Excerpt: Forever Dante
Note from Day:
I would like to apologize to my readers for the delay in publishing this book. I was writing it when my mother died and I haven’t had the heart to return to it. I’m currently turning my attention to other projects and plan to return to it as soon as possible. I am truly sorry!
Ty Masterson stepped into the San Francisco ballroom of Nob Hill’s exclusive, five-star hotel, Le Premier, caught off guard by the strange words echoing through his head. What the hell?
She’s here. Find her.
He froze, not quite sure what was happening, but automatically scanning the room for trouble. He found it ten seconds later in the shape of a woman. Naturally. The instant his gaze settled on her, the words grew louder, more insistent.
She’s here. Take her. Make her yours.
She stood off to one side, quiet and aloof from the laughter and excitement generated by fine champagne, glittering affluence, and the brilliant flash of fire diamonds. A man had planted himself by her side, not in a possessive way, but more in a protective manner. Ty did a swift analysis. Not a bodyguard. Definitely not a boyfriend or lover. A relative, then. A brother, maybe?
He dismissed the man as unimportant and focused on the woman, aware that she inspired the insidious words pulsating through him, taunting his legendary self-control and threatening to rip it to shreds. Until this moment, he’d have claimed it could never happen. And yet, one look and she called to him like a siren of old, her seductive song drowning out all thought and reason. He took a single step in her direction, then forced himself to freeze. Forced himself to breathe. Forced himself to examine and evaluate. To depend on logic rather than emotion.
He studied her, attempting to determine on a rational level what made her so irresistible. She wore a bronze sheath, almost Grecian in style, with one shoulder bared. A suitable look for a siren. Her gown clung to her curves, from generous breasts to a nipped-in waist, to gently rounded hips before falling in soft pleats to the floor. Her hair tumbled about her shoulders in heavy, loose curls, the strands an unusual mix of every shade of brown, from the palest wheat to a bronze that matched her gown. And what he could see of her face from this distance suggested true beauty. She chose that moment to turn slightly toward the man and the brilliance of Dante fire diamonds exploded from her throat, arms, and hands, echoing the explosion of desire ripping through him.
Take her now!
Ty almost obeyed the unspoken command. Almost charged across the ballroom to sweep her into his arms and carry her off to a private oasis where he’d strip away every last bit of artifice, until only the woman remained. Maybe he would have if the head of security for Dantes jewelry concerns, hadn’t chosen that moment to approach, reminding him that he was here to do a job—not seduce a woman.
“Luc Dante,” he introduced himself, offering his hand. “I understand from Juice that you’re the best man for the job.”
Ty acknowledged the compliment with a rare smile. “I don’t often do this type of work, anymore. I have other interests now. But for Juice…” He shrugged. “Let’s just say I owe him.”
“You’re not the only one. I’ve lost count of the number of times he’s bailed us out of trouble. I’m hoping tonight will be another of those occasions. Thank you for agreeing to help us.”
Ty inclined his head and focused on business. “You have a lot of expensive bling on display.” He scrutinized the room from a security standpoint. “And by my count, a dozen security?”
“I pay attention to detail. Who’s my assignment tonight?”
“Lucia Benedict. She’s my grandfather’s executive assistant. She’s also wearing our most expensive line for the New Beginnings collection. So we wanted the best to safeguard her.”
“Point her out to me.”
Luc inclined his head toward the northeast portion of the ballroom. “The woman in bronze standing in the corner with the dark-haired man.”
Ty swore beneath his breath. Of all the effing luck. The one woman he couldn’t hit on was the only woman in the entire room he wanted. Unfortunately, he lived by a hard and fast rule. Never mix business with pleasure. The one time he’d made that mistake had almost cost him the life of the person he’d been protecting. It had also destroyed his business and left him with scars—both mental and physical—which he carried to this day.
“I’ll take her,” he informed Luc.
An unfortunate choice of words, but ones that seemed to calm the taunting voice in his head. He studied the woman for a final moment. Awareness took hold, along with an undeniable realization.
* * *
“Face it, Gabe. The Inferno doesn’t work. Not for me. My palm is broken or something.” Lucia shook her hand and laughed, praying her twin brother didn’t detect the heartbreak beneath the sound. “Or maybe I’m the one who’s broken.”
