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"Sir? There's a woman here who wishes to speak with you."
Sebastian Cruz didn't look up as he continued to sign papers. "Send her away." He didn't tolerate any kind of interruption while he was at work. It was probably a former lover who mistakenly thought the element of surprise and drama would gain his attention. His employees were experienced in handling the situation and he wondered how the woman had managed to get into the executive suite in the first place.
"She insists on seeing you and hasn't left the reception area all day," his assistant continued, this time with a hint of sympathy for the uninvited guest. "She says it's urgent."
They all said that, Sebastian decided as he scanned another letter before he signed it. It annoyed him rather than made him feel curious or flattered. He didn't understand why these sophisticated women would stage public tantrums when the relationship was clearly over. "Have security remove her from the premises."
The younger man cleared his throat and nervously adjusted his tie. "I had considered that, but she says you have something of hers. She wouldn't tell me what it was because it was a private matter. She's here to get it back."
That was impossible. Sebastian frowned as he scrawled his name on another document. He wasn't sentimental. He didn't keep mementos or trophies. "Did you find out her name?"
His assistant squirmed from the censure of his icy tone. "Jones," he said hurriedly. "Ashley Jones."
Sebastian went still as he held the pen in midair. He stared at the heavy paper, the words a blur, as memories of Ashley Jones crashed through him. He remembered her soft brown hair cascading down her bare shoulders. Her wild energy and her earthy laugh. His body clenched, excitement pulsing through his veins, as he thought about her sun-kissed skin and wide pink mouth.
That woman had haunted his dreams for the past month. He had tried to purge Ashley from his mind, distracting himself with work and women, but he couldn't forget her uninhibited response. Or her haughty rejection.
Sebastian remembered that morning vividly. She had still been naked in bed when she had told him she wasn't interested in anything more than a one-night stand. She had shared more than her body that night, but now he wasn't good enough to breathe her rarefied air. Her lips had been reddened from his kisses, but she wouldn't deign to look him in the eye.
Ashley had no idea that he was the most sought-after bachelor in Miami. A billionaire with incredible influence. Women of power, wealth and royalty chased after him. He had shed the stench of the ghetto years ago and now belonged to the glittery world of high society. But she had dismissed him as if she was a princess that belonged in an ivory-white tower and he still belonged in the filthy streets. Who did she think she was? Ashley had never lifted a finger for the lifestyle she enjoyed, while he continued to fight for the empire he'd created with his bare hands.
"I think she's the daughter of that tennis legend," his assistant continued in a scandalized whisper. "You know, the murder-suicide. It was big news a few years ago."
Donald Jones. Sebastian's nostrils flared as he forced back the rising hot anger. He knew all about the tennis player and his family. He had made a point of learning everything about Ashley.
There had been a few surprises when he had met her, but his first impression had been correct. She was a spoiled heiress who lived in paradise. She didn't know the meaning of scraping by, suffering or surviving. For a woman like Ashley Jones, the world catered to her.
Until now. Sebastian narrowed his eyes as an idea formed. Anticipation beat hard in his chest as he considered the possibilities. He knew why she was here. She wanted to find out how he'd got her precious island and how she could get it back.
His mouth twisted as he imagined his revenge. She wouldn't be so quick to dismiss him now that he had something she wanted. Now was his chance to watch her bow down and lose that superior tone. Sebastian wanted to turn the tables and strip this woman of her pride and status. Take her to bed for one night, indulge in the exquisite pleasure that would make the most cynical lover believe in destiny, and then discard her.
"Please send her in," Sebastian said coldly as the call of the hunt roared in his blood, "and then you may leave for the day."
Ashley sat on the edge of the pearl-white leather chair as she watched the sun set over the Miami skyline. She felt a pang of homesickness as she saw how the tall buildings pierced the coral and dusky pink streaks in the sky. She felt uncomfortable surrounded by steel and glass, noise and people. She missed sitting alone in her favorite spot in the cove of her island and watching the sun dip past the endless turquoise ocean.
She may never see it again. Fear squeezed her heart, and her fingers pinched her white clutch purse. Bile churned in her stomach as she remembered the eviction letter. She still felt the same agonizing horror when she had discovered a Sebastian Cruz had bought her loan and now owned her family island because she'd missed two payments.
Ashley pressed her lips together and prayed that she could meet Mr. Cruz and come to an understanding. Get her island back immediately. What was she going to do if she couldn't get the man to see reason?
