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Did every woman remember her first lover? Gina wondered.
Surely she was not the only woman to have felt her heart slam against her ribs when she had glanced across a crowded room and caught sight of the man she had once been madly in love with?
It was definitely Lanzo. Their brief affair had taken place ten years ago, but he was regarded as one of Europe's most sought-after bachelors. Photographs of him regularly featured in celebrity gossip magazines and he was instantly recognisable. She couldn't help staring at him, conscious of that same swooping sensation in the pit of her stomach that she had felt when she had been eighteen and utterly in awe of him.
Perhaps he felt her scrutiny? Her breath caught in her throat when he turned his head in her direction. For a few seconds their eyes met and held, before Gina quickly looked away and pretended to idly scan the other guests at the party.
The tranquillity of Poole Harbour, on England's south coast, had been shattered over the weekend by the staging of the international offshore powerboat racing championships. Generally regarded as the most extreme and dangerous of all watersports, powerboat racing had been going on all day far out in the bay. But this evening the engines were silent, and dozens of sleek, futuristic-looking powerboats were moored in the harbour, bobbing gently on the swell.
It was certainly a sport that attracted the beautiful people, Gina noted, as she glanced around the restaurant where the after-race party was being held. Glamorous promotional modelsuniformly tanned, blonde, and sporting unnaturally large breasts and very short skirtsflocked around bronzed, over-loud male boat crews, the drivers and throttle-men, who between them sent their boats skimming over the waves at death-defying speeds.
She had never understood why anyone would choose to risk their life for fun, and she had taken no interest in the racing. The party was definitely not her scene, and she had only come because her old schoolfriend Alex had recently taken over as manager of the exclusive Di Cosimo restaurant, and had requested her moral support on his first big event.
Instead, it was she who was in need of support, Gina reflected ruefully. Her legs felt like jelly and her head was spinningbut she could not blame either on the one glass of champagne she had drunk.
She was so shocked to see Lanzo again. She hadn't realised he was still involved in powerboat racing, and it had not crossed her mind that he might attend the party. True, he owned the restaurant, but it was one of many around the world belonging to the Di Cosimo chain, and she had not expected Lanzo to be in Poole. She was unprepared for her reaction to him, for the way her stomach muscles clenched and the tiny hairs on her arms prickled when she studied his achingly familiar profile.
With his striking looksolive-gold skin, classically sculpted features, and silky jet-black hair that showed no signs of grey, even though he must be in his mid-thirties by nowLanzo di Cosimo looked like one of those impossibly handsome male models who featured in fashion magazines. Tall and powerfully built, his tailored black trousers emphasised his height, and his white shirt was of such fine silk that the hard ridges of his abdominal muscles and the shadow of his dark chest hairs were visible beneath the material.
But it was more than just looks, Gina thought, as she stared down at her empty glass and dragged oxygen into her lungs. Lanzo possessed a simmering sensual magnetism that demanded attention. Supremely self-assured and devastatingly sexy, he was impossible to ignore, and the women who thronged around him made no attempt to hide their fascination with him.
He was a billionaire playboy whose passion for dangerous sports matched his passion for leggy blondesnone of whom remained in his life for long before he exchanged them for another model. Ten years ago, Gina had never really understood what he had seen in heran averagely attractive brunette. But at eighteen she had been too overwhelmed by his interest to question it, and only later had realised that her attraction had probably been her embarrassingly puppy-like eagerness. Lanzo had not had to try very hard to persuade her into his bed, she acknowledged ruefully. For him she had been a convenient bedmate that summer he had spent in Poole, and no doubt he hadn't meant to break her heartshe only had herself to blame for that.
But time and maturity had healed the wounds of first love, she reminded herself. She was no longer the rather naive girl with a massive crush on him she had been a decade ago. Resisting the urge to glance over at Lanzo again, she turned her back on him and strolled over to the huge wall of windows that ran the length of the restaurant and offered wonderful views over the harbour.
