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Bronte was doing a hamstring stretch at the barre when she heard the studio door open. She looked in the wall-to-ceiling mirror, her heart screeching to a halt when she saw a tall dark figure come in behind her. Her eyes flared in shock, her hands instantly dampening where they clung to the barre. Her heart started up again, but this time with a staccato beat which seemed to mimic the frantic jumble of her thoughts.
It couldn't be.
She must be imagining it.
Of course she was imagining it!
It couldn't be Luca.
Her mind was playing tricks. It always did when she was tired or stressed. And she was both.
She curled her fingers around the barre, opening and closing her eyes to clear her head. She opened them again and her heart gave another almighty stumble.
It just couldn't possibly be Luca Sabbatini. There were hundreds, no, possibly thousands of stunningly handsome dark-haired men who might just by chance wander into her studio and
Oh, dear God, it was him.
Bronte took a slow deep breath and straightened her shoulders as she turned and faced him. 'Luca,' she said with cool politeness. 'I hope you're not thinking of booking in for the first class of the afternoon. It's full.'
His dark eyes roamed over her close-fitting dance wear-clad body slowly, lingering for a heart-stopping moment on her mouth, before meshing his gaze with hers. 'You look as beautiful and as graceful as ever,' he said as if she hadn't spoken.
Bronte felt a frisson of emotion rush through her at the sound of his voice: rich and dark and deep and smoky with its unmistakable and beautifully cultured Italian accent. He looked the same as the last time she had seen him, although perhaps a little leaner if anything. Well over six feet tall, with glossy black hair that was neither short nor long, neither straight nor curly, and with the darkest brown eyes she had ever seen, he towered over her five feet seven, making her feel as dainty and tiny as a ballerina on a child's music box.
'You've got rather a cheek to come here,' she said with a flash of her gaze. 'I thought you said all that needed to be said two years ago in London.'
Behind his eyes it looked as if a small light had gone on and off like a pen-sized flashlight. It was a tiny movement and she would not have seen it at all if she hadn't been glaring at him so heatedly. 'I am here on business,' he said, his voice sounding a little rusty. 'I thought it might be a good chance to meet up again.'
'Meet up and do what exactly?' she asked with a lift of her chin. 'Talk about old times? Forget about it, Luca. Time and distance has done the trick. I am finally over you.'
She turned and walked back to the barre. 'I have a class starting in five minutes,' she addressed him in the mirror. 'Unless you want to be surrounded by twenty little girls in tights and leotards, I suggest you leave.'
'Why are you teaching instead of dancing?' he asked as his gaze held hers steady in the mirror.
Bronte rolled her eyes impatiently and turned back to face him. She placed one hand on her hip, her top lip going up in a what-would-you-care curl. 'I was unable to make the audition at the last minute, that's why.'
A small frown pulled at his brow. 'Were you injured?'
Bronte suppressed an embittered smile. Heartbroken and pregnant sort of qualified for injury, didn't it? 'You could say that,' she said, sending him a cutting look. 'Teaching was the next best option. Back home in Melbourne seemed the best place to set up to do it.'
His dark gaze swept over the old warehouse Bronte and her business partner Rachel Brougham had fashioned into a dance studio. 'How much rent do you pay on this place?' he asked.
A feather of suspicion started to dust its way up Bronte's spine. 'Why do you ask?'
One of his broad shoulders rose and fell in a noncommittal shrug. 'It's a sound investment opportunity,' he said. 'I'm always in the market for good commercial property.'
She frowned as she studied his inscrutable expression. 'I thought you worked in hotel management for your family?'
Luca smiled a ghost of a smile. 'I've diversified quite a bit since I saw you last. I have several other interests now. Commercial property is a sure bet; it often gives much better returns than the domestic property market.'
Bronte pressed her lips together as she worked on controlling her emotions. Seeing him like this, unannounced and unexpected, had thrown her completely. It was so hard to maintain a cool unaffected pose when inside she felt as if she had been scraped raw. 'I am sure if you contact the landlords they will tell you the place is not for sale,' she said after a short pause.
