After Daniel left, I sat on the bathroom counter for a long time. I was finally home, but it wasn’t the victory I’d expected. Daniel was going to prison. Prison .
I could hardly come to grips with the sacrifice he’d made, yet I wasn’t surprised at all. The man loved harder than anyone I knew, though he’d had a strange way of showing it lately.
I shoved off the counter. Muriella was expecting us. I had no idea how long Daniel would be, and I didn’t want to be alone anyway.
I staggered down the steps of the stairwell with the weight of his confession, making it to the landing between Daniel’s and Muriella’s floors before my legs gave way. I slid down the wall, and once I was on the ground, I hugged my knees to my chest. My eyes felt like I’d been swimming with them open in salt water, and I blinked as rapidly as I could to stop the tears from falling.
I will not cry. I will not cry. I will not cry.
If I started now, I wouldn’t ever stop. I rocked back and forth, like that would squelch the ache inside me, but it didn’t help.
What if it was for life? How would he handle it? When would I see him? How could I live without him?
Would he be hurt? He was strong, could take care of himself, but what if conditions in there were more than even he could handle? Oh God, what if these people he was associated with sent someone in to—I swallowed thickly, unable to finish the thought. This time apart had nearly killed me. How would we survive years of separation?
I rarely let anything knock me out. I was like one of those blow-up things you could punch—it would almost hit the ground and then bounce right back up. But for the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like getting back up. I wanted to rot in this stairwell—no, that wasn’t true. I wanted to crawl back upstairs into my bed and rot there.
Muriella found me.
The second I saw her, I came unglued. She sat beside me, holding me. It was an ugly cry, but she stayed there throughout, crying with me.
Unconditional support. Unconditional love. That’s what she gave me when I needed it most.
The last few weeks had finally caught up to me. I’d sputtered and finally run out of gas.
* * *
Waking up with someone was unusual. And though I loved the one with me, it wasn’t who I wanted. It took a moment to get my eyes to open—they were fused shut from endless hours of crying—but when I did, Muriella’s kind face greeted me.
“Hey,” I said, my voice hoarse.
“Hey.” She kissed my forehead and stroked my hair.
“I don’t remember going to sleep here, and I know you didn’t carry me.”
M’s face was pained. “Stone carried you.”
“He’s stronger than I thought,” I joked, but it came out pathetic. “Please don’t look at me like that,” I pleaded softly.
“I don’t know what to do, V.”
“Well, we’re going to get you ready for that big date.” I hadn’t had the heart to tell her what Daniel was facing, and I certainly wasn’t going to do anything to interfere with her plans with Stone.
“Stone postponed, and you’re not going anywhere.” M would make the best mom. I’d never told her that because I didn’t want to upset her, but she would. There was no way I was letting her put off this date. They’d waited long enough.
“We will. Just not today. I need to be with you. It was his suggestion anyway. Not that he needed to make it,” she clarified.
“Where is he?” I demanded, and she looked at me warily.
“Back at his hotel.”
I sighed. “Give me your phone.”
“I don’t know where mine is. Now give me the phone, Muriella.”
She reached behind her to the nightstand, producing her iPhone. I unlocked the screen and fired off a text to Stone.
Get your ass over here to pick up my girl.
Three dots blinked at me for less than a minute.
Not today, Vivian.
Now, cowboy. She deserves this.
I’m a patient man.
That’s a terrible characteristic under the circumstances. I’ll be pissed if you’re not here in less than an hour.
You’ll be okay?
Not if the two of you miss your date because of me.
See you in an hour.
I smiled, sensing his eagerness for the date.
“I won’t be able to relax and enjoy myself,” Muriella protested as I dragged her out of bed and into her bathroom. “Everything’s falling apart.”
I spun her to face me, grasping her arms. This I could give her. “We’re together.”
“I know, but Daniel just won’t listen to reason—”
“I mean me and Daniel.”
Her eyes rounded. “I thought—last night—you were so upset. And where is he now?”
“Said he had to get answers.” I shrugged.
“What the hell is going on?” She narrowed her eyes and let out a long breath.
“We’ll talk about it after your date.”
“Now you’re shutting me out.”
I stroked her hair. “No. Everything is going to be fine.” She started to talk again, but I cut her off. “Stone will be here in an hour, so we’d better hurry. Straight hair or sexy curls?”
She sighed and followed me out of bed. “I won’t let you avoid me forever.”
“Just until after the date.”
I went over to the vanity, opened the cabinet, and pulled out a flat iron and rollers.
“Fine,” she said as she stepped into the shower. “Straight,” she called from inside. I plugged in the straightener and dug around her perfectly organized bathroom for the appropriate products. She was the beauty expert, but I’d learned a thing or two from her over the years.
In the bedroom, I picked up her phone and made a quick call.
“Muriella? Everything okay?” Stone asked.
“Have you taken over her phone?”