Her brother frowned. “You’re not broken and neither is The Inferno. You just haven’t met the right person, yet.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You did meet the right person.”
Lucia glanced in the direction of her sister-in-law, Kat, who cradled her eight week-old son, Matteo, in her arms. The two stood in the middle of the ballroom, surrounded by Dantes celebrating the release of their latest line of jewelry, New Beginnings. Of course, Gabe, Kat, and Matteo were Dantes now, adopted by the family who’d taken them into their hearts once they’d discovered the family black sheep, Dominic, had fathered a son out of wedlock. Gabe had even changed his last name to Dante at the request of the family patriarch, Primo. What they didn’t know was that Gabe had a twin sister, a secret Lucia insisted he keep until she chose whether or not to reveal the truth.
“You can tell them, you know,” he said in an undertone. “They’ll accept you the same way they accepted me.”
She shook her head even before he’d finished speaking. “I’m not ready.”
“Lucia, how can you not be ready? You’ve wanted to be a Dante your entire life.”
“No,” she whispered, fighting to keep all emotion from her voice. “Once upon a time I wanted to be a Dante. That dream died long ago. Fairy tales don’t exist. And only a very few lucky people have lives that end happily ever after. I’m not one of them. I never have been.”
“I felt the same way,” Gabe retorted, the words filled with a harsh intensity. “Hell, I never bought into the fairy tale our father tried to sell us. Not ever. Not until—”
His gaze shifted toward his wife and everything about him softened. Strengthened. A bright light seared his odd, golden Dante eyes and he dug his thumb into the center of his palm, rubbing at the itch that resulted from The Inferno. She doubted he even realized it. And yet, it was all part of the Dante myth and mystique, one she’d spent a lifetime wishing she could experience. They called it The Inferno, the intense burning connection a Dante shared with his or her soul mate when they first joined hands. The burning itch never truly subsided, but lingered from that day on as a perpetual reminder of their love. It marked them, branded them—not visibly, but on some spiritual level, filling them with a bone-deep knowing, the awareness that this person was the one. Their mate. This was the love that would last forever and a day.
Lucia had spent her entire life longing for The Inferno to strike, until finally, she’d given up hope of it ever happening. “I’m happy for you, Gabe,” she insisted. “I really am. But your fairy tale ending isn’t mine.”
“I was wrong about the Dantes. Wrong about The Inferno.”
She smiled, attempting to inject a hint of lightness into the intensity of the moment. “Did you just say you were wrong? Good Lord. It’s only taken you thirty years to use the “w” word, but I’ve finally lived long enough to hear you admit what I’ve know from the moment we were born.” She waited until he returned her smile before adding, “But what’s right for you isn’t right for me. I’m not a real Dante and I never will be.”
“Then why did you go to work for Primo? Why apply for a job with our grandfather if you didn’t still long to be part of the Dante world?”
Her gaze slid away and she toyed with the diamond necklace she’d agreed to model for the New Beginnings line. The fire diamonds flashed with a smoldering brilliance, a painful echo of The Inferno. Leave it to the Dantes to own the only mines in the world to produce such unique and stunning gemstones, a fitting match for the family blessed—or cursed—with The Inferno. “I told you. I wanted to get to know our grandfather, but from a safe distance.”
“Which is why you used that bastard’s name you were married to. You knew Primo would have recognized your maiden name.”
“Now neither of us are Moretti’s.” Saying it aloud filled her with a painful sadness. “I’m Lucia Benedict and you’re a Dante.”
“I don’t know how you can stand to call yourself Benedict.”
“Terry’s in the past, Gabe.” She didn’t dare look at her brother. If she did, she’d lose what little remained of her self-control. “You rescued me from him and I’ll always be grateful.”
“I didn’t rescue you soon enough.” The words escaped, full of pain and regret. “I’m sorry I didn’t come for you in time. Before he—”
“He’s dead now. He can’t hurt me ever again.” It amazed her how calmly she could refer to those hideous two years, months full of pain and darkness. She shook off the memories. “This isn’t the time or place to revisit all of that. We’re celebrating tonight, remember? New Beginnings.”
