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"You didn't say yes?" Yelena Valero whirled from the unrestrained twentieth-f loor view of Canberra's Lake Burley Griffin to her boss's inscrutable countenance. "Tell me you didn't say Bennett & Harper PR would take on Alexander Rush as a client."
"No." Behind his desk Jonathon Harper's bushy eyebrows took a dive as he reclined in the leather chair. "You said yes. Rush made it perfectly clear it's you or no account."
The air sped from her lungs, momentarily disorienting her. In the next instant her heart kicked in, an insistent thump-thump against her ribs. "Jon…you know we had history—he was involved with my sister—"
"And I really don't care. You've known him since, what—tenth grade?"
"Yes, but I really don't think—"
"Here are his clippings." Jon tossed a file on his desk. "This is non-negotiable, Yelena," he added pointedly before she could say another word. "I gave you six months off, no questions. You want to be considered for partner now? You clear your schedule. What Alex Rush wants, you give him."
With a final wave of his hand, he turned back to his computer, dismissing her.
Yelena glared at his perfectly groomed head for a few seconds before sweeping up the file and turning on her heel.
By the time she'd stalked down the hall, her high heels clicking out her fury on the cool slate floor, reality had swept in to douse every irrational thought.
She ground to a stop, staring at her closed office door at the end of the silent hallway. If she was Jonathon's partner, his equal, he'd never have played her. But the man obviously thought her and Alex's tenacious past was an advantage, not the major train wreck Yelena knew it was.
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
One, two, three. Her stomach tossed with shock, fear—and…
Four, five, six.
—a queasy sense of exhilaration. Wait, what?
She frowned, scrunching up her face.
After a slow exhale she breathed in again. The relaxation technique finally began to kick in, calming her pulse, regulating her breathing.
Slowly she opened her eyes and focused on her door. Alex Rush represented the unknown. He'd always been a threat to her control, yet time and again she'd ignored the warnings.
But she desperately needed this promotion. The freedom it would give far outweighed any monetary compensation—freedom to set her own hours, to work from home. To pick and choose her own clients. To prove to her very traditional parents that she didn't need a rich husband to keep her in dresses and spa treatments. And above all, it meant she could be a proper mother instead of an absent one.
As she pulled her back straight and gently rolled her neck for good measure, she felt the familiar pop of muscles through her shoulders. Then she stalked the rest of the way to her office with more decisiveness than she felt.
Alex Rush stood alone in Yelena's simple, almost austere office, his back deliberately to the door. He knew the huge window, one that took in Canberra's Parliament House in its commanding August morning glory, haloed his height to strategic effect. He needed all the power and authority his size projected, needed to put her at a mental disadvantage, to show he was in control and calling the shots.
His confidence had briefly bowed to uncharacteristic hesitation before he'd determinedly swept the doubts aside. No time for second thoughts. Yelena and her brother Carlos had dug their hole so they only had themselves to blame.
The swift click of heels against tiles broke through his subconscious and in the next instant the door whooshed open with an efficient shove.
To his irritation, his heart rate rocketed, bathing his body in anticipatory warmth.
"Jonathon tells me you asked for me personally, Alex. Mind telling me why?"
He slowly turned, bracing for battle. Yet for all his mental preparation, he was woefully unprepared for the breathless impact that seeing Yelena Valero always evoked. The solid, pounding heat, the thud his blood made as it sped through his veins—hot, arousing—as if he were a teenager again and seeing her for the first time.
Yelena was drop-dead gorgeous. Sure, the fashionistas would declare her too curvy, her hair too wild, her jaw too square, her lips too full compared with her younger sister's sleekly polished looks. Yet the sight of her always managed to stop his breath.
You're not seventeen anymore. Yelena dumped and betrayed you, siding with Carlos—the man who's hell-bent on destroying you. She's nothing more than a way to make her lying bastard of a brother pay.
A thread of intense fury whipped out, blinding him to everything else. He let it sit there for a heartbeat, tasting the bitterness, almost relishing it, before efficiently stuffing it back into that special place in his mind. Compartmentalizing, his attorney had declared, as if the revelation had deserved a standing ovation.
No one knew he'd spent years perfecting an airtight mask of composure. And by God, he wouldn't lose it now, even though the reckless temptation to reach out and kiss Yelena senseless snaked through his body, forcing his muscles into a tight clench.
"Who let you in my office?" she asked suddenly.
