Read an Excerpt
Bethany Vassal did not have to turn around. She knew exactly who had just entered the exclusive art-gallery in Toronto's glamorous Yorkville neighborhood. Even if she had not heard the increased buzz from the well-clad, cocktail-sipping crowd, or felt the sudden spike in energy roll through the long, bright space like an earthquake, she would have known. Her body knew and reacted immediately. The back of her neck prickled in warning. Her stomach tensed. Her muscles clenched tight in automatic response. She stopped pretending to gaze at the bold colors and twisted shapes of the painting before her and let her eyes drift closed to ward off the memories. And the painso much pain.
He was here. After all this time, after all her agonizing, planning and years of isolation, he was in the same room. She told herself she was ready.
She had to be.
Bethany turned slowly. She had deliberately situated herself in the furthest corner of the upscale gallery so she could see down the gleaming wood and white corridor to the door, so she could prepare herself when he arrived. But the truth, she was forced to admit to herself as she finally twisted all the way around to face the inevitable commotion near the great glass doors, was that there was really no way to prepare. Not for Prince Leopoldo Di Marco. Her husband.
Soon to be ex-husband, she told herself fiercely. If she told herself the same thing long enough, it had to become true, didn't it? It had nearly killed her to leave him three years ago, but this was different. She was different.
She had been so broken when she'd met himstill reeling from the death of the bed-ridden father she'd cared for through his last years; still spinning wildly in the knowledge that suddenly, at twenty-three, she could have any life she wanted instead of being a sick man's care-giver. Except she hadn't known what to want. The only world she'd ever known had been so small. She had been grievingand then there had been Leo, like a sudden bright sunrise after years of rain.
She'd believed he was perfect, the perfect prince out of a story book. And she'd believed that with him she was some kind of fairy-tale princess who could escape into the perfect dream come true. Bethany's mouth twisted. She'd certainly learned better, hadn't she? He'd smashed that belief into pieces by abandoning her in every way that mattered once they'd reached his home in Italy. By shutting her out, leaving her more alone than she had ever been before, overwhelmed and lonely half a world away from all she'd ever known.
And then he'd decided he wanted to bring a child into all of that despair. It had been impossible, the final straw. Bethany's hands clenched at her sides as if she could strike out at her memories. She forced herself to take a deep breath. Anger would not help her nowonly focus. She had very specific goals tonight. She wanted her freedom, and she could not allow herself to get sidetracked by the past.
Then she looked up and saw him. The world seemed to contract and then expand around her. Time seemed to stopor perhaps that was simply her ability to draw breath.
He strode through the gallery, flanked by two stone-faced members of his security detail. He was, as he had always been, a heartbreaking study of dark-haired, gleaming-eyed Italian male beauty. He wore, with nonchalant ease, an elegantly tailored dark suit that somehow made him seem even more ruggedly handsome than he naturally was. It clung to his broad shoulders and showcased his mouth-watering physique.
But Bethany could not allow herself to focus on his physicality; it was too dangerous. She had forgotten, somehow, that he was so vivid. Her memory had made him smaller, duller. It had muted the sheer force of him, making her forget how commanding he was, how his uncompromising masculinity and irrefutable power seemed to radiate from him, making everyone in his vicinity both step back and stare.
It also made her profoundly sad. She swallowed and tried to shake the melancholy away. It could not possibly help her here.
His long, tall, exquisitely hewn body, was all rangy muscle and sensual male grace, moving through the crowd with a kind of liquid ease. His cheekbones were high and pronouncednoticeable from across a large room. He carried himself as if he were a king or a god. His mouth, even in its current flat, disapproving line, hinted at the shattering sensuality she knew far too well he could and would use as his most devastating weapon against her. His rich, thick, dark-brown hair was cut to suit perfectly the ruthless, focused magnate she knew him to bewhatever else he might be.
Everything he wore, even the way he held himself, broadcasted his wealth, his power, and that dark, sexual magnetism that was uniquely his. It was as much a part of him as his olive skin, his corded muscles and his earthy, woodsy scentwhich she must be remembering, she told herself, frowning, for she was certainly not close enough to him to smell his skin. Nor would she be ever again, she vowed.
For he was no fairy tale prince, as she had once so innocently imagined. Bethany had to bite back a hollow laugh. There were no swelling, happy songs, no happily-ever-aftersnot with Leo Di Marco, Principe di Felici. Bethany had learned that the hardest, most painful way possible. His was an ancient and revered title, with ancient responsibilities and immutable duties, and Leo was its steward. First, foremost, always, he was the title.
She watched his dark eyes flick through the crowd with ruthless impatience. He looked annoyed. Already. She sucked in a shaky breath. Then, inevitably, he found her. She felt the kick of his gaze like a punch to her gut and had to breathe through the sudden light-headedness. She had wanted this, she reminded herself. She had to see this through now, finally, or she did not know what might become of her.
Bethany had to force herself to stand up straight, to simply wait there as he bore down on her. She crossed her arms, held on tight to her elbows and tried to look unmoved by his approach even as she quaked with that inevitable, unfair reaction to his presence that had always ruined her attempts to stand up to him before. Meanwhile memories she refused to delve into haunted her still, flickering across her mind too quickly, leaving the same old scars behind.
