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Son of a bitch!
Jack Sinclair stood on the sidewalk outside The Kincaid Group building and watched Nikki Thomas, his soon-to-be-former lover, give Elizabeth Kincaid a hug before heading into the Kincaid complex. As far as he was concerned, it was the ultimate betrayal.
Puzzle pieces he didn't even realize he was missing dropped into place in that instant. She worked for TKG, there was no other explanation. All this timethree amazing months together, an affair unlike any he'd experienced before, one that teetered on the brink of becoming something solid and permanentand she'd been using him. Setting him up. Working for the enemy. He took a deep breath and reached for the cool, calm poise he'd spent a lifetime cultivating. He found it but just barely.
There could be some other explanation for that hug, his few remaining shreds of rational thought insisted. Since Nikki had purchased him at the Read and Write bachelor auction, an affair held at Lily Kincaid's home and attended by half of Charleston's elite, she could have met Elizabeth there. Or through a woman's club they had in common. Maybe Elizabeth and Nikki's mother were friends. They were all part of Charleston high society. No doubt they'd met at some event or another.
It could be just that simple.
Not only that, but Jack had asked Nikki in her role as corporate investigator to find out who owned stock in The Kincaid Group, specifically who owned the key ten percent not controlled by him or the Kincaids. Perhaps she was here on a fact-finding trip. All perfectly innocuous.
Well, there was an easy way to find out. He pulled out his cell phone and touched the screen to access TKG's main phone number. The receptionist answered on the second ring. "The Kincaid Group. How may I direct your call?"
"Connect me with Nikki Thomas, please."
The woman hesitated. "Nikki? Nikki Thomas?"
"She's your corporate investigator. She said I could reach her through this number."
"Oh. Certainly. One moment, please."
He disconnected the call and swore long and hard, his momentary hope for an innocuous explanation sweeping away like the wish for summer in the face of a frigid Arctic nor'easter. He'd known from the start that she was a corporate investigator, but her claim of confidentiality had kept him from asking key questions. Now she'd answer every last one of them.
He headed for the TKG building, driven by something so deep and primal and basic he couldn't put a name to it. He just knew it led to Nikki. To a confrontation with the woman who'd pushed through doors of intimacy he'd spent years barring and locking.
The woman who'd soon regret ever screwing him over.
Jack didn't waste any further time. He crossed the street, oblivious to the busy traffic. His entire focus remained on the four-story building in front of him and the woman who worked there. He'd been inside TKG several times over the past five months for meetings with his father's sons and daughtersthe "Legitimates," as he referred to them. No doubt they referred to him as the "Bastard," a nickname he'd earned on more than one front.
He approached the reception desk. The woman seated behind the wide sweep of finely crafted wood took one look at him and snatched up the phone. He reached over the counter and disconnected the call without the least compunction. No doubt she had standing orders to alert one of the Kincaids whenever he appeared. He'd have done the same in their place.
"You know who I am?" he asked, his voice deadly soft.
She nodded mutely.
"Excellent. Then you also know I own a sizable portion of this company." He gestured for her to return the receiver to the cradle. "Nikki Thomas. Where?"
She'd picked up on his anger and intense concern flickered across her face. "What's your business with Ms. Thomas?"
"That's none of your concern. Where is her office? I won't ask again. Nor will I forget your lack of cooperation."
The receptionist's concern grew, along with an almost protective expression. Leave it to Nikki to instill such loyalty in her fellow employees. For a moment, Jack didn't think she'd answer. Then she caved. "Second floor 210," the woman murmured unhappily.
"You will not alert her to my presence, is that quite clear?"
Jack circled the reception desk, debating briefly on whether to take the elevator or stairs. Stairs. Less risk of running into a Kincaid. Considering his current mood he didn't trust himself not to knock the unlucky person flat on their ass. It didn't take long to find Nikki's office. Her door was ajar and though she stood at a large window overlooking the harbor, he doubted she took in the stunning view, not with her head bent and what appeared to be the weight of the world resting on her fine-boned shoulders. In all the four months he'd known her, he'd never seen her look so defeated.
