They stood together at the main entrance to the castello, waving goodbye to the last of the guests heading to the boats that would take them to their luxury accommodations. While the Conte Dal Lago had opened his doors for a fabulous celebration that guests would talk about for years to come, there’d be no overnight guests.
The chatter and laughter died away, and still Alessio said nothing. Not one word of praise. In silence he closed and bolted the vast iron-studded doors.
Charlotte had had enough. She’d done her best, but clearly it wasn’t enough to satisfy him. And it wasn’t as if the night were over. She had hours of work ahead.
She spun on her heel, lifting the long skirts that had made her feel, for a little while, like a princess in a fairy tale. Her jaw clenched at her futile imaginings. Nothing would make her more than his domestic drudge. She flattened her mouth, fanning anger at her own stupidity.
‘Where are you going?’ Alessio’s voice was sharp.
She didn’t bother to turn back, instead marching towards the grand staircase. ‘To my room to get changed, ready to supervise the clean-up.’
Nothing else. Just a single word.
‘Pardon?’ She was forced to swing around, and discovered him right there, so close she could see the hint of tiny dark bristles beginning to form on his jaw.
‘I cancelled tonight’s clean-up and sent everyone home.’
‘You did what?’
‘It can wait till tomorrow.’
‘Everyone will be busy tomorrow. There are boat races and a festival and—’
‘Then the cleaning can wait till after the festival.’
Charlotte opened her mouth to argue. Then she read his expression, and her breath disappeared. A finger of disquiet tracked down her spine, making her shiver.
Yet she felt no impulse to flee. On the contrary…
‘Aren’t you going to ask me why I sent them away, Charlotte?’ Alessio’s voice was silky smooth, yet tight with whatever emotion clamped his jaw.
The air between them thickened, and she had to moisten her suddenly dry mouth. ‘Why, Alessio?’
His eyes flared as her voice turned husky on his name. Then his mouth curled in a harsh smile, and he stepped close, his arm encircling her waist and drawing her up against him. ‘Because of this.’
Alessio’s arm around her felt shockingly familiar, stopping her angry retort.
Charlotte might be infuriated and confused, but she knew what she wanted.
This. The weight of his arm around her waist, pulling her hard against his lean, muscular frame. The press of powerful thighs against hers. The spark of awareness that turned his usually cool green gaze to fire.
She felt that fire inside, racing along her veins, pooling in her pelvis, heating breasts that seemed to swell and press against the tight fabric of her bodice.
‘What do you want, Alessio? You need to be more specific.’
She was amazed to hear herself sound so calm.
His eyes crinkled at the corners. ‘With pleasure.’ Did she imagine he gave the word pleasure lingering emphasis? ‘It’s a ball, Charlotte. I want to dance with you.’
She shook her head, spirits plummeting. Was he making fun of her? ‘The ball’s over. We could have danced earlier.’
She ordered her unresponsive feet to step back, but they didn’t move.
‘Impossible. If I’d danced with you, then I’d have been obliged to dance with others.’ His eyes held hers, and his voice deepened to a luscious rumble. ‘I didn’t want to dance with anyone else. Just you.’
As if she alone, among all those sophisticated women, attracted him. Charlotte swallowed and discovered her throat had constricted. Her heart beat too fast, and her thoughts scrambled.
Danger, screamed a warning voice in her head.
But, oh, what glorious danger.
When he looked at her that way, Alessio undermined all her caution. After years protecting herself, maybe it was time to live a little. To choose danger instead of safety.
Still she resisted. ‘There’s no music.’
Alessio took her resisting hand and placed it on his shoulder, where her fingers instantly spread and clung, absorbing his heat and hard strength. He took her other hand, lifting it in a waltz hold.
‘You can’t hear the music?’ He drew her closer. ‘Listen to your heartbeat.’