At last the dryness in her throat eased, though it still hurt to talk. 'Sorry,' she said.

'What for?'

'Put you in a bad situation. Operating.' I'm glad it's over... I've never been so scared in my entire life. She dragged in a breath. 'I was desperate. Shouldn't have said I'd marry you. Not fair.'

He squeezed her hand. 'Hey. The operation's over now. But I won't hold you to your promise. You don't have to marry me.'

Was it her imagination, or did he sound relieved? And yet she'd thought he really wanted to marry her. Before the op. Had he never truly meant it? What if he'd only said it to put her off having him do the op, and had been appalled when she'd said yes? Had he wanted to withdraw the offer, and only pity had stopped him saying so before now? Or had he simply changed his mind? He'd seen her as a patient—perhaps he couldn't see her as a lover any more. Or perhaps it was because she looked so repulsive now? She didn't dare ask for a mirror. She didn't want to know how bad she looked.

She felt a rush of misery overcome her exhausted brain. Yes, he'd stayed with her last night. But that must have been out of a sense of duty, not because he wanted to be here. And no way was she going to let that situation continue. It was going to hurt—God, it was going to hurt—but she was going to let him walk away. Better that than have to live with his pity.

'Must be tired. Stiff. Go and have a proper sleep,' she said.

He shook his head. 'I'm not leaving you.'

'Crowding me.' Far from it. But if he stayed here, she might embarrass herself further. She might beg him to hold her, to love her, the way it had been before the operation. But she'd pushed him too far. Made him do the unthinkable—she'd given him complete responsibility for her life. Too much. 'Need some rest. On my own.'

He looked at her for a moment, then sighed. 'All right. I'll call in later.'

'Bye.' She tried to sound as cool and casual as she could.

'I've still got your watch.'

'Put it in the sister's office. 'S a safe there,' she mumbled.

'OK. If that's what you want.'

No, it wasn't what she wanted. But she wasn't going to tie him to her out of pity.

She closed her eyes and turned her head away, not wanting to see him leave. The quiet click of the door told her that he'd gone. She was on her own.

Been there, done that, could do it again.

Except it felt so much harder than she remembered it.

Jake sighed inwardly as he left the unit. Vicky had been through a four-hour operation—and it was clearly taking its toll on her. She was tired, out of sorts and thoroughly miserable. Flowers weren't allowed in Intensive Care because of the risk of infection, and she wouldn't be up to eating chocolate for a while. So how could he give her a boost?

An engagement ring...but no. He wanted to choose that with her. Besides, the way she was feeling right now, she'd probably think he was pushing her too hard if he gave her a ring. Better to wait.

He'd go back and see her when she'd had a chance to rest. And maybe there was something that would make her stay in hospital that little bit less miserable...

Vicky woke up, her mouth feeling dry. Everything felt too hot. And her head ached. She was about to grope for the buzzer to call a nurse when she remembered. She'd fallen asleep crying. Because she'd pushed Jake away. Too late to do anything about it now.

She turned her head to the side with an effort. His chair was empty. So he'd taken her at her word, then. Part of her had hoped he'd ignore her and just be there anyways when she woke up.

I won't hold you to your promise. You don't have to marry me. Ha. In the end, he hadn't been able to get away fast enough. And now he was gone for good.

She swallowed hard and turned her head away again. So she couldn't see the empty space where Jake should have been—and feel it echoing in her heart.

Some time later, she heard the door open quietly. Probably a nurse come to do her obs. Well, she wasn't in the mood for talking. She kept her eyes closed, pretending to be asleep. Felt a hand against her forehead and heard somebody say, 'I'm not happy with her temperature. Better give her something to bring it down.'

Jake? No. She was hallucinating.

There were other noises in the room. More than one person there, then. You were only allowed two at a time in ICU, so who else was in her room? One of her brothers? Except he hadn't spoken or touched her, and she knew that neither Seb nor Charlie would have been able to resist looking at her chart and making some comment or other, or checking her temperature themselves.

'That's brilliant. Thanks a lot, mate. I'll sort the rest of it out when she wakes up.'

It definitely sounded like Jake. But what was he doing here? And what on earth was he talking about?

Footsteps out. Footsteps in—lighter, quicker. One of the nurses. 'Back again? Can't get rid of you, I see.' A laugh. 'So how long has Neurology been this dedicated to patient welfare?'

Tags: Kate Hardy Billionaire Romance