I squirmed in Gabe’s grasp, trying my best to keep my breathing even, mind mind still whirling after what had just happened. My escape had been foiled, and even though it had been a fool’s plan to begin with, I had put everything I’d had into it. If I could make it to an embassy or consulate, I could tell them what had happened, could find someone willing to help me, right? Italy wasn’t a third world country—there were more resources for cases such as mine. At least, that’s what my naivety told me.
Gabe’s grip on me tightened, squeezing the breath from my lungs. I wheezed, struggling more, hating the way his arms felt around me, shivering now that I was damp from Dante’s swim trunks. He threw a boyish smirk down at me, his brilliant green eyes dazzling in the lowlight. As handsome as he was, I’d never forgive him for that night, even if he’d been the more gentle one. He’d still kidnapped me.
And Dante had ordered it.
I grit my teeth, giving him my best glare. He answered it with a chuckle.
“Make this easier on yourself, girl. Just do what he wants. And eat something, for fuck’s sake,” he said, frowning at the end as we descended further into this mansion. Truth be told, I was impressed by it, but after my initial shock, I was only allowed to the kitchen and my room, and I’d become increasingly bored of the decor, no matter how decadent it was.
The air cooled, the light dimming the further down we went, and with each step my fear mounted more. We were encased by sandy stone walls, the hall thinning, the lights growing fainter in our descent. Wherever I was being taken, it wasn’t good. Was this some sick punishment for me trying to escape? I’d clearly not thought this through. These men were clearly alright with committing atrocious crimes—what would stop them from torturing me? They’d already fucked with my mind enough, and now they sought to ruin my body, it was the only logical conclusion I could draw. My stupid decision had just signed my death certificate.
I struggled with more urgency now, attempting to throw my pitiful weight to one side and catch him off guard. Maybe I shouldn’t have starved myself. Every damn decision I’d made had only cemented my fate further. I was beginning to hate myself.
“Calm…down…” he huffed, pausing, holding me tighter. I whimpered like a wounded animal, eyes bouncing around and landing on a metal door not three yards away. Was this a dungeon? What kind of sick men had a dungeon? I felt myself begin to hyperventilate, tears pooling in my eyes and blurring my vision.
“Hey…you’re fine…calm…down…” he grunted, shifting me around to better hold me.
“No, no, no, I’ll be good, I won’t run away…I’ll be good…” I gasped through my clenched teeth, my heart hammering as black crept around the edges of my vision.
“What the hell is going on?” a deep voice called, echoing off the walls. I pinched my eyes shut in recognition as trembles wracked me.
“She just started…freaking out…” Gabe huffed.
“Give her to me.” His voice was smooth and deep, calm yet somehow restrained; he was pissed. I shook my head, trying my best to jump from the arms that caged me in, but as my feet hit the floor, all blood rushed from my head, and I staggered back, thudding into his chest. He wasted no time scooping me up, barking orders at Gabe, and soon we were alone.
The steady thud of his heart against my cheek was somehow comforting, the warmth he radiated something my body sought without my permission. He sighed, staring down at me with deeply furrowed brows. I watched him with wary eyes before pulling my gaze away, noticing how quickly my breathing had calmed as soon as he’d been the one to hold me. I wondered if it had anything to do with the fact that Gabe had been the one to take me, my mind subconsciously betraying me. The deep intonations of his voice made my eyes flutter back to meet his.
“You’re traumatized,” he said, his frown dark, the lines between his brows deepening. Despite my anger, my lip trembled with unshed tears; I’d been nothing more than a phantom since he’d forced me here, but now my wall was crumbling. He pulled his eyes away with a frustrated sigh, giving me an unobstructed view of his harsh jawline, of his bronzed neck and throbbing veins. After another moment, he brought his eyes back to mine. He spoke, the words ominous.
“I need to show you something.”
