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Nico Jordan surveyed the front of the ranch-style house where his half brother's widow lived, and scowled into the frosty morning air. She'd left him for Kent and this pretentious piece of real estate?
Well, to be fair, Kent's personal fortune had probably bought Beth several houses besides this one, and jewels by the bucket—things Nico wouldn't have been able to afford back when he was twenty-four.
Things had changed in the last five years.
More things than he cared to remember.
But Kent was dead, Beth was now a widow and Nico had a job to do. He rolled up the pages in his hand and knocked on the door with a clenched fist. He'd volunteered to finalize the paperwork in person regarding his dead brother's share of the family vineyards because he had to see Beth one more time. To have her in his bed one more time.
Despite his best efforts, he'd never managed to control his craving for the woman who'd betrayed him.
He lifted his fist to knock again but the door opened with a whoosh of warm air and then Beth stood there, more beautiful than he remembered, her so-familiar Cupid's bow mouth open, her sapphire blue eyes wide.
Suddenly he was transported back five years to the last time they'd made love among the pinot noir vines on his family's estate in Australia. They'd both pledged undying love that day—the day before she'd left the country to marry his brother.
"Nico." She sounded breathless, as if she'd been running, but there was no flush on her cheeks. In fact, she looked pale.
Her strawberry blond hair was shorter, in a pixie cut now, which only made her heart-shaped face sweeter. His gaze swept down—she'd lost some weight, leaving her a little too thin, but that didn't stop the pull of dark desire that flooded his system.
Yet he offered her no more than a cynical smile. "Good morning, Beth. I've come to offer you the family's condolences on the loss of your husband, and to talk about some inheritance issues."
Beth's eyes darted to the side and she turned, hurriedly scanning the lavish room. He could see through to a living room beyond—also decorated in tasteful elegance. Then she stepped out onto the porch, closing the door firmly, but quietly behind her. "Thank you for the condolences. That was thoughtful of…your family."
There was no love lost between his family and Beth—his father blamed her in part for Kent moving here to New Zealand to manage these minor vineyards and cutting most family ties. That wasn't the crime Nico held her accountable for, however. "No trouble at all for the widow of our dear Kent."
She had the grace to look unsettled. Though she should feel worse than merely "unsettled" after the anguish she'd caused him.
Her eyes slid to the windowpane in the door then back to him. "Surely any paperwork can be handled by attorneys? You didn't need to come all the way from Australia."
He leaned one arm on the closed door, dipping his head several inches closer. "Oh, bella, but I did."
She flinched at the use of the endearment, the one he'd whispered so often on lazy afternoons in her parents' hammock, or in the heat of passion when she lay under him.
"If we have to talk, then not here. I'll meet you somewhere." Her voice betrayed nerves—and determination.
"Are you telling me I'm not welcome in my own brother's house?" He didn't bother to hide the irony in his tone—he knew his brother would have stabbed him in the back rather than invite him into his home. Their lifelong, bitter rivalry had reached its peak after Kent's marriage to Beth. She had been immediately whisked overseas to sever all ties with her past, but even worse, to maintain the estrangement, Kent's son had never seen his grandfather or his Uncle Nico. A situation Nico intended to rectify.
He ran his gaze over Beth again. Kent had probably been wise to be paranoid about his wife. Had Beth strayed across Nico's path after her marriage, he wouldn't have thought twice about poaching on his brother's territory. Kent hadn't bothered with those rules.
But Kent was gone.
Beth darted another look inside and raised a hand to circle her throat. "Nico, do this for me. If we have to talk, meet me another day, somewhere else."
What was she hiding? Was she continuing Kent's plan to keep his son from his family? Or did she have a lover stashed away? Perhaps both.
"Five minutes alone and you're already asking favors, bella." Nico let his hand fall from the door, considering his options. Despite his determination to harden his heart, the plea in her eyes tugged at him, made it almost impossible to refuse her anything. But he must remember she was a good actress. This was the woman who'd strung him along for eleven months and then left him as soon as she got a better offer from his richer half brother.
Deciding to grant this one favor, Nico blew out a breath. "I'm here only for the weekend, so we'll talk today, in one hour. At my hotel room."
"In one hour?" She reached behind and grasped the door to support herself. "That will be difficult. Perhaps tomorrow?"
He'd conceded enough. He turned to go. "If you're not there in one hour, I'll be back. I'll also make a petition to the court that your son has access to his grandfather. The papers are drawn up and in the car ready to be lodged."
He and this small boy were the only family his father had left, which was tragic for a family man like Tim Jordan. Nico had always been exceptionally close to his father and he'd do whatever it took to bring some joy to the older man, especially now he was so ill.
"Nico, you don't understand—"
Her voice, fraught with panic, didn't move him. He had no time to listen to her excuses.
"One hour, Beth. I'm staying at The Imperial." He strode toward his car, not looking back.
One hour later, Beth stood outside Nico's penthouse suite, barely able to get her fuddled brain to think clearly.
Nico, the only man she'd ever loved, was back. The man she'd protected by sacrificing her own hopes for happiness.
As soon as his car had left her drive, she'd run to find her son and taken him to her parents' house nearby. Kent had bought the place for them, not out of the goodness of his heart, but to ensure she had no reason to visit Australia again. They were already set to have him for the night and following day, allowing her to attend the launch of Kent's final white wine blend this evening. They'd been thrilled to have the extra morning with little Marco—or Mark, as Kent had christened him.
Only she called her four-year-old son by the name she used in her heart.
Her parents must have guessed her baby's true parentage, though—her reddish blond hair and fair skin mixed with Kent's ruddy complexion could never have made a child with strong Mediterranean coloring. Marco's olive skin, chocolate eyes and dark hair were so obviously the coloring Nico had inherited from his own mother. However Beth's parents had never said a word and she'd silently thanked them for that.
