I needed a drive to clear my head. As if the encounter with Vivian hadn’t done enough to kill my day, my attorney putting me off hadn’t helped matters. At his wife's insistence, he was taking a long weekend at his house in Connecticut to oversee the installation of a salt water spa, but she thought my presence would distract him from that vitally important task. I insisted we reschedule immediately because despite the inconvenience of a trip to Connecticut, I needed his services urgently. I shoved down my irritation. This was what I got for procrastinating. I should have had Zegas do this for me years ago, but I didn’t, figuring there’d always be time to get around to it.
My phone rang through the car speakers. “Hello, Barron.”
“Did you see the news?” he asked, almost giddy.
“Not in the last hour,” I said, draping one hand on the wheel, resting the other on the gearshift.
“Rudolph is out.”
“Congratulations.” Barron’s interest in this senate race was multi-faceted. The incumbent was in his back pocket, so that was a win. But he also made good money for facilitating the deal we’d cut with Rudolph’s aide. Fucker should have been more discreet about taking bribes.
“Don’t sound so excited. Have you ever smiled, man?”
“This is me grinning,” I returned stoically.
“Your mouth is fucking turned down right now, but I’m happy enough for the both of us.”
“If I didn’t know you better, I’d say you didn’t mean it.”
“I won’t say it twice.”
I hung up before he could come up with another smart-ass remark. “Time” by Pink Floyd came on the stereo, a reminder I didn’t need. I was running out of it.
Once I got back to my building, I stopped by Muriella’s before going upstairs.
“Muriella,” I called after letting myself in.
“Daniel?” She appeared from the kitchen as I set my briefcase down in the foyer. “Date go bad?”
My lips parted at her sarcasm. I was used to it when it was playful, but this was a jab. “I wasn’t on a date. But had I been, then yes, it went very badly.”
“Hmph .” She turned her back, leaving me on my own in the hallway.
I followed her into the kitchen. “You’re still mad at me?”
“I’m going to be for a while.” She picked up her phone off the counter and fiddled with it as if I wasn’t even there.
“Muriella…” I started, grasping for some sort of explanation that would make her understand.
“Don’t bother. I have no desire to hear a string of lame excuses for why you’re doing this.”
“Good, because I don’t feel like coming up with any,” I snapped. She folded her arms, and I let out a frustrated breath.
“Dinner’s almost ready,” she said. The woman amazed me. She was mad as all hell at me, yet she could set that aside to take care of me.
“You don’t have to do that.” I softened my tone.
“I’ll be upstairs shortly.” Her way of telling me to get out of her kitchen.
I grabbed my briefcase on my way out, taking the stairs up to the apartment. Dread filled me as I unlocked the front door and stepped inside. I hated coming home to an empty place. No, that wasn’t true. If the apartment had been filled to capacity, it would have felt no different. What I hated was coming home to no Vivian. It was a thousand times more painful than I’d ever anticipated, and I’d known it was going to hurt like a motherfucker. I nearly turned around and went back downstairs. On more than one occasion, I’d almost asked Muriella if I could stay with her. But that would have blown my cover.
I shucked off my suit jacket and tie, then loosened the top few buttons of my shirt before settling into the chair behind my desk. There was work to do, fires to put out, but I could hardly concentrate. It was by a sheer force of will that I made a few calls I’d put off. I was just wrapping one up when the red light on the security system lit up. Dinner was here.
When I lifted my eyes to the doorway, I thought I was hallucinating. I’d pictured this so many times over the last few days, I struggled to know if it was real or an illusion.
“Vivian.” It came out sounding hoarse, desperate. Not at all what I’d intended.
She watched me for a moment from the doorway, and she saw everything. It was in the confident way her eyes assessed, like she could see in my soul how much I fucking missed her. She didn’t bother to hide her feelings either. I knew the woman better than I knew myself. She was coming through the other side of hell, standing straighter than she had earlier in the day, a bit of that spark back in those eyes I loved to get lost in.
