I couldn’t sleep, even in Daniel’s arms. There was so little I knew about the circumstances surrounding the murder of his father, yet my brain refused to shut down. I mourned the loss of what the shredded autopsy had contained that might have been of use. Something to exonerate Daniel, and maybe in the process, Donato too. Although, from what I gathered, clearing the truly guilty party might prove difficult.
There had to be something else. Some way to end this nightmare so we could get back to our life…together .
I wouldn’t even entertain the notion of Daniel going to prison for any length of time. We didn’t have long to come up with evidence to clear him. He had the best lawyer money could buy. But none of that mattered if his defense implicated Donato.
I inched toward the edge of the mattress, and Daniel scooped me back against him. His breathing was even. Not even in his sleep would he let me go.
Gently, I lifted his hand to my lips and pressed a soft kiss to his skin. It was surreal to be home. I nuzzled his hand, just to be sure he was real. He was warm to the touch. His pulse point throbbed a steady beat in his wrist.
“I love you,” I whispered, kissing two of my fingers and touching his hair.
My second attempt to escape the bed was successful. I felt around on the floor with my foot until my toe caught on his shirt. I picked it up and slipped it on my shoulders once I was in the hallway. On soft steps, I padded to his study, though I wasn’t certain what I was looking for or where to start.
I flipped the switch on the wall just inside the door, and dim light glowed from the tray ceiling. Hands on my hips, I surveyed the room. Daniel’s organizational system was all his own. The extent of my knowledge was that it was ordered. Immaculate was probably a better term.
“You’re in here. I know it,” I mused. The key to getting him out of this was somewhere in this room. All I had to do was figure out what and where the hell it might be.
At a loss, I moved to the closet where I’d found the rogue file in the first place. Maybe I’d luck out again. I snorted. I didn’t need luck. I needed a miracle.
I stood in the center of the space and looked up the shelves to the ceiling. Twenty feet up provided a lot of room for boxes of files. Each one had a series of numbers that might as well have been a foreign language. I couldn’t decipher a date from the sets of digits. So many combinations could have been months or years or hell, combinations to a padlock.
There was one thing I was certain of, though. “This requires music.”
I knew where the tape player was. I stooped down to grab it from the shelf where it was neatly stored.
“What are you doing, Princess?”
I fumbled the tape player, catching it just before it hit the floor. Spinning, I clutched it to my chest. Daniel leaned against the door frame, laughing to himself.
“You could’ve cleared your throat. Or bumped into a table. Flicked the lights,” I huffed, and he grinned. “Don’t give me that look. You scared the shit out of me.”
I pressed my lips together, and Daniel ran his thumb along the seam. I shivered. His eyes darkened.
“You’re not distracting me.” I poked my finger into his bare chest. Damn, he was solid. “Have you been working out more?” I covered his mouth with my hand. “Never mind. Don’t answer that.”
He nipped my palm with his teeth. I dropped my hand to my hip.
“At least put a shirt on.” He didn’t move, but I grabbed his hand. “Forget that too. That was a stupid thing to say. Don’t ever let me repeat that.”
Daniel’s lips twitched. “I could just take mine back.” He looked pointedly at the shirt I was wearing.
“Can’t have it.” I held the tape player out to him. “Mind plugging this in? Please.”
His gaze was heavy-lidded. “That could be arranged.” He pushed his index finger against his lips.
“I said please.” I picked up his free hand and wrapped his fingers around the old device. “I’m looking for something.”
I shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know.”
My shoulders sagged, and Daniel pulled me against him, kissing the top of my head. “Let’s go back to bed.”
“I can’t sleep.”
He kissed me again. “Then I guess we’re on a mission,” he said, resigned. He took the tape player and moved toward a plug in his office. I turned back around, looking at the boxes again.
“What the hell do all these numbers mean?” I picked a random box off the shelf and started rifling through it.
“It’s quite simple—What are you doing?” Daniel pointed to the box, and I held up a receipt.
