She was gone. Lizzie. His Lizzie. Whisked away in the middle of the night, back to her home in Sydney. As far away from him as someone could get. And it was all his fault.
Alessandro heaved a loud sigh and leant his head back on his office chair. This tension headache was getting worse. It was stuffy in here. Stifling. A place that had once been his sanctuary – the seat of his empire's power, now only seemed to entrap him. He needed to get out of here. He needed to get on his jet and go after Lizzie. But she hadn't responded to a single call – and god knew, he'd practically reached stalker-status with how much he'd blown up her phone.
Getting to his feet, he stretched long legs and fell into a pace around his office. He seemed to be doing a lot of that lately. Pacing. But it was all he could do not to just jump on his jet and fly to her. Lizzie needed space. Time apart from this crazy world that he'd virtually thrown her into without so much as a figurative life jacket. He'd really hurt her; he realised that now.
He'd wanted her to fit into her role as his wife so much that he'd essentially just made it into another job- complete with ten page job description, it seemed. But that was not how it was meant to be. He'd never intended for it to be like that. He had wanted her to be his partner in crime. His lover and his equal in all things. But that was not what this sham of a relationship and marriage had culminated in. No. Lizzie had been right. He hadn't treated her like his equal. He'd pushed and pushed and pushed her until she snapped. For what? A few extra ticks on his profile? God, what had he been thinking? He should have listened the first time she had said she'd wanted to go home. That was his first warning – her cry for help that she was suffering. But no, he'd ignored her pleas because in some way, he hadn't want her to go. He hadn't want her to leave his side, not even for a little while.
What an utterly selfish, self-absorbed bastard he was.
He didn't deserve her. As much as it pained him to realise this, maybe she was better off without him.
He loved her.
The sun was high in a cloudless sky. I felt my sweat tricking down the back of my oversized flannel shirt – a stark contrast to the high society dresses and outfits I'd been wearing only weeks before. Standing up straight, I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand and let the joints in my legs and back click back into place. It felt like I'd been stooped over the garden for days but in a way the stiffness felt good. It helped distract me from the painful wash of thoughts that still assaulted my brain on a daily basis. Thoughts of Alessandro; that beautifully, stubborn yet infuriatingly lovable man. I hadn't heard a word from him since I left, but that was mostly my fault as after outright ignoring his assault of calls and messages, I'd taken it upon myself to not-so-accidently drop my phone in the toilet. Now though, this radio silence seemed to scream louder than ever.
God I missed him. So incredibly much. There was a hole in my chest where Alessandro's love had once been. Now though, it was just mind-numbing agony that even these weeks of no contact was not able to cover over. This was a pain that I had brought on myself, but I knew even then, whilst stooped over my parent's vegetable patch, that the pain of staying with him would have been much worse. Our lives just weren't compatible. We weren't compatible. Well... no. That was a lie. We were compatible, on some levels, more so than I had ever experienced in anyone before. But it wasn't enough. How could it be when, upon being introduced to his world I only managed to wither? Coming home to my parents I'd been a shell of my former self. No future aspirations. No identity. I'd lost them all. Every part of me stripped away by the wolves that made up the highest ranks of the Italian social elite - the most prominent parts of Alessandro's life.
I didn't hate Alessandro. Far from it, in fact. I still loved him and I knew I always would, but there had been no balance in our relationship. No sense of comradeship. No partnership. From the day we got together I'd simply been expected to slot into his life and become the person he'd expected to me to be. A person that wasn't me. A part of me wished I could just go back in time and turn down Giuseppe's offer to spend time with his son. It would have been easier that way. My life would never have been turned upside-down. But then, I also realised, I would've never known how it felt to love as intensely as I had. To experience that sense of feeling one hundred percent at home when he held me in his arms. That one thing I'd always dreamed of and yet couldn't seem to hold onto. Because there was more to this life than just experiencing being in love. So much more.
I swallowed down another sob, determined that I was done with crying. Sometimes I had cried so much it felt as though I would never stop.
I thought the sound of my name in that familiar Italian zing had been another figment of my imagination and I resisted the urge to spin around. This wasn't the first time it had happened since I'd come home. It probably wouldn't be the last. But then I felt the presence standing behind me, his familiar cologne wafting about my face in the gentle breeze.
