Excerpt: Dante's Ultimate Gamble

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Luc lounged—as best as a six foot three inch man can lounge—in the dainty chair at the small bistro table outside a trendy downtown San Francisco restaurant. He struggled to control his impatience. Beside him Nonna and Madam chatted happily in Italian while they awaited the arrival of Téa de Luca, or Witch Girl #1 as Luc had privately dubbed her. Because she was late, a trait that—quite literally—drove him out of his mind, he was in hurry up and wait mode, one of his least favorite memories of his military service.

It was rude. It was self-indulgent. And it gave the underlying message, “It’s all about me.” He despised women who adopted that sort of attitude and avoided them like the proverbial plague.

He reached for a breadstick and pulverized it between his teeth. Where the hell was she? It wasn’t like he had all day to sit around waiting on Her Witchiness. Well, actually, he supposed he did now that he was temporarily out of a job while the cops and insurance company looked into the fire diamond heist. But there were plenty of other things he’d rather do. Like drive a spike between his ears, or tie himself to a railroad track in front of an oncoming freight train, or swim with a pack of voracious Great White sharks.

He cleared his throat and leaned toward Madam. “Where the he—” He broke off beneath the withering glare emanating from his grandmother and rethought his choice of words. “Would you mind trying Téa’s cell again, Madam?”

“Do you have another appointment, Luciano?” Nonna asked. Her tone came across sweet enough, but a hint of hazel fire flashed through her eyes. A warning message he pretended not to notice.

“As a matter of fact, I do,” he lied without remorse.

Madam picked up the pretty lavender cell phone she’d set on the table as gingerly as if it were a landmine. Peering through a pair of reading glasses that hung from a crystal beaded necklace around her neck, she carefully punched in a number. “No, no. That’s not right,” she murmured, her brow furrowing.

“I think if you just hit send several times it dials the last number,” Nonna explained helpfully.

“Would you like me to take care of it?” Luc offered.

Madam passed him the cell with an amusing combination of relief and hauteur, reminding him again why she’d been given her particular moniker. “If you wouldn’t mind, I would appreciate it.”

“Happy to help.”

He pushed the speed dial and waited for the call to connect. While it rang he automatically scanned the busy sidewalk just past the frilly wrought iron fence that separated the outdoor section of the café from the rest of humanity. It was an occupational hazard that he’d developed first during his military career, and then when he’d opened his own personal security business. And it had spilled over into his current—he grimaced—or rather former job as head of security for Dantes Courier Service. With luck, the case would soon be resolved and he’d be back doing something useful instead of babysitting Witch Girl #1.

Pedestrians scurried across the intersection adjacent to the café. All except one lone woman who paused dead center in the crosswalk, juggling a briefcase and a voluminous shoulder bag from which she extracted several cell phones. Without quite knowing why, Luc shoved back his chair and stood, the phone still pressed to his ear.

The pedestrian warning signal guarding the intersection began to blink, indicating that the light would soon change. To his concern, the redhead remained oblivious as she sorted through the cell phones she’d unearthed before selecting one that, even from the distance that separated them, he could see was a distinctive lavender. A distinctive lavender that matched the one in his hand. She flipped it open.

A breathless greeting sounded in his ear. “Hello? Madam?”

Alarm bells clamored with painful intensity. He dropped the cell to the table, took a single step toward the waist-high wrought iron gate separating the outdoor portion of the café from the sidewalk and vaulted over it, careful to land on his good leg. He forced himself to attempt a swift jog, ignoring the red-hot stab of pain that shot from knee to hip. The light changed just then and cars began to move forward.

Get the woman!

The urgent demand roared through him, deafening him to everything else. He remembered his cousin, Nicolò, describing how his wife had been hit by a cab shortly after they’d first met. The driver had changed lanes to avoid a slow-moving vehicle and sped into the intersection, hitting Kiley. Even now, her past remained a blank as a result of the accident, although she and Nicolò were busy building new memories and creating a new life together—which included a baby due sometime in the next few weeks.

Get the woman now!

Luc watched helplessly as history decided to repeat itself. A cab swerved around a delivery truck who’d unexpectedly double parked outside a mom-and-pop market. With a blare of its horn, the cab accelerating directly toward the intersection. Clearly, the driver didn’t realize the woman was there, probably because he was intent on cursing at the truck driver, while the woman remained oblivious to her danger as she pressed buttons on her cell.

Get the woman now before you lose her forever!

Luc thought he shouted a warning and forced himself into a limping run, cursing a leg that would prevent him from reaching her before the cab. The driver didn’t spot the hazard until the very last instant. He slammed on the brakes with an ear-splitting scream of metal and rubber. Luc forced himself to move even faster, praying his leg would hold him, but he knew he’d never be in time.

