Authors: Maria Delaurentis
"Oh my god! MICHAEL IS THAT YOU?" she yelled, running down the stairs quickly. She through her small body against his frame, wrapping her arms around him as Michael laughed and hugged her.
"Hi Zia Elena. It's been a long time; this is my girlfriend, Gabriella," he said quietly, pulling away so that he could motion towards me.
"Hand to god, she's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen! Don't tell Alice that. Come come, sweetheart let me look at you," she said, directing her attention at me. I could feel my cheeks burning, the color rushing in quickly. I stepped forward awkwardly and smiled at her, gasping when she pulled me into her unbelievably strong embrace. I hugged her back loosely, a little surprised by the affection and whispered a "thank you" for her compliment.
"You better protect her from your cousins, Micky, they're like a bunch of wolves!" she laughed, letting me go.
"Come eat! I made baked ziti, meatballs, chicken marsala, ravioli, and I got steaks grillin' in the back with ya Zio Frankie!" She grinned, gesturing towards the fence that led to the backyard.
"Nah you don't, El, I'm right here. Michael you son of a bitch bring ya ass over here and hug your Uncle! You ungrateful little shit! Where you been all this time?" a deep voice boomed from ahead of us, causing me to look up. My eyes widened at the handsome older man in front of me. The resemblance between Michael and him was uncanny. Frankie's eyes glowed, his locks perfectly pushed back. He wore a crisp white button up, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. A pair of worn looking khakis clung to his legs, a small dish towel hanging out of one the pockets. I had gotten so caught up in staring at him that his vulgarity almost missed me, until it was followed with something even more astounding.
"Who's the bambina, huh? Been too busy knockin' this one up to visit your family?"
I coughed, looking up at Michael only to see a wide grin on his face. This was going to be a very long day.
"Hey Zio Frankie. I haven't been knockin' any one up! This is my girlfriend, Gabriella." He laughed as we approached his uncle. They gave each other a warm embrace, his uncle patting his back affectionately after. They pulled away but Frankie's hand slid up to the back of Michael's neck, holding him there for a moment.
"Don't you ever try to pull that shit ever again. Your father would be rollin' in his grave if he knew you had been so distant from your family. You're here now and I expect that you'll be around a lot more often. Especially with this little birdy here." His gaze turned to me and he offered me a dazzling smile, causing me to blush.
"Hand to god, she's almost as beautiful as my fucking wife!" He let Michael go and took my hand, kissing the back of it softly.
"T-thank you," I murmured, offering him a tentative smile.
"And shy to boot? You better watch her back there. Ya know how Danny and Angelo can be, bless their fucking hearts. They're dogs, ya hear me? Fuckin' savages, always got another comare around here!" Frankie released my hand and pushed the fence open, ushering us inside.
The second we entered the fence it was like entering another world. The backyard was full of people. There was a small dancing area where couples held each other close, rocking to the sweet sounds of Tony Bennett. There was a stone raised patio that held a stainless steel grill on it, as well as a lovely patio set with a glass table and cushioned beige seats. A large red patio umbrella hung above everything, shading the area generously. The rest of the yard was beautifully landscaped, with a perfectly kept garden framing the edges of it. There were large picnic tables set up along the farthest area that were covered in food, plates, cups, silverware and a small makeshift bar. On the ground sat three different coolers with beer, soda and water. Smaller tables were set up sporadically around the backyard allowing people to sit and chat or eat. The second the fence closed all eyes were on us, the silence palpable for all of ten seconds.
"MICHAEL FUCKIN' RUSSO!"
"OMG IS THAT MICKY?"
"WHO’S THE DAME? SHE YOURS?"
Multiple people rushed over to us, pulling Michael into embrace after embrace while I backed up, watching carefully from the sidelines. He laughed and smiled at them all, apologizing repeatedly for not being around. Once the initial shock of his appearance began to calm down, the attention was refocused on me.
"Who's this beautiful girl?" The voice was deep and playful, similar to Frankie's. When I skimmed the faces trying to figure out who was speaking my eyes found the spitting image of Frankie if he had been twenty years younger.
"Danny, this is my girlfriend Gabriella. Brie, this is Frankie's son—and my cousin, Danny." I smiled and reached my hand out tentatively, squeaking a bit as Danny took it and pulled me into his arms. He smelled like body wash and honey, his embrace warm and inviting. He was handsome like the rest of the guys in their family, and just as charming. He wore a tight gray t-shirt and pair of fitted jeans, his dark brown locks pushed back just like his father's.
"Gabriella Gabriella." He cooed in my ear, his breath tickling my skin. Michael quickly grabbed my arm and pulled me away from him, reaching up to slap the back of Danny's head.
