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The top floor of the immense glass-and-steel monolith, the command post of Rylance Metals, housed the multibillion-dollar corporation's hierarchy. As Miranda rode the elevator to Corin's office she had an overwhelming feeling she shouldn't be in this building. Not that she would have to duck if she saw anyone. She had been inside Rylance Tower on isolated occasions over the past three years and no one had taken the slightest notice of her. Why would they? Her status of university student would have been obvious to them from her classic student dress. Besides, the Rylance Foundation sponsored a number of gifted students. They came and went. On those occasions she had been careful to maintain her camouflage. On campus she was a lot more flamboyant. Some of her girlfriends laughingly called her a fashionista. Amazing what one could do on a low budget, given a bit of flair. She had inherited that flair from someone. Leila? Leila was renowned for her style.
She had long since learned from Corin that Leila had been given a position on the board by her besotted husband. Corin had become so important to her she could recognise the fact he deplored his father's decision. Not that he spoke about it. Only once, and then briefly. Corin played his cards very close to his chest. Mercifully today there was no chance of running into the woman who had abandoned her soon after birth. Leila only ventured into Rylance Tower for board meetings. Right now, she and her husband, Dalton Rylance, were in Singapore—a mix of business and pleasure, the newspapers said. Corin said business. It was always business. But Leila would get the opportunity to spend lots of money to make up for the time she had to spend on her own and so prevent herself from getting bored.
As Miranda stepped out into the hushed corridor, thickly carpeted and lined with architectural drawings—the corporation had its own architectural as well as engineering departments—she checked her watch. Ten minutes until Corin would see her. She was always early, never late for Corin. It was pleasant to make a little light conversation with his secretary, the beautifully groomed, forty-something Clare Howard, who was devoted to him and exceptionally good at her job. As she would have to be.
Afterwards, Miranda took a seat on one of the sofas facing a granite-and-chrome coffee table neatly stacked with trade magazines and financial papers. She picked up one, flipping through it without actually seeing anything. Today she had allowed herself a little more pizzazz with her dress. Ms Howard had kindly made a comment on how lovely she looked. Her dress was pretty. The yellow silk background was splashed with tiny daisy-like flowers in deep blue, violet and turquoise, with a fine tracery of green leaves. A sale coup. All the major department stores were running them in the recession. New turquoise sandals and a turquoise tote bag that looked a whole lot more expensive than they were completed the outfit. Her hair she continued to wear short, cutting her bubble of curls herself, sometimes enlisting a girlfriend's help for the back of her head. She didn't have the time or the money to go all-out with a glamorous new hairstyle. She had maintained her part-time job—waitressing at city restaurants, three nights a week—but that money was stretched to the limit. She had been given assistance by the Rylance Foundation to rent her inner-city flat, which was in a good, safe, very convenient area.
With two minutes to go she could feel the rise in her blood pressure. One's blood pressure always rose when in the company of someone one was attracted to. Fact. She ached over her reasons. At least she felt confident she looked good. Healthy, eyes bright, skin glowing, despite the endless hours of burning the midnight oil.
Over the past three years she had grown close to Corin. She told herself it was in a quasi professional way. Mentor-protégée sort of thing. He always appeared pleased to see her at any rate, and was always willing to take the time to listen to her accounts of student life. A friendship had been established, but they both took good care to keep within the proper framework. Wealth could open doors for people. Corin had opened a door for her. She was immensely grateful. So much so she had gone all out to top her graduating class. Corin had actually taken the time to attend, clapping enthusiastically after she had given her speech.
"I knew the moment I laid eyes on you, you were a girl with enormous potential." This with a mocking sparkle in his dark eyes.
By now she knew his every expression, every nuance of his resonant voice. She knew she had to be extremely careful to control her feelings. Her career was mapped out. She had to concentrate on her studies. She couldn't allow emotion to get in the way. A show of emotion—however slight—could jeopardise her standing with Corin. There was a definite etiquette involved. She could not overstep the mark. Fortunately she had mastered the art of masking her deepest feelings. She might not appear vulnerable. But vulnerable she was. Privately she had run out of making excuses for herself. The truth was she had a huge crush on Corin Rylance.
