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Constantine Romano entered the room as though he owned the place. But then, he possessed the sort of presence bred into the very essence of the man. The sort of presence that went with his aristocratic name and stunning bone structure and taut, muscular body. He wore his hair longer than before, the ebony curls and fierce black eyes summoning images of dangerous pirates and ferocious duels of honor. Beneath that elegant exterior smoldered a man of action, who would risk everything, dare all and take whatever he wanted.
And he wanted her.
Gianna Dante shuddered, struggling to gather up her self-control. She'd have to face him and soon. Since their first meeting, over a year and a half ago, a lot had changed. Though she now doubted Constantine had experienced The Inferno during that unforgettable weekend they'd shared, The Inferno had given him an uncanny knack for sensing her presence. That much she remembered. Any second he'd hone in on her and she'd darn well better be prepared.
"Gianna? Would you care to check the display?"
It took her a moment to switch gears and focus on work. Tomorrow marked Dantes' Midsummer Night's gala and a million details remained, each requiring her immediate attention. As Dantes' event coordinator, she took care of everything from the catering to the decorations to the displays to the invitations. Fortunately she had an excellent assistant who was every bit as detail-oriented as she was herself.
"Thank you, Tara. I'll be right there."
Considering that Constantine stood between her and the display in question, she might as well get the coming confrontation over with. She took a deep breath. No big deal, she tried to tell herself. The feelings she'd experienced that long-ago weekend had faded over the ensuing months, months which had ticked by with excruciating slowness. The legendary Dante Inferno, that amazing sensation of volcanic fire that erupted when he'd taken her hand in his had quieted, drifting into dormancy. She could handle this.
She'd simply make it clear to him that she'd moved on.
Gianna started across Dantes' ballroom toward him, thankful that by some blessing of fate she'd chosen to wear one of her "killer" outfits. The vibrant red jacket and tight, short skirt showed off her figure to its best advantage, and the mile-high open-toe heels were the perfect showcase for the gorgeous legs she'd inherited from her equally gorgeous mother. Her hair was longer than the last time she'd seen him, flowing in heavy, layered curls to the middle of her back.
Let him look. Let him want. And let him regret.
She hadn't traversed more than a half dozen steps before Constantine stilled with abrupt predatory awareness. His head turned in her direction and his ink-dark eyes glittered with unmistakable intent. He came for her, moving with a focused grace that almost sent her fleeing in the opposite direction. To her shock, he didn't stop when he reached her, but kept coming. He invaded her space and swept her into his arms. Then, with her name on his lips and a smothered protest on hers, he kissed her.
He devoured her, the kiss one of blatant possession, branding her with a mark of ownership that in any other situation she'd have fought with every ounce of her strength. Instead all thought of resistance melted beneath the blazing heat and she sank inward, opening herself to him. He tasted like ambrosia combined with a hint of spice and topped with a hard, masculine kick. It utterly devastated her senses, along with every scrap of practicality.
It had been so incredibly long since they last touchednineteen months, five days, eight hours and a handful of minutes. Desire in the form of The Inferno had exploded between them at that first touch. Then after a single weekend of bliss, he'd left her.
Despair vied with an incandescent joy. His coming now, after all this time was too little, too late. Why now? Why, when she'd finally come to terms with the impossibility of knowing the sort of Inferno love affair that everyone else in her family possessed, had Constantine chosen this moment to return?
It wasn't fair.
"Stop," she managed to protest. "This is wrong."
How could she tell him? How could she say the words that threatened to break her heart? She'd moved on. She'd found someone else.
He finally picked up on her signals and pulled back a few precious inches. "Stop?" He captivated her with a single smile. "What are you talking about,piccola? After all this time, we're together again. How could something so incredibly right possibly be wrong?"
She slipped free of his embrace and tugged at the bottom of her jacket to straighten it. Somehow the first two buttons had come undone revealing a tantalizing flash of black lace. She did her best to neaten all the various bits and pieces he'd rumpled. She moistened her lips, aware he'd kissed every bit of lipstick from them.
"It's good to see you, Constantine," she said with polite formality.
