until I get to see you again. You have no idea how much I have missed you,” Lucas said as he grazed his hand on my cheek. “Texting and sending pictures aren’t enough.” He grinned. “I think I have a pretty good idea how you feel. Just don’t wait too long to schedule our date. I don’t think I can go another few weeks without seeing you again.” He smiled in response and leaned down and kissed me. I took that as the answer to my question. I slid into the passenger seat of the car and Lucas closed the door. Roman hit the gas and we raced down the street, leaving Lucas waving in the rearview mirror. When we arrived home, Emilio’s car was missing. He must still be at work. As soon as we walked through the door, Roman headed straight up the stairs. “Roman, wait,” I called after him. He turned in response and came back down the few steps to meet me. “I don’t know how to thank you for tonight. I owe you big time.” “No, you don’t. I just know how upset you have been around here lately. I love you, Lily. You’re like the sister I never had and I just want you to be happy and if Lucas makes you happy, then I’ll do what I can to make it happen between you two.” He gave me a hug and I whispered another thank you in his ear. He turned and headed back up the stairs to his room, nothing else needed to be said. I stayed up for a while and watched an old movie. They were my favorites and after the night I had, my adrenaline was racing, making it hard to go to sleep. Emilio eventually came home around midnight. He passed by the living room as he headed into the kitchen, neither one of us saying a word. He walked back into the living room with a sandwich in his hand and came and sat by me on the couch. My adrenaline started to fade as another feeling took over. I wasn’t sure if it was anger or nervousness, but it didn’t matter which, I just wanted it to go away. “Gone with the Wind?” he finally asked after he finished his sandwich. “That has always been your favorite.” “Yeah, I wasn’t really tired when Roman and I got back, so….” An awkward silence took over and I could barely concentrate. “Lily,” he exhaled and paused. “I know the last few weeks between us have been nonexistent, but I miss talking to you. I just want to say I'm sorry for the way I've been acting and I hope you can forgive me, because I don’t think I could go another second without you talking to me. It’s been driving me crazy.” I finally took the breath I didn’t realize I had been holding. “I forgive you, Emilio,” I spoke softly. “I'm still somewhat upset at how you handled the situation. I just feel like everyone is always trying to control my life, when it isn’t theirs to control.” I glanced up at him and saw his gloomy expression. “I'm sorry, if I could change things I would. I know you are your own person and that you want to live your own life, but there are things that you don’t know and I can't tell you. So, will you please just trust me and know that I'm only looking out for you and your safety? I care about you, more than you could ever know.” He leaned in and kissed my cheek. When he pulled back I noticed a cut above his eyebrow. I gently touched it and he winced—it was fresh. “What happened?” I asked, changing the subject. “It’s nothing, just a scratch.” Once again he was hiding something from me. I knew there was more to these “accidents” than he was letting on. “If you say so.” The movie was only halfway through, but I was done watching it. I was tired—tired from the day and tired of him lying to me over and over again. I flipped off the television and the room went pitch black. I walked to the foyer and was about to climb the steps when Emilio’s hand grabbed my wrist and spun me around. My eyes found his and we stood there staring at each other. I was pleading with my eyes that he needed to stop this—everything—the lies and the heartbreak he constantly left me with. I couldn’t handle it much more. He hurt me when he walked away, and it took me forever to get over him. All I wanted was to be happy again—hopefully with someone who really loved me. I glanced back up at him, hoping that he would say or do something. We held each other’s gaze for a few moments, nothing being said out loud. I felt his hand work its way up my arm and onto my neck before settling on my cheek. In that moment I thought he was going to kiss me, but he didn’t. My heart rate picked up with his closeness and my breath became heavy. “Goodnight, Lily,” he whispered in my ear before he turned and headed back toward the living room, leaving me paralyzed, stuck in my own confusion. *** “Hey, Lily, I have something for you,” Roman called out as soon as he stepped through the door. I came running out of the kitchen. He just said my three favorite words, something for you. He held out an envelope as I skidded by and grabbed it. I tore it open as Roman stood there and quietly laughed. It was a letter from Lucas! It had been a week since I last saw him. Today’s letter gave me hope I would see him soon. I couldn’t read it fast enough. Dearest Lily, I can’t wait to see you again. I would like it if you would join me tomorrow night. I have the whole evening planned, just you and me. Don’t worry, I have already discussed the plans with Roman, and he approved them. He will be driving you to your destination tomorrow and I will take it from there. I hope you are able to make it, because these last few days without you have been excruciating. See you soon, beautiful! Lucas I closed the note with a grin. I couldn’t believe that in twenty-four hours I was going to see him again. I made my way into the kitchen where Roman had ventured off to. “So are you going to tell me where he is taking me?” “Sorry, Lily. My orders were to give you the note and say nothing else. I do know you’re going to love it. And don’t try to guess either, because you won't get it.” “So is he taking me to dinner? Is he taking me to Central Park? A Broadway play? Come on, give me a hint!” I pouted. Roman smiled at me right before he zipped his lips and threw away the key. *** My phone dinged, telling me I only had fifteen more minutes until it was time to go. The clock had struck six and Roman had been persistently telling me that we were leaving at six-fifteen at the latest. I had finished my hair and makeup and was in the process of picking out an outfit. Since I didn’t know exactly what we were doing, I wasn’t exactly sure what to wear. I ended up choosing a solid green cocktail dress that matched my eyes. It was a halter top dress that flowed down to just above my knees. I picked out a floral belt to add a little something extra to it. I was searching my closet for my silver high heels when Roman called up the stairs for the fourth time in less than five minutes. “Lily, hurry up! You’ve got three minutes.” “Give me a second, I'm just putting on my shoes, and then I’ll be down!” Men will never understand what girls go through to get ready. I clasped the strap on my heels and took one last look in the mirror. I didn’t know if I was being too cocky, but I thought I looked pretty damn good! I made my way down the stairs to find Roman impatiently waiting for me by the front door. He tapped his watch as he handed me my silver clutch and led me out the door. By the time I locked the door and turned around, he was already in the car and had it started. I didn’t understand what the big rush was, but I guess I would find out soon enough. The drive was short and when we pulled up to the marina, I was more than confused. As we got closer, I saw Lucas standing at the top of the docks, a huge yacht behind him. I couldn’t believe my eyes! Roman was right—I could never have guessed that Lucas would’ve taken me here. Roman stopped the car right where Lucas was standing. The door opened and Lucas put his hand out for me. He was wearing a green button up shirt with black jeans. We color coordinated without even knowing it. “You look beautiful,” he said as he kissed my hand. “Thanks.” I blushed. “You look amazing, too. So we’re going on a yacht?” “Well, yes, but it’s more than just a boat ride. We are going on a tour of New York. Apparently you haven’t really seen New York until you’ve seen it from the water and at nighttime. We should go, boarding is at six-forty five, and we don’t want to get left behind.” Now I understood why Roman was so persistent when it came to time. I glanced back at Roman and he motioned for me to go on. I waved to him, a little hesitant to leave. He was risking a lot for me to go on this date, but he gave me a reassuring nod before he drove off. Lucas led me up the ramp and helped me onto the yacht. We were greeted immediately by the captain and first mate who assured us a safe and fun ride. They told us the cruise would last three hours and would take us all around the coast of Manhattan. We would be leaving Lincoln Harbor and seeing different landmarks such as Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the Governor’s Island, and the Brooklyn Bridge. I have been to New York several times, but surprisingly, I had not seen some of the best parts of it. “So the cruise should take off soon. Would you like something to drink?” Lucas asked motioning to the bar. “Yeah, that sounds great,” I said as we walked into the dining area. The hall was enormous and completely open to see everything on the outside. There were three rows of seven tables. Some tables held up to four people and others had a more intimate setting for two. On the other side of the room was the bar, which we made our way over and chatted while we waited. When it was our turn, Lucas ordered two glasses of wine and then we walked to the side of the boat. The breeze brushed up the side of the boat and swirled around us. It was cool and felt refreshing. Lucas and I stood there and watched the yacht leave port. Shortly after that, a crew member announced over the loud speaker that dinner was about to be served. It was a buffet filled with a variety of food ranging from Italian to Mexican to American. We helped ourselves and sat down at a table for two. “I hope this is okay. I found it online and thought it was neat and different. I hope it’s a good surprise,” Lucas said, unsure of himself. “This is seriously the best surprise ever,” I said sincerely. “I tried to make Roman tell me and I even tried guessing, but he said I would never get it. I don’t think I would have even come close to guessing this. And to be honest, I have been to New York several times, but I have actually never seen some of the most famous landmarks.” “Really? I figured you would have, considering your love of museums and history.” “You would think.” I paused. “So I'm guessing you’ve never done this?” I asked as I took another bite of my pasta. “No, not from the river, but I have seen everything we will see tonight. It’s absolutely beautiful. And, what better way to see the city that never sleeps?” “Well, I'm excited to see it!” The dinner lasted a while and everything was delicious. Lucas and I talked more about the cruise and what we thought would be our favorite part. Mine would probably be the Statue of Liberty and he said his could possibly be the Brooklyn Bridge. We passed by the Colgate Clock before we headed south toward Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and then the Governor’s Island. Then the ship headed east toward the Brooklyn Bridge where the boat turned around and headed back toward the marina. The last landmark we saw as we headed back north was the World Trade Center Site. The entire time I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Each landmark was amazing in its own way. I had seen pictures of all of them, but seeing them in person, the pictures didn’t do them justice. As we headed back toward the marina, an announcement was made that if the guests would like, there would be music and dancing on the top deck. Lucas and I both looked at each other and shrugged before he took my hand and led me to the top. The entire deck was decorated with lights and streamers and was reserved for dancing, except a corner that the DJ occupied. Lucas didn’t waste any time, and he pulled me straight to the middle of the dance floor. A fast song was ending and a slower one started. It was almost as if Lucas had planned it. He pulled me in close and I put my left arm on his shoulder as his right hand found the small of my back. I breathed in his cologne and it was intoxicating. I recognized it immediately—it was the same cologne he had worn the night we went to Coney Island. I wasn’t sure if this night was better than that one, but it was a close second. I pulled back for a second and glanced up at him. “Is everything okay?” he asked. “It’s perfect. I just can't believe how wonderful tonight has been. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to spend it with either.” I smiled. “Well, if I have anything to do with it, we will have many more of these nights. And I'm hoping that I'm creative enough to make sure each one is better than the last.” “Well, you definitely have your work cut out for you then. I don’t see how it can get better than this.” I smiled. “Don’t underestimate me. You have no idea what is going on up in here.” He tapped his head, making made me laugh. “Well, I'm looking forward to seeing what you come up with.” “I do have one more idea, right now,” he said. “Okay. What is it?” “Follow me.” He led me back down the stairs to the middle deck where we ate dinner and looked at the scenery. The captain and the first mate were in the control room at the front of the boat, so Lucas took me to the back of the boat. We went down another staircase and into the lower deck. Down here was a bunch of different cabins used for sleeping. I guess this yacht could also be used as a small cruise ship. Lucas ushered me halfway down the hall and found an open door. He guided me inside and turned on the light. “Lucas. What are we doing down here?” I asked. “I just wanted some alone time for us, away from the party and people.” “How did you know that this was down here?” I asked, smiling. “I didn’t. I just had a thought and went with it,” he said as he closed the gap between us. “I just can’t believe that I’m lucky enough to be here with you tonight,” he said as his hand found the side of my face. “I feel the same way,” I said right before I kissed him. We spent the remaining twenty minutes of the cruise in that cabin, wrapped up in each other. His lips were soft and moist as he kissed my lips, neck, and shoulder. My hands scanned his muscular back as they made their way into his tousled dirty blonde hair. I didn’t care if I was messing it up at this moment, and I don’t think he did either. Our kiss deepened with every second that passed by and I couldn’t help the sensation running throughout my body. Butterflies. The warning horn sounded and we stopped. We knew that we would probably get in trouble by being down here, so we needed to get back to the middle deck and try to blend in with everyone else. As we made our way to the top, I couldn’t believe what had just happened between Lucas and me. It was so spontaneous and in the moment, and I loved every bit of it. He made me feel so different than anyone had before. For the first time I didn’t feel like myself. I felt better, more relaxed and natural. Lucas wasn’t here to ‘watch over me’ or ‘make sure I was safe’. He was here because he wanted to be, not because he had to. He made me feel free. And tonight… tonight was definitely better. *** Roman was waiting for us as soon as we walked down the ramp. It was already after ten and I knew we needed to hurry and get back before Emilio started wondering where we were. “I had an amazing night,” I said as Lucas opened the car door. “Thank you.” I tilted my head up and gently touched my lips to his. I couldn’t help but smile against his soft, inviting lips. “Alright you two love birds, we need to get going,” Roman said from the driver’s seat. Lucas kissed me one more time and then helped me into the car. Just like last time, Roman took off, leaving Lucas in the dust. “So how was it?” Roman asked just as Lucas was out of sight in his rearview. “Indescribable.” I smiled. “And you were right. I would never have guessed he’d take me here.” “I told you,” he said as he smiled back at me. “I figured you would like it.” “I did enjoy myself, and I know I have already thanked you a million times, but I’m going to do it once more. Thank you for doing this for me. It means a lot.” “Lily, I’ve already told you my reasons for doing this. Lucas and I have already talked about it. As long as Emilio doesn’t suspect anything, I’m cool with helping you two out. It’ll be our secret. But once Emilio starts to suspect something, you need to break it off with Lucas, or find a way to tell Emilio.” If only it was that easy. But honestly, if I did tell Emilio, being with Lucas was worth any wrath that Emilio might come back at me with. Chapter 9 The sound of my phone ringing woke me up the next morning. I rolled over and picked it up off my nightstand. It was Violet. We hadn’t talked about anything other than business the past week. She probably just wanted to catch up on a few things, but couldn’t she have waited until at least ten? “Hello,” I said, groggy. “Lily?” She paused for a moment. “Are you okay?” “Yeah, I’m fine. You just woke me up that’s all.” “Oh, I’m sorry,” she giggled. “You’re usually awake before noon.” Noon? I lurched forward and checked the clock on my nightstand. It was five minutes after twelve. I can’t believe I slept so late. My whole day was going to be off now. “Sorry, Vi, I had a long night last night. I guess I was more tired than I thought I was.” I threw the covers off me and headed to the bathroom. When I looked in the mirror, I laughed. There were lines imprinted all over my face and arms from where I had slept so hard. “Oh yeah? What did you do last night?” Violet’s voice piqued with curiosity. I debated on whether I would tell her about last night or start from the beginning. From the beginning would be best, since I hadn’t had the chance to tell her what happened last week. “I don’t even know where to begin.” “Well, I’m all ears! I want to know everything. Every dirty little detail,” she said excitedly. She already knew everything leading up to Roman being here and why he was here, so I caught her up on how Roman was helping me with Lucas when he saw how much I missed him and wanted to see him, and how miserable Emilio had made me feel. I told her all about the two dates we had been able to go on and how exhilarating the boat ride was. “I can’t believe you and Lucas! Get it girl!” “Violet!” I exclaimed. “I’m trying to take this slow. I don’t need another screwed up relationship to deal with.” “I get that. I just feel like more has gone on in the last couple of months than in your whole life. I wish I was there to help you out with everything. I can’t imagine. I bet Roman loves being the buffer between you and Emilio.” “At first I was pretty upset that Roman was going to be with me all the time, but I love having him here and he does do a good job at being the buffer,” I slightly giggled. “Most of the time he just forces Emilio to do whatever I want to do.” “Well, I’m glad you’re doing good, but the reason I called, besides catching up, was because Halloween is in a few weeks and I should have everything wrapped up here. And since we have had a Halloween party every year since we were in kindergarten, I was wondering if I come in early and helped, do you think we could have one there? We could invite employees, friends, and family.” I could hear the pleading in her voice. The time had gone by so fast I hadn’t realized it was already the end of September. Halloween was a month away. “Violet, that sounds absolutely amazing! I will have to double check with the General first, well more like tell him, and then I will get back to you. I’m seriously so excited about this and I can’t wait to see you!” “I can’t wait to see you either!” she squealed. “This is going to be the best party ever!” Violet’s excitement was contagious. I missed quirky Violet, and thankfully, she would be with me soon. *** Emilio returned home late that night, and I had been waiting up for him in the family room. I was sitting on the couch listening as he walked down the hall and towards the kitchen. As soon as he saw me, he stopped in his tracks. I nodded my head for him to come and join me. He casually made his way over, sat down next to me, looked at me, and patiently waited for me to begin. “I need to talk to you about something,” I began. “I know,” he laughed. “Hence me coming over and sitting beside you.” I rolled my eyes at him. “Violet called this morning and she is going to be able to come in around Halloween, and we are going to be throwing our annual Halloween Bash. So, I’m warning you ahead of time so you can make whatever arrangements you need to,” I said, finally taking a breath. I wanted to make sure I could get it all out. “Okay,” was all he said, smiling. “Okay?” I asked confused. “No rebuttals?” He looked at me and took a deep breath and shrugged. “I called Violet yesterday and asked her if she was going to be able to make it in time for Halloween. I had been thinking about your famous ‘All Hallows Eve Bash’ and I thought it would be nice to have one here. I know things haven’t been easy around here lately and I thought maybe having a party would be fun and sort of a peace offering between us.” I just stared at him in disbelief. “It could be a ‘Welcome Violet’ party, too. I just want you to be happy with me,” he said as he cocked a grin, “again.” “Emilio, I can’t believe you did this,” I said as I flung my arms around him. “I’m honestly speechless. Thank you so much,” I whispered in his ear. He was sort of amazing when he wanted to be. *** Violet arrived three weeks later. We spent a day unpacking and catching up, but then it was time to get to work. We spent the entire week preparing for the party. Between the decorations I had picked up and the ones Violet had brought from home, our house was slowly turning into the ultimate haunted house. We had picked out an amazing caterer and hopefully the best costumes we could think of. We had a tradition of keeping our costumes a secret, only revealing it the night of the party. I was so curious to see what Violet had picked this year. I had already decided what Emilio and I were going to wear—I hoped he liked it. If it weren’t for my forcing him to dress up, he wouldn’t. But if he wanted to come to the party, then dressing up was a requirement. Violet thought I was crazy for not asking Lucas to be my date, but Emilio and I had been attempting to be friends. This, after all, was Emilio’s doing and I wanted him to know I appreciated it. Plus Lucas wasn’t able to make it, because of family. Friday morning crept up on us fast. We spent the entire morning finishing the small details, but other than that the house looked spectacular. We had spiders, spider webs, tombstones, coffins, skulls, leaves, pumpkins, witches, and ghosts scattered throughout the house. Violet had brought our laptops and projectors. We sat them up in the sitting room and family room and would be playing old black and white scary movies throughout the night. The caterer and the DJ were scheduled to arrive around seven to get set up, and the party was supposed to begin around eight. By the time Violet and I finished everything and looked at the clock, it was already five. We both looked at each other with panic in our eyes and took off up the stairs. We would not see each other again until we revealed our costumes. I needed the whole two hours, if not more. I started putting curlers in my hair immediately. I burnt my finger several times from being in such a hurry. As I put on my makeup, I skimmed through Google images still trying to decide on what to do with my hair. I eventually found one I thought I could do easily. I smoothed out the top to the middle of my head and then I pinned my long curled hair into a short curled bob. I used an entire container of bobby pins and hairspray trying to make sure my hair would not move. I also took extra care placing my headband on my head. It looked amazing! It was white with a pearl laced veil that started right above my forehead and came to just above my eyebrows. On the right side of my head was a medium white feather arrangement that gave it the perfect finish. My dress was made to look like an authentic dress made in the early twenties. It was white as well, with the same pearl laced design as my headband. The dress was sleeveless and square, flowing down to my knees. It felt funny being in a dress that wasn’t as snug as I was used to. When I looked in the mirror at my finished self, I couldn’t believe how different I looked. This era definitely suited me. At exactly seven o’clock my phone chimed. Violet. She was letting me know she would be waiting for me in the living room and to come when I was ready. I let her know I needed just a few more moments and I would be on my way. I grabbed my rosy red lipstick and applied it, popping my lips when I was done. I took one last look in the mirror before I grabbed my feather boa and headed out the door. Violet and Roman were standing in the middle of the living room chatting when I walked in. Roman immediately stopped talking. “Wow, Lil, you look,” he stuttered for a moment, “amazing!” I blushed at his compliment. He looked adorable in his S.W.A.T. team costume. I laughed at the irony—he was definitely S.W.A.T. to me. Violet shrieked as soon as she saw me. She looked gorgeous as always. She was all decked out in black leather and spandex. Her crop top shirt and pants were skin tight. Honestly, I have no idea how she was moving in that outfit. Her black pumps gave her an extra four inches. Violet’s hair was perfectly curled and pinned back on the left side of her head along with beautiful smoky eyes and ruby red lips. She was a knock out! “Violet. Or should I call you Sandy?” I giggled. “You look absolutely amazing!” “Thank you,” she said as she turned in a circle, making sure I saw every detail. “All you’re missing is your Danny.” “Did someone say Danny?” I heard a familiar voice say—it was coming from the kitchen. Dante strolled into sight just as I registered his voice. He was wearing a plain white t-shirt with black jeans cuffed at the end with his hair greased into a perfect curl that hung in front of his forehead. He even had a black leather jacket that had T-Birds on the back. “Dante!” I yelled as I ran up to him and hugged him. “I can’t believe you’re here! When did you get in?” “About three hours ago.” He smiled as he let me go and stepped back. “Violet and I wanted to surprise you. She snuck me up the stairs while you were busy in the kitchen earlier.” “I'm so happy! Tonight is now complete!” “So, you’re a flapper?” Dante laughed. “Yes,” I said, shaking from side to side, making the fringe on my dress sway. “And you must be a pimp?” Dante laughed and nodded his head to someone behind me. “A mob boss,” Emilio grumbled. Dante’s and Roman’s laughter filled the whole house. I personally didn’t understand what was so funny about that. I thought Emilio looked dashing in his black suit with white pinstripes. He had on a white shirt with a silky blood red tie and a black fedora with a thick red feather on the side. His hat was tipped over his right eye and the red handkerchief in his chest pocket gave it that finishing touch. I couldn’t help but stare at how well the outfit turned out. He hadn’t even looked up at me. He was probably thinking of how he would get his revenge on me for making him dress up. “You look very handsome.” I smiled at him. “What do you think about mine?” He held his hand up and let me twirl in a circle for him. “You’re beyond indescribable, Ms. Dapprima,” he said with a slight grin on his face. “Now I understand why I’m in this ridiculous costume.” “Hey now,” I proclaimed. “It’s not ridiculous. I’m a twenties flapper and you’re my delicious eye candy.” “I'm pretty sure it’s the other way around. You’re definitely going to be the eye candy tonight,” he said, looking me up and down. Violet huffed playfully in the background. Emilio laughed. “Violet in that outfit, you’re going to steal the show.” She perked up at that compliment. Then the doorbell rang and she took off. I suspected it was the caterers. “You’re stunning in that outfit,” Emilio whispered in my ear. My heart raced with his close proximity. I wondered when my heart would ever quit telling on me. My mind knew all the consequences of being with him, but my heart still longed for him at inappropriate times. “Thank you,” I said before I kissed him on the cheek and headed toward Violet. I had been right about the caterers and person after person carried trays of food into the kitchen. Everything looked delicious. My favorite had to be the desserts, which were all Halloween themed and looked amazing. The cake bites were decorated like eyeballs, the dirt cake had worms, and there was a witch’s brew potion to drink. I couldn’t wait to taste it all! Violet and I directed traffic, as the guys started the music and the projections. Before we knew it, the doorbell rang and our guests were arriving. I was disappointed when I didn’t see Lucas come through the door. I knew he had a family event, but I was hoping that he might surprise me. *** The party was a complete hit. Emilio and I were even having a great time. We danced and chatted with everyone all night. We played games and had a contest for best dressed. Emilio and I took first place and Dante and Violet took second, although I thought they deserved first. “Hey, Lily,” Dante said as he danced up to me. “We need more drinks. Where are they?” “They’re downstairs,” I said smiling. He made a puppy dog face at me. “Don’t worry, I will go get them.” He had been glued to Violet all night, even though they “were not” dating. Whatever. Emilio, who had been talking to his friend, asked me if I needed any help, but I declined, telling him it was only drinks and I would be right back. I picked up the plastic crate and then opened up the door that led to the basement. I didn’t want to have to make several trips, so having the crate would make it easier to carry more. I was humming to the song that was playing as I turned to shut the door. I was regretting it a few steps down—I needed to stop that habit quickly. I couldn’t see a thing—the light for the basement was at the bottom of the steps. Why they had wired the house like that was beyond me. “Seriously,” I mumbled to myself as I fumbled around for the switch. “Where is that stupid light?” I felt around for a few more seconds before I found it. “Ah, there you are.” I didn’t even have time to scream as I felt one hand slide over my mouth and the other behind my neck. The only thing that wasn’t covered in black or hidden from view were his ice cold blue eyes that were staring straight back at me. “If you scream, I will kill you,” he growled at me. My body became instantly paralyzed with fear. I knew even if I did try to scream the loud music would cover it up. My eyes started searching the room. Emilio’s desk and filing cabinets had been ransacked. This man was definitely looking for something. Move! I yelled to myself. MOVE! What was the saying the guys used to say growing up? When in doubt hit the snout, if you can’t succeed a knee you will need. I jerked my knee up swiftly and nailed him as hard as I could. He dropped his hands instantly. I threw the crate at him and turned to run up the stairs. He was fast though, catching me before I even made it halfway up. He grabbed my feet and pulled, making me face-plant, my chin slamming into the step and blood instantly flying everywhere. The force of the fall disoriented me. Everything was going blurry when he grabbed me and slammed me up against the wall. His cold hands were clamped around my throat making it difficult to breath. The way he had his body pressed up against mine, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t fight back. I kept telling myself not to panic, to stay focused, and not to lose consciousness. I was terrified, and thought I was going to die, in my own house, with a party going on just above me. His blue eyes were staring at me, watching me struggle to breath. And for a second, I thought I saw a speck of remorse in them. A second later, he flung me down the stairs. I toppled down the steps faster than I even thought was physically possible. When I hit the bottom, I skidded across the floor and rolled onto my stomach. I could hear his footsteps approaching me. Don’t look up. I felt his boot nudge me gently before I heard his heavy footsteps make their way back to Emilio’s desk. Then I heard the crumpling of paper as he grabbed them. The basement door, which led to the outside, shut shortly after letting me know he was finally gone. I laid there for a few minutes, the pain slowly taking over. All I wanted was for it to stop. I tried several times to push myself up to crawl towards the steps. I almost made it there, but I was hurting so bad and fighting unconsciousness so hard, that my body just couldn’t handle it anymore. Everything went dark. *** “Liliana! Oh my God!” Was I dreaming? Was that Emilio’s voice? “Roman! Roman! Shit, Roman! Call Dr. Silas right now!” I felt Emilio’s hand brush against my face, and then he slid it down my throat. He was checking for a pulse. The music had been so loud earlier, now nothing. “Lily, can you hear me?” Emilio asked. I could hear him and I tried to respond, but couldn’t. I was screaming in my head, but nothing came out but a moan. I heard several pairs of footsteps coming down the stairs at a remarkable speed. “Hold on, Lily, I love…,” was the last thing I heard before the darkness came over me again. *** I didn’t know how long I had been drifting in and out of consciousness. I had periods where I could hear voices, the conversations ranging from “she will be fine,” to “what happened?” and “why weren’t you there?” I kept dreaming, too. I didn’t know what was worse, the searing pain, or the fact I was being haunted once again by my reoccurring nightmare. This time instead of a faceless person, I now saw the masked man, with those icey blue eyes, chasing after me, his voice ringing in my ears. The sound of my own screams eventually startled me out of my nightmare. My eyes sprung open and I scanned the room. It took me a moment to realize I was in my own room. It was dimly lit, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw the lamp come into view. I tried to sit up, but the pain was agonizing. The door flew open seconds later and I jumped. The pain from the jar almost made me pass out. Emilio, Dante, Violet, and Roman rushed into my room, almost falling over each other in a race to my bedside. All four started talking and I could barely keep up with what they were saying. The room and their faces were starting to spin, so I quickly closed my eyes tight. “Shut up!” Violet's voice rang out. The room immediately fell silent as her soft hand felt my forehead and then my cheek before she spoke. “Lily?” she said softly. My eyes slowly opened to find four beautiful faces staring back at me. “Are you okay?” she asked, taking my hand carefully into hers as she knelt beside me. I nodded and tried to sit up on my own. The pain was unbearable and I was struggling. “Here, let us help you,” Dante said as he motioned to Roman to help from the other side. It took them several attempts. Every time they would move me, I would groan in pain and once I even yelled out. All four of them wanted to stop after that, but I motioned to them to just keep going. When I was finally all the way up into a sitting position, I just sat there for a few minutes in silence as tears flowed down my face from the pain. Emilio, who had been standoffish, walked over and took my free hand and held it in his. “What happened?” Dante asked, kneeling beside Violet. I slowly explained what I remembered happening. The four of them sat there, listening intently. Violet had tears streaming down her face while the guys looked absolutely murderous. After I finished, Emilio kissed my hand and motioned for the guys to follow him. I was thirsty, so Violet followed quickly after them. I looked at my phone realizing I had been out for quite a while. I needed to get up and move around no matter how bad I felt, so I pushed the covers off my legs and immediately froze at the sight of them. There were bruises everywhere. I was curious about the rest of my body after that. It took me a moment, but I finally pushed myself off the bed, gritting my teeth to fight off the pain. I was a little unsteady at first as I made my way over to the mirror. I was horrified by the person standing there in front of me. I was in a tank top and shorts now. I guess Violet had changed me. My whole body looked just as bad as my legs did. I have had my fair share of black eyes and the double one I was sporting now was just as bad as the others. I looked at the gash above my eyebrow and the one under my chin. They both had stitches in them. I didn’t remember being at a hospital, so how did I get the stitches? I did remember hearing Dr. Silas’s name. Maybe it was him? That would be a necessary question to ask later on. What was taking Violet so long? My throat felt like a brillo pad, and every time I swallowed it felt like a thousand needles stabbing me. I decided I would just head downstairs, but I didn’t make it too far down the steps before I could hear why Violet hadn’t made it back up. “Where were you?” she screamed. “Where was I?” Emilio yelled back. “I was entertaining guests at your damn party! Don’t you think I feel bad enough? I should have went with her!” “Both of you stop it!” Dante’s voice rose above theirs. “It was my fault and I will have to live with that! I should have just went and got those damn drinks myself. It was my fault! Now can we please just focus on her?” “All of you stop it,” I said breathlessly as I rounded the corner into the kitchen. “It wasn’t your fault Dante, or yours Emilio.” “What are you doing out of bed?” Emilio demanded as he rushed to my side and helped me to the breakfast nook bench. Violet had lost it by this time—she was crying hysterically into Dante’s chest. He had his arms wrapped tightly around her, and Roman was standing there with a solemn look on his face. “I was hungry and thirsty.” I tried to smile at him. “You all cannot fight over this. It was a terrible accident. It could have been any of us, so please don’t fight anymore.” They all reluctantly nodded in agreement. “Okay, good, now can someone please get me a drink and something to eat?” I grinned, but it felt more like a grimace. “Oh and the story of what happened afterwards would be nice, too. I’d like to know exactly how I got stitches and please tell me it wasn’t one of you.” That finally got a smile out of everyone. *** While Roman made everyone lunch, Emilio went over the events from the evening before. “I hadn’t seen you in a while, at least twenty minutes or more, and I noticed the drinks weren’t restocked. I was worried about you, so I made my way toward the basement asking if anyone had seen you along the way. “When I reached the basement door, I could see the light on beneath it, so I flung the door open, and there you were, lying at the bottom of the stairs. There was blood everywhere. I ran down the