The girl peered up at me with a guarded expression and parted lips, the bags under her eyes verging on bruise-like, her skin yellowing. She needed to eat, needed sunshine—needed companionship. She was dying, alone, afraid, and even someone like Gabe sent her into a spiral. It hadn’t gone unnoticed to me that I’d been able to calm her, simply by taking her in my arms. If I was the key, then so be it. My greediness wasn’t about to complain.
I shifted her light body in my arms, moving toward the door. She trembled, twisting. I paused, catching her eyes.
“Please,” she whispered, unable to meet my gaze this time. “Please, I won’t run away.”
I grit my teeth. I’d broken her spirit in a matter of weeks without even really trying. I knew if her health was better, she’d have continued to fight me. As it was, she was simply exhausted.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Eira. I…I just need to show you this because…because I think you can help me with it,” I said, waiting until her confused glacial eyes found mine. Her little brow furrowed.
“Is that why—”
I shook my head before she could jump to conclusions.
“I really did take you to prevent your death, I swear it. This is…different. My own problem, and if you don’t want to help then…that’s your choice. But if you do…If you solve this, I will return you, I will personally ensure your safety.”
Her round eyes widened before she gnawed on her plump, ruby lip. A thrill ran through me at the innocent action. How could I be so attracted to a woman who clearly hated me?
“Do we have a deal?”
Her eyes simmered, never leaving mine. My grip on her tightened in anticipation; she was my last shred of hope.
“Ok,” she whispered. I gave a smirk in response, feeling utter relief.
“Thank you, truly.”
Her eyes fell to her hands that were knotted on her stomach, and a shiver rippled through her. She was still damp from when I’d pulled her from the window. I pushed forward through the door, into the cavernous wine cellar. Her sheepish eyes found mine for a moment before skirting away. I chuckled as I paced forward, holding her tighter to my chest.
“Not a torture chamber, bellissima. But this is to be kept between us, sí?”
She gave a subtle nod, goosebumps raising on her exposed flesh. I offered her an apologetic smile.
“It gets warmer. I apologize, I was swimming with my nieces when you made your daring escape,” I said, a light tone to my voice. She hunched her shoulders, petulant.
“I would have made it,” she grumbled as we passed by rows upon rows of casks. Our family owned a vineyard, and not even as a front. We simply enjoyed fine wine. I chuckled at her obstinance.
“I don’t doubt that.”
“Don’t patronize me,” she growled, crossing her arms. I paused outside another door, this one ajar, leading further into the confines of my home. A space rarely used by anyone but myself and Gabe, for I had little faith and trust in anyone else. I stared down at her, fascinated once more by her alluring mind. What I wouldn’t give to be able to read it.
“No one—and I mean no one—would have ever dared do what you did. I can’t tell if you’re brave or simply have no self-preservation.”
“Is that supposed to scare me?”
I chuckled, though the sound was dark.
“Everyone is afraid of me, even you,” I answered. She pulled her arms tighter about herself. Perhaps she needed a healthy dose of fear, but I doubted it would stop her from attempting escapes in the future. I cleared my throat, making my way into the squat, square room, the ceiling too low for my liking. There was a couch, two chairs, a screen dominating the expanse of one wall, and a desk to the right of the space.
Gabe occupied the desk, drumming his fingers on the dark wood top out of boredom. I nestled her onto the couch, reaching over the back to give her the thick blanket. Her eyes caught mine, our faces inches apart, the proximity sending heat flying through my veins. She made no move, frozen, so I draped it across her lap, tucking it in at her sides. Her cheeks, normally so sallow, now flamed to life. I couldn’t keep the smirk from my face this time.
“Don’t think you’re getting off the hook so easy for your little charade.”
Her eyes clouded over in confusion. I leaned in further, hiding my words from Gabe, my lips at her ear.
“You’ll be my new roommate, bellissima, until I can trust you to stay put.”
She shivered as I pulled away, her throat bobbing as she swallowed hard. My hand that was on the arm rest of the couch clenched, preventing me from reaching out and stroking her supple cheek. Gabe coughed, rousing me from my reverie, Eira’s eyes falling to her lap. I stood to my full height before her, another flash of desire tearing through me, seeing her eye-level with my crotch. No other woman could fulfill the fantasies I had about her. Why I wanted her, I still did not know.
