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For a moment, Beth Jones had to steady herself against the kitchen sink, her heart pounding basketball-hard against her ribs as she stared out into her leafy front garden. Right into the impeccably dressed, cleanshaven face of trouble.
A man had eased from a sporty BMW parked in her driveway, his tall, broad figure radiating tension. The giveaway signs were as tangible as the lingering heat of the early-October eveninghis stiff shoulders and neck, a frown knotting his forehead, the impatient way he slammed the car door.
She swallowed thickly, pushed away an errant curl and continued to stare.
He paused by her letter box, checking something on a piece of paper, a frown creasing behind those dark sunglasses. His hesitation gave her time to take in a top-to-toe view of an efficient haircut, broad chest encased in a sharply cut suit and long, long legs. And the nerve ticking away in his jaw.
He looked expensive and self-assured, one of those billion-dollar alpha males who automatically command respect.
So, not a reporter. Some business hotshot? A lawyer? Banker?
She sucked in a breath. Yes.
Amazingly, it looked like East Coast National Bank had graduated from phone calls to face-to-face intimidation.
A misplaced half a million dollars would do that.
Trouble always came in threes. And if she counted her flat tire this morning and her missing employee as numbers one and two, then the third looked as if he was about to come knocking on her front door.
Luke De Rossi had a whopper of a headache.
It had started up after he'd left the Brisbane solicitor's office and drove south along the Ml toward the Gold Coast, the blasting air conditioner doing nothing to soothe his anger. He'd clicked through a dozen songs on his iPod before giving up, instead letting the thick silence fill the void.
He'd barely noticed when he took the turnoff to Runaway Bay, traffic thinning, the houses becoming bigger and properties more expansive. A couple of times he'd glanced in the rearview mirror, but the car that'd been tailing him had disappeared.
He should be happy about that. Instead, apprehension gnawed like a dog worrying a bone. He could just imagine the headlines now: Lucky Luke Cops House from Dead Gangster Uncle was a particular favourite. The press would put another knife in his back, his reputation would be screwed and he'd lose everything he'd worked for all his life.
He and Gino had never been close, but his uncle had known how much his career meant to him. So what the hell had he been thinking, bequeathing him a house that could effectively sabotage his career?
At the end of the cul-de-sac, sunset spread long-fingered shadows over the sprawling century-old colonial-style two-story, a long, partially hidden driveway and a white letter box emblazoned with the number thirteen. How apt.
The house was painted dark green and ochre, the colors blending into the surrounding trees, completely at odds with the modern grandiose Grecian creations he'd passed farther up. For one second, he expected to see a dog bounding away in the front yard and kids playing on the spacious porch. Instead, a comfy swing sat on the polished wooden boards, inviting him to come and take a load off.
He snorted as he got out of the car. Despite its exclusive island location, the place looked low-key. Something his uncle was definitely not. So what was Gino doing with a perfect slice of suburbia in his possession when he had the pick of any mansion along Queensland's elite Whitsunday Islands?
He'd left the solicitor's office too fired up to hear any explanations. Yeah, he'd gone in already furious and, two sentences into the reading of Gino's will, he'd turned around and stormed right out. He knew if he'd stayed a moment longer he would have done things, said things that weren't his right to do or say.
Yet those words still burned in his brain: You need to hear this, Luke. You need to make peace with your family.
Privately, his board of directors had warned him away from the public-relations nightmare that was Gino Corelli. Publicly, they'd called his suspension a "temporary leave of absence due to family commitments." Yet for some crazy reason, here he was.
You need to make it right.
He sucked in a breath. Gino had died because of him. He'd managed to shove the guilt aside for weeks, burying it under his insane workload and long hours until it had all exploded in Paluzanno and Partners' shiny boardroom.
Make it right.
With a soft curse, he shook his head. A week would be enough time to check out the house and put it on the market. Then he'd return the money to his aunt Rosa and get back to his life and his upcoming promotion.
A week. Maybe ten days, tops. Then he was home free. Simple.
He took another step forward, ignored his ringing phone, then stilled when he spotted a red hatchback parked under the porch.
This house was designed to pass under the radar, yet by Sunset Island real estate values alone, it was worth a few million. His brain quickly ran through the possibilities until it landed on an unpleasant thought.
A love nest.
A sour taste lodged in his mouth, something bitter and dark. No. Gino had loved Aunt Rosa. They'd been happily married for over fifty years. There was no way he would
Yet why hadn't Gino willed the house to Rosa then? Why him, if not to keep Rosa in the dark?
