- Alternate Universe
- Crime Drama
- Episode Related
- Established Relationship
When Francesca was nineteen years old, she had fallen passionately in love. Luscino Antinori had been everything she wanted and had swept her off her feet, just like in the movies and her mother’s stories of both her father and stepfather. He had dragged her out of her studies and sketchbooks and dreams of fashion, into his loving embrace.
Luscino had been strong and charming — and a few years older, of course, and so much more mature than the boys she had dated before — and had been full of desire for her. He had been protective, too, wanting to take care of her, just as her stepfather, Vittorio, had always taken care of Francesca and her mother.
In him, she had seen a strong man, just like her father and her stepfather. She had been right about one of those things.
Within the year, Francesca found herself with a broken heart, a bruised ego, and much hard-earned wisdom. About men, and romance, and herself.
Because Luscino and Vittorio had been much the same — both treated the women they loved as dolls. Valued and loved but also to be protected and coddled, kept in beautiful houses and lovely clothes, shielded from real life and their secrets. They both lied and hid their pasts and business, were lavish with money but not with the truth of where it came from.
And both came home to their women with smiles on their faces and blood on their hands.
When both Luscino and Vittorio were dead, killed for the vendetta between their criminal families, illegal activities, and stolen Stinger missiles, Francesca was left to pick up the pieces. Three men had been shot for her during the course of two days — her father, step-father and former lover — but only her father had been hurt trying to help her. Both Luscino and Vittori had been willing to use her, someone they had both said they loved, for leverage and greed.
Upon reflection, the entire incident of her kidnapping summed up how both Luscino and Vittorio had viewed women. Luscino had professed to love her and had strangers kidnap her off the street — and hurt her father — to use as a pawn against her stepfather. Vittori had claimed to be trying to save her all while hiding everything he knew about her kidnapping from the authorities, including the ransom demand. It wasn’t even a surprise, really, that Vittorio had not even told her mother she had been kidnapped, leaving Marcella shocked and hurt when her father had done so. Perhaps it was to hide his own connection to the crime, as the ransom demanded was the missiles his family had stolen from Luscino’s, who had stolen them from the US Navy. But even without that motive, it was the kind of presumptuous thing Vittorio could and would do — hide something from Marcella or Francesca, even when it directly related to them.
Her father had used his resources to save her, risking his life and being shot in the process. Afterwards, while he was being treated for a bullet in the leg, when Francesca and her mother had been reunited, he had asked them both what they needed.
Marcella had been made a widow and learned her husband from a mafia family and Francesca had been kidnapped by her lover, who had also been a mafioso. There was so much to do, so many questions to ask and answer and decisions to be made — and Francesca realized it had been the first time a man had asked her what she needed, rather than told her what to do, assumed he knew what was needed, or simply taken over.
Francesca had spent some time with her father in America, at her parent’s encouragement, recovering and helping him do the same. Eventually, she had returned to help her mother, who had never truly been alone. Marcella had lived with her father until she married, and remarried quickly after being divorced. Now, as a widow, she was alone for the first time and Francesca found herself supporting the mother who had always been her support. They both had found new strength in themselves and each other.
With Vittorio’s illegal businesses seized and accounts confiscated, they still had money from the legitimate business. Marcella had sold the expansive property outside of Naples, no longer interested in living in a house too large and full more with ghosts and staff than happy memories. She had moved to Milano, closer to where Francesca was studying fashion, and they had both grown more independent and also closer together. Without Vittorio or a sense of conflicting loyalties, Francesca had reached out more to her father.
That closer contact was the reason Francesca knew her father was seeing someone. He told Francesca his lover was brave and dedicated and strongwilled and only described her as beautiful when asked directly.
He had never mentioned her age at all, and Francesca had never thought to ask. She was curious if it had ever occurred to her father, or it simply wasn’t an issue.
‘Beautiful’ might not be the first thing her father had mentioned about Antonia DiNozzo, which was interesting, because it as the first thing Francesca had noticed about her. The second was that her personality was even bigger and bolder than her looks.
“Francesca, you are staring.”
At her mother’s gentle reminder, Francesca looked away from the window into the hallway, where Toni was speaking with a uniformed guard, a doctor and a nurse, and someone in a suit.
Marcella chuckled; Francesca glanced at her mother, who looked calm and amused. “No, you are not.”
“Aren’t you curious?”
“Francesca, he has not been my husband in twenty years.”
“Curious, not jealous, Mama.”
