“We should dance,” I tell Vince, placing my empty champagne glass back down on the table.
Francesca’s wedding is absolutely lovely. I couldn’t be happier for her. I search the dance floor for her and her new husband, fighting down the vague pang of jealousy. I know I have Vince, but it doesn’t feel like I have anything. It would be so nice to be in her place, in the big white dress, the man I love with his hand resting possessively on my hip. Salvatore obviously adores her and she deserves that. She deserves her happy ending. She deserves her handsome prince.
Maybe I don’t.
Maybe Vince was mine, and I squandered him.
Francesca has Salvatore. Meg has Mateo. And me? I have damage control. I have a charge. I have a pending disaster to constantly divert.
“I don’t wanna dance,” Vince tells me, staring at his glass of whiskey.
The open bar has been a little too generous to him. We all build up an alcohol tolerance from spending time with Mateo, but this wedding is hitting both of us hard. I was happy to stand with Francesca at the church, but I was not mentally prepared for the feeling of being hit by a truck when Mateo appeared at the end of the aisle. He looked at Sal first, giving me a moment to take in the sight of him, so sexy and elegant in a well-tailored tux. Then his gaze moved over the crowd and found Meg as he escorted Francesca down the aisle. So many various feelings clawed at my insides—pain, elation, sadness, yearning, jealousy, fear, dismay, confusion, shame, just to name a few.
Then Mateo’s brown eyes met mine and I was gone. He kept his gaze on me most of the way down the aisle, and I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t even adequately handle everything I was feeling, so I damn sure didn’t have the presence of mind to mask it. I realized in that horrible moment, as I struggled to draw breath into my useless lungs, that I’m going to have to stand in exactly that spot at his wedding. I’m going to stand there on the altar, across from Mateo like I stood across from Sal, and watch Meg walk up that very same aisle. I’m going to stand right behind her, watching his face while he repeats the vows Sal spoke, his eyes glowing with the same love, his deep voice uttering those same words, right in front of me, but not to me.
I realized watching him marry Meg isn’t just going to devastate me, it won’t merely shatter my heart into a billion tiny slivers; it’s going to kill me.
Since Vince was not in the wedding, he had a front row seat to all of it. He couldn’t even speak to me after the ceremony was over and we left to come to the reception. Neither of us said a single word the whole way here.
Our vibe hasn’t improved much since.
But now, like an evil king here to save me from my sour prince, Mateo approaches our table. I’m a little stunned—a lot stunned, actually—as he offers me his hand.
“Dance with me.”
He doesn’t ask, he commands, and like the loyal subject that I am, I yearn to obey. My wretched heart tries to fly right out of my chest. I sit forward, glancing uncertainly over at Vince. He’ll flip his shit if I dance with Mateo, I know he will. I’ll pay for it later, absorbing bitter, angry words, seeing the pain I inflict across Vince’s handsome face.
I feel a little heavier just thinking about the cost, but after the day I’ve had, I don’t have the strength to tell him no.
I glance back at Mateo’s table across the room from ours. Meg isn’t even looking our way.
Vince laughs a short, bitter laugh, his gaze not on either of us. “You obviously don’t need my permission.”
Guilt spears me, even though I know he wants it to. Sometimes I don’t want to let him win, but if I’m about to dance with Mateo, I’m about to win, so I may as well let him score a few points.
No longer waiting on my agreement, Mateo reaches forward and pulls me out of my seat. A moment later, I’m following him onto the dance floor, my heart swelling with excitement. I don’t care how much I have to pay later; right now I’m going to dance with Mateo.
Every nerve ending in my body lights up as he pulls me into his strong arms here on the dance floor, in front of everyone. His hold on my waist is firm, and he takes my hand in his, gazing down at me. His brown eyes are warm, with a light sparkle of amusement. As ever, I am intoxicated by the enormity of this incredible man’s presence.
Without preamble, without giving me a moment to enjoy this, he says, “You’ve been avoiding me.”
My gaze drops from his eyes to his broad shoulders. Of course he’s wearing a nice black tux that he looks incredible in, but that’s nothing new; he dresses similarly for dinner.
“I haven’t been avoiding you.”
