Special thanks to Lisa, Lexi, and Francesca!


Grand Finale

Chapter 23

Hummingbird's POV

By the time Anthony and Gabriella park in the driveway, I've paced the hallway for ten minutes, a furious and anxious mess.

Junior's smart, not telling me to cool it; in fact, he's quiet. It's our views, our ways as parents, that affect our children's views on life, relationships, and how to deal with a fucking argument. They take after us. And if Junior opens his mouth to tell me I gotta calm down, I don't know what I'll do.

I am so damn mad—and broken up about this.

My father smacked my mom around all the time, so I consider myself lucky to have a nicer husband. So lucky that the couple times where Junior's gotten rough barely register with me.

I'm a product of my generation as much as Junior is. Whenever Elisa and Julia tell Junior he's too old-fashioned—ancient in his way of thinking…they forget it's my way of thinking, too. But it shouldn't be our children's way of thinking, 'cause times have changed.

Women are more equal today.

Yet…all I wanna do the second Anthony steps foot inside our door…is smack the ever-loving crap outta him.

Violence is wrong, kids are told today.

But where I come from…? Lord, it's not even violence. It's discipline.

So, I'm left torn. Torn between wanting to give Anthony a dose of his own medicine—part of my own beliefs—and going by modern shit, talking to him, telling him calmly that violence is wrong, and…

I laugh to myself, going crazy. There's just no way. I'm sorry, but I can't let this slide. It's a world full of hypocrisy, and I just not the person to fix that.

"I wanna smack him," I whisper, ashamed.

Junior raises a brow at me, hands stuck in the pockets of his slacks. "Be my guest. I plan on doin' a lot more than that."

I nod, smoothing down my dress. I'm nervous. And glad Julia's not home. This was supposed to be a quiet day, just me and Junior. Like, with comfy clothes and good food and just…us spending the day together. But now…ugh.

"You okay with that?" I ask. "I mean…the double standard and all."

"Yup."

Just like that. Yup.

We won't stand for our son hurting his wife, but when it's us…? We don't practice what we preach.

"What's taking them so long?" I walk over to the slim window next to the door and peer outside, spotting Anthony and Gabriella by their car. Anthony looks like he's trying to calm his wife down. "Oh, God." I cover my mouth with my hand when Gabby turns and I see her face. "Oh God, Juniuh."

I feel sick to my stomach, and I turn away. "You deal with him. I can't even look at him right now."

Junior lands a kiss to my forehead, understanding, and I head to the kitchen instead. But…I can't not know what's gonna happen. I stay close to the wide doorway and listen intently as Junior opens the door for Anthony and Gabriella.

After a beat of silence, Junior's the first one to speak, and murmurs to Gabby. "You okay, sweetheart?"

"I'm fine," she says quickly—too quickly. Like a woman of my own generation. "Really, Junior."

Anthony says something to his wife, too quietly for me to hear.

"Te lo riporto vivo." There's a wry smile in Junior's voice as he tells Gabriella he'll return Anthony alive. "Isabella's in the kitchen—you should keep her company."

Some more murmuring that I can't hear; possibly Anthony's reassurances, then some shuffling, Gabby's sighing…before she leaves the men and joins me in the kitchen. And the second she does, I throw my arms around her and squish her in a hug.

"Oh!" She's startled, but she catches on quick, chuckling nervously and returning the hug. "I'm fine, Bella," she whispers.

I'm fine. Yeah, I've heard that before. Said it, too.

"Lemme look at'chu, honey." I palm the cheek that isn't hurt and inspect the damage. Much like I did, she's covered the bruising with makeup, but not enough. I shake my head, so ashamed. "I'm so sorry he did this to you."

Gabriella's eyes well up, but she smiles at the same time. "The thing is, we worked some stuff out. This whole stripper thing…" She rolls her eyes and wipes away a stray tear. "I challenged him, Bella. I pushed him so hard, wanting him to snap. I needed some kind of reaction." She sniffles. "Clearly, I got it—twice. But we also hashed it all out, you know? I gotta focus on that."

