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The vibration of Lucas Atraeus's cell phone disrupted the measured bunch and slide of muscle as he smoothly bench-pressed his own weight.
Gray sweatpants clinging low on narrow hips, broad shoulders bronzed by the early morning light that flooded his private gym, he flowed up from the weight bench and checked the screen of his cell. Few people had his private number; of those only two dared interrupt his early morning workout.
"Si." His voice was curt as he picked up the call.
The conversation with his older brother, Constantine, the CEO of The Atraeus Group, a family-owned multibillion-dollar network of companies, was brief. When he terminated the call, Lucas was grimly aware that within the space of a few seconds a great many things had changed.
Constantine intended to marry in less than a fortnight's time and, in so doing, he had irretrievably complicated Lucas's life.
The bride, Sienna Ambrosi, was the head of a Sydney-based company, Ambrosi Pearls. She also happened to be the sister of the woman with whom Lucas was currently involved. Although involved was an inadequate word to describe the passionate, addictive attraction that had held him in reluctant thrall for the past two years.
The phone vibrated again. Lucas didn't need to see the number to know who the second caller was; his gut reaction was enough. Carla Ambrosi. Long, luscious dark hair, honey-tanned skin, light blue eyes and the kind of taut, curvy body that regularly disrupted traffic and stopped him in his tracks.
Desire kicked, raw and powerful, almost overturning the rigid discipline he had instilled in himself after his girlfriend had plunged to her death in a car accident almost five years ago. Ever since Sophie's death he had pledged not to be ruled by passion or fall into such a destructive relationship ever again.
Lately, a whole two years lately, he had been breaking that rule on a regular basis.
But not anymore.
With an effort of will he resisted the almost overwhelming urge to pick up the call. Seconds later, to his intense relief, the phone fell silent.
Shoving damp, jet-black hair back from his face, he strolled across the pale marble floor to the shower with the loose-limbed power of a natural athlete. In centuries past, his build and physical prowess would have made him a formidable warrior. These days, however, Medinian battle was fought across boardroom tables with extensive share portfolios and gold mined from the arid backbone of the main island.
In the corporate arena, Lucas was undefeated. Relationships, however, had proved somewhat less straightforward.
All benefit from the workout burned away by tension and the fierce, unwanted jolt of desire, he stripped off his clothes, flicked the shower controls and stepped beneath a stream of icy water.
If he did nothing and continued an affair that had become increasingly irresistible and risky, he would find himself engaged to a woman who was the exact opposite of the kind of wife he needed.
A second fatal attraction. A second Sophie.
His only honorable course now was to step away from the emotion and the desire and use the ruthless streak he had hammered into himself when dealing with business acquisitions. He had to form a strategy to end a relationship that had always been destined for disaster, for both of their sakes.
He had tried to finish with Carla once before and failed. This time he would make sure of it.
It was over.
Lucas was finally going to propose.
The glow of a full moon flooded the Mediterranean island of Medinos as Carla Ambrosi brought her rented sports car to a halt outside the forbidding gates of Castello Atraeus.
Giddy delight coupled with nervous tension zinged through her as the paparazzi, on Medinos for her sister's wedding to Constantine Atraeus tomorrow, converged on the tiny sky-blue car. So much for arriving deliberately late and under cover of darkness.
A security guard tapped on her window. She wound the glass down a bare two inches and handed him the cream-colored, embossed invitation to the prewedding dinner.
With a curt nod, he slid the card back through the narrow gap and waved her on.
A flash temporarily blinded her as she inched the tiny rental through the crush, making her wish she had ignored the impulse that had seized her and chosen a sensible, solid four-door sedan instead of opting for a low-slung fun and flimsy sports car. But she had wanted to look breezy and casual, as if she didn't have a care in the world
A sharp rap on her passenger-side window jerked her head around.
"Ms. Ambrosi, are you aware that Lucas Atraeus arrived in Medinos this morning?"