Lanzo shifted his position slightly so that he could continue to watch the woman in the blue dress who had caught his attention. He recognised her, but to his frustration could not place her. Now that she had her back to him he saw that her gleaming brown hair fell almost to her waist, and he imagined threading his fingers through the silky mass. Perhaps he had noticed her because she was so different from the blonde groupies who always attended the after-race parties, he mused, feeling a flicker of irritation when the young woman at his side, sensing that he was distracted, moved closer and deliberately pressed her nubile body up against him.
The girl was young, he thought with a frown as he glanced at her face, which would be far prettier without the thick layer of make-up. In her thigh-high skirt and ridiculous heels she reminded him of a baby giraffeall gangly legs and long eyelashes. He doubted she was much over eighteen, but the invitation in her eyes told him he could bed her if he chose to. Once he would have been tempted, he acknowledged. But he was no longer a testosterone-fuelled twenty-year-old; his tastes had become more selective over the years, and he had no interest in girls barely out of high school.
'Congratulations on winning the race,' the blonde said breathlessly. 'I think powerboat racing is so exciting. How fast do you go?'
Lanzo stifled his impatience. 'The boat can reach a top speed of one hundred miles an hour.'
'Wow!' She smiled at him guilelessly. 'I'd love to go for a ride some time.'
He winced at the idea of giving 'rides' in his pride and joy. The Falcon was a million pounds' worth of superlative marine engineering. 'Racing boats are not ideal for sightseeing trips because they are built for speed rather than passenger comfort,' he explained. 'You would have more fun on a cruiser. I'll speak to a friend of mine and see if he'll take you on a trip along the coast,' he murmured, as he gently but firmly prised the girl's hand from his arm and moved away from her.
Gina watched the setting sun cast golden rays across the sea and gild the tops of the trees over on Brownsea Island. It was good to be home, she mused. She had spent most of the last ten years living and working in London, and she had forgotten how peaceful it was here on the coast.
But thinking about home, and more specifically her new, ultra-modern flat with its sea views, a little way along the quay, filled her with anxiety rather than pleasure. Since she had lost her job with a local company she had been unable to keep up with the mortgage repayments. The situation was horribly similar to the time when she had struggled to pay the mortgage and bills on the house she and Simon had owned in London, after he had lost his job and she had become the only wage earner.
After she had left him the house had been sold, but because it had been in negative equity she had come away with nothing. She had no savingshence the reason why she had taken out such a large mortgage to buy the flat. But now it looked increasingly as though her only option was to sell her new home before the bank repossessed it.
Her life wasn't turning out the way she had planned it, she thought dismally. She had always assumed that a few years spent building her career would be followed by marriage and two childrena boy and a girl called Matthew and Charlotte. Well, she'd had the career, and she'd had the marriage, but she had learned that babies didn't arrive to order, however much you wanted them, and that marriages didn't always last, however hard you tried to make them work.
Her hand strayed unconsciously to the long, thin scar that ran down her cheek close to her ear, and continued down her neck, and she gave a little shiver. She had never expected that at twenty-eight she would be divorced, unemployed and seemingly infertilethe last evoked a familiar hollow ache inside her. Her grand life-plan had fallen apart, and now the prospect of losing the flat that she had bought when she had moved back to Poole, in the hope of starting a new life away from the bitter memories of her failed marriage, was the final straw.
Lost in her thoughts, she jumped when a voice sounded close to her ear.
'How do you think it's going?' Alex asked tensely. 'Do you think there's enough choice of canapes? I asked the chef to prepare twelve different types, including three vegetarian options.'
'It's a great party,' Gina assured him, pushing her concerns to the back of her mind and smiling at Alex. 'Stop looking so worried. You're too young for grey hairs.'
Alex gave a rueful laugh. 'I reckon I've gained a few since I took over as manager here. Lanzo di Cosimo demands the highest standards at all his restaurants, and it's important that I impress him tonight.'
'Well, I think you've done a brilliant job. Everything is great and the guests seem perfectly happy.' Gina paused, and then said in a carefully casual tone, 'I didn't realise that the head of Di Cosimo Holdings would be here.'
