Today would have been the six-month anniversary of her wedding.
If I hadn’t run.
The thought caught Gabby in an unguarded moment. For a second her surroundings faded and she was back under the warm Sicilian sun. With Vito.
Her feet faltered—the dancer on her right whirled around, rammed into her, and Gabby crashed to the stage floor with a thump, the air knocked from her lungs. She lay for a minute, gazing at the sea of multicolored legs around her and the empty chairs in the front row.
“Crap,” she muttered, pushing herself up onto her hands and knees and then to her feet, brushing down her purple leotard and hitching up her bubblegum pink legwarmers. The music stopped and everyone’s attention focused on her. She gave a shrug. “Sorry.”
It had been her fault; she’d turned the wrong way. Luckily it was only a rehearsal, but all the same—she was better than this.
Get a grip, wuss.
“Perhaps we could have a little more attention, Gabby.” The choreographer’s voice held more than a hint of sarcasm. “And we might all get home before midnight.” Yeah, that would be good—it was only eleven in the morning, and they had a show tonight.
She was the newest member of the cast of a long-running West End musical, but that shouldn’t have made a difference. She was a professional. It didn’t help that her miserable state was self-inflicted. Her head pounded from too many chocolate-strawberry martinis the night before. She’d gone out with her bestie Theresa and drunk way too much, drowning her sorrows.
Not that she had anything to be sorrowful about. Not really. Her mum was doing well, responding to the treatment, and her brother was out of trouble—fingers crossed the little monster would stay that way.
And finally, she had a good job. Yay!
Not as good as the one she’d lost when she broke her arm, but good enough to pay the rent if she ever got off her pathetic backside and looked for a place of her own instead of Theresa’s couch. And if she didn’t mess up, the job would go on for a long time. The show had been running for years; there was no reason to believe it would end anytime soon.
Which all meant that there was absolutely no reason to feel so goddamn miserable all the time.
Just don’t think about a certain Sicilian.
A face flashed up in her mind—a stunningly flawless face, with sharp cheekbones, eyes like bitter chocolate, and the longest, blackest lashes she had ever seen.
Oh God, I just thought about Vito. Total bummer.
She jumped and found everyone still staring at her.
“Are you ready?”
She gave a quick nod. “Yes, boss.”
The music started, and she forced everything from her mind and, thankfully, soon lost herself in the rhythm. She loved that moment when the dance and music took over, her surroundings faded, and she was transported to another world. She danced until her legs ached and a sheen of sweat covered her body. She was just congratulating herself on not putting a foot wrong when she raised her head and caught sight of a tall figure standing in the aisle.
Her mind went blank, her feet tangled, and for a second time that morning, she crashed to the floor. This time she lay with her eyes tight shut, unwilling to open them until someone nudged her in the side.
She peeked through her lashes, stared at the spot, but the man was gone. A figment of her imagination? Not a chance in hell. She wasn’t that lucky.
She scrambled to her feet. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” she mumbled, giving another little shrug. “I got distracted. It won’t happen again. Super big promise.”
“We’ll start from the beginning.”
The rest of the dancers groaned, but as far as Gabby was concerned, he could keep them there all day and past midnight. Here on the stage, she was someone else, and real life couldn’t touch her.
But once she left the stage, all bets were off.
Madre di Christo.
Vittorio D’Ascensio backed up and collapsed into one of the crimson velvet seats at the rear of the auditorium, never taking his gaze from the stage and the woman he’d come to find.
What the hell?
He would never have recognized her if she hadn’t fallen over and drawn attention to herself. Even then, it had taken long moments for him to realize that this was his Gabrielle.
It was inconceivable, as though the world had tilted, leaving him floundering and off-balance. For a moment it was as though he was back on that burning ship, struggling for air, in a world turned to chaos. He’d nearly died that night three weeks ago, and it had been Gabrielle’s image that had kept him going, given him the strength to fight his way out of there. To survive.
Confronting death could have a profound effect on a man, bringing him face-to-face with his regrets. Afterward, in the lifeboat, Vito had made a vow that he would find Gabrielle, convince her that he did love her, persuade her to come back to him.
He rubbed a finger over the scar that ran down his cheek from his eye to his upper lip—a constant reminder of that night and the vow he’d made.
Now here he was.
The loud music assaulted his ears, thumping in his head. She’d told him she was a classical ballerina on a hiatus as she waited for a wrist injury to heal. This was as far from classical ballet as it was possible to get. All the same, he couldn’t drag his gaze from her figure as she moved to the music. She was so…colorful. Gabrielle had always been subdued, tasteful. This woman was bright, like a tropical bird, in a purple leotard and pink leggings, her hair pulled into a high ponytail.
Six months ago, he’d fully expected to marry Gabrielle; she’d been everything he’d ever wanted…his fantasy bride. Then the night before the wedding, she’d vanished, leaving him a note, just two sentences which made no sense then or now.
“I can’t marry you. You don’t love me.”
Did she believe he’d been unfaithful, that there was someone else? But why?
