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Dante D'Arezzo knew the exact moment his ex-fiancée walked into the cathedral. He heard the silence which fell and the whisper which followed.
'Look, there's Justina Perry.'
And the murmured response. 'Oh, wow!'
Dante could feel the punch of his heart as people turned their heads to look at her, to see if she'd changed. They wanted to know if she had any new lines on her faceor whether those lines had been ironed out by surgery. They wanted to know if she was heavier. Or lighter. They wanted to know every damned thing about her, because once she had been famous and fame made people think they owned you.
Dante knew that. He knew that only too damned well. Hadn't he watched from the sidelines long enough to learn about the darker aspects of fame? The way it corrupted and corroded and spread into normal life like some sort of toxic acid?
His powerful body tight with tension, he watched her sinuous progress down the wide aisle of Norwich Cathedral, where the wedding of her ex-bandmate was shortly to take place. Her dark hair had been coiled into an elaborate confection at the back of her head and she was wearing an oriental-looking gown of pale satin, lavishly embroidered with dragons and flowers. At first glance the dress seemed disappointingly demureuntil she moved forward on a pair of towering heels and a thigh-high split revealed the tantalising flash of one long, bare leg.
An unwanted wave of desire swept over him, quickly followed by a powerful surge of anger. So she still liked to show herself off like some kind of cheap puttana, did she? Did she still enjoy the sensation of other men watching her and wanting herfantasising about that sinner's body coupled with the soulful face of a dark angel?
But his anger was not enough to diminish the exquisite ache in his body, and he watched as she took her place in one of the front rows, turning to smile at the person next to her as she sank down onto the pew. The embroidered satin stretched over her delicious bottom and all Dante could think about was how long it had been. Five long years since he'd seen her. More than enough time for him to have become immune to her feline appeal. So why was his heart thundering as he watched her staring up at the altar? Why was the hardening at his groin so pronounced that he was having to cover it up with his hymn sheet?
He tried to think about something else as the marriage service beganbut it wasn't easy. Not when this wedding seemed even longer than weddings usually wereprobably because the groom just happened to be a duke. Dante always played the part expected of him, and usually he would have been an exemplary and attentive guest. But today, his attention was focussed elsewhere and all the way through the service his thoughts kept straying back to Justina.
Justina writhing beneath him on a snow-white bed.
Justina with her ebony hair and magnolia skin and those amazing amber eyes.
He remembered the sweet tightness of her body. Those tiny little nipples which had been made to fit so perfectly inside a man's mouth.
Briefly he shook his head, for those thoughts disturbed him. He wanted to forget that for the first and only time in his life he'd made a mistake. His broken engagement was the only failure in a life which had been charted with resounding success. He was a proud man of noble Tuscan heritage. His ancestors had been scholars, soldiers and diplomatsan aristocratic line which had always been land-rich but cash-poor. But then Dante had become head of the family's business interests and had taken them soaring into the stratosphere.
These days the D'Arezzo family owned property over most of the globe, in addition to their vast vineyards in the beautiful countryside outside Florence. Dante had everything a man could possibly want, and yet inside his heart was empty.
There were bells ringing nowa triumphant peal of them heralding the end of the ceremony. And then came the somewhat unbelievable sight of Roxy Carmichaelall misty in white silk and pearlsclinging on to the arm of her new husband, the Duke. Dante shook his head in slight disbelief. Who would ever have thought it? The last time he'd seen Roxy she had been dancing around on a giant stage wearing little more than a sequinned pelmet which had been masquerading as a skirt.
That was what they'd all used to wear when she, Justina and Lexi had made up the Lollipopsthe biggest girl-band on the planet. When for a while he had been little more than a member of their extensive posse.
The congregation had begun to file out behind the bride and groom and Dante found himself watching. Wanting to see Justina's reaction when she saw him sitting there. Did she ever regret the choices she'd made? The ones which had led to his rejection of her? Did she ever lie in bed thinking and fretting about what could have been hers?
Last night he had given in to a temptation he'd long resisted, and a quick search on his computer had told him that Justina remained unmarried, with no childrensomething which had given him pause for thought. She must be nearly thirty now, he realised. Wasn't she worried that these days women were advised to have children sooner, rather than later? A cruel smile curved the edges of his lips. No, of course she wasn't. What appeal would a child have to someone like her? Her career was everything to her. Everything.
His gaze flicked over her pale skin as she came towards him and for one suspended moment he saw her footsteps falter when their gazes met and locked. He looked into her amber eyes, which looked golden against the sudden snowy pallor of her skin. Saw them widen in disbelief and then saw a flash of something in their depths which he couldn't have defined even if he could be bothered to try. What Justina Perry thought or felt was of no interest to him. Not any more. But he wouldn't have been human if he hadn't enjoyed the sudden swallowing movement he observed rippling down over that swanlike neck of hers.
She was right beside him now. Close enough for him to catch a drift of her perfume, which made him think of jasmine and honey. And then she was gone, and he was aware of a pretty blonde in the row in front of him, who was turning round to give him a very bright smile indeed.
But the smile Dante returned was perfunctory. He hadn't come here today to find a woman. Though he hadn't really stopped to ask himself why he'd accepted an invitation he'd never been expecting to receive. Was it to lay a ghost to rest? To convince himself that he now felt nothing for the only woman who had ever managed to penetrate the stony exterior of his hard Tuscan heart?
He walked out into the crisp brightness of the day, where he could smell the powerful scent of the flowers which were arching around the vast doors of the cathedral. He looked across the courtyard to where Justina stood, surrounded by people clamouring for her attentionbut she wasn't listening to them. Her attention was fixed on the door, as if she'd been waiting for him to appear, and as her eyes found their target in him he felt the thrill of something he could never have describednot even in his native tongue.
