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Italian Bachelors: Devilish D'angelos: A Bargain with the Enemy / A Prize Beyond Jewels

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‘YOU’VE GONE PALE again,’ Gabriel said, striding determinedly towards where Bryn now stood transfixed and unmoving by the closed door of his office. A dark scowl creased his brow as he saw how the colour had once again leeched from those creamily smooth cheeks. ‘Perhaps you should sit down for a minute—’

‘Please don’t!’ She stepped back and away from the hand Gabriel had raised with the intention of lightly grasping her arm, her fingers tightly clutching her bag, her eyes deep pools of dark and angry velvet-grey as she gave a determined shake of her head. ‘I have to go.’

Gabriel’s mouth tightened at her aversion to his even touching her. ‘We haven’t finished our discussion yet, Bryn—’

‘Oh, it’s definitely finished, Mr D’Angelo,’ she assured him spiritedly. ‘As I said, thank you for the—the honour, of being chosen as the seventh candidate, but I really have no interest, or time, to waste on being a runner-up.’ Her eyes flashed darkly. ‘And I have no idea why you would ever have thought that I—’

‘You were far and away the best of the six candidates to be chosen for the exhibition, Bryn,’ Gabriel bit out briskly—before she had chance to dig a bigger hole for herself by insulting him even further. ‘I saved the best till last,’ he added dryly.

‘That I might be, so thank you for your interest, but—’ She broke off her tirade to stare up at him blankly as his words finally trickled through the haze of her anger. She moistened her lips—those sexily pouting lips!—with the tip of her tongue before speaking again. ‘Did you just say...?’

‘I did,’ Gabriel confirmed grimly.

‘But earlier you said— You told me that I was the seventh person being interviewed—’

‘And one of the previous six is the reserve. And happy to be so,’ he added harshly.

Bryn stared up at Gabriel as the full horror of what she had just done, what she had said, was replayed back to her in stark detail. At the same time realising he was right; at no time had Gabriel said she was the seventh-place candidate, only that she was the seventh artist being interviewed.

She swallowed as the nausea washed over her, and then swallowed again, to absolutely no avail, the single-malt whisky she had ‘guzzled down like lemonade at a child’s birthday party’ obviously at war with her empty stomach; she had been far too tense about coming back to the gallery to be able to eat any breakfast this morning. ‘I think I’m going to be sick!’ she gasped as she raised a hand over her mouth.

‘The bathroom is this way,’ Gabriel said quickly, lightly grasping her arm and pulling her towards a closed door on the opposite side of the office.

Bryn didn’t fight his hold on her this time, too busy trying to control the nausea to bother resisting as he threw open the bathroom door and pushed her inside. Bathroom? It was more like something you would find in a private home, with a full glass-enclosed walk-in shower along one wall, along with the cream porcelain facilities, and had to be as big as the whole of the bedsit in which Bryn had lived and painted this past year!

Bryn dropped her bag to the floor and ran across the room to hang her head over the toilet only just in time, as she immediately lost her battle with the nausea and was violently and disgustingly sick.

‘Well, that really was a complete waste of a thirty-year-old single-malt whisky!’ Gabriel commented dryly some minutes later, when it became obvious from Bryn’s dry retching that she had nothing else left in her stomach to bring up.

Adding further to her humiliation Bryn realised he must have remained in the bathroom the whole time she was being physically ill. ‘I’ll buy you a replacement bottle,’ she muttered as she flushed the toilet, and avoided so much as glancing at the dark figure looming in the doorway as she moved to the sink to turn on one of the gold taps and splash cold water onto her clammy cheeks.

‘At a thousand pounds a bottle?’

Bryn’s eyes were round with shock as she lowered the towel she had been patting against her cheeks, before turning to look at him as he leaned against the doorframe, arms folded across the broad width of his muscled chest.

She instantly wished she hadn’t looked at him as mockery gleamed evidently in his eyes. ‘Who pays that sort of money for—? You do, obviously,’ she acknowledged heavily as he raised his dark brows. ‘Okay, so maybe I can’t afford to buy you a replacement bottle right now.’