A heady jolt of anticipation momentarily turned her bones to liquid. She had seen Lucas's arrival on the breakfast news. Minutes later, she had glimpsed what she was sure must be his car as she had strolled along the waterfront to buy coffee and rolls for breakfast.
Flanked by security, the limousine had been hard to miss but, frustratingly, the darkly tinted windows had hidden the occupants from sight. Breakfast forgotten, she had both called and texted Lucas. They had arranged to meet but, frustratingly, a late interview request from a popular American TV talk-show host had taken that time slot. With Ambrosi's new collection due for release in under a week, the opportunity to use the publicity surrounding Sienna's wedding to showcase their range and mainstream Ambrosi's brand had been pure gold. Carla had hated canceling but she had known that Lucas, with his clinical approach to business, would understand. Besides, she was seeing him tonight.
Another camera flash made the tension headache she had been fighting since midafternoon spike out of control. The headache was a sharp reminder that she needed to slow down, chill out, de-stress. Difficult to do with the type A personality her doctor had diagnosed just over two years ago, along with a stomach ulcer.
The doctor, who also happened to be a girlfriend, had advised her to lose her controlling, perfectionist streak, to stop micromanaging every detail of her life including her slavish need to color coordinate her wardrobe and plan her outfits a week in advance. Her approach to relationships was a case in point. Her current system of spreadsheet appraisal was hopelessly punitive. How could she find Mr. Right if no one ever qualified for a second date? Stress was a killer. She needed to loosen up, have some fun, maybe even consider actually sleeping with someone, before she ended up with even worse medical complications.
Carla had taken Jennifer at her word. A week later she had met Lucas Atraeus.
"Ms. Ambrosi, now that your sister is marrying Constantine, is there any chance of resurrecting your relationship with Lucas?"
Jaw tight, Carla continued to inch forward, her heart pounding at the reporter's intrusive question, which had been fired at her like a hot bullet.
And which had been eating at her ever since Sienna had broken the news two weeks ago that she had agreed to marry Constantine.
Tonight, though, she was determined not to resent the questions or the attention. After two years of avoiding being publicly linked with Lucas after the one night the press claimed they had spent together, she was now finally free to come clean about the relationship.
The financial feud that had torn the Atraeus and Ambrosi families apart, and the grief of her sister's first broken engagement to Constantine, were now in the past. Sienna and Constantine had their happy ending. Now, tonight, she and Lucas could finally have theirs.
A throaty rumble presaged the glare of headlights as a gleaming, muscular black car glided in behind her.
Her heart slammed against the wall of her chest. He was staying at the castello, which meant he had probably been at a meeting in town and was just returning. Or he could have driven to the small town house she and Sienna and their mother were renting in order to collect her. The possibility of the second option filled her with relieved pleasure.
A split second later the way ahead was clear as the media deserted her in favor of clustering around Lucas's Maser-ati. Automatically, Carla's foot depressed the accelerator, sending her small sports car rocketing up the steep, winding slope. Scant minutes later, she rounded a sweeping bend and the spare lines of the castello she had only ever seen in magazine articles jumped into full view.
The headlights of the Maserati pinned her as she parked on the smooth sweep of gravel fronting the colonnaded entrance. Feeling suddenly, absurdly vulnerable, she retrieved the flame-red silk clutch that matched her dress and got out of the car.
The Maserati's lights winked out, plunging her into comparative darkness as she closed her door and locked the car.
She started toward the Maserati, still battling the aftereffects of the bright halogen lights. The sensitivity of her eyes was uncomfortably close to a symptom she had experienced two months ago when she had contracted a virus while holidaying with Lucas in Thailand.
Instead of the romantic interlude she had so carefully planned and which would have generated the proposal she wanted, Lucas had been forced into the role of nursemaid. On her return home, when she had continued to feel off-color, further tests had revealed that the stomach ulcer she thought she had beaten had flared up again.