A split second before the cab hit the woman, it swerved a few precious feet. It was enough. Just enough. Luc snatched her clear and dove toward the safety of the sidewalk. He twisted so he’d absorb most of the impact, landing hard on his bad hip. Raw pain exploded through him.

“Son of a bitch!”

The woman shoved against his chest, surfacing in a tangle of deep auburn curls, lean ivory arms and legs, and countless files and papers. A solid half-dozen cell phones rained down around them. A pair of rimless reading glasses dangled from one ear while teal blue eyes regarded him in open outrage.

“Did you just call me a bitch?”

“Not exactly.” Wincing, he grasped the woman around the waist and levered her to one side. Cautiously, he sat up. His hip screamed in protest. Aw, hell. Not broken, but not in good shape, either. “Do you always stand in the middle of an intersection daring cars to hit you?” His injury gave the question more of a bite than he intended.

She wrapped herself in indignation while straightening her glasses. One of the fragile bits of wire connecting the two lenses across the bridge of her nose was severely bent, causing the lenses to sit cockeyed on her face. “I was answering a call from my grandmother.” As though the explanation reminded her, she scrambled through the paraphernalia littered around them until she unearthed a lavender cell phone identical to Madam’s. “Hello? Madam, are you still there?”

“Téa! Oh, my dear. Are you all right?”

The voice didn’t come from the phone, but from a few feet away. Madam and Nonna hurried down the sidewalk toward them. Groaning, Luc cautiously climbed to his feet, then offered Téa a hand. And that’s when it hit. A powerful spark, followed by a bone-deep burn shot from her palm to his. It flew through his veins, sinking into him, absorbed on the deepest level.

His internal alarm bells went berserk, clamoring and clashing and shrieking so loudly it destroyed all sensation but one—a desire so strong and powerful he literally shook from the desperate need to snatch this woman into his arms and carry her off. Sweep her away to someplace private where he could put his mark on her. Claim her in every way that a man claims a woman.

She stared at him in open shock and he had to assume she’d felt it as well. Her lips parted, as though begging for his kiss, and her eyes seemed to smolder with blue-green fire. Every scrap of color drained from her face leaving behind a tiny pinprick smattering of freckles that dusted her elegant nose. The foam of deep red curls tumbled down her back in bewitching disarray and provided a blazing frame for her upturned face—a face that mirrored every single emotion from bewilderment to disbelief.

She tore her gaze from his and looked at their joined hands. “What… What was that?” she whispered.

Deep down he knew, though he couldn’t quite give it credence. Not yet. Not when it defied logic and understanding. Not when every fiber of his being resisted admitting the possibility of its existence. And yet… It was exactly as his grandfather had described. Exactly as his parents had told him. Exactly the same as what his cousins claimed happened to them. And exactly what he’d hoped would never happen to him.

That was impossible,” he answered.

“Téa?” Madam’s apprehensive voice cut through the wash of desire. “Téa, I asked if you were all right.”

Jerking her hand free of Luc’s grasp, she turned to her grandmother. “I’m fine,” she assured. “A little shaken and manhandled, but otherwise unhurt.”

Luc’s brows gathered into a scowl. Manhandled? Manhandled? How about snatched from the jaws of death? How about saved by the generosity of a stranger? How about rescued from a metal dragon by a poor battered knight who could have used some freaking shining armor to protect himself from injury?

Before he could argue the point, pedestrians paused to help gather up Téa’s belongings which she carefully organized, tucking everything away into her briefcase and voluminous purse. The desire that had overwhelmed him minutes before eased, at least enough for him to recover her supply of colored cell phones. Two of them were chirping at great volume, one of which urged, “Answer me. Answer me. Answer me, me, me!” over and over. Even these had individual slots in her handbag.

By the time she finished, reaction set in. Madam appeared on the verge of tears. Nonna’s brow was lined in worry. Only Téa seemed blissfully unconcerned.

Luc, on the other hand, found it difficult to even think straight, other than to resent like hell the events of the past several moments. Pain radiated from every muscle in his body. Between his banged up knee and hip, Téa’s apparent obliviousness to her near-death experience, and that undeniable sizzle of physical attraction when they’d first touched flesh-to-flesh, he was not a happy man. And the fact that Téa was ignoring the significance of each and every part of all that, only made it worse.

Luc was a man of action. Someone who took charge. Granted, he had finely tuned gut instincts. But he backed them with logic and spit-second decisiveness that had saved his hide countless times in the past. It had also saved Téa’s, though she didn’t seem to quite get that fact. Whatever had just happened had done a number on him and he resented it like hell.