I reached out, cupping her chin, forcing her eyes to mine so I could memorize how she appeared when looking up at me from this point of view. Her lips were so plush, so dark in the lowlight, her eyes so round and wide like a doe’s, framed by her dark lashes. I brushed my thumb across her chin, giving nothing away as I stared down at her.
“Go ahead,” I said to Gabe. He obeyed, the screen behind us blinking to life. I pulled away from her, as much as it pained me to do so, and sat in one of the empty chairs. The first photo that dominated the screen churned my stomach and made my blood boil. I motioned to it with a wave of my hand.
“Dario Enzo,” I said, eyes flicking to hers. She shrank in her spot, her cheeks still holding the kiss of a blush from a few moments ago. I pressed on, chest tightening; I hadn’t spoken his name in what felt like years. His dark, beady eyes stared back, his salt and pepper beard trimmed to perfection, his thinning hair slicked across his shiny skull.
“I run a business, bellissima, one that I need not explain the specifics of to you,” I said, watching as she fidgeted. After a moment, she nodded. She was a brilliant girl; she’d figure it out on her own, assuming she hadn’t already.
“This man—” I said, attempting to keep the malice from my voice, “—used to be a partner of my father’s. They worked together for over thirty years, building an empire. Enzo was family.”
She chewed her cheek, eyes on me as she twisted her hands together. I leaned forward, rubbing my palms against each other, resting my forearms on my knees. The darkness would never leave me, not really. There were parts to this story not even Gabe knew, parts that I alone harbored for years out of shame, then hatred, until I accepted them and used them to refine my skills. I would have my revenge for what that man had taken from me; I was simply biding my time. His soul belonged to me.
“He turned—changed, when he became power hungry. Found there were other dealings that profited more than what him and my father had been able to do. My family isn’t blameless, by any means, but there is a line we draw, quite clearly, and Enzo chose to cross it.”
I waited, watching as her lips parted in question. I gave her a small nod, encouraging her to ask it.
“W-what was it?” came her whisper. I grit my teeth against the rage welling within me.
“Children. Twelve seems a popular age, but we’ve found much younger. He sells them,” I said, my voice low as my hands rubbed together once more. Her face blanched, her round eyes widening ever further. I nodded.
“He has his hands in every major family there is; in the U.S., Russia, here, in Italy. He is vile. But he is brilliant.”
She blinked a few times, shaking her head. I held up my hand, nodding to Gabe. The next photo I would never be able to bring myself to look at again, and judging by her reaction, it was as horrid as I remembered.
“My parents,” I breathed, gritting my teeth against the searing pain in my chest. She tore her eyes away, glaring at the blanket. I knew what she saw; their bodies, pale, lifeless, a single bullet wound to my father’s head, a knife slice across my mother’s neck.
“He didn’t just kill them, Eira. He tortured them. But he left their faces, so I’d know who’d done this,” I seethed, a steady tremble taking root in my core. Her eyes slowly trailed up to my face, tears leaving tracks along her pale cheeks. Gabe clicked to the next photo without hesitation, and her eyes flickered, brows knitting once more as her mouth popped open.
“He gave us one clue, because above all, he loves the game,” I said, voice quiet in the still air. I watched as her eyes flew side to side, taking in each line of the cypher, her mouth closing as the realization dawned upon her.
“If you solve this, Eira…you’ll not only be free, but you’ll save thousands of innocent lives.”
She shook her head, perplexed.
“Why…why do this? Where does this lead?” she asked, breathless, too fucking astute. I glanced at Gabe, who sat with crossed arms, hand near his mouth as he watched her work through her dwindling decisions.
“Enzo doesn’t do the dirty work. He’s untraceable, and he communicates his desires to his thugs with cyphers. This leads to…”
Again my eyes flicked to Gabe. He gave a subtle nod, encouraging my explanation.
“It leads to the one truly calling the shots, Eira…il Fantasma—The Phantom.”