Special thanks to Lisa, Lexi, and Francesca!


Grand Future Takes

"Alec's Finale."

March 2000

(1 year after Grand Finale, or some 4 months after the Grand Finale epilogue.)


Alec's POV

I'm getting too old for this.

I've only run three miles and I'm already wheezing. The sun's shining brightly, and my t-shirt is stuck to my skin, soaked in sweat. But a workout with a big breakfast afterward has always been my best hangover remedy, so I push forward.

Anthony's smirk from last night fuels me enough to run past his house without lookin' like an old cripple.

Okay, so maybe I lost my shit a little last night after Gemma and I left the private room.

I was gonna play it cool; we fucked, end'a story. I returned to our table while Gemma hid her face and got back to work, but seeing her out there…? I got wasted and watched her dance and talk to horny fuckers, but the second she was approached for a lap dance, I'd hauled her into Anthony's office and told her to stay there until I got back.

"You want me to tell her what?" Anthony frowns and leans against the bar, probably itching to get back to his poker game. Or go home. But instead I dragged him over here.

"I'll cover the difference," I say impatiently. "I might change my mind soon—Madonn', I fucking hope I do, but for now… No nudity, no lap dances, no private rooms."

Anthony stares at me for a beat. "You do know this is a strip club, right, Zio?"

I smack the back of his head. "Don't be cute, kid." I scowl while he laughs. "I don't care if you gotta chain her to one of the poles; no close interaction with the customers, and underwear stays on. Capisce?"

Of course I've said too much already; I knew that going in, so I ain't surprised when Anthony narrows his eyes on me.

"She your new girlfriend or something?"

I shake my head no. "Do me this favor, all right?"

He smirks.

He just…smirked that fucking smirk.

Ignoring the burn in my legs, I pass Junior and Bella's house, then slow down and do a double take at Julia as she lowers a rope from her second-story window at the side of the house.

Can't be a curfew thing. It's morning, for fuck's sake. I think I left the house around nine.

I grin and cup my hands around my mouth. "What'cha doin', Julia?"

She freezes, her legs and butt hanging outta the window.

Two seconds later, Bella comes out the front door. And I wonder if she wakes up like that. Unlike her husband, she's always dressed for company—more beautiful than ever—and I think she'd rather die than be caught in a robe.

"Good morning, Alec." She smiles and waves, then points to the side of the house. "Is my youngest sneaking out by any chance?"

I chuckle. "Looks like it." I watch as Julia tries to scramble back inside, but she doesn't make it in time.

Bella's there already, and she puts her fists to her hips and shakes her head. "Are you outta your fuckin' mind, baby girl? Do you think Daddy was kidding when he grounded you?"

"It's an emergency!" Julia argues, grunting as she disappears into her room again. Then her head pops out, and she scowls down at her mother. "You're gonna rat me out, aren't you?"

Bella laughs gleefully. "You bet. The minute he wakes up. Then I'll call your brothers and have them put bars on your window."

Yeah, she's got that covered. Continuing my run, passing through some shrubbery to reach the next street, I hear Julia bitching and moaning, which will probably wake up my brother. He left before I did last night, but it was still late—around two.

Some twenty minutes later, I'm back in my own neighborhood after taking several detours to get all my miles in. And I'm not gonna lie; by the time I reach my street, I'm ready to keel over.

I walk the last bit to my house at the end of the street and pull up the front of my t-shirt to wipe the sweat off my face.

Two more nights in this place, and then AJ and I can finally start over.

Speaking of my boy… I'm kinda surprised to see him sitting on the front steps with his phone as I walk up the driveway.

"What'chu doin' out here, tesoro?"

My mini-me taps away on his phone, probably pausing Snake, then looks up. He purses his lips and looks over his shoulder toward the kitchen window. "Um. There's a woman in the kitchen." He glances back at me as I sit down next to him.

I grin and nudge his shoulder with mine. "So, that's why you decided to sit out here?"

He just shrugs.

Despite being sixteen and surrounded by a loud family, AJ's quiet, socially awkward, and somewhat of a late bloomer. I remember Dominic, Francis, and Anthony tried to bring him outta his shell a couple times, but my son just hasn't been interested in what most guys like. No sports, no broads—well, until now—and no roughhousing.

Instead he often has his nose stuck in a book—or his dirty magazines—and he doesn't have a lot of friends. Just a couple geeks. And the only family members he's really close with are Colin—my sister Brianna's son who lives in Kansas City—and, oddly, Joseph. Then again, maybe it's not odd. AJ looks up to Joseph, and my son is a fucking genius, so he gets more out of a conversation with Joseph than, say, Anthony or Dominic.

I think the only thing my boy does that isn't tame is selling weed in school. It's how he makes money, and he's smart about it, too. He takes after his daddy there. Who happens to be his supplier.

Secretly, I'm happy AJ's different. While my brother's kids are affectionate and no strangers to "I love yous", hugging and sweet shit is usually followed by jokes and "get the fuck outta hea's". But not AJ. He's still a sweetheart, and he can blow off his friends to have a movie night with me.

The only issue I have is that it's extremely difficult to read him. Had one of my nephews acted the way AJ does, if only for one day, the whole family woulda come down on him wondering if someone's died.

Which, in AJ's case, is true. Someone did die—his mom. Yet, he's changed for the better…? I don't get it, but there's no mistaking the difference. He walks around in the house with more ease now. No tiptoeing.

"How was your date last night?" I ask, keeping him in my periphery.

"Um…decent, I guess. Got to second base, but she's kinda dumb."

I snort a laugh and throw an arm around his shoulders. He smirks a little, then pretends to grimace at my sweaty shirt, but he says nothing.

"So, who's the woman?" he asks. Technically, your aunt. "A date or something?"

"No…" I'm not really sure how to put this. "Her name's Gemma. She's sorta family—in a way." I wince internally. I mean seriously, I fucked my sister-in-law? Who's more than fifteen years younger than me. "She's from your mom's side."

AJ side-eyes me, a brow cocked. "I've never met her before."

