The small group of guests—her sister; Ares’s assistant, Dorothy; Mrs. Ford; Horace; Georgios and his family; the rest of the house staff; and Ares’s friend from school, a hotel billionaire called Cristiano Moretti—all rose to their feet, staring at her approvingly. “Beautiful,” someone murmured, as a musician started playing “Wedding March” on acoustic guitar.
But to Ruby, there was only one person who mattered. She beamed when she saw Ares at the center of the ballroom, standing next to the minister. But why did his face look so pale and strange?
Ruby hesitated, then, squaring her shoulders, walked down the flower-strewn aisle, holding her bouquet. Guests whispered words to her as she passed, words of encouragement and praise.
But when she reached Ares, she knew that something was seriously wrong. His handsome face was white beneath his tanned skin. His dark eyes looked hollow, as if something had cracked deep inside. He looked so pale. No sign of life at all.
He looked, she thought suddenly, like he was already dead.
Why would you want to marry a man like me? To tell you the truth, I think you deserve better.
Ruby stopped, clutching her bouquet of pink roses as everything became clear.
Ares didn’t do complicated. He’d told her that, long ago, when he hadn’t wanted to meet her dying mother or the little sister who’d hoped to seduce him. He didn’t like complicated. And what could be more complicated than family? What could be more complicated than marriage, or raising a child?
He didn’t love her. He was still going to marry her. He would settle. Because he didn’t want to lose her.
Ruby stared at the bleak expression on his handsome face. Ares was clearly forcing himself to go through with this. The man of her dreams was choking her down as if she was an unpalatable dose of medicine.
The music stopped. From six feet away, Ares frowned at her when she didn’t move. His face was like a stranger’s. “Ruby?”
She put her hands to her head. Her heart was beating so fast. The world was spinning around her, the colors of the ballroom, the flowers, the bright dresses of their friends.
Perhaps I’ll learn to love you. Over time.
And our baby?
What would that do to her sweet daughter’s soul, to be raised by a man who had to be forced to love her?
Ruby looked up.
“I can’t do this.”
She heard a gasp from the guests behind her.
His expression hardened. “Ruby.”
“I can’t,” she whispered, clutching the pink roses. Her heart was howling. “This—this isn’t how it’s supposed to be.”
“It’s everything I can give,” he said tightly.
“I know.” After these last few months, she’d never imagined she could refuse to marry Ares if he asked her. Not in a million years. But she couldn’t force him into a marriage without love. Not when, to him, it must look like a prison sentence.
He’d been right all along.
Ruby deserved better.
Their baby deserved better.
And so, even, did he.
Trembling, she took the last steps toward him. She heard a soft whoosh and crunch beneath her feet and realized she’d dropped her bouquet and smashed it into the marble floor. Crushed pink roses trailed behind her.
Reaching up, Ruby tearfully lifted her hand to his rough cheek. He didn’t move. His dark eyes looked numb.
“Be happy,” she whispered. Tears overflowed her lashes, streaking down her cheeks. Before she started to sob, she turned and fled the ballroom.
Alone in the empty hallway, Ruby rushed past the double staircase for the foyer. She couldn’t bear to remain, not even long enough to go upstairs and gather her clothes. Going to the front closet, she swept up her canvas bag with her wallet and phone, the same one that she’d brought from Star Valley all those months ago.
“Ruby!” Her sister stumbled out of the ballroom. “Wait!”
She looked back one last time at the nineteenth-century mansion she’d redecorated with such love and hope. This house had felt so wrong at first. Then she’d fallen in love with it. She’d given her heart to it recklessly, never thinking she might someday lose it. So brutally. So…permanently.
She closed her eyes.