She fell silent, the stillness lengthening as she blinked slowly, a small furrow creasing her brows.
"It's been a while, Yelena."
Her eyes narrowed at his inane comment, as if they were seeking the hidden meaning behind his smooth words.
"I hadn't noticed." She stared at her desk then pointedly at him as he remained still, blocking her way.
Not noticed? Fury burnt away the residual lust that had pooled in his brain. He'd done nothing but notice the passage of time since his nightmare had begun. His entire world had crashed on Christmas Eve and Yelena…well, she'd simply moved on as if he'd been a temporary pit stop on her journey to the top.
Sharp pain shot through his hands and he glanced down. He'd tightened them into fists.
With an inward curse he forced himself to relax, sweeping his gaze down her body, knowing she'd take umbrage with his perusal. From her black high heels, the snug grey skirt and matching jacket loosely tied at the waist to the fire-engine red shirt that looked so soft his fingers briefly retightened, she was business personified. Her wild hair was smoothly tied back, makeup subdued. Even her jewelry—small gold hoop earrings and a simple chain with the familiar blue eye of Horus—signaled restraint. So unlike the Yelena he knew, the woman with the wild kisses and hot skin, the sultry take-hold-of-your-groin-and-squeeze laugh.
The one who'd dropped him like a ten-ton millstone when he'd been accused of murdering his father.
She scowled and crossed her arms, dragging him back to the present. "Have you quite finished?"
He allowed himself a smile. "Oh, not by a long shot."
Before she could say anything he stepped aside, leaving her to her personal space. With slow deliberation, he lowered himself into one of her guest chairs.
She settled behind that titanic desk, her eyes on him, a wary cat assessing a potential threat. The privileged, spoilt daughter of Ambassador Juan Ramerez Valero, wary? The thought astonished even as it empowered.
"Nice office." He flicked his gaze over the room. "Nice desk. Must've cost a bit."
"Of all the experienced reps in Bennett & Harper, why did you ask for me? Wouldn't our history bother you?"
"Still as blunt as always, I see," Alex murmured, unsurprised.
She crossed her arms and awaited his answer in loaded silence.
"You're one of the best," he stated, deliberately playing to her vanity. "I've been watching your campaign for that singer—Kyle Davis, right? Getting the public to do a one-eighty on a tax cheat was impressive. What you can do for me completely outweighs any—" he paused, his gaze feathering across her mouth before going back to her eyes "—past history."
He knew his subtle ego stroking fell way short when she met his eyes head on, unblinking. He'd never been subjected to her "Queen of Silence" look but he'd seen it focused on others. It was a look meant to fluster and embarrass, usually given after an improper or rude comment. It was all in the steady stare, the slight curve of her eyebrow. And the expectant stillness as cool as the steel from the ancient swords that adorned her father's study.
Yet he easily held her gaze until she was the one forced to break the silence.
"And what exactly would you be hiring me to do?"
"What you're renowned for—positive spin. And, of course, discretion."
"Spin for you?"
"And my mother and sister."
Yelena remained calm as, with one fluid movement, he crossed his ankles, then his arms. A perfect image of untouchable male confidence and control, one that ran roughshod over their furtive weeks of intense pre-Christmas passion as if it'd just been something she'd dreamt up.
The guilt-ridden ghosts of her past reared up under his silent inspection, astounding her. Alex Rush had been completely off-limits. Yet that hadn't stopped her from falling for her sister's boyfriend.
She swallowed heavily. Get a grip. He was here for business, nothing more. Whatever they'd shared was temporary. Dead and buried.
"You owe me, Yelena."
She stared at him, the startling cut stabbing deep. Damn him for going there and putting a voice to her guilt. As she warred with her conscience, he added, "And you know my family, which will make your job easier."
"Not very well."
"More than most," he countered. "And we're familiar with each other."
He made the word familiar sound much dirtier than it should. Those arresting, come-to-bed azure eyes, combined with the subtle dip in his voice, did something terrible to her body. Terrible in a wonderful way.
"So your silence means you're taking my account?" he finally said.
She wrenched her gaze from his and picked up her pen to give her nervous hands something to do.
"B&H would be crazy to turn down the son of William Rush, the founder of Australia's leading airline company," she returned calmly. No reason to elaborate, to confirm that her boss had used her partnership application as leverage.
Instinctively her hand sought out her necklace, to rub the Horus pendant dangling there. And just like a magnet, that small movement commanded Alex's eyes.
