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There was only one thing that could make Delia Hannan's thirtieth birthday better than she'd already planned for it to be, and it was a thing she hadn't even planned. That was saying something, since she'd been fine-tuning the details for the celebration since she was a little girl growing up in the kind of neighborhood where birthdays were pretty much unaffordable and therefore pretty much ignored. Where a lot of things were unaffordable and therefore ignored. Things like, well…Della, for instance. But that was why she had promised herself such a festive event. Because, even as a little girl, she'd known she had only herself to count on.
Of course, the past eleven months had rather thrown a wrench in that line of thinking, because since meeting Geoffrey, she'd had no choice but to count on him. Geoffrey wasn't here tonight, though, and she wasn't going to let herself think about him or anything else from that world. Tonight was special. Tonight was for her. And it would be everything an underprivileged kid from one of New York's roughest neighborhoods could have imagined.
Back then, Della had sworn that by the time she turned thirty, she would have escaped the mean streets of her borough and become a self-made millionaire living park-side uptown. And she'd vowed to mark the big three-oh in the style of the rich and famous, that she had imagined she'd become accustomed as this point in life. She wasn't about to renege on that promise, even if she was celebrating in Chicago instead of New York. She would begin with dinner at a five-star restaurant, follow that with a box seat at the opera and top it off with a nightcap at the sort of club that allowed entree to only the creme de la creme of society. She was outfitted in thousands of dollars worth of haute couture, dripping in rubies and diamonds, and she had been coiffed and manicured at the city's finest salon.
She sighed with much contentment as she enjoyed the first part of her evening. Palumbo's on State Street was the sort of restaurant where prices rivaled the budgets of some sovereign nations. She had, it went without saying, ordered the most expensive items on the menu—four courses, all of which bore European names she'd had to practice all week to pronounce correctly. (Thank goodness the menu had been posted online so she could check in advance and not appear as some kind of philistine when she ordered. And how lovely to have the opportunity to use the word philistine, even if it was only in her head.) Because ordering the most expensive items on one's birthday was what anyone who was sophisticated and chic and rich would do, right?
The thought made her surreptitiously survey her surroundings, to make sure the other diners— sophisticated, chic and rich, every last one of them— were also enjoying the most expensive bounty. And, okay, okay, to also make sure Geoffrey hadn't somehow followed her, even though she'd done an excellent job sneaking out—she always did—and even though she wasn't scheduled to check in with him until her daily call tomorrow. He couldn't know where she was going, anyway, even if he did discover she'd slipped out when she wasn't supposed to. She'd planned tonight's escape even more meticulously than she'd planned her thirtieth birthday celebration.
For all anyone here knew, she was just as blue-blooded as they were and belonged in this society every bit as much. And, thankfully, there was no sign of Geoffrey anywhere. Check and check.
And Della did feel as if she belonged here, sipping champagne as she anticipated the arrival of her calamari appetizer. She'd been moving in environments like this for years, despite not having been born into a wealthy family. She'd clawed her way out of the slum and into the upper echelons of society—even if she'd only been a fringe member—and she'd studied and emulated everyone in this world until she'd had no trouble passing herself off as a pure-blooded member.
Tonight was no exception. She'd paid a not-so-small fortune to rent the crimson velvet Carolina Herrera gown and Dolce & Gabbana shoes, not to mention the Bulgari earrings and pendant and the black silk Valentino opera coat necessitated by the frigid December temperatures. The red hues, she knew, complemented her gray eyes and the dark blond hair that was long enough now to have been swept up into a French twist, held in place by a single hidden comb.
She lifted a hand to make sure every hair was in place, smiling at how much she enjoyed having it long. She'd worn it boyishly short all her life, until earlier this year, and hadn't sported her natural color since high school, when she'd dyed her hair black during her grunge phase and liked it enough to keep it that way. She hadn't even realized how it had deepened to such a beautiful honey-infused blond over the years. Between her natural color and the new length—not to mention her rented duds—no one from the old neighborhood would recognize her tonight.
But she wasn't thinking about any of that, either, she reminded herself. Tonight really was going to be perfect. It really was going to be everything she had planned all those years ago.
Except maybe for the handsome, elegantly attired man the hostess had seated at a table near hers a few moments ago, and whom she hadn't been able to resist sneaking peeks at during each of those moments. When Della was a kid, she'd never entertained the idea of having a companion for her special evening. She wasn't sure why not. Maybe because of the aforementioned knowing she would always have only herself to count on. Or maybe because, as a kid, she couldn't even imagine a guy like him. In her neighborhood, elegantly attired had meant one's shirt was buttoned. And handsome had meant a guy had all his teeth.
Without warning, the man glanced up, his gaze connecting with hers. Something between the two of them…clicked. Or something. The man dipped his dark head toward Della in silent acknowledgment, one corner of his mouth lifting in something vaguely resembling a smile. After only a moment's hesitation, she lifted her glass in a silent toast to him. Swathed in a tuxedo that had been tailored to emphasize every magnificent inch of him, he was framed by billows of amber silk that edged the window behind him. His dark eyes were warmed by the dreamy light of the candle flickering in a crystal holder in front of him, and his little half smile sent a shudder of something hot and electric skittering down Della's spine. Because it was the kind of smile that told a woman he was not just undressing her with his eyes, but he was also considering using a lot of his other body parts on her, too.
When she felt the heat of a blush creep into her cheeks, she hastily glanced away. Lifting her champagne to her mouth for a cooling sip, she did her best to focus on something else—the crisp white tablecloths, the sparkling china, the glittering crowd. Inescapably, however, her attention wandered back to the man at the table opposite hers.
Who was still gazing at her with much interest.
"So what do you think?" he asked her, raising his voice enough to be heard two small tables away from his own.