He froze. "Good to see me?" he repeated softly.
She flinched at the dangerous tone, one infused with the warmth of his Tuscan home, yet chilled with the ice of his displeasure. This was going to be far more difficult than she'd anticipated. "Are you here on business? I hope you'll take a few minutes to drop by my grandparents before you return to Italy." She offered a friendly smile to cover up her nervous chatter. "They were asking after you the other day."
"Don't you understand? I've relocated to San Francisco."
No. No, no, no! It wasn't fair. Not now, after all this time. Praying that none of her thoughts were echoed in her expression, she kept her smile pinned in place, a careless, nonchalant one that made it clear that his news didn't make the least difference to her. "Congratulations."
He caught her chin in the palm of his hand and tipped her face up to his. "Is that all you have to say to me? Congratulations?"
Her smile faded along with all attempts at concealing her emotions. Pain and anger ripped through her and she jerked back from his touch, her impetuous nature decimating her common sense. "What do you want from me, Constantine?" she demanded, the question escaping in a low, fierce undertone. "It's been nearly two years. I've moved on. I suggest you do the same."
His head jerked back as though she'd slapped him. "Moved on?" His accent thickened, deepened. "What does this mean
She dismissed the question with a sweep of her hand. "Don't give me that. You understand idiomatic English just fine. It means precisely what you think it means."
"There is someone else?"
"Yes, Constantine. There is someone else." For the first time, Gianna realized they were the center of all eyes and warmth swept across her cheekbones. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do if I'm going to get this place ready for tomorrow's gala."
She'd never seen him look so hard or distant. He inclined his head in a regal manner. "Please. Do not let me get in your way."
Gathering up her emotions and stuffing them behind an equally regal manner, she spun on her heel and crossed to the nearest display case. She stared blindly at the contents. She wasn't the one who cut ties or ended their relationship prematurely, she reminded herself. He'd given her a handful of amazing days when they first met and then walked away from what might have been. The fact that he'd been able to do that solidified her suspicions about The Inferno. Her family didn't know the entire truth about the family "blessing." But she did. She'd been thirteen years old when she'd overheard how it really worked.
As for Constantine
If he'd experienced the depth of desire she had, he managed to control it well all this time. To dismiss it while he took care of more important business. Until they'd met she'd thought it impossible to fall in love so completely. She thought Constantine had fallen in love with her, as well. Foolish of her, Gianna now realized. She'd spent all these endless months overwhelmed by a cascade of passionate emotions. Emotions thathad he shared themshould have made him incapable of leaving her. Clearly he didn't share a damn thing.
She'd suffered while he'd walked away.
That left her with a single, logical and thoroughly devastating conclusion. He didn't love her. Not really. And that forced her to face an agonizing realization. If she surrendered to him now, he'd own her body and soul. But what would she possess? A man capable of picking her up and setting her aside whenever he wished. She couldn't live like that. She refused to live like that.
For her, for whatever reason, the burn of The Inferno only went one way. Otherwise, Constantine wouldn't have left her. Otherwise, he couldn't have stayed away for so long or curtailed all communication. Well, if he could turn off The Inferno, so could she, though she'd never learned that portion of the secret. Somehow. Someway. Even if it killed her, she'd put an end to it. She closed her eyes against the tears pressing for release.
God, she loved him.
Figlio di puttana! Constantine watched Gianna walk away. Bitter frustration ate at him. Nineteen damn months. For nineteen months, five days, eight hours and a handful of minutes he'd fought and clawed to get his fledgling business, Romano Restoration, off the ground and soaring so that he could emigrate to the United States and establish a stronghold in San Francisco. All to provide Gianna with more than a name when he asked her to marry him. And now that his company had taken off and he was in a position to support a wife, the only woman he wanted was walking away with a hip-swinging stride that knocked every last brain cell offline.
Another man! His hands collapsed into fists. How could she? He'd promised he'd return the instant he could provide for her, and she'd agreed to wait. For nearly two years he'd worked endless days and nights to make that happen. How could she turn her back on what they had? What they could have? Didn't she feel it, that ferocious wildfire that exploded into flames whenever they were in the same room together?
