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KIRSTIE sat looking at the phone. She knew she had to make the call; she couldn't put it off any longer—she owed it to Becky. But it was the most difficult thing she had ever had to do. Fifteen years was a long time—almost sixteen actually. Would he even remember her?
She could remember Lucio Masterton as clearly as the day they had parted company. Black-haired, six feet four, disgustingly handsome, a powerful body—he'd played a lot of rugby in those days—and the most wicked sepia-coloured eyes she'd ever seen on a man. They could consume any member of the opposite sex with one glance, make her go weak at the knees and pray he'd take her to bed.
She had been the lucky one.
Or so she had thought!
It hadn't lasted. Lucio's sole interest in life had been becoming a millionaire. Bedding women came secondary. When she'd wanted to get serious he'd kicked her out of his life.
And now she needed to speak to him.
Now he was much more than a millionaire—he was a billionaire. A millionaire a million times over. The figures were incomprehensible.
But, to give him his due, his meteoric rise had been achieved by hard work and not good luck. She had kept her eye on what he was doing over the years and despite her resentment over the way he had treated her she admired his tenacity.
According to the tabloids he was now one of the most eligible bachelors in Europe and was often seen with a good-looking woman on his arm, though none, so far, had become the much sought after Mrs Masterton.
Kirstie couldn't help wondering whether he treated them all with the same contempt with which he had treated her. The papers never gave reasons when he split with a girlfriend and, considering the fact that he'd now reached his pinnacle, Kirstie couldn't see the point in him remaining single. But would there ever be a woman good enough for him? Whom he wouldn't see as a threat to his way of life?
She lifted the receiver. It was now or never. And she dialled the number.
"LMT.'It was a singsong female voice that instantly grated on Kirstie's nerves.
"Can I speak to Lucio Masterton, please?" 'Who's calling?" 'Kirstie Rivers." 'What company?" 'It's a personal call." 'I'm sorry, Mr Masterton doesn't take personal calls, not unless they're on his approved list, and your name doesn't seem to be there."
So he had a list of all his current girlfriends? Interesting. "Very well," she said, thinking quickly, "it's Kirstie Rivers from Venture Applications.'Where that name had come from she had no idea but it seemed to do the trick.
"And what is the nature of your business?"
Kirstie couldn't believe she was being asked all these questions. "What is this?" she asked angrily. "The third degree? Lucio knows me. If you value your job tell him I'm on the phone.'Because there was definitely no way she could do this twice. It had taken enough courage this first time.
Oh, goodness, the girl had put her through without saying who she was. "Lucio?" Horrifyingly her voice came out in a husky whisper.
"Who is this?" In contrast his voice was a rasp of impatience. A voice she remembered well. It was deep and gritty with a habit of vibrating along nerves and sinews, sending a tremor through every female who listened to it.
He'd had an air of authority, even as a young man of nineteen, but he'd honed his skills and it sat very well on his shoulders now, terrorising, she imagined, all who came into contact with him. Even his receptionist had had a healthy respect in her voice.
Kirstie cleared her throat, sat up that little bit straighter, stiffened her shoulders and spoke firmly. "It's Kirstie Rivers."
Oh, lord! He had forgotten her. This wasn't going to be easy. She could picture the frown that drew his thick, shiny brows together; she could see his dark eyes narrowed and intent as he searched his memory, which, she imagined, would be encyclopaedic.
Should she enlighten him or wait and see what the search of his mind would throw up?
Ten, nine, eight, seven... "Kirstie!"
He hadn't let her down. But was he smiling at the memory? Or was a frown etched into that dark Latin brow? He was a beautiful man. At nineteen he'd been handsome, and one of the most attractive boys in her college, but at thirty-four he was devastatingly magnificent.
Whenever his photograph appeared in a newspaper or magazine she studied it intently. Or when he was on TV talking about his latest project she listened to his deep, gravelly voice, feeling shivers of remembered passion run like wildfire through her veins. Crazy, she knew, but she couldn't help it. He had been her first love and her first lover. Not her only one—though there had not been many since—but none had matched up to Lucio Masterton.
"To what do I owe this pleasure?"
Pleasure! An unfortunate choice of word! Pleasure would be the last thing on his mind when he heard what she had to say. Kirstie's stomach curled into knots and her heartbeats quickened. Say what you've got to say and get it over with quickly, she told herself sternly. Otherwise you'll never do it.
How true that was. She'd put it off for years, but Becky had grown more and more insistent and so now was the time, her chance to—to what? To set the record straight. It sounded easy, but how would Lucio take it? She had no idea.
"How are you?" she asked. "I'm quite sure you haven't phoned to discuss the state of my health," he announced brusquely. "I'm a very busy man, Kirstie, as you must appreciate. It's nice to hear from you but I'm due in a meeting in two minutes. Perhaps we could meet for a drink one evening and talk over old times. How about Thursday? I'm free then."
"No!"Kirstie knew that if she didn't tell him now she never would. Her courage would desert her and she'd be letting her daughter down. Initially she had meant to suggest they meet up somewhere, but when push came to shove she couldn't do it. She didn't want to see his face, to feel his anger first-hand. She wanted the safety of a phone line between them.
"What do you mean? No, not on Thursday? Or no, you don't want to meet me?"
"I mean I need to talk to you now." Could he hear the crack in her voice, the dryness of her mouth? This was awful. No wonder she had put the moment off time and time again. "You have a daughter, Lucio." There, she had said it, not quite in the manner in which she had intended, but her secret was finally out.