"Yeah, well." I scratch my jaw, squinting. "She's from Nonno Gustavo's third marriage, and I think she said something about growing up in Spain. Her mother's from there or whatever."

"Okay…?"

I blow out a breath and let my arm fall to my side. "She asked me for help. She has a son, but she can't afford to bring him out here right now. So…I'mma take care'a that."

"Jesus, Dad." He actually rolls his eyes at me. "You fucked her."

"Ay!" What the fuck. "What's wrong wit'chu?" I give him a hard stare, though I'm kinda freaked out. It's not like it's written on my fucking forehead, is it? And I know how to lie, dammit.

"Sorry, but it's true, isn't it?" He lifts a brow. "When I woke up, she was in the guest bathroom—the door was open—and she was scrubbing off glitter from her arms and stuff." He shrugs and looks at the ground. "I just figured you'd brought a stripper home."

Ouch. "I'd never do that—not like—" you're insinuating. I pause, choosing my words carefully. I've raised my son the same way my parents raised me: marriage is sacred, but…I haven't exactly practiced what I've preached. AJ's heard and seen me and Maria fight too many times to count, and I can only pray there's time for me to fix things. I don't want AJ to think every family is, or was, like ours. Hopefully he already knows, considering Junior and Bella. Brianna and Riley, too. "I know I wasn't a good husband to—"

"Give it a rest, Dad." He sighs, but there's a small smile, too. "You don't gotta explain it to me. I already know why you and Mom had problems." He shrugs with one shoulder and pockets his phone. "Youse wrecked each other—whatever."

I don't reply, 'cause…what the hell can I say?

He's right. He's also too damn smart.

"Whatever happens in the future," I murmur, waiting 'til he looks me in the eye, "you're my priority."

Marriage probably isn't for me, as I've said, but if I find a girlfriend in the future, I'd never risk AJ feeling left out.

"I know." Another AJ shrug. He does that a lot. "You think something's gonna happen with Gemma?"

I shake my head no. "I ain't givin' you details, but whatever happened last night at Twilight was…I don't even know, but no, nothing's gonna happen." I frown to myself, wondering why even the smallest part of my brain doubts my statement. 'Cause as mind-blowing as last night was…no. I don't even know why I offered her a guest room; I coulda just given her money for a hotel. It's what I'll be doing today. "Come on." I squeeze his shoulder before standing up. "Let's see if Gemma's cooked." Or if she's just another Rossi—one of the very rare Italians who don't belong in the kitchen.

My legs are like jelly as we head inside, but I force myself to continue, which gets easier when I take a whiff of something delicious.

We find Gemma in the kitchen, singing quietly to herself while flipping pancakes in a skillet.

AJ and I exchange a look.

Dressed in a black gypsy skirt and a tight little t-shirt, she moves around in my kitchen without a care in the world. She's barefoot, and her long hair is gathered in a messy pile on her head; I'm pretty sure there are two chopsticks in there.

Why do I find that so goddamn adorable?

"Are you done spying on me?" she asks without turning from the stove.

Okay, I'm impressed.

"Good morning." I walk farther in and aim for the fridge. As I pass her, I spy pancakes that don't look like charcoal, so that's gotta be a good sign. "You didn't have to make breakfast."

She waves that off, not facing me directly. "It was the least I could do." Smiling carefully, she asks me if I'm gonna introduce her to my son, which…yeah, of course I will, but I find it weird that she won't look me in the eye.

Or maybe she's itching to get outta here. I did tell her I'm flying out her kid tomorrow morning, and I've already bought the airline ticket. Gemma just has to tell me who will pick it up.

"AJ, Gemma—Gemma, AJ," I say, sitting down at the table.

"It's very nice to meet you, AJ." Gemma smiles brightly and extends a hand over the kitchen island. "You look a lot like your father." She winks. "Just as handsome."

Too handsome to fucking look at? Christ.

But I push away the trickle of irritation and smirk when I see that my son's blushing. He stammers a "good to meet you" and shakes her hand, then abruptly excuses himself to wash up for breakfast.

I just wanna hug him to death.

"Okay…" Gemma releases a breath and seemingly forces herself to face me. "Can you please go shower? Or at least put on clothes that aren't stuck to your skin?"

My brows rise. "Where do you get off bossing me around in my own house?"

She clenches her jaw and looks away stubbornly. "You have made things clear, Alec." She flips the next pancake with a little extra force. "We had a one-night stand, yes? But looking like that—" she waves the spatula in my direction "—is cruel. If I had teased like that, I would be called a cocktease. But men? Men can do it." She huffs.

I frown, repeating her words in my head to make sense of—wait. So she's saying…huh. I didn't see that coming, that she would want—I can't even finish that fucking thought because it's ridiculous.

I'm no stranger to women desiring me, but with Gemma's age, it's safe to consider my name, status, and money three things that make me more attractive, and fuck that.

Gemma Rossi is wife material; she's not the kind of woman I'd take as a girlfriend and screw whenever I feel like it. Feelings and shit could get involved.

~oOo~

Why the fuck did I suggest taking her to the airport?

Yesterday, after her pancake breakfast—madonn', she rocked those—we parted ways. I booked a suite for her at the Bellagio, at which the weird broad started bitching about money—and not like Maria loved to bitch about money—and I made all the arrangements for Gemma's son to fly out today. That's it. We parted ways. It was supposed to be end of story. But instead I put my foot in my mouth and suggested I take her to the airport to pick up her boy this morning.

Now we're here…

Standing a few feet behind her, I stick my hands down into the pockets of my slacks and just watch her. Not that she notices. She's sorta dancing on her feet, anticipation radiating off of her, and she's got her hands clasped under her chin, eyes glued to the screen of arrivals.

There's so much…life…in her.

Unruly and wild, yet there's a strong sense of stability about her, too. She's maternal and caring. Her love for her son is evident; she couldn't stop talking about him on the way over. She dresses for comfort, weird combinations, like now: another pair of too-short denim cutoffs, and a light blue t-shirt with Ninja Turtles on the front. Neon pink Ray-Bans stuck on her head, and flip-flops.

