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Georgina entered the sleek luxury of the office and knew she was being watched. Her every step scrutinised by a man who was revered and feared by businessmen and women alike.
'Ms Henshaw.' His deep voice, with a hint of accent, was firm and commanding. 'I don't think I need to ask why you are here.'
He leant against his desk, arms folded across his broad chest, as if he'd already decided he didn't want to hear what she had to say. His black hair gleamed, but the intensity in his eyes nearly robbed her of the ability to speak.
'I'm sure you don't, Mr Ramirez.' She injected as much firmness into her voice as she could, determined she wouldn't be dismissed before she'd said all she had to say. 'You are, after all, the cause of the problem.'
'Am I indeed?' Santos Lopez Ramirez locked his gaze with hers and for a moment she almost lost her nerve. Almost.
She studied his face, looking for a hint of compassion, but there was nothing. His mouth was set in a firm line that highlighted the harsh angles of his cheekbones, softened only slightly by his tanned complexion. His jaw was cleanshaven, but she didn't miss the way he clenched it, as if biting back his words.
'You know you are.' She paused briefly before continuing. 'You are the one person who is preventing Emma and Carlo from doing what they want.'
'So what are you going to do about it, Ms Henshaw?'
As he raised his brows in question a flutter of nerves took flight in her stomach. But now was the time to be the woman the world thought she wasthe cold and manipulative woman who took exactly what she wanted in life and discarded what she didn't.
'I will do whatever it takes to make it happen, Mr Ramirez.'
The butterflies dissipated as she thought of Emma, of all the dreams of a fairytale wedding her younger sister so often spoke about. Her own ideas of love and happiness had long since been shattered, but she wanted her sister to find that dream.
'That's a very bold statement.'
Bold. Stupid. It didn't matter what he thought. All she cared about was Emma's happinesshappiness was something neither of them had experienced much of in recent years.
'I'm a very bold woman, Mr Ramirez.'
He smiled. An indolent smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth. Her breath caught in her throat and nerves almost swarmed over her as he unfolded his arms and took a purposeful step towards her.
'I admire that in a woman.'
Tall and unyielding, he stood before her. And despite the spacious office, the wall of windows and the sparse furnishings, he dominated the room.
She stood her ground, refusing to move, to be intimidated. 'Your admiration is not the reason I'm here.'
'I don't have time for games, Ms Henshaw.'
'I have a deal to put to you, Mr Ramirez.' He couldn't dismiss her yet. It had been hard enough getting past his secretary, and she didn't intend to waste the opportunity.
'I meant what I said.' She spoke firmly, determined he should never know just how anxious she was, how desperate to achieve her aim. 'I will do whatever it takes.'
Santos took in the determined jut of the brunette's chin. She looked so arrogantly sure of herself that he wondered if she was going to start the Paso Doble right there in his office.
Lust hurtled through his body at the images such thoughts brought to mind.
'And why would you want to do that?'
Santos returned to his chair and sat down, his gaze running over her body. The charcoal skirt and jacket, although professional and businesslike, did little to disguise her womanly figure. The tantalising hint of a lace camisole beneath the jacket caught his eye, but it was the heels she wore that stole the show. Her designer leopard print heels not only spoke volumes about the real woman, but showcased the most fantastic pair of legs he'd seen in ages. He was entranced, but it was the attitude radiating from her glorious body that really intrigued him.
'Emma is my sister and I want her to be happy.'
The intensity of her gaze as she spoke only aroused his interest further.
'I'll do anything to achieve that.'
He rose from his chair, his body suddenly restless, to stand in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows of his office. He surveyed the view of London glinting in the autumn sunshine, recalling all he'd discovered about the sister of quiet and demure Emma, the woman his halfbrother Carlo was currently dating. A situation that had thrown everything into turmoil.
This woman certainly had a reputation. Widowed at twenty-three, and having been left a substantial fortune, she now led a socialite lifestyle and was never short of male company. A mercenary woman, if the circumstances of her marriage were to be believed.
'And just how far are you prepared to go in the name of sisterly love?'
Behind him he heard her intake of breath and knew he'd touched a nerve. A stab of desire shot through him as he imagined her sighing in pleasure as he kissed her. Quickly he regained control. Now was not a good time to find himself attracted to a womanespecially one with such a tarnished and scandalous reputation. He had a business to run. One that was a contentious issue between himself and Carlo. One he had to find a solution to quickly. Time was running out.
