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Wealth and power hung in the expansive boardroom, permeating every cherrywood panel, every thread of the tightly woven carpet underfoot.
The huge panoramic windows played right into that powerful aura, offering an unobstructed view of Sydney's CBD to the right, the curved dome of the historical Queen Victoria Building to the left. Subtle track lights highlighted the boardroom table where one woman and three men were rising to their feet. Jake Vance recognised each in turn: Kimberley Perrini; her husband, Ric, and current CEO of Blackstone Diamonds; Ryan Blackstone, Chief Financial Officer; and Garth Buick, the company secretary.
Jake had stood in the same spot days ago.
At that time, the room had been tense with stunned denial after his little bombshell. Despite that, it was too good a coincidence for Kimberley to pass up; he'd seen the burning curiosity in her shaken expression. Now, judging by the shell-shocked looks, they obviously had their proof.
Finding out your previously dead brother was very much alive was a life-changing event, even if that bit of gossip had been press fodder for months. But when that brother stood to gain a substantial chunk of the Blackstone fortune
He swallowed bitterly. This wasn't in his ten-year plan. Making his first million, breaking into the U.S. market, giving back to his mother's favourite causes, yes. Even, eventually, a wife and kids. But not this. Not becoming Australia's walking, talking answer to the freakin' Lindbergh baby.
"James Jake?" Kimberley Perrini said tentatively, obviously confused about how to proceed. He gave a curt nod and remained silent as she settled for sitting at the table. He noticed her crisp business suit, the efficient pulled-back hair, the air of sophistication and privilege radiating out as if she'd been born into it.
He shoved the uncharacteristic bitterness away and instead focused on his game plandetecting weakness.
It was awkward, this first face-to-face meeting with his sister. His sister, for God's sake. He ignored the deeper implication and completed his study. The similarities between Kimberley and Ryan were obvious: dark hair with that widow's peak, green eyes. But where hers held optimistic caution, Ryan Blackstone's were full of outright hostility. It was in every smell that infused the ostentatious room, every movement and gesture the man made in his thousand-dollar suit.
Jake glanced over the table to where Garth Buick sat. The two younger men, Ric and Ryan, were on their feet behind him, as if standing gave them a psychological advantage.
Jake had used that tactic many times before.
"We had April Kellerman's documents analysed, as well as those DNA tests," Ric Perrini said now, indicating Jake should take a seat.
"And?" Jake sat and Ric and Ryan followed suit.
"It appears that you are James Hammond Blackstone."
As one, they released a collective breath and the expectant hush in the room fanned out, spreading like a blanketing drift of snow. The air was just as chilly, with most of the freeze coming from the two men who had battled for the CEO's position after Howard's death.
Jake steeled his features to betray nothing. Emotion meant vulnerability, which meant your enemies had a weakness they could exploit. Show nothing, reveal nothing.
"So Howard was right all along," Kimberley finally said.
Ric shrugged. "Looks like it."
She frowned and opened her mouth to say something, but Ryan interrupted.
"We asked you here to discuss a few things. One, your plans for Blackstone's." Ryan's even tone belied the storm in his eyes. "And we'd like to make an offer for your shares."
Jake stifled his surprise. Interesting. Business first. "I'm not selling."
"You haven't heard our bid."
"I don't need to."
"Listen, Vance. If this is about payback or revenge"
"Why would it?" Jake raised one eyebrow.
The men glanced at each other, regrouping. Finally Kimberley said slowly, "See it from our side. You and Quinn Everard are close. There's been a long history of animosity between him and Howard"
Jake smiled, an action he knew would throw them off balance. "Not my problem. I'm sure you've had me researched. So you know I never let personal feelings stand in the way of a business decision."
"What about Jaxon Financial?" Ric asked.
Jake paused, letting the barb sink in without showing it'd hit a sore spot. "That was over eight years ago. And it wasn't my company."
"But you were accused of insider trading," Ryan probed, his astute eyes unwavering.
Jake eased back in the leather chair and stretched his legs out, a calculated show of nonchalance. "Accused. Not charged."
"You lost millions. The CEO fired you."