“You have,” he says easily, sweeping me across the dance floor. “Since the hotel room.”
My face flushes. He says it like that, like it was more than just… whatever it was. “I haven’t been avoiding you. I’ve seen you plenty.”
“But you haven’t been alone with me since then. Not once.”
Now I meet his gaze, and even if it makes my stomach sink, I give him a mild look of censure. “I’ve always avoided being alone with you. That isn’t new.”
He tugs me so close my body brushes his chest and my breath catches. “You enjoy being alone with me.”
Coaching myself on how to breathe, I tell him, “That’s why it has to be avoided.”
“Why do you always try to deny yourself what you want most?” he asks almost casually.
“Because I don’t want people we care about to get hurt,” I state, forcing myself to look up at him. His brown eyes are boring into mine, taking stock, reading me. I feel like I’m being analyzed, but he clears it after few seconds, offering the warmth back. Like he only had to flip a switch.
“People always get hurt,” Mateo replies. “Maybe I’ve been hurt,” he adds, nearly stopping my heart. He says it lightly, but he feigns a look of sadness that causes my heart to shrivel up and die a little.
I know he can see it in my eyes, the swell of horror at even the thought of causing him pain. I can tell by the warmth in his eyes. He likes me being protective of his feelings, even if he likes to pretend he doesn’t have any.
“I haven’t hurt you,” I say, once I manage to find my voice. I know he’s only prodding me, toying with me. I know he doesn’t mean it, but it makes me hurt all the same.
“You’ve hurt yourself.” It isn’t a question. It’s an arrogant statement to make, his assumption that it’s hurt me to keep my distance from him. It isn’t inaccurate, but it is arrogant.
“I’m doing just fine,” I assure him.
“Good,” he says, easily, his grip on my hip tightening ever-so-slightly.
“And so are you,” I add, wanting to drag us back to reality. “Peace with Sal’s family. Engaged. New baby coming. Life seems to be going your way.”
“Seems to be,” he murmurs, though with a non-committal tone. “There is one more thing I want.”
My heart kicks up, nearly killing me, I’m sure. Breathing is suddenly difficult, my chest painfully tight. I know he isn’t going to say what my brain is telling me he’s going to say, what my damn fool heart is hoping he’ll say. I realize the song is nearing its end, the last vocals stretching on before the music takes over. Mateo pulls me close, so close I can feel his breath, and leans in near my ear.
My heart stops. My whole body dips toward him, and I’m glad he’s there to support me, because I think the shock of him actually saying it would knock me off my feet otherwise.
The damn song ends.
It couldn’t be a minute longer?
Two minutes longer?
I’m completely lost as he releases me. He’s amused again. Amused at the effect he has on me. Amused that with one single word, with three measly minutes, he has turned my whole world upside down.
Bringing my hand to his lips, he kisses my knuckles, holding my gaze. “Thank you for the dance, Mia.”
I still can’t speak. I can’t properly breathe. My body responds to the feeling of his sensual lips lingering against my unsteady fingers. My blood rages through my veins, my stomach twisting and sinking, and oh, my god, how does this much yearning exist inside one person? How does it exist in this vacuum, in this moment? How can everyone on this dance floor not tell that I’m on fire, that his perfect mouth is branding me as effectively as a hot poker?
Lacking an appropriate response or even the ability to make words, I only nod.
His eyes sparkle as he drops my hand, giving me a little wink before leaving me alone on the dance floor. He walks back to his table, back to Meg, and I just stand here, lost, people shuffling all around me.
I feel split open, vulnerable, like every person here can see through me. Friends, family, strangers—all of them are watching the girl on the dance floor slowly unravel. No one would know the specifics, but anyone can see it’s because of him.
Hopefully before anyone who matters notices my undoing, I compel my legs to move, forcing myself off the dance floor. I consider fleeing the ballroom, but I can’t. I can’t because a glance back at Mateo’s table tells me he isn’t watching, but Meg is. Our eyes meet across the room, but I can’t hold her gaze. She’s too sharp. I’m too open.
