Mike winces. “Don’t remind me.”
“What’s going on?” Izzy asks as she rounds the corner and almost barrels straight into Suzy.
“The girls got in trouble,” Suzy says but leaves out all the gory details.
“Thank God I have boys.” She smiles proudly, finally not complaining about having a baby girl to love.
“Hey, Izzy. Did Mom or Dad give you the birds and the bees talk?” Joe asks.
I’m sure she got a different treatment than her brothers. There has always been a double standard when it comes to parenting children.
“Mom did. I think I was like twelve.”
“What did she say?”
“I didn’t even know half the shit she was talking about. Basically, she told me to wait until I was married to let anyone touch me down there. She told me that it was the most sacred gift you could give anyone.”
Mike almost chokes. “She did?”
“No, ya dumb fuck. She told me to wait until I got married because men are assholes and will say anything to get in my pants. She gave me a box of rubbers and brought me to the gynecologist and put me on the pill too. She figured it didn’t matter anyway. With four brothers, I’m sure she assumed I’d never get laid, so why worry.”
That isn’t an option for Lily and Gigi.
We aren’t ready for that yet. Lord, I don’t know if I will ever be ready for that.
“Izzy!” James’s voice carries through the house like a roar. “I need you.”
“Goddamn it. I swear, Trace thinks everything should go in his mouth. I bet he’s eating the Christmas ornaments again. He should be over this phase at his age.”
“Oh, gawd,” I groan and dread the day when Stone starts to eat everything in sight, including Legos and other objects that aren’t meant for consumption.
“Fuckin’ James takes pictures of it for his Instagram. Asshole thinks Trace is the funniest little thing ever. I’m going to junk punch him soon.”
“Bullshit,” Mike coughs out. “I’d like to see you try. Bet your ass gets whipped.”
Izzy winks, smiling at her brother. “Only if I’m lucky.”
Mike’s face scrunches at her words. “Yuck.”
“Oh, stop the bullshit. You know you love to spank my ass,” I tell him with a small giggle, but my cheeks heat at the thought of him buried inside me and his hand coming down on my ass repeatedly.
He places his hand on my ass cheek and gives it a firm squeeze. “Fuck, I love making that ass pink, baby. When I do, your pussy grips…”
“Hey,” Joe says, motioning around the room. “There are children around here, man.”
“Right,” Mike says and bites his lip. “Have kids, they said.” He rolls his eyes and groans. “They’d be fun, they said.” His lip curls and he growls. “All fucking lies.”
Suzy interrupts Mike’s pity party. “You guys should really stop swearing so much around the children.”
“I’m sorry. You’re right. I’ll make an announcement before dinner.”
“This should be interesting,” I mutter because swearing has become almost a second and more expressive language since I’ve become a member of this family.
“It’s best for everyone if we find big-people words to use instead of the dirty ones.”
“Yes, Mrs. Gallo,” Mike teases her in a whiny, little kid voice because she just pulled out the teacher tone.
“You better behave, Michael, or I’m going to have Mia give you detention.”
Mike stares down at me with a cocky smirk. “Only if there’s oral involved.”
“Boys only think about one thing,” I say, shaking my head. But to be honest, when Mike’s around, it’s always on my mind too.
He beams with pride. “Yep.”
Ma walks in with the biggest tray of appetizers I’ve ever seen. “They’re almost here,” she says with excitement. “I never thought I’d see the day when Franny got remarried.”
Two weeks ago, Fran and Bear tied the knot.
“They’ve been gone forever,” Mom says as she sets the tray down on the coffee table near Pop, who’s still holding Stone and watching the video replay of the Cubs winning the World Series for the hundredth time.
“Ma, it’s been ten days since they left for their honeymoon. Calm down,” Anthony tells her, coming out of the kitchen with another tray of food.
His words earn him a glare from Ma. “Hush your mouth. My best friend has been without any type of cell reception or internet for ten days. Do you know how that killed me?”
“Killed me too,” Pop says sarcastically over his shoulder.
Ma gives him a death glare. “Shut up, Sal.” She pushes us out of the way when there’s a knock at the door, making a beeline for the foyer.
Mike and I settle onto the floor of the living room just as Fran and Maria start squealing with delight in the foyer. Joe and Suzy walk away, heading toward the front door, while the rest of us stay put. Pop’s still holding Stone, Izzy and James are off with Trace somewhere, Max and Anthony are curled up on the sofa, and Thomas and Angel are standing in the backyard, watching Nick “the Streaker” like a hawk.
