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This time his family had gone too far.
Rafe Dante stared at the bevy of women being subtly—and not so subtly—paraded beneath his nose by various family members. He'd lost count of the number of women he'd been forced to shake hands with. He knew why they were doing it. They were all determined to find him a wife. He grimaced. No, more than just a wife.
They hoped to find his Inferno soul mate—a Dante legend that had gotten seriously out of hand. For some reason, his family had it firmly fixed in their heads that it took only one touch for some strange mythical connection to be forged between a Dante and his soul mate. Ridiculous, of course. Didn't they get it?
Not only didn't he believe in The Inferno, but he had no interest in ever experiencing matrimonial bliss-lessness again. His late wife, Leigh, had taught him that lesson in the short span of time from "I do" to "My lawyer will be in touch." Of course, that phone call had never come. Eighteen months ago his wife had chartered a private plane to Mexico to recover from the tragedy of her marriage to him and met a far worse fate when her plane crashed into a mountainside, leaving no survivors.
Rafe's younger brother, Draco, joined him and folded his arms across his chest. He stood silently for a moment, surveying the room and the glittering contents, both jeweled and female. "Ready to surrender and just pick one?"
"I am. Dead serious."
Rafe turned on his brother, only too happy to vent some of his irritation. "Do you have any idea what the past three months have been like?"
"I do. I've been watching from the sidelines, in case you hadn't noticed. I'm also keenly aware that once you succumb to The Inferno, I'm next in line for the firing squad. As far as I'm concerned, feel free to hold out for as long as possible."
"I'm working on it."
Rafe returned his attention to the shimmer and sparkle and sighed. Dantes international jewelry reception possessed everything a man could ask for—wine, women and bling—and nothing he wanted.
The wine came from a Sonoma, California, vineyard just a few hours from the family's San Francisco home office. He knew the label on the bottles was as exclusive as the guest list. The women were beautiful, wealthy and shone as brilliantly as the wedding rings on display around the private showroom. As for the bling… Well, that often fell within his purview, at least it did when Dantes Courier Service transported the stunning array of gemstones and finished pieces.
And yet Rafe was nagged by a sense of utter boredom. How many times had he attended receptions similar to this one? Always observing. Always maintaining a vigilant eye from the shadows. Always the watchful lone wolf instinctively avoided by the guests, until one family member or another thrust a potential bride in his direction. It was a pattern that had repeated itself so many times he'd lost count.
This occasion celebrated the exclusive release of the latest Dantes collection, the Eternity line of one-of-a-kind wedding rings. Each was unique, combining the fire diamonds for which his family was renowned with the Platinum Ice gold from Billings, the company owned by Rafe's sister-in-law, Téa Dante, who'd married his older brother, Luc, three months earlier. Just seeing rings that symbolized love and commitment filled Rafe with bitterness.
Been there. Done that. Still had the scars to prove it.
And then he saw her.
The little blonde pixie working the reception as one of the caterers couldn't claim the title of most gorgeous woman in the room, but for some reason Rafe couldn't take his eyes off her.
He couldn't say why she attracted his attention or explain the vague sizzle she stirred. Granted, her features were quite lovely, delicate and fine boned with enough whimsy to make them interesting. Maybe it was her hair and eyes—hair the same shade as the ice-white sand of a Caribbean island and eyes the glorious turquoise of the rolling ocean waves that splashed and frolicked across those pristine beaches. Then there was that sizzle he couldn't explain, a vague compelling itch that urged him to get closer to her in every possible way.
She circulated through the display room of the Dantes corporate office building with a hip-swinging glide that made her appear as though she were dancing. In fact, she possessed a dancer's body, lean and graceful, if a bit pint-size, every delectable inch showcased by the fitted black slacks and tight red vest of her uniform.
She disappeared into the crowd, her tray of canapés held high, and he lost sight of her. For a split second he was tempted to give chase. A few minutes later, the pixie waitress reappeared with a fresh tray of champagne and circled through the guests in the exact opposite direction from where he stood.
For some reason it annoyed Rafe. Determined to force a meeting, he began to maneuver his way through the crowd on an intercept course, one circumvented by Draco's restraining hand.