The driver's side door of the car swung open. Her pulse rate rocketed off the charts. Finally, after a day of anxious waiting, they would meet.
Her mouth went dry at a euphemism that couldn't begin to describe the explosive encounters that, over the past year, had become increasingly intense.
The reporter at the gate had put his finger on an increasingly tender and painful pulse. Resurrect her relationship with Lucas?
Technically, she was not certain they had ever had anything as balanced as a relationship. Her attempt to create a relaxed, fun atmosphere with no stressful strings had not succeeded. Lucas had seemed content with brief, crazily passionate interludes, but she was not. As hard as she had tried to suppress her type A tendencies and play the glamorous, carefree lover, she had failed. Passion was wonderful, but she liked to be in control, to personally dot every i and cross every t. For Carla, leaving things "open" had created even more stress.
Heart pounding, she started toward the car. The gown she had bought with Lucas in mind was unashamedly spectacular and clung where it touched. Split down one side, it revealed the long, tanned length of her legs. The draped neckline added a sensual Grecian touch to the swell of her breasts and also hid the fact that she had lost weight over the past few weeks.
Her chest squeezed tight as Lucas climbed out of the car with a fluid muscularity she would always recognize.
She drank in midnight eyes veiled by inky lashes, taut cheekbones, the faintly battered nose, courtesy of two seasons playing professional rugby; his strong jaw and firm, well-cut mouth. Despite the sleek designer suit and the ebony seal ring that gleamed on one finger, Lucas looked somewhat less than civilized. A graphic image of him naked and in her bed, his shoulders muscled and broad, his skin dark against crisp white sheets, made her stomach clench.
His gaze captured hers and the idea that they could keep the chemistry that exploded between them a secret until after the wedding died a fiery death. She wanted him. She had waited two years, hamstrung by Sienna's grief at losing Constantine. She loved her sister and was fiercely loyal. Dating the younger and spectacularly better looking Atraeus brother when Sienna had been publicly dumped by Constantine would have been an unconscionable betrayal.
Tonight, she and Lucas could publicly acknowledge their desire to be together. Not in a heavy-handed, possessive way that would hint at the secretive liaison that had disrupted both of their lives for the past two years, but with a low-key assurance that would hint at the future.
As Ambrosi's public relations "face," she understood exactly how this would be handled. There would be no return to the turgid headlines that had followed their first passionate night together. There would be no announcements, no fanfare at least, not until after tomorrow's wedding.
Despite the fact that her strappy high heels, a perfect color match for the dress, made her more than a little unstable on the gravel, she jogged the last few yards and flung herself into Lucas's arms.
The clean scent that was definitively Lucas, mingled with the masculine, faintly exotic undernote of sandalwood, filled her nostrils, making her head spin. Or maybe it was the delight of simply touching him again after a separation that had run into two long months.
The cool sea breeze whipped long silky coils of hair across her face as she lifted up on her toes. Her arms looped around his neck, her body slid against his, instantly responding to his heat, the utter familiarity of broad shoulders and sleek, hard-packed muscle. His sudden intake of breath, the unmistakable feel of him hardening against the soft contours of her belly filled her with mindless relief.
Ridiculous tears blurred her vision. This was so not playing it cool, but it had been two months since she had touched, kissed, made love to her man. Endless days while she had waited for the annoying, debilitating ulcerclear evidence that she had not coped with her unresolved emotional situationto heal. Long weeks while she had battled the niggling anxiety that had its roots in the disastrous bout of illness in Thailand, as if she was waiting for the next shoe to drop.
She realized that one of the reasons she had not told Lucas about the complications following the virus was that she had been afraid of the outcome. Over the years he had dated a string of gorgeous, glamorous women so she usually took great care that he only ever saw her at her very best. There had been nothing pretty or romantic about the fever that had gripped her in Thailand. There had been even less glamour surrounding her hospital stay in Sydney.