And he was the ultimate jerk.
For a moment she’d actually thought they’d had a real kind of connection. He’d made her feel so good, then snatched it all away. She didn’t know why but that one betrayal bit deeper than all the others she’d faced in her life.
She didn’t enjoy the rest of the performance. She wanted to go and hide but she had to appear at the after-party backstage to show she wasn’t down and out, had to smile at those she’d once danced alongside, knowing how they’d talked about her, and then had to go to her club and tirelessly work it up.
When the curtain finally fell she escaped her local council companions, telling them she’d meet them at the party shortly, but it was to the now empty stage she went rather than the powder room. Even with the curtain down, that vast black expanse felt like home to her, the one place she’d felt she truly belonged. Loneliness surged and she quickly ducked back into the wings before anyone saw her.
Pull it together.
She had her new kind of show to put on tonight.
She whirled at the low whisper, blinking to get rid of the impending tears. How had he found her? Why was he alone?
‘You’re distressed.’ Antonio stood stiffly at a short distance from her. In his black tuxedo he almost disappeared into the dark wings.
‘I’m fine.’ She tried to answer evenly, never wanting him to know how much she still hurt from his behaviour.
‘Do not lie to me,’ he said, very quiet and formal. ‘Did somebody say something to upset you?’
‘No one here could say anything to upset me,’ she muttered, wishing it were true.
‘No?’ He held her captive with a mere look. ‘I just told you not to lie to me.’
‘Nobody has said anything to upset me. Yet,’ she elaborated pointedly.
The scepticism remained in his eyes. ‘Then what is it?’
She didn’t answer—couldn’t. He had no right to pry and he couldn’t expect her to open up to him now just because he was asking in that gentle tone.
‘Bella?’ He remained standing so restrained a few paces from her, yet there was that huskiness in his voice.
‘I miss it,’ she replied quickly, as hushed as he, because it was easier to talk about her ballet than what was really upsetting her. ‘I miss the moment when I’m waiting in the wings and I take a last deep breath and step forward.’
‘You miss the applause?’
She sighed inwardly at that edge. Of course she damn well did. She’d been seeking approval from someone—anyone—all her life. And she’d never got it from those supposed to love her, so yes, she’d sought it from the masses. She loved that applause and she’d worked so hard to earn it. But she heard criticism in his voice and knew he’d never understand.
‘I miss the freedom.’ The stage was where she’d felt most comfortable. ‘The feeling of being in control.’
‘Control of what?’
‘Myself. Knowing I can move the way I need to... That I’m as strong and as fast... That I’ve done the work and the world is at my feet.’ She stiffened at the look in his eyes.
‘So you’re the one who doesn’t like to lose control,’ he said softly. ‘And yet you did.’
Anger burned—swift and uncontrollable. ‘And isn’t that just what you wanted?’ she snapped. ‘To make a fool of me.’ His rejection had been her ultimate humiliation.
And she wasn’t letting it happen again.
She pulled up and tried to speak calmly. ‘You’d better go before someone comes looking and sees you talking to me.’
But he walked towards her, not away. ‘I want to talk to you.’
‘You want to gloat? To crow over your victory?’
He halted barely an inch away. ‘I don’t feel like a winner.’
‘You started. You stopped. You wanted to prove your power—’
‘I wanted to please you. I wanted to see you pleasured,’ he interrupted in a rough whisper. ‘That is all I wanted. I wasn’t thinking of anything else.’
The words, the way he said them, silenced her. A trickle of warmth worked down her spine. He’d wanted to please her? It hadn’t been about making her pay?