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

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‘BRYN, SIT DOWN here, put your head between your knees and just breathe, damn it! Yes, that’s right,’ Gabriel rasped harshly, slamming his glass down on the coffee table before guiding Bryn over to an armchair to push her head down between her knees as she drew huge gasping breaths of air into her starved lungs. ‘Damn it, woman, do you have something against my thirty-year-old single-malt whisky?’

Gabriel bent down to retrieve the glass from where Bryn had dropped it a minute or so ago as she’d looked in danger of passing out completely. He put the glass back on the bar and grabbed a cloth to soak up the golden puddle of whisky that had seeped into the pale carpet.

‘What did you say?’ He frowned as he heard her mutter something in the vicinity of her knees.

‘I said,’ she bit out succinctly as she raised her head to glare at him, her face deathly pale, eyes deep grey wells of anguish, ‘I don’t give a damn about your thirty-year-old single-malt whisky!’

‘I doubt you’ll feel that way when I take the price of the bottle out of the sale of your paintings,’ Gabriel assured her dryly as he sat back on his heels.

‘What sale?’ she came back bitterly, sitting up in the chair now that the first danger of her fainting had obviously passed, her expression one of proud fragility. ‘How could you do that?’ she continued accusingly before he could answer. ‘How could you just come out with a statement like that without—without giving me some sort of prior warning?’

Well, it hadn’t taken long for her to recover from the initial shock, Gabriel appreciated ruefully. ‘What sort of warning should I have given you, Bryn?’ he challenged as he stood up to throw the sticky whisky-soaked cloth disgustedly down onto the bar. ‘“Oh, by the way, I think the two of us may have met before across a crowded courtroom”? Or, “You look a lot like Sabryna Harper, the daughter of—”? Do not collapse on me again, Bryn!’ he warned harshly as her face took on a grey tinge, her chest barely moving beneath the black T-shirt as she breathed shallowly.

‘I’m not about to collapse.’ Instead, she stood up abruptly, taking a few seconds to steady herself before straightening determinedly, her chin held high. ‘How long have you known?’

He quirked one dark brow. ‘That Bryn Jones is Sabryna Harper?’

‘Yes!’ she hissed, jaw clenching.

Gabriel gave a dismissive shrug. ‘Since the beginning.’

‘Since...?’ Bryn gasped, reaching down to grasp the arm of the chair as she felt herself sway again, despite her earlier claim that she wouldn’t collapse again. She gave a shake of her head. ‘You can’t have done!’

Brown eyes looked across at her calmly. ‘Why can’t I?’

‘Because— Well, because— Because you can’t!’ Her mouth firmed as she shied away from listing those reasons why. ‘I would never have got this far in the competition if you had known who I was from the beginning!’

He shrugged, his shoulders wide and muscled in the cream silk shirt. ‘Admittedly my brother Rafe advised against your inclusion, but I decided—’

‘Your brother Raphael knows who I am too?’ She stared at him in disbelief.

‘You know, Bryn, we’re going to get a lot further with this conversation if we work on the understanding that I invariably tell the truth. No matter what the consequences,’ he added harshly.

And one of those consequences had been Bryn’s father going to prison. An indisputable fact that hung between the two of them, unsaid but there nonetheless.

‘It was Michael who recognised you initially,’ Gabriel continued calmly. ‘He saw you when you came in for an interview with Eric at the gallery that first day, and then he spoke to Rafe about it, who then told me.’

‘Quite the secret little coterie of spies, aren’t you?’ Bryn snapped defensively, still completely thrown and befuddled by Gabriel’s admission of having known who she was from that first day.

Something she was still having trouble absorbing. Because if that really was the truth, as Gabriel claimed it was, then he had chosen her as a finalist for the New Artists Exhibition knowing exactly who and what she was.

Had ogled her breasts, that first day here in his office knowing exactly who she was. Had taken her out to dinner at Antonio’s knowing exactly who she was. Had kissed her later that same evening in his car knowing exactly who she was.

Which made absolutely no sense to Bryn whatsoever.

‘I don’t think insulting me, or my brothers, is helpful to this conversation either,’ Gabriel drawled.

Gabriel had decided while he was away in Rome and thinking of her constantly that the truth couldn’t remain unspoken between them once he returned to London. And if Bryn wouldn’t tell him the truth, then it was up to him to do it.

