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'I'm afraid the latest audit has thrown up an irregularity.'
Jonas looked across his wide, polished desk and frowned as his Head of Finance shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
What sort of irregularity could make Charles Barker palpably nervous? He was the best. Jonas made it a policy only to employ the best. He didn't have patience for underper-formers. Barker ran his part of Jonas' business enterprise like a well-oiled machine.
'A significant irregularity?'
Barker shook his head. 'Not in overall financial terms.'
Since the company's total assets figured in the billions, Jonas supposed he should be relieved, but watching Barker loosen his tie, Jonas felt a prickle of foreboding.
'Spit it out, Charles.'
The other man smiled, but it turned into a grimace as he passed his laptop across the desk. 'There. The top two lines.'
Jonas noted the first entrya transfer of several thousand pounds. Below it another, much larger entry. No details were provided for either.
'What am I looking at?'
'Withdrawals against your original investment account.' Jonas' frown became a scowl. He used that account now only to transfer personal funds between investments. 'Someone accessed my account?' But the answer was obvious. Jonas hadn't made these withdrawals. He managed day-to-day expenses elsewhere and, though large by normal standards, the withdrawals weren't significant enough to match his usual personal investments.
'We've traced them.' Of course, Barker would make it his business to have an answer before he fronted Jonas with the problem.
'And?' Curiosity rose.
'You'll remember the account was originally set up as part of a family enterprise.'
How could Jonas forget? His father had given him chapter and verse on how to run a business, pretending he, as head of the family, was the senior partner in the enterprise. But they'd both known it was Jonas' talent for spotting a sound investment, and his ruthless hunger for success, that had turned the floundering investment company around. Piers had simply been along for the ride, revelling in the novelty of success. Until father and son had parted ways.
'I remember.' Memory was a sour tang on his tongue.
Barker shifted again. 'The withdrawals were made using an old cheque bookone that had supposedly been destroyed.' Jonas looked up, catching a faint flush on the other man's cheeks. 'The records show they were accounted for but this one of your father's '
'It's okay, I get the picture.' Jonas let his gaze drift across the unrivalled view of the City of London.
His father. Jonas hadn't called him that since childhood when he'd discovered what sort of man Piers Deveson was. Despite his bluster about honour and the family name, Piers had been no model of virtue. It shouldn't surprise Jonas to learn the old man had found a way to access his son's assets illegally. The wonder was he hadn't used it earlier.
'No!' Barker sat straighter as Jonas turned back to him. 'I'm sorry, but we've reason to believe it wasn't your father. Here.' He passed some photocopied pages across.
Jonas scanned them. Two cheques with his father's familiar flourishing signature.
Except they weren't Piers Deveson's signature. They were close enough to fool a stranger but he was familiar enough with that scrawl to spot the differences.
'Look at the dates.'
Jonas did and to his surprise felt a punch to the gut that winded him.
Bad enough to think the old man had pilfered funds. But this was
Jonas shook his head, his lungs cramping as unexpected emotion filled him.
'The second one is dated a day after your father died.'
Silently Jonas nodded, his heart slowing to a ponderous beat. He knew the date, and not just because it was recent.
For years his father had been a thorn in his side, a blot on the familyliving in gaudy luxury with his scheming mistress. They'd flaunted themselves among the rich and notorious, uncaring of any hurt they'd caused. When Piers died Jonas had felt nothingneither regret nor an easing of the tension that had gripped him since Piers' defection had taken its ultimate toll. He'd expected to feel something. For weeks there'd been nothing, just an emptiness where emotion should have been. Yet now
'Not my father then.' His voice was calm, belying the raw emotions churning in his gut. Beneath the desk his hands clenched.
'No. We've traced the perpetrator. And she's not too clever, given the obvious anomaly with the date.' Barker spoke quickly, obviously eager to get this over. 'It was a Ms Ruggiero. Living at this address in Paris.'
Barker handed over another paper. It bore the address of the exclusive apartment Piers Deveson had shared for the last six years with his mistress, Silvia Ruggiero.
Jonas paused before reaching out to take the paper. His fingers tingled as if it burned him.
'So.' Jonas sat back. 'My father's whore thinks she can continue to milk his family even after his death.' His voice was devoid of emotion, but he felt it deep inside like the burn of ice on bruised flesh.
How could the woman think she'd get away with this after all she'd done to the Devesons? Surely she wasn't stupid enough to expect mercy?
His pulse thudded as he thought of the woman who'd destroyed so much.
