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Dani was feeling hot and bothered by the time she arrived very late—it was well after ten o'clock—to Eleni's masquerade party.
A problem with a client had come up at the last moment, delaying her in getting ready. Then, when the taxi had arrived to drive her here, she'd realised she had another problem. It was an extremely warm evening, and her gown was made out of soft gold and very heavy velvet, and the hoops beneath the skirts kept springing up and almost hitting her in the face.
How on earth, Dani wondered wrathfully, had women ever managed to move around in these clothes two hundred and fifty years ago, let alone eat or drink in them?
Dani gave her cloak to Jamieson the butler after being admitted to the house, before moving to the mirror in the hallway to check her appearance. The gold mask she wore covered her face from brow to top lip, and her red hair was covered with the white powder that had been the fashion of those days. The low neckline of the gold gown showed an expanse of breasts pushed up to a creamy swell by a corset, which also held her waist nipped in tightly, and the full skirt billowed out and over the gold slippers that matched the dress.
Yes, she was as ready as she was ever going to be to face all the other guests, who were already outside in the romantically lit garden.
Eleni had telephoned Dani yesterday so that she could tell her all about her plans for the masquerade party. The garden was to be lit only by lamps and strings of coloured lights in the trees and bushes, with a small orchestra hired to add to the romance of the evening. But even so Dani was totally unprepared for the magical appearance ofeverything and everyone when she stepped outside on her way to the rose garden where Jamieson had told her Brad and Eleni were greeting their guests.
The costumes of the two hundred or so guests were exquisite, and the masks even more so—a lot of them intricately decorated, especially those worn by Eleni's Venetian relatives—giving Dani a feeling of unreality, as if she really had stepped back into another time.
It was easy to see how and why, with so many corners of the spacious garden left in darkness, those flirtations Eleni had spoken of took place!
Dani quickly made her way to the rose garden, keeping a wary eye out for Eleni's obnoxious brother—a man she thankfully hadn't seen in the eight months since Eleni and Brad's wedding, an occasion when they had all but ignored each other.
‘Is that you, Dani?' Eleni greeted her warmly as soon as she saw her, her own Georgian-style costume an elegant red, her mask silver and her dark hair unpowdered.
‘You aren't supposed to know it's me.' Dani frowned behind her mask.
‘We discussed these dresses once—don't you remember?' her friend said as Dani moved to kiss a Duke-of-Wellington-costumed Brad.
As it happened, Dani did remember the time she and Eleni had lain under an oak tree in the school grounds, waxing lyrical about how romantic it must have been to live in the seventeen hundreds, with all those manly heroes from the historical novels they'd devoured. Until they had remembered that there had been no plumbing for instant hot baths in those times, nor the convenience of the telephone!
But like Eleni, Dani hadn't been able to resist wearing a beautiful gown in the style of that century this evening.
‘You both look very beautiful,' Brad told them gallantly.
He was nothing like those dark, almost satanic heroes Dani and Eleni had once drooled over, with his hair a golden blond and his eyes blue, but there was no doubting the happiness of Eleni and Brad's marriage, Dani recognised almost wistfully, as Brad turned to give his wife a lingering kiss.
‘Just tell me what Niccolo is wearing so that I can once again avoid him!' Dani begged of her friend as she realised she was holding up the receiving line.
‘He's a p—'
‘Just think of the D'Alessandro ancestry and you'll know him,' Eleni cut smoothly across Brad. ‘And you see all those good-looking men gathered by the bar?' She nodded towards five men laughing and talking together as they sipped champagne. ‘D'Alessandros every one,' she said with satisfaction. ‘You met them all at the wedding last
year, and I'm sure that any one of them would be pleased to oblige you, if you know what I mean…?'
‘Very funny.' Dani shot her friend a silencing glare before moving off to join the rest of the guests strolling in the garden, knowing exactly what her friend was referring to even if Brad didn't. In the eight months since she had spoken to Eleni about her grandfather's will, Dani hadn't even come close to finding a solution to that particular problem.
