My father is grinning as we greet his friends at Rose’s family’s banquet. The hall buzzes with countless guests, whether from old or new money. According to the gossipping ladies, Rose’s father has an announcement to make.
Mozart’s orchestra echoes around us. The scent of jasmine and something exotic wafts through the air.
I’m so glad for the relieved wrinkles on my father’s face. I would never forget what Arthur has done for my family, and that he didn’t use it to force me to stay.
Because that way, I will stay because I want to.
My gaze roams the hall, looking for him. I’m giddy just thinking about announcing my decision. My lower lip rolls behind my teeth. Would he be glad? Would he ask me that question that made me run all those years ago?
This time, my answer would be entirely different.
As if sensing me thinking about him, Arthur appears at the threshold of the hall with Alexander by his side.
Arthur is stunning in a black tuxedo. His hair is slicked back to perfection. The agile way he moves causes my mouth to water. Everyone greets him on his way in. Authority seeps from the sharp look in his eyes. Power and charisma run in his blood, and not only because of his family name. He oozes it without any effort.
My hold tightens on the champagne flute, waiting for him to glance my way and for that static to start between us. I doubt this fire will ever ebb.
“Eva!” Rose clutches my arm, pulling from between the ladies and my observation of Arthur. She’s wearing a dress that accentuates her tiny waist. Add the natural-looking makeup and she looks stunning. More than usual. It’s like she’s dressed up for a special occasion other than the banquet.
“I have amazing news!” she gushes.
I smile wide, unable to hide my own enthusiasm. “Me, too.”
She leads me to the corner of the hall, away from listening ears. A waiter offers her champagne, but she shakes her head. “I can’t drink.”
After he nods and leaves, she says, “I kind of feel guilty because I didn’t tell you this before. I don’t even know if you’re all right with it, but you left and I thought you didn’t have any interest to return, so…”
“So?” My brows furrow, unsure what Rose is trying to tell me.
“Oh, hell!” Her face reddens as she looks behind me. I follow her gaze and Alexander is standing with her father, face stone cold. I’ve never seen him have that expression before.
Rose is all flustered and keeps tugging on her dress until I’m afraid her breasts will pop free for the world to see.
“I have to hide from Alexander.” She runs the other way, leaving me confused out of my mind.
Rose hid her feelings from Alexander, but she never ran away from him. What the hell is going on?
I’m about to follow her when I catch a whiff of a conversation between two elderly members of the noble community.
“She must be timid about her future engagement.”
Engagement? How come Rose never mentioned that? I suppose that’s what her father is about to announce and what she was about to tell me.
I practically barge into the ladies’ chatter with a big smile. “Is tonight Rose’s engagement?”
One of them, Mrs Taylor, if I remember correctly, a woman who loves to repeat gossip for anyone willing to listen, doesn’t mind my rude eavesdropping. She leans closer. “Rose will be engaged to the eldest of the Rhodes boys. This will be a lovely opportunity for both their families’ business.”
“You mean the youngest?” I motion at Alexander with a smile, whose face is still cold. “Alexander.”
“No.” She discreetly points at Arthur who’s at the other end of the hall, conversing with his father. “The eldest. Arthur.”
The room starts spinning and the flute of champagne almost falls from my hand. A wave of nausea takes me over. Rose will be engaged to Arthur? What the hell?
“Darling… are you all right?” Mrs Taylor asks as Mrs Fishnet takes the glass from my hand.
“I’m fine.” I swallow the tears threatening to spill. “When… when did this come about?”
“Don’t tell anyone that you heard from me.” Mrs Taylor leans close as if about to share an MI6’s secret. “The fathers wanted this to happen for a while now. For months if not years.”
Arthur was betrothed to Rose and still dared not only to lure me to stay, but he also made me fall even deeper for him.
A sob forms at the back of my throat as I excuse myself. I take measured steps until I’m outside. Then, I run all the way to the back garden where Rose and I used to play as children.
Oh dear. Arthur has been cheating on Rose with me. How could he do that? How could he crush me and make me hurt my friend?
I fall on a wooden bench and hide my face in my hands. Tears blur my vision and needles puncture my heart.
How stupid could I be to think about staying? Arthur has already moved on before I returned.
A loud sob rips from my lips and wreaks my chest. The bastard ruined me now.
Three years ago, I ran away before I was in too deep. My heart was broken, but I could at least pretend to put it back together. Now, there are no pieces left to pick up.
A strong hand clutches my shoulder as that familiar voice rasps. “Eva.”
