Chapter Five

Seven fifteen, Sabrina thought as she looked at her watch. She promised Andre she would meet him and his client for supper at seven and she was not only late, but she hadn’t taken the time to freshen up. Her design was finished though, so there was some progress made that afternoon, but not the kind that would satisfy her future husband.

Sabrina pulled her purse out of the bottom drawer of her desk. She touched up her lipstick and ran a comb through her long dark hair before powdering her nose to dim the shine. Not horrible, she thought, but she could do with a fresh outfit. The one she was wearing was wrinkled from the long hours of sitting and kneeling at the feet of mannequins.

Fortunately, she had several designs that had just been turned into three-dimensional products. Even though she was not quite ready for the public to see them, she really didn’t have much of a choice. She hadn’t anticipated meeting Andre’s client for supper and hadn’t considered packing a bag when she left the flat that morning.

Hurrying into the room next door, she located a pantsuit she had finished a few hours prior. She slipped into it before looking briefly at her reflection in the long mirror on the wall. It was a basic black one-piece with a faint grey pinstripe running down the length of the material, white-collar, and pearl buttons. It was perfect for a night on the town, without appearing overdressed.

With her purse in hand, Sabrina gathered her keys and phone and headed out the door. She had just pulled her car into traffic when the phone began ringing. She didn’t have to look at it to know who it was.

“Hello dear,” she said sarcastically through the car’s speaker. “I know I’m late, but I’m stuck in traffic. I’ll be there as soon as I can.

“Stuck in traffic, or just forgot, as usual?” Andre accused from the other end.

“I said I’ll be there in a few minutes. Order me a salad and some wine.

She didn’t wait to hear his answer as she pressed the button on the steering column, disconnecting the phone and returning her car to silence. She drew a deep breath as she considered the rest of her evening. She knew Andre was angry and knew with no uncertainty, they were going to engage in another argument before the evening was through. Hopefully, he would be too busy trying to impress this client he was trying to win over to take the effort to scold her.

Sabrina glanced out the window to the road that would take her to her flat and fought the urge to veer the car in that direction. She was tired and wasn’t in the mood to sit through hours of Andre’s self-indulgent bragging, but she knew that would make the situation worse. If she didn’t make an appearance as she promised, it would be like throwing petrol on a fire, igniting his anger further. She was already heading into the third argument with the man in less than twenty-four hours. She didn’t need to make matters worse.

Pulling up to the valet, Sabrina slipped her Lexus into park as the young man opened the door. He looked at her with an appraising eye, winking seductively to her as she stood up. It was a look she was used to and one she appreciated at that particular moment. She hurried into the building, blushing at the similar looks shared by the other valets. She couldn’t help wondering if it was entirely due to her natural beauty, or the expensive car Creighton had bought her when she started her business five years ago.

Andre stood up as the waiter showed her to the table, offering her a brief kiss to her cheek. Sabrina turned to greet the client her fiancée was so eager for her to meet, and nearly fell over her chair. Giovanni Vigano stood next to her, tall and handsome, rugged in a strange seductive way that she had never seen. He had matured a great deal over the past five years, and she had to force herself to look away.

“Darling, this is Giovanni Vigano. He is looking for a photographer to do a publicity shoot for his family’s business in Italy. Signor Vigano, this is my fiancée Sabrina Ashford.

Giovanni bowed slightly and forced himself to smile as Sabrina sat down unceremoniously. She didn’t say a word as she reached for her glass of wine, swallowing a large mouthful to steady her nerves.

“It’s a great pleasure to meet you,” Giovanni said as he sat down beside her. His tone was thick and deep, sending chills of anticipation running down her spine.

“Signore Vigano was just commenting about the new construction he is doing at the old mansion in preparation for his daughter’s birth.

“My daughter is three and a half years old,” Giovanni answered sharply. “We will be moving back to Italy in a few weeks after I attend to some business in England.

“I’m sorry. Of course, that’s what you said. Sabrina and I were just discussing children this very afternoon. We’re getting married in a few weeks and we aren’t sure when we wanted to start a family.

“Waiting until you know the relationship will last is always a wise idea,” Giovanni answered.

“Is that what you did?” Sabrina asked in a quiet voice as her eyes met his.

“No, it’s not. I suppose that’s why I suggest it. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, as they say. There are times when it’s very difficult to distinguish between love and lust.