He stared down at his balled hands and it took every ounce of resolve to ignore the relentless itch centered in the palm of his right hand. It was an itch that had flared to life the first moment Gianna Dante had slipped her fine-boned hand into his, and it had continued over the course of the ensuing months, no matter how much distance separated them.
Constantine knew what it was. Though Gianna had neglected to explain what she'd done to hima lengthy and pointed discussion for another timehis sister, Ariana, had described it in graphic detail after her husband, Lazz, had Infernoed her when they'd first joined hands at the altar on their wedding day. Those damned Dantes and their damnable Inferno. It wasn't enough that they'd used it to overpower his sister. That wasn't good enough for them. Hell, no. For some reason, the sole Dante female had chosen him for her mate, had used The Inferno to steal every last crumb of his own self-control. Ever since that day he'd been trapped with no hope of escape other than to surrender to its demands.
And now, he couldn't even do that because Gianna had "moved on." He wanted to roar in outrage. Not a chance in hell would he let her get away with it. She'd soon discover that she couldn't move on, up, down, or sideways without his being right there waiting for her. Whoever she'd chosen to infect with The Inferno this time around was out of luck.
No matter what it took, no matter whether she faced her fate willingly or otherwise, he intended to claim Gianna Dante for his own. The Inferno might have caused him to lose his legendary control, but marriage to her would allow him to regain it. Once he had his ring on her finger and her delightful curves in his bed, this hideous need would ease and he'd be able to wield it as he saw fit. Until then
He stared at her broodingly.
God, he wanted her.
"Did you hear the news?" Elia Dante asked. She lounged in a chair outside the dressing rooms of a snazzy little boutique called Sinfully Delicious. "No, Gianna. Not the salmon. Go with the bronze halter gown. It complements your eyes better than the other one."
Gianna held up one gown, then the other, before nodding in agreement. Though why she bothered to compare the two, she didn't know. When it came to fashion, her mother was infallible. "What news?"
Elia took a delicate sip from a tiny cup of espresso before announcing, "Constantine Romano has moved to San Francisco. He opens the doors to Romano Restoration any day now. Apparently he organized the transition all the way from Italy."
Gianna stiffened, grateful she had her back turned to her mother. She should have anticipated this. Foolish of her not to, all things considered. "That's rather unexpected, isn't it?"
"Do you think so?" Elia asked softly. "Somehow he's gotten his entire operation up and running without any of us being the wiser." She lifted a delicate eyebrow. "I'm guessing as a surprise for a certain someone?"
Gianna sighed. Her mother was the only person who knew what she'd experienced when she and Constantine first met. She'd been very careful to keep it from everyone else, knowing her family would interfere if they knew. "Yes, Mamma, it is. What we had, or rather, what I thought we had ended a long time ago."
"The Inferno doesn't end, chiacchierona"
"Maybe it does."
Gianna swung around to face her mother. What would Elia say if she knew the whole truth about The Inferno? If she'd heard what Gianna had when Uncle Dominic explained the facts to Aunt Laura? Or watched what he'd done to rid them both of The Inferno? She'd never dared tell anyone, terrified that she'd see other relationships ruined as a result of her revelation. If the rest of her family believed in The Inferno with all their hearts, maybe they'd never discover what her aunt and uncle had.
That The Inferno wasn't forever.
Gianna hesitated, still unwilling to tell her mother the entire truth. She chose her words with care. "Maybe it's different because I'm a woman instead of a man," she suggested. "Maybe it only went one way and he doesn't feel what I do."
"If that were so, Constantine wouldn't be here."
"Maybe I can take The Inferno back," she dared to suggest.
Elia simply laughed. "That's not possible. The Inferno is forever."
Oh, but it wasn't. Gianna set her chin. "It doesn't matter if Constantine is here now. It's too late."
A mother's wisdom gleamed in Elia's dark eyes. "That's your pride speaking, not your heart."
"I've moved on," Gianna insisted, wincing at the defensive edge underscoring her words. "I'm dating David d'Angelo now."