It’s been days, and no one has mentioned Micah or anything about that day. No one ever will. Everyone agreed that Mrs. Del Rossa would never know about Micah. All she had was the loving memories of her husband, and none of us wanted to take that from her. Revealing Alexius’ father’s secret now won’t change anything. It won’t correct the wrongs it caused. It will only inflict pain, something she has more than enough of grieving the love of her life.
A pact was made, and a secret was buried. It’s ironic how father and son separated in life now joined in death. Micah’s ghost will stay in that mausoleum forever, chained to the granite crypts, left to wallow with the dead. It’s how it has to be, and everyone feels the same.
I’m on my way to Mira’s room when her door opens, and she walks out with the doctor, smiling like she always does. “Thank you, Doctor. I appreciate you coming around.”
“Of course. I will be back in a few days to check on you. For now, just keep the bandages dry.”
“Is everything healing okay?” I ask, joining them.
“As well as expected,” the doctor replies, straightening his sleeve. “It’s going to leave a scar, but once the tissue has healed properly, see what the scar looks like, then we can talk about surgery to try to remove most or even all of it.”
“That’s good news. Right?” I touch Mira’s elbow, and she smiles at me.
“It is. But let’s see how the scar turns out first.” Her voice is soft, but her pain resonates through. My heart breaks for her. Like it wasn’t enough to be held hostage by a psychopath, she’s now left with a scar as a reminder. Every time she looks in the mirror, she’s reminded of the ordeal she went through. I can’t begin to imagine the level of fear she had to have experienced that day. When she told me what he said to her, how he blamed her beauty for his sickness, having her life teeter at the sharp edge of his knife, it sent chills down every bone in my body. My stomach still churns just thinking about it.
The doctor disappears around the corner, and I turn, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay? I know it’s a dumb question, but I’m asking it anyway.”
“I’m fine.” She touches the bandage on her face. “It hardly hurts anymore.”
“I’m not referring to that.” I give her a half-smile. “I’m asking if you’re okay. You. Not your scar.”
Her chest rises as she takes a deep breath as if something as simple as breathing seems to exhaust her. “I am. It’s just the um…the nights when I’m alone that my mind starts to work overtime, you know? But the doctor gave me something to help me sleep.”
“That’s good. Your mind needs to heal, too.”
“Yeah. Have you seen Nicoli?” Her dark brown eyebrows curve. “I haven’t seen him in a while.”
I purse my lips. “No, I haven’t. He hasn’t been around much lately, has he?”
“No.” The lines on her forehead are furrowed with worry. A little sadness. “I can’t help feeling like he’s avoiding me.” She shrugs. “Well, more than usual. God, he’s such an asshole for jumping through that damn window. He could have killed himself.”
“Mira, he helped save your life by risking his. He could have hurt himself a lot worse than just a cut down his eye.”
“I know he risked his life, and that’s why he’s an asshole.” She glances up and down the hall, fidgeting with her fingers as she looks at me again. “The thought of something happening to him is far worse than the memories of what happened to me. My heart stops every time I think about it.”
“Oh, Mira.” I move in for a hug, wrapping my arms gently around her shoulders, gliding my hand down her silky blonde hair. “He’s fine. Nicoli is fine, and so are you. That’s all that matters. And I’m sure Nicoli’s just been preoccupied with dealing with the aftermath of everything.” I take a step back. “Alexius hasn’t been around much either.” I place my palms on my stomach. I’ve been doing it a lot lately, even when my thoughts aren’t occupied with babies and swollen bellies.
“You’re right.” Mira’s red lips curve at the edges. “The brothers do have a lot to take care of, I guess. Listen, I’m going to check on Alexius’ mom. I’ll see you at dinner?”
“Mira?” I call after her, and she stops to look my way. “I’m happy you’re okay. I would not survive this place without you.”
This time her smile does reach her eyes. “You would have been fine without me. I’m telling you, a time will come when you rule these ancient halls.” She holds her arms wide and twirls on her feet, chuckling. “It’ll happen. You’ll see. But my guess is you’ll be running after those two down here first.” She points at my belly and winks before strolling in the other direction.
