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

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‘OKAY, YOUNG LADY, time to spill the beans!’ Bryn’s mother smiled as she placed a jug of fresh lemonade and two glasses down on the picnic table, joining Bryn. They sat outside in the garden at the back of the cottage where she now lived with Rhys Evans, her second husband.

‘Spill what beans...?’ Bryn straightened in her garden chair as she slowly pushed her sketch pad aside, her expression cautious as she watched her mother pour lemonade into the glasses.

Mary, a slightly older version of Bryn, with shoulder-length brown hair and deep grey eyes, gave her a reproving glance as she dropped down into a seat on the other side of the wooden table. ‘This is your mother you’re talking to, Bryn. And you’ve been here for two days already and barely spoken a word since you arrived.’

‘I’ve been busy sketching.’ Bryn had found it soothing to lose herself in drawing the beautiful array of coloured flowers that scented her mother’s cottage garden, rather than think of the things Gabriel had said about her father before she left London.

‘I noticed,’ Mary dismissed. ‘Now tell me who he is!’ she prompted interestedly as she sipped her lemonade.

‘He?’ Bryn squeaked a reply. She should have known by now how impossible it was to divert her mother’s attention once she had made her mind up to something—which she now seemed to have done on the subject of Bryn’s distraction these past two days.

‘The man who’s making my normally chatty daughter so introspective.’

Bryn recognised her mother’s tone as being the ‘and don’t try telling me any nonsense’—in this case, that there was no man—‘because I won’t believe you’ tone.

And Bryn knew she had been unusually quiet since coming home to visit her mother and Rhys, that the last evening with Gabriel had left her in a state of confusion. About the things Gabriel had said about her father as much as about Gabriel himself.

She gave her mother a searching glance now. ‘Are you happy with Rhys?’

‘Absolutely,’ her mother answered instantly, a warm smile curving her lips.

Bryn nodded slowly. ‘And were you happy with Daddy?’

Her mother’s smile faded and a frown appeared between her eyes. ‘Where’s this coming from, Bryn?’

‘I don’t know.’ She stood up restlessly. ‘I just— I’ve watched you and Rhys together, the teasing, the easy affection, the total respect you have for each other, and—and I don’t remember ever seeing you and Daddy together like that.’

‘We were happy in the beginning. When you were little.’

Bryn gave a pained frown. ‘But not later on?’

Her mother grimaced. ‘It became...complicated. Everything was fine to start with, but then William became restless working in an office day after day, and started coming up with these get-rich-quick ideas—all of which failed miserably. You’re old enough to know these things now, Bryn. William used up all our savings on those ideas, and I never knew what he was going to do next. Or whether we would all still have a roof over our heads the following week.’ She shrugged. ‘That sort of uncertainty in a partner can test even the best of relationships to its limits, and our marriage was already pretty shaky. It very quickly deteriorated into chaos.’

Which was probably why her mother now appreciated Rhys’s steadiness, Bryn’s stepfather having been the local and much-respected carpenter for all of his working life.

‘But you stayed together....’

Her mother smiled. ‘We had you.’

‘But did you never think of leaving Daddy?’ Bryn looked at her mother searchingly.

‘Many times,’ Mary admitted truthfully. ‘And I’m sure, as much as it would have hurt you, it would have come to that in the end.

Bryn gave a pained frown. ‘And yet, even during the trial, you stood by him.’

‘He was my husband. And your father,’ her mother added pointedly. ‘And you adored him.’

Yes, Bryn had adored her father. But she hadn’t been able to get Gabriel’s outburst that last evening in London out of her mind. To question, to want to know if the things he had said were true.

Her mother’s comments confirmed what Bryn had feared—that William had been the petty crook Gabriel had called him, for almost all of her life, involved in one scam or another. A petty crook who had tried to break into the big time by selling the fake Turner—and failed miserably.

And these past few days Bryn had questioned whether she hadn’t always known that, and that it was the knowing that had added to her resentment of Gabriel, not because he had kissed her, not because she had fallen in love with him, not even because of his involvement in her father’s downfall, but because that involvement had made him part of the disenchantment she hadn’t wanted to acknowledge all these years.

‘Why the interest in all of that now, Bryn?’ her mother prompted softly, her gaze sharp. ‘Has something happened? Something that’s made you start thinking, questioning the past?’

Gabriel D’Angelo was what had happened! A man who was making it impossible for Bryn not to question the past. But it wasn’t Gabriel’s fault; Bryn was the one who had chosen to come into contact with him again when she’d entered the exhibition.

No, it wasn’t Gabriel’s fault, but Bryn’s reaction to meeting him again, her response to him, had set in motion those same feelings of guilt inside her that she had felt five years ago when she had looked across that crowded courtroom and known that, despite everything he was saying and all the damage he was causing to her father and her family, she still wanted him.

It had been bad enough then for Bryn to realise she was infatuated with the arrogant and handsome Gabriel D’Angelo, but she found it harder still to realise, all these years later, that she was still attracted to the man who had helped shatter her world.

Admittedly her mother was happily remarried, but still the past had to overshadow, to make impossible, there ever being any sort of relationship between Bryn and Gabriel. A relationship she would have to tell her mother about.

Even if her traitorous body seemed to have other ideas on the subject!

Just thinking about that last evening with Gabriel, of the depth of intimacy the two of them had shared, the way she had totally fallen apart in his arms, climaxing so spectacularly, was enough to make her blush.

‘Okay, now I really want to know who this man is if he can make my sensible daughter blush so prettily,’ her mother stated firmly.

‘I can’t tell you,’ Bryn groaned.

‘Why on earth not?’ Mary looked stunned. ‘We’ve always been able to talk about anything in the past— Bryn, if it’s a woman making you feel this way, then I hope you know that I’m broad-minded enough not to—’

‘It’s not a woman!’ She gave a rueful smile. ‘But I appreciate knowing how broad minded you are!’ she added dryly.

‘Is this man involved with someone else, then? Maybe married?’ her mother added worriedly.

‘It’s worse than that!’ Bryn groaned as she began to pace the lawn Rhys had recently cut. Her mother’s brows rose. ‘What could possibly be worse than—? Is he older than you?’

‘Marginally.’ Bryn shrugged. ‘Maybe ten years or so.’

‘That’s nothing.’ Her mother sighed her relief. ‘But I still don’t understand why you won’t tell me who he is.’

‘Because I can’t.’ She sighed heavily. ‘He’s just not—suitable for me to be involved with, okay?’

‘No, of course it’s not okay, Bryn.’ Mary frowned worriedly. ‘I’ve never known you to— He isn’t a drug dealer or something like that, is he?’

‘Of course not,’ Bryn denied ruefully.

Her mother didn’t look reassured. ‘But he’s unsuitable in some other way?’

‘Oh, yes,’ Bryn sighed.

Mary continued to look at her searchingly for several long minutes, that worried frown between her eyes. ‘Does your interest just now, in the past, have anything to do with your reluctance to talk about this man?’ she finally prompted.

‘I— Maybe.’ Bryn’s teeth worried her bottom lip. ‘Do you know—? Is it possible that Daddy was the one to tell the press about the painting, as a way of ensuring the D’Angelo gallery, or some other gallery, couldn’t just dismiss the painting as a forgery?’

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