I notice something else nestled in the cotton of the box and pull out a little packet of aspirin. Nice.
I can’t help but smile.
But I do need to find Dante and give him this gift back. I don’t want him to think that he can do anything at all and a trinket will fix it. I slip it off and regretfully put it back into the box. I keep the aspirin, though.
I set off to find him, but it is difficult. The Old Palace is huge and I’m not that familiar with it. I find myself wandering the halls with the little white box in my hands. I slip quietly in and out of cordoned-off areas and I don’t see anyone familiar. Heaven is nowhere to be found and I don’t know any of the other staff. I realize that I should call or text Dante and then realize that I left my phone in my room.
I stumble into a long quiet corridor. There is no one here and there aren’t even that many windows. It’s quiet in a disturbing, unnerving way. I can’t explain it and I want to turn around and go back the other way, but I don’t.
I open the first door to my right and take a step inside.
It’s a huge studio.
And it’s filled with a hundred different pictures of me.
I take a trembling step inside and stop dead in my tracks as I look around in wonder.
Pictures of me, in black and white, hang from various clips, wires and easels around the room. There are dozens of other pictures too, older pictures of scenery and pictures of another woman, but at least half of all of these prints are of me.
Light slants in from a wall of windows. There is a desk, several easels, a wall of art supplies. Overall, it’s a cheerful room. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that my face is plastered all over it.
“I see you found my lair,” Dante murmurs from behind me.
I whirl around.
“Your lair? What is this?” I demand. “Why are there so many pictures of me?”
He looks abashed. Guilty. Caught. My heart flutters a little. Why does he look so guilty?
“I’m sorry,” he answers quietly, his face impassive. Guarded. “I know it seems strange.”
“Strange doesn’t begin to cover it,” I tell him. “More like criminally insane. Please tell me that you don’t have a cat-suit made from human skin in one of these closets.”
Dante smiles slightly as he skirts around me and enters the room. He picks up a camera lying on a nearby table.
“It’s a guilty pleasure,” he shrugs his shoulders. “I love photography. I always have. Life is so interesting from behind the lens. People seem more real, somehow. I take pictures of pretty much everything. See those cabinets over there?” He motions toward the opposite wall filled with shelves and cabinets. “Those are filled with stacks of photos that I have taken over the years.”
He aims the camera at me and I hear it snap a picture. I stride across the room and yank it from his hands. I want to throw it, but I don’t.
“What are you doing?” I hiss, ignoring the pain in my temple. “I’m trying to ascertain that you are, in fact, sane. And you’re just standing there taking a picture of me. Which, I might add, is not helping your cause. I think you’ve got quite enough pictures of me already. Who is the other woman in the pictures?”
“That’s my mother,” he answers softly. “She loved photography too or so I’m told. I found those old pictures in a box that my father had packed away. I didn’t think they should be hidden, so I’ve kept them in my studio. My father hates this hobby. He thinks it’s a waste of time. But it also just reminds him of my mom. So I never have to worry about him coming in here, into my space.”
I felt instantly bad for snapping at him.
Honestly, sometimes he seems like a vulnerable little boy. A vulnerable little boy without a mother. My heart breaks a little bit and I look at him.
“Your mother was very beautiful. Look, I’m sorry for being angry. But I don’t feel well, there are enough pictures of me here to wallpaper a room with and I’m grumpy. What happened last night, well, it was embarrassing.”
Dante nods, takes the camera from my hands and puts it back on the table.
“I know. I’m really sorry.” He motions to a loveseat on the far wall. “Would you like to sit down? Can we talk now?”
A boy who actually wants to talk? Dante is definitely different from most.
I walk woodenly across the room and take a seat.
Dante slides the desk chair over and situates it next to me. So, he doesn’t want to share the loveseat. Interesting.
I thrust the white box into his hands.
“The bracelet is beautiful,” I tell him. “But I can’t accept it. I’m upset with you for not being straight with me about Elena. I can’t take gifts from you.”
He all but smiles.
“That makes no sense,” he tells me. “I want you to have it as an apology. I feel horribly about last night. And I saw the bracelet and thought immediately of you. Please keep it. It shouldn’t be on anyone else’s arm but yours.”
Lord, but Dante has a way with words.
“I want to be mad at you right now,” I announce. “You’re playing with my emotions. And that’s not cool.”
He looks shocked. “I’m definitely not playing with your emotions,” he says. “Not on purpose. Look, Reece. My life-“
“Is complicated,” I interrupt. “Yeah, I know. You told me already.”
I start to get up but he reaches over and puts his hand on my arm.
“No. That’s not what I was going to say. My life has been planned out from the moment that I was born. My family owns Giliberti Olives. That’s what we do. My dad wants me to get an MBA and run the business and then maybe enter politics like him. But that’s not me. I don’t want anything to do with politics. And I love the olive groves. It’s not that. It’s just that I’d like to be given a choice, for once in my life. Just the choice to do what I want. And be who I want. And to like who I want.”