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'As parties go this one is pretty amazi—I don't believe it!' Claudia gasped incredulously.
'What don't you believe?' Bella prompted indulgently, her sister having exclaimed over one wonder or another since the family's arrival in San Francisco two days ago.
Although Bella had to admit that the view of the San Francisco evening skyline from this private function room at the top of one of its most prestigious hotels was pretty spectacular. She could even see the Golden Gate Bridge lit up in all its splendour.
'Wow! I mean—wow!' Claudia wasn't looking out of the window but across the crowded room where the private party, to introduce the two families of their cousin Brian and his American fiancée Dahlia Fabrizzi, was taking place on the eve of their wedding. 'But it can't really be him, can it?' she queried as she frowned. 'Of course Aunt Gloria has been dropping huge hints the last few days about Dahlia's mother being well connected, but, still, I can't believe—'
'Claudia, will you for goodness' sake stop waffling into your champagne and just—?' Bella broke off abruptly as she turned to see who was holding her sister so enrapt, and instantly recognised the 'him' Claudia had to be referring to.
Bella hadn't seen him for five years. Five years! And yet she had no trouble whatsoever in recognising Gabriel Danti!
No! Claudia was right; it couldn't possibly be him, Bella assured herself. Not here, of all places. It had to be an illusion.
Or perhaps just a waking nightmare!
'It is him!' Claudia exclaimed excitedly as she clutched Bella's arm. 'It's Gabriel Danti, Bella! Can you believe it?'
No, Bella couldn't believe it. She didn't want to believe it!
Maybe it wasn't him, just someone who looked a lot like him?
The height was the same, but the dark hair was much shorter than Bella remembered. The eyes, although dark, were cold and aloof despite the smile that curved those chiselled lips as he was introduced to several other guests. The cleft in the chin was also the same, but this man had a scar running from beneath his left eye to his jaw to mar the harsh, sculptured beauty of his face.
Bella remembered that Gabriel Danti had been photographed sporting a long scar down the left side of his face when he was discharged from hospital three months after the horrendous crash that had put an end to his own racing career and killed two of his fellow drivers.
Months after his accident, Gabriel Danti had returned to Italy on the family owned jet, had been photographed as he left the hospital, and then again as he entered the plane, but had rarely been seen in public since. His racing career over, he had turned his concentration on the Danti wineries and seemingly retired from the playboy lifestyle he had once so enjoyed.
'Do you remember those posters of him I had stuck all over my bedroom walls when I was younger?' Claudia laughed.
Of course Bella remembered those posters—they had given her the shivers for months following that night Bella had spent with him, her relief immense once Claudia took them down and replaced them with posters of one of the bad-boy actors of Hollywood.
'He's gorgeous, isn't he?' Claudia sighed dreamily.
'Lovely,' Bella answered insincerely, watching the man standing across the crowded room now talking to her uncle Simon.
He was several inches taller than her uncle, and had to bend slightly in order to hear the older man's conversation. He looked dark and mesmerising, his body lithe and obviously fit in the black evening suit and snowy white shirt with a black bow tie.
Could it really be Gabriel?
From the way his mere presence had ensnared the attention of all the female guests at the party Bella could well believe it was him. She just didn't want it to be!
'His hair's shorter, of course— Oh, look, he favours his left leg…' Claudia sympathised as their cousin Brian moved with the man to introduce him to several members of his own family who had made the trip over for the wedding tomorrow.
'His legs were badly crushed in the accident five years ago, remember,' Bella murmured with a frown.
'You would have thought that all the Danti millions could have fixed that,' her sister mused. 'You know, Bella,' she added slowly, 'he reminds me of someone…'
'Probably Gabriel Danti!' Bella said sharply as she finally came out of the dazed stupor that had held her firmly in its grip, linking her arm with her sister's in order to turn Claudia in the direction of the bar. 'Let's go and get some more champagne.'
'Aren't you in the least intrigued to know if it is him?' Claudia looked at her teasingly. She was of a similar height to Bella, but her hair was a short, wispy cap of ebony, the blue of her figure-hugging knee-length gown a perfect match in colour for her eyes.
'Not in the least,' Bella dismissed firmly, deliberately going to the farthest end of the bar away from the crowd of people where the man who looked like Gabriel Danti was now the centre of attention, several other people having drifted over to join the group, obviously as intrigued as Claudia.