"What?" Rafe asked, lifting an eyebrow. "I'm thirsty."
Draco shot him a knowing look. "Funny. I'd have said you look hungry. And with so many eyes on you, I recommend you avoid sating your appetite until a more appropriate time and place."
"Relax. Where there's a will…" Draco gestured toward one of the nearby display cases and deliberately changed the subject. "Looks like Francesca's latest line of Eternity wedding rings is going to be a huge success. Sev must be thrilled."
Caving to the inevitable, Rafe nodded. "I think he's more thrilled about the birth of their son," he replied. "But this would probably rate as icing on the cake."
Draco inclined his head, then slanted Rafe a look of open amusement. "So tell me. How many of the lovelies fluttering around the room have our beloved grandparents introduced to you so far this evening?"
Rafe's expression settled into grim lines. "A full dozen. Made me touch every last one of them, like they expected to see me set off a shower of fireworks or light the place up in a blaze of electricity or something."
"It's your own fault. If you hadn't told Luc that you and Leigh never experienced The Inferno, the entire family wouldn't be intent on throwing women your way."
The fact that so many of his relatives had succumbed to the family legend only added to Rafe's bitterness toward his own brief foray into the turbulent matrimonial waters. Time would tell whether their romances lasted longer than his own. They might claim they'd found their soul mates, courtesy of the Dantes' Inferno. Rafe, the most logical and practical of all his kith and kin, adopted a far more simple and pragmatic—okay, cynical— viewpoint.
The Inferno didn't exist.
There was no eternal bond established when a Dante first touched his soul mate, no matter what anyone claimed, any more than Dantes Eternity wedding rings could promise that the marriages for which they were purchased would last for all eternity. Some hit it lucky, like his grandparents, Primo and Nonna. And some didn't, like his disastrous marriage to his late wife, Leigh.
Rafe stared broodingly at his older brother, Luc, and his bride of three months, Téa. They were dancing together, swirling across the floor, gazing into each other's eyes as though no one else in the room existed. Every emotion blazed in their expressions, there for the world to witness. Hell, even when Rafe had been in the most passionate throes of lust, neither he nor Leigh had ever looked at each other like that.
In fact, he'd been accused by the various women in his life that his penchant for practicality and hard, cold logic—his lone wolf persona—bled over into his personal life with dismaying frequency. Possessing a fiery passion in the bedroom definitely compensated, as did his striking Dante looks, they conceded, but not when that passion went no farther than the bedroom door. Emotionally distant. Unavailable. Intimidating. For reasons that bewildered him, that word was always accompanied by a shudder.
What none of them understood was that he didn't do love. Not the brutal, I-married-you-because-you're-a-rich-and-powerful-Dante love his late wife, Leigh, had specialized in. Not the casual, melt-the-sheets-and-enjoy-it-while-the-bling-lasts type that characterized the women interested in an affair with him. And definitely not The Inferno brain-frying-palm-burning-happily-ever-after brand of bull spouted by his more emotional and passionate Dante relatives.
Rafe knew himself all too well. And he could state with absolute certainty that not only wasn't he hardwired that way, he never had and never would experience an Inferno love.
Which was just fine by him.
"It was annoying the first few times a potential bride was dangled in front of me," Rafe informed his brother.
"Since it was Nonna and Primo, I couldn't say much. But now everyone's gotten into the act. I can't move without having some gorgeous thing shoved under my nose."
Draco signaled to someone over Rafe's shoulder. "A fate worse than death," he said with a fake shudder.
"It would be if it were you under the gun."
"But I'm not." Draco leaned past Rafe and helped himself to a flute of champagne. "Want one?"
"Consider this your lucky day. The tray's right behind you." He offered a cocky grin. "And don't say I never did you a favor."
Confused by the comment, Rafe turned to take a glass and found his elusive pixie standing there, holding the tray of drinks. Close up she was even more appealing than from across the room.
He gestured to her with the flute. "Thanks."
Her smile grew, lighting up her face, the room and some cold, dark place in his heart. "You're welcome." Even her voice appealed, rich and husky with an almost musical lyricism.
Draco watched the byplay in amusement. "You know, if you want the relatives to leave you alone, there is one way."
That snagged Rafe's attention. "How?" he demanded.
