Without preamble, without giving me a moment to enjoy this, he says, “You’ve been avoiding me.”
My gaze drops from his eyes to his broad shoulders. Of course he’s wearing a nice black tux that he looks incredible in, but that’s nothing new; he dresses similarly for dinner.
“I haven’t been avoiding you.”
“You have,” he says easily, sweeping me across the dance floor. “Since the hotel room.”
My face flushes. He says it like that, like it was more than just… whatever it was. “I haven’t been avoiding you. I’ve seen you plenty.”
“But you haven’t been alone with me since then. Not once.”
Now I meet his gaze, and even if it makes my stomach sink, I give him a mild look of censure. “I’ve always avoided being alone with you. That isn’t new.”
He tugs me so close my body brushes his chest and my breath catches. “You enjoy being alone with me.”
Coaching myself on how to breathe, I tell him, “That’s why it has to be avoided.”
“Why do you always try to deny yourself what you want most?” he asks almost casually.
“Because I don’t want people we care about to get hurt,” I state, forcing myself to look up at him. His brown eyes are boring into mine, taking stock, reading me. I feel like I’m being analyzed, but he clears it after few seconds, offering the warmth back. Like he only had to flip a switch.
“People always get hurt,” Mateo replies. “Maybe I’ve been hurt,” he adds, nearly stopping my heart. He says it lightly, but he feigns a look of sadness that causes my heart to shrivel up and die a little.
I know he can see it in my eyes, the swell of horror at even the thought of causing him pain. I can tell by the warmth in his eyes. He likes me being protective of his feelings, even if he likes to pretend he doesn’t have any.
“I haven’t hurt you,” I say, once I manage to find my voice. I know he’s only prodding me, toying with me. I know he doesn’t mean it, but it makes me hurt all the same.
“You’ve hurt yourself.” It isn’t a question. It’s an arrogant statement to make, his assumption that it’s hurt me to keep my distance from him. It isn’t inaccurate, but it is arrogant.
“I’m doing just fine,” I assure him.
“Good,” he says, easily, his grip on my hip tightening ever-so-slightly.
“And so are you,” I add, wanting to drag us back to reality. “Peace with Sal’s family. Engaged. New baby coming. Life seems to be going your way.”
“Seems to be,” he murmurs, though with a non-committal tone. “There is one more thing I want.”
My heart kicks up, nearly killing me, I’m sure. Breathing is suddenly difficult, my chest painfully tight. I know he isn’t going to say what my brain is telling me he’s going to say, what my damn fool heart is hoping he’ll say. I realize the song is nearing its end, the last vocals stretching on before the music takes over. Mateo pulls me close, so close I can feel his breath, and leans in near my ear.
My heart stops. My whole body dips toward him, and I’m glad he’s there to support me, because I think the shock of him actually saying it would knock me off my feet otherwise.
The damn song ends.
It couldn’t be a minute longer?
Two minutes longer?
I’m completely lost as he releases me. He’s amused again. Amused at the effect he has on me. Amused that with one single word, with three measly minutes, he has turned my whole world upside down.
Bringing my hand to his lips, he kisses my knuckles, holding my gaze. “Thank you for the dance, Mia.”
I still can’t speak. I can’t properly breathe. My body responds to the feeling of his sensual lips lingering against my unsteady fingers. My blood rages through my veins, my stomach twisting and sinking, and oh, my god, how does this much yearning exist inside one person? How does it exist in this vacuum, in this moment? How can everyone on this dance floor not tell that I’m on fire, that his perfect mouth is branding me as effectively as a hot poker?
Lacking an appropriate response or even the ability to make words, I only nod.
His eyes sparkle as he drops my hand, giving me a little wink before leaving me alone on the dance floor. He walks back to his table, back to Meg, and I just stand here, lost, people shuffling all around me.
I feel split open, vulnerable, like every person here can see through me. Friends, family, strangers—all of them are watching the girl on the dance floor slowly unravel. No one would know the specifics, but anyone can see it’s because of him.
Hopefully before anyone who matters notices my undoing, I compel my legs to move, forcing myself off the dance floor. I consider fleeing the ballroom, but I can’t. I can’t because a glance back at Mateo’s table tells me he isn’t watching, but Meg is. Our eyes meet across the room, but I can’t hold her gaze. She’s too sharp. I’m too open.