‘You’re the one declaring that you don’t want to be defined by your past, or by the reputation others have foisted on you, yet you’re the one saying that you can’t be with me because of what others might think,’ he said. ‘I don’t care what they think so why should you?’
‘I care about what they say about you,’ she said fiercely. ‘I’m trying to protect you.’
‘Why?’ he shot back at her. ‘Because you care about me?’
There was a moment of pulsing silence. In that one moment she was bereft of more than words, but everything.
‘This isn’t the Dark Ages.’ He softened his approach and that wicked smile suddenly flashed across his face. ‘There are no scarlet letters in my country. It’s not like you have a sex tape.’
‘My mother’s one is still doing the rounds—’ she interrupted, cringing inside.
‘And you’re not your mother,’ he interrupted her back. ‘Even if you did, I wouldn’t care.’ He leaned forward, pressing his fists harder on the desk. ‘No more roadblocks. I choose you, Bella. If my people don’t want you as their Crown Princess then I’ll abdicate. You’re more important to me than anything.’
‘You can’t do that.’
‘I can. And I would. But the truth is I won’t have to. Screw the scandal. They’ll get over it.’
‘No.’ There was no way that would happen. ‘I don’t think so. I think you should leave.’ She needed him to go. Now.
His eyes narrowed on her. ‘Do you know what I think?’ he asked, bitterness sharpening his soft-spoken words. ‘I think that no matter what I do, no matter what I say, I can’t win this. You will still say no to me.’ He blew out a harsh breath. ‘You don’t want me enough to fight for this. For us. For me.’
That tore her heart in two.
‘Don’t,’ she begged him. ‘Please don’t.’ Because it wasn’t true. It wasn’t fair.
She was trying to do what was right.
Large tears welled in her eyes, her breathing came uneven and quick and she wanted to run. But there was a huge desk and an immovable man in front of her.
And he wasn’t going to let her run.
He watched her for a long moment, seeming to see right through her.
‘This is fear,’ he told her firmly. ‘Pure and simple. You’re afraid to believe in me. You’re afraid to trust that I’m really here for you, because no one has ever been there for you before.’
Hot tears now scalded her cheeks. She couldn’t stop them, couldn’t stop him. She couldn’t bear to look at him, yet nor could she tear her gaze from his.
‘That changes, Bella. Tonight,’ he promised her. ‘I’m here for you now. And I have enough fight for the both of us.’
She blinked, spilling more tears, but she still couldn’t get her voice to work. She still couldn’t get her body to move. She still couldn’t get her brain to believe.
‘I have been such a coward,’ he said quietly. ‘I was a pompous jerk, believing that my “duty” was more important than anything when really it was an excuse not to let anyone get close. I have felt so guilty about Alessia and blamed myself for a long time. I felt like I didn’t deserve this kind of happiness because of what happened. But you were right that I needed to forgive myself. To move on. And now I think maybe the way to make amends is to love a woman the way she deserves to be loved. To love you more than life itself.’
Bella closed her eyes, but he kept speaking and she couldn’t block him out.
‘It’s very easy to love someone when she’s the right person for you,’ he added softly. ‘I know you’re scared to believe in this. In me. I know you don’t trust me. Not yet.’
She wanted to hide because her skin was burning with pain and vulnerability.
‘Give me time,’ he added. ‘We can work on that together, Bella.’
The sincerity in his voice compelled her to look him in the eye again. Hope did more than shift within her, it unfurled.
‘You’re not just saying this because you feel somehow responsible for me?’ she asked. ‘Because I’m okay. I’ll be okay. I can survive—’