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Dante Orsini was in the prime of his life.
He was rich, powerful and as ruggedly good-looking as a man could hope to be. He worked hard, played hard, and on those rare nights he went to bed alone, he slept soundly until morning.
But not tonight.
Tonight he was dreaming.
In his dream he walked slowly along a narrow road. It led to a house. He could hardly see it because of the heavy mist that hung over everything, but it was there.
His footsteps slowed.
It was the last place on earth he wanted to be. A house in the suburbs. A station wagon in the driveway. A dog. A cat. Two-point-five kids.
And a wife. One woman, the same woman, forever…
Dante sprang up in bed, gasping for air. A shudder racked his big, leanly muscled body. He slept naked, kept the windows open even now, in early autumn. Still, his skin was slick with sweat.
A dream. That's all it was. A nightmare.
The oysters last night, maybe. Or that brandy right before bedtime. Or…he shuddered again. Or just another resurfacing of that long-ago memory of what had happened when he was just eighteen, stupid and in love.
In what he'd thought was love.
He'd gone steady with Teresa D'Angelo for three months before he'd so much as touched her. When he finally did, one touch led to another and another and another….
Christmas Eve, he'd given her a gold locket.
She'd given him news that almost brought him to his knees.
"I'm pregnant, Dante," she'd whispered tearfully.
He'd been stunned. He was a kid, yeah, but he'd still known enough to use condoms. But he loved her. And she'd wept in his arms and said he'd ruined her life, that he had to marry her.
He would have.
He would have Done The Right Thing.
But fate, luck, whatever you wanted to call it, intervened. His brothers noticed how withdrawn he'd become. They sat him down, saw to it that he had enough beer to loosen him up a little and then Nicolo asked him, point-blank, what was going on.
Dante told them about his girl.
And the three of them, Nicolo and Raffaele and Falco, looked at each other, looked at him and said, was he out of his freaking mind? If he'd used protection, how could she have gotten knocked up?
She had to be lying.
He went after Falco because he'd said it first. When Rafe and Nick repeated it, he went after them, too. Falco grabbed him in an arm lock.
"I love her, dammit," Dante said. "You hear me? I love her and she loves me."
"She loves your money, dude," Nicolo had said, and for the first time in days Dante had laughed.
Falco let go of him. And Rafe pointed out that the girl didn't know he wasn't loaded. That even way back then, all four Orsini brothers had thumbed their noses at their old man's money and power and everything that went with it.
"Ask around," Falco, the oldest of them, said bluntly. "Find out how many other guys she's been with."
Dante lunged for him again. Nick and Rafe held him back.
"Use your head," Nick snapped, "not that divining rod in your pants."
Rafe nodded in agreement. "And tell her you want a paternity test."
"She wouldn't lie to me," Dante protested. "She loves me."
"Tell her you want the damned test," Rafe growled. "Or we'll tell her for you."
He knew Rafe meant it. So, with a dozen apologies, he'd suggested the test.
Teresa's tears had given way to fury. She'd called him every name in the book and he'd never heard from her again. Yeah, she'd broken his heart but she'd also taught him a lesson that still came back to haunt him when he least expected it.
Like that ridiculous dream.
Dante took a couple of deep breaths, sank back against the pillows and folded his arms behind his head.
Marriage? A wife? Kids? No way. After years of trying to decide what to do with his life, of coming close to losing it a couple of times in places no sane man should have been, he'd finally sorted things out. Now he had everything a man could possibly want: this penthouse, with the morning sun pouring through the skylight above his bed. A cherry-red Ferrari. A private jet.
A wicked grin lit his hard, handsome face.
More women, sometimes, than a guy could handle and all of them beautiful, sexy and not foolish enough to think they could con him into anything more permanent than a relationship—and, God, he hated that word—a relationship of a few months duration.
He was between women right now.
Taking a breather, Falco had said wryly. True. And enjoying every minute of it. Like the blonde at that charity thing last week. He'd gone to what should have been a dull cocktail party. Save the City, Save the World, Save the Squirrels, who knew what? Orsini Brothers Investments had bought four tickets, but only one of the brothers had to show his face.