He fought to switch gears and she smiled sympathetically. Not an easy task. He’d adopted the role of her protector when they were little more than babies, and nothing had changed in all the years since. He signaled to a passing waiter and snagged two flutes of champagne, handing her one. “To new beginnings.”
“Cheers.” She touched her glass to his, the fine crystal singing out on a pure, cleansing note. Something tickled her nerves just then, like a feather-light touch stroking the length of her spine. It distracted her, had her glancing over her shoulder, attempting to locate the source of the disturbance. With a shrug, she returned her attention to her brother and took a sip of champagne. “You should go back to your family now. People are going to wonder why you’re spending so much time with me.”
“First, you are family,” he stated in a steely tone. “And second, I’m on guard duty until my replacement arrives.”
Lucia’s eyebrows shot up. “Excuse me?”
His expression lightened. “You have approximately seven million dollars’ worth of precious stones dangling from various parts of you, brat. You need to be safeguarded in case someone carries you off.”
The awareness struck again, more intensely this time and she fought to stand perfectly still instead of spinning around and searching for the cause. “Primo neglected to warn me about that part,” she forced herself to say, relieved to hear she sounded so calm. She didn’t feel calm. Not even close. Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered, maybe. But nothing close to calm.
“It probably never occurred to Primo to say anything,” Gabe replied. “It’s SOP.”
It took a moment for his words to penetrate the sensual fog clouding her mind. “SOP.”
“Standard Operating Procedure. Yes, Gabe, I know.” The awareness grew more intense, creating a buzz of excitement. Maybe it was the champagne. She glanced down at her empty glass in surprise. She couldn’t remember drinking it all, and yet clearly she had. She struggled to pick up the thread of their conversation, latching onto it with something akin to desperation. “Most people are familiar with the term SOP. Since when did you start talking like someone out of a bad crime drama?”
Her brother grinned. “Since I was assigned guard duty.” He glanced over her shoulder. “Ah, here’s my replacement now.”
Lucia stiffened, the buzzing disturbance finally solidifying into a bizarre sort of recognition. She could actually feel his approach. Feel the heated stroke of his gaze on her back, followed by an insistent magnetic tug, one laced with desire. He’s here. The words echoed in her mind and heart, and took root. She struggled to resist the irresistible, refusing to turn around or to look at the source of the attraction. And yet, every nerve in her body demanded she respond. That she acknowledge something she’d longed for her entire life—and finally put aside, like a beloved toy she’d outgrown.
He’s here. Take him. Make him yours.
“Lucia, I’d like you to meet Ty Masterson.” She heard her Gabe’s voice, as though from a great distance. “He’ll be your escort for the evening. Ty, this is Lucia Benedict. She’s Primo Dante’s executive assistant and he’s very protective of her. I hope you’ll be equally protective.”
Slowly, she turned, though she kept her gaze fixed on her brother, almost afraid to look at the man responsible for such a bizarre reaction. “Don’t you mean protective of the Dante jewels? It’s not actually my body Ty will be guarding, but the Dantes’ collection.”
“I’ll make sure I guard you every bit as closely as those diamonds you’re wearing,” a deep voice rumbled above her and slightly to her left, eliciting a helpless shiver.
“That’s all I need to hear,” Gabe said. He held out his fist to Lucia, his index finger curved to form the shape of a small hook. With a smile, she copied his gesture, linking fingers with him. It was a game the two of them had played with their mother from the time they were toddlers, their special way to say “I love you,” whenever the other needed strength or support. “I’m here if you need me,” he added, leaning in to give her cheek a quick kiss.
I need you, she almost said, biting back the words at the last instant. He gave her an odd look, as though catching some part of her aborted comment and she forced a reassuring smile to her lips. “Give Kat my love.”
“I will. And don’t forget you’re joining us for dinner tomorrow night.”
“I wouldn’t miss it.”
For some reason Lucia still couldn’t bring herself to look at her bodyguard or acknowledge the insistent tug of attraction, not until a large hand appeared in front of her. A large hand attached to an equally large man. Reluctantly, she lifted her gaze to his, taking in someone who couldn’t be called handsome in the classic sense. Even so, the arrangement of his rugged, bronzed features was compelling, from his slashing cheekbones to the uncompromising set of his chin and jaw, to the wide, passionate mouth compressed in a firm, controlled line.