Maybe he should have gone after her back then, but he’d wanted her—no needed her—to come back of her own accord. He didn’t make mistakes. He couldn’t have been so totally wrong about them. So he’d thrown himself into his work, every day expecting her to turn up and tell him she’d just needed time. But months had passed and nothing. It had taken a life and death situation to accept she wasn’t coming back to him. If he wanted to discover the truth, then he had to go out and hunt it down.
But he’d never expected to find this.
Watching her supple body dance in the fitted leotard that clung to the swell of her breasts, her narrow waist, the curve of her hips, his body reacted almost instantly, growing hot and hard.
They’d never made love. She’d always backed off, and he’d respected that, believing she wanted to wait for marriage. He wouldn’t have held it against her if she hadn’t been a virgin, but all the same, he’d liked the fact that he would be her first. It had evoked some primordial feeling inside him.
It also meant he hadn’t slept with a woman since he first caught sight of her all those months ago. Now, he couldn’t take his eyes from her. As he watched, she turned around, bent over from the waist, her ass facing him. She glanced over her shoulder, and he almost exploded.
This was unexpected. He’d always wanted her, but never with the urgency that now coursed through his body.
He sat unmoving for maybe an hour, thoughts churning in his mind.
If he confronted her now, would she tell him why she’d doubted his love? Would she have an explanation as to why she’d vanished without a trace, changed her cell phone, left her old address?
He’d been aware he’d rushed her, but he’d wanted to make her his, to prove his commitment—a commitment he’d never been able to give to any woman before. Had he come on too strong and frightened her away?
Something churned in his gut.
Finally, the music stopped, and the dancers left the stage. He watched until she disappeared from sight, then rose to his feet.
Time to get some answers.
At least she’d managed to get through the routine without another slip-up.
A prickle ran down her spine as she headed for the changing room. Gabby made sure she was in the middle of the group. She was shorter than most of the dancers and hidden from view. But it also meant she couldn’t see much of what was around her.
Not that she wanted to see. She kept her eyes on the ground, but her heart was hammering.
Why was he here?
Why now? Six months had passed. If he was going to come after her, why hadn’t he come before? She’d presumed she was safe, and it was over—an episode in her life that she was totally ashamed of. But at the time she’d felt she had no choice. Hell, she had had no choice. She’d needed the money. Besides, when Luciano Scarlesi had put the proposition to her, it hadn’t sounded like such a bad thing. She was doing something for the family.
Her dad had married Luca’s aunt, Maria Scarlesi, when Gabby was seven. Consequently, she’d grown up on the edges of the sprawling Scarlesi family, and she knew all about Sicilian family vendettas and how the wicked D’Ascensio family had ruined the Scarlesis and driven them out of Sicily. Now she had a chance to help them right an old wrong.
And she’d wanted to help. She’d never really felt like she belonged. Hell, she didn’t even look the part, a blonde and blue-eyed alien surrounded by a sea of black hair and dark eyes. This was her chance to do something, to prove she really was part of the family.
“Did you see that total hottie?” Sally asked, fanning her face, as the door to the dressing room shut behind them.
With the words, the last hope that she’d somehow conjured up his image, drained away. “Total hottie” just about summed Vito up. He was all long, lean muscles wrapped in golden skin. The body of a Greek god and the face of an Adonis. She’d known she was in trouble from the moment she’d first seen him; he’d been way more charismatic in real life than the photos Luca had shown her. She’d only kept her hands off him because of guilt and the ability to completely submerge herself in her role.
She was a good girl.
A good actress, maybe.
She’d always had a thing for Mediterranean men. After all, Luca had been her first crush, but perhaps best not to go there. “Best not go there” seemed to be the recurring theme with her love life.
But it looked like she wasn’t going to have a choice in the matter. She was going there whether she liked it or not.
She kicked off her shoes and sank down onto the stool in front of the mirror that ran along one wall of the changing rooms, but she didn’t even see her reflection. Maybe if she sat here long enough, he would lose interest and go away. The chatter of the other girls washed over her. Her mind was numb; she had no clue what to do. What to say to him. Obviously, the truth wasn’t an option. But she was done with lying.
Maybe she could fake a case of bronchitis and pretend she’d lost her voice—except he’d no doubt seen and heard her sing on the stage.
She liked that one.
The room slowly emptied out, and still she didn’t move. Finally, the door clicked shut behind the last of her workmates, and she shifted on the stool. She couldn’t stay here forever.
Or could she? They’d find her mummified corpse years from now… Maybe not.
She glanced around—there was no other exit, not even a window to jump out of, and the only other door led to a bathroom. A rack with the costumes stood along the wall opposite. A disguise perhaps. Or a hiding place.
She was being pathetic.
Just get it over with.
But put some clothes on first.
She definitely didn’t want to face her ex-fiancé in nothing but a leotard, tights, and legwarmers. She stood up and reached for her sweats as the door handle turned…and the world stopped.
Oh, hell. Too late.
He’d been loitering outside for half an hour, like some lovesick admirer, as one by one, the other women had exited what he presumed was the changing room.
But no Gabrielle.