Silence yet again!
Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five... Then the world exploded.
KIRSTIE felt sick with apprehension as they drew nearer to Lucio's house. It was at his insistence. He had not wanted to continue talking over the phone, nor even in a restaurant, but in his own home, where privacy was guaranteed. A home she was now seeing for the first time. A palatial mansion that screamed wealth!
Over the telephone earlier he had yelled so loudly that Kirstie had thought she would go deaf. Anger didn't even come into the equation. It had been more than that. It had been a red-hot fury that had sizzled along the line and set her phone on fire.
"I can't get out of this meeting," he had snarled, when he finally seemed to accept that she was telling him the truth, "but I can get out of a dinner engagement tonight. Be at my house at seven. I'll send a car."
The line had gone dead.
Kirstie hadn't moved for at least ten minutes. She had expected anger and quick-fire questions, but she had not expected to have them thrown at her with the ferocity of machine-gun bullets. She had expected him to say it couldn't be true and for him to try and wriggle out of it. But he had not.
"I must see her," he had declared. "Not yet," Kirstie countered fiercely. "Becky doesn't know I've contacted you. We need to talk first. I don't want you frightening her." He probably wouldn't—her daughter would probably be delighted to meet him at last—but she wasn't telling Lucio that, not yet anyway.
Having found the courage to tell Lucio the truth and having felt the full force of his fury, Kirstie was now dreading their forthcoming meeting.
Thankfully Becky was staying with a friend; she'd gone there straight from school, so there was no danger of Kirstie being questioned when the car came to pick her up.
A Bentley no less! She'd sunk into the rich leather upholstery and closed her eyes until they had pulled up outside Lucio's house, well-hidden from the road by dense woodland. Kirstie had no idea where they were. They could be one mile away or a hundred. Time hadn't mattered. She had lost herself in thoughts, in fear; in wishing she could turn back the clock.
Would Lucio have got where he was today if she'd turned up on his doorstep a couple of months after they'd broken up and told him that she was pregnant? Would he have married her and given up his big ideas? Or would he have accepted the inevitable but been an absentee father by still working all the hours God gave to build up a business? Or—the most terrifying thought of all—would he have turned her away?
She was greeted by, she presumed, Lucio's butler, a grey-haired, erect man in his mid-fifties with a kindly face. "Come this way," he said, and she followed him to a room at the back of the house overlooking formal gardens. It was a huge room, as she guessed they all were in this massive house, and she looked about her with interest. It told her nothing about Lucio. It was as impersonal as a room could get. How could he be happy living in such a soulless place?
She stood at the window and didn't hear Lucio approach, jumping suddenly at the sound of his voice. "Why don't you sit down?"
Kirstie turned and for the first time in nearly sixteen years looked into a pair of sepia eyes that had once had the power to send her whole body into a state of desire so strong it filled every limb and every nerve and tissue. She had expected the feeling to have died long ago. Instead a shock wave ripped through her.
He still had the power!
Her whole body reacted violently and it took every ounce of her strength to slam the sensation back down to where it belonged. This man was no longer for her. He had hurt her incredibly. She ought to hate him. He had ruined her life, or so she had thought at the time. In fact, Becky had been a blessing. So what, then, was this feeling? Desire for a good-looking, sexy man? Lust even? But certainly nothing more!
Her legs felt weak and, although she didn't want to sit, she moved towards an over-stuffed red velvet chaise longue and perched herself on the edge of it, her amethyst eyes huge as she looked up into his face. But when Lucio didn't take a seat, when he continued to look at her with a frown so deep on his brow that it threatened to slice it in two, she jumped up again.
"Say what you've got to say and let's get it over with," she heard herself mutter. This was nothing like the conversation she had intended to have with him. She had planned to be reasonable and unruffled; to let him see that what had happened was no fault of hers.
He put his hand on her shoulder and forced her to sit again, and then he stood over her like Goliath over David. The heat from his hand remained even when he had removed it, a telling reminder that if he so desired he could persecute her with ease. "Why did you never tell me I had a daughter? In fact, why did you never let me know that you were pregnant?" His almost black eyes bored into her soul like laser beams, pinning her even more firmly to her seat. "And more to the point, why have you decided to tell me now? Is it because you need money?" he asked scornfully. "Fifteen-year-olds take some keeping, so I understand, and then there'll be university fees and all it entails, and—"
"It's not about money," Kirstie cut in furiously. "How dare you insinuate that that's what I want?"
"Then pray tell me," he rasped, his face a mask of ice and fury, "exactly why you've chosen this moment to tell me I have a daughter. Providing, of course, that she is my daughter."
Kirstie gasped. "Do you really think that I would lie to you?" 'There are women who would, if they thought they'd get something out of it."
"I want nothing from you," she snapped, her heart beating so furiously that she could hear its echo in her ears. It was like a drumbeat that threatened to drive her mad. How could he think that she would be so coldly calculating? Hadn't their months spent together taught him anything about her?
He stood tall and proud in front of her, his arms folded over his magnificent chest, his feet apart, reminding her of a king, autocratic and regal. And Lucio was just as outstanding. He probably thought of himself as the royal head of his business empire.
"So, the question remains, why are you telling me now?" He sounded as though he wasn't even remotely interested in the fact that he had a daughter. The very thought of it made Kirstie's blood boil and she snapped her question at him. "Don't you want to know about her? Don't you want to know her name? What she looks like? Whether she's like you, in fact?" Which she was, very much so!