He glanced at the house again, his mouth thinning in suspicion. Something was off something he couldn't put his finger on.
He slammed the car door, rechecked the address then stalked across the yard.
Only to pause at the front steps.
A thin band of worry tripped down his back, following the sweat plastering the shirt to his skin. He scratched the base of his neck and looked over his shoulder. The winding driveway and a dense hedge hid the house from the quiet street. A couple of well-tended lemon trees bent over the front porch like wizened sentries. The lawn was in need of a cut, but the flower beds were turned, indicating where the occupant's priorities lay. And with the exception of the cicadas chirping their repertoire with monotonous regularity, silence reigned.
The remnants of adrenaline from his press encounter surged up a notch.
There were no caretaking arrangements in place. Either he was right about Gino or. His mind clicked, grasping for one other plausible explanation.
Some enterprising reporter was one step ahead.
Luke had always managed to draw the line between unwanted attention and good publicity when needed. Yes, he was the youngest board member of Jackson and
Blair, Queensland's most affluent merchant bank. Yes, he possessed an insane amount of power in the corporate world. But now all people saw was the nephew of alleged mob boss Gino Corelli. They saw a criminal.
Luke stared at the key in his palm, regret stabbing in his chest. His cousin's deadly accusation at Gino's funeral still festeredMaybe if you'd done something, my father would still be alive.
If he only knew.
His hand closed around the key and squeezed. The sharp edges bit into his skin yet he welcomed the pain. Anything that took away, even briefly, from the nagging wound in his heart was a reprieve.
Luke glared at the front door of his legacysolid, worn and locked. And felt a frustration so deep it burned a hole behind his eyes.
Despite holding the key, he pounded on the door. Then waited.
Just as he was about to try again, the door opened and his mind went momentarily and uncharacteristically blank.
A human version of Bambi stood there, all mossy wide eyes and long limbs. She was barely dressed in a faded blue tank top and white denim shorts, the frayed cuffs ending midthigh and leaving a long expanse of leg bare. Legs starting at her armpits and running down to the tips of her pink-painted toenails. Legs curved in all the right places, tanned a light honey, with dimpled knees.
Lucio De Rossi was a leg man and he appreciated a quality vintage when he saw it.
He dropped his hand, tipped down his sunglasses and let his gaze run leisurely up her body until his eyes met hersfrosty green eyes that shot down all inappropriate thoughts in flames.
Beth took a step back. The look stamped on this stranger's arrogant features did not bode well. And those dark, dark eyes edged in thick, almost feminine lashes backed up that thought. As he shoved his glasses up and studied her with the intensity and thoroughness of an interrogator, he ran a long-fingered hand over his jaw.
"I take it you're here about Ben Foster?" Beth asked coolly, reining in her churning thoughts. "Who?"
He glanced past her shoulder and unease flared. She snapped her mouth shut, suddenly realizing the downside in offering too much information.
His eyes returned to her and narrowed. "What are you doing in this house?"
Beth's gut flipped at his barely hidden animosity, but she refused to be cowed. "What are you doing?"
He gave her a dark look, brushed past her and strode down the hallway.
Openmouthed, Beth stared after his retreating back. Panic kicked in, hitching her breath and lending speed to her steps.
When she finally caught up, he'd reached the lounge room, pulled the curtains wide and was scanning the shadowed backyard.
"What do you think you're"
"You people never give up, do you?" He spun, eyes shining with battle. "The tail, the ambush at my apartmentnow this little trick. So what's the plan? Bat your green eyes, flash your legs and ask me nicely for an exclusive?" He ran that dark gaze over her so thoroughly Beth might well have been naked. "Those shorts are a good touch, by the way. Distraction by attraction, right?"
She sucked in a sharp indignant breath. "What gives you the right to"
"Lady, I've had one crappy day and I don't need this. I've blown your cover, but you obviously need the story. So here's the dealyou leave now and I won't charge you with trespass." Stunned, Beth watched him turn back to the window. "Where's your camera crew? Your mikes? Behind the bushes?"
She sucked in a sharp furious breath. "Just who do you think you are? "
That got his attention. He spun with catlike agility, angry and bristling. A formidable sight with the height and arrogance to back it up. But as his silent scrutiny lengthened, her heart quickened, pounding in heavy thuds against her ribs. She nervously eyed the distance to the kitchen. Sharp knives a phone