A Scandal in the Headlines(4)

By: Caitlin Crews

He didn’t move but, even so, she felt as if he loomed over her, around her, and she knew he was remembering it even as she did—those harsh words they’d thrown at each other in the middle of a ballroom in Rome, the wild flush she’d felt taking over her whole body, the way he’d only looked at her and sent that impossible, terrifying fire roaring through her. She felt it again now. Just as hot. Just as bright.

And just like then, it was much too tempting. She wanted to leap right into the heart of it, burn herself alive—

She shoved it aside, all of it, her heart pounding far too hard against her ribs. There was so much to lose if she didn’t handle this situation correctly—if Niccolo found her. If she forgot what she was doing, and why. If she lost herself in Alessandro Corretti’s dark, wild fire the way she still wanted to do, all these months later, despite what had happened since then.

“Far be it from me to stand in the way of your pettiness,” she said, jerking her gaze from his and moving out from behind the bar. She headed for the doorway to the deck and the sunshine that beckoned, bright and clear. “It’s a beautiful day for a swim, isn’t it? Quite summery, really, for May. I’m sure I won’t drown in such a small sea.”

“Elena. Stop.”

She ignored him and kept moving.

“Don’t make me put my hands on you,” he said then, almost conversationally, but the dark heat in it, the frank sensual promise, almost made her stumble. And, to her eternal shame, stop walking. “Who knows where that might lead? There are no chaperones here. No avid eyes to record our every move. No fiancé to watch jealously from the side of the dance floor. Which reminds me, are congratulations in order? Are you Signora Falco at last?”

Elena fought to breathe, to keep standing. To keep herself from telling this man—this dangerous, ruinous man—the truth the way every part of her screamed she should. She hardly knew him. She couldn’t trust him. She didn’t know what made her persist in thinking she could.

She thought of her parents—her loving mother and her poor, sick father—and what they must believe about her now, what Niccolo must have told them. The pain of that shot through her, taking her breath. And on some level, she knew, she deserved it. She thought about the unspoiled little village she’d come from, nestled on a rocky hill that ran along the sea, looking very much the same as it had hundreds of years ago. She needed to protect it. Because she was the only one who could. Because her foolishness, her selfishness and her vanity, had caused the problem in the first place.

She’d chosen this course when she’d run from Niccolo. She couldn’t change it now. She didn’t know what it was about Alessandro, even as surly and forbidding as he was today, that made her want to abandon everything, put herself in his hands, bask in that intense ruthlessness of his as if it could save her.

As if he could. Or would.

“No,” she said. She cleared her throat. She had to be calm, cool. The woman he thought she was, unbothered by emotion, unaffected by sentiment. “Not yet.”

“You’ve not yet had that great honor, then?”

She didn’t know what demon possessed her then, but she looked back over her shoulder at him as if his words didn’t sting. He was lounging back against the bar, gazing at her, and she knew what that fire in his eyes meant. She’d known in Rome, too. She felt the answering kick of heat deep in her core.

“I can’t think of a greater one,” she said. Lying through her teeth.

He watched her for a long, simmering moment, his gaze considering.

“And because you feel so honored you have decided to take a brief sabbatical from your engagement to tour the world as a stewardess on a yacht? My yacht, no less? When Europe is overrun by yachts this time of year, swarming like ants in every harbor, and only one of them belongs to me?”

“I always wished I’d taken a gap year before university,” she said airily. Careless and offhanded. “This is my chance to remedy that.”

“And tell me, Elena,” he said, his voice curling all around her, tangling inside of her, making her despair of herself for all the ways he made her weak when she should have been completely immune to him, when she wanted to be immune to him, “what will happen when this little journey is complete? Will you race back into the great honor of your terrible marriage, grateful for the brief holiday? Docile and meek, as a pissant like Niccolo no doubt prefers?”

She didn’t want to hear him talk about Niccolo. About the marriage he’d warned her against in such stark terms six months ago. It made something shudder deep inside of her, then begin to ache, and she didn’t want to explore why that was. She never had.

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