Determined to revert to type, he regained control by gathering up the three women and urging them toward the café. After seeing them seated, he went in search of their waiter and ordered a new round of drinks, adding a black ale for himself. If they’d had anything stronger, he’d have chosen that instead, but until he could down a dozen anti-inflammatories chased by a stiff couple of fingers of whiskey, the beer would have to do.

“Thank goodness you were there to rescue Téa from that crazed cab driver,” Madam said the minute he returned to the table.

Luc took a seat and fixed Téa with a hard gaze. “Perhaps if your granddaughter wouldn’t answer her cell phone in the middle of the intersection, she wouldn’t have to worry about being mowed down by crazed cab drivers.”

Téa smiled sweetly. “My grandmother tells me that you were the one who phoned me. I believe that means this is your fault.”

My fault?” The waiter appeared with their drinks, but froze at Luc’s tone, one he used when dressing down some gomer over his latest FUBAR.. “How is it my fault that you chose to answer your phone in the middle of a busy intersection?”

“If you hadn’t called—”

“Which I wouldn’t have needed to do if you’d been on time—”

“—I wouldn’t have answered my cell in the middle of the intersection.”

“—I wouldn’t have had to call you. But you’re welcome.”

He glanced at the waiter and gave an impatient jerk of his head toward the table. Scrambling, the waiter deposited the drinks, scribbled down their orders and made a hasty retreat.

“You’re welcome?” Téa repeated.

She blinked, her eyes huge from behind the bent lenses of her reading glasses. As though suddenly aware she had them on, she shoved them into the curls on top of her head. Then her expression blossomed into a wide smile, completely transforming her face. What had been pretty before became stunning.

Heat exploded low in his gut. The urge to carry her off grew stronger, more compelling than before. He snatched up his lager and took a long swallow, praying it would douse the flames. Instead it seemed to make them more intense. All he could think about was finding a way to extract her from this ridiculous meeting and take her off someplace private. To explain in a manner as physically graphic as possible that whatever was happening between them needed to be completed. Several times, if necessary. Whatever it took until the rage of fire and need cooled and he could think rationally again.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Maybe we could start over? Thank you for saving me from being run down. I’m sorry I was late for our lunch meeting. I assure you, it was unavoidable. I don’t usually answer my cell phones in the middle of a busy intersection, but it was Madam’s and I always take her call, regardless of time and place.”

She’d ticked off her points with the speed and precision of a drill sergeant. Where before he’d considered her scattered, now he saw what Nonna had meant by her description of Téa de Luca. It would appear she was a woman who existed in organized chaos and operated in focused oblivion.

Luc inclined his head. “Fair enough.”

“That said,” she continued, “I don’t see the point in this meeting.” She spared her grandmother a warm smile. “I appreciate your concern, but I don’t need a bodyguard.”

“Funny,” Luc muttered. “Considering what happened just five minutes ago, I’d say that was precisely what you need.”

She waved that aside. “It could have happened to anyone. Besides, he would have missed me.”

It took Luc a split second to find his voice. “Have you lost your mind?”

She patted his arm, then snatched her hand away. Maybe it had something to do with the arc of electricity that flashed between them. Or the throb that shot through the palm of his hand and quite probably her own. With each new touch, whatever existed between them grew stronger, the tendrils binding tighter and more completely. It gave him some measure of satisfaction to see that it took her several seconds to recover her poise sufficiently to speak. During the few moments of silence the waiter approached and deposited their luncheon choices. He didn’t linger.

“You played the hero quite well and I appreciate your efforts on my behalf,” Téa said in a stilted voice. She splashed some oil and vinegar on her salad. “But the cab swerved at the last second.”

He leaned in, emphasizing each word with a steak fry. “Which gave me just the extra time and room I needed to keep you from getting clipped by his bumper and turned into roadkill.” He popped the fry into his mouth. “He would have hit you if I hadn’t pulled you clear.”

“Luciano…” Nonna murmured.

He glanced first at his grandmother and then at Madam. They both wore identical expressions, a wrenching combination of fear and shock. Not cool, he realized. He’d way overplayed his hand. He pulled back and gathered Madam’s hand within his own.

“She’s safe and I promise I’ll keep her that way.”

“Thank you.” Tears flooded her dark eyes. “I can’t tell you how much this means to me.”

“Wait a minute,” Téa interrupted. “I haven’t agreed to anything.”

He shot her a quelling look. Not that she quelled, which amused almost as much as it frustrated him. He excelled at quell. Any of the men who served beneath him or currently worked with him could attest to that simple fact. “Not even for your grandmother’s peace of mind?” he asked.