“This is fourteen years old. Pretty sure you can’t be audited back that far, Princess. You don’t need it anymore.”
I narrowed my gaze at him. “Are you a closet hoarder?”
His lips twitched, a lightness in his eyes that made my heart expand in my chest. “I only keep things I might need.”
“So why do you need the check from a restaurant you ate at that long ago?”
He pried it from my fingers and took a closer look. “This meal was with the vice president of a major company. Someday she might need a reminder that it took place.”
“How the hell do you remember that?”
He tapped his temple. “It’s all up here, Princess.”
“Then use that big brain to think of something to get you out of this shit,” I muttered. “Where’s the box from the year your dad died?”
He flinched, and I regretted having to dig up all this pain. Without a word, he scanned the shelves. In seconds, he pointed to a box sitting up top. “There.”
I made a face. “Where’s a ladder? I can’t reach that.”
“You’ve lived here for eight years. You know where a ladder is,” Daniel pointed out.
“I’m looking at him,” I shot back, and he stifled a smile.
Daniel sat on the floor with me as I rifled through the box the autopsy report should have been in. He’d started up Stone Temple Pilots and given up trying to get anything else done since I had to ask him what every little thing was.
“I can’t believe at seventeen you kept all of this stuff.” I rifled through another file. Most of it was meaningless to me.
“Information is powerful, Vivian.”
“No shit. That’s what I’m looking for. But you don’t seem to have what I need.” I slammed the folder shut. I needed something, and it just wasn’t coming to me.
“It doesn’t always come easy,” he reminded me, massaging my shoulders. “You’ve been at it for a while. Take a break.”
“I can’t.” I shoved the file on top of the stack I’d already been through, taking out the brunt of my frustration on it.
The box was almost empty, and I’d come up with nothing. I couldn’t stop, though, so I picked up the next item in the box.
“It’s a passport,” I said, opening the front flap. Daniel’s stony face greeted me. “Look how young you are.” I held it up, but he didn’t even glance at it. “I’ve never seen a picture of you from back then.”
His skin was smooth with youth, but his eyes were hard beyond his years. His face was thinner, but I knew that pissed off look. It was similar to one in his current passport.
“Put that away,” he said, attempting to take it from me.
I held it in front of me and turned to face him. “It’s really not fair,” I complained against his mouth. “Too handsome for your own good.”
His cheeks turned a burnt red. “Enough.”
“You should be happy I think you’re sexy.”
“Vivian.” The things it did to me when he said my name in warning.
“Am I in trouble?” I so hoped I was.
I shoved at his shoulder. “Stop distracting me.” His lips found my neck, and I groaned. “I’ve missed your mouth.”
“I’ve missed yours more, Princess.”
I shuddered and struggled to concentrate on what I was supposed to be doing. A green cardboard stub remained in the folder. I reached for it.
“Looks like a parking deck receipt.” I flipped it over, and sure enough it was from a parking garage, the time, date, and amount stamped on the ticket. “Only you would have parking stubs from—” I glanced at the date. “Twenty-five years ago.”
I pressed the ticket into his hand, and he examined it closely. “I suppose I could get rid of this now.”
I lifted my eyes to the ceiling. “You think?”
“If I throw it away, will that prove I’m not a hoarder?” he teased as he got to his feet.
“Can’t hurt.” I slapped the receipt into his palm and watched as his taut ass sauntered out of the closet.
The buzz of the shredder hummed from the other room as I moved to the next file.
“Can we go to New Zealand?” I called.
Strong arms snagged me from behind, hauling me to my feet. “I’ll see if my shark lawyer can get me a waiver to leave the country,” he rasped against my ear.
“They’ll be surprised to see you back at the courthouse again so soon.”
“Not when they see my reason why.”
The situation wasn’t funny, but together we always made the best of everything.
“Did you get the waiting period for a marriage license waived?” I leaned against his solid body and folded my arms over his.
“You know I did.”
“We’re trying to keep you out of jail and you had time to do that?”