He gave an appreciative and throaty chuckle. And instantly threw Bryn into a state of rapid, heart-thumping awareness.

It had been years since she had seen Gabriel laugh—there had been no room for humour or soft words between them once her father had been arrested!—and the transformation that laughter made to his harshly handsome face reminded her of exactly why she had fallen so hard for him all those years ago.

She had believed—hoped—that if they should ever meet by chance, she wouldn’t still respond to him like this, but the warmth that now shone in his eyes, the laughter lines beside those eyes and the grooves that had appeared in his chiselled cheeks, along with the flash of straight white teeth between those sculptured and deeply sensual lips, instantly proved how wrong she had been to hope. Gabriel might be sinfully handsome when he wasn’t smiling, but he became lethally so when he was!

Bryn abruptly averted her gaze to finish drying her face and hands before checking her appearance in the mirror behind the sink—dark shadows beneath tired eyes, pale cheeks, throat slender and vulnerable. A vulnerability she simply couldn’t afford in this man’s presence.

She took a deep, controlling breath before turning back to face Gabriel. ‘I apologise for my comments earlier, Mr D’Angelo. They were both rude and premature—’

‘Stop there, Bryn,’ he interrupted as he straightened. ‘Abject apology doesn’t sit well on your defensive shoulders,’ he explained as she looked at him warily.

Angry colour rushed back into her cheeks. ‘You could have at least let me finish my apology before mocking me.’

He was obviously having difficulty holding back another smile as he answered her. ‘As I just said, abject apology doesn’t appear to come naturally to you!’

She sighed at the deserved rebuke. ‘I apologise once again.’ Bryn didn’t even attempt to meet his mocking gaze now as she instead kept her gaze fixed on the beautiful marble floor. She might know exactly why she harboured such resentment against this man, but as she had guessed—hoped—Gabriel didn’t remember her at all, and she didn’t want to do or say anything that would make him do so either.

‘Shall we go and finish our conversation now?’ he prompted briskly. ‘Or do you need to hang over my toilet for a while longer?’

Bryn gave a pained frown.

‘It was the whisky on top of an empty stomach.’ And the fact that she knew, as did he, that she had prejudged his words without so much as a single hesitation!

‘Of course it was,’ Gabriel humoured dryly as he stood aside for Bryn to precede him back into the office, only too well aware that it was her resentment towards him for past deeds that was responsible for her having jumped to the wrong conclusions. ‘And it’s sacrilege to drink single-malt whisky any other way but neat.’

‘At that price I can see that it would be, yes,’ he heard Bryn mutter derisively. A mutter he chose to ignore as he instead returned to the reason for her being there in the first place. ‘As I said, you are definitely one of the six candidates to have been chosen for the New Artists Exhibition being held in the gallery next month. Shall we sit down and discuss the details?’ He indicated the comfortable brown leather sofa and chairs arranged about the coffee table in front of those floor-to-ceiling picture windows.

‘Of course.’ She noticeably chose to sit in one of the armchairs, rather than on the sofa, before crossing one of her knees neatly over the other and looking up at him questioningly.

Gabriel didn’t join her immediately, but went to the bar instead to take a bottle of water from the refrigerator, collecting a clean glass as well, then walking back to place them both down on the coffee table in front of her before lowering his length down into the chair opposite hers.

‘Thank you,’ she murmured softly, taking the top off the bottle and pouring the water into the glass. She took a long, grateful swallow before speaking again. ‘Mr Sanders told me some of the details last week but obviously I’m interested in knowing more...’ Her tone was businesslike.

Gabriel studied her through narrowed lids as they went on to discuss the details of the exhibition more fully, Bryn writing down the details in a notebook she had taken from her bulky shoulder bag.

Five years ago this woman had still been sweetly innocent, a young woman poised on the cusp of womanhood, a combination that had both intrigued and fascinated him. The passing of those years had stripped away all that innocence, in regard to people and events, at least; Gabriel had no way of knowing whether Bryn was still physically innocent, although somehow he doubted it. Five years was a long time.