She's…Christ, she's like an adult Julia, which is both highly disturbing and cute.

"Finally!" Gemma spins around and flies into me. Cazzo. I stagger back a couple steps as she wraps her arms and legs around me. "Any minute now." She's beaming like the sun, pointing at the screen. Meanwhile, I can't stop looking at her face. "I can't thank you enough, Alec." She hugs me again tightly, her face buried in the crook of my neck. "You are an amazing man." Something constricts in my chest, and Gemma lifts her head to smirk ruefully at me. "It is too bad you're not looking for something serious."

And with a wink, she's gone. Her warmth, her voice, the view of her face—gone. Back to looking for her son.

Blowing out a breath, I rub my chest and stare down at my feet. "It is too bad you're not looking for something serious." How can she say something like that? Li'l broad don't even know me.

When I hear Gemma's muffled squeal from behind her hands, I look up to see her running toward the people just arriving from Boston.

"Michael!" she hollers.

A stewardess appears in the crowd, holding the hand of a little boy around eight years old. His whole face lights up at the sight of Gemma, and he struggles free to run to her.

"Mom!"

Gemma embraces him in a fierce hug and spins him around before lowering them both to the floor. Not a care in the world about their surroundings and the people crowding them.

I gotta look away, 'cause it feels like I'm intruding.

~oOo~

"That's the last of it," Joseph says as he carries a box into my new house on Sunday.

"Thanks." I kick the door closed and start hauling furniture that needs to be put together into the living room. Anthony's son nearly runs into me, so he gets a scolding from his mama who carries him out to the kitchen.

Junior's out in the backyard with Jasper and Dominic, and I think they're setting up the lawn furniture. The women are organizing everything in the kitchen, AJ's putting up posters on the walls in his room, Julia and Anthony are testing out my swimming pool while babysitting, and I'm the fool who can't stop thinking about Gemma and Michael.

Yesterday when Dominic and I were setting up shit in my new bedroom, I nearly crushed my toe under my bed frame 'cause I was busy wondering where Michael's gonna be while Gemma works. They'll have the hotel room at the Bellagio for a month, but what about babysitting?

It went on like that all day yesterday, and now isn't better. My brother and Joseph have already asked what's up.

"Il pranzo è pronto!" Bella calls out, saying lunch is ready, then appears in the living room. "The kitchen's all done now," she tells me, smiling. "Elisa and Daniela have stocked the fridge, freezer, and cabinets, and Gabby and I will bring over some more food later."

Leaving the entertainment center behind, I walk over to Bella, drape an arm around her shoulders, and usher her to the patio door where Junior can hear me.

"Hey, Junior!" I holler, and he looks up from the Adirondack chair he's repositioning. "Bella just said she's leaving your ass to run away with me."

Bella giggles and slaps my chest.

"Oh!" Junior grabs a wrench from the table and waves it at me. "Get your hands off my wife and c'mea' and say that to my face, little brother."

I laugh and kiss Bella's temple. "Thanks for all your help, honey."

"It's what family's for." She shrugs, then pulls me down to kiss my cheek. "Wait, lemme—" She wipes away some lipstick she left behind.

I chuckle before disappearing back into the house. Behind me, I hear Junior reclaiming his wife with smooches and threats about "killing any fucker who touches my hummingbird."

I return to assembling the entertainment center with Joseph, until his cell phone rings and he asks if he can use my office. I just nod and wave him along.

"Did someone say lunch?" AJ resurfaces from his room.

At the same time, Bella comes back inside. "I did!" She's quick to run over to him and practically drag him to the kitchen. "You gotta eat more, sweetheart." She pokes his side. "Come here and let Zia Bella feed you."

"Sometimes she means that literally!" Elisa warns, laughing.

I grin to myself and get back to work.

And I wonder what Gemma's doing right now. I may or may not have gotten my hands on her schedule at Twilight, so I know she's not working today, but she did mention another job, too.

Michael's about the same age as Nino, Daniela's little brother; they'd probably get along great, as all the other kids are under four.

I'm losing it.

Just because a person made me feel something—something wild and strong—doesn't mean I should get all hung up on…her.

"Alec?" Joseph pokes his head in. "A minute, please."

I nod and stand up, ignoring how my knees pop, and follow him down the hall. Past my bedroom, the extra bath, AJ's room, and into my office. An office I don't really need since I have my office at the deli, but I didn't know what else to do with the room.

Joseph walks over to the desk and the fax machine. "Here's the info you asked for." He scans the papers while I try to catch up—info? Oh, shit. The info on Gemma. I'd almost forgotten that. Joseph shrugs and hands over the two sheets of paper. "She's squeaky clean."

No good. It'd be easier if she was a con artist or something. "No one's squeaky clean," I mutter, reading Gemma's employment records.

Her two jobs here in Vegas are listed, too. Twilight I already know, but the other one seems to be a bar. A rock bar off the Strip. She works there two nights a week.

Joseph chuckles. "Well, one speeding ticket in eight years and two gigs as a stripper aside, there's nothing. Pretty clean to me."

I guess I have to agree. Low credit score, but not low enough to be denied smaller loans, yet she took two jobs and asked for my help instead of burying herself in debt. She's healthy, uninsured but goes to a free clinic, no medical issues, never late with her rent…and she was involved in bake sales at her son's old school.

Squeaky clean. A genuinely good person.

Those exist?

~oOo~

Hours later, the younger generation has left with their kids; the house is pretty much done, and it's only us oldies left. Except for Alice; she left with her daughters, ditching Jasper here. AJ's here too, obviously.

Sitting in my backyard, smaller than the old one, I peer out over the pool and all the toys left behind. As Bella said, "Now you'll have entertainment for them when they come over."

And about ten sets of floaties.

"It's official." Junior sits back and pats his stomach as I light up a cigar. "I'm the fuckin' grill master."

I smirk and shake my head at him. He only flipped the burgers. Jasper and I took care of the steaks and the sausages.

"Yes, yes, you're excellent at everything, ciccino." Bella pats his hand, humoring him, then stands up to clear the table. My gentleman son stands up to help too, leaving me with Junior and Jasper. "AJ and I will be back with coffee and cake soon."