He shrugged. “I have my priorities. Besides, I had time on my way to see to Donato earlier.”
I smacked his hand.
And then it hit me like a sledgehammer. I struggled to get loose. “Please tell me you didn’t shred that parking receipt.” I grabbed his biceps and shook.
“No. Just a voided check.”
I pushed past him to the wastebasket under his desk and rifled through it until I found the green stub. I looked at the date again. “This is from the day your father died,” I whispered, holding it out for him.
His teeth ground, a glint in his eyes as he clutched the thick paper. “So? What does this prove?”
“Maybe something?” I said desperately. I drummed my fingers on his desk.
“It’s just from the parking garage where I got my passport that day.” He flicked it toward the trashcan.
I snatched it out as soon as it landed, smoothing it between my palms. “How meticulous of a record keeper is Donato?”
Daniel looked at me strangely. “Where do you think I learned to keep mine?”
“We need to speak with him. Now.”
* * *
At a little before four a.m., Daniel and I walked hand in hand into Donato’s penthouse. A woman in a long silk nightgown greeted us, her expression way too pleasant for the time of day.
She threw herself at Daniel, small arms latching around his waist. After the initial shock, he returned her embrace.
“I can’t believe what you did.” She touched his cheek. “You tenderhearted boy.”
My brows shot to my hairline. If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was his mother.
Before he had a chance to speak, she turned her attention to me. Dark chocolate eyes shone as she beamed at me. The woman reached for my hand.
“She’s perfect,” she said to Daniel. I glanced to him for any sort of clue, but he seemed as frozen as I was. “Thank you for loving my boy.”
A barely audible gasp escaped Daniel. He touched my back as if he needed the support.
“Valentina. Let them in. We have business.” The distinguished man strode up to the woman and kissed her hair, softening the tone of his words.
He wore a black button-down shirt open at the collar and dark gray slacks. It was impossible to tell if he’d been up all night or was already dressed for the day.
“This is Vivian,” Daniel said hoarsely.
A few tears slipped down Valentina’s cheeks. She kissed both of mine. “I’m so happy to finally meet you, bella.”
“I’m sorry it had to be at this ungodly hour.”
She laughed, lines creasing the olive skin around her eyes. “Coffee will help.”
Donato led Daniel and me to his office while Valentina forked off in a different direction. He rounded his desk and handed Daniel a folder before we sat.
I peered over Daniel’s arm as he opened it. “You found the passport application? And it’s date-stamped?” I asked incredulously, eyeing Donato like he was a miracle worker.
Valentina swept into the room with a tray of coffee and muffins. She placed it on Donato’s desk next to a worn out copy of The Art of War , setting a mug and a plate in front of him.
“I wasn’t sure how you take yours,” she said as she passed me a hot cup along with sugar and cream.
She gave Daniel his straight black, just as he liked it.
We murmured our thanks and settled in. I blew on the steaming liquid and took a sip. “Any chance you’ve got a spare copy of the autopsy report around here?” I waved my hand around the space, and Donato’s eyes lit.
“You mean this?” Daniel had yet to stop poring over the contents of the folder. He handed me the papers inside.
Yep, miracle worker. I scanned the autopsy report until I found what I was looking for. Setting the coffee mug down, I leapt from my chair and shook the paper at Daniel.
“This is it! This will keep you both out of prison.” I pointed at the time of death until I nearly stabbed a hole in the paper.
Daniel snatched it out of my hand. “This says the time of death was between 3:00p.m. and 4:00p.m.”
His eyes lasered into Donato’s. “I can’t argue with a government issued document.”
I grabbed the folder from Daniel. “The parking receipt says you entered the garage at 3:08 and left at 4:37. The passport application is stamped at 4:25p.m.” I clutched Daniel’s arm. “If you were at the passport office together, there’s no way either of you could have killed your father.” Daniel remained stoic, but I saw the glimmer of guarded hope in his eyes. “I confessed. How do I walk that back?”
