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The Sweetest Oblivion: Chapter 8

Elena

“Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world.”

—Marilyn Monroe


I STOPPED SHORT IN ADRIANA’S doorway and closed my eyes in disbelief.

“Papà is going to kill you,” I told her.

“Good,” she muttered, adding a long arc with her paintbrush to the canvas that leaned against the wall. The painting would be a rainbow if it wasn’t all black.

My sister had been brooding since Ryan came over. She went to her classes, but otherwise stayed in her room. The week crawled by with her casting a black cloud over the house with her emo paintings and sappy music. I was beginning to feel guilty again, but there wasn’t a part of me that wanted to put myself in her place. I’d rather have a husband who wasn’t so rude, wasn’t such a womanizer as I’d heard, and truthfully less handsome. Maybe that sounded odd, but to me it made perfect sense.

Laughter filtered up the stairs, and I closed my eyes once more. Adriana’s engagement party had started five minutes ago, and she currently sat cross-legged on her floor in overalls, covered in paint.

I could see Papà’s temper not far in the distance, and I would feel its heat just because I was such an easy target. Adriana never reacted when our papà raged at her, and it annoyed him, so he turned it on me.

“What on earth could you be thinking right now?” I headed toward her closet, not looking forward to digging through costumes to find the rare dress she could wear.

“That I hate my fiancé. He’s rude, and you’ve seen him, right? Can you even imagine us having sex, Elena?”

I paused, gave my head a shake, and continued pushing clothes on hangers aside. “Um, no. I’m not going to try to imagine that.”

She sighed. “A couple of hours ago I realized I would have to have sex with him.”

I made a noise of acknowledgment, not surprised it had taken her this long to come to that assumption. The obvious was like the hidden secrets of the world in Adriana’s eccentric mind. Surprising, as she’d always aced her schoolwork and had more friends than I could ever hope for.

“And I kept thinking, maybe there’s a reason he manspreads so much? His is big. Then I began to worry, so I started looking up pictures—well, videos—of men his size, naked, and that only made me worry more.”

“You were watching porn,” I said, deadpan, standing in the closet doorway and watching her paint Mr. Rabbit beneath the black rainbow.

She tilted her head to eye her masterpiece. “Yeah, I guess that’s what it’s called.”

Adriana!”

My sister groaned, and I looked toward the door. Mamma wore a red cocktail dress and an angry expression. A slew of Italian flew past her lips as she snatched the dress from my hand and then smacked Adriana on the back of the head. “Shower, now!”

Adriana grumbled and got to her feet.

“And porn!” More Italian. “What were you thinking?”

A laugh escaped me.

Mamma shot me a glare, and I turned it into a cough. She had always shown up at the most inopportune times. We couldn’t get away with anything.

“Elena, go pacify the Russo. Lord forbid he starts shooting the guests again.”

“Me? What am I supposed to do?”

All I received were a few sentences of berating Italian that didn’t even address the current topic at hand. When my mamma went off, she’d talk about everything but what she was currently mad about. This time, it was how she broke a favorite porcelain dish earlier, Nonna complained about her lunch again, and the gardener hadn’t shown up today. Which was definitely for the best . . .

Guests trickled in the front door as I made my way down the staircase. I wore a pink choker maxi dress, heels with a bow that tied around my ankles, and my hair down, pinned to one side. Even though I didn’t approve of this marriage, it didn’t mean I wasn’t going to take the opportunity to dress up. Frankly, it was the highlight of my week.

“Elena!” my cousin Sophia squealed as she came through the front door. “Squealed” was the best way to explain it. She was nineteen with a constant mischievous expression.

“I’ve missed you!” She threw her arms around me, and I took a step back at the impact.

“I just saw you at church Sunday,” I laughed.

“I know.” She smacked a “mwah” on each of my cheeks and pulled back. “But so much has happened since then.” She hadn’t been here for the lunch incident, but I understood my family well enough to know that my three-year-old cousin Caitlin would be able to recite the entire event like she’d been present.

“Where’s Sal?” I asked. Her older brother was a male version of her.

“He ran into Benito out front. You know, ‘man talk’.” She rolled her eyes. “All right. I’m going to go find us some alcohol. Then we need to talk about this Nico I’ve been hearing about.”

“Check out the bloodstain on the patio. That’s all there is to tell,” I told her.

“That’s not what I’ve heard. Mamma said he’s hotter than David Beckham.”

“I don’t know who that is.”

Her mouth gaped. “You’re living under a rock, Elena. Too many books, not enough TV.”

“The quote of the century,” I mumbled wryly as she saw another cousin, squealed their name, and left me there.

For a moment, I stood alone in the foyer. The windows and patio doors were open, allowing the summer air to flow through the house. It was a beautiful night, and I was praying it didn’t end up like the last time we’d had the Russos over. Tony wouldn’t be here, so we had a much better chance.