'Oh, yeah. Lanzo visits Poole two or three times a year. If you had come home more often instead of living it up in London, you would probably have seen him around,' Alex teased. 'He comes mainly for the powerboat racing, and a year or so ago he bought a fabulous house on Sandbanks.' He grinned. 'It's amazing to think that a little strip of sand in Dorset is one of the most expensive places in the world to live.' He suddenly stiffened. 'Speaking of the devilhere he comes now,' he muttered below his breath.
Glancing over Alex's shoulder, Gina felt her stomach lurch when she saw Lanzo striding in their direction. It didn't matter how firmly she reminded herself that she was a mature adult now, and well and truly over him. Her heart was pounding and she felt as awkward and self-conscious as she had been when she'd had a summer job as a waitress in this very restaurant ten years ago.
His eyes were hypnoticperhaps because their colour was so unexpected, she thought shakily, her gaze drawn against her will to his face. With his swarthy complexion and jet-black hair, brown eyes would have seemed more likely, but his irises were a startling vivid green, fringed with thick black lashes and set beneath heavy brows.
Time had done the impossible and improved on perfection, Gina decided. At twenty-five, Lanzo had been a sleek, incredibly handsome man who had still retained a boyish air. A decade later he was rugged, sexy, and utterly gorgeoushis face all angles and planes, his slashing cheekbones and square jaw softened by a mouth that was full-lipped and blatantly sensual.
Something stirred inside hersomething that went deeper than sexual attraction. Although her physical reaction to him was shockingly intense, she acknowledged, flushing when she saw Lanzo lower his gaze to the outline of her nipples, clearly visible beneath her dress.
A long time ago he had held her in his arms and she had felt certain that he was the only man in the world for her. So many things had happened since then. She had escaped from a violent marriage and knew that she was strong and could look after herself. But for a crazy moment she wished Lanzo would draw her close against his broad chest and make her feel safe and cherished, as he had made her feel all those years ago.
But of course Lanzo had never really cherished her, she reminded herself sharply. It had just been an illusionpart of a silly daydream that he would fall in love with her as she had fallen in love with him. And, like most daydreams, it had turned to dust.
'The party is superb, Alex.' Lanzo greeted his restaurant manager, his eyes still focused on the woman at Alex's side. 'The food is excellentas people expect from a Di Cosimo restaurant, of course.'
Alex visibly relaxed. 'Thank you. I'm glad you approve.' He suddenly realised that he did not have Lanzo's full attention, and gestured to Gina. 'Allow me to introduce a good friend of mineGinevra Bailey.'
'Ginevraan Italian name,' Lanzo observed softly. He was intrigued by her obvious reluctance to shake his hand, and the slight tremble of her fingers when she placed them in his palm. Her skin was soft and pale, in stark contrast to his deep tan, and he had a sudden erotic image of her nakedof milky-white limbs entwined with his darker ones. He lifted her hand to his mouth and grazed his lips across her knuckles, feeling an unexpectedly sharp tug of desire in his gut when her eyes widened and darkened.
Gina snatched her hand from Lanzo's grasp, feeling as though an electrical current had shot along her arm. She swallowed and struggled for composure. 'My grandmother was Italian, and I was given her name,' she murmured coolly, thankful that the years she had spent working for the very demanding chairman of a world-renowned department store chain meant that she was an expert at hiding her private thoughts. Hopefully no one would guess that Lanzo's close proximity was making her heart race so fast that she felt breathless and churned up inside.
His green eyes glittered and she quickly looked away from him, assuring herself that he could not possibly read her mind. He gave a small frown as he studied her intently. She sensed that he was intrigued by her, but she had no intention of reminding him that they had once, very briefly, been lovers. Ten years was a long time, and undoubtedly countless other women had shared his bed since her. It was far better, and less embarrassing, that he did not recognise her. And, to be fair, it was not his fault that, while she had not forgotten him, he had presumably never given her a second thought after he had casually announced at the end of that summer a decade ago that he was returning to his home in Italy.