But Eleni was right about the D'Alessandro men all being good-looking, Dani acknowledged ruefully as she stood a short distance away from them. All of them were dark-haired, very tall, with athletically fit bodies. In fact any one of them could be Niccolo, she realised in dismay.
One was dressed as a nobleman. Another as a priest. The third as a gondolier. The fourth was a nineteenth-century Italian soldier. The fifth was in Regency-style clothes.
Exactly what had Eleni meant by her cryptic comment about the D'Alessandro ancestry in reference to Niccolo's costume?
She turned to find a rakish-looking pirate standing at her side—another one of Eleni's D'Alessandro cousins? This man's dark hair was pulled back and tied with a black bow at his nape, and a black mask covered his face from brow to top lip. Tight black trousers were tucked into black boots, emphasising the long length of his legs, a black sash was about his waist, and a long black leather tunic was worn over the white billowy shirt that was de rigueur for any respectable pirate.
Except pirates weren't respectable by definition, were they?
This one certainly didn't look as if he was. Dark, dark eyes glittered through the slits in the mask as his gaze roamed boldly over Dani, from her toes to her powdered hair and then back to her face behind the gold mask.
‘Champagne…?' he prompted again huskily, and he held out one of the two glasses he held in his hands.
Dani swallowed hard, not taking her gaze off the pirate for even a second. It was one thing to fantasise about meeting a man like this when you were an impressionable teenager. Another thing altogether, at the age of twenty-four, to find yourself face to face with a man who looked as if he were every bit as dangerous as the pirate he was dressed as.
Which meant he definitely had to be a D'Alessandro cousin!
Still, it was a masquerade party, where no names were exchanged and there would be no expectations after tonight. Eleni was right; it could be fun for Dani to just anonymously enjoy herself for one evening.
Until ten minutes ago Niccolo had been finding the evening tedious. Conversation became louder as bottles of champagne began to disappear, the laughter too shrill, the flirtations more obvious—and the culmination of those flirtations was obvious as couples began to disappear off into the darkness of the garden.
But Niccolo had never particularly enjoyed the Venetian Festival, and he certainly had no intention of being lured into the privacy of the surrounding trees by any of the women who had so far tried to tempt him.
As usual, he had kept a wary eye out for the sharp-tongued Daniella Bell as each of the female guests had arrived, but at ten o'clock he had assumed that she either wasn't here at all or he had missed her in the crowd.
In fact, until he had seen the woman in the gold gown enter the garden, he had been considering taking a bottle of champagne and disappearing into the relative privacy of Eleni's conservatory.
The woman's hair was powdered white, and she had a heart-shaped beauty mark above her top lip. The creamy swell of her breasts was inviting above the low neckline of the gold gown, and her arms were white and slender, a gold fan held in one of her delicately graceful hands.
Her very stillness made her stand out from the rest of the guests as she looked slowly about her with an almost untouchable air of separation from those about her.
It was a feeling Niccolo easily recognised and related to. As head of the D'Alessandro family and banking consortium he had to keep himself apart out of necessity. The fact that he hadn't yet found a woman suitable to become the D'Alessandro bride only added to his aloofness.
But he put on hold his plan to disappear the moment he saw the woman in the gold gown. Instead he collected two glasses of champagne and made his way determinedly towards her before any of the other men present sensed her air of detachment and saw it as the same challenge he did.
She was even more alluring close up, her skin as pale as milk. The colour of her eyes was not discernible behind the mask in the poorly illuminated garden, but somehow Niccolo thought they would be blue. Her perfect bow of a mouth was highly erotic, with that heart-shaped beauty mark above the fuller top lip, and Niccolo believed the hair beneath the powder would probably be a rich burnished gold.
Dani felt slightly flustered by the intensity of that dark gaze—not sure that encouraging this man by accepting a glass of champagne would be a good idea. Although she had no doubt that the more mischievous Eleni wouldn't have hesitated.
‘Thank you.' Her voice was husky as she took the glass of champagne the pirate presented to her, not quite managing to avoid touching the man's long, slender fingers as she did so, and feeling something like an electric jolt up her arm as her own fingers briefly made contact with his.