"Where are ya fuckin' manners, cuzzo? Stop breathin' on her like that," he scolded, causing Danny to laugh.
"It's nice to meet you, Danny." I smiled, leaning against Michael's protective frame.
"Likewise, tesoro. You get bored; you come find me, eh?" He winked and grinned at Michael before walking off towards another group. Michael shook his head and laughed, kissing the top of my head.
"He's only the beginning," he whispered before a young, bouncy girl ran up to us. Her eyes were doe-like, her body small and curvy. Her hair was cut short into a pixie cut that framed her delicate face—she was unbelievably pretty.
"Hi! I'm Alice, the only normal cousin Michael has." She grinned and pulled me into her arms, giving me a hug that could rival her mother's strong embrace.
"Oh! Happy birthday!" I coughed out, pulling myself away so that I could catch my breath.
"Thank you! That's so sweet of you. I'm sure we'll be great friends if this jackass stops avoiding his family." Her gaze turned to Michael and instantly narrowed, her arms crossing over her chest.
"What gives? You don't like us or what?" She arched a brow, her small foot tapping against the ground expectantly.
"Eh, you know it's not like that, Alice. Why you gotta bust my balls?" Michael groaned, running his fingers through his hair.
"Bust your balls?! I ain't bustin’ your balls, it's the truth! You got some makin' up to do." She walked away before he could get another word in; effectively proving that she would have the last word in the conversation.
"Seems like you're the real family favorite." I laughed, looking up at him. He rolled his eyes and moved his hand to the small of my back, ushering me further into the party. We spent the next half an hour greeting his aunts, other uncles, and a few of his cousins. Elena came by and pulled me towards the food, making me a plate of everything she could get her hands on. I stared at the mountain with wide eyes, wondering how I would be able to eat all of it. Michael turned met up with me a few moments later and laughed at the site, smiling sympathetically at me.
"Wait until you see the plate she makes me." He wrapped an arm around my shoulder and turned to Elena, kissing her cheek.
"Thanks for feedin' her."
"Don't thank me yet, look at you! No meat on your bones! Your mother, god rest her soul, would cringe at the sight!" With that she was off like a whirlwind, piling food onto two plates this time. When she finished she ushered us towards the nearest table and put the two plates in front of a chair, shoving Michael into the seat.
"Mangia!" she scolded before walking off towards her husband to see how the grill was going.
"You better start coming around here more often, they don't seem too happy with you," I said between food induced moans. Elena was by far a better cook than Michael and I combined. Her food melted in your mouth, and sent you into a small flavor induced coma with each bite.
"Only if you promise to come with me. You're a nice buffer; they aren't nearly as mean as they would be if you weren't here." He winked in my direction before shoveling a large bite into his mouth. We finished our food in a comfortable silence. Moments after we finished Frankie appeared back at the table, a wide smile on his face.
"Hey, where are your manners ya inconsiderate little prick. I feed you, I welcome you into my home, and you don't ask your aunt to dance?" Frankie clapped his hand on Michael's shoulder, his little speech earning a chuckle from me. Michael nodded and got up, making his way over to Elena. Before long they were in the makeshift dance area, swaying together and laughing.
Frankie took a seat across from me and stared at me for a moment, a small smile on his face.
"You seem like a good girl. Take care of my nephew, he's got a tough outside but the kid's gone through a lot. Don't let him be a schmuck to you though, just give him a good slap if he gets outta line, okay?" He winked at me and reached over, patting my hand affectionately.
"Of course, Frankie. I won't let you down." I smiled back, watching Michael and Elena dance out of the corner of my eye. Their family was so warm, so welcoming. They were loud; but what Italian family wasn't?
"Now come dance with me, piccolina. Do an old man some good." He stood up and reached for my hand. I took his and let him lead me to the floor, laughing as he spun me around and pulled me into his arms.
"Eh, look at me Michael! Good enough for your lil' lady ain't I?" Frankie grinned down at me and spun me again, holding me as a father would hold his daughter.
"Can I cut in?" Danny's voice sounded beside me, my eyes widening.
"Keep your dick in your pants, son. Go find another girl to dance with," Frankie muttered, earning a chuckle from Elena and Michael.
"Ya just gotta be tough, piccolina. Don't let the dogs get ya, alright?" He smiled and released me, Michael's arms wrapping around me moments after. He buried his face in my hair and rocked me slowly, his arms tight around my frame.
"I told you it wouldn't be so bad," he whispered, his lips a mere inch from my ear.
