‘Please.’ She reached out to cup him—to make him feel as good as he’d made her feel. But he gripped her wrist and stopped her, his hand painfully tight.
‘Don’t touch me,’ he ordered through clenched teeth.
His words hit like physical blows. It was utter, raw rejection.
She closed her eyes but his spurn had already slammed the lingering sense of pleasure from her. Emptiness ripped her open. Now their imbalance struck her forcefully. She was almost naked. He was fully clothed. She was vulnerable and exposed. He was sealed and silent.
But they were both angry.
He released her wrist, pulling away to put three feet of distance between them. He stopped and stood with his back to her, his hands on his hips, his head bowed. She could see the exertion in his breathing, as if he’d run a race to the death. He was trying to slow it, regulate it and recover his equilibrium. Well, so was she. But she was failing.
She sat up, yanking her top down to cover herself, confused and lonelier than ever. ‘Maybe it’s time—’
‘I behaved like—’ he interrupted her harshly, then broke off. He twisted to face her. Tall and proud and formal. Icy again. ‘I behaved inexcusably,’ he said in those remote, clipped tones. He bowed stiffly. ‘I apologise.’
For a long moment she couldn’t speak. Couldn’t believe he’d become this remote statesman again. Did he feel guilty? Was he upset that he’d sullied the memory of his dead lover because he’d felt up the tart from the nightclub? Was that what this was?
Fury burned but oddly pity was entwined with it. She felt sorry for herself. Sorry for him. Sorry this whole moment had started.
But she only had to look at him to know any attempt at conversation would be futile. He’d scorched any sense of connection or compassion. There was simply nothing left. Yet he remained standing like a statue in the middle of her room, staring at her with that damned unreadable expression.
In the end she could only whisper, ‘You behaved like a human.’
His nostrils flared but he didn’t reply. He swiftly turned and strode to the door.
‘You didn’t want to be seen,’ she called scornfully as this next rejection scalded her all over again.
He still didn’t hesitate. He just walked out without a word, rapidly descending the stairs.
Bella closed her eyes until the sound of his footsteps receded completely. She understood anyway. He’d rather risk being seen leaving her club than staying another second in her company.
He didn’t want to be near her ever again.
CARS ROARED: a relentless mass of humming metal and fuel. Distracted, Antonio almost forgot to applaud when the first passed the chequered flag. He’d not been looking at the finish line because she was down with the winning team’s pit crew, and she was dressed not to be seen, but to stun.
Photographers called and clicked constantly, like seagulls incessantly circling a kid with an ice-cream cone. Bella paused long enough to send them a glittering smile, then turned to snap a selfie with the winner of the race. Doubtless she’d upload it once she’d filtered it to her satisfaction.
I don’t need any man.
Her vehement denial replayed in his mind, but the vulnerability that the harsh-edged words revealed echoed loudest of all. Those tears after she’d come apart in his arms haunted him. He’d broken past that slick, sophisticated façade and found her to be tender and he’d been a jerk. Because he hadn’t reciprocated. He hadn’t been as honest with her as she’d been with him. And she’d been mortified.
But now, only hours later, her façade was back—beautiful and bulletproof. Grimly he fought the urge to take her somewhere isolated and break her walls down to get to that genuine, emotional response again. As if she’d allow him to now.
While he’d returned to the palace without detection that morning he was in no way pleased. He was a leader of not just an army, but a nation, and he never ran from a situation. Yet he’d run from the desire she’d aroused in him. Now regret and anger burned alongside it.
For the best part of a decade he’d staved off sexual want, using extreme exercise to gain self-control; his honed physique was a by-product of that intense discipline. Because he refused to hurt anyone the way he had Alessia and he refused to use women to satisfy purely physical desires. Discipline had become habit. It had almost become easy.