Get real! You're madly in love with him.
No one must ever know.
They shared their dark secret about Leila, but they rarely allowed it to come to the surface. From time to time she weakened in her discipline, always when she was in bed at night, allowing herself to wonder what Corin was doing. Who he was doing it with. Lately there had been rumours of an impending engagement that made the muscles of her stomach clench at every mention. Corin—married! Yet it seemed to her Corin didn't have the look of a man in love. The young woman in the spotlight was one of his circle. Annette Atwood. An extremely attractive brunette of imposing height, with a great figure. A real figure. Naturally Ms Atwood was asked everywhere. Photographed wherever she went. Lately the paparazzi had taken to following her as though they knew she was a strong contender to become the heir apparent's wife. Corin himself never spoke of her. But then, since she had met him Corin hadn't spoken of any particular woman. Except his sister, Zara, who was working in London at a big financial institution. Zara had a Masters in Business. She had an excellent head on her shoulders and was also very artistic, like their mother and her side of the family. Zara was a gifted artist, but their father had been totally against her trying to make a career as a painter.
"A hobby, girl. Just a hobby! Live in the real world. Can't abide dabblers."
The image Miranda kept getting was that Dalton Rylance wasn't a nice man at all. No comfort to his children—especially his daughter. No wonder Dalton and her mother were inseparable. They were creatures of the jungle. Power was all that counted.
"Hi, Miranda!" Corin looked up from something he had been reading to give her his irresistible smile. It was impossible not to smile back. "Take a seat, won't you?" He gestured towards the leather armchairs arranged companionably on the opposite side of his desk. It was a huge space, his office, beautifully and comfortably furnished. Hundreds of leather-bound volumes gleamed through the antique English mahogany cabinets. A neat pile of files sat to one side on his desk; one was open before him. No disorder whatever. Everything in its proper place. There was a splendid view over the city towers and the broad, deep river to his back. "Clare is organising coffee. We have a few things we need to discuss."
"Oh, Corin, like what?" She was feeling a little giddy at the sight of him—he looked so vibrant, impossible not to stare—so she quickly took an armchair opposite, folding her hands with a commendable show of calm in her lap.
"You look well," he sidetracked. In fact, she looked enchanting. He had never seen her in so pretty or so feminine a dress. She was such an intriguing combination of inner strength and physical delicacy. No doubt she had picked the dress to suit her rare colouring. She probably knew her eyes were the exact colour of the turquoise flowers. He wanted to tell her. Thought he'd better not. Miranda kept her own space.
"So do you." She stared back at him with a little worried frown. "Why is it I think you're about to persuade me to take a gap year?" He had raised the subject before, but had since let it drop. She should have known better.
"Well, it is a good idea," he said mildly.
She glanced away. A large canvas hung on the far wall. It depicted a lush rainforest scene with the buttressed trunk of a giant tree of extraordinary shape in the foreground. The magnificent tree was surrounded by a wide circle of copper-coloured dry leaves, and ferns of all kinds, fungi and terrestrial white orchids sprouted everywhere in the background. His sister, Zara, had painted it. Miranda, who had a good eye for such things, loved it. The scene looked so real—so immediate—one could almost walk into it. "I can handle the studying, Corin." She looked back slowly.
He held up an elegant, long-fingered hand. "Please, Miranda, don't look so crestfallen."
"How can I not be?"
"You push yourself too hard. I worry about you."
"You worry about me?" Her heart gave a quick jolt.
"Why look so surprised?"
"You don't have to," she said, trying to hide her immense gratification. He worried about her?
"Of course I do," he confirmed. "You're virtually an orphan. We share a history."
She didn't say she worried about him when he went off on his field trips to inspect various corporation mine sites.