As Rafe had so elegantly put it, it was Dante's turn in the barrel.
So he'd showered and changed in his private bathroom at the office, taxied to the Waldorf figuring on a few polite handshakes and a glass of not-very-good wine—the wine was never very good at these things even if it cost five thousand bucks to buy a ticket.
And felt someone watching him.
It was the blonde, and she was spectacular. Long legs. Lots of shiny hair. A slow, sexy smile and enough cleavage to get lost in.
He'd made his way through the crowd, introduced himself. A few minutes of conversation and the lady got to the point.
"It's so noisy here," she'd purred and he'd said, yeah, it was and why didn't he take her somewhere quiet, where they could talk?
But what happened in the taxi the doorman hailed had nothing to do with talk. Carin or Carla or whatever her name was had been all over him. By the time they got to her apartment, they were both so hot they'd barely made it through the door….
Dante threw back the blankets, rose from the bed and made his way to the bathroom. He had her cell number but he wouldn't use it tonight. Tonight he had a date with a cute redhead he'd met last week. As for that dream…
All that had happened almost fifteen years ago. He knew now he'd never loved the girl who'd claimed he'd made her pregnant, though he did owe her a thank-you for teaching him an important life lesson.
When you took a woman to bed, it was your trousers you left on the floor, not your brain.
Dante tilted his head back, closed his pale-blue eyes, let the water sluice the shampoo from his dark-as-midnight hair.
No woman, no matter how beautiful, was worth any deeper involvement than the kind that took place between the sheets.
Without warning a memory shot into his head. A woman. Eyes the color of rich coffee. Hair so many shades of gold the sun seemed trapped there. A soft, rosy mouth that tasted of honey…
Scowling, he shot out his hand, turned off the water and reached for a towel. What the hell was the matter with him this morning? First the insane dream. Now this.
Gabriella Reyes—amazing how he could remember her name and not the name of a woman he'd been with last night, especially since it was a year since he'd seen Gabriella.
One year and two months. And, yeah, okay, twenty-four days…
That was what came of having a thing for numbers, he thought as he dumped the towel on the marble vanity. It made him good at what he did at Orsini's but it also made the damnedest nonsense stick in his head.
He dressed quickly in a beat-up New York University T-shirt, the sleeves long since torn out, and a pair of equally disreputable NYU gym shorts, and went down the circular staircase to the lower level of his penthouse, hurrying past the big, high-ceilinged rooms until he reached his gym. It wasn't an elaborate setup. He had only a Nautilus, some free weights, an old treadmill. He only used the stuff when the weather was bad enough to keep him from running in Central Park, but this morning, despite the sunshine, he knew he needed more than a five-mile run if he was going to sweat a couple of old ghosts out of his system. It was a Saturday; he could afford the extra time.
When he was done, he spent a couple of hours online looking at auction sites that dealt in vintage Ferraris, checking to see if there was anything out there that came close to the 1958 Ferrari 250GT Berlinetta "Tour de France" he'd been searching for. There'd been word one had been coming on the market about a year ago in Gstaad; he'd thought about flying over to check it out, but something—he couldn't recall what—had come up just then…
His hands stilled on the keyboard.
Gabriella Reyes. That was what had come up. He'd met her and everything else had flown straight out of his head.
"Dammit," Dante said tightly. That was twice today he'd thought about the woman, and it made no sense. She was history.
Okay. Enough sitting around. He closed his computer,
changed into another pair of shorts and a T-shirt and went out for a run.
Getting all those endorphins pumping did it. He came home feeling good and felt even better when Rafe phoned to say he'd just put away the French bank deal they'd been after. He'd already called Falco and Nick. How about meeting for a couple of drinks to celebrate at their favorite hangout, The Bar down in Chelsea?
By the time the brothers parted, it was hard to remember the day had started badly, but his good mood evaporated when his mother called. Dante loved her with all his heart and even her usual questions—was he keeping good hours? Was he eating properly? Had he found a nice Italian girl to bring to dinner?—even those things couldn't dim his pleasure at hearing her voice.
The message she delivered from his father did.
"Dante, mio figlio, Papa wishes you and Raffaele to come for breakfast tomorrow."
