Aurora LeMonde smiled serenely at each guest who passed her, determined to exude confidence and calm at her company’s latest fundraising gala even though she felt like she’d swallowed razor blades. She commanded herself not to do it. Not to torture herself. Not to look at him—at them—again. Unfortunately, as was too often the case where her boss, Giovanni Esposito, was concerned, Aurora’s self-control was nil. Within seconds, she sought him out, spotting him across the room looking like Italian sin in a perfectly tailored suit. He didn’t glance her way, his complete attention focused on the redhead by his side.
Whether he knew it or not, Gio was looking down at the love of his life.
Aurora’s eyes threatened to fill, her throat closed and everything behind her eyebrows tightened. With the ease of practice, however, she took a deep breath and swallowed her feelings down.
She’d worked for Gio for five years. Lived and breathed him. Loved him hard and quiet.
Convinced herself that at some point, the Universe’s cosmic puzzle pieces would fall into place and Gio would walk past her office, see her in the right pencil skirt in the right lighting with the right amount of hair tumbling over her shoulder, and he’d just suddenly… requite.
But she’d missed her chance. Or maybe she’d never had a chance at all. Because all along, a lovely redheaded woman had been living and breathing, and now Gio was looking at her like that. As if he’d only just started to exist when she showed up.
So really, Aurora had never had a chance. Not for his heart. Because that look on his face? That was the look of Destiny.
On impulse, Aurora snagged a glass of champagne from a passing waiter and drank the liquid down. Maybe she hadn’t had a chance at his heart, but damn, it sure would have been nice to sleep with him a time or two. Something to remember fondly in the old folk’s home where she would inevitably die alone.
Not that she was feeling bitter or anything.
She scanned the people around her. She knew most of them, Gio’s clients, business associates or friends. There they went, smiling and friendly, some of them gazing at her with warm familiarity, but none of them truly knew her. None of them knew that on the inside she was holding her knees and rocking in a corner. Or that she would leave here and climb into bed alone, just as she always did. She hadn’t dated in years. Even flirting with a man had made her feel disloyal to Gio.
She couldn’t help but chuckle mirthlessly into her champagne at that one.
She’d been faithful to a man who’d seen her as a sister, a friend, a colleague.
Faithful to a man who’d touched her but never touched her. She’d made too much of the occasional tap on the shoulder, or hand to help her into a cab, or a few, glorious times, a victory hug when something had gone right for the firm.
Oh how pathetically she’d burned those moments into her brain.
Aurora took another gulp of champagne and told herself that she only had to give it twenty more minutes here before she could escape. This was a fundraiser for lung cancer research, and many of their clients had donated generously to the cause. There were heavy hitters in attendance, including Los Angeles billionaires Jamie Whitcomb and Eric Davenport, who’d flown in from Montana and his self-imposed exile specifically for this event. She needed to put on a good face and mingle, even if her heart was breaking.
She set her empty champagne glass on a side tray and turned to face the music. Unfortunately, she came face-to-face with George Mills Jr., the son of their oldest client. George was one of the slimiest men Aurora had ever had the misfortune to meet, and she’d had to put up with his leering advances for years. Although she’d been quite clear in her disinterest, he’d shown no signs of giving up the pursuit.
His persistence was rivaled only by one other man’s, a business colleague who’d made his interest in Aurora very clear, as well. Only that man was far from slimy.
A perpetual, incorrigible suitor.
Yes, Dante Callaghan was all of those things.
But Aurora hadn’t been interested in the notorious playboy when she’d first met him four years ago. And despite the way he’d managed to steal into her dreams on more than one occasion, she still wasn’t interested. As far as she’d been concerned, Gio had been the man for her. Now she had to accept they weren’t meant to be, but oh how she wished she didn’t have to do it in George Jr.’s company.
“Refill, Ms. LeMonde?” he asked, shoving a champagne glass in her hands before she even had a chance to answer.
She took it, but no way in hell was she was ever going to drink something George Jr. gave her.
He leered at her, his eyes barely making it above her neckline. Aurora was tall, and at 5’10” she had a perfect view of the pink half-dollar at the crown of George Jr.’s head.
Finally, his beady eyes made it up to her face. “You having a good time?”
What did he expect her to say? It was her company that was throwing the fundraiser, after all.