I turned to find Papà, to tell him there was an issue with Adriana’s dress and that she was going to be late, and to let him relay that to Nicolas, but, before I could, the front door opened once again. Bitterness crawled up my throat, but it was now too late to get away.

Nicolas Russo had the worst reputation of any man I’d met, hands down. Though, somehow, I’d found the courage to be myself around him, not the Sweet Abelli everyone used to know and expected me to be forever. But just as it was when someone got sucked into their old habits by the people they hung out with, I was tumbling back into the abyss of fake smiles and fake words, and I didn’t know how to get out.

Elena.”

Warm air brushed my skin as the front door shut, and I longed to be on the other side. But instead, I smiled politely. “Oscar.”

Mid-thirties, with dirty blond hair and expensive suits always worn with a colored tie, Oscar Perez was handsome in a classic and charismatic way. He never lacked female attention, yet he always lavished his on me. He worked for my papà and was often around for parties, but since we’d had nothing going on I hadn’t seen him in months, since before the incident. It was one of the biggest reliefs, but unfortunately, all good things have to come to an end.

“Don’t you look as beautiful as always,” he told me, giving me a kiss on each cheek and lingering too long. “Demasiado hermosa para las palabras.”

I didn’t know what he’d said, but I assumed it had something to do with my symmetrical face.

I stared at his light blue tie, the color of his eyes.

I hated it.

He was the fairest Colombian I’d ever met, and for some reason I resented his blond, comely appearance. What a lie it was.

“Thank you,” I said, trying to take a step back, but his hand went to my lower back and drifted to the top of my ass. My stomach tightened with unease. He was lean but tall, and his presence consumed me like a bad aftertaste.

He’d always been subtly inappropriate—his fingers just grazing things they shouldn’t. Close enough to make me uncomfortable, but not too close to get shot by my papà. If he went further, would my father even believe me now?

Oscar pulled back to look me in the eye, but his hand didn’t leave me. Something crawled under my skin. I realized at this moment why I couldn’t escape the expectations people had for the Sweet Abelli with anyone but my sister’s fiancé. Nicolas Russo was safe. He was marrying my sister. There was no chance I’d have to marry him, no chance my actions would alter how he would treat me as a wife. Most men walking through these doors could be a potential husband to me. Why make it worse on myself?

Oscar’s fingers tightened on my lower back, and he spoke in my ear, “I hear you’ve gotten into trouble since the last time I saw you.”

My heartbeat drummed. He’d always been inappropriate, but politely inappropriate, if that made any sense at all. He’d never brought up something so personal and invasive.

His saccharine voice took a cruel edge. “I was very disappointed when I found out, Elena. You can understand why, can’t you?”

There was one thing that could mean—my worst nightmare—but I wouldn’t accept it, didn’t believe it. I wasn’t going to call him a liar, though.

“Of course,” I breathed.

I didn’t realize how tightly he’d been holding me until he let me go and I fell back a step, my line of vision focused on his ugly tie. It took a second to realize we were no longer alone, and the heavy presence against my back could only be one person.

Oscar glanced warily behind me, before looking back at me with a fake smile and bitterness dancing in his eyes. “I’ll see you at dinner, Elena.” He kissed the top of my hand, eyeing my cheap ring with a grimace, and then disappeared into my home like a snake on the loose.

I stared at the door, while his insinuation resounded in my mind. Resentment crawled into my chest, creeping to wherever it resided. However, maybe Oscar Perez was what I deserved . . .

Slowly, I turned around, my gaze traveling up a black vest, black tie, to a gaze just as dark.

“If that was the Sweet Abelli, can’t say I’m impressed.”

Where Oscar’s presence was a dark, looming shadow, it felt nothing compared to Nicolas’s larger, warmer one. His pulled you in, didn’t send you away. It was infinitely more dangerous.

The reminder of my spineless behavior still permeated the air, and I couldn’t flip the switch so fast. “Excuse me,” I breathed, taking a step around him, but he reached out and grabbed my hand.

I didn’t get a chance to even weigh his expression before he was pulling me to the front door. His rough palm practically burned mine, spreading a warm sensation in my lower stomach.

It took a moment to find the voice to speak, and once I did, it sounded more breathless and uncertain than it ever had. “What are you doing?”

He was mad. He had to be to touch me in the middle of the foyer with guests around every corner.

He ignored my question. “Where’s my list?”

My brows knitted, and then I remembered I was supposed to write that. “I, uh, forgot about it.”

Under the warm glow of the porch light, I heard Benito and Sal laughing near one of the cars in the drive, but it was too dark to see. Nicolas’s grip was soft but strong, and so there was no other choice but to follow him down the stone path toward the side of the house.

I had no idea what we were doing, but it was either go with him, or back inside where Oscar roamed free. It was an easy choice, though surprising considering I’d only seen one of them shoot their family member in the head.

