I stared down at Eira in the golden, late morning sunshine, her hair strewn about her, her arms surrendered above her head as she slept like a sprawled starfish. I felt a soft grin tug at my lips, a gesture no one else would ever be allowed to see. She’d finally slept after some coercion, and hadn’t stopped sleeping since. Her specialist had been waiting for near an hour now, but I couldn’t bring myself to wake her.
I’d cleared my appointments for the day, more intent on taking care of her, of cementing whatever tenuous relationship I was able to. I needed her to trust me in order for this to work. I wasn’t above admitting I was desperate for her to solve this—none had ever come close, and I had a feeling she would.
I sighed, rolling up the sleeves to my dress shirt, ensuring everything was in place before I left to tell her doctor he needed to continue waiting. As soon as I stepped away from the bed, her eyes fluttered open before squinting against the sun streaming in. My breath hitched as I stared, watching as she came to, her brows furrowing as she stretched. Her eyes landed on me, widening, and she sat up, pushing back against the headboard. My heart sank at her fear.
I held up my hand for her assurance, staying in place. She simmered, wrapping her arms about her knees, licking at her dry lips.
“I…what time is it?” she said, voice hoarse. I chuckled, stepping closer once more.
“Eleven. I didn’t want to wake you,” I said. She gave a sheepish grin, laying her legs flat, glancing out the double doors and to my balcony.
“Are you hungry?”
Her eyes flashed to mine once more as she shrank back, her fiery side rather tame at the moment. She nodded. Tension released from my shoulders, knowing she’d actually eat.
“I’ll have food brought to you. Your specialist is here…” I said, worried for her reaction on that front. She sighed, crossing her arms and rolling her eyes.
“Eira,” I warned, my voice deepening. She cast me a seething glare.
“I know my body well enough to know—”
“Yes, but I don’t, and I’m not taking any chances, risking you like that,” I cut her off, my words heated. Her glare turned spiteful in an instant.
“Why? Because you actually have use for me now?”
Her words stung, more than I thought they would. It was easy to see how her mind would jump to that conclusion, but after last night, after the depth of our conversation…I figured she was at least thawing toward me.
I ran my hand through my hair, choosing my words carefully.
“If you want to think that way because of how that asshole treated you, that’s your prerogative. But it is the farthest from the truth.”
She flinched, blinking a few times before her eyes welled with tears. She glared at the comforter, shoulders hunching as she hid behind her hair. I growled, kicking myself. I came closer, settling onto my bed, keeping my eyes on her as she shifted away from me.
“I want to learn, despite what you may think of me,” I urged, voice soft. She sniffled, wiping the back of her hand across her nose, peeking at me. She shook her head.
“I’m just tired,” she breathed, and she sounded it, a kind of exhausted I’d never know. I gave a nod, pressing my lips together.
“Can I have him come in?”
She nodded, though her eyes were tight.
“I won’t leave, unless you want me to.”
“Don’t…please…” she whispered, cheeks flaming to life as she avoided my gaze. I resisted the urge to smile, standing, placing my hand on her knee, my other gripping the headboard as I leaned over her. She blinked rapidly at our proximity, lips parted.
“What do you want to eat?”
She blinked again, shaking her head. I chuckled at how easy it was to fluster her, quite enjoying it.
“Food,” she finally answered, her sarcasm falling short. I chuckled again, pulling away.
“I think we can accommodate that, bellissima. I’ll be back in a few,” I said, giving her one last look before sauntering out. Her specialist was a small man, older, with the dark features most Italian men held. He grasped his leather medical bag, giving me a small bow before following me back toward my room. He knew who I was—and judging by the sweat that dotted his brow, he would do anything I asked of him to keep himself and his family safe from my retribution. I grinned to the empty hall as he followed, a sense of power coursing through my veins—a feeling I craved.
A maid backed out of a nearby room as we passed, rolling behind her a cart full of empty dinnerware. I paused before her as she bowed, keeping her eyes low. She was young, a daughter of one of our most trusted maids, always jumping at the chance to prove her worth. I eyed the room she’d come from, gritting my teeth; Leo’s. Judging by the toppling amount of plates, he wasn’t alone.
“Breakfast, to my room in twenty minutes, please,” I said. She nodded, trembling in my shadow.
“What would you like, sir?”