Bryn so obviously disliked, perhaps even hated, Gabriel for the part he had played in her father’s trial. Her desire now, her physical response to him, much as she might hate it, and him, was just as undeniable. And Gabriel couldn’t see any way forward for the two of them if the truth of who Bryn really was continued to remain unspoken between them.

Of course, there was always the possibility that there was still no way forward for the two of them once they had spoken of it, but Gabriel knew they couldn’t go on any longer with this lie standing between them, that the longer he allowed that omission to continue, the less chance there was that he and Bryn could ever come to any sort of understanding of each other.

‘I asked you to trust me several times, Bryn, to talk to me,’ he reminded huskily.

Her eyes widened. ‘And this was what you meant? That I should trust you enough to tell you I’m really Sabryna Harper, William Harper’s daughter?’

‘Yes,’ Gabriel bit out tautly.

Bryn continued to stare at him disbelievingly. ‘That’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever said to me!’

He gave a derisive smile. ‘Nevertheless, it’s the truth.

She gave a dazed shake of her head. ‘In what universe did you think that was ever going to happen?’ Gabriel seriously expected her to— He had really thought that she would one day trust him enough to tell him, to confide in him. ‘It was never going to happen,’ she stated flatly.

He drew in a sharp breath. ‘That’s...unfortunate.’

‘I don’t see why,’ she challenged scathingly. ‘Luckily for you, you already have your reserve candidate for the New Artists Exhibition, so no problem there once you’ve had the pleasure of kicking me off—’

‘I’m not kicking you off anything, Bryn, and I resent the fact that you think it would ever be a pleasure for me to do so,’ he cut in harshly, running an agitated hand through the darkness of his hair as he scowled. ‘And why the hell would I do that, when you’re far and away the best artist in the exhibition?’

‘Why would you?’ she repeated challengingly. ‘I’m William Harper’s daughter!’ she reminded him—as if saying it repeatedly would help her to accept that Gabriel really did know, had always known, exactly who she was.

‘And, as I’ve already stated, I knew that when you were chosen as one of the six finalists.’

Yes, he had, which again made absolutely no sense to Bryn. Her father’s name was so shrouded in scandal that her mother had decided to distance them from it all by changing their last name after he had died. A scandal that had been connected to this very gallery and the D’Angelo name; she couldn’t believe that Gabriel would ever want to risk the resurrection of that scandal by exhibiting the paintings of William’s daughter. And certainly not intentionally.

She looked across at him guardedly, once again aware of how he owned the elegantly furnished office rather than the opulence dominating the man; Gabriel was such a force in his own right that he seemed to own the very air around him, no matter what his surroundings. Something that had been all too apparent during her father’s trial—even the judge hearing the case had treated him with a deference and respect he hadn’t shown to anyone else in the courtroom. Something that had no doubt added weight to the evidence Gabriel gave against her father.

Not that any weight had needed to be added; there had been no doubting her father’s guilt, not only for attempting to sell a fake Turner, but for having commissioned the forgery in the first place, having paid an artist in Poland a pittance to paint the forgery and then attempting to sell it for millions of pounds to Gabriel and the Archangel Gallery.

‘Bryn, even without Michael’s help, I would have known who you were the first time I looked at you again....’

She looked up at Gabriel sharply. ‘I don’t see how when my name and appearance are so different from five years ago.’

He gave a humourless smile. ‘It’s unlikely I’d ever forget the young woman who glared her hatred across a courtroom at me for days on end. Those eyes alone would have given you away.’

Bryn had never forgotten him either, but for quite a different reason.

Gabriel D’Angelo had, quite simply, been the most charismatic and darkly intriguing man she had ever set eyes on. But it was more than that; he was more than that. Gabriel had awakened something deep inside the eighteen-year-old overweight and slightly shy Sabryna that had filled her night fantasies for weeks before her father’s arrest, and months after the trial had ended.

The same fantasies that had filled all of her nights since meeting Gabriel again a week ago. The same desire that had awakened in her again, a few minutes ago in the basement, the second she had heard his voice behind her. The same desire that had caused her breath to catch in her throat when she’d turned to look at him. The same desire that raged through her even now, just from seeing how his cream silk shirt fitted so well over the broadness of his shoulders and tapered waist, the tailored brown trousers of his suit draping elegantly from his hips. This man—Gabriel—awakened that hunger inside her just by being in the same room with her.