“Well I can assure you, Sabrina and I are in love,” Andre replied as he waived for the waiter. “May I suggest the boeuf bourguignon,” he continued looking at his menu. “The sole meunière is also quite good.

“I’m not very hungry,” Sabrina answered as the waiter refilled her glass. She lifted the glass and began guzzling the sweet liquid in hopes of calming her nerves.

“Darling, you need to eat something,” Andre said in a scolding tone. “I’m sure you didn’t bother to take the time for lunch.

“Actually, I had a late lunch,” she lied, setting her empty glass down trying to avoid looking at Giovanni. “Unfortunately, I still have several hours of work left before I can call it a day.

“You’re not leaving,” Andre said, more as a demand than a statement. “Signore Vigano is on a deadline and won’t be in France for long.

“That’s quite alright,” Giovanni said. “I completely understand if Miss Ashford can’t stay. The truth is, I have another appointment myself.

“But you haven’t eaten?” Andre said in a shocked expression.

“As I said, I have another appointment. I will call you in a few days and let you know of my decision.” Giovanni stood from the table and said something to the waiter that Sabrina didn’t hear.

“It’s been a pleasure meeting both of you,” he continued shaking Andre’s hand before turning to Sabrina and lifting hers. “I hope to see you again,” he said softly, then placed his warm lips to the back of her knuckles, sending waves of heated shivers down her spine.

“That was possibly the rudest thing you could have done,” Andre said a few moments later after the waiter and Giovanni left the table. “I have the opportunity of landing a very high-profile assignment that is sure to help skyrocket my career, and you treat him as if he’s a leper.

“I did no such thing,” Sabrina said, rubbing her temples softly. “If he wants you, he’ll hire you. Nothing I said or did will prevent that.

“I do not understand why you can’t accept the fact this hobby of yours will soon be a thing of the past. I expect you to place whatever interests you have, second to my desires. As my wife, you will be expected to support me, even if you don’t like the client I’m entertaining.

“I never said I didn’t like him,” she lied.

“You didn’t have to.” Andre paused his reprimand as the waiter returned with their appetizers. “I am going to call him tomorrow and arrange another meeting,” he said once they were alone again. “I’ll make some excuse for your behavior, and the next time we meet, I expect you to be at your best.

“Who do you think you’re talking to?” she asked in a low voice to avoid anyone overhearing them. “I’m not a child you can order about, and I will not be told whom I’m allowed to like or dislike.

Sabrina stood up and prepared to leave when he snatched her hand in a tight grip.

“Sit down before you make a scene,” he ordered.

“I’ve had enough for one night and I told you, I still have work to do on my hobby.

With a quick jerk of her wrist, she dislodged his hold before anyone around them really noticed what was happening. She stepped out the door and handed the ticket to the valet before looking behind her to make sure he wasn’t following.

Sabrina’s head was pounding, nearly as loud as her heart, as she waited under the covered partition for her car. Three arguments in one day. That had to be a record, even for them, she thought. The closer she came to making wedding plans with the man, the further away she pulled.

Deep down, she knew she wasn’t ready for any of this. They were complete opposites and had nothing in common whatsoever. How was she expected to spend the rest of her life with a man who refused to let her have a career, refused to allow her to have an opinion, denied her time with her family, and only wanted an heir as opposed to children?

The young valet arrived with her car, and smiled, as she slipped him a folded bill before climbing behind the steering wheel. So many questions echoed in her mind as she drove to Creighton’s flat in Versailles. A large glass of wine, a hot bath and nobody around to fight with was exactly what she wanted, after the kind of day she had had.

Those thoughts kept her company as she pulled into the underground parking stalls, then shut off her car. Next week was NHT’s company party. Perhaps a little time away from all the chaos and confusion would help her make up her mind as to which direction she wanted her future to take. She knew exactly what she wanted five years ago when she graduated University, but then everything fell apart in an instant. The horror of Silvano, the breakup with Giovanni, and now an engagement she wasn’t quite sure she wanted, had her feeling like her life was in a tailspin and she wasn’t sure how to pull out of it.

Sabrina stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for the top floor. A sensation of calm seemed to wash over her. Andre thought she was working, and he hated to come to her office. It was too cluttered with patterns, designs, and fabric swatches for him to find comfortable. He would never know she had lied to him. Nobody was there to answer the phones, and security wouldn’t allow anyone in the building after hours who wasn’t supposed to be there. She could easily put her phone on mute to make him aware of how angry she was. Perhaps after a few hours’ sleep, and a bottle of wine, she’d be in a better mood to deal with him.