steps and turned you over as fast and as gently as I could. There were no words to express how I felt at that moment.” Emilio stopped for a moment and a tear rolled down his face. He wiped it away quickly, probably not wanting anyone to notice. But I did. “I started yelling and Roman came and helped me carry you up the stairs and out to the car. Roman had already called Dr. Silas and he was waiting for us when we reached his office. He checked you out and made sure you didn’t have any broken bones and stitched you up. He gave us your medications and said to keep you comfortable and that he would be checking in. We brought you home afterwards, and you have been sleeping ever since.” “Lily, you really scared us,” Dante spoke up. “I’m fine,” I reassured them. “If I was that bad, why didn’t you call an ambulance? Why Dr. Silas?” “Dr. Silas is a great doctor and his office is closer. We got you there within minutes and he started immediately. By the time the ambulance would have arrived at the house, Dr. Silas was already hard at work. And how were we going to explain your accident to the doctors and police when no one out of a house full of people saw what happened? We don’t need unwanted attention drawn to us.” “Why can’t we draw attention to ourselves?” I asked confused. His whole explanation made sense except that. “We just moved into this neighborhood a couple of months ago. This isolated incident could look bad on us, or cause the neighbors to panic. We will be increasing security around the house and you will be protected, I promise,” Emilio said as he squeezed my hand. “As for right now, you need rest and lots of it. We have your pain medications when you want them,” Dante chimed in. “I’m fine for now. I just need some food.” I rubbed my stomach and winced at the pain. Chapter 10 I rested for an entire week and then it was time to get back to work. I hadn’t seen Lucas since our date, but he had been texting me making sure I was okay. I was hoping I could talk Roman into another date night, so I could get out of the house and spend more time with Lucas. Violet was here to stay, so I spent some of the week getting her up to date with our new projects. I had finished the first four, so now I was working on a couple of restaurants my father had just become partner at. They needed major makeovers, so Violet and I would need to go and check them out. They were active restaurants that were going to take a lot of planning and preparation, since we would only be able to shut them down for about ten days at the most. We were sitting down eating breakfast when there was a knock at the front door. Roman gave us a look before he headed toward it. “Lucas Trivelli reporting for duty,” he announced proudly as he entered the kitchen. I was thrilled to see him. I jumped off the chair and raced over to him. I hugged him tight, but he didn’t return the hug, which I was confused me. I pulled away from him and noticed the shocked look on his face. It took me a minute to realize this was the first time he had seen me since my attack. Of course I would be a shock to him, especially since I only had on a tank top and shorts. The look on his face made me thankful that today was a nice cool November day, and that I could get away with wearing a turtleneck and jeans when I left the house. “It’s okay, I’m fine,” I said, looking at him. “They don’t hurt, anymore.” “I...,” Lucas stumbled over his words. “I’m so sorry, Lily.” He looked mortified. “It’s really okay, Lucas,” I said a little annoyed. I had finally convinced the entire house I was fine and now Lucas comes in here acting like I was about to crumble at any moment. “Lucas, I’m fine. I don’t hurt anymore and I don’t want to hear another word about it. You treat me like you have always treat me or you can just leave.” That seemed to have caught his attention. He backed off and didn’t mention it again, although for the rest of breakfast, when I looked at him, he just looked sad. *** The days flew by, as did the next week, and the week after that. Violet and I had stayed busy as we tried to finish all the restaurants. Roman and Lucas accompanied us every day and we put them to work. Anything and everything that needed to be hung on the walls was their job. I owed a lot to Roman and Violet for the past two weeks. They had been so sweet. When we had gone to lunch, they had let Lucas and me sit by ourselves, and when Lucas stole a kiss, Violet would just giggle. Thanksgiving was coming up on Thursday and my parents were flying in to join us. My father had already called several times letting me know he looked forward to seeing our progress. I wanted to make sure we had at least two done. We could finish the other two before we left for Christmas. It was all hands on deck for the weekend. Lucas, Emilio, Dante, and Roman were all called in to help us. We wanted to have Monday through Wednesday to be able to get ready for my parents’ arrival. Monday was quiet. Roman and Lucas were needed elsewhere, so it was just Violet and me around the house. I was glad to have a break from all the guys and just spend some one on one time with her. We spent most of the day at home, but we did venture out once to get our nails done. It was the only place the guys absolutely refused to go. Tuesday was busy. Emilio and Dante decided to punish themselves by accompanying Violet and me as we grocery shopped for Thanksgiving. It was quite an experience! I don’t think I have ever seen two men fight over whose turkey was the biggest. It was embarrassing when they took them over to the fruit and vegetable section and actually weighed them. I ended up buying both of them. All of us would be eating turkey until Christmas, but it was worth it—I was tired of listening to them. Thanksgiving was one of my favorite holidays. It was always traditional, no Italian food allowed. I actually loved turkey and dressing with mashed potatoes and all the other side dishes. Violet and I were super excited that we were going to be the ones making dinner this year. We spent Tuesday night getting the house ready for my parents. Roman, Dante, and Emilio all helped. Our house was usually clean, but I wanted to make sure it was extra clean since my parents would be staying here for a couple of days. When I crawled into bed Tuesday night, I was excited for the next day. I was looking forward to seeing my mother and even my father. I couldn’t wait to show him the work we had done. Wednesday morning went slow. Violet and I touched up things around the house until it was time to head to the airport. I was shocked when they said they were going to be flying into Newark and not JFK. It was odd for them to fly into a new place, but I wasn’t going to complain—it meant less driving time for me. I could hardly contain myself when I saw my mother—I had missed her so much. I hugged her tighter than I ever had before. Although we talked almost every day, it wasn’t the same. She almost flew in a couple of weeks ago when I was attacked, but Dante told her I was fine and it wasn’t that bad. She would have freaked out if she had seen me then. My bruises had mostly faded and my cuts had healed. The only thing remaining from that night was the two scars on my face. I was thankful she didn’t get the chance to see the black eyes or the bruised handprints around my throat. Even my father was in a good mood. He hugged me and asked how I was doing. I was optimistic that these next few days would be great having him here. After a quick lunch, we headed toward the city. Violet and I wanted to show my father the two newest redesigns before we had to head back home for dinner. Benito said he would meet us there and bring dinner with him. The first restaurant went well. He was very pleased with it and he praised Violet and me for our good work and told us how talented we were. I breathed a sigh of relief and let my guard down, as did Violet. We even had whispered back and forth about how we thought this one was going to be the hard one and the other one was going to be easier one. It was short lived, though. The second one didn’t go as well. It had once been an old burger joint and we thought it would be awesome to take it back to the old diner look. We wanted the old booths, tables, and bar stools. We had decided red and white would be cool with a Coca-Cola theme. The other owner loved it. He had called and told us how much his customers had been raving about it. However, my father was not pleased at all. “So what do you think?” I asked all smiles. “I hate it,” he said firmly. I watched as Violet’s smile faded just about as fast as mine did. “You hate it?” I questioned. “Yes.” “What part?” Violet asked confused. “All of it,” he said as he motioned around the entire restaurant. “This is just awful. What in the hell were you thinking? You must redo it!” I was in shock. It was really cute, and I didn’t understand what he was so upset about. “Papà, your partner and customers love it. He has had great feedback from it.” “Well, obviously he is blind or has terrible, tacky taste.” Did he just insult my work? “You must redo all of this at your own cost,” he continued. “No!” I yelled at him. “This is good work and we got great feedback, which means more than your apparent terrible, tacky judgment.” I was looking back and forth from my father to my mother. She seemed to not share the same thought as he did, and smiled at my rebuttal. Violet just stood there bewildered. I knew arguing with him at this point was not going to work. We were in the middle of the restaurant with customers around, so I grabbed Violet and headed toward the car. No one spoke the entire drive back to my house. As we pulled up, I noticed everyone was at the house: Dante, Emilio, Benito, Giovanni, Giorgio, and Marcello. None of them were smiling. My father practically jumped out of the car before I put it in park. They all immediately headed into the house except Emilio, who was waiting for us to join him. My mother looked worried, Violet confused, and I was still furious. I marched passed the three of them and headed straight into the house. “How could you insult my and Violet’s work? In front of customers!” “Lily,” Emilio said from behind me as he gently touched my arm. I jerked away from him and turned to him with hurt in my eyes. “We will talk about this later,” he spoke quietly but firm. “Fine,” I said as I headed toward the front door. “But this isn’t over with yet.” “Where are you going young lady? You can’t leave this house without supervision,” my father sternly said. “You don’t have the right to order me around anymore!” I raised my voice with every word. “This is my house and I can do whatever the hell I want!” Dante was looking at me, pleading for me to stop. “Stop acting like a child. This is about your safety!” my father refuted. “My safety? Do we really want to talk about that! I’m pretty sure I almost died in this very house, so spare me your safety talk, Papà.” Emilio put his arm around my waist and ushered me toward the staircase. “Emilio?” “I’m sorry. Just please go upstairs and take some time to calm down,” he pleaded. I looked at him for a few seconds before I angrily climbed up the stairs. I didn’t care if I resembled a child. I was upset. My mother was waiting for me, but I didn’t even look at her as I passed and went straight to my room. I slammed and locked the door behind me. I searched around the room to make sure Violet wasn’t in there, and she wasn’t. She was probably tending to my mother. I thought this trip was going to be different. It wasn’t—it was the same old shit. Condescending behavior from my father, my brothers and Emilio keeping things from me and cowering in my father’s presence, and Violet running interference, this was all too much! “Lily?” my mother said. Her voice was sweet and sincere. “Not now, mamma,” I said as nicely and steady as I could. I paced back and forth for a few moments. I had to get out of here. Now. I needed to clear my head, so I changed my clothes as fast as I could. I didn’t know where I was going, so I made sure I put on something warmer. My room was on the second floor, so going downstairs was not an option. I did the next best thing I could think of. I had a tree outside one of my windows. I slipped my jacket on as I headed to my window, slowly opening it and climbing out. It had been a while since I had climbed down a tree, but I quickly shimmied down as fast as I could. When I reached the ground, I skipped around to the back part of the house. I decided to take the long way around to avoid crossing the front yard. My car was in the garage, so I knew I couldn’t get it out without anyone noticing, but Dante’s jeep was at the end of the driveway. He had a bad habit of leaving his car unlocked with a spare key in it since we were in a gated community. I knew I didn’t have much time when I could hear Emilio yelling my name. He probably went up to check on me and figured out I wasn’t in my room. Knowing him, he probably kicked in my door. Giorgio was standing on the porch talking on the phone when he spotted me. I gave him a pleading look, and he just shook his head. He let me get into the car before he started yelling that I was out front. At least he gave me a head start. I was trying to remember how to drive a standard shift and put Dante’s jeep in reverse when he and Emilio came storming out the front door. Emilio ran toward me, but thankfully the gear shifted and I punched the gas pedal seconds before he reached me. The tires squealed as they left a mark on the driveway. Dante was standing on the porch laughing as my father stepped out beside him. I slammed the gear into drive and hit the gas again. I looked in the rearview mirror and watched as Emilio continued to chase me. He finally slowed down in the middle of the street once he realized I wasn’t coming back. When I hit the highway I had no idea where I was going, I just knew I had to go somewhere. I wanted to be free for just a little bit—I deserved that much. Chapter 11 It hadn’t taken me long to decide to come here—the beach always made me feel better. Since it was late November, the breeze coming off the ocean was extremely cold, but I didn’t care. I climbed out of the jeep and headed straight for the water. I thought about throwing myself into it, but decided against that. Instead I kicked the sand and threw handfuls of it into the ocean. What was everyone’s problem? I felt like I was living in a huge bubble compared to everyone else in my family. Everything lately seemed to be just too much for me. I thought I was fine, but out here with no one smothering me, I realized I was not fine. I was at my breaking point and what made it worse was that it was partly my fault. I felt that I needed to be strong for everyone else, while letting all my frustration bottle up inside me. Today it was as if my father had taken that bottle and shook it ferociously, making all its content explode. I started crying uncontrollably and eventually fell to my knees, burying my face in my hands. I wasn’t sure how long I was in that position, when a hand touched my shoulder. I recoiled and jumped back to see a man standing there. He was wearing sweatpants and a hoody. His face was obscure. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to startle you.” He took a step back and removed his hood, finally revealing his face. He was handsome with spiked blonde hair, pale skin, and chiseled features. His emerald eyes, as green as mine, were staring at me intensely. “It’s okay,” I said, wiping the tears from my face. I was mortified that someone had just witnessed my temper tantrum. “I was just…” I didn’t even know how to explain my behavior. “You weren’t going to jump in were you?” he asked as he smiled at me for the first time. Why did every man I meet lately have a smile that was so unbelievably beautiful? “No,” I answered back faster than I had anticipated. The truth was I had thought about it, but this was November in New Jersey, and the thought of hypothermia and the loss of fingers and toes outweighed that decision. “I'm Nikolas,” he said as he stuck his hand out for me to grab. I realized I was still sitting in the sand, so I took it and he helped me up. “Lily,” I said, dusting the sand off of me. “It’s nice to meet you, Lily.” “Likewise.” I didn’t really know what to say to this gorgeous man who had just witnessed a complete meltdown of some strange woman on the beach. Note to self…when you think you’re at the beach alone, make sure to check your surroundings before you make a complete fool of yourself. “I'm really sorry about that,” I said, pointing to the ground where I had just been. “It’s been an extremely rough day.” “It’s all good, it happens to everyone. That’s why I'm out here running. It’s my way of getting things out of my system.” “I usually run myself,” I laughed for the first time. “But I’m not from around here, so I thought the next best thing would be to kick and throw sand all over the place, apparently.” He smiled at me with understanding. “Would you like to go grab a coffee or something?” he asked rocking back and forth on his heels. He was nervous, and it was adorable. “There is this place just over there.” He pointed towards a small row of stores. “We can just walk straight to it. It seems like we both need a cup.” “Sure,” I said without hesitation. Coffee did sound good, and it was right across the street. Normally I would have said no, but today was different. I needed a conversation with someone outside of my normal circle. I needed a break. Nikolas was charming and sweet. He bought us both coffee and we sat in a corner booth and chatted for a couple hours about nothing in particular. He never asked me what was wrong, or where I was from, just random questions like what did I read? Did I like sports? What was my favorite color? It was nice to just sit and talk with him. He never tried to flirt or hit on me, which made me relax. I didn’t need to broaden the love triangle I was already in. When I finally realized what time it was, I panicked. “I'm sorry, Nikolas. I have to go,” I said, standing up and grabbing my coat. “I'm sure they’re all freaking out and wondering where I am.” “They?” “My roommates,” I said not even skipping a beat. “I kind of left in a hurry.” “Well, thank you for spending the evening with me,” he said as he stood and took my coat from me to help me put it on. “You really helped me take my mind off a couple of things.” “No, thank you. I owe you one.” I didn’t even have time to stop myself, I just grabbed him, pulled him in, and held him tightly. I was glad our paths had crossed. I really needed this small chat, no bullshit, just a normal conversation. “Can I have your number?” he asked politely. “Sure.” I smiled as I grabbed my keys and kissed him quickly on the cheek. “If fate has us meet again, I’ll give it to you then.” I winked at him as I headed out the door. As soon as I was outside, I ran toward Dante’s jeep. It was after ten. I didn’t even want to begin to think about what was waiting for me when I got home. I fumbled around for my phone and then I remembered that I had left it on my bed at the house. Yeah, I was going to die. If Violet didn’t kill me, then Emilio or Dante surely would. I contemplated if I should even go home, but that would only make matters worse, and I was already in deep. *** Our house was lit up like a runway as I pulled into the driveway. I hadn’t seen Emilio approach the car until the driver side door flew open and he stood there wide-eyed and very much enraged. I started to say something, but he cut me off before I could even begin. “Get in the house,” he said through gritted teeth. “I’m…,” I started to speak again. “I said get in the house. Now.” He watched me as I got out of the jeep and walked behind me all the way into the house before shutting and locking the door quickly. “Room,” he said caveman-like pointing up the stairs. I didn’t argue—I just headed up the steps. Dante was standing midway shaking his head at me as I passed, the same smirk still on his lips as when I left. “You’re in so much trouble,” he said as his smirk spread into a grin across his face. I thought he might have been talking about Emilio, but he wasn’t. Violet greeted me at the top of the stairs with her hands on her hips and anger in her eyes. “Where the hell have you been?” she shrieked at me. “The beach.” Short and sweet, I thought to myself. “You have been at the beach this entire time?” she yelled at me. “We have been freaking out, worried sick and you have been at the beach!” I just nodded, not sure what else to say. “I’m sorry.” My voice was full of remorse. “I just needed…,” I paused for a moment. “I just needed space.” Violet dropped her arms and sighed, understanding what I meant. “You really did scare us,” she said as she hugged me and then led me to my room. “We let it go for the first hour, but when you didn’t come home, Emilio started pacing and getting nervous. At hour two, he called all the guys and had them on standby, and by hour three, he unleashed them all. He has been on pins and needles.” Violet told me about Emilio asking my father about what happened to set me off. Once my father explained what happened, Emilio told him that I had been fine the last couple of months and that if he was going to insult me, then he wasn’t welcomed to stay here. She said my father and mother didn’t stay very long after that, and that I was to call my mother first thing in the morning. “Do you think Emilio is going to come up here anytime soon?” I asked nervously. “I don’t know. Probably not tonight, I think he needs time to cool off. I wish you could have seen him. I haven’t seen him that upset,” she said taking a deep breath, “well, in a long time. Anyways, I think it’s time for you to shower and head to bed. He’ll be better in the morning.” She hugged me tightly before she headed to her bedroom, and I headed to my bathroom to take a shower. I stayed in there longer than usual. The hot water felt nice on my skin as it was washing my guilt away. I acted immature and I shouldn’t have ran off. I needed to learn to control my temper and face whatever situation life dealt to me. Emilio startled me as I stepped into the sitting room after getting dressed and brushing my teeth. He was sitting in one of the chairs by the window looking at me. “You scared me,” I whispered loudly at him. “Good, you deserve more than that,” he said firmly. “Do you hate me?” I asked as I made my way over to him and sat down in the chair beside him. “You know I could never hate you.” He breathed out heavily as he sat up and put his face in his hands. “I am mad at you, though.” I grabbed his hands so that he would look at me. “Emilio,” I began, waiting for him to look up at me. When he finally did I almost forgot what I was going to say to him. His gray eyes were not angry at me—they were full of relief and pain at the same time. I was taken aback for a moment at his beauty. I didn’t think I could feel any worse, but I did. “I’m truly sorry I caused you to worry.” He reached up and placed his hand on my cheek. “I can’t lose you. If anything…” He trailed off for a moment and shook whatever thought he was having away. “If anything ever happened to you, Lily—” “Emilio, I’m not going anywhere,” I said, peering into his eyes. “I just needed some time to clear my head. I have been constantly watched over the last couple of weeks and treated like glass that was going to break at any moment. Today my father just topped everything off. If it wasn’t him, it would have been someone else. It was inevitable.” “I’m sorry we have smothered you.” He took my hands and placed them on my lap. “It’s just different here than it is at home. Hell, I had Roman here to protect you and neither he nor I could even do that in our own home. I hope you never have to know the anguish I felt when I saw you laying at the bottom of those stairs. It was,” he said as he started to choke up, and I tried to say something but he cut me off. “It was the worst day of my life.” I had not seen this side of Emilio in a long time. The look in his eyes brought me back to the day his father passed away, and the day he told me he didn’t love me anymore. The pain in them was seared into my memory. He continued. “I just want you to be happy, Liliana. I want you to be happy in everything you do. I want to be the one that does that for you and take care of you, but I can’t. I know it’s not possible, no matter how hard I wish for it, and I wish for it every day.” I had tears streaming down my face now. I had wished for this speech a million times over the years and I thought I needed to hear his words, but it was just tearing my heart apart. “I know we can’t do this,” he sighed. “I know I can't put you first, and you deserve to be number one at all times. I want you to know you can come to me, though, anytime you need something. I’m here to listen. If you need space, you just need to tell me so I can tell the guys to back off some, but just please,” he pleaded, “never ever run away again.” He left me speechless. As I looked up at him, my heart started racing, and before I could even stop myself, I kissed him. He had just bared his heart to me for the first time in years. I would deal with the consequences later. “I promise,” I whispered against his lips. *** The next morning I woke up to Emilio sleeping beside me in my bed. He looked so peaceful, which was a rare occasion. I laid there for a while, thinking about everything that he said last night. I still loved him, but being in this house with him made it so much harder to move on. I needed to move on and distance myself from him. He could never, for some reason, give his whole heart to me and Lucas could. Lucas and I had been having so much fun and I was starting to fall for him—hard. He at least deserved a chance. He made me happy, and even though I knew it was going to hurt Emilio, Lucas was the best thing for me. I decided right then and there that after Thanksgiving, it was going to be all about Lucas. I was going to put a hundred percent into our relationship, instead of the fifty percent I had been giving him. I knew that I could trust him with my whole heart. I didn’t want to wake Emilio, so I slowly and quietly crawled out of bed. Knowing him, he probably watched me sleep half the night making sure I didn’t leave again. I found Violet in the kitchen already working away. She had both turkeys out and in pans and the oven turned on. We didn’t talk at first—I just walked up, smiled at her, and went straight to cutting vegetables. The house was quiet and all I could hear was us slicing and mixing. I could tell something was on Violet’s mind, and after a short time, she finally decided it was time to talk. “Did you sleep well?” she asked as she started pulling out the potatoes. “Yes, and you?” I asked nonchalantly. “It was pretty good. Though I dreamt that I found Emilio curled up in bed with you.” She shot me a look that told me she had seen us this morning. “Oh, I guess it was another crazy dream of yours.” I didn’t look up from the green bean casserole I was working on. I heard her huff for a moment, and thought maybe she would let it go. Oh, how wrong I was… “You know you can’t keep doing this,” she said as she set her knife down carefully. I was glad she did. Violet, plus a knife, plus raging temper, equaled a bad combination. I knew I was about to get a lecture, so I decided I would go ahead and stop her before she even started. “Violet, it was an accident. We had a moment. We kissed and he held me all night, that’s all that happened. I already had a pep talk with myself this morning about Lucas and that is that. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” She gave me a look that said she didn’t believe me. “All I have to say is your love triangle is totally screwed up, you know that?” “Thanks, tell me something I don’t know.” I called my mother shortly after my conversation with Violet. She apologized for my father and hoped we could do lunch while she was in town. I told her I wanted her to meet Lucas, so we planned on having lunch on Saturday, just the three of us. She seemed super excited about that. All the guys eventually made their way downstairs, and before we knew it, it was lunchtime. Everything looked and smelled wonderful and tasted just as great. Dante, Emilio, and Roman devoured a lot of it, but we still had plenty of leftovers. We told them it would be our lunch or dinner for the next couple of days until it was all gone. We didn’t receive any complaints and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening playing cards, watching football, and just hanging out. The only interruptions had been a few phone calls here and there, but the day went by drama free. Friday was spent shopping and dragging Roman around with us. Emilio and Dante had been smart enough to get out of the house before we woke up, which was pretty early for them. Violet and I were up before the sun even rose. It was Black Friday and we had to get our shopping on. Roman tagged along, griping the entire time while he carried our bags for us when our arms got tired. We had a lot of shopping to accomplish. Christmas would be here before we knew it, and I was all about the deals. Dante and Emilio met us for lunch. Emilio looked a little stressed out, but was trying to hide it. We showed them what we had already bought so far while they teased Roman for not being smart enough to realize it was the biggest shopping day of the Christmas season. Emilio asked us if we minded putting together the company Christmas party for his employees, to which Violet and I agreed. After lunch it was more shopping, and before we knew, it was getting dark and time to head home. Emilio and Dante found us all in the family room when they came through the door with pizza. I was never so happy in my life! I was so tired and the thought of even warming up leftovers seemed like a huge task. Dante sat down in the living room with us, but Emilio kept walking in and out talking quietly on his phone. I was starting to get worried, because whatever had happened before lunch was obviously still bothering him. He quickly disappeared downstairs shortly before the front door opened. “Knock, knock,” Lucas called out. “Down here,” Emilio called through the intercom. Lucas didn’t seem to be in a hurry. He rounded the corner and jumped over the couch, landing beside me. “Hey,” he barely spoke before I threw my arms around him and kissed him. Missing him didn’t even come close to how I felt. And I could tell he felt the same as he kissed me back. Violet had to clear her throat for us to break apart, and Lucas quickly changed the subject. “I heard you three had a busy day,” he said, motioning to Roman, Violet, and me as he picked up a slice of pizza. “We did,” Violet said. “Did you have fun today?” Lucas asked me. “Yeah, but Roman had the most,” I laughed, and Roman just glared at me. “Did you get anything interesting?” Lucas’s grin spread wide at me. “A pair of earrings.” I smiled back. “That’s it? I’m disappointed. I was hoping for a runway show or something.” I hit him playfully on his arm. “Lucas!” Emilio called again. “Well,” he said, jumping up and grabbing another piece of pizza, “boss man is calling me.” “Hey don’t forget lunch tomorrow with my mom.” “Oh yeah, about that. I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it. I’m really sorry. I will have to catch her the next time she comes in.” “It’s okay,” I mumbled, disappointed. He gave me an apologetic smile before he kissed the scar above my eye and then headed toward the basement. *** Lucas showed up Thursday morning bright and early. He proudly told us he had volunteered to take us shopping for all our Christmas decorations. I thought he was kidding or lost his mind. No one ever volunteered for this job. He said he wanted to do it so he could spend more time with me, and if he was given the chance again, then he would gladly take it. Violet and I had already decided that since we were interior designers we didn’t want anyone to be disappointed when they came to the house. We wanted to make sure when the guests stepped into the house not only would they know it was Christmas time, but they would also be able to see and feel it as well. We had a festive morning and afternoon. Violet and I dragged Lucas from one store to the next. We had already decided we needed five trees; one for the formal living room, one for the dining room, one for the family room, and two small ones for the foyer. We decided on pre-lit ones and themed each tree with something different. The five themes we decided on were Santa Claus, snowmen, gingerbread men, angels, and snowflakes. We bought garland, rows of holly, ornaments, and lights for the inside and outside of the house. We also themed the drinks, cups, plates, and all other party essentials to match the decor. By the time Violet, Lucas, and I got home and unloaded the car, we could barely stand, so we took a small break before we started setting everything up. Friday kept us just as busy making sure last minute details were finished. The guys had spent the morning picking up all the prizes for the drawings and also collecting the money for the Christmas bonuses. Their afternoon consisted of them helping us move furniture, setting up tables, and then decorating the outside with lights. We had picked white lights for the house, thinking it would be the perfect touch. The guys worked on the roof lights while Violet and I wrapped the porch and trees, leaving no part of the outside untouched. When we turned everything on that night, the house lit the entire neighborhood up, and it looked amazing! The guys had done a great job. The house was spotless when we headed to bed that night and everything was ready for tomorrow. Violet and I were pretty proud of ourselves, even though the guys thought there were too many Christmas decorations, and five trees was overdoing it. We didn’t care, though. Tomorrow was going to be unforgettable! Chapter 12 “I’m so excited for tonight,” Violet giggled as she pulled her hair up into a ponytail as I was still combing mine. Today was the Christmas party and neither one of us could hardly contain ourselves. “Oh my God,” she squealed, about scaring me to death. “It’s my favorite song,” she said as she ran over to the radio and turned it up while pulling her hair brush to her mouth. “Clock strikes upon the hour and the sun begins to fade.” I loved this song myself and I couldn’t let her have all the fun, so I quickly pulled my hairbrush up and turned to face her. “Still enough time to figure out how to chase my blues away,” I sang loudly. “I’ve done alright up ‘til now. It’s the light of day that shows me how and when the night falls… loneliness calls.” Emilio and Dante must have been listening to us because all of a sudden the door flew open and Violet and I jumped as they both yelled at the top of their lungs. “Oh I wanna dance with somebody!” They kept singing as they both came over and grabbed our hands and started twirling us around. All four of us danced around and sang the entire song. It was fun to see the guys kick back and just have a moment of fun, and I won’t lie, I was surprised they even knew all the words. When it was over, we all fell onto my bed laughing until Violet and I realized we were still in our underwear. “Get out!” we both yelled at them as soon as we realized. “Hey now, I’m not complaining about the view,” Emilio said as he smiled and headed toward the door. “What about you, Dante?” I almost had a heart attack when I thought about Dante seeing me. But when I turned in his direction, I should have known he would have never taken his eyes off of Violet. “Me neither,” Dante responded never wavering from her wide eyes. I almost hated slamming the door in their faces—almost. It had snowed during the night, which made the morning and afternoon extremely busy. Emilio, Dante, and Roman spent the morning shoveling the snow off the driveway and walkway and putting down salt, while Violet and I finished up last minute details. When the florist arrived that afternoon, she knew exactly what to bring. The fresh flowers added that last minute touch we needed and the rooms smelt lovely. The caterers arrived on time and were starting to set up in the kitchen when Violet and I headed upstairs to get ready for the evening. It was already four-thirty, and in less than an hour and a half, our guests would be arriving. *** “Hurry up you two!” Dante called from downstairs. “Our guests should be arriving any minute now. You need to be down here to greet them!” “We’re coming!” I yelled as I slipped my last earring on. “You look hot!” I told Violet as I stood up and straightened out my dress. She was wearing a little black cocktail dress she had made earlier this week. It was haltered around her neck with an open back, hugging her slim figure in all the right places. It was the perfect fit for her and made from the shiniest satin material I had ever seen. I knew she had to have paid a pretty penny for the material. Her long blonde hair was down and in light curls. She was definitely trying to catch the eye of someone tonight. “Well, thank you. You don’t look so bad yourself, always having to stand out,” she laughed. “Hey now, you’re the one who picked out the material and made my dress,” I said as I smiled back at her. I didn’t know how she managed to keep mine a secret from me or even find the time to make it, but she had. I couldn’t even begin to express how thrilled I was when she finally let me unzip the bag she had been holding my dress hostage in. “Yes, I am,” she said in the best rich accent she could muster up. “And I must say you look ravishing darling, just ravishing.” I couldn’t help but laugh at her terrible attempt at an accent. I had to admit, though, I did look really good. My dress was beautiful and made of red satin. It was a one shoulder wrap dress, which flowed to the top of my knee. My hair was pulled up in a high bun. I wanted to show off the dress as much as possible. Violet always did an amazing job at making dresses for me. She had an undying talent for fashion. Especially when it came to short, close knit, bodycon dresses. Maybe one day we could make a transition over to fashion—she would love that. “Liliana,” Emilio called this time, “downstairs now!” Violet and I took one more look at each other. We both smiled in approval before we headed out the door. Dante’s face lit up as Violet walked down the stairs. He was in total awe of her. The moment their eyes met was magical. It was such a beautiful private moment, and I was lucky enough to witness it. I had been so busy watching Dante and Violet, I hadn’t even seen Emilio walk up beside me. “You look… amazing,” he stuttered before twirling me around and bringing me in close. “Thank you.” I smiled at him. “Violet made my dress.” “Violet, I have to say you did an amazing job.” “Thank you, Emilio, I try.” A knock came at the door by then, and I realized it was already time for the guests to be arriving. We greeted each one and guided them into the living room for cocktails. I couldn’t believe everyone was here—everyone but Lucas. He had texted me earlier to let me know he was running a little late. The four of us made our rounds chatting and laughing through cocktails and appetizers. Emilio was at my side the entire time, and he never once let me out of his sight. I knew he was hovering on purpose, so I didn’t let it bother me. I had checked my watch several times, wondering where Lucas was. I didn’t expect him to be this late. Luckily, he showed up right before dinner time. “It’s about time you showed up,” I teased as I closed the front door. “Yeah, sorry,” he apologized as he removed his coat. “I had to make a last minute stop that kept me a little longer than I thought it would.” “Oh.” I sounded almost jealous. “It was nothing,” he said with a smile, before leaning down and capturing my lips with his. I could see Emilio out of the corner of my eye. He was watching us, and had been watching us a lot lately. He seemed to have been doing better with the thought of Lucas and me, but seeing us kiss now, it was clear he wasn’t. “By the way you look absolutely breathtaking in that dress,” Lucas said as he smiled, making me weak in the knees. I smiled shyly at him. “Thank you.” Dinner was interesting. Emilio sat at the head of the table, with Dante on one side and me on the other. Violet was beside Dante and Roman on the other side of her, and Lucas was next to me. I could feel the tension rolling off of both Emilio and Lucas. It was uncomfortable to say the least. Emilio kept giving me looks and Lucas kept trying to intertwine our fingers under the tablecloth. It wouldn’t have been that bad, but sometimes I would giggle for no reason, just to receive another look from Emilio. The food, itself, was delicious. Violet and I had done an awesome job at picking out the caterers. Everyone seemed to be having a great time. The conversations were light. We didn’t talk about anything in particular, just about our families and how everyone was doing. Business was not on the agenda tonight, which was relieving. After dinner, we escorted everyone into the family room. Emilio and Dante decided to go ahead and give out Christmas bonuses and get ready to play a few games while I sat up the dessert bar. I was too busy humming Deck the Halls, when Lucas whispered, “hello,” in my ear while sliding his arms around my waist. It scared me so much I jumped and knocked the dessert tray to the ground. “You scared me!” I said a little out of breath. