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Dark hair twisted in a sleek, classic knot Exotic eyes the shifting colors of the sea A delicate curvy body that made him burn from the inside out
A sharp rapping on the door of his Sydney hotel suite jerked Zane Atraeus out of a restless, dream-tossed sleep. Shielding his eyes from the glare of the morning sun, he shoved free of the huge silk-draped confection of a bed he'd collapsed into some time short of four that morning.
Pulling on the jeans he'd tossed over a chair, he dragged jet-lagged fingers through his tangled hair and padded to the door.
Memory punched back. An email Zane had found confirming that his half brother Lucas had purchased an engagement ring for a woman Zane could have sworn Lucas barely knew. Lilah Cole: the woman Zane had secretly wanted for two years and had denied himself.
His temper, which had been running on a short fuse ever since he had learned that not only was Lucas dating Lilah, he was planning on marrying her, ignited as he took in glittering chandeliers and turquoise-and-gold furnishings.
The overstuffed opulence was a far cry from the exotic but spare Mediterranean decor of his island home, Medinos. Instead of soothing him, the antiques and heavily swagged drapes only served to remind him that he had not been born to any of this. He would have to have a word with his new personal assistant, who clearly had a romantic streak.
Halfway across the sitting room the unmistakable sound of the front door lock disengaging made him stiffen.
Lucas Atraeus stepped into the room. Zane let out a self-deprecating breath.
Ten years ago, in L.A., it would have been someone breaking in, but this was Australia and his father's company, the mega wealthy Atraeus Group, owned the hotel so, of course, Lucas had gotten a key. "Ever heard of a phone?"
Closing the door behind him, Lucas tossed a key card down on the hall table. "I phoned, you didn't answer. Remember Lilah?"
The reason Zane was in Sydney instead of in Florida doing his job as the company "fixer" and closing a crucial land deal that had balanced on a knife's edge for the past week? "Your new fiancée." The tantalizing beauty who had almost snared him into a reckless night of passion two years ago. "Yeah, I remember."
Lucas looked annoyed. "I haven't asked her yet. How did you find out?"
Zane's jaw tightened at the confirmation. "My new P.A. was your old P.A., remember?" Which was why Zane had chanced across the internet receipt for Lucas's latest purchase. Apparently Elena was still performing the role of personal shopper for his brother in her spare time.
"Ahh. Elena." He glanced around the room. Comprehension gleamed in his eyes.
Now definitely in a bad mood, Zane turned on his heel and strolled in the direction of the suite's kitchenette. A large ornately gilded mirror threw his reflection back at himdarkly tanned skin, broad shoulders and a lean, muscled torso bisected by a tracery of scars. Three silver studs, the reminder of a misspent youth, glinted in one ear.
In the lavish elegance of the suite, he looked uncivilized, barbaric and faintly sinister, as different from his two classically handsome half brothers as the proverbial chalk was from cheese. Not something he had ever been able to help with the genes he'd inherited from the rough Salvatore side of his family, and the inner scars he had developed as a homeless kid roaming the streets of L.A.
He found a glass, filled it with water from the dispenser in the fridge door and drank in long, smooth swallows. The cold water failed to douse the intense, unreasoning jealousy that seared him every time he thought of Lucas and Lilah, the picture-perfect couple.
His reaction to the idea was as fierce and surprising as it had been when he had discovered Elena admiring a picture of the engagement ring.
The empty glass hit the kitchen counter with a controlled click. "I didn't think Lilah was your type."
As gorgeous and ladylike as Ambrosi Pearls's head jewelry designer was, in Zane's opinion, Lilah was too efficiently, calculatingly focused on hunting for a well-heeled husband.
Two years ago, when they had first met at the annual ball of a charity for homeless childrenof which he was the patronhe had witnessed the smooth way Lilah had targeted her escort's wealthy boss. Even armored by the formidable depth of betrayal in his past, Zane had been oddly entranced by the businesslike gleam in her eyes. He had not been able to resist the temptation to rescue the hapless older man and spoil her pitch.
Unfortunately, things had gotten out of hand when he and Lilah had ended up alone in a private reception room and he had given into temptation and kissed her. One kiss had led to another, sparking a conflagration that had threatened to engulf them both. Given that he had been irritated by Lilah's agenda, that she was not the kind of woman he was usually attracted to, his loss of control still perplexed him. If his previous personal assistant hadn't found them at a critical moment, he would have made a very big mistake.
Lucas, who had followed him into the kitchen, scribbled a number on the back of a business card and left it on the counter. "Lilah has agreed to be my date at Constantine's wedding. I'm leaving for Medinos in a couple of hours. I was going to arrange for her to fly in the day before the wedding, but since you're here" Lucas frowned. "By the way, why are you here? I thought you were locked into negotiations."
"I'm taking a couple of days." A muscle pulsed along Zane's jaw.
Lucas shrugged and opened the fridge door.
The shelves were packed with an array of fresh fruit, cheeses, pates and juices. Absently, Zane noted his assistant had also stocked the fridge with chocolate-dipped strawberries.
"Good move." Lucas examined a bottle of very expensive French champagne then replaced it. "Nothing like making the vendor think we're cooling off to fast-track a sale. Mind if I have something to eat? I missed breakfast."