I nod, listening, and lead her over to the island where I have Bloody Marys prepared for us. "Have a seat." I slide a tall glass toward her, which she accepts gratefully. "While I'm…thrilled…that you've worked this out, or started to, this upsets me so much. I've always wanted my boys to respect women…" I trail off, my face falling.

"Like I said, I pushed him," she reminds me. "Literally, I dared him to do it the first time. He raised his hand, and I dared him."

I wince. "And the second time?" Junior was blunt about it after Anthony's call woke us up this morning. Twice, Anthony slapped Gabby.

She blushes and lowers her voice. "I, uh, I insulted his, you know…" She raises her brows and looks down, then up again.

"Oh!" I slap my hand to my mouth. "Oh, Gabriella." I'm not sure if she has the biggest pair of balls I've seen in a long time, or if she's a masochist.

I don't want to justify violence, but no man I know would accept insults about his manhood. God. Junior would go berserk if I offended him like that.

"Please don't tell him I said this," she whispers.

I place a hand over hers. "Certo che no—Of course not, sweetheart." I wouldn't dare.

Now I'm left even more conflicted than before.

Not knowing what to say, I take a big gulp of my Bloody Mary.

As my kids have grown older, I've always tried to stick with the program. I've looked outside our house to know what's popular, how old girls are when they're allowed to date nowadays, how far a boy can go with a girl on a date…in general, how the world evolves. I even have a cell phone! And while Junior's stuck with our record player and VHS, I prefer CDs and DVDs.

But it's not enough. The world changes too fast—I can't keep up.

I've never been genuinely proper by any means, but I was still raised by my parents. Their views are mine, somewhat. At least the foundation of what a good marriage entails, and how a house is run.

Today's women would call me weak…

I'd like to think I'm a strong woman in my own generation, but by modern standards, I'm sure I'd be viewed as a pushover, a doormat.

"Whew. This was a strong one." I put a smile on my face and set down the drink, my eyes stinging with tears. "I should get started on breakfast." I need to occupy my hands, and my mind, so I head to the fridge and start pulling out ingredients for pancakes and scrambled eggs. In the cupboard, I retrieve a loaf of bread and muffins.

"Are you okay, Bella?" Gabby asks softly, joining me at the counter. She wordlessly takes the bread to slice, and I busy myself cracking eggs into a pan.

"Of course." I smile, pretending to be confused about her inquiry. My bet? I look as lost as I feel. "Why wouldn't I be?" I point to the bread. "That's one of Anthony's favorites—I'll give you the recipe later." Which reminds me, I have to drive over to Alec's deli later. I have few new recipes for entrees at Stella, and he sells the best prosciutto in town.

In my periphery, I can see Gabby eyeing me curiously, with concern, but I ignore it. And after a while, she lets it go and helps out with breakfast.

After some twenty minutes, I'm bringing scrambled eggs, bread, and a plate of cold cuts to the table when Junior and Anthony return. Considering I haven't heard anything, I assume they've been in the backyard and not in my husband's office.

Anthony's face looks just fine, but he's wincing and holding his side.

I look away.

"This looks great." Junior gives my forehead a smooch and takes his seat at the head of the table.

As I bring the pancakes and the syrup to the table, I lean close to Junior and ask, "You didn't break anything, did'ju?"

He chuckles, tucking a napkin into his shirt. "Of course not, hummingbird."

But still…seemed risky to go for Anthony's ribs. "Couldn't you just slap him or something?" God, listen to the words coming outta my mouth. What the hell am I saying? Anthony's my baby. Yet, looking over to Gabriella…

"He can't show up at work with a handprint on his cheek," Junior reasons patiently. "It's all good now."

"Mom…" Anthony tries to get my attention, seated next to Junior, but I…I just can't.

I shake my head and go back to fetch the juice, coffee, and the muffins.