The problem was, she knew Andre would never accept the blame. To his way of thinking, she was at fault for the evening’s failure. He was always blameless. The perfect gentleman, the perfect host…or so he thought. He would accuse her of acting like a simple-minded, ill-mannered farmer’s daughter, and demand she formally apologized to Giovanni. She knew what he was thinking. The Vigano name was famous in Europe. It was his key to launching his own career, and he would make life a living hell for her until she accepted the responsibility for his meal ticket leaving before he could get a contract signed.

Sabrina left the lift and unlocked the door to the luxurious flat when the phone on the kitchen counter began ringing. She refused to answer it as she locked the door and placed her purse and keys on the counter. As much as she wanted to scream at Andre, she wanted privacy more. She poured herself the promised glass of wine and went into one of the three guest bedrooms where she had been sleeping, then she quickly undressed. She slipped on her satin robe and moved into the bathroom, then started filling the tub with steaming hot water. After pouring a generous amount of lavender-scented oil into the water, she sat on the side of the tub to wait for it to fill, sipping her wine.

As the scented steam began to fill the bathroom, Sabrina began to feel the tension of the day slowly slip away. She removed her robe, pulled her hair on top of her head then turned off the faucet, and stepped into the tub. The water was hotter than she normally liked it, but not so hot she couldn’t adjust. Within seconds she was shrouded beneath the surface, the jets spraying streams of bubbles along her slender body, pulling the last remnants of the day from her muscles.

Sabrina closed her eyes and allowed herself to fall into the luxury of her surroundings. The expensive flat was enough to transport her into another world, taking her back over the years to happier times. She loved this place as a young woman growing up but lately hadn’t spent much time enjoying all the benefits it had to offer. It had always been the one place, besides Creighton’s yacht, where she would allow herself the feeling of a privileged life.

Shopping trips and laughter were a common everyday occurrence back then. Family dinners and outings occupied every waking hour. Staying up until midnight laughing with Irena, dreaming of the future and texting Giovanni until her fingers were sore, were permanent images in her mind. Life was simpler back then. There were no fears of kidnapping, guns or arrogant fiancées to interfere with the joy and fun. The only concern she had, was what shoes to wear with her new clothes.

With a heavy sigh, she swallowed a large mouthful of her wine. She couldn’t remember the last time she laughed, much less had fun. Her dream of being a fashion designer had come to greet her, with orders pouring in from all over the world, but she just wasn’t as happy as she once thought she would be. It wasn’t the work or the worries of manufacturing the outfits in time to fill the orders, that bothered her. It was more life itself. Nothing had turned out the way she had anticipated it would.

After her ordeal with Silvano and Bachmeier, Sabrina found it difficult to get out of bed, much less forge any dreams. Depression and fear took hold of her until she was a mere shell of her former life. It took several weeks before she felt it was safe to leave the house again.

Creighton offered her his flat and an office at New Hope’s French location, where she could work on her designs and rebuild her shattered life. He had even backed her first three fashion shows and given her everything she needed to get started. Instantly, people wanted her designs. Her name may not have been commonplace at that time, but it was now, and she was proud of that.

As time went by, she was able to forget about Giovanni and move on with her life, even to the point of dating again. Andre was not the first man she went out with, but he had been the last. She met him two years after moving to France. At first, he seemed romantic, chivalrous, and cavalier. She couldn’t wait to see him and found her heart fluttering whenever he called. They were feelings she hadn’t had for a long time and wasn’t sure if she would ever feel again.

Andre had asked her multiple times over the period of a year to marry him, but she always refused. Then news of Giovanni’s marriage made the local gossip columns. She tried to ignore the rumors, but soon the heartache became unbearable, and she realized he had moved on with his life, without her. She accepted Andre’s proposal the following weekend, hoping she would find her own happiness.

That was three years ago and there wasn’t a day that had gone by that she didn’t think of changing her mind. But she made a commitment and she would not let her family down. When Andre finally insisted, they set a date, she agreed reluctantly. They were to be married at the end of summer. She had managed to push off making preparations, but she knew it wouldn’t be long before her time was up. His mother was already asking for her opinion on the arrangements, but Sabrina knew when all was said and done, the old woman would undoubtedly change them.