Claudia gave a husky chuckle of affection as they stood at the bar waiting for their champagne glasses to be refilled. 'My big sister, the man hater!'
Bella raised dark brows. 'I don't hate all men—just those that have gone through puberty!'
'Exactly.' Claudia grinned, her face arrestingly pretty rather than classically beautiful. 'I wonder if I should go over and say hello to Brian and see if he can introduce me to— No, wait a minute…' Her attention noticeably sharpened as she looked over Bella's shoulder. 'I do believe our darling cousin is bringing him over to meet us!' Her face brightened excitedly.
Bella couldn't believe this was happening!
She didn't even want to look at a man who resembled Gabriel Danti, let alone be introduced to him—
'And last, but not least, I would like you to meet the two most beautiful women I know after Dahlia,' Brian said affectionately behind her. 'Bella, Claudi, can I introduce you to Dahlia's cousin, Gabriel Danti? Gabriel, my cousins, Claudia and Isabella Scott.'
It truly was Gabriel Danti!
Bella couldn't breathe. Her mind had gone completely blank. Her knees had turned to jelly. In fact no part of her seemed to be functioning properly.
Luckily for her Claudia had eagerly grasped on to the introduction, and was even now enthusing to Gabriel how much she had enjoyed watching him during his career in Formula One racing, giving Bella a little time to catch her breath as she heard the familiar husky accented tones as he murmured a polite but dismissive response.
Perhaps Gabriel wouldn't remember her? Bella thought frantically.
Of course he wouldn't remember her!
Why should he remember the student of art and history called Bella who had once shared his bed for the night?
From his lack of a phone call, she could only assume he had forgotten her instantly!
'Bella…?' Brian prompted lightly as she still kept her back firmly turned towards both him and his guest.
Bella drew in a deep, steadying breath, knowing that she had no choice but to turn and face the man she so longed to forget, as he had her.
Gabriel's expression was blandly polite as Isabella Scott turned to face him. 'Miss Scott,' he greeted evenly as he briefly took the cool slenderness of her hand in his before releasing it. 'Or may I call you Isabella?'
'Everyone calls her Bella,' Claudia put in helpfully.
'May I?' The icy darkness of Gabriel's gaze easily held Bella captive.
Violet-coloured eyes were surrounded by thick dark lashes the same colour as that wild cascade of hair down the slender length of her spine…
Bella blinked before abruptly breaking the intensity of Gabriel's gaze to focus on something across the room. 'Bella is fine,' she answered him evenly.
Isabella Scott looked self-assured and incredibly beautiful in an off-the-shoulder gown of the exact colour of her eyes, and, if Gabriel was not mistaken, her small, pointed chin was slightly raised in challenge as her gaze returned questioningly to meet the intensity of his…
'More guests to greet,' Brian Kingston murmured apologetically as he glanced across the room. 'Excuse me, won't you, Gabriel? I'm sure Bella and Claudi will be only too pleased to keep you entertained.' He shot a teasing glance at the younger of the two cousins before turning and making his way back across the crowded room to his fiancée's side.
Gabriel's gaze was hooded as he continued to look steadily at Bella. 'Will you?'
An irritated frown appeared between her eyes. 'Will I what?' she prompted sharply.
'Be pleased to keep me entertained?' he drawled with cool mockery.
Purple lights flashed in the depths of her eyes. 'Do you need entertaining, Mr Danti?'
'In truth, I doubt I will be staying long enough for that to be necessary,' he conceded.
Gabriel hadn't intended attending this party at all this evening, but at the last moment his father had asked him to represent the Danti side of the family, as he didn't feel well enough to attend the party of his niece this evening as well as her wedding tomorrow. Gabriel had reluctantly agreed to come in his place, his intention to only stay long enough to satisfy the proprieties.
At least, it had been…
Gabriel Danti wasn't staying long, Bella triumphed with inward relief. 'I'm sure Claudia and I can manage a few minutes' polite conversation, Mr Danti.'
Gabriel Danti gave a mocking inclination of his head before turning his attention to Claudia. 'Are you enjoying your visit to San Francisco, Claudia?'
Bella allowed her breath to leave her lungs in a soft, shaky sigh as she at last felt herself released from the intensity of Gabriel's dark, compelling gaze, and she took those few moments of respite to study him more closely.