Nicolas stopped near the corner of the house, released my hand, and leaned against the brick wall of my home. A second later, the orange flame of a lighter cast his face in gold tones as he lit a cigarette between his lips.

“You smoke?” It was a stupid question, as he was now blowing out a breath of smoke and watching me with a lazy expression.

“Sometimes,” was all he said, his shoulders tense. He glanced up to look at the security cameras above our heads. He was in a blind spot, leaning against the wall. I was probably front and center on the screen for Dominic to see. What would people think if I was, once again, caught alone with a man I shouldn’t be with? A rush of anxiety shot through me, and I stepped to the side and out of the camera’s view.

Nicolas’s gaze was heavy, angry even, and I wasn’t sure what I’d done to him. I glanced at the star-lit sky. It was beautiful, but I didn’t believe he’d brought me out here to enjoy it with him. In fact, it looked like he’d prefer I wasn’t here at all.

I sighed. “Why am I out here with you?”

The night was dark, but I still saw a bitter expression cross his face. “Saw that prick push you around, touch your ass. Was wondering if I could get away with the same.”

My heart stilled for a split second before I narrowed my eyes. I had my reasons for putting up with Oscar, but I didn’t have to deal with this from a brother-in-law. I took a step to leave, but a rough hand grabbed my wrist.

“Stay.” It wasn’t a suggestion but neither was it demanding. Why did he want me to stay when he was clearly angry with me? He was rude and confusing. And who told him he could hold my hand, pull me around, and make me feel warm all over? I imagined Nicolas Russo had gotten whatever he’d wanted since he was young, and, being the only child, he didn’t even have to share.

I let out a shallow breath and pulled my wrist out of his grip. It was stupid, but I was going to stay. I told myself it was only because I needed to get to know his character for my sister’s sake. Not because his mere presence made something hot unravel inside me.

I eyed his cigarette. It looked small and harmless in his hand. I didn’t know what it would look like in mine, but I was beginning to wonder.

He must have noticed my expression, because he pulled the cigarette from his lips and handed it out to me. He wanted to share? He watched me with that hooded, looking-into-the-sun expression, not saying a word. My pulse fluttered.

It’d been six months since I’d even touched a man—that must be why I was having such schoolgirl notions about handholding and cigarette-sharing. Male contact wasn’t a normal thing for me, and even before this ring graced my finger, it hadn’t been then.

I took the cigarette from him, and he watched me as I brought it to my lips and inhaled. The coughing was instantaneous, my eyes watering.

Dark amusement ghosted through his gaze before he reached forward and took it from me, his fingers brushing mine.

“I wasn’t finished,” I protested, still coughing a little bit. If I was going to smoke, I was going to do it right. Maybe I was a perfectionist, but I couldn’t leave anything halfway or poorly done.

I watched him put his lips on the cigarette where mine had been. Thank God it was dark, because my cheeks grew hot. This man had barely said anything to me that wasn’t rude, short, or demanding, yet my body reacted to everything he did like it was magic. Che palle. I was crushing on my future brother-in-law.

He handed it back to me. “Not so much this time.”

I listened to him and only inhaled a little bit. A couple of seconds passed before smoke smoothly escaped my parted lips. A languid rush filled my bloodstream, my head feeling light.

The breeze was warm, the song of the cicadas steady, while I shared a cigarette with a man I knew nothing about.

“My mamma’s going to kill me,” I said softly, followed by my cousins’ low laughter drifting on the light breeze.

Nicolas dropped the butt, blew out a breath of smoke, and stepped on it. “You tell your mamma everything?”

I looked up at the starry sky. The answer was no; I never told anyone much. Nothing that mattered anyway.

“She’ll smell the smoke,” I said, gazing at the constellations. I glanced at him to see he’d been watching me. I flushed, every inch of my skin growing hot.

“Come here.” Something soft and charming wove through his deep voice.

My heart skittered to a stop.

This was how this man got women: by only saying, “Come here,” in that tone. Nonetheless, I couldn’t say I felt cold when he was rude either.

I had always done what I was told, especially by the Made Men in my life, though not a single step I took in his direction was because of that. I was a moth moving toward the flame, until I stood close enough for my wings to ignite.

I held my breath when his hand rested on my waist. His grip tightened as he pulled me forward until my chest brushed his. My pulse beat in my throat, and his hand was so hot, spreading warmth to the pit of my stomach, that I hardly noticed him leaning in, brushing his face against my hair.

“No smoke.” The words were smooth with a rough edge.

His palm slid from my waist to my hip before he pulled away, leaving a trail of fire down my side. He pushed off the wall, and I took a step back and out of his way. Walking away, he stopped and turned to me. His voice was cool, indifferent, and laced with that commanding tone he’d mastered.

“The list? I want it tomorrow, Elena.”


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