"Grazie, bell'uccellino." Junior sighs contentedly and is next to light up a cigar.

My gaze slides to Jasper. "So, where was Nico today?"

That kid is asking for a beating, not to mention a lesson in manners.

"Better be a good excuse." My brother's with me, thinking it's disrespectful not to show up.

"I fucking told him," Jasper says. "He shoulda been here, but there was some shit with his kid—the bastard." Right. Nico has a kid with his goomah. "The woman wants more money for their child—or whatever it was." He waves a hand, tired. "I have a feeling I know why you're lookin' at me like that, Junior, and I honestly don't blame you."

Junior inclines his head and takes a puff from his cigar. "I'mma be blunt with'chu, Jasper. I can't have him as my underboss."

"I know," Jasper answers soberly. "He'd be better as capo." He pauses and flicks his gaze between Junior and me. "You got anyone in mind for the seat?"

Junior chuckles wryly and jerks his chin at me. "When that fucker gets his head outta his ass."

I roll my eyes but grin. "You know I'll cave one'a these days, so stop bein' a cunt."

"Fuck you, you depressing dick," he laughs. "What's up wit'chu, anyway? I know you got laid recently, so what the hell are you PMS-ing about?"

I just flip my hand under my chin, 'cause it's none'a his business.

~oOo~

I cave the following Wednesday. Not to my brother, but to Gemma.

Well, truth be told, I caved last night too, when I drove over to Twilight just to "check things out." But I stayed hidden like some stalker, so she didn't see me. I saw her though, and something's up. She moved flawlessly and made the crowd lose their shit without getting naked, but something was missing. Maybe in her eyes or her posture—I don't fucking know.

That's why I'm driving over to that other bar now, where she's working tonight.

Too much privacy might make me do something stupid, so I figured if there's a bar separating us, I can ask her if everything's okay, and then I'll get outta there.

Keep telling yourself that.

Knowing it's a rock bar, I skipped the suit tonight and put on a pair of jeans and a black button-down, which is kinda foreign to me on a night out.

Finding the bar is easy, and I park in the small lot next to the two-story building. I run a hand through my hair and pull out a smoke, lighting it up as I make my way to the front of the building.

I pass a few bikers and walk up to the bouncer. "Gemma Rossi working tonight?"

He eyes me up and down, unimpressed. "What's it to you, old man?"

I chuckle and extend my hand. "Alec Maisano. And you are?"

"Shit." Yeah, the shit's eyes widen. "Sorry, man. I mean sir." He shakes my hand. "No, she ain't workin'. Toby had to let her go, 'cause she couldn't find a babysitter for her kid." My stare hardens at that. "But, you know," he's quick to add, "if you talk to Toby, I'm sure he'll welcome her back."

Seeing an opportunity to make some dough for Gemma, I pull back my hand and pretend to think about his words for a few seconds. Then I say, "I think she'll be better off with another gig. But some severance pay wouldn't hurt, if you know what I mean."

"She, uh, only played here a few nights." He's already regretting his words.

Meanwhile, I just got a clue. Playing here. So, she hasn't been a bartender or waitress; she's been playing, and I remember she "jumped" at the chance to work out here when she was offered the job. My guess? Music is big for her; it's what she wants to do. Something with music, anyway.

"I'll talk to Toby," the man promises. "You still have that deli, right?"

I incline my head. "He can find me there next week, and he better not show up empty-handed. Firing a single motha' just like that…?" I shake my head. "She's part of my family, you know."

That said, I turn around and leave again.

As I make my way toward the Bellagio, my last words to the bouncer kinda echo inside. Over and over, on a damn loop. She's part of my family, she's part of my family, she's part of my family. In more than one way, I like the sound of that. Small technicality—having married Gemma's half-sister—aside, there's a sense of…I don't even know, but it clicks? On another level, a deeper one.

Stopping at a red light, I pull out my phone and make a call. The first time, I get voicemail, but when I try again, he finally picks up.

"Yeah?"

"I know it's late, but I need backup," I say, feeling stupid.

~oOo~

By the time I get my ticket from the valet, AJ's already waiting for me.

I'm thinking he'd already gone to bed when I called. He's put on sweats and a hoodie, but his hair's sticking out and his smirk is just a little bit sleepy.

"I'm sorry, tesoro." I'm a grown-ass man and I can't talk to a certain woman without my son there.

He shrugs and we enter the hotel. "I went to bed 'cause I was bored, so no worries." He jerks his chin at the lobby when I lead the way to the elevators. "You not gonna…?"

I shake my head no and take out my wallet to get the key card. "The room's in my name."

"Convenient." His sleepy smirk is back. I can tell he wants to say something else, but he keeps quiet. For a while. Then when we enter an elevator and go up, he puts me outta my misery. "So, I thought you said you didn't want anything to happen with Gemma."

"I don't," is my automatic response, but of course AJ doesn't buy my bullshit. "What I mean is, I'm not sure it's a good idea, which is why I asked you to come. I thought…maybe, I don't fucking know." I run a hand through my hair, frustrated. "We could just…talk?"

AJ purses his lips, no doubt to hide a grin, and nods slowly, hands in the front pocket of his hoodie. "Just talk. Right. Or, you know…you could go after what'chu want."

I smack the back of his head, since I got nothin'a say.

He nods and rubs the spot I smacked. "Valid argument."

I open my mouth to say that's enough outta him, but we arrive at the floor and fuck me if I don't get a little nervous. Fucking pathetic.

"Sono troppo vecchio." I blurt out that I'm too old as we stop in front of Gemma's door.

AJ raises a brow. "Okay?"

"For her, I mean. She's only twenty-eight."

He shrugs, 'cause what else would he do? He's my kid. "It didn't seem to be a concern of hers when youse were having, uh—" he snickers "—tea and biscuits at Twilight."

I snort a laugh. "Whatta we, British now?" Shaking my head, I steel myself and knock on the door. For all I know, Gemma's gone to bed early. But at the very least, Michael's gotta be asleep by now.