She abruptly stilled. Fiddling with that pendant was a nervous tic, Alex had laughingly pointed out years ago. Words can lie but your body can't. The tic said she was unsure, out of her depth. Conflicted.
His knowing eyes shot to her face and suddenly the memories streamed in, flushing her skin and warming her body in places she'd closed off these last eight months.
"Did you discuss any details with Jonathon?" She said firmly pulling her diary across the desk.
"Okay." She flicked open the diary and scribbled a few notes, then looked up. "I'll need a few days to get a team together then I can schedule you in for next week—"
"No." He leaned forward and Yelena only just managed to resist scooting back. Even with her huge desk between them, she still felt…vulnerable somehow. As if there was nothing to stop him from leaning across the oak expanse and kissing her.
Her pulse leapt to life, her breath stuttering for one brief second. Ridiculous. Alex Rush was here as a client. She would put his feather in her professional cap, get her promotion and move on. It wasn't personal. Not anymore.
"You can't make next week?" she asked, squelching her body's disturbing reactions.
"We need to start now. Jonathon assured me I would be your only priority."
Yelena tightened her jaw. Damn you, Jonathon. "Fine. So let's start."
"Good." He rested his elbows on his knees, snaring her in his gaze. "As you know, the Rush name has had some adverse press these last few months."
Understatement of the year. "I understand you were questioned, suspected but never formally charged for your father's death. It was finally ruled as accidental."
His bright eyes narrowed. "Many people, including a few media outlets, still believe I got away with murder."
I don't. The automatic reply lay on the tip of her tongue but she quickly swallowed it. They both knew the answer. "I'm sorry, Alex."
"What?" His eyebrows went up, cynicism creasing his brow. "You're not going to ask?"
She blinked. "I don't need to."
"Oh, that's right. You were my alibi. Or at least, you would've been if you hadn't suddenly left the country that night."
"Alex…" She leaned back in her chair as his harsh accusation tore into the half-healed wound. "I tried to…I—"
"By the way, how was your holiday? Europe, wasn't it?" His words, although polite, were tinged with barely hidden disdain, sending her heart clunking against her ribcage.
"My…?" He didn't know. Well, how could he? Her father had never issued a press release, though not through Yelena's lack of pleading. To anyone interested enough to inquire, Gabriela was backpacking in blissful anonymity through Asia, absent from the headlines.
Just as they'd always wanted.
"What?" He raised one derisive eyebrow. "You had some sudden life-or-death situation overseas so you just left without even the courtesy of a phone call?"
She clamped down on a dozen furious comebacks, testing the words on her tongue. "I was with Gabriela."
"I see. And how is my footloose ex-girlfriend? I'm assuming she found someone else to be her handbag because I've heard nothing." His mouth thinned, as if barely able to contain his scorn.
You have to stop this. Now. She slapped her hands on the desk, stared at the polished wooden surface and took a deep breath.
"Don't go there, Alex." She managed to rip her eyes away from his piercing blue ones and snap her diary shut with firm finality. "You hired me to do a job. If I'm to do it, we need to leave our personal lives out of it—including whatever issues you and Carlos have."
His gaze turned sharp. "What issues would they be?"
"I have no idea. The last time I saw him was two months ago."
Did he know how much that wounded her, having Carlos lock her out of his life? Apart from a few throwaway comments, she had no idea what her brother's relationship with Alex was since Alex's return to Canberra. Which was a good thing, she decided. She'd grown up this past year—becoming a mother and moving out of the Valero home had not only provided the independence she craved: it had also put a stop to Carlos's stifling "big brother" routine. And she'd banned Alex from her mind, preferring not to know what he was doing or whom he was seeing.
As he considered her with intense scrutiny, the atmosphere slowly disintegrated. It was like…expectancy. As if he wanted to ask a million questions but something held him back. Definitely not the Alex she knew.
"I'll need to speak with your family," she said abruptly.
And just like that, their moment was gone.
"Of course." His expression smoothed and he stood, startling her. "I've arranged an 11:00 a.m. flight." He glanced at his watch. "I'll have a car pick you up from your apartment at ten."
She blinked. "I'm sorry? I thought—"
"You. Me. Flight at eleven," he repeated succinctly. "You need to meet my family—your clients. They're at Diamond Bay."
"Your outback resort?" she asked faintly.
"The same. Don't be late."