Evelina tried not to think of Cabbrieli at all as she readied for the gala. This was work. She would see him, no doubt. It would hurt, because it hurt even when she didn’t see him. But she would not let herself be poked into another argument, another fight.
She shook her head. She would not fool herself into thinking she could change him. He had to change himself. And she had to put as much distance between them as she could until he did.
She studied herself in the mirror. She knew she looked perfect. Sparkling dress that suited her body shape. Hair swept back with professionally done makeup. When she finally forced herself to go downstairs, Isa was finalizing the instructions for her children with the nanny while Stefano stood by the door.
When she approached, he studied her with a too-knowing gaze.
“I heard a rumor,” he said in his usual calm, conversational demeanor.
“That Cabbrieli DiAgata bought DVC Capital and you have been working with him on the gala without mentioning it to anyone.”
“Oh, did I not mention it?” Evelina smiled up at her brother. “Must have slipped my mind.”
She shook her head. “It is fine.”
“But are you fine?”
What a strange distinction. She’d never allowed herself to think quite that way. But if she really thought about it… She was fine. She had no regrets about the choice she’d had to make, even if leaving Cabbrieli behind had been sad. She was content with the life she’d built. Maybe Cabbrieli remained an ache she couldn’t soothe, but…being with him wouldn’t change that. Not as long as he refused to bend.
“I am fine,” she assured her brother. And she was. Because she could be sad Cabbrieli was still stuck in an old place, but she also knew she couldn’t save him from it.
If she still had hope that he would come around someday, if that hope would likely mean she would be alone forever… Well, like always, she had her family. Her job. She wasn’t alone. She wasn’t in misery.
She just hoped Cabbrieli had something that allowed him some contentment, too.
When Isa was satisfied, they all got into the car together and rode to the gala. Accursia would arrive with her current boyfriend. Lorenzo and Brianna would be there before they headed on a little babymoon holiday before baby number three arrived. Her youngest sister, Saverina, was with them for the trip to Rome, having not arrived early enough to stop by Stefano’s. But tomorrow they would have a family day, only missing the siblings who had gone off on their own and not joined Parisi.
What more could Evelina want?
But when they arrived at the gala, and she saw Cabbrieli across the ballroom chatting with a few people, she knew that the answer would always be him.
“You do not have to speak with him,” Accursia said in a whisper, taking her by the arm and trying to pull her in the opposite direction.
“Seems she already has been,” Stefano muttered into his drink.
“Who is this he?” Brianna asked, one hand rubbing against the ever-growing swell of her bump.
“Evelina’s childhood sweetheart,” Saverina supplied, making no bones about looking around Lorenzo and Stefano to study Cabbrieli.
“Let’s take him out back and—”
Evelina cut off whatever Isa’s bloodthirsty suggestion was going to be. “I appreciate the interest.” No, it wasn’t just interest. “I appreciate the concern and the care.” She smiled at all of them and meant it. “But I’m just fine.”
Lorenzo and Stefano were glaring in Cabbrieli’s direction, and he seemed to take this as invitation.
“Bona sira,” he greeted the group with an easy, charming smile. “My old neighbors.” He glanced at Isa and Brianna. “And some new additions.”
Evelina frowned slightly, because there was something different about him. A lack of that edge she’d seen in him at Stefano’s house. He now seemed perfectly happy, perfectly content.
She didn’t trust it. Even when his gaze turned to her. “Would you dance with me, Evelina?”
She felt the eyes of every single Parisi in attendance on her. Not in a bad way. Because this was what she’d always had. In the absence of parents who’d been capable of caring for their numerous children, she’d had her siblings.
She nodded, ignoring Lorenzo’s warning growl as she took Cabbrieli’s outstretched hand and let him lead her to the dance floor.
Perhaps she should have said no, but being pulled into the circle of his arms as they swayed to a slow song was that coming-home feeling all over again. And she could sit here and be angry with herself for always falling into this trap. Or she could just enjoy herself.
“Do you like your work with Parisi?”
She pulled away slightly to look up at him with suspicion. “Why are you asking me this?”
“I thought I should get to know the person you are now.”
She still didn’t trust the question, or what he was up to, but it was hardly a secret. “Yes, I quite like it. Organizing events is satisfying, a good use of my skills, and it is very fulfilling that so many of us continue to work for Lorenzo. Do you like your work?”
“I do. I find analyzing businesses, profits, puzzling through how to make it all add up to more…it settles me.”
That made her smile. He’d always had an active and inquisitive mind. She was glad he had found a way to put that to use. Too many people from their old neighborhood had never found the means to use their positive attributes for good.
“Do you suppose your family is quietly plotting my murder?” he asked conversationally.
She glanced over her shoulder at where her family stood in a little group, all of them with dark expressions on their faces. “I doubt it’s quietly.”
His laugh rumbled through her. And that was as comforting as his arms. This man, for all his faults, was where she belonged. Still, she knew she could not do anything about that until he was ready.
“Evelina, we need to have a conversation,” he said, very seriously.
He sighed. “Evelina. Please.”
It was the please that eroded any resistance. Because he’d never been a man who politely asked for anything. Even when—or perhaps especially when—he’d been young.
So she let him lead her outside the ballroom. Into a sparkling evening in a little courtyard outside the venue filled with the smell of flowers. When she turned to face him, she met his gaze and something shivered through her.
