F I F T Y
Eighteen hours and two surgeries later, the doctors finally declared that Marco has a better chance of survival. Having sustained so many internal injuries, he would be kept on a ventilator, though. And even when they would take him out of the vent, allow him into consciousness and into ICU, he would still not be allowed to talk or move.
There was a collection of relieved sighs that came with the news as I reached into my phone. Aurora had already left by then to hunt down Carlos and the bunch of assholes in the car, and when I called and informed her, she told me in a deadpan voice, “Let me know when he wakes up.”
I have known her way too long to recognize that she has been crying. That voice…that deadpan, throaty voice I have heard once before – the day she left Chicago to get away from Marco. And ironically today, when Marco was striving for his life.
“Let’s go, Dominic,” Viktor said, rubbing his reddened, sleep-deprived eyes.
It was almost afternoon the next day of the accident, and our bodies were starting to give up. Sammy was used to the exhaustion, courtesy her life as a resident doctor, and Viktor had already forced Mia to return to the mansion.
It was just us—the siblings and dad, along with Ralph and Lilliana.
“I need to see her before I leave,” I exhaled, kneading the back of my neck. Every part of my body throbbed, but it was nothing compared to the agony I felt being away from Lilliana. She was so close to me yet so far.
“She’s sleeping on the couch next door.” Viktor pointed with a slight lift of his chin and added carefully, “Ralph’s there too.”
I sighed. “How many more mountains do I have to overcome to get to her?”
“Dominic.” Viktor placed his hands on my shoulder, leveling his gaze. “You can see her later, too. Ralph has been through enough for one day, so if protecting Lilliana keeps him calm, let him be,” he reasoned.
I would be an asshole to question how Ralph’s love for his daughter was bigger than my heart for Lilliana, but acting up right now meant forcing her to pick up a side. I wouldn’t do that to my Lilliana.
Casting a final glance at the door, I said on exhale, “Let’s go home.”
I could say that I was getting old for this life, but that wouldn’t change anything. Al and I knew what we were doing back then, the kind of sins we incurred, and our undying love for the family. We feared that one day it would turn out to be our weaknesses and to prevent that we tried to play Gods.
We made an Olympus out of Chicago, and we consolidated our power for eternity. But some wars were never-ending. Some battles simply couldn’t be won.
By the time we returned home, and shortly after Alessandro left with his sons, it was already evening. I was relieved to see Lilli getting an hour’s sleep, but it almost broke my heart when she woke up and found Dominic was gone.
For my sake, I believe, she said nothing.
Since my sleep was already taxed, I grabbed a cup of coffee and ventured into Lilli’s room. As expected, she was awake on her bed and sat with her knees, hugged to the chest. Closed off and fortressed. With the sound of the door, she looked up and offered me a consoling smile.
“I didn’t want to be alone today,” I confessed as I walked over to the bed.
“So am I,” Lilli whispered, scooting away on the mattress and patting the vacant space.
Placing down the cup on the bedside table, I immediately draped an arm over her shoulder and bundled her closer. Every time I held Lilli closer, I was reminded of how I had missed on her childhood—her first word, her first walk, and her first smile.
I didn’t care if Dante was already six feet under, my rage would never be placated by his death.
“Marco is going to be fine, pa,” she assured, looking up. Until then, I didn’t realize how tightly my arm gripped her as I quickly loosened.
“I know.” I nodded. “I have put that boy through hell, and he survived. He’s a fighter through and through.”
Bringing Marco home was the best thing that ever happened to me. Sure, he was a pain in my ass, but to see a reflection of mine in him was all worth it in the end.
“How are you holding up?”
Let’s see: my son was in the hospital, battling for his life, while my daughter was heartbroken. The two people I desperately wanted to protect were suffering, and I couldn’t do anything but watch in stony silence.
I pressed my lips to her temple, soothing the burn in my heart. “Years ago, I made your mother a promise to keep her safe and away from this life. And I failed. So, the day I found you, I tried to make her the same promise—to keep you safe, and yet here I am. It’s a never-ending cycle of hell.”
Lilli took my other hand and interlaced the fingers. Her soft, pretty digits wrapped over my old, wrinkly ones embodying the wealth of generation gap and lost time between us.
“The irony is,” her tired voice explained, “—you found my mother through this life, and I came into being. And I found you the very same way. I hate this situation, but there’s nothing I would change about us or our life.”
For her, this life also meant that boy.
There was a long stretch of silence before I revealed it. “I never wanted Dominic for you. He is a passable guy, I agree, but he is also rash and impulsive. The exact kind I wouldn’t ever want my daughter to be with.”
She met my eyes with a noticeable scowl as I chuckled softly. “I know, I know, I sound like a hypocrite, but that’s the truth.”
That made her smile a little as she sat straighter, and mused, “Of all the people in the world, I fell in love with him.” She laughed a bit, shaking her head.
“For the longest time, I wanted to find a reason, and I found none. So I thought that it’s a phrase, and it will pass, but somehow it didn’t,” Lilli continued to narrate. “Then, I did the unthinkable and betrayed him, hoping it will give us a chance to retaliate. But nothing worked in the end. The day I stopped fighting and accepted that I love him was the easiest day I ever breathed.”
