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The restaurant bar had become so crowded that Cassie discovered it was a struggle to lift her glass to her lips. Not that she minded standing there, soaking up the bright, noisy atmosphere, she told herself, eyes busily taking in the sight of her fellow workmates all dressed up in their best party glamour for this evening's introductory treat laid on by their new boss.
It had been so long since she'd been to anything like this and it felt so good to be here. She'd even indulged in a frighteningly expensive new dress for herself, made of a smooth black-on-charcoal embossed silk, which skimmed her slender figure and felt fabulously stylish and chic. With her hair professionally cut and styled for the first time in years, now her pale golden locks felt wonderful as they brushed against her naked shoulders whenever she moved her head.
'Your eyes are sparkling like big shiny emeralds,' Ella remarked dryly beside her. 'You're loving this, aren't you?'
A brilliant smile enhanced the shape of Cassie's rose-glossed mouth. 'I'd forgotten what it's like to actually enjoy being a part of such a noisy, mad crush!'
'Well, here's to a lot more of the same now the twins are a bit older.' Ella somehow managed to lift her glass high enough to chink it against Cassie's. 'No more skimping and saving and emulating an overworked drudge now you don't need to pay those crazy pre-school nursery fees.'
'From single working mum to wild party girl in one leap.' Cassie laughed. 'Do you want me to do a bit of husband hunting at the same time?'
'God, no.' Ella shuddered and Cassie watched a cloud settle across her friend's pretty face.
Ella was fresh out of a long-term relationship with a guy who'd dumped her six weeks away from their wedding day with the classic—I'm just not ready to be tied down—excuse. Cassie knew exactly what that felt like—the dumping part anyway. Only in her case she'd been left pregnant with twins.
'He's history, Ella,' she reminded her firmly, 'forget about him.'
With a blink of her long black eyelashes Ella nodded, setting her bobbed dark hair swinging around her face. 'Yes, I've moved on, haven't I?'
Haven't we both? Cassie thought. 'With bells on,' she agreed and gave their glasses a second chink. 'Think huge great bodybuilder with the temperament of a pussycat instead of razor-sharp share-dealer with the genetic make-up of a slithery snake.'
Ella burst out laughing at the comparison between her current lover and the one that had got away. The sound of her laughter caught the attention of several people crushed in around them and with a shift of bodies their conversation changed to include those around them. The next few minutes went by with the easy camaraderie that came from people who worked in close proximity five days a week, and the party atmosphere moved up a gear with the help of the free-flowing wine. The crush tightened then eased and tightened again as people began to circulate.
'When are they going to start herding us upstairs to eat?' Ella sighed a while later. 'I'm starving.'
'I think we must be waiting for the new boss to arrive,' Cassie said, squeezing a sip of wine from her glass.
'Well, if it gets any more crowded in here we'll be like sardines in a can,' her friend complained, 'although I wouldn't mind playing sardines with the guy that's just walked in here with our MD and a clutch of scary bigwig types…'
Turning her head to look in the direction that Ella was looking, Cassie just wasn't prepared for what came next. Shock struck her blindside. For the next few horrible seconds she felt as if she were falling off the edge of a cliff! Her legs went hollow beneath her then started to fill up again from her toes with a tingling wild rush of hot static as instant recognition screamed through her head. She had not laid eyes on him in six long years, yet each lean, hard, vital inch of him battered her senses with a familiarity that dragged her heart to a shuddering stop.
And who could miss him? she thought helplessly as her heart lurched into action again with a blunt, hammering beat. He was so tall he stood a good head and shoulders above the others clustered around him, even with his dark head tilted down a little so he could hear what their short and portly MD was saying over the noisy buzz of conversation filling up the bar. Yet Cassie knew the top of that head; she knew it so intimately it could have been only an hour ago that she'd run her fingers through the thick layers of vibrant black silk. Her fingers even twitched tautly around her wineglass in stinging recognition, almost sending the glass and its contents crashing to the white marble floor beneath her strappy black mules.
