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Four years later
Throughout the flight from Rio Imogen had been rehearsing exactly what she was going to say, and the manner in which she was going to say it. She reminded herself as she did so that she wasn't a naïve girl of just eighteen any more, who knew virtually nothing of the real world or the shadowed, darker side of life, a girl who had been sheltered and protected by her father's love and concern. No; she was a woman now, a woman of twenty-two, who knew exactly what the real world encompassed, exactly how much pain, poverty and degradation it could hold, as well as how much love, compassion and sheer generosity of spirit.
Looking back over the last four years, it seemed almost impossible that she had anything left in common with the girl she had once been. Imogen closed her eyes and lay back in her seat, an economy-class seat, even though she could technically at least have flown home first class. You didn't do things like that when you had spent the last few years working to help destitute orphans who lived in a world where children under five would fight to the death over a scrap of bread. Now, thanks to the small private charitable organisation she worked for, some of those orphans at least were being given a roof over their heads, food, education and, most important of all in Imogen's eyes, love.
Imogen couldn't pin-point exactly when she had first started to regret turning her back on her inheritancenot in any way for her own sake, but for what it could mean to the charity she worked for and the children she so much wanted to help.
Perhaps it had begun when she had stood and watched the happiness light up the face of Sister Maria the day shehad announced to them all, in a voice that trembled with thrilled gratitude, that the fund-raising they had all worked so hard on that year had raised a sum of money that was only a tithe of the income Imogen knew she could have expected from her inheritancenever mind its saleable value.
All she did know was that increasingly over recent months she had begun to question the wisdom of what she had done and just how right she was to allow pride to stand in the way of all that she could do to benefit the charity.
And, as if that weren't enough, she had begun, too, to wonder how her friends and fellow workers would view her if they knew how wilfully and indeed selfishly she was refusing to use her own assets where they could do so much good. Pride was all very well but who exactly was paying for her to have the luxury of indulging in it? These and other equally painful questions had been causing Imogen to battle within herself for far too long. And now finally she had come to a decision she felt ashamed to have taken so long in reaching.
The nuns were so kind, so gentle, so humbly grateful for every scrap of help they received. They would never blame or criticise her, Imogen knew, but she was beginning to blame and criticise herself.
During her years in Rio Imogen had learned to protect and value her privacy, to guard herself from any unwanted questions, however kindly meant. Her trust was not something she gave lightly to others any more. Her past was a taboo subject and one she discussed with no one.
She had made friends in Rio, it was true, but her past was something she had kept to herself, and the friends she had made had all been kept at something of a distance especially the men. Falling in love, being in lovethese were things that hurt too much for her to even think about, never mind risk doing. Not after Dracco. Dracco. Even now she still sometimes dreamed about him. Dreams that drained her so much emotionally that for days afterwards she ached with pain.
There was no one to whom she wanted to confide just how searing her sense of loss and aloneness had been when she had first arrived in the city, or just how often she had been tempted to change her mind and return home. Only her pride had stopped herthat and the letter she had sent to her father's solicitor a week after her arrival in Rio, informing him that she was disassociating herself completely from her past life. She had said that she wanted nothing to do with the inheritance her father had left her and that henceforward she wanted to be allowed to lead her own life, on her own. She had made her letter as formal as possible, stating that under no circumstances did she want any kind of contact with either her stepmother or Dracco.
She had, of course, omitted to put any address on the letter, and as an added precaution she had used the last of the money Dracco had given her to fly to America, where she had posted her letter before returning to Rio.
In order to support herself she had found work both as an interpreter and a teacher, and it had been through that work that she had become involved with the sisters and their children's charity.
It had taken her what was now a guilt-inducing amount of time to bring herself to take the action she was now taking, and she still felt acutely ashamed to remember the look of bemused disbelief on Sister Maria's face when she had haltingly explained to her that she was not the penniless young woman she had allowed everyone to believe she was.
Sister Maria's total lack of any attempt to question or criticise her had reinforced Imogen's determination to put matters right as speedily as she could.