She wore her hair up, exposing the vulnerable paleness of her neck. Brilliant golden sunlight streamed in the window, losing itself in the ebony darkness of her hair while highlighting her potent feminine figure, showcased in a form-fitting royal blue suit. He'd watched her don that outfit just this morning, knew intimately what scraps of silk and lace hid beneath, their color a perfect match to her suit. He also knewintimatelywhat she looked like in the panties and bra, how that shade of blue turned her magnolia-white skin luminescent, and how tempted he'd been to strip them away before returning her to their bed.
He clamped down on the surge of desire with a ruthlessness his competitors had come to fear and respect. She'd betrayed him, something he doubted he could ever forgive. Now he'd find out just how deep that betrayal ran. And he'd know why. He closed the door. The metallic click sounded like the cocking of a trigger, the sound of the lock being thrown as explosive as a gun blast.
Nikki's head jerked up and she spun around, her expression confirming his worst suspicions. He must have still entertained a lingering hope that she'd offer a reasonable explanation for her presence at The Kincaid Group. Otherwise, he'd never have experienced such an overwhelming and devastating sense of loss.
"Jack." His name escaped on a sigh of guilt and dismay.
"I believe there's something you neglected to tell me, Nikki. Vital information that's four months overdue." He didn't dare approach. Not until he'd regained full control of his temper. "Care to rectify that omission?"
"I can explain."
He couldn't help it. He laughed. "How often has a woman said that to a man? Of course, there's usually another man in her bed at the time she uses that expression."
"It's probably as many times as a man's said it to a woman when she comes home unexpectedly to find him making love to someone else," Nikki retorted. Then her flash of anger faded, sliding into something that hovered between sorrow and regret. "I'm sorry, Jack. Saying I can explain is a rather ridiculous comment given the circumstances."
He leaned back against the door and folded his arms across his chest. "I wondered why you were willing to pay so much for me at the Read and Write bachelor auction. You claimed you bid for me because no one else would. But now I suspect it was all a setup. The Kincaids came up with the clever scheme so you'd be in a position to spy on me, didn't they? It all makes sense now."
She held up a hand and her eyes flashed a swift warning. "Hold it right there. If you think for one minute that I bid on you at the Kincaids' request"
"You bid a thousand dollars when no one else would." The anger he worked so hard to control escaped his iron grip for a split second. "You set me up right from the start."
She shook her head, the vehement motion causing silky strands of her hair to escape and caress her arching cheekbones, as well as the long sweep of her neck. God, he remembered burying his face in that sweet-scented hair only hours before. Remembered kissing a pathway along the pale, velvety line of her neck. How long would it take before the memories faded and he'd know peace again?
"I didn't set you up. Not then and not now."
She took a single step in his direction, but something in his expression drove her back, a stumbling retreat that brought out the predator in him. She must have sensed it because her breath quickened and her eyesthose damnable sapphire-blue eyesdarkened with pain and regret. She wrapped her arms around her narrow waist which only drew his attention to the fullness of her breasts straining against her suit jacket.
He forced his gaze away, forced himself to focus on her elegant, duplicitous features. They were beyond lovely, no doubt inherited from her mother, the aristocratic side of her family tree. He should have known that someone who'd been born and bred within Charleston's social elite couldn't be trusted. Hadn't his mother discovered that when Reginald Kincaid had made her his mistress?
Angela Sinclair had come from the wrong side of the tracks, which made her eligible for a bed partner, but she'd never been good enough to marry, any more than the son they'd borne together had been good enough to claim. Jack's mouth twisted. At least, he hadn't been claimed until dear ol' Dad had been dead and gone, leaving others to clean up the shattered mess the man had left behind.
All his life, Jack had stood on the outside of those fancy manors, while the Southern gentility had stuck rigidly to their social rules and order. Society had made him an outcast because of his bastard status, while welcoming the man who'd set the double standard, the man who'd proudly embraced the Legitimates, the children he'd fathered with Elizabeth Kincaid. All the while he'd kept Angela and his firstborn son a deep, dark secret. Now for the final piece of irony.
