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The Sweetest Oblivion: Chapter 3

Elena

“Murders came with smiles, shooting people was no big deal for us Goodfellas.”

—Henry Hill


BILLIE HOLIDAY PLAYED SOFTLY FROM the old pool radio. Condensation dripped down crystal glasses, and silverware glinted in the bright sunlight. It was a hot July afternoon, but the steady breeze was the perfect interlude.

Lights wound around the wooden slats of the patio cover, and my mamma’s rose bushes were flourishing. The chairs were soft and the food was good, but it could only be so comfortable having lunch with a bunch of strangers. However, the seventies ad sitting across from me didn’t seem to share the same opinion.

“Anyway, the cop let me go and he didn’t even take my coke—”

“Gianna.” The word was a low warning from Nicolas’s spot at the table.

She rolled her eyes and took a deep drink of wine, but she spoke no more.

I wondered why Nicolas had chastised her and what their relationship was. Siblings? They did appear to find each other annoying, but I was sure I’d heard somewhere that Nicolas was an only child. Gianna’s senior citizen of a husband sitting next to her hadn’t said a word, except for some oddly-timed chuckling. I was beginning to think he was hard of hearing.

Gianna was my polar opposite. Where I was quiet, she spoke with abandon and laughed loudly. Where I was demure, well . . . she’d stuck her gum to her cloth napkin before eating her pasta without twirling it around the fork. I was a little jealous of her carefree approach to life.

Tony sat on her other side. He leaned back in his chair with his jacket unbuttoned looking bored, but I knew him better than that. I’d seen that smug way he scratched the scruff on his jaw like he was angry and amused at the same time. And that never meant anything good. He was handsome, but if I wasn’t his sister I wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. His recklessness was dangerous for anyone involved, especially himself. He caught my uneasy look and shot me a wink.

Low chatter and the scraping of silverware filled the yard, but beneath that lay a tense air that wouldn’t dissipate, an uncomfortable vibe the breeze wouldn’t take with it. Everyone seemed to be easily chatting amongst themselves, so maybe it was just me. I brushed it off.

Gianna didn’t stay quiet for long, though she no longer spoke about 8-balls of coke. She changed the subject to horse racing. That was an acceptable conversation many joined in on. It wasn’t like this was a drug-free zone—in fact, many people came through this house on a daily basis with drugs on them—but out in the open, it was Cosa Nostra etiquette to pretend we were the classic example of a white-picket-fence family. Even if our homes were surrounded by an iron gate and security instead.

I was happy to see that Adriana had shown up instead of boarding a plane to Cuba. She sat next to her fiancé and Papà at the other end of table.

Maybe I was a coward, but I was glad I didn’t have to sit near Nicolas. I was the perfect hostess and had a polite response for anything—as inappropriate as the comments could sometimes be when people were drinking—but with him, words were at a loss for me. I felt tongue-tied around him, tilted off my point of gravity, and truthfully just hot, as though a blush permanently warmed my skin.

It might be unpleasant speaking to him, but it was too easy to look in his direction. If not for his size, he could easily fit Adriana’s pretty-boy preferences when he had a sober expression on his face. He was tan, his hair was almost black, and I couldn’t help but notice that his biceps were defined through his shirt. My future brother-in-law was even more handsome beneath bright sun. It was unfortunate his personality didn’t match.

What I found the most intriguing about his appearance, however, was the dark ink that showed through his white dress shirt. It was vague, but I thought it went all the way from his shoulder to the gold watch on his wrist. Nicolas Russo had a full sleeve. I knew that gentleman look was all smoke and mirrors.

He glanced over and met my gaze as if he’d felt me observing him. From five chairs down, the impact of an indifferent stare still found a way to touch my skin. The way he shouldn’t have said my name played on a loop, deep and suggestive, in my head. Just so I didn’t look like a coward, I held his gaze for a breathless second before looking away. I had the sudden feeling that for my future health . . . I shouldn’t interact with this man anymore.

“I hear you have a recital coming up, Elena,” my uncle Manuel said from a few seats down. His voice had become nothing but a memory of bloodshed due to the part he played six months ago. I drank a sip of wine, tasting nothing but guilt and resentment.

Every pair of eyes shifted to me, all twenty of them, but I was only aware of one of them.

“Yes.” I forced a smile. “Saturday.”

“You dance?” Gianna asked. “How fun! I’ve done some dancing but”—her voice lowered—“we’re probably talking about two different things.”

My eyes twinkled. “Tap, you mean?”

Her laugh was light and airy. “Yes, definitely tap. Have you always danced?”

“Yes, since I was a child.”

“Are you any good?”

I laughed at the forward question. “Truthfully, no.”

My mamma muttered something in disagreement from down the table. She had to disagree—it was part of being a mother—but I was mediocre at dance and I didn’t have a problem acknowledging it. It was something to do. Something to fill the monotonous time. I used to love it as a child, but now it was just a sleeve of the dress that didn’t fit.

