“Sleep, bellissima,” I said, keeping my eyes on the weathered pages of my book. I was answered by an annoyed huff and the sound of her turning for the hundredth time, her legs kicking at the blankets and sheets. I felt a smile crack my face, but I dared not look her way; she needed sleep, I needed time to think. I couldn’t have the latter without the former.
She rolled again, grumbling something snarky but still incoherent. I chuckled despite her obvious disrespect, somehow able to allow it in the confines and privacy of my own room. Why I allowed her so much slack was a mystery even to me, but I figured it was because I didn’t want to quell her spirit.
I finally let my eyes find her shape across the dim space. I was situated in front of my fireplace on the couch, my bed a fair distance from me. I figured it would be far enough that she’d feel secure; I’d promised to sleep here on these lumpy ass cushions until other arrangements could be made.
She sat up, kicking at the comforter some more and crossing her arms, mouth twisting down in spite. I pressed my thumb between the pages of my book to hold my spot, quirking my brow at her in silent question.
“Your bed is like sleeping on concrete,” she glowered, pale face glowing in the firelight. It was well past midnight, well past the time she should be asleep and regaining her strength. I could understand why she wasn’t, though. After she agreed to my terms, I’d given her some space—but that room had a way of echoing, and her quiet cries had seemed to carve into my heart. My gut writhed in an unpleasant way as I remembered with clarity what those sniffles and sobs sounded like. Why hers affected me so deeply, I had not a clue. Well, maybe I did, but I still wasn’t ready to admit it to myself yet.
“I’ll have a new mattress brought up for you. Preferences?”
“Umm, in my own room, thanks.”
I hid my chuckle as best I could.
“I’ve not moved, as I promised.”
Her glared deepened, a scowl growing to match it. She crossed her arms tighter, if that were possible. I shook my head, sighing.
“Until I can trust you, this will have to do.”
“You can’t expect me to obey when you’ve given me no real reason to trust you,” she hissed. I bit my tongue, considering her words. They were true, and she had me pinned. God, her fiery attitude made me want to do unspeakable things to her. I rested my arm along the back of the couch, leaning closer to better gauge her facial expressions.
“And what do I have to do to earn that?”
She winced, clearly taken aback by my question, her bravado faltering. She picked at her blanket, a furious blush rising in her cheeks.
“This is gross. I don’t even know how many nasty women you’ve had in this bed—”
She stopped short when her eyes fell to mine, her mouth clamping shut. I did my best to hide my smirk behind my dark look of warning.
“Don’t avoid my question,” I said, lowering my voice an octave. She sank down further, an expert at tantrums, I’d learned, but it was rather endearing. I’d rather her this way than the hollow woman I’d pulled from the ledge just hours ago.
“I don’t have an answer,” she whispered, voice tight. I frowned at her truth, sort of expecting it.
“Then you’ll just have to wait and see, I suppose.”
Her eyes flicked to mine, filled with curiosity as her head quirked to the side.
“What are you reading?”
Her question pulled me up short, though her being a woman of sound intelligence, it shouldn’t have surprised me.
“Inferno, Dante,” I answered, wagging the old book at her. Her lips twisted down as she considered. It took her a moment to speak, her eyes far off as though she were searching the walls for words just out of reach.
“They yearn for what they fear for,” she said after her pause. My heart stuttered before regaining its pace double. Wicked smart. My desire for her grew evermore. One side of my lips twitched up in an impressed smile, thinking of my own counter quote.
“There is no greater sorrow than to recall in misery the time when we were happy,” I said. I watched with apprehension as her own lips tilted up, and she leaned forward across the duvet, her inhibitions creeping away as she unknowingly opened herself to me—her mind, her heart, her soul—all out in the open. I could feel my own soul ignite at the subtle shift between us.
“Why Dante’s Inferno? I assume you’ve read it many times,” she asked, all traces of her wall gone. I swallowed hard; I’d do anything in this moment to keep her talking to me in such a way. I craved intelligent conversation, and I rarely received it, surrounded by mindless soldiers who obeyed my every command.
I pondered her question, tapping the book to my hand.
“Because…I believe we are in a sort of hell, here on earth…” I said, glancing at her. She narrowed her eyes briefly, lips parting in thought.
“Here as well. It’s about…the journey, for me, I think.”
She swallowed hard.
“I don’t think that’s all…”
My chest felt tight, and judging by the look on her face, she knew she was treading dangerous waters. True to her nature, though, she spoke her mind.