Gwyn Marez was very much like her son; domineering and arrogant. She hated the idea that Sabrina was the daughter of a simple farmer. The fact she was the younger sister of Creighton Ashford outshined her birthright and added a prestigious flare to the festivities. Gwyn was certain, Creighton’s name would offer a considerable amount of notoriety for her son. According to the Widow Marez, a name was everything, and the bigger the better.

As her only child, Andre would naturally be the center of attention. His mother was already hard at work making certain the media was aware of his choice of brides. It was her way of showing her country club friends, that he had chosen a suitable mate for his social position. Gwyn was determined to make their nuptials the best Europe had seen in years, and one everyone would remember. Sabrina felt as if she were a participant, merely out of convenience. After all, a man had to have a wife for the event to be considered a wedding.

The phone began to ring again, and Sabrina sighed, reaching behind her to the bathroom door and swinging it hard enough to slam it shut. She took another drink of her wine before setting the empty glass aside. She didn’t want to talk to anyone, especially Andre. She didn’t want to argue or yell. She just wanted to be alone.

After warming the water up once again, she sunk down beneath the steam and closed her eyes. Memories of Giovanni fought their way into her mind and she unwillingly surrendered to them. A smile curved her lips as she thought of the times they came to this very flat between breaks at school, unknown by its owner or their families. In fact, it was here, after soaking together in this very tub, that they had become lovers.

Visions of romantic suppers and long walks along the Seine, drifted around her as she breathed in the warm fragrance of the bathroom. They had been the perfect couple. Everyone who knew them thought they would be married by now, with at least one child…and not an heir. She fought the giggle that threatened to steal her composure at the thought of their love life, and the awkward way they moved past the first stages of intercourse.

Susan Griffin, Sabrina’s best friend at Oxford, had dragged her to what she called a specialty party, where she was subjected to an eye-opening array of devices and toys to stimulate sexual intimacy. Sabrina was horrified at first but left with a booklet that described the items being sold. After a few weeks of looking through the pages, Giovanni talked her into purchasing her first ever vibrator. She was so embarrassed when it arrived. She was horrified that her friend would find it and tease her about it, or worse yet, tell her parents she had it. She hid it under her shoes in the closet, unopened, for two weeks until summer break.

The night before Sabrina was scheduled to return home, Giovanni found the box while helping her pack, and unwrapped it. With her roommates already gone for the summer, they were able to try out the device and learn how to use it, which they did…for hours. She never knew there could be such pleasure in another person’s touch, as with Giovanni. The following year was their last at University and they managed to find a flat near campus they could share. Susan covered for her and told her parents she was living with Sabrina, and Giovanni did likewise with the Don, making him think he was sharing a flat with a friend - a male friend.

Within a few weeks, Sabrina had managed to purchase quite a selection of items from the tattered old catalog, and she and Giovanni were having more fun than she could imagine two people could. School was always a top priority, but their evenings were spent exploring the internet for ideas on how to use the whip and handcuffs. She remembered the first time they tried to use the anal beads. It was painful and awkward, but they managed to figure it out after trial and error. It became one of their favorite toys.

Sabrina jumped as the phone rang a third time, interrupting her lustful thoughts and bringing her out of the tub in a flurry of waves. She was angry. More for being interrupted, than the thought of fighting with Andre again. She wrapped the towel around her torso and stormed out into the kitchen, wet and dripping on the floor.

“What is it?” she snapped in the receiver as she yanked it from the wall.

“Sabrina? Are you alright?” Sandra asked with concern echoing in her voice.

“Yes,” Sabrina sighed, reigning in her irritation. “I’m sorry. I was in the tub and the blasted phone wouldn’t quit ringing.

“I’m sorry. I only called this one time. If you’re busy, I can call back.

“No, that’s fine. I’m sorry I snapped at you. What’s up?

Sabrina glanced down at the floor and rolled her eyes. The marble tile had puddles of lavender water from where she stepped, and the carpet leading out of the bathroom revealed wet footprints in the thick nap.

“Creighton wanted to know if you would be willing to come home this weekend. He wanted to throw a surprise birthday party for your father, and with everything going on next week, we thought this would be perfect timing. He’ll never suspect it. Irena and Peter are coming home, and Andrew will be there with Cathy. We’ll take care of all the food and all the arrangements, and you can bring Andre.

“I think he’s busy this weekend,” she lied. “But I will be happy to come. I need a break for a couple of days.

“That’s great!” Sandra shouted, causing Sabrina to pull the phone away from her ear. “I know Brandon would love to see you. He’s been asking about you for weeks, and Grace is growing so fast, you’ll never recognize her. You’ve missed so much.