She had on the damned ballet shoes, the old jeans and sweatshirt that was just plain torture, revealing one shoulder, no bra strap. I gripped the arms of my chair to keep from charging her and licking that line from her shoulder all the way to her neck. Fuck me, that neck. It needed my mark, to show the world she was taken, to remind it and her who she belonged to.
She showed no hesitation as she moved toward me, came around the desk, and parked her gorgeous ass on the edge of it. I sucked in a breath and held it. She smelled delicious. She smelled like home.
Fighting an urge to bury my nose in her hair and inhale the sweetness, I remained cold, going so far as to glare at her with a how dare you enter my space without invitation stare. Typical Vivian, she was unmoved and even less intimidated.
“I’m not letting you leave me.”
That was what I’d expected from the outset. A fight. Her steely determination. Pride that she was going to fight for me warred with my need for her to just let things be.
“That’s something the two of us would need to agree on. Which we won’t,” I returned, keeping my voice devoid of any emotion.
“Breaking up should have been that way too. You took it upon yourself to make the decision without me,” she pointed out, and my jaw clenched. I braced myself for the fight she had decided we were going to have.
“It’s for the best.”
She reined in her temper. “I know why you’re doing this.”
Panic struck me. How could she know? “Then you understand why it has to be this way,” I said, keeping my voice controlled and even.
She reached for my hand, her touch more than I could bear, yet I couldn’t withdraw my fingers from hers. I didn’t want to. This was the first time in days I’d felt whole.
“I saw the autopsy report,” she said softly, kindness and understanding in her eyes. Autopsy report? What was she talking about?
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
I hated the sympathy in her expression, as if she thought I was playing coy. I wasn’t. I literally couldn’t think of what she could possibly mean. What would an autopsy report have to do with the two of us breaking up?
“Your father,” she clarified, and I flinched. Any time I thought of him I had a physical reaction.
“What exactly did you see in that report, Vivian?” I asked, my tone demanding that she start explaining despite that I felt like I was being tossed about in a rough sea.
“The official cause of his death was suicide,” she began. “But every bone in his body was shattered. There were handprints around his neck under the rope.”
I shot out of my seat. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
She recoiled. “He was murdered,” she said quietly. “You’re protecting me from that.”
“Do you know that for certain?” My reaction was vicious, but so much rage and confusion was spewing through my veins, I could barely think straight, much less process her words. Murdered?
Vivian paled, her confidence gone. “No. But it’s the only thing that makes sense.” And then I fully registered what she’d said. She thought I was protecting her from this knowledge…which meant she thought I had killed my father. And she still wanted me back? That realization took the anger right out of me. I looked at her in disbelief.
“And you wouldn’t care if I’d taken someone’s life?”
Her black hair flew as she shook her head. “I only care how it affects you now.” I didn’t know what to do with that. Hope filled her eyes. “So we don’t have to be apart. Whatever happened doesn’t matter.”
She might as well have struck me. “You don’t mean that,” I said, imploring her not to.
Vivian lifted her chin. “Of course I do.”
I squeezed her shoulders. “Let this go. I mean it.”
Her head tilted. “But the report.”
“Whatever it said is irrelevant,” I stated firmly.
She narrowed her gaze on me, and I could see the wheels turning in her head. “You didn’t know he was murdered,” she concluded.
“I said leave it, Vivian.”
“So that isn’t why you left me?” At the realization, she deflated.
I couldn’t force any words past my lips.
Desperation filled her eyes. “Let me show you. It’s in the closet.” She moved, but I halted her with a look. Now I knew exactly where she’d seen the report.
“I destroyed the file yesterday.”
Her eyes widened. “Why?”
“The file had no place in my life anymore, so I shredded it.” I looked at the machine I’d fed it to, regretting that it was pulverized. In my haste to destroy anything to do with my father, I’d made a serious error in judgement.
“Daniel?” Vivian’s expression was one of worry.
“This changes nothing. You’ll be gone when I get back,” I said harshly as I shrugged on my jacket. She flinched as if I’d struck her, and my chest squeezed, unable to stand her pain. I strode past her, turning when I reached the door. She stared at me, looking lost and confused. “It’s good to know you think I’m a murderer, Vivian. Thanks for that.”