He knew what that meant. His father was in a strange mood lately, talking of age and death as if the grim reaper was knocking at the door. This would be another endless litany about attorneys and accountants and bank vaults… as if his sons would touch a dollar of his after he was gone.
His mother knew how he felt. How all her sons felt. Only she and their sisters, Anna and Isabella, persisted in believing the fiction that the old man was a legitimate businessman instead of the don he was.
"Dante?" Sofia's tone lightened. "I will make you that pesto frittata you adore. Si?"
Dante rolled his eyes. He despised the sight, the smell, the taste of pesto but how could a man ever say such a thing to his mother without hurting her feelings? Which, he thought grimly, was exactly why Cesare sent these invitations through his wife.
So he sighed and said yes, sure, he'd be there. "With Raffaele. Eight o'clock. You will call him, si?" That, at least, made him grin. "Absolutely, Mama. I know Rafe will be delighted."
All of which was why Sunday morning, when the rest of Manhattan was undoubtedly still asleep, Dante sauntered into the Orsini town house in what had once been Little Italy but was now an increasingly fashionable part of Greenwich Village.
Rafe had arrived before him.
Sofia had already seated him at the big kitchen table where they'd had so many meals a famiglia. The table groaned under the weight of endless platters of food, and Rafe, looking not too bad for a man who'd spent last night partying with Dante, the redhead and a blonde Red had come up with after Dante had called and told her his brother needed something to cheer him up—considering all that, Rafe looked pretty good.
Rafe looked up, met Dante's eyes and grunted something Dante figured was "good morning."
Dante grunted back.
He'd danced the night away with Red, first at a club in the meatpacking district, then in her bed. It had been a long night, a great night, lots of laughter, lots of sex… lots and lots of sex during which his body had done its thing but his head had been elsewhere. He'd awakened in his own bed—he made it a point never to spend the night in a woman's bed—with a headache, a bad attitude and no desire whatsoever for conversation or his old man.
Or for the frittata his mother placed in front of him.
"Mangia," she said.
It was an order, not a suggestion. He shuddered slightly—
food was not supposed to be green—and picked up his fork.
The brothers were on their second cups of espresso when Cesare's capo, Felipe, stepped into the room.
"Your father will see you now."
Dante and Rafe rose to their feet. Felipe shook his head.
"No, not together. One at a time. Raffaele, you are first."
Rafe smiled tightly and muttered something about the privileges of popes and kings. Dante grinned and told him to have fun.
When he looked back at his plate, there was another frittata on it.
He ate it, got it down with another cup of coffee, then fended off his mother's offerings. Some cheese? Some biscotti? She had that round wheel of bread he liked, from Celini's.
Dante assured her he was not hungry, surreptitiously checked his watch and grew more and more annoyed. After forty minutes he shoved back his chair and got to his feet.
"Mama, I'm afraid I have things to do. Please tell my father that—"
The capo appeared in the doorway. "Your father will see you now."
"So well trained," Dante said pleasantly. "Just like a nice little lap dog."
His father's second in command said nothing, but the look in his eyes was easy to read. Dante showed his teeth in a grin.
"Same to you, too, pal," he said as he pushed past him to the old man's study.
The room was just the way it had always been. Big. Dark. Furnished in impeccably poor taste with paintings of saints and madonnas and God-only-knew-who on the walls. Heavy drapes were pulled across the French doors and windows that led to the garden.
Cesare, seated in a thronelike chair behind his mahogany desk, gestured for Felipe to leave them.
"And close the door," he said, his voice hoarsened by decades' worth of cigars.
Dante sat in a chair across from his father, long legs extended and crossed at the ankles, arms folded. He had dressed in a long-sleeved navy sweater and faded jeans; on his feet were scuffed, well-worn sneakers. His father had never approved of such clothes—one reason, of course, that Dante did.
"Thank you for coming."
"You summoned me. What do you want?"
Cesare sighed, shook his head and folded his perfectly manicured hands on the desk.
"'How are you feeling, Father? What is new in your life, Father? Have you done anything interesting lately?'" His bushy eyebrows rose. "Are you incapable of making polite conversation?"