“Because we’re not seeing each other. We have an agreement,” she said bitterly and looked away.
He narrowed his eyes, sensing there was more to the story. “What else is going on? There’s more. I can see it on your face. This isn’t just about you and me.”
She frowned, but still didn’t meet his gaze. “I didn’t tell you everything about my mother. She was living in California when she died, but she wasn’t married. She was the mistress of a wealthy, powerful man. A married man. I vowed never to get into that situation.”
Michael paused a long moment, searching his mind for the best approach. “So that’s why you’re uncomfortable about your arrangement with me. This is different.”
Her head snapped up. “What do you mean? I may as well be your mistress. I’ve made an agreement in exchange for your assistance and support.”
“For one thing, I’m not married. Never will be for that matter. Secondly, you made that choice for the sake of someone very important to you. I don’t get the impression your mother did the same. Besides, I wouldn’t have even made the offer if I didn’t believe there was a chance of making the business a success.”
She stared at him in surprise. “Really?”
“Really,” he said. “I broke a few rules of my own for you, but not all of them. So we’re on more equal ground than you imagined. You can enjoy your lobster and steak without remorse.”
She looked at him, her mesmerizing eyes glowing at him, doing strange things to his insides. “Interesting,” she said. “If we’re on equal ground, then I’d like to ask you some questions.”
Michael’s gut clenched. “Such as?”
He blinked then chuckled at her curiously. “Tiramisu.”
“Your Italian roots are showing.”
“I could prepare a lasagna for you that would make you forget every other pasta you’ve ever eaten.”
“True?” she asked.
“True,” he said.
“Okay, you’re on. I want that lasagna. When is your birthday?”
“Next month, but I don’t celebrate it,” he said.
“It’s just another day. Why do you ask?”
“Because I want to know more about you. How did you celebrate your birthday when you were young?” she asked. “Before your father died.”
“With a favorite meal, small gifts and dessert. That was a long time ago.”
“You haven’t celebrated it since you reconnected with your brothers?” she asked, a sliver of outrage in her voice.
He shook his head. “We’re all too busy. Sometimes they remember to call. That’s more than I got when I was in the foster home.”
She frowned in disapproval. “Have all of you looked for Leo?”
His sense of humor at her questions faded. “One way or another.”
“What do you remember about him?” she asked.
Michael paused, resisting the memories for a moment because he never remembered without subsequent pain and heavy, heavy guilt. “He was a fighter,” Michael said. “He was only a year older than I was, and I did my best to keep up with all of them, but Leo was tough. Hell, he would even try to take on Damien. That never lasted long. Damien would just pin him down until he agreed to quit. Then Leo would get up and take another quick swipe before he ran off.”
“Sounds like he was a pistol,” Bella said with a soft smile.
He nodded. “Yeah, we all were, but he seemed to run full tilt from the minute he woke up until the minute he went to sleep. He was always afraid of missing something….” His chest squeezed tight, making the words difficult. He cleared his throat. “He liked animals. He was always bringing home a stray something and Dad would have to find another home for it because my mother said she had too many two-legged animals to take care of.”
“And they never found any sign of him?” she said, more than asked, shaking her head.
“Every body was recovered except his,” he said and the old determination rolled through him again. “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to find him.”
Bella leaned forward and slid her hand across the table to touch his. “I believe you will.”
Something inside him eased at her confidence in him. He knew it wasn’t based on flattery because she’d essentially already gotten what she wanted from him and she was still pissed that he’d pushed her into their affair. Soon enough she’d realize that he’d done what needed to be done for both of them.