'As I have already said, Mr Ramirez, I will do whatever it takes.' Her voice had a slightly husky quality to it, which threatened to undo his control, so he remained focused on the view of London a moment longer.
Finally he turned to face her, strode across the thick carpet until he stood at her side, his right arm almost touching her shoulder. He looked sideways down at her, catching her light floral scent as he did so. Not the sort usually favoured by a woman of her reputationit was soft and very feminine.
'So you agree with their plans to marry your sister and my brother?'
She stood firm, like a soldier on parade being inspected by a commanding officer. He walked slowly round behind her, admiration building. She didn't flinch, didn't move. His gaze was drawn to the streaks of fiery red which entwined in her hair and again he thought of her in his bed, hair wildly fanned out across the pillow.
'Why shouldn't they get married?'
Her words drew him sharply back. 'They are young,' he said quietly, and walked away from her. Being close distracted him, took his mind from the current problem to more primal matters. 'Too young.'
'They are in love.' The words flew at him across the room with such passion that he stopped to look at her, wondering if she was as indifferent and in control as she wanted him to think. He looked at her beautiful face, the firm set of her full lips and the haughty rise of her brows. Had he just imagined that spark of passion? Conjured it up because of the direction his thoughts had gone? He must have done. As she stood before him she was not only sculpted from ice but frozen to the core.
A challenge indeed.
'And you believe in love, do you?' All through his younger years he'd been introduced to an endless stream of his father's girlfriends. Then as a teenager he'd watched from the sidelines as his father had fallen under the spell of a younger woman. The love they'd shared and later bestowed on Carlo, his new brother, had been incomprehensible to him. It had done little to instil ideas of love and happiness in him.
'About as much as you do.'
Her gaze met his, stubbornly holding it, provoking him to deny it.
'Very perceptive, Ms Henshaw. We are, then, kindred spirits, able to enjoy the opposite sex without the drama of emotional attachment.'
This was always the attitude he'd adopted, and one that had begun to feel less and less favourable. But the idea of being so captivated by a woman, so completely under her spell it would make a man turn his back on his son, was even less appealing.
'Put like that, then, yes, I suppose we are.'
Georgina cringed inwardly, knowing exactly what he was referring to. Was he really going to drag up her past, use it as a reason to stop his brother from marrying Emma? She wouldn't let himnot when she now knew the real reason he didn't want them to marry. She had to change his mind.
For a moment her nerves almost got the better of her. There was only one option she could think of to secure her sister's happiness, and although it didn't sit well with her she had to persuade him it was possible.
'What exactly is it you want, Ms Henshaw?'
A distanced, almost bored tone had entered his voice and she watched him stalk back to the windows, looking more like a caged animal than a businessman.
'I want to put a business proposition to you.'
He turned instantly, his interest piqued, and she stifled a smile of triumph. She was now talking his language. Business was what made this man tick. That was obvious.
'A proposition? You?'
He moved back to his desk and gestured her to sit, the muscles of his arm rippling beneath his white shirt snagging her attention. Mentally she shook herself. Getting distracted by his good looks would not help her through this. And hadn't she told herself months ago that relationships were not what she needed?
'I'd prefer to stand,' she said firmly, not missing the quirk of his dark brows.
'As you wish.'
He sat behind his desk, his dark eyes watching her. She wouldn't let him intimidate her. She had to remain as calm and detached as possible. So much was riding on her being able to deliver her proposition in an efficient, businesslike manner.
'I want my sister to be happy, and Carlo makes her happy.' She tried to keep her voice steady and devoid of emotion. This hard businessman obviously believed all that was written about her in the press. He believed she was cast from the same mould as him. 'From my understanding of the situation, there is only one solution.'
He didn't say a word, waiting for her to continue. His silence unnerved her, but she had to stay strong, remain focused.
Quickly she pressed on. 'I know about the condition in your father's will.'
'You are very well informed of my affairs, Ms Hen-shaw, but I fail to see what business of yours that is.'
His hard expression gave her a glimpse of the formidable businessman he was. She'd done her research on him. 'I know you have built your business up to the international concern it is today since your father passed away, and that once either you or Carlo marry the business will pass solely to that brother.' She paused, almost wanting to give up as she looked at him, his dark eyes as bleak as a starless night.