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to,” he said as he bent down and picked up the tray before setting it back on the counter for me. “Thank you,” I said as I felt his hands slide back around my waist as I turned to place the desserts on the tray. “You know this isn’t a good idea.” “Yeah I know, but you’re worth the risk.” I could hear the smile in his voice. “I came to steal a kiss,” he whispered in my ear as his lips found the nape of my neck. Commence the fluttering. “More than the one you’re currently giving me?” I teased. “I’ll take as many as you can give.” “I think I can manage a few more.” I smiled. “Thank God” he said as he spun me around and lifted me onto the counter. Our lips collided as the doorbell rang. The sound of gunshots rang throughout the house and we broke apart immediately. I froze in disbelief. Lucas’s hands instantly grabbed my shoulders and threw me to the ground, knocking the air out of me. He pulled out a gun from his back and pulled me in close. Within seconds he had ushered me across the kitchen floor to the pantry and shoved me in. “Stay in here!” he yelled at me. “Do you hear me? Stay here! Get as far back in there as you can and do not say a single word!” “Lucas, wait!” I said, feeling like my plea fell on deaf ears. He shut the door and was gone. My mind was racing, but I did as Lucas said. I was thankful at that moment that the pantry was a big one. I moved to the furthest part of it, to the small space where our bottled water was usually stored, and managed to curl up into a ball. I could still hear the gunshots and people screaming, but I couldn’t make out a single voice. What kind of person would come into my house and do this to my family and friends? I started crying as I thought about everyone out there, my loved ones, while I was cowering in the pantry. I would have moved if I could have, but my body and mind wouldn’t respond. It seemed like forever, but it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes when the shooting stopped. The screaming, however, did not. I sat there and cried, terrified and paralyzed waiting for Lucas to return. Then I heard Emilio start screaming my name. “Where is she? Where is Liliana?” He sounded frantic. “She’s in here,” Lucas said right before the door flew open. Emilio couldn’t see me, but I could see him. The panic on his face was something I had never seen before. I whimpered and he finally caught a glimpse of me. “Liliana!” Emilio yelled as they both entered the pantry. Lucas crouched down. His eyes scanned for mine. I crawled out of my hiding spot and fell into Lucas’s arms. He pulled me into his chest—his heartbeat was rapid, mirroring my own. “It’s okay, you’re safe,” he assured me. It took me a few minutes before I could even ask them what happened. It took Emilio a second to respond. Probably seeing me fall into Lucas’s arms shocked him. The only thing he could tell me was that he didn’t know. All he remembered was the doorbell rang and then he heard the shots and saw masked men walk in. I could tell he was upset and terrified. The look in his eyes told me everything I needed to know. He wouldn’t have been happy if he knew how telling his face was at the moment. “We need to get her out of here,” Lucas pressed as he rose from comforting me. “Now!” “Can you get up?” Emilio asked me. I nodded and he helped me up. “Liliana, are you listening to me?” I nodded, but the sound of the sirens of the emergency vehicles had my attention. I lost focus for a second, but the touch of his hand on my cheek brought my attention back. “Lily?” His voice was like a tunnel, it took me a minute, but I finally met his eyes. “Did you hear what I said about Dante?” “Dante?” I asked confused. The mention of his name snapped me out of my daze. “Yes, Dante,” Emilio spoke carefully. “He was shot.” “What!” I screamed with panic. I heard Emilio calling my name, but I was out the kitchen door before he or Lucas could stop me. I screamed Dante’s name as soon as I saw him. He was lying in the family room. Violet was by his side with tears streaming down her face. “Lily!” she cried as I fell down beside her. Dante sprang up with such force his head connected with my cheek bone. “Liliana!” he said dazed as he pulled me in. “You’re okay?” Relief spread across his face. “I’m fine,” I said as I pulled him tighter. “Ouch!” he yelled and I dropped my arms immediately. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean...” Then I saw it. I had been so happy to see him alive that I hadn’t really taken a good look at him. He looked awful, ghostly. Blood was pouring out of his right shoulder. “Your arm!” My voice sounded panicked. I had watched enough ER in my younger years to know that we had to get the bleeding to stop by fastening a tourniquet of some sort. I turned to Violet, and she was in shock. She had blood splattered across her face. Her dress might have been black, but I could still see where blood had soaked in. “Violet,” I said with a firm voice. “We need something to help stop the bleeding!” She was up in an instant. I cringed the moment I placed my hand firmly over his wound and Dante yelled out in pain. “I’m sorry,” I cried. “We have to stop the bleeding.” I was starting to worry. He was losing a lot of blood and wasn’t looking so good. Violet returned quickly with a dish towel and I immediately placed it over the wound. “Hold it firmly,” I told her as I placed her hands on it. Violet and I jumped as the police and paramedics came storming through the front door. I could hear Emilio barking out orders to them, and then they all started to come into view. I took in the scene around me. It was something out of a horror movie. It was my worst nightmare coming true. I had been so preoccupied with making sure Dante was okay, I hadn’t even thought about anyone else. I saw two of Emilio’s employees lying on the floor with multiple gunshot wounds. The paramedics were feverishly working on them. A few of the others were in shock as the police were attempting to talk to them. I knew Lucas, Violet, Emilio, and Dante were okay, but where was Roman? “No!” Dante cried out, jarring me from my search. Emilio knelt beside Dante telling him something in his ear. Dante started shaking his head and tears came rolling down his cheeks. I didn’t think Dante could turn any whiter, but I was wrong. “What happened?” I demanded looking at Emilio as he slowly rose from beside Dante. “I’m sorry, Lily,” he said, reaching out for me. I pushed his hands away. “What happened?” I demanded louder this time. I looked down at Dante for an answer, but he couldn’t even speak. “It’s Roman...,” Emilio started. I didn’t need him to say anything more. I could tell by the look on his face. My heart sank. “No!” I screamed at Emilio. “NO! You’re wrong!” I turned around frantically looking for him again. “ROMAN!” I screamed out as I took off. It took me a few minutes to find him. I had to plow through the crowd of people that were taking over my house to find him. When I did, he was lying by the front door, my dear friend. “No!” I screamed as I fell next to him and pulled him into my arms. Emilio reached me about the same time an officer came running up. He instantly waved the officer off. “No! No! No! No!” I cried out, pulling him in tight as I rocked him back and forth. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Roman was my family. He was my friend. He had been my playmate when we were younger and one of my best friends now that we were older. As I sat there, my mind, body, and soul went numb... numb to the entire world around me. To say I was in shock would have been an understatement. I didn’t hear anything, see anything. I was paralyzed. Seconds, minutes, or even hours could have passed and I wouldn’t have known. Emilio’s voice slowly broke through the cloud that had surrounded me. “Liliana,” he said with such sincerity. “You have to let him go.” He had come up behind me slowly and placed his arms around me. “You have to let these men do their job.” I looked around to see a couple of men waiting and a sudden renewed strength made me grip Roman’s lifeless body tighter to me. Emilio started slowly trying to pry my arms from him. “No! Emilio!” I screamed at him. “Lily, you have to let him go.” His voice was stern. “Why did this happen? Who did this?” “I don’t know, but you have to let him go, Lily. Please?” “No, he isn’t dead,” I sobbed. “He can’t be. Roman…” “Come on.” He pulled a little harder and the paramedic kneeled down beside me and placed his arms around Roman. I cried and fought Emilio the entire way, but eventually he won. My arms gave up, and I let Roman go. I was overwhelmed with everything that was going on. I couldn’t believe someone had just come into my house, shot my brother, and killed my friend. I jumped up from Emilio’s arms when I saw Dante on a gurney being wheeled toward the front door. As they passed, I grabbed ahold of his hand and squeezed it before he was out the door with Violet right behind him. I should have been the one with him, but my legs wouldn’t propel myself forward. A police officer stepped in my view as I watched them load Dante into the back of the ambulance. He began asking me questions, but I couldn’t hear a word he was saying. All my strength had vanished—it was gone with Roman. I suddenly felt my knees buckle and I started to collapse. Emilio’s firm arms wrapped around my waist and caught me before I hit the floor. I buried my face into his chest and he brought me in tightly to his side. “Officer, we will answer any more questions you have at the hospital,” Emilio spoke sternly. “That is her brother they just wheeled out of here and as you can plainly see, she is in no shape to answer any of your questions.” The officer argued with him, but Emilio told him to have his superiors meet us at the hospital, and then we were out the door. The ambulance they had loaded Dante into was already gone—Violet with him. I still looked for her, though, as Emilio loaded me up in his vehicle. I don’t remember much about the ride to the hospital. I remember leaning against the window and the warmth of Emilio’s hand securely around mine. I was on the verge of pure hysteria while trying to hold myself together at the same time. When we arrived at the hospital, I was too drained to walk on my own. Emilio ended up helping me out of the car. As soon as we were through the doors, Violet came running at us. She was crying and said Dante had coded in the ambulance ride over and he hadn’t regained consciousness. Emilio took both of us over to the waiting area and sat in between us, holding us both as close and as tight as he could. The entire emergency room was filled with people from our party. Eight were wounded and one was dead. Of the eight wounded, three were in critical condition. The police officers continued to question everyone until the police commissioner came in. It was the first time Emilio had moved since we had arrived. When he went to greet the commissioner, I watched him as they talked for a few minutes. Then I watched as the commissioner called off his men, before shaking hands with Emilio who turned back toward me and Violet. I wondered what Emilio had said to get them to leave. How could he just waltz up to the head of the police department and get him to do what he just did? It was weird and intriguing at the same time. I don’t know at what point Emilio had called my brothers, but everyone, except Benito, eventually filtered into the waiting room. Each one ran over and hugged me as soon as they came in and all of them asked if Dante and I were okay. Emilio would tell them any recent news about Dante and explain that I hadn’t spoken a word since we left the house. They all kept looking at me like I was going to crack. I pretty much already had. Other patients kept walking by with horrified looks on their faces. What the hell were they looking at anyways? I eventually just buried my head in Emilio’s shoulder. I wanted everything to disappear. Doctors kept coming in and talking to us about certain individuals, but I didn’t pay attention until I would hear Dante’s name. My brothers paced the floor mostly. Sometimes they would stop and talk to each other and once in a while take a phone call. *** “Hey,” Emilio’s voice whispered into my ear. “You and Violet need to go and get cleaned up.” I looked up at him confused. Violet stood slowly, holding her shaking hand out for me to take. I didn’t want to leave the safety of Emilio. She stood there a few more moments as Emilio nudged me to get up and go with her. My muscles and joints screamed in pain as I stood up. Emilio placed his hand on my back to steady me. We held each other’s hands as we walked toward the restrooms. I was not prepared for what I saw when I turned the corner and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. What I saw was a gruesome woman staring back at me. I was covered in blood: my arms, hands, dress, and face. I knew Violet had been covered in blood, but to see myself covered in it was something I wasn’t prepared for. I finally understood why everyone had been gawking. “How... how could they do this?” I finally spoke for the first time since we had left the house. “I don’t know, Lily,” Violet’s shaky voice spoke up as her eyes met mine in the mirror. Her shocked face mirrored mine. I realized this was the first time she had seen herself as well. “This is bad though, Lily. Really bad. Emilio is distraught, devastated, and worried.” “This is bad?” I said loudly. I started shaking and then I don’t know what happened—I never yelled at Violet. Ever. “This is not just bad!” I started screaming. “This is... this is horrendous.” I pointed to myself. “I have blood on me! We have BLOOD on ourselves! Someone came into our house and shot it up!” Giovanni came barreling through the door followed by Emilio and Giorgio. He reached out for me, but I quickly pushed his arms away. “Don’t touch me,” I yelled at him, and he recoiled fast, his eyes full of shock and sadness. “You need to keep it down, Lily,” he spoke quietly. “Calm down! Seriously?” I yelled. “Everything is going to be okay,” Giovanni said as he moved toward me again. “Okay?” I looked at him like he had lost his mind. “Okay? “ I said again. “NOTHING will ever be okay again! Nothing! I want answers now!” I demanded. “And you will get them, but not here and not now,” Emilio chimed in. “Why not here?” I demanded. I had backed myself all the way against the wall with nowhere to go. I looked around to see Violet, who had tears rolling down her face, not making a sound and hugging herself at this point. Emilio stepped forward grabbing Violet and handing her to Giorgio and motioning for him to take her out. “Liliana,” Giovanni’s voice became stern. “We will talk about this later. No more asking questions. Do you understand?” he said firmly as he walked up to me. “I said do you understand?” I nodded before I pushed past him to Emilio. He pulled me in close and kissed the top of my head while he mumbled to Giovanni before we headed back to the waiting room. I was still covered in blood and had more questions than answers. Chapter 13 I had fallen asleep and when I noticed, I jerked up. I was lying on Emilio’s lap and my head connected with his chin. “Ouch,” he softly yelled. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled as I rubbed my head. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep. How long have I been out?” “About twenty minutes,” Violet answered. “Any news?” “Yes, Dante is out of surgery,” Emilio said as he slightly smiled, “and he is fine.” I breathed a sigh of relief. “They removed the bullet from his shoulder and they said he was really lucky. A half an inch more and we would be having a different conversation.” “When can we see him?” “After he wakes up and they move him to a room.” Violet’s voice had a hint of excitement in it, as much as someone in our state could possibly have. I think I even half smiled at the thought of seeing him soon. Emilio patted me on my knee as he got up, turned around, and kissed my forehead before heading toward my brothers. “We’re leaving soon,” Violet leaned over and whispered. I looked at her confused. “Your brothers and Emilio were talking a few minutes ago. Apparently there is an airplane waiting for us on standby.” “Just you and me?” “No, Dr. Silas arrived about ten minutes ago. I think Dante is going with us.” I nodded my head and sank back into the chair. I was ready to go home. I wanted to hurry up and get as far away from this place as possible, and I never, ever wanted to come back. While we waited for the chance to see Dante, we learned that our friends in critical condition had all made it out of surgery fine as well. They would all be staying in the critical care unit for close observation. The others had to either have minor surgery, remove a bullet, or stiches. We had fifty people at the house. Eight wounded and one killed. In such a small space with bullets going everywhere, we were really lucky. It could have been much worse. *** Dante was in good spirits when Violet and I softly sat on his bed. He assured both of us several times that he was fine. He actually looked better than either one of us did. Violet and I had been talking to Dante for a while when Emilio and my other brothers finally joined us. “Dante, they are going to bring you some release papers and then we’re going to be leaving here,” Giorgio announced before even asking how he was doing. “Dr. Silas is going to accompany you and the girls back to Toronto. He has been making arrangements. They want to make sure you’re stable before we transport you.” “As long as he brings some drugs with him, I’m okay with leaving this place,” Dante said with a slight smile. By the time the hospital released him, Violet and I had cleaned up and were ready to go. Luckily, the nurses were kind enough to bring us scrubs to change into. They asked if they could take our dresses, but we declined. Instead, we put them in trash bags. My brothers said their goodbyes and told us they would see us in a few days. I didn’t know how any of us were still functioning at this point. It had been over twenty-four hours since I had slept. My power nap apparently wasn’t good enough. The car ride to the airport was short and quiet. Dante was in pain, and I knew as soon as we walked onto the plane, Dr. Silas would give him some more medicine. I was more than happy that we pulled straight up to the plane. My door immediately flew open the moment the car came to a stop. It was Lucas. He looked cautious, as if he didn’t know what to say. “I’m alright, Lucas,” I said as he helped me from the car, his eyes searching mine to see if I was telling the truth or not. “Although I’m not sure scrubs are my thing,” I said with a slight grin. He smiled back at me—I really needed that, a smile. “You would look beautiful in anything,” he said. I rolled my eyes at him. He was such a good liar. Lucas ushered Violet and I onto the plane before leaving to help Emilio walk Dante on. Dr. Silas greeted us as he passed and headed to the back of the plane. I didn’t know how they did it, but a twin bed was already fixed in the back with medical equipment all ready to go. “Liliana, could you please move?” Emilio’s voice came from behind me. I hadn’t realized that he and Lucas had already made it back onto the plane with Dante. As I stepped out of the way and watched them pass by, I noticed that Dante was starting to look a little green. I didn’t blame him. He had been through a lot in just a short time. As soon as they laid him down on the bed, Dr. Silas went straight to work, hooking up machines and checking his vitals. Violet was right there by his side. Lucas nodded and smiled at me as he passed, and I couldn’t help but watch him as he walked away. Much to my amazement he hesitated at the door before returning back to me. He picked me up in the biggest, most loving hug and held me tight. “I’m so grateful you’re okay and unharmed,” he whispered in my ear. “I don’t know what I would have done if anything had happened to you.” “I’m thankful you’re okay, too. You saved my life last night. I’m forever in your debt.” As quickly as he had picked me up, he sat me back down and gently kissed me. “Text me when you get home. I want to know you’re safe,” he said, touching his forehead to mine. “I will,” I replied. He left and just seconds later, Emilio’s hand touched me. I was nervous that he had just seen what had happened. “Lily?” he said resting his hand on my shoulder. “Are you alright?” I nodded as I turned around. “Yes, I’m fine, I think.” I half-heartedly grinned at him. “I wanted to let you know that Lucas packed all of your things, including Dante’s and Violet’s. I’m not exactly sure what he grabbed—I just told him to run to the house and pack the important things.” He smiled for the first time and even laughed. “And I’m not sure what all is important, like your hair straightener might not be in there.” I even smiled at that one, silently impressed that Emilio knew what a hair straightener was. “I’m sure he did fine,” I hoped. “Also, I won’t be accompanying you back home. I’m going to be taking care of a few things here and bring back all your Christmas presents, which between you and Violet will take up an entire plane itself,” he said, to which I popped him in his arm. “Don’t be rude. I can always return your gift,” I replied. Emilio just stood there for a moment, the smile slowly fading from his face. He reached up and caressed my cheek with his hand. “I thought I lost you last night,” he said earnestly pulling me in closer. “I would never forgive myself...” His voice trailed off as he leaned in close. “I still love you,” he whispered before he kissed my forehead. “I know you do,” I replied as I hugged him, wanting to give him some comfort. I was so screwed up. Lucas. Emilio. Lucas. Emilio. I couldn’t keep doing this to myself, and yet, I did it all the time. “I will see you in Toronto in a couple of days.” He squeezed me one last time before backing up and looking at me. He was hesitating. I could see it in his eyes. He placed his hands on both sides of my face and just peered into my eyes for a moment before he kissed me once again on the forehead and walked out the door. Yeah, I was definitely messed up. *** I woke up to the sound of the tires hitting the runway. I was in a daze—I didn’t even remember dozing off. I laid there for a moment trying to get my bearings, when the memories of the last twenty-four hours started flashing through my mind. I sat straight up and looked around. Violet must have fallen asleep, too, because she was sitting up rubbing her eyes. Dante was still sleeping peacefully with Dr. Silas by his side taking vitals once again. “I vote when we get home, we go straight back to bed,” Violet yawned. A bed sounded like the perfect solution to help me emotionally and physically. “You okay?” she asked. I looked up to see her eyes intensely staring at me. “I’m good,” I lied. Once the plane came to a stop, the door opened and Benito and two other men boarded. As soon as Benito saw me, he grabbed me and held me so tight I thought my ribs were going to break in half. I didn’t care, though. He let me go after a few moments and kissed my forehead without saying a word. He hugged Violet on his way back to Dante. Dr. Silas and Benito were working on getting Dante up when Violet and I exited the plane. My mother started running toward us as soon as Violet and I stepped off the plane. When I saw her running, I took off in a dead sprint toward her, and we collided into each other. I grabbed ahold of her, never wanting to let go. I instantly started crying, and then I felt my father’s arms slide around both my mother and me. I looked up at him just as a single tear fell down his face, then he quickly wiped it away. “Are you okay?” my mother asked as she pulled me away and looked me over. “I’m... I’m...,” I was struggling to speak and gain control of my emotions. “I’m fine.” “You’re obviously not fine,” she said. I looked up into my mother’s eyes. I could never lie to her, no matter how hard I tried, but today I would hold my ground. My mother looked terrible. Her mascara was running down her face, and her eyes were puffy and bloodshot from crying and lack of sleep. “You have been through—” “I’m good, mamma,” I said, cutting her off. About that time she looked up and started sobbing even more. The guys had finally brought Dante down off the plane, sending my mother into pure hysteria when she saw him. I watched her as she ran over to him and crumbled next to him. Violet came and wrapped her arms around me, bringing me in close. “Violet?” I whispered quietly. “Yes?” “Will we ever be okay again?” “I don’t know.” *** My father and mother insisted we come home and stay with them. Violet and I were too tired to argue. When we arrived at the house, we helped get Dante settled in. Once we had helped him, Benito told us as soon as we got cleaned up and ate some lunch, my father would like to speak to us. I took my time in the shower, letting the scorching hot water run over me. Flashbacks from the night before continuously rolled through my head like a movie reel. I stood there silently weeping as I mourned Roman and the events of the night before. My body quivered as I struggled to hold myself upright. When Violet found me, I was sitting on the shower floor curled up in a ball. “Lily!” she cried out right before the water stopped running. I didn’t even look up at her as she threw a towel around me. “Are you trying to make yourself sick? The water is like ice!” I turned to look at her. She looked distressed as she knelt down beside me. “Lily? Are you okay? Did you know the water was cold?” “No,” I said blankly. “No you’re not fine, or no you didn’t know the water was cold?” she asked as she started trying to warm me up. I stared at her lost in my own thoughts not really seeing or hearing her. “Lily!” She grabbed my face and made me focus on her. “Answer me!” “No, I didn’t know the water was cold,” I whispered. “We need to get you warmed up and dressed.” Violet helped me up and into my room. I slowly got dressed and watched her brush my hair in the mirror. “I don’t know what happened,” I finally spoke up. “It’s okay, Lily.” She sniffed. “It’s okay to be hurt, mad, upset, or all of them combined. I know I am. I’m mad, pissed off, mortified, and devastated!” “I feel numb,” I said solemnly. Violet just hugged me and brought me in close. We sat there for a few more minutes and then she tugged on my arm. There was a knock on our door and Benito entered. “Pop wants to talk to you two, now.” I nodded my head and stood, before he reached over and took my hand. “Are you okay?” he asked, and then it was like a switch was flipped. “I’m fine.” I smiled at him as I patted him on his shoulder. “I’m just tired and ready to get some sleep.” My father was waiting in the living room for us. The three of us came in and sat down. Violet and I sat across from my parents, and Benito sat beside my mother. My father began by asking us to go over our stories. Violet volunteered me to go first. I told him how Lucas had been helping me in the kitchen when the doorbell rang and we heard the gunshots go off. Lucas pushed me into the pantry and told me to hide and not to come out until someone came and got me. Then all I heard was screaming and more guns being fired. I told him I sat there waiting, and once the shots stopped, a few minutes later, the door flew open and Emilio and Lucas stood there. I told him what I could remember about Dante and Roman and ended with the hospital. When I was finished, it was Violet’s turn to tell her side. My father looked up from his notepad not saying a word, just waiting for Violet to start. I gave her an encouraging nudge. Recounting my side of the story was hard enough for me, I had a feeling she didn’t want to relive the moment either. “Dante and I were dancing, and Emilio was across the room when the doorbell rang. Roman had been standing there, so he went to open it. He barely turned the knob when the door flew open.” She started shaking. “They shot him. I watched him hit the floor, but he was still moving. Then they shot Dante in the arm. When he went down, he took me with him. “Everyone was on full alert by then. Someone started screaming orders, and Emilio started yelling for Lily. Dante and I were behind a table, and I could see Roman and Emilio across from us. Then I saw Lucas crawl up to Emilio and say something and he stopped shouting. I figured Lily must have been safe. “I don’t remember much except there was a lot of yelling back and forth between the guys and then nothing. When I looked up, Emilio was holding Roman and Dante was sitting up facing me with blood everywhere. I looked around and didn’t see Emilio, but then a few minutes later, Lily came running toward us, and well, you know the rest.” My mother threw her arms around Violet and me and just cried as she held us. Violet sniffed, and I just sat there silently patting my mother’s back. I thought hearing the whole story would have phased me, but it didn’t. Numbness had taken over. “I’m so glad you two are okay,” my mother wept. “May I be excused now?” I asked, standing up. My mother’s tear-filled eyes looked at me. “Yes, you may,” my father spoke up. He and Benito had been talking amongst themselves quietly. “Lily,” my mother’s voice called out to me, but I didn’t turn around. I was halfway up the stairs when I heard a set of footsteps behind me. I knew they were Violet’s without even having to turn around. She just put her arm around me and walked with me to the bedroom. I made a promise right then and there that I wouldn’t shut her out. She of all people didn’t deserve that. As soon as we got to the room, I shut the door and the blinds and we both crawled into bed. I was glad I had her with me tonight. “Lily?” Violet asked. “Yes.” “I’m scared.” “Me too,” I said as I grabbed her hand and held it tight. Chapter 14 “Wake up, sleepy heads,” Dante called from the doorway. I opened my eyes slightly, feeling like I had just fallen asleep. “Go away,” I mumbled. “I second that,” Violet agreed. “It’s one o’clock.” “Seriously? One in the morning? Dante, go away!” I yelled at him before the realization struck me, causing me to jolt up. Violet sprung up just as fast as I did. “Dante!” we both yelled as we ran toward him. We were so happy he was up and moving, and that the thought alone caused us to hug him as gently as we could. When we let go, he told us we needed to stop hovering and that he was okay. He walked around the bed and stopped at the window. “Oh, by the way ladies,” he said as a sly grin came across his face, “it’s one in the afternoon.” He pulled open the curtains, and searing sunlight beamed through the window, causing Violet and me to squint. “Really, Dante?” I said forcefully, hearing the laughing fit he was currently having. “You know you love me,” he said as he passed us by. “If you weren’t hurt I would punch you right now,” Violet said as our eyes were trying to focus. “Whatever, see you at lunch,” he called as he headed down the stairs. Food sounded amazing right now, but a shower sounded even better. I had already taken my shower and was rummaging through my suitcase, when Violet yelled from the bathroom that I needed to check behind the socks in her suitcase. It didn’t take me long to find a white envelope with my name scribbled across it. I recognize the handwriting immediately, and opened it faster than I should have, resulting in a paper cut. Hello Beautiful, I wanted you to know that my heart is with you. I’m so sorry for the loss of a friend. Roman was a good man, and will be missed. I’m so glad that you’re safe back in Toronto. And while being away from you makes my soul hurt, I’m happy you’re safe. If you need anything, don’t hesitate, I’m only a phone call away. I just wanted you to know I’m quietly and patiently awaiting your return. All My Love, Lucas “Violet,” I yelled as I busted through the bathroom door. “Where did you get this?” “I should have waited until I was out of the shower to tell you,” she said as she stuck her head out. “Where did you get this?” I asked again waving the note in her face. I didn’t even care I was interrupting her shower time. “It was laying in your suitcase. I saw it when I pulled your clothes out, and put it with mine so no one else would find it. I guess Lucas put it in there when he was packing our things.” I grinned at Violet, satisfied with her answer and left her to finish her shower. I thought about Lucas’s letter as I packed her things back into her suitcase and finished getting dressed. It made me smile, and I really needed that right now. But I knew it would be hard the moment I told him that I wouldn’t be returning to New Jersey. Maybe he could come and visit, because I missed him terribly. By the time Violet and I had made our way downstairs, everyone had eaten except us. My mother told us that Dante had waited, but we had taken so long getting ready that he went ahead and ate without us. When I asked where he was, she told me he was somewhere in the house with Benito. My father and mother joined us at the kitchen table as we ate. None of us spoke. I don’t think any of us knew what to say. Once we were done eating, Violet and I did the dishes and put everything away so we could leave and head home. “Well, I think Violet and I are going to get our things and head home,” I said as I took off the dish gloves. “You most certainly are not going home,” my father’s voice rang out. “Because…what?” I said sternly back to him. “Did you sell our house?” “No, but it’s unsafe for you two to be alone.” I couldn’t help myself. I laughed at him. “Really?” “Why are you laughing?” he spat at me. “Do you really want to talk about safety? While I was in New Jersey, I was attacked once, my hours was shot up by strangers, and my best friend was killed, and you want to talk about safety? There isn’t anything you can say that will change what has already happened.” I was screaming at him in a tone I had never used before—I even scared myself. My father was shocked at my comeback. “Fine,” he said, sounding almost sad—I was surprised that he conceded so quickly. “But you must take your brother with you until Emilio gets here.” “Fine,” I said, heading for the stairs, rallying at my triumph and for how I was about to twist my father’s words. “Dante!” I yelled up the stairs. No answer. “Dante!” I yelled louder. “I didn’t mean Dante. I meant Benito,” my father said as he came barreling out of the kitchen. “You said your brother. You didn’t specify which one.” “Dante is injured. He needs rest and will not be leaving this house.” “And he will get it at my house away from you! Dante!” The look on my mother’s face was painful—I just hoped she knew that she wasn’t included in the you I was talking about. “What!” Dante sounded more than just annoyed. “I need to talk to you,” I said. “I’m coming, shit.” he grumbled extra loud just to make sure I heard him. “What do you want, Lily?” he asked as he emerged at the top of the staircase. “Get your things. We're going to stay at my house.” “No, you’re not,” my father said, shaking his finger at Dante. “What?” Confusion swept across Dante’s face. “I said get your stuff. Violet and I are going to the house to make sure everything is together and then I will come and get you.” I didn’t even wait for his reply, instead going up the stairs to our room. My father was still rebutting me, but I tuned him out. I shooed Dante toward his room as I passed, telling him I would be there in a few minutes to help with the things he couldn’t get himself. Violet didn’t speak a word as she packed, probably wishing I had handled that situation better than I did. It was thanks to my father that the child in me came out. If only he just believed in me as a woman and not a girl. When we were done, we went and helped Dante finish packing his things. I told him I was sorry I volunteered him to come with us. He wasn’t upset about it, though. He said he was actually happy and that our mother had been driving him insane by constantly checking on him. “Liliana,” my mother’s voice pleaded as we were heading down the stairs. “Please stay with us. You’re safe here.” “Mamma,” I said, trying to not sound too agitated. I knew she meant it sincerely versus how my father meant it to be condescending. “I’m not staying here. I have my own home not even a block away from here, and it’s just as safe there as it is here.” “Why are you being so difficult?” she snapped. She was the only one in the family that had yet to call me difficult. Those words passing her lips hurt me instantly. “I’m not difficult, mom,” I spat back at her. She hated to be called mom—it was always mamma. “Benito, will you please talk to your sister?” she pleaded. Why she was choosing Benito to talk to me eluded me—he does everything he can to avoid me. He was not a very resourceful ally for her. “Rosaria,” my father’s voice rang out. “She may go to her house.” “Thank you,” I said perking up, but mostly surprised at his white flag waving. “Oh, don’t thank me yet.” He grinned. “You have to find a way to get home since you don’t have