But not only had Bryn grown more beautiful during those years, she had also grown in confidence, especially where her art was concerned, and she talked on the subject with great knowledge and appreciation.

‘Have you ever thought of working in a gallery like Archangel?’ Gabriel prompted as their conversation drew to an end half an hour later.

Bryn looked up from placing her notebook back into her handbag. ‘Sorry?’

He shrugged. ‘You’re obviously knowledgeable on the subject, enthusiastic and bright, and those things would make you an asset to any gallery, not just Archangel.’

Bryn frowned as she looked warily at Gabriel across the glass coffee table, not sure if she had understood him correctly. ‘Are you offering me a job?’ she finally prompted incredulously.

He returned her gaze unblinkingly. ‘And if I was?’

‘Then my answer would have to be no! Thank you,’ she added belatedly as she realised she was once again being rude, a rudeness that was totally out of keeping with her expected role as one of the grateful finalists in the New Artists Exhibition.

‘Why would it?’

‘Why?’ She gave an impatient shake of her head at his even having to ask that question. ‘Because I want my paintings to hang in a gallery, to hopefully be sold in a gallery, not to work as an assistant in one!’

He shrugged. ‘Do you have something against taking a job to help pay the bills until that happens?’

Bryn eyed him guardedly, only too aware that her rent was due to be paid next week and that she had other bills that had reached the red-reminder stage too. And yes, a job did help to pay the bills, but she already had a job, at yet another café, even if it didn’t pay nearly well enough to cover both her monthly rent and the bills, no matter how much she tried to economise.

It was almost as if Gabriel had guessed that and was offering her charity....

She instantly chided herself; of course Gabriel D’Angelo wasn’t trying to help her. He just knew, as she did, that she was more than capable of doing the job he was offering, and he had no doubt assumed she would jump at the chance to work at Archangel, based on the fact that, historically, artists were known for starving in garrets.

Bryn wasn’t starving, exactly, she just didn’t eat some days. And while her third-floor bedsit wasn’t exactly a garret, it was barely big enough to swing the proverbial cat in, with one half of the room put aside for sleeping and cooking and the other half utilised as her studio.

‘No, of course not,’ she answered him lightly. ‘But I already have a job—’

‘At another gallery?’

Bryn frowned as she heard the sharpness in his tone. ‘What does it matter where I work?’

He raised dark brows. ‘It matters in this case because it would hardly be appropriate for your paintings to be displayed at Archangel when you’re working for another gallery.’

Good point, Bryn acknowledged ruefully. ‘Right.’ She nodded. ‘Well, I don’t work for another gallery. But I do have a job,’ she continued briskly as she bent down to retrieve her bag from the floor.

‘And my next shift starts in half an hour, so—’

‘Your next...shift?’

‘Yes, my next shift,’ Bryn confirmed abruptly, stung by the incredulity in his cultured voice. ‘I work behind the counter in a well-known coffee-shop franchise.’

His brows rose. ‘Latte, cappuccino, espresso and a low-calorie muffin? That sort of coffee-shop franchise?’

The previous half an hour of conversation had gone smoothly; it had even been enjoyable at times, as they’d discussed which paintings from her portfolio Bryn was going to show at the exhibition next month, the timelines and other necessary details. But that had so obviously only been a brief lull in the tension between them if Gabriel had now decided to pull his arrogant-millionaire rank on her. Bryn eyed him challengingly. ‘You have something against coffee shops?’

Those sculptured lips thinned. ‘I don’t recall ever having been inside one.’

Of course he hadn’t; people as rich as Gabriel D’Angelo frequented exclusive restaurants and fashionable bars, not high-street coffee shops.

‘But I do have something against one of my artists working in one of them, yes,’ he continued evenly.

She stiffened. ‘One of your artists?’

‘This will be your first public exhibition, I believe?’ he prompted evenly.

‘I’ve sold one or two paintings in smaller galleries in the past couple years,’ she came back with defensively.

