He ignored Isabella’s stunned gasp. Marcus merely smiled and continued to back away, his expression smug.

“I’ll see you another time, Bella.”

“Goodbye,” she said softly.

“Come on,” Theron said, half dragging her along with him. “You’re not to leave my side for the rest of the night.”

To his surprise, she didn’t offer any argument. Halfway back to where Alannis and her mother still stood, Isabella stumbled, and he turned back quickly to catch her.

“Slow down,” she said. “I can’t walk that fast in these shoes.”

“Sorry,” he said gruffly as he righted her. He held her arms until he was sure she had her footing. “Better?”

She nodded and they started back again.

“Isabella, are you all right?” Sophia asked in concern when they walked up.

Isabella offered a smile. “Yes, Mrs. Gianopolous. I’m fine. Thank you for asking.”

“Please, do call me Sophia.” Sophia reached out and took Isabella’s hand from Theron’s. “Can I get you something to drink? Have you had anything to eat since you arrived?” She turned to Alannis. “Will you excuse us for a minute, dear? You stay here with Theron while I take Isabella over to grab a bite to eat.”

Theron held up his hand to stop the endless stream of chatter. His head was pounding, and what he really wanted was to go pound on Marcus for touching Isabella, for putting his lips on her.

“Just stay here. I’ll have a waiter bring around a tray. I’d prefer that Isabella remain with me for the remainder of the evening,” he said brusquely.

The older woman’s eyes widened in surprise. Alannis moved closer to Isabella and touched her arm. “Are you sure you’re all right, Isabella?” she asked softly.

Isabella’s smile seemed strained when she looked back at Alannis. “I’m absolutely fine. Theron overreacted.” She shot him a challenging look. “I’m not sure how he expects me to find a husband when he flips his lid the moment a man pays attention to me.”

Theron took a deep breath. “I don’t think what he was doing could be classified as paying attention to you. Theos! He was making love to you for all to see.”

She raised her eyebrows and a slow smile formed on her lips. “Is that what they call kissing these days?” she taunted.

His nostrils flared at the reminder of the kisses they’d shared. He was well and truly caught in a trap of his own making.

“His actions were inappropriate,” he gritted out. “You are under my protection. You’ll heed my instructions.”

She turned cheekily to Sophia and Alannis. “I suppose he’ll mark that one off the list of potential husbands now.” Then she sighed dramatically and dropped her hands helplessly to her side. “I didn’t even get to dance again.”

“Theron will dance with you,” Alannis urged. “He’s a marvelous dancer as I’m sure you determined earlier.”

“Yes, do go on,” Sophia said. “I’ll make sure there is food when you return.”

Theron’s mouth went dry. He wouldn’t survive another dance with her lush body molded to his. One torture session was enough for the night.

But then the alternative was letting her dance with the circling pack of men. Men he’d hand-selected.

Over his dead body.

Without another word, he snared Isabella’s hand and dragged her toward the dance floor.

“You’re hell on these shoes,” she murmured as he pulled her into his arms.

For the first time since Marcus had arrived, Theron relaxed as Isabella’s soft body molded so sweetly to his. There was an innate sense of rightness. He loved touching her. It was difficult to keep his hands from roaming up and down her soft curves.

“You feel it, too,” she said softly as she gazed up at him. “You don’t want to. You fight it, but you feel it every bit as much as I do. It’s why you’ve kissed me.” She laughed softly. “You can’t help but kiss me, just as I’m unable to resist. I don’t want to resist.”

He shook his head even as his body hummed agreement.

She smiled and put a finger over his lips as they swayed with the music. Then turning, so that his back was to Alannis, she let her hands run down his chest. Her eyes narrowed to half slits, and she parted her lips in a hungry gesture.

He groaned. “We mustn’t, Bella. You make me so crazy. You have to stop with the teasing.”

“Who says I’m teasing,” she asked as she arched one eyebrow.

He took her hands and pulled them away from his body before turning her around again so that they were sideways to Alannis.

“You see her? Alannis. I’m going to ask her to marry me, Isabella.”

She greeted his announcement with calm. No visible reaction. Had she already known?

“This must stop between us,” he pressed on. “We’re going to marry different people.”

“And yet you keep kissing me,” she said with a slight smile.

“I won’t do so again,” he vowed.

