Authors: Celia Juliano
Tags: #Contemporary, #Holidays, #Literature & Fiction, #Contemporary Fiction, #Romance
“You think she’s not happy or something?”
“I don’t trust those DeGrazias,” he whispered.
“That makes two of us.” Gina pushed off the wall and nodded.
Her dad quickly turned away and bent to pick up a peperoncini from the tray. “We agree on something,” he muttered.
Her dad was like a bulldog—tenacious. But he hadn’t been when it came to Carolina DeGrazia. He’d let her stomp all over him, Gina, their family. She rubbed her arms.
And he didn’t forget grievances. Her grandma had been engaged to Enzo for almost two months now, and her dad was still suspicious. So was Gina, and she hadn’t had dealings with the DeGrazias in almost ten years.
“You two okay?” her mom said as she walked in.
“Sure, Mom. I’ve been thinking…I should help Grandma more at the store. She shouldn’t be doing all that baking alone. I’ll still have time for the business side too.”
“Frank…” her mom said in a slightly accusatory tone.
“Dad didn’t say anything, Mom. It’s…I’d like to spend some extra time with Grandma.”
“We’re all glad you’re home, honey.” Mom put her hand on Gina’s arm.
“And I do need to get myself settled, take a few days to figure some things out.” Time to spy on the DeGrazias.
“Whatever you need,” Mom said.
Gina pulled her mom toward the door, and leaned close to her. “Did you give my business plan to Enzo?” Gina said in a low voice.
“Of course. He’s thinking of investing his money in the market.”
“I asked you…” Gina sighed. Her mom was too damn trusting. “Does Dad know about any of this?”
“No, honey, remember I told you, I want to work up to it. You know how he feels about the DeGrazias…” Mom murmured, the two of them in a huddle.
Dad leaned back into the couch and glanced at them. Gina squeezed her mom’s hand.
“Frank, how’s Michael?” Mom said, going to join Dad on the couch. “Can we manage without Gina a few days?”
“Why not? We’ve managed for eight years now, haven’t we?” Dad rested his arms across the back of the couch.
Mom leaned back and watched Gina. Dad still resented Gina and Frankie for leaving the family business. Only Michael, their younger brother, had stayed. But unlike their dad, Michael’d welcomed Gina back with one of his warm hugs and sweet smiles. Unfortunately, Michael was just as trusting as their mom, ready to accept the “help” of the DeGrazias. They didn’t want to help—they wanted to destroy her family, finishing what Carolina had started ten years before. Or, according to whispered family lore, what old man DeGrazia had started back in Italy, when Grandpa Frank had been a young man.
“I’m going to check with Grandma. I think we’ll be eating in the kitchen since it’s just the six of us.”
“You should get to know Vincente, honey,” her mom said. She smoothed her dress over her crossed legs and pushed back her thick, still-dark hair.
Gina rolled her eyes as she walked away.
“Don’t encourage her, Eva. You know the lowlifes she always falls for. Besides, he’s a DeGrazia,” Dad said.
Gina hunched her shoulders. Her dad had no respect for her judgment, in business or in life. So she’d proven him right in terms of her love life. In every other area she’d shown excellence.
“Frank…” Mom said in a warning tone.
Gina didn’t want to hear anymore. If her mom knew just how well Gina’d gotten to know Vincente, she wouldn’t encourage a friendship between them. And Gina sure as hell wasn’t going to tell her anything. Her mom would only blame Gina. Women were supposed to be above sexual urges and if a man gave into his that was only to be expected. Gina rubbed her churning stomach. Her heels clicked across the foyer floor into the kitchen.
Gina stopped in the doorway. Vincente sliced bread on a bamboo cutting board at the tiled counter, placing it in a neat row in a bread basket lined with a crisp linen napkin. Grandma sat at the table with Enzo. Enzo clasped Grandma’s hand, just as Grandpa Frank used to. And Grandma smiled, tilting her head as she did, as if marveling at the miracle of her life. Grandma used to tell her about the everyday miracles. Gina began to smile, remembering. But this picture, Grandma with Enzo DeGrazia, was wrong. Feeling comfy with the DeGrazias was a mistake. So what if they seemed like gentlemen. So had her ex-fiancé, around other people, and he’d been a cheater and a liar. All the men she’d dated, and done business with, had been.