“I know and I’m sorry, but once the fall show is over, I’ll have more free time, so I can visit.

“We’d all like that. Then we’ll see you Saturday?” Sandra asked hopefully.

“Yes, count me in.

Sabrina smiled into the phone, listening to the deep tone of her brother in the background.

“Creighton said if you don’t come home, he’ll send Clark to pick you up.

“Tell him it won’t be necessary,” she laughed. “I will be there with bells on.

They spoke for a few minutes longer until the phone beeped to alert Sabrina of an incoming call. She told her sister-in-law goodbye then pressed the button on the receiver, switching to the new call. She felt so much better after speaking with Sandra, that she was sure she had the energy to deal with Andre.

“Hello,” she began with a deep breath.

“Sabrina,” the male voice said on the other end. “It’s Giovanni. Please don’t hang up,” he continued quickly. “I just want to talk. I need to apologize for this evening. I had no idea Andre Marez was your fiancée. If I had, I wouldn’t have agreed to meet him for supper.

“Would it have made a difference with your decision to hire him?” she asked, her tone stiff but not as rude as she had expected it to be.

“Not really. I need a good photographer and his name came up. I would have interviewed him regardless.

“Then you have nothing to apologize for. Thank you for calling,” she said in an attempt to disconnect.

“Wait. Please don’t hang up,” he said again. “I really want to talk to you. It’s been a long time.

“Six years,” she clarified, but not quite certain why.

“How have you been? I saw the newspaper article about your show. Congratulations. Everyone I’ve met is talking about it. You’ve accomplished exactly what you set out to do. You’re a fashion designer and a very good one. I saw your designs in the article. They look great.

“Thank you. I’ve worked very hard to get where I am, and I’m really excited about the progress,” she told him honestly. “I have buyers in three countries placing orders, and two more negotiating with my assistant. By the end of this season, I’ll have sold fifty-two designs.

“That’s incredible. I’m so proud of you. You should be about ready to open your own office soon.

“Oh, I have one. I’ve been using my brother’s building up until last week, but I just bought my own. It’s not very big, but it’s enough for me to work in, and there’s room for all my designs and my assistants. We’ll move in once the interior is finished, which should be in a month or two.

“And then what?” he asked, his tone relaxed and comfortable as if speaking with an old friend, rather than an estranged lover.

“I’ve got another show in a few weeks to announce the new fall line, and then I’ll start the winter selections. Fortunately, I have enough ideas for all of them with nearly a dozen new drawings in the works. My assistant is trying to get me to start a line of shoes, but I’m not quite ready for that.

“As I recall, you had a foot fetish. I’m surprised you’d even consider doing a line of shoes.

Sabrina laughed as she remembered the many times he spent tickling her feet and the way he played with them during sex. Then without warning the tension was back on both sides.

“Well,” she said awkwardly. “I’d better go. I have a lot to do in the morning and I’m going home on Saturday, so I’ve got to pack.

“Yeah…right…of course,” he stammered. “Well, it’s been really great talking with you. Maybe we’ll see each other again.

“Yeah, sure, why not. Well, goodbye,” she said hanging up the phone as a sad feeling began to seep into her veins.

Sabrina turned and padded quietly back into the bathroom where she drained the tub and looked in the mirror. Much to her surprise, there were tears running down her cheeks. Five minutes talking with the man and years of confusion seemed to melt away.

She turned off the light and walked into her bedroom, moving to the bed. She lifted the pillow he once laid his head and buried her face in it as she spread out across the mattress. She felt alone and sad and was actually missing his embrace. For the first time in many long years, Sabrina allowed herself to shed the tears of her heartache, as she sobbed uncontrollably into the pillow until sleep overtook her.

Sandra listened to the click of the phone and the man on the other end whisper a quiet, I love you before the line went dead. She smiled as she hung up the receiver. Sabrina hadn’t realized she didn’t hang up after their conversation but rather put them on a three-way call, allowing her to act as an unknown observer to the private conversation.

She smiled as she stood up and shut off the living room light, then headed toward the stairs. The two were still in love. She was certain of that now, and Sabrina never once mentioned her marriage, which was supposed to take place between fashion shows. But what was this about them meeting tonight? Could it be the arrogant Andre Marez had unknowingly reunited the lovers?