"Lizzie," he said again and this time I did spin around to find myself face-to-chest with the very man I'd been working so hard to forget.
My breath caught in my throat. He wore a suit but it looked crinkled to the point of despair and his tie hung loosely around his neck.
There were giant bags under his eyes – like he hadn't even slept in the entire time we'd been apart. I watched him swallow, his Adam's-apple bobbing in his neck.
"I miss you."
"I miss you too," I said, because that was the truth. "But I can't do it, I'm sorry, Alessandro."
Strangely enough he nodded. "I know, Lizzie. How could I expect anyone to do what I put you through?"
"It wasn't all that bad," I said. "And in your defence, I know you warned me about it when we first started dating. And I thought I was ready. I thought I would be able to handle it. But it's just that, well, that life of yours – the social climbing, the back biting, bitching, the media scandals, it's not me. None of that is me." I gave a dark chuckle. "It's nothing like those paperback romances."
Alessandro gave me a gentle smile. "I know. But you are better than that, Lizzie. You are more than that. Far more. And I've known that about you. I've always known that."
I frowned at this, shifting painfully on my feet. The sun felt so hot on my skin, and that combined with Alessandro's presence I felt like I was burning up. "Then why the fake marriage and all the socialite stuff? Why all the drama with the media and Lydia and pretty much everyone else?"
His head bowed. "Because I am an idiot. My priorities were all wrong and I messed up. If you must know, I haven't always had a great track record when it comes to dating and women. The whole money thing, you know?"
I nodded. "What about Lydia? She was born into money."
"Sì, she was, and for a time I did seriously consider her. I..." he gave a dark chuckle. "I thought I was in love with her. Her father was especially keen for the union. But you see, Lizzie, socialite families are all about making connections. Love didn't factor into the equation for Lydia at all. She is her father's daughter. All she wants is to do him proud by marrying someone he can do business with. I'm sure she has in the past informed you of her ideas on marriage and the like."
"She said you would take on mistresses," I said.
"But it is actually the other way around. She would have taken on lovers of her own, as she had already while we were dating."
I suddenly felt sick to the core, because I knew that was the last thing Alessandro ever wanted. "Oh Alessandro..."
"It caused a big scandal when it all came to light. I felt... well... gutted. And ashamed. Embarrassed." He shrugged. "You name it, I probably went through it. I didn't want to go into depth about it with you because..."
"You still feel that hurt and embarrassment," I said.
He nodded. "I broke things off with Lydia but a marriage partnership with my company is too valuable to her father for him to simply let it go. He is a traditional man, you see. He has been pushing hard for a reconciliation."
"So it really was all about the family connections, and I just became a spanner in his works."
"Sì," said Alessandro. He looked so down. So normal. So... human. "I came to Australia to escape the scandal and get over the breakup."
"And I became your rebound," I said, the realisation hurt more than I would have liked. "This whirlwind romance. The fake-not-so-fake marriage. Everything that screamed us, was that really us?"
Alessandro's expression soured. "What I feel for you, Lizzie, is real; I know that much. I don't want to think of our relationship as a rebound, and even if it is, I don't want it to just end between us. We are unique and different to what I had with Lydia. Different to what you had with any man before me, I'm sure. I just know that I failed you because I found myself caught up in my concern with the scandal and the company all over again. I let you down, Lizzie."
I nodded, feeling the lump make its way up my throat. My eyes were stinging so much they felt raw. "You really did, Alessandro."
"But I've made changes," he said. "I thought long and hard about everything. All that I did wrong. About us. I gave up some of my power in the company."
My mouth dropped. "You... what?" Had I really heard him right? "But you love your company and your work. It's your life."
But Alessandro simply shrugged. "There is more to life than running a multi-billion dollar company, cara. I formed a partnership with Luca. We have equal say in the company now, meaning that I will have more time to devote to you and our relationship. More time and less media interference, or any other interference for that matter. I'll do anything to have you back, Lizzie."
I suddenly felt cold. Hot. Cold. Hot. Cold. Why couldn't my body make up its mind? I hugged my chest, unable to look at him and his stunning face and yet unable to look away either.