'Methinks we are getting our first eyeful of our new boss,' Ella murmured beside her, 'and just feel the change to the buzz in here…'
It took Cassie several seconds to absorb that piece of information because she was too busy trying to deal with the buzz going on inside herself.
'No,' she managed with a shivery cold whisper, 'that isn't him.'
'Are you sure…?' Ella took a moment to reassess the man in question, while all Cassie could do was to stand there, locked in her own private form of hell. Then, 'No, it's got to be him, Cassie,' her friend determined. 'That totally gorgeous piece of manhood just can't go by any other name than the oh-so-sexy-sounding Alessandro Marchese.'
The name rolled off Ella's tongue like a sensual fantasy. Cassie suffered a stinging, sharp jolt to her chest. Alessandro Marchese? Was Ella looking at a different man?
'You mark my words, we are looking at a few billion dollars of hot Italian breeding standing over there, cara,' Ella mocked dryly, 'and, if I'm not mistaken, the lady in red clinging to his arm can match him gene for superior gene…'
The lady in red…
Wrenching her gaze sideways, Cassie confirmed that indeed she and Ella were looking at the same man as she stared at the fabulously beautiful, glossy black-haired creature wearing an exquisitely cut blood-red dress who was clinging to his arm while she listened to what the two men were saying. They looked at ease with each other—intimate—like two lovers who'd been lovers for a very long time.
And Ella was right, they did suit each other—in the same way that the name Alessandro Marchese suited him far better than the plain Sandro Rossi Cassie had known him by did!
As she dragged her eyes back to him, a burning, sick bitterness dried up her throat when she discovered that he'd lifted his head up and she was now getting a full-on view of his face—a face that had lost none of its raw masculine impact in the six years since she'd last looked at it, she acknowledged painfully. Those long, lazy eyelids, the straight, fleshless nose, the slender and firm yet shatteringly sensual mouth… Like someone harbouring a death wish, Cassie drank in the smooth stretch of gold skin across his stunning high cheekbones and the way his lavishly long and thick black eyelashes almost brushed against those stunning cheekbones as he turned a wry, sexy smile on the woman in the red dress.
If she'd had the strength in her legs she would be walking over there to slap that smile off his lying face! Alessandro Marchese… Who was he trying to kid? Was he a crook or something that he had to use an assumed name these days? Or was she the one who'd been lied to? The one who'd been sucked in by his fabulous dark looks and his gorgeously intense sincerity, the one who'd been so skilfully romanced and thoroughly seduced then left like an unwanted breakfast when he'd swanned off back to his native Italy to get on with his real life?
The sting of betrayal stalked down her backbone like taunting fingers as she studied the way he was standing there exuding the supremely relaxed self-assurance which came automatically to smooth-tongued, sexually confident brutes. Cassie hated him yet she could not stop herself from feasting on him, couldn't stop her eyes from sliding down the column of his strong, bronzed throat to the width of his broad shoulders set inside a superbly crafted dark lounge suit, and across the white shirt that did absolutely nothing to subdue the hard-muscled power in his long, lean physique.
And she remembered it all, every intimate detail, from the hair-roughened power of his rich golden torso, with its satin-tight abdomen that felt like warm, living satin to touch, and the sleek, corded sinew which angled so dramatically down the narrow bowl of his hips to the—
She had to get out of here—
The need struck with a startling punch of delayed reaction that sent her slender body jerking up straight. As if he picked up the violence in her reaction, he lifted those heavy eyelids and looked directly into her face, forcing her into a head-on collision with a pair of piercingly deep-set blacker-than-black eyes that she'd wished, hoped, prayed she would never have to look into again!
Time suddenly ground to a shimmering standstill. The bright, noisy chatter filling the bar just stopped as if someone had thrown up a glass wall, shutting the two of them off from everyone else as six long years of grimly burying his memory shattered in the wild rush of images that began to rampage around her head.