‘But am I right in thinking this will be the first time that so many Bryn Jones paintings have been shown together in an official exhibition?’

‘Yes...’ Bryn confirmed slowly.

He nodded. ‘Then in future, whether you like it or not, your name will be linked with the Archangel Gallery.’

Bryn certainly didn’t like it. It had felt as if she were being forced to walk over burning-hot coals by even entering her paintings in a competition being run by the hateful D’Angelo brothers; she certainly didn’t like the idea of her name being for ever linked with either them or their galleries.

She hadn’t even told her mother of the desperation that had forced her to enter the competition, dreaded thinking how her mother would react if she were to ever find out Bryn was having her work shown at this gallery!

And maybe Bryn should have thought about that a little more deeply before deciding to walk over those burning hot coals and enter the competition.

Gabriel could almost actually see the war being waged inside Bryn’s head. The natural desire to have her artistic talent not only shown for the first time but also recognised for the talent that it was, obviously totally at war with her desire not to be in the least beholden, or associated with in the future, either the D’Angelo name or the Archangel Gallery. Yet another indication of how much she still disliked him and all he stood for. If he had needed any. Which he didn’t.

‘Your point being?’ Bryn now prompted guardedly.

He grimaced. ‘I think it would look better in the catalogue being printed and sent out to our clients before the exhibition if you weren’t listed as currently working in a coffee shop.’

‘Better for whom?’

Gabriel bit back his irritation with her challenging tone, having no intention of admitting that he had already known about her working in a coffee shop—and that it was him, personally, who didn’t like the idea of her working there. He might never have been into such an establishment, but he had driven past them numerous times, and the thought of Bryn being run ragged in such an establishment, day after day—evening after evening—just so that she could pay her bills every month, wasn’t particularly appealing.

Besides which, Gabriel also knew, from the discreet enquiries he had made about her once Rafe had told him exactly who she was, that Bryn Jones suffered a constant struggle to pay those bills. A job as an assistant at Archangel would go a long way to relieving her of that burden, at least.

A dark frown creased his brow. ‘What possible reason could you have for refusing a job here if it was offered to you?’

‘Let me see...’ She lifted a finger to her chin in exaggerated thought. ‘First, I don’t want to work in a gallery. Second, I don’t want to work in a gallery. And third, I don’t want to work in a gallery!’ Her eyes glittered determinedly.

‘This gallery in particular, or just any gallery?’ Gabriel questioned evenly.

‘Any gallery,’ Bryn answered firmly. ‘Besides, couldn’t it be considered as a little...incestuous, if I were to start working at Archangel now?’ she forestalled Gabriel D’Angelo’s next comment lightly.

‘Because of your inclusion in the exhibition?’

‘Exactly,’ she confirmed with satisfaction.

His mouth tightened. ‘And that’s your final answer?’

‘It is.’

He scowled darkly. ‘You’re very...intractable in your attitude, Miss Jones.’

‘I prefer to think of it as maintaining my independence, Mr D’Angelo,’ Bryn came back sharply.

‘Perhaps,’ he drawled as he stood up in one fluid movement, the dryness of his tone implying he thought the opposite. ‘I think we’ve said all that needs to be said for today. I have another appointment in—’ he glanced at the expensive-looking gold watch on his wrist ‘—ten minutes or so.’ He looked at her expectantly as she remained seated.

‘Oh. Right.’ Bryn stood up so hastily she accidentally kicked her bag across the floor, instantly scattering the contents far and wide. ‘Hells bells and blast it!’ She immediately dropped to her knees on the carpeted floor, her cheeks flushing with embarrassment as she began collecting up her scattered belongings, some of which were personal in the extreme, and cramming them back into her handbag.

‘I’ve always wondered what women kept in their handbags,’ Gabriel D’Angelo drawled in amusement.

‘Well, now you know!’ Bryn had paused to glare up at him, and instantly became aware of how his well over six feet of lean muscle towered over her so ominously. ‘And I would get this done a whole lot quicker if you were to help rather than just stand there grinning!’ Like an idiot, she could have added, but didn’t, because it wouldn’t have been the truth.