But most arresting of all were his eyes. They were the color of bittersweet chocolate, intense and brimming with secrets. They held her, examined her as though she were a strange puzzle he needed to solve. Desire slammed through her, the emotion both unexpected and unwanted. She fought it with every ounce of willpower, unwilling to believe that after all of this time The Inferno chose this moment and this man. But it had.
“It’s safe to shake hands with me,” he said gravely.
Suddenly aware that he continued to stand in front of her with his hand out, Lucia took a deep breath and reluctantly stretched out her arm. “Of course. Sorry.”
His fingers closed around hers and their palms melded. And that’s all it took. She lost herself, utterly and completely. With that single touch The Inferno whipped through her, a wildfire of desire combined with a itching burn centered where their palms joined, a trademark of the Dante “blessing.” Though, if it truly were a blessing, why did it feel so much like she’d just been cursed? She struggled to conceal her reaction, desperately searching his expression for any sign that he’d felt the enticing connection, as well, the spark leaping from her hand to his. If he did, he hid it behind an impressive mask of composure.
Had he felt it or not? She needed to find out, no matter how foolish it made her look. “What was that?” she asked.
She squeezed his hand. “That. Can’t you feel it? It’s like static electricity.”
Ty’s eyes narrowed. “Sorry, did I shock you?”
“You’re not feeling it?”
He released her hand and took a step back, folding his arms across his chest. “No.”
“Are you sure?” she pressed. “A tingle. A…a sort of spark or burn or itch.”
He didn’t answer, just stared at her with those bittersweet chocolate eyes, examining her with clear suspicion. His gaze shifted to the empty flute of champagne and his mouth curved into a wry smile. “Just how many of those have you had?”
“One.” She glanced toward the clutch of Dantes, busily cooing over Matteo, now held by his proud poppa. A desperate longing tore through her. “It figures. I should have known. I really should have.”
She swept her hand through the air and the wedding and engagement rings she wore flashed fire. Primo had insisted she wear the set on her right hand, since he considered it bad luck to wear wedding rings on her left unless married. “That I’m broken.” She flipped her hand over and glared at her palm, giving it a little shake in the hopes of… Of what? Kick-starting The Inferno? Reigniting the flame sufficiently for Ty to experience it? Jarring some internal connection so it would work? “Maybe my palm is broken. Maybe it’s on the fritz. Or maybe mine only goes one way.”
“You do realize I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about me being the first one in family history to have a one-way—” She broke off abruptly. Inferno, she’d almost said. She’d known this man for all of a minute and she’d almost confessed her relationship to the Dantes. What the hell was wrong with her?
“You were saying? To have a one-way…?” Ty prompted.
“Never mind. I’m sorry. I’m not making much sense, am I?”
To give him credit, he didn’t respond, perhaps realizing his answer wouldn’t be very diplomatic. Not that it changed anything. Something was wrong with The Inferno and she needed to figure out what. Maybe it took more than a handshake. At least, for her. She glanced around. They stood off to one side of the ballroom, close to the doors that led outside onto a balcony which overlooked the glittering lights from the buildings and city streets tumbling downward toward San Francisco Bay.
She nodded in the direction of the balcony. “Please come with me,” she said.
He didn’t budge an inch, just continued to fix her with a remote, uncompromising gaze. “Your name is Lucia?”
Great. She’d made such an impact that he wasn’t even certain of her name. She wanted to weep. So much for The Inferno, love at first sight, and being swept away by an uncontrollable passion. “Yes, my name is Lucia. Lucia Benedict.”
“I think we should stay here, Lucia.”
Unfortunately, she couldn’t accomplish what she intended if they stayed here. “I need a breath of fresh air. You can stay here if you prefer.”
Without another word, she skirted his imposing form and slipped through the door leading to the balcony. As she suspected, he immediately followed. He couldn’t very well keep an eye on the New Beginnings collection if he didn’t remain with her at all times. The early November air held a sharp chill, a hint of rain clinging to the breeze. It worked to her advantage since none of the ballroom crowd had spilled over onto the balcony, no doubt unwilling to brave the questionable weather. It was deserted, leaving the entire shadowed expanse for the two of them.