She couldn't think this way. Ashley exhaled slowly, wishing the panic that banded her chest would dissolve.
Defeat was not an option. This was her last chance, but she was going to find a way to get back her family home.
Ashley glanced around the waiting room, noticing that it was quieter now that most of the office workers had gone for the day. It didn't make the space any less intimidating. She almost hadn't stepped into the building when she noticed the towering height and the aggressive sleek lines. It had taken more courage than she'd care to admit to stay seated on the chair throughout the day, feeling small and invisible, as she watched the employees attack the day with ruthless energy.
Her head jerked when she heard purposeful footsteps echo against the polished black floor. The tall man in the designer suit and prestigious school tie she'd spoken with earlier approached her. "Miss Jones? Mr. Cruz can see you now."
Ashley nodded as her throat tightened with anxiety. Her hands went suddenly cold as she rose from the seat. She felt uncoordinated, her legs stiff and her borrowed heels heavy, as she followed the man in the suit.
You can fix this, she reminded herself fiercely as she nervously smoothed her hand over her hair. It had taken ages to coax her wild mane into a tight bun and she felt as if the waves were threatening to break free.
As she tried to keep up with the man who was undoubtedly an assistant, she tried not to notice the imposing features of the stark and colorless corridor. She didn't know how this Sebastian Cruz had got Inez Key, but she knew it had to be a mistake. She couldn't imagine why someone with this amount of wealth would want a run-down island.
Ashley glanced at the assistant. She was tempted to ask about Sebastian Cruz, but she sensed the man wouldn't reveal much. She regretted not researching the man who owned Cruz Conglomerate. If the executive suite indicated anything, she suspected Sebastian Cruz was an older, formal gentleman who valued propriety and status.
Ashley tugged at the vintage white dress that had once belonged to her mother. She was glad she'd made the choice to wear it. It was outdated and restricting but she knew she looked sweet and demure.
Now, if only she could remember to speak like a lady. Ashley paused at the grand black doors to Mr. Cruz's office. Everything went into slow motion as she watched the assistant knock and open the door. Just watch your mouth. Ashley swiped the tip of her tongue along her dry lips. She knew more than anyone how one reckless word could ruin everything .
Ashley barely heard the assistant's introduction over the sound of her heart pounding in her ears. She sensed the magnitude of the room but controlled the impulse of looking around. She placed a polite smile on her lips, stretched out her hand and froze when she saw Sebastian Cruz.
"You!" she blurted out as she instinctively snatched her hand back. Standing before her was the one man she'd hoped she'd never meet again. This was Sebastian Cruz? The man had turned her world upside down a month ago, had torn down all of her defenses and introduced her to a world of pleasure and promise.
Ashley gasped for her next breath as her body went rigid, primed to flee. What was going on? This could not be Sebastian Cruz. It was Sebastian Esteban. The name was burned into her mind forever. A woman never forgot her first lover.
But this man didn't look anything like the mysterious guest who had arrived for a weekend getaway on Inez Key a month ago. The faded jeans and knowing smile were replaced with a severe suit and a stern mouth. Her gaze traveled from his short black hair to his large brown eyes and the hard thrust of his chin. He was attractive but forbidding. Menacing.
Sebastian's raw power was barely concealed underneath the tailored lines of his black suit. His lean and muscular build hinted that he was sleek, swift and that he moved with stealth. This man could fight hard and dirty.
He smiled and a sense of unease trickled down Ashley's spine. This time his smile didn't make her heart give a slow tumble. His sharp white teeth made her think of a cold-blooded animal tearing apart his quarry.
Feeling a little shaky, Ashley took a step back. Sebastian was stunning, but her memories had muted the brutal power and raw masculinity he possessed.
"Ashley," he said silkily and gestured at the chair in front of his desk. He didn't look surprised to see her. "Please sit down."
"What are you doing here?" she asked as conflicting emotions swirled ferociously inside her. She felt dizzy. Vulnerable. She wanted to sit down and curl into a protective ball but she couldn't give the man any advantage. "I don't understand. He called you Mr. Cruz."
"That is my name," he said as he sat down behind his desk.
"Since when?" She winced when her voice rose. Ashley tried desperately to hold back. "You introduced yourself to me as Sebastian Esteban."
"That is part of my name. Esteban is my mother's family name." His dark eyes were intent as he watched her closely. As if that name should mean something to her. "I am Sebastian Esteban Cruz."
That was his excuse? She stared at him, waiting for more. Instead, he sat in his chair that was as big as a throne and watched her with an air of impatience. He wasn't going to apologize for anything.