By the time she ended, her eyes were closed, and her lips quivered in love and longing. I slowly stroked her velvet cheeks that it reminded me so much of her mother.
Lilli has a reflection of mine in her features, but the rest of her was so much like Sophia that it made my chest ached in happiness and pride. But I was felt a little jealous. If I had the chance to bring her up, she would have been like me, too, just like Marco. He wasn’t my blood, and yet he was my son.
And for this reason alone, I let him influence my decision.
“Marco talked me out of it,” I muttered, following the trail of my thoughts.
“I was never going to approve Dominic for you. Of course, it doesn’t matter because you are an adult, and you have every right, but...”
Her fingers squeezed tighter. “I wouldn’t have gone against you, and you know that.” That’s what made me anxious. It meant I had to make the right call at the cost of her happiness.
“But what did Marco tell you?” she asked. “He never mentioned a word to me about this.”
“I am not surprised that he didn’t. Marco told me that Dominic was wrong in every way possible, but even then, he is the right guy for you. And that no one could ever protect you like the way he does.”
Lilli stared at me in mute shock for a long second. “Wow,” she exhaled the long-drawn breath. “He really said that?”
“Not in so many words, but yes.” I chuckled. “And I believe he used the word ‘asswipe’ and ‘neurotic schmuck’ to describe him.”
“That sounds like Marco.” A fleeting smile came and went as I watched her turn solemn. “But he is right, though. Dominic will protect me, no matter what. I know you find it difficult to believe that right now, but it’s just the situation that’s unfortunate.”
“That’s what I am afraid,” I muttered regrettably.
“I don’t understand.” My eyes pinned on Lilli’s, and I could feel how it slowly cracked my defenses.
“Lilliana, If it’s up to me, I swear to everything holy, I would never let that boy around you. And right now, it’s probably the best thing for you,” I told her and watched the small hope crumbling around her.
It was a sight I never wanted to see, and to know that it was my doing, crippled my heart further.
What kind of a father would I be if I can’t put my daughter above everything?
I took in a shuddering breath of air because the words that came out next required an ocean of courage to admit.
“But the truth is, right now, you need Dominic more than anyone.”
I would never understand what she saw in him. But at the end of the day, she chose him. I accepted it or not - it didn’t matter. Dominic, unfortunately, was here to stay.
Lilli gasped in momentary shock, her eyes brimming in tears. “Pa...”
I cupped her face in my hands. “I have two cars and seven guards stationed outside. They will take you to the Romano Mansion.” A wry smile found its way to my lips. “I had my heartbroken for one lifetime, and I know that the pain never eases. I would never want that for you, mia cara. Even if you chose to be with an idiot.”
She was crying and smiling in full force. “I love you.”
“And tell Dominic that this doesn’t mean I have forgiven him or approve of him by any means. I still think he’s unworthy of you. I am letting him have this moment because…my daughter needs him and not the other way round.”
“I will deliver the message.”
In a flash, she leaped out of bed and trotted towards the door as I called behind her, “Call me the moment you reach!”
26 years ago
St. Augustine’s was one of the oldest churches in Chicago, and a segment stretched behind it was almost obsolete. There used to be a small chapel, but all that was left now was broken furniture.
Every Sunday, Soph met me here. And today, when she came in, donned in a white shirt and pale salmon pink skirt, she looked like a Goddess. But when her arms flung around my neck and pulled me into her embrace, without reservation, and in pure adoration, I realized that she was my universe of flesh and blood—the only thing I have and the only that exists for me.
Pulling back, she retrieved something out of her bag and looped my head into it.
“What’s this?” I asked, recognizing it for a rosary.
“I pray with it every day,” Soph replied, adjusting the cross over my beating heart.
“Why are you giving it to me then?”
There was a hint of a smile on her lips. “I want you to have something from me. I bought it when I visited Naples the last time, my hometown.”
I cackled at the irony. “Darling, you know I only come to the church for you, right? God and rest of the crap is--”
She cut me off with a vicious pinch on my biceps and hooked her arm around it. “It’s a gift.”
I looked down at the cross in reverie and mused, “A rosary for a sinner.” And then lifted my eyes to meet hers and placed a tender kiss on her lips. “And an angel for a devil.”
“Don’t say that,” Soph made a face between a frown and pout, and I could help but kiss it off once again.
Unhooking her arm, I pulled her completely into my lap and kissed her cheeks, forehead, and nose several times in gesture of a man comforting a woman he didn’t want to lose ever.
“In which universe do I deserve you?” I breathed, cradling her head closer to my heart.
“You don’t pick who you love because the person deserves you. You just love.” I could feel her touching the silver cross hanging from the Rosary as she pressed a solemn kiss over it.
I sat there, holding her in absorbed silence. As long as I live, I would carry the sound of her voice in my heart, uttering the profound philosophy of love and remembering the enormity of that precious moment of tenderness.
I stood by the window of Lilli’s room and watched her get into the car. She was happy, deliriously happy.
And it was all that mattered to me.
With a smile, I pulled out the rosary and kissed the silver cross with the same love and devotion that was once imprinted upon it.
Soph, my love, I miss you.