Sandro laughing… Sandro smiling that dryly amused smile when she'd shyly tried to flirt with him…Sandro holding her… kissing her… Sandro oh, so gentle then turning hot and fierce and devouringly intense as they made love.
A shaft of pure sexual fire stroked right down her middle, catching Cassie out so badly she sucked in her breath. The breath forced her lips apart and made his fabulous eyelashes flicker as he honed his attention on to her mouth, and her whole body stung and tightened in direct response to that luminous dark glance. She didn't want to feel like this. She wanted to be left cold by the sight of him and she was appalled that that was not how it was!
Like a man slowly tracking old pleasures, he lifted his gaze to take in the waterfall shine of her pale gold hair brushing against her trembling white shoulders, then dropped to where the strapless structure of her dress hugged the creamy thrust of her breasts. The message powering out of his eyes was so hot and so elementally sexual Cassie felt a terrible flush of agonised awareness prickle her fair skin. She wanted to cry out in shrill, pained, angry protest but she couldn't. She had never felt so agonisingly exposed to her own wretched weakness in her entire life.
It did not occur to her that it had taken him this long to recognise her, until he finally lifted his eyes back to her eyes and she watched his lazy, searching expression alter to a look of shock. For the next few taut seconds she actually thought he was going to keel over, the way his eyes widened then turned as black as Hades and his face drained of its beautiful bronzed tan. She stopped breathing—she stopped doing anything—breathing, hearing, thinking…
Then he stiffened his long body up and abruptly turned his back on her, blanking her out with a cruel, ruthless economy that was like having a door slammed in her face.
Left totally, utterly stunned and shaken by the sheer brutality of his rejection, Cassie thought that she was the one going to faint. Someone accidentally knocked her arm, almost spilling her drink, but she barely noticed. Someone else spoke to her but she couldn't work out a single word that they said. She knew she'd gone pale because she felt pale; a clammy kind of chill had settled over her flesh. And worse—much worse—was the way an already badly wounded part of her was cracking open like a fissure forming a fresh wound over a jagged old one in recognition that he could still do that to her after all of these years and here of all places, in full view of all her work colleagues.
Somehow—she didn't really know how—she managed to turn away from him. She managed to draw in a few shallow breaths. She was feeling so badly shaken up inside it took all her control not to start moving like a battering ram in her desperation to get out of the now suffocating crush.
'Do you think they'll let us go and eat now?' she heard Ella murmur wistfully.
And it came as a further shock to realise that the whole shattering incident must have only lasted a few seconds. 'Yes,' she breathed like a metal-encased robot set on automation.
Who was she…?
The question lit up Alessandro's brain like a bolt of lightning and sent a too-familiar pain whipping across the front of his head, forcing him to lift a hand up to rub at his brow.
And he felt weird, as if something was scooping him out from the inside.
Could instant sexual attraction be so strong it could threaten to take the legs from beneath you? he wondered. It was years—he couldn't remember the last time the sight of a beautiful woman had felled him so completely as the blonde had just done. And he was angry with himself for letting it happen here of all places, with a woman who'd just become one of the newest members of his international workforce. It was unprofessional—and damned inconvenient when he—
'Headache, Alessandro?' Always aware of any change in his mood, Pandora spoke, her voice reaching him softly laced with concern.
'No.' Dropping the hand from his face, he found himself turning to narrow another look at the blonde.
Even her rear view sent that same instant shaft of fire burning through him, almost knocking him sideways with its power. And her hair—her hair… there was something about the colour of her hair and the way it caressed her slender white shoulders—
'You've gone a worrying shade of pale, cara,' Pandora persisted. 'Are you sure you—?'
'Jet lag,' he dismissed with irritation, most of his attention still fixed on the blonde. 'We have just arrived here straight off a fifteen-hour flight. Don't fuss, Pandora. You know it annoys the hell out of me.'
Who was she…? And why was he getting this gut-shaking feeling that he had seen her somewhere before…?
'And you worked instead of resting…' His companion ignored his warning. 'One day, Alessandro, you will—'