Initially she had believed that it would be enough simply for her to write to her father's solicitor, explaining that she had changed her mind about the income she could receive under her father's will. She had explained in the simplest possible terms how she wished to use it to benefit Rio's pitifully needy street children. It had distressed her to receive a letter back not from Henry Fairburn but from an unknown David Bryant. He had introduced himself in the letter as Henry's successor and nephew, explaining that his uncle had died and that he had taken over the business.
As to Imogen's income from the inheritance left to her by her father, the letter had continued, he considered that because of the complications of the situation it would be necessary for her to return to England to put her wishes into action, and he had advised her to lose no time in doing so.
Of course, she had baulked at the idea of returning home. But, after all, what was there really for her to fear other than her own fear?
There was certainly no need for her to fear her long-dead love for Dracco. How could there be?
There had been no contact between them whatsoever, and for all that she knew he and Lisa could now be living together in blissful happiness. They certainly deserved one another. She had never met two people who matched one another so exactly in terms of cold-bloodedness.
It was a great pity that her father had seen fit to make Dracco one of her trustees and an even greater one that Henry, her other trustee, was no longer alive. Imogen wasn't quite sure just what the full legal position with regard to her inheritance and her rights was, but no doubt this David Bryant would be able to advise her on that. And on the other crumple in the otherwise smooth surface of her life that she really ought to get ironed out?
That small and impossible-to-blank-out fact that she and Dracco were still legally, so far as she was aware, married?
Disconcertingly the only gently chiding comment Sister Maria had made when Imogen had been explaining her situation had been a soft reminder that the vows of marriage were supposed to be for life!
Foolishly she had never bothered to get their marriage annulled. She had been far too terrified in those early days that Dracco might somehow persuade her to return home and to their marriage.
Now, of course, she had no such fear, and no need for the status of a single woman either, other than as a salve to her own pride, a final step into a Dracco-free future.
She was also looking forward to, as she had promised she would, writing to Sister Maria to tell her that everything was going smoothly and that she would soon be returning to Rio.
Her stomach muscles tensed with a nervous apprehension that she told herself firmly was entirely natural as the plane began its descent into Heathrow Airport.
The Imogen who had left Heathrow four years earlier had been pretty in a soft, still-girlish way, but the woman she had become could never in a thousand years have been described as wishy-washily pretty. The hardship of a life that was lived without any kind of luxury, a life that was spent giving one hundred and fifty per cent physical commitment and two hundred and fifty per cent emotional love, had stripped Imogen's body of its late-teenage layer of protective flesh and honed her face to a delicately boned translucency. This revealed not just her stunningly perfect features and the deep, intense amethyst of her amazing eyes, but also gave her a luminosity that was almost spiritual and that made people turn to look at her not just once but a second and then a third time.
She was dressed simply in soft chinos and a white cotton shirt, but no woman could possibly live in Rio without absorbing something of the sensuality of its people, of a culture that flagrantly and unselfconsciously worshipped the female form. Brazilian clothes were cut in a way that was unique, and not even the loose fit of what she was wearing could conceal the narrowness of Imogen's waist, the high curve of her breasts, the unexpected length of her legs, but most of all the rounded curve of her bottom. the South American sun, which had given her a warm, ripe, peachy glow. As she raised her hand to shield her eyes from the shaft of sunlight breaking through the grey cloud the gold watch her father had given her shortly before his death glinted in the light, emphasising the fragility of her wrist. A group of stewardesses walking past her looked enviously at the careless way she had tied the tangled thickness of her curls back off her face with an old white silk scarf.
Taking a deep breath, Imogen summoned a taxi. Once inside it, she studied the piece of paper she had removed from her purse, and gave the address written on it to the driver.
As he repeated it he commented, 'Bute Wharf. That'll be one of them new developments down by the river.'
Imogen smiled dutifully in acknowledgement of his comment but said nothing. She had asked the advice of her solicitor on where to stay, specifying that it had to be reasonably close to his office, and cheap.
To her astonishment, not only had he replied with a terse note that explained that he had made arrangements for her to stay 'at the enclosed address' but which had also enclosed a cheque to cover her air fare. A first-class fare although she had chosen not to make use of it.
