Her hand went to her abdomen, and she silently promised her child better than that. Dante’s eyes followed her hand to her stomach, and his Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed thickly.
“I would want a different relationship with her,” he said softly. “I didn’t know this at first, Cleo, but I do know it now. I want to be a real father to Nan, and I don’t want her to go through the turmoil of numerous stepparents. Just us. Her mother and father.”
“What you’re proposing is a cold and cynical arrangement that will result in a cold and cynical environment unsuited for raising a child. Please don’t bring this up again. I don’t want to marry you, and I know that it’s not what you want either. Not really.”
“I’ve come to . . .” He hesitated, clearly picking his words carefully. “I’ve come to like and respect you, Cleo, and I do think we can have a good marriage together.”
“Oh my God.” She jumped up and planted her hands on her hips. “That’s not enough, Dante! I don’t want good. I want amazing; I want fantastic; I want blissful. I want love, and you can’t give that to me.”
“Who says I can’t?” His handsome face was a study in frustration and building anger. Cleo gasped at his words and pinned him with a glare.
“Don’t you dare,” she whispered. “Don’t you dare treat me with such condescension and downright contempt, Dante. I’m not an idiot, so don’t even think about going down that road. I don’t need the ‘someday we might come to love each other’ speech. I don’t want to hear it. It’s insulting.”
“This isn’t easy for me either, Cleo,” he snapped. “I’m trying my damnedest to think of ways we can make this work for both of us, and you’re not making it easy.”
“I’m not talking about this again,” she maintained, rolling her aching shoulders as she headed back toward the staircase.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t feel like doing this with you right now,” she said. “I’m headed back to my room.”
“You haven’t eaten.”
“I’ve lost my appetite.”
“Cleo, you should eat for the baby’s sake.”
“Dante, I can’t sit at that table with you and pretend that every-thing is just fine. I wish to God that I’d never agreed to live here with you. It was a dumb decision that has already cost me my pride, my independence, and my brother.” He flinched and went as white as a sheet at the last two words, but Cleo refused to feel any guilt over it. It was time Dante Damaso accepted that, for once, he wasn’t going to get his way.
She was sitting on her bed, listlessly clicking through the multitude of channels available on the wall-mounted large-screen television, when a sharp knock sounded on her door. She ignored it and sighed impatiently when the door swung open despite her lack of response. Dante stepped in and placed a loaded tray on her dresser before leaving without saying a word.
Cleo couldn’t ignore the heavenly aromas and got off the bed to investigate the contents. There was a small bowl of salad beside a plate laden with delicious-looking seafood paella and a slice of rich, moist chocolate cake on a side plate. He had also been thoughtful enough to include a silver carafe of cold water. Cleo’s mouth watered. She dragged over a chair and sat right at the dresser and scarfed down half of the paella and salad in one go. It was absolutely perfect.
Definitely one of the perks of living with Dante was his cooking; the man loved being in the kitchen, and it showed in the meals he prepared. After polishing off her meal, she practically inhaled the cake, which was absolutely delicious, and there was no doubt in her mind that it had been baked by Dante.
After finishing, she considered going downstairs to thank him, but the thought of going another round with him was mentally exhausting, so she sent him a thank-you text instead.
You’re welcome. Glad you enjoyed it.
His response was almost immediate. She contemplated sending him a smiley face or something in return but decided to leave it at that. Ten minutes went by before her phone buzzed again.
Want to watch Star Trek with me?
It was the equivalent of a white flag, since Star Trek had become kind of an in-joke between them, but she didn’t think she could face him again tonight.
No thanks. Tired. Going to sleep.
She decided not to respond to his “Good night” and curled up on her bed, her hand on her little bump. Nan shifted gently beneath her touch, and Cleo smiled before falling asleep with the TV still on.
She awoke with a gasp. The TV was on, playing quietly in the background, the light flickering in the darkened room.
Something’s wrong. She tried to push herself up and nearly doubled over in pain. This wasn’t right. She tried to stand again, and this time succeeded for a few seconds before her knees buckled, and she groaned as excruciating pain knifed through her abdomen.
“No,” she moaned. She braced her palm on the night table and pushed herself up again, managing to keep her balance as she hugged the wall all the way to the bathroom. It was only when she got into the brightly lit room that she saw she was bleeding. The horror of the realization impacted her like a freight train, and she sat down on the commode as she tried to wrap her head around what was happening.
“Dante.” His name was just a whisper, as her breath was stolen from her by another sharp pain. She gritted her teeth and clung to the basin beside the commode. After the pain had passed, she managed to inhale; Dante’s name emerged on the exhalation. This time it was a scream.