Breakfast is quiet.

Junior eats as if nothing's wrong in the world, and I envy him for that. Gabby can definitely feel the tension, as can Anthony. He's trying to catch my gaze every now and then, but I focus on my plate.

Definitely not hungry.

"When'a youse bringing my grandbabies ova'?" Junior asks around a mouthful of pancakes.

~oOo~

A few days later, I blurt out all my concerns to Junior right before I'm off to Julia's school. There's a handful of women who have prepared pastries and coffee for the intermission, and my task was to bring my famous sfogliatelle. Two others are bringing coffee and lemonade, one is bringing the rented china, and one is bringing condiments and napkins. So, with my car full of sfogliatelle and the ladies waiting for me at Julia's school, I rant to Junior while he snatches two pastries for himself. As if I hadn't already saved a whole plate for him.

"Lemme get this straight…" Junior swallows a bite and wipes his mouth with the towel around his neck. He's just outta the shower and will meet me at the school before Julia's musical. "Madonna mia, these are good," he mutters, licking little pastry flakes off his fingers.

I snap mine. "Focus, Juniuh!"

"Easy," he bitches. "Look, you got nothin'a cry about. We're not wrong with our views, and those who say we are, well, fuck them!" It's his turn to get ranty. "Like I've said before, it's not us; it's the fucking world that's gone bananas." He steps forward to grab my jaw and give me a hard kiss. "I don't wanna hear another word about you being—what did you say?"

I slump my shoulders. "A doormat."

He laughs through his nose and shakes his head. "You're too fucking cute, bell'uccellino." Another kiss, this time to my nose. "If you're a doormat, I don't want'chu, 'cause you gotta be the most unwelcoming doormat in history—all that ball-busting considered." I pout, not really sure why. He's actually making me feel better. "Come here, you." He hugs me tight, and I take a whiff of his freshly showered hotness. "You're a strong woman, Isabella." He steps back to palm my cheeks and look me in the eye. "You've turned this house into a home I never wanna leave, you've raised four beautiful children, you're a wonderful wife, and we can thank you for Stella Mia's success."

Warmth seeps into me, though I still have doubts. "The violence, though…"

"Eh!" He disagrees, waving that off as silly. "It's over and done with. He got a little rough—but now? Madonn', I'mma drag his ass outta their house tomorrow, 'cause he hasn't showed up for work in a few days." I raise a brow, as this is news to me. He smirks. "I don't think you want details of what they've been up to."

Oh. Wow. Huh. "Really?" As awkward as it is, I'm very happy to hear this.

"Really," he confirms. "So, quit thinking about what's right and wrong. People today are fucked in the head. They're all about equal rights, feminist shit, yet they can go against themselves and say it was simpler before. How does that work, huh? And in my head…I don't see anything feminine about a woman who burns her bra, won't shave—"

My mouth quirks up. "I think we're a little past bra burning, ciccino."

He shrugs, on a roll, and scratches his eyebrow. "No matta'. These so-called feminists complain about how sexist society is, but they still want their men to open doors, pay the check, and get down on one knee with a big fat diamond. They preach about equality in their lady book clubs, gyms for only women, and fuck, who knows what else." He blows out a breath, irritated. "I saw this thing on the Discovery Channel, and—"

And that's my cue! "Thanks so much for making me feel better, Juniuh." I hop up to pop a kiss to his chin. "I love you, love you, love you. See ya at the school before seven, all right?"

Junior's POV

Arriving at Julia's school, I'm a proud papa when I receive the program at the door and see that my daughter actually has one of the leads. Maybe I should've paid more attention, but no matta'.

"Dad!"

Whipping around, I spot Elisa in the crowd in front of the auditorium, and I walk toward her. She wanted Joseph to be with her today, but since Felix got back in town this morning, Joseph's keeping him busy. It's the only way Dominic can be here, and he is. He's backstage with Dani's little brother. Anthony picked them up earlier, but my brother's staying out there in that little town to look after Daniela and Lia.

