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Winter had come early, the late-September day dressed in drab colours as if the planet itself was mourning the death of her grandfather. But the inclement weather found only empathy with Gabriella D'Arenberg, the damp air and misty rain matching her mood as she stood beside her grandfather's flower-strewn grave in the Cimetiere de Passy. Then the last of the mourners whispered condolences and pressed cold lips briefly to her cheeks before drifting away along the path.
She would leave shortly too, once Consuelo had returned from the call he had excused himself to take, and they would join everyone at the hotel where the caterers were no doubt already serving canapes and cognac. But for now Gabriella was happy to be left alone in quiet reflection in the cold, dank stillness of the graveyard. Here, under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, there was nothing to intrude, the sounds of the city barely penetrating the stone walls.
Until a dark shadow made her gasp and look around.
He appeared out of the fog, tall, broad and dark as night as he moved stealthily between the funeral sculptures, the winged angels and fat cherubs suspended ghost-like in the swirling mist as he passed. A shiver of recognitionor was it of relief?washed through her and bizarrely, for the first time that day, she felt warm. Raoul.
She had seen him at the service; it had been impossible to miss his dark presence in the back of the tiny crowded chapel. Her heart had lifted at the prospect of seeing him again after so many years, only to exit the chapel to a bubble of disappointment when she had found him nowhere amongst the mourners gathered outside. Raoul, who with his intense black eyes and passionate mouth had been her every adolescent fantasydark fantasies she'd had no right to imagine. Wicked fantasies that brought a blush to her cheeks just thinking about them. And, when she'd got news that he'd married, she'd cried for two days solid. She'd cried for him a year later when she'd learned of his wife's death. Thank God he had no idea about any of it or she could never face him now. Thank God she was over all that.
The crunch of boots on gravel grew louder, his long leather coat swirling about his legs, his hair pulled back into a ponytail that served to accentuate the strong lines and angles of his chiselled features. His eyes, if anything, were even more intense than she remembered under that dark slash of brow. Tortured, even. And something about that intensity frightened her a little, just as if his purposeful stride held a portent of danger, sending a tremor skittering down her spine.
The mist, she thought in explanation, as she continued to log his approach with her eyes. The cold, swirling air
The air shifted and parted before him and then he was there, standing before her, a mountain of blackness in a mist-shrouded world, so tall that she had to tilt her head back to look up at him and his unflinching expression. He didn't smile. She didn't expect him to, not really, not this day.
But this was Raoul, an old family friend, so she dismissed her feelings of foreboding and danger and ventured a nervous smile of greeting, slipping her hands instinctively into his as easily as she had once done, relishing their instant warmth, thinking, you came. 'Raoul, it's so good to see you.'
For a moment he seemed to tense, and she wondered if she'd overstepped the mark by presuming familiarity. Then his hands squeezed hers and the tightness around his mouth relaxed just enough to give an answering smile that still spoke of sadness and loss. 'Gabriella,' he said in a way that seemed to cherish every syllable as he uttered it.
Then he leaned down to kiss first one cheek, and then the other, slow, lingering kisses. She shuddered under the brush of his lips against her flesh, his warm breath curling into hers and peeling back the years. She breathed him in, taken by the way he smelt so familiar, of clean skin and warm leather and the same woody notes of his signature scent that she recalledyet there was so much more besides, as if what she'd remembered had been but a shadow of his essence.
'I am so sorry for your loss.' He drew back then, letting her hands drop, and she tried desperately not to be disappointed by his absence, shoving her hands in her coat pockets, not just to keep them warm but more to stop them reaching out for him. Those teenage fantasies might have been behind her, but Raoul was here now, real, broad and achingly close. Inside her pockets, her hands curled into fists.
'I didn't know you were coming,' she managed a little shakily, surprised he could still affect her so deeply and so fundamentally, even after so many years. 'Or you could have stayed at the house. Where are you staying? You should have let me know.'
