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Stripped Down (Nailed Down #4)
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I’d set flame to that perfect piece of art. Scorched it with a lie because I knew she was too perfect, too pure for me.
Even now, all these years later, I saw the look on her face–the devastated expression that told me I’d crushed her. All that beauty fractured with one lie.
It broke her.
It destroyed me.
The last time I saw her had unhinged me. It had been years, but Sammy had still managed to devastate me with a look. Then, she slapped me right across the face.
But today, in this holy place, at this time, she should know I would find her. I was better prepared this time. I could wait. I could watch and see her pristine self. A perfect vision in her black dress and black hat, clutching her red rosary beads as she closed her eyes and prayed.
Not for me.
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“Then love is sin, and let me sinful be.”
St. Mary’s Catholic School for Young Women
New York, NY
I wore my sin like armor. It fit me—all those lies. The sneaky, shitty things I did but pretended I didn’t. All the low-down, dirty things I saw fit to manage for my own devices because it needed to be done or because it felt damn good to do it.
Being who I was, living the life I did, in the family I did, sin and the weight of it were the least of my worries. It never bothered me—not the drinking or the gambling. Not the violence or the stealing. Most of that shit happened because it was expected, having a father like mine. He did the work his father had done. He ran the family. I would too one day. I’d worry about that weight of all our sin when I was an old man. If I got to be an old man.
But stepping into my little sister’s school for what felt like the hundredth time that semester, I swore that weight got heavier with each step I took. It all came down to her, Samantha Nicola, the source of my greatest sin.
“Johnny?” my cousin Dario called behind me as I walked through the hallway next to the cathedral. There was a crowd of girls, some of them in the show my kid sister, Cara, had organized for their senior program. All of them sporting the matching red collared button-ups and gray plaid skirts just on the too-short side to be acceptable by St. Mary’s standards.
I nudged Dario in the ribs when he stared a little too long at May Phan, making him lose his grip on the box in his hand.
“Jailbait,” I reminded him.
“Sixteen ain’t jailbait when I’m only six months older.” Dario shrugged.
“Her father or brothers wouldn’t see it that way, asshole.” He pulled his attention away from the girl when I slapped him in the back of the head and pushed him through the doorway at the end of the hall.
“Finally!” Cara barked as we entered the room, her frown not lessening when Dario handed over the box.
Jesus, she was a pain in the ass. Graduating or not. Kid sister or not, Cara could be an ungrateful shit.
“Where’s the box with the blue robe?” She glared at our cousin as if she thought he had a clue what she meant, then she shifted her attention at me. “Well?”
“Cazzo, Cara, how the hell…” I shut my mouth when two nuns came through the door and narrowed their eyes as they spotted us. “Sister Maria, Sister Agnes,” I greeted, betting the grin I’d shot their way for the entire month I’d been shuttling Cara around and keeping my eye on her after school hadn’t worn out its welcome. By the low blush the younger sisters gave me, I guessed I was still in their good graces. “Forgive my language, but my sister…” I nodded to Cara, who’d dropped the box to the floor and dumped out its contents. “You know how worked up she can get when things don’t go her way, si?”
The women smiled, hiding their expressions behind their hands when my kid sister cursed under her breath.
“Asshole,” she said, tossing a roll of ribbon at my head.
I caught it with one hand, dodging a second roll as she stood. “What?” I asked.
“There was another box. A smaller one. We need it. I put it on top, so I know it was in here.” She glared at Dario, who was facing the door, nodding at May when she leaned against the wall, motioning for him to follow her out of the room. “Hey, pay attention.” When our cousin stepped toward the door, Cara flicked the bottom of his ear and he flinched.
“Fu—” he started, stopping himself when Sister Agnes moved past him. “What’s your problem?”
“For your information, Dario,” Cara said, not bothering to lower her voice. “May Phan is a horrible cocktease, so you can forget about getting into her panties.” She pulled him away from the door and pointed down at the empty box. “Where’s the little white box that was inside this one? It had the blue robe. We just had it altered. It’s for my Mary’s costume. We need it.” When Dario tilted his head, looking lost, Cara inhaled as though it took everything in her not to scratch out his eyes. “The Virgin Mary? Blue for the Virgin, you chooch. The program is about great women in the bible, and Mary is the finale. We’ve already rehearsed Esther and Eve. Today we’re doing Ruth, Sarah, and Mary. I need Mary’s robe.”
“Can’t you just…” Dario swung his hand at Cara’s uniform, pointing at her red collar before he shot a glance back toward the door. “I don’t know…improvise?”