“Of course,” she answered smoothly. “It’s a wonderful event. Is your father here? I’d love to see him.”
It was true. George Sr. was a trusted client. Honest, fair, and genuinely personable. How he’d ever spawned George Jr. was a complete mystery to Aurora. She peered down at the little man with a moment’s worth of speculation.
He jumped at her momentary attention like a man trying to snatch a salmon out of the river with his bare hands. “He had other plans tonight, unfortunately. Have you given any more thought to my offer?”
Across the room, the woman at Gio’s side threw her head back and laughed at something he whispered in her ear. Aurora’s stomach tightened. Oh god. She’d never seen Gio whisper in someone’s ear. Christ. Christ on a fucking cracker. Aurora felt herself spin away from time and place for a moment. It had been a good laugh too. Nothing put upon or manufactured about it. As much as she hated to admit it, Aurora was starting to think that in different circumstances she might actually like Gio’s woman. That thought merely made her stomach clench even tighter.
Aurora tried to focus on George Jr.’s pinched little face. His eyes zipped up from her chest the second he realized she was looking at him again.
Aurora bit down her irritation. That kind of thing had been happening to her since she was about fifteen years old. In so many ways, men were a simple and predictable species. “I’m sorry, what were you saying, Mr. Mills?”
Something flared in George Jr.’s eyes when she referred to him so formally and it made Aurora want to puke. She never in a million years wanted to know what thought had put that lecherous look on his face.
“I was asking if you’d given my offer any more thought. You remember? I talked to you about it when we ran into one another on New Years? My beach house?”
Oh yes. The beach house. The little twerp had had the nerve to invite her, cold turkey, to a private weekend at his beach house in Malibu. Just the two of them.
“Funny,” Aurora couldn’t quite bite back the retort. “I thought that was more of a proposition than an offer.”
George Jr.’s cheeks instantly went bright red. “I merely wanted to—”
“See if Ms. LeMonde could be enticed by your daddy’s money?”
The deep voice came from behind her and so did the large, warm hand at the small of her back. Everything in Aurora’s body tightened.
Great. Just what she needed right now.
Dante fucking Callaghan. She was so not in the mood for his oxygen sucking presence. Even so, she had to stop herself from instinctively turning around to admire how stunning he was sure to look. His light brown hair was short but somehow always looked a little bit messy and his sharp face was always shadowed and his blue eyes were always lit with an inner fire that made her feel warm when she stared into them too long. Dante wasn’t loud or obnoxious, but he was enormous and commanding. Filling every room with his broad shoulders, all-seeing eyes, and constantly half-amused grin.
George Jr. sputtered and turned even redder than before. Dante was still standing just behind her, but she could practically feel his barely restrained amusement. She looked at her hands as one of his big paws plucked her untouched champagne away from her and replaced it with a fresh one.
Finally, he stepped in front of her, and Aurora was immediately swallowed up in the endless night sky of his deep blue eyes. Damn those gorgeous eyes. They just had to be attached to one of the most irritatingly sexy men in history.
“I was insinuating nothing of the sort, Aurora!” George Jr. insisted, puffing up like a balloon. “If you must know, Callaghan, I was simply—”
“Do yourself a favor and quit while you’re ahead, Junior,” Dante said, taking a casual sip of his drink and sliding even closer to Aurora.
Aurora barely stopped herself from choking on the champagne she was swallowing. She’d always known that Dante was irreverent, but George Mills Jr. was the son of one of the most influential men in the city. As one of the best financial analysts in the business, Dante often teamed up with Gio on projects, which was the reason Aurora saw him so often.
Too often for her comfort.
George Jr., apparently choosing to retreat, at least for now, stiffly nodded in Aurora’s general direction and turned on his heel.
Somehow she managed to bite back her smile of gratitude. “Honestly, Dante,” Aurora said, looking at him admonishingly.
“What?” He raised his hands in an almost childlike gesture. “He was being a dick, so I made him feel like a dick. What’s the harm in that?”
Aurora rolled her eyes and put a few more inches of space between them. “The harm is that he’s the son of our biggest client.”
Suddenly feeling as if she couldn’t stand another minute of this—work obligations be damned—Aurora set her glass down and started to walk away.