“For now. Where are you taking her?”
“No way. You’ll tell her.”
I lifted my eyes to the ceiling. “What are you wearing?”
“I know we had a moment last night, but—”
“What are you wearing on the date ?” I said in frustration, and he had the audacity to laugh. Didn’t he know we were under a time constraint?
“Want me to text you my options? I’ve laid out a couple of different things on the bed, but I just can’t decide,” he kidded.
“You are absolutely no help,” I muttered.
“Casual is fine, Vivian.”
“Thanks. Was that so hard?”
I groaned. “When did you get so frustrating?”
“I think it happened while I was in the shower.”
“I have to go,” I said, stifling another groan. He fit in with our family so well.
“Me too. If my hair dries the wrong way, I’ll have to do it all over again,” he deadpanned.
“Well, we wouldn’t want that. If you’re late, M will start deducting points.”
“Points?” he asked, sounding confused and not so amused anymore.
“Okay, I’ll be keeping score. Either way—”
“I’ll be on time.”
“Good. Oh, and thanks for last night.”
“None needed. I’ll be there soon.”
“Stone?” I said before he could hang up.
“If you hurt her, I will be worse than a father with a shotgun. You got me?”
“I would never hurt her. Ever.”
After I sent Stone and Muriella off, I wandered to Muriella’s office and sank down in the chair behind her desk. My stomach knotted. How Daniel had handled the situation became a little more palatable for me, but I was glad I hadn’t told M about prison. I hoped she could find happiness with Stone today, and I didn’t want to ruin that. Didn’t want her to feel the way I did. Scared. Hurt. Desperate. Now I understood why he’d kept it from us.
The timeline of photos marching across the back of the glass surface caught my eye. M added a picture after we returned from wherever we’d celebrated Christmas each year. They’d all been taken in front of a tree, some sillier than others, but the one common denominator was how happy we all looked.
One from New Zealand sat cockeyed on two envelopes. I lifted the frame and picked them up, and my heart stopped when I saw the handwriting. It was Daniel’s, and one of them had my name on it. I held them for a moment, wondering what these were and why M hadn’t mentioned them. The one with her name on it was sealed, just as mine was. I contemplated calling M for about two seconds and then put hers back where I found it and ripped mine open. Inside was a ring. I tipped it into my hand. In the center was a large black diamond surrounded by smaller aquamarine stones. It perfectly matched the necklace he’d given me all those years ago.
I fiddled it between my thumb and index finger, staring. Over the course of our relationship, he’d given me many pieces of jewelry, but never a ring. My instinct was to put it on immediately, but I refrained. I unfolded the papers. My hands trembled as I began to read. He loved me. I knew that, yet seeing it in his writing emphasized what he had so much trouble saying. Through his words, I felt his conviction. That he believed pushing me away was best. Because he loved me.
I covered my mouth with my hand. The crazy man had legally given everything he had to me and Muriella. To take care of us in the only way he knew how.
I held the pages away from me so the tears didn’t smudge the ink. My chest tightened as I read the final words. I’d never been so happy in my life to have been lied to. He’d never wanted to be without me. Now I had the proof of what I’d known deep down all along.
I bolted upstairs, hoping Daniel was back home, and ran straight into him as he came out of his study.
“Where were you? I was just coming to look for you. What’s wrong?” He swiped at the tears leaking down my cheeks.
“This.” I held out the ring.
“Why aren’t you wearing it?” he asked softly, a vulnerability in his eyes that made me love him all the more.
“Because you didn’t ask.”
He nodded in understanding. “You want it done properly.” He bent down to one knee and took both my hands in his, the ring pressing into our skin. His eyes glittered as he looked up at me, and I swallowed the thickness that had formed in my throat. “Vivian, I have desired nothing more than to spend every single day with you from the second I first saw you. It took me time to come to terms with that, but it didn’t make it any less true. You’ve never asked for more than I could give, yet you demand everything. All I’ve ever wanted to do was be that for you. I love you more than I ever thought possible. You’ve taught me to trust when I couldn’t. I need you to be mine forever, V. And I need to be yours.” He held up his hand, to keep me from interjecting. “I know you’re about to say that we already are—”
“Yes,” I interrupted, sliding down in front of him.
“I wasn’t finished,” he huffed playfully. He cleared his throat. “I will love you until the end of time, Vivian. Will you do me the great honor of becoming my wife?”
I held out my left hand, and he slipped the diamond on my finger. “Yes,” I repeated, pressing my lips to his. “And you’re a damn liar.”
His dark brows lowered. “How so?”
“You are romantic.”
Daniel visibly relaxed, pulling me against him. “So I’ve been told.” We grinned at each other, and I tackled him to the floor, pelting him with kisses. “There’s my Vivian,” he said triumphantly.
I held my hand up and looked at the ring. After all this time, we were engaged. I’d never thought I needed marriage, but this settled something in my soul. We could finally just be us again.
