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Alissa stepped off the tram just as the leaden Melbourne sky opened, releasing a downpour. She had no umbrella. The weather had been the last thing on her mind today.
Thunder cracked so close she expected the pavement to shatter before her. The temperature plummeted. Alissa shivered, suddenly chilled to the marrow.
It's a sign, an omen.
She grimaced, refusing to heed the superstitious inner voice. The voice of foreboding that had plagued her all day. The storm had been predicted days ago. It wasn't an omen of disaster. It was mere coincidence.
Alissa ignored the way the hairs on her neck prickled. She hunched her shoulders and darted along the pavement, heedless of the rain's drenching needles.
She'd planned this afternoon meticulously. Nothing, not a storm or her own doubts, would stop her when so much was at stake. Success was so close.
All she had to do was… marry.
Her pace faltered as her heel jammed against uneven pavement. She was doing the right thing, the only thing she could. Yet fear slid like an icy finger down her spine at the idea of marriage.
Tying herself to a man.
It didn't matter that this wedding was her idea. That Jason was unthreatening. Safe. Or that the marriage would be short-lived. Experience had taught her the danger of being in a man's power. All the logic in the world couldn't stop the atavistic dread freezing her veins.
But this was no time for caution. Donna needed her. This was her sister's last chance.
Alissa would do anything, even tackle her darkest terrors, to save her beloved sister. No one else could do this. The burden rested on her shoulders.
Setting her jaw, she climbed the steps of thelooming public building. One leaden foot in front of the other.
It will be all right… unbidden, the old mantra filled her mind.
Of course it would be all right. She and Jason would marry and after six months they'd go their separate ways, unencumbered but for the money they'd receive. The money that would save Donna's life.
It was a simple business arrangement. No power play. No threat. A win-win situation.
Nothing could go wrong.
She hurried through the entrance, plunged into the gloomy foyer and tripped over something.
'Careful there!' an abrupt voice commanded.
Large hands grasped her elbows, holding her away from the solid body her momentum had flung her against. Heat encircled her, the smell of spicy, warm male skin and citrus aftershave. Alissa's pulse skittered at the understated yet unmistakable invitation of that heady scent.
She leaned away to see what she'd fallen over.
Shoes. Large enough to match the hands holding her so firmly. Glossy black handmade shoes that had never seen a scuff in their privileged life. The sight of that perfect footwear, of elegant suiting stretched over long, powerful legs, unsettled her as much as the stranger's silence.
She stepped back but his hands didn't fall. Annoyance skated through her.
Alissa raised her eyes. Past the exquisitely cut jacket, custom-made to accommodate broad shoulders and a rangy frame. Up to an angular jaw, scrupulously shaved. A firm mouth, wide and superbly sculpted, a slash of sensuality across an otherwise hard face. A long, decisive nose, bracketed by high cheekbones that gave him an aristocratic air of disdain.
The air hissed through Alissa's teeth as she drew a sharp breath. His face was lean, harsh, arrogant. With his black hair combed back from a widow's peak he looked impossibly elegant. But his eyes… Alissa reeled as she stared into a charcoal gaze ripe with disapproval.
Heaven help the woman he'd come here to marry.
With those looks—male model meets pure testosterone—his bride was probably too besotted to realise what she was in for. But one moment's collision with his piercing, censorious gaze told Alissa everything. He had an ego big enough to match those shoes. More, there was danger in his superior look, his air of latent power.
Trouble. That was what he was. Why any woman would shackle herself to a man like that…
'I'm sorry,' she muttered when she got her tongue to move. 'I was in such a hurry to get out of the rain I didn't see you there.'
His brows arrowed down in a V of displeasure.
Alissa lifted a hand to her soaked hair. A dribble of rain slid down her nape. Her suit clung to her breasts, back and legs. Even her toes were damp. She shivered as cold sliced through her.
What was wrong with him? Did he disapprove of the way she looked? Or the fact that she'd run into him?
Uncontrollable, unladylike little hoyden. The words rang so loud and clear Alissa jumped. But it was her grandfather's hoarse voice she heard. The stranger's cold gaze had evoked an unexpected memory. The realisation shook her to the core. She must be even more nervous than she'd realised to hear the old man from the grave.