“Sit with us. Vincente’s getting dinner on the table,” Grandma said.
Gina scooted into the chair next to Grandma.
Vincente placed the bread on the table. “Want something to drink?” he asked her.
Gina nodded. He waited, an expectant expression on his face. She must’ve been temporarily insane last night, on top of being tipsy. That was the only explanation for hopping into bed with Vincente DeGrazia. She hated the DeGrazias. She didn’t trust men. She’d known she’d have to see him. No avoiding it, unless she could prove to Grandma that the DeGrazias were corrupt and untrustworthy…Even then, Uncle Carlo and Aunt Sophia and Joey and Janetta were part of the DeGrazia family. Unless Uncle Carlo divorced Aunt Sophia. Gina leaned her head in her hand. What a terrible thought. Aunt Sophia and Uncle Carlo had a happy marriage. She was really off-base.
Grandma touched her arm. “Gina?”
“Just water. I’ll get it.” Gina jumped up and hurried to the cabinet. She got herself a glass of water, trying to ignore Vincente’s presence near her. She gulped down half of the water from the glass. Vincente leaned on the counter next to her. Having him so close was like someone turned on a heater right next to her. The glass slipped from her hand and shattered in the sink.
Damn Vincente and his intensity. Gina reached into the sink and rushed to pick up the shards of glass. One of the shards sliced into her finger. Gina sucked in a breath.
Vincente grabbed her arm. “Drop it,” Vincente said. She did. He removed her hands from the sink and examined the hand that had been cut. His touch was steady, capable. “There still a first aid kit in the bathroom?” Vincente asked.
“Yes,” Enzo said.
Gina looked at her hand. Blood oozed from the cut. She bit her lip and tried to wriggle from Vincente’s grasp. “I can take care of it,” she said.
Grandma moved to her side. “Let him help, Gina.” Grandma’s voice was firm. “I’ll clean up.”
Vincente walked her out.
Her parents approached. “What happened?” her mom said, her voice laced with worry.
“Just a cut. No big deal,” Gina shot Vincente the evil eye for his interfering, overbearing concern. He was making this seem like an issue when it wasn’t.
“Dinner’s on the table,” Vincente said, ignoring her look.
Her parents went into the kitchen. Vincente took her into the half-bathroom across from Enzo’s office. When Vincente let go of her hand and rooted the first aid kit out of the cabinet, her hand began to throb. He pulled out a gauze pad, a large Band-Aid and some first aid cream.
“I’ll do it,” Gina said. She grabbed for the bandage but missed, swiping blood on the counter and knocking everything on the floor.
Vincente pushed out a breath, snorting like an angry bull. “Just stay still. If you won’t do it for me, do it for your grandma.”
She froze. Grandma had said to accept help. Gina’d been working with her last therapist on accepting help from people. Vincente’s nostrils flared. He grabbed a cleaning wipe from the cabinet under the sink, wiped up the blood, picked up the supplies, and bent to the task. He lightly pressed the gauze on the wound, cleaning the excess blood. Gina stood still, though her head dizzied from his touch, as though she whirled in one of those crazy tea cup rides. She leaned against the sink. Vincente glanced at her. With a toss, he threw away the gauze. Then he dabbed some first aid cream on and covered it with the Band-Aid. His fingers stayed steady, his touch warm and gentle.
“Nervous?” Vincente said. He stood tall, inches from her in the close space.
“No.” Gina shrugged. “Why should I be?”
“You tell me. You’re the one acting on edge.” He placed his hand on the wall, his arm a barrier to her exit.
“Just don’t want anyone to find out about last night.” Her voice came out in a hiss. “It was a mistake.” Last night hadn’t felt like a mistake—it’d felt right. But she wasn’t about to admit the truth, not to Vincente.