The man she had met five years ago had possessed the broodingly magnetic good looks of his heavenly namesake. Along with a lazy self-confidence and charm that was utterly captivating, and a warm sensuality in those chocolate-brown eyes that undressed a woman at a glance.
Or, in Bella's experience, made a woman want to undress for him at a glance!
The man talking oh-so-politely to Claudia still possessed those broodingly magnetic good looks—the livid scar down the left side of his face only added a dangerous edge to that attraction!—but his eyes were no longer that warm and sensual colour of melted chocolate but were instead a flat, unemotional brown, and the lazy charm and self-confidence had been replaced with a cold and arrogant aloofness.
As far as Bella was aware, Gabriel had never married—although, in all honesty, Bella hadn't particularly gone out of her way to learn anything about his life in the five years since they had parted so abruptly.
What would have been the point? The two of them had shared nothing more than a night of unimaginable and unrepeatable passion.
'Would you care for a drink?'
Bella raised startled eyes to Gabriel's, frowning slightly as she saw the glass he held out to her. Champagne. It would have to be champagne, wouldn't it?
'Thank you,' she accepted stiltedly.
Gabriel watched beneath hooded lids as Bella's cheeks warmed with colour as she took the fluted glass from him with a deftness that prevented her fingers from coming into contact with his.
His mouth twisted derisively as he asked, 'Is this your first visit to San Francisco, too, Bella?'
'You like the city?'
'Have you done much sightseeing since your arrival?'
Gabriel's gaze narrowed at the economy of her replies. 'Perhaps—'
'Excuse me for interrupting, Gabriel,' his cousin Dahlia, tomorrow's bride, cut in lightly as she joined them, 'but my brother Benito is anxious to become re-acquainted with Claudia,' she added indulgently.
'Really?' The younger of the two Scott sisters glanced across the room to where Benito stood watching her intently.
Bella felt herself begin to tremble as she was overwhelmed with an impending sense of doom. If Claudia left then Bella would be completely alone with—
'You don't mind, do you, Bella?' Claudia's eyes were glowing with excitement. She had confided in Bella earlier today, after being introduced to Benito the previous evening, that she definitely wanted to get to know Dahlia's older brother better.
Obviously the attraction was reciprocated—which didn't help Bella in the least when she had no inclination whatsoever to be left alone with Gabriel Danti!
'I assure you, Claudia, your sister will be perfectly safe with me,' Gabriel replied with dry mockery before Bella had a chance to say anything.
Bella shot him a glance beneath her long lashes. She still had absolutely no idea whether or not Gabriel remembered her from their night together five years ago— and she didn't want to know, either.
She remembered him, and that was bad enough!
But before she could add anything to his reply Claudia gave her arm a grateful squeeze. 'Thanks, Bella,' she whispered before moving away to accompany Dahlia over to where the dark and handsome Benito stood waiting.
The sudden silence the two women left in their wake seemed deafening to Bella.
The room was full of people, at least a hundred or so of the guests invited to the wedding tomorrow, all of them chatting or laughing as they either renewed old acquaintances or met new ones. And yet as far as Bella was concerned she and Gabriel could have been alone on an island in the Arctic—the air between them was certainly frigidly cold enough for them to be on one!
'There is a more—private sitting area next to this one in which we might talk,' Gabriel bit out abruptly.
Bella raised apprehensive eyes, knowing that wariness was justified as Gabriel looked down his nose at her with a glacial brown gaze, his mouth—the mouth she had once found so sensually mesmerising!—flattened to a thin, uncompromising line above that cleft chin.
She moistened suddenly dry lips. 'I'm perfectly happy where I am, thank you, Mr Danti.'
His eyes became even more icy as he reached out and curled his fingers compellingly about the top of her arm. 'It was a statement of intent, Bella, not a question,' he assured her grimly as he began to walk towards the exit, Bella firmly anchored to his side, the stiffness of his left leg barely noticeable.
'Do you really want to have this conversation here, in front of Dahlia and Brian's other guests?' he asked harshly as he came to a halt halfway across the crowded room to look down at her through narrowed lids.
Bella swallowed hard as she saw the unmistakeably angry glitter in that dark gaze. 'I have absolutely no idea what conversation you're referring to—'
'Oh, I think that you do, Bella,' he retorted menacingly.
Bella thought that she did, too!