“Please don’t,” she whispered, still holding up her hands as she stood between them in the cozy morning room. Ares looked at her incredulously.
“You’re protecting him?”
“I don’t need protecting,” the hockey player responded, rising to his feet. “I wasn’t telling her anything I wouldn’t say to your face, Kourakis. If you can’t love her or marry her, Ruby deserves a man who will.”
It was all Ares could do not to grab one of the brightly colored lamps and smash his face with it.
“Please, Braden.” Ruby turned to him. “Just go.”
“Fine. I’m going.” The man’s gaze softened. “Take good care of yourself, Ruby. I’ll be in Star Valley.”
And the burly hockey player left, giving Ares a wide berth. With good reason. Fury was pounding through his body. Hockey players were always losing teeth, weren’t they? It took all of Ares’s self-control not to knock out a few more.
Once the man was gone, he turned on Ruby.
“Why was he here?”
“He just got cut from his team. He was coming to say goodbye.”
“He was begging you to run away with him!”
Ruby lifted her chin. Her eyes glittered. “That would shock you, wouldn’t it? That any man would actually be willing to commit to me?”
Ares took a deep breath.
The morning had been one long disaster. First, there’d been a last-minute problem with negotiations over an acquisition in Italy, requiring him to go into the office when he would have far preferred to laze the morning away with Ruby in bed.
Then he’d felt the baby kick. That had brought a rush of emotions he couldn’t deal with.
And as the final straw, Ruby had told him she loved him.
I love you. I tried not to. But I do. I love you.
He’d never wanted Ruby’s love. Never asked for it. Women had told him they loved him before. He’d laughed it off.
This was different. He’d never expected how his body would react to hearing Ruby say those words.
His heart had pounded in his throat. His brain had spun. He’d broken out in a cold sweat. His body had reacted as if he’d been attacked by some dangerous, deadly foe. He’d stumbled out of the nursery feeling the cold steel of a sharp blade at his throat.
Ares couldn’t let himself be seduced. He couldn’t let himself love her back. That path could only lead to weakness. To pain. To destruction.
He’d lied when he said he didn’t know what it was. He knew exactly what it was. Love was the word people used to manipulate. The word they used to hurt. To get what they wanted. To inflict maximum damage on their victims.
His father had used the word sparingly, and only when speaking of his horses, his dogs or his football club. Ares didn’t know if the man had ever said it to his mistresses, but he doubted it. He certainly hadn’t said it to his wife. Or his son.
His mother had used the word related to her child only once, and that had been in an interview to the press: My son is away at boarding school. I love him so. Ares, only twelve and lonely in his dorm room, had hugged that magazine close to his skinny chest. But when he’d returned to Europe at the next school break, his mother had treated him just as she always had. Ares, you’re useless! So selfish, just like your father! I can’t stand the sight of you!
Love was Melice, lying to his face as she collected money from his father. It was Diantha promising fidelity while giving her virginity to another.
Love meant lowering your guard, and letting your enemy inside your walls so they could set you on fire at your weakest point: your heart. Leaving only a crumpled heap of ash and bone.
In the face of Ruby’s attack, Ares had fled the nursery. But as Horace had driven him to the office, Ares couldn’t stop thinking about it.
Ruby loved him.
Restless, he’d clawed back his hair, staring out the back seat window. He didn’t want to hurt her. He’d seen her watching him with bewildered sadness as he’d avoided the nursery and refused to go with her to the doctor. She didn’t understand why he didn’t want to feel emotionally tied. Not to her. Not to the baby.
He couldn’t get the image out of his mind of Ruby’s pale, haunted face as she’d told him she loved him. And he’d left her without a word.