Another long silence.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Ari lean forward, resting his forearms on his thighs. ‘If you had not fallen pregnant, Christina,’ he said softly, ‘wouldn’t I have left you with good memories of our relationship?’
‘You left me shattered, Ari,’ she answered bluntly. ‘My parents had brought me up to be a good girl believing that sex should only be part of a loving relationship. I truly believed that with you and it wasn’t so. Then when I realised I was pregnant, it made everything so much worse. I had to bear their disappointment in me, as well as knowing I’d simply been your sex toy for a while.’
In some ways it was a relief to blurt out the truth to him, though whether it meant anything to him or not was unknowable. Maybe it might make him treat her with more respect. She was not a pawn to be moved around at his will. She was a person who had to be dealt with as a person who had the right to determine her own life and this time she would do it according to her principles.
Ari shook his head. He was in a hard place here. He wasn’t used to feeling guilty about his actions or the decisions he’d made. It was not a feeling he liked. Christina had just given a perspective on their previous relationship that he’d never considered and quite clearly it had to be considered if he was to turn this situation around.
She was staring into space—a space that only she occupied, shutting him out. Yet her hand was idly stroking the hair of their sleeping son. He was the connection between them—the only connection Ari could count on right now. He was no longer sure he could reach her sexually, though he would still give it a damned good try. In the meantime he had to start redeeming himself in her eyes or she would never allow herself to be vulnerable to the physical attraction which he knew was not completely dead.
He’d felt her gaze on him at the hot springs, saw it quickly flick away whenever he looked at her. She kept shoring up defences against him by reliving how he’d wronged her in the past. Would she ever let that go or would he be paying for his sins against her far into the future?
‘I’m sorry,’ he said quietly. ‘It was wrong of me to take you. I think it was your innocence that made you so entrancing, so different, so special, and the way you looked at me then … I found it irresistible, Christina. If it means anything to you, there hasn’t been a woman since whose company has given me more pleasure.’
As he spoke the words which were designed to be persuasive, there was a slight kick in Ari’s mind—a jolting realization that he was actually stating the truth. When he’d moved on, he’d mentally set her aside—too young, not the right time for a serious relationship—but the moment he’d recognised her in Dubai, he’d wanted to experience the sweetness of her all over again, especially when he’d just been suffering the sour taste of Felicity Fullbright.
Christina shook her head. She didn’t believe him.
‘It’s true,’ he insisted.
She turned to look at him, dark intense eyes scouring his for insincerity. He held her testing gaze, everything within him tuned to convincing her they could make another start, forge a new understanding between them.
‘You didn’t come back to me, Ari,’ she stated simply. ‘You forgot me.’
‘No. I put you away from me for reasons that I thought were valid at the time but I didn’t forget you, Christina. The moment I recognised you in Dubai, the urge to pick up with you again was instant. And that was before you told me about Theo.’
She frowned, hopefully realising the impulse had been there before she had spoken of their son. ‘You were with another woman,’ she muttered as though that urge was tarnished, too.
‘I was already wishing that I wasn’t before I saw you. Please … at least believe this of me. It’s true.’
For the first time he saw a hint of uncertainty in her eyes. She lowered her long thick lashes, hiding her thoughts. ‘Tell me what your valid reasons were.’
‘To my mind, we both still had a lot to achieve on our own without ties holding us back from making choices we would have made by ourselves. You’d barely started your modelling career, Christina, and it was obvious you had the promise of making it big on the international scene. As your sister has done.’
Her mouth twisted into a wry grimace as she looked down at their sleeping son. ‘If you didn’t forget me, Ari, did you ever wonder why I never broke into the international scene?’
‘I did expect you to. I thought you had chosen to stay in Australia. Some people don’t like leaving everything that is familiar to them.’
‘I wasn’t worth coming back to,’ she murmured, heaving a sigh that made him feel she had just shed whatever progress he had made with her.
‘I was caught up dealing with family business these past six years, Christina,’ he swiftly argued. ‘It’s only now … meeting you again and being faced with my own son that my priorities are undergoing an abrupt change.’
‘Give it time, Ari,’ she said dryly. ‘They might change again.’
‘No. I won’t be taking my marriage proposal off the table. I want you to consider it very seriously.’
She slid him a measuring look that promised nothing. ‘I’ll think about it. Don’t ask any more of me now.’ She nodded down at Theo. ‘I’m tired, too. Please ask Jason to head back to Fira.’
‘As you wish,’ he said, rising from the bench seat to do her bidding.
Trying to push her further would not accomplish any more than he had already accomplished today. She didn’t trust him yet but at least she was listening to him. Tonight would give him the chance to show her the family environment he wanted to move her and Theo into. He had to make it as attractive as he could.
WHILE Theo was occupied fitting the pieces of the Lego train station together, Tina tried to imagine what her life might have been like if she hadn’t fallen pregnant. Would she have picked herself up from the deeply wounding disillusionment of her love for Ari and channelled all her energy into forging a successful modelling career?
She had been very young—only eighteen at the time—and having been rejected by him she would have wanted to show him she really was special—so special he would regret not holding onto her.
Cassandra would have helped her to get a foot in on the international scene. Given the chance, she would have tried to make it to the top, delivering whatever was required to keep herself in demand and in the public eye; fashion shows, magazine covers, celebrity turnouts that would give her even more publicity. Ambition would have been all fired up to make Ari have second thoughts about his decision, make him want to meet her again.