Something way too close to hope.
She was still the most beautiful woman he’d ever beheld. Glowing in the dim light of this courtyard like she alone could light the world. She certainly lit his.
He had spent the past few days thinking. Really thinking. About who he was now and who he wanted to be. And what he’d really been doing when he’d forced himself back into her orbit. What he’d really wanted.
Her. Always her.
“I would like to…apologize.”
Everything. But that didn’t get to the heart of what he wanted. “The way I came to your brother’s the other night. I was angry, and…I behaved childishly with it. I had come to tell you…” But that was a lie. He had gone over there, frustrated and angry, wanting to poke at her until she gave him the attention he seemed to crave.
But it never ended right because it was not honest. Because it was only…his feelings he’d been paying attention to.
“I came to you these weeks ago thinking I would show you that you should have made a different decision. That I would see you and not feel all those old things, because look at me.” He held his arms wide in some kind of supplication he did not know how to fully give her. Only that he had to try. “But you… You are the same in so many ways. That core of you. You have always known who you are, who you loved. And I… You were right. The other night when you said I did not compromise. I did not bend. I did not look beyond myself. I did not know how, and I did not allow you to teach me. And for that, I am sorry.”
He expected…something. A smile. Perhaps a tear. If he was being truly honest with himself, there had been some hope she might throw her arms about him.
But she stood there. Still. Wary, even now.
“Evelina, you said you loved me still, and I know you do, because I love you still, no matter how I tried to leave it behind.” He took a few steps toward her, but she took them back, so he stopped. “I want to bend, Evelina. For you.”
She swallowed visibly but kept her hands clasped in front of her—a clear sign for him to keep his distance. “You expect me to believe you changed overnight because of one thing I said?” she asked, but her voice was rough.
He shook his head. “No. No, the changes have been happening all these years. In so many areas of my life I have grown, matured. Allowed myself to become a man—a better one than my father was, certainly a better one than I was at eighteen. But…” He thought about the past few days. How her words had haunted him. Wedged into all the things he knew but hadn’t wanted to face when it came to the past.
Because he had made decisions that had hurt them both, and he’d spent a long time blaming her for them. But only on the surface. Only so he could keep her in his mind and his heart, because if he’d accepted his mistakes, his missteps with her, he might have had to let her go.
And he’d never been able to. Never would be able to. She was his everything.
“You have always been the best of me, dolcezza. Encouraging me to be my best. You were the only example of love I have ever had, and for a very long time I wanted to blame you for the loss of that. But I understand now that it was my choice. My…refusal to bend. I do not want that to ruin what could be a second chance. You make me better, Evelina. I want another chance to make it right.”
She stared at him, hands still clasped. But her dark eyes were shiny. She was not unmoved, but she didn’t move for him. And after seconds of deep, thoughtful silence, she shook her head.
His heart nearly stopped.
“I did not know how to articulate what I needed then, but I do now. And it is not to be simply—”
But he understood where he’d misstepped this time. And he would correct it before even she could. “It is not to simply be something meant to be good for me. Yes, I understand. It is why I asked you if you liked your job. You seem…happy. You always have. With your family and with your work. I want you to be happy, Evelina. With or without me. You are…a touchstone. You are my heart, Evelina. Because you are good for me, but I was also good for you back then, too. And could be again.”
“Were you?” she asked, not quite as though she didn’t believe him, but in challenge.
“You have always been so careful. So worried to make things difficult for the people who care for you. But I brought you out of your shell. I took those worries away sometimes.” He smiled. “You know I did.”
Her mouth curved, ever so slightly. And he took that as a sign. A sign to press what little advantage he had.
“I love you, as you said, then and now, because for all the ways we’ve grown, the heart of you is the same as it ever was. You have more kindness inside you than anyone has a right to. Your dedication to the people you love has always made me jealous. That I could not be the only one. It has taken some time to realize…the love you carry is…limitless, I think.”
“Love is not finite, Cabbrieli.”
“I thought it was. I felt it was. Because it seemed as though my father’s was. His love for the drink overtook any love he had for me. Until there was nothing.”
She softened, moved for him, but he had to tell her everything first. He held up a hand.
“You asked how he was. He died, alone, three years ago. I thought because I had attained a certain amount of wealth that I was different, but I have not been. I have let…too many things keep love out. I do not want to do this anymore.”
And because he didn’t, he closed the distance between them. He held her gaze, took her hands, squeezed them tight. “Let me try again, dolcezza. I do not fail once I put my mind to something, and so I will not fail you. Not ever again.”
“We have a foundation of the past,” he insisted. “We cannot ignore that. But we start in a new place. On that foundation. To see what we might build. Because we are good for one another and can be again.”
She inhaled shakily but said nothing. So he said the words for the both of them.
“Build something with me, dolcezza. Evelina, amuri miu.” He kissed each hand, a strange desperation threading through him. Strange because it was full of love and hope. Not darkness and spite.
It had taken ten long years for him to learn his lessons. It had taken her, once again, to open his eyes, but now they were open. And so were his arms.
Which she stepped into now, lifting her mouth to his.
A kiss to build a life on.
And so they did.
If you loved Reunion with Her Sicilian Enemy, be sure to read Lorraine Hall's Hired For His Royal revenge.
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