The smile remained on Sandra’s face as she checked on Brandon and Grace, pulling the blankets back up across their sleeping bodies and kissing them goodnight, before joining her waiting husband. Perhaps she didn’t have to try as hard as she thought to get those two back into each other’s arms. Perhaps they had already made the first move without her.

Sabrina was busy at work, by the time Andre arrived the next day. He looked as irritated as he had the night before, but she was too preoccupied to worry about it. After crying herself to sleep, she awoke with her alarm, feeling refreshed and eager to face the day. Something about speaking with Giovanni last night made her feel stronger and more like her old self.

“What do you have to say for yourself?” Andre asked, pulling her away from the gown she was working on and forcing her to face him.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she answered calmly.

“You’re not even going to acknowledge the deplorable way you behaved last night at supper?

“Why should I? I didn’t do anything wrong.

“You were rude to my guest, you embarrassed me by leaving me at the restaurant alone, and then you refused to answer your cell all evening. I’m sure you weren’t here until this morning, though the way you look you most certainly could have been.

“First off, I was not rude, you were. And if you were embarrassed, then maybe you should have acted a little nicer to me, particularly in public when you’re so eager to make a good impression on anyone who looks your way. Secondly, what’s wrong with the way I look?

“You look like you’ve just woken up. Your hair is a mess and your clothes are wrinkled. Surely, you could take five minutes to make yourself presentable.

“I would have if I had a reason to, but as it is I’m busy working on my designs for the show, and if my clothes are wrinkled it’s because I’ve been on the floor hemming dresses most of the morning.

“That’s enough,” he growled softly as he released his hold on her and paced a few steps away. “I’m telling Mother to start the arrangements without you. Once you’re my wife and out of all of this,” he said waving his hand to the bolts of fabric and the stacks of boxes, “maybe then you’ll start behaving as a proper wife should. I’ll tell her we’ll be ready to marry by the end of the month.

“That’s impossible,” Sabrina gasped. “I have orders to fill and another season to prepare for. I can’t possibly arrange any time off for a weekend, much less a wedding.

“There won’t be any next season, and you will arrange for the time. My mother is giving us a two-month trip abroad as a wedding gift, so you’ll be quitting this nonsense immediately.

“I will not,” she snapped, bringing his eyes to stare at her with disbelief. “This is my career and I have a commitment to keep. I will not back out of it. There’s far too much at stake if I do. Not just my reputation, but that of my brother’s. He put his neck out for me and I won’t let him down.

“You have a commitment to me too, or have you forgotten that? I come before this so-called career, and as for your brother, I’m sure the great Creighton Ashford will just buy his way out of a bad situation as he always has. I’m calling Mother today and I’ll expect you to be available to meet with her this weekend.

“I can’t, I’m going home,” she said with a heavy sigh to contain her anger. “It’s my father’s birthday and my family is having a surprise party.

“I’m quite certain they will understand when you tell them you have a wedding to plan. It’s not like you won’t be spending the better part of a week with them soon enough. This weekend belongs to us and our preparations. Mother will be upset if you back out on her.

With that said, Andre turned and left the room, leaving a stunned Sabrina and her assistant to stare after him. She fought the tears from her eyes as she looked away from the door. Ten minutes ago, she felt like she could take on the world and now she felt lower than the stomach of a slug. How was she going to explain to her family she was going to have to cancel - again?

“I know this is none of my business,” Marie said, as she stepped up behind her and laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, “but if it were me, I’d keep my plans. Your family is expecting you and his mother doesn’t even know anything about the arrangements. That makes your family first in line for your attention.

“I’d better not,” she said sadly. “I don’t want to cause any more problems.

“To hell with the problems,” Marie said boldly. “You’ve turned your family down time and again, and for what? For him to tell you what a waste of time your hobby is. You have the world looking at you, waiting for your next show. Are you going to throw everything you’ve worked so hard for away, just because of a self-centered, egotistical…”

“Hello?” a man’s voice called out from the outer office.

“Man,” Marie finished as Giovanni stepped through the door.

He removed his sunglasses to adjust to the dimmer lighting and smiled at the two women who stared at him blankly. Marie nearly choked as she tried to smile, blushing as he looked at her.

“Giovanni,” Sabrina whispered.

“Am I interrupting anything?” he asked with a raised eyebrow as he looked around the room, spotting the open bottle of wine on the desk.

“Oh no, not at all,” Marie answered. “I have work in my office to do. I’ll just leave you two alone.