Donato could see it. “She’s right. The documents prove we were both at the passport office that day. Who’s to say we didn’t arrive together? Now we both have a concrete alibi. All anyone needs to know is that I was falsely accused, and you confessed to protect me.”
“False confession is still a crime,” Daniel pointed out, glazing over Donato’s remorse.
“Do you want to go back to jail?” I asked, digging my fingers into his arm.
“No. But I have to be prepared for all possibilities.”
“Think positive,” I implored him. “We can make this work. We have to.”
Donato already had his phone against his ear. “Zegas. Come to me immediately.” He dropped into his chair and tossed his cell on the desk.
“I’m out.” Daniel’s voice was quiet, but certain.
Donato nodded. “I’d expect nothing less.” He fidgeted with a pen on his desk, the move at odds with the power he exuded. “I’ve wanted that for you for so long.”
They looked at one another. I felt their connection, one forged by years of looking out for one another, through good times, and some pretty rough ones. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Daniel finally asked.
“When I gave you that folder, it was my way of telling you,” he reasoned, and when his eyes filled with something that looked like compassion, Daniel turned away. “You were a good kid, are a good man. He was a piece of shit, and fucking with you was the last mistake he ever made. I toyed with him for a few years by making his life a living hell, but it ate at me that he was still breathing. I came to see you as my son more than his, and you deserved better than what he gave you.” Daniel flinched when Donato called him his son, and I ached for him. “I know you would have wanted to handle it, but you wouldn’t let me do anything for you. When you called me that day, I had to take that thorn out of your side.”
“You didn’t do anything for me?” Daniel asked incredulously. “You saved my life. Taught me everything I know. Treated me like family even when I was a shit. I don’t know how you get that I haven’t let you do anything for me. The way I see it, you’ve done more than I can ever repay.”
Donato was on his feet in an instant, his hands on Daniel’s shoulders. “You are a gift I never thought I’d receive.” Daniel swallowed hard when his eyes got misty. “I never said anything to you because you told me never to mention your father again. It hurt you to even think about him, and I wouldn’t be responsible for bringing you any more pain.”
Daniel stood and put his arms around the only person who’d ever been a dad to him. He rested his cheek against Donato’s shoulder, and I heard Donato take in a sharp breath. Daniel wasn’t an affectionate person, but he was clinging to Donato like the desperate fifteen-year-old he’d once been. Donato held onto him even more tightly.
“Thank you,” Daniel finally said, reluctantly releasing him.
“Can you forgive me?” he asked.
Daniel appeared startled by the question.
“There’s nothing to forgive.”
“I took away any chance he might have had at redemption. I took away the only blood you had left.”
“And in doing so, you saved me. The bastard would have never changed. You kept me from having to kill him myself. You’ve lived with that burden so I didn’t have to.” There was still disbelief on his face.
Donato patted his shoulders. “I’ve been afraid one wrong move would drive you away from me. It’s been such a fine line to tread, and I’ve walked too carefully. I’m sorry for that.”
“The only reason I stayed in this business is because I thought, if we didn’t have that connection, we wouldn’t have one at all,” Daniel said truthfully, his shoulders relaxing as if a great pressure was relieved by admitting that out loud.
Donato’s smile was bittersweet. “We’ve been dancing in circles around one another when we should have approached this the way we do everything else. Aggressively.” Daniel nodded. “I love you, Daniel. I should have told you that a long time ago.”
I blinked, stunned into silence by his admission. Daniel’s throat worked. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out.
“I just wanted you to know,” Donato said, letting Daniel off the hook.
I reached for Daniel’s hand, braiding our fingers together. He squeezed and sucked in a breath.
“I love you too.”
That was it for me. Tears flowed from my eyes. Those words were so difficult for him to get out. Pride filled me that he pushed his fears aside.
Donato cleared his throat as a single tear cascaded down his cheek. “You’ll stay for breakfast.”
“Yeah,” Daniel said. “We’ll stay for breakfast.”