Celeste smoothed the fabric of her dress. Her gown hugged her body in all the right places. The silk felt luscious against her skin. The gardens twinkled under the strand lighting as she walked through row after row of flowers, taking in their unique smells and blossoms. Her hair was massed on top of her head with a select few tendrils hanging down, framing her face. She had spent the better part of the afternoon at the salon with Mara perfecting their looks. Celeste felt like a princess at these affairs no matter how much she loathed wasting an entire night with the stiff crowds of the upper crust. She was used to it, yes, but that didn’t mean she wouldn’t rather be elsewhere.
At twenty, she wanted to be at a pub with Matteo and Mara, singing karaoke and not caring if her shoulders were squared, which utensil to use or whether or not she was behaving in a ladylike manner. She wanted to live in the moment. Be whoever she felt like that evening. Instead, she was here, at the Garden Gala, where her parents were raising money for new pharmaceutical research. FogPharm was one of the leading research facilities in the world. Her parents, both scientists, were passionate about their work and their company. She had been required to attend these lavish parties since she’d turned sixteen.
She was thinking about her teenage years when he walked into the gala like he was walking the red carpet. Every woman in the room stopped and noticed him, no doubt hoping they’d be the one to catch his eye. Just the sight of him across the open space sent Celeste’s heart beating rapid-fire. He flashed a smile here and there as he walked. Smirking, showing a dimple, he shook hands with all the right people.
Then, just five minutes later, she watched as he grabbed a champagne flute and chugged the contents in an empty corner of the garden. Suddenly, he looked miserable. She read his tension in the tight, bunched line of his shoulders. Although she wanted to be out with friends having a good time rather than here because it was expected of her, she wondered how anyone choosing to be here could be tense at this event eluded her. Lights twinkled. Music played. Drinks flowed. It was magical here. Late spring in Paris offered nothing less.
Celeste was not short by any standard, but from what she could tell the man stood at least six inches taller than her five-foot-eight-in-heels height. His broad shoulders were encased in an expensive dove gray suit that tapered down to narrow hips. His dirty blond hair hung mussed, tucked behind his ears. Tan and lean and athletic, his body was damn near perfect looking with clothes on. She could only wonder what it looked like without them. Wealth, authority and virility rolled off him in great waves. His strong jaw added to the overall appeal. Green eyes landed on hers and she froze in her spot. The light captured them, making them appear to twinkle. Her breath faltered and heat warmed her cheeks. She darted her eyes to the floor quickly after she realized she was blatantly staring at the handsome stranger.
“He’s a looker,” Mara pretend-panted in her ear. Celeste jumped at the sudden break in the spell of the evening. “Didn’t mean to scare you, Cece.” Mara’s arm linked through Celeste’s at the elbow as she laughed.
“I was just…”
“Fantasizing. Like every other straight gal in this place,” Mara cut her off. Celeste slumped her shoulders as the truth of her friend’s statement washed over her. She was pretty, but there were far more attractive women here tonight to catch his eye. Plus, she wasn’t looking. She had two more years left at University and a career to map out.
“Who is he?” Celeste asked.
“That happens to be the Gabriel Fontaine,” Mara answered.
“The biochemist?” she squeaked. She’d wondered about him. Her parents had made him an offer to work for them upon his finishing graduate school. They were still waiting on an answer three months later. He was one of the most coveted up-and-comers in the biochemistry field.
“The very one.”
“I thought he’d look older and less hot. Aren’t biochemists supposed to be extra nerdy and unattractive?” Celeste joked.
“They are. He defies logic.” Mara laughed. “Come on, we need drinks!” Mara tugged on Celeste until she finally moved her feet. The hairs on the back of her neck stood at attention as they made their way to the bar. She felt as if she was being watched and she blushed thinking about whom it might be. She could feel his green-eyed gaze burning into her back.
“How’re your parents?” Mara asked. The two of them had been friends since high school. The best of friends. Mara came from an affluent background like she did. The pressures and perks were understood without words. Mara’s penchant for being somewhat of a wild child irked her parents but without her, Celeste would have drowned under the pressure of life long ago. Her parents loved her. They did, but the world they existed in was wrought with discipline, expectations and beliefs that were ironclad from years of breeding. They showered her with love and encouragement, yet that encouragement always seemed to come with a price.
“At table six,” Celeste said.