"Hey, Dad? Um, thanks for calling me."

I tilt my head, smiling in confusion. His ears are a little red, his gaze downcast.

"Who else was I gonna call?" I pull him close and kiss his head. "You was the first one I thought of."

He looks up at that. "Really?"

"Of course." I chuff him lightly on the chin. "You're my little advisor."

"Yeah, okay." He flushes and grins at the floor. "Cool."

I get that urge again, to hug him to death, 'cause he's too fucking adorable for words.

Instead we both play it cool, 'cause Gemma opens the door, and what the fuck?

I'm very familiar with her too-short cutoffs by now, but I'm kinda familiar with that t-shirt, too.

"Isn't that your Dodgers shirt?" AJ stage whispers.

I nod slowly, wondering why I'm not pissed. It's a vintage shirt carrying the name of a team that my father used to worship. He took me and Junior to a few games before the Dodgers left Brooklyn for LA in '57—and before we left Brooklyn for Manhattan. I was only four, so I don't remember much—just that Junior and I felt like kings when we rode through Brooklyn in Dad's Thunderbird, wearing our game shirts.

I bought the t-shirt Gemma's wearing right now at an auction a few years ago.

"A-Alec," she stammers. She was definitely not expecting us. "AJ…" Her gaze flicks between us, then down to the shirt, and up to me again. "Um."

For some weird reason, I'm amused instead of angry. "You gonna invite us in, dolcezza?"

She nods quickly and stares at her feet as she opens the door wider.

I gesture for AJ to enter first, and he disappears farther into the suite, muttering about hijacking the TV. Smart kid.

When he's rounded the corner to what I assume is the bedroom, I tilt my head at Gemma again. "Where's Michael?"

"Asleep." She keeps staring down. "He likes to sleep with noise in the background, so I moved the TV into the bedroom."

I nod and walk slowly to the living room area, seeing papers strewn all over the place. The entertainment center, coffee table, on the couch… Newspapers, clippings, ads, printouts.

Gemma shuffles behind me, not saying a word, not asking why I'm here.

AJ pokes his head out of the bedroom. "Is it okay if I turn up the sound just a little?"

"That's fine," Gemma says. "Michael can sleep through a world war."

I give AJ a look, silently telling him not to overdo it, and he nods and disappears again.

"Would you like a drink?" Gemma asks politely as she clears the couch of papers and folders. "I am sorry about the mess—I'm trying to find a better job and an apartment."

Enough of this tiptoeing.

When she's set down everything on the coffee table, I step forward and grab her arm.

"I'm sorry about the shirt!" she whispers in a rush. That's…not what I wanted to talk about. "I know it was stupid, but I wanted…" She trails off and averts her eyes.

Now I wanna know. "You wanted what?" I murmur. With my gentle grip on her arm, I pull her closer and trace a finger along the team's name over her chest. "Tell me. You're usually not shy."

"You can be intimidating," she says, chancing a quick glance at me before she settles for looking at the floor. "You've been so helpful, and I don't want to mess up. I stole the shirt because, because…" She huffs, and I finally see some of her fire. "Because I knew I was going to miss you, okay?" I get a glare at that.

Warmth hits me squarely in the chest, and I wonder how this little broad got bigger balls than me. She's honest and knows what she wants—although I still don't see why—and I'm…a pussy?

Fuck that.

"You keep the shirt. Looks better on you, anyway." I release her arm and sit down on the couch. "I heard you got fired from the bar."

She frowns and sits next to me, hugging one knee to her chest. "I'm not even going to ask how you know that. Yes, they let me go. When I work at Twilight, there's another dancer who looks after Michael. I babysit her daughter when she works."

I know a lotta strippers do that.

"Why are you here, Alec?"

Sighing, I lean back a bit more and loll my head against the back of the couch to face her. "I wanted to see you." Wouldja look at that, I can go with the truth, too.

"Oh?" She straightens a bit, hope lightening her eyes.

I don't get it. I'll learn to accept it and I'll fucking revel in it, but I don't understand. "Can I ask what'chu want, Gemma?" I reach out and playfully tug on a strand of her hair.

"I thought I made that clear." A smile tugs at her lips.

I nod with a dip of my chin and circle that strand of hair between my fingers. "To an extent. But I mean…in detail, what is it you're looking for?"

There's the girlfriend option, which makes most sense—I set her up with an apartment and support her financially, and in return, I get laid.

Goomahs aren't only for married men.

But I'm not sure I can do that. Not with Gemma. She's made too big of an impression on me.

"I want a family," she says bluntly, causing my brows to furrow. Family? Like marriage and shit? "I don't know you very well yet, but I have learned enough to know I want more."

"Marriage." I'm kinda in disbelief. Partly because I'm not as opposed to the idea as I've told myself I am, partly because I don't wanna fuck up, and partly because Gemma could find someone her own age.

"And another child." She nods for emphasis, and her shyness is gone. She's simply stating what she wants.

I gotta chuckle, 'cause this is nuts. "Do you know how old I am, hon?"

"Of course. You're the same age as Maria." She scowls at me. Fucking scowls. "I am not stupid, you know. If age is the problem, then you're a fool."

I'm a fool, then. "I admit that I found you too young at first, but now it's the other way around." I twirl a finger. "I'm too old."

She scrunches her nose and shifts her hair over her shoulder, leaving my fingers empty. "You are only as old as you act."

I laugh through my nose. "Yeah, still old."

"Fine." She juts out her chin and points to the door. "Then leave, you stubborn idiot."

Well, fuck.

"I can't do that." So, maybe it's time I get my shit together and follow my son's advice. Go after what you want. "I've tried," I chuckle humorlessly and kneel on the couch. "God knows I've tried, but I can't get'chu outta my fuckin' head." I tap my temple and move closer, towering over her. "And maybe…" She lies back, more hope brightening her eyes, but at the same time her pupils dilate. I release a breath and settle on top of her, and Jesus fucking Christ, it feels good. "Maybe I want the same things that you want."

Her breathing hitches, and she fists my shirt.