With every passing year he had become more handsome and compelling. She watched with a mix of fascination and trepidation as he stood up, then came around his desk to perch on the edge of it. He was always impeccably dressed. Beautiful suits, shirts, ties, cufflinks, supple expensive shoes. The lot! How could she not fall in love with a man like that?
"I know you can handle the mind-numbing workload," he said. "You've demonstrated ample proof of that. But you're still very young, Miranda. Only twenty. Not twenty-one until next June, which is months off. I don't want you totally blitzed."
She drew in a long breath, preparing to argue. "Corin—"
Again he chopped her off with a gesture of his hand. "A gap year would give you time for personal development. Time to develop your other skills. You need to get a balance in life, Miranda. Believe me, it will all help in your chosen profession. You could travel. See something of the world. Do research if you like."
She couldn't hold back her derision. "Travel? You must be joking."
"Do I look like I'm joking?" He lifted a black brow. "I'm very serious about this, Miranda. You're not just another brilliant student we're sponsoring. The two of us have a strong connection. Your mother is married to my father. Many people thought it would be all over within a year or two, but they were wrong. She knows exactly how to handle him."
"It has to be sex," she said with a dark frown. "Razzle-dazzle." Leila Rylance was famous for her beauty and glamour, her parties. From all accounts she had made herself knowledgeable about the political and big business scene. Even the art world, where she was fêted by gallery-owners. Leila was right at the top of the tree when it came to social-climbers.
"Don't knock it," Corin was saying dryly. "It's important. Dad is still a vigorous and virile man. Besides, Leila has numerous other wiles at her disposal. She runs his private life and the house—indeed the houses all over the world—with considerable competence. She's no fool. She's appears very loving, very loyal, very respectful. She hangs on my father's every word."
"But is it for real?" Miranda demanded with a good deal of fire. "She obviously didn't win you and Zara over."
There was a flash in his brilliant dark eyes. "He brought her frequently to the house before our mother died, like she was a colleague and not an employee well down the rung. Fooled no one. At one stage I thought our housekeeper Matty was planning on poisoning her over morning tea. Matty adored our mother. Leila spent a lot of time trying to charm us. We were only children, but thinking children. We could see she posed a real threat to our parents' marriage. Dad lusted after Leila long before she got him to marry her."
She studied his handsome, brooding face, seeing how it must have been for him and his sister. "So hurting people didn't concern her? Between the two of them they must have broken your mother's heart."
His expression was grim. "It was pretty harrowing for all of us. My beautiful mother most of all. I can't talk about it, Miranda. I'll never forgive either of them."
"Why would you? I'd feel exactly the same. I do feel the same. The thing is, do they know? Does your father know? You're his heir."
He gave a brief laugh. "My grandparents, the De Laceys, are major shareholders. My grandfather Hugo still sits on the board. It was he who staked my father in the beginning—a lot of money, I can tell you. I have my mother's shares. And Zara and I will have our grandparents' eventually. Dad couldn't overthrow me even if he wanted to. Which he doesn't. In his own peculiar way he's proud of me. It's Zara, my beautiful, gifted sister, he endeavours to avoid. I look like him, except his eyes are a piercing pale blue and mine are dark."
"They're beautiful eyes," she said without thinking.
"Thank you." He smiled, thus lightening the atmosphere.
"But I still say yours are the most remarkable eyes I've ever seen."
"Someone has them," she said. "My biological father? Some member of his family? Even you with all your resources couldn't find out who my father was."
"We couldn't, and Lord knows my people tried. But we don't know if it's a good or a bad thing. Some people don't want to become involved—not many years after, when the pattern of their lives is set. No one in the area where your grandparents and Leila lived fitted the bill or the time frame. It could have been someone she just happened to meet—"
"Like a one-night stand?" Miranda said sharply. "Barely sixteen, and Leila was taking lovers? Or was she raped? I can't bear to think about that." She shuddered. "My grandmother was convinced from the way Leila acted and spoke that wasn't the case."