“Ahh, so are mine.” Mara nodded.
“You’d better behave, Mara. They’ll never let you room with me if you cause a scene again.”
Mara’s last stunt had sent both sets of parents over the edge. She’d streaked through campus last semester drunk. Her parents had threatened pulling her from school until she could learn how to behave appropriately. Her response to the situation hadn’t helped any: ‘If by behave, you mean find myself a suitable husband, then no thank you.’ We’d laughed and laughed, huddled in our dorm room together over their reaction. Their blood-drained faces, her mother’s gasp, her father’s look of disdain. It had shaken them both, and over the summer Mara had been nothing short of a model of finance-driven breeding. She had no choice.
“Oh, shut it, Cece. I’ll behave.” Mara lifted her wine glass and drained it as Celeste shook her head and giggled. “Where is Matteo?” Mara asked, drawing out his name to make a point. Celeste blushed, knowing that in another life, maybe Matteo and she would be free to explore their budding feelings for each other.
“He’s there,” she answered, pointing across the dance floor. Matteo, tall dark and brutally handsome, made his way through the crowd, offering up appetizers. She sighed at the unfairness of life. How some could be viewed as inconsequential simply because of their bank balance. How the world was built on dreams and iron and greed. Matteo was brilliant, handsome and going to make a name for himself. She knew it. She had unwavering faith in him.
“If you’re not going to take advantage of that fine work of art, I will.” Mara giggled. Matteo was absolutely beautiful. She slapped Mara’s arm playfully and laughed alongside her friend. The three of them were like three peas in a pod. It was rare that they spent longer than a day or two without seeing each other.
“He’s too important to me to do that. Have at it,” Celeste said. She, above all else, valued Matteo’s friendship. They’d met in their Intro to Horticulture class in their freshman year of university and instantly formed a bond, a bond that neither of them seemed willing to take further than friendship. It was odd in a way. They held hands when they explored the campus, he picked her up from parties when she’d had too much to drink, and sometimes they shared a bed, to sleep only, simply to ward off anyone else from doing so. They talked about their dreams, their goals, and their differences. He dated and she dated and there was no jealousy harbored between them. It just… was what it was. There was an understanding.
She looked to him now. His nose was perfectly straight, and his jaw was well defined. His lips were perfection. Mara winked at Matteo from across the floor and they both laughed when he dramatically winked back.
“Excuse me. What are you drinking?” It was a deep, lush male voice. Mara’s head whipped around and her jaw dropped. Using her index finger, Celeste pushed Mara’s chin up until her mouth closed again and suppressed a chuckle. Turning, she noticed the body behind the voice.
“Who were you directing that question to?” she asked. Mara snorted and started to back away. Celeste grabbed Mara’s wrist to hold her in place.
“I think your friend is quite observant.” He laughed as Mara released herself from Celeste’s grip and moved another step away.
“Me then?” she asked, smiling as heat warmed her body from her belly up.
“Yes. You,” he confirmed.
“White wine spritzer. But, as you can see, my glass is half full.”
“Witty.” He grinned, flashing her a row of dazzling white teeth.
“Perhaps.” She felt a flutter in her belly. What was his angle here? She tried to work it out as he took a step closer to her.
“I’m not sure we’ve met. Gabriel,” he said.
“The biochemist with the inflated ego,” she returned coyly. His reputation was no secret. He was said to be brilliant in his field and popular with the ladies, and was modest about neither. A bachelor at heart.
“Ah, so you’ve heard of me,” he laughed. It was a deep, carefree sound that resonated. She instantly liked it.
“Celeste Fogarty.” She extended her free hand to him. He took it, gently but firmly, and turned it over before placing a kiss on the inside of her wrist. A small move, bold in its intimacy, but not outright inappropriate. If she could stop the damn butterflies demanding to break free from her belly she could stop to analyze the moment.
“Fogarty…” he murmured. “Julian and Roberta’s daughter?”
“The very one,” she answered. He let his eyes roam her form—top to toe. His perusal made her squirm. She’d never been so blatantly stared at before. His gaze was appreciative though, not critical.
“I can see it now,” he said finally.