Running after two kids? My God. I can’t even fathom the idea of two babies growing inside me. Thinking about them running down these halls one day is daunting, and I’d be the world’s greatest liar if I said it doesn’t scare the living shit out of me. After my total breakdown at the doctor, thinking I’d be the worst mother ever, and Mira trying to talk some sense into me, the doubt still lingers. At night, while I listen to Alexius’ rhythmic breathing next to me, staring at the moonlight sneaking through the tiny gap between the curtains, the panic would set in. My mind would race with thoughts of crying babies, dirty diapers, and the unbelievable knowledge of being responsible for a life. Two lives. Two babies utterly dependent on me as their mother, relying on me to keep them safe and to give them a life filled with love and joy, to give them the security I never had.
I want to be a good mother. But I’m so damn scared. What if my childhood, my mother, broke that part of me—the part where nature takes over, and motherhood would come naturally? What would I do then?
Panic slowly creeps in from my ribs to my lungs, and I inhale deeply, pushing the thoughts out of my head, reminding myself there’s time to adjust. Time to work through our family’s unplanned expansion and work on myself to ensure I be the best mom these babies could ask for.
I make my way down the stairs, headed to the dining room, when I find people walking in and out of the foyer, a giant Christmas tree placed in the center. There are people hanging ornaments and lights. Men trim the green branches to create the perfect shaped tree. The smell of freshly cut pine and crisp nature paints a picture of snow, hot chocolate, and a warm fireplace. It makes me think of magic and presents, the gingerbread houses I saw in the windows of bakeries my mom and I would pass on our way to the store. Children would walk out with fancy pink and white striped cake boxes, the sweet, sugary smell of cake and cookie dough wafting from inside the bakery every time the door opened and closed.
At night when my parents were asleep, I’d lie awake and think about families opening presents with laughter and thankful hearts—images I’ve only ever seen in newspaper ads and movies. My dad didn’t believe in holidays. He said it was an underhanded way to extort the human population into buying things they couldn’t afford. Now I know it’s because he’d rather use the money for drugs and whores than buy his only daughter a gingerbread house with a roof decorated with round candy wafers and square gum pieces.
I’ve lost out on so many chances to build fond memories, stories I could have told my kids one day. But there’s no use wallowing in the past. Nothing can change it. It is what it is, and all I can do now is ensure that my kids have a far better childhood than I could ever dream of.
Alexius comes up behind me, snaking his arms around my waist and leaning his chin on my shoulder. “I swear the trees get bigger every year.”
I lean back, closing my eyes as I inhale, appreciating his familiar, comforting scent of earthy sandalwood. “It’s going to be beautiful,” I say as the decorators walk past us with gold baubles, silver stars, and large white snowflake ornaments. “It’s my first Christmas tree.”
I feel Alexius stiffen behind me. “You’ve never had a Christmas tree?”
I shake my head.
“Not even as a child?”
“Nope. My dad didn’t believe in holidays.”
With gentle fingers, he forces me to turn around and face him, then tips my chin up with his finger, our gazes latched. “I’ll spend my life righting the wrongs your parents did to you, and I’ll make sure our children have nothing but the best.” His hand drops to my belly, his fingers scrunching the fabric of my silk blouse, and I place my palm on top.
“I love you.”
“And I love you.” He places a tender kiss on my lips, a simple act with the power to ignite a blaze. “I have to talk to Maximo, then I’ll join you for dinner.”
“Sure, but when you have time, I want to talk to you about Nicoli.”
“Jesus. What did my twin fucking brother do now?”
“Nothing. That’s the problem.”
Curiosity lingers on his curved brow. “Okay, but can we discuss it after dinner?”
“Sure.” I smile, then watch him walk in the other direction. I turn and knock into a guy carrying the large gold star for the top of the tree. He almost drops it, and I stumble back while trying to help him keep his balance.
“I’m so sorry, ma’am,” he apologizes, his cheeks flushed and eyes filled with panic. “I didn’t see—”
“No, it’s okay.” I smile. “I’m fine. I should get out of your way.”
“I’m really sorry.”
“Honestly, it’s okay.”
“Mr. Del Rossa will—”
“My husband will not know about this,” I assure him, witnessing how my husband’s presence in this house and town intimidates everyone around.
I’m scrambling to get out of the foyer with more people carrying crates of decorations, holly bushes and mistletoe being draped along the staircase. The rotunda ceiling is being curtained with lights, staff scurrying around to transform it into a Christmas wonderland.