The kids are running around the house, their screams of happiness while playing carrying through the sprawling two-story house. The cacophony only dims when they run out the open sliding doors lining the back of the house, but they quickly return and do it all over again. They’re making a circle pattern—up the staircase, around the top floor, back down, out, and back again. I’m exhausted just watching them and more than a little jealous of their endless energy.
Mike’s hand is resting against my middle, stroking my stomach slowly. “Maybe I knocked you up again, Doc,” he whispers in my ear, and I can feel his smile against my skin. Diapers and sleepless nights weren’t my favorite, but they definitely weren’t Mike’s thing.
“If there’s a baby inside me, Michael, I’ll never have sex with you again,” I whisper back, but we both know it’s a lie.
“There’s the big guy,” Anthony says when Bear and Fran walk into the room with Ma close behind. “What the hell do I call you now? Uncle Bear?” Anthony scratches his head in confusion.
“You’re an idiot,” Thomas tells Anthony and shakes his head in disgust.
Pop climbs to his feet, placing Stone on his hip, and wraps his sister in a half hug. “Franny, you look relaxed.”
Fran steps back, laughing nervously as she slides back under Bear’s arm. “I spent ten days in bed with this big lug. I should be in a coma.”
Stone yanks on Pop’s beard and giggles, distracting him from Fran’s statement. “You little stinker.” Pop lifts him in the air, exposing his stomach, and gives him a sloppy raspberry against his belly button.
“Why don’t the girls go into the kitchen and work on dinner, and the boys can stay out here and watch the kids,” Ma says, hooking her arm with Fran’s and trying to pry her from Bear’s body.
“Sure,” I say, climbing to my feet after kissing Michael. I’ve been in the family long enough to know “work on dinner” is code for drink and gossip.
“We’ll hold down the fort out here,” Joe tells Suzy when she stands as I pass by her and pull her with me, needing a glass of wine and a little girl talk.
By the time Suzy and I step foot in the kitchen, Fran already has seven wineglasses on the island and Ma has started to pour the wine.
“Sit,” Ma says, motioning toward the stools with her chin. “Fran, we want to hear all about it.”
“I’m going to need more wine if we’re going to talk about old-people sex.”
“Stop being a brat, Izzy. You’re not too far off from being old,” Ma teases.
Izzy gasps with wide eyes. “I’m in my thirties, Ma. I’m far from a senior citizen.”
“You’re no spring chicken anymore, sweetheart,” Fran says, grabbing a glass from the countertop and lifting it near her mouth. “Just yesterday, I was in my thirties. Goes by in the blink of an eye. You’ll all be old soon enough.”
Each of us grabs a glass, silence falling over the room as we all take a larger than usual sip, contemplating Fran’s words.
Every year, time moves faster, and nothing I do makes it slow.
“So, how was the honeymoon?” Suzy asks first as the rest of us continue to drink.
Fran rests her elbows on the counter, leaning forward and holding her wineglass in one hand. “I’ve never experienced anything like it.”
Izzy sighs loudly before guzzling the wine, holding it with both hands.
“Bear is an animal in the sack. I can’t believe I can even walk after it all.” She snorts against the back of her hand. “The man should’ve been an acrobat.”
“Sounds like you had a great time,” I say, feeling slightly awkward hearing about their sex life. She’s not my mother or aunt, but I’ve grown to think of her as a friend and I love her.
“Girl, there’s something about a big, muscular guy twirling you around and bending you like you’re a Twizzler.”
“You mean a pretzel,” Max corrects her, finally entering the conversation.
“Whatever. Who knew I was so damn flexible?”
“Anthony does this thing with his…”
Izzy grunts. “Not enough wine in the world for this conversation.” She grabs one of the bottles off the counter and heads back toward the living room. “I’m going to sit with the guys and watch the World Series for the millionth time. At least that won’t make my stomach turn.”
When Izzy storms out of the room, we giggle loudly.
“She’s such an uptight princess sometimes,” Max says, rolling her eyes. “We have to hear about her chains and whips all the time, but Lord forbid we talk about one of her brother’s cocks.”
“I don’t like hearing about Sal and Maria. It took me years not to want to throw up every time Maria would talk about their sex life,” Fran admits.
“Well, shit. Who else was I going to tell? You’re my best friend.” Maria fills our wineglasses before refilling her own. “Fran, later you can tell me all the steamy details. We don’t want to make the young ones in the room faint.”