There’d only been one other time in Lucia’s entire existence that she’d been this impulsive. What a total and utter disaster that had been. Worse than a disaster. One impetuous act had resulted in two years of unbelievable pain. Ever since then she’d played it safe.
Until now. Now she’d dare to take a risk.
* * *
Ty glanced down at the woman in open suspicion. Not that she noticed. She was too fixated on whatever insanity obsessed her. Figured. Bloody well figured. From the instant he’d first seen her, he’d been attracted. Hell, more than attracted. He’d been consumed with one overriding thought. Take. The. Woman. Take her now. Make her his in every sense of the word.
Of course, it had only taken five seconds of conversation for him to realize she’d either had too much to drink or was flat-out crazy. And now, she’d decided to leave the party, flashing million dollar gemstones like a neon sign reading, “Come and mug me.” He needed to find a way to get her back inside, even if it meant tossing her over his shoulder and forcing her to return. Two minutes. He’d give her two minutes before he took control of the situation.
He made a quick scan of the balcony, relaxing minutely once he’d confirmed they were alone and that the ballroom provided the only egress. Unfortunately, their solitude raised another problem, namely an overpowering desire, one that fogged his mind and attempted to overrun his thought process. “Would you mind telling me what the hell is going on?”
Lucia crossed to the railing and wrapped her arms around her waist, staring out at the city. “I grew up in Seattle.” She spoke so quietly, he had to stand directly behind her to catch her words. A spicy-sweet fragrance drifted to him, one that somehow personified her. He drew it into his lungs, creating an unexpected visceral connection between her scent and his need for her. “As much as I love that city, I have to admit there’s something about San Francisco that’s captured my heart.”
She shivered ever so slightly and with a muttered exclamation, Ty stripped off his tux jacket and draped it over her shoulders. “Better?”
She snuggled into the depths and released a sigh of pleasure. “Thank you.”
“Is something wrong?”
“Yes.” She hesitated. “Have you ever had your illusions shattered?”
His mind flashed to Sasha and the fight. She’d screamed in rage when he’d taken down her ex-husband—a man who’d abused her. The love he thought reserved for him, had settled instead on the unconscious man. But worse had been her crazed attack to protect her abuser and the scars he still carried as a result. He forced the memories back into their box and locked them away. “Of course,” he replied with impressive calm. “I imagine everyone has their illusions shattered at one point or another.”
She spun around and a shaft of light from the ballroom cut across her upturned face. God, she was beautiful, with delicate features set off by high, sweeping cheekbones, a straight, narrow nose, and a mouth as full and ripe as a peach. But it was her eyes that captured and held him. They were an usual shade of teal blue, hovering somewhere between green and blue. And they were filled with an ancient pain, as deep and bottomless as the sea, echoing its unpredictable, turbulent nature. She’d been scarred every bit as badly as he’d been and it brought out a fierce protectiveness. He’d never experienced the emotion on quite so personal a level, at least not since Sasha. Nor had he ever allowed it to override the rational, logical part of him. Until now.
“What happened to you?” he whispered.
“I stopped believing.”
He nodded in total understanding. “I’m sorry.”
She moistened her lips, hesitating, as though struggling to reach a decision. “Then something happened, something that made me wonder if I’d made a mistake. If maybe I just hadn’t waited long enough. So, now I want to try to see whether I was right to give up, or if maybe there is something worth believing in.”
“You’ve lost me.”
“Maybe I can explain it a different way.”
With those cryptic words, she rested her palms on his chest and slid them upward and around his neck. He stiffened, tempted beyond measure to respond and duty-bound not to. He’d made that mistake once before and sworn never to repeat it. Then she tugged his head down and strung a series of kisses along his jawline. He should resist. He should push her away and put an end to this insanity. Instead, he waited. His remoteness didn’t deter her. He wasn’t even sure she noticed. Or maybe the quickening of his body gave him away, the imperative insisting he mate their bodies in the most natural and instinctive way possible. Her movements became more assured, her fingers funneled into his hair and tightened just enough to hold him. And then her mouth closed over his.