a car here, and twelve inches of new snow fell in the last twenty-four hours.” I felt like such an idiot, because I should have thought about that before I let my stubbornness take over. “Also, it’s pretty slick out there. You can’t use the snowmobiles or the four wheelers.” He turned on his heels, and I could hear his silent laughter as he headed toward his den. “We could walk and come back and get Dante?” Violet suggested. “How would we get the car back down here?” I asked as I looked out the window, noticing the roads were full of white. Residential housing was always the last to get cleared. I looked at Dante who had a questionable look on his face. “How bad do you want to get home?” Dante asked. As soon as he said that, I already knew my only option left, and my father didn’t say it was off limits. “We’re going to have to use the bulldozer, aren’t we?” I asked. “Yes,” Dante replied as a grin appeared. “I hate that thing. It’s so hard to drive!” I complained as I headed downstairs, Dante and Violet at my flank. “You will be fine,” Dante said as he headed toward the back door. “Just remember the clutch. Keys are in the ignition,” he said as he ushered me to the back door. It took Violet and me about five minutes to get to the shop and another fifteen to get the dozer started. I hadn’t driven it in a long time, since the guys always made fun of the way I drove it. It also didn’t help that I couldn’t drive it in a straight line either. What should have taken us at the most ten minutes, ended up taking almost an hour by the time we started the journey to the shop and ended up in our driveway. I couldn’t count how many times I killed that stupid piece of shit and had to restart it. We were freezing by the time we reached our house. I was pretty sure I couldn’t feel three-fourths of my body. “So are we going to go and get Dante now or wait?” Violet asked. “Wait. We probably need to make sure the house is clean and ready for him.” Violet agreed as we headed inside. The house looked just as beautiful now as when we left. What a waste that no one lived in it. I couldn’t bring myself to sell it, and I was glad I didn’t. The inside was just as we had left it. The heater had been turned on low to keep the pipes from bursting, but it was still chilly in the house. Violet turned it up before we went to work. No one had lived in the house in quite a while, so it needed to be dusted, vacuumed, and mopped. We ripped off all the sheets on all the beds and washed and dried them while we worked. It didn’t take us very long to deep clean the house. We could have just did a quick clean and it would have been fine, but we wanted to make sure it was as close to sterile as we could get it. Emilio would be here soon, followed by my brothers and their family. Some of which would be staying with me. *** The next day passed by slowly. Emilio had flown in that morning and was staying with us. Roman’s funeral was tomorrow and he didn’t want to miss it or the service we were having at Roman’s parents’ house tonight. Both were going to be really hard on all of us. We left our house around five to head to Roman’s parents. By the time we arrived, most of his family was already there. We had been the only non-family invited, and just the close ones from our family came: my father, mother, Dante, Violet, Emilio, and me. Shortly after we arrived, the priest started the prayer service. He began by praying over Roman’s body and spoke a few words in his memory. Once he was finished, he turned everyone’s attention to Dante. He had been asked to give the eulogy. He began and his words were so touching. He talked about how he first met Roman and how they became very good friends. He talked about what kind of person Roman was and how he was always able to lift anyone’s spirit. When Dante got to the part about how Roman had helped him out with a huge obstacle he faced as a teenager, he choked up a bit. He explained how Roman had always stuck by him no matter what choices he had made in life, even if they weren’t the best. I knew this was tearing Dante apart. Anyone could see it on his face. He paused and buried his head in his sleeve as he tried to wipe away the tears. He took a few moments to gain control over his emotions, but they consumed him completely. As I saw my brother suffering through my own tear-filled eyes, my heart began hurting even more. I rose from my seat and walked to Dante’s side, immediately embracing him in a hug. It wasn’t long after that when he took a deep breath, turned, and looked at everyone again. He apologized, even though it wasn’t necessary. I stayed by Dante’s side, holding his hand until he finished. Roman’s father was next. He spoke about Roman when he was growing up and even went into how wonderful of a man he had become as he got older. He talked about Roman’s warm heart and how he cared for everyone close to him. His eulogy brought on a new set of tears as I thought about all those years I watched Roman become the man I knew him to be. When Roman’s father finished, the priest led everyone in a final prayer for the night and left us to converse with the family. We stayed for a while, comforting each other and telling stories of our greatest memories. Tonight had been beautiful. Although I cried a few times, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Everyone was there to support each other, and that made everyone feel much stronger. Tomorrow, on the other hand, might be a different story. We arrived back at the house a few hours later. It was already late and we knew tomorrow would be a tough day. Roman’s funeral was at ten in the morning. We all needed to head to bed soon. The morning would be here before we knew it. Emilio ended up staying with me that night. He had come to say goodnight and found me curled up on my bed crying. His warm embrace instantly made me feel safer, and I clung to him until I fell asleep in his arms. The alarm woke us up the next morning at eight-thirty and I immediately started getting ready. Dante, Violet, Emilio, and I stayed busy, trying not to think about anything other than our immediate task. Once I was ready, I took a good look at myself in the mirror. I looked like a walking cliché with my black dress, black veil, and black flats on. Roman would have made fun of me if he was here today. Violet joined me in my room after she had finished getting dressed and found me staring in the mirror. What was I looking at or for? I don’t even remember. She already had tears in her eyes. I had told myself this morning that I was going to hold it together today. I wasn’t going to cry, and be strong. But seeing her like that made it hard, and before I knew it, we were both standing in the middle of my room sobbing into each other’s shoulders. We stayed that way until Dante and Emilio came in to get us. They looked so handsome dressed in their suits and ties, even with their somber faces. Violet and I pulled ourselves together and touched up our makeup. If I couldn’t make it out of my house without crying, then how was I going to make it through the funeral? So as we exited the house, I took several deep breaths and held Emilio’s hand tight. We arrived shortly before the funeral started, taking our seats right behind where Roman’s family would be seated. We didn’t have to wait very long before his family was ushered in. His mother’s cheeks were already stained with tears and his father was dabbing his eyes with his handkerchief. Roman’s three brothers were in attendance, along with their significant others. The priest began the service precisely on time. He talked about Roman and different things that had happened in his life, and then he went into a small sermon about life and death in general. I cried on and off throughout the whole sermon. Today was a lot harder than I anticipated, because we were truly saying goodbye to Roman and laying him to rest. Once the priest finished his sermon, they played a few songs in memory of Roman. The first song was Amazing Grace followed by a few more that touched my heart. For all of us that knew them, we sang along. And once the songs ended, we were all ushered out of the church. We made our way to the cemetery. Only my family and Roman’s would be the ones to officially lay Roman to rest. This was the part I was dreading the most. I could handle hearing about his life, talking about him, and even reliving that awful night in my head, but when it came to watching them lower his casket into the ground, that was when I knew I would completely fall apart. When we reached Roman’s plot, everything was already set up for the final service. The priest began by praying over the plot in which he would be buried. We watched silently as they lowered him into the ground. The only thing we could hear were the cries from his mother ringing out. This was too much for me. I turned into Emilio and he wrapped his arms around me and held me tight as I cried into his shoulder. Emilio loosened his arms when they had completely settled the coffin in the ground. I wiped my eyes and turned in Emilio’s arms for the final prayer. The priest spoke the last prayer over the coffin and then we joined in as we spoke The Lord’s Prayer. I instantly felt calm, as if something had told me that everything was going to be okay. When we arrived back at the house, the rest of the day was quiet. Everyone went their separate ways. Christmas was just a few days away and I was expecting my relatives to start arriving tomorrow. The house was already fairly clean, but I went ahead and recleaned it anyways. I needed something to help distract me and it took me longer than usual. I mopped the kitchen two times and didn’t realize it until Dante came over and took the mop away from me as I started on it a third time. Cleaning had seemed like the best solution at the time, but I guess it was a distraction in itself. *** The next day was a busy day with everyone arriving for Christmas. My house was bustling with my nieces and nephews running around the house while Marcello, Giorgio, and their wives settled into their rooms. My parents’ house was packed and I took on the overflow. We spent most of the day getting everyone settled and making sure they were comfortable. A few times I would disappear into my room for a few minutes of peace to cry and then make myself presentable again. *** Christmas Eve was fun. Dante, Violet, and I smiled and laughed for the first time in over a week. I had woken up and made breakfast for everyone at my house before we headed over to my parents for games and movies. My sisters-in-law, Emilio’s sister, and I helped prepare tomorrow’s meal while my mother and Emilio’s mother cooked the Christmas Eve dinner. It was a simple traditional Italian dinner with spaghetti, lasagna, real Italian pizzas, and my favorite dessert, tiramisu. The day went by quickly between playing with the kids, hanging with the family, and helping in the kitchen. Before we knew it, my group was headed back to my house and everyone was headed up to their rooms. The house fell silent fast. The day had been a lot of fun, but in the silence, I felt tired and sad. I got to thinking about how I had laughed today for the first time since I had been back home, and then I thought about how Roman’s family wouldn’t be laughing this holiday season. They were still mourning the loss of him, and so were we. I felt awful for having a decent moment of happiness. I felt the warm tears as they started trickling down my cheeks, again. Is it possible for a person to cry this much? “Liliana?” Emilio asked as he knocked on my half opened door. “Yes,” I said as I wiped the tears from my face before I turned around to face him. “Are you okay?” I couldn’t even answer him—I shook my head and buried my face in my hands. I felt his arms slide around me and pull me in close to him. We fell back into the bed and laid there for a while. Emilio never spoke a word as I buried my face into his chest and just cried. “I’m sorry,” I finally said as I sat up. I could see the ring of water I had left on his shirt from my tears. “It’s just sometimes I think about things and I can’t control it.” “Don’t apologize for having feelings, Lily,” he said as he placed his hand under my chin and brought his eyes to mine. “Thank you for being there for me. I don’t know what I would have done without you the past couple of days,” I said. “I’ll always be here for you, Lil, whenever you need me,” he said. “Thanks,” I said as I wiped the tears from my eyes. “I must look like a mess. I think I’ll go take a bath.” A bath sounded amazing right now and just what I needed. I turned my attention back to Emilio. “Will you stay again tonight?” “If you want me to,” he answered, to which I nodded. “See you in a minute,” I said as I headed toward the bathroom. When I returned I found Emilio had stripped off his shoes, shirt, and belt. He left his jeans on and was lying on his stomach already passed out. His tribal tattoo, that covered his entire back, was stretched across his muscles. I remembered when he first decided to get it. I couldn’t believe he wanted something that took up his entire back and upper shoulders. I tried to talk him out of it, but he was too excited. Once he actually had it done, it turned out to be beautiful. I loved it then, and looking at it now, I still did. I grabbed the blanket that was draped on the back of my chair and threw it over him, before I strolled around to the other side of the bed and covered myself up. I nestled down into the bed and turned my back to him. It wasn’t long until he wrapped his arms around me and pulled me in close. I laid there quietly and listened to him breath until I finally went peacefully to sleep. *** I woke the next morning to Emilio snoring quietly. I couldn’t believe I had slept all night, no night terrors. I felt well rested, and it was wonderful. I propped myself up and turned to look at Emilio. He was lying on his back with his left arm raised above his head and his right resting on his stomach. He looked so handsome and peaceful as I watched his chest rise and fall with each breath he took. In the middle of his chest was a tattoo I hadn’t seen before. He had the enormous back tribal, and then on his right rib cage, he had both of our sayings to each other scripted in Italian. Mine being, “my life, my heart,” and his, “I love you more than life itself.” The new one was different and mesmerizing. Right over his heart was a large weeping pink and white Asiatic hybrid lily. It was breathtaking with such vibrant colors. What looked like raindrops came from the lily, as if it was crying. The raindrops flowed down his chest and into his ribs and then stopped. I sat there staring at it, holding back the urge to touch it, not wanting to wake him up. I needed to ask him about it. Soon. I slowly rose from the bed and made my way to the bathroom. I jumped into the shower and let the hot water run down my head and back. It felt good as it rolled over my tension filled shoulders and neck. I stood there for what seemed like forever before I finally got out. I had to wipe the steam from the mirror just to see myself as I started to dry my hair. I hurried to get dressed and ready for the day. I still couldn’t believe it was Christmas! Emilio was sitting on my bed when I walked out of the bathroom. He smiled as soon as I met his eyes. He was stunning. “Merry Christmas,” he said as I made my way to him. “Merry Christmas.” I smiled back and sat down next to him. “I wanted to give you this.” He grinned as he held out a small box. It was too big to be a ring box, so I thought it would be safe to open. My hands shook as I slowly opened the black velveteen box. I took in a deep breath as I saw what was in it. I removed my new locket out of the box and held it up to my face. “Oh my gosh, Emilio, it’s absolutely gorgeous!” I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. “I love it! Thank you so much.” It was a silver locket in the shape of an oval, with a single diamond in the middle from which swirls branched out and then curled at the ends. I flipped it around in my hand before I opened it. There wasn’t a place for a picture, but Emilio had it inscribed with “If you believe in yourself enough, you’ll always find a way.” I was taken aback by the quote. I wasn’t exactly sure why he would have chosen it, but I liked it. “Will you help me?” I asked as I held the locket out to him. He took it in his hand and I turned toward the mirror, pulling my hair away from my neck. I watched his concentrated look as he fumbled with the clasp and finally secured it around my neck, and then I turned to face him. “Thank you again, Emilio,” I said as I leaned in and kissed him on his cheek. “Lily?” he asked. His voice and face suddenly became serious. “Yes?” “I need you to do something for me.” He came in closer. “Can you do me a favor?” His closeness made me forget about everything else surrounding us. I didn’t know if it was the seriousness in his tone, or the fact that my heart was beating out of my chest, but it left me speechless. All I could do was nod in response. “I need you to wear that locket at all times. Never take it off. Do you understand me?” I nodded again. It sounded more like a plea than a question. The tone in his voice let me know he was serious. “I promise,” I said and meant it. I wouldn’t take it off. Chapter 15 Christmas day went by faster than I wanted it to. My mother was super excited when we all finally arrived at her house. The first thing we always did as a family was to have the youngest walking member of the family be the lucky one who had the privilege of laying baby Jesus in his bed in our life-sized nativity scene. It was a tradition that I loved and looked forward to every Christmas. We ate breakfast as a family and then we spent the next two hours opening presents. I loved watching all my nieces and nephews open their gifts. The look on their faces when they got something they really wanted was worth more than gold itself. The adults in our family didn’t give gifts to each other, which I was thankful for. As much as I loved my family, some of them had terrible taste and, in my opinion, presents were for the kids anyways. Dinner was delicious! My mother had prepared a three course meal that began with appetizers around four that consisted of antipasti, prosciutto, and vegetable and olive salad. The main course was gnocchi with marinara sauce, linguine with red clam sauce, and roasted halibut with potatoes, with sides of string bean medley, fresh asparagus, and garlic broccoli. After dinner, we made our way to the dessert table, which was set up with several different desserts including Venetian cookies, mostaccioli, wine poached pears, and tiramisu. The evening ended with hot chocolate and all my family gathered in the family room around my father. We always ended Christmas the same way we started it, with a tradition. As he read the story of the birth of Jesus, I looked around the room at all my family that was there: my aunts and uncles, my cousins and their children, my four older brother’s and their wives and children, Emilio’s mother and his older sister, and Dante and Emilio. I was beyond blessed to have them all. I was the luckiest girl in the world in more than one way. *** The next few days flew by fast. Everyone did their own thing for the most part, but one evening all my brothers and Emilio were called to my parents’ house. My father wanted to talk with all of them, so I decided I would tag along and spend some time with my mother. We had been watching a movie when I decided we needed a few snacks, so I told her I would be right back and headed to the kitchen. When I passed by my father’s study, Emilio’s voice rose above the others, so I quietly crept over and leaned in to hear what was so important. “I’m one hundred percent sure it was the Heinrichs who attacked us.” Emilio’s voice was firm. “They’re getting more aggressive.” Marcello’s tone was harsh and a little frantic. “We’re positive Lily has already been approached by one of them.” “The way they’re coming at us, it wouldn’t surprise me. Nikolas is a sneaky piece of work,” Giovanni spoke up. “They’re one step ahead of us every single time,” Giorgio chimed in. “We need to find a way to get ahead of them. If not, Lily could end up getting hurt. We need to protect her.” Benito’s voice held more than power—it held worry. I didn’t hear anything after that. I was shocked by what I had just heard. I lost my balance and nudged the door, which caused their conversation to come to an abrupt halt. I raced around the corner and held my breath as the door opened and then completely shut. I walked swiftly to the kitchen in a daze as I thought about what I had just heard. Who were the Heinrichs? Were they the ones who killed Roman? Why were they after me? Why did my family always think I had to be protected from something? Someone? My mother noticed right away when I returned that something had happened in the time I was gone. I played it off as nothing and we finished our movie as we waited for the men to finish their meeting. I honestly couldn’t remember how the movie ended, which was a shame, because I really enjoyed the beginning. That evening when Emilio and I had returned back to the house and crawled into bed, I asked him who the Heinrichs were. His shocked expression, half cough, and moment of silence was as if I had told him I was marrying Lucas. I explained how I accidently heard the name when I had passed the study tonight. I neglected to tell him I listened to a short portion of the conversation, mostly because of the reaction I was receiving at the moment. I had planned on telling him everything I had heard, but tonight was not the night. Emilio’s explanation of the Heinrichs was that they were an unfriendly rival of my father’s and they were trying to commandeer parts of his business. He never mentioned me, or that I was at the center of everything that was happening to us. Emilio’s pointless jabbering only made me more curious and more impatient. I would leave it alone for now, but I would eventually figure it out whether anyone liked it or not. *** The warmth of Emilio’s body woke me up the next morning. I had two covers on me and was curled up in his arms. I was so hot that it made my stomach turn, so I slowly got up without waking him. Violet was in the kitchen making breakfast for everyone, so I joined her and within less than thirty minutes, everyone else had congregated in the kitchen for breakfast as well. After we ate, we all went our own way. Emilio and I volunteered to clean the kitchen, and stayed quiet for a while, just me and him. I knew he had something on his mind. He usually wasn’t this silent, or so concentrated on doing the dishes. “Something wrong?” I finally asked, looking up from drying the last dish before putting it away. “Yes, and no.” He shrugged. There was a battle raging in his head—I could see it in his eyes. I stared at him for a moment waiting for him to tell me what was wrong, but he just turned his back and started cleaning the counters. “Well, are you going to tell me?” I huffed at him. He turned around slowly, placing his back against the counter, not even looking up at me. I hated when he did that. It meant what he had to say pained him. His face contorted a few times, and then he sighed. “I have to go back to New York today.” He shrugged before turning back around. “And I don’t want to.” Now I understood his solemn mood. “I don’t want to leave you,” he said with his head hanging low and his shoulders hunched. You, rang in my ears. We had been spending so much time together and acting like we used to. Intimate moments exchanged, and the meaning behind that one little you was more than just me. He didn’t want to leave me, and he didn’t want to leave us. Things had been going so well. My heart tugged toward him and I hesitated for a moment before I walked up behind him and put my arms around him, hugging him with everything I had. “I don’t want to leave you behind, not right now. We seem to have found a good place and I like where we’re at.” “Me too,” I whispered. He turned around and hugged me. There was just something about Emilio. I knew I was falling for Lucas, but every time I turned around, Emilio was there. He captured my attention and that needed to stop. I had been hiding behind him the last few weeks because he was familiar. We aren’t good for each other, and I know that—even he knows that. Emilio leaned back and put his hands gently on my face. I didn’t want to look up at him, but I did. His eyes, gray as steel, were looking back at me. As I peered into the storm all I saw was torment. My breath caught as he stared into mine like he was searching my soul, searching for something he wanted an answer to. My heart beat faster with every second he gazed into my eyes. I even lost myself for a moment trying to figure out what he was looking for. My brain was screaming at me to back away, but my heart was overriding it. As Emilio’s lips started moving closer to mine, I closed my eyes and I knew I couldn’t turn my head. I didn’t want to. “Hey… guys,” Violet said as she entered the kitchen. Emilio and I both jumped away from each other. “Sorry, I didn’t know I would be interrupting you two,” she said, giving me a disapproving look. “No,” both Emilio and I said in unison. “You’re not interrupting us,” Emilio said. “What’s up?” I asked, feeling a little ashamed. “Dante asked me to tell Emilio that his plane leaves in four hours. He just booked his flight.” “Thank you, Violet,” he said as he threw away the paper towels he had been using to clean the counters with. “I guess I’ll go pack.” I just nodded as I watched him walk out of the room. He was barely out of view when Violet stomped over to me. “I don’t want to hear it, Violet. I know.” I didn’t even let her start. I walked past her and headed upstairs to help Emilio pack. *** I couldn’t believe it was already the day before New Year’s Eve. Emilio had only been gone a day, but it already felt like a lifetime. I didn’t know if it was him I missed, or the warm body that made me feel so safe at night. I looked like warmed-over death when I entered my parents’ house to help my mother and the rest of the girls decorate for my parents’ New Year’s Eve party. Violet and I worked hard all day to get the decorations changed out from Christmas to New Year’s. We went with an almost Mardi Gras look with purples, greens, and golds. We had brought in propane heaters for the back patio and strung lights outside. The men were in charge of setting up the firework station and getting them in place. We worked diligently, and by the time we left that night, I couldn’t believe that tomorrow would be the last day of the year and a new one would be starting soon. The next morning went by fast. Violet and I got up as soon as we could and headed straight for my parents’. We were barely through the door when my mother started calling for us. “Hey, can you two please come help me in the kitchen?” I bet more than anything she had been up for several hours cooking. Violet went and got the last minute decorations from my mother’s office as I went straight to the kitchen. I was right—she had been feverishly working away. Her hair was pulled back in a bun, but the front strings had fallen out, making her look like she had just ran a marathon. Her apron was covered in flour and an assortment of other ingredients, and her face was flushed. I could tell she was stressing. “So what do you need help with?” I asked as I walked over to the drawer next to the stove and pulled out another apron. I went ahead and set another one on the counter for Violet. “I need you to start on desserts. I’m so far behind it seems. The party starts in just a few hours!” “I'm on it!” I said with a salute toward her. My sisters-in-law were fast at work as well, peeling or stirring something on the stove or helping with whatever else my mother needed them to do. I started on the desserts, but Violet wasn’t too far behind me. She didn’t skip a beat as she picked up some ingredients and started mixing. That was how I knew she had spent way too many holidays with us. She could walk up and start helping without even being told what to do. Violet and I spent the next couple of hours working on the desserts. We had so many different kinds. I actually lost track of what all we had made. When we finally finished, we had less than an hour to get ready before our guests would be arriving. The two of us hustled back down to our house to take a quick shower and get ready in record time. We were going to be a few minutes late, but we didn’t think it would be that noticeable. Violet and I slipped in the kitchen door hoping no one would notice we were late and joined in to the closest conversation that held our attention. The house was booming. The guests were continuing to arrive and my family was scattered throughout. My nieces and nephews were running around the house, going up and down the stairs constantly. Dinner was soon served and it was delicious. Violet, Dante, and I sat on the patio by ourselves—being in the house with so many people made us feel a little claustrophobic. It was nice and quiet out there, besides the dull roar of the conversations going on inside. After dinner, the music started to play and everyone made their way to the dance floor we had set up in the living room. Violet and I sent my mother to join the party as we cleaned up the kitchen, put up several tables we wouldn’t need again, and swept the floor. It didn’t take us long, even though we did take a break here and there to show off our tango or salsa moves. My father and brothers’ friends flung Violet and me around the dance floor. Dante watched Violet with jealous eyes when some of the younger men would ask her to dance. He was still healing and couldn’t quite master dancing with his arm in a sling. It was hilarious to watch his face every time a gentleman would ask her to dance—it contorted in jealous waves. I was having a good time, and for just a little while, I forgot about life outside of those four walls. That was until it was ten minutes until midnight and we were all ushered out the back door. My favorite part was about to begin… the fireworks! Violet and I helped my mother bring out the champagne glasses for the adults and sparkling cider for the kids, along with the traditional lentils we would snack on while we watched the fireworks. They were supposed to be good luck and were believed to bring money in the New Year. Money, I had—what I really needed was good luck in the love department. We waited and counted down the seconds, then cheered and toasted the New Year when the fireworks began. Everyone took their seats to watch. My brothers always did the most amazing show, and I sat there in awe as we watched it. It was wonderful! When the fireworks ended, the rest of us got the chance to join in. We had sparklers for the kids and more dangerous ones for the adults. Violet and I grabbed our favorites, roman candles, and lit up the sky along with everyone else. It was two in the morning by the time our fireworks fun was over with. Everyone that was still there helped clean up the yard, before they said their goodbyes. It was just Violet, Dante, me, and my parents left by two-thirty. “Do you want us to help you clean up tonight?” I asked as an unintentional yawn escaped me. “No sweetheart, it’s okay. We can clean up tomorrow,” my mother said with a mimicked yawn. “Liliana,” my father spoke up just as we were about to step out the door. “When you return tomorrow, I would like to discuss something with you.” Oh great! Now I was nervous. Every time he needed to talk to me, it never ended well. This wasn’t going to be good. I could feel it. Chapter 16 I didn’t wake up too late the next morning. I got up, showered, dressed, and was out the door by ten. Everyone was still asleep, so I quietly made my way down the stairs and out the door. My parents were finishing up brunch when I walked through the door. My mother offered to feed me, but I wasn’t hungry. Instead, I went straight to cleaning up and started taking down all the decorations I was starting to curse at. Why had Violet and I put up so much? My mother joined me shortly and helped me pack the leftover decorations we were going to be keeping for the next year. It took us a while and when we finished cleaning up, I headed toward my father’s study, already fearful about how this conversation was going to go. I hesitated, not wanting to go in. I didn’t know if I was prepared for what he had to say, but I knew I had to face the music sometime, so I took a deep breath and knocked. “Come in,” my father said. I opened the door and walked over to the chair in front of his desk and took a seat. He was working on something, so I patiently waited as he finished. The longer I sat there, the more nervous I became. I knew whatever he was going to say wasn’t going to end well. “It’s been over two weeks since the incident in New Jersey. I hope you have recovered,” he said as he placed the papers he had been working on in the top drawer of his desk. Great, this was how he was going to start the conversation off. He hoped I had recovered from the incident? No one recovers from what we, in that house, had been through. I’ve learned to live with it. I had to take a deep breath. I wasn’t going to lose my temper when we hadn’t even got to the second sentence yet. “I'm doing okay. I still have some good days and some bad, but I’m coping.” “I'm very pleased to hear that,” he said, folding his hands on his desk and sitting straight up. “Now for the reason I called you here today.” Keep calm, I told myself. “I know this,” he began, “isn’t what you want to hear at the moment, but there is still plenty of work that needs to be done in New York, so I will need you to move back there.” What the hell? “Emilio is there upgrading a new house he has found. He’s getting it ready for you to move into. You leave in a couple of weeks.” I felt my entire body stiffen as I shot up out of the seat and took a defensive stance. “No,” I said firmly, crossing my arms across my chest. “What did you just say to me?” His right eyebrow and voice rose as he looked at me. “I said no!” “Excuse me young lady!” “No, excuse you, Papà! Last time we had this conversation, I told you I didn’t want to go. I told you that I wanted to stay here and live my life! What makes you think that now I would be willing to go back? After everything that has happened to me there! It’s not just a no, it’s a hell no! You can find someone else. I’m not going.” I turned and headed straight out the door. “Liliana Evelina Dapprima!” I heard his voice call—I didn’t turn around, though. I was not going to yield to his commands anymore. I was tired of being bossed around. Look where it got me last time: beat up, bruised, and defeated. I was going to be taking control of my life from now on! No one was going to make my decisions for me. As I passed by my mother, I gave her a short wave and headed straight out the front door to my house. I was beyond upset, and I couldn’t believe he had the audacity to ask me to go back there! It irritated me to my core, but I stood up for myself. I pushed through the front door as soon as I got home. It looked like everyone except Violet had gone out for the day. She was watching television, so I headed to the kitchen and started pulling out bowls and ingredients from the cabinets. I needed and wanted chocolate chip cookies. It didn’t take Violet very long to come and see what was up. “What’s going on?” Violet asked as she entered the kitchen. I stopped what I was doing and just stared at her. She knew that when I baked voluntarily something was wrong. “Oh my gosh, why is your face red? What the hell happened?” she asked, noticing I was more upset than I ever had been before. I grabbed a spatula and slammed it on the counter. “My father just had the nerve to tell me I was going to be moving back to New Jersey!” I grabbed the eggs and milk out of the refrigerator and slammed it shut. “Wait! What?” Violet looked stunned. “After everything that has happened, he still wants you to move back? Is he crazy?” “Apparently! I told him no! I told him I wasn’t going back, and then I just walked out the door,” I said as I half threw, half slid the milk on the counter and sat the eggs down. “Wow, Lily, I’m proud of you, you go girl!” she said as she pumped her fist in the air. “You know what, Vi.” I stopped and just looked at her. “I’m just so pissed right now, but I’m proud of myself. I actually said no and meant it this time. I just can’t believe he would have the nerve to even ask me to go back there! After everything that happened to me! Just makes me so damn mad!” I was so livid that I started to cry. “Don’t cry, Lily,” Violet said as she walked around and put her arms around me and pulled me in close. I hadn’t realized I was shaking until she held me tight enough to steady me. “You never have to do anything else you don’t want to. I won’t let you.” Violet was my rock. She always said the right things exactly when I needed them. It took me a few more moments to gain some control of my emotions. “Thank you, Violet.” I smiled at her. “Thank you for always having my back.” She grabbed my hand and squeezed it tightly before she grabbed the flour and started helping me with the cookies. *** The next day I said goodbye to my brothers and their families as they headed back home. I’ve heard the saying, “you love to see them coming, but you love to see them going,” and that was how I felt. They had been here for a little over a week and a half, and I was so glad to see them go, but I knew before they even walked through their own front doors, I would already be missing them. Violet left the day after my family, so the week went by slowly. She said she was going to spend some time with her family and I was glad. Sometimes I felt like I occupied most of her time and I never wanted her to not spend time with them. Dante stayed around the house with me. His arm was healing nicely and he was excited to start physical therapy soon to build the strength back up in his arm and shoulder. My mother had come by to see me several times over the week. I let her know straight away that I didn’t want to hear any messages from my father, or any reasoning as to why I should or shouldn’t move back to New Jersey. She complied, probably not wanting to talk about it anymore than I did. Lucas and I had been texting every day since Emilio had left for New Jersey, and I talked to him as much as possible on the phone. I felt so guilty for ignoring Lucas while Emilio was here and even guiltier for letting myself get lost in Emilio again. I had to make up for it. Lucas said Emilio had been keeping him busy and told me he missed me and couldn’t wait to see me again. Each day I told myself today would be the day I would tell him I wasn’t coming back, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Violet returned on Saturday. I couldn’t tell who was more excited to see her, me or Dante. I would say me, but I think it was a tie. We felt complete again. I woke up Monday morning by the doorbell ringing multiple times. I was beyond pissed when I jumped out of bed and started heading downstairs. I was praying that it wasn’t my father who would greet me at the door. I heard Dante and Violet both rise and not so quietly