She watched him walk away and wondered how he managed to part the crowd with such ease. It was as if they knew they should defer to him. Bella wondered if his tough upbringing had instilled him with that quality. She couldn’t deny that he fascinated her. She wanted to know more about him. She wasn’t in love with him and never would be, but she cared about him far more than she’d planned. She wasn’t sure how that had happened.
A moment later, Michael appeared, carrying a plateful of the most decadent dessert Bella had even seen in her life. She looked at him and the chocolate and wondered if he had any idea how much he had in common with that treat. Decadent and forbidden, both could cause a woman to pay for indulging.
He approached her and lifted a spoonful to her lips. “Tell me what you think of it,” he said.
A ccepting the dare in his gaze, but telling herself it wasn’t at all significant, Bella opened her mouth and slowly savored a bite of the decadent dessert. “Now, that is good,” she said, reaching for the spoon. “Really good.”
Michael playfully pulled the spoon from her reach. “Not so fast.”She met his gaze and scowled at him. “No teasing allowed.”
“That’s the pot calling the kettle black. You’re a walking tease.”
She fought his flattery. After all, it wasn’t necessary given their arrangement. “Hand over the chocolate and no one will get hurt,” she threatened.
He chuckled and lifted the spoon to her mouth again. She took it, but a familiar face shot into view. The chocolate stuck in her throat as she stared into her ex-fiancé’s eyes.
“Bella?” Stephen said, clearly shocked to see her at such an event. His new fiancée came into Bella’s view and the two wound through the crowd.
Her stomach gave a vicious turn.
“Bella, what are you doing here?” Stephen asked, then looked at Michael and gave a double take. “Michael Medici,” he said.
Britney smiled broadly. “Michael, it’s great to see you again. We met a couple years ago at the heart disease charity dinner.”
Michael nodded and glanced at Stephen. “And this is?”
“Stephen, my fiancé.” She giggled. “We’ve set the date for our wedding in August. We would love for you to come. You know my father thinks so highly of you.”
“Send him my best,” Michael said. “How do you know Bella?”
“I could ask the same,” Stephen said, glancing from the chocolate dessert in Michael’s hand to Bella.
Bella felt a rush of self-consciousness. “Stephen and I met in college.”
“Ah,” Michael said and turned to Steven. “Bella and I met through business.”
“Really?” Stephen said. “Bella and business?”
“I’ve been working with my aunt in her spa.”
“Oh, I thought she had some problems…” Stephen said, faltering under Michael’s hard gaze.
“She did, but the business is now booming,” Michael said. “Best wishes on your marriage. Don’t let us keep you from the event.” His dismissive tone quickly sent the couple on their way.
“Thank you very much,” Britney said.
As soon as they left, Michael turned to Bella. “What’s the real story about Stephen?”
She swallowed over the bitterness in the back of her throat. “Water over the bridge, under the dam, whatever. Old news. I wonder what the next kind of wine will be,” she said, skirting his gaze. “Let’s go—”
Michael caught her hand. “Bella, I have excellent instincts and my instincts tell me you’re holding out on me.”
“Well, it’s not the best kind of story for this venue. Can we please just shelve this and enjoy the rest of the evening?” she asked.
“The question is can you shelve it?”
“Since this is probably the only time I’ll be at The Essex House, I’m going to give it a damn good try,” she said.
A sliver of approval shot through his dark eyes. “Okay. Let’s see about that wine.”
Michael successfully kept Bella away from Britney and Stephen. It wasn’t difficult. The Essex House was packed. He noticed men taking long glances at Bella throughout the evening. He also noticed that Bella didn’t notice. She was too busy taking in her surroundings, reading the biographies of the ancestors who’d built and occupied the house.
She sipped wine and sampled little bites of the desserts, but her whole demeanor seemed muted since their interaction with Stephen. Again, he wondered about the two of them. He knew they’d been lovers and the knowledge made him burn with surprising jealousy. Michael had never thought of himself as the possessive type. He couldn’t recall any other woman who’d inspired the hot coal of jealousy in his gut.