I propped my chin on his chest. “Did you just get home? How did it go?”
He exhaled and wrapped his arms around me. “Long night. And it went.”
“Yes and no.”
I shifted so I was nestled against his side. “Why is this all surfacing again? Your father died so long ago.”
His jaw worked, and his fingers squeezed mine. “Vinny, the man who deceived you, turned in Donato for the murder.”
I sat up. “But you all work together.”
Oh. Right. “Who does that to their own brother?” And then I realized that Daniel’s father had been no different. “I’m sorry. I didn’t—”
He shushed me with a light kiss. “In this case, you’re right to be appalled. Donato’s done right by him.”
“So why wasn’t Donato arrested?”
“A few weeks ago, the authorities called to inform me that they were reopening the case as a murder instead of a suicide. They had reason to believe Donato had done it. The tip gave us a chance to buy him a little time and try to get him out of it, but then Donato’s inside man got word to us that he was about to be arrested.” His eyes implored me. “I couldn’t let that happen. Not after everything he’s done for me.”
I nodded, my heart twisting. “You turned yourself in,” I surmised.
For a fraction of a second, he looked surprised before his features smoothed. “I did. Donato got me out until the arraignment.” He sucked in a deep breath and released it. “I’ll plead guilty, Vivian. Most of the evidence has disappeared. My confession will stand.”
“But you didn’t do it,” I protested. “I have to find a way to prove you aren’t guilty,” I said with renewed determination.
Daniel shook his head. “You can’t do that.”
“Why not? I won’t let you go to prison for a murder you didn’t commit.”
“If I get off, Donato will go down.”
I slumped against him. “And you won’t let that happen.”
“I can’t, Princess. I owe him my life.”
“You shouldn’t take the fall for this. I don’t care who he is. He shouldn’t let you.”
“If he’d known what I was doing, he wouldn’t have.” He cupped my cheek, eyes pleading with me to understand. “V, this is already hard enough. It’s what I have to do.”
“No. I get Donato means a lot to you, but at what cost? Your freedom? Us? Muriella?”
He dropped his gaze between us. “I’m doing this. And I’m sorry you have to pay for my past, but I can’t figure out another way. I’ve already asked too much of you, but please try to understand. Trust me.”
I flung my arms around his neck. “I’m with you, whatever you have to do.”
He held me tight for a minute, then untangled my arms until we were looking at one another. “You know, I owe you my life too.” I could see how torn he was between the people he loved, and it broke my heart.
“I understand why you did what you did.” His forehead creased in disbelief. “Not the leaving me part,” I amended, giving him a stern look.
“I’m so sorry it came to this.” And then his voice dropped to a whisper. “You know, I almost did kill him that day.”
“What happened?” I had no idea the relationship with his father had gotten to that point.
“He said awful things about my mother just to provoke me.” His chin dropped to his chest. “She’d had heart problems. I went to the doctor’s appointments with her.” Confusion laced his words as if he still hadn’t come to grips with what he knew. He lifted his eyes, which were glassy. “He killed her.”
“Oh, Daniel.” I pressed his head against my chest and held him to me. “I’m so sorry.”
“She’d probably be dead now anyway because of her condition, but…” he trailed off. So much had been taken from him, and now he was losing his freedom too. “I had my hands around his neck, but I stopped because of her. She wouldn’t have wanted me to be a killer.”
“He deserved it, but you’re right,” I said hoarsely as I fought tears. My God, what else could happen to him?
“After I ran out of there, I called Donato from the subway station and told him what had happened. I didn’t know what else to do,” he mumbled into my chest. “If I hadn’t, he’d have never gone there.”
“Why did you think it was a suicide?” I couldn’t let him blame himself for things that weren’t his fault.
“That’s what the police told me when I got home from Europe. I never looked any further into it. I didn’t care.” His face was red when he sat up, and though his eyes were haunted, they were clear.
“Back up. Europe?”
“Yeah. It was my first overseas trip with Donato. I left believing my father was still alive. I know now that on the day of that last confrontation, while I was waiting for Donato to meet me at the passport office, Donato was making sure my dad would never hurt me again.”
“I know I should be sorry, but I’m not. I’m glad Donato was there for you.”
We couldn’t seem to stop touching. His hand on my thigh. Mine on his chest. I shifted until I had my legs wrapped around his waist. It was an awkward position, but we made it work. Too much time had passed since we’d been like this. Both of us were aware that there might not be much more.
“Vivian, I didn’t plan this for three months.”
“But you said—”
“I know what I said, but when you drew the conclusion, I used it to push you away. The apartment was meant to be an investment. It was a convenient excuse.” He had the decency to look ashamed.
“I didn’t tell M about prison.”
“We’ll do it together when she gets back from the date.”
“How do you know where she is?” I pressed my lips together.
He kissed my forehead. “I know everything.”