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Lucas Demarco was a man who liked certainty. He liked concretes, and he liked control. What his cousin Steve Foster was proposing lacked every one of those essential elements.
"Primarily Brazil," Steve was saying. "But East Palites is a free trade zone for all of South America. Pacific Robotics would be in on the ground floor for high tech."
Lucas hoisted his dripping wet sea kayak and paddle over his head and started back up the short path from the family's private dock on Puget Sound to their boathouse. "The political situation is far too unstable."
"They're not going to nationalize the high-tech sector," Steve countered, as he followed along in business suit and a pair of loafers. "That would be suicide."
Lucas flipped the kayak onto the grass outside the boathouse and uncoiled a garden hose. "Right. Because lunatic dictators always make rational decisions."
"If we don't do this, Lucas, somebody else will."
"Let them," said Lucas, unzipping his life jacket and slipping it off over his wet suit. It was a warm May evening, but the ocean temperature was still cold enough to turn a person hypothermic. "I don't mind being second into a market like that."
Steve's hands went to his hips, wrinkling his dark suit jacket. "This isn't your decision."
"It isn't yours, either. And a stalemate means we stick with the status quo." And that was fine for this particular stalemate. But Lucas knew they had to resolve the situation around his orphaned, baby niece Amelia, and they'd have to do it very soon.
He and Steve each owned forty-five percent of Pacific Robotics, making Amelia's ten percent the key to the corporation.
Lucas knew it, and Steve knew it, and so did several dozen lawyers, company executives and competitors. Whoever controlled Amelia was the swing vote in every Pacific Robotics corporate decision from here on in.
Both Lucas and his brother Konrad had put their hearts and souls into the billion dollar corporation. As long as Konrad was alive and in control of his daughter's shares, both Amelia and the corporation were safe. But with Konrad's death, Lucas needed permanent guardianship of the baby girl in order to have deciding control. It was the only way to protect her from outside corporate vultures who'd try to use her, and the only way to ensure the future of Pacific Robotics.
"You son of a bitch," growled Steve.
Lucas shrugged and spun the outside tap, pointing the stream of water at the kayak's deck to hose off the salt. "Lucky my mother's not alive to hear you say that."
"I'll fight Granddad's will," Steve vowed, raising his voice. "Don't you think I won't prove what Konrad did."
"Konrad got married and had a baby," said Lucas, squelching the shot of pain that came with uttering his dead brother's name. By fathering Amelia, Konrad had met the conditions of their grandfather's will and secured the family inheritance for the Demarco side of the family, instead of the irresponsible risk-taking Fosters, who were more interested in jet-setting vacations than annual reports and balance sheets.
Though Lucas had his own concerns about the speed with which Konrad had fallen in love and married Monica Hartley, he'd never share them with Steve. And he was confident that Konrad had at the very least been well on his way to loving her when they got married.
In any event, it was a moot point. As the firstborn, Amelia was their grandfather's heir. Steve had already insisted on a DNA test, and it had proven Konrad was Amelia's father.
Lucas flipped the kayak over and began hosing down the bright blue hull.
"So, when's the temporary guardianship hearing?" asked Steve, the change in his tone putting Lucas on alert.
Monica had died in the light plane crash along with Konrad, and her sisterDevin Hartleywas fighting Lucas for guardianship of Amelia.
"Next week," Lucas answered, glancing up.
Steve nodded, a calculating look entering his eyes. "And, if Devin wins?"
Bingo. There it was.
"You stay away from Devin," Lucas warned, sending Steve a dark look. Not that he intended to lose. Not that he expected Devin to be a factor in the long term.
Steve's gaze wandered to the sun setting over the mountains of Bainbridge Island. "It's a free country," he mused in a calculating tone.
"I mean it," said Lucas, cranking off the tap. "It is not open season on Devin Hartley."
She seemed like a decent woman, a little bohemian and flighty, and definitely more emotional than Lucas would have liked. Still, he couldn't help remembering there was something inherently sensual about the way she moved and the way she smiled. Her blue eyes had sparkled that night at Konrad's wedding, as if she were hiding a secret, and he found himself wanting to discover it.
He knew that his reaction had been ridiculous. And he'd eventually discounted the memory. Until now. Not that it mattered one way or the other. Bottom line, he was not about to stand by and let Steve cozy up to her in the hope of opening up a division of Pacific Robotics in South America.
