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Tipping up the brim of her wide straw hat, Grace Faulkner settled back in her deckchair, glanced through her over-large sunglasses at the glinting aquamarine ocean and sighed. She should be making the most of the tranquil scene and just relaxing, but it wasn't easy when her in-sides were deluged with querulous butterflies.
She was so besieged because very shortly she planned to confront one of this elite area's most revered and wealthy entrepreneurs and petition him to become a patron of the children's charity in Africa that was dearest to her heart. And not just to become a patronbut also to make a much needed generous donation so that essential building could commence on a new orphanage. The present one was all but being held up by hope and prayer alone.
What had fuelled her aim was hearing the owner of the cafe she'd been sitting in the day she'd heard the buzz that Marco Aguilar was visiting the area telling an American tourist that he'd known him as a young boythat he'd grown up in a local orphanage and hadn't he done incredibly well for himself when you considered his start in life?
That overheard snippet had seemed more and more like divine providence to Grace as she'd mulled it over, and she didn't intend to let it go to waste. She knew she would probably only get the smallest window of opportunity to catch the businessman's eye before she'd be hauled off the premises by one of his security guards, and she should be prepared for that. But when it might mean the difference between helping to improve the lives of the children who had moved her so unbearably and returning to Africa with the news that she'd failed to secure them the funds they were so desperately in need of, a security guard trying to eject her seemed a small price to pay. Having recently seen for herself the squalor in which those orphans lived dailya squalor that only the chance of a good education and caring patrons could help them out ofGrace had vowed to her charity worker friends before she left that she would do everything she could to help make that chance a reality. But first they had to rebuild the children's home.
The drowning noise of a helicopter coming in to land alerted her. It had to be him. Because she'd been so troubled and exhausted after her return from Africa, her parents had persuaded her to stay at their holiday home in the Algarve to take a much-needed break. For once she hadn't resisted their steering of her movements, and she was glad she had notbecause on only her second day there she had heard the local buzz that Marco Aguilar was due to make a visit to one of his myriad exclusive hotels for a meeting. That particular hotel was situated in the resort complex right across the road from where she was staying, and if the rumours were at all to be relied upon today was the day. The arrival of the helicopterthe first she'd heard in three days at the resortsurely confirmed it?
With her heart pounding, she got up from the canvas chair positioned on the baking hot patio and quickly returned inside to the villa's pleasantly cool interior. Flying into the kitchen to grab a bottle of water from the refrigerator, she dropped it into her straw bag, repositioned her sunglasses on her nose, then pulled off her hat and threw it onto a nearby chair. Checking that she had her keys, she hurriedly left the building
The helicopter had landed on a discreet pad somewhere amid the lush pine trees, and now there was a bank of sleek carsmostly blackparked in front of the hotel. The impressive modern facade was edged by a pristine emerald lawn, and already there was a bevy of reporters and photographers running across ita few that were ahead were moving swiftly through the revolving glass doors into the lobby. By the time the melee had disappeared into the hotel, and just as Grace was stealing a few apprehensive moments to decide what to do next, a gleaming black jaguar drew up at the front of the lawn. A burly cropped-haired bodyguard exited the car first then smartly stood holding the door wide as the man who was clearly his boss climbed out of the vehicle.
Due to his phenomenal success in business, and the purported enigmatic nature that was so indisputably appealing to admirers everywhere, photographs of Marco Aguilar were a regular feature in newspapers and magazines round the world, including the UK. There was no doubt that it was him.
Grace's first impression of the businessman that had made his fortune in the field of sports and leisurein particular exclusive golfing resorts like this onewas that his physical presence was as commanding as his much-admired reputation. The impeccably stylish linen suit he wore was a perfect foil for his hard-muscled physique, and the moneyed air that radiated from the top of his shining black hair down to the tan-coloured Italian loafers he wore on his feet definitely suggested that the man had an unerring eye for the very best of everything. As he leaned over to speak to his bodyguard she saw even his eyes had the luxurious sheen of the finest dark chocolate. The sweltering Mediterranean sun was all but baking everything in sight, but in contrast he appeared ice-cool.
Narrowing her gaze to view him more clearly, she saw with trepidation that his hard jaw was undeniably clenched and the set of his well-cut lips formidably serious per-haps even angry? Panicking slightly because if he was already ticked off about something then it was highly unlikely that he would even acknowledge her, she thought dismayed. Worse still, if he thought she was making a nuisance of herself he might call the police to arrest her.
Swallowing down her nerves, she tucked the leather strap of her straw bag neatly down by her side, then endeavoured to stroll casually towards the hotel entrance just as if she was a guest therefor surely this must be the window of opportunity she'd prayed for? it occurred to Grace that the reporters had made the mistake of assuming the VIP they so eagerly sought was already inside the hotelperhaps smuggled in through a side entrance somewhere? Wishing that her heart wasn't beating so fast that she could scarcely hear herself think above the throbbing sound of it in her ears, she endeavoured to slow and deepen her breath to calm herself. She had to do this. The businessman's reputation and aura might be intimidating, but she couldn't let that stop her. Come what may, there was no backing out now.
'Mr Aguilar!' When she was about five feet away from him on the baking walkway she called out his name. The bodyguard immediately moved his intimidating bulk Grace's way, to prevent her from getting any nearer. 'Mr Aguilar please can I have just a moment of your time before you go inside to your meeting? I promise I won't keep you very long.'
'Mr Aguilar does not talk to anyone from the press unless it is prearranged.'