Instead of deterring her, a sparkle lit her eyes. “If I have anything to say about it you will.”

Before he could respond, she pulled away. “I’m starving.” Then suddenly she leaned close and murmured so only he could hear. “You say you don’t want me, yet you don’t want another man to have me. Pretty strange wouldn’t you say?”

She turned and walked away, her hips swaying gently as she navigated her way back to where Sophia waited with a plate of food.

Ten

“H e still plans to propose tonight?” Isabella asked in dismay. She held the phone tightly to her ear as she listened to Madeline.

Somehow she’d hoped that after last night Theron would have realized he felt something for her. Maybe not love. Not yet, but she’d thought he’d wake up to the attraction between them.

Okay, maybe he wasn’t completely unaware, but he certainly seemed determined to ignore it.

She closed her eyes as she listened to Madeline confirm that according to Theron, the proposal was still on.

“Thanks, Madeline,” she said slowly.

She hung up the phone and sunk lower into the bed. Theron with Alannis. She just couldn’t imagine it. Theron needed…someone to shake him up, someone who wouldn’t let him get too serious and organized.

He needed someone like her.

Alannis wouldn’t challenge him. There was no spark of chemistry between them. Alannis may as well be his daughter for all the attraction that existed.

Maybe Theron wanted a comfortable, dull marriage.

She shook her head. No, she wouldn’t believe that, because if she did, then she’d have to give up, and she wasn’t ready to do that yet.

Reaching for the phone again, she dialed the number that Marcus had given her the night before.

“Marcus, hi, it’s Isabella,” she said when he answered.

“Isabella, how are you?” he greeted.

She sighed. “Word is the proposal is still on.”

“Sorry to hear that. I was certain he was ready to beat me into a pulp after our little act last night.”

“He frustrates me,” she said glumly. “I can’t figure the man out. He’s so controlled in all things except when he’s alone with me.”

Marcus laughed. “I can’t say I blame the man. I have a feeling you’d try the patience of a saint and the vows of a priest.”

“I don’t suppose you could get tickets to the opera tonight? I hate to ask, but I’m desperate. He and Alannis are going to the opera and then to an after-party at the hotel where he plans to pop the question.”

“I’m sure I could arrange it, but how do you plan to stop him from proposing?”

Isabella sucked in a deep breath. “I’m not sure,” she said softly. “But I’ll think of something.”

“I don’t suppose now would be a good time to admit that I hate the opera,” Marcus said with a laugh.

She smiled faintly. “I’m not much of a fan myself, but apparently, it’s Alannis’s favorite

performance.”

“Then might I suggest an alternative?”

Her brow puckered, and she sat up in bed, the covers gathering at her waist. “What did you have in mind?”

“How about a date? You inform that security team of yours of your plans for the evening, that you’ll be out with me. I have no doubt that they report to Theron regularly.” Amusement threaded through Marcus’s voice. “It’ll drive him crazy that he’s stuck at the opera with Alannis, and he’ll have no idea what we’re up to, whereas if we’re both at the opera, he’ll be able to see us.”

“But what about the party and his plans to propose?”

“I’ll have you to the party before Theron arrives. Maybe by then you’ll have come up with a plan.”

“I don’t know,” she said slowly.

“Come on,” he cajoled. “We’ll have a nice dinner. It’ll drive Theron crazy. Then you show up at the party. He’ll be putty in your hands.”

“All right,” she conceded.

“Great. I’ll pick you up at seven then. I’ll call right before I arrive so you can come down.”

They rang off, and Isabella swung her legs over the edge of the bed. Once again, she was in need of the perfect dress. Something gorgeous. She wasn’t sure they sold dresses for the occasion of preventing a marriage proposal.

She had a sudden, alarming thought. Did this make her the other woman? Was she a femme fatale breaking up a relationship? The thought was an uncomfortable one, and it didn’t give her a good feeling. But on the other hand, she knew that she and Theron were right for each other. Even if he didn’t know it yet.

Besides, nothing was settled yet. Alannis wasn’t wearing a ring, and no commitment had been made. Until that happened, all was fair in love and war.

She almost groaned at the cheesy cliché. Clearly she needed to come up with something more worthy.

Pushing herself up, she headed for the shower. She only had until tonight to figure out how she was going to prevent Theron from making a huge mistake. And to prevent her own heartbreak.

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