'Do you usually burst through doors like that? Without looking where you're going?' His voice was low, deep, with a husky edge that made her skin prickle, but not with fear or cold this time. It was a bedroom voice, made for seducing women to mindless compliance. A slight accent lengthened the vowels, producing a tantalising drawl. To her annoyance, she felt the zap and tingle of nerves reacting to the masculine timbre of that voice.
'I didn't burst anywhere.' She stood straighter, yanking her arms free. To her chagrin she barely reached his shoulder. Typical! That excess height no doubt added to his belief in his own superiority.
Those frowning brows rose in supercilious disbelief. He'd probably never been caught without an immaculately cut raincoat, or perhaps a lackey hovering with an umbrella.
'My apologies for interrupting your… reverie. I'll leave you in peace.'
Alissa spun round and strode away. She felt his glare graze the bare skin of her neck and the sway of her hips as she shortened her stride to accommodate her heels.
But she didn't mistake his stare for male admiration.
His regard was contemptuous, sharp as a blade. Why, she had no idea. But she had enough experience of disapproving men to recognise his animosity.
Perhaps his fiancée was late and he wasn't used to waiting so he'd taken out his impatience on her.
Alissa tilted her chin and stepped through a doorway into the corridor she needed. She had a marriage to attend and no time for speculating over strangers.
'He said what?' Her voice rose in breathless disbelief. Alissa shook her head, wondering if the soaking had somehow affected her hearing.
The clerk shrugged and spread his hands. 'That he couldn't make the appointment.'
The appointment! Alissa stared, numb with shock, hearing the loud thrum of her pulse in the silence. This was hardly an appointment. This was a wedding. Jason's wedding as well as hers. Was this a joke?
No, not a joke. Jason was as eager for this marriage as she. Well, as eager for the money they'd get when they inherited her grandfather's Sicilian estate then sold it. He'd jumped at the idea of a convenient wedding with an alacrity that surprised her. His need for cash was greater than she'd first thought.
Surely this was a mistake. Jason must be running late, that was all.
'What, exactly, did he say?' she asked through stiff lips.
The clerk darted a speculative glance at her before reading the note in his hand. 'Mr Donnelly rang thirty minutes ago and said he wouldn't be able to come. He'd changed his mind.'
Another sharply curious glance accompanied the words. Yet Alissa was beyond feeling embarrassed that her bridegroom had done a runner. The news was too devastating for humiliation even to register. This was disaster on a cataclysmic scale.
She linked her fingers tight together, willing herself to be calm. Her heart thudded out of control as panic edged her thoughts. Her stomach descended into freefall.
She couldn't afford to fail. The very idea knotted her stomach with dread.
What would she do if Jason really had jilted her?
Alissa had to marry. If within the next thirty-one days she wasn't Mrs Someone-or-other, married as required by the terms of her grandfather's will, she could kiss goodbye to the chance of getting Donna to the States for the treatment she needed.
Contesting the will would take too long and her solicitor had warned the outcome of such legal action wasn't certain. As for getting a loan to cover the astronomical costs… the banks had disabused her of that possibility. There were no other options but to do the one thing she'd vowed she never would—comply with her despised grandfather's last wishes in order to inherit part of his estate. The old so-and-so would be chortling in hell if he could see the fix she was in now.
She pinned a tight smile to her face and drew a slow, calming breath. 'Was there anything else?'
'No.' The clerk couldn't hide the inquisitive glimmer in his eyes. 'That was all.'
'I see. Thank you.' But she didn't see. This made no sense.
She turned away and drew out her cellphone. Punching in Jason's number with an unsteady hand, she lifted it to her ear, only to hear the infuriating engaged signal. Had something terrible happened or was he avoiding her? It took a moment to realise he could have phoned her instead of the marriage registry. So yes, he was avoiding her.
Alissa put a hand to her brow, flummoxed. What was she going to do? Panic edged her whirling thoughts. She'd go to Jason's, but she felt an unnerving certainty he wouldn't be at his flat or anywhere else she looked.
'Miss Scott?' The clerk's voice made her swing round eagerly. Had Jason turned up?
Hope died instantly. There was only the clerk and, with him, the tall stranger from the foyer.
Why was he here? She cast a swift glance at those narrowed eyes and looked away, feeling again that frisson of reaction to his blatant stare. The man made her supremely uncomfortable.
'Yes?' She stepped forward, concentrating on the clerk, not the stranger beside him.