“Huh. We agree on that.” He moved his arm to put the kit away.
Gina’s breathing went shallow, her chest tight. Bastard. Sex with her was a mistake? He didn’t get to say that. Never mind that she’d said it. He was supposed to…She rubbed her collarbone. He seemed so unperturbed, whereas Gina’d just dropped a glass because he got her so bothered. He should be affected by her too. He should want her as much as she did him. He was just like all the rest, using her for sex, for an ego boost.
Gina slid past him and strode back into the kitchen. What a charming scene. Her parents and Grandma and Enzo all sitting around the old oak table passing food and chatting, the afternoon sun slanting in from the expensive slatted shades lining the windows.
But it wasn’t charming. It was a front, just like the old-world elegance and gentlemanliness the DeGrazia men exuded—a pose to cover their lies and corruption. Grandma, with her true grace and goodness, couldn’t see what Gina and her dad did. She placed her hands on her hips. Vincente came up behind her. She rushed to an empty chair next to Grandma. Vincente eased into the seat across from her.
And Vincente was possibly the worst of them all, pretending to be concerned, the way his intense, deep-set brown eyes studied her, his mouth set in a displeased frown.
“Are you all right, dear?” Grandma asked. Gina could tell she didn’t just mean about the cut.
“Sure, thanks.” Gina took some salad, plopping it onto her plate. Three days in and her plan still hadn’t taken shape, like bread dough made with old yeast. “Heard from Frankie lately?”
Her dad’s jaw twitched. Gina had pressed on a sore spot with him, but it was a way to keep his attention off her.
“He’s doing well,” Gina’s mom said, too brightly.
“A real help to Sal,” Enzo said.
Her own older brother, a traitor. Gone to work for Enzo’s oldest son at his restaurant. Gina chewed a bite of salad. The sharp tang of the oil and vinegar dressing was almost as biting as the bile roiling in her stomach. Now her dad’s face reddened. She hadn’t realized just how angry he still was. Toward her and Frankie. Michael, their younger brother, had always been Dad’s favorite. Michael was a favorite with everyone. If he was here, they’d all be laughing, not eating in tense silence.
“What do you think of the Giants this year, Frank?” Vincente said.
Her dad shrugged. “Supposed to be good.”
Gina caught a look of bemused frustration passing between Vincente and Enzo. She wadded the linen napkin in her hand. Her family was just a joke to the DeGrazias, a dumping ground. Her father used to tell her to stay away from them, telling her his grandfather had warned him of the DeGrazia’s corruption. How, back in Italy, the DeGrazias had used her great-grandfather’s brother as a scapegoat for one of their schemes, how they used many others the same way, including seducing innocent women, laundering money, and back-pocketing local politicians. Why her father had then chosen to involve himself with Carolina DeGrazia…
“Wine?” Enzo said to no one in particular.
Gina and her dad both pushed their glasses forward a bit. Enzo poured them each a glass. Vincente already sipped his. Gina’s mom frowned at her.
“Celeste, this chicken stew is delicious. Gina, have some,” her mom said. She ladled some into a bowl and passed it to Gina.
Gina took the bowl then picked up a slice of the semolina bread she’d baked this morning. A few sesame seeds dropped into the steaming stew.
“You’re as good a baker as your grandma,” Enzo said to Gina.
“Thanks.” Gina ground her teeth together as she chewed. Enzo seemed charming. But his import business just had to be a front for smuggling or something…though she couldn’t find proof, and she couldn’t believe Uncle Carlo, who now ran DeGrazia Imports, would participate in something illegal or immoral. She rubbed her forehead. Years of searching, and she couldn’t find any proof against the DeGrazias.
Vincente bit into a slice of bread too. A look of enjoyment, savoring—all too similar to his expression last night—passed across his face. Gina set her bread down and pressed her hands into her thighs. Part of her wanted to smack him. A bigger part of her yearned to straddle him and release all this pent-up frustration the way they had last night.