Steve's smile was sly and confident. "If she wins, there is no way to stop me from presenting my case."
Lucas jerked the rubber hose back into a coil. "And you called me a son of a bitch."
"In this instance, I call you cowardly and unimaginative."
Lucas stuffed the hose back on the wall bracket. "And I call you reckless."
"So, we agree to disagree?"
"Stay away from Devin."
"Seriously, Lucas. Who died and left you king?"
"No. He died and left Konrad king." Steve gave a thoughtful pause. "And, you know, I could have lived with that."
Lucas dragged down the zipper of his wet suit, trying not to be surprised by the unvarnished, frontal attack. "Are you saying you wish I'd died instead?"
"I'm saying Konrad was the better man. He was like me. He knew how the game was played."
"Konrad was nothing like you." Konrad might have had a reckless streak, but he wasn't devious and conniving. Lucas could trust his brother to be honest and to operate in the best interest of the family. Steve could only be trusted to look out for his own tainted agenda.
Steve took a step forward, leaning in, eyes narrowing. "This is an era of global diversification, Lucas. We need to expand. Those who do will thrive. Those who don't will wither and die."
"And those who lose their industrial assets to a military coup?"
"At least they had the gonads to try."
Lucas stripped out of the tight, black wet suit and hung it up on the outside rack. "There's a difference between bravery and reckless stupidity."
Steve shook his head as he scoffed out a laugh. "That's just what the cowards tell themselves."
Lucas tamped down his frustration. At the same time, he battled a brief burst of loneliness. Steve had been a jerk for most of his life, but Konrad had always been around to help turn Steve's behavior into a joke.
Lucas and Konrad had each led their own lives, there was no doubt about that. Konrad had spent most of his time at his apartment in Bellevue. And for the past year, he'd been pretty obsessed with getting his estranged wife back into his life. But until he'd lost his brother, Lucas hadn't realized how much he counted on having someone around who understood the pressures and conflicts of running the company, someone who could laugh at the foibles of relatives who were tied so closely together through the family business.
"You might want to man up on this," said Steve.
"And you might want to start using your brain instead of relying on blind ambition."
"Then I guess I'll see you in court."
"You're not invited."
"It's a free country," Steve repeated, the words clearly a challenge.
When Lucas refused to react, Steve shook his head and turned up the path to the mansion.
Lucas jerked out six feet of hose and turned the spray on his wet suit.
He'd struggled most of his life not to flatten his annoying cousin. Konrad had always been the diplomat of the family, convincing a teenage Lucas that he couldn't win against Steve by using his fists. But with Konrad gone, and no buffer left between them, Lucas was sorely tempted to try.
With Amelia finally down for her nap, Devin Hartley moved through the living room of her lakeside cottage, picking up plastic toys, blankets and the assorted books and magazines that had been strewn around the room. Since Amelia had started to crawl last month, she'd been pulling up on the furniture, and even taking the odd shaky step while she held on to the furniture, so Devin had baby-proofed the lower three feet of the house. Still, by noon most days, the place looked like a war zone.
"All quiet?" It was her neighbor Lexi's soft voice, as she carefully slid open the screen door from the deck.
Devin smiled and motioned Lexi inside. The woman was in her early forties, with three grown children who'd all left the state for either jobs or college.
Lexi had lost her husband six years ago in a boating accident. And it was her empathy and understanding that got Devin through those first terrible weeks after Monica and Konrad's plane had crashed.
"Get any sleep last night?" asked Lexi, sliding the door shut behind her. The mosquitoes were out already, and the bumblebees who were attracted to the gardens and wildflowers were beginning to make their presence known.
"Six straight hours," Devin bragged with a self-satisfied smile. Sleep was a rare commodity these days.
Lexi bent to pick up the closest toys and deposited them into the brightly colored wooden box in the corner of the room.
Devin's decor was nothing to get excited abouttwo burgundy armchairs, a striped couch and various mismatched tables and lamps. The small, stone fireplace hadn't been used in years, while the rose-colored carpet had a distinct traffic pattern into the kitchen and out onto the deck that overlooked the lake.