He rattled off the name of a hotel that barely registered in the force of the impact of seeing him again. But then, she was hardly herself right now. Memories, especially memories of anything and anyone connected to her grandfather, seemed all too willing to bubble to the surface. Raoul had been close to her grandfather for longer than she had, their two families intertwined as long as she could remember, at least until the tragedy that had wiped out both sets of parents. 'And of course,' she said, acknowledging that truth, 'It's your loss too.'
'Umberto was a good man,' he said with a nod, his deep voice rich with emotion. 'I will miss him more than I can say.' Then he blinked and something skated across his eyes, something so sharp and painful she could almost feel its sting, so fleeting it was gone before she could make sense of it, even if he hadn't turned his head to look down at the grave.
Remembering, she assumed, as she studied his profile and catalogued the changes time had wrought. He had always been on the outer edge of good-looking, his dark, strong features organised in a way that was compelling rather than handsome in any conventional sense, the shadows in his features hinting at unknown dangers and untold secrets.
How many nights had she lain awake imagining all those dangers, all those secrets, wishing she might one day know them all?
Age had lent him even more mystery. The angles of his jaw looked sharper. The secrets hinted at in the shadows seemed darker, his eyes more haunted. True, there were lines around his eyes, but he was simply more, she decided, more than he had been before. More edgy. More mysterious.
And with a start she realised that, while she'd been lost in her musings, he had changed his focus and was now studying her.
Dark-as-midnight eyes scanned her face, a hint of a frown creasing his brow, and she wondered if something was wrong before he nodded, gave her another of those slight smiles and stepped away a little to look at her. 'Whatever happened to the Gabriella I used to know? The skinny girl with plaits who always had her head in a book.'
She hid her embarrassment under a laugh, secretly hoping his comments meant that he approved of how she looked now, for it seemed important somehow that he did. She had long since come to terms with the knowledge that she'd never be classically beautifulher eyes were too large and wide, and the chin that she'd hidden under a hand for much of her early teenage years was too pointy. But it was her face and over the years she'd learned to accept it, if it had taken finishing school to give her the skills to emphasise her eyes and learn to like how she looked. 'She grew up, Raoul. That skinny girl was a long, long time ago.'
'It was,' he agreed, and then he paused, as if remembering another time, other bleak days filled with funerals. 'How have you been?'
She shrugged. 'Good. And sometimes not so good.' She glanced at the open grave, felt the anguish of loss bite hard and bite deep. 'But, even so, better now for seeing you.' She paused, wondering how much she could say without revealing too much of herself, and then decided simply to be honest. 'I'm so glad you're here.'
'And me.' His dark eyes looked past her. 'But you should not be alone now.'
'Oh, I'm not. Not really. Consueloa friendis here. He left ' She looked around, pushing a loose tendril of hair from her face as she scanned the cemetery. 'He left to take an urgent phone call.' That seemed to be taking for ever. 'Probably for one of his foundations, I expect. He heads a charity for children with cancer and leukaemia. He's always on the phone chasing contributions.'
She was babbling, she knew, making excuses for him as she glanced at her watch before scanning the grounds again, wondering how he could let one of his donors keep him so long, today of all days. 'We're heading to the hotel shortly for the wake. Everyone's already there.'
She looked back up at him, suddenly fearful that this man was about to step out of her life as quickly as he had stepped back into it, leaving her with no idea when she might ever see him again. The thought of going another ten-plus years was suddenly too awful to contemplate. 'You will come, won't you? I saw you in the chapel but you'd disappeared by the time I got outside, and I thought I'd missed you. There's so much I want to talk to you about.'
He lifted a hand and pushed that wayward coil of her hair from her cheek with just the pads of his fingers, the lightest touch that sent a rush of heat pulsing through her. 'Of course I will come. It will be my pleasure.'
Breath stalled in her lungs; his fingers lingered as he coiled the strands behind her ear, as he looked down at her with those dark, dark eyes.
She blinked, registering her name, but registering even more that Raoul had still not removed his hand. His fingers curved around her neck, gently stroking her skin, warm and evocative, even as she angled her head towards Consuelo's approach. The touch of an old friend, she told herself, reaching out to someone over a shared loss; it was nothing more than that. It would be rude, an over reaction, to brush his hand away.