"How you doin', angioletto?" I cup Elisa's cheeks, smiling at the happiness I see. "You look happy."

Her smile is radiating. "More than. My morning sickness seems to be over, so that's a relief."

"Oh…" I nod and look down to her flat stomach, getting a little mushy. My baby's having a baby of her own. "I missed you." I squeeze her to me, spotting my wife over by a few tables. "Have you said hi to Mom?"

"Yeah, but I'm going over again to help her." She looks over to Isabella, then smirks up at me. "She's trying to figure out what I'm hiding."

As far as I'm concerned, Elisa's not really hiding anything, 'cause I haven't given Joseph permission to be with my baby girl.

"You go do your thing," I say, bringing out my comb. I run it through my hair. "I'm gonna track down Anthony and Gabriella."

"Oh, they're already inside." Elisa points. "Anthony mentioned something about payback…?" She scrunches her nose, and I frown in confusion. "He's mad at Julia for something. I don't know." Then it can't be serious—nothing I have to worry about. "I'm not interested in talking to him anyway. Like I can't see what he's done to Gabby just 'cause she's wearing makeup?"

"Hey." I look to her in warning. "That's between those two, and do they look unhappy to you?"

"Let's not talk about it, okay?" She smiles tightly, pulls me down to kiss my cheek, then disappears amongst the proud parents and fussy kids.

Sighing, I make my way through the crowd in another direction, reading the little pamphlet I got at the door. I already know it's Rent they're reenacting, but I can't say I really know what Rent is about.

I find Anthony and Gabby somewhere in the middle where they're saving seats for all of us. My son tells me he's spoken to Dominic, and we're all gonna meet up in an empty classroom after the show.

Soon enough, the auditorium is full of people, and Isabella and Elisa have joined us.

"I'm so excited," Isabella gushes. "Julia's worked so hard."

"She's nervous," Gabriella murmurs. "She called me earlier—she's afraid she's gonna forget her lines."

"Yeah, she called me about that, too." Elisa smiles and shakes her head. "She'll be fine, though. She's rehearsed a lot."

Anthony grins darkly and faces the stage. "Her lines won't be an issue."

I quirk a brow at him, but then I'm distracted by a teacher taking the stage to talk about how good all the kids've been.

I smile and grab my wife's hand, lacing our fingers together.

Soon, there won't be any school plays and recitals to go to, which makes me a little sad.

Everything goes dark around us, but a few seconds later, someone starts playing the piano and eight people take the stage under spotlights.

Isabella buzzes with anticipation next to me, pointing at Julia in the middle. The wife is definitely excited.

I don't understand the first song; they sing about measuring a year in cups of coffee and love, which is just weird. But I focus on my princess, who looks at home on stage.

Her black leather pants are a little inappropriate, though. They hang way too low on her hips, and they fit tighter than skin.

The first scene morphs into the next one while two boys sing about paying rent and several other kids dressed in black roll in a new background. Okay, so…Rent. It's a musical about paying the rent?

They runnin' outta ideas on Broadway?

"What the fuck?" I mutter under my breath. During all that singing about having no scratch, two boys are holding hands, and Julia starts swinging around a goddamn stripper pole. There's a bunch of shit going on up there, probably fifteen or twenty kids on stage, but all I can see are two fags and my stripper daughter.

As if that's not enough, another girl steps forward and makes a show of shooting up drugs in her arm and Julia joins her to share a needle.

I tilt my head to Isabella and cock a brow.

She just grins and pats my arm. "It's not real, ciccino."

Well, obviously. Madonn'. But these'a bunch'a kids. Shouldn't they be singing about…I don't fuckin' know, going off to college?

"My baby's into speedballin' and takin' her clothes off?" I whisper.

"Shh!" Anthony leans forward and levels me with a mock-glare. "I'm tryin'a watch my sister take after her mother."

What?