This particular Docklands area of London was unfamiliar to her and Imogen's eyes widened a little as she studied it through the taxi window: streets filled with expensive cars, young men and women dressed in designer clothing, an air about the whole area of affluence and prestige. Was this really the kind of place where she was going to find cheap accommodation? She began to panic a little, wondering if the solicitor had misunderstood her request.
The taxi was pulling up outside an impressive apartment block. Getting out, Imogen glanced up uncertainly at her surroundings, paying off the taxi and then picking up her one small case before squaring her shoulders and heading determinedly towards the entrance.
As she did so she was vaguely aware of the dark shadow of a large car gliding into the space left by the taxi, but she paid no attention to it, too busy making sure that she had the right address to concern herself with it.
Yes, the address was the same one the solicitor had given her.
A little warily Imogen walked into the luxurious atrium that was the apartment block's lobby and then stopped, drawn by some compelling force she couldn't resist to turn round and stare, and then stare again. Her breath froze in shock in her lungs as she recognised the man casually slamming the door of the car she had been so vaguely aware of before turning to stride determinedly through the entrance towards her, exclaiming coolly as he did so, 'Imo! I had hoped to meet you at the airport, but somehow I missed you.'
How weak her voice sounded, shaky and thin, the voice of a child, a girl Fiercely she tried to clear her throat, reminding herself that she was twenty-two and an adult, but her senses had shut down. They were concentrating exclusively on Dracco.
Four years hadn't changed him as much as she believed they had changed her, but then, he had already been an adult when she had left.
He still possessed that same aura of taut male sexual power she remembered so vividly, only now, as a woman, she was instantly, intensely aware of just how strong it was. It was like suddenly seeing something which had previously only been a hazy image brought sharply into focus, and she almost recoiled physically from the raw reality of it.
Had she forgotten just how magnetically sexy he was or had she simply never known, been too naïve to know? Well, if so, she wasn't now.
His hair was still as dark as she remembered, but cut shorter, giving him a somewhat harder edge. His eyes were harder than she remembered too. Harder and scrutinising her with a coldness that made her shiver.
'You didn't travel first class.'
'You knew that I was coming?' Try as she might, Imogen couldn't keep her appalled shock to herself.
'Of course. I'm your trustee, remember, and since the purpose of your visit is to discuss your inheritance '
Her trustee! Well, of course she knew that, but somehow she had assumed, believed, that it would be David Bryant she would be talking to and that he would act as a negotiator between herself and Dracco. The last thing she wanted or needed was to be confronted by him like this when she was already feeling nervous and on edge. Not to mention jet-lagged.
Determined to grab back at least some small measure of control, she threw at him acidly, 'I'm surprised that Lisa isn't with you.'
She could see from his sharply incisive tone and the look he was giving her that he didn't like her pointed comment.
'This was nothing to do with Lisa,' he told her coldly.
Of course, he would want to protect his lover, Imogen acknowledged angrily.
The shocking realisation of how much she wanted to hurl at him all the accusations she had thought safely disarmed and vanquished years ago hit her nerve-endings like the kick of a mule. The old Imogen might well have given in and done so, but there had been something in the way he had looked at her when he had reminded her that he was her trustee that was warning her to tread very carefully.
Surely it was only a matter of formality for her to be able to reclaim the income she had previously rejected? It was, after all, legally hers, wasn't it?
Surely David Bryant would have told her, warned her, if this wasn't the case or if he had foreseen problems, rather than encouraging her to come all this way?
When it came to disposing of her share of the business, Imogen felt that she was on firmer ground. Since Dracco had been willing to marry her to secure it, surely it made sense that he would be delighted to be given legal control of her share of it in return for guaranteeing its income would be given to the charity?
After all, if she wished she could always sell it on the open market! Knowing that she held that power, that threat over him, helped to rally her courage.
Dracco had reached her now, and Imogen discovered that one thing hadn't changed. She still had to tilt her head right back to look up into his eyes when he stood next to her.
Too late to regret now the comfortable low-heeled pumps she was wearing.