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|Without Me(Men of Inked #7) by Chelle Bliss|
“Sir?” he asked, and smiled. “I like this boy already.”
“I’m sorry,” Max whispered, gripping my forearm tighter.
This was her family and I’d love them no matter what. I had some uncles that often spoke their mind too. I thought it was an age thing. People became freer with their words as they grew older. They didn’t worry as much about offending anyone—or at least it seemed like it.
“Maybe if you’d get a damn hearing aid, you would’ve heard your sister say he was a white boy so you wouldn’t act like an idiot like you are now, Earl,” an older woman teased him as she walked up behind him. “I’m Clara, Earl’s wife.”
Earl rolled his eyes in much the same fashion Max always did. “Maybe I just don’t want to hear what you have to say.”
Clara smacked him on the back of the hand as Earl snickered. “Anthony, it’s nice to meet you. Don’t mind my husband. He’s not entirely with it anymore.” She smiled, and it was so warm and genuine that I couldn’t help but smile back at her.
“Go make me a sandwich, woman!” Earl demanded as he pursed his lips. “Don’t fawn over the boy.”
“He’s not a boy, Earl. That right there is a man.” Clara’s smiled changed, moving from sweet to flirty.
I cleared my throat, feeling the heat creep up my neck before filling my cheeks. I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t want to seem like an idiot.
“You have yourself a man. I don’t have me a sandwich.”
“Earl,” she said as she put her hands on her hips.
“Why don’t you go introduce him to everyone else, baby, before you help me finish dinner,” Ruth said.
“It’s not ready?” Max asked before we walked away.
“Saved a few things for us to do together. When you’re ready, Anthony can stay out here and get to know the family better.”
“Do not leave me out here,” I whispered to Max as I pulled her closer to me.
“You’ll be okay,” she said as she pulled me toward a large group sitting at a picnic table.
“Max, please. I’ll come cook.”
“You know you can’t cook, and it’s girls only in my mama’s kitchen.”
“Fuck,” I muttered. It was like being at my mother’s. Men weren’t welcome to help prepare the food. I’d always been okay with that. It was less work for me, but at Ruth’s, I wanted to run away and hide in the kitchen with Max instead of being left outside with strangers.
Max introduced me to her uncles and cousins, and I knew I’d never remember their names. Six men sat at the table, sipping their beers and looking at me with curiosity. Denzel stood at the opposite end of the table with a giant smile on his face. He seemed to sense my uneasiness and took pleasure in it.
“Guys, can you take care of Anthony while I go inside and help Mama finish up?” Max asked.
I stared at her, pleading for her to take me with her using only my eyes. My stomach knotted, and a nervous sweat broke out across my forehead.
“Sure, Max,” Uncle Bob replied, shooing her with his hands. “We got him.”
“I’m sure you do. Go easy on him, boys.” Max took a step. “Malia and Nita, are you coming?” she asked, looking over at Nita and Malia, who were watching with big, sappy grins.
“Nah, we’re good,” Malia replied as she started to sit in an empty chair.
“Get your asses up. Let the guys have some time together,” Max shot back at Malia, waving for her and Nita to follow.
I grabbed her hand, stopping her. “I can cook. Let me show you.”
“No,” she replied before standing on her tiptoes to give me a kiss. “You stay out here and get to know everyone.”
My mouth felt dry and scratchy as I tried to swallow. I’d rather cook than deal with her family.
“You’re such a bossy bitch,” Nita said to Max as they walked away.
“Anthony, want a beer?” someone asked as I watched Max sashay toward the house.
“Sure,” I said, closing my eyes for a moment before turning. “I’d love one.”
Bob reached in the cooler, pulled out a Coors Light, and held it out to me. I snatched the beer and refrained from holding it to my head to cool myself down.
“Want to sit down?” Denzel asked as he grabbed a lawn chair from under the tree.
“Sure,” I said, because I thought maybe, if I were at eye level, I wouldn’t feel like everyone was staring at me.
“Tell us about yourself,” the man she’d called Junior asked.
I cracked the beer open and took a large gulp before I answered. “I’m a tattoo artist.”
“That tells me what you do, son, but I want to know who you are.”
The question threw me for a loop. I’d always described myself with my work. I didn’t have anything else to really say about myself that most people were truly interested in hearing.
“Tell us about your family,” Bob said.
Clearly, I hadn’t hid the fact that his question had confused me. “I have a large Italian family with three brothers and a sister. We own a tattoo shop together.”
“Parents still together?” Earl asked as he plopped down in a lawn chair next to me.
“Yes, sir. They are.”
“How often do you see them?”
“Every week. My mother has dinner for the family on Sunday.”