She was in there. He was sure. She couldn’t have gotten past him and left the building.
The door opened, and his breath caught in his throat…then released on a sigh as yet another stranger appeared. She glanced at him curiously, and he stepped forward.
“I’m looking for Gabrielle Harper,” he said.
She gave a little pout but then nodded back toward the dressing room. “Gabby? She’s in there.”
He stared at the door as if willing it to open. What would she say?
When nothing happened and another five minutes passed, he took a deep breath and stepped toward the door. He almost expected it to be locked but the handle turned, and he pushed it open.
It led into a long, narrow room, but his surroundings faded because there she was.
She stood only a few feet away, a startled expression in her wide blue eyes. He pushed the door open further and stepped into the room, enveloped instantly in a wave of feminine perfumes. She took a step back.
He released the door, and it swung shut behind him, the click loud in the silence.
She stared at him for long moments. He stared back. She was the same but completely different. She’d always worn her hair in a tidy blond bob, cut off neat at the shoulders. Now it was pulled into a high messy pony tail and the blond was mixed with bright magenta streaks. Her face was free of makeup, where before she’d always worn a small amount, subtle and understated. Now her skin was clear, her lips dark pink, pouty. His eyes skimmed over her face and then back—she had a diamond stud in her nose, and he started in shock.
It occurred to him that he would never have looked twice at this woman. She reminded him too much of his students, young and edgy and off-limits. It was one of his unspoken rules—never get involved with anyone at his work, and certainly not a student.
But Gabrielle wasn’t a student, and she was twenty-four—five years younger than him. At least, that’s what she’d told him, though now he was beginning to question everything.
He’d always thought her classically beautiful. Now she looked…sexy. Her heart-shaped face had a dimple in the chin. Her nose was small, her cheekbones high, and her eyes huge and midnight blue.
He cleared his throat and dropped his gaze.
She still wore the purple leotard, and it was skin-tight and clinging to her curves. Cristo, he could see her nipples pressed against the soft material, and the blood drained to his groin. Her breasts were small but rounded. He was pretty sure she was naked beneath the thin material and saliva flooded his mouth.
She still hadn’t spoken, just stood there staring back at him, her gaze fixed on his face. Then she took a step toward him. Her hand reached out, and she stroked a finger down over his cheekbone.
Of course, the scar. That was new.
“What happened?” she murmured and even her voice had a sexy edge, low and husky. He’d always thought she had a beautiful voice but never considered it sexy. Maybe this wasn’t Gabrielle. A twin sister? With the same name? Unlikely.
He shook his head. What had she said?
Her finger caressed the curve of his cheek. The scar? That was it. He cleared his throat. “An accident. On a cruise ship. I was hit by a burning cable.”
He shrugged. “It could have been worse.”
Her hand dropped to her side, and she studied him, her head cocked. While she wasn’t short for a woman, she only came to his shoulder, and this close, looking down, he could see the swell of her breasts above the tight material. He tried to focus on her face.
“It suits you,” she said after a minute. “You were too perfect before.”
If he was so goddamn perfect, why had she run? The first flickers of anger licked along his nerves. She’d clearly moved on with her life—a completely different life than he had imagined.
“Why?” he asked, and the word came out as a growl, harsher than he’d intended.
She took a step back, her eyes widening. He’d never spoken to her in anger. He always kept his temper in check. Anger never achieved anything, but now he could feel it churning in his gut, rising up, unfamiliar, and tipping him further off balance.
She looked away, licked her lips with a small pointed tongue and heat flared up, mingling with the rage. Her gaze returned to his face, and she focused on his lips.
“I think I need to kiss you.”
At first, the words made no sense. They were certainly not what he expected, but then nothing about this encounter was like anything he’d imagined. And he could think of absolutely nothing to say. Then she took a step toward him, and his mind slid into chaos. He tried one last time. “We should talk—”
She stopped him with a finger to his lips. “Later. Kiss me first, and then we’ll talk.”
This close he could breathe in her warm scent—sweat mingled with a sharp, citrusy perfume, as unfamiliar as the rest of her. She’d worn Chanel when he’d known her before. Her hands rose to rest on his shoulders, and she came up on tiptoe.
He should move, back away. He’d come here to talk, to find out what had gone wrong between them. Persuade her to come back and give him another chance.
Time seemed to slow. They’d kissed plenty in the month he’d known her, but always in control. Now his heart raced, his blood thundered in his veins, and he had an inkling his control could snap at any moment.
But he couldn’t do it. He was physically incapable of shifting his feet. He was stuck in place as her hands slid from his shoulders to sink into the hair at the back of his neck. A shiver ran through him as her fingers glided across his skull then exerted a slight pressure to lower his head.
Her eyes were half-closed, her lips slightly parted. Her tongue swiped across her plump lower lip, and every muscle in his body clenched up tight. His hands were hanging by his side, now they moved of their own accord with no direction from his brain. They settled on the deep indent of her waist, urging her closer.
He’d let her have her one kiss, and afterward they’d talk.
Then her lips touched his and all rational thought fled.