There’s a soft flicker in my belly, a twitch of excitement from the girl who never lived in a house with a Christmas tree. My heart feels full with the thought of presents and ribbons and paper hat crowns, a fireplace decorated with red and white stockings and candy canes. It’s my childhood dream coming to life, and by this time next year, I’ll have my own little family to share the festive joy I was denied.
Ten minutes ago, I couldn’t picture myself running down these halls chasing after kids. But somehow, now, I can see our children huddled around the tree, their laughter, their happy faces beaming with excitement as they unwrap their presents, eager to find the gift hidden beneath the snowflake wrapping paper. Somehow…I can see our family. My family.
Suddenly, the future no longer seems so daunting.
As I pass the window overlooking the front courtyard, I catch a glimpse of Nicoli’s flashy red car parked outside and decide to look for him so we can talk about Mira. I’m worried about her, and if he’s purposefully avoiding her, I want to know so I can wrap my fingers around his throat and personally strangle him.
My flat boots make no sound as I saunter down the hall, the lights casting a warm glow on the lacquered floor. The house already smells like pine and spice, a mix of the holiday aroma that fills our chests and warms our hearts.
“She can’t know about this.” Alexius’ voice filters through the slivered gap of his office door left slightly ajar. It’s his harsh tone that makes me stop, leaning my head to the side, listening.
“Are you sure he can be trusted? Or is he a potential problem we need to eradicate now?”
“He won’t talk.”
“Are you sure, Maximo? Where does he get the placebos from? You know as well as I do there’s always a fucking trail.”
“I’ll run a trace, find the trail,” Maximo says, his voice low yet determined. “I’ll make sure it’s clean.”
“My uncle is out for blood after receiving Micah’s letter about me planting a bullet in Jimmy’s skull. He has no proof, so he can’t do shit about it. But he’s going to keep digging until he figures out a way to ruin me, and if he finds out about this and tells her…fuck!”
There’s a loud bash, a thud of a fist being slammed against a table. I jerk and suck in a breath.
“Alexius, relax. I’ll take care of it,” Maximo assures him. “No one will ever know you replaced her birth control. I’ll make sure of it.”
My heart stops. For a second, I’m a goddamn ghost standing in the hall, ice creeping down my spine as blood drains from my body.
“Fuck that. I’m not chancing it. Take care of him. Shut him up before he gets a chance to talk.”
“Alexius, I don’t think it’s necessary—”
“I said—” Alexius’ voice booms through his office walls. “Shut him up. For good. Understood?”
There’s a short, silent pause followed by heavy footsteps. It’s coming closer to the door, but I can’t move. Too much weight is piled on my chest, squeezing all the air from my lungs while my heart pounds with a panicked tempo. It hurts, my bones crushed under the force of a deceit unleashed.
The door is jerked open, and I’m met with the sight of azure irises I’ve fallen hopelessly in love with. But now, I don’t recognize them at all.
“Leandra.” His voice is a mere breath, an echo of awareness, knowing his lies have reached my shattered heart.
I can’t get myself to open my mouth and say something, my mind as silent as my tongue. It’s as if the world flipped upside down, and I was sucked into a vortex where everything’s a jumbled mess, where the truth can’t be distinguished from the lies.
He takes a step, and I instantly retreat, staring at him like I’ve never seen his face before, searching to find something—anything that’s familiar. But there’s nothing. Not a single fucking thing.
The way he watches me, how the color drains from his eyes, I know he knows I heard enough. His betrayal clings to the air like toxic vapor, its only intention to destroy me. It’s too thick, too viscous, and I can’t fucking breathe with him this close.
“Leandra.” He tries to reach for me, but I turn and run the other way, needing to get the hell away from him before I suffocate. My mind goes from silence to swarming chaos as I race up the stairs, knocking into someone, and there’s an explosion of holly bush leaves and bright-red berries. “I’m sorry,” I whimper. “I’m so sorry.”
“Leandra!” Alexius calls, his voice coming closer, forcing more adrenaline through my veins, urging me to get away. “Leandra, stop!”
My feet race across the floor, my heart beating wildly. I don’t even realize I’m crying until I reach the bedroom, turning the doorknob, and a tear slips onto my hand.
“No!” I scream as his arms wrap around me from behind, squeezing me so tight he lifts my feet off the ground. “Let me go!”
“No! Fuck you!” I kick and thrash against him, desperate to escape.