But it was clean and cozy, and Devin loved her little cottage. It was the perfect place for Amelia to play, and if bits of dirt and sand were tracked in from the lake, nobody cared. The bedrooms were compact, while the kitchen was bright and cheerful. For most of the year, it was warm enough to eat on the deck, and Devin had splurged last year on a gorgeous table and padded chairs, with matching loungers and a big gas barbecue.
"You have time for tea?" asked Lexi.
"Absolutely." Devin hoped Amelia would sleep for at least an hour.
"Anything new on temporary guardianship?"
"Only that I'm dreading the hearing." Devin sighed, tossing the last few blocks into their plastic tube then sealing the lid. "I don't know why can't we just leave things the way they are."
It was less than two months until the hearing for permanent guardianship of Amelia, but for some reason Lucas Demarco had suddenly decided he wanted temporary custody. His lawyers had sent a threatening letter, forcing Devin into court next week.
"You know why he's doing it." Lexi arched a brow as she shook out a yellow flannel, baby blanket and folded it in half. "Yes, I do."
"To get close to Amelia."
Devin nodded her agreement. "It's my big advantage over him at the moment."
"Good luck to him, I say." Lexi stacked the blanket on top of three others on the back of the sofa. "He's hardly daddy material."
Lexi had only met Lucas once, at Monica's wedding. But they'd both read stories about his exploits as a cold-blooded businessman and a sexy, jet-setting bachelor. It was obvious to anyone with a brain that Lucas was only interested in Amelia because the baby girl had inherited shares in Pacific Robotics. And controlling her would give Lucas fifty-five percent of the company, so his decisions would be final.
Most of the time, Devin was confident that any judge would see right through his scheme. But every once in a while, in the middle of night when her confidence was low and life seemed overwhelming, Devin feared Lucas might actually win the case and take Amelia away.
As Lexi headed for the kitchen, Devin shook off the fear. She snagged the last of the baby dolls, straightened a stack of magazines and pulled the rolling ottoman back into its place.
A knock sounded on the door that was tucked in a foyer at the back of the living room.
Lexi peeked around the kitchen wall, brows going up in surprise. Nobody knocked on Devin's door. In the close-knit community of Lake Westmire, people usually crossed to the front deck, opened the glass slider and walked in. If they wanted to be formal, they might call out before entering.
Feeling slightly self-conscious in her faded T-shirt, worn blue jeans and bare feet, Devin made her way to the back of the house. She took a glance through the small, rectangular window and vaguely recognized the man standing on the porch. She opened the door halfway and tried to pinpoint what was familiar about him.
He was about five foot eight, with medium-length, reddish blond hair. He wore a dark suit with a pale blue, accent-striped shirt and a navy tie. He looked to be in his midthirties, although his round face gave him a perpetual boyish look. And the light-colored eyebrows didn't help.
"Can I help you?" She kept her voice low so she wouldn't disturb Amelia.
The man stuck out his hand and offered a friendly, salesmanlike smile. "Steve Foster. We met at Konrad and Monica's wedding." The smile promptly disappeared. "Allow me to express my condolences for your loss."
"Thank you," Devin automatically responded, taking his hand while clicking through her memory for his face.
Then she got it. Right. Steve Foster. He was Konrad's cousin. She drew back her hand and pressed her lips together.
"I'm sorry for your loss, too," she responded, although she held the entire Demarco family partially responsible for her sister's death. If they all hadn't been so greedy and distrustful, they wouldn't have panicked over Amelia's shares. Konrad wouldn't have been so desperate to win Monica back, and Monica never would have got on the plane that night.
"I hope I'm not disturbing you," he continued affably.
"Is there something you need?" Her tone had cooled, and she could hear Lexi in the living room behind her, moving in closer, presumably to take stock of the situation.
"I came to apologize," he offered. "On behalf of my family. I understand Lucas has been harassing you."
Devin didn't know what to say to that. Lucas was the current bane of her existence. But she wasn't exactly sure what Steve was apologizing for, nor what he meant by "harassing."
The kettle squealed behind her, and Lexi's footsteps swiftly disappeared into the kitchen.
"I only just learned about the temporary guardianship hearing."
Well, that answered one question.
But she still didn't know why he was here.
Steve cleared his throat. "Would you mind terribly if I " He gestured inside her house. "I have an offer for you."
"I'm not interested," said Devin. She didn't trust any of the Demarcos, or the Fosters, particularly when they were pretending to be nice.
"I'd like to make up for Lucas's actions."