‘That has been my problem. What I felt for Rosa was slow, deep and gentle. What I felt for you, on the other hand…’ He sucked in a deep shuddering breath that lifted his chest as, with an expression of wonder, he trailed his fingers over the curve of her cheek. ‘What I felt for you was passionate, extreme and intense. It was drawn,’ he said, pressing a clenched fist to his chest, ‘from somewhere deep inside me. I told myself it was lust, a violent chemical reaction that had no staying power, because I felt guilty.’
‘Guilty?’ she echoed, startled. The possibility had never crossed her mind.
He inclined his dark head. ‘Yes, guilty. Rosa had known me inside out and I her, yet you, a stranger, you challenged me on every level, and at the same time made me feel things I had never felt before…and your face…your lovely face, without trying, you, your face…’ Abstracted, wondering warmth entered his eyes as he stared down at her and then, as if unable to resist the temptation, pressed a hard, hungry kiss to her soft lips.
Nell melted, then as he lifted his head, her glowing eyes focused on his beloved face, she no longer tried to repress the words she had ached to give voice to. ‘I love you, Luiz.’
The breath left Luiz’s lungs on one deep relieved gasp. A slow smile spread across his face, wiping away the lines of strain around his mouth and removing the last shadows from his eyes. ‘You have no idea how much I needed to hear you say that.’
The husky confession moved Nell profoundly. It had not occurred to her until that moment that Luiz, with his supremely confident manner, might nurture any doubts. ‘I thought you knew I loved you,’ she teased with husky warmth.
His shoulders lifted in a shrug. ‘I couldn’t let myself think anything else or I would have gone mad. You see how much power you have over me.’
Nell, her eyes shining like stars, laid her hand lightly against the side of his face. He turned his head and pressed an open-mouthed kiss to her palm.
‘I promise I won’t misuse it.’
‘If you do I will probably deserve it. When I think of all the pain that could have been avoided if I hadn’t been such a blind, stubborn fool!’ With a self-contemptuous grimace he shook his head in disbelief. ‘I love you, but I fought it with every cell of my body. I wouldn’t allow myself…can you forgive me? Can you understand it felt like the ultimate betrayal to her memory?’
Nell, who knew she could forgive him anything except not loving her, did not respond to his anguished question. She fully appreciated how difficult this was for Luiz, a man who kept his own counsel, who did not share his feelings easily, to reveal so much of himself this way and she did not want to interrupt the flow of startling confidences that fell from his lips.
‘Since Rosa died I had never invested emotionally in a relationship. I never wanted to, then you came, and if I had admitted even to myself that I loved you…?’ He shook his head. ‘I was in denial, and then you called me on it—you accused me of romanticising my marriage. I was so angry that I—’
Nell’s eyes shone with regret as she caught his hand. ‘I’m sorry, Luiz. I shouldn’t have said what I did. It was—’
‘It was the truth, querida,’ he cut in.
Shock washed across Nell’s face. ‘But you loved Rosa—you had a perfect marriage…?’
He released a sardonic crack of laughter. ‘Perfect as in paradise?’
The reminder of her harsh words brought a regretful flush to Nell’s cheeks.
‘The fact is we had problems.’
Nell’s eyes widened. ‘You did…?’
He nodded and looked amused by her amazement. ‘My memory has been very selective. I chose not to remember them. Who knows—if she had not died our marriage might have been good, it might indeed have been perfect, we might have grown together, but it is equally possible that we might have grown apart. The signs were there.’
The forthright admission shocked and, if she was honest, reassured Nell, who felt relieved to have the pressure to conform to some saintly standard of perfect wife removed.
‘Rosa was a free spirit and my success financially was something she thought staid and boringly conventional. And in my turn I was not overly enamoured by her crystals, alternative therapies and arty friends in kaftans. We were both very young and not very tolerant. She was ready for a family and I was not.
‘I think,’ he admitted, ‘I was doing Rosa a disservice by remembering her as some insipid saint. She was more than that. But Rosa is the past, a memory.’ His voice thickened as his finger straightened over hers. ‘You, mi querida, are the future. My future.’