Conversation quieted, and Gianna pushed her broccoli around on her plate like she was seven and didn’t like vegetables. Her husband chuckled at absolutely nothing. She rolled her eyes and took a large gulp of wine.

Lunch continued with meaningless chatter, good food and drink, but the tension never dissipated. It sat there, uninterrupted. Like an echo before the words were even spoken.

My brother leaned back in his chair, a ring sounding as he ran his finger around his wine glass. Adriana ate as though a large man she didn’t know and was marrying in three weeks wasn’t sitting next to her.

Papà mentioned he’d bought an old shooting range, and conversation on that drifted down the table like a domino effect. They’d just served tiramisu for dessert, and I was ready for this lunch to end. But unfortunately, that uncomfortable tension was about to twist its way out of the inevitable.

It began with an innocent suggestion between the men to visit the range. And then I watched it play out like a bad dream. The Russo sitting to the left of me grunted sardonically. I’d learned his name was Stefan, though he’d hardly said more than a word.

The ring from my brother’s wine glass faded off. Tony’s dark gaze centered on the man. “Don’t think I caught the joke, Russo.”

Stefan shook his head. “Just got better things to do than watch a bunch of Abellis miss targets.”

Uh-oh,” Gianna said under her breath.

I closed my eyes. The day my brother let this go without a fight would be the day the sky fell.

“Tony, don’t . . .” Benito warned from his seat beside my brother. He was always the voice of reason in that duo. But Tony didn’t even glance at his cousin—instead, he smiled at Stefan Russo and it wasn’t nice at all.

My chest tightened, and I looked down the table to get Papà’s attention, but he was in conversation with Nicolas and my uncles.

“Not sure what you’re talking about,” Tony drawled. “I didn’t miss—what was his name? Ah, yes, Piero . . .?” My brother’s eyes flickered with dark enjoyment. “Hit the bullseye on that one.”

Tony’s amusement faded into a deathly quiet that even the family and guests at the head of the table noticed. Everything went static, like a still-shot in a magazine.

I never saw it coming.

My pulse leapt into my throat as an arm clamped around my waist, pulling me to my feet. My head was forced to the side as a cold barrel pressed against my temple.

Shouting rang out in Italian. Chairs fell backward to the patio as everyone jumped to their feet. Guns rose in every direction.

I heard my papà ordering commands, but my heart drowned out his voice. Bu-bum. Bu-bum. Bu-bum. The beat resounded beneath a cold sheen of fear.

I hadn’t lived a picturesque life, no matter what my red front door and golden knocker conveyed. I’d seen my papà cut off a man’s finger when I was seven. I’d watched my uncle shoot a man in the head, his face sideways on the bloodstained carpet, eyes open. I’d seen knife wounds, bullet wounds, so much red. But through all that, I’d never had a gun pressed to my head. Never felt cold metal against my temple. Never felt as if my life could be gone, just like that.

The cold in my veins froze to ice.

Nicolas’s voice cut through the drumming of blood in my ears. It was low and smooth, and I grabbed onto it like a life raft. “Put it down, Stefan.”

“He was the one who killed Piero!” The barrel shook against my head, and my lungs constricted, but I didn’t move a muscle as I stared at the hedges lining the iron fence.

“Tony!” my papà snapped. “Don’t.”

I glanced at my brother, only to stare at the end of a barrel. He was going to shoot the Russo behind me, but with my heels on the man didn’t have much height on me.

“You’re a poor fucking shot, Tony. We all know you’ll hit the favored little Abelli!” Stefan’s heated voice vibrated against my back.

“Put. It. Down.” Nicolas’s words carried a calmness with a hint of animosity, like the ocean before a storm.

One second, two seconds. Stefan was hesitating—

Bang.

Something warm and wet hit my face. My ears rang as the voices around me sank underwater. The man’s arm fell from me, and a dull thunk sounded as he hit the ground.

The newscaster’s voice replayed in my mind, murder spilling from red lips, again, and again. Numbness flooded me. Sounds rushed in, pulled out of water with heavy chains, dripping wet.

“Sit the fuck down! Now!” my father’s voice rang out. “We’re going to finish this lunch, goddammit!”

It took a moment for his words to process and to realize that everyone sat stiffly in their chairs but him and Nicolas. My future brother-in-law’s heavy, unreadable gaze touched my skin as I stared at the gun in one of his hands.

“Elena! Sit!” Papà snapped.

I dropped into my chair.

The warmth of blood dripped down my cheek. Red had splattered across my chair and part of the white tablecloth. A dead Russo’s feet touched my own.

I sat there, pulling my gaze from a staring Gianna to Tony, who ate his dessert with relish.

“Elena.” The small warning came from my papà, and because I was told to, I put a forkful of tiramisu in my mouth and chewed.

Placing my hand on the back of my hat, I glanced up at the clear blue sky.

Circumstances aside, it really was a beautiful day.


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