“Oh, come on, LeMonde, you know that Mills isn’t going anywhere, no matter how many times Junior gets his feelings hurt. He swears by you and Gio.”
“That may be true,” she retorted immediately, the words hot on her tongue and surprisingly easy to let loose. After what felt like a lifetime of repressing the things she wanted to say at the moment she wanted to say them, it was nice to be able to speak to someone with a little spice. “But what’s the point in testing the theory? It’s just like you to act without thinking and then disappear, no cares for the person who’s going to have to clean up your mess!”
“What mess?” he demanded, getting in front of her and stopping her progress. “What person?”
Aurora pulled up short and longed to press her hands to her hips. But she knew exactly what that would look like. Two people fighting on the edge of a work party. As such, she folded her hands carefully in front of her and gritted her teeth into what she hoped would look like a polite smile to anyone watching from afar.
“George Jr.’s bruised little ego is the mess I’m referring to. And I’m going to be the one who has to nurse it back to health next time he comes by the office. All while desperately attempting to avoid his…” Hands? Eyes? Breath? Each option was equally abhorrent so Aurora gave up choosing. “Everything!”
Dante’s jaw clenched before it relaxed and he sighed. “You’re right,” he said, cupping her elbow as she tried to step around him. “I shouldn’t have butted in like that. I just wanted him to put his damn eyes back in his head where they belong.”
“That makes two of us,” Aurora conceded. She eyed him suspiciously. Why was he being so nice? So… human. Usually this far into an interaction he would have asked her out twice already. Instead, here he was, actually looking her in the eye and treating her like he understood her problems.
And then his eyes dropped to her breasts.
“He’s lucky I didn’t stitch his eyes closed for looking at you the way he was, Jessica.”
Aurora’s mouth dropped open. Aaand the asshole was back. Scanning her body with those deep blue eyes and calling her by the wrong name.
“Are you fucking kidding me, Callaghan?” Her professional veneer burned to a crisp as her temper spiked. She took a step forward into his space and planted a finger on his broad chest. Aurora was tall in her heels, pushing six feet, but he still towered over her. His sinful mouth quirked in a smile and his dark hair fell over his brow. “We work together for four years, you hitting on me like a frat boy the entire time, and now you can’t even get my name right? Jesus. What am I, a magnet for fuck boys?”
She threw her hands up, as if asking that question of the cosmos itself, and Dante easily reached up, snatched her hand out of the air and laced his fingers through hers.
“I know your name, Aurora. Trust me. I’ve grunted it into my pillow enough times after business meetings with you.”
Aurora schooled her face into a neutral expression, refusing to give him the satisfaction of her shock. “You’re an absolute pig, Callaghan.”
“No,” he corrected, holding her hand tight when she tried to tug it free and tracing a circle on the inside of her wrist with his thumb. “I’m a man. And you’re the most beautiful woman in the room no matter which room it is.”
For a moment, his words caused pleasure to ripple through her, but she reminded herself that’s all they were: pretty words being uttered by a master of seduction. She smirked and tugged at her hand again. “Yet you can’t seem to remember my name.”
“I only called you Jessica because you look like Jessica Rabbit in this dress.”
Aurora instantly regretted the surprised laughter that bubbled up out of her. She bit it back, ignoring the pleased look on his face. Aurora looked down at her red floor-length gown. It was pretty sexy, she supposed. But it was far classier than it was sex bomb. “I do not.”
“You do too. Trust me, when I saw you from across the room my eyes did the cartoon awooooga thing.” He used his hands to show his eyes bursting out of his head.
Aurora bit back another burst of laughter, crossed her arms and tucked her hands safely away from him. “Well. That sounds like your problem, not mine. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have clients to speak with.”
She knew she was being snooty. And the Esposito Group did often partner with Dante’s firm on larger projects, but honestly, if her behavior lost them the partnership, part of her would be relieved to not be around him as often. He was just so irritating. So big and direct. So frustratingly gorgeous and tempting, even if it was all a game to him.
Thankfully, she managed to walk away without Dante trying to stop her again. She told herself she wasn’t disappointed. And in truth, she wasn’t terribly surprised. Dante was a flirt, and he’d made it clear on more than one occasion how badly he wanted her, at least physically. But he never pushed too far. Moreover, he was always scrupulously professional in any meeting they had.