"Why did you lie to me? Is that part of your routine?" A woman only had to look at Sebastian Cruz and know he was a heartbreaker. She thought she could remain unscathed by limiting their encounter to a one-night stand. She had been wrong.
But she hadn't been thinking during that sensual weekend, she thought as regret pricked at her. Instead, she had followed a primal call and fallen into Sebastian's bed.
She had known better. Expected more from herself. After being raised by a philandering father, Ashley had recognized the signs of Sebastian's tried-and-true routine. She should have remembered the devastation that immediately followed the promise of paradise.
"When a wealthy person is interested in buying property, it's in their best interest not to reveal who they are," he said unrepentantly. "Otherwise the sale price goes up."
"Inez Key wasn't for sale," she said hoarsely as the anger whipped through her. Now she understood why he'd chosen to visit her island. He had intended to steal her family home from the beginning!
"So you kept saying." He gave a dismissive shrug. "I had approached you through several of my representatives, but I kept getting the same answer. The offered price was extremely generous. I made a personal visit in the hopes that I could convince you to sell."
She had thought it was strange that a man like Sebastian had arrived at her island for rest and relaxation. He was the kind of man who thrived on challenges and conquering uncharted territory. "Instead, you stole it from me," she whispered as her stomach churned. "This is all making sense."
"I didn't steal it," he corrected her. "You missed the deadline to repay the loan. Inez Key is mine."
Ashley didn't like the triumph she heard in his voice. She clenched her purse tighter as she choked back the fury. "That loan is none of your business! It was a private agreement between Raymond Casillas and me."
"And I bought the loan from Casillas. You shouldn't have put up your island as collateral." He mockingly clucked his tongue and shook his head at her poor judgment.
"It not like I had a lot of choices," she pointed out fiercely. How dare this man question her decision? Her father's finances had been a shambles when he died. Sebastian had no idea what she'd had to do, what she'd had to sacrifice, to keep Inez Key. "It was the only thing I have of value."
He tilted his head and captured her gaze. "Was it?" he asked softly.
Ashley stiffened as she sensed the danger lurking beneath that question. How much did this man know? She needed to take control of this meeting. Her legs shook and she felt jittery, but she forced herself to remain standing. "Inez Key suffered a lot of damage during the hurricane, and the insurance wouldn't pay for all of it."
He shrugged. "I don't care how you got into debt."
She wanted to claw at his bored expression. Ashley curled her fingers into her palms as she felt her temper flare dangerously. "I didn't make an agreement with you," she said roughly. "I had a payment plan with Raymond."
"Which you couldn't pay," he said. "You took a gamble and you lost."
Ashley gritted her teeth. It was true and she couldn't deny it. She had taken many risks when she'd accepted the loan. She'd had difficulty finding the money to repay, but she couldn't let it end here. She had to get Inez Key back.
"Raymond understood why I was having trouble making the payments," she said, her voice shaking as emotions ran wild inside her. "He was giving me more time since he had been best friends with my father."
"I'm sure he was the epitome of understanding and compassion. But it was smart of you to keep it out of the banking system." He wagged his finger at her. "I would have found out about it earlier."
Did he think this was funny? That this was a game? Her future was at stake here. "And then you wouldn't have had to sleep with me to get that kind of information," she retorted.
Sebastian's gaze slowly traveled down her tense body, resting briefly on her gentle curves. "That isn't why I took you to bed."
Her skin burned. She couldn't stop the fragmented memories flooding her mind. She remembered his hot masculine scent and the taste of his golden skin. Her dress felt tight as she recalled the sharp hiss between his teeth and the bite of pain when his strong fingers had tangled in her hair.
Ashley abruptly looked away. She had a tendency to remember that night at the most inconvenient moments. Her heart was pounding against her chest and her body was flushed. "You didn't have seduction in mind the moment you stepped on Inez Key," she mumbled. "I find that highly unlikely."
"I didn't know that you would indulge in pillow talk after sex," he drawled as he leaned back in his chair and steepled his long fingers together. "I certainly didn't expect you to reveal your agreement with Casillas. That was a bonus and it was impossible for me not to use that information for my benefit."
Ashley stared at Sebastian as her chest twisted painfully. How could he be so callous about that intimate moment? Didn't he realize that she never confided in anyone? But she had felt close and safe enough to tell him her worries. She had been interested in his opinion and valued his advice. It was only in the light of day that she realized she had been lulled into a false sense of security.