“Just calm down and listen to me.” He kicks the door closed behind him and loosens his grip, allowing me to jerk away from his hold.
I put as much distance between us as possible, inching backward like prey afraid to take her eyes off the predator. “You switched…you…” Dear God, I can’t say it. I can’t get myself to say it; the words are a bitter gall on my tongue. It’s disgusting.
“I’m pregnant,” I whisper. “I’m pregnant because you…you switched my birth control?” It doesn’t make sense. My mind can’t comprehend the magnitude of what I just said.
Alexius doesn’t answer me. He just stands there and watches with his confession emanating from the cruel, blue pools of his eyes.
“Please tell me I’m wrong.” A tear laps into my mouth. “I’m begging you to tell me what I heard is all wrong.” Desperation clings to me like dirt, filth seeping through my pores, and it hurts. It stings. It’s fucking slicing my soul with a thousand sharp blades, leaving nothing but gaping wounds of broken promises and hollowing the sweet midnight whispers of the man I love, so it’s now nothing but empty words. “Tell me what I heard isn’t right. Please, Alexius,” I cry. “Please tell me you didn’t…please!”
“I couldn’t risk it,” he blurts. “I couldn’t risk you walking out that door and out of my life.”
My legs give way, and I collapse, my frame a sagging mess on the floor while tears try to escape the fangs of betrayal eating through my goddamn soul.
Alexius takes a step closer. “I had to make sure that you stay. Here. With me.”
“How could you?” My tears taste like salt and fractured trust, and my fingers spread as I clutch my belly. “How could you do this?”
“I told you there was no line I wouldn’t cross to keep you.”
My vision is blurry with tears. All I see is his black Italian leather shoes as he approaches, my cheeks burning and chest aching. I can’t look up. I can’t look at him. It hurts too damn much. And I’m paralyzed, sinking farther and farther down into a sea where there’s nothing. Nothing but pain. Deception. Lies.
Countless nights. A thousand words. A million kisses. Sunsets filled with promises. It’s all gone. In an instant. A split-fucking-second, and it’s just smoke thinning into the air until there’s nothing left of it.
Darkness engulfs me, and I’m weightless, coiled inside a void where nothing makes sense. I’m plunged into a cold emptiness with sharp tentacles piercing my lungs, making it harder for me to take a decent breath.
No matter how many times I go over everything inside my head, it all just comes to this moment, this place in time where I’m on my ass in front of his feet, broken and beaten, exactly where he wanted me when all this started. This was all inevitable.
“Everything is a lie,” I mutter. “You, your promises, your declarations of love.” I look up at him. “It’s all lies.”
“It’s not.” His jaw tics and shoulders square, his demeanor showing no trace of guilt. “I love you more than I ever thought possible, and that’s exactly why I did what I did…because I love you.”
A maniacal laugh spills through my tears and taunts his lies. Every ounce of strength in me surges, and I manage I push myself up on my feet, anger giving me the courage to look him in the eye. “Love? Do you hear yourself, Alexius? Do you hear what you’re saying?”
“I’m saying that I love you and did this so you would fucking stay.”
“You switched my birth control, for fuck’s sake. You tricked me into becoming pregnant. You took that goddamn choice away from me.”
“The choice of becoming a mother! God damn you, Alexius!” I cry, placing a palm on my forehead, forcing myself to breathe so I won’t pass out. “Getting pregnant and having children is supposed to be this beautiful thing when the time is right for both of us. And now…you ruined it. You corrupted it.”
“I did what I had to do,” he bites out between clenched teeth. “I love you, and I couldn’t stand by and wait for the day you decide to walk out my fucking front door.”
“You wanted me in a corner, in a place where it’s impossible for me to leave you. That’s not love. That’s manipulative bullshit. Evil. A fucking obsession.”
“Call it what you want. It doesn’t change the fact that you are mine. My wife. And I was not about to just stand to the side once our agreement was over and watch the woman I love leave.”
