He poured himself over the table, gripping its edges so hard it looked as though his spindly fingers might snap off. ‘I suspect Gianluca sees in you another version of himself. One that is not beyond saving, one that he can actually control. His dealings with you are, in my estimation, a projection of his own failings with himself.’
It felt a little bit like I had been punched in the heart. The idea that Luca saw something of himself in me had never even crossed my mind. I thought he had wanted to help me, maybe even be with me, in some kind of alternative universe, but this … I had never imagined that I might be some kind of … project. A do-over. It hurt. It hurt.
I tried to keep my expression placid. ‘Wow, Felice. Tell me how you really feel.’
‘I am saying this for your own good.’
I cut my eyes at him. ‘Oh, I’m sure you are. I’m sure you came in here with the intent of looking out for me. I’m sure you didn’t mean it when you raised a gun to my head a few weeks ago and threatened to shoot me in front of your whole family. You care about me. Yeah. That seems really likely. I totally buy that. Oh, I believe you. Whoa, Felice, please stop caring so much about me, you’ll give yourself a heart attack. Please, calm down with all that genuine caring.’
He frowned at me. ‘Are you done?’
‘Yeah.’ I shrugged. ‘That’s all I got.’
‘I see how Luca is excluding you from family business. Any attempt he makes to distance you from the glory in revenge is nothing more than a selfish preoccupation with his own shortcomings.’
‘Felice’ and ‘sincere’ were not words I would ever put together in a sentence, unless of course the sentence was ‘Wow, Felice is not a sincere person.’ Yet, there was a disconcerting level of honesty in his expression. He truly believed what he was saying. The idea that Luca might actually like or care about me hadn’t even crossed his mind. ‘Why are you telling me this?’ I asked. ‘What does it even matter?’
‘We are at war, Persephone. Everything matters now.’
‘You really should have majored in theatre, Felice. You would have made an incredible Lady Macbeth.’
He bent his head to my height, his elbows propped across the desk. ‘Nicoli will show you the way forward. He knows the path and he walks it, undaunted. Gianluca will shut your eyes until it’s too late, and you will, I guarantee, meet the same fate as your mother.’
I sucked in a breath, all dregs of humour evaporating in that instant. ‘My mother is not some cautionary tale, and she’s definitely not a weapon you can use against me.’
He raised a hand, halting the venom on my tongue. ‘The fact remains that we are now all you have, Persephone. If you want to be part of this family and remain part of this family, you must choose to whom you are going to listen. That is going to make all the difference. Do you understand what I’m saying?’
‘I understand,’ I said, if only to end the conversation. ‘Luca won’t help me survive in this world.’
Felice’s grey eyes darkened, his lips twisting into a slow smile. ‘But Nicoli will.’
As I tracked across Felice’s back garden, the barn rose to meet me – it was tall and broad, and made of concrete. Fall had come and with it the air had grown crisper. There was a biting chill in the wind now, and the trees on Felice’s land were turning vibrant shades of orange and yellow. It was pretty, almost like a picture, this assassin’s palace. In another time, I might have felt at ease here. I might have grown to love it.
I stalled behind the barn, hidden from the windows of the house, and wrapped my arms around myself. My winter coat was still back in Cedar Hill, stuffed somewhere inside my wardrobe. A million miles away.
I watched my breath fog in the air and tried to imagine how cold it would be here in the middle of December. A blanket of snow and ice – and inside, crackling fires in every hearth to chase away the chill. December brought thoughts of Christmas. Of stockings and candy canes and turkey dinners. Of presents and eggnog and family. Would we all survive until then? How black would my soul be by Christmas morning?
I heard his breath on the wind before he caught up with me. He fell out of his jog and offered me a surprisingly warm smile considering I had harassed him out of bed at such an indecent time. ‘Good morning!’ he said, beaming at me in all that Colgate splendour.
Of course Nic had had the good sense to wear a winter coat. His hair was messy – ungelled, and flopping across his forehead. He pushed it back. He looked peaky – half warm and half pale, probably from being wrenched out of bed at such an ungodly hour.
‘You’re late.’ I tapped at an imaginary watch. ‘I said 7 a.m. sharp.’
‘I’m not a morning person,’ he said, his grin turning sheepish.
‘Is that why your smile is starting to twitch?’
‘I just downed two double espressos,’ he confided. ‘I think my face is vibrating.’
‘Well, you could never tell.’ I smiled at him. ‘Thanks for coming.’
He shrugged, but my smile had brought on his own, and I made a mental note to be very careful about how this meeting progressed. It was business, not pleasure.
Nic cracked his knuckles and rolled his neck around, warming up. ‘So, why do we have to be so secretive about this again? Valentino will be happy.’ He had asked me the same thing last night when I ambushed him in the middle of brushing his teeth.