murmur choice words. I swung the front door open ready to fight when I met his stormy gray eyes. “Emilio,” I said with shock and relief in my voice. “What are you doing here? I thought you were in New Jersey?” “I was,” he said as he flashed his mischievous grin at me, “but I missed you and wanted to come and check on you.” Dante cleared his throat behind me. I jumped and Emilio laughed. “And of course Dante and Violet as well,” Emilio added. I hated to admit it, but I was so happy to see him standing there. I had missed him more than I thought and my heart beat with excitement. I hadn’t really had a good night’s sleep since he left me. I hated that I had missed him, but I couldn’t stop myself either. I threw my arms around him. He pulled me in tight, nestling his face in my neck. The feel of his breath on it sent goosebumps spreading like wildfire all over my body. “I missed you,” I whispered in his ear. He squeezed me a little tighter before letting me go. I ushered him into the house just as Violet was walking down the steps. “How are you doing, Violet?” Emilio asked. “I'm good,” she mumbled at him. “I would be a lot better if a certain person didn’t decide to ring the doorbell a million times this morning.” He laughed whole heartedly before telling her sarcastically that she was welcome. “And you, Lily?” he asked, turning his attention toward me. “I'm doing much better. I have good days, and I have bad days, but the good days are starting to outweigh the bad ones. I still miss Roman like crazy every day. I just think there will always be an empty void in my heart that he occupied.” I placed my hand over my heart like I could hold it and heal it from just a touch. “Me too,” Emilio said and we both smiled. “Anyways, I'm about to go see my family for a little bit, but I wanted to talk to Lily for a moment, if you both don’t mind?” Why would he need to talk to me? Dante and Violet said their goodbyes and retreated back upstairs, probably thankful Emilio wanted to talk to me and not them. I was jealous—they were headed back to their beds. But, I was curious and nervous as to what Emilio had come back into town to talk to me about. “Is something wrong?” I asked as I headed toward the living room. “I need to talk to you about something,” he spoke cautiously as I stood there looking confused. “And I don’t want you to get mad at me, but please just hear me out before you speak okay?” “Okay,” I responded, but I wasn’t going to be making any promises. “Your father called me the other day,” he started. Shit! I started to say something, but Emilio quickly hushed me. “Please just hear me out. I know you don’t want to move back to New Jersey. I wouldn’t either if I was in your shoes and had been through all the shit you have been through, but we really need you there. “I have been working really hard on the new house. You will be safe. I have installed state of the art security, cameras everywhere, and everyone who comes onto the property has their own codes. If anyone even bats an eyelash at the fence around the house, an alarm will sound immediately. It might be annoying at first with the new security, but it’s all for your safety.” I was glad I hadn’t sat down just yet, because I turned and headed straight back toward the front door. “You need to leave,” I said as I opened it. As soon as he caught up to me, he shut the door immediately. “I’m not leaving,” he said sternly. “You’re going to listen to me.” I thought I had been excited to see him, but my heart lied. “Liliana, please?” he pleaded. “So, you didn’t come back because you missed me,” I stated. “You came back because my stubborn father wanted you to talk me into going back.” Anger shook throughout my voice. This was so typical. When one can’t get the job done, they send the other one in. “No, that is not it at all. Your father doesn’t even know I’m here. I really wanted to see you and I miss…” I held up my hand to stop him. “Save it,” I snapped at him. “I’m not going back, Emilio. I’m telling you exactly what I told my father. I am not going back.” I yelled at him. “I was almost killed when I was there, I lost one of my best friends, and I almost lost my brother. That place holds too many terrible memories. “I don’t care how much my father needs me there, or that it’s a new house with the best security systems. Roman will be everywhere I go there.” I started crying—I was so angry. “I can’t go back there. Please don’t make me!” I pleaded. Emilio’s arms wrapped around me and pulled me in close before I had time to protest. How many tears can one person have in their body? I would have thought by now I would have cried them all out. “I know how you feel, Lily,” he whispered. “It was hard going back. I see him everywhere.” “Then why would you ask me to go back?” “Because I can’t protect you here.” He sighed as he pulled away from me and tilted my chin toward his face. He was hesitating and fighting with himself on what he wanted to say. It was written all over his face. “I don’t need protecting,” I scolded him. “I’m going to tell you something, but you can’t freak out, okay?” I looked at him like he was crazy. What could he possibly have to tell me that I would freak out about? “Fine.” “You remember when you asked me about the Heinrichs, and I told you they weren’t anything more than unfriendly businessmen?” I nodded my head. “They aren’t just unfriendly businessmen.” “I got that,” I said sarcastically. “They are…” He paused, looking a little panicked. “Well, spit it out!” I snapped at him. “They’re after you,” he started to yell, but quickly brought his voice down. “After me?” I asked shocked. I had heard the guys talking about me that one day, but I didn’t know that the Heinrichs were actually after me. “They have a problem with your father, and they’re trying to leverage your safety to put pressure on him. We can’t protect you here. Your father is the only one here. “In Jersey, you will have me, your brothers, and Lucas. The Heinrichs know you live here and that you’re not as,” he said and then paused for a moment, “protected here as you would be there. That’s why your father had you move to New Jersey in the first place.” Emilio’s eyes widened with his own words like he wasn’t supposed to say that. I was sure my eyes were just as wide. “I'm so confused,” I confessed. “So you’re saying my father sent me away on purpose, because they’re after me to hurt him, and…I think I need a drink.” I turned and headed toward the kitchen. “We’re a hundred percent sure they’re the ones who attacked us at the house,” Emilio said as I was halfway down the hall, “both times.” I stopped and faced him as he continued. “We put our guards down and they took advantage of it,” he admitted. Yeah, I was definitely going to need that drink. Emilio and I spent the next hour talking about everything. I asked him why we just didn’t go to the police and have them handle it. He said it was our problem and we would handle them ourselves. If they were behind the attacks at the house, then that meant one of them attacked me at Halloween, the others attacked us at the Christmas party, and one of them killed Roman. We talked about a lot of things, but I knew Emilio and he wasn’t telling me the whole story. It took me awhile, but I finally agreed to go back. I wasn’t completely happy about it, but Emilio said I couldn’t help them by being here. I would have thought the fact that there were people out there trying to find me would have scared me to death or shocked me, but that wasn’t the most craziest thing I had heard tonight. The reason my father had sent me to New Jersey was to protect me and not torture me. That was the biggest surprise of the night. For the first time, I felt like my father really did love me, somewhere deep down. Chapter 17 The sound of the tires hitting the runway jarred me awake. I must have fallen asleep on the flight. I couldn’t believe how fast the last week had flown by. This morning I had to say goodbye to Violet for the second time in a year. She decided on her own to stay behind. I didn’t blame her, and I didn’t push her to join me. I told her she was more than welcome at the house anytime she wanted to come and visit. She said she would be seeing us very soon and that made me feel better. Dante and Violet’s goodbye was hard to watch. Their silent, intimate moment was so pure and full of love that I knew this had to be destroying them. Dante was staring out the window when I looked up at him. I nudged him and he turned and smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes, and then he turned back to the window. He looked sad. Maybe he was thinking about Roman or Violet, or the fact that we were both in the last place either of us wanted to be. “Is everything okay?” I asked him as I laid my hand on his shoulder. He nodded and then shrugged my hand off. I needed reassurance and support just like he did. I decided I wouldn’t push it with him right now. Once he was ready he would let me know. I twisted my necklace a few times before I let it fall onto my chest. I found myself doing that a lot lately. It was my new nervous habit. I had a lot on my mind. I would be living with Emilio again, but Lucas was going to be my new companion, or ‘bodyguard.’ It was hard enough trying to sort through my feelings between the two when they were apart. Now with them being together all the time, this was going to be impossible. I was already dreading the two awkward moments of each day ahead of me. Each morning Lucas would take over and then each afternoon Emilio would take back over. Maybe Dante could help a girl out on this one. Dante and I headed straight for baggage claim as soon as we stepped off the plane. Most of our things were being shipped in, but we had still brought as much with us as we could. Emilio was waiting for us after we exited baggage claim. As soon as our eyes met, his face lit up and a stunning smile erupted across his face. I could feel the smile spread across my face, too. I half ran, half walked toward him. He picked me up and held me tight. Even though I didn’t know what our relationship exactly was anymore, I had moved on from my hate for him, to missing him terribly when he was away. We loaded the black SUV with our luggage and headed toward our new house. The skyline of New York disappeared behind us. I knew we weren’t going back to Hoboken when we went a different direction after going through the tunnel into New Jersey. We drove for a while, passing towns, until we arrived in a city called Monroe. It was a beautiful community. I secretly hoped this was the place, and I was correct. We turned down several streets and drove a little more before we came across a beautiful two-story brick home with a gorgeous gate surrounding it. Emilio pulled up, typed in a key code, and then it asked him to say his name. Awesome, a voice activated system! Then something slipped out and Emilio leaned over and placed his thumb on it. A green check mark appeared on the screen and the gates opened. Emilio wasn’t kidding when he said he had upgraded the security system. The house was even more beautiful the closer we got. It was an enormous two-story modern ranch home with a complete wraparound porch. There were windows all along the first floor and three triangular square windows on the second floor. The three car detached garage was attached to the house through a covered walkway. The house reminded me of our old house, yet very different. The house had a black roof with black trim, but the house itself was white with red shutters and a red front door. It was an odd choice of colors for the outside of a home, but it worked beautifully together. “What do you think?” Emilio asked as he came around the back side of the SUV, holding my luggage for me. “It’s beautiful. I love it.” “I’m glad you like it.” He smiled. “Now come on and check out the inside.” When I walked through the front door, I was extremely impressed. It definitely didn’t look like the other house. The other house was earth toned, but this one’s theme was the same inside as it was outside. The walls were a crisp white with beautiful, elaborate crown molding. The entire bottom floor was a complete open floor plan. I loved how I could see from one end of the house to the other. The stairs were the first thing to greet me besides the large foyer. Not only did we have a set going up to the second floor, but we had a set going down, probably leading to a basement. The dining room was right off the foyer on my right, which was next to the kitchen. The kitchen had white cabinets with black granite counter tops and black appliances. The breakfast nook, pantry, and laundry room were past the kitchen. To the left of the kitchen was a set of French doors, which led out onto the biggest screened-in porch I had ever seen. That was definitely going to become my favorite place in this house. The backyard was amazing! There was a magnificent stone porch that had a built-in matching Jacuzzi that was just as big, if not bigger, than a small sized pool. I was going to have to place bets on how many people we could actually fit into it. The rest of the backyard had multiple trees spread throughout the property. I saw an old oak tree that had a swing hanging from it not too far from the porch. I just found my second favorite spot once the winter weather gave us a beautiful day. I didn’t want to tear myself away, but I needed to finish looking at the rest of the house. When I walked back into the kitchen, there was a small office on the left. It was the only space on the bottom floor that actually had four walls. There was a half-bath located right off of it, with a door that led to the living room on the other side, convenient for both. The living room area was massive! There was a large fireplace in the middle of the back wall with a fifty-inch television on both sides surrounded by built-in book shelves. Two separate sectional couches sat in front of the televisions and two glass coffee tables occupied the front of each couch. The house and wall décor throughout the bottom floor was absolutely stunning! I loved the small, yet elegant touches. Always enough, but never overdone. The portraits of all of us and our families once again adorned the walls and bookshelves. Violet, once again, had done a wonderful job. “Let me show you to your room,” Emilio said as he grabbed my arm and headed up the stairs. Dante was nowhere in sight. The upstairs held four similar bedrooms each having their own bath. I was overwhelmed when Emilio opened the door to my room. This time Violet had went with black furniture and accented the room with white, black, and turquoise. It looked nothing like my old bedroom, and I loved it! Emilio told me I was the only one who had three closets. He said I was going to be the one who needed them the most—I would have to agree. Emilio left me there to unpack and settle in. After I put everything away in its proper place, I was ready to explore the rest of the upstairs before I headed downstairs. Emilio’s room was the one opposite of mine, so we would be sharing a wall. Dante’s room was on the right front. Adjacent to his room was Violet’s. It didn’t surprise me that she had a room of her own here. I hoped that meant she would be visiting a lot or eventually move here. On her dresser was a card that had “Lily,” written on the front. I smiled as I read the words. Lily, You couldn’t have possibly thought I wouldn’t make a place for myself. I hope you love the house. I will see you soon. Love you, V I couldn’t have asked for a better friend. I wanted to call her right then, but I decided to wait and call tonight to thank her for doing this, again. I found the guys in the kitchen when I made it back downstairs. Emilio and Dante were deep in conversation when I rounded the corner. They abruptly stopped talking and turned their attention toward me. “So what do you think?” Emilio asked with a smile. “I like it a lot.” I smiled back. “You weren’t kidding about the security, I’m impressed. I do feel…comfortable.” “That’s good,” he said as they both got up from their stools. “I think I’m going to go work on unpacking my stuff. I will see you both in a little bit,” Dante said, leaving the room. “Okay,” I said as he headed up the stairs in no time. “Did he tell you what’s up with him?” I asked Emilio. “He has been acting funny ever since we landed.” “No.” He shrugged. “He didn’t mention anything about it to me.” “Hmm,” I sighed. “He has been acting different. After we boarded the plane, I fell asleep, and when I woke up, he was so sad, the worst I have seen him. Ever.” I opened up the refrigerator to get a drink. I was happy to find it fully stocked. “Maybe he already misses Violet,” Emilio said. I turned swiftly back around to look at him. A sly smile crossed his face when our eyes met. “You see it, too?” I asked curiously. I thought I was the only one. “Who hasn’t? I have known for a while now. I think everyone is just waiting for them to make it official.” Emilio smiled at a thought he was having, before his face changed and became more serious. “But I understand why they can’t.” That statement caught me off guard. “Why can’t they?” I questioned. “It’s for the same reason you and I can never be together.” He looked at me with those gray eyes that were full of sadness now. Wait what? Same reason Emilio and I couldn’t be together? I was confused and a little heartbroken at the same time. Was Violet going to have to endure with Dante what I had to endure with Emilio? I hoped not. I wouldn’t even wish it on my worst enemy. “And what reason is that?” I asked with enough attitude to knock him out of his own thoughts. “Oh, you know what?” he asked, trying to change the subject. “We need to decide on dinner. I will go find out what Dante wants to eat, while you do whatever you do.” I had to find out what he was hiding. I needed to know because Violet and Dante deserved a happy ending, and I would make sure they got it. As for Emilio and me, I promised myself then and there that I wouldn’t let it sway my judgment. Lily and Lucas, Lily and Lucas I was chanting in my head when Emilio’s voice interrupted my thoughts. “Lily, could you please tell Violet thank you once again for helping with everything? I owe her a lot. This place was a mess before she came and helped me out.” “I will do that.” I grinned at him. He did his cocky smirk back at me, and then vanished up the stairs. We ended up ordering pizza for dinner that night instead of going out. Dante came down to get his and then headed back up to his room. I knew if I gave him his space he would eventually come and talk to me. I called Violet after I got out of the shower. She told me how Emilio had come to her for help and she agreed. Then she explained when she was supposedly at her parents’ house, she was really here helping him. “Well, you could have told me,” I complained. “He wanted to keep it a secret. He didn’t even know if anyone was going to be able to talk you into coming back. He helped out a lot, along with Faith. She gave me a lot of new furniture for a discount. It really helped spruce the place up. As you can tell, it’s a lot bigger than the other house and it obviously needed more décor.” I asked about Faith and how she was doing. I felt like I hadn’t seen her in forever. Violet said she was doing well and that she demanded that we all hang out and spend more time together. A girls’ night out sounded perfect to me. We would definitely need to do that. I told Violet I would call her soon. “It may be next week until I can talk again,” I said. “Emilio told me I would be busy this week. We’re going to be working on attack drills.” Violet quietly giggled when she heard that. She wouldn’t think it was so funny when she has to learn them the next time she comes in. I could surprise her with that one. I made sure I thanked her for all her hard work and I told her how Emilio was forever in her debt for all the wonderful work she did. In true Violet fashion, she shrugged it off and said it was no big deal and that she would do anything for me. I loved that girl! I thought about asking her what she thought Emilio meant by our conversation earlier, but that was reserved for a face-to-face conversation. We said our goodbyes, and she reassured me she would see me soon. I was about to go to sleep when a knock came at my door and Dante emerged into my room. “Is everything okay?” I asked concerned as he made his way over to my bed. “I’m really sorry,” he said, “about today.” Finally! I was glad it only took him a couple of hours. I had made up my mind that if he hadn’t come to me tonight, then I would have to take action in the morning. “I have been kind of out of it since we got on the plane. I just didn’t think I could handle being here. Roman was my best friend. I didn’t know how to cope with all this shit,” Dante explained. “Trust me, I understand. But together we can get through anything.” I smiled at him. His attitude immediately changed. We sat there for what seemed like forever just talking about the new house and how things were going to be different. We made a pact to both be there for each other and not to shut the other one out. “Can I ask you a question?” I finally asked Dante, and he nodded. I had been debating on whether or not I was going to ask him, but my curiosity was getting the best of me and I had to know the answer. Right now was the best chance of asking him since we were alone. “Why is it that Emilio and I can never get back together?” I could tell by his expression that he was taken aback by the question. “I thought you liked Lucas? So why are you worried about you and Emilio?” That was a good question. Why didn’t I ask him why he and Violet couldn’t be together? I felt like an idiot. “Will you please just answer the question?” I huffed at him. “I can’t,” he said with a heavy sadness to his voice. “I'm sorry, Lily.” I was confused. Why couldn’t he tell me? I didn’t understand anyone in my family. “You could answer it for yourself, if you really thought about it,” he continued. I raised my eyebrow at him. I didn’t know where to go with that. “I don’t understand.” “The only thing I can say is, think about your job, your life, and where you come from. If you can put all the pieces together, you may be able to figure it out yourself.” With that he stood up and kissed me on the forehead. “You’re a smart girl, Lily, just sheltered. Goodnight,” he said, and then he was gone. Why did I even ask? I was more confused now than before. I didn’t understand a single thing he was talking about. What does my job have to do with me and Emilio? How did that affect Violet and Dante? And my life? Where I came from? None of it made sense to me. I laid there and stared at the ceiling for hours. I kept replaying everything Dante had said. I had to figure it out. I needed to know. I needed closure on my and Emilio’s relationship. It ended so abruptly and without warning and I never received my answer as to why. But, I had a feeling that whatever the answer was, it would either heal or completely break what Emilio and I had. Maybe then I could decide, Lucas or Emilio. Chapter 18 “Liliana, I’m coming for you and I will find you!” I was running through the forest once again. The branches were scraping against my arms and legs, and my bare feet were screaming at me to stop. I tripped on a root and face-planted on the ground. I scrambled to get to my feet, but there he was, the masked man, just like the one who attacked me. “You have no idea how long I have waited for this. They have tried to hide you from me, but they fail each time. This time you will be mine.” “No, please, no,” I screamed at him. “Don’t do this. I beg you.” The man knelt down in front of me, grabbed my neck single-handedly and pulled me up. I couldn’t breathe—my airway was restricted by his grip. I grabbed at his hand, thrashing and praying he would let me go. I started gasping for air. “Are you ready?” he laughed as he glared into my eyes. “Are you ready to finally find out who I am? I’m the one who instructed all of this. Get ready Liliana for the surprise of your life!” He slowly grabbed his mask and started peeling it off. I could see his neck and then his chin. *** “Wake up, Liliana!” Emilio yelled at me. I awoke with a gasp and jumped straight up. He was standing over me as Dante rushed through the door. “What the hell man? What did you do to her?” Dante yelled at him. “Nothing!” Emilio yelled back. “I came in here to wake her up. She was screaming her head off. I’ve been in here for over two minutes! Where have you been?” Emilio asked Dante before turning back to me. I had started hyperventilating. “Lily, what’s wrong? Are you okay?” Emilio asked. His eyes were full of concern and fear. I reached for my neck as I tried to catch my breath. “I'm fine,” I breathed out, trying to convince them and myself. “You’re not fine,” Emilio said, taking my hands. “You were screaming, Lily. You were screaming ‘no, don’t do this, I beg you’. And when I say screaming, I mean bloodcurdling screams.” I sat there, my eyes searched the room and their faces. I couldn’t speak—I was still half panicking, and could still feel his hands on my neck, clasping and crushing it. “I'm fine.” My voice was still shaking with fear. “I just had a bad dream.” Dante had moved to my other side and had wrapped his arm around me. “Do you want to talk about it?” Dante asked. “This was no ordinary nightmare,” Emilio added. “It’s nothing you two, I promise. It was just a dream.” “What was it about?” Emilio asked. “It was...,” I sighed. I had given up trying to block it out. It was time to tell them. “It was about someone chasing me. They said they had been waiting for this moment, and that no matter how many times or how far I ran, or moved, they would find me.” Dante’s grip on me got tighter. “Damn!” Dante yelled toward Emilio. “You told her!” “It was the only way,” Emilio said defensively, “to convince her to come. It was time to tell her the truth for once.” “You know you weren’t supposed to tell her that man! Now she’s freaking out!” “I’m fine, Dante,” I spoke loudly. “It was just a dream. It wasn’t real and it isn’t the first time I have had this dream.” “What do you mean this isn’t the first time? It’s happened before? When?” Dante asked. “The dreams started a few weeks before I moved to New Jersey the first time,” I explained. “I probably have had the same dream a good ten to twenty times. Each time is a little different, but still the same.” “Lily, why haven’t you told anyone before now?” Emilio grabbed my face and looked into my eyes. “I haven’t had the dream in a while. I thought maybe this time it had passed. Plus, it’s only a dream…” “Tell us about these dreams. We need to hear it, every detail.” Dante was serious. So I sat there and told them about each and every dream I had and the difference between each one. When I was done, Emilio and Dante looked at each other and made a silent agreement. “Tomorrow we move to level two precautions,” Dante announced. “Agreed,” Emilio responded. “Level two?” I questioned. They both assured me it wasn’t a big deal, just an extra step in the security level. Emilio told me I needed to focus on my attack drills and that I needed to start memorizing the different ways to react to each circumstance. They both looked uneasy. I had scared them, and that scared me. *** I was making a sandwich for lunch one afternoon that week when an “attack” happened. Emilio had sent two employees to trespass onto the property, sounding an alarm throughout the house. I froze in place for a moment, trying to think about my next move. I had so much information and training the last week, my head was jumbled. A few more seconds and I finally hit the floor. I quickly crawled towards the laundry room and shut the door quietly behind me. I tapped the panel, popped it loose, slipped in behind it, and quietly put it back in place. Emilio had the house gutted in several places and made safe spaces. Most of the spaces were so small that I could barely fit into them. As soon as I was in, I lifted up the keypad screen protector and punched in my number. Then it scanned my thumb so Emilio would know exactly which place I had chosen and where he could find me. I sat there for a good ten minutes before the screen went green and a knock came from the panel. I heard our safe words, “Midnight in Paris.” Emilio had chosen that password because it related to only me and him. Midnight in Paris was the theme of our first school dance together and that was also the same night we shared our first kiss. Emilio sent me into the living room while he went and let my “attackers” back into the house. The only person in the house who knew exactly where all the safe places were was Emilio, and he wanted to keep it that way. He didn’t trust anyone else to know, not even Dante or Lucas. I was told to never tell anyone, ever. When Paolo and Lorenzo walked into the living room ahead of Emilio, I smiled. They had become a constant presence at the house the last week. They looked like body builders and not the pretty ones either, but they were two of the sweetest guys I had ever met. I was definitely a fan of them. We all sat down and went over everything that had just happened. I got an A plus. Emilio said now the only thing I would be continuing with was my daily self-defense classes. In those sixty minutes, I missed Roman more than ever. He was the one who taught me to throw my first punch when I was sixteen. We finished our conversation and I finally got back to making my sandwich. I was starving by the time I sat down on the couch with my turkey and swiss with chips. I flipped through the channels, but settled for a movie instead. I had just sat down from putting the movie in the disc player when two hands cupped my eyes and blinded me. I froze in terror until I heard him speak. “Guess who?” he asked. I hadn’t heard that voice this close to me in what seemed like forever. My heart immediately sped up. “Hmm, Brad Pitt?” I teased. He lifted his hands from my eyes and jumped over the couch, landing on the empty spot beside me. “Wrong.” Lucas smiled at me. My breath caught. Oh how I had missed that smile. He was beautiful. “Damn,” I said as I snapped my fingers and smiled at him. “I see how you are.” I laughed out loud at him. “So what are you doing here, Lucas?” “They didn’t tell you?” he questioned. “I'm your new bodyguard,” he said and then smiled a mischievous grin, “or escort. I prefer escort, what do you think?” “Not unless you want to sound like my personal stripper,” I giggled. “And I knew that. I meant like, what are you doing here…now? I thought you didn’t start until next week.” “I know.” His smile faded and a serious expression crossed his face. “I couldn’t stand waiting one more week to see you. It was killing me knowing you were already here and I couldn’t see you. So, here I am.” “I'm glad you’re here. I missed you, too,” I said as I cupped his face and kissed his lips gently before snuggling into his arms. “So is umm Emilio here?” he asked, trying not to sound too worried. “He left a few minutes before you got here. He said he would be back in a couple of hours, and if I need anything, Paolo and Lorenzo would be around. You’re definitely the better company for sure.” “So how are the attacks going?” Lucas asked curiously. “Pretty good,” I said. “I passed the first few with an A and Emilio said there wouldn’t be anymore, but I’m not holding my breath on that one. He will probably throw me another one before too long to keep me on my toes.” “I’m glad to hear that. Emilio had briefed me a little on what was going on around here this week. It seems a bit intense and overboard on Emilio’s part, but I know it’s all for your safety. I think I would do the same thing.” “Well, I would hope that you would try and keep me safe considering you’re my new ‘escort’,” I said, using my fingers to make quotation marks. Lucas’s laugh filled the entire living room. I don’t think I had ever heard him laugh that loud before, and it was intoxicating. “Don’t worry, you’re safe with me,” he laughed. “You’re not the only one who has gone through training lately.” “You too, huh?” He nodded. “Emilio didn’t make it mandatory or anything. I have just never been someone’s shadow, so I wanted to make sure I could handle anything that came my way.” “I'm impressed. You didn’t have to go through all of that for me, though.” “Yes, I did, Lily. It’s my job to make sure not even a hair on your head is harmed. I’m going to do it to the best of my ability, and I’m not doing this just for the sake of anyone. I’m doing this for you and for me. You have no idea how crazy I have gone since you left. If anything ever happened to you, I don’t think I could live with myself. I care for you more than you can even imagine.” He lifted my chin and gently pressed his lips to mine. I missed his lips, his kiss. It made everything else totally irrelevant and had me forget my surroundings. Over the next half hour, our lips never left each other. That was until someone cleared their throat from behind the couch, making both Lucas and me jump. Dante was standing behind us with his arms crossed. Thank God it wasn’t Emilio. What an awkward situation that would be! “Don’t stop on my account,” Dante said with a smirk. “I just thought I would let you know that Emilio will be back any minute now.” Then he turned and headed up to his room. It didn’t take Lucas any time to jump up and head to the front door. I walked him out and stole one last kiss before he left. I took a look around the grounds, and didn’t see Emilio anywhere in sight. Thank God. “I didn’t expect to see Lucas until Monday.” Dante’s voice scared me. “Me neither, I was just as surprised as you were.” “So what are you going to tell Emilio when he asks why Lucas stopped by today, and why he was here so long?” he asked with a hint of smugness in his voice. “Emilio won’t know.” I smiled at him. Dante chuckled. “Oh, Lily, did you forget that Emilio has this whole property under complete surveillance. Everyone who comes and goes has to punch in their personal code. He knew the moment Lucas was here.” The smile faded from my face, but appeared on Dante’s. I had completely forgotten about that. “Shit, what am I going to say?” I half begged. “If Emilio asks what Lucas was doing here, just look at Emilio and tell him, with his IQ you wouldn’t think he would understand.” My eyes immediately bugged out of my sockets, and Dante almost hit the floor from his spat of laughter. “Do you want me to die? I can’t say that!” “I know you can’t, but it was totally worth it to see your eyes pop out of your head.” “Sometimes…,” I shook my fist at him. “Just tell him the truth, Lil,” he said seriously now. “But you might want to leave out the make out session.” “Don’t worry, I will. I can only imagine what that conversation would be like.” I grimaced at him. “Emilio only wants you to be happy Lily,” Dante said. “You need to stop hiding things from him and just tell him the truth for once. He might be hurt in the beginning, but at least it will be all out there.” “That’s the problem,” I mumbled. “Well, I’m sure you will think of something,” he said as he kissed my forehead and headed back upstairs. “But the truth is always better than nothing, and easier to remember.” Why did he always have to be right? Chapter 19 I didn’t know if Emilio had changed his mind or Dante was just testing us to see how fast Lucas could get out of the house, but Emilio hadn’t even made it home by the time I headed to bed that night. I had worried all day about what I would say to him, but, in the end, I figured Dante was right. I was terrible at winging things and Emilio always knew when I was lying or embellishing and called me out on it. I was about to switch my lamp off and try to get some sleep when a knock came at my door. I knew it was Emilio just by the way he knocked. It wasn’t the first time he had knocked on my door, nor would it be the last. “Come in,” I said, trying to steady my racing heart. “I didn’t wake you, did I?” he asked as he made his way over to my bed. I shook my head as he sat down. “Good.” He smiled. “There was something I wanted to ask you.” Here it came. How was I going to respond? Tell him the truth or lie? “What is it?” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady. “Are you doing okay here?” he asked. “I know you haven’t been here very long, and I know there have been so many things going on and so many new arrangements. I just wanted to make sure you’re okay with everything.” I was not expecting that. “I'm…,” I stuttered, caught off guard. “I'm doing good.” I smiled, assuring him I really was. “Okay.” He smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Massimo wanted you to go back to work on Monday and look at some new places. I just wanted to make sure you would be up to that.” “Honestly, that sounds amazing. I’m already getting cabin fever. It’ll be nice to get out for a while and find something to do, even if that means going to work.” “Sounds good,” he said, patting my hand. “I was just double checking.” He rose up and looked at me as if he wanted to say something else, but he didn’t. He just leaned in and kissed my forehead. “Goodnight, Liliana.” “Goodnight,” I said, and then he was gone. I fell back on my pillow, relieved he hadn’t asked, although I knew he wanted to. I saw it in his eyes when he paused. Maybe he already knew what happened. I didn’t think there were any cameras in the house unless they were activated by the alarm system. Or maybe he was wondering if I would lie to him. He couldn’t take that. Sleep tonight was going to be restless. *** The weekend had ended and Monday had begun without any mention of Lucas being at the house, and I was happy about that. I was nervous about starting again today without having to worry about that situation. As nervous and scared as I was to be going back to work, I was just as excited to be out of the house. Dante could only entertain me for so long. Getting back to a normal schedule and doing something I loved would be a good thing for me. Emilio had brought four new files for me to look at over the week. They would definitely be keeping me busy, two houses and two businesses. I already knew the two housing projects would take up a good two months, and the businesses hopefully not as long. It would just depend on the contractors and their other projects. “Lily, we’re leaving,” Dante shouted from downstairs. “Lucas should be arriving any minute now. We will see you tonight.” “Okay,” I yelled back. “I will see you two tonight.” Dante had been on my case all morning. I guess he thought I had forgotten what it was like to go to work. He kept asking me questions about my day, what exactly I was going to do, and if I had everything I would need. It was a miracle I was even able to get dressed as quickly as I had with him harassing me. I was relieved when I heard the door close behind them. For the first time in two weeks, I was by myself in the house. It was a bittersweet moment, but it only lasted long enough for me to think about it. A knock at the door came seconds later, and I checked myself one more time in the mirror before I headed downstairs. I had butterflies in my stomach all morning. Today was the start of me being able to see Lucas every day. I was more than ecstatic about that! “Hey, Lucas,” I said as I threw the door open. “Hey, Lil,” he said with a smile that set the butterflies fluttering faster. He leaned in and gave me a kiss on the cheek. “You look beautiful.” I couldn’t help the smile that spread across my face or the shade of pink my cheeks turned. “Ready?” he asked. “Yes,” I said as I grabbed my purse and keys. “Oh and by the way, I’m driving.” I smirked as I shut the front door and locked it. We had spent most of the morning and the beginning of the afternoon touring the new locations. I had made page after page of notes for each one, and I had a plethora of ideas floating around in my head. My father had already, as usual, put his two cents in on what he thought each should look like. I would take them into account, but I wasn’t going to let him dictate what I thought was best for the space anymore. Lucas announced it was lunchtime before I knew it, and we argued for twenty minutes after that on who was going to drive. He said he could no longer let me drive. I scared him to death and that no one in their right mind should have given me my driver’s license, or a car that went “that damn fast.” I would have been hurt, but he was hilarious every time he grabbed the ‘oh shit’ bar, as he likes to call it, and fell to the ground, kissing the concrete every time we got out of the car. Frankly, I wondered what took him so long to finally speak up about it. I hated driving in the city, but I had missed driving my car. We had decided on a small deli for lunch. We talked about my ideas for the new properties and he helped me brainstorm. I told him that my father, on the two houses, wanted them upper class style with a modern twist. I thought for one of them that would be amazing, but that I had a different idea for the second one. There was a possibility the second one would be taken back a few decades. “A few decades?” Lucas questioned. I explained that I thought maybe vibrant colors and a new twist on classic looks might be the way to go. I was greeted with a strange look, to which I assured him it looked amazing in my head. He told me he believed me, but I don’t think he did. “Wanna play hooky tomorrow?” he asked as we headed back toward my car. “Play hooky?” I asked confused. “I can’t play hooky. It’ll only be my second day back to work, silly.” “Why not? You already have an idea of what you want for each location. We’re just going to Faith’s tomorrow and we order everything else online, right? So, why not?” He was eyeing me like it was that simple. “That’s not all of it,” I laughed at him. “I still have to hire people to, you know, actually do the manual labor. It doesn’t just fix itself overnight. Plus, I have to check in on their progress and answer any questions they might have and make sure they’re staying on schedule and within budget. I still have to make a schedule for the projects to make sure we hit our milestones, and we have to go out and buy not only the furniture, but pick out tile, flooring, carpet, countertops, and anything else we might need. Plus all the décor for the rooms—” “Okay, okay,” he laughed and threw up his hands. “I got the point.” “What?” I asked. “You didn’t know so much went into my silly job, did you?” “No, I didn’t,” he said honestly. “I thought you just drew it up and bam, everyone else did all the work.” I laughed and shook my head. “Well, now you know. Although without Violet here to help, I always feel more overwhelmed than usual. It’s always nice to have someone else to help me out.” “Well, if anyone can do it, it’s you. Plus I will be here to help you when you need me.” I raised my eyebrows at him in disbelief as he grabbed my hand and looked at me seriously. “Well, I can at least supervise,” he said and then laughed. “That you can do,” I laughed along with him. We headed back to the house after lunch. I needed to sit down and input all my measurements and ideas into my programs and get them done and sent to my father for his approval. I sent a copy to Violet as well. I needed her opinion on a few things, especially a beautiful little office my father told me that a client had no specific details for, and that I was to decorate it exactly the way I would do my own space. I was super excited about that one! When I laid my head down to sleep that night, all I could think about were the things I had to do tomorrow. It was going to be such a busy day between making phones calls and visiting Faith. I was looking forward to seeing her. I had missed her. *** “Lily!” Faith yelled at the top of her lungs as soon as Lucas and I walked through her door. She practically tackled me when she finally reached us. “Faith,” I said as I tried to steady myself before I hugged her back. “Where have you been girl?” she asked, releasing me and stepping back to take a look at me. “Violet said you have been back in town for a couple weeks. And you are just now coming by to see me?” Faith was always eccentric, sometimes it was a little too much, but I loved her nonetheless. “I was on house arrest for a while.” I smiled. “They released me back into the wild yesterday.” I couldn’t help but laugh. “Good for you,” she said, turning to Lucas. “And who is the tall drink of delicious water you have with you?” Lucas had drifted to the other side of the store, hopefully out of earshot. “That’s Lucas,” I said, turning toward him. “He is my new—” I paused for a moment. I hadn’t thought about what to call him yet. “He is my new escort,” I finally blurted out. “I wouldn’t mind being escorted by him,” she said, eyeing him from head to toe, “if you know what I mean,” she said while nudging my arm. “Faith, I always know what you mean.” I rolled my eyes at her. She was a mess. Lucas waved at her. She stood there for a few more seconds smiling like a love drunk teenager, before she sighed loudly, took my hand, and announced it was time to get to work. She ushered me around the store for hours. We picked out fabrics and patterns, along with furniture she would have to refinish or upholster. Lucas followed us around trying not to look too bored, but I could tell he was. He never left my side, though, and at times he was the decision maker for ties between Faith and me. He always favored my choice. Faith was being Faith. Several times she made things awkward with her comments about Lucas, loudly. I would just shake my head and keep on going, glancing at Lucas who would be mirroring my actions. We left Faith’s hours later. We had been there almost all day long. It would be dinner time by the time we made it back to the house. The entire ride home was quiet, though. I think after spending the afternoon with Faith, we both were thankful for the peaceful and quiet ride home. Emilio and Dante were already home when we pulled up at the house. Lucas snuck a quick kiss after we parked the Camaro in the garage. I had asked him to stay for dinner, hoping that it wouldn’t be too awkward. The house smelt wonderful when we walked in. I was shocked to discover Emilio and Dante in the kitchen. It was the very first time I had ever seen them cooking. “What are you two doing?” I asked as Lucas and I took a seat at the kitchen bar. “We’re making you dinner,” Dante answered back as he looked in our direction. “And I guess Lucas, too.” “Yeah, I asked him to stay for dinner. I thought I was going to be the one doing the cooking tonight,” I replied. “Fine with me. There’s more than enough,” Dante said. I looked over at Emilio, who didn’t look as happy as Dante. He didn’t like mixing his personal and professional lives together, so having Lucas here probably upset him. “We thought tonight it would be a nice surprise if we were the ones to treat you to dinner instead,” Emilio spoke up after a moment. “We knew today was probably going to be a rough one getting back to work and all. We thought a good cooked meal from us would be nice.” He forced a grin and turned back to cooking. “Aww, you two are the best.” I was excited to be treated tonight and terrified. I had never had the opportunity of eating anything those two had ever made. “It was a long day, so I do really appreciate this.” Lucas stayed downstairs with Emilio and Dante as I headed upstairs to change out of my work clothes. Dinner wouldn’t be ready for another thirty minutes, so I thought I’d change into something more comfortable. I was nervous about leaving Lucas alone with those two, but when I made my way back downstairs, I heard all three of them joking and talking about the basketball game that was on last night. I sat and listened to them talk about it until Emilio and Dante placed the food on the dining room table. “Wow,” I gushed, taking in everything. “You two did an amazing job!” “Well, don’t get used to it,” Dante spoke up, smiling. “This is a one-time thing.” “Duly noted,” I giggled. Emilio just shook his head at Dante. The meal tasted just as good as it looked and smelt. I couldn’t believe those two could actually cook. They weren’t going to get away with not helping out with dinner once in a while. The days of me being the only cook in the house had ended. Dinner talk was steady. Dante and Emilio listened as I talked about my day with Lucas. They laughed when I told them about Faith. Both of them knew that girl was crazy. “That was absolutely incredible you two,” I applauded them as I stood up and started grabbing plates. “You two cooked, so I will clean.” “Sounds like a deal to me,” Dante said as he stood up. “Lucas, come with me, I want to show you something.” “Alright,” Lucas said, unsure. I gave him a reassuring look. He didn’t need to worry about Dante. “I’ll help you, Lil,” Emilio offered. He started picking up a few dishes and followed me back into the kitchen. We cleaned the dining room and did the dishes in silence. I wondered what Dante had to show Lucas. Whatever it was, it was taking them forever. “So, I was thinking. What would you say to me and you,” Emilio said, hesitating for a moment, “going out this Friday night?” I froze for a moment, making sure I heard him right. I was contemplating my answer—I didn’t know if I wanted to go out with Emilio. Did I? I was happy to have Lucas back in my life. I had loved spending the last two days with him. He wasn’t afraid to tell me things, to let me in. Emilio always kept me at arm’s length away. Did Emilio want to go as friends, or as more than friends? Why did he all of sudden ask this? Was he jealous of Lucas being here tonight? I spent longer than I should have on this decision. I was stalling and I needed to give Emilio an answer. “Sure,” I said, forcing a smile. “Good.” He smiled back. “It’s a date then.” My heart quickened and I wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad thing. “Hey, you both finished?” Dante asked as he and Lucas made their way back into the kitchen. I nodded. “And to think we were just coming back to help,” Lucas laughed. “Well, you’re a little late.” I smiled. “Maybe next time,” Lucas said smiling. “Well, I’m going to take off. I’ll be back here in the morning.” “I’ll walk you out,” I offered. “Thank you for dinner guys, it was good,” Lucas said as we reached the front door. Dante cleared his throat from the living room. “I mean it was very good.” “Anytime,” Dante yelled. “Well, at least if I come over you have a verbal commitment from Dante to cook dinner,” Lucas laughed. “Not going to happen,” Dante shouted. “Well, thank you for staying,” I said. Lucas leaned down and kissed me. My heart started to flutter again. “I’ll see you in the morning.” “Bright and early,” I responded. Chapter 20 “Lily,” a voice called to me. “Wake up.” I felt a gentle kiss on my forehead and my eyes slowly fluttered opened. Lucas was standing over me with a slight smile. “Good morning.” He smiled. “Good morning,” I said as I stretched. “What time is it?” “Umm. It’s nine-thirty,” he said calmly, since he knew what my reaction would be. “Nine-thirty!” I yelled as I jumped out of bed, not believing that I had overslept. I was up half the night debating on whether or not I should cancel my apparent date with Emilio. Today was the meeting with the contractors. It started in an hour, but I should have been on the road thirty minutes ago. We lived further out now and traffic in the city would be a nightmare at this time of the morning. I rushed through a quick shower, scrunched some gel in my hair, brushed my teeth, and slid into a business suit before I grabbed my makeup bag and headed straight out the door. Lucas was already waiting for me in the car when I jumped in. “I got your coat by the way,” he said as he looked me over. He was so smart. I didn’t even think about it—I would have froze. “Thanks, that’s why I love you!” I blurted out. The car came to an immediate halt in the middle of our driveway. “Wait. Did you just say what I think you just said?” he asked. “Lucas, go! We’re going to be late!” I tried changing the subject. “You love me?” he asked. “Yes, no, I don’t know….,” I hesitated. Did I love him? It was an accident and I just blurted it out, but maybe I did love Lucas. I was just unsure of whether or not he felt the same way. Lucas reached out and put his hand under my chin. He pushed my head up and turned it to where we were face-to-face. “I love you too, Lily,” he said, and then he kissed me. *** The ride into the city was fast to say the least. I had a hard time trying to put my makeup on as Lucas weaved in and out of traffic like he was driving in the Indy 500. He did well, though, and I was only fifteen minutes late to the meeting. The meeting took the rest of the morning and into the late afternoon. We nailed out all the details for the next four projects on our list. I handed them the paperwork they would need and also their schedules. I loved working with the group of men I had assembled. Unless we ran into any major issues, they were always punctual. “So what else is on the agenda for today?” Lucas asked as he opened my door for me. “Food first,” I laughed. “Then I need to go back to the house and finish the budgeting projections. My father doesn’t care how much I spend, but I try and stay within a budget on each and every project.” “Well, aren’t you efficient,” he snickered as he closed the door. He rounded the front of the car and slid into the driver’s side. “And food sounds amazing. I already have a place in mind, that okay?” “Sure, what is it?” “I can’t tell you.” He grinned at me as he started the engine. “It’s a surprise.” *** “You brought me to Central Park?” I asked confused. “Yes, I did,” Lucas said smiling. “Well, are we just going to stand here or are we going to eat?” I questioned him. My stomach was growling more by the minute. “I see a hot dog stand,” I said as I turned to find him standing behind me with a picnic basket in his hand. “I made lunch.” He gleamed at me. “I hope you don’t mind.” “You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you?” I teased. He grinned. “So where do you want to eat at?” “Anywhere,” I said. “Maybe the great lawn?” “Let’s go then.” He extended his hand out for me to take. “You lead the way.” We strolled down the walkways for a while, hand in hand. We didn’t speak, we didn’t have to. The scenery was beautiful. Even though there was still a slight layer of snow on the ground, the park was crowded. It was full of runners, couples walking, and people playing fetch with their dogs. “How about here?” Lucas asked, pointing to a park bench. I nodded, and was about to sit down when Lucas stopped me and threw a blanket over the park bench. “This way it won’t be so cold.” He smiled. I just shook my head and took a seat. “I made us sandwiches, brought some chips, potato salad, and soup.” “Sounds perfect,” I replied. We ate as we talked more about work. Lucas was always interested, not because he was forced to be, but because he generally was. He even had a really good idea for one of the projects, which I might incorporate into the final product. It was so easy to talk to him and it always felt natural. I could always be myself around him and he never judged me. He listened and supported all my weird and crazy ideas, never teasing or questioning me. I had never been with a guy like him before. “So enough about work,” Lucas finally spoke up after we finished eating. “I need to ask you a question.” “Shoot,” I said as I grinned at him. “How are you at ice skating?” Ice skating? Even though I grew up in Canada, I had never been ice skating before. No one in my family liked it and therefore, I was never given the option to do it. “Believe it or not, I have actually never been ice skating.” I shrugged. “You’ve never been ice skating!” he said shocked. “But you’re from Canada!” “Nope,” I said. “My family doesn’t like ice skating, so I was never really given the chance.” “Well, I think it’s about time we changed that.” He stood up and held his hand out for me to take. Why not? Lucas looked at me with his bright blue eyes, patiently waiting for me to take his hand, and then I did. He grabbed the blanket and the picnic basket from the bench and we headed back toward the car. Lucas threw the basket and the blanket into the trunk and pulled out two pairs of ice skates. The bigger set was black and I could tell they had been worn. The other was a nice new shimmering white pair. They were beautiful, but seriously, how was I supposed to balance on those things? “Lucas,” I said nervously. “How exactly am I supposed skate on these?” The sharp metal blades weren’t even a half inch thick. “Did you ever roller blade as a kid?” he asked. “Yes,” I replied, “but it was a long time ago.” “It’s just like roller skating, but if you stumble a little, don’t worry, I will be there to catch you,” he said with a wink as he grabbed my hand again and took off. *** Lucas was right—I loved ice skating. He was also right about me slipping and falling a few times as well. But just like he promised, he was there to catch me, and after a little while, I didn’t need his help anymore. Lucas was an excellent skater and a great teacher. It was definitely the most fun thing I had done since Coney Island. “I told you it was going to be awesome.” Lucas grinned at me as I finished putting on my shoes. “I promise I won’t ever take you to do something that I know you won’t enjoy.” “I had fun, that’s for sure. It was much better than working.” “Speaking of work, Emilio just texted me wanting another update on today,” Lucas said, reading his phone. “Does he do that a lot?” I asked. Lucas gave me an of course look. “Well, that does sound like something he’d do.” “It’s okay. I don’t blame the guy. I would probably do the same thing. Although, five plus updates in an eight to ten hour period is kind of ridiculous.” I laughed, because it really was. “Do you want some hot chocolate?” he asked once he put his phone back in his pocket. “Sure.” I smiled as I watched him walk toward the hot chocolate stand before I turned my attention back to the ice skaters. There was one girl in particular that caught my gaze. She was so graceful and beautiful out there skating and I wondered to myself how long she had been skating, probably her whole life. “I guess fate wins.” I heard a voice say from behind me. I looked side-to-side to see if anyone was around me, and then I realized who it was. “I see you found me,” I said as I looked into Nikolas’s green eyes. I hadn’t seen him since that day on the beach. He still looked the same, just as gorgeous as ever, and had that same smile that would make any girl swoon. “Long time no see.” “You’re a hard woman to track down, Miss Lily.” His smile widened as he approached me. “I’ve been looking for you for months, and here I am walking in the park, when I turn around and there you are.” “Well, isn’t that lucky,” I replied. “I’d say so. Out of all the places in New York, I run into you at the park, in winter.” He smiled. “Yeah, that does sound strange, but I guess it was time for our paths to cross again.” I grinned. “So since fate has spoken, how about that number now? I had a good time getting to know you. I don’t think anyone could have too many friends. And as cheesy as it may sounds, I haven’t stopped thinking about you since we talked. I could really use an outside friend to talk to when things get stressful.” “Sure, I think that’d be okay. Honestly, I could use someone outside of my own circle to talk to as well. And you’re right. You can never have too many friends.” We exchanged numbers and were in the middle of saying goodbye when Lucas growled from behind us. “Heinrich.” Nikolas turned to face Lucas. “Nice to see you again, Lucas,” Nikolas said and then turned his attention back toward me. “See you soon, Liliana.” Then he was gone. I was confused. Heinrich? As in the Heinrich family that was after my family, and me? “Lily.” Lucas’s voice sounded like it was at the end of a tunnel. My own thoughts kept me from answering him. Heinrich? Like the people who killed Roman, Heinrich? “Liliana?” I heard him say again. Why did his voice sound like it was a million miles away? And why was everything starting to spin? “Was he?” I started to ask my voice shaking, realizing that my father and brothers were right—Nikolas was a sneaky thing. I felt stupid for not realizing who he was until now. “Was he the one who killed Roman?” I was trying to find any logical explanation that would change what I already knew. “Lily, we need to get home. Now.” I could hear Lucas, but his words weren’t enough to pull me from my epiphany. I was outside in the cold, but I felt like I was in my own personal hell. My body started to shake, and I started hyperventilating, almost to the point of passing out. The only thing keeping me steady was the warm comfort and embrace of Lucas’s arms that wrapped tightly around me. I didn’t even remember the walk back to the car or even most of the ride home. “Emilio?” Lucas yelled as we stepped into the house. His hand was still clasped to mine as he dragged me through the house. “Emilio!” he yelled again. I heard Emilio respond and I even saw him come stomping down the stairs. I knew Lucas and Emilio were having a conversation, but my own shock was dulling all my senses. I could have been standing there for two minutes or two hours and I wouldn’t have known the difference until Emilio’s face came into view as he screamed into mine. “What the hell were you thinking?” His livid voice broke through my thoughts. “I…,” I stuttered. “I didn’t know.” “How could you have been so ignorant?” he asked, criticizing me. “Why are you yelling at me?” I yelled back at him as tears threatened to fall down my cheek. “How can I be anything but ignorant when everyone keeps these things from me?” “You should know better than to talk to people you don’t know,” he responded, his judging eyes staring at me. I took in his face for the first time, and saw yet another gash above his right eyebrow and a scratch across his cheek. “When you can explain all of this,” I said, pointing toward his fresh injuries, “then we can talk about me.” “You’re a foolish, meddlesome, naïve girl and it’s going to get you killed one day!” I couldn’t stop the tears this time as they came rushing down my face. How could he say something like that to me? “Don’t you talk to her that way,” Lucas yelled at Emilio, which made me jump. “Don’t you ever talk to her that way again!” I couldn’t believe Lucas just yelled at Emilio. Neither could Emilio by the look of shock on his face. “What did you say to me?” Emilio growled at Lucas. “I said,” Lucas said sternly, “do not talk to her that way again. She isn’t naïve, foolish, or meddlesome. She deserves better than for you to speak to her like that, and as long as I am around, I never want to hear you speak to her like that again!” Lucas turned his back to Emilio and placed his hand on my face, using his thumb to wipe away the tears that had escaped. “You okay?” he asked. I nodded as he pulled me in close. I could see Emilio staring back at us, his face red with fury and his hands clinched at his sides. “Come on, Lucas,” Emilio snarled. “I’ll be there in a second,” he called over his shoulder before turning his attention back to me and holding out his hands. “Jump,” he instructed. Without hesitation, I put my arms around his neck and jumped so that he could hold my back with one arm and carry my legs with the other. I looked back over Lucas’s shoulder as he carried me up the stairs and towards my room. Emilio was nowhere in sight, but the sound of things breaking and his muffled cursing let me know he wasn’t far. He deserved all the words Lucas yelled back at him. Why did I even lay thoughts to a man who talked to me that way? Lucas came to my defense, when Emilio words cut me like a knife. When we reached my room, Lucas sat me on the edge of my bed and he gently took my face in his hands. “Lily, look at me,” he said. I opened my eyes, and the tears streamed down my face as I stared at his lovely baby blues. “You’re the smartest, most caring, most beautiful woman I know. Don’t ever let anyone convince you otherwise, especially that asshole downstairs.” He slightly smiled at me. This was the moment—the moment I completely fell hopelessly in love with Lucas. I couldn’t stop myself as I reached for his lips and kissed him with all the passion I had for him in that moment. Chapter 21 I spent Thursday locked up in my room refusing to come out. The only person I wanted to see was Lucas, but because of his actions last night, Emilio wouldn’t let him on the property. I talked with Lucas on and off throughout the day. We had both done our best to get him back onto the property. I had even gone as far as suggesting he use someone else’s code since his had been deactivated, but he said he didn’t want to get anyone in trouble. I even tried telling both Dante and Emilio that I wasn’t coming out until I saw Lucas again. Neither one of those plans worked. Dante had knocked on my door several times throughout the day. He even threatened to kick it in if I didn’t at least open the door to get my lunch, to which I responded by opening the door quickly, grabbing the plate, and slamming the door back in his face. I knew it wasn’t his fault that I was so upset, but I also knew if I asked him any questions about the Heinrichs, he would beat around the bush just as much as Emilio did. But, Dante would never call me naïve or foolish like Emilio had. Emilio’s words cut deep and there was no reason for him to say such cruel things to me. He must have seen me already falling apart and yet, he still had the audacity to insult me. I didn’t know if I was more mad at him for insulting me, or that he never even asked me my side of the story. He didn’t even know I had met Nikolas before yesterday, and now he never would. I could only imagine how that conversation would go. And adding in the fact that Nikolas had my phone number would send Emilio into overdrive. By the end of the day I was beyond frustrated. I called Violet and she helped calm me down, and I started to gain some control over myself again. It was eleven o’clock that night when Emilio’s knock broke the silence. I got up, walked over to the door, and just stood there. I wanted to fling it open, yell at him, push him, and get his attention to let him know he hurt me and that he was an inconsiderate ass. “Lily,” he spoke softly. “I know you’re there. Open the door.” He paused for a moment, and so did my heart. “Lily, I know you’re on the other side of this door. I’m sorry for what I said last night. I was being an ass. I was mad, upset, and scared.” He sighed and banged his fist lightly on the door frame. “Please don’t be mad at me. I can’t stand it when you’re unhappy with me. Please just open the door so I can stop apologizing to it.” I watched his shadow shift under the door and then I heard him slide down it. I placed my hand on the door and then I did the same thing. “All I want to do is protect you and every time, I hurt you. I hope this time I didn’t push you too far.” But he did. After last night, I had made up my mind. It was going to be Lucas. I couldn’t let Emilio hurt me anymore. I had known Lucas for almost a year now and not once did he ever hurt me or say any cruel things to me. He was there for me last night, just like he always had been. With Emilio, I didn’t know what I was going to get, but with Lucas, I knew that even if he did have a bitter side, it would be nothing like Emilio’s. I was tired of living in fear. I feared Emilio might hurt me—emotionally, physically, and mentally. “Please still go out with me tomorrow night?” he pleaded. I hesitated for a moment. What was the best way to let him down gently? Because even though he had hurt me, I didn’t want to hurt him. “I’m sorry,” I whispered just loud enough for him to hear me. I prayed he couldn’t hear the trembling in my voice. I quickly stood up and headed to bed. It was hard doing that to him. I knew he really was sorry about last night and I knew I’d forgive him, but for now I was mad. He had hurt me enough over the last three years. I was done with it, and he needed to know I moved on. My guard would be up from now on and I would not be putting it back down. *** Friday morning I woke up and made my way downstairs to find Dante eating breakfast and Emilio was nowhere in sight. I was thankful for that—I didn’t want to see him right now. “Good morning,” I said. “Good morning,” he replied. “Where’s Emilio?” I asked. I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be caught off guard if he quickly appeared. “I don’t know. He left late last night and hasn’t been home since. Did something happen between you two?” he asked. “Yeah,” I sighed. “I’ve decided to put a stop to whatever relationship we had going on. It’s not healthy for either of us.” “Finally! That ship should have sailed three years ago.” “I know, but after the other night and what he said to me, I can’t do it anymore. I’m not going to be torn between Emilio and Lucas anymore. I know Emilio is bad for me and Lucas makes me better—he makes me whole,” I said as I took the seat next to him. I could tell that he understood and that briefly Violet flashed across his mind. After a few minutes, he stood and took his dishes to the sink. “Oh and by the way,” he said, coming back into the dining room, “what are your plans for tonight?” “I don’t have any.” “Okay. Emilio gave me these tickets. He said the show is tonight and we can have them if we want them.” “Tickets, where? When did he give them to you?” I asked, eagerly. “Last night before he left. I haven’t opened the envelope yet, so I don’t know what they’re for. It better be good and not any of that lovey-dovey shit.” I opened the envelope quickly and pulled out the tickets. My face and jaw dropped when I saw what I was looking at. It was to a Broadway play. But not to just any Broadway play, the Broadway play. “What is it? What are they?” Dante asked excitedly. “They are tickets to The Lion King on Broadway!” I smiled. *** I was still in shock as I looked up at the letters all lit up. “I can’t believe I’m here seeing The Lion King! I wonder how he got tickets so quickly." “I think he said something about his friend gave them to him,” Dante said. “I can’t believe he was going to bring me here.” “Yeah, well we should get inside. The show starts in fifteen minutes,” he said as he stuck out his elbow for me to take. He was such a gentleman. The show was spectacular! I sat on the edge of my seat the entire time. I don’t think I ever got rid of the goosebumps that popped up once the first note was sung. I cried on several occasions just from the pure beauty happening on the stage. I was sad when the cast took their final bow. “There are no words to describe how beautiful and amazing that was,” I said as we walked out of the theater. I was in complete utopia as we headed back toward the car. “Eh, it was alright.” Dante smiled, looking in my direction. My jaw dropped and I punched him on his arm. I knew he was joking and just trying to provoke me, so I kept punching him until he caved. It took a while, but he finally took it back and told me it was a good show. I accepted that answer with an additional punch. The show wasn’t just good, it was amazing! We arrived home a little after ten and Emilio was there. I hadn’t seen him since the other night and I didn’t know if I wanted to. I planned on thanking him for the tickets. I had wanted to see that play for as long as I could remember, and he had made it possible. I made my way into the living room and took a seat next to him on the couch. I took several deep breaths before I spoke. I hoped he wouldn’t realize how nervous I actually was. “I just wanted to say thank you for the tickets. Tonight really meant a lot to me,” I said. “You’re welcome,” he said, keeping it short. I couldn’t tell if he meant it or not. “Now it’s just something to cross off your bucket list.” “Huh?” I said, turning to look at him. “How?” “How did I know that?” he questioned me. “Because I remembered. You made it when we were fourteen. It was number five, Broadway play- The Lion King or any other, but The Lion King would be amazing…, that is what you wrote.” “How in the world did you remember that?” I asked. “Lily, I remember a lot of things. Some more than others, but always the good things between us,” he said as he turned off the TV, rose from the couch, and headed out of the living room. “Emilio, wait,” I said running after him. I didn’t know what else to say, but I didn’t want to end our conversation there. He turned to face me. It was as if I could see straight through him. I could tell he was sad and hurt, and that made me feel awful. “Lily, listen.” He paused like he was trying to collect his thoughts. “I’m not sure how to say this, but I don’t think I can keep lying to myself anymore.” He took another deep breath before he looked me straight in the eyes. “I think… I think I’m falling in love with you…again.” I couldn’t have heard him right, could I? Did he just say he was falling in love with me? “I know it sounds crazy, and I know this is coming out of the middle of nowhere, but living with you in the other house and this house, I can't deny how I feel about you anymore. I should have told you this sooner, back when I almost lost you, but I'm telling you now. You should know where I stand.” I looked at him, a million thoughts racing through my head. Why now? Was he serious? There was a time I wanted to hear those words, and I never thought I would again. And being here right now, I just couldn’t believe they had actually escaped his lips. I tugged on my locket, contemplating what exactly I was going to say. “Well, are you going to say anything?” he asked with concern in his eyes. “Emilio, I…,” I didn’t know what to say back. I shook my head trying to connect my thoughts to make a complete sentence. “You can’t tell me things like that, Emilio,” I said as I started backing away from him. “I’ve moved on.” He grabbed my hands and pulled me in close. “I want to be with you, I honestly do. But the timing is just never on our side.” “The timing is never right with you. You completely shattered my heart, Emilio. It took me months to try and get over you. Do you know how hard it is for me to be around you each and every day? It isn’t fair to me when you to say things like that. If you really wanted to be with me, then nothing should keep you from that. Lucas can give me his whole heart right now and for some reason you can’t!” “It’s not that easy, Lily. You wouldn’t understand the complexity of us being together. It’s so much more than you could ever imagine.” His eyes were pleading with me, pleading for one more chance. “That right there Emilio is the problem!” I was starting to get angry and my voice was starting to rise. “What in the hell is so important that it keeps you from me?” I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes, but for once I refused to cry. I refused to let him see how badly this conversation was tearing me apart. I felt like I was reliving our conversation from almost four years ago. He sighed in defeat. “I can’t,” he said frustrated. “I can’t tell you, Lily. Dante already gave you hints. You have to figure it out on your own and then decide for yourself.” “I have racked my brain a million times and I have come up with nothing!” I said more irritated than I had ever been before. “I can’t keep doing this, Emilio. I hinted to you the other night that you’re too late, and now I’m telling you. Whatever we could have had, it’s gone. I’ve moved on, and I suggest you do the same.” He stood there for a moment with his hands in his pockets, staring at the ground. When he finally looked up at me, my breath caught. He had a single tear running down his face. “I’ll never be able to move on from you, Lily. You’re it for me,” he said as he turned away and headed upstairs. This was the first time he had ever walked away from me after a fight. Chapter 22 The last couple of weeks had flown by. The end of March was approaching and all four projects were coming to a close. Everything was finished except for the final paperwork and closing documents. I even had a congratulatory lunch for all the team members that had worked so diligently on the projects. Without them, there would be no way the projects would have been done this early. Emilio and I hadn’t spoken to each other, except in passing, and some nights he didn’t even come home. It was hard on me at first, but since I turned all my attention toward Lucas, it got easier. Lucas and I had spent every day together. If we weren’t working we were usually doing something else. We didn’t care what, as long as we were together. I loved spending time with him. He always made me laugh and held my hand. No matter what we were doing, anytime we went somewhere, he was always showing me off to everyone around. Our relationship finally had the chance to blossom. And I loved it! “Are you ready to go?” Lucas asked as he stepped back into the room. I took my last look around the building. Every piece of furniture, décor, and tile were in all the right places. The new office space was my favorite of the four places I had just finished. It was so elegant that I couldn’t wait to see the look on the new owner’s face. It was one of the best pieces I had done. I loved being able to have free reign and let the space speak to me. “Yes,” I said as I took one more look around before I turned the lights out. “Are we grabbing some dinner here in the city?” “Sure,” he said as he opened the door for me and I took a step out onto the sidewalk. “What do you want?” “Anything, I’m starving.” I smiled back at him before I locked the door. We decided on one of our favorite pizza shops not too far from the office. It was just a short walk away, so we headed that direction. Lucas threw his arm over my shoulder and pulled me in. I loved how he always kept me close. We were almost to the restaurant when I heard someone behind us. I could feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand. I wonder if Lucas felt it, too. “Well, well, well, what do we have here?” Lucas and I both quickly spun on our heels to face him. His spine chilling smile spread across his face. I could tell he was pleased he had “ran” into us. “I bet Emilio is not happy about this.” “Nikolas?” I said taken aback. He was a little hard to recognize at first. His hair was longer and his facial hair had grown out. “You look surprised to see me, which is odd since I’m sure they have told you we like to keep tabs on you,” he confirmed. “I think it would be in your best interest, Nikolas, if you just turn around and walk away right now.” Lucas’s voice was steady but stern. “You need to look around you. This isn’t exactly your kind of place.” He tilted his head from right to left. “Oh, would it now?” Nikolas paused for a moment before he continued. “So, you’re the new bodyguard, huh? Lucky man getting to escort her around all day. I must say, though, you’re a little smaller than the other one. What was his name again?” A smirk pulled at his lips as he let out a chuckle. “Roman?” Before I could even respond, everything slowed down as Lucas swung and hit Nikolas square in the jaw. Nikolas stumbled back for a second and his friends took a step toward us, but Nikolas waved them off. “That wasn’t very nice, Lucas, now was it?” “Don’t ever speak his name to her again you piece of shit,” Lucas huffed out. “Okay,” Nikolas said as he popped his neck. “What about Emilio’s then?” I swear if I could have moved I would have already decked that man twice, once for Roman and once for Emilio. “What about Emilio?” I smarted back. Lucas stepped in front of me to guard me. “I’m surprised he is letting you frolic below your class.” He nodded toward Lucas. “I guess Emilio doesn’t care what trash you land in as long as you eventually come back to him in the end.” I only saw red. “Don’t you ever speak to me again!” I screamed as I jumped for him. Lucas’s arms grabbed me around my waist and pulled me in tight. “How dare you? Who do you think you are? You don’t know me! You don’t know anything about me!” I was struggling against Lucas’s arms. I heard his voice, but I didn’t listen to anything he was saying. “And furthermore if you ever speak Roman’s name in my presence again, it will be the last words you ever say! I will cut your tongue out of your mouth!” “Lily!” Lucas’s voice shouted at me. “Stop!” I started to turn around and say something, but then I realized I had an audience. “Nikolas,” Lucas growled at him. “You better walk away now, or it’s going to get ugly. You ready for that?” Nikolas looked around for a moment deciding on what he was going to do next. My chest was rising and falling rapidly. I felt like I was going to throw up. I was definitely not getting pizza tonight—I lost my appetite. “One day you will let your guard down, and when you do,” he said as he shook his finger at me, “you will regret it.” “Don’t hold your breath,” I spit back. He just smiled at me. “By the way, Lucas,” Nikolas said right before he punched Lucas in the face, sending both of us falling to the ground. “Don’t ever hit me again. And Lily,” he said smiling at me, “tell Emilio I said hello.” I scrambled to get up when Lucas’s arm wrapped around mine and held them tight. “Let go of me,” I whispered harshly at him, but he didn’t. He pushed himself up off the ground with one arm still holding tightly to mine. “What the…,” I started to say something, but the look in Lucas’s eye stopped me. His lip was bleeding and he was not happy. “You can’t lose your temper with him, Lily,” he finally spoke before he spit blood on the concrete, “see what happens when you do?” He turned to me and slightly grinned. Was he trying to joke with me? My blood was still boiling, and he was joking with me. “What?” he asked. “Are you seriously making a joke right now?” I stared at him. “Kind of.” He shrugged. “The alternative sucks,” he said as he spit again. “Do we need to go now?” I asked out of habit. “Nah,” he said as he grabbed my hand. “We’re safe around here.” He smiled. “Well, you are at least.