“I am far less curious than you, Francesca. You get that from your father, not me.” Marcella straightened a fold of the blanket. “But perhaps. A little.”
Francesca squeezed her father’s hand, rubbing her thumb over the back, tucked their joined hands under the covers. His hand felt dry and cool.
Some of the fear and confusion that had churned inside her since the call came was eased by being able to see her father, alive if not well. The rest had transformed into nerves and jitters, so much so her foot tapped on the floor as she sat by her father’s bed. He looked better than she’d expected but also worse; pale, the lines in his face seeming deeper. Her tall, upright father lay so still and silent beneath layers of blankets and bandages, attached to machines that beeped and hummed and whooshed.
But he also seemed present, in a way. His eyes moved occasionally behind his lids while his breathing was steady, his chest moving despite the layers. His hand was still in her grasp but not lax. He looked wounded, but not as fragile as she’d expected.
But maybe that was a daughter’s eyes, who could never see her father as anything but strong and steady.
Outside, Toni shook hands with the man in the suit, who had appeared several minutes after Toni had gone out to speak with the doctor. Francesca didn’t think Toni DiNozzo was a woman who would ever let a man tell her not to worry about something; that they’d take care of it. Her father had described Vittorio and Luscino’s behaviour as ‘not letting the women worry their pretty little heads about it’ and told her to get out if a man treated her like that again.
Clearly, her father practiced what he preached.
“Is there something wrong with my father?” Francesca asked the moment Toni entered. Her mother sighed but Toni didn’t seem upset.
“Other than the bullet hole and the rock-hard head?”
“You think my father is hard-headed?”
She snorted and stepped out of her shoes, high heels Francesca couldn’t help but admire. She loved shoes and had many of her own but she coveted stilettos that would compensate for her lack of height — not a problem Toni shared. But she had hurt her hip in a car accident as a teenager and that combined with the cobblestone streets in many parts of her home country made very tall heels a dangerous indulgence.
“You have met him, right? If his head made contact with the hull of a ship, you’d have to evacuate the boat.” Marcella laughed brightly, hand to her mouth. “Trust me, I work with some of the most stubborn people alive.”
“Where do you think you got it from, Francesca?” Marcella said.
“Ha, I am not stubborn —” Toni ducked down to retrieve a pair of flats from her bag, but Francesca saw the grin before she hid it. “I am passionate. You get that from me — but your stubbornness is all from AJ.”
“Are you saying my father is not passionate?” Francesca turned to Toni. “What do you think?”
“I think I’m as shameless as someone can get about sex without making a living from it, and I’m still not going to answer that question.”
“Your father likes smart women,” Marcella stated. “You get your poor sense of humour from him, too.”
Francesca huffed. “I was not expecting to be the one outnumbered. I do not like this.”
“Quit while you’re ahead, kid. He’s showing signs of waking,” Toni said, abruptly changing the subject. “The sedation has worn off and they’ve dialled back some of the painkillers until they can get an assessment. They expect him to wake soon, and be stable enough to be moved to another ward in a day or so.”
Francesca frowned and shared a glance with her mother. “Isn’t that a good thing?”
Toni sighed and removed her suit jacket. Francesca had already recognized the designer and admired the tailoring on it and Toni’s skirt. Unlike her clothes, though, the leather straps beneath the coat was alien to her. It was only when Toni turned around Francesca realized the harness was designed to hold a gun snuggle against Toni’s side, beneath her arm.
“It is good,” Toni said. “It’s just problematic on a security front.”
Francesca looked away from the gun and studied Toni’s face; she was frowning at her father’s monitor. “What?”
“ICU is a closed ward with low foot traffic, a high staff-to-patient ratio, and a lot of glass walls,” Toni explained.
Marcella moved away from the bed, making room and giving Toni a nod. Her father’s lover glanced at her, then stepped up to the head of the bed, running her fingers over his face gently.
Her father frowned and turned into the touch. Francesca didn’t know if she, or Toni, or all of them, made the little gasp that followed. Toni cupped his face and stroked her thumb over his cheek, below the oxygen line.
Francesca realized she was clutching her father’s hand tightly enough to dig her nails in his palm. She released her grip quickly.
“Other wards are bigger and have higher turnover, more visitors,” Toni said quietly, not looking away from her father’s face. “It’s harder to keep someone protected there.”
“Is that a concern?”