"And I returned the favour eighteen months later when I bought them out. Look, we can go over my chequered history for hours, but it doesn't change the facts. The way I see it, you have two choices. Fight me for the claim, which would tie us up in court for years, and see the shares plummet. Or work with me on this. Blackstone's has a problem. Besides the press leak you've failed to plug, the company has been floundering since Howard's death. Share prices are dropping. The power struggle between you" he nodded at Ric "and you," then Ryan, "is unsettling the board, not to mention your shareholders. They're getting antsy."
"How do you know that?" demanded Ryan.
"I make it my business to know." Before Ryan could interject, Jake held up a hand. "I plan to fix that."
"Why?" Ryan asked, his eyes narrowed.
"Because I can."
"I know what you meant. Like it or not, Howard made me a beneficiary. You're worried about Blackstone's collapsing? I can fix it. It isn't personal. It's business."
"So this is all just business to you?" Kimberley asked softly.
"Well, it's certainly not about family bonding."
He didn't miss her brief flash of dismay as her eyes met Ric's briefly.
"So what's your plan?" Ric said smoothly.
Jake sized him up. Ric Perrini looked hard, with a reputation to match. He'd been Howard's surrogate son, the only one deemed worthy to take over Blackstone's. The man probably felt threatened. Hell, they all did.
Hardly surprising. Jake traded on his unpredictable reputation; it sent fear and respect into the hearts of his adversaries and made them careless.
That's how he won.
He looked back to Kimberley, who'd been staring at him in silence. When he met her sharp green eyes, she refused to look away.
"You're the spitting image of Howard," she said now. Thrown by such a personal comment, Jake frowned. He wasn't sure she meant that in a good way, either. Should he thank her? Ignore it? He opted for the simplest approach.
Kim hesitated. "You know we all thought Howard was out of his tree about you," she finally said. "I just can't believe you're actually alive."
He lifted his eyebrows and gave her a small, wry smile. "In the flesh."
Kim paused, a moment too long. "You have something to say," Jake said calmly. "Just go ahead and say it."
"Don't you have questions about the family?" she asked curiously. "About Howard? Sonya? Vince?"
"Not particularly. I have a very efficient research department."
"So where have you been for the last thirty years?" Ryan asked tightly.
"Queensland first. Then when I was about ten, South Australia."
"And?" Kim prompted. Jake let them dangle for a few seconds before conceding, "I was kidnapped by Howard's housekeeper and her boyfriend. Two months after the ransom note, around midnight, their car crashed into the Lindon River, five kilometres north of"
"Newcastle, yes, we've read the police report," Ryan interrupted. "Everyone assumed you'd drowned in the crash and floated out to sea."
"April Kellerman was driving by when the car crashed. She pulled me free."
"And kept you."
The scorn in Ryan's voice sent a fierce surge of protectiveness straight to Jake's chest. "Don't judge what you don't know," he warned softly, piercing the younger man with a steely look.
Silence abruptly fell.
"We need to know more if we're to prepare a press release," Kim finally said, then paused as a shadow passed over his features. "You don't trust us."
"I don't trust anyone."
"That's a nice attitude to have," Ryan muttered.
Jake raised one eyebrow. "I'm not the one with the press leak."
Ryan tensed as Perrini said, "You know the press will fill in the blanks with whatever they can find, true or not."
Despite a thorough going over, Jake was determined not to give anything away under everyone's searching eyes. Kim's small sigh a few seconds later was the only indication he'd won. Won what? The victory came with a surprisingly bitter taste.
"Your birthdate is wrong," Kim said finally.
"James was born on the fourth of August, 1974, which makes you thirty-four this year. Your official bioas Jake Vancehad you celebrating your thirty-fifth birthday on the first of September."
He knew that they were just numbers on a bit of paper. That it didn't mean squat. Despite his cold logic, a small lick of helplessness bloomed in the pit of his belly. In a nanosecond, cold anger flooded in to douse it.
Anger that was unjustified. Anger that actually shamed him. Blaming a dead woman would solve nothing.
Outwardly he shrugged. "So I'm a Leo instead of a Virgo."
Ryan's snort of dark amusement echoed in the quiet room, one that twitched Jake's mouth in all-too-brief humour.