He began to walk towards her, only vaguely aware of the women who turned to watch his progresswomen watching him was something which had happened throughout his charmed life. He saw Justina's teeth dig into the pink cushion of her bottom lip, and as he remembered just what those beautiful lips were capable of a stab of lust threatened to overwhelm him.
He had reached her now, and the people surrounding her grew quiet as faces were turned towards him in open curiosity. He guessed that the novelty of his dark Italian looks was enough to arouse interest in this most English of settings. And maybe his face looked as forbidding as he intended it to look, because they quickly moved away, so that the two of them were left alone.
'Well, well, well,' he said. 'Look who's here.'
Justina stared up at him, her heart pounding in a way it hadn't done in a long, long time. She could feel her senses firing into life as if someone had just set light to them. She could feel the prickle of her breasts and the instant pooling of liquid heat and she was praying that the cheating bastard wouldn't guess. She didn't want to desire him. She wanted to present a cool and unruffled exterior. But it wasn't easy. Not when his face was just inches away from hersa face more beautiful and yet more elementally savage than any other she'd ever seen. His dark eyes were boring into her and his powerful body was imprinting itself into her consciousness. She felt weak. As if someone had just drained away all her blood and replaced it with water.
Well, you're stronger than that, she told herself. You aren't going to show any sign of weakness. Because this is Dante D'Arezzo. The man who confuses love with control. Who dumped you because you wouldn't behave like his own personal puppet. Who cold-bloodedly took another woman to his bed and
She saw a bed with rumpled sheets. A mass of ruffled blond hair and a high, pert bottom. And Dante, his eyes closed, a smile of ecstasy on his cheating lips as the naked woman administered to his every need.
The vivid images of his betrayal were like jagged pieces of glass at the edges of her mind and Justina only just managed to blunt themjust as she'd spent the last five years blunting them. She mustn't think of that. She couldn't afford to. She had to focus on what was importantand the only thing she could think of right then was making him go away and leave her alone.
She kept her expression unwelcoming, her voice a cool drawl. 'Thanks for ruining what could have been a perfectly good day,' she said. 'Who invited you?'
Dante hadn't been expecting such open hostility, and for some reason that he wasn't quite able to work out this pleased him. Was it because the prospect of a fight with her was almost as tantalising as the thought of spreading her over the bonnet of that nearby car and riding her until he came?
He took a stealthy step closer. 'Who do you think invited me? The bride, of course. Or did you imagine that I gatecrashed?'
Justina couldn't suppress a faint shiver as his powerful form cast a shadow over her like a dark omen. As if Dante had ever had to gatecrash anything in his life!
'Really?' she questioned, wishing that she could stop reacting to him like this.
She felt as if her body had suddenly started thawing after spending years in some arctic waste. As if she would die if she didn't touch him again, or feel those hard lips pressing down on hers. She found herself remembering the way he'd used to put his head between her legs and lick her there, and she shivered with shameful longing. How did he do that? How could he still make her want him when she hated him so much?
'I didn't even think you were still in touch with Roxy.'
'I wasn't. We lost contact a long while agoabout the time when you and I split.' His dark eyes mocked her. 'But presumably she was feeling generously disposed towards the world when she found herself a duke to marry, and so she decided to track me down.'
Justina knew exactly why Roxy had done it. A man like Dante would be a luminary on any guest list; his grandness and stature would be a boost to any hostess's street-cred. And, of course, his outstanding good looks would guarantee that all the single female guests would be purring with contentment. But why the hell hadn't Roxy bothered to warn her about it beforehand? Had her ex-bandmate guessed that she wouldn't have come within a hundred miles of the church if she'd known he was going to be here?
Yet surely she should be immune to him by now? She hadn't seen him for nearly five years. She was older and supposedly a whole lot wiserwise enough for his undeniable sex appeal to leave her cold. So why wasn't that happening? Why were her breasts tingling as his arrogant gaze skated over her, that molten aching at her thighs making her feel embarrassingly self-conscious?
With a feigned composure she stared at himpraying for an objectivity she'd never been able to apply to this Tuscan aristocrat. He was wearing a suit, like every other man thereapart from the few guests in uniformbut something about the way he wore it instantly marked him out as someone special. The exquisite cut of the charcoal cloth hugged his powerful frame, emphasising the narrow jut of his hips and the definition of his long legs. Yet despite his highly sophisticated exterior, with Dante D'Arezzo all you were aware of was the primitive man beneath. He was the sort of man who saw what he wanted and went out and took it. Who made women cry with pleasure. And with pain, she reminded herself. With terrible and lasting pain.
'Maybe Roxy was short on numbers and that was the reason for your out-of-the-blue invitation,' she said as she glanced up at the cathedral with a flippant shrug. 'It's a pretty big church to fill. And I expect a token Tuscan aristocrat is on every bride's wish list.'
He smiled, as if her insult meant nothing to himas if he guessed that it was all for show. 'It's been a long time, Justina,' he said softly.
'Five years.' Her smile was fixed. 'Time flies when you're having funsomething which was certainly in short supply when I was engaged to you.'
But he didn't appear to be listening. His gaze was drifting slowly over her body as if he still had the right to look at her that way. As if she was his possession and he owned her.
'You've lost weight,' he said.
She felt her heart miss a beat, unsure if it was caused by disappointment or angerbecause wasn't that just typical of Dante? For him to take something she felt proud of and make it sound like something bad. She'd worked very hard for this body. Dragged herself out of bed on the most inhospitable of mornings to pound the pavements, come rain or shine. When she was travelling, she was a frequent visitor to hotel gymspadding the anonymous carpeted corridors at unsociable hours while she listened to music from her earphones. And hadn't her strict regime rescued her from the essential loneliness of those solitary hotel stays?