Closing my eyes, I ghost my lips over her temple and breathe in her hair. I grab her hip to feel more of her under me, and I slide that hand underneath her t-shirt and caress her soft stomach. Gemma trembles and lets out a small whimper, causing blood to surge to my cock.

By accepting that there's something great here, that Gemma and I can build something together, that I just might get the chance to have something real with someone amazing who I already care about…not only is it overwhelming, but it also opens the floodgates. When a Maisano wants something, he fucking gets it.

Now I want everything all at once.

Opening my eyes again, I inch away a little and look down at her gorgeous face. The to-do list writes itself as I memorize her features, and I know there are several things I should ask her about, but at the same time, there are a few where I won't take no for an answer.

"Hai intenzione di baciarmi?" She smiles a little, asking if I'm gonna kiss her, her hands moving up my chest.

My mouth quirks up. "I'mma do a lot more than that, but first things first." I pause, the smooth texture of her cheek under my thumb distracting me. "You won't work at Twilight no more."

Instinct tells her to argue, but she wisely snaps her mouth shut to consider what I've actually said. She's a strong woman, and unlike Maria, I think Gemma is one of those women who wants to work. Which I don't understand but accept and admire; regardless, it won't be at a strip joint.

"I accept that," she says slowly, then narrows her eyes. "You know, I asked Mr. Maisano—I mean Anthony, why I was only allowed to dance on stage, and he wouldn't answer me. Did you have anything to do with that, Alec?"

"You bet I did," I answer gruffly. "I didn't want nobody touching you." She makes a happy noise at that, and I get back on track, 'cause I wanna settle this work thing. "Tell me what'chu want."

She bites her lip, hesitating. "I've always wanted, um…to work at a place where I can play music."

At least she doesn't dream of leaving this place to become a rock star or something.

I nod absently and trace the shell of her ear with a finger. "Like the bar?"

"More like a café—daytime hours—but yeah, the bar was okay, too."

Done. I can set her up with her own fucking café. There's money all over Vegas, and I'm a creative fucker. If I run it past Junior, I'm sure we can work together, maybe open up a café version of Stella Mia. Bella will most likely go nuts with excitement, filling up a whole menu with her pastries or whatever. And Gemma can add her own touch with whatever she wants to do.

"What's going on inside this head of yours, papi?" She taps my temple.

I hum and dip down to kiss her jaw. "Plans for the future." I rumble a groan of pleasure when she drags her fingernails along my scalp. Tired of holding myself up, I shift to the side and lie down next to her—well, half on top of her. "I want'chu in my house."

She shivers. "Really?"

I smile against her collarbone, enjoying the happiness in her voice. "You've reeled me in, dolcezza. If there's one thing you gotta know about us Maisanos, it's that we don't go slow once we get started."

Only, I didn't know that applied to me until now. I figured it was a Junior thing. He and his boys—always rushin' to have it all.

Gemma laughs and sneaks her hands under my shirt, circling my middle. "I can live with that. And I'd say it's a Rossi thing, but it's more from my mama's side." She grabs my chin, making me face her. "I love with all my heart—" she steals a quick smooch "—and I hate just as passionately. Don't betray me."

Ironically, it's the last thing she has to worry about. I'm the lucky one here.

"Wouldn't dream of it." My turn to kiss her, and I manage to keep it chaste. "Come home with me." With us, I amend internally. My reason for bringing AJ as a buffer didn't play out as I'd thought it would, but I don't regret asking him to come along.

I don't have all the details yet, but I like the idea of the four of us taking it from here, not just me and AJ.

"Right now?" Gemma asks, surprised. "It's almost midnight."

"I can drive in the dark," I deadpan. "You're safe."

She giggles and slaps my chest. "That is not what I meant."

I capture her hand and kiss the tips of her fingers. "Come on. Let's go home."

"I like the sound of that," she whispers. "I knew I could teach an old dog to sit."

Brat.

~oOo~

It takes a week before my family has had it with my secrecy.

One week of dodging as much work as possible, of having Gemma and Michael in my house with me and AJ, of turning my office into a bedroom for Michael, and one week of waking up extremely happy each morning.

Will I ever get used to it?

Regardless, Anthony called me yesterday—warned me and said his parents were gonna come over here today after breakfast.

"We should get ready," Gemma whispers sleepily. "I've heard stories about your brother's wife. I want her to like me. She is the matriarch of the family, yes?"

I chuckle drowsily and shift forward, pressing my morning wood against her delectable ass. "Bella's a sweetheart, dolcezza. You got nothin'a worry about." Gemma moans softly, surrendering, when I teasingly run my middle finger between the bare lips of her pussy. "Cazzo, I can't get enough of you." Kissing her neck, I finger-fuck her gently at first, mostly for me, mostly because I've grown addicted to the feel of her pussy. "So warm, tight, and wet for me…"

"Please, papi." She pushes her ass onto my aching dick. "Give it to me."

I let out a growl as I suck my wet finger into my mouth, tasting her. I gotta get that from the source one day soon. In my mid-forties and I haven't eaten pussy since I was a teenager.

As Gemma lifts her leg and arches into me, I grip my cock and slide it through her juices before I slam right in.

"Dio—yes, yes, more…" She whimpers and exposes her neck for me, but I want her mouth instead. Then she stiffens a little. "Oh Alec, you didn't put on a—"

I grab her jaw and kiss her hungrily until she melts into my arms. That's my girl. When I release her, she clings on, kissing me for all she's worth. In the meantime, I let my hand trail down her front, palming her luscious tits and rolling her nipples between my fingers. That earns me the sexiest noises from her, and they only increase when I cup her pussy instead.

"You like that?" I murmur, my thumb stroking downward across her wet clit. "I know you do. You squeeze my cock so tight when I rub your clit."

"Don't tease me," she pleads, tensing up. All over.

I groan, her pussy clenching just as I push in. "Fuck, Gemma…"

Over the next several minutes, the only things I can hear are our labored breathing and the wet sounds of sex. Then when I can feel that she's getting close, I change our position so she's riding me. 'Cause seeing her going to town on my cock…? There's nothing like it.

