Evelina Parisi did not have time for surprise meetings she did not authorize, but there was already a man in her office sitting with his back to her as she approached. She glanced at her watch. She was supposed to meet with Lorenzo, her brother and boss, via video, as he was at his home in Palermo and she was at the Parisi offices in Rome.
She hated to adjust plans, ever, but particularly when they involved her brother, who ran the entire company. Who had, essentially, raised her. All the siblings who worked for him had to endure the whispers of nepotism, but Evelina always tried very hard to ensure that her actions could not be used against her, even if her last name could.
But more important than what anyone else thought was her prime objective: that her eldest brother was never disappointed in her. Asking to push back their meeting was not a failure, but in Evelina’s ordered mind, it felt a bit like one.
Still, there was someone already here, and she could hardly ignore them. She shot a quick text to Lorenzo, then straightened her blazer and strode into her office, hoping to usher this unexpected visitor away in under fifteen minutes.
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting, sir, but I didn’t have a meeting on my schedule.” He had refused to give her secretary a name, and while that was usually cause for a call to security, the man had been shown into her office instead.
Evelina kept the pleasant smile on her face as she moved to her desk and the man in the seat slowly turned to face her.
For a moment, she thought perhaps the floor and ceiling had traded places. She froze, staring at a man who was not entirely unfamiliar to her. For a few scrambling seconds, she could not place him; she only felt…the impending threat. Something innate and unbidden leaped through her before her brain could catch up.
And then his gaze met hers, and recognition slammed into her. Hard.
It could not be…
“Ah, so you do remember me.” The voice was not like she remembered. All smooth and deep and cutting. There were, in fact, many differences in the man who carefully stood and towered over her when she compared him to the memory of the boy she’d known.
It was the eyes that gave him away. A myriad of browns and golds and a few flecks of green that changed with the light. She knew because she’d seen this man in every kind of light there was.
Remember him? Cabbrieli DiAgata. She didn’t remember him.
She had loved him. She was, to this day, haunted by him.
Because he had been a mistake she still hadn’t recovered from.
Cabbrieli could not deny that he got a grim sort of satisfaction from the way Evelina’s face lost all color. As though she’d seen a ghost.
He supposed, in a way, he was just that. The ghost of the boy he’d been, or perhaps the ghost of what they’d been to each other. Long ago, in terrible homes in the slums of Palermo.
And now here they were in Rome, both dressed in—no doubt—designer clothes, working in fancy buildings and defying all the odds that had been stacked against them at birth. He supposed a better man would be happy for them both, but the only feeling Cabbrieli had in this moment was bitterness.
Perhaps because he had done well for himself. Evelina had benefited from a lucky brother. She had chosen to follow said brother because he’d already been on his way up rather than take a chance on the man she had claimed to love.
Sometimes, in his kinder moments, he felt a debt of gratitude toward her. Her rejection of his proposal had spurred him on through many difficulties and setbacks over the years. Spite, after all, was the greatest motivator.
But he wasn’t feeling very kind or grateful in this moment. She wasn’t just as beautiful as she’d been back then; she was somehow…brighter. She wore sophistication like a second skin. All that polish, gleaming. Sleek and stylish business suit in a dark blue that suited her olive complexion, dark hair pulled back in an intricate style that was clearly calculated to look soft even when it had to have been ruthlessly twisted and pinned. Which seemed such a hallmark of the Evelina he’d known that it cut like a knife.
But the gleam didn’t come from all those outer layers that gave the image of businesslike perfection, it somehow came from within. Because even in this environment of cozy but corporate office she had no doubt decorated herself—completely foreign to the cramped quarters and dirty streets they’d grown up in—she had that same old warmth about her. That inexplicable thing that had always drawn him like a magnet.
The Parisi girls had all looked alike, but only Evelina had ever caught his eye. Only Evelina had ever turned him into the biggest kind of fool there was. A beggar.
Well, he’d never begged another person from that moment. And it was that reminder that allowed him to stop admiring her beauty.
Beauty lied all the time.
“Why are you here?” she asked, very carefully. She did not meet his gaze. She moved behind her desk.
As though that would save her.
“Did you not hear? I’ve recently bought out DVC Capital.”
Her head whipped up at that. “What?”
He smiled at her and settled himself back in the chair opposite hers. He gestured for her to sit down. She did not.
He shrugged. “It seems we now work together, dolcezza.”
That color had come back to her face, and now it rode high on her cheeks. “Don’t call me that,” she snapped.
“Why ever not?”
Her eyebrows drew together, and he saw a flash of pain in dark eyes that had haunted him for nearly a decade. She’d had that same look on her face when she’d walked away from him. As though he was hurting her, when she was the one who had rejected him.
“The only contact I have with anyone from DVC is the chairman for the joint gala we’re throwing next month.”
Cabbrieli nodded. “And now that is me. So, why don’t you fill me in?”