Celeste laughed. She truly looked nothing like her parents. Her mother’s blond hair and blue eyes were a far cry from her auburn locks and hazel eyes. Her mother was petite, while she was more athletically built. Her father, also blond, albeit a darker shade than her mother’s, was fit, but stocky. They loved to say she got her height, hazel eyes and brunette coloring from her grandparents. Celeste couldn’t be sure though, as she’d never met either set. Both were deceased by the time she was six and had never bothered to come to France from the States to visit.
“I hate it when people say that.”
“It was rather lame.” He shrugged. He looked to table six, where her parents were seated, and then back to her. “And, I suppose, not exactly true.” Celeste shook her head and grinned at him.
“So, Gabriel, what can I do for you?” she asked, feeling bold. From the corner of her eye she caught Mara and Matteo watching her. Suddenly she felt as if she were betraying them somehow. Leaving them out. They would bombard her with questions later tonight, no doubt.
“Épouse-moi,” Marry me, he said. Celeste felt her brows lift and her eyes grow wide.
“Very funny. I’ve only just met you!” she laughed. What a strange thing to say, she thought.
“What does that have to do with anything?” He grinned at her.
“Everything!” she replied, raising her hands in the air. His grin widened. She couldn’t help but be swept up in his dimpled smile. His carefree expressions were mesmerizing. Hell, everything thus far was mesmerizing about him.
“I’ll ask you every day until I wear you down and the only logical answer becomes yes.”
“You’re crazy,” she answered, snorting. She slapped a hand over her mouth and nose, embarrassed that she’d snorted out loud. Gabriel didn’t seem to notice or mind as he continued on.
“I’m many things. Taken by you. Frappe.” Smitten. The French word rolled off his tongue the way calm water lapped a shoreline. Provocatively. She loved the way the language here sounded. She loved listening to it. Matteo teased her love of languages by speaking his native Italian to her. Mara always joked that anytime a man spoke a foreign language, Celeste became putty their hands. Mostly, it was true. She could close her eyes and get lost in the gentle lilts and smooth sounding words of either French or Italian.
“That’s bold,” she scoffed, trying to remain unaffected by his words.
“No. Definitely,” she stated, chin raised.
“Okay, it is, but I know what I want.” Such conviction. Such allure. Curiosity to know if he was serious bloomed in her.
“What about next month? Next year? Twenty years from now?” she quizzed, deciding to play along. Her parents, still at their table, caught her eye, nodding their approval. Of course.
“Je vous veux.” I’ll want you, he answered. The conviction in his voice made her heart slam against her ribs.
“I can’t take you seriously right now, this is preposterous.” She laughed at the handsome stranger before stepping backward a step. He caught her wrist, stopping her movement. The rugged pad of his thumb grazed the delicate underside of her skin. Fire bloomed in her belly, swelling upward through her chest, warming her cheeks and surely staining them an obvious pink. Her eyes snapped to his.
“Settle for a dance with me then?” His eyes, stormy and serious, captivated her, kept her rooted in her spot. “Celeste, s’il vous plaît, juste une danse?” Just one dance. That damned French again, so fluid. So deceptively seductive. Her name sounded exotic they way he drew out the ending. She nodded her permission. He smiled a wolf-like grin, full of victory and blatant desire.
Sweeping her effortlessly into his arms and on to the dance floor, he promptly began to waltz. Looking back, that was probably the very moment he captured her heart.
His hand rested just above her rear, and low on the small of her back. He was dangerously skirting that invisible line between gentlemanly and lewd. His other hand kept her right palm captured and pressed to his shoulder. They were molded together, touching from chest to hip as he led her to the rhythm of the music. The quartet played flawlessly, and Celeste found herself entranced. The warmth of his embrace, the music a soundtrack to their moment, his grace and ease on the dance floor, she felt swept away. Lost in a moment of fairy lights, blooming fragrant plants, a stunning man and music.
“So, Celeste,” her name again drawn out, lustfully, “what are you studying?”
She tipped her head back to look him in the eye and smiled. The stars sparkled above against the navy velvet-looking sky.
“Horticulture.” It sounded so unbelievably pathetic. Not an ounce of sex appeal could be found in a word like horticulture.
“Ah, my girl likes flowers.”
“I don’t know anything about your girl, but most do.” Her comeback brought a devilish smile from Gabriel.
“You are quick. I’ll give you that.” He laughed. It was throaty and deep and it made her pulse race. The music slowed and finally stopped.
“Why, thank you,” she answered, grinning. She pried herself from his embrace and took a step backward.
