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The Sweetest Oblivion: Chapter 12

Elena

“Every savage can dance.”

—Jane Austen


I LEANED AGAINST THE ALLEY door, the metal hard and cold against my back. Mist fell, mixing with the sweat dripping down my bare midsection. Tire noise, sirens, and an occasional laugh from a close bar filtered into the alleyway.

“You’ve got the right idea.” Sierra stepped outside and pulled her blond hair off her sweaty face and into a bun.

The red curtain had opened and then closed, some laterals, spirals, and stag leaps in between, and the recital was a success. The dance was based on a man who died for love—a modern Romeo & Juliet tale. I played Death.

The performance was slow and dramatic, but it had a beautiful, haunting tone. Why must everything have a happily ever after? Aren’t the most memorable, poignant moments of history tragic? I had always appreciated sad endings. I was a realist, not a romantic.

I talked to Sierra for a little while about her two-year-old son and being a single mom, and then decided Benito was probably growing tired of waiting for me.

“I’ll see you later, Sierra. Tomorrow at the party, if you’re coming.”

“Yes, I’m coming! My mom’s watching Nathan. Please tell me your hot cousin is coming.”

I groaned with a playful roll of my eyes. “He’ll be there.”

“Great. See you then.” She winked.

I threw on an off-the-shoulder top and grabbed my bag before heading to the front. I’d just made it out the stage doors when an arm draped around my shoulder.

“I know I said last offer, but I forgot I haven’t suggested Chinese yet.”

I shook my head with a smile, but truthfully, there wasn’t a chance I was walking all the way to the car with Tyler’s arm around me. I loved Benito, but I could never forget he worked for my papà. It was his own father, my uncle Manuel, who was responsible for the death that haunted me. Benito had done nothing but watch, and I held no belief he wouldn’t let it happen again.

Just as we reached the front hall and I was about to slide Tyler’s arm off my shoulders, my heart stilled and so did my feet.

Nicolas stood near the doors, leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets. With his black suit lit by sparkling lighting, he could pass as a handsome gentleman. One only needed to glance up and see the dark look in his eyes to know it was only smoke. What worried me the most was that his stare, edged with venom, was aimed at Tyler.

My stomach twisted, and I shrugged Tyler’s arm off. He seemed to notice Nicolas’s presence at that moment.

“Family?” he asked hesitantly.

“Um . . . yeah.” It was sort of true, I guessed. I wasn’t going to explain all the details with Nicolas’s burning gaze in this direction. He must believe that since he was marrying into my family it was now his obligation to deal with any men who came my way.

Frustration crept up my back. I had plenty of male cousins and uncles and a temperamental brother—the last thing I needed was another man butting into my life. I imagined everything Nicolas did, he did it with his all, because not even Benito would wear that expression over a man having his arm around me.

“So . . . I’m guessing Chinese is a no?”

“Just go, Tyler.”

“All right.” He took a step back, probably put off by my tone. “I’ll see you tomorrow then, Elena.”

The worry tightening in my chest released when he left, still alive. I swore all the men in my life were psychotic. It was at moments like this when I hated it. I’d only wanted out at one point in the past. When it felt like I was nothing but a beautiful girl trapped in a world of forced smiles, with a grim future in the distance. The parties, the dancing, the fake laughs—it all exploded, until I stood alone for the first time in a city I’d never truly experienced.

It didn’t take long to realize I didn’t belong, that I was already stained by the world I was raised in. That a man with a clean conscience and clean hands would never fit me just right. I’d destroyed a decent man’s life, and while he’d touched me in places I’d never been touched before, I’d wished he did it a little rougher. I’d wished he was tainted by the darkness, as the men I was used to were.

Everyone knew you didn’t fall in love with a man in my world, like the one who stood before me now. Not unless you wanted your heart shattered into a thousand tiny pieces. No, I’d never fall in love. Truly, I’d never expected to. You didn’t mourn something you’d always known you couldn’t have.

At least this man wasn’t mine. He was too distracting, too fascinating . . . I’d never make it out alive.

I adjusted the strap on my shoulder and walked toward him, my heart beating to every step I took. I stopped a few feet from him. With that look in his eyes, I wouldn’t put myself in this man’s reach for anything.

“Your papà know you’re kissing men on stage?”

I faltered, my clammy hand tightening on my bag. Nicolas must have been here long enough to catch the end of the show. Where in the world was Benito? This man was going to kill me by the look of it.

