Bella laughed. ‘I know what I’m not looking for.’ She gazed out at the darkening water. ‘Before I went home to Mother for a holiday one summer Matron at school taught me some self-defence moves. Ways to try to get away and a few lines to spin to get some distance if I needed them.’
‘Did you need to use them?’
She shrugged. ‘Fortunately I spent most of the holidays at other ballet summer schools or camps. I’d only see Mother for long weekends at the most. And when I did, there were lots of cameras. Cameras can actually make things safer.’
He inclined his head questioningly.
‘People are more aware of their own behaviour when they know they’re being recorded.’ She stretched her foot. ‘And I think my mother knew there was a safety net in having a boyfriend. It means you’re taken.’ She smiled. ‘It keeps others at a distance. Mostly.’
‘But you don’t do that too—there’s no safe boyfriend?’
‘Only the one when I was young and thought I was in love.’ She wrinkled her nose at her naïveté.
‘But you weren’t really in love with him?’
‘I wanted to be.’ She’d wanted to be loved. To feel secure. To be held and cared for. To be safe. To have someone want her—all of her—and just her.
‘I thought he was honest and strong. He wasn’t. He let me down.’
She didn’t like the thundercloud that had appeared on Antonio’s face. ‘He didn’t really want me. He wanted the...fame...of being with me. I was the prize.’ She rubbed her arm. ‘But he expected more from me. What with my family history...’
‘A sexpot between the sheets,’ she said bitterly. ‘Like my siren of a mother. The famous lover of all those powerful men...’
‘And you’re not a sexpot.’ He leant forward and cupped her cheek. ‘Not for just anyone.’
She felt her flush rising. ‘Don’t tease...’ she whispered.
He gazed at her, his expression utterly solemn. ‘I’m not a sexpot for just anyone either.’ And then he smiled.
She laughed a little, as he’d intended her to. ‘He was seeing someone else on the side.’
‘Because he was a jerk,’ Antonio stated simply. ‘Not because of anything you did or didn’t do.’ He reached out and lit one of the candles in the table, casting a small glow in the darkness. ‘And since then?’
She shrugged. ‘There hasn’t been anyone serious.’
‘You don’t like trading on your sex appeal.’
She paused. ‘I don’t want to be ungrateful. I know how incredibly lucky I am compared to so many other people—to live on San Felipe, to have secured the financial backing for my business, to have access to all those clothes...some women would love that. But I want to be able to do what I really want to do. So all this “show” is only ’til the club becomes a commercial success. I need to earn for a couple of years, then I intend to step back and do something else.’
‘But you must love it in part—no one can fake it for that long. All those photos. All that dancing.’
‘I adore dancing.’ She leaned forward. ‘And I guess I do quite like the clothes.’ She chuckled. ‘I like feeling like I look okay—it’s the way I was raised and old habits die hard—it’s a weird paradox. But I don’t want that to be all I’m known for. When I was dancing, I had that as well.’
‘So what is going to replace it?’ He looked at her curiously. ‘You must have some ideas if it’s not the club.’
‘No, that’s a means to an end. I couldn’t get the backing I needed for what I really want to do.’ It wasn’t going to be a money spinner, but she needed only enough for herself to live on.
‘And that is?’
She paused, then laughed at her own self-consciousness. What did it matter if he knew? ‘I want to establish my own ballet school. I want to have my own academy and teach.’ She felt her flush rising again. ‘I know it won’t exactly make me a fortune, but it’s what I love and I want to share it.’