Toni turned towards then at Marcella’s question. “There’a a marine guard on the door. They don’t do that for just anyone, not even admirals.”
“But — wasn’t it random?” Francesca asked.
Toni shook her head. “No.”
“Who shot my father?”
She clutched his hand again, this time more carefully. “Why?”
“In the grand scheme of things? Because he’s a crazy bastard.” Toni blew out a breath. “Specifically, though? Because of me.”
Francesca’s jaw dropped open and did not close throughout the explanation that followed, or for some time to come.
AJ stirred several times throughout the explanation Toni gave to Francesca and Marcella — leaving out the gory details and the procedural information, she wasn’t an idiot and they were civilians. Both gasped and exclaimed as suitably as extras on a set, including an exchange of rapid Italian when Toni ducked into the washroom to swap her skirt for jeans and pull a hoodie over her gun holster.
“No, I am not blaming myself,” Toni said in reply to something Francesca asked Marcella. It was mostly the truth, too, excluding the lingering bite of guilt she knew only time, distance, or a different childhood could erase. “Responsibility and blame are different. Mostly I’m just really, really pissed off.” That was absolutely true.
“You speak Italian?”
“DiNozzo,” Marcella said, accenting her name in the way Fornell imitated.
“I speak Spanish better but I learned Italian when I was working the beat in Philly. Which explains why I’m better at swearing than anything else.”
“What happens if this man tries again?” Francesca asked in rapid Italian. “You said he is sick — will he try to hurt you and my father?”
Toni exhaled. “Yes. Which is why everyone is getting a guard. Including both of you. I don’t know what your plans are — AJ would definitely want you to stay at the house but you might be more comfortable at a hotel.” She glanced at Marcella as she said it. “Either way, security is a concern.
“We will stay together,” Marcella declared. “At a hotel. And we will be careful and follow directions.”
“Francesca,” Marcella said sternly, staring down at Francesca. In Italian, she continued. “What do you think your father will have to say if you put yourself in danger while he is hurt and Antonia is working to protect you?”
“That is not fair, Mama.”
“Life is often not fair, Francesca or your father would not be hurt by a man who likes to hurt people because he is angry and cowardly.”
“That’s a good summation of Ari Haswari,” Toni said. “As long as you add the ‘dangerous’ part. Because he is, very dangerous.”
“I am not a child,” Francesca complained, then sighed. “But I will behave. As long as you do as well,” she added. “You think he will be happy he was targetted to hurt you?”
“I think the words ‘bellow like a raging bull’ will come up.”
Marcella laughed. “Yes! That is exactly what he does when he gets worked up! It is not often because he values his control but when he cannot be calm any longer, it is exactly what he is — a bellowing, raging bull!”
“Mama! My father is not a bull!”
Toni opened her mouth, then closed it abruptly. As shameless as she was, it probably wasn’t prudent to make a joke about AJ being hung like a bull to his twenty-four-year-old daughter in front of his ex-wife. Though by the cheeky expression on Marcellaès face, the woman would probably agree.
“Are you sure, Francesca? He bellows and throws his weight around when angry. And he is as stubborn as one.”
“Does that make you a cow, Mama?” Toni choked on a laugh.
“No,” Marcella said sedately. “It makes me the person with the sword and the cape who lures and catches the bull.”
Francesca’s jaw dropped before she started laughing along with Toni. “Mama!”
AJ coughed and opened his eyes blearily. “Damned idiot neighbours,” he rasped out before closing his eyes and going back to sleep.
All three woman were left staring at him. Toni snorted and reached for the call button. “He’s definitely recovering.”
“Really, Papa?” Francesca sighed.
“He has always been — how do you say it?” She explained in Italian.
“Contrarian,” Toni translated. “Sure, let’s go with that. Sounds nicer than ‘stubborn ass’. He woke up and spoke a little,” she told the nurse who appeared in the door, Hewitt on her heels. “Just now, before he went right back to sleep.”
“Good.” Hewitt gave them all a look, ending up on Toni. “All of you, out. The doctor needs to check him and there are some tests that need to be done.”
“Of course,” Marcella cut off her daughter. “We will get out of your way.”
“If you show up any sooner than an hour, you’ll be cooling your heels in the family room,” Hewitt told Toni. “Go get something to eat, drink, and stretch your legs. Get some sun. Take a nap, even,” she added to Marcella and Francesca. “We need time and you all need all of the above. Remember our agreement, Agent DiNozzo.”
