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Five Years Earlier
Reaching behind her, Abigail Albertini tried to snag the tiny crystal dangling from the zipper of her white silk cocktail dress. Her shoulders ached. Her neck twinged, and her artfully arranged hair lay heavy at her nape. The day had been so long. Appointments at the salon. Lunch with her bridesmaids. A last-minute meeting with the wedding planner before a pre-rehearsal cocktail hour, a trek to the church and several run-throughs with her family and friends. Then the wedding party had endured a five-course meal at Charlie Trotter's and a final round of champagne and aperitifs at her father's Lake Shore mansion, where she was now shedding the last vestiges of her life as a single woman in the room she'd slept in as a child. No wonder people wanted to only get married once. it was hard work.
She bent her arm back farther, trying not to snag her newly polished nails on the metal clasp, when she heard the deep male voice from behind her.
She spun, her heart hammering.
He emerged from the shadows beside her window looking more delicious and debonair than any man had a right to. Dressed in a tuxedo with a loosened collar and tie, he would have fit right in with the guests at tonight's pre-wedding soiree. Had he been there, blended with the crowd of out-of-town guests, family friends and Chicago elite? Her father had given the security team strict instructions to detain him if he got within two-hundred yards of her, but what chance did former military police have against a man like him?
She'd learned the hard way that what David Brandon wanted, David Brandon gotno matter the danger. No matter the cost.
As he swaggered closer and closer, she thought about screaming or running for the door. Thought, but didn't act. In that instant of indecision, his nearness ensnared her. Her exhausted nerve endings exploded with keen awareness of his body, of his hands encased in soft kid leather. Of his skin, devoid of cologne, yet rich with an intoxicating scent that was his and his alone.
David Brandon was an expert at getting into places he shouldn't. He'd breached Abby's heart that waywhat was one Gold Coast bedroom to a thief like him?
"You have to go."
"Not without you," he whispered.
She stumbled backward, forcing herself out of the fog his body heat injected into her brain. "Have you lost your mind? You betrayed me, David. You took advantage of me and used me to get your hands on my grandmother's painting. You used me."
"I know. I'm sorry. And trust me, I'm never sorry."
It wasn't his confession that stopped her retreat, but the pleading in his voice. She shook her head, knowing she must have heard wrong. Why would he beg? Why would he care? He'd taken what he wanted. She had nothing more to give.
"Then don't be sorry now. I don't need your pity and I don't accept your pathetic apology."
"It may be pathetic, but it's sincere."
"What the hell do you know about sincere? Nothing about you is real. Nothing."
This much she'd learned the hard way. David Brandon, the man who'd come into her life at a time when she was vulnerable and afraid that she was making all the right choices for all the wrong reasons, had been a fraud. A con. He'd crafted his persona specifically to get close to her, to get access to the painting. She knew that now. She knew it all.
He wasn't sweepingly romantic or achingly suave or deliciously wicked he was a filthy, thieving liar who'd stolen everything she'd ever valued, from her grandmother's cherished painting to her faith in her ability to tell the difference between a man who loved her and a man who was out to exploit everything she treasured.
He smoothed a lock of hair off her cheek.
His gloves were cold. "My feelings for you are real. Maybe the first real emotions I've ever felt."
She squeezed her eyes shut, determined not to listen, determined not to make the same mistakes with David just because her body quaked and her breasts felt heavy and tingly with his chest so near to hers.
"Why are you doing this?" she asked, hating the tears blurring her vision as she fought to look him in the eye. "You took what you wanted. There's nothing left. If I scream, my father won't just have you arrested. He'll kill you."
Despite her threat, David stepped closer until their bodies touched. She whimpered, remembering with intimate clarity how this contact had once made her weak in the kneeshow it still took every ounce of her shame not to grab on to him to steady her balance.
"I'm not afraid of your father," he said, his intense green eyes boring into her like a drill. "I'm not afraid of jail. But if I'm arrested, I won't be able to get your painting back. And I will, Abby. I swear."
The empty promise broke the spell. She pushed him away and scrambled to the other side of the room.
"When? And how? If you want to prove something to me, why don't you have it with you now?"
She didn't know why she bothered grilling him with questions. Even if he had answers, they'd be lies. A week ago, she would not have doubted him. A week ago, she would have hung on his every utterance, convinced he was on the verge of rescuing her from her privileged, but staid and predictable life. He'd promised to sweep her into an epic romantic adventure where they'd spend their days exploring the world's finest art museums and their nights making love in penthouses from Paris to Morocco to Prague.
But those dreams had been nothing but pretty pictures painted to earn her trustand access to the portrait she'd refused to ever part with.
"It's already been fenced," he said. "I had to finish the job. But I'll track it down. I'll return it to you, I promise. It'll be my wedding gift to you."
Her stomach roiled. Even if David made good on his promise, Marshall would never allow the painting into their home now that he knew the truth about her own part in this grand betrayal.
"Haven't you given us enough? Like pain? Misery?"
David skewed his face in disgust. "I'm not talking about you and that stiff."
"That stiff has a namea real name," she defended. "He inherited it from his grandfather and it stands for integrity and honesty and, remarkably, for forgiveness. Tomorrow, it will be my name, too. I'll spend the rest of my life making up for what I did, David. Will you?"
He answered her question with a curse.
"You can't marry him."
His voice was so definitive, Abby couldn't help but laugh.
"I not only can," she said, determination straightening her spine in ways it hadn't in a long time, "I will. I love him. And I don't know why he didn't toss me to the curb when I told him about us, but I'm taking this second chance, and this time, I'll get it right."