It's Isabella's turn to glare, but there's nothing mocking about it. It's lethal, and Anthony shrinks back in his seat.

I can't blame him. He's been doing all he can to get back in her good graces these days. Such a mama's boy.

"Will you pay attention to the stage?" Gabriella scolds us.

"Oh-ho!" I chuckle, reaching over to pinch her cheek. "Look at'chu, sweetheart." I wink at my boy. "No leash on her, huh?"

He snorts and drapes an arm around her. "She chewed off her collar." Before Gabriella can comment, he shuts her up with a kiss.

Shaking my head, I face the stage again and grimace when two kids start talking about HIV and AIDS. Mother of Christ, what kind of morbid, disease-ridden show is this?

~oOo~

Half an hour later, I'm depressed and freaked out. Worst musical ever. Not only are the kids broke—don't have any money to pay rent, but they're all crackheads or fanooks, and/or carry the gay plague.

"It's so heartbreaking," Isabella whispers next to me and brings a tissue to wipe her tears.

"I think my dick has shriveled up and died," I agree, nodding.

"God, Juniuh." She gives me a look. "Show some class."

I roll my eyes and stifle a yawn. What's worse is that Julia hasn't really been on stage yet. She's the reason I'm here, dammit. Not all those other queer yahoos.

Then at last, at-fucking-last, Julia enters a dark stage with only another boy there. She's holding a candle, and music comes on. At least she's hiding her miniscule top now with a blanket around her shoulders, but she's still wearing those pants. Fuckin' pants.

Horrible plot and wardrobe aside, though… I get a little choked up when my daughter starts singing. I had no idea she was that talented. She's always been our goofball, never taking much seriously. But this…she's really amazing.

But again, the story ruins it. "Why does she keep asking him to light her candle if she insists on blowing it out?" I ask, keeping my voice low.

Elisa, seated between me and Gabriella, answers while chuckling quietly. "'Cause she's got the hots for that other boy, Dad."

I scowl. "But he's busy bitching about his dead girlfriend." That scowl of mine isn't going nowhere as I watch the boy eyeing my baby's ass while she's on the floor looking for her…stash.

I'm so proud.

And now she's singing about her ass…

"Is this a fucking musical or a coked-up porno?" I release Isabella's hand to fold my arms over my chest. "When's the intermission? I wanna give their teacher a piece of my mind."

And that piece is strapped to my ankle holster.

"Excuse me," some woman behind us hisses. "Keep it down or I'll have you thrown out."

Isabella looks over her shoulder and raises a brow. "Do that, and you and I are gonna have a problem." She huffs and turns around again, linking her arm with mine. I can't help but smirk. "The nerve of some people," she mutters. "Think they can come here with threats?"

"You're too cute." I hug her to me and kiss the top of her head. "Makes me wanna—"

"Shhh!" She slaps my thigh.

I sigh.

~oOo~

Some time after stuffing my face with sfogliatelle and coffee during the intermission, I'm watching my baby girl bonding with a boy over HIV medicine and baggage.

Romantic, huh?

"Completely unrealistic," I yawn. "Julia's character's not gay."

"Right, because only gay people get HIV and AIDS." Elisa rolls her eyes at me. "You really need to wake up and smell the roses, Daddy."

"Be quiet!" Anthony whisper-shouts. "Any minute now." He taps his watch.

"What?" Isabella asks, and I'm confused too. "There's almost an hour left—"

The word has barely left her mouth when the fire alarm and sprinklers go off.

Dominic's POV

I curse Anthony as everyone starts running around backstage, the water from the sprinklers making people act as if they're on fire.

I know he paid off some stoner kid to get it all done, and that it had to happen when Julia was on stage. I don't know, some beef between the two. All he said was, "That'll teach her not to stick her nose in someone else's business." But all I can think of now is that the commotion is scaring the shit outta Nino.