"They're wonderful, Michael. All of them." The words were out of my mouth before I had to think about it. His family was fun, affectionate, and a little crazy. They instantly welcomed me as if they had known me all along, and I found myself craving their approval. We danced and ate for hours. When we finally parted ways the sun had retired, letting the moon illuminate the sky. I had exchanged numbers with Alice and Elena, and had promised we would visit soon. Michael had told them that he was opening the new restaurant and everyone had promised to come to the opening. We hugged everyone goodbye and made our way to the SUV.
I fell asleep moments after my head touched the passenger seat, only stirring when Michael shook me gently.
"You're home," he said softly. I raised my head a little but found that my energy was lacking. He chuckled and got out of the vehicle, opening my door from the outside moments later. He unbuckled my seatbelt and scooped me into his arms, shutting the door with his foot. He carried me with ease to the door, bending me a little so that I could slide my security card against the entry. When we reached my loft he set me down gently and let me unlock the door.
Once the door was open I was scooped back into his arms and carried to my room, a giggle escaping my lips. It was only then that the need in his eyes became visible, overpowering his normal expression. I reached up and slid my fingers over his bottom lip, gasping as he nipped at them.
"Michael…" I murmured, but he was gone. Before I could formulate a sentence I was pressed against the bed, my dress being hiked up over my hips. His movements were rushed, but gentle. He was quick to get his pants and boxers down his legs, kicking them off with his shoes. I watched him through half-lidded eyes, licking my lips as anticipation began to build in my stomach. He groaned a little as he looked at me, his eyes sweeping over my flushed skin.
"You're so damn beautiful, I can't stand it sometimes. And the way Danny kept looking at you…" the last part came out almost as a growl, his eyes darkening. Before I could bother to console him he was claiming me, showing me over and over just who I belonged with.
I was utterly spent, my body temporarily in shock from the pleasure that coursed through me.
After he regained his ability to think he put my legs down slowly, laying me on my side. He sunk next to me and stretched across the bed, taking a deep breath.
"I had planned to make love to you all night. I don't know what just happened," he said quietly, a tone of remorse echoing in his words.
"Michael. Please don't sound like you regret that… it was… it was great." I blushed, turning to look at him. A smirk instantly crossed his features, his eyebrows rising.
"Great, huh? Let's go for incredible." He pulled me into his arms and kissed me with more passion than I had ever experienced. We spent the rest of our night exhausting each other until we fell asleep.
I was falling in love with him, and suddenly that felt okay.
The rest of the month went by in a blur of fun, and preparation. I had fully given into the idea of starting a fresh relationship with Michael and now that neither of us were fighting our feelings, things were great. The restaurant was a week away from opening and things were unbelievably hectic.
The first time he took me to the restaurant was two weeks ago; for what turned out to be an intimate dinner date. As usual he had only told me that it was a surprise, and had given me a time to be ready for him to pick me up. He had arrived at my door promptly at 8 and within twenty minutes we had been parked in front of a beautiful brick building with 10 foot windows all the way around it. It was right up against the water and Michael had not only purchased the building, but all of the surrounding land. He took me inside and I was greeted with a candlelit dinner, our own waiter, and soft jazz music filtering through hidden speakers. I would be lying if I said I didn't shed a few tears.
Though the restaurant was a modest size the land in general covered 3 acres. He had plans to build a small gelato café next to the restaurant once business was good. The land even included a small dock where I noticed a small boat had been sitting each time we came; but he never mentioned its purpose.
The building was beautiful on the inside. The floors were a rich creamy tile and the tables were an elegant mahogany. There was a small stage with a beautiful baby grand piano perched on it, and an old fashioned microphone. At the center of the restaurant was a large wrap around bar that could easily be seen from anywhere in the two-story building. The upstairs had been made into a more intimate lounge area with plush booths that Michael referred to as his VIP section. He said it could be reserved for meetings, parties, or a nice place for us to escape and have dinner with each other. That was the thing about Michael; he was sweet without trying. He naturally did things that made me smile on a daily basis.
I had easily fallen into my role of co-captain around the restaurant. While Michael busied himself with ordering liquor and food I had hired a lot of the waiting staff. I had personally interviewed each host, bartender, and waiter. We spent countless hours at night picking the silverware, glasses, plates, and linen. By the time we made it to the week of the opening I could easily rattle off phone numbers to at least 10 different suppliers.
Truth be told I had loved every minute of it. It felt good to finally have a bit of stability, and it felt good to laugh as much as we did. Michael had gotten an apartment nearby mine, though it seemed pointless since we rarely spent a night apart. We spent countless hours getting everything ready and by the time we left the restaurant in the wee hours of the morning all I ever wanted to do was collapse in his arms.
We had ended so many nights by dragging our feet through the doorway of his apartment building or mine, riding the elevator with half-closed eyes. The second we made it through the door though…that's when we came alive. Our passion for each other had become something unexplainable. Every touch, every kiss—everything was perfect. We spent hours competing with each other over who would satisfy the other more. Each morning I woke with sore muscles, swollen lips, and beautiful memories—we were untouchable to the outside world.