Probably too busy shuttling between women to think about food. The last Zane had heard Lucas had also been having a wild "secret" affair with Carla Ambrosi, the public relations officer for Ambrosi and the sister of the woman their brother, Constantine, was marrying.
"Oysters." Lucas lifted a brow. "Having someone in?"
Zane stared grimly at the platter of oysters on the half shell, complete with rock salt and lemon wedges. "Not as far as I know."
Unless his new assistant had made some arrangement. If she was helping Lucas with his engagement during her lunch breaks, anything was possible. "Help yourself to the food, the juice." My girl.
The thought welled up out of the murk of his subconscious and slipped neatly past all of the reasons that commitment could never work for him. Especially, with a woman like Lilah.
Since the age of nine, relationships had been a difficult area.
After being abandoned by his extravagant, debt-ridden mother on a number of occasions while she had flitted from marriage to marriage, he had definite trust issues with women, especially those on the hunt for wealthy husbands.
Marriage was out.
Lucas took out the bowl of strawberries and surveyed the tempting fruit.
"It doesn't bother you that Lilah's on the hunt for a husband?"
An odd expression flitted across Lucas's face. "Actually, I respect her straightforward approach. It's refreshing."
Despite every attempt to relax, Zane's fingers curled into fists. So Lucas had fallen under her spell, too.
Try as he might, now that Zane had acknowledged that Lilah was his, he could not dismiss the thought. With every second that passed, the concept became more and more stubbornly real.
It was a fact that for the two years following the incendiary passion that had almost ended in lovemaking, he had been tormented by the knowledge that Lilah could have been his.
He had controlled the desire to have a reckless fling with Lilah. He had controlled himself.
Lucas selected the largest, plumpest strawberry. "Lilah has a fear of flying. I was hoping, since you're piloting the company jet that you could take her with you to Medinos when you leave."
Zane's jaw tightened. Everything in him rejected Lucas's easy assertion that Zane would tamely fall into place and hand-deliver Lilah to his bed.
He fixed on the first part of Lucas's statement. In all the time he had known Lilah she had never told him she had a fear of flying. Somehow that fact was profoundly irritating. "Just out of curiosity, how long have you known Lilah?" Lucas did spend time in Sydney, but not as much as Zane. He had never heard Lilah so much as mention Lucas's name.
"A week, give or take."
Zane went still inside. He knew his brother's schedule. They had all had to adjust their plans when Roberto Ambrosi, a member of a once-powerful and wealthy Medinian family, had died. The Atraeus Group had been forced to protect its interests by moving on the almost bankrupted Ambrosi Pearls. A hostile takeover to recover huge debts racked up by Roberto had been averted when Constantine had stunned them all by resurrecting his engagement to Sienna Ambrosi. The impending marriage had gone a long way toward healing the acrimonious rift that had developed between the two families when Roberto had leveraged money on the basis of the first engagement.
He knew that, apart from a couple of flying visits in the last couple of weeksone to attend Roberto's funeralthat Lucas had been committed offshore. He had only arrived in Sydney the previous day.
Zane had spent most of the previous week in Sydney in order to attend the annual general meeting of the charity. As usual, Lilah, who helped out with the art auctions, had been polite, reserved, the tantalizing, high-priced sensuality that was clearly reserved for the future Mr. Cole on ice. She had not mentioned Lucas. "Why not take Lilah with you?"
Lucas seemed inordinately interested in selecting a second strawberry. "It's a gray area."
Realization dawned. Lilah had not been subtle about her quest of finding a husband. He had just never seen Lucas as a candidate for an arranged marriage. "This is a first date."
A trace of emotion flickered in Lucas's gaze. "I needed someone on short notice. As it happens, after running a background check, I think Lilah is perfect for me. She's talented, attractive, she's got a good business head on her shoulders, she's even a"
"What about Carla?"
Lucas dropped the ripe berry as if it had seared his fingertips.
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place. Zane realized what the odd look in Lucas's eyes had been just moments ago: desperation. Hot outrage surged through him. "You're still involved with Carla."
"How did you know? No, don't tell me. Elena." Lucas put the bowl of strawberries back in the fridge and closed the door. "Carla and I are over."
But only just.
Suddenly the instant relationship with Lilah made sense. When Sienna married Constantine, Carla would practically be family. If it came out that Lucas had been sleeping with Carla, intense pressure would be applied. Under the tough exterior, when it came to women, Lucas was vulnerable.
He was using Lilah as a buffer, insurance that Carla, who had a reputation for flamboyant scenes, would not try to publicly force him to formalize their secret affair with a marriage proposal.
That meant that love did not come into the equation.
If Lucas genuinely wanted Lilah, Zane would walk away, however that was not the case. Lucas, who had once been in the untenable position of having a girlfriend die in a car crash after they had argued about the secret abortion she'd had, was using her to avert an unpleasant situation. As calculating as Lilah was with relationships, she did not deserve to be caught in the middle of a showdown between Lucas and Carla.
Relief eased some of his fierce tension. He didn't think Lilah had had time to sleep with Lucas yet. Somehow that fact was very important. "Okay. I'll do it."
Lucas looked relieved. "You won't regret it." Zane wasn't so sure.
He wondered if Lucas had any inkling that he had just placed a temptation Zane had doggedly resisted for over two years directly in his path.