"Alessandro," I said, my voice croaking. "I don't think my heart can handle it. I lost myself when I was with you. In fact, it took me leaving to realise that I need more than to just be following you around in your crazy world. I'm not socialite wife material. I want to have an identity of my own. A job. A life. A family. I've come to realise that those things are important to me."
"I agree with you, Lizzie," said Alessandro. "And you can still have those things with me. You recall when we first met, what I said to you that day in the car? I wasn't looking for a harem of princesses, or even just once princess to hang off me and rely solely on me. I was looking for my queen. For my equal. That desire, while it seemed to have been lost in all the scandal and drama, it was never gone completely. I want you to be my queen, Lizzie."
There was silence as I took a moment to take in his words. My head spun with a wash of thoughts that seemed to clash so considerably with my heart. How would Alessandro prove true to his word when, thus far, his word had only proven to be as reliable as the next news report or family drama?
"Alessandro, what would our life be like if I came back?" I asked because I genuinely wanted to know. To understand his definition of what a true partnership would be. I knew he wanted me, that much was apparent. I knew we were good together... when things were going well. But was that enough? Would it ever be enough?
Alessandro spread his long arms wide. "Whatever you want it to be, Lizzie. All I know is that I love you. There will be no more dramas following us. No more scandals because we will be a partnership in the full sense of the word. You could even come and work with me, if you like. With your research skills and knowledge of history, I could do with someone like you on my team. Or you could do something else. It's entirely your choice." He finished in a loud exhale but the wheels in my brain were suddenly spinning. Spinning and getting nowhere. I found myself frozen in place, even as I watched Alessandro's face drop.
"Lizzie?" he went to ask but I cut him off.
"What did you say?"
Alessandro frowned. "You can come and work with me."
I shook my head. "Before that."
I watched him shift on his feet, another swallow, another bob of his Adam's-apple. "I love you. I know I haven't always said it, but I mean it. I love you so very much. I love you and I'm sorry for not treating you like I should and never telling you this before."
And that was it. That was all it took to send me teetering over the edge. The first tear fell and suddenly I just couldn't make them stop. Then Alessandro looked pained and so uncertain that it made me chuckle. A tentative hand reached out to touch me but stopped half-way, as though unsure of what was appropriate.
"So… will you come home, Lizzie? Will you be my paperback romance heroine?"
I chuckled and hiccupped, wiping my suddenly very snotty nose with the sleeve of my shirt. The heavy feeling I'd been carrying around on my chest the entire time we'd been apart seemed to lift and evaporate in a puff of smoke and I knew right then, as I had always known...
"I would like that very much."
The smile that pressed into Alessandro's lips lifted my heart higher than the stratosphere. "So would I."
And before I knew it, I'd thrown myself into his strong arms, pulled his head down and planted kisses all over his beautiful face. Alessandro chuckled against my ministrations as I felt his arms wrap around my body and he lifted me clean off the ground, his lips seeking mine in a kiss that would have me seeing stars. But then, just as quickly he was suddenly depositing me back on the ground and pulling away from me. I practically staggered on my feet, the shock of his departure just a tad overwhelming.
"Alessandro?" I asked.
"Wait, I've done this the wrong way around," he said.
I watched on part in confusion and part in mortification as he patted at the pockets of his trousers. He looked... flustered. Was that even possible for the ever cool and in control Alessandro Zingaro? Then he pulled out a small velvet box and dropped to one knee in the dirt.
"Lizzie Green," he said, his lyrical accent making sweet love to my name. "Will you marry me? For real this time, and be my amazingly beautiful and incredible wife and partner in all things? Will you be my queen?"
"Yes! Oh yes!" I was laugh-crying even more now, my heart so full it might explode. Alessandro was here. He loved me. Truly, wholly loved me, just as I did him. "I will be your queen. But Alessandro, you're getting mud on your pants!"
He simply chuckled and shrugged before reaching for my hand and sliding my ring back into its rightful place. I grabbed his arms and pulled him to his feet and he grunted as he all but fell into me. He wrapped me up in the biggest, most spine-snapping hug before showering me in a wash of kisses just as I had done to him minutes before. Then, coming up for air, he husked against my lips, "Have I told you I love you?"
I couldn't stop the beaming smile even if I wanted to. "I'm always happy to hear it again."
"I love you, Lizzie."
"And I love you, Alessandro, now and forever always."