'Are you coming?' Consuelo asked, still metres away and frowning as his eyes shifted from one to the other, taking in the tableau. 'We're going to be late.'
'Gabriella was waiting for you, as it happens,' Raoul said, and she looked up at him, surprised. For, even if he had correctly assumed this was Consuelo, that would hardly explain the note of barely contained animosity in his words.
Consuelo didn't seem to notice. He seemed far more interested in staring at Raoul's hand where it lingered at her throat, as if just the heat from his glare would make it disappear. For the first time she wondered if maybe it had been there too long. She put her hand to his and tugged it down, but wasn't about to let him go completely, sandwiching it between her own instead. She noticed he made no move to withdraw from her completely.
'Am I missing something?' she asked, looking from one to the other, for the first time realising the similarities in the two menand the differences. Both shared Spanish colouring, with dark eyes and hair, but that was where the similarities began and ended. Raoul was taller, broader, more imposing. He made Consuelo look almost small. 'Do you two know each other?'
'Consuelo and I are old friends,' Raoul uttered slowly, in a measured tone that suggested they were anything but. 'Aren't we, Consuelo?' The other man's eyes skittered with something approximating fear before he turned to Gabriella, tugging on his tie.
'Phillipa said the priest wanted to say a few words,' he said, ignoring the other man as much as it was physically able. 'He's waiting for you to arrive to begin. Now.'
'Phillipa called you?' Was that the phone call that had kept him so long? That was odd. Her friend had never before called Consuelo; Gabriella wasn't convinced Phillipa even liked him. Unless Phillipa had figuredcorrectly, as it turned outthat her phone would be off and that Consuelo, with his twenty-four-seven phone addiction, would be a better bet. She nodded. At least that made some kind of sense. 'Then we should go. Raoul, can we offer you a lift?'
Consuelo stepped closer alongside her, tugging at her arm. 'Look, the car's waiting. We should get going.'
Raoul smiled. 'Thank you for your kind offer, Gabriella, but I wish to have a few words with your grandfather before I make my own way.' He lifted his hand, capturing one of hers as he raised it to his mouth, pressing his warm lips to her skin, his dark eyes glancing up at her as dark tendrils of his hair fell free from his ponytail to dance around the sharp angles and shadowed recesses of his face. 'Until we meet again, Bella,' he said, using his old pet name for her, an endearment she hadn't heard in over a decade.
But he had remembered.
And then those same eyes turned to meet the other man's and somehow turned ice-cold in the interim. 'Garbas,' he said with a nod, so simply that it took Gabriella only a second to realise he'd dismissed the other man out of hand. Consuelo felt it too, for he took her hand and tugged her away.
Raoul watched them disappear along the misty path, unable to suppress a growl when Garbas looped a proprietorial arm around Gabriella's shoulders and pulled her in close.
For his benefit, he had no doubt. Umberto had been right about the hyena sniffing around, watching and waiting for his chance to strikenot that he would see a penny of Gabriella's fortune if Raoul had anything to do with it. Not now the dogs were closing in.
It hadn't taken much. He'd known there would be dirt and plenty of it if he just dug deep enough. Now he just had to sit back and wait. It wouldn't be long and then Gabriella would be safe from his clutches.
Forgotten for years, lost under the weight of time, yet still the endearment had come to him automatically, as if all he had to do was see her before it tripped from his tongue. Yet she looked so different now from the last time they had met. When had twelve years ever passed so profitably? For him, it had been a period of loss, betrayal, death and ultimately of his own self-imposed exile. For her, it seemed those years had worked some kind of magic, transforming her from a gangly child into a very beautiful woman.
They might just as well have been living on different planets.
Huddled alongside the grave, her coat lashed tightly around her slim waist, her glossy chestnut hair coiled behind her head, she had been almost unrecognisable from the child he remembered, yet he should have seen it coming. Her mother had been beautiful after all, half-English-rose, half-Italian-royalty, her father the creme de la creme of French aristocracy. Her heart-shaped face somehow captured the best of all of them: her mother's cat-like eyes and smooth-as-silk complexion, her father's passionate mouth. Beautiful. Fragile.
Much too good for the likes of him.