“You want to play God, to punish sinners, to be the wrath they feel,” she said, her voice just a whisper. I grit my teeth, unable to form a rebuttal. She shook her head finally, staring at the down comforter. And then, her eyes found mine.
“You forget, wrath is a sin.”
I considered her weighted words, considered what it was about me she was seeking here and now. A confirmation of my evil? Or the hope that I could be good? A notion that had escaped me long ago; I was not a good man in many ways, and I didn’t want to be.
“And what would you do, bellissima, to avenge Maggie?” I posed, needing her to see my side of things. In her eyes, though, I saw the truth; she’d been testing me, learning me before I could even figure out what it was she’d been doing. Again, I was struck by her sheer brilliance.
“I would stop at nothing to avenge her,” she whispered, voice wavering. It seemed her and I shared something in common, then; our morals were allowed to shift based on circumstance. She leaned back, seeming satisfied with her inquiry. We held one another’s gaze for a few long heartbeats more as the heat of the fire lapped at me.
“The ninth circle—” she began, brows furrowing. I grit my teeth, nostrils flaring in quiet rage. I knew where she was going with this, too. As though we could read one another’s minds. It was eery, uncanny—strange for me. None had ever come this close in such a short span of time. No one ever paid attention to what I surrounded myself with, from literature to artwork—all, I knew, were me, deep down, and she already saw that. It was something I’d not even recognized about myself until a few years ago.
Her eyes narrowed the slightest bit before igniting once more.
“It’s deeper than you tell everyone, his treachery.”
I took a steadying breath, pulling my eyes from hers as sweat pooled along my back. She was too damn perceptive. I felt sick, clammy, flashes of images I’d tried to bury dancing to life in my mind. I was fine, for the most part—could move through each day without thinking about it constantly as I’d used to.
“What did he do—”
“No, bellissima,” I said, keeping my voice calm for her sake as I peered at her once more. She snapped her mouth shut, wide-eyed and frightened at her misstep. I would never tell a soul, so long as I lived, but I feared she would figure out just how deep Enzo’s treachery went. There was still shame, embarrassment, hatred, all swirling in my heart rather painfully.
Her eyes softened into pools of glacial melt, so gentle, so open and earnest in that moment, and I knew that she somehow knew already—and there was the beginning of her trust in me.
It was refreshing, her seeing me as I was, seeing for herself that I’d endured more than most. If anyone felt safe, it was her. I sighed, shaking my head and scattering my thoughts to the night, needing sleep as well.
“Would you like a sedative?” I offered, pulling us back up from the depths of our discussion. Her eyes widened in fright as she shook her head. I offered her a gentle smile.
“Sleep, please, you need it.”
She crossed her arms again, making me snort. How could such a clever mind be juxtaposed by such childish tendencies? And why was I so drawn to it?
“Do you need your meds?” I pressed. She shook her head, nibbling on her bottom lip.
She gave a soft laugh, sinking down further.
“No, thank you.”
“Tomorrow, you’ll eat, and spend time outdoors, and be checked over by—”
She shot up at my words, wagging her hand at me. I silenced her with a look.
“By a specialist, and I will be present the entire time, ok?”
“I don’t need it,” she mumbled.
“No, but I need to understand. Can you allow that?”
She sighed, nodding. I could tell she was becoming sleepier the more we talked. Perhaps it was simply companionship she needed. I felt the urge to offer my sister as confidant, but both of my sisters were too selfish at the moment, and there would be no other women I’d trust her with. I’d have to suffice for now.
“We will need to get you some new clothes. You’ll be working with me nearly every day from here on out.”
She perked at this. I sighed, stretching before I stood, disheartened when she shrank as I drew near. I smirked, walking to her side of the bed, flicking off her lamp and pulling the comforter up as she laid back, her wary eyes on me the whole time. I paused, leaned above her, one hand fisted and resting on the mattress, the other still gripping the fabric near her stomach, caging her between my arms. Her raven hair splayed out against her pillow, her scent so soft and intoxicating, her lips so luscious and inviting. My skin was bronzed, even more so when compared to her alabaster—masculine clashing with feminine, and it was beautiful.
I reached up, brushing my thumb along her cheek, feeling her blush blossom like a ripe apple.
“Sleep, please, Eira. And for the record, you’re the only woman that’s ever been in my bed.”