“I always remember the rules. You have to know them before you can break them. I’m going,” she added when Hewitt glared at her. “One hour, no less.”
“One hour at least. Two would be better, but I know better than to expect patience and restraint from you. Out.”
“Outing.” Toni let herself be run off, following Marcella as she drew a reluctant Francesca away from the room. All three of them looked back to see the bustle in the room and Toni made eye contact with the marine on guard. He nodded and Toni knew someone would be following no matter what tests were done or where they might need to do them.
They reached the front desk of the ward before Francesca sniffed, teared up, and let out a sob. Just as Harmon Rabb walked through the door.
The sight of a Navy Commander, fighter pilot, and the scourge of the courtroom, freezing at the sight of a young woman’s tears was never not going to be entertaining.
“Rabb, you look like a rabbit in the presence of a fox. Wishing for it to go away really hard isn’t going to work.” Toni snagged a box of tissues off the desk and passed it to Marcella, who had an arm around her daughter’s shoulders.
“What happened?” Rabb asked. “Is there something wrong with the admiral?”
Francesca pressed her face into a tissue and shook her head. Rabb took a step back.
“He woke up,” Toni explained. And shook her head at the man’s confused look. “Haven’t you ever heard of tears of relief?”
“You’re hopeless. Rabb.” Toni turned her attention to Francesca and Marcella. “There’s a bathroom just over there. Is lunch a good idea or is a nap a better one?”
Marcella shook her head. “We are both tired but it is best for the jet lag to keep going until tonight. She will be alright in a moment.”
“I’m fine,” Francesca said. Her voice was wet but steady enough. “I am alright.”
“Of course you are, why wouldn’t you be. It’s not like you’ve had a stressful couple of days, a transatlantic flight, no sleep and, I bet, not much appetite.” At the last, she looked pointedly at Rabb.
Who finally pulled it together. “I came to take you ladies to lunch, actually. Or a meal, since it’s a little late for lunch. I know a great place nearby — the coffee won’t even be an insult to call it that in front of a pair of Italian women, unlike most of what you’ll find in the US.”
“That sounds very nice, Commander,” Marcella said. “Please, just a moment.”
When Marcella and Francesca disappeared into the bathroom, Toni stared at Rabb, exasperated. “Really? Big bad navy commander, freezes at a few tears?”
“I was taken off guard — I thought something happened to the admiral.” Toni rolled her eyes. “Well, you aren’t crying.”
“I’m not twenty-four and I hate my father.” She also hadn’t cried in public since college, and drunken shenanigans were hardly the same thing. “For god’s sake, Rabb, don’t treat her like a bomb about to go off and don’t pet her when she gets back. Act normally — or as normal as you can — and use some of that famous charm to keep her entertained.”
“I wouldn’t —”
“Yes, you would.”
“I can’t charm the admiral’s daughter!”
“There’s more than one kind of charm, Rabb, and not all of it gets people into bed. Just, distract her from inside her own head. Trust me,” she added, “if you cross a line, you’ll know it. Either because I’ve shot you, Marcella has killed you with a glare, or because Francesca tells you off. Since she’s a grown-up,” Toni added.
“This is going to be a disaster,” Rabb muttered.
It wasn’t a disaster. Rabb was, in fact, capable of being charming and conversant without the underlying motive of sex or gaining information, Francesca wanted to be distracted and Marcella and Toni were capable conspirators. It helped that Francesca’s education and job were in fashion and Toni happened to have an abiding affection for good clothes and specific designers. By the time the conversation turned to Francesca’s latest job as an intern with Roccobarocco, one of Toni’s preferred suit designers, Rabb’s brand of charm was hardly necessary at all.
The look on his face, though, as Toni explained the tailoring that had to be done to conceal her holsters while Francesca took notes and made sketches, was worth the price of admission. Marcella seemed to think so, based on her expression.
The food was good, too, so much so that even people without appetite could be tempted to finish a decent meal. The coffee wasn’t an insult to the entire country of Italy, too, which was a bonus.
But the best part was returning to find a pale but awake AJ, blinking at them blearily from the bed.
“Papa!” Francesca cried, making a beeline for the bed. “You’re awake!”
“‘Cesca,” AJ managed. HIs voice was raspy from lack of use and slurred from whatever drugs they’d given him to manage the pain. “Shouldn’t have called you.”
“What, don’t you want to see me, Papa?” Francesca managed to sass back, if wetly.
Toni turned her head and saw Rabb backing away from the doorway. “Coward,” she told him softly.