“Thank you, baby Jesus,” Max mutters into her glass.
“It’s time.” Ma pushes a stack of plates in front of Suzy and me, and we know the routine. It’s the same every week and is like a well-choreographed machine. Half of us set the table and get the troops set, while the other half prep the food and carry it out.
Someday, the men will do something more than watch sports and bullshit.
I get Lily situated at the children’s table before coming to sit next to Mia and Stone at the adults’ table. “Did you get her something to drink?” Mia asks just as my ass touches the chair.
I climb to my feet again even though I’m so hungry I feel like I could pass out at any second. “No,” I grumble. “She’s ten. Her legs aren’t broken.”
I know I’m a whiny bitch. I love my kids and wife, but there’s a limit to my selflessness and it seems to be when I’m hungry. Keeping my body in tip-top shape isn’t easy.
“Just do it,” Mia orders me with a piercing stare while she cuts Stone’s food into the smallest pieces possible. By the way she’s stabbing at the meat, I’d say I pissed her off.
After pouring Lily a glass of milk, I collapse into the chair next to my lovely wife and begin to fill my plate without talking. Everyone is chattering around me, but I’m too hungry to do more than grunt.
“Should you be eating all those carbs?” Izzy asks, pointing at my plate with her fork.
“It’s Christmas. This is my cheat day.” I narrow my gaze at my nosy sister. “Mind your own business.”
“When’s the next fight?” James asks as he hands me the giant pan of lasagna.
“In a month,” I tell him, scooping out the biggest helping I can get away with without getting yelled at by Ma.
“We’ll all be there, son,” Pop says, which makes me smile.
My big and sometimes annoying family has been nothing short of amazing. They’ve always supported my choice to fight, and even after I quit and decided to go back, they followed my every move. Even Mia. I thought she was going to have a coronary when I told her I missed it, but the woman told me to follow my dream, even if it included pounding someone’s face in. I remember when we first met, she hated the idea of me being a fighter. She said it went against her oath or some bullshit as a doctor to watch me beat the piss out of another man. But I saw the fire in her eyes the first time she saw me fight. It turned her on, and she couldn’t deny it. Even to this day, she protests violence, but I always get pussy after a match.
Max wipes Asher’s face. I’ve never seen a baby eat as much as that little man does. When he gets older, he just may give me a run for my money.
“Let me do that, baby. Just eat,” Anthony tells her, taking the napkin from her hand.
His unusual selflessness and tenderness earn him funny looks from the entire table. Anthony isn’t known for his soft side, but he’s changed over the years. Between Max and his kids, he’s turned into a smartass teddy bear instead of the reckless manwhore he used to be.
If I’m being completely honest, all of us have changed. I’m still an asshole, but Mia makes me want to be a better person. I’m still a work in progress, but I’m getting there.
“Fine spread you have here, Mar.” Bear jams a chunk of meatball into his mouth and moans. His lack of table manners sometimes makes me look like a gentleman. I think it’s why I like him so much.
“Thanks, Bear.” Ma smiles. “Shit. We didn’t say a prayer and our thanks. Sal, sweetheart, can you start?”
There’s a collective groan before forks clank against everyone’s plates. I bow my head and hope the kids get so out of control that we eventually skip finishing and go back to eating.
“Behave,” Mia says and puts her hand on my knee.
“Higher,” I whisper with a smirk.
“I’ll go first,” Fran says, standing up and looking around the table. “I’m thankful for my family and my new husband. I never thought life could be this good.”
“Babe, I love the hell out of you,” Bear tells her and then stands. “I’m thankful for my wife and friends around this table and those who couldn’t be with us tonight. And thanks to Maria for the amazing food that’s getting cold.”
I knew I liked this guy. My stomach rumbles, and in order to speed shit along, I stand next before Bear can put his ass in the chair. “I’m thankful for my family and my little surprise, Stone.” I glance over at my little man as he shoves lasagna in his mouth with both hands.
The kids are eating at the next table, but no one seems to care. Back in the day, Ma would’ve knocked us into next week for not listening and saying thanks, but not the grandkids—they always get a pass.
I tune out after Mia says her thanks and stare at my plate. It’s like the food is taunting me, the aroma wafting up from the dish, making my mouth salivate.
Pop stands, clinking his fork against his wineglass, even catching the attention of the kids. “Let’s bow our heads for a prayer.”