'This gentleman is here to see you.'
'To see me?' She forced herself to look up into that beautiful, arrogant face and ignore the tremor of consternation that ran through her.
'If you are Miss Alissa Scott?'
She nodded. 'I am.'
'Affianced to Jason Donnelly?'
'That's right.' Her mouth dried. He had the deliberate, enigmatic tone of a judge pronouncing sentence.
'Granddaughter of Gianfranco Mangano?'
She nodded jerkily, her lips primming at the mention of her late, unlamented grandfather.
'We need to talk. I have news for you.'
'From Jason?' Was that why he'd been loitering in the foyer? To explain Jason's absence? Why hadn't he said so?
'Si.' The single word was curt, his expression sombre, and Alissa felt a presentiment of trouble, deep trouble.
He gestured for her to accompany him, not waiting to see if she complied before striding away. Alissa scurried to keep up, her feet sliding in her damp shoes.
He'd reached the foyer, heading for the main door, when she caught him up.
'Where are you going?'
He paused and turned his head, eyes narrowing on her. 'My limousine is outside. We can talk privately there.'
She shook her head. She was going nowhere with a man she didn't know. Especially not this man. Especially not into some anonymous vehicle. She was desperate, not a fool.
'We can talk here.' She angled her chin up.
'You wish to discuss your private affairs here, in such a public place?'
She met his gaze steadily. Better to err on the side of caution. 'You said you had news for me?'
Dario looked into that upturned oval face and felt it again— the stab of physical awareness. Despite everything, his hatred of the Mangano family, his contempt for this woman, his fury at the steps he'd been forced to take to secure what was his, there was no mistaking her impact on him. An intense jolt of desire carved a hole right through his belly. Its burning trail was hot as flame.
A similar, unexpected surge of need had held him still when she'd run into him five minutes ago. He'd been stunned by its intensity—far stronger even than his disgust.
This was the woman who'd rejected his offers, rejected him not once but twice now, not even deigning to meet him in person. That alone was an insult for which he required satisfaction. No woman had ever denied him what he wanted. More, she connived to thwart his plans to recoup what was his. She'd schemed behind his back, collaborating with Donnelly to prevent Dario winning back his birthright.
She wanted it all for herself. If she'd planned to marry for love he might have understood. But this was a greedy, calculating attempt to keep the old feud alive and stop him acquiring the one thing that meant everything to him. The castello in Sicily her grandfather had stolen from Dario's family.
He breathed deep, suppressing a lifetime's hatred.
This woman was everything he despised. Shallow, conniving, spoiled. She'd grown up with every advantage money could buy yet she'd squandered her opportunities, turning instead to drugs, drink and wild parties. Till even her grandfather would have nothing to do with her.
Dario should feel nothing but contempt for her. And yet…
Her pale, pure skin, her wide-open cornflower eyes, her plump bow of a mouth, the voluptuous curves on that tiny figure… even her air of barely suppressed energy, comprised a feminine package that was far too alluring.
It infuriated him. It was not supposed to happen. And things which were not supposed to happen had a way of disappearing silently out of his life: bought off or simply banished by his superior power and strength of will. Dario had worked hard for what he had. He had no patience with things or people, or feelings, that did not comply with his plans.
'What I have to say isn't for public consumption.'
He punched down irritation at her contrary attitude in refusing to accompany him. What had he expected? Her previous actions, having her lawyer reject his more than generous offers out of hand, illustrated her selfish obstinacy.
He drew a breath, trying to block the rich scent of lilies and damp woman that played havoc with his concentration.
'Come. Let us find a better place for this conversation.' He'd be damned if he discussed matters of such importance in an echoing public foyer. She might have few scruples but he had more respect for himself than that.
He stalked across the vestibule and found an empty office. He held the door and waited for her to precede him.
His gaze strayed down over her compact, curvaceous figure as she entered, the sway of her pert bottom in the tight skirt. Even in a rain-stained suit, with saturated hair, her complexion milky with shock, she drew his unwilling gaze.
Despite those top-class legs, reason dictated she wasn't his type. Pocket Venus redheads with attitude and tarnished reputations weren't his style. Give him a brunette with a madonna smile and a docile nature any day.
Unfortunately the voice of reason stayed silent on this occasion.
'What is this place?' She stared at the desk before them. 'Are we allowed in here?'