The light turned green. “You’re only calling me because Olivia has plans.”

“Wrong. Olivia’s coming and bringing that lacrosse player guy.”

I raised my brow. “What guy?”

“She didn’t tell you? Some guy she met in class. Be grateful, she won’t shut up about him to me. How’s Brad?”

“Good.” I don’t elaborate; there’s no need. Becca’s attention span won’t last long enough to care.

“So, are you coming? They’re closing the whole block off, and each house is gonna have a different drinking challenge.”

“Sounds brutal.”

She scoffed. “Oh please. You were chugging beers with the best of us a year ago. Now, come on ... bring Brad if you want.”

Brad. I tried to picture him, his hands on his hips, a glowering look on his face as drunken idiots sloshed him with beer. I giggled. “How about just dinner? I can meet you at seven or eight?”

She sighed. “I guess ... if you want to miss out on the fun. But I miss drunk Julia.”

I put the car in park, glancing at my watch. “I have to go. Call O, see if she wants to grab dinner with us. I’ll call you in a few hours.”

“Fine.”

I ended the call and turned off the car, grabbing my purse and heading for the restaurant.

I took the seat across from Maria, her smile warm as she beamed at me behind the curve of a large ceramic teacup. We didn’t waste time, ordering a variety of appetizers, deciding upon sharing them in place of a full meal. And, after a half-hour of conversation, I could see why Brad’s eyes shone when he spoke of his sister. She was, as ancient as the word was, delightful. Bubbly and energetic, there was not an ounce of haughtiness or reserve in her manner. I could not fathom how she came from the stoic evil that was her father.

“How are the wedding RSVPs coming along? Will there be a large turn out?” She tossed out the question innocently, spearing an olive and popping it into her mouth.

I swallowed a sigh, pasting a smile on my face. “I’m not really sure. We’re still waiting on a group of RSVPs from your family.”

She frowned, her eyes drinking me in with the same insight that Brad possessed. “My father’s group?”

“Yeah.”

She gave me a tight smile. “It’s a wedding. Italians view weddings on the same level as Easter. It’d be sacrilegious not to attend. I’m sure they will get over any ill feelings and show their support. Besides, the gossip mill has been buzzing about you. It was pretty much expected that Brad would never remarry.”

“Why is that?”

She shrugged. “He seemed to enjoy his life as a bachelor. And his marriage with Hillary seemed so ... unnatural. He just never seemed to fall into the role of husband well. It was like he was a wild horse, unhappy about being broken.” She shot me a crooked grin. “He is completely different with you. He seems so at peace, happy. I am so excited for you both.” She reached across the table and gripped my arm, her face shining with genuine affection. “I know you’ve got to be less than enthusiastic about joining our family, but I am so happy to have you in Brad’s life. I hope you can overlook my bloodlines, and we can become friends.”

I blushed, hating the fact that my emotions regarding the Magianos were so transparent. “I’d like that. Brad adores you, for good reason.”

“He was always the best member of our family. Which,” she added, “is why the boys have always been so hard on him. I’m proud of him for separating from the family.”

“Are you estranged as well?” It was a dangerous question to ask, but she seemed to be an open book in regards to discussing the family business.

She laughed, leaning forward and lowering her voice. “Being female places me in a completely different position in the family. From the moment my sex was discovered, I was a non-issue, a body to be ignored. I was never included in the business, handed off to nannies once Mother left. There has been no point to me disowning the family; it would be a dramatic act that would be regarded as attention-seeking and childish.” She shrugged, and I saw a moment of vulnerability that matched a side of Brad. They were both still, even as adults, missing the love and approval of their mother. She continued speaking, her gaze regaining confidence. “We have a strong support system through the women in the family. I am a part of that. We, as women, don’t often have much control over the men who our hearts pick. It is difficult to be married to the men in this family, to be a small part of what they do. We need each other, and for that aspect of the family, I am grateful.” She smiled, the expression not reaching her eyes.

I played with the straw of my drink. “Your father ... when I met him ... he mentioned the danger that faces me from other families. Is that a real concern?”

She glanced down, silent for a moment. Then she looked up, and I saw Brad’s strength in her eyes. “The same thing I hate about our family, the strength and brutality of its members, I appreciate when it comes to my safety. In the Italian crime culture, women and children are protected, off limits. We are supposed to be untouchable. But that rule applies more to inner-family violence than wars between families. The threat to our lives is present, and concerns me more as a mother than as an individual. I am fighting to keep my sons safe, but worry constantly. My boys, they see the family business as glamorous, my brothers as role models. In that way, we are never really safe.” She shot me a sympathetic look. “But it is a world I grew up in. I didn’t have a choice but to accept the danger, to do what I can to protect my family. For you, it must be difficult. I can only tell you that Brad has more strength than all of them combined. His strength will help to keep you safe.”

Then the waitress arrived, and our conversation switched to lighter subjects. We moved through the appetizers, discussing unimportant topics, and I fought to keep my voice light and face relaxed. But inside, I felt weighted down by her words, the tug of them pulling me into a place of doubts and fears.

Chapter 51

Groan. I loved the sound when it rumbled out of his chest. I lifted up my ass, then set it back down, my hands gripping the back of the couch, the scrape of his shadow against my neck as he buried his face in my shoulder and breathed my name. “Fuck me, baby.”

My knees sunk deeper into the leather as I moved, the muted sounds of baseball disappearing as my senses abandoned their notice of anything but this.

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