‘How is your mother, Bryn?’

She looked at him warily. ‘Why are you asking?’ she came back defensively.

He shrugged. ‘Because I’d like to know?’

‘My mother is fine. She remarried two years ago. Happily.’

‘That’s good.’ He nodded.

‘Gabriel, if this is some sort of guilt trip on your part—’

‘It’s not,’ Gabriel cut in harshly. ‘Damn it, Bryn, I have nothing—absolutely nothing—to feel guilty about. Am I sorry for the way it happened, the way your mother’s and your own life were affected? Yes, I am.

But your father was the guilty one, Bryn, not me. Am I sorry that he died in prison only months later? Yes, of course I am,’ he rasped. ‘But I didn’t put him there. He put himself there by his own actions!’

Yes, he had. And part of Bryn had never forgiven her father for that.

Which was something she had to live with. ‘You kissed me the night before my father was arrested!’ she reminded accusingly.

He closed his eyes briefly before opening them again. ‘I know that. And I wanted to tell you— Despite being warned by the police, and my lawyers, not to discuss the case with anyone, I almost told you that night! It almost killed me not to do so.’ He gave a shake of his head.

‘I don’t believe you,’ she breathed heavily.

‘No,’ he accepted heavily. ‘I tried to see you, Bryn. Against the advice of my lawyers I tried to see you again, after your father was arrested, during the trial, after the trial. I tried, Bryn! I wanted to explain, to— I never wanted to hurt you, Bryn,’ he assured earnestly.

‘But you did it anyway.’

‘I told you, I had no choice, damn it.’

Perhaps he hadn’t, but that didn’t stop Bryn from resenting his silence. From resenting the fact that he had kissed her that night. From resenting the fact that he had broken her heart the following day....

‘I didn’t want to see or speak with you again.’ She gave an abrupt shake of her head. ‘You had nothing to say that I wanted to hear.’

‘I guessed that,’ he said bleakly.

She breathed in deeply. ‘So where do we go from here?’

Gabriel looked at her from beneath hooded lids. ‘Where do you want us to go?’

To his bed. On top of his marble desk. On the sofa. Up against a wall! Bryn didn’t care about the ‘where’ as long as Gabriel finished what he had started in his car last Friday evening. The desire she had felt then was nothing compared to what it was now, after days of not seeing him, not being with him.

And she hated herself for it. Hated that in spite of everything, she still felt that way, still wanted him!

She moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue. ‘I need to know— Have these past few days all been some sort of sick game? An act of revenge for what my father—’

‘I could ask the same of you!’ he grated harshly, anger flaring in those deep brown eyes, lips thinned, a nerve pulsing in his aggressively set jaw. His body was rigid with that same tension, his hands clenched at his sides before he reached out to pick up the whisky glass he had put down earlier, drinking down the contents in one swallow. ‘In fact, my brothers insist on it!’

‘Then ask, damn it,’ Bryn bit out shakily. He looked at her guardedly.

‘Why did you do it, Bryn? Why did you enter your paintings in a competition being run by the gallery, the man, who helped put your father in prison?’

Bryn drew her breath in sharply, all the colour draining from her cheeks as the starkness of Gabriel’s words hammered into her like a blow she wasn’t sure she was ever going to recover from.

The truth was completely out in the open now, spoken aloud between them with no going back, and no fooling herself, allowing herself to indulge her desire for this man, by assuring herself that it was okay to do so because Gabriel had no idea who she really was. Because he did know. He had always known.

She avoided meeting that accusing gaze. ‘The truth?’

That nerve pulsed in his clenched jaw. ‘In the circumstances, I’ll accept nothing less.’

Bryn nodded. ‘I was desperate. I’m an unknown artist who wants more than anything to succeed, and the best way to do that is to be exhibited in the most prestigious private gallery in London.’

‘Thank you,’ he accepted derisively.

Her anger flared again at his obvious sarcasm. ‘I was stating a fact, not giving a compliment!’

Gabriel knew that. Knew Bryn. Not as well as he wanted to, but he did know her as being determined, gutsy and proud. All traits he could admire. It was the beautiful and desirable that destroyed him!

