He wanted to shut her up. He should kiss her. Have her. Fast and physical so he could feel the best he’d ever felt in his life for a few minutes again...but he couldn’t because she was looking up at him all sincere and sweet and kind and that was what wasn’t right.
Her eyes were so luminous, so genuine. ‘You deserve to find love again.’
No, he didn’t. And there was the killer—he’d never found love in the first place.
Bu she misread his silence. ‘You do, Antonio. You’re a good man. You deserve—’
‘I deserve nothing,’ he snarled in guilt-drenched fury. ‘I destroyed her.’
Finally Bella was silenced.
And he was aghast at his slip and so, so angry. ‘You think you know what happened? You think you know me?’
‘Stop,’ he said, wildly raising his hand. ‘Stop and just let me say it. You want the damned, bloody ugly truth?’
For once in his life someone would see him as he really was and it might as well be her. It might as well be the one woman he couldn’t stop wanting. And that was good, because she wouldn’t want him once she knew. And this would be over.
‘I broke up with her before she went away to university. The engagement thing had been more my parents’ wish than my own and I was young and didn’t want to be tied down. But Alessia was devastated. She begged me not to tell anyone. Wanted to keep it a secret until after she’d gone to England. And we’d let the press know we were no longer together after she’d been there a few months. I agreed. I could see she needed some time to compose herself...’ But in his mind he’d been free and he’d been so damned relieved.
‘A month or so later I went to see her when Eduardo first went over to study.’ He dragged in a desperate breath and carried on fiercely, frantic to get the bitter truth out. ‘She’d changed. She’d lost weight and was pale. She was nervy and wanted to get back together.’ He paused again, clenching his fist as he remembered how he’d treated her that day. ‘I told her that starving herself wasn’t going to win me back. I told her to get a grip on herself and stop the drama-queen crap. I was so hard on her.’ He’d told her he wasn’t in love with her and that that wasn’t changing no matter what she did.
He’d thought he was doing the right thing to make her pull herself together. Being cruel to be kind.
It had just been cruel.
He made himself look at Bella, made himself ignore the tears building in her beautiful eyes. ‘Apparently she didn’t see a doctor until another month or so later. She’d thought the weight loss and sore throat was just anxiety and heartache. Instead it was because of a fast-growing mass in her stomach. The kind of cancer that grows so fast, every day before detection matters. Every day missed meant she was closer to death.’
If found in time, treatment could work well. But if not found in time?
Too late already.
‘My parents were killed the weekend she got the diagnosis. Her prognosis was dreadful. She decided I had enough to be getting on with, so she didn’t tell me. Her parents didn’t tell me. Eduardo didn’t tell me.’
Because he’d been so arrogant to think he could handle the coronation and transfer of power all on his own. He’d refused to allow Eduardo to return to help. In his own grief for his parents he’d wanted just to work his way through it.
But he hadn’t realised how much that decision would hurt those around him. And ultimately haunt him too.
‘Not long after, I found out through the press, as the world knows. But the world still thought we were engaged...’ He released a shuddering, painful breath. ‘I saw her once more before she died.’ He paused, hating that memory more than any other in his life. ‘And the worst of it was, she apologised to me.’
When he’d been the one to break her. He had never regretted anything as much in all his life.
Bella walked over to him. But he was too on edge and he didn’t want her compassion. He didn’t want that caring. He didn’t want anything from her. Not now. He held up his hand again. Desperate to control his damned emotions. ‘Don’t touch me.’