Everything was going according to plan. She stood there still looking shell-shocked, though frustration was now creeping in as well. He waited for the satisfaction to wash over him, but it seemed to be taking its sweet time.
Like spite and hurting her weren’t quite the boons he had always made them out to be in his head.
He shifted in his seat. He wasn’t hurting her. He was simply proving to her what she should have known ten years ago. He was simply making it clear she’d been wrong about him. It wasn’t revenge. It was…an I told you so.
He was going places. He was successful. He was just as well off as her sainted brother, whom she’d follow to the ends of the earth.
He was only here so she could see how wrong she’d been. So she’d have to sit with it for the next month as they planned this foolish gala together.
So it ate her alive, just as she had eaten him alive for the last decade. For every moment since he’d laid eyes on her as children. He still remembered the moment with clarity. She’d had one sister on her hip and was holding a younger brother’s hand. The whole crowd of Parisis seemed like the complete antithesis to his world of just him and his father.
Somehow, she’d looked up, and their gazes had caught. She’d smiled, and he’d felt as though his entire world changed in that moment. Brightened up.
He’d been eight. And a foolish, malnourished and delirious-with-it child, clearly.
In the here and now, she gracefully lowered herself to the chair at her desk. Her dark gaze was cool—but on the laptop she carefully opened, not on him.
“I’ll be happy to email you everything your predecessor and I discussed. I’ve kept meticulous notes.”
Her mouth tightened. “Do you have a card with your contact information?”
He withdrew it from his wallet and slid it over the desk to her, though he kept his hand on the card until she tried to take it. But she did not fall for this old bait. She raised her gaze to his and waited patiently.
He wanted to wait her out, but unless she’d wholly changed in the past few years, her patience would—as it always did—win out over his impatience.
He was a man of action. It had served him well. Until now. He scowled and released the card, leaning back in his chair.
Primly, she took the card and typed the information into her laptop.
Irritated she could still maintain that age-old composure, he set about to make sure she didn’t. “Surely you can deign to work with the man you heartlessly refused so long ago. It has been nearly a decade.”
Her gaze whipped to his—and he focused on the flash of anger over the flash of hurt. “Heartlessly refused…” She shook her head and let out a very careful sigh that reminded him of too many things to count.
That temper she was oh so careful to hide, especially around her family, but he had always been able to bring out. That control she’d built inside herself, even at such a young age, that no amount of knowing her, emulating her, loving her had rubbed off on him.
When she finally spoke, she was calm. If insulting. “You have not changed in the least, have you?”
“Change is for those ashamed of their past, Evelina. You will not find I have much shame.”
“Good for you.” And she somehow sounded like she genuinely meant that, not that she was disgusted with him.
Because it was true. He had no reason to feel shame. She had made her wrong choice. He had done everything right.
“Ms. Monti and I were meeting once a week, on Fridays, at the venue to make sure we were on the same page with the plans,” she said in a voice that reminded him of how she used to talk to her baby sister. “I’ll email you an itinerary, but as I handle all the events for Parisi, and have for quite a few years now, I don’t really need help.”
“No, you need approval from the other half of the committee.”
“Precisely. I can email you my plans each week and you can approve or deny them as suits.”
“What suits me is to continue on as you have been. Surely you’re not so afraid of working closely with me that you would try to avoid it altogether?”
Her expression got more and more pinched, but she didn’t explode. “Ms. Monti and I are friends,” she said tightly. “We enjoy each other’s company and working together. You and I are…strangers.”
“We are exes, dolcezza, or have you forgotten in your pretty little office in your brother’s fine company? Planning events for the glitz and glamour of the life you were given.” He made a tsking sound, but even that didn’t get her to explode. So he continued. “It might be embarrassing for you to remember a time when you did not have shoes on your feet, let alone designer, but it is your truth all the same. I will be there on Friday.”
He got up and began to leave, but it seemed, even all these years later, he knew exactly what buttons to push. They just took a little longer to start the target.
She stood so forcefully her chair wobbled a bit. Her hands were fists on her desk when he turned around to look at her.
“You can dress yourself up,” she said, eyes blazing. “Make something out of yourself, and good for you. I’m proud of you, even. I’m sure it was very hard.” Her lips even trembled, as if she truly meant that. “But you will never understand me. You never did. You didn’t want to. And I will not play petty games for the next month about something that ended nearly a decade ago, Cabbrieli.”
“Do you honestly think I spent the past decade building myself up into a very rich man just to get back at you, Evelina?”
She looked him up and down, and just as though they were teenagers again, saving each other from all the bad around them, it felt as though she saw right through him. As though she, even now, knew him at his core. A core he’d spent a childhood trying to hide away just to survive.
But he’d learned his lessons about Evelina the hard way.
“Yes, Cabbrieli. That is exactly what I think.”
And since that was just a bit too close to true, he turned on a heel and strode out.
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