She passed by the handsome man and quickly left the room, closing the door behind her.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt anything important,” he said, slipping his glasses into the V neck of his green pullover shirt.

Sabrina had to swallow hard in order to speak again. The man in front of her looked far more mature and far more inviting than the young boy she last saw six years ago. He had filled out nicely, turning his youthful body into a firm, muscular build. She had to admit, he was always handsome, but with his shoulder-length hair and broad shoulders, he appeared rugged and seductive.

“Hello?” he said again, bringing Sabrina out of her momentary lapse of attention.

“I’m sorry,” she said with a blush. “I…what did you say?

“I asked if I was interrupting you.

“No, not at all,” she answered moving back to the dress she had spent the morning working on, hoping to hide her blush.

“Is this one of your new designs?” he asked, moving across the space to stand next to her.

“Yes, but it isn’t finished,” she answered him, feeling slightly dizzy.

He was so close she could feel the heat rising off his bare forearms and the musky scent of his cologne made her head spin.

“Well, it’s beautiful. I like the color. Midnight blue always looked good on you.

“It’s not for me, it’s for my new line, though I’m not sure now if I’ll be able to complete it.

“Why not? It’s wonderful. The world will love it. You’ll sell a million of them the first week.

“I have something personal that may interfere with my original plans.

Why didn’t she tell him her fiancée was insisting on getting married right away? Why did she feel suddenly embarrassed of being engaged to another man?

“That would be a shame,” he answered softly. “Talent like yours should not be wasted for any reason. When you have a gift and you don’t acknowledge it, then you’ll always regret not exploring it to the fullest extent.

“My mother always says that,” she smiled as she turned to look at him.

“I know,” he said tipping her chin up with his forefinger. “That’s where I learned it.

He brushed the dust off her cheek with his thumb, capturing her blue eyes with his own chocolate brown ones.

“You should always embrace life as it comes to you, and never hide from it, regardless of what others may think,” he continued in a soft, quiet tone as he leaned in to brush her lips gently with his own.

“Life happens only once,” he whispered. “Make sure it happens the way you dream.

Sabrina closed her eyes, eager to feel his arms around her, silently begging him to kiss her, but when she opened them again, he was walking away. She couldn’t believe it. He didn’t kiss her. He didn’t take her in his arms. He had the chance and he let it slip through his fingers. Why the hell didn’t he kiss her?

“Wait,” she said quickly as she hurried toward him on shaking legs.

Giovanni turned and looked at her, his face void of emotion as she reached out to touch his arm, then pulled her hand back as if she had been scalded with hot water.

“Why…did you come here?” she asked hesitantly.

“I spoke with Creighton earlier and he said you were going home this weekend,” he said in a strange, even tone. “He invited me to your father’s party, and since I have to return to England anyway, I was going to see if you wanted some company, but I saw your boyfriend leaving. He told me you were busy planning your wedding. Congratulations. I hope it works out the way you want.

He turned and opened the door walking back into the main office and nodding to Marie as he continued toward the exit.

“I’m still going,” she shouted after him as she found her feet hastily moving toward him once again. “I’m keeping my plans to see my family this weekend.

“You are?” he asked in a surprised voice.

“I hate traveling alone. If you still want to join me, I’d be happy for the company.

What are you doing? she asked herself. Andre was going to be pissed.

“I’ll pick you up tomorrow afternoon,” he said with a small smile. “Say two o’clock. Here?

“Yes, great, thank you,” she said in short little breaths.

Giovanni nodded once again then left, slipping his dark glasses across his eyes as he stepped out into the sunshine and disappeared.

“Well played,” Marie approved, hurrying to her side. “I’m proud of you. Now, tell me everything. Who is that incredible guy and how come you’re not with him instead of bone-head?

“Bone-head?” Sabrina said, actually laughing for the first time in a very long time.

“What else would you call him? He’s an idiot and he needs to find the pavement with his arse.

“Let’s get back to work. I have a lot to do before tomorrow.

They went back to work on the dress, though Giovanni stayed in the forefront of her mind the rest of the day. Even when Andre called to say his mother had plans with her church group that weekend and couldn’t spare the time to start their wedding plans, her mood didn’t alter. She was happy and oddly excited, and eager to see the man she had sworn never to let back into her life again. She knew in her heart this weekend was going to be much more pleasant than she had originally thought. Now, all she had to do was figure out an excuse to slip away from Andre without getting caught with another man.

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