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked confused. I could tell he was uncomfortable with the question, and that made me want to know more. “Well, I know you have been designing a long time for your father, but I didn’t know if you ever fixed up any of these buildings. He owns a lot of businesses on this block, so if someone were to pick a fight with you here, it wouldn’t be very wise,” he explained. I looked around and took in each building. Lucas was right—my father did own several businesses around here. It had been a while since I had been in this neighborhood. I fixed up a few of these buildings for him—the salon studio and restaurant were both on this block. They were the first redesigns Violet and I ever did. The drive home was quiet. When the adrenaline ran off and I calmed down from it, I felt tired, drained, and I missed Roman. As soon as we pulled up to the house, Emilio and Dante were standing on the porch waiting for us. By the look on their faces, I knew they were the ones Lucas had been texting. I said goodnight to everyone and kissed Lucas before I headed upstairs. They all three watched me walk up the stairs. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Emilio motion for Lucas and Dante to head downstairs. I watched both of them turn and head that way. *** “Lily, will you hurry up?” Dante called from downstairs. “I swear for someone who is about to get a surprise, you’re moving awfully slow!” “One more minute!” I called, hoping he heard me. It had been a week since our encounter with Nikolas and things had been crazy. Since I had finished the last four projects, I was waiting for my next job. I had been in a haze all week since the guys kept me cooped up in the house. This morning Dante had barged into my room and told me to hurry up and get dressed and that they, whoever they included, had a surprise for me today. I had been trying to hurry up and get dressed ever since. I looked in the mirror one last time and fluffed my long brown hair. I skipped down the stairs to find Dante standing there looking at me annoyed. “What?” I asked. “I’m here, dressed, and I don’t see a surprise.” “We have to take you to it,” he said. “We?” “Ready to go?” Lucas asked as he came out of the kitchen, kissed me, and opened the front door. Lucas insisted that I sit in the front seat. They never told me where exactly we were going, but I knew we were heading into the city. I wondered what they could have up their sleeves and what surprise was awaiting me. My birthday was still several weeks away. I came up with nothing. “Where are we going?” I finally asked as we crossed the bridge into New York City. “You’ll see, but first, Lucas, will you get it, please?” Dante asked. “Get what?” I asked right before I saw something fly over my face and then cover my eyes. “What the hell?” I griped as I tried to remove it. I felt someone slap my hand away. “Lucas, did you just slap my hand?” “No, it was me,” Dante laughed. I felt the cloth tighten around my head. “And don’t you dare remove that either. If you do, no surprise for you, young lady!” I heard Lucas laugh behind me. “Fine you two!” I said as I pointed toward my face. “But this better be freaking awesome if I have to have a stupid blindfold.” I wasn’t blindfolded for too long, maybe another twenty minutes or so, when the car stopped. I had tried to concentrate on twists and turns to see if I could guess where we were, but I was at a loss. I heard both Lucas’s and Dante’s doors open and close, and then I felt mine open. Lucas escorted me through a door and I crept along slowly. “Lucas, please don’t let me run into anything,” I pleaded. I could feel his breath suddenly on my neck and it sent chills down my body. “Never,” he whispered into my ear. My entire being wanted him right now. If I didn’t have a surprise waiting, I would have turned and kissed him, never wanting to stop. “Okay, you ready?” Dante’s voice broke my thoughts. “Yes,” I said, getting excited. I had forgotten for a second that I was here for a surprise. “Okay, on the count of three,” Dante’s voice rang out. My heart started beating out of my chest with excitement. “One…. two… three!” Lucas lifted the blindfold off. I looked around confused. I had been here several times over the past month. We were in the office building I had redesigned. “Umm, what are we doing here?” I asked as Dante and Lucas came around to face me. They both smiled at me like they had a secret only they knew. “Surprise!” A female voice called behind me before a set of arms wrapped around my waist and squeezed me tight. I screamed, jumped, and turned around all in the same motion. “Violet!” I screeched as soon as I saw her. I flung my arms around her and hugged her tightly. I hadn’t seen her since I left in January. This was definitely a surprise worth waiting for—even with a blindfold. “What are you doing here?” I finally asked, letting her go and taking a good look at her. “I figured it had been long enough and that you probably wouldn’t make it one more day without seeing my beautiful face.” She took a look around the room. “Lily, you did such a wonderful job. We’re going to be so happy here.” “It is beautiful. I was so happy when my father let me decorate it…” Violet’s words finally sunk in. “What do you mean we are going to be happy here?” I asked, confused. This was supposed to be a small office building. Violet stepped out into the open space, turned, and grinned at me. “What she meant to say was welcome to Lily-Vi Interior Design Studio,” my father said as he rounded the corner. My mother and Emilio were on his heels. I was surprised to see him and more surprised with what he had just said. “This is…” I looked from my father to everyone else. “This is ours?” My excitement was building with the realization of what my father had just said. “Liliana,” my father started. “You have done an exceptional job this past year. You completed these last four projects ahead of schedule, quicker than I could ever imagine. All your previous work has reflected your talent and your mother, brothers, and I agreed that it was time for you to have your own business here in New York City.” He walked over to me and held out his hand, holding the keys to the building. “We’re so proud of you, Liliana. However, you may have other clients from now on, but make sure you don’t forget about the people who got you here.” I glanced back and forth between the keys and him. “Are you serious?” I squealed and hugged him tighter than I ever had before. “Wait and you’re staying, too?” I said, turning to face Violet. “Yup,” she said. “You’re permanently stuck with me!” I was ecstatic! I couldn’t believe this was happening. I quickly gave myself a pinch just to make sure this wasn’t a dream. “Now you know why I asked for your personal touch,” my father said as I took the keys from his hand. “You can open the doors as soon as you’re ready.” He bent over and gave me a kiss on the forehead. “Thank you, Papà,” I said as tears started forming. “This is more than I could have asked for. Thank you for giving me my passion back. I hope I can continue to make you proud.” I was overwhelmed by this. My father had never done anything like this before, at least not for me. For the first time ever, I felt appreciated by him. Lucas came over and embraced me in a hug and then softly kissed my lips. “Did you know about this?” I asked him. “The whole time,” he said. “You could have told me,” I said. “Nah, I don’t think everyone would be too happy if I told you. They’ve had this surprise party planned for a while. And plus, I’m good at keeping secrets.” Chapter 23 The first week in the office was amazing. I had managed to move all my work from the house to the building. Violet had a truck deliver everything we had in storage from our old business in Toronto. By the time we officially ended our first week of work, we had the entire building ready for new clients on Monday. The lobby area looked amazing, too. It would be our customer’s first impression of how professional and skilled we were. The entire office was decorated in blacks, pinks, whites, and purples. Our clients would be greeted by a mock living room, which posed as our waiting area, with black leather couches and a rod iron glass coffee table that was topped with binders full of before and after pictures of our previous projects. Just past that was a round island where clients could fill out the appropriate information. Past that area were two offices, mine and Violet’s, and behind that was a curtain that led to the back of the building that contained our boards, drawing tables, and the color wall that had paint samples plastered to it. This was the no-client zone. Lucas claimed that area as his designated sleep zone, so we made sure we had a couch for him to lie on. That night I thought about how everything had changed. Since Violet’s arrival, things at home had become a lot better. Emilio and I were on speaking terms, but it hadn’t developed into a full blown conversation. It was a step, though. Dante’s mood even changed, and I could tell he was happy that she was here. I hadn’t realized how somber he had been until Violet came. For a while, I thought about everything that had happened in the past week. It got to the point where I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to go and get a drink, thinking maybe it would help. I headed down the hallway trying to be quiet, hoping I wouldn’t wake anyone, and then I heard voices coming from Dante’s room. I slowly crept up to the door and started eavesdropping. “What happened to not telling anyone we’re together?” Violet asked. “I thought we had to keep it a secret.” “Violet, I don’t care anymore. The only thing I care about is you. Living in this house with Lily and Emilio has been excruciating. It’s hard watching them try to communicate and in the end, all they do is argue. I don’t want that to be us. I can deal with everything as long as I have you beside me. I just want you to understand that there may be things I can’t tell you and I need you to trust me. It’s for the best. If you can do that, then say you’re in this with me?” I held my breath as I waited for her answer. “I'm with you.” I could hear the excitement in her voice. It was quiet for a moment before Dante spoke again. “As soon as I tell Emilio, we will tell Lily,” Dante said. “I want him to know first.” “That’s not fair,” Violet complained. “Do you know how hard this will be to keep from her? She’s my best friend.” “It won’t be long, I promise. I love you, Violet.” “I love you, too,” Violet responded. I turned and crept back toward my room. I was sure I had a bottle of water somewhere. I would drink out of the sink if it meant I didn’t intrude on their private moment. I couldn’t have them find me eavesdropping. I was beyond excited for Dante and Violet! They were finally going to be together. It was hard though to hear that Dante found it excruciating to live with me and Emilio. I guess it would be hard when your friend and your sister haven’t really been speaking and they happen to be the only two roommates you have. I felt awful. Just as Dante predicted though, I was confused. Violet said she could accept the secrets. Maybe that was why Emilio and I could never be together, because I was determined to know the truth. Unlike Violet, I could never just live with only half the story. Even though I was still determined to figure out the truth, I wouldn’t let it change my already made up mind. Lucas and I were together and nothing was going to change that. I only waited two days before I confessed to Dante and Violet that I had overheard their conversation. I assured them that Emilio and I were over and that wasn’t going to change. Lucas and I were in it for the long run. I was with him whole heartedly. They still asked me a million times if I was okay with them being together. I told them, honestly, I didn’t know what took them so damn long. *** The next couple of weeks after that had been crazy. We had the grand opening and business was better than ever. Of course, my father had a few projects for us to do, but we also had several new clients and were excited to be working with them. We had been working hard and pushing some late nights. Lucas stayed with us every night and took us home. He made me laugh with his perimeter checks, but he took it seriously and if it made him feel better, then more power to him. Lucas had suggested that we all go out and have a good time this weekend. Everyone had been working so hard that he insisted we needed a break and that we needed to celebrate my birthday. I denied his request, but he insisted. *** “Lily,” Violet called from the bathroom. “Will you bring me my makeup bag?” “Yeah, one second,” I called back. It was already Saturday night and we were all getting ready to head out for the evening to celebrate my birthday as well as all the hard work everyone had done over the last few weeks. “Here you go,” I said as I handed her the bag. “Have you seen the hair gel?” “No, I haven’t. Is it in your room?” she asked. “No,” I stated. “I just looked in there. I can’t find it anywhere. Maybe Emilio took it?” Violet nodded and I took off toward Emilio’s room. I knocked on the slightly opened door. “Come in,” Emilio said as I pushed it the rest of the way open. He was standing at his dresser with his back facing me in nothing but a towel around his hips. I stood there for a moment looking at him. I couldn’t pry my eyes away from him, even if I wanted to. His muscles tightened in his back as he turned his head to see who had entered. When I saw his gray eyes staring back at me, I couldn’t remember why I had come in here in the first place. “I’m sorry,” I started to apologize. “I didn’t know you were getting dressed.” “It’s okay, Lily,” he laughed. “It’s not like you haven’t seen me this way before.” “Well,” I cleared my throat. “I just came over to see if I could borrow some hair gel. I can’t find mine or Violet’s.” “It’s in the bathroom.” He nodded his head and I made my way in. It was sitting on the countertop. I squirted some in my hand, brushed it through my hair with my fingers, and then scrunched it into curls. “Thanks,” I said as I walked back into his room. He was on his bed tying his shoes. He had changed into a pair of jeans, but was still shirtless, and there it was, his tattoo. I forgot that I had made a mental note to ask him about it back at Christmas time. Now the lily had a storm cloud over it and more raindrops were added. I was more curious now than before. “You got a new tattoo,” I said nonchalantly as I walked closer to him. “Umm, yeah,” he said reaching for his shirt. “I got it a while back.” He looked nervous as he started to put on his shirt. I grabbed it out of his hand and put it behind my back as I jumped back from him. “Give that back,” he said as he rose to his feet, giving me a full view of his chest. My eyes widened at the tattoo’s beauty. He lurched toward me trying to grab the shirt. His door was opened, so I moved as fast as I could toward it and chunked the shirt out the door. I watched it as it went over the banister. “Why did you do that?” Emilio scowled at me as I turned back toward him. “Because,” I said as I turned and walked back up to him, “you were going to cover it up, and I still have questions.” I paused for a moment, not knowing what to ask first. “It’s a storm,” I said as I touched his left shoulder. His body stiffened under my touch. The new part of the tattoo covered his left shoulder to the middle of his chest. It was a storm cloud with lightning bolts flashing through it. It looked like a picture was painted on his chest. It was breathtaking. “What does it mean?” I asked. “And what does the lily mean?” The weeping lily was just as eye catching as it was the first time. The storm was raging over it and the raindrops ran down his chest. “You added more raindrops, too,” I said as I took a mental count of them. I looked up at Emilio who still hadn’t spoken a word yet. His eyes were looking above me, somewhere else. “Emilio?” I said as I looked into his eyes. “Did you hear me?” “Yes,” he said as he shook his head, rubbing the back of his neck. He walked over to the bed and sat down. He was nervous, very nervous. “Why are you so nervous?” I asked, taking a seat beside him. “How do you know I’m nervous?” “Because I know you, and I know how you act when you’re nervous, so stop thinking whatever you are and just tell me. What are you afraid of?” “I'm not afraid,” he sighed. “I just don’t know how you’re going to react.” I wasn’t prepared for that. How I would react? “Well, why don’t you tell me and we will see?” He took a deep breath and placed his elbows on his knees, burying his face in his hands. “I got the lily when I moved to New York after my father died.” He looked up and stared at the wall. “I knew how hurt you were when I left you, so I decided that the weeping lily was a good fit. I had left you begging and crying for me not to go. The raindrops are…” He paused for a moment as he looked up at me and then he pointed to the first raindrop and then another. “The raindrops are for every time I have hurt you or caused you pain. The day I left, the day I told you I didn’t love you anymore, the day you begged me to come home and return to you. The most recent ones are for the night at the club when you got hurt, Halloween, and Christmas, and when I said those awful things to you that night.” I just looked at him in shock. There were at least twenty raindrops pouring from the lily. Emilio didn’t even wait for me to respond before he started again. “The storm—the storm is me. I’m always hurting you and hovering over you, keeping the storm stationary, never letting the light touch you. It’s not fair to you. I realized it that night you told me that you were sorry. I knew in that moment that you had moved on, and I couldn’t take it. When I left that night, I went and had the storm added.” I was speechless. Emilio and I had a few heart to hearts over the past months, but this one, I was not expecting him to say any of that. I had wondered about the lily and if it represented me, but I never in a million years would have guessed what the storm and raindrops represented. This was the Emilio I had known all those years ago. The one I had been waiting to see for more than four years now. I didn’t know what to say to him—I just stared back at him. I could tell by the look on his face he was waiting for me to speak—I just couldn’t get my thoughts to align enough to talk. “Emilio,” I whispered, looking into his eyes as tears rolled down my face. “I… you…” Get it together before he freaks! “You don’t have to say anything, Lily,” he said as he got up and headed out the door. “Lily.” Violet’s voice was close. “Are you okay?” Violet asked me as she passed Emilio outside the doorway. “I’m fine,” I said, wiping my tears away. “What’s going on?” Lucas asked as he appeared in the doorway. “Nothing,” I quickly replied. “Nothing is going on. I was just borrowing Emilio’s hair gel,” I stated. “I should finish getting ready,” I said as I stood and made my way into the hall. Emilio passed by me on the way back into his room. “Thank you,” I said. I hoped he knew what I meant by that. He let me in. Chapter 24 “What the hell happened?” Violet said as she shoved me into my room and slammed the door. “Did he hurt you?” “I don’t want to talk about it,” I said as I headed straight to my closet. “Oh, hell no,” she said as she stomped behind me. “You’re not getting out of this one, Lily.” Her voice became very hushed. “You were crying.” “It’s nothing, Vi,” I said. “I’m pretty sure it’s something.” She gawked at me as I put my dress on. “What the hell happened in there?” She wasn’t going to let this go. I sighed as I bent down to pick up a pair of heels off the ground. “He let me in, and for the first time, he was honest with me,” I replied, hoping she was satisfied. Violet didn’t push the subject after I said that. We were crunched for time, but I was pretty sure I’d have to explain myself later. “Do you have a necklace I can borrow?” Violet asked after a few minutes of silence. “My neck feels bare.” I was already rummaging in my jewelry box for a bracelet and earrings to match my black dress. Nothing I was coming across really matched Violet’s dress. I was about to give up when I looked into the mirror and saw my locket staring back at me. I reached up and unhooked it. “Here,” I said as I held out my locket for Violet to take. Her eyes instantly lit up. “Lily, are you sure?” She smiled as she took it from my hands. “Seriously, are you positive about this?” The questions didn’t seem to stop her from running over to the mirror just in time to clasp it and watch it fall onto her chest. “You won’t get into trouble, will you?” she asked. “It’s just a silly necklace, Violet. And I’m sure. Plus it matches your outfit tonight and clashes with mine.” “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said as she ran over and hugged me, squeezing the air out of my lungs. “How does it look?” she asked as she let me go and stepped backwards. “It looks marvelous!” I laughed. “Ladies,” Dante called from downstairs. “We’re leaving in ten minutes with or without you.” Violet and I looked at each other before we both rushed around to check ourselves in the mirror. We both looked stunning! I was excited to finally be out of the house for a while, even if it was just for a short time. Violet and I both had to be home at a decent time. We had an early meeting. Usually, we didn’t work on the weekends, but if we somehow landed this deal, it would be beneficial to our business. Violet and I had spent the better part of the last week going over our pitch and preparing for this meeting in the morning. I walked over to check my briefcase one more time before heading out. I wanted to make sure I had everything in place for tomorrow. I wanted to be organized and ready just in case we didn’t get home at an appropriate time. “Violet,” I called. “Do you have the Glasgow-Meyers folder?” “No,” she said as she walked back into my room. “The last time I saw it, it was laying on your desk.” I could have sworn I had picked it up. Now I was going to have to go by the office and pick it up before we headed out to the club. I grabbed my purse and headed downstairs. “Hey, can we stop by the office before we go?” I asked as I came to a stop in front of Dante. “Seriously, Lily,” Dante whined. “We’re going to miss all the drink specials, and since the owner is an ass,” he said, looking at Emilio, “and won’t give us a discount, what the hell am I going to drink? Water?” I rolled my eyes at him. “I’ll take you,” Lucas said as he got up off the couch. “You and I can run by the office and then meet the rest of you at Insanity.” “I’ll go, too,” Emilio said as I reached the door. “It’s not a big deal.” I turned and smiled at him. “Lucas and I will only be a few minutes.” *** We had arrived at the office in no time. I insisted that I drive. My car hadn’t been driven in a while, and it was time to take her for a spin. As usual, Lucas commented on my terrible driving. I was surprised he even noticed, because he hadn’t put his phone down since we hit the highway. Usually when Lucas and I drove to a place, it was never silent, we always talked about something, but tonight, other than his comment on my driving, he didn’t say a word. “I’ll be just a minute,” I said, parking the car in front of the building. I smiled as I grabbed my office keys and ran toward the building. The emergency light, in the middle of the office, was the only light that was shining when I stepped through the door. I made my way through the building to my office and turned on the desk lamp. The file wasn’t there. I opened my desk drawers and looked through them, and when I didn’t find it there, I started looking in the big filing cabinet beside my desk. I looked in every file in the first drawer, and when I opened the second drawer, I heard a noise that startled me. “Lucas?” I called out. I stood there quietly, and when he didn’t call back, I called out again. “Lucas, is that you?” Still no answer. I started to get an uneasy feeling, so I shut the cabinet drawer and made my way over to my desk. Emilio had installed a panic button under my desk and right now I was starting to feel a little freaked. “Lucas, this isn’t funny!” I turned to hit the button, but missed it. Something hard hit the back of my shoulders and I fell to the ground. I scrambled to move and get up when someone grabbed the back of my head. I instantly grabbed the sides of my head, terrified the person behind me was going to pull my hair out. My mind went blank. After all the training I had, I couldn’t remember what to do when I was in a situation like this. I froze in thought, trying to contemplate how I was going to respond. Then the person yanked me into a standing position and reared my head back and flung it forward onto my desk. My hands flew up in a quick reflex to block the impact. I felt my head lift up again. Get control of yourself before they kill you! I quickly analyzed the situation, trying to get some sort of clue of how to defend myself. I noticed my attacker towering over me. That told me that this was probably a man, so he would be stronger than me. I pulled up my leg and slammed my four inch stiletto into his foot. He screamed in pain as I quickly punched him in the stomach and then swiftly between the eyes. He instantly let go of my head and I ran out of my office. I needed to get to Lucas. I was almost out the door when his hand latched around my ankle and I fell forward and slammed into the concrete floor. I felt his other hand grab my other ankle and I immediately started kicking, hoping to weaken his grip. Then he started dragging me back to my office. I dug my fingernails into the store carpet trying, praying it would somehow stop me from moving. Then he flipped me over onto my back and I hit the ground so hard it knocked the air out of my lungs. He was standing over me, and I stared at him, analyzing his every feature. I was right. He was tall, well over six feet. He had a mask over his face and his deep green eyes were staring back at me intensely. I scrambled backwards across the floor, trying to gain control and get to my feet. He stood there and watched me. He even had a sly smile on his face. It was like he was taunting me. When I hit the center of the room, I found enough balance to turn and roll onto my feet, but he was too quick. He caught me at the round desk in the center of the building and flung me across it. I landed on the ground and rolled a few times before slamming into the wall. I was hurting now. Every inch of my body was throbbing in pain. When his hands wrapped around my throat, I panicked. He pushed me up against the wall and a knife caught my attention before its ice cold blade ran across my face, cutting a line across my left cheek. I winced at the pain and instantly felt the warmth of blood roll down my face. “Scream,” he whispered in my ear, “and you’re dead.” The blade tip moved across my throat before he dropped his hand and twirled his other hand in my hair, gripping and yanking it tight. He pulled me to my feet and dragged me, once again, toward the back of the building. I tried to scream, but I knew it was useless. Lucas wouldn’t have heard me. My attacker flung the back door open, and a blindfold immediately flew over my eyes as everything went black. I heard the duct tape being pulled and then it wrapped around my wrists that were pulled together behind my back. “You’re hurting me,” I hissed. He picked me up and dumped me into a small space. The loud thud of the trunk closing made me jump and I hit the roof. I can’t believe this is happening. Why did all the bad things happen to me? The car’s engine roared to life, and seconds later, the car lurched forward and sent me barreling into the back of the trunk. Then something crushed into me. It was long and by the feel of it, metal. I guessed it was a toolbox. I heard the sound of sirens in the background, and he must have, too, because the car picked up speed. The further we went, the less I heard the sirens. I could tell as soon as we hit the highway that there was less traffic. We were headed out of the city, but which way? I didn’t know. I tried to keep track of where we were, but being thrown around a tiny space tends to throw any sense of direction off. I hadn’t panicked the whole time until we hit the highway. The sound of the city behind us and wide open road in front, not knowing where he was taking me, started to get to me. I was kicking myself for going to the office, and even more for realizing I could have just left it at the office until tomorrow morning. Why did I go back? It wasn’t that important. What confused me was the envelope was missing? Where could it be? I was thankful Violet wasn’t with me at the time, and where had Lucas been? Had they hurt him? Is that why he hadn’t come to my rescue? I had lost enough this year—I couldn’t lose the love of my life, too. Then I wondered how my family would find me? Everyone would at least know I was gone, but how would they rescue me? The answer was… they wouldn’t. My emotions finally caught up with me and I broke down. The quietness of the road and the likelihood I wasn’t going to come out of this alive was wearing me down. The car slowed down and it caused me to roll into the back seat. I pressed my ear up to the back of the seats. I could hear them talking on the other side. “Why in the hell did you cut her?” I heard a man’s muffled voice ask. “Because she was kicking my ass and I needed the upper hand,” another muffled man’s voice said back. “He isn’t going to be happy that you laid a hand on her.” “Well, he will get over it.” Then complete silence again. Who were these people? I started sobbing uncontrollably as the car lurched forward. *** The car finally screeched to a stop several minutes later. My eyes flew open a half second before my shoulder slammed into the corner of the toolbox, sending a searing pain throughout my upper body and down my arm. I moaned and rolled over into the fetal position. My blindfold slid down my face moments before the trunk flew open. Two figures dressed in black from head to toe stared back at me. “Her blindfold came off,” the man on the left said. “Put it back on and grab her.” I closed my eyes and the other man bent forward, placed the blindfold back over my eyes, and grabbed me. I thought I would play like I was sleeping, but the man grabbed my hurt arm and yanked it. “Hey!” I yelled. “You do understand that my arms are attached to me, right?” Both men laughed as the one pulled my arm again. I tried to wiggle from his grip, but with my bound hands, it made it a lot harder. “I can get out myself!” I said, trying to shake myself free. They didn’t give me a chance, though. I was pulled out of the car and flung to the ground before I could even have a coherent thought. Twigs and leaves scratched my arms and dug into my skin. When I felt the cold round circle pressed against my temple, my heart stopped. I never had a gun pressed to my head before. Don’t move. Don’t let them know you’re scared. I was scared, though. I tried not to move, because they were waiting for it. I did shiver, though, as the gun moved across my forehead to the other side. “Get up,” a female voice spoke up. “Let’s go.” A woman? Her delicate, yet very strong hands grabbed my arm and I quickly stood. My shoulder was hurting from being in an uncomfortable position and the toolbox hitting it repeatedly. The woman then came around to my backside and plunged the gun into the small of my back. “Move!” she yelled. Move! I started walking, stumbling along the way. The ground was uneven and made of gravel. I took in a deep breath and noticed I could smell pine, and lots of it. Were we in the mountains? The mountains are about an hour away from the city. Shit, how far away was I? “Steps,” a voice from behind me said just as my shin collided with them. A set of hands caught me from falling face forward. After steadying myself, I walked up the steps and shuffled into an enclosed area. I could tell by the musty scent that we had moved indoors. “Put her in that chair,” I heard the woman say. I felt a hand firmly grip my throat and push me backwards toward the chair. I panicked and threw myself around. The hand tightened and I started gasping for air. My breath was getting harder to catch and when my body was flung into a hard chair, I groaned. I was hurting, scared, and already praying that my family could feel at that moment how much I loved them. A set of hands tied me to the chair, and even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to, I still tried to free my arms. The blindfold slipped enough and I could see a silver light. “Why is there blood on her hands?” a man’s voice demanded. “I told you he wouldn’t be happy,” another man’s voice proclaimed. “She was being defiant,” the other one said. “I had to teach her a lesson,” he said laughing. I can’t believe he just laughed. He took pleasure out of cutting my face? What an asshole! “I told you not to touch her!” the first man’s voice screamed out. They began fighting, but I didn’t hear anything they were saying anymore. My heart rate increased and sweat started trickling down my face. I knew that voice. I had heard it over the phone and in person numerous times over the past year. Why would he be here? I scrunched my face as I tried to get the blindfold off of my eyes. I had to see for myself. I had to know if it was him. Finally, I felt the blindfold loosen and slide down my face. I was terrified, and I desperately wanted to be wrong. I had my eyes closed, praying when I opened them I wouldn’t see him standing there. I took a deep breath before I spoke. “Lucas?” I whispered, and then I opened my eyes. Chapter 25 His arm was held high in mid-air as he clutched the shirt of the man he was straddling. “Lucas?” I said again, this time with more conviction. I knew it was him. He still didn’t move. “Lucas!” I yelled again. “I know it’s you! What are you doing? What have you done?” “Well, we might as well tell her.” The woman laughed, and I turned my head to see her standing there, still covered in black. “She recognized him.” She put her hand on top of her head. “I'm surprised you didn’t recognize me, though,” she said as she pulled her mask off. “Faith!” I shouted in disbelief. “I don’t understand,” I said, looking straight at Lucas. No one else in the room mattered but him and nothing he could say would make me not hate him right now. I was beyond hurt. He just stood there looking at me with wide eyes. “Who are you?” I yelled at him. “You know who we are,” Faith spoke up and tapped her head. “Use that pretty little brain of yours.” I sat there for a minute. I thought about everything that had been going on. I knew the Heinrich family was after me, but what would Faith and Lucas have to do with them? They never gave any indication that they even knew each other. “Can’t figure it out, can you pretty?” She walked over and moved closely to me. Her face was inches away from mine as she ripped the partially fallen blindfold from my face. I held my ground and never looked away from her. “You know for someone so smart, you are so dumb,” she said mockingly. “Watch yourself,” I seethed at her. “I’m not always going to be tied down.” “Feisty,” another man’s voice said as he walked into the room. “I like that.” I took my eyes off Faith for a moment to look at the new person who had just walked in. “Nikolas,” I said knowingly. “Hey, brother,” Faith said as her eyes shifted to the side. “Brother?” I stuttered. “Oh, yeah… didn’t you know?” She backed away and walked to him. “I guess not. Liliana, this is my brother Nikolas, and since you already know my other brother, Lucas, I don’t have to introduce you to him.” Brothers? Lucas? A Heinrich? “You’re a