Everyone grows quiet, even the kiddos, and we bow our heads and wait. Pop clears his throat before he speaks. “Today, as we’re gathered here together, I want to thank God for the amazing lives we have and that everyone is happy and healthy. Not only am I blessed with such love, but…”
He pauses and gets choked up. I roll my eyes because I know where he’s going before he even says the words. There’s only one thing Pop loves as much as his family. The Cubs. I’d never seen him as happy as he was the day they won. His life had been made.
“But my Cubbies winning the World Series was the best day of my life. I can die a happy man.”
“For the love of God,” Ma mutters. “I wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year. May we continue to be blessed in the coming year. Amen.”
Joining everyone else, I say, “Amen.” And I quickly do the sign of the cross before grabbing my fork and digging back into my food.
After twenty minutes of gorging ourselves on an obscene amount of food, the women clear the table and kick our asses happily back to the living room, putting us in charge of the kids. We spread out around the room, leaving enough space for our other halves when they return.
I settle into the couch with Stone in my arms. He’s in that familiar food coma too. His eyes are heavy and his blinks long and drawn-out. He’s fighting it, unlike me. I prop him on my shoulder and rub his back, making tiny circles until he’s fast asleep
I doze off somewhere in the middle of the conversation about the Cubs. The topic has become boring to me, although Pop is still as excited as the night it happened.
“Daddy.” Lily yanks on my pant leg.
“Yeah?” I don’t open my eyes.
“Can I snuggle with you, or are you still mad at me?”
I glance down at her and smile. She’s chewing on her index finger and staring at me while she turns her body from side to side. I pat the cushion next to me, careful not to wake Stone. “Come here, sweetheart. I always want your snuggles. I love you.”
A giant smile spreads across her face. She looks so much like her mother that she takes my breath away sometimes. She climbs on the couch, settling in the crook of my arm and resting her tiny hand on my stomach. “Do you have a baby in there?” she asks into the fabric of my shirt.
“No, Lily. No baby. It’s only food. Only girls can have babies. Remember Mommy and I told you that when she was pregnant with Stone.”
“That’s not fair. I don’t want to ever have a baby. Men should be able to have them too.”
Joe chuckles next to me after hearing Lily’s statement, and I pull her closer to my side.
“Just stay away from gross boys, and you won’t have to worry about getting pregnant.”
She sticks out her tongue and makes a gagging noise. “Boys are gross, Daddy.”
“That’s my girl.” I pray she’ll always feel this way.
“I’ll never love a boy the way I love you,” she says, melting my heart into a pile of goo.
I lock this memory away because I know soon she’ll be dating and will forget the words she just spoke. Someday, I’ll have to have a man-to-man with her new beau, and it isn’t going to be pretty. Soon, probably sooner than I want, I’ll be threatening the life of some asswad horny teenager about putting his filthy hands on my daughter, and Lily will hate me for it.
If she’s ever going to get married, it’ll take a hell of a man to survive my hazing. I don’t know of many fools who will willingly subject themselves to me for a piece of ass. The way I figure it, if he sticks around after dealing with me, then he’d have to be doing it for love.
When the ladies return, gift opening starts. Only the kids get gifts anymore. The main event, as I call it, takes hours. There are so many gifts in the room we’d need twenty Christmas trees to set them under. It’s obscenely beautiful. The kids are glowing as they take turns opening their presents.
“We have a great life,” Mia says, curling into the spot where my little girl had been an hour earlier.
“I wish we could freeze time, Doc. I don’t want them to ever grow up.”
“I know.” She kisses my cheek, nuzzling into my neck with her face. “I love you, Michael.”
“Love you too, Mia.” I pull her closer, careful not to smash Stone. Somehow, he’s sleeping through all the noise and shrieks as each present is opened.
“We gotta wake him up.” She strokes his cheek. “Stone, baby, wake up, sweetheart,” she whispers. “He’ll keep us up all night, otherwise.”
“We’re going to be up all night setting up Lily’s presents anyway. Might be nice to have him with us.”
“I thought we could make love by the fire.” She smiles up at me and bites her lip.
She doesn’t have to say another word. I pull Stone from my shoulder and cradle him in my arms. “Stone,” I whisper repeatedly until his tiny eyes flutter open. He smiles up at me in a sleepy haze before Mia takes him from my arms.
I glance around the room, taking in the moment. My parents are on the floor with the kids, happier than I’ve seen them in years. Ma’s beaming with pride, and