'Full marks for research,' he said, his voice as emotionless as she hoped hers was.
It had been Emma who had told her about the condition of the will. She'd sobbed for the loss of her dreams of marrying the man she loved, dreams of living happily ever after with Carlo, just because of the greed of his elder brother.
'I also know Carlo doesn't share your appetite for success. He has little or no interest in the business, wanting only to live a normal life married to my sister.'
'A normal life?'
She knew he was stalling, being evasive. Wouldn't she hate it if he picked apart her private affairs? But she had to carry on before she lost all confidence in her plan. For Emma she had to do it, just as she'd had to five years ago.
'A life that isn't centred on a business but one that is centred on a happy family home.' The words flowed from her with practised ease.
'And an example of that would be your own family, would it?'
She felt her eyes widen, shocked he'd brought it up. 'I see you have done your own research, Mr Ramirez, but my parents' marriage has nothing to do with Emma and Carlo.'
'I have no wish for my family name to be joined by marriage to a woman's whose mother is an alcoholic and whose father has been absent so long nobody knows where he is.'
'So it has nothing to do with your power-hungry need to take the business from Carlo by preventing this marriage?' Her heartbeat was rising and her emotions were beginning to take over. She had to remain composed.
'They have sent you here to plead their case, have they?'
He glowered at her. But her last words seemed only to have bounced off his tough exterior. She took a deep breath, wanting to appear poised before she spoke again.
He laced his long tanned fingers together in front of him on the desk in a relaxed fashion, but Georgina knew he was anything but relaxed. The firm set of his broad shoulders gave that away. He was confident, self-assured and powerful.
'On the contrary, Mr Ramirez, they have no idea I'm here and I want it to stay that way.'
One dark brow quirked up, but he said nothing.
'I can see only one way to secure their happiness ' She paused, refusing to be drawn. 'And to satisfy your insatiable need for business success.'
He leant forward at his desk. 'And that is?'
'You get married first, inherit the business, and leave them to enjoy a happy married life together.'
As he looked at her his handsome face set in a mask so emotionless she blinked in shock. Did this man not have any compassion in his heart?
'As you seem to have it all worked out, who do you suggest I marry?' The question came out slowly, as if he was sure he'd foiled her plan.
She took a deep breath and looked directly into his eyes. She mustn't show any nerves, any fear. He was like a predatory lion and she knew he'd smell it.
Thereshe'd said it. And now she had she wanted to bolt like a frightened animal. He didn't say a word. Not a trace of emotion could be seen on his face. Silence hung between them, and a tension so taut she thought it was going to snap with a crack at any moment.
Shock rocked through Santos as he listened to her ridiculous proposition. It was the last thing he'd expected to hear, but then her reputation should have given him forewarning. She already had one marriage behind herone that had made her a very wealthy woman indeed. And if rumour was to be believed it had not been a love-match.
'Why, exactly, would I wish to get married? And to you, of all women?'
His voice was hard, his accent suddenly more pronounced. He sounded dangerous.
Briefly Santos saw pain flash across her face, saw the curling of her manicured fingers and wished the words unsaid. Marriage was the one thing he wanted to avoid at all costs, but even though his legal team were working on a solution he had to consider the option. If he wanted to save his business, and the last five years of hard work since his father had first become ill, he might actually have to take a wife. So wouldn't this woman, who had so willingly walked into the lion's den, be the perfect choice? Costly, maybe, if her track record was anything to go by, but he could deal with that.
'It wouldn't be a marriage in the true sense of the word.'
Her words, spoken with conviction, dragged his attention back to her face.
'And what is that?'
'A marriage for love, of courselike the one your brother and my sister wish to make. A commitment for life.' Her words flowed freely, and once again he thought he heard a spark of passion.
Suspiciously he looked at her as he sat back again in his chair. 'You are not looking for love, Ms Henshaw?'
'Not at all, Mr Ramirez. I only want my sister's happiness. I will do anything to achieve that. Once they are married we can annul our marriage and go separate ways.
Santos considered this wild suggestion more seriously. Would it hurt to go along with it for nowto have another option if his legal team were unable to sort out an alternative?
'And you would want what, exactly, from this marriage?' His mind raced. On a business level it made perfect sense. He would finally have the security of inheriting the business he'd built up and would have done his duty by his brother, freeing Carlo of obligations he had little or no interest in.