Heinrich?” I asked as I turned my attention back to Lucas. He nodded. All I could do was stare at him. How was I going to respond to that? I felt tears pulling at my eyes, but I was not going to give any of them the satisfaction of seeing me cry. I had been attacked, cut, bruised, and now tied to a chair. There had to be a reason for all of this. Pull yourself together! I took a deep breath. “What do you want from me?” I asked as I looked back up at Faith and Nikolas. “We need you,” Nikolas said as he walked over and knelt in front of me. “Your family has something we want. We’re just negotiating our terms, and then you will be free to go.” “What are you talking about? Is it a piece of property? Did my family take something from you? If so, I’m sorry my family took properties of yours, but did you really have to go through all this trouble to kidnap me over property!” “You naïve, stupid girl,” Faith yelled at me. “You think we would take you over a piece of property! What exactly do you think your father and brothers do?” “My father’s a business owner, and so are my brothers,” I said matter of fact. The whole room burst into laughter, all except Lucas, who was expressionless. “Let me explain it to you,” Nikolas said. “You see, my father and your… father used to be friends. They had a mutual agreement on each other’s territory. They did business together and even helped each other out of some… binds.” I listened intently. “You know it’s rare that the German and Italian mafia would even work together and share such a bond.” Did he just say mafia? “Then some years back, our two families decided to merge and become a family themselves. They were going to rule the New York area. The Heinrichs, German Mafia, and the Dapprimas, Italian mafia, were going to be unstoppable.” Nikolas’s eyes drifted over my shoulder, like he was remembering. “But then tragedy struck and with it… your father took something very precious to us and we would just like it back.” “My family is mafia?” I laughed and rolled my eyes. “Sure and I’m the Queen of England. Lucas tell them that isn’t true.” He looked at me, his eyes telling me I was wrong and that Nikolas was right. “My family is the mafia,” I whispered, trying to wrap my head around this new accusation. I started thinking about everything in my life: the secrets over the years, the bodyguards, protection every time we stepped out of the house, the attacks, always keeping me close yet so far away, and the bruises on Emilio and my brothers over the years. “Do we have to spell it for you?” Faith broke my thoughts. “Coming from such a brilliant family, I thought you would be a little bit smarter than that.” I wanted to strangle her. I wasn’t a stupid girl—it just all seemed so hard to believe. I felt like my whole life had been a lie. Was I the only one who didn’t know this? I guess I had been in deep thought, because I hadn’t even noticed Lucas pin Faith to the wall. “Don’t you ever talk to her that way again!” he screamed at her. The way he held her by her throat up against the wall sent chills down my spine. I flashed back to Halloween. “Stop it you two,” Nikolas yelled as he stood up and walked toward them. “It’s time to get the show on the road.” I sucked in a deep breath when Lucas turned his head to face Nikolas. Those eyes, so blue and filled with anger, burned into my soul. “Faith, why don’t you come and help me get the video camera ready? We will leave these two lovebirds here to hash it out.” I didn’t see them exit the room—I was honed in on Lucas and his eyes, pure hatred filled my body. “You,” I hissed at him. “Me?” he said as he pointed to himself. “You were the one who attacked me Halloween night!” I screamed at him. His eyes widened and sweat instantly beaded on his forehead. “It… it…,” he stammered. “It was you! The stance you just had was the same stance you had Halloween night! You almost killed me, Lucas! What the hell is wrong with you?” “Lily, I can explain if you just give me a minute,” he said with a low voice as he moved toward me. “Explain? Are you kidding me? How can you explain this to me? Look at me Lucas!” I moved my head up and down. “You made me fall in love with you! I freaking love you. I gave up everything to give you a chance!” I couldn’t help it anymore, tears started pouring down my face, and then a realization hit me. “You killed Roman! You’re the reason he is dead! You may not have pulled the trigger yourself, but you might as well have! Are you trying to hurt me until my heart shatters into a million pieces?” “Lily, please stop,” he pleaded with me. “There are so many things you don’t know. If you will just listen to me, please, for one minute, I can explain.” “Save it, Lucas! You’re dead to me!” I screamed. “Always the drama queen,” Faith said as she reentered the room. Lucas’s eyes pleaded with me as he walked around behind me and put his hand on my shoulder. I shrugged it off and glared at him. “Okay, Lily,” Faith began, “in a moment, we will be video chatting with your family so they will know you’re still alive. We’re also going to give them a deadline for the documents. Then, hopefully, our family can proceed as planned.” She winked at me and turned back to setting up the computer. How was I going to get out of this? I pulled on the ropes around my hands, trying to wiggle out of them, but they were so damn tight. I was actually going to have to sit here, strapped down to a chair. My mother was going to flip when she saw me. I didn’t want that to be the last image she saw of me. What the hell was so important to the Heinrich family that they would do this? I felt Lucas’s hands slide down my arms and grab ahold of mine. I jerked them trying to get him to let go. What was he doing? Then one of my hands fell free. He was untying my hands. The other one fell free seconds later. He held them in place behind my back, and then he leaned forward. I could feel his breath on my ear. “When I give you the signal,” he whispered, “run out the door, turn to your left, and go through the sliding glass doors and—” “Okay,” Faith spoke up. “I’m almost ready to connect. I sent them an encrypted message. It should be any moment now.” Faith clicked a few more buttons, before Lucas squeezed my hands and let them go. He headed toward the wall where the computer was plugged in, bent down, and quietly unplugged the connection cable before slipping around to Faith’s side. “What the… I just lost the connection!” she proclaimed a moment later. “How?” Lucas replied. “You were just connected.” “I don’t know,” she huffed. “Let me check the wire.” She turned and bent down to check the connection, her back turned to me. Lucas looked over and winked at me, and then turned his back to me. “Maybe it’s this,” he said as he picked up a cord. I quietly jumped up from the chair. The door was left open, so I headed straight to it and found myself in a hallway. I could hear voices coming from down the right side. So, I did as Lucas said and turned left, quickly making my way down the hall. There were a few doors on my way down. I could see the light shining through the sliding glass doors as I neared the end of the hall. I slowly peeked around the corner—no one was there. I didn’t even care about being quiet at that point anymore. I threw open the door and started sprinting across the yard, before I even looked up to see what I was facing: trees everywhere. Straight? Left or Right? Think Lily, which way! Then I thought about what Emilio once told me: “When in doubt always go left. Always.” I turned left and made it to the tree line when I heard people starting to yell. “Spread out! Find her!” Faith screamed. “Lucas go left, Nikolas go straight, and I’ll go right.” I started pushing myself harder and faster. I prayed I wouldn’t have a Violet moment and trip over something. “Lily!” I heard Lucas call out. I could tell that he wasn’t far behind me. “Wait, Lily! Please.” I didn’t listen to him—I wasn’t stopping for anyone. I couldn’t let him catch me. I pushed myself harder than I ever had before. All I could hear was the cracking of the trees’ foliage under my feet. Dodging the trees and trying not to fall, I was running as fast as I could. I didn’t hear him anymore, but I knew he was still behind me. I could feel him getting closer. My heart felt like it was going to explode from my chest, but I kept running. When I saw an opening in the trees, I turned and headed toward it. As I made it, I felt like maybe everything was going to be okay. I was wrong, though. Four strides out of the tree line and I found myself teetering on a ledge. A cliff? Are you kidding me? I looked from side-to-side, only to find the same thing. It was like a scene out of a movie, trees behind me, rocks beneath me, and a huge rocky cliff in front of me. It had to have been a good three hundred foot drop, if not more, into a canopy of trees. I wouldn’t survive the fall. I started searching for a way, any way out of this. “Liliana,” he yelled, drawing out my name. Lucas was getting closer. I started to panic. He was going to catch me. As the realization set in, I saw him. And before I could take off, he emerged from the tree line. I immediately took a step back, almost losing my balance. This moment, I had dreamt it over and over again. I was living my nightmare. I knew how the dream ended, but that was not going to happen to me. Not here, and not now. Lucas’s eyes locked on mine for a few seconds. I hesitated for a moment before breathing deeply. I wondered if he could catch me. I knew he was in better shape than I was. I also knew I had to keep going. “Don’t…,” he started to say, but I was already gone. I headed down the cliff’s edge. If he was going to catch me, then I wasn’t going to make it easy for him. “Lily! Please wait!” he yelled as I lost my balance by sliding on some loose rocks. I caught myself before I slid off the cliff. “Don’t come near me!” I yelled when I heard him approaching. “Lily, you have to listen to me,” he said between breaths. “It doesn’t matter what you say, Lucas! The damage is already done.” I slowly pushed myself up off the ground. My lungs felt like they were going to explode from lack of oxygen, and I could feel the blood trickling down my leg. “You don’t understand, Lily. I do love you!” “You love me?” I huffed. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but one does not kidnap, trick, or manipulate the one that they love.” “Everything is not what it seems. It may have started out like that, but the truth is I did fall in love with you. Everything changed after that.” “Why do I have trouble believing you?” I asked sarcastically. “Listen to me!” he yelled before putting his hands out and taking a deep breath. “My family,” he started more quietly, “they had a plan. I was supposed to meet you, make you fall in love with me, and eventually merge the two families together. It was a good plan. I was all in, because I didn’t know you. I didn’t care, but…” He paused and took another deep breath. “The day we met,” he continued, “it wasn’t by coincidence. Emilio had told me where you were and I showed up. Violet made it easier for me, finding me first. You were so beautiful and nothing like I imagined. I kept telling myself this is a job—do your job, Lucas. But then things started to change. “Our first date, at Coney Island, was one of the best nights of my life. I realized how remarkable and down to earth you are. I started questioning if this was the right thing to do. Halloween night, all I was supposed to do was get those damn documents from Emilio. When you came down the stairs, I didn’t know it was you, and when I did, I still couldn’t blow my cover, even though I was already having doubts.” He stepped forward. “I swear, Lily, I never meant for you to get hurt that night. When I saw you a few days later, I couldn’t believe I was capable of something like that. I never imagined you looking that bad.” “Bad?” I began. “You didn’t think I would look so bad? I chin planted on the steps, you almost suffocated me, and you threw me down the stairs! You didn’t think it would be that bad?” “I’m sorry, Lily!” he cried out. “Everything happened so fast. I felt horrible for what I did to you. I still do! It was one of the lowest points of my life. My family was satisfied with the results, but not me. I felt like shit afterwards, like a piece of my heart was ripped out. I’ve tried making it up to you. I talked to Roman a lot—” “Don’t you dare speak his name to me!” I yelled at him. “Listen to me!” he yelled back. “Roman was my friend, too! I mean that! He did everything for us to be together. He defied Emilio, even when Emilio forbade me to date you. Roman still stuck his neck out for us. He risked everything!” He paused for a moment. “So after I learned that my family devised a plan, I told them that we didn’t need it, that I was getting closer and closer to you. I warned Emilio and Roman that the Heinrichs were planning something. That it was big.” I couldn’t help it. I started sobbing. This was hard to hear. “I swear Lily, I didn’t help them get in—I told them I was out. I wouldn’t hurt any of you, and that we would find another way. But they did it anyway.” My heart was beating faster than I ever thought it could, hearing all of this was overwhelming. “Roman’s death killed me, a part of me died with him,” I cried. “And for what? For us to get married and for a couple of documents! What the hell is so important about these documents? What did my father take that was so important to your family?” “I’m almost done.” He glared at me. “After Roman’s death—” “Lucas,” I said as I cut him off, “nothing you say at this point can fix what you did. It’s unforgivable! If you would have just came and told me about this before it got out of hand, I could have helped you. I know my family could have protected you.” “Lily,” he half laughed. “This life isn’t one to just walk away from. Family or not, you disobey orders and you will be given a first class ticket to the bottom of the river with a weight strapped to your ankles. “I’m sorry—I can’t change what I have done. I’m ashamed of myself, and I can promise you that you will never hate me as much as I hate myself.” His eyes filled with tears as he looked at me. I was hurt, but even with everything he had done, I still loved him. How screwed up was I? Everything that had happened to me over the past year stemmed from him. He gave me this life of freedom, and with it newer, exciting experiences. I could be the person I had always wanted to be with him and now everything was gone. He ripped it away in an instant. “Lily,” Lucas spoke, “for what it’s worth, I did fall truly, madly, and deeply in love with you.” “Liliana!” two voices called out. My eyes lifted from Lucas as I searched the area around me. The voices were frantic, not determined. Dante was the first to appear. He came running straight out of the woods. “Emilio!” he shouted once our eyes met. “I found her! She’s over here!” I sprinted towards him and flung myself into his arms. “Are you okay?” he asked as he pulled away from me and looked me over. His mortified eyes spoke volumes. I realized at the moment I must have looked like a complete mess. “I’m fine,” I said, my voice shaking as I grabbed him again and held him tight. Emilio came charging out of the trees and was at our side in an instant. His facial expressions changing from terrified to relief and back. “I’m fine,” I reassured him as well. I was far from fine, but what else could I say? “You’re not fine,” Emilio said as his finger traced the cut on my face. “Lucas, where are you?” Nikolas’s voice called out. My eyes flashed toward Lucas who hadn’t moved. “Over here!” Lucas yelled. “Get her out of here,” Emilio said, pushing me toward Dante, who latched onto my arm. “Come on, Lily,” Dante said as he started to try and pull me back towards the tree line. “Lucas?” This time it was Faith’s voice that called out. “Over here,” Lucas yelled again. “Get the hell out of here,” Emilio yelled at us before he took off at a dead run towards Lucas. “Emilio!” I screamed as I lurched towards him. Dante had such a strong grip on my arm that it almost felt like I had ripped it out of socket. “Lily, please!” Dante said as he pulled harder. Lucas was running towards Emilio now. I watched them as they collided into each other. They started rolling around on the ground. I could see fists flying. “Let me go!” I demanded as I struggled to break free from Dante as he picked me up and pulled me into his chest before he took off back into the woods. “We have to get out of here before the rest of that crew gets here. Emilio—” The echo of a gunshot silenced us both, deafening us completely. Dante had stopped dead in his tracks. He stood there, holding me in silence, both of us listening for something. Anything. But nothing came. Who had fate chosen to take from me this time? Thank you for reading our book! If you have a few moments, then would you do us a huge favor and review our book on Amazon or Goodreads? Reviews are so important for independent authors, and we would also love to hear what you thought about it. Thank you so much! M.D. Melai and C.S. Leigh Acknowledgements First and foremost, we would like to thank God for blessing us with this opportunity and giving us the love, guidance, and strength to complete this story. We would like to thank our family and friends who encouraged us through this long journey we started five years ago. Without your constant support, this book would not have happened. Patsy, we would like to thank you for your dedication and constructive criticism. You pushed us to be better writers and think outside of what we knew. Erica, you have been here from the beginning. We can’t thank you enough for sticking with us through many, many drafts and your feedback has been most helpful. Jessica. Thank you for doing the cover. It looks awesome! M.D. Melai would like to give a shout out to her husband and son for allowing her to pursue her dream and for putting up with the endless hours of brainstorming and late night writing sessions. C.S. Leigh would like to thank her mother, father, and siblings for the constant support and reminders that we need to finish so they could finally read it. And a special thank you to her father for the financial guidance and making this possible, without you we wouldn’t have made it this far. About the Authors M.D. Melai and C.S. Leigh are a cousin writing duo from North Central Texas. They began the first draft of Deceptive in 2009 while attending college at the same time. The idea began in a kinesiology class that they took together, and they built it up from there as each class was full of brainstorming. But in too short of time, life got in the way and Liliana’s story was put on the back burner. Over the next five years, Liliana’s story never left their minds or hearts as it was discussed sporadically. So when April of 2014 graced them with its presence, the two decided that, after all the time that had passed, it was time to finish their dream, so they began working on Deceptive once again. And from that point on the two were inseparable as they wrote and released the entire series in two years. All three books were self-published by the authors and have been on the rise since. M.D. Melai is a stay at home mom of an active son. When she isn’t being a mom, a wife, or a sideline cheerleader, she tries to fit in writing time whenever she can. She also enjoys reading as much as possible, and spending time with her family. Melai hopes to one day finish her Bachelor’s in History and English. C.S. Leigh spends her days working for a hospital, and her nights consist of writing her first solo novel or reading. In any spare time that she has, she spends it with her friends and family. She is also very active as she still plays soccer for a local adult league. Sports are a huge part of her life and you can catch her at local sporting events. C.S. Leigh has her bachelor’s degree in business, but has decided to follow her passion of writing. She hopes to one day go back to college and get her degree in English or Creative Writing. Connect with Us: Follow us on Twitter: https://twitter.com/DeceptiveSeries Our Author Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/melai.leigh/?ref=aymt_homepage_panel Follow C.S. Leigh on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/13468414.C_S_Leigh Follow M.D. Melai on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/13468413.M_D_Melai Here’s a sneak peek at FUGITIVE, the enticing sequel to Deceptive. Chapter 1 I screamed as I shot straight up in my seat. It took me a moment to find my bearings, and when I did, I looked around the immediate area and tried to remember exactly where I was. It all flooded back to me as the sound of the plane’s engine buzzed in my ear. I was on an airplane heading back to New Jersey. Violet was patiently sitting beside me when I turned to face her. Her eyes were full of concern as she stared back at me. I tried to speak, but my breathing was still unsteady. “You were dreaming again,” Violet said as she wrapped her arms around me and brought me in close. “Shh, it’s okay,” she whispered. “It was just a dream.” I felt her fingers run through my hair as she tried to soothe me. I took a few deep breaths before gaining full control. I leaned forward, placed my elbows on my knees, and buried my face in my hands. My face was wet and hot from the tears. I hadn’t realized until that moment that I had been crying. I smeared my make-up as I wiped them away. “Do you know where you are?” she asked me after a few seconds. “I’m on a plane,” I said lifting my head to look at her. “I had a nightmare, not a head injury.” I slightly smiled. “Smart ass.” She smiled back at me, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. I knew she was worried. “Did I scream while I was dreaming?” I asked as I scrunched my face. I knew that I had screamed when I shot up, but I didn’t know if that was the first time. “Yes,” she answered back. “Awesome,” I said sarcastically. “I go from one haunting dream to another. I just can’t get away from what happened that night no matter how hard I try.” I will always remember the night I was kidnapped: the running, the screaming, and the echo of the gunshot through the air, every last detail. The Heinrichs had kidnapped me, held me hostage, and were going to use me for leverage before Lucas helped me escape. Lucas, who had been my love, had done the most unforgivable act, he betrayed me. Dante and Emilio somehow found me out in the middle of the forest. Our reunion was cut short when Nikolas’ voice rang out. “Lucas, where are you?” he called out. My eyes immediately flashed towards Lucas. “Over here,” Lucas yelled back. It was chaotic as Emilio gave orders to Dante as he pushed me towards him. Faith’s voice rang out next as she asked Lucas where he was. “Get the hell out of here,” Emilio yelled at me and Dante before he took off at a dead run towards Lucas. I yelled for him, but Dante grabbed my arm and pulled me the other direction. I watched as Lucas and Emilio collided with each other and then hit the ground with fists flying. “Let me go!” I demanded Dante, but he just picked me up and pulled me into his chest as he took off into the woods away from Emilio and Lucas. Dante and I were arguing when we heard it: the echo of the gunshot. The silence that followed was deafening. Dante had stopped dead in his tracks as he stood there holding me. Both of us listened for something, anything, but nothing came. “Emilio,” I whispered as I started to flail in Dante’s arms. My reaction stunned him, so it was easy to wiggle my way out. I didn’t waste any time. “Emilio!” I screamed as I took off running back towards him. The sound of the gunshot still rang in my ears as I pushed myself harder. I needed to reach him. “Emilio!” I yelled again. Dante quickly caught up with me, and in one swift move, he jumped in front of me and blocked my way. I tried to go around him, but I couldn’t. He wouldn’t let me take another step. “Stop! What are you doing? Let me go!” “Lily stop, we have to keep moving,” he said as he wrapped his arms around me and dragged me back the opposite direction. “We can’t go back.” “Emilio,” I screamed as I struggled to loosen Dante’s grip. “Let me go, please!” “Dammit, Lily! Stop!” Dante yelled as he picked me up and threw me over his shoulder. “Emilio can take care of himself. He would never forgive me if I let anything happen to you.” Dante took off running again. I still don’t know how he managed to hold on to me as I fought to free myself. Luckily, he didn’t have to run much further before we emerged from the trees and into an open area. “Okay, I’m going to set you down. Don’t run,” he said breathing heavily. He slowly set me down as he kept a firm grasp on my forearm. Wrong move. I turned around and with every ounce of strength I had I swung. My fist connected with his nose and I felt it break under the force. He immediately let go of my arm as he lost his balance and stumbled backwards. “What the…,” Dante yelled, but I was already gone. I had no idea where I was going. All I knew was I needed to get to Emilio. I wasn’t leaving without him. Searching the area as I ran, I tried to remember which way we had just come from. I saw a pile of branches stacked against a tree, so I knew I was going in the right direction. “Liliana!” Dante called out. He was close by. I slowed my pace as I looked back to see if I could see him, but he wasn’t there…yet. I was about to turn my head back around and take off running again when I slammed into someone. He was hard and warm as he wrapped his arms around me. I hesitated for a minute before I threw my arms around him, buried my face in his neck, and breathed him in. I didn’t have to look up to know who it was. It was Emilio. I prayed this was real and not a figment of my imagination. He scooped me up in his arms and took off in a dead sprint. “I have her!” he yelled. When I heard his voice, I knew he was real. I clung to him while he ran. I listened to his heavy breathing and felt his heart pound against his chest. At that moment I never ever wanted to let go of him again. When we reached the tree line, he kept holding me and didn’t put me down. Dante came into view a few feet behind us. His face was covered in blood and he was using his shirt to catch most of it. I felt bad when I saw him. I knew he was only trying to protect me. He was never going to forgive me for what I had done. Emilio and Dante ran for a little longer before they slowed down. Emilio set me down and I took a look around the area. There were trees on both sides of us. I turned around and saw Dante’s jeep idling. I still wasn’t sure where I was, but I knew I was safe. I glanced in the direction that the jeep had come from and I could barely make out a tightly wound trail that I guess led to a main road. “Lily,” Emilio said as he turned me around to face him. “Look at me.” He placed his hand on my cheek that had been cut and I winced from the pain. I almost forgot that it was there. I didn’t meet his eyes at first, but when I did a moment later; his stormy grays were staring back at me intently. I don’t remember a lot after that. Everything was still unclear. I know Dante drove while Emilio sat in the back with me. We refused to let each other go. When the car eventually stopped, Violet stood there waiting for us with a private jet in the background. Emilio pulled me close and held me like it was the last time he would see me. Then he kissed me and handed me off to Violet. I didn’t understand, and I definitely didn’t want to leave him. I held onto him as I pleaded with them to let me stay, but in the end, I let him go and Violet pushed me up the stairs and onto the plane. Moments later we were in the sky, destination unknown, at least unbeknownst to me. I didn’t speak a word for the first hour of the trip, and Violet let me be. When I was ready to talk, Violet was there to answer all my questions, and one by one, I pieced together what happened with them once we parted ways. She told me that Dante, Emilio, and she were almost to the club when Emilio’s phone went off alerting him that the panic button had been hit at the office. I thought when I had gone to press it that I had missed it, but apparently I hadn’t. Violet said Emilio immediately dialed Lucas’ number and it went straight to voicemail. Then he checked his phone before realizing what he was looking for was around Violet’s neck, the locket. She said Emilio freaked out and screamed at her, and that Dante had to step in. The locket had been a tracking device, which is why Emilio told me to never take it off. Violet talked about arriving at the office and seeing the destruction. The plants had been knocked on their sides, papers were thrown everywhere, and the furniture was all over the place. She said as soon as Emilio saw blood, he started yelling and saying he was going to kill them all. Violet said, looking at me now, she realized the traces of blood must have been from me, but not before asking how bad the other guy looked. I smiled at that before she continued. She explained how Emilio and Dante dropped her off at the house and told her to pack our essentials, grab our passports, and be ready to head to the airport on a moment’s notice. Dante told her they had an idea of where I might be and that they would call her as soon as they found me. Violet didn’t know much more after that. She said she ran around the house packing everything she could. Once she had finished packing, she waited for a good two hours. Violet said just waiting around to see if her best friend was still alive was the worst thing she had to endure in a while. She told me that when Dante called, he said they had me and that I was in pretty bad shape. He told her to meet them at the airport and that Lorenzo and Paolo would be taking her. When Violet was done, she asked me about what happened once Lucas and I left the house. I told her about how I had drove to the office and Lucas complained about how terrible I drove. I was surprised he even noticed, because he was constantly on his phone. I then told her how I went inside, flipped on my lamp, and searched for the documents for our meeting the next day. I looked everywhere and was about to give up when I heard a noise. Next thing I knew, I was being attacked. I described how the attacker flung my head against the desk, pulled my hair, and then I slammed my stiletto into his foot so I could get away. She listened as I described how I was almost out the door before the attacker grabbed my ankle and dragged me across the carpet. I dug my nails into the carpet and tried to add resistance to his pull. Violet flinched as I talked about how he taunted me and cut my face before he threatened to kill me if I spoke again. I told her how he dragged me towards the back of the building, blindfolded me, taped my hands together behind my back, and then dumped me into the trunk of his car. We traveled for a long time before the car came to a stop. Then the trunk door flew open and two people pulled me out. They led me inside a house and into an almost empty room. They sat me down and one by one slowly revealed to me who they were: Faith, Nikolas, and then Lucas. All Heinrichs, and all my enemies. Violet looked shocked as I told her how they revealed that my family was head of the Italian mafia and their family was head of the German. Both families had been feuding for years and the Heinrichs were looking for redemption, which started with a document they needed from my father. I told her how Lucas created a diversion and helped me escape into the woods. He eventually caught up with me and tried to explain himself. He told me how at first it was strictly business and that the Heinrichs were trying to combine both families using him as the link. But, the more he got to know me, the more he fell in love with me. I watched as Violet’s eyes grew wider as I explained how I told Lucas I didn’t care what his excuses were, anything he said would be considered a lie in my eyes. His situation was unexplainable. “Then I heard Dante’s voice come out of nowhere and he rushed to my side. Emilio followed, but soon charged Lucas after ordering Dante to take me away. He didn’t get me far before we heard the gunshot.” I paused before I finished telling her the events that happened next. “What about Lucas?” she asked. “I don’t know and honestly at this second, I don’t care,” I replied. Violet helped me get cleaned up afterwards and told me as soon as we landed we needed to get my cheek looked at. She said it looked deep and may require stitches. We landed in Jamaica a couple of hours later and, true to her word, we went straight to the nearest hospital. The cut wasn’t as deep as we both initially thought, so it didn’t require any stitches. Instead, eight butterfly band aids held my cheek together. Minimal scarring the doctors assured me. That was the least of the “scarring” I was worried about. The adrenaline was wearing off, and the reality of the last twenty-four hours had taken a toll on my body and mind. What started off as a six week escape, eventually turned into a three month long vacation away from everyone except Violet. We had a private villa and, at first, we rarely left it. It was small and quaint. There were two bedrooms, a small kitchen, and a living room. The entire area was open and all of the rooms had windows. We were right on the beach, so no matter where we went in the house, we always had a beautiful view. The nightmares consumed me every night for the first four weeks. I would wake up screaming and Violet would lay with me and stroke my hair until I would fall back asleep. She begged me to go and talk to a therapist about everything, but I didn’t need to. All I needed was some time and space. Emilio called and checked on me every day. He told me, just in case I was wondering, that Lucas was alive and doing well. I told him I didn’t care. And why should I? He tried to explain Lucas’ plea to me, but I would immediately cut him off. When I did that, the only thing he would say was that one of these days I would have to listen to what he had to say, or let Lucas explain it himself. I wasn’t interested in anything Lucas or Emilio had to say. I finally told Emilio if he brought it up again, I wouldn’t speak to him until I returned home and maybe not even then. What Lucas had done was unforgivable and he didn’t deserve a chance to explain himself. Violet had filled Dante in on what had happened to me after Lucas and I left that night. That was the missing part that my family still didn’t know and I couldn’t tell it again. It was hard enough reliving it when I told Violet, much less trying to explain it to my family. She also explained to him how confused I was about the new information I had learned about my family. I just couldn’t believe my family was the head of the mafia, and even though I knew the truth now, every time Emilio and I would talk, I would ask him questions about my family and, as usual, he would avoid them. Then when I asked about the Heinrich family, all he would say was that he and my father had everything under control. Like that helped the first time. Violet gave me the space I needed, and eventually I started smiling and laughing again. She and I started venturing out more, and I started to heal mentally and physically. The last year’s events had wreaked havoc on me. I needed this getaway to symbolize a new start. I spent many days and nights sitting by the beach watching the waves roll in and out. It was peaceful and beautiful. The breeze was always warm and inviting, and the sand, I found, was surprisingly comfortable. All I had was time. I spent it thinking about my life, and how ignorant I was to the fact that my family was head of the Italian mafia. Why hadn’t anyone told me? How was it that I hadn’t figured it out myself? I didn’t even know how I felt about it. Most of my life I had been lied to, so how was I supposed to trust the people I was closest to if I didn’t know them entirely? The only thing I knew about the mafia was what I had seen on the television and in movies, and the little bit I had read about in my American History class in high school. They were horrible people who did horrible things. My family wasn’t anything like those people. As I sat on the beach looking at the full moon and listening to the waves crash onto the shore, I realized I had more questions than answers. The only way I was going to get them was to go home. I had avoided my family for long enough, and even though I was mad and confused, that didn’t mean I didn’t love them. And honestly, I missed them and Emilio like crazy. I even missed working. The owners of the villa we had been renting were going to be in for a big surprise when they returned. Violet and I had done a complete make-over of the inside. It drove us crazy that we had been living in a place that had not been modernized. It was much needed, but most importantly it was a good distraction. “Do you think it was a good idea to come back?” Violet asked as she brought me out of my memories. “Definitely,” I said. “I need answers and I know you’re ready to be home with Dante.” “I have missed him,” Violet said as she smiled. We should have returned weeks ago. Emilio had called and let us know things were clear to return anytime we wanted. I had put it off for an entire month and a half and I would have stayed longer if it wasn’t for Violet. I noticed how sad she would get after every phone call with Dante. It wasn’t fair to her anymore. “Speaking of answers,” Violet said as her tone changed to a more serious one. “I know you don’t want to talk about Lucas—” “I don’t want to talk about him,” I cut her off. “How many times do I have to say it?” Violet took a deep breath. “I know you don’t, but you need to at least listen to me for two seconds.” She paused as she waited for me to respond. I looked at her and reluctantly nodded. “Before you step off this plane, you need to know that Lucas isn’t a threat to you despite what you think. And as your nearest and dearest friend, I suggest when you aren’t so upset anymore that you allow him to explain himself.” “We’ll see,” I said as I glared at her. “Ladies,” the pilot said over the intercom, interrupting our conversation. “We should be landing in less than thirty minutes.” Thirty minutes? My heart started beating fast and I could feel myself starting to panic. Before Violet could see it on my face, I quickly got up and excused myself to the restroom. I couldn’t get there and lock the door fast enough. Hold it together. My face felt like it was on fire, so I turned the water on, splashed some on my face, and hoped it would help cool me down. I closed my eyes and concentrated on my breathing. Slow deep breaths. Slow deep breaths. I stood there for a few more minutes as I tried to gain control of myself. I thought I had been ready to come home and face everything. Enough time had passed and I could deal with it. As I looked into the mirror, I was supposed to see a sun-kissed confident woman, but all I saw was a pale, panicked girl staring back at me. As I traced the scar on my left cheek, I saw the harsh reality of my now permanent reminder of that night, and I knew I wasn’t ready. This was a mistake. I should never have come back here.

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