Hot fire courses through my veins as I yank his hand free and jerk up on unsteady feet. He’s looking at me with that deep line between his eyebrows as if he doesn’t understand why I’m crying. “How dare you call me that way or touch me after what you made me do? How can you cheat on Rose with me? Was it fun?”
“You’re misunderstanding, Eva.” His low voice coaxes, even if his impatience is showing through the clenching of his jaw.
“What? What am I misunderstanding, Arthur? Your engagement with Rose? Or acting all jealous and possessive when you already have a fiancée?”
“I don’t have a fiancée.” He enunciates every word as if spelling it out for me.
“Save it! I heard —”
I’m cut off when Arthur takes my hand and drags me behind him. I try to wiggle free, but his clutch is like steel.
“Let me go.” I cry through the tears. “Just leave me alone.”
He stops, turns around and crashes his lips against mine. His kiss is passionate and filled with longing and possessiveness. I’m crying and kissing him back and hating myself for wanting this moment to last just a little longer.
When he breaks away, he rasps, “Never, Eva.”
“I’m going back to New York.” I sob, my vision becoming blurry.
“No, you aren’t.”
“Didn’t you say you will let me go if I decide to?”
He drags me behind him again, and I don’t have the energy to resist him anymore. I’m exhausted and heartbroken and a mess. I just want to crawl into a corner and cry.
“There.” Arthur points up at the patio of Rose’s room where she’s kissing — no, making out with — Alexander. They’re all over each other, I think they’re about to strip and go at it on the balcony.
“He’s her fiancé, not me.” Arthur stands in front of me, and I’m thankful that he blocks the view.
“But Mrs Taylor and Mrs Fishnet…”
“Those old hags have dated gossip.” Arthur smiles, and a wave of relief overwhelms me. Arthur isn’t engaged to Rose. Oh, Goodness.
“It’s true that our fathers talked about my engagement with Rose, but both of us never agreed. It’s only…”
My breath hitches. “Only what?”
“Rose asked me to pretend to agree because she wanted to get a reaction out of my ignorant brother.” Arthur laughs, the sound does strange things to me. “He got her pregnant, so I assume it worked.”
His fingers reach for me and he wipes my tears with the pad of his thumbs, eyes imploring mine with an arched eyebrow. “Apparently, Rose’s plan had the same effect on you as it had on Alexander?”
“It didn’t.” I sniffle. When Arthur keeps rising an eyebrow, I sigh. “It did. I can’t imagine you married to another woman.”
“I love it when you’re possessive of me.” His lips brush over mine. “It makes my possessiveness of you seem fair.”
I nudge his side. “They don’t even compare, you brute.”
He smiles like he doesn’t feel the least bit guilty about it. I’m sure he doesn’t. Arthur is the type of man who goes after what he wants without remorse.
“Besides.” His fingers glide down my cheeks, and I lean into his touch. “The only woman I want to marry is standing right in front of me. She still hasn’t given me an answer to the question I asked three years ago.”
Tears moisten my eyes again. “Oh, Arthur…”
“I love you, Eva.” The words flow from his mouth like the most sacred thing he’s ever said. Arthur’s shoulders hunch as if not sure of himself. The vulnerability in his eyes — that he never showed to anyone but me — makes me want to hug him. “I’m emotionally defective. Even my own mother doesn’t think I’m capable of feeling any affection and curses herself for bringing me to this world. I thought the same. I didn’t know love was something I’m allowed to feel, but when I was enraged, or were pulled by the darkness, and you touched me, all the chaos faded away. That’s when I knew I would do anything to protect you and be with you. I’m well aware you deserve a lot better than me, but if you’ll have me, I promise to try being a man worthy of you.”
“You already are.” I’m choking on happy tears as he speaks, my heart almost leaping to the ground. “Ask me that question again.”
“I thought you forgot everything I said.”
“Not even close, Arthur. Now, go on, ask me.”
He smiles and reaches into his jacket the retrieves the ring I ran away from three years ago. Has he been keeping it on him this entire time? Happiness and giddiness and excitement whirl through me.
Uncertainty cloaks his features. “Eva James, will you marry me?”
“Yes!” I throw myself in his arms and seal my lips to his. “A thousand yes, Arthur!”
He hugs me close and showers my neck with kisses.
“It’s Aaron,” I say between kisses.
“What?” He stares into my eyes.
“We agreed to name our son Aaron. I didn’t forget a word you said.” I kiss him again, long and deep. “I love you, Arthur. I never stopped loving you.”
I don’t know what the future has in store for us, but as long as I have Arthur with me, I’m not scared of anything.