But if Nico saw him…
No. Not yet. Beth wrapped her arms around her waist. She couldn't let him near his own son until it was safe. The consequences for Nico were still too great to tell him. She just needed to keep the secret while he was here on this trip. It wouldn't be long before she could come clean about everything.
In the meantime, convenient or not, if Nico wanted to see her today, then she'd go along with it. She knew what the stakes were—he didn't.
With a heavy heart, she rapped on the door.
She heard footfalls across tiles, then the door dragged open.
He stood there, tall and broad and darkly beautiful, and her pulse raced into overdrive without him doing a single thing. His face gave her no indication of his thoughts, no encouragement, but she needed none. The mere sight of him made her a little dizzy with joy, just as it had an hour ago. As it always had when they were younger.
"Give me your coat." He held out a strong bronze hand.
Beth untied the belt of her long black coat and let it fall to her wrists. He took the garment and hung it from a hook on the wall, then heat flared in his dark eyes as he surveyed her thoroughly. Finally, he smiled in satisfaction and his gaze rested on hers.
She glanced down at her loose, ankle-length, woolen pink dress. Her clothes were all similar—none were fitted, none accentuated her as a woman. For five years, she'd avoided calling sexual attention to herself. For five years…ever since she'd lost Nico.
Although, the hunger in his glittering eyes now seemed to make a mockery of her efforts to disguise herself.
He opened the door wider and let her through.
As she walked across the opulent room to the window, the hair at the back of her neck stood on end and she knew he'd watched her progress. She'd always known when Nico was looking at her. She turned slowly from the bird's eye view of the wintry vineyards to find him blatantly staring. Her skin tightened and her breasts begged for his skilled touch—but too much was at stake to be swayed by her body's physical responses. Nico could lose his inheritance, his career, even his identity.
He held up a bottle of champagne. "Drink?"
Now of all times, she needed a clear head. "No, thank you."
He poured something from the bar for himself. If his tastes hadn't changed, it'd be a pinot noir.
While he was distracted with his task, she drank in the sight of him—the thick, dark hair she'd once slid her fingers through; face a little too long to be symmetrical, but still more dear to her than anything…except the same face in miniature. Their precious son.
Oh, God, she couldn't stand this tension one minute longer—she had to know. "Tell me what you came to New Zealand to say, Nico." Being able to say his name again gave her heart wings, but she wouldn't let herself forget what she risked by being here.
Seemingly relaxed, he leaned a hip on the galley-kitchen counter. "I want several things, but let's start with my nephew."
Her heart stalled and she felt the blood drain from her head. "You want Mark?"
Nico looked down his proud nose, appearing every inch the Italian aristocrat that his mother had been. "He's of my blood and he's lost his father. I'd like to build a relationship with the boy."
For a crazy moment, she'd thought he wanted to take her son away. But—she swallowed—this was almost as bad. "You know that's not what Kent would have wanted. You two had sworn to never set eyes on the other again."
It'd been the breach that sent Nico off on his own for three years—making his own millions on the stock market, becoming a tabloid darling as one of Australia's richest playboys. She'd tormented herself by reading the magazines, insanely jealous of any woman photographed on his arm, yet praying he was happy.
"What Kent wanted is irrelevant at this point. Do you think he wanted to die and leave his son fatherless?" He waved away her protest. "I will see the child and I will become an uncle to him."
As much as Nico may believe that, if she allowed the contact, the truth would come to light too soon, and he wouldn't thank her for the consequences. He would more likely resent her, possibly blame her.
"He might be fatherless, but he has his mother. Decisions about who my son will know, and when, are mine. He's happy with his life here and he's close to his grandparents and friends." She bit the inside of her cheek hard, knowing she had to be cruel to be kind, but still hating saying the words. "He doesn't need you."
Nico took a deliberate sip of his drink then rested his glass on the bench he still leaned on. "Regardless of whether he needs me or not, he has a heritage. His family has been in the wine industry for generations, it's in our blood, in our DNA. Mark will inherit his share of that business one day and he needs to grow to understand it."
It's in our blood, in our DNA.
Beth flinched. Nico believed it was in his blood.
How often had she heard him talk of his heritage this way when they were together? It would destroy him to know the information detailed in letters Kent had obtained, that Nico was an illegitimate son—not a son at all. The vineyard was no more in his blood than it was in hers.
And it would crush him to find he had no biological connection to the father he loved. She'd always thought Nico and Tim seemed more like brothers as they worked together on their estate. Their love and admiration for each other was beautiful to see.
When Kent had ambushed her with the letters—using them to blackmail her into marriage—she'd known she had no choice. Tim Jordan had suffered three major heart attacks only eight months earlier and the whole family had been cautioned by the medical staff that he needed to avoid stress.
If she'd refused to comply, Kent would have released the pages, maybe even splashed them through the tabloids. Nico would have been destroyed and Tim's stress at finding out Nico wasn't his son could have brought on another heart attack. She'd known Kent didn't care about jeopardizing his own father's life—he was still bitter that Tim had divorced his mother for Nico's more than twenty years earlier.
Kent had never forgiven any of those involved—Nico and Nico's mother, or their father—for the marriage that had usurped him and his mother, Minnie. The marriage that had seen them moved from the main house to a cottage next door.
It had been up to Beth to stop Kent the only way she could—by agreeing to his proposal.
That very day, she'd left the country without a word to the man she loved like no other. The man standing before her.
But everything was different now. Kent was dead. She hadn't yet found where he'd hidden the letters, but that was only a matter of time.
From this point on, decisions were hers alone.