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THE HOTEL BALLROOM was a Christmas fairyland.
Evergreen garlands hung with silver and gold ornaments were draped across the ceiling; elegant white faux Christmas trees sparkled with tiny gold lights. Someone said there'd even be a visit from Santa at midnight, tossing expensive baubles to the well-dressed and incredibly moneyed crowd.
Nothing could ever compare with New York's first charity ball of the holiday season.
Dante Russo had seen it all before. The truth was, it bored the hell out of him. The crowds, the noise, the in-your-face signs of power and wealth...
But then, for some reason everything bored him lately. Even—perhaps especially—the high-octane excitement of his current mistress as she clung to his arm.
"Oh, DanteDarling," she kept saying, "oh, oh, oh, isn't this fabulous?"
That was how she'd taken to addressing him, as if his name and the supposed-endearment were one word instead of two. And fabulous seemed to be her favorite adjective tonight. So far, she'd used it to describe the decorations, the band, their table and the guests.
A month ago, he'd found Charlotte's affectations amusing. Now, he found them almost as irritating as her breathless, little-girl voice.
Dante glanced at his watch. Another hour and he'd make his excuses about an early-morning meeting and leave. She'd protest: it would mean missing Santa's visit. But he'd assure her Santa would bring her something special tomorrow.
A little blue box from Tiffany, delivered to her apartment building not by Saint Nick but by FedEx.
He would see to it the box held something fabulous, Dante thought wryly. Something that would serve not only as a gift to make up for ending the night early but as a goodbye present.
His interest in Charlotte was at an end. He'd sensed it for days. Now, he knew it. He only hoped the breakup would be clean. He always made it clear he wasn't interested in forever, but some women refused to get the message, and—
He blinked. "Yes, Charlotte?"
"You're not listening!"
"I'm sorry. I, ah, I have a meeting in the morning and—"
"Dennis and Eve were telling everyone about their place in Colorado."
"Yes. Of course. Aspen, isn't it?"
"That's right," Eve said, and sighed wearily. "It's still gorgeous—"
"Fabulous," Charlotte said eagerly. "But it's not what it used to be. So many people have discovered the town..."
Dante did his best to listen but his attention wandered again. What was the matter with him tonight? He didn't feel like himself at all. Bored or not, he knew better than to let his emotions gain control.
Giving free rein to your feelings was a mistake. It revealed too much, and revealing yourself to others was for fools.
That conviction, bred deep in his Sicilian bones by a childhood of poverty and neglect, had served him well. It had lifted him from the gutters of Palermo to the spires of Manhattan.
At thirty-two, Dante ruled an international empire, owned homes on two continents, owned a Mercedes and a private jet, and had his choice of spectacularly beautiful women.
His money had little to do with that.
He was, as more than one woman had whispered, beautiful. He was tall and leanly muscled, with the hard body of an athlete, the face of Michelangelo's David and the reputation of being as exciting in the bedroom as he was formidable in the boardroom.
In other words, Dante had everything a man could possibly want, including the knowledge that his life could very well have turned out differently. Being aware of that was part of who he was. It helped keep him alert.
Everyone said that of him. That he was focused. Tightly so, not just on his business affairs or whatever woman held his interest at the moment but on whatever was happening around him.
Tonight, he couldn't keep his attention on anything. He'd already lost interest in the conversation of the others at the table. He took his cue from Charlotte, nodded, smiled, even laughed when it seemed appropriate.
It bothered him that he should be so distracted. Except, that was the wrong word. What he felt was—What? Restless. As if something was about to happen. Something he wasn't prepared for, which was impossible.
He was always prepared.
Always, he thought... Except for that one time. That one time—
"DanteDarling, you aren't paying attention at all!" Charlotte was leaning toward him, head tilted at just the right angle to make an offering of her décolletage. She was smiling, but the glint in her eye told him she wasn't happy.
"He's always like this," she said gaily, "when he's planning some devastating business coup." She gave a delicate shudder. "Whatever is it, DanteDarling? Something bloody and awful—and oh, so exciting?"
Everyone laughed politely. So did Dante, but he knew, in that instant, his decision to end things with Charlotte was the right one.
These past couple of weeks, while he'd grown bored she'd grown more demanding. Why hadn't he phoned? Where had he been when she called him? She'd begun using that foolish name for him and now she'd taken to dropping little remarks that made it seem as if she and he were intimate in all the ways he had made clear he never would be.
With any woman. Any woman, even—"...would love to spend Christmas in Aspen, wouldn't we, DanteDarling?"
Dante forced a smile. "Sorry. I didn't get that."
"Dennis and Eve want us to fly to Aspen," Charlotte purred. "And I accepted."
Dante's eyes met hers. "Did you," he said softly. "Of course! You know we're going to spend Christmas together. Why on earth would we want to be apart on such a special day?"
"Why, indeed," he said, after a long pause. Then he smiled and rose to his feet. "Would you like to dance, Charlotte?"
Something of what he was thinking must have shown in his face.
"Well—well, not just now. I mean, we should stay here and discuss the party. When to fly out, how long we'll stay—"
Dante took her hand, drew her from her chair and led her from the table. The band was playing a waltz as they stepped onto the dance floor.
"You're angry," she said, her voice affecting that little-girl whisper.