‘Our hostess has strictly forbidden us the use of our own names,' he said with a wicked smile. ‘So, if you have no objection, I would like to call you Belladonna.'
His voice was very deep and very sexy. Dani suddenly became aware that she was slowly being seduced.
‘As in the poison?' she said pertly.
His teeth gleamed very white in the darkness as he grinned at her appreciatively. As in beautiful lady,' he corrected softly. ‘And you are very beautiful.'
Dani's smile widened at the compliment. ‘How can you possibly tell?'
‘Would you really like me to tell you?'
Slowly being seduced? This man's intent had just gone up a couple of notches!
But it was fun, she realised with dawning wonder. More fun than she'd had in a very long time.
‘Yes, please,' she invited.
‘You have skin like white satin, a mouth that was surely made for kissing, and breasts—'
‘I think perhaps you should stop there!' Had she thought only a couple of notches? Make that a dozen or so! She was starting to feel light-headed from all this flattery, and she had only sipped at the champagne.
‘Perhaps for the moment…' He gave in gracefully with an inclination of his head. ‘Would you care to dance?'
Would she? The idea certainly had its appeal. But who was this man? The dark hair, swarthy skin and slight accent gave no clue other than that he was probably a D'Alessandro relative. What if he should turn out—horror of horrors!—to be Niccolo D'Alessandro himself?
It would be just her luck, when they all removed their masks at midnight, to discover she had spent the evening flirting with Niccolo!
No, she realised with some relief as she glanced briefly across at the other D'Alessandro men. They had just been joined by a sixth man, even taller than they were and dressed very lavishly, and his regal air of arrogance was unmistakably that of Eleni's brother.
Dani relaxed slightly as she turned back to the pirate at her side. And what do I call you?'
‘What would you like to call me?' he countered.
Dani felt a quiver of excitement down her spine as her body was suffused with a heat that was in no way connected to the warmth of this beautiful summer evening.
This really was a seductive experience, she thought. To be complimented, enticed by a man she didn't know, and who didn't know her, and whose attention seemed to be fixed intensely on her. No wonder the Venetian Festival was so popular!
She moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue, that butterfly fluttering in her stomach increasing as she sensed his dark gaze watching the movement.
‘Come, Bella, what is your fantasy? Tonight I will be whoever you wish me to be.'
Dani hadn't even known she had a fantasy until now. ‘Morgan,' she breathed. ‘I would like to call you Morgan.'
‘After the pirate Henry Morgan?' the pirate said with a nod. ‘It is appropriate.'
Dani tilted her head. ‘Although I somehow think you must be a relative of Eleni's…?'
He laughed. ‘No names. No personal details. Those are the rules, are they not? Now, would you care to dance? Or perhaps a walk in the garden would be more to your liking?'
Dani eyed the dozen or so couples moving slowly to the music on the temporary dance floor that had been set up in front of the small orchestra, tempted by the idea of being taken in his arms—more than tempted. But did she really want to be that close to a man who already made her feel like behaving more recklessly than she ever had before?
For the moment, no…
A walk, I think,' she accepted, careful not to touch him this time as he took the champagne glass from her and placed both of them on the tray of a passing waiter.
Despite her care in not touching him, he immediately took hold of her hand and placed it in the crook of his arm as they strolled through the dimly lit garden. His arm felt like tempered steel beneath her fingertips, the billowy sleeves of his shirt hardly any barrier to the heat of his skin at all.
Niccolo, sensing that his Belladonna was about to remove her hand from his arm, moved to place his other hand over the top of hers, determined not to relinquish this small contact with her.
She was enchanting, tiny perfection, her hand small and delicate beneath his much larger one, and the coloured lanterns and the light of the moon threw the beauty of her breasts and the bareness of her arms into shadowed relief.
He could never remember being this immediately attracted to any woman before. The muted lighting and softly romantic music no doubt added to the seduction of the evening, but nevertheless Niccolo knew it was the intriguing air of mystery that surrounded the woman at his side that gave such enchantment to the meeting and held him captive.