He fought to remain impassive, to allow the kiss, but not participate. That lasted for an entire ten seconds. Maybe he’d have pulled it off and managed to last long enough for her to give up, if it hadn’t been for two things. First came the tiny, breathless moan that seemed to slip from her mouth to his, filled with irresistible feminine pleasure. And then came a hungry, nibbling bite that surprised him just enough for her to tease apart his lips and slip inside.
He groaned in response, his arms closing around her. She tasted amazing, warm and honeyed, with the added kick of the champagne she’d consumed. Her kiss deepened. A suggestion. A temptation. A promise of incandescent heat. And he took control, took her under in a tumbling wash of need. She shifted against him, her full breasts heavy against his chest. An image flashed through his mind. He could see her spread across satin sheets, arms holding him tight, her legs wrapped around him, encasing his maleness in a snug, moist embrace.
He cupped her breast, finding it nestled perfectly into his palm. Her nipple hardened, pressing against the silk of her dress. He eased the material aside, freeing her, and ran his thumb across the turgid peak. She felt amazing, her skin like velvet, smooth and supple and warm. She shifted closer, her belly soft against his erection. He wanted to imprint himself on her. To stamp her with his possession in the most primitive way possible. He’d never experienced such basic and carnal thoughts before, but something about Lucia brought them out in him.
The words came again, more insistent this time. Take. The. Woman. Make her yours. He could barely think over the roar of the demand. It was as though she’d bewitched him, weaving tendrils of desire around and through him, the web of passion tightening with every passing moment. It filled him, overriding thought and intellect, consuming him. Some small rational part of him whispered a warning, urged him to back away. To think. Think about… What? What else was there beside this woman, this moment, and the blistering need burning through him?
The job. There was the job he’d been hired to do. He’d put his reputation and integrity on the line, promising to complete that job. And he’d never failed to honor his commitments before. An image of Sasha flashed through his mind again, along with the aftermath of her fury. And it was that which finally broke Lucia’s hold over him. Taking a deep breath, he ended the kiss. Wrapping his hands around her arms, he eased her back, his grip firm and resolute, giving no quarter.
The chilly November air swept between them, cooling the blistering heat. It took her a moment to gather herself, time he used to adjust her gown. She stared up at him, an unmistakable question in her eyes. It almost killed him to answer her, but he had no other choice.
“I’m sorry, no,” he whispered.
“You felt something. I know you did.”
He inclined his head, lying through his teeth, but unwilling—or unable—to admit the truth. Not now. Not after Sasha. “I felt what any man would in a similar situation. Is that what you want? A one night stand? Someone to scratch an itch? If so, I can accommodate you, though not until tonight’s job is complete. I don’t mix business with pleasure.”
She jerked backward as though he’d slapped her. “That’s it? That’s all you felt when we kissed?”
Not even close. God help him, but he couldn’t admit that to her. Not until he’d had time to figure out what was happening to him…and why. “It was just a kiss,” he said as gently as he could, feeling like the world’s biggest bastard. “I’m not sure what more you were expecting after a five second meeting and a single kiss. Granted, it packed one hell of a punch. And if we’d met under different circumstances we probably wouldn’t still be standing here discussing it. That doesn’t change the fact that I was hired to do a job and I intend to accomplish that job. Then, if you’re still interested, we can try this again in a more private venue.”
Without another word, she stripped off his jacket and handed it to him. She’d turned into a remote goddess and he suspected that didn’t bode well for any after-work playtime. He buried a sigh. What he didn’t understand about women would fill volumes. Even so, he didn’t go out of his way to hurt them and he’d sure as hell had hurt this one.
She didn’t respond and his suspicions about her nixing their after-work playtime became a dead certainty. She opened the balcony door and disappeared into the ballroom. Ty scrubbed his hands across his face, feeling the unforgiving pull of scarred muscles along his back. He took a deep breath to help regain his calm and followed her. The instant he stepped into the ballroom, he realized he was in deep shit.
Lucia—and her seven million dollars’ worth of diamonds—had disappeared.
Forever Dante is temporarily on hold! My apologizes!
This is the final book in The Dante Legacy.