The one woman he'd grown to trust, to respect, whom he believed he could love for the rest of his life and had planned to offer the ring currently tucked away in his dresser drawer, was working for the Kincaids. No doubt their entire relationship had been built on a bed of lies. And hadn't he just enjoyed the hell out of that bed until now.
Nikki held out a hand. "Please, Jack. You have to believe me. When I attended that bachelor auction and bid on you, I had no idea who you were. I didn't understand why no one else would make an offer. I mean, it was for charity. It didn't make sense."
"You really expect me to believe the Kincaids didn't put you up to it?" He shook his head. "Sorry, sweetheart. Considering you work for them and have kept very quiet about that fact makes it impossible for me to believe anything you have to say."
"I didn't find out until after that first kiss we shared at the auction," she insisted doggedly. "Lily found us by the carriage house, remember? You left and she told me who you were."
Oh, he remembered that first kiss, remembered every second of the overpowering desire that had swept them both away, a desire that made them blind and deaf to everything going on around them. He'd never experienced anything like it before. He rarely lost control, prided himself on keeping his emotions and reactions reined in at all times, safely walled away. But that night. That night he'd lost it, had been ripped in two by an imperative to possess, to mark the woman in his arms in some fundamental, primal way. To make her his in every sense of the word.
Is that what his parents had felt for each other, why they'd flouted society's rules and strictures? He shied away from the thought, unwilling to explore the possibility that allowed any gray into his black-and-white world. Of course, he hadn't made love to Nikki that night. But he had the next time they'd met, when she'd collected on the dinner she'd won at the auction.
Jack stared at her, watching, analyzing, weighing. "Even if I believed you. The Kincaids were all there when you bid on me. They knew you'd won a date with me. Are you trying to tell me now they didn't use that information? You're their corporate investigator, aren't you?"
"Yes, I'm their corporate investigator. Yes, Matt and RJ Kincaid knew about our dinner date. And yes, Matt asked me"
Before she could finish her statement, the handle of her office door jiggled. Discovering it locked, whoever had comeno doubt rushing to Nikki's aidbegan pounding on the door. Jack frowned in annoyance. Apparently, he needed to work a bit harder on his intimidation skills since clearly the receptionist had called for reinforcements. Although to be fair, he'd only warned her not to alert Nikki of his arrival. He hadn't thought to include the rest of the Kincaids in his demand. The pounding reverberated against the wood, echoing straight through the hollowness filling his chest.
"Your rescue party, I believe." He tilted his head to one side. "Must have been the receptionist. Apparently, her concern for you outweighed my threats."
Nikki's mouth dropped open and a hint of outrage glistened in her eyes. "You threatened Dee?"
"Of course I threatened Dee. It's who I am, remember? I threaten. I act. And then I win."
She shook her head. "That's not true, Jack. That's not the man I've spent the last three months falling"
Another burst of pounding interrupted her words, words he'd have given half his fortune to have heard her utter. "Sinclair, we know you're in there." His half brother, RJ's voice, Jack decided. Uncannily similar to his own, which only served to add to his anger. Irrational, but true. "Unlock this door right now or we're calling the police."
Jack lifted an eyebrow. "Well? Should I let them in?"
Nikki sighed. "That's probably best if you don't want to be arrested."
"Arrested for what? I own forty-five percent of TKG."
He shrugged and did as she requested. Might as well get this over with. He stepped aside, grateful he'd done so when the door banged open. RJ and Matt Kincaid piled into the office. While Matt aligned himself in front of Nikki, RJ confronted Jack.
"Are you all right, Nikki?" RJ asked, his sharp gaze fixed on Jack.
The resemblance between them went beyond the superficial. Both topped six feet by an inch or two and were more solidly built than Matt's lean, swimmer's body. They'd also inherited a substantial portion of their father's aristocratic good looks, including his dark brown hair and the general shape and expression of the eyes, even though the shade of blue differed dramatically. And as loath as Jack was to admit it, they also shared an uncanny knack for business, both excelling at itwhich would make Jack's success when he gained control of The Kincaid Group all the sweeter.