It was sunny, warm, the golden rays kissing my cheeks, and there was the most subtle hint of a breeze. I could even smell the freshly bloomed flowers, and the scent of pool cleaning chemicals mingled with the cappuccino that sat untouched in front of me. My only focus, though, was on the copy of the cypher laying innocently on the desk under my gaze.
It was quiet in Dante’s massive office, something I needed if I was to concentrate. My mind, however, kept wandering to last night. From his words, to his gentle caresses, to him pressing his lips to my forehead—it was all too much. Did he…was he attracted to me? A man in his line of work, in this lifestyle?
Or was I completely misinterpreting things? I mean, Italians greet each other with kisses, right? But on the forehead? And just one kiss?
And then my mind jumped to his clothes, stained with blood, and my stomach churned. How could a man capable of such monstrous things give me butterflies? How could I let myself get swept up in such a world?
“Ugh,” I groaned, thumping my head to the small wooden desk. He’d asked where I had wanted to sit, and I chose near the window. I needed to look around a lot when working on something difficult. Sometimes, the answers were just under our noses, if only we cared to see.
Dante was still a mystery to me.
Footsteps pulled me from my daydreaming. I glanced up, feeling my cheeks burn as Dante entered his kingdom, a file folder in his hand, and Gabe following him. There was never a moment those two weren’t together. I wasn’t too sure how I felt about it, yet.
They kept their words hidden from me in Italian as they both overlooked the papers. Dante seemed agitated, the bronzed lines of his forearms visible. He had rolled up the sleeves on his expensive dress shirt before his coffee had arrived this morning. He was clearly a serious man, one that did not take his job—or any job, for that matter—lightly. I knew he would expect the same professionalism from me. I didn’t mind, though. If I could look at this exchange in such a way, perhaps it would stay that way.
I frowned, eyes falling to the cypher. Something deep within me didn’t want this to just stay professional. I chided myself. I was playing with fire.
I did not agree with his lifestyle, nor did I agree with his career choice, and to become entangled like in some romance novel was recipe for disaster. I just needed to help him solve this and move on.
The problem remained, though.
This cypher was…impossible. I prided myself on being able to find patterns, and once a pattern or at least a code was established, it would all go very quickly. I knew from the first glance that this would be very, very difficult. Some cyphers in the world had yet to be solved. And then there’s the problems of fakes—ones that mean absolute gibberish, only there to confound and keep the intended distracted.
It would make sense, if that was the case with this one. I knew I needed more information on this Enzo character, on his personality. If he was a true psychopath, it would make sense that he wanted to really toy with his victims, meaning this puzzle would be real. If he was less intelligent, there was the possibility this was fake. I wouldn’t be able to know which trail to follow unless Dante gave me more to work with.
Just as those thoughts swirled in my mind, his shadow fell over me, his scent strong in my nose, making my mind jump back to our rather intimate moments the night before. I gulped, shrinking, bringing my eyes up to his.
He stood before my desk like a sexy school teacher, his hands shoved in the pockets of his slacks, his brow quirked as he stared down at me, bemused. My mind went blank for a moment as I took in his handsome, chiseled face.
“Tough?” he asked. I chewed my cheek, but kept our eyes locked. I hated admitting defeat.
“This will take…a substantial amount of time.”
He nodded, seeming crestfallen but also understanding. My nerves quieted. He wasn’t angry, virulent. He was always so calm, even when infuriated. He knew how to control his emotions, and for that I was thankful. Thankful and perplexed. Beck would have already called me stupid, or laughed at me.
I knew, thanks to all my psych involvement, that I was damaged from that relationship. He had been manipulative, mentally and emotionally abusive, but I had thought he was the best I would get, and so I had stayed. I knew it would take time to heal from that, but at least recognizing it was the first step.
Dante’s deep chuckle pulled me once more from my dark thoughts.
“You’re…cute, when you’re thinking hard about something,” he said, his voice smooth as silk against my skin. I felt my eyes go wide, my blush rise, but his gaze remained the same, lingering on my face, his eyes dancing, gentle.
“Thanks…I think?” I said, smiling despite myself. He chuckled again, smirking.
“I am grateful, that you’re at least trying.”
I frowned at those words, because I hadn’t really been given much of a choice. I sighed, tidying up my desk area.
“Yeah, well, I’ve solved my share of puzzles, but…when it really mattered I always had help.”
His gaze darkened a fraction at those words.
“How do you mean?”
I sighed, clutching my own file folder. The rule was every day, he would give me my work, and when I was finished—even if it was to go to the bathroom—I was to give it back to him so he could lock it up. No one else was allowed in or out of his office, not even the maid staff. They had been instructed to simply leave food or beverages at the door. He was treating this very seriously, but I couldn’t blame him. Not when it came to his family.
I would have been the same.
“Just…I had a friend, back home. Sanjay. He is insanely smart and he helped me…”
Dante nodded in understanding, reaching for the file as I handed it to him. It was just past noon, and he had told me we would have lunch together. His long, deft fingers pulled the manilla folder to his chest, drumming along the thick paper a few times.
“I am sorry…that I have forced you into this, Eira,” he said. I felt heated under that unrelenting gaze of his, and in his eyes was the total truth; he did feel guilty. Why this warmed me—the fact that this man who was capable of such atrocities also had a conscience—was beyond me. But I would take it, for it meant I was safe with him. As safe as I could be in a den of gangsters.
“I’ll forgive you eventually,” I said, allowing a smile to creep onto my face. He snorted softly, returning it.
“Does lunch in the city sound alright with you? I figured after, we could shop—get you some more clothes?”
I felt as though I would melt under that gaze of his, and I found myself nodding without much secondary thought. I did need more clothes. I always felt underdressed here, when all he wore was dress shirts and slacks. Even his loungewear was pricey.
“That works for me,” I said, giving him a small smile. His own smile grew, his eyes warm, gentle, open.
“Come, bellissima. I will give you a proper tour of Sicily.”