The last thing Gabriel was, or looked like when he grinned in that way, was an idiot; devilishly rakish, devastatingly attractive—lazily, sensuously so—and maybe even boyishly mischievous, as that grin knocked years off his age, but he certainly didn’t look like an idiot.

Besides which he had stopped grinning now, those chocolate-brown eyes narrowed on her in totally male assessment.

A frown creased Gabriel’s brow as he looked down at Bryn on her hands and knees in front of him. It was a...provocative pose, to say the least. As the ever-increasing bulge in his trousers testified.

Bryn’s cheeks were flushed, her lips slightly moist and parted and it should be illegal what those black trousers did for her heart-shaped bottom—and Gabriel’s arousal—bent over like that...!

‘Right,’ he rasped harshly as he crouched down beside her, his gaze averted as he gathered up the notebook and pen she had been using to make notes in earlier, as well as a small bottle of hand cream and a lip salve. ‘Hell’s bells and blast it...?’ he prompted gruffly, aware of her perfume now; nothing so anaemic as something floral for Bryn Jones, she was a mixture of spices, with an underlying hint of sensual woman.

He saw her shrug out of the corner of his eye. ‘My mother has never approved of a woman swearing, so I learnt to improvise at an early age.’

Gabriel only half listened to her answer as he moved down onto his knees. The smell of those spices—cinnamon, something fruity, maybe a hint of honey and that more elusive smell of sensual woman—all served to increase his awareness of the woman beside him. ‘A pot of white pepper, Bryn?’ he questioned as he held it up for inspection.

‘It’s cheaper than pepper spray!’ She snatched the pot from his hand before thrusting it back into her bag.

Gabriel sat back on his heels to look at her. ‘Pepper spray?’

‘I have to walk home late at night several times a week.’ She dismissed his concern without looking up, missing the frown of disapproval that clouded Gabriel’s face.

‘From the coffee shop,’ he said stiffly.

She gave him a brief glance before looking away again. ‘Why does that bother you so much?’

Good question. But not one Gabriel could answer. Not without revealing that he knew exactly who she was, and the part he felt he had played in her current circumstances—something her defensive attitude told him she definitely didn’t want from him.

And the past half hour in Bryn Jones’ company was enough to tell him that what she claimed as independence was actually defensive pride, and that she had more than her fair share of it.

Because of the scandal involving her father five years ago? No doubt that was a contributing factor, but Gabriel had a feeling she would have always been more than a little prickly; her feistiness was all too apparent in those flashing eyes and the stubborn tilt of her pointed chin.

‘I thought you had another appointment in a few minutes?’ She gave Gabriel a pointed look as he knelt unmoving beside her.

Make that a whole lot prickly! ‘I was just wondering what a third party, if they should walk into my office right now, would make of the two of us being down here on the floor together like this,’ Gabriel came back with deliberate and husky provocation.

‘We may just find out if your next appointment arrives early!’ Colour warmed her cheeks as she bent over to retrieve a lipstick from beneath the coffee table.

As that next appointment was the elderly Lord David Simmons, an avid art collector, Gabriel worried the other man might have a heart attack on the spot if he should catch so much as a glimpse of Bryn’s shapely backside!

‘Did I say something amusing?’ Bryn sat back on her heels to look at Gabriel, who was grinning again, his dark hair having fallen rakishly over his forehead, causing Bryn’s hands to curl into fists as she resisted the impulse to touch those silky dark locks.

‘Private joke.’ His grin faded, his eyes deepening almost to black as he continued to look at her intently.

Except Gabriel wasn’t looking at all of her, Bryn realised self-consciously, just her lips. Moist and slightly parted lips that she immediately clamped shut as she rose abruptly to her feet and slung her bag over her shoulder.

Only to as quickly freeze in place as she realised, with their difference in height, that Gabriel’s face was now level with her breasts.

A fact he took full advantage of as he made no effort to hide his interest in the fact that he could see Bryn’s bared breasts beneath the gauzy material of her floral blouse....

.

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