“Picking my battles,” he replied. “And the admiral doesn’t want us to see him this way. I’ll let the office know he’s awake and to give you all some time.” He acknowledged the marine standing at attention and turned on his heel. Toni managed to avoid laughing at him outright.
Francesca huffed and gripped his hand. “You were shot.”
“Not the first time.”
“And you questioned the stubbornness you share,” Marcella said with a sigh.
AJ squinted at her. “Marcella?”
“Why are you here?”
“Because you were shot,” she explained patiently.
“Not the first time,” he repeated.
“The last time I am aware of, you were on a battlefield. Visiting was harder.”
AJ looked so befuddled by that, Toni had to bite her lip to stop from laughing. She was going to use this as ammunition the next time he teased her about her reaction to medication. Though to be fair to him, he was probably on enough painkillers to numb a horse — or a bull — and Toni got stoned on daytime cough medicine.
“Huh.” AJ looked past Marcella. “Toni.”
“Gonna fuss at me for getting shot?”
He was nearly pouting; Toni was going to have a lot of fun with this in the future. When he had recovered from a sniper bullet and the sociopath who shot him was dead or in prison.
“Nope.” AJ blinked at her. Francesca frowned. “It happens to the best of us. I will kick your ass for almost getting dead, though.”
“Do I get credit for not dying?”
Toni pretended to consider that as she approached the bed, straightening the top of the blanket. She left her hand on his chest, above the bandages, so she could feel his heart thump under her palm. “Maybe. A little.”
AJ managed an aborted laugh, stopping with a flinch the moment his chest moved too much. “Stingy. Don’t make me laugh.”
“Guess I better leave, then.”
“Pain in the ass.”
“Matches the hole in your chest.”
“You two are made for each other,” Francesca said. “It is not funny, getting shot!”
“Cops and soldiers —”
“ — Hush, you — we learn to make light of the dark parts of our lives. Dark humour,” Toni explained. “It sounds terrible to civilians, callous and even cruel sometimes. But it keeps us sane.”
“Mostly,” AJ muttered. His free hand came up and he groped for her hand; she caught it before he could accidentally hit his wound. His grip lacked all his usual strength but at least his hand wasn’t lax in hers anymore. “You okay?”
“I’m peachy, AJ, can’t you tell?”
“Professionally. Shut up and go to sleep.”
“Mmm.” AJ closed his eyes, not letting go of either her or Francesca’s hands. “Later. Not done yet.”
“Yeah, yeah, you can grill me on my feelings when you can feel your own toes again. Go to sleep, Admiral.”
“Get some rest, Papa,” Francesca said softly, leaning in to kiss his forehead. “I love you.”
“Love you both,” he slurred out before his grip relaxed completely.
Francesca dropped back in the chair by the bed, hands over her mouth, holding in a sob. Toni registered Marcella moving to her daughter as she held her own composure. There was something —
“He’s not done,” Toni said to herself. AJ meant who-knew-what — he wasn’t done with the conversation, with living, or maybe meant with her in general — but Ari Haswari wasn’t done, either. Not with AJ or her or Gibbs, but his profile and history said he had plans within plans. He used surrogates and distraction tactics, deception and — “Sonofabitch!”
While Francesca and Marcella gaped at her, Toni grabbed her bag and dug out the profile. She flipped it open and scanned through, looking for the timeline of criminal activity Haswari was associated with. And she saw it. “Damnit! I need to call the office,” she said, abruptly. “Can you stay with him? I can’t use my cellphone here.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be careful?” Toni was going to make an excuse but Francesca frowned. It was surprisingly effective, for an unarmed civilian Toni had a decade and six inches on. “You are a target, too, are you not? You promised people you would be careful. How will my father feel if he wakes up and you are hurt or worse?”
“That’s not bad for a guilt trip,” Toni said. “Anyone will tell you I’m shameless, but guilt has been known to work.” It was her biggest flaw as a cop. “Fine, I’ll ask for an escort or to use the staff room. Happy?”
“Ecstatic,” Francesca said dryly. “Most people do not need to be guilted into avoiding danger.”
“Not in my experience.”
She made her call to Gibbs and Fornell, giving them both her insight into Haswari. He was a man who hadn’t realized the underlying reasons he killed the people he killed in the way he killed them — which meant that even though his murders of surrogates were a priority for him pathologically, they weren’t his justification for acting.
