“I thought you said we were never going to speak again.” He had said they wouldn’t see each other. He had said they wouldn’t speak. Oh, how she had needed him to keep that promise. Because she couldn’t look at him again, not without having her heart torn to pieces. And it had already been torn to pieces, barely smashed back together on the flight home, just in the interest of keeping her breathing, and now he was going to destroy it again.
“That was before I realized I had unanswered questions. And I will do what I must to have them all answered.”
“I don’t think I can answer all of your questions.”
“You’re going to. I’m going to start now. Who is Isabelle Harrington to you? Why did you need this scandal for her? What was so important that you came from New York to Surhaadi on the promise of a stranger?”
There was no harm in saying so now. Or maybe there was. Or maybe there had never been. She couldn’t tell anymore. All she knew was that she was tired, tired of dishonesty. Tired of the dull pain in her chest. Tired of how unfair life was.
“Isabelle was the only person who made friends with me when I went to college. She didn’t mind that I was younger, she didn’t mind that I had come from nothing, that my family name wasn’t important. She got me my job at the Herald—I lost that today, by the way—and she needed me.”
“Because I made my boss mad.”
“No, why did Isabelle need you? Why does it require you to get a scandal attached to the Chatsfield name. Because that’s why you did this, isn’t it? I need to know.”
“Yes, I did it for her. Spencer...Spencer Chatsfield. He’s harassing her about buying The Harrington, right out from under her. The hotel is everything to her. And if you knew what Spencer had done to her...Spencer hurt her. Badly. And now he wants to take this from her, too. I swore I wouldn’t let it happen. I swore to her I would help her with the tools I had, the tools that she gave to me. My job. You can understand why I needed to do this. Why I would go with you, why I would skulk around in an alley. Because I needed to. Because I owe Isabelle so much.”
He nodded gravely, and closed the distance between them, tugging her into his arms and kissing her hard, deep on the mouth. She tangled her fingers in his hair and kissed him back, her foot brushing the ladybug planter to the side as she moved in closer.
When they parted, she blinked, breathing hard. “Why would you do that?”
“A scandal is going to hit the paper today. I am sorry if it adversely affects your friend, but I cannot be sorry if it varies the headline about my sister.”
“What have you done, Zayn?”
“I’m going to make an announcement later today that my wedding has been canceled.”
“You canceled your wedding? Permanently...or is this just a way for you to protect Leila?”
“It is certainly a pleasant side effect. But I actually called off the wedding some days ago. Just before you left. Before we last spoke.”
“What?” she asked, her lips numb, her fingers icy. “You did what?”
“I called off the wedding.”
“I’m glad,” she said, reaching to pick up the box from the pavement. Standing up, she stiffened her spine, looking straight ahead, her heart hammering, fingers stiff around the edges of the box. “Because you deserve better than that. You do. You deserve so much more than a loveless marriage. You both do.”
“You were right about that,” he said, his voice rough. “I was punishing myself, using Christine as...part of that. It was unfair of me. And you were brave. You asked for everything from life. While I was still protecting myself. Still paying penance for the sins of my past. I was going to make everyone else pay with me. I was going to make Christine pay. I was going to bind us both to an unhappy union . I realized that I could not do that. Not to her. Not to me.”
“But that doesn’t explain why you kissed me. I thought you hated me. For what I had done.”
“You did it for a friend. You did it to protect someone you love. Part of me knew it had to be something like this. Because I know you. I know you didn’t just do it to hurt me, or to further your career. I know you didn’t do it lightly. I knew the woman that I love wouldn’t do something like that.”
“You...you love me?”
“Yes. In spite of myself. In spite of all this. I do. And it makes me want. It makes me want things I didn’t think I ever would. It makes me want more. More than an endless, blank desert of life stretching out before me. It makes me want color. Laughter. It makes me want you.”