“Where are you going?” he asked, stepping towards her.
“My dance card is rather full and your girl is probably waiting.” She took another step away and watched as his eyes grew large with understanding. She was leaving him on the dance floor. “Also,” she said with a smirk, “I don’t much like flowers; they die. I prefer perennials.”
Celeste turned and, she hoped, sashayed seductively away from Gabriel Fontaine.
“That was either the most amazing thing you’ve ever done, or the absolute stupidest,” Mara said as Celeste returned to her two friends.
“I vote most amazing,” Matteo said, and laughed. “Leaves him to do the chasing. Leaves him wondering if you’re the one woman here tonight who wouldn’t go home with him.”
“Thank you, thank you,” she laughed and curtsied dramatically for her friends.
“How did it feel?” Mara asked.
“Being pressed up against him. I mean, the man is a God. Look at him!”
“Hey!” Matteo chuckled and ruffled Mara’s hair. “I thought I was a God?”
“Shhh! We’ll discuss you later tonight.” Mara batted his hand away and kept her drooling, star-struck expression glued to Celeste.
“He’s dreamy,” she sighed.
“Dreamy?” Matteo barked out a laugh. Celeste bristled at his mocking.
“He was. It was. I mean, look around us. This place is magical tonight. He is handsome and smooth and yeah, dreamy, alright?” Matteo’s hand encircled her waist and he tugged her close. He kissed her temple. Her irritation waned.
“Aww, il mio fiore, scusa.” My flower, I’m sorry. The Italian somehow made everything easier to hear. Easier to forgive. His nickname for her, flower, always made it impossible to stay mad at him.
“Yeah, yeah.” She nudged him. “I don’t rain on your parades. So be nice.”
“Celeste, if the man makes you happy, then I’m happy.”
“It was just a dance. And don’t you have work to do?” She tsked.
Matteo gave her his best shocked-by-her-rudeness face before kissing her again on the temple and then kissing Mara’s cheek. “Sì. I do. Can’t lose this job. Veterinary school won’t pay for itself.” Celeste frowned at the truth in his statement as he strode away.
“Man, those pants sure look good on him,” Mara joked. Celeste rolled her eyes and smiled at her best friend.
“So, your glass is empty and I don’t even have a glass. Let’s rectify that, shall we?” she suggested with a wink. Mara nodded and hooked her arm through Celeste’s as they walked.
“Holy hell, he’s watching you,” Mara whispered.
Celeste turned her head a fraction toward Mara. Gabriel’s gaze was on her, and he smiled when he caught her looking in his direction. Heat bloomed and reddened her cheeks. A striking blonde patted his arm to get his attention, but Gabriel didn’t break eye contact with Celeste. He winked. She smirked and shook her head. Mara moved them along the perimeter of the dance floor until they reached the bar. Snapping fingers drew her head back in the right direction.
“You are so hooked.” Mara laughed.
Celeste wasn’t sure what to think. He intrigued her, sure. He was easy to look at, yes. Was he interested in more than a fling? She didn’t know. She couldn’t know. All she was sure of was that she didn’t function that way. A few dates here and there were fine, but she wasn’t the type to jump into bed with a man after the third date just because. Celeste was a relationship girl.
“He’s a ladies man. Look, he has three women surrounding him as we speak,” she said.
“He looks trapped. You should rescue him.” Mara nodded in his direction.
“Not my style,” she said.
“No, you’re right; you, Celeste, are a true lady. Make him beg you for a date.”
“Begging seems a little harsh, don’t you think?” she asked.
“To a man like him? No. I think he likes the game.”
“I think maybe you’re wrong. I think he’s used to the game, the chase, but that isn’t what he truly wants.”
“Here we go.” Mara laughed. Celeste had a tendency to do that often, to look deeper. To dig deeper into people and see past what they project all the way down to what secrets they harbor deep in their soul. Matteo said it was what drew people to her, that she beckoned all those with something to share to her like a siren’s call. He said she should be a psychology major, that it suited her more than plants. But Celeste loved plants. Flowers that bloom vibrant rich colors, shrubs that can be artfully arranged to create a labyrinth, the sight, the smell of a well-planned and maintained garden. It truly brought joy to her. Her parents didn’t understand it, they wanted her in a biology or chemistry field so she could carry on the family business someday, but she’d never had the interest. “We need two champagnes, please,” Mara told the bartender.