He remembered Silvia Ruggiero as clearly as if he'd seen her yesterday, her voluptuous figure, flashing eyes and froth of dark hair. Sex on legs, one of his friends had said the first time he'd seen Silvia, who was then the Devesons' housekeeper. And he'd been right. Not even a drab uniform had doused the woman's vibrant sexuality.
That had been mere weeks before Jonas' father had turned his back on family and responsibility, let alone respectability, by running off with his housekeeper to set her up in a luxury Paris apartment.
Four months later Jonas' mother was found dead. An accidental overdose, the coroner had said. But Jonas knew the truth. After years spurned by the man she'd loved, his public repudiation had finally been too much. His mother had taken her own life.
Jonas breathed deep, pulling oxygen into cramped lungs. Now the woman responsible for his mother's death had struck again. She had the nerve to think she could continue to steal from him!
The paper in his hand crackled as his fist tightened slowly, inexorably. Fury surged, tensing every sinew. His jaw ached as he clenched his teeth against a rising tide of useless invective.
Jonas never wasted energy on words when actions were so much more effective.
For six years he'd spurned the idea of revenge. He'd risen above that temptation, burying himself in work and refusing any contact with Piers or his gold-digging mistress.
But now thisthe straw that broke the camel's back.
The blood raced hot and sharp in his veins as for the first time Jonas allowed himself to contemplate fully the pleasures of retribution.
'Leave this to me, Charles.' Jonas smiled slowly, his facial muscles pulling tight. 'There's no need to report the fraud. I'll sort it out personally.'
Ravenna surveyed the apartment in despair. Most of the furnishings she knew now were fake, from the gilded Louis Quinze chairs to the china masquerading as period Limoges and Sevres.
Mamma had always been adept at making ends meet, even through the toughest times.
A reluctant smile tugged Ravenna's lips. Life in a swanky apartment in the Place des Vosges, one of Paris's premier addresses, hardly counted as tough, not like the early days of Ravenna's childhood when food had been scarce and the winters cold without enough blankets or warm clothes. But those early experiences had stood her mother in good stead. When the money began to run out she'd methodically turned to replacing the priceless antiques with copies.
Silvia Ruggiero had always made do, even if her version of 'making do' lately had been on a preposterously luxurious scale. But it was what Piers had wanted and in Silvia's eyes that was all that mattered.
Ravenna tugged in a shaky breath. Her mother was far better off in Italy staying with a friend, instead of here, coping with the aftermath of Piers' death. If only she'd told Ravenna straight away about his heart attack. Ravenna would have been here the same day. Even now she could barely believe her mother had kept that to herself, worrying instead about disturbing Ravenna with more trouble!
Mothers! Did they ever believe their children grew up?
Silvia had been barely recognisable when Ravenna had arrived in Paris from Switzerland. For the first time her gorgeous mother had looked older than her age, worn by grief. Ravenna was concerned for her. Piers might not have been Ravenna's favourite but her mother had loved him.
No, Mamma was better off out of this. Packing up here was the least Ravenna could do, especially after Piers' generosity when she most needed it. So what if it meant facing creditors and selling what little her mother had left?
She returned to her inventory, glad she'd organised for an expert to visit and separate any valuable items from the fakes. To Ravenna they all looked obscenely expensive and rather ostentatious. But since her home was a sparsely furnished bedsit in a nondescript London suburb, she was no judge.
Jonas pressed the security buzzer a second time, wondering if she was out and his spur of the moment trip to Paris had been an impetuous waste of time.
He didn't do impetuous. He was methodical, measured and logical. But he also had a razor-sharp instinct for weakness, for the optimum time to strike. And surely now, mere weeks after Piers' death, his father's mistress would be feeling the pinch as creditors started to circle.
Static buzzed and a husky, feminine voice spoke in his ear. 'Hello?'
Yes! His instinct had been right.
'I'm here to see Madam Ruggiero.'
'Monsieur Giscard? I was expecting you. Please come up.'
Jonas pushed open the security door into a marble foyer. He ignored the lift and strode up the couple of floors to what had been his father's love nest. Suppressing a shiver of revulsion, he rapped on the door of the apartment.
It swung open almost immediately and he stepped past a slim young woman into a lavishly furnished foyer. Through an open door he glimpsed an overfull salon but no sign of the woman he'd come to see. He moved towards the inner room.
'You're not Monsieur Giscard.' The accusation halted him.
He swung round to find eyes the colour of rich sherry fixed on him. 'No. I'm not.'
For the first time he paused to survey the woman properly and somethingsurprise?rushed through him.