My feet shifted. “I didn’t kiss anyone.”

Technically, it was a lie, but I was going to talk myself out of this. Because after Nicolas had overheard Tyler ask me out, and the fact that it was Tyler who I’d kissed—well, this might seem worse than it was. To the men in my family’s ears, it would sound like I’d gotten naked with the man. I told you—psychotic. Apparently, Russo men were the same.

Nicolas pushed off the wall and walked within a foot of me. “Yeah? Why don’t you explain what it was you were doing then?”

My cheeks grew hot. “I was Death. I was . . . sucking his life away.”

Maybe that was the wrong way to explain it, because his expression grew even darker. I thought “sucking” might have done it. Ugh. His stare crept under my skin, flustering me.

“It was completely platonic,” I said.

His gaze sparked. “You put your lips on another man’s and suck, it’s never platonic.”

He made it sound so dirty when it had really been a dry, unmoving kiss. Anger simmered in my veins. Who was he to tell me who I could kiss—Mr. I’ll Sleep with My Stepmom and Other Men’s Girlfriends?

Frustration rose in my throat, mangling any possible comeback, so I only brushed past him. He grabbed my duffel bag off my shoulder as I passed. His gaze was still heated, but he followed me out the doors.

The mist fell steady, and I blinked it off my eyelashes as I searched for his car. It sat at the curb, all black and shiny. I wasn’t getting in it; I’d wait for Benito. I stood on the sidewalk while Nicolas tossed my bag in the backseat.

He shut the door and turned to look at me. “You gonna stand there all night or get in the car?”

“Where’s Benito?”

He opened the passenger side door. “He’s got some business with your papà.”

From past experience, that meant something bad was happening in New York tonight. I was surprised Papà had sent Nicolas to chauffeur me, considering his lack of trust with me and men. But I was also a little uneasy he felt he needed Nicolas to take me home.

I’d always felt safe and it was probably nothing, but if there was a reason Papà needed to worry about my safety I was glad he’d sent Nicolas. The man had a million enemies and he had stayed alive this long.

Though, the idea of being locked in a car with him made my stomach flutter with nerves. I imagined I’d feel similar right before jumping out of a plane. I didn’t know why he created such visceral reactions in me, but when he said, “Car. Now, Elena,” I’d never disliked anything more.

I wanted to make him say please, but as my gaze coasted to his, the dark storm that looked back at me changed my mind real quick. I walked past him and got in his stupid car.

My frustration mixed with turmoil. What would he do with the information about Tyler? I didn’t think Papà would care so much about a stage kiss, but with his arm around me, asking me out . . . my stomach turned. That could sound bad.

I was resenting Nicolas Russo so much right now that I tried to ignore the warm, masculine scent filling the car. Sandalwood, clean skin, and a certain danger that made my pulse drift between my legs. I tried to ignore the way it invaded my senses and made the corners of my mind fuzzy. It hit me like a shot of liquor, and I distracted myself with buckling my seatbelt.

When he sat in the driver’s seat and shut the door, the car felt infinitely smaller. Quiet enough I could hear my heartbeat and warm enough the heater had to be on. Was it his body putting out that much heat?

Mist hit the windshield, running down the glass and blurring the outside world. I was alone with him in such a small space. The fact resounded in my mind, playing havoc on my nervous system.

Without a word to me, Nicolas typed out a text. Probably to my papà. I could only imagine it read something like: Package picked up safely.

My fingernails dug into my palms.

How did I even address him? I’d never found it so difficult to speak with someone before, but all rational thoughts flew away when he was near.

“Nicolas.” I hesitated. “Maybe we started off on the wrong foot . . . at church last weekend. I didn’t mean to glare at you, truly.”

His gaze flicked to me. A hint of amusement played in it, though it wasn’t normal amusement. This man did everything a little dark.

My cheeks warmed. “And I wanted to say I apologize. I was uncertain about the marriage in the beginning, but now . . . I think you and Adriana will be . . . good together.” I forced my sweetest smile.

It didn’t get me the reaction I wanted.

He let out a sardonic breath and tossed his phone in the center console. “Glad to hear it, but I’m still telling your papà about your romance with the dancer.”

My smile and stomach fell.

He put the key in the ignition and started the car. A metal song played quietly on the radio. I couldn’t help but notice it was the same station Adriana listened to sometimes.

