My stomach was grumbling by the time the doors to Dante’s room opened. I held my breath, curled on the couch with his copy of Inferno, caught red-handed. But as those hazel eyes fell to me, his long, bronzed fingers curling around the door as he peered in, he gave a gentle smile. My heart stuttered at the gesture—he’d been so different here, so much…calmer. He walked forward, closing the door with a soft click, tucking his hands into the pockets of his grey slacks, his shirtsleeves rolled up to expose his muscled forearms.
“Hungry?” he said, voice so deep, so smooth. I gave a nod, pushing aside the blanket I’d been wrapped in, setting his book on the coffee table. I stood without much thought, as any normal person would, and instantly felt the world tilt.
“Shit,” he breathed, jumping over to catch me. I fell into his arms, my head thumping against his hard, warm chest as I groaned.
“Sorry,” I breathed.
“Eira,” he said, voice sounding the perfect mix of worried and exasperated. It made butterflies crowd my already hazy body, having someone truly care about my health. Beck…just thinking his name sent a wave of sadness and anger through me. He didn’t deserve anymore space in my mind. Not when Dante’s solid arms were cradling me with such tenderness, not when his intoxicating cologne invaded my senses, not when this man made me feel so many emotions I wasn’t sure whether to run to him or away from him.
He gripped my arms, pulling me away to assess me, frowning. I tried to keep from staring—really, I did, but he made it impossible. What convict-turned-mafia heir was this handsome? His eyes were holding mine, simmering with what felt like true fire. I could see, in those greenish orbs, the restraint he put forth each day to keep himself in line, but I’d noticed how that melted away when it was just the two of us. As though he was finally at peace.
He gave a smirk, running his palm down my arm before holding my hand in his. I felt so cold against his searing skin, the contact making my breath hitch. I heard him give a soft snort, as though laughing at his own private joke. I followed his eyes, giving him a sheepish glance.
“I thought you of all people had it memorized?” he teased, nodding to his book. I pulled my bottom lip between my teeth, giving a shake of my head. His eyes, so calm before, now raged—but not in anger. This look was somehow familiar but also…not. And it made my stomach writhe rather pleasurably.
“A few rules, bellissima,” he said, his voice taking on an edge. I nodded, unwilling to disobey anymore, not when he’d given me a chance at freedom. Freedom and safety from Lilith.
“Don’t wander off alone without telling me where you intend to go. There are a lot of…guests here, rather sporadically, and I’m not a trusting man.”
“Ok,” I breathed.
“If anyone makes you uncomfortable, I will deal with it. If anyone touches you—” his jaw snapped, the sound of his grinding teeth audible as his eyes seared down at me. I shivered, even if his apparent fury wasn’t directed at me.
“You will tell me, and I will deal with it. I demand respect, above all in my home.”
“Yes…ok…” I said. His thumb stroked my hand, absentminded as he continued to gaze at me. Finally, the clouds on his face broke, and he smirked.
“I hope you enjoy red wine.”
I felt underdressed, wearing leggings and an oversized knit sweater, my last remnants of home. I didn’t even have shoes, just bulky socks. Dante walked beside me down the lavishly decorated halls, everything trimmed in gold and crimson, but not gaudy by any means. More traditional than anything, I assumed. It bespoke his utter wealth, though, something I was used to; Lilith had been all about going over the top with decor. When my father died, I’d donated a substantial amount of my inheritance. I could live a much simpler life and still be happy.
Lilith could not.
The dining hall loomed into view through open double doors, light spilling like gold through the entrance. Deep voices spoke, and dishes clanked, and the aroma—tomatoes, garlic, basil, warm, crusty bread and pasta. My stomach felt a bottomless pit as my eyes feasted on the spread before us.
Dante pulled out my chair to the left of the head. I sat, averting my eyes from the men who’d quieted down at our arrival. Gabe sat next to me, Leo across, and Dante at the head. Other men I did not recognize filled the other spaces, until the table was full with eleven guests. Maids and butlers bustled about, a wine glass above my plate filled with a fragrant red. I peeked over at Dante, feeling his eyes on me.
He gave a subtle smirk, fingers poised on the stem of his glass as his tendons flexed.
“From our vineyard,” he explained, raising it to me before bringing it to his lips. His eyes never once left mine. I followed his gesture, letting the silky liquid glide across my tongue and down my throat. It was a dry wine, but not acidic. The flavors were rather bold, like dark berries and smoke. It was the most delicious wine I’d ever tasted, and that fact seemed to show on my face.
The men at the table chuckled at my expression, and I found myself smiling in response. Just that one sip had me warm and giddy. The men began to talk, some making idle chatter with me. I avoided Leo and Gabe, though those were the only two I knew besides Dante. I mostly listened, gathering as much information as they allowed to slip when they switched from speaking Italian to English. It wasn’t much at first, but as the wine flowed, more and more juicy details were whispered loud enough for me to hear.
It seemed mostly trite family matters. So and so’s daughter ran off and married a lowlife scoundrel. Joe didn’t repay his debts on time again. Jane is pregnant, but everyone knows the child is not her husband’s. It was intriguing, the gossip, but nothing more than socialite politics—a game I hated being part of. I decided to keep my mouth shut and simply enjoy the food.
I over-indulged myself on each course and each new year of wine. It was the best meal I’d had in months. I caught Dante eyeing me often, and each time a small smile would flitter across his face as his eyes burned me through. He seemed to be enjoying the fact that I was enjoying the food his household had prepared.