“Just…a bit of everything, please,” I said, unsure what exactly Eira’d want. She gave a curt nod, never meeting my eye as she backed away. I continued on, feeling the doctor’s presence in my wake. As I pushed into my room, Eira jumped, still swaddled in the comforter on my bed. Her eyes were wide, stuck on my face, seeming to ask what it was I wanted her to do. I gave her a soft smile, closing the door as the doctor entered.
“Eira, this is your specialist, Dr. Benito,” I said. Her eyes flicked to him and she gave a small nod, cheeks reddening. I doubted he could speak much English, another reason I’d need to be present for these visits. That, and imagining another man’s hands on her—doctor or not—was enough to send me spiraling into a fit of rage. I’d learned, through much practice, to control my temper, but it always simmered just below the surface.
“Come, come, dear,” he said, waving her to the couch. I stood near the mantle, hands shoved in my pockets as she obeyed. She situated herself next to him as he took out his stethoscope and other medical instruments. He ran through all the basics, checking her heart rate, blood pressure, making her stand to measure her height, even requesting a scale for her weight, a moment I was sure to turn around for. Eventually, he withdrew eight vials, all with different colored toppers, along with a butterfly needle. My stomach churned.
Like a pro—as though she could draw her own blood—she held out her left arm and even helped the little man tie up the rubber band on her bicep. He prodded her violet vein, her eyes never leaving the sight as he poked through her delicate, pale skin, her crimson blood filling up each vial.
“When did she last eat?”
I cleared my throat, translating for her.
“When did you eat last, Eira?”
Her cheeks burned before paling considerably, her eyes drooping. She looked clammy, sicker the more blood he drew.
“I don’t remember,” she muttered. I sighed, the sound more a growl, before I ran my hand through my hair and relayed the message to the doctor. He hummed, requesting orange juice as she paled even more, sweat dotting her brow. I turned, about to rush to find the maid, when her timid knock sounded at the door. I hurried her in, searching the cart for juice, pouring her a glass and handing it to her as she wavered in her seat, the doctor withdrawing the needle and pressing a cotton ball to the crook of her arm.
He gave a small chuckle.
“She may pass out, sir. Stay close while I label her samples.”
I nodded, seating myself on the other side of her, tucking her into me. She was too weak to fight me at the moment.
“Are you alright?” I breathed, concerned as I gazed on her. She waved me off, sipping her juice.
“Happens when they take that much,” she muttered. My thumb stroked up and down on her hip, feeling the prominence of her bone, her shirt and shorts loose on her frame. I couldn’t help but feel awash with guilt—it was my fault she’d stopped eating the in first place. The doctor jotted a few notes down before turning to me.
“I need her blood type, and I’ll be requesting an ultrasound to measure her liver, spleen and pancreas. You’ll have to come to my office later this week for that. As for right now…” he paused, rubbing his forehead. I felt Eira’s gaze on me, but I kept my eyes on him.
“She needs to eat. She is far too skinny. I’ll check her bilirubin, but judging by how jaundiced she is, it’s too high. From what I know right now, I’d place her in the moderate to severe category for her disorder. There will be blood transfusions and a possibility of removing the spleen if we can’t get this under control,” he said, frowning. I nodded, absorbing the medical terms as best I could.
“What’s your blood type?” I asked to her.
“O-negative,” she said, finishing off her juice, her color beginning to seep back into her cheeks. I hid my chuckle. Same blood type as myself. After relaying the information and setting up her next appointment, he packed up his bag and bowed, backing out. I let out a long sigh, glancing down at her as she peeked up at me, leaning away from my embrace. I wished to cement her to me, to protect her from herself, from her body’s betrayal of her. She didn’t deserve this.
“So, am I dying?” she said, lips quirking in a smirk. I snorted at her sarcasm, rubbing at my stubbly jaw as I stared at the fireplace. Her eyes were too mesmerizing to stare long.
“Not on my watch,” I said after a pause, glancing back down at her. She was warm next to me, the feeling pleasant. I never held women in such a delicate way, and she didn’t seem to mind.
“Need me to explain?” she said, voice soft. My thumb resumed its absentminded stroking as I nodded.
And so she did, in great depth, patient with the thousand questions I threw her way, until I felt an expert now as well.
“Fuck, Eira,” I breathed when she finished. She gave a nonchalant shrug.
“Could be worse, really.”
“Don’t downplay the severity,” I said with a frown. She picked at the strings on her shorts, shrugging in response. It was easy to tell she was enveloped in her own thoughts.
“You have an appointment on Friday. I’ll take you,” I said. She chewed her lip, giving a small nod.