'I have contacted them.'
She felt her spine slowly turn to ice as her eyes climbed all the way back up to his. 'A
His half-smile gave him a rakish look. It was one of the things that had jump-started her heart the first time she had met him in a bookshop in London. Her heart was doing a similar thing now, for all her brave talk of having got over him.
'I have made them an offer,' he said. 'That's one of the reasons I am here in Australia. The Sabbatini Hotel Corporation is expanding more and more globally. We have plans to build a luxury hotel in Melbourne and Sydney and another on the Gold Coast of Queensland. Perhaps you have heard about it in the newspapers.'
Bronte wondered how she could have missed it. In spite of her animosity towards him, from time to time she couldn't stop herself trawling the papers and gossip magazines for a mention of him or his family. Only a few months ago she had heard of the separation of his older brother Giorgio and his wife Maya. She had also heard something about his younger brother Nicolo winning an obscene amount of money playing poker in a Las Vegas casino. But she had heard nothing of Luca.
It was as if for the last two years he had completely disappeared off the news media radar.
'No, but then again I have better things to do with my time,' she said with a disparaging look.
His dark eyes continued to hold hers in a stare-down Bronte was determined to win. She tried to keep her expression masked but even so his presence was having an intense effect on her. She could feel her skin tightening all over, her heart was racing again and her stomach was fluttering with a frenzied flock of razor-sharp wings. Seeing him again was something she had never allowed herself to think about. On a cold, miserable, grey day in November almost two years ago he had brought their six-month affair to an abrupt and bitter end. Her love for him had over time cooled down until it was now like a chunk of sharp-edged ice stuck right in the middle of her chest. What sort of naive fool had she been to have loved such a heartless man? He had not once returned any of her calls or emails. In fact she suspected he had switched addresses and numbers in order to get her out of his life.
And now he was back as if nothing had happened.
'Why are you here?' she asked with a pointed glare. 'Why are you really here?'
He continued to look down at her from his towering height, but something about his expression had softened slightly. His dark eyes reminded her of melted chocolate, his mouth a temptation equally irresistible. She could almost feel those sculptured lips pressing down on hers. Her lips tingled with the memory and, as she thought of how he had made her feel in his arms, her chest felt as if someone was slowly pulling scratchy pieces of string from all four chambers of her heart.
Bronte felt her guard lowering and hastily pulled up the drawbridge on her emotions, standing stiffly before him, her arms folded across her middle, her mouth tight with renewed resolve.
'I wanted to see you again, Bronte,' he said. 'I wanted to make sure you are all right.'
She blew out a breath of disgust. 'All right? Why wouldn't I be all right?' she asked. 'Your ego must be far bigger than I realised if you think I would be still pining over you after all this time. It's been nearly two years, Luca. Twenty-two months and fourteen days, to be exact. I've well and truly moved on with my life.'
'Are you seeing anyone?' he asked, still watching her in that rock-steady hawk-like way of his.
Bronte pushed up her chin. 'Yes, as a matter of fact I am.'
He gave no outward sign of the news affecting him but she sensed an inner tension in him that hadn't been there before. 'Would your current partner mind if I stole you for dinner this evening?' he asked.
'I am not going out with you, Luca,' she said with deliberate firmness. 'Not tonight, not tomorrow night, not ever.'
He moved a step closer, his hand coming down on one of her arms to stop her from moving away from him. Bronte looked down at his long, dark, tanned fingers on her creamy bare skin within touching distance of her breasts, and felt her body shiver all over. It felt as if her blood was being heated to boiling point from that simple touch. She felt the drum roll of her heart and the deep quiver of her belly as his fingers subtly tightened. 'Is one night so very much to ask?' he said.