She didn’t mind the attention he paid her. Just like she didn’t mind his eyes on her ass as she strode away. She just couldn’t give in to him—even when she was devastated by the knowledge that Gio was at this very moment with the redheaded woman of his dreams.
Aurora melted into the crowd and immediately let herself get sucked into a conversation. Ten more minutes and she was out of here.
With nothing but a weekend of eating ice cream and thinking about Gio. Oh joy.
She was just ducking away from the party, time obligations completely fulfilled, when a hand tapped her shoulder.
Aurora schooled her face into a friendly expression and turned right into Gio’s chest.
“Leaving so soon?” he asked in a friendly way, no censure in his tone at all.
He looked happy, Aurora realized with both a sinking and a rising in her gut. She wanted him to be happy. She was just still reeling from the fact that he was happy with another woman.
“Headache,” she said, knowing full well she was taking the coward’s way out.
Gio’s eyes instantly narrowed in concern. “Are you sick?”
“No, no,” she hurried, feeling bad for lying. “Just a little tired is all.”
“Well, do you have it in you to make small talk for five more minutes? There’s someone I’ve been wanting you to meet.”
“Sure,” Aurora said weakly, knowing full well who he wanted her to meet. Her chest tightened and her pulse kicked up like a storm off the water. She followed Gio in a daze through the crowd.
And then, there she was, the lovely redheaded woman. Standing right there. Looking perfect and petite and saying something to Aurora that she could barely hear over the roaring in her own ears.
Aurora shook hands, nodded her head, laughed politely in the right places. And then three minutes later she was drifting away from them, having said her goodnights.
She found herself in the back hallway toward the coat check, staring at a blank spot in the air. What the hell had just happened? She’d just met the woman that Gio was going to take home and make love to tonight. More than that, she’d just met Gio’s future wife. She just knew it. She felt it in her bones. She was no psychic, not like her mother, but that didn’t mean she didn’t have above-average intuition.
Aurora felt a nauseous panic race through her. Gio’s woman was so pretty. Sweet and kind. Rose. The prettiest flower there was.
She gritted her teeth at the gravelly voice that instantly sent shivers down her spine.
“What?” she couldn’t help herself from snapping as she turned and faced Dante in the dim light of the back hallway.
He raised his hands in surrender. “I didn’t come back here to irritate you. Are you alright? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Aurora studied him in the bluish light, her blurry vision suddenly painfully clear. The noise of the party faded away as shadows cut across his face, accenting his sharp jaw, bottomless blue eyes, and dark brows. He was so big he damn near took up the entire hallway. He was so big, in fact, that he made Aurora feel small. Which was saying something, because she’d never been delicate or petite, even as a child.
The scent of him—soap and detergent and whiskey—drifted toward her in the small space and her pulse started racing. In that moment, for the first time ever, she willingly opened herself up to the attraction he made her feel and considered the possibilities…
She cocked her head to one side, studying him, and his brow furrowed like he was trying to figure out her mood.
A thought was uncurling inside her. A dangerous thought. But an interesting one nonetheless. Why should Gio be the only one getting busy tonight? She could damn well do with some good old fashioned sweaty sin. It had been long enough.
And maybe it would help. But only if it was hot. She needed something hot enough to burn these feelings of jealousy and loss right out of her.
So, the question was whether or not Dante Callaghan would fumble in the end zone or if he’d give it to her right. Her eyes dropped to his large hands tucked halfway into his pants pockets. They moved to the confident width of his shoulders. And lastly, they focused on the noticeable bulge behind his zipper.
Her eyebrows raised. Well, even if he was terrible in bed, she could work with that.
“Was it all talk?” she asked him, her voice husky and seductive even to her own ears.
He frowned and cocked a brow. “Excuse me?”
She took a step toward him. “All the pretty words you’ve had for me over the years. Was it talk? Were you ever going to do something about it?”
Dante’s eyes immediately narrowed in comprehension while the rest of him remained perfectly still. “Are you asking me to do something about it?”
Aurora slowly shrugged one shoulder, feeling the fabric of her dress tighten around her breasts. She was feeling reckless and needy and like her soul might just dry up tonight if she didn’t feed it something. And right now, what she wanted to feed it most was Dante Callaghan.
“For some reason, yes. I am. So what do you say?”