Cleo returned the smile and slowly climbed in next to him. He sighed, the sound almost content, and brought the sheet and his arm down over her, cuddling her close. She turned onto her side so that she was spooned against him, and Dante pulled her tightly against his hard, beautiful body and tucked his arm around her waist. It was reminiscent of the way he’d held her in the hospital the day they’d lost Zach, and it was equally as tender as that particular gesture had been.
Cleo reached over and switched off the bedside lamp, and the room was plunged into darkness. The top of her head was tucked beneath his jaw, and their breathing was almost in tandem. At first they said nothing, both of them enjoying the warmth and company. The only sounds in the room were their soft breathing and the gentle rattle of the breeze against the loose pane of her window.
“I’ve never done this snuggling thing before,” he declared. His chest rumbled against her back, and his stubble tugged at her hair.
“That’s a shame,” she whispered, hugging his arm to her chest. “You’re a fantastic snuggler.”
“I haven’t been a very good guy. Terrible with women,” he whispered. The darkness of the room and the fact that she was facing away from him seemed to be enough to inspire this unexpected bout of honesty. “I didn’t want more than sex from them, maybe a short-lived affair here and there.”
“I know,” she said, her voice dry. “I was there.”
“Of course I mean to settle down someday,” he said, ignoring her sarcasm. He sounded driven to speak, and she was more than happy to let him air his thoughts. This whole turn of conversation took her mind off her immediate grief.
“I’m sure you had a type picked out, right?” she prompted, when it looked like he was done speaking.
“I always thought I’d marry a beautiful, elegant creature who would be the perfect wife and mother. We would have a quiet, calm marriage with mutual respect for each other. So much respect that the ugly concept of divorce would never once enter our minds. We would never argue, and we would have two children. A boy and a girl.”
“Would they be as boring as their mother, or as cowardly as their father?” Cleo asked scathingly, and she felt his arm tense around her waist before it relaxed again.
“Probably a mixture of both,” he said, a hint of amusement in his voice.
“Boring cowards,” she said sympathetically. “Luckily you’re loaded, else they’d have absolutely no friends.”
“So why are you casting disparagement on my future wife and me?” he asked.
“You want someone without personality,” she said. “A beautiful, empty vessel, into whom you would pour all your unrealistic expectations for the perfect marriage. The perfect Stepford wife.”
“It’s a movie. Considering how much you hate horror films, it doesn’t surprise me that you’ve never seen it. It’s about a bunch of guys who turn their wives into these perfect housewives. They all think the same and act the same. But never mind that. The point is, she’d never challenge you, and you’d be bored with her in months.”
“And I’m a coward, why?”
“Because you don’t want to be challenged. You’re terrified that a woman with any personality will mess up your perfect, orderly life and that you wouldn’t be able to deal, and then the fighting would start and the irritation with each other and then the inevitable divorce. Just like your dad, right?”
“I refuse to wind up like him.”
“Yeah, well, your dad’s an idiot.” Cleo wasn’t in the mood to pull any punches tonight.
“I couldn’t agree more,” he said, his voice wobbling a little. “But I know why I think he’s an idiot, so I’m interested in hearing your view.”
“Because he’s clearly an appalling judge of character, and he never seems to learn from his past mistakes. Sound about right?”
She patted his arm smartly.
“Good talk,” she said, and this time he actually chuckled.
“I like you a lot, Cleo,” he said, the words sounding impulsive. “You make me laugh more than anyone else ever has.”
“Oh, how . . .” She paused to think of the word. Unexpected. “Nice of you to say that.”
“I wonder if Zach would have had your sense of humor.”
“I don’t want to talk about him,” she said, clamming up at the sound of his name.
He squeezed her briefly in apology and dropped it. The conversation died after that, and Cleo listened to his breathing even out and become deeper. His arm grew heavy around her waist, and after a while, the comforting weight of that arm and the soft little snore that came with every third breath he took lulled her into a deep sleep.
When Cleo woke the next morning, it was to the same bleak reality that she’d woken up to over the last fortnight, but this time the knowledge didn’t physically weigh her down as much as it had just yesterday. She turned over and stared into Dante’s relaxed face. He was still fast asleep, and as she really looked at him for the first time in two weeks, she saw that he appeared exhausted and definitely thinner. He had lost weight and had gained a few lines on his face. It was clear that this loss had taken a physical toll on him as well. At least his bruises from the accident had disappeared; there was only the very faintest tinge of yellow left around his eye.
She watched as his breathing became shallow and his eyes started to flutter beneath their lids, and when they opened, she kept her gaze level. She watched confusion flicker in his eyes for a second, followed by what could only be described as radiant joy, which flared and disappeared so quickly that she wasn’t sure if she’d imagined it or not.