“Love. You keep using the word like you know the meaning of it,” I spit out. “But you don’t. To you, love is control. It’s power. To you, love means you’re the puppeteer and everybody else the fucking puppet. Including me. Including these babies.” More tears stream down my face, but it stems more from anger than sadness as a new reality hits me square in the chest. “Because of your selfishness, your twisted need to fucking control everything and everyone, I’m going to be a mom. We’re going to have twins, Alexius. Two lives born from your fucking lies!” I scream. “Do you understand that? Do you realize the magnitude of what you’ve done? These babies aren’t even born yet, and you’ve already infected their existence with something so ugly.” I bite my bottom lip and choke on a sob. “Every time they laugh, I’ll be reminded of your lies. Every time they cry, I’ll feel the cut of your deception, over and fucking over again. Do you see what you’ve done?”
“What I’ve done, I did because I love you.”
His expression hardens, his face stone as he stares at me. “For one goddamn hour, I lost you and went out of my fucking mind thinking Micah had you hanging from a ledge with a cable around your throat. So, in case you’re wondering whether I regret doing what I did,” he inches closer, and there’s nothing but pure resolve in his eyes, “I don’t. I don’t regret switching your birth control with placebos. I don’t regret getting you pregnant. And if I could go back in time and do it all over again, I would. I warned you, Leandra. I told you I can’t be a fair or rational man when it comes to you. I warned you that with my love comes a heavy burden, one you’ll carry for the rest of your life.”
“I didn’t think the burden would be destructive.”
“Neither did I. But what matters is that we love each other, and nothing can change that.”
He reaches out, and I jerk back, his fingers brushing against my arm, his touch nothing but a searing fire that melts my flesh.
“You’re wrong.” I wipe the tears on my cheeks. “Something did change it. You changed it.”
“I know you’re hurt and feel betrayed, but I won’t apologize,” he bites out, his jaw clenched.
I scoff. “Because a Del Rossa never apologizes?”
He cranks his head from side to side like he’s saddled with the world’s weight on his shoulders.
“It’s ironic if you think about it.” I cross my arms. “You lied to me. You deceived and tricked me because you were afraid of losing me.” I suck in a breath, a thousand knives piercing my heart every second I continue to look at him. “And you ended up losing me anyway.”
“And not just me,” I sneer, his deception slowly infecting my love for him, deforming it into something unrecognizable. “You lost these babies, too.”
A threatening anger hardens the lines on his face. “What the hell are you saying?”
“I’m saying that I’m going to walk out that fucking door, and you will never see me again or these children.” I wrap an arm around my belly like a protective mother. “I will not live in this house with your lies, and I sure as hell won’t raise my children here with you so you can poison their lives with your bullshit, too. I won’t do it.”
I rush to the chest of drawers, scooping bundles of clothing in my arms and plopping them down on the bed. Everything in me hurts. Every bone is broken. My world is imploding, and it’s destroying me from the inside out.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“I told you.” I sniff. “I’m not staying here. This was an arrangement to begin with, and it’s ended.” I grab a suitcase from the closet and drop it on the bed, cramming all the clothes I can find into it. There’s so much adrenaline flooding my system, I can’t even stop to think straight, to think farther than the estate gates. I have nowhere to go. But right now, nowhere is better than here.
I jerk the bedside drawer open, spotting the birth control I haven’t touched since finding out I’m pregnant. It’s a smack to the face. A punch to the gut. A fucking knife through my heart. “You son of a bitch,” I curse, pain and hate forming the venomous words on my tongue. I grab it and throw it at his face, seething with fiery breaths. “I hate you. I fucking hate you!” It’s a lie that pours from my screams, but at this moment, it’s the truth I need to be able to walk away.
“No, you don’t.” The deep rumbling of his voice makes me pivot to look at him. “You don’t hate me, and you know it.”
“Right now, I know nothing other than the fact that you lied to me and that I need to get the hell away from you.”
“I’m afraid that’s not an option.”
“And I’m afraid that’s not up to you.”
Blue eyes narrow, and it’s like a veil of black mantles him, his expression detached, and his entire demeanor changing from man to monster, determination resonating in his every stride toward the bedroom door.
“Look at what I did to ensure you never leave.” His eyes flare with cold fury, a flash of complete darkness with a chill that steals my breath. “Now imagine what I’d do to make sure you don’t take my children from me, the lengths to which I’d go to keep that from happening.” His hand settles on the doorknob, and my heartbeat thumps in my throat.
“Alexius, what are you—”
“If you think I’ll allow you to walk out of here with my babies growing inside your belly,” he turns the lock, the click of the latch nailing fear into my bones, “you, dear stray, are sorely mistaken.”
To be continued and concluded in…