‘Okay.’ She struggled to keep breathing steadily and not scream at him. ‘But you’re to do no harm to yourself either.’ She gave up on attempting to dance. ‘This is harming you. This is not what you want.’
He’d just told her so in that private room when he’d promised that mad lust wouldn’t happen again and broken her heart in the process. He’d wanted nothing, not all.
She knew he was protective of those he cared about, or those he felt he owed or who he felt responsible for. She didn’t want him doing that for her. She didn’t want to trap him into something he didn’t really want because he felt sorry for her. Not even for a short time.
The tears flooded her eyes and the lump blocked her throat. She could hardly see and she definitely couldn’t speak.
She forced back the burn in her chest. But the overwhelming heartache threatened to drown her. She wrenched her hand from his, turned and ran, forcing her way through the staring crowd, leaving him white-lipped and alone in the middle of the ballroom.
ANTONIO WORKED OUT in the early morning in the palace gym for the first time in days. A couple of times this hour had been Bella’s and his whole body ached at the thought of her. Annoyed, he pushed himself harder, choosing to run on the treadmill to cool down instead of his customary walk through the pre-dawn darkened city streets. He both smiled and grimaced as he flicked the switch to increase the pace. No one had dared mention her—or the ball—to him but he’d not thought of anything since.
The look on Accardi’s face when Antonio had taken Bella’s hand? That naked fury? Antonio had revelled in it. He still did. But his smile faded when he remembered how she’d looked at him in that same moment. And when he’d hurt her so badly.
‘Your Highness?’ His valet ventured into the gym apologetically. ‘You might need to get ready.’
Antonio glanced at the time and frowned. How had an hour gone by?
He stalked through to the shower. He had only two formal appearances this morning. Once they were done, he’d finally have the time to work out how to manage the intense media and public interest in Bella.
He was still livid that she’d walked out on him at the ball. Never had he met someone so determined to disagree with him and refuse his assistance. Independence was one thing. Pig-headedness another.
What had happened with Alessia was different. She had died. It was her parents and her memory he’d been protecting in the aftermath. And, he finally admitted, he’d been protecting himself.
He’d once told Eduardo that he would have married for love. Indeed it was the only thing he would marry for. But the way he’d treated Alessia? He couldn’t risk doing that to someone else. He couldn’t bear the thought of causing more pain and carrying more guilt. He didn’t deserve happiness when he’d felt responsible for cutting her life short. He should have encouraged Alessia to seek help; time would have been the best chance she could have had.
But he’d failed her and he’d then chosen work. Bella had been right: it had been the easier option. He’d told himself that the constraints on him and the scrutiny he lived under meant there’d been no chance for love to develop with anyone else.
That had been an excuse too.
But then she’d danced into his life and challenged him on every level, hitting him hard and quick. With lust, certainly, but then there was everything else about her—honesty, strength, humour. She’d made him want to tease and laugh and live.
But in the moment when she’d needed him most, in that private room at the ball, he’d failed her. And when he’d put himself out for her in a way he’d never done for anyone else a few minutes later, she’d then questioned his motives. Of course she had. She’d rejected him. She was angry with him.
Well, he was furious with himself.
He slung a towel round his waist and stalked to his private music room only to find it now haunted by the memory of her dancing there for him. He sat at the piano and tried not to remember the way she’d straddled him on the stool. But all he could see in his mind’s eye instead was the sweetness of her smile as she’d swum and sung with the dolphins.