"Take it all." I sit up, outta breath, and focus all my attention on her. "Take everythin' you need."

"Oh, my God…" She moans and rides me faster, harder, literally impaling herself on my dick. And the closer she gets, the more she digs her fingernails into my shoulders. "Love your thick cock," she whimpers as I push her tits together. "Feels so good—oh, so good, so good!"

Panting and groaning, I still chuckle, unable to help myself. I lower my mouth to suck on her nipples, and at the same time, I rub her clit in tight little circles.

"You gonna come for me, dolcezza?"

"Yes…yes…" She picks up even more speed, her "yesses" coming out in a breathless chant.

I grit my teeth together, 'cause Gemma brings me to the edge, and I refuse to come before she's completely done. Thankfully, I don't gotta wait much longer. She stiffens above me and crashes her mouth to mine, gasping as her orgasm takes over.

A curse falls from my lips. She's just too fucking sexy, and when she comes, the intensity is like nothing else. I deserve a medal for getting through it without losing control.

But the second she collapses on top of me…?

All bets are off.

I flip her over, earning a wheezing giggle from her, and hook an arm under her knee. Then I slam home and groan against her neck. Gemma's fingers in my hair, her dirty whispers, and how she arches into me…it all brings me there faster. I lose it after a few hard thrusts when she asks me in a sultry voice to fill her up with my come.

Indescribable pleasure explodes inside me, and I rock jerkily into her as black spots cloud my vision.

Madonn', if this is any indication of what I'll have for the rest of my life, I'll die a happy man.

~oOo~

Junior and Bella ring the doorbell at ten on the dot, and whereas I'm only in a pair of sweats and the towel around my neck, Gemma's ready to play hostess.

She's in another one of her quirky outfits that I've come to love on her, but she's toned it down with the coloring—unnecessary in my opinion. Her gypsy skirt is white, and her tank top is a faded yellow, to which she has added matching accessories.

With the diamond stud earrings I got her a couple days ago, she's wearing yellow plastic bangles on her wrists.

She has a ring on her toe and a bracelet around her ankle.

Odd.

But I kinda dig it. My girl's different. And smoking hot.

"I'm so nervous." She flits around in the kitchen, bringing out a pitcher of the lemonade she made yesterday, glasses, cookies from the oven, and switching on the coffeemaker. "Last time I worked at Twilight, Junior was there to meet with Anthony, and they don't like strippers very much, do they?" Oh, I'd say it's a bit more complicated than that. "Junior was only there for maybe twenty minutes, and he still managed to scare three of the girls."

Must've been new dancers, 'cause that's one of the first things they learn at Twilight and Dawn: don't go near Junior Maisano if you like being alive.

As I hear AJ greeting my brother and sister-in-law in the hallway, I step up behind Gemma and kiss her neck. "Listen to me, dolcezza." I know what'll ease her fears. "You're so afraid my family won't like you? But you have no idea how much you have in common with Bella." At that, Gemma tilts her head to look up at me, dubious. I smirk and step away, stealing a cookie in the process. "Twenty-five years ago, Bella stole my brother's heart while working as a stripper."

Her eyes widen. "No way," she whispers.

I take another step back 'cause I can hear voices coming closer, and I offer Gemma a nod in reply.

I was there all those years ago when Felix hired Bella. The balls on that girl…Christ. I remember she was nervous as fuck, but she hid it well and she didn't cower to Felix's intimidation tactics.

There were other things she didn't shy away from, but that's between her and a dead man. And my memories.

Leaving the kitchen, I take a bite of the cookie—mamma mia, that's what I'm talkin' about—and meet Junior and Bella in the hallway. By now, a curious Michael is there too, and he's half hiding behind AJ.

Michael's cute as fuck, shy one second and brave the next. So far, he's bonded plenty with AJ, who I think secretly loves the role of being a big brother, because when my son pretends to be annoyed with Michael, it's way too fake.

"I'm your Zia Bella." Bella leans down and greets Michael with a beaming smile. Unbeknownst to her, she's also giving AJ a look down her dress, which he ain't complaining about.

Probably a good thing my brother doesn't notice.

I snort a chuckle. "Tesoro, youse're family, for fuck's sake."

AJ smirks and looks away, blushing.

"What?" Bella's oblivious, then she straightens and smiles wider. "You got some 'splainin'a do, Alec!"

Junior looks up from Michael and grins wryly. "Would'ja look at that, my little brother's alive."

"He's your brother, Alec?" Michael asks, pointing to Junior.

"Yep." I bump fists with my brother, and the fucker steals the rest of my cookie. "He's also a pain in the ass." I wink at Michael, who giggles.

Junior isn't listening, busy nodding to himself about the cookie and wiping crumbs off the front of his suit.

When Bella's smile turns into one of curiosity, her gaze focused on something behind me, I turn around just as Gemma joins us.

"Well, no wonder Alec's been hiding out!" Bella brightens further and takes charge, basically kidnapping Gemma. With a hand to Gemma's back, Bella ushers her toward the kitchen. "It's very nice to meet'chu. I'm Isabella Maisano, but please call me Bella. And excuse my brother-in-law's manners. I can't believe he didn't introduce us sooner. I'll make sure you get to meet the rest of the family this weekend…" Her voice fades as they disappear into the kitchen, and I turn to Junior again, slightly dazed.

Although, I shouldn't be. This isn't the first time Bella's taken over to make a newcomer feel welcome in our family.

The next time I see Gemma, I know she'll be relaxed.

"Backyard?" I suggest to Junior.

He nods and follows me, and the boys take off to change so they can jump in the pool.

Sitting down at the table, I wait for Junior to speak, 'cause he's being too fucking quiet. But he takes his sweet-ass time, shrugging outta his suit jacket and running a comb through his hair before he sits down and rolls up the sleeves of his button-down. Next he lights up a cigarette and gets comfortable, absently tapping the lighter against the armrest as he peers out over the backyard.

He does this sometimes—it ain't often, but occasionally, and it makes me feel as if there're twenty years separating us instead of a measly one.

