“I just figured it would make Luc happy and fix the gap between the two of you,” he began.
“How goddamn selfless of you, relinquishing your precious freedom on behalf of my relationship with my brother.”
“I didn’t say it was selfless.” Frustration started to creep into his voice. “It’s not just about your relationship with Luc. It’s also about mine. And aside from that, you’re right, I do want this baby. I want to be his dad. I want him to have my name, I want him to know who I am.”
“He won’t have your name,” she whispered, her voice thick with loathing. “You don’t deserve to give him your name.”
“Why the hell not?” He finally lost his cool, and his voice rose as his temper broke. “What did I do that was so fucking wrong? I made a mistake in the beginning, I reacted in the wrong way, and I’ll be paying for that for the rest of my life. And worse, the baby will be paying for it too, won’t he? Because you’re too stubborn to admit that maybe I’d be a good father to that child.”
“And a pretty lousy husband to me,” she added resentfully. “I deserve more than a man who doesn’t love me and who only married me because I was pregnant. We all deserve more than that.”
“So you want me to tell you I love you? Would that make it all better?” he asked, his voice steeped in bitterness and sarcasm. She uttered a hoarse cry as his words broke something inside of her. It made her want to hurt him as much as he had just hurt her.
“You’re a miserable excuse of a man, Dante,” she said, venom dripping from every word. “And if you came crawling to me on broken glass, professing to love me, I would never believe you . . . because you’re incapable of feeling anything remotely close to love.”
His jaw clenched and he went pale before he shoved his hands into his pockets and allowed the tension to leave his shoulders until he was almost slouching.
“I take it that’s a no to the marriage proposal, then?” he asked with a smirk.
She gasped and whirled on her heel before heading up to her room as fast as she could. She slammed the door behind her and took childish satisfaction when the sound reverberated through his cold and uninviting apartment. She was shaking uncontrollably and didn’t know how to stop it.
This is what happened when you allowed yourself to have feelings for someone like Dante Damaso—they found the most creative ways to hurt you, and God, this hurt. She told herself that he hadn’t meant to inflict pain; in his mind it was a cold, businesslike proposition, supposedly beneficial to them both. He expected her to view it in the same dis-passionate way he probably did—marriage to him meant wealth and status for her. It meant she and the baby got the protection of his name and that he got to see if he was capable of being a halfway decent parent to a child.
He didn’t know that she had fallen in love with him. Why would he? It wasn’t like he had given her any reason to love him, aside from his unexpected moments of sweetness, charm, latent humor, and charisma. But then he turned around and showed her the callous, calculating, and cynical side of him with what had to be the most cold-blooded, jaded proposal in history.
And how did she tell the idiot that she couldn’t marry him because she loved him? Living as his wife, as the mother of his child, and not having his love would be soul-destroying. She didn’t know what to do, or whom to turn to, and in the end she dragged out her phone and scrolled for Cal’s number. She looked at his name on her screen for a long time before she changed her mind and tossed the phone aside.
She curled up in the middle of the bed and dragged her knees up to her chest, curving her body protectively around the mound of her baby. She couldn’t leave this apartment, not with Luc still angry with her. She had nowhere else to go.
She would hold Dante to his promises, she would allow him to be a presence in the child’s life, but she wasn’t going to marry him, and the baby would not have his name. That was what they’d agreed upon, and that was what the latest—in the increasingly useless—lot of legal documents said. And this was a document she would fight tooth and nail to enforce.
“I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing, Baby,” she whispered. “But it has to be better than subjecting all three of us to a loveless marriage, right?”
She was gratified when the baby kicked, and took it as a sign of agreement.
The following evening, Cleo stood backstage in a tiny school gymnasium and felt her chest swell with pride as her young dancers took their bows and curtsies. They’d been magnificent, and she just wanted to hug every single one of her little stars.
She gave each one a high five as they trotted offstage and passed her on their way to the changing room. Every child got a word of encouragement and praise, and she couldn’t resist giving the last—tiniest—girl a brief hug.
“Did you see me, miss?” the little girl asked in excitement, her face flushed and happy.
“I did. You were absolutely marvelous,” Cleo said but then added, because she was still the teacher here, “but you have to work on your basic turns, Maisie. We’ll talk about it on Monday, okay? You were fantastic.”
“Yes, miss. Thank you, miss,” the girl said with a grin before prancing off, her pink tutu bouncing as she moved. Cleo watched her go with a fond smile on her face, but the smile faded when she saw the man standing in the doorway Maisie had just disappeared through. Why did he always have to show up where he wasn’t expected or invited?