Oh, God, did he know? Had he seen? She glanced to the side, wondering if everyone here knew. How was that possible?
‘You need to leave San Felipe,’ Salvatore added.
She couldn’t cope with this onslaught right now. Not after Antonio’s rejection.
But as she stared at Salvatore, aghast and unable to speak, she saw his eyes widen at something over her shoulder.
‘Is there some kind of problem, Salvatore?’ Crown Prince Antonio walked up behind her.
Salvatore’s expression tightened.
Antonio took her hand, holding it tight. It was the smallest, but most pointed, of gestures and she was so shocked she still could say nothing.
‘Bella and I are very close,’ he said. ‘So I’m glad to see you talking. I’m sure you want to make her welcome. But if you’ll excuse us, we’re going to dance now.’
Bella gazed at Antonio in utter astonishment. Why had he reappeared? Why had he taken her hand? And what on earth did he mean by dance?
She looked up at him to see, but he wasn’t looking at her. He was coolly looking into her father’s eyes.
For a single second there was complete stillness in the ballroom. The glittering guests were motionless, all looking at them, like a tableau at the start of an Ancient Greek play—though whether it was to be a tragedy or not was yet to be determined. Even the orchestra was silent. He’d chosen to move in that small gap between pieces.
Then everyone moved at once. Voices heightened, laughter rang. The excitement that had been palpable before was incandescent now.
San Felipe society was on fire.
Salvatore was now the speechless one. Everyone else surrounding her seemed to melt away. And then Antonio walked her away from him, holding her hand as if it were the most everyday thing in the world, when in fact it was the most intimate, most public display imaginable.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked as he led her through the crowd.
‘As I said. I’m making my way to the dance floor.’
She stumbled and he paused, to put his arm around her waist and draw her nearer to him. Her heart thudded. Why was he doing this? Why when in private he had just ended everything?
He turned to face her and pulled her even closer to dance with him. His hold on her wasn’t polite; it was the hold of a man who knew the woman in his arms intimately.
And the whole world was watching.
‘Why did you say that to him?’ Why tell him they were close? She stared up at Antonio. He was watching her mouth in all the noise—not the way he did when he wanted to kiss her, but with intent concentration. That was when she figured it out. ‘You lip-read what he said to me.’
He’d heard that abusive ‘whore’ slur and he’d come running to the rescue.
But Antonio didn’t answer her now.
‘Antonio,’ she prompted him.
She saw the muscle working in his jaw and knew she’d guessed right.
‘Can you at least try to dance?’ he said shortly. ‘People are looking.’
Finally she understood. It was all about the appearance. Of course it was.
‘You don’t have to do this,’ she choked.
‘Give me a Cinderella moment so you can control whatever scandal Salvatore might try to unleash. You’re trying to protect my name, like what you did with Alessia.’ And it was unbearable.
‘This is different.’ His words were clipped.
‘I know.’ She felt a blush burn her cheeks. ‘This is far less serious. And far less tragic...far less...everything,’ she whispered. ‘But you’re still trying to protect someone, and painting yourself into a corner. This time you don’t have to.’
‘What do you mean I don’t have to?’
‘I don’t want you feeling obligated to. You’ve been through that once before and it affected years of your life. I won’t be the reason for that happening again.’
‘You know, just because someone cares about you, it doesn’t mean you’re obligated to return those feelings. You don’t owe that person anything.’ He owed her nothing.
‘You’re wrong,’ he said. ‘You are always obligated to do no harm.’
Oh, God, he was trying to protect her. He was trying to be honourable. Even when she already knew he didn’t want to be that man for her.