‘Heaven forbid you should ever do that,’ he drawled, eyeing the whisky bottle longingly as he placed his empty glass down on the bar before walking away. The enigma that was Bryn might be enough to turn any man to drink, at the same time as that same man—namely Gabriel!—would be well advised to keep his wits about him whenever he was in her company.

‘Yes. Well.’ She turned to walk over to the long picture windows, hands thrust into the back pockets of her jeans as she stood with her back towards him, her spiky hair in silhouette. ‘Believe me, nothing less would have induced me to come anywhere near your gallery or you ever again!’

Gabriel gave a wince. ‘Perhaps a little less honesty on your part might be preferable after all.’

‘What do you want me to do now, Gabriel?’ she continued tersely. ‘Quietly withdraw from the exhibition?’

‘I’ve already said that isn’t an option,’ Gabriel bit out.

She turned back slowly, stance defensive, breasts thrust forward, hands in her pockets. ‘Then what are my options?’

That was a good question.

Having made the decision to put an end to this pretence, Gabriel had gone over the possible scenarios of this conversation over and over again in his mind on his flight back from Rome.

There seemed to be only two possible outcomes.

Outcome one—the one that was undoubtedly the best one for Bryn—was that they would continue with the business-only relationship they had agreed upon, and she would exhibit her paintings in the gallery next month. Outcome two—the one that Gabriel disliked the most—was that Bryn would walk away now: from the gallery, the exhibition and from him.

There was a third outcome—the one that Gabriel wanted but knew was never going to happen. In that Bryn continued with the exhibition, and the two of them agreed to put the past behind them and continue from where they had left off on Friday evening!

An outcome that Gabriel knew to be pure fantasy on his part, following on from Bryn’s blunt comment.

His mouth tightened. ‘What’s going on between you and Eric?’

She blinked, lashes long and dark around those dove-grey eyes. ‘Sorry?’

Gabriel’s days in Rome, persuading an elderly count to sell two small frescoes to the Archangel Gallery, had been something of an ordeal as his thoughts had constantly wandered to the problem of what to do about Bryn rather than concentrating on the task in front of him. And his flight back to England had been consumed with thoughts of the conversation he needed to have with her.

He had only called in at the gallery for a few minutes to drop off some papers in his office before going to Bryn’s apartment. He had been surprised to learn from the night security that Miss Jones and Mr Sanders were still in the building. Going down to the basement and seeing Bryn there with Eric, obviously totally at ease with him, laughing with him—being invited to go out for a drink with him—had not improved Gabriel’s already taciturn mood.

‘If you decide to go ahead with the exhibition at Archangel, and the business-relationship rule, then that rule will apply to all employees of the gallery, not just me,’ he bit out harshly.

Bryn gave a slow shake of her head. ‘I don’t— Are you suggesting— Do you think that Eric and I are involved? Romantically?’ she added incredulously.

It had occurred to him, yes.

Eric Sanders was only a year or two older than Gabriel, and pleasant enough to look at. He was also an extremely well qualified and respected art expert, and Archangel was lucky to have him.

Even so, Gabriel knew that he wouldn’t hesitate to find some way to dismiss the other man if it should turn out that he and Bryn were now ‘romantically involved’.

Bryn stared at Gabriel D’Angelo in disbelief. This was the same man she had almost allowed to make love to her in his car just days ago, a lapse on her part that still made her feel hot all over every time she thought of it—and she had thought of it a lot since Friday evening!

Did Gabriel really think— Did he believe that she would have become involved with another man in the time he had been away in Rome?

‘If you bothered to find out a little more personal information about your employees,’ she snapped angrily, ‘then you would know that Eric is engaged to a very lovely girl called Wendy, and that the two of them are getting married in three months’ time!’

Gabriel nodded tersely, lids hooded over those dark brown eyes. ‘As it happens, I do know that.’

Her eyes widened. ‘But you still think that I— That the two of us have been— You don’t think much of me, do you?’

Gabriel thought about this woman far too much than was comfortable. Or wise. Or conducive to a calm or logical frame of mind. Which was why he had jumped to the conclusion he had in regard to the friendly ease that obviously existed between Eric and Bryn!

None of which he was about to admit out loud to Bryn when she was this prickly and defensive. ‘I’m tired and irritable and I haven’t eaten yet this evening.’

Her eyes widened indignantly. ‘And that’s the excuse you’re giving for accusing me of being involved with a man who’s happily engaged to another woman?’