It was her turn to be both amused and frustrated. “Oh, very good,” she murmured. “Very clever.”

“You will agree, won’t you, Téa?” Madam’s request sounded more like a demand. “It will make all of us feel so much better. Juliann can concentrate on her wedding. Davida can focus on her studies. And Katrina can…” She hesitated, clearly at a loss.

“Can continue getting into trouble?” Téa inserted dryly.

“She means well,” Madam said with a sigh. “She’s just a magnet for disaster.”

As though to underscore the comment, Téa’s handbag began to chirp again. A youthful, feminine voice demanded, “Answer me. Answer me. Answer me, me, me!” Téa smiled blandly. “Speak of the devil.”

“So we agree.” Luc struggled to be heard over the shrill tones as another phones added its personalized demand to the first. “I’m your baby—” He cleared his throat. “Your bodyguard for the next six weeks?”

She wanted to argue some more. He suspected the trait was as much a part of her as her red hair. He lifted an eyebrow in Madam’s direction and waited, not a bit surprised when Téa caved. “Fine.” She lowered her voice so only he could hear. “And don’t think I missed that babysitter slip.”

He kept his expression unreadable. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Reaching into the bag, she went through each of her three phones and set them on vibrate. Lunch proceeded at a leisurely pace after that and he noticed with some amusement that everyone went out of their way to stick to innocuous topics. Schooling himself to patience, he guided the women through the conversation and the meal, before he could finally pick up the check and pay for their lunch. All the while he watched Téa.

Although she chatted with the grandmothers, Luc could tell that her thoughts were elsewhere. He could practically see the wheels spinning away, analyzing her problem—him—while searching for a satisfactory solution.

“Figured it out, yet?” he asked in an amused undertone.

She stared blankly. “Figured what out?”

“What you’re going to do about me.”

“Not quite.” Then she hesitated and a hint of relief caused her eyes to glitter like gemstones. He didn’t need the blazing light bulb that flashed over her head to tell him that she’d come up with a plan to escape her predicament. “Madam, quick question…”

“Yes, dear?”

“How are we compensating Mr. Dante for his time and expertise?” She actually smiled at Madam’s small inhalation of alarm. “Bodyguards don’t come cheap. And you know we’re under serious budgetary constraints for the next six weeks.”

“Well, I—”

“Didn’t Nonna explain?” Luc offered smoothly. “Consider it your twenty-fifth birthday present from all the Dantes.”

“How generous.” He could hear the grit through the politeness. “But I couldn’t possibly accept such an expensive gift.”

He allowed irony to slide through his words. “No, no. Don’t thank us. It’s our pleasure. Besides, babysitters charge far less than bodyguards. Even if you were to refuse, it wouldn’t cost you much at all to hire me.” He pushed back his chair and stood. “I’ll tell you what. Why don’t we continue this meeting in private in order to settle the particulars?”

“Excellent suggestion,” she replied crisply and gathered up her briefcase and shoulder bag. “My office?”

Not private enough for what he had in mind. Not nearly private enough. “I have an apartment close by.”

“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”

Ignoring her, he gave Nonna and Madam each a kiss. Then draping a powerful arm around Téa’s shoulders, he swept her from the restaurant. A cab lingered just outside the door and he bundled her inside, protesting all the way. He gave the driver the address to his apartment complex and settled back against the seat.

All the while, Téa bristled with feminine outrage. With her rioting red curls and flashing eyes she looked like a cat who’d been rubbed the wrong way. He couldn’t quite help taking a certain pleasure in having upset her tidy little world. Considering the ease with which she’d upended his, it seemed only fair.

The cab had barely pulled away from the curb before she started protesting. “I have to get back to work. I don’t have time for this. I don’t know what sort of game you’re playing, Luciano Dante, but I’m not in the mood for it.”

“I’m giving our grandmothers what they asked for. If I can spare six weeks out of my life to make sure you reach twenty-five, you can put up with having me around.”

“Well, shoot.”

He’d clearly gotten her with that one. She took a moment to call the office and inform them of her change in schedule before turning her jumble of cell phones from vibrate to ring, meticulously checking each before stowing it away. Not that she was through arguing. Not this one.

The minute she finished fussing with her phones, she pushed a tumble of curls from her eyes and glared at him. “And another thing… What was that weird zap you gave to me when we first shook hands?”

He gave an “I’m clueless” shrug, hoping it would satisfy. It didn’t.

“Don’t give me that. I’ve heard that you Dantes have some bizarre touch thing you use on women. It knocks them right off their feet and into your bed.” A sudden thought struck and her eyes widened. “Is that what you have planned with me?”

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