“Wait,” I rushed out, putting one hand on the gearshift as if I could stop him. He glanced at it and then back at me, his gaze conveying he would remove it if I didn’t. “I’m telling you, there is nothing going on with Tyler. It wasn’t even a kiss! I was merely . . . taking his life away. It was completely platonic.”

He didn’t say anything, but his stillness made me believe he was wavering.

I swallowed. “Nicolas, please . . .”

His eyes sparked. “What’s my name?”

I paused, opened my mouth but then closed it. I didn’t want to say it. Nicolas Russo had a reputation. Nicolas Russo was a stranger. Nicolas was distant. I didn’t want to call him Nico. It would flow too easily off my lips. Sound too good on my tongue.

We sat in tense silence for a moment, before he gave his head a shake. “Usually, when someone wants something, they appease the one they’re trying to persuade. A basis of negotiating.” He told me this like I was stupid, and I flushed in irritation.

“There’s no negotiating with a cheat.” The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.

He ran a hand across his face, wiping off a hint of amusement. “Touché.” Glancing at me sideways, he gave me an appraisal, maybe impressed I had the guts to say what I did. Licking his lips, his deep, serious voice rushed over me. “So prove it to me.”

My brows knitted. “Prove what?”

“That it was platonic.”

“How am I supposed to—?” My stomach erupted with butterflies when it dawned on me. The shock of what he wanted me to do settled in the space like an elephant in the room. “You’re serious?”

“Deadly.”

It was this moment right here that his reputation became clear to me. His cousin’s death hadn’t done it. The articles of his pursuits hadn’t done it, but his cool, indifferent expression as he laid this trap for me did.

He was waiting for me to say it would be inappropriate. Then my “it was platonic” excuse would crash and burn before my eyes.

I didn’t know why he cared so much about Tyler, but I was betting he’d gain a little male satisfaction from keeping his future sister-in-law away from non-Italian men. Benito always stayed in the damn car—why couldn’t he have picked me up today?

I wasn’t going to fall into his trap. That meant I could only call Nicolas Russo’s bluff.

“Okay.” My calm response filled the small space, like even the air hadn’t expected it.

The tiniest flicker passed through Nicolas’s gaze. He scraped his teeth across his bottom lip, maybe in surprise I hadn’t walked into the hole he dug for me. The action only made me stare at his mouth. Warmth filled my stomach.

“Okay,” he finally responded, his eyes darkening around the edges.

What.

He thought I was bluffing. I wasn’t bluffing—he was supposed to be. Nicolas was playing with me. He wanted to see me squirm—I could see that leaking through his cool expression. It sent the burn of frustration through me.

“Okay.”

We stared at one another.

Neither of us was willing to admit we’d been bluffing. Mine for the sake of Tyler’s well-being and his for the sake of his giant ego. Unease rattled in my chest. I didn’t think I was getting out of this.

“If I do this, you’ll keep it to yourself?” I unbuckled my seatbelt and his gaze tracked the movement.

His jaw ticked in thought, but the tension in his shoulders told me this was the last thing on earth he wanted to do. Maybe he shouldn’t underestimate his opponents then. His gaze came to me, one nod of his head, and those butterflies in my stomach took flight.

I told myself to get it over with, but the tingles of nervousness and expectation that vibrated under every inch of my skin slowed my movements.

I rested my hand on the console, planning not to touch him anywhere I didn’t need to, and leaned in. He watched me with an expression like he was in line at the DMV. Five inches away, four, three . . . I jumped the gap.

My lips touched his to Snap Your Fingers, Snap Your Neck playing on the radio. Soft and warm, his scent was concentrated and mind-numbing. I hadn’t even moved my lips, only pressed them to his, but a moan climbed up my throat. I kept it locked inside.

I couldn’t breathe; every inch of my skin was on fire.

Just like I’d done with Tyler, though nothing like it at all, I inhaled a breath of air from the slight part between his lips. One second, two seconds, three. I stole his breath, yet my head grew light as if he took mine.

I could hear nothing but the drumming of my blood in my ears. Feel nothing but the softness of his lips and the tingles beneath my skin. A heaviness settled between my legs.

Then I did something I shouldn’t have done. I couldn’t resist, couldn’t even think about stopping myself: My lips closed around his top one for a wet, warm moment. It was merely a pull on one of his lips, a tiny taste of what it would be like to truly kiss him. I pulled away, fell into my seat, and stared forward.

“See,” I breathed. “Completely platonic.”

His gaze burned my cheek for too many seconds. Though he must have agreed, because he only put the car in drive and pulled away from the curb.


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