Leo dismissed his bodyguards with the barest flick of a finger, his dark gaze fused to hers, his long legs eating up the distance between them. He looked overpowering and overwhelming, as he always had, as he always wouldas if he alone could block out the rest of the world. Worst of all, she knew he could. And would. And did.
Bethany's throat was too dry. She had the overwhelming urge to turn away, to run, but she knew he would only follow. More than that, it would defeat her purpose. She had chosen this particular meeting-place deliberately: a bright and crowded art-opening filled with the sort of people who would recognize a man of Leo's stature at a glance. Protection, she had thought, as much from Leo's inevitable fury as from her own ungovernable response to this man.
This would not be like the last time. He had been so angry and she had foolishly thought that maybe they might work something outif he'd actually spoken to her for once, instead of putting her off. Three years had passed since that night, and still, thinking of the things he had said and the way it had all exploded into that devastating, unwanted and uncontainable passion, that still shamed her to remember
She shoved the memories aside and squared her shoulders.
Then he was right there in front of her, his gaze taut on hers. She could not breathe. Leo.
Already, after mere seconds, that heady, potent masculinity that was his and his alone pulled her in, tugging at parts of her she'd thought long dead. Already she felt that terrible, familiar yearning swell within her, urging her to move closer, to bury herself in the heat of him, to lose herself in him as she nearly had before.
But she was different now. She'd had to be to survive him. She was no longer the naive, weak little girl he had handled so carelessly throughout the eighteen harrowing months of their marriage. The girl with no boundaries and no ability to stand up for herself.
She would never be that girl again. She had worked too hard three years ago to leave her behind. To grow into the woman she should have been all along.
Leo merely stared at her, his dark, coffee-colored eyes narrowing slightly, as bitter and black as she remembered. He would have looked indolent, almost bored, were it not for the faintest hint of grim tension in his lean jaw and the sense of carefully leashed power that hummed just beneath his skin.
"Hello, Bethany," he said, his sardonic voice richer, deeper than she'd remembered.
Her name in his cruel mouth felt intimate. It mocked her with the memories she refused to acknowledge, yet still seemed to affect her breathing, her skin, her heartbeat.
"What game are you playing tonight?" he asked softly, his eyes dark and unreadable, his voice controlled. "I am touched that you thought to include me after all this time."
She could not let him cow her; she could not let him shake her. Bethany knew it was now or never. She clenched her hands tighter around her elbows, digging her fingers deep into her own flesh.
"I want a divorce," she said, tilting back her head to look at him directly.
She had planned and practiced those words for so long in her mirror, in her head, in every spare moment, that she knew she sounded just as she wished to sound: calm, cool, resolute. There was no hint at all of the turmoil that rolled inside of her.
The words seemed to hang there in the space between their bodies. Bethany kept her gaze trained on Leo's, ignoring the hectic color she could feel scratching at her neck and pretending she was not at all affected by the way he seemed to go very still as he looked at her with narrowed eyes. As if he was gathering himself to pounce. Bethany's heart pounded as if she'd screamed that single sentence loud enough to shatter glass, shred clothing and perhaps even rebound off the top of the iconic CN Tower to deafen the entire city.
It was the man standing much too close to her. Leo was next to her, so close she could nearly feel the waves of heat and arrogance emanate from him. Leo, watching her with those intense, unreadable eyes. It made something deep inside of her flex and coil. Leo was the husband she had once loved so destructively, so desperately, when she did not know enough to love herself. It made her want to weep as that same old sadness washed through her, reminding her of all the ways they had failed each other. But no more. No more.
Her stomach was a tense, clenched ball. Her palms were damp. She had to fight to keep her vision clear, her eyes bland. She had to order herself repeatedly not to heed her body's urgent demand that she wrench her gaze away and flee.
Indifference, she reminded herself. She must show him nothing but indifference, however feigned it might be. Anything but that, and all would be lost. She would be lost.
"It is a great pleasure to see you too," Leo said finally with an unmistakable edge in his voice. His English had a distinctly British intonation that spoke of his years of education, with the sensual caress of his native Italian beneath. His dark eyes gleamed with cold censure as they flicked over her, taking in the careful chignon that tamed her dark-brown curls, her minimal cosmetics, the severe black suit. She had worn it to convince them both that this was nothing more than a bit of unpleasant businessand because it helped conceal her figure from his appraisal. She was a far cry from the girl he had once memorably brought to climax with no more than his hot, demanding gaze, and still he made her want to squirm. Still, she felt brushfires blaze to life in every place his dark gaze touched her.
She hated what he could do to her even now, after everything. As if three years later her body still had not received the message that they were finished.
Leo continued, his voice dangerously even, his gaze like steel. "I do not know why it should surprise me in the least that a woman who would behave as you have done should greet your husband in such a fashion."
She could not let him see that he rattled her still, when she had thoughtprayedthat she'd put all that behind her. But she told herself she could worry about what that might mean later, at her leisure, when she had the years ahead of her to process all the things she felt about this man. When she was free of him.