The entire table conversed in Italian, and he knew Tessa didn't know a word of it. She sat quietly, pretending interest though he could see the distance in her gaze. Two waiters came to their table and presented their first course, which she seemed grateful for and he watched in silent amusement as she devoured her salad.
"Hungry?" he asked, leaning in close so she was the only one who could hear.
Her cheeks flushed a becoming pink and she nodded, setting her fork carefully upon her now empty plate. "Starved."
"Oh, no." She turned, their faces so close it would be incredibly easy to kiss her yet again. "Never bored. Tonight has been an--enlightening experience."
He held himself in check. Just barely. "I warned you it would be swarming with barracudas."
She smiled. "You were right. I ran into Bianca earlier."
"You know. The woman who was with your friend Giorgio that night at the hotel." She leaned in close and lowered her voice. "His mistress."
"Ah." He hadn't seen her. Was surprised Giorgio would have his mistress in attendance at his wife's charity ball. "Was it awkward?"
"It was so odd. She was equal parts rude and kind." Tessa sighed. "I think she's a very sad woman."
"Really?" Tessa was so softhearted. He found it endearing--and also dangerous. If she didn't watch out, someone could take advantage of her.
Alex frowned. Like himself.
"Oh, yes. Can you imagine? Being here tonight, watching the man you love be with the woman he's married to? I mean, I know it's not right, your friend indulging in an affair and at first I felt so sorry for his wife when I met her. But now I feel sorry for Bianca too. She looked so sad, so resigned." Tessa shook her head. "I couldn't stand by and watch the man I want to be with more than any other spend time with his wife."
"I would hope you would never lower yourself so much that you'd be with a man who's already married." His voice was stern and he took hold of her hand. "You're worth more than that, Tessa. You deserve happiness."
She smiled but it was full of sadness. "Sometimes things don't work out the way you expect them to. I find it best to be prepared to settle."
"You should never settle. You should always go after what you want, declare it to the world, work for it and make it happen." He paused, the words sinking into his brain. He could be talking about her, about the two of them together. "Never, ever settle. It's a word that shouldn't even be in your vocabulary."
"Ah, but I'm not you. The rich and successful Alexander Worth could have anything he wants. You're so determined, so powerful. What more could you ever ask for?"
"There are still things I haven't obtained yet." Like you.
"Really? Like what?"
She issued the question like a challenge. He glanced about, saw that no one paid them any mind. Everyone was involved in his or her own conversations. Returning his gaze to her, he saw the question in her eyes. The light from the glittering chandeliers above shone down upon her, catching the sparkles in her gown and making her look like an enchanted fairy.
His enchanted fairy. He never wanted to let her go.
"If I confess what I want to you, you cannot tell a soul." He lowered his voice, his gaze dropping to her succulent mouth. The urge to kiss her, drink from her right at the table was so strong it took everything within him to fight it.
"I won't tell anyone," she murmured. "Your secrets are safe with me, Alex."
Hearing the words, hearing Tessa say his name, did something to him. He wanted to trust her, wanted to give everything he could to her but something was always holding him back. He continually blamed it on their professional relationship but he'd never been one to freely give himself to another. Always held himself in check, never broke control, needing to stay above his emotions, his feelings, his worries.
For once, Alex wanted to give it up, give in. But it was so damned hard.
"Are they safe? I usually don't share such intimacies with another." Taking her hand, he brought it up to his mouth, pressing his lips against her knuckles.
Her fingers trembled in his grip. "You can share them with me. I'm loyal to you. You know I am."
"You are," he agreed. "As an employee and as my assistant, you're extremely loyal. But are you loyal to me as a man? Forget who I am to you. Forget my name. Forget all of it. Are you still loyal then?"
She nodded and reached out with her free hand, touching his face. She gave him no verbal answer but her soothing touch was enough.
"What I want more than anything is..." He took a deep breath.