The bodyguard's heavily accented voice was a growl as he reached out to physically waylay her. She flinched as the man's huge hands encircled her bare arms in her sleeveless cotton dress, and at the same time saw a bead of sweat roll down his ample cheek.
His manhandling of her lit a furious spark of indignation inside her. 'Let me go! How dare you grab me like that? For your information, I'm not a reporter.'
'You have no business trying to talk to Mr Aguilar.'
'For goodness' sakedo I look like I pose any kind of threat to your boss?' Grace couldn't bite back her frustration. To get so close to the man she desperately needed to talk to and then be denied access to speak to him at the very last moment was beyond frustrating.
'Let her go, Jose.'
The man behind them snapped out a clear-voiced command and her heart hammered even harder beneath her ribs. The bodyguard immediately released his hold and she stepped to the side of him, at last coming face to face with her hard-jawed quarry.
'If you do not belong to that mercenary rabble from the press, who are primed to try and get me to answer questions about my private life and then embellish them for their undiscerning readership, what exactly do you want from me, Miss.?'
Indisputably his accent was Portuguese, but his English was close to perfect. The intensity of Marco Aguilar's examining gaze threw her for a second. The rich caramel eyes with their fathomless depths seemed to bewitch her. 'Faulkner.' she answered, her voice not quite as steady as she would have liked. 'Grace Faulkner. And, just to reassure you, I'm not remotely interested in your private life, Mr Aguilar.'
'How refreshing' His remark was like a sardonic whiplash. He folded his arms.
Grace made herself press on regardless. 'I'm here because I'd like to tell you about an orphanage in Africa that badly needs help specifically financial help to rebuild the falling-down shack that houses it and to provide a school and a teacher. I've recently come back from there, and it's quite unbelievable how these poor children are livingnot even living just existing. There's an open sewer right outside where they're sleeping, and several of them have already died from drinking contaminated water. This is the twenty-first century for goodness' sake! We're so rich in the west. Why are we allowing this to go on without doing something more about itwithout every one of us feeling outraged on a daily basis?'
'I admire the passion and dedication you exhibit in the name of your cause, Miss Faulkner, but I already give financial aid to several charities worldwide. Do you think it fair to corner me like this when I'm about to go into what is to me a very important meeting?'
Grace blinked. The rumour ran that he was there to oversee the takeover bid of a less prosperous resort. It was what he was known for excelling at buying ailing resorts and making them thrive, thereby reaping the benefits. If the newspapers and magazines were to be believed, the benefits aided his playboy lifestyle. But how much more money and power did the man need before he decided enough was enough?
Her indignation and temper got the better of her. Pushing her fingers through the fall of blonde hair that glanced against her perspiring brow, she levelled her gaze with the billionaire's and didn't flinch even once. 'Fair?' she echoed angrily. 'Do you think it's fair that these children are dying for want of even the most basic sanitationand more importantly for want of love and care from the rest of humanity? Surely your "very important meeting" can't possibly be more important than that?'
In less than a heartbeat Marco Aguilar had positioned himself in front of her. The brief contraction in the side of his smooth cheekbone warned her that she'd struck a nerve. At the same time the sweltering heat that beat down on them from the dazzling sun up above seemed to magnify the hypnotic effect of his spicy cologne. Feeling a little bit more than slightly giddy beneath the twin onslaught of burning sun and aggrieved male, Grace wondered where she'd found the audacitysome might say stupidityto imagine for even a moment that this was the way to get someone as wealthy and influential as him on her side. Clearly it wasn't.
'Let me give you a word of advice, Miss Faulkner Please don't ever seek a career in a field that requires great diplomacy. I fear you would not get past the first round of interviews. You are very fortunate that I do not get my bodyguard to physically eject you from the complex. Forgive me ' the dark eyes swept mockingly down over her figure and up again to her face ' my guess is that you are not a guest here, are you? In which case you are already on dangerous ground, accosting me like this. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a meeting to go to. My fellow attendees may not be as needy as your orphans, but I assure you they will be baying for my blood if I do not put in an appearance soon.'
'Look, I'm very sorry if I was rude to you, Mr Aguilar Honestly, I meant no offence.' Grace clamped even white teeth down on her lip for a second, in a bid to keep her passionate emotions under control, but it still didn't stop her from bursting out, 'All the same, you shouldn't sneer at my clothes and make me feel small in order to make yourself feel superior, should you? Besides, I'm not here to try to impress you. I'm here for one reason and one reason only: the orphaned children that I told you about. Yes, I am passionate about this cause, but I defy anyone not to be if they'd experienced what I experienced over the past few weeks. I really hoped you might help us especially when I heard that you'd been raised in an orphanage yourself.'
The businessman stood stock-still and the bronze pigment in his skin seemed to bleed out and turn pale. 'Where did you hear that?' he asked, low voiced.
Her mouth dried. 'I heard it just the other day.' Feeling almost faint with unease, and not wanting to incriminate the cafe-owner, she made herself lift her chin and not flinch from the steely-eyed glare in front of her, 'Is it true? Are you an orphan, Mr Aguilar?'
He exhaled a long sigh, as though to steady himself, then bemusedly shook his head. 'You say you are not a reporter, Miss Faulkner, but you attack your prey just like one. You must want what you want very badly to be so impertinent.'
'I do,' she admitted turning red. 'But only for the children not for any gain for myself, I swear. And I didn't mean to be impertinent.'
Just when Grace thought she'd absolutely blown any chance of getting his help, and had started to regret being so bold, astoundingly, the businessman appeared to reconsider.