“Well . . .” She wasn’t sure how to respond to that. He was now facing her, his eyes glowing with a powerful emotion.
“Then you came to my office and told me you were pregnant. And with all the confusion that followed, with the craziness, the disbelief and doubt and all those hurtful, angry words we exchanged, I just never . . . I never saw it. I didn’t recognize you.” He sounded completely confused, and Cleo shook her head, not understanding.
“I didn’t know who you were.” His voice bordered on desperate, and the intensity in his eyes deepened as he struggled to verbalize his emotion. “Do you understand?”
“No,” she said regretfully. She wished she did, because she sensed that this meant a lot to him, and his inability to explain it was frustrating to both of them. “I’m sorry, Dante; I don’t.”
He glanced upward as if seeking answers from the heavens and then brought his gaze back down to hers.
“When we first met, I saw a pretty woman. One who immediately set off my internal alarms. ‘Instant dislike,’ I told myself. ‘Stay away from her; she’ll annoy the ever-loving hell out of you!’ But I couldn’t stay away. Before Tokyo you were in my space day in and day out. I kept farming you out to other people just so that I could get some work done. Because you did annoy me, aggravate me, shatter my concentration, and you made me feel damned uncomfortable in my own skin! I couldn’t wait to get rid of you, even while I couldn’t seem to stay away from you. But back then I didn’t know who you were, not even after we made love.”
Made love? What had happened to his other—cruder—term for it?
“Even after that, I didn’t recognize you.”
“Dante, I don’t understand.” And she desperately wanted to understand.
“You’re it, Cleo,” he snapped, clearly annoyed with himself for losing his grasp on the English language so completely. “You’re her. You’re my she. My other. Mine.”
“What?” she whispered in disbelief. Even with his incoherence and his accent thickening on every syllable, Cleo was starting to understand. And what she thought she understood was utterly unbelievable.
“You’re mine. The one who was put on this earth for me. And I’m so damned sorry I didn’t recognize you immediately. I was stupidly prepared to let you walk out of my life forever, but fate stepped in and gave us Zach,” he said, his voice breaking as he dashed at the tears in his eyes. “And Zach gave me a chance to see and finally recognize you.”
“Dante,” she said, her voice wobbling slightly, “take a deep breath and tell me in easy English so that I know I’m not going out of my mind here. What are you trying to say?”
“I’m trying to say that I’m an idiot! A blind fool. And that I already lost Zach, and I don’t want to lose you too. Because my life is shit without you! I’m saying that I adore you. I revere you. I cherish you. I fucking love you, Cleo.”
Her hands flew up to her mouth to stifle her gasp, and she simply stared at him in shock.
“I love you and you keep leaving me,” he said angrily.
“Well, it’s not like I knew you loved me,” she said logically, and he glared at her.
“I know I’ve been an asshole,” he said, his voice earnest. “And that it’s probably hard to imagine yourself ever caring for me or loving me, but I’m trying to change and—”
“Dante,” she interrupted him firmly, “let’s get two things straight. You haven’t been an asshole for a very, very long time. But I couldn’t trust you with my heart because I thought all you wanted was the baby, and I didn’t want a marriage like that.”
“Would you trust me with your heart now?” he asked tentatively, one finger reaching out to stroke the back of her hand in a feather-light touch.
“That was the second thing. It’s pretty easy for me to imagine myself in love with you.”
“Sí?” he asked, hope blooming in his dark eyes.
He edged closer, crowding her back against the sofa and twisting until his hands were braced on the back of the sofa and his torso was hovering above hers.
“Care to elaborate on that?” he asked.
“I think I’ve been the asshole,” she said, and he made a protesting sound. “Even after you showed me what a good guy you could be, starting with your immediate refusal to allow me to pay for my own medical bills, right up until Zach’s farewell, I still doubted that you could really care for me. Now maybe that’s just me lacking a whole lot of self-confidence, but it’s also in part because I never really believed in you. And I’m so sorry, Dante.”
“I’m sorry too,” he whispered against her lips. “I didn’t give you much reason to trust me.”
“So, now what?” she asked.
“A couple of things,” he said, digging into his jacket pocket and tugging out a long black jeweler’s box. “Your Christmas present.”
She took the box from him and held it in her hands, a little overwhelmed by everything that was happening. A Christmas present. How did she always keep underestimating him, despite all the evidence pointing to the fact that he was a good man? Cleo had never felt more foolish or more humble than she did in that moment.
“Open it,” he urged, and she cracked the box open and gasped when she saw what was nestled inside. It was a tiny, heart-shaped gold pendant, with a minute off-center diamond catching the light. The pendant hung from a delicate chain.