I've mellowed out a shitload over the years; I used to be a hotheaded motherfucker who never shut up, but my brother's stayed the same. A silent killer back then, a silent killer now. Sinister, calculating, and intimidating.

He's never intimidated me worth'a shit, but he does make me irritated—on edge.

"No verdict, asshole?" I drawl.

Junior frowns at me. "I didn't know you were waiting for one."

I barely refrain from rolling my eyes. "Don't gimme that shit. You always have an opinion."

He nods slowly. "I'm guessing this is the Gemma Rossi Joseph and Anthony told me about."

I chuckle darkly, having figured he'd play the boss card to squeeze the truth outta his son and Joseph.

"I was fuckin' worried about'chu, so don't get startin' on loyalty," he warns. Fair enough. I didn't know that. That he'd been worried, I mean. Junior shakes his head and faces the pool again, taking a long drag from his smoke. "I'm assuming this broad's gonna be around to see family?"

In other words, he wants to know if Gemma's a goomah or a future wife.

I clear my throat and snatch up his pack of smokes on the table. "She'll be around."

Junior inclines his head. "Then I advise you to not be as stupid as Jasper and Nico. Keep your goomahs outside'a town, 'cause we don't need more drama, and my wife gets attached to these girls—"

"Whoa, whoa—calm the fuck down," I spit out. But, ironically, he's cool as a cucumber; I'm the one getting riled up. I pinch the bridge of my nose and take a few calming breaths. "It's not like that, bro." I keep my voice down and look him in the eye. "She's not another Maria. And for your fucking information, I didn't start off being a bastard to Maria—"

He cuts me off with a lift of his eyebrows. "Don't bullshit a bullshitta'. It's your business, but you don't gotta lie. You was with Kate for a long time after you married Maria."

I nod, knowing that's what everyone believes. "Does that mean the rumors about Anthony having a mistress are true?"

He scowls and leans forward. "Of course not. He's young—he's got a rep to—"

"And you don't think I had a rep to uphold back then?" I laugh incredulously. "I was the same fuckin' age Anthony is now. Everyone just assumed I kept screwing Kate." I shrug and take a pull from my smoke. "I ain't gonna lie; I didn't end things completely with her. I took care'a her, took her to dinner, and she stayed in the apartment I got her. But I didn't so much as kiss her when there was a ring on my finga'."

It was my way of having it all, despite how empty and fake it was. Maria hated my guts, so I kept Kate around for the comfort. She was…nice. She didn't glare at me the minute I walked in.

With the feelings I have for Gemma, and the way they just get stronger with every day that passes, I'm not sure I felt an inch of love for Kate, which I've always thought, but I still cared for her. I needed the companionship she provided, but then…then she was killed.

"Are you serious?" Junior stares at me intently, brows furrowed. "I'm not doubting you. I'm just tryin'a understand."

I shrug. "Shouldn't be that hard, Junior. We have the same parents."

Same upbringings, same values. Same views on marriage.

"Huh." My brother sits back again, processing. "But you're not tryin'a tell me you didn't fuck around on Maria later, are ya?" He side-eyes me.

"No. I did what I did." I've never been an angel, but I was brought up to be loyal, and it's still something I want. With Gemma. "Anything else you wanna know, boss?"

"Don't do that," he tells me, but there's no heat to his words. "I'm not Carlisle or Felix. I'm asking as your fucking brother, Alec. I want'chu to be happy."

My shoulder sag with relief, and I feel all tension leaving my body. "Gemma makes me happy."

"Bene." He nods and stubs out his smoke in the ashtray on the table. "You love her?"

"I'm getting there." Too soon for my liking. If Gemma wasn't so open with her feelings, I woulda been worried, but it appears we're on the same page. And for the first time since my son was born, I get giddy. "She's fuckin' dangerous."

"The best ones are." Junior laughs through his nose and shrugs. "Trap her with a kid. Worked for me."

I bark out a laugh at that, remembering back in the day when he told me he'd knocked up Bella the first time. He'd been on cloud nine, and…and I guess, in a way, he hasn't left that cloud.

Behind us, we hear the boys walking out, and they pay us no attention as they head over to the pool. AJ's explaining the rules to some game they're gonna play, and Michael's soaking it up. He's at that age where he constantly reminds people he's a big boy.

"You should call Dominic and Daniela," Junior mentions. "Nino doesn't have many friends, and he's gotta be the same age as this one." He jerks his chin at Michael.

I nod, having already thought of that. Michael starts his new school after the weekend too, and he'll be at the same place as Nino. Gemma argued at first, saying public school was more than fine, but I convinced her to go with a private school instead.

"Juniuh!" Bella hollers from inside. "We're coming out!" In a quieter voice, I hear her explain to Gemma that she knew Junior wanted to talk to me in private first.

The two women appear with trays of coffee, mugs, plates, cookies, and lemonade, and like I already knew would be the case, Gemma looks at ease. Overwhelmed but at ease.

Bella gives me the first plate, but only to murmur her approval. "You did good, hon. And you know, she's got good hips for childbearing." She winks, then sits down by her husband.

I shake my head in amusement as Gemma sits down next to me, and at my girl's questioning look, I lean close and tell her what Bella thinks of her hips.

"Oh." Gemma grins and folds out a napkin on her lap. "Now I understand why she asked me about children in the kitchen."

Well, Bella's always looking to expand our family.

"Did'ju make these, Gemma?" Junior's got a mouthful of chocolate chip cookies.

"Yes, sir." Gemma nods, being too polite.

"You don't gotta do that, sweetheart." Bella grins and shakes her head. "Just Juniuh will be fine."

"My wife speaks for me, if that wasn't clear," my brother deadpans. "But she's right. And these are good." He grabs another cookie and dips it in his coffee.

That was his way of welcoming Gemma to the family.

Judging by the relief in her expression, she understood what he was saying.

A smile plays on her lips as she pours me coffee. "I like them," she whispers.

I shift my chair closer and kiss the spot below her ear. "They like you, too."

As for me…?

Yet another Maisano bites the dust.


Futuretakes in the works: Francis's and Julia's.

Bug me for 'em in a couple weeks :)