‘Shall I make it easy for you?’ he said quietly. ‘How about if I were to tell you that I love you? Would that make it easier for you to say the words?’

 Her chest hitched as she gave a sharp nod, still not speaking.


 ‘I love you.’

 One solitary tear did break free, trickling down her cheek. He wiped it with his thumb.

 ‘I’ve spent many hours these past couple of weeks looking at those photos you took of me. You see something in me no one else can. The thing I never wanted you or anyone to see.’

 ‘What thing?’ she whispered.

 ‘The man inside. The gutter rat who grew up feeling dirty and unworthy and unlovable.’

 ‘You’re not...’

 He placed a finger to her lips, though the sound of her outrage warmed the coldness inside him. ‘I’ve been fighting to stop you getting too close since before our wedding night because I knew you were so near to seeing what’s inside me. I thought it would repel you as it does my mother. I knew when you spoke of love in our apartment what you were trying to tell me, but I refused to listen. I didn’t think I deserved your love. I was scared that to fall in love with you would be to destroy you—and you, Alessandra Mondelli, whom I so wish would be Alessandra Markos, are the most precious person in the world to me. Without you, I am nothing. I accept that I’m not good enough for you...’

 ‘Will you stop saying that?’ She dug her nails into his skin. ‘You are not a gutter rat. You are...everything. Everything you’ve achieved with your life, everything you’ve done... If anyone’s undeserving, it’s me.’

 ‘To me, you are a princess. You deserve all the richness this world can bring, agapi mou, and I will do everything in my power to give it to you—if you’ll let me. I love you and I don’t want to live another day without you.’

 Alessandra felt a whoosh of air leave her body. He loved her?

 He loved her?

 He loved her!

 He placed her hands to his chest. She could feel his heartbeat thrumming wildly beneath his shirt. ‘I thought I could compartmentalise our marriage in the same way I compartmentalise my relationship with my mother. She lives in a corner of my life, safely hidden away from everyone so she cannot hurt me or anyone else. I told myself I would marry you to become a father and not a husband but I was wrong—I wanted you as much as the baby and was desperate to make you mine. I tried to compartmentalise you, not because I was scared of hurting you, but because deep down I knew you had the power to hurt me.’

 ‘I have the power to hurt you?’ she whispered, gazing at the man she loved so much.

 ‘More than you could ever know. Throughout my childhood I wanted nothing more than to make my mother proud and for her to love me. The power she had over me, the power to hurt me... I swore no one else would ever have that power. But then you came into my life and nestled straight into my heart and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I used to fear that falling in love with someone would curse them, make them turn into her. But you could never be like her. She took her heartbreak and bitterness out on me. You would never do that to our child. There hasn’t been anyone else since that first night we had and I know there never will be. Only you.’

 He brushed a thumb over her lips. ‘I was desperate for you to sell your apartment, not because I thought it made sense in any way but because I felt excluded from it.’ He allowed himself a crooked smile. ‘I was jealous of an apartment.’

 She leaned forward and rubbed the tip of her nose to his, unable to believe this was really happening.

 From feeling as if she would never feel the sun on her face again she could feel its beams spread through her.

 He loved her!

 ‘I was also afraid that if you had a bolt hole to escape to you would be more tempted to use it,’ he continued. ‘I should have guessed you would use this place as your bolt hole.’

 ‘I couldn’t face being in the apartment without you,’ she confessed. ‘So I turned up at Rocco’s door claiming asylum.’

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