Then Garth rose and withdrew a piece of paper from a folder. "As Howard's first born, you are now the recipient of a considerable amount of wealth." The man handed the paper to Jake. "You know about the third of Howard's sharesfifty-one percent divided equally between you, Ric and Ryan. You also own Howard's Vaucluse mansion, Miramare, although Sonya Hammond was given the right to reside there for the rest of her life. The remainder of Howard's assetspersonal investments, artworks, cashare now divided between yourself and Ryan."
Jake studied the details in silence, pausing only to chance a glance at Kimberley. Even Howard's rumored lover, Marise Davenport-Hammond, had come away with a seven-figure sum, yet for his eldest daughter, the wife of his surrogate son Ric Perrini, nothing. Worse, he'd publicly and privately humiliated her with the gifting of his Bondi beach house to Ryan, a house where her mother had drowned.
He had to hand it to Kimberleyshe met his scrutiny head on, the cool green gaze a study in calm.
Garth continued. "There's also an article that stipulates three Blackstones must sit on the boardat the moment it's Kimberley, Ryan and Vincent Blackstone, Howard's brother."
"I'm not after a board position."
"We're not giving you one. Yet," Ric said, matching his cool reply. "But Vince has his own life and is making noises about retiring." He studied Jake's face. "And it all depends on what you decide."
"It's too early to make a decision."
"So just how are you planning to help the company?" Ryan asked tightly.
Jake gave him the once-over, only mildly surprised when the younger man, just like his sister, refused to break eye contact.
These Blackstones were tough.
"First, I need to get up to speed with all aspects of Blackstone Diamonds, starting with the financials and corporate structure. Then, I'll hold a meeting with the board and shareholders to reassure them of my commitment."
"Are you planning to commit?" Ric asked, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms. "Or are you going to break up the company after the shares stabilise?"
"How can I? I don't have a controlling interest."
"That's never stopped you before."
Jake studied Ric Perrini with renewed respect. If it came down to a vote, Matt Hammond held ten percent of the shares and had already pledged his support in Jake's favour. But that was purely because the man hated the Blackstones.
Jake didn't know these people. But he'd been in similar situations, ones that involved family, tradition and high emotion. You had to tread lightly. Be diplomatic. Get them onside with a small truth, at least.
"For now, I'm committed."
"That's not good enough," Garth snapped. "Howard built Blackstone's up from nothing. He wasn't a saint but he loved this company. He put his life into it, making it a successful, international brand name. His wish was to see that continuewith his family at the helm." The older man thumped the table with a clenched fist for emphasis. "After all these years, he never stopped believing you were alive somewhere. Even refused to put up a gravestone in your name. That's how damned stubborn and committed he was. And lookhe was right. Don't you think you owe his memoryyour familymore than a 'for now'?"
The impassioned speech made as much impact on Jake's composure as a feather on steel. He'd heard it all before, seen enough pleading, threatening and bargaining to not let it matter.
He held Buick in a cool stare until the older man let out a disgusted snort and settled back in his chair.
"A DNA test doesn't make a bunch of strangers suddenly family," Jake said calmly, ignoring the way Kim's face paled. "I don't like this any more than you do. Make no mistakethis isn't about some newly discovered paternal ties to Howard Blackstone. I don't want or need the complication."
"So why are you doing it?" Ryan asked.
Jake smiled thinly. "To make money."
"You're a billionaire. How much more do you need?" Kim asked, her eyes astute.
Way too personal. Jake crossed his arms and met her gaze head-on. "Take my offer or not. You're quite welcome to maintain the status quo and let that press leak go unfound, watch the stock plummet, the shareholders pull out "
"Or take our chances with you," Ric finished.
He rose to give them their thinking time and strode over to the cabinet to pour a glass of water. Unmindful of the hushed discussion at the other end of the room, he sipped slowly as he gazed upon the magnificent view of Sydney stretched in front of him, fixing on the familiar blue neon of his AdVance Corp across the bay, a physical manifestation of eight years' hard work.
He'd expected softer edges after Ryan's recent marriage, but the man's glare indicated a strong will. And, if the reports were true, an even stronger desire to prove himself in the face of Howard Blackstone's obvious preference for Ric Perrini. Just the sort of family infighting that jeopardised smart business decisionswhich would, ironically, make his decision to keep them at arm's length that much easier.