Three glasses later, Celeste was feeling lightheaded and warm. Her parents and Mara’s had stopped by the girls’ table to say their goodnights thirty minutes ago. Mara and Matteo were chatting near the bar as the party wound down. Celeste walked—shoes in hand, now that her parents were gone—through the dewy grass toward her friends. A large, warm hand clutched her elbow and spun her around.
“I got it,” Gabriel said.
“Perennial. I’m not great with plants. It took me a while to get your joke.”
“I’m still not following you.” She cocked her head sideways.
“You said my girl probably likes flowers, but you like perennials…as in you’re the sort of girl who prefers relationships to flings. Something that comes back year after year.”
“You got all that from my nerdy joke? You realize I’m a horticulture major, right?” Celeste laughed hard at the look on his fallen face. She hadn’t meant anything deeper by her comment earlier, but she was pleased that he’d been dissecting it the entire night looking for meaning. “Aww, don’t look so sad. I’m sorry.” She watched as he rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. His other still clasped her elbow.
“Tell me, si ce n’est pas indiscret, do you have a boyfriend? Did I step on someone’s toes tonight?” he asked. If it’s not too personal a question. Celeste willed herself not to melt at his use of French.
“Why do you ask?” She bit her lip to keep from smiling like a ridiculous schoolgirl.
“By the looks of you, you should have someone, but—” he smirked and plucked the straps of her shoes from her hand “—you’re tired and ready to leave.” He leaned in, placing his face next to her ear. “And by the looks of your friends, they’re not. A boyfriend would have surely noticed already that it’s time to bring you home.” His breath was warm and sent shivers down her spine. “May I give you a ride home?”
Spurred on by the thought of giving into this man for a single evening, Celeste nodded her head. Matteo and Mara were watching her when she finally found the will to look away from Gabriel. She waved twice and winked at them, the trio’s signal for: “all is right”. Mara’s face blossomed into a great grin and Matteo smiled, looking a little worried too. Celeste would speak with him later. He had to stop worrying over her so much. In some ways it prohibited him from living his own life to the fullest. She never wanted to become a burden to him.
Gabriel’s hand came to rest at the small of her back—such an benign area on the body. It never really got any attention, yet when a man’s hand rested casually there, it could cause the entire body to go on high alert. A simple gesture. A boring part of the body. He still clung to the straps of her shoes, carrying them for her. She smiled at the chivalry of it all. Her heart stuttered and in that moment she didn’t care where they went or what they would do, just as long as she was with him.
He stopped short at the entrance to the gardens. Kneeling, he cupped her left calf and brought it to rest on his thigh. Celeste shooed him off, telling him she could manage putting her own shoes on, but he wouldn’t relent. His fingers buckled the straps at her ankle. The rough pads of his fingers set her smooth skin on fire in the most impossible way. He repeated the process on her right foot before standing again. She stared at him in awe. Who does that?
He took her hand, threaded their fingers together and gently tugged. Her feet moved on their own, wanting to stay next to the Adonis-like man holding her hand. Walking along-side him she realized there probably weren’t many women who didn’t give at least a passing thought to the idea of him in their bed. It was a quality some men exuded that promised he knew where to linger and what to do.
Stopping at his car, he opened the door for her. Gabriel turned to face her. There was a magnetic energy between them growing in intensity that sent a tremble quivering through Celeste. Gabriel cupped her face, and his eyes softened while his thumbs stroked back and forth over her cheeks. His green eyes bore into hers. His hands swept into her hair and weaved through the strands—a primal, masculine move.
“I’m going to kiss you now, Celeste Fogarty.”
Celeste didn’t move. She didn’t speak. She was afraid to break the magical spell of the moment. She licked her lips in anticipation. He swallowed and took a breath, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. Then, he did the simplest thing in the world. He leaned in and his lips met hers, softly, tenderly at first, and she swore the skies cracked open and swallowed the both of them whole. He tasted of champagne, wild nights and reckless desire. She relaxed into him and let impulse and passion fuel her. Celeste’s heart thumped, kicking her ribs. Their lips, mouths, tongues…danced together. Time was lost. The Spring air blew over them as he pressed soft kisses to the corners of her lips with reverence. Celeste had been kissed many times before, but none compared to the way Gabriel’s laid claim to her.