It was after the main course as we waited on dessert that I began to feel my exhaustion creeping up. Dante was deep in a conversation with some older man, and it felt rude to excuse myself while he was busy. I swirled the wine in my glass, watching as the legs raced down the inside. And then, I felt it.
I stiffened, too nervous to raise my eyes to the man across from me—Leo. His foot only nudged me at first, but it soon became apparent what his intent was as he wedged his heel between my crossed calves and pried my legs apart. I blinked, stunned, staring at my empty, fresh plate as my fingers tensed on the stem of my glass.
He continued to raise his foot until it was between my thighs, stroking the insides torturously slow. I shifted, feeling tears threaten as I attempted to get him away. Even at this distance, he was strong, calculated. My chest began to tighten as my breathing increased. I knew where my mind was going—back to the night I was kidnapped, back to that traumatic and fateful moment. I pinched my eyes closed, taking steadying breaths. I needed to calm myself and be rational.
But then, the toe of his shoe tapped against my most private area, and I shot up out of my seat. Dante paused his conversation, searing eyes searching my face. I was shaking, and I knew he could see it.
“I must…go to bed,” I croaked hoarsely. I didn’t give him time to answer, turning and fleeing with as much dignity as I could possess in that moment. I clutched at my stomach as I ran, feeling more faint than usual. I turned a corner without looking, ramming right into a hard muscled body.
“Oh!” I gasped, glancing up as I steadied myself. The man gripped my shoulders, holding me, concern on his beautiful face. Beside him, the most perfect woman glared down at me. And beside her were two little girls, just as perfect as the man and woman.
“You alright, there?” he spoke, brows furrowing.
“Who the hell are you?” the woman sneered in disdain.
“Eira!” Dante yelled. I could hear him jog around the corner, coming to a halt in front of the small crowd. The man released me, and I pressed a hand to my forehead, trying to slow my breathing.
“She looks faint, Dante,” the man said. I felt his arm around my waist, pulling me to him, and though I knew I could trust him of all people here, I still jumped at his touch, needing to be alone, needing to feel safe from further molestation.
“Care to tell me what’s going on?” the woman spit.
“Get her out of here before I explode, Mateo,” Dante seethed. I could hear the restraint in his quivering voice.
“Come, dear, we can discuss this at a more appropriate time.”
The couple and their apparent children left, going the way I had come. I sagged in relief, but I still had Dante to contend with. He turned me, pressing my back against the wall as his fingers bit into my shoulders.
“What the hell—”
“Do not start with me,” I hissed, glaring up at him as tears wavered in my eyes. Why did I always have to cry when I was angry? His face, once stormed over, was beginning to soften.
“Are you feeling alright?” he asked, his jaw clenched. A huge tremble wracked my body, and I could do nothing but tear my eyes away from him before a small cry escaped me.
“Eira?” his voice came, much softer, holding worry within it. His hands loosened, rubbing up and down my arms in a display of comfort. Surprisingly, it was working in some capacity. At least whenever he touched me, it had never been inappropriate.
“I’m fine,” I said, sniffling, waving my hand as I tried to move forward. His hold remained locked and steady, snapping my eyes back to his.
“No, you’re not. What happened? It seemed you were enjoying the meal at least…” he trailed off, confused as he frowned at me. Wine swirled in my mind, but the feeling of Leo’s shoe and foot between my legs was still there. He was taunting me, proving that even with his boss two feet away, he could still hurt me if he wanted to. And what was I to say, what would my word mean against his?
I remembered with clarity the night Gabe broke Davide’s nose again on Dante’s demand. I remember Dante whispering that the gesture was for me—my form of justice. I could tell Dante the truth and trust that it would be dealt with, but then I would risk repercussion from his men who didn’t like me. I was stuck, warring with myself in the ornate hallway. I felt as though I was ready to spew, my filter and inhibitions gone in thanks to the strong wine.
“Leo,” I whispered, interrupting him. I kept my eyes on his chest, feeling my tears slip.
“What did he do.”
It wasn’t a question, but a demand. A demand with a promise. I wiped at my cheeks, my lips trembling. I shook my head, regretting my decision to tell Dante, especially when I brought my eyes to his. They writhed in anger like a pit of vipers. He was deadly, in this moment, and it was chilling in my very core.
He reached down, straightening his back as he did so, and cupped my chin. His touch was gentle, warm, and the smell of his cologne lingered on his wrist. I didn’t want to go any further with this, but I knew now that he would get his answers, one way or another. How could he be so powerful with just a simple look? How could he demand so much with so few words?
“He put his foot…”
I tore my eyes away, shivering, ashamed, disgusted, used. I hated how I felt, like nothing more than a piece of meat for these men to torment as they pleased. What would be next? Who would come for me now? And how far would they get?
“Where,” he seethed. I could feel his own trembling, though it was from rage instead of fear. My cheeks burned blissfully warm from the wine and the utter embarrassment. I began to shake my head, but his grip on my chin tightened.
I reached up, my hand hovering over the area Leo had violated. Dante released me, straightening. His face was the darkest I’d seen it, and I cowered in such an austere presence. He said nothing for a few long moments.
“Let me take you to bed, bellissima.”
His voice had an edge to it. He was going for blood, that much was evident. The thing that troubled me most of all, though, was wondering why he was so protective over me at all. What did I mean to him besides a possible answer to his puzzle?
His gaze burned through me, twisting my insides until they were jelly. I shook my head, ready to argue that he not make this a big deal. His glare stopped me. He leaned in, crowding my space, the warmth from his body a comfort in this cool, drafty hallway.
“No one touches what is mine and gets away with it, Eira. No one.”