She didn’t want to read all those conflicting emotions in his pale blue eyes. She wanted this to be the carnal affair it had begun as: they were here for orgasms only. Not for opening up emotionally and admitting old hurts that couldn’t be healed.
But she couldn’t look away, couldn’t break the physical bonds shackling her to him. She should. She knew she should. But she couldn’t. Because he held more than her body in his hands now. He held her heart.
And he was about to crush it.
THE CONJECTURE ABOUT Antonio’s twenty-four-hour absence was subdued, thanks to the valiant efforts of Eduardo, who’d surpassed his own legendary ability to charm an entire nation with his smile and good humour. He’d done that by simply bringing his wife and new baby to the event. As it was the first formal photo opportunity with the baby Princess, and was wholly unexpected, the press had a field day. Sure, there were questions about Antonio’s whereabouts, but Eduardo had simply told them he was working on an important matter in the palace and had wanted Eduardo and Stella to have their moment.
‘It went well. I appreciate your effort.’ Antonio stood by the helicopter. Eduardo’s wife and daughter were already safely strapped inside.
‘There’s nothing else you need me to do?’ Eduardo asked, his gaze keen. ‘I can stay longer...’
Antonio shook his head. ‘Go back to the island with your girls. I’m in control here now.’
‘You’re never not in control,’ Eduardo teased, but it was barely a joke.
Thing was, Antonio had never felt less in control. ‘Thanks for coming,’ he said gruffly.
‘Thanks for asking me to.’ Eduardo flashed the smile that had made millions swoon. ‘See you in a few more weeks.’
The next couple of days passed in a blur of meetings and events, greetings and parties. As they rolled into one Antonio attended on auto. Too much of his mental energy was taken up with trying to forget. Trying not to want more time with her.
Trying not to miss her.
But at every event he couldn’t help but cast his eye over the crowd feeling both the dread and hope of seeing her. Bitter disappointment flooded him every time.
But the San Felipe festival fortnight was almost over and his schedule would return to normal busy, not insanely busy. For the most part from now on, he ought to be able to avoid her. He ought to be able to stay in control.
Except the final event loomed tonight. There was no way Bella Sanchez would miss the annual San Felipe Masquerade Ball. Not when she was the nation’s club queen. She’d be there in all her sensual beauty.
He buttoned up his starched shirt and fastened his tie. Each guest would hold a delicate mask, but he didn’t bother. Everyone knew who he was; there was no escaping it.
He knew there was no escaping that public attention for Bella either. Not yet. But she didn’t really want to be in this fishbowl world with a camera in her face every second and the press writing stories about every aspect of her life. She wanted to be free of it and once she’d funded her business she’d retreat into a normal life that had privacy.
That was what she wanted and it was best for her. So she’d been right on the boat: it had to be over between them. No more stolen moments. No more kisses. No more laughter. And that was right for him too—he’d had his time.
He gritted his teeth as he fought back the wave of physical longing. God, he missed her.
The only way of getting through tonight was with no looking. Tonight he was going to have to avoid her completely.
* * *
Bella applied a final dab of mascara. She’d barely been able to eat a thing all day, and now the moment had finally arrived she was tempted to strip out of her glamorous dress and hide at home in her pyjamas.
She’d made a massive mistake in getting involved with Antonio. Why had she ever thought it would only be a simple, sinful moment of pleasure? It had become all-consuming and her heart ached. For him and for her. That he blamed himself so bitterly over Alessia’s illness? That he isolated himself so completely?
And that he hadn’t made any kind of contact with her since they’d left the boat?
Those last few moments together had been so intense, so profound but the memory of them was now so painful. Because despite his imperious argument at the time, it was over.