The second we exited the apartment we became the power couple. Getting the restaurant ready was no small task—but we were enjoying it. His family had stopped by every now and then; adding their suggestions no matter how welcome or unwelcome they were. Elena had been the most helpful; tweaking some of the recipes and working with the three chefs that Michael had hired. She made suggestions for specials and even gave us her secret tiramisu recipe. I had nearly cried at the first bite. Alice had stopped in and begged Michael to turn the restaurant into a club after hours, which Michael quickly declined despite Alice's pouting.
The most entertaining visit had been when Frankie came in, yelling about how there, "weren't any pictures of the greats in the joint."
"What's the matter with you, knucklehead? You dense or somethin?" He had been sitting at one of the cushioned bar stools, while Michael and I stood behind the bar. Michael had been crunching numbers; I had been stocking the top shelf.
"What do you mean?" Michael sighed, raising his head for a moment to look at his Uncle.
"You think because you're hot shit you ain't gotta pay homage, boy? Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Lou Prima—fuck even Tony Bennett, though the asshole changed his last name. You can't have an authentic Italian restaurant and not show off what we're proud of, ya hearin' me? That's part of your culture, son. God, what do you see in this shithead, Gabriella?" Frankie grinned and winked at me, ignoring Michael's grumbling.
"Can't I have something that's my own? That's what every Italian restaurant does, zio! Huge crappy posters of all "the greats"! But everyone knows who they are already! They don't need to come in here to know those guys existed! They come in here to taste real, authentic, Italian food and that's what I'm giving them! Lay off me, old man." Michael punctuated his remark by putting a glass in front of his uncle, filling it half way with bourbon.
"Alright, alright. You little know it all. At least tell me someone's going to use the piano and it's not just fuckin' decoration or some shit!" Frankie arched a brow, knocking back half of the glass afterwards.
"Actually," I spoke up, a grin forming on my face. "Michael is going to play on Wednesday and Friday nights. And occasionally we're going to have different musicians come in—we'll have themed nights with special dishes, and only a limited amount of tables." I threw a smile Frankie's way, knowing he'd be happy to hear Michael was performing.
"That's more like it. You two finish up, I gotta get back to Elena." He finished the drink and got up, heading out the door without another word.
"God, he's the worst of all of them, you know that?" Michael sighed and turned to me, sliding his arms around my waist. I rolled my eyes and pressed up against his chest, raising my hand to push the few locks of hair that fell in his eyes.
"Stop it. You know they just want to you to be successful. Your parents would be so proud of you Michael." I smiled solemnly, hoping he knew just how true that was. Over the past few weeks I had learned a lot about his parents. Every time we had to take on a new issue with the restaurant, Michael would recall how his father would handle it. Often when Frankie or Elena stopped by they would talk fondly of being in the old restaurant; and shortly after the family stories would begin. I could see Michael's eyes soften, his expression unclear as he considered his words.
"I wish you could have met them," he said after a few moments, his fingers trailing up and down my arms. "They would've loved you like their own." He leaned over and pressed a slow kiss to my forehead, his warm breathe tickling my skin.
Once we cleaned everything up we locked up and headed to the front door, Michael's fingers tangled with mine.
The words hit us the second we were outside. I turned to find Mrs. Genovese standing in front of us. She looked tired, dirty, and angry. Her beautiful pearls, perfect hair, and expensive clothes had been replaced with a loose ponytail and a pair of gray sweatpants that looked too big for her. A plain white shirt clung to her upper body, and her feet were donning a cheap pair of sneakers.
"I have you to thank, right?! Pissy cause you lost your job so you had to get back at me? We were fuckin’ even, you whore. Who do you think you are, you little cunt! I was ARRESTED. Most of the estate was cleaned out as "illegally earned funds". Every dollar we had left I had to use for my bail. I spent two weeks in a cell, you insolent little bitch. All so that you could be my husband's slut?" Her voice had become higher and higher, the rage hitting me in waves.
"I never slept with him. Not once. And the only person at fault for this is you," I spit out, gripping Michael's hand tightly.
"You stupid little girl, you can't treat me like some common moron!" she yelled before pulling a gun from the back of her sweat pants. Her body was trembling; her fingers gripped the black metal tightly, as though the gun was what tethered her to reality. My eyes frantically moved from her face to the gun, panic seeping into my veins. The moment slowed down, everything becoming so painfully detailed. The sound of the safety coming off, the sound of her pulling the trigger—they echoed around us. I could hear Michael's voice, could feel him shoving me to the ground, and then…