Slim to the point of fragility, she nevertheless had curves in all the right places, even if they were obscured by ill-fitting dark clothes. But it was her face that arrested him. Wide lush mouth, strong nose, angled cheekbones that gave her a fey air, lavish dark lashes and rather straight brows framing eyes so luminous they seemed to glow. Each feature in her heart-shaped face was so definite that together they should have jarred. Instead they melded perfectly.
She was arresting. Not pretty but something much rarer. Jonas felt his pulse quicken as heat shot low in his body.
He stiffened. When was the last time the sight of a woman, even a uniquely beautiful one, had affected him?
'And you are?' She tilted her head, drawing his gaze from her ripe mouth to the ultra-short sable hair she wore like a chic, ruffled cap. Another few weeks and she'd have curls.
He frowned. Why notice that when he had more important matters on his mind?
'Looking for Madam Ruggiero. Silvia Ruggiero.' It surprised him how difficult it was to drag his gaze away and back to the apartment's inner rooms.
'You don't have an appointment.' There was something new in her voice. Something hard and flat.
'No.' His mouth curled in a smile of grim anticipation. 'But she'll see me.'
The young woman strode back into his line of sight, blocking his way to the salon. Jonas catalogued the lithe grace of her movements even as he told himself he didn't have time for distractions.
She shook her head. 'You're the last person she'd see.'
'You know who I am?' His gaze sharpened as he took in her defiant stancearms akimbo and feet planted wide, as if she could prevent him if he chose to push past! She was tall, her mouth on a level with his collarbone, and she stared up at him with complete assurance.
'It took me a moment but of course I do.' A flicker of expression crossed her features so swiftly Jonas couldn't read it. But he watched her swallow and realised she wasn't as confident as she appeared. Interesting.
'And you are?' Jonas was used to being recognised from press reports, but instinct told him he'd met this woman before. Something about her tugged at half-buried memory.
'Forgettable, obviously.' Her lips twisted in a self-deprecating smile that ridiculously drove a spike of heat through his belly.
Jonas blinked. She wasn't smiling at him yet he reacted.
Annoyance flared. He drew himself up, watching her gaze skate across his shoulders and chest.
'She's not here.' The words tumbled out in a breathless rush that belied her aggressively protective stance. 'So you can't see her.'
'Then I'll wait.' Jonas stepped forward, only to come up against her slim frame, vibrating with tension. He'd expected her to give way. She surprised him with her determination to stand her ground. But he refused to retreat, no matter how distracting the sensation of her body against his. His business with Silvia Ruggiero was long overdue.
He looked down and her golden brown eyes widened as if in shock.
'I'm not going away,' he murmured, suppressing an inexplicable desire to lift his hand and see if her pale face was as soft as it appeared. The realisation threw him, making his voice emerge harshly. 'My business won't wait.'
Again she swallowed. He followed the movement of her slim throat with a fascination that surprised him. The scent of her skin filled his nostrils: feminine warmth and the tang of cinnamon.
Abruptly she stepped back, her chest rising and falling quickly, drawing his attention till he snapped his eyes back to her face.
'In that case you can talk with me.' She turned and led the way into the salon, her steps a clipped, staccato beat on the honey-coloured wood floor.
Jonas dragged his gaze from the sway of her hips in dark trousers and followed, furious to find himself distracted from his purpose even for a moment.
She settled herself on an overstuffed chair near a window framed by cloth of gold curtains. Hoping to put him at a disadvantage with her back to the light? It was such an obvious ploy. Instead of taking a seat Jonas prowled the room, knowing that with each passing moment her unease increased. Whoever she was, she was in cahoots with Silvia Ruggiero. Jonas wouldn't trust her an inch.
'Why should I share my business with a stranger?' He peered at an over-decorated ormolu clock.
Was there nothing in this place that wasn't overdone? It reeked of a nouveau riche fixation with show and quantity rather than quality. His cursory survey had revealed the best pieces in the room to be fakes. But that had been his fatherall show and no substance. Especially when it came to things like love or loyalty.
'I'm not a stranger.' Her tone was curt. 'Perhaps if you stopped your crude inventory you'd realise that.'
To Jonas' surprise unfamiliar heat rose under his skin. True, his behaviour was crass, calculated to unnerve rather than reassure. But he felt no need to ingratiate himself with his father's mistress or her crony.
He took his time swinging around to meet her eyes.
'Then perhaps you'll do me the courtesy of answering my question. Who are you?'
'I thought that would be obvious. I'm Ravenna. Silvia's daughter.'