Every time Haswari killed, it was to cover for, distract from, or make room for a crime connected to a terrorist act. The question was, was the current plot he was distracting them from the same one as before, the release of a pathogen like smallpox — or was there something new in the works?
Gibbs had grunted at her, said he’d check into it and hung up. Fornell had grilled her on the how and the why she thought what she thought until she got frustrated trying to explain her thought process — something she hadn’t had to do since settling in at NCIS — and finally hung up on him. Then she’d gotten coffee and donuts for herself, Marcella and Francesca, despite the marine riding her ass. It wasn’t going to hold a candle to anything found on the average street corner in Milan but they all deserved some caffeine, fat and sugar right now.
But when she reached the room and saw AJ through the glass, sleeping mostly peacefully — he had a faint frown, one he wore while sleeping if he was worrying on something serious — she froze. Francesca was by the bed, holding his hand in both of her hers with her forehead resting on the mattress. She might have been sleeping, crying or praying.
Everything she had been suppressing rose up in her throat. Toni shoved the food and drinks in the hands of the very surprised marine who had been shadowing her. “Here, take this inside.”
“I need to use the head, Corporal, I don’t need a guard or a witness.” She left the poor kid holding the bag, literally, exchanging a baffled look with the marine on the door and headed down the hall.
For the second time in three days, Toni cranked the tap on full and cried in a Bethesda bathroom.
And for the second time in three days, she didn’t get any peace to do so in private. Toni was going to have to rethink her strategy. Which sucked, because it had worked for years.
Marcella studied her in the mirror. “You do not even get red and blotchy. I do not think that is fair.”
“My hair frizzes in the winter, I burn in the sun despite being half Italian, and most shoe stores don’t even stock my size.” Toni splashed water on her face and dried the water and any leftover tears away. “And if we’re going to have a conversation about fairness, I’m going to point out you don’t look old enough to have given birth to Francesca, your skin is flawless despite living in the sun year-round, and you’re wearing hand-made leather shoes.”
“So are you,” Marcella pointed out.
“True. The man lives in a uniform, wears jeans and running shoes when he’s not at work, and somehow ends up with a daughter in fashion and an ex-wife and a lover who own more shoes at any moment then he’s owned his entire life combined.”
“I have no sympathy for him, he does not need to bother himself to look good. He looks better with lines and gray hair.” She frowned at her reflection, then relaxed her face. “Whereas I just look old.”
“You look like a lot of things; old isn’t one of them.”
“Flattering, from my ex-husband’s new lover.” Toni steeled herself, having been expecting something like this. Between explaining AJ was targeted due to his connection to her and lunch, where she’d felt the weight of Marcella’s observation the whole time, Toni had been waiting for the hammer to drop. Apparently, now was the time. “You will crack a tooth if you clench your jaw any harder.”
With effort, Toni relaxed her jaw and her posture. “Stress. I’m not normally such a hot mess.”
Marcella frowned. “Perhaps there is a language problem? I do not understand — why are you saying you are ‘messy’?”
“Because I am?”
“You look tidy to me.”
“I’m crying in a hospital bathroom. Again.”
Marcella shrugged. “I doubt you are the first, or the last. Crying seems normal at a hospital, and I do not like to let people see me cry. Especially my daughter. Fly into an impassioned rage? This is permissible in public. Cry? Only when getting angry is not an answer.”
“Mostly I make a joke,” Toni admitted. “Or make an innuendo intended to distract people. Often both at the same time.”
“Francesca, she cries more than I do. She gets her emotions from me, but from her father, she gets better control over her temper.” Marcella cupped her elbows in her hands. “And I was taught a woman must never show vulnerability in public — that men did not like tears or ‘messiness’. I taught Francesca she did not have to apologize or explain her feelings to anyone.”
Toni’s mother had taught her by example, a combination of what to do and not do by example. The child of two alcoholics, she hated being exposed in public and got angry with herself for losing control. The daughter of an English blue-blooded woman, she’d been taught to present a stiff upper lip and a calm face. The fact that her mother managed to do so despite all the pills and booze was part of the reason she’d died before anyone had noticed how bad it was.
She’d learned to lie from her father. It was what he was best at.
“Listen, Marcella, you don’t have to play nice with me just because I’m upset. I’m a cop — I’ve done worse than have an argument while I was upset. Cases and crime scenes don’t wait until you’re feeling your best.”
Marcella frowned. “If I intended on arguing with you, you would know it. The whole floor would know it.”
