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Isabella Moreno froze in the middle of her lecturein the middle of a sentence, reallyas the door in the back of her classroom opened and the president of the Gem Institute of America walked in. But it wasn't the presence of Harlan Peters that threw her off her game. She was a damn good professor and she knew it; a visit from her boss was no big deal. No, it was the tall, dark and silent man standing next to him that struck fear into her heart even as he sent shivers up and down her spine.
Don't forget gorgeous, she thought as she forced herself to continue her discussion of the cutting and polishing of off-shape sapphires. Her graduate students had begun turning to look at what had distracted her and it was only a matter of seconds before she would lose the attention of every female in the vicinity. Already, there were twitters and giggles coming from various corners of the room, and they didn't even know who the mystery man was yet.
Not that she did, either. Not really. Oh, she recognized him. It was hard to be in the gem industry for any length of time and not be able to identify Marc Durand, CEO of the second largest diamond exporter and jeweler in the country. His too-long black hair, bright blue eyes and fallen angel face were hard to miss
and even harder to ignore. But the look on that face, the glittering contempt in those distinctive eyes and the derisive twist of those full lips was not something she was used to seeing from him. They turned him into a stranger.
The Marc she knewthe Marc she'd once lovedhad looked at her only with tenderness. With amusement. With love. At least until the end, when everything had fallen apart. But even then he'd shown some feelings. Rage, hurt, betrayal. It had nearly killed her to see those emotions on his face, and to know that she was responsible for them.
But the look on his face nowthe derision, the scorn, the iceturned him into someone new. Someone she didn't recognize; someone she certainly didn't want to know.
When they'd been together, their relationship had been characterized by heat, so much heat she'd often wondered how long it would take before she got burned. The answer, it turned out, had been six months, three weeks and four days, give or take a few hours.
Not that she'd been counting.
And not that she blamed him for how things had ended. How could she when the way things had gone downthe way the two of them had self-destructedhad been almost completely her fault?
Oh, he could have been kinder. She was the first to admit that tossing her onto the streets of New York City in the middle of the night, with nothing but the clothes on her back, was a hideous thing to do. But it wasn't as if she hadn't deserved it. Even now, there were nights she lay awake staring at the ceiling and wondering how she could have done what she had done. How she could have betrayed the man she'd loved so completely.
But that was the problem. She'd been caught between two men she loved, adored, would have done anything for, and because of that, she'd ruined everything. She'd known her father had stolen from him and though she'd tried to convince her dad to give the gems back, she hadn't told Marc who the thief was until it was nearly too late for him to salvage his business. And then she'd made the situation worse by begging Marc not to prosecute, and by admitting that when she'd sought him out at the gala where they'd first met she'd been planning to steal from him, too. Her plans had changedher life had changedonce she'd spoken to him, once he'd looked at her with those crazy blue eyes of his, but
Isabella shied away from the painful memories instinctively. Losing Marc in the middle of everything else had nearly brought her to her knees six years before. She'd be damned if seeing him again, after all this time, did the same thing. Especially here, in the middle of her first graduate seminar of the day.
Forcing her wandering mind back to the task at hand, she was mortified to realize every student in the class was looking between her and Marc. As was the college president. Despite the years that had passed, the connection between them was obvious, the tension a live wire that threatened to spark at any moment. Determined not to let that happen, and not to let the atmosphere in the room get any more awkward than it already was, Isabella forced herself back to her task.
The next part of her lecture was on the world's most famous sapphires and their locations. When she got to the part about the theft of the Robin's Egg Sapphireone of the most expensive and sought after gems in the worldshe did her best not to look at Marc.
But in the end, she couldn't help it. Her gaze was drawn to his, the magnetic force of his personalityhis willallowing her to do nothing else. She froze the second their eyes connected, the sardonic look he leveled at her as sharp as the finest hewn diamond. Marc knew what had happened to the Robin's Egg. He'd made it his business to know before he'd confronted her in their bedroomhis bedroomthat long-ago night.
"We're sorry to interrupt, Dr. Moreno," Harlan said from his spot in the back of the classroom. "I was just showing Mr. Durand around the campus. He's agreed to teach a miniseminar on diamond production starting in a few weeks and I wanted to give him the lay of the land. Please, carry on with your lecture. It's fascinating."
But it was too late for that. All around her, students murmured excitedly. Not that she blamed them. It wasn't every day that one of the world's largest producers and brokers of responsibly sourced diamonds agreed to speak to a bunch of first year graduate students. Still, she was the professor here. This was her lecture. She needed to regain control, if not for the classwhich was only half-overthen because she refused to let Marc Durand have the upper hand for one second longer.
He'd taken everything from her. Or, to be completely honest, she'd given everything to him, only to have it all tossed back in her face. She'd deserved it then, and had paid for it royally. But that had been six years ago. Since then, she'd moved across the country and built an entirely new life for herself. She'd be damned if she let him come in here and screw that up for her, too.
Refusing to let Marc see just how much his presence here messed with her mind, she continued on with her lecture. Eventually the students settled down again and Marc and Harlan slipped out a lot more unobtrusively than they'd entered.
If anyone asked her what she spoke about for the last twenty minutes of class, Isabella wouldn't have been able to tell them. Her mind was far away, wrapped up in a past she regretted bitterly but couldn't change and the man who had altered the entire course of her life. She must have covered pretty well, though, because the students didn't call her on anything. Then again, they'd all been so enamored of Marc Durand that they probably weren't focusing on what she had to say, anyway.