His eyes widened. "You confessed?"
"Of course I confessed! Did you think I'd cover up because I was ashamed? You probably counted on that. But I couldn't do it. I couldn't lie anymore. I told him everything. I told him how we met at the foundation fundraiser. I told him how you knew so much about me, how you plied me with champagne and lured me into the museum's Renaissance art collection. I even told him how you compared me to Titian's Diana and you to the brave Actaeon, and how I couldn't think straight and how I forgot all my promises and responsibilities and got caught up until I didn't know how to stop from ruining everything."
The words tumbled from her as if spiked with shards of shattered glass. She covered her mouth with her hands.
David dropped onto the edge of her bed. "I can't believe you told him everything."
His voice was a whisper, not of surprise, but shock. Maybe even hurt.
She didn't care. She couldn't care. His strategy had been artfully planned and executed, playing to her every weakness, her every fantasy.
But she'd learned the hard way that life wasn't about schoolgirl dreams or grand romantic affairs. It was about living. Loving.
"I couldn't live with the lies. Unlike you, I believe people should have the whole truth about someone before they make a serious decision. Marshall didn't have to honor our engagement. He could have he should have called the whole thing off. But he didn't. He's a real man who loves me enough to forgive me. And I love him. I always have and I always will."
David stood, his head shaking from side to side as if he was trying to process all she'd said. But how could he? He didn't have the capacity to understand things like love and compassion and honesty and forgiveness. If he had, he never would have sought her out in the first place.
Then he went still, took a deep breath and met her confused stare with clear, determined eyes. "My name's not David."
Her heart fell, even though this news came as no surprise, not after all the searches she'd done after he'd disappeared with her painting.
"Who are you, then?"
The momentary pause acted like an explosion of awareness. She'd made the right choice in confessing to Marshall. She'd made the right choice in accepting his forgiveness and pushing her leftover feelings for David Brandonor whatever his name wasout of her heart.
The truth did not come easily to this manand it never would.
He'd come into her life at precisely the wrong time. Just out of graduate school and only a few months into her first job, she was staring down at a future that had been mapped out for her from before she was born. Until she'd met him, she'd never questioned any of it. She'd willfully stepped onto the path of her life, never straying, never questioning, never doing anything her family would be ashamed of, even if she had fantasized about dangerous adventures and sensual sins.
Then he'd shown up. He'd offered her a taste of the very things that had always been forbiddenand for that, she'd paid a high price.
"Tell me your real name."
"Daniel," he replied. "Daniel Burnett."
"And you're from?"
"Anywhere," he said, shaking his head. "Nowhere. Doesn't matter, Abby. Nothing matters. Not if you're really going to marry him. I made a lot of mistakes, but the worst was falling in love with you."
She snorted, not caring that it was unattractive and unladylike. "That was your biggest error? The so-called falling-in-love part? Not the lying or the scheming or the fact that you took the one thing my grandmother left me when she died?"
"No, that's not what I meant. That was wrong, too. All of it. But it's what I do. It's who I am or who I was, before I met you."
She glared at him, willing herself to ignore how sincere he looked, how broken.
"And you expect me to believe that after all those carefully crafted lies, you're now telling me the truth? You're reformed? Just like that?"
"No. I mean, yes, I want you to believe me. I need you to believe me. I'm not reformed. I don't know if that's even possible, but I do love you."
She contained a bitter chuckle. God, how had she become so jaded so fast?
Falling for a liar like Daniel Burnett had definitely helped.
"And why should I believe anything you say, Daniel?" she asked, putting a searing emphasis on the name the first time it passed her lips.
"I can't stop thinking about you."
"That's just your conscience."
"No, that can't be it."
"Probably not, since I doubt you even have a conscience."
"I probably don't. At least, not one I've paid any attention to for a long time. When I do a job, I do a job. I get what I came for, I sell it for the highest price and I walk away. It's what I do. It's what I've done my whole life. But suddenly, that's changed. I can't get you out of my mind. I can't stop thinking about what I did. Remorse is an emotion I've avoided my entire life, and yet that's gotta be what I'm feeling, right? That has to mean something."
Abby took a bold, if shaky, step toward the door. This conversation was over. This situation was over. "It means you crossed the line this time, Daniel. It means you went too far. If you want to find my grandmother's painting and return it, that's up to you. But I want no part of itno part of you."
She reached for the doorknob, but he intercepted her.
"You loved me," he insisted.
Just a short time ago, his hand on hers would have felt exciting, wicked, thrilling. Now, it just felt foreign. And wrong.
"I loved the idea of you. I loved the secrecy and the illicit sex. It was like a drug. But I never meant to hurt anyone. You did. If not for this sudden burst of conscience, you would have walked away without a second thought. I may never forgive myself for my part in this mess, but Marshall has forgiven me. He trusts me to never make that mistake again. That's what love is, David or Daniel or whoever you are. Maybe someday, you'll learn about real love, but it won't be from me."
Though she didn't want to, she took one last look at him, with his dark, swarthy skin, close-cropped hair and twinkling green eyeswhich had, in the uncertain light, lost their clever confidence. Every muscle, every fiber, every bone in her body ached for him, but she pushed the empathy aside. She couldn't care about his pain. She couldn't even believe it existed. Nothing about him was real.
"I'm going to go ask my mother to help me out of this dress. If you're not gone by the time we get back, I will call the police and I will make sure you're prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
"Abby, please," he began, but he stopped when she turned her back and snatched the doorknob.
And with more power and will than she ever thought she possessed, Abby walked away.