Draco grinned. "Find your Inferno bride."
"Son of a—" Rafe bit off the curse. "I already told you. I'm never going to marry again. Not after Leigh."
He heard the pixie's sharp inhalation at the same time the flutes on her tray began to wobble unsteadily. The glasses knocked against each other, the crystal singing in distress. She fought to steady the tray, almost managed it, before the flutes tipped and cascaded to the floor. Glass shattered and champagne splattered in a wide arc.
Reacting instinctively, Rafe encircled the waitress's narrow waist and yanked her clear of the debris field. A tantalizing heat burned through the material of her uniform, rousing images of pale naked curves gilded in moonlight. Velvety-smooth arms and legs entwined around him. Soft moans like a musical symphony filling the air and driving their lovemaking.
Rafe shook his head, struggling for focus. "Are you all right?" he managed to ask.
She stared at the mess on the floor and nodded. "I think so."
She lifted her gaze to his, her eyes wide and impossibly blue, the only color in her sheet-white face. He didn't see any of the desire that had swept over him. Remorse and, oddly, a hint of panic, sure. But not so much as a flicker of passion. A shame.
"I'm so sorry," she said. "I started to step back so I could circulate some more and my foot slipped."
"You're not cut?"
"No." She blew out her breath in a sigh. "I really do apologize. I'll get this cleaned up right away."
Before she could follow through, another of the catering staff crossed the room to join them. He was clearly management, judging by the swift and discreet manner in which he took control of the situation and arranged to have the broken glass and champagne cleaned up. The waitress pitched in without a word, but when it was done, the manager guided her over to Rafe.
"Larkin, you have something to say to Mr. Dante?" he prompted.
"I want to apologize again for any inconvenience I may have caused," she said.
Rafe smiled at her, then at the manager. "Accidents happen. And in this case, it was entirely my fault. I'm afraid I bumped into Larkin, causing her to drop the tray."
The manager blinked at that and Rafe didn't have a doubt in the world that he'd have accepted the excuse if Larkin hadn't instantly protested, "Oh, no. The fault is entirely mine. Mr. Dante had nothing to do with it."
The manager sighed. "I see. Well, thank you, Mr. Dante, for your gallantry. Larkin, please return to the kitchen."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Barney."
Rafe watched her walk away. As far as he was concerned, she was still the most graceful woman in the room. "You're going to fire her, aren't you?"
"I wish I didn't have to. But my supervisor has a 'no excuses' policy for certain of his more exclusive clientele."
"I gather Dantes is on that list?"
Barney cleared his throat. "I believe you top the list, sir."
"It's a shame, really. She's the nicest of our waitresses. If it were up to me…"
Rafe lifted an eyebrow. "I don't suppose we can forget this incident took place?"
"I'd love to," Barney replied. "But there were too many witnesses and not all of our help is as kindhearted as Larkin. Word will get out if I do that and then both of us will be out of a job."
"Understood. I guess it would have helped if she'd allowed me to take the blame."
"You have no idea" came the heartfelt comment. "But Larkin's just not made that way."
"A rare quality."
"Yes, it is." Barney lifted an eyebrow. "If there's anything else you or anyone in your family needs…?"
"I'll let you know."
The two men shook hands and Barney disappeared in the direction of the kitchen, no doubt to fire Larkin. Rafe frowned. Maybe he should intercede. Or better yet, maybe he could arrange for a new job. Dantes was a big firm with plenty of branches. Surely he could find an opening for her somewhere. Hell, he was president of Dantes Courier Service. He could invent a job if one didn't already exist. The thought of Larkin's sunny smile welcoming him to work each day struck him as appealing in the extreme.
Draco approached. "So? Have you given my idea any thought?"
Rafe stared blankly. "What idea?"
"Weren't you listening to me?"
"It usually works best if I don't. Most of the time your suggestions only lead one place."
Draco grinned. "Trouble?"
"Well, this one won't. All you have to do is find your Inferno bride and everyone will leave you alone."
Rafe shook his head. "Apparently you're not great at listening, either. After that disaster of a marriage to Leigh, I'm never going to marry again."
"Who said anything about marriage?"
Rafe narrowed his eyes. "Explain."