"I'm not angry."
"You are. But it's your own fault. Six weeks, Dante. Six weeks! It's time we took the next step."
"Toward what?" he said, his tone expressionless.
"You know what I mean. A woman expects—"
"You knew what not to expect, Charlotte." His mouth thinned; his voice turned cold. "And yet, here you are, making plans without consulting me. Talking as if our arrangement is something it is not." He danced her across the floor and into a corner. "You're right about one thing. It's time we, as you put it, took the next step."
"Are you breaking up with me?" When he didn't answer, two bright spots of color rose in her cheeks.
"An accurate perception, but it changes nothing.You're a beautiful woman.A charming woman.And a bright one. You knew from the beginning how this would end."
His tone had softened. After all, he had only himself to blame. He should have read the signs, should have realized Charlotte had been making assumptions about the future despite his initial care in making sure she understood they had none. Women seemed to make the same mistake all the time.
Most women, he thought, and a muscle jumped in his cheek.
"I've enjoyed the time we've spent together," he said, forcing his attention back where it belonged.
Charlotte jerked free of his hand. "Don't patronize me!"
"No," he replied, his voice cooling, "certainly not. If you prefer to make a scene, rest assured that I can accommodate you."
Her eyes narrowed. He knew she was weighing her options. An embarrassing public display or a polite goodbye that would make it easy for her to concoct a story to soothe her pride.
"Your choice, bella," he said, more softly. "Do we part friends or enemies?"
She hesitated. Then a smile curved her lips. "You can't blame me for trying." Still smiling, she smoothed her palms over the lapels of his dinner jacket. It was a proprietorial gesture and he let her do it; he knew it was for those who might be taking in the entire performance. "But you're cruel, DanteDarling. Otherwise, you wouldn't humiliate me in front of my friends."
"Is that what concerns you?" Dante shrugged. "It's not a problem. We'll go back to our table and finish the evening pleasantly. All right?"
"Yes. That's fine. But Dante?" The tip of her tongue flickered across her lips. "Hear me out, would you?"
"What now?" he said, trying to mask his impatience.
"I know you don't believe in love and forever after, darling. Well, neither do I." She paused. "Still, we could have an interesting life together."
He stared at her in surprise. Was she suggesting marriage? He almost laughed. Still, he supposed he understood. He didn't know Charlotte's exact age but she had to be in her late twenties, old enough to want to find a husband who could support her fondness for expensive living.
As for him, men his age had families. Children to carry forward their names. He had to admit he thought about that from time to time, especially since he'd plucked the name "Russo" from a newspaper article.
Having a child to bear the name was surely a way to legitimatize it.
Charlotte could be the perfect wife. She would demand nothing but his superficial attention and tolerate his occasional affair; she would never interfere in his life. Never fill his head to the exclusion of everything else.
And, just that suddenly, Dante knew what was wrong with him tonight.
A woman had once filled his head to the exclusion of everything else. And, damn her, she was still doing it.
The realization shot through him. He felt his muscles tighten, as if all the adrenaline his body could produce was overwhelming his system.
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Charlotte said, "don't look at me that way! I was only joking."
He knew she hadn't been joking but he decided to go along with it because it gave him something to concentrate on as he walked her back to their table.
Eva greeted them with a coy smile. "Well," she said, "what have you decided? Will we see you in Aspen?"
For a second, he didn't know what she was talking about. His thoughts were sucking him into a place of dark, cold shadows and unwanted memories.
Memories of a woman he thought he'd forgotten. Then he remembered the gist of the conversation and his promise to Charlotte.
"Sorry," he said politely, "but I'm afraid we can't make it."
Charlotte shot him a grateful look as she took her seat. He squeezed her shoulder.
"I'll be back in a few minutes."
"Going for a cigar?" Dennis said. "Russo? Wait. I'll join you."
But Dante was already making his way through the ballroom, deliberately losing himself in the crowd as he headed for one of the doors. He pushed it open, found himself in a narrow service hallway. A surprised waitress bumped into him, murmured an apology and tried to tell him he'd taken a wrong turn.
He almost told her she was right, except he'd taken that wrong turn three years ago.
He went through another door, then down a short corridor and ended up outside on a docking bay. Once he was sure he was alone, Dante threw back his head and dragged the cold night air deep into his lungs.
Dio, he had to be crazy.
All this time, and she was still there. Taylor Sommers, whom he had not seen in three years, was inside him tonight, probably had been for a very long time. How come he hadn't known it?
You didn't want to know it, a sly voice in his head told him.
A muscle knotted in his jaw.
No, he thought coldly, no. What was inside him was rage. It was one thing not to let your emotions rule you and another to suppress them, which was what he had done since she'd left him.
He'd kept his anger inside, as if doing so would rid him of it. Now, without warning, it had surfaced along with all the memories he'd carefully buried.
Not of Taylor. Not of what it had been like to be with her. Her whispers in bed.
Yes. Dante, yes. When you do that, when you do that... He groaned at the memory. The need to be inside her had been like a drug. It had brought him close to believing in the ancient superstitions of his people that said a man could be possessed.
He was long past that, had been past it by the time she left him.
It was the rest, what had happened at the end, that was still with him. Knowing that she believed she'd left him, when it wasn't true.