“Your guy, James, let me in. Turns out he’s a little concerned about you.” Luc ran a critical eye over Dante. “And I can see why. When did you last shower?”
“Is Cleo okay?” he asked, ignoring his friend’s question. Luc had advised him last week to give her some space, and Dante had reluctantly complied. After the accident and its terrible consequences, he had started to doubt his every decision, especially where Cleo was concerned. But not a day went by that he didn’t want to tear over there and drag her back home with him. He slept in her damned bed every night, for God’s sake.
“Cleo’s about the same as you,” Luc said, and Dante forced away his annoyance at the cryptic response. “From the looks of you, you haven’t been eating or showering, and according to James, you haven’t left the building since last week. Not even to go to work.”
“I am entitled to compassionate leave, just like every one of my employees,” Dante said defensively, and then immediately regretted rising to Luc’s obvious baiting.
“Look, I know I told you to give Cleo space, but I take that back. She’s . . . she’s in a bad place.”
“She just lost her baby,” Dante pointed out.
“And so did you,” Luc said with a nod. “And that’s why I was wrong in telling you to give her space. Neither of you should be going through this alone.”
“She won’t want me around,” Dante said quietly.
“Do you want to be around?” Dante gave him a look that told Luc exactly how dumb he thought that question was. “Then you should be around.”
Exactly two weeks to the day after losing Zach, Cleo was wandering around the house like a wraith. Blue and Dante had both gone to work, and Cleo knew she should attempt to do something more positive than stay at home. It was a glorious summer day in mid-December, and nobody had even mentioned Christmas because her brother and Blue were both walking on eggshells around her. They had gently tried to talk her into thinking about some kind of farewell ceremony for Zach, but Cleo still couldn’t bring herself to even contemplate it.
Her body was slowly returning to normal; her milk had dried up, and she’d spent a day crying over that too. She didn’t recognize herself anymore. Who was this woman who could spend entire days crying, and other days just staring at a wall doing nothing? She felt like she had lost herself along with the baby and couldn’t find her way back.
So today was the day she would turn it all around. She would get dressed, leave the house, and buy Christmas presents for Blue and Luc. She would go to the hospital and pick up Zach’s ashes . . .
Only she couldn’t.
When midday rolled around, she was still in her pajamas and still just drifting from one end of the house to the other. It was almost a godsend when the doorbell rang. She yanked open the door without considering how very unfit she was to be seen by anyone.
She became very much aware of that fact moments later when she stood staring up at Dante.
“Oh,” she whispered as his eyes ran over her body wordlessly. His face was grim, and his lips thinned. “What are you doing here?”
He said nothing, just pushed his way past her and into the house. That made her angry, and it felt wonderful. It was the first emotion other than sadness that she’d felt in too long.
“You can’t just barge in here like this, Dante.” She slammed the door and turned to confront him. “I . . .” Her voice faltered when she saw his face. He looked seriously pissed off with her. His eyes had gone dark and intense, and it made her back up until she felt the door behind her.
“Okay, I know you’re upset with me for just leaving the way I did,” she said, trying to keep her voice level. “But you have to understand that I couldn’t, I just couldn’t, go back to your place.”
The fixed, feverish look in his eyes was starting to freak her out, and it made her talk a little faster.
“I wanted to be around people who love me and understand me.” A muscle was starting to tick in his jaw, and she swallowed nervously. Why was he just staring at her like that? She wished he would just say something. She opened her mouth to say something else, but all that emerged was a squeak when he took a purposeful step toward her, then another, and then the third bridged the gap between them completely. He was way too close to her now, and she was trapped between his chest and the door.
She tilted her jaw up and met his gaze head-on. Why did he have to look so formidable? Cleo was aware of her heart beating like a maddened, trapped animal against her rib cage and—even though she knew he would never physically hurt her—she jumped when he brought his hands up.
He palmed her narrow shoulders and with an anguished groan, dragged her into his arms.
He interrupted whatever she had been about to say by speaking for the first time since entering the house.
“Just shut up for a moment while I hold you, okay?” he growled into her hair, and Cleo sighed and leaned into his embrace, relishing the feel of his protective arms around her.
“I can do that,” she whispered as she wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him close.
“This happened to me too, Cleo,” he said after a long, long silence, and Cleo trembled at his words. “I lost him too and it hurts like hell. I need you. I can’t . . . I can’t do this without you. And I know that maybe I’m the last person you want to be around right now because of the accident, but—”
Guilt reared its ugly head; she should never have said those words to him. He’d been dealing with the same loss, and she had made his grief so much worse by blaming him for their baby’s death.