Finally, the interminable class drew to an end and she dismissed her students. It was her usual habit to hang out in the classroom for a few minutes to give the students an opportunity to ask questions or chat her up about whatever was on their minds. But today she didn't have it in her to stay there one second longer than absolutely necessary, not when her insides felt scraped raw and she was certain any wrong move would shatter the peace she had worked so hard to achieve. The peace she had finally found.
Scooping up her books, and the papers her students had turned in that day, Isabella made a beeline for the door. She was parked around back. If she could get to the side exit, she could be in her car and off campus in less than five minutes. Then it would be just her and the convertible, the infinite ocean to her left as she followed the winding, waterfront freeway home.
Except she never got to her car, never even made it to the side door she was so desperate to reach. Instead, a strong, calloused hand grabbed her elbow as she tried to hurry down the back hallway. Though she was facing the other direction, she didn't need to see him to know who had grabbed her. Her knees turned to gelatin at that first touch, her heart beating wildly out of control. There would be no escape then. No drive by the ocean. No chance to put her thoughts in order before this confrontation.
Not that she was surprised. From the moment she'd looked up and seen Marc in the back of her classroom, she'd known this was inevitable. She'd simply hoped to put it off a little, until she could think about him without losing her ability to breathe. Of course, she'd already had six years and hadn't been able to change that, so another couple of days probably wouldn't matter.
Besides, if he was going to destroy everything she'd tried to build for herself with her new name and new identity and new, law-abiding lifethen she might as well find out right now. Worrying about it would only make her crazy.
Bracing herself, she put on her best poker face before slowly, slowly, turning to face him. And if her knees trembled as she did, it was nobody's business but her own.
She was somehow even more beautiful than he'd remembered. And probably more treacherous, Marc reminded himself as he fought for control over his suddenly rampaging emotions and libido.
It had been six years since he'd seen her.
Six years since he'd held her, kissed her, made love to her.
Six years since he'd kicked her out of his apartment and his life.
And still he wanted her.
It came as something of a shock, considering he'd done his best not to think about her in the ensuing years. Sure, every once in a while her face would flash through his mind. Something would remind him of the scent, the taste, the feel of her. But through the years those instances had grown fewer and farther between and his reaction to themand to herhad dimmed. Or so he'd thought.
All it had taken was a glimpse of her gorgeous red hair, her warm brown eyes, from the small window embedded in the classroom door to throw him right back into the seething, tumultuous heat that had characterized so much of their relationship. He hadn't cared about the president of the college, hadn't cared about the future he had so carefully mapped out for Bijoux, the family company he had sacrificed so much for through the years. He hadn't cared about the workshop GIA had hired him to teach now that he had moved Bijoux's headquarters to the West Coast. To be honest, he hadn't cared about anything but getting into that classroom to see if his mind was playing tricks on him.
Six years ago he had kicked Isa Varinnow, apparently, Isabella Morenoout of his life in the cruelest manner possible. He didn't regret making her leavehow could he when she'd betrayed him so completely?but in the time since, he had regretted how he'd done it. When he'd come to his senses and sent his driver to find her and deliver her things, including her purse and cell phone and some money, she had vanished into thin air. He'd looked for her for years, simply to assuage his conscience and prove to himself that nothing untoward had happened to her that night, but he'd never found her.
Now he knew why. The very passionate, very beautiful, very bewitching Isa Varin had ceased to exist. In her place was this buttoned-down professor, her voice and face as cool and sharp as any diamond his mines had ever produced. Only the hairthat glorious, red hairwas the same. Isabella Moreno wore it in a tight braid down her back instead of in the wild curls favored by his Isa, but he would know the color anywhere.
Black cherries at midnight.
Wet garnets shining in the filtered light of a full moon.
And when her eyes had met his over the heads of her students, he'd felt a punch in his gutin his grointhat couldn't be denied. Only Isa had ever made his body react so powerfully. So instantaneously.
He'd ditched the GIA president as soon as he could, then had rushed back to make sure he caught Isa before she could slip away. And still he'd almost missed her. Not that he was surprised. She did come from a long line of cat burglars, after all. He knew from experience that nine times out of ten, if she didn't want to be caught, she wouldn't be.
As he waited for her to speak, he couldn't help wondering what he was doing here. Why he'd caught up with her. What he wanted from her. Because the truth was, he didn't know. He knew only that seeing her, talking to her, was a compulsion he couldn't resist.
"Hello, Marc." She raised her face to his, her voice and countenance as composed as he had ever seen them. He felt a brief lick of something deep insidea feeling that made him uncomfortable for the simple reason that he couldn't identify it. So he ignored it, concentrating instead on her as their gazes met in a clash of heat and memories.
One look into her eyesdark, endless pools of melted chocolateused to bring him to his knees. But those days were long gone. Her betrayal had destroyed any faith he might have had in her. He'd been weak once, had fallen for the innocence she could project with a look, a touch, a whisper. He wouldn't make that mistake again. He would satisfy his curiosity, find out why she was at GIA, and then he would walk away.
As he stared down at her, those same eyes were alive with so many emotions he couldn't begin to sort them all out. Her face could be as unemotional as she wanted it to be, her body as ice-cold as it had once been fiery-hot, but her eyes didn't lie. Isa was as disturbed by this chance meeting as he was.
The realization had something relaxing deep inside him and he felt the power shift sizzle in the air around them. She'd once had the upper hand in their relationship because he'd trusted her blindly, loved her so deeply that he had never conceived that she would one day betray him.
But those days were long gone. Isa could pretend to be the straitlaced, boring gem professor all she wanted. He knew the truth and he would never be stupid enough to let his guard down around her again.
"Hello, Isabella." He made certain his face showed only sardonic amusement. "Fancy meeting you here."