Tired of talking to reflections, Toni turned to face Marcella, crossing her arms and leaning a hip against the counter.
“My father’s been married five times in twenty-six years, Marcella. I know how this conversation goes.”
“If AJ had married five women after me, you would probably be right. But he has not been, and you are not. Besides,” Marcella added, “I am merely AJ’s ex-wife. It is not my approval that matters, but Francesca’s. If your father has married so many times, you must know that, surely?”
Toni thought of her father or any of his various wives — some naive divorcees, others desperate for a man and validation, one or two as predatory as Anthony DiNozzo — taking her into consideration and couldn’t help but laugh. The only thought they’d given her was to calculate the fastest way to remove her.
Except one. Amazingly enough, it was the con woman who had been most willing to treat Toni as a person, not an obstacle. Maude hadn’t been maternal but at least she’d been kind, if calculating.
“Not really. Besides,” Toni continued, ignoring Marcella’s frown, “do you really think Francesca will be happy about me and AJ if you aren’t? She’ll never like me if you hate me — she’s might be AJ’s daughter but she’s yours, too.”
“I hope I taught my daughter more independence of mind than that. If only by the example of what not to do,” she added.
Toni knew the story of Marcella’s late second husband, the brother of a mafia family head and the legitimate face of his family. She also knew Marcella had lived with him for years and never had a clue. Toni might not be able to contemplate living a life that way, but she’d seen it often enough to understand it. Though it was hard to reconcile this woman with one who lived with a man who was so used to being in charge, he hadn’t even bothered to tell Marcella her daughter had been kidnapped.
But any woman, no matter how poor or rich, passive or passionate, could end up with a husband who only saw her as an object. Someone to control.
“It’s not about dependence. It’s about loyalty.”
Marcella blinked and looked away; Toni gave her a moment. “I see.”
“You raised her. AJ might be her father, but you’re her Mom. And if you decide I’m some floozy interloper, that’s all I’ll ever be to her.” Toni blew out a breath and confessed something she’d worried about. “I’ve been called a whore plenty of times. Someone’s perception of my sexual morals isn’t going to bother me. And Francesca is an adult — she doesn’t have to get along with either of her parent’s lovers since she doesn’t need any more parents. I could live with AJ’s adult daughter who lives in another country not liking me. I could live with sending him to see her for various holidays and staying out her business and her life.
“But AJ couldn’t. He couldn’t handle being torn between two people like that. The man is a badass of the first order but get his emotions involved and he’s hapless.” Marcella covered a smile. “He’d try to reconcile us and when that failed, he’d chose. And there’s no choice at all when one of them is your kid.”
Unless your name was Anthony DiNozzo, which explained the laundry list of issues Toni had dealt with.
“You assume a great deal, you know.” Toni tilted her head. “You assume I’m so petty I would begrudge AJ his happiness. That Francesca wouldn’t see that for what it was. That AJ couldn’t convince her to give you a chance. And that he would walk away rather than try.”
“Everyone walks away,” Toni said without thinking, then sucked in a breath when Marcella looked so damned sad. “Never mind.”
“I do mind, and AJ does not walk away. You must run him off. It’s the stubborn, bullheadedness, yes?”
“He is pretty hard to shake off,” Toni admitted. “And persuasive. I only wanted to get him in bed, you know. He decided we should try a relationship and the next thing I know, I’m in love with the asshole and asking him to move in with me. And then he got shot, and I’m off duty so I can’t even take my frustrations out on a case. I’d rather chase down a murderous sailor or have sex than deal with my own emotions and I can’t do either right now and the worst part is the stupid man is worth it all.”
Marcella laughed, the sound bouncing off the bathroom tiles. “He deserves you,” she said breathlessly. “Oh, I cannot wait to tell him. And you! You deserve him, too.”
“Is that a compliment or a condemnation?”
“Does he frown at your closet? And ask you why you need so many clothes?”
“Yes,” Toni said. “And he gets that confused and irritated look like he’s not sure something is dangerous or not. I’ve seen bomb technicians less concerned then he was the first time he saw my Louboutins.”
“What do you say to him?” Marcella asked. “I scolded him and said it was none of his business.”
Toni shrugged. “I told him shoes are like orgasms. You can survive without any, manage alright with something basic and straightforward — but the fun part is quantity, quality and variety.”
Marcella laughed so hard a nurse poked her head in the door to check on them.
This is the sequel to Nightcap