So I look away. I go back to my table alone. Vince isn’t there anymore, and I need him to be. I need him. Not for anything healthy, anything conscionable, but because Meg is still watching me, and I can still feel Mateo’s lips on my knuckles, and I want to die.
Meg is my best friend. My best friend. His fiancée. The fiancée of the man who just told me, while dancing with me in front of her, that he still wants me.
I don’t need Vince.
I need a priest.
Mateo has put up a wall around me tonight. Vince eventually returns, but he barely speaks to me. I can’t blame him. I don’t blame him. He left the ballroom so he didn’t have to watch me in Mateo’s arms, and now I don’t even feel right about asking him to dance with me. I’d like to, but now I feel too guilty.
Meg, though, it’s Meg I feel the worst about. Because prior to Mateo dancing with me, I figured I would go over to their table. I figured I would visit with her. I figured it would be like it always is between us.
But now I can’t approach her. I have no idea how I ever will again.
And then a Sinatra song comes on, and I have to sit here beside Vince, who won’t speak to me, and watch Mateo lead Meg out onto the dance floor. She smiles at him as her hands come to rest on his shoulders; he smiles at her and catches her around the waist. They’re happy. Somehow nothing has changed, and yet it feels like everything should have. Shouldn’t she be mad at him? Shouldn’t he be distant? Shouldn’t she sense something is wrong?
Shouldn’t he look less enthralled with her, if he still wants me? How in the hell does he hold her closer than he held me and laugh at something she says when he knows I’m watching?
This is legitimate torture.
“Hurts, doesn’t it?” Vince says.
Pulling my gaze from the dance floor, feeling dead empty, I reach for my champagne glass. I already drained the damn thing, so I put it right back down. “Everything hurts.”
“How can you fucking want him?” Vince asks, viciousness seeping out of the wounds I’ve ripped open tonight. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
I know he’s hurt. I know he needs to lash out. I even know he has every right to. But I’m worn down right now, stripped too bare, and I just can’t deal with it right now.
My stomach is already a vat of acid. “Not now, Vince. Please. I can’t.”
“No,” he says, aggressively leaning across the table. “I really want to know. Apparently it’s not bad enough all the shit he’s done to us, but he’s not even available this time. He’s out there right now dancing with the woman he’s going to marry, the woman whose wedding you will be dancing at—”
I can’t. I can’t listen. I don’t care if I’m obvious. I don’t care if anyone notices. I don’t care if it hurts Vince, this confirmation of his accusations. I shove back my chair, grabbing my small purse, and flee the ballroom.
There are tears in my eyes, tracking down my cheeks, when I make it to the well-lit hotel corridor.
Vince is right. He isn’t wrong. It wasn’t kind to say it to me, but he isn’t wrong. Now my heart hurts and my head is swimming with the visions he planted there of Meg marrying Mateo, her in a big white gown, him in his handsome tux, dancing to Sinatra all goddamn night long.
I fucking hate Sinatra.
I jump when a hand brushes my shoulder. My heart plummets as I turn around, somehow expecting to see Mateo.
But it’s Mark.
He’s frowning, a look of concern on his face.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to scare you,” he says.
I sniffle, turning away again, not wanting him to see me being an idiot. God, this is embarrassing.
“I just… I saw you run out. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
“I’m fine,” I assure him.
He should accept that and leave. He did the polite thing, the right thing, the chivalrous thing. Now he’s free to go.
But he doesn’t. He puts a hand on my shoulder and spins me back around, a knowing look on his face. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t make a callous joke, even though he undoubtedly knows why I’m upset. He doesn’t rag on me. He crooks his finger, indicating I should come closer, then tugs me into his arms and envelopes me in a warm hug.
I didn’t know it was what I needed, but it is. I secure my arms around his torso, burrowing into his chest. “I’m gonna ruin your shirt,” I tell him.
“How will I ever survive?” he returns lightly.
“You’ve gotta stop saving me,” I tell him.
“Yeah?” he asks gently, rubbing my back. “Why’s that?”
Because I don’t deserve it.
I don’t say that, though.
I don’t say anything.
I just accept the comfort he offers.
For someone so accustomed to the company of sour princes and evil kings, a white knight is a nice breath of fresh air.