She pushed at his hand but he brought his other one over the top and held her firm. He was too close. She could feel his warm minty breath on her face. She could smell his lemon-based aftershave. She could feel her body responding as if on autopilot. 'Don't do this, Luca,' she said in a cracked whisper.
'Don't do what?' he asked, holding her gaze steady with his as his thumb slowly, mesmerisingly stroked along the back of her hand.
She swallowed a lump of anguish. 'I think you know,' she said. 'This is a game to you. You're here in Australia and you want a playmate. And who better than someone you already know who is going to go away when it's over without too much fuss.'
A corner of his mouth lifted in a rueful smile. 'Your opinion of me is a lot worse than I expected. Didn't I give you enough compensation for bringing an end to our affair?'
More than you know, Bronte thought. 'I sent the opal pendant back,' she said with a defiant glare. 'They're supposed to be bad luck. I kind of figured I had already had my fair share in meeting you.'
A tight spot appeared beside his mouth, like a pulse of restrained anger beating beneath his skin. 'It was very mean-spirited of you to return it in that state,' he said. 'It was an expensive piece. How did you smash it? Did you back over it with an earth mover or something?'
She pushed her chin a little higher. 'I used a hammer. It was immensely satisfying.'
'It was an appalling waste of a rare black opal,' he said. 'If I had known you were going to be so petulant about it I would have given you diamonds instead. They, at least, are unbreakable.'
'I am sure I would have found a way,' she said tightly.
He smiled then, a rare show of perfect white teeth, the movement of his lips triggering the creasing of the fine lines about his eyes. 'Yes, I am sure you would have, cara.'
Bronte felt that quivery feeling again and tried desperately to suppress it. What was it about this man that made her so weak and needy? His mere presence made her remember every moment they had spent together. Her body seemed to wake up from a long sleep and leap to fervent life. All her senses were switched to hyper vigilant mode, each and every one of her nerves twitching beneath her skin to be subjected again to the exquisite mastery of his touch.
He had been the most amazing lover. Her only lover. She had been romantically and perhaps somewhat foolishly saving herself for the right man. She hadn't wanted to repeat the mistakes her mother had made in falling for a wastrel and then being left holding the baby. Bronte had instead fallen for a billionaire and the baby she had been left holding he still knew nothing about.
And, given how appallingly he had treated her, she planned to keep it that way.
'I have to ask you to leave, Luca,' she said. 'I have a class in a few minutes and I'
'I want to see you tonight, Bronte,' he stated implacably. 'No is not a word I will tolerate as an answer.'
She pulled out of his hold with a surge of strength that was fuelled by anger. 'You can't force me to do anything, Luca Sabbatini,' she said. 'I am not under any obligation to see you, have dinner with you or even look at you. Now, if you don't leave immediately, I will call the police.'
His dark eyes hardened to black ice. 'How much rent did you say you were paying on this place?' he asked.
Bronte felt a lead-booted foot of apprehension press down on her chest until she could barely breathe. 'I didn't say and I am not going to.'
His smile had a hint of cruelty about it. He reached into the inside breast pocket of his suit jacket and handed her a silver embossed vellum business card. 'My contact details,' he said. 'I will expect you at eight this evening at my hotel. I have written the name and address on the back. I am staying in the penthouse suite.'
'I won't be there,' she warned him as he turned to leave.
He stopped at the door of the studio and turned to look at her. 'Perhaps you had better speak to your previous landlords before you make your final decision,' he said.
'Previous?' Bronte's eyes flared as the realisation dawned. 'You mean you bought the building?' Her heart gave a stutter like an old lawnmower refusing to start. 'Y.. you're my new landlord?'
He gave her a self-satisfied smile. 'Dinner at eight, Bronte, otherwise you might find the sudden rise in rent too much to handle.'
Bronte felt anger rise up like lava inside an ancient volcano. Her whole body was shaking with it. Her hands were so tightly fisted her fingers ached, and her blood was pounding so hard in her veins she could hear a roaring in her ears. 'You're blackmailing me?' she choked.