**Please note: This is a ‘loose’ prequel to The Other Side of the Window with Daniel’s first dinner home after his kidnapping. It contains mentions of morally reprehensible characters.
Home. Nothing had changed in the months I’d been gone. The knickknacks and pictures I’d placed around still sat in their usual spots. The floors still gleamed. The bright open rooms still echoed sound as we walked to the dining room. I was home.
Andre pulled out my chair and slid it underneath me, always the gentleman. He sat to the left at the head of the table. Soft music played through the hidden speakers around the room, setting the tone. The table, already set by the staff, glistened in an array of crystal, china, candles, and flowers. He spared no expense. “You should have every luxury,” he’d once said. Funny how flattered and in awe I was back then. Now it only served as a reminder of what he was and whether I could come to terms with how he obtained his money. What innocent paid the price for my lavish dinner?
Andre poured us a glass of Merlot. I was sure Phillip, Andre’s personal sommelier, picked it out as the perfect pairing with dinner. A servant placed a soup bowl in front of each of us. I swirled my spoon in the thick liquid, guessing it was some type of squash blend. It mirrored how I felt—heavy and sluggish.
Only the clank of silverware hitting dishes, the occasional door opening, or the murmur of the staff marred the quiet. Neither Andre nor I spoke. The heat of his stare burned along my skin, but I kept my eyes on the dish in front of me, not ready to have the conversation I knew he sought to have. He wanted definites and absolutes. I lived with uncertainty and moral reasoning.
A salad soon replaced the soup bowl. My stomach churned, and I forced myself to take a bite. What should have been crunchy and tangy was dull and tasteless, as if I chewed cardboard instead of lettuce. The staff always took great care with our meals, but my doubts and anxiety dulled my taste.
When a staff member cleared the table of the salad, the Chef brought out the main course: orange-glazed salmon, risotto, and roasted asparagus. My favorite dish.
“I hope everything is to your liking, Mr. Madden.”
I knew Chef Tioto looked to me for a response, so I plastered on the fake smile I wore now in front of others. “Yes, it looks delicious. Thank you.”
“Mr. Verlice requested it. If you have a special request, please let me know. We’re glad to have you back.” Grinning, he bowed and left the room.
I cut my eyes to Andre, knowing I needed to snap out of this funk and talk to him whether or not I wanted to. I had a decision to make, and he deserved an answer. “You think of everything, don’t you?”
“I try.” His intense gaze sent a shiver down my spine with exhilaration and alarm in equal measure. Now that I’d seen both sides of him, I didn’t know which held the greater power. What did that say about me?
“I will always see to your needs, Daniel.”
A sharp retort sat on the tip of my tongue, but I swallowed it down. Memories still fresh in my mind begged to differ. I wanted to blame him for what happened to me, but I knew he was a powerful man many feared when I met him. The way people jumped to do his bidding and catered to his every demand proved it that day outside the Cancun airport. I was just too blind and naïve to see where his power came from. Or maybe I chose to ignore what my instincts screamed at me.
I took a sip of wine to buy some time. The impulse to fear Andre wrapped around me like a noose too tight on my neck. It was hard to see who I fell in love with underneath the monster. But I reached down into my memories for the man who took me sailing for the first time. The man who arranged for me to swim with the dolphins. Who danced with me at the club, losing his inhibitions and relaxing for the first time. Who showered me with gifts. The man who stimulated my mind. And my soul. The man who showed me how to love again and be loved in return. How did you reconcile all those things with someone whose world brimmed with blood, death, and evil?
How did you reconcile the one you loved was the devil incarnate?
“Daniel, look at me. Look at me, please,” he pleaded softly.
I glanced up. The man before me now wore not a suit of evil but one of sadness, longing, shame. And determination.
“If I could go back, would I make the same choices? Would I continue on the same path of my life, become the monster you fear I am? If it led me to you, I would do the same thing every single time. I regret nothing in my past if it means you would still be here with me now. What I do regret is that you were hurt. I should have done everything in my power to protect you, to keep you safe, but I failed in my duties. You are too good and pure for my world, but I can never let you go. Do you understand? If I could, I would give up everything to keep you, but I need you to know, you will always be mine whether or not you can accept who I am.”
His possessive words drove another spike into my soul. How many times, before him, had I longed for someone to want me, to desire me? To possess me. But god help me, I had tried to wipe him from my mind. Tried to scrub away what happened until I lay torn to shreds, bleeding. I wanted to move on with my life, but his ghost haunted me like a specter clinging to a life they’d left far behind, and I needed an exorcism to cast him away. But, as much as he couldn’t let me go, I couldn’t push him out of my heart and bury my love for him. Like he buried the bodies of those that hurt me.
But what did you say to someone whose very existence caused the greatest nightmare of your life? “Andre, I…”
“Amore Mio, finish your dinner.” Fear flashed through his eyes. Not fear of me. How could he ever be afraid of me when he dealt with the offscourings of society daily? But I imagined his fear came from another place, something he wasn’t used to. He’d already faced losing my person. Now he feared losing my heart.
I swallowed a bite of fish and took another sip of wine to force it down. Ever since my kidnapping, my stomach rebelled against food. I forced myself to eat, though I never gained back the weight I lost. The doctors couldn’t find anything physically wrong with me, but mentally? The parade of therapists in and out of the hospital was a testament to just how messed up I was. Andre spared no expense in that department either, insisting top-name doctors and psychiatrists were flown in from all over the country.
When I had cleaned my plate to his liking, Andre signaled the staff to take it away and clear the table. A large piece of chocolate cake drizzled with raspberry glaze appeared in front of me, along with a cup of coffee, the richest blend Andre could find.
“I don’t think I can eat this.”
“Just a few bites, please.” We’d shared meals before tonight, though this was the first at the house since I’d left the hospital. Each time he tried to get me to eat, even when I protested. Seeing my body, a shadow of its former self, disturbed him as much as realizing what caused it.
I scooped off a piece with the fork and ran it through the glaze. An involuntary moan of appreciation slipped out. “I’d forgotten how good this was.”
When Andre didn’t respond, I flicked my eyes to his. Heat blazed within the dark orbs. A tingle pulsed through my body and settled low in my belly. Chemistry and attraction were never a problem between us.
He stood, the scrap of his chair loud against the polished wood floors, and rounded the table to my side. He held out his hand. “Would you like to dance?” Vulnerability and hesitancy replaced the confidence and power he usually wore.
He walked on eggshells around me since my rescue, as if one wrong move would send me spiraling downward into an abyss. He didn’t realize I’d been shoved over the edge the moment I noticed the life that lay hidden in the dark. Now I had to decide whether it was worth climbing back up the hillside and risk tumbling down again. But how could I not? My heart only wanted him.
I grasped his outstretched hand and walked into his arms. A lulling song professed words of finding the one meant for you. Of desire and hope. Love. He danced me around the room, the movement slow and sensual. I rested my head on his chest and listened. Our hearts beat in sync as he held me close and crooned the words in my ear. This was who we were meant to be. In tune with each other, where one began, the other ended.
The world outside, his world, battered against us and threatened to tear us apart, but there was never a choice to be made. He was mine, and I was his, even if we had to go through hell to realize it.