Della blinked at him, nonplussed. Understanding, for the first time in her life, what nonplussed actually meant: confusion mixed with a funny little buzz in the belly that wasn't altogether unpleasant. A million different possible replies to his question ricocheted around in her brain. I think you're the most beautiful man I've ever seen, for example. And, what are you doing New Year's Eve? Even a smooth, hey, lover. And of course—it went without saying—oh, bay-bee!
"For dinner," he added, holding up the menu. "What do you recommend?"
Ooooh, what did Della think about that? Well, that was a totally different question from the one she'd been thinking he asked, wasn't it? Good thing she'd been too nonplussed to answer.
"Um, I'm not sure," she said. "This is the first time I've dined here." Somehow, she didn't think a man like him would be too impressed if she told him to order whatever was most expensive, because it would make him appear chic, sophisticated and rich. He was all those things simply by existing on the planet.
Her answer seemed to surprise him. "But how can this be your first time? Palumbo's has been a Chicago institution for nearly a hundred years. Are you not from Chicago originally?"
There was no way Della was going to answer that question. Mostly because no one other than Geoffrey knew she was here, and he was keeping much too close an eye on her. Even if he didn't know exactly where she was at the moment, she wasn't about to risk his discovery of her little escape by breathing a word of it to anyone.
So she wouldn't—couldn't—tell this man that. Either she'd have to lie—which Della never did, even though her honesty had gotten her into trouble more than once, as evidenced by her having to rely on Geoffrey at the moment—or else her reply would lead to the kind of small talk that might make her talk about her past. Or, even worse, her present. And she wanted to be as far removed from both of those tonight as she could be, on account of nothing in her past or present lent itself to Carolina Herrera gowns or diamonds and rubies or box seats to La Boheme.
So she replied instead to the first question he'd asked. "I ordered the special. I adore seafood."
He said nothing for a moment, and Della wondered if it was because he was pondering her answer to his first question or trying to decide whether or not to press the fact that she hadn't replied to the second. Finally, he said, "I'll remember that."
For some reason, though, he made it sound as if it were the fact that she loved seafood that he would remember, and not that she had recommended it for dinner.
He opened his mouth to say something else, but his server arrived to place a short, amber-colored cocktail in front of him and a dewy pink cosmopolitan on the table at the place directly next to his.
He was expecting someone to join him, Della realized. A woman, judging by the color and daintiness of the drink. Couples didn't dine in places like Palumbo's unless their relationship went beyond casual—or one of them was looking to make it more than casual. This guy was throwing steamy glances her way, even flirting with her, despite the fact that there would be a woman joining him momentarily. That meant the guy was a complete jerk.
Okay, so maybe her thirtieth birthday celebration wasn't going to go quite as perfectly as she had planned, since she was going to have to be seated near a jerk. And—oh, all right—maybe it wasn't only because of the jerk that the celebration wouldn't be exactly what she'd had in mind. Maybe it wasn't even because her gown and accessories were rentals from a Michigan Avenue boutique instead of pulled casually from her own closet.
Maybe, just maybe, it was because, in addition to not being the life of a millionaire, Della's current life wasn't even her own. Everything about her life these
days—every thing she did, every place she went, every word she spoke—had to be vetted and controlled by Geoffrey. Her life would never be normal again. Or, at least, it would never be the life she had made for herself or the one she had planned. It would be a life manufactured and orchestrated by someone else.
As soon as the thought formed, she pushed it to the furthest, darkest recesses of her brain. She wouldn't think about any of that tonight, she reminded herself again, wondering why she was finding it all so hard to forget. Because tonight, she didn't want to be Della anyway. Tonight, for one night, she wanted to be the woman she had envisioned herself to be two decades and two thousand miles ago: CinderDella, toast of the town and belle of the ball. Nothing was going to mar this evening. Not even Prince Less-Than-Charming over there who was still making bedroom eyes at her while waiting on a girlfriend who could do a helluva lot better.
As if cued by the thought, the hostess seated a boisterous party of four at the table between them, completely blocking the man from her view. For that Della was grateful and not disappointed, even if some twisted part of her made her think that was what she was feeling.
Well, even if he was a jerk, he was still the most beautiful man she'd ever seen.
And she saw him again an hour and a half later—at the Lyric Opera when she was trying to locate her seat. After realizing she was in the wrong part of the auditorium, Della asked an usher for directions, then found herself gazing at a box across the room that afforded an amazing view of the stage…and where sat the handsome stranger she'd seen at dinner. Just as he'd been at the restaurant, he was surrounded by gold, this time a cascade of engraved gilt that encrusted the walls and ensconced the stage. Likewise as he'd been at the restaurant, he was seated alone.
Okay, so maybe as she'd left Palumbo's, Della had happened to notice that his date still hadn't shown up. Not that she'd been trying to notice that. She just had, that was all. Though whether the woman had gotten waylaid somewhere and been unable to make their rendezvous, or she'd wised up about what kind of man he was, Della couldn't have said.
Not that she cared either way. Hey, she'd barely noticed. In case she hadn't mentioned that.
Now as she strode down the aisle to her seat, she similarly barely noticed that it was not only in the same box the man was occupying, but also in the same row, as well—a small one at the front that contained only three chairs. She also barely noticed that he had placed both a program and a long-stemmed rose on the seat beside his own, as if the chair would soon be occupied. So evidently his girlfriend had indeed been waylaid earlier and was intending to catch up to him here.
Butterflies head-butted Della's midsection at the prospect of having to sit in such close proximity to the man. Once she squeezed past him to get to her seat, there would be no escaping him—unless she wanted to pull a Groucho Marx maneuver from A Night at the Opera and swing across the auditorium on a cable.