Gabriel gritted his teeth. It was definitely the only explanation he was willing to admit to at this moment; admitting his jealousy of the other man wasn’t an option. ‘It is, yes.’

She gave an impatient shake of her head. ‘We seem to be veering off the relevant subject.’

He quirked mocking brows. ‘My being hungry isn’t relevant to you?’

‘You’ve just dropped the equivalent of a bombshell on top of my head, by revealing that you’ve been aware from the beginning who I am, so no,’ she snapped, ‘your being hungry isn’t of the least importance to me. Or the fact that you’re also tired and insultingly irritable!’

He should have followed his first instinct when they had entered the privacy of his office a short time ago, Gabriel realised ruefully—which had been to strip Bryn naked, pick her up in his arms and carry her over to his desk to lay her down on the top of it, before making fierce and satisfying love to her!

That was what he should have done.

What he still wanted to do....

He now wanted that so badly, his erection so hard and aching against the soft material of his trousers, that the past few days might just as well not have happened.

Bryn eyed Gabriel uncertainly, her mouth suddenly dry as he began slowly stalking towards her, a determined glitter in the intensity of his dark gaze. ‘Gabriel, what are you doing?’ She took a step back, only to feel the cold of the window down the length of her spine as she stood flush against it.

‘What I should have done the moment I saw you again,’ Gabriel growled as he stood in front of her, the heat of his body not quite touching hers as his hands moved up to rest on the glass of the window on either side of her head, effectively holding her captive within the circle of his arms. His breath was a warm caress across her cheeks, those deep brown eyes holding—possessing—hers as she found it impossible to break away from the intensity of his gaze.

Bryn’s heart was pounding rapidly in her chest, and she couldn’t breathe, certainly couldn’t have moved, even if someone had shouted ‘fire’. Because the only fire that mattered to her was right here between the two of them as it blazed fiercely, heatedly, out of control.

‘That might have been a bit awkward, considering that Eric was in the room at the time,’ she said, attempting to lighten the tension currently sizzling between them.

‘Do I look as if I care who else was in the room?’

The reckless glitter in his eyes answered with a resounding no to the question. ‘You do realise that this—whatever this is—is only going to complicate an already impossible situation?’

He nodded briefly. ‘And I’m currently in the mood to complicate the hell out of it!’

Bryn swallowed before running her tongue over her lips.

‘Did you know you have a habit of doing that?’ Gabriel murmured achingly.

‘I do?’ Bryn’s voice was just as hushed; the whole building was so empty and quiet at this time of night, with none of the sounds from outside penetrating the thick glass behind her either, giving the impression that they were the only two people in the world. The only two that mattered at this moment.

‘Mmm.’ He nodded, gaze transfixed on her slightly parted lips. ‘And every time you do it I want to replace your tongue with mine.’

‘You do?’ Bryn still couldn’t move, her heart beating even louder, faster in her chest, as a wave of heat washed over her, plumping the lips between her thighs, causing a fire in her belly, swelling her breasts, her nipples becoming engorged against her T-shirt, before that heat licked up the slenderness of her throat and coloured her cheeks.

‘Mmm.’ Gabriel gave another nod as he raised the fierceness of his gaze to meet hers. ‘And the way I see it, you have two choices right now.’

She swallowed. ‘Which are?’

He smiled slightly. ‘One, you can take me away from here and feed me. Two—and this is my personal favourite—we stay here instead and indulge a very different appetite.’

Against her better judgement, the second choice was Bryn’s personal favourite too!

Right here and right now.

Later—much later—she knew she would feel totally differently about that choice, but the two of them were caught in a moment seemingly out of time, where there was no past and no future, only now, her body expectantly aroused, aching with hunger. For Gabriel. For the touch of his hands. The feel of his lips against her skin. Everywhere.

She forced herself to make some effort at resisting that hunger. ‘There is the third choice of my just walking away.’

Gabriel shook his head. ‘Not this time.’

‘But—’

‘No buts, Bryn.’ He rested the heat of his forehead against hers, those brown eyes now mesmerisingly close to hers. ‘It’s your choice, Bryn,’ he assured huskily. ‘But I advise that you choose quickly!’ he added urgently.

Bryn felt surrounded by him, held captive by him—his physical presence, his heat, the sensual pull of that muscled body so dangerously close to her own—so much so that she knew that the choice had already been made for her.

.

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