“How do you feel?”
To my surprise, she leaned back, letting her eyes slip closed as her head rested on my arm. I stiffened at her innocent gesture, for it wasn’t like her to be so comfortable around me. Perhaps she was growing to trust me, in some small way.
“I’m just exhausted,” she said with a sigh.
“Eat, then sleep, bellissima.”
She was too tired to argue, thankfully. She ate her fill while I answered emails before excusing herself and ducking into the bathroom. I took the opportunity to open the balcony doors, allowing the afternoon sun to filter in unhindered, the warmth mingled with a slight breeze.
“So,” she said behind me as I leaned over the railing. I turned, face softening as she came to stand next to me.
“Are you really Italian?” she asked, her face scrunched in innocent curiosity. My brows shot up, and her eyes widened as she stiffened, wagging her hands.
“God, that was so rude, I’m so—”
But I could only chuckle as I shook my head. She frowned, glaring.
“I’m half Italian. My mother was from Norway,” I said, sobering, their faces ever-present in my mind.
“Oh,” she nodded, bobbing her head. I watched her as she stared out over our gardens. Our family’s estate was massive, the lands beautiful and kept to perfection. My mother had loved gardening here where it was always sunny, but she often missed the cold, unforgiving nature of her homeland. Her skin had been pale, like Eira’s, but her hair had been a soft, caramel brown, her eyes a deep blue.
“Hence my skin tone and lighter eyes and hair,” I said in explanation. She peeked at me, small smile on the corners of her lips. It felt as though she was reminiscing as well.
“My dad was German, hence Von Waldeck,” she said, clearly teasing me. I chuckled, enraptured by her. She sighed, staring at her hands that gripped the railing. Her white shirt was thin, a v-neck, and from my angle I could see clear down between the valleys of her breasts. I reddened, drawing my eyes away from such a tempting sight.
“My mom’s family was from Norway too, actually. Her parents were immigrants.”
I felt my chest tighten at the small connection, something that linked us, like the fact we shared the same blood type. The more I studied her, the more alike we became—even our opposing attributes complemented one another. Her eyes flashed to mine, and she stepped away, blushing, the moment of tenuous peace falling away like a sheet slithering to the floor from covering a ghastly painting.
I sighed, standing straight, her thoughts easy to decipher. She’d slipped up, allowed herself to become comfortable in the presence of the man who’d taken her against her will. Her reality wasn’t something I could fix, only make better to the best of my abilities. And I knew what an uphill battle that would be. I figured space would suffice for now. I didn’t need her feeling smothered.
“I’ll be in my office. You can lock the door, only I have the code. If you need anything, there’s a phone on the nightstand that dials different rooms.”
She nodded, knitting her hands together.
“I’ll…uhh…sleep…” she said, gesturing to the bed. I nodded, feeling as though I was crowding her as she stood in my rather imposing shadow.
“Can I…” she began, eyes flitting to mine and away just as quickly, teeth nibbling at her lip. I inwardly groaned at the sight and the waves of pleasure it sent rippling through me.
“Yes?” I prodded, clearing my throat from the desire that gripped me.
“The cypher. May I have a copy of it?”
Her eyes were wide, her irises such a clear, striking blue, enriched in hue by her dark lashes and brows. I considered, giving a small nod.
“Yes, but it cannot leave this room, please.”
She nodded, blushing before she hugged herself against the slight breeze.
“Go on and rest, I’ll bring it to you before I come get you for dinner.”
“Get me?” she said with a shake of her head, confusion on her face. I smirked, leaning back against the railing and crossing my arms.
“Yes. You’re not my prisoner, bellissima. You may have dinner with me and some of my men. I don’t want you to feel like this is your cell.”
Her gaze deepened along with her blush, and she finally gave a fleeting smile.
“T-thank you,” she stammered, voice quiet. I nodded, straightening up.
“How does eight sound? We eat late in Italy,” I said with a smirk. Her eyes widened, but she nodded.
“Sure, that’s fine…umm…I don’t…I mean…my clothes—”
I was shaking my head before she could finish.
“It’s casual, I promise. We can shop when you’re more up for it, alright?”
“Ok,” she said, her voice so soft and gentle.
“I will see you tonight, bellissima. Sweet dreams,” I said, my voice turning husky in an instant. She swallowed hard before nodding, but I didn’t miss the luscious red that coated her round cheeks before she disappeared back into my room. God, this woman had captivated me, mind body and soul.