It's taken over a week for him to feel just a little relaxed around me, and now I'm afraid it's all gone to shit. All the time we've spent in that cabin and just cruising around in that tiny town not doing much of anything has been good for all of us, albeit boring. But for all I know, the rigidness in Nino's shoulders will be back permanently now.

"Come on, kid. Let's get outta hea'." I squeeze his shoulder gently, but he's frozen. Students and teachers keep running behind the stage, several shouting that the water is ruining the set. "Nino." I squat down in front of him and brush a few droplets of water away from his face. No use, though. We're already soaked. "You want me to carry you?"

Can you still carry seven-year-olds?

I'm not good at this, but I was still the one who suggested I bring Nino to this shit tonight. I figured he'd been chill around me enough the past few days, and he did nod when I asked him if he wanted to tag along.

Again, he doesn't answer, so I'm left without a choice. Knowing the classroom where I'm meeting up with my family, I pick up Nino and position him closer to my hip, then make my way outta the mayhem of hysterical broads, angry teachers, and dudes who're tryin'a look cool while the water soaks their Nikes.

"Dominic!" I hear Julia shout.

I turn around and see her hurrying toward me, so I jerk my chin at the door and continue out to the corridor that's rapidly filling up with upset parents and siblings. Thankfully, the sprinklers and the alarm are shut off then, too.

"Anthony did this, didn't he?" Julia hugs herself, obviously cold. "He left a voice mail—said he couldn't wait to see me drowning in praise for my performance."

I chuckle and shake my head. Speaking of drowning, my family looks like a bunch of drowned cats when we enter the empty classroom on the second floor.

Dad's busy fussing over Mom, getting her warm with his suit jacket and holding her close. Meanwhile, she looks mostly worried about her hair and makeup. Elisa appears oddly dry, but I spot Mom's coat nearby, so I assume she used that to cover herself up. My big sister's the only one who isn't shivering.

To my surprise—and definitely a smug-looking Anthony's—Julia runs over and hugs him, chanting, "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!"

"Oh, Dominic!" Mom gasps as she spots me, and she squirms outta Dad's hold to crush me and Nino in a hug. She hasn't seen me in a while, so I know she's been worried. "You're here, you're here!"

I grin, not saying anything.

"Why the fuck are you happy?" Anthony gets cunty, scowling at Julia.

Julia beams like the fucking sun. "Because I've forgotten the lyrics to one of my songs. Had it not been for the sprinklers, I woulda looked like a fool up there!"

Anthony's disappointed.

Gabriella and Elisa crack up.

"Instead you looked like a stripper," Dad mutters.

Mom sighs contentedly and peers up at me. "The family's almost back together," she whispers. I kiss her forehead, and she proceeds to greet Nino, who feels better with my mother around. "Ain't that right, topolino?" She smiles at Nino. "We're just missin' Daniela and Lia, then everything's perfect."

In return, Nino smiles shyly and ducks his head, hiding in the crook of my neck.

For some reason, that makes my mom tear up. "Juniuh, get my camera! It better not be ruined." She spins around, only to get pissed at Dad. "Oh, Juniuh—" she stalks over and grabs the smoke he just lit up "—this is a school; you can't friggin' smoke in hea'. Christ!"

"I can't catch a break!" Dad holds out his arms. "Stop busting my balls, woman."

"Never." Mom winks and snatches her camera.

Elisa sighs. "Now I miss Jo—" She slaps a hand over her mouth.

My eyes grow large; hell, everyone is looking at her with wide eyes. Except for Mom.

And she can't fucking know. Not yet. God knows I love her, but she'd shout this shit from the rooftops. But most of all, she'd fire off a bunch of questions about Mario, and…who is the real father of your baby, Elisa? How long has this been going on? What does Felix say about this? Oh, I gotta call Gianna!

Mom tilts her head, suspicious. "You miss who?"

"Josephine," Dad is quick to say. He narrows his eyes at Elisa, then faces Mom with a shrug. "Elisa's switched teams, 'cause apparently that's what everyone is doing these days."