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A blustery rain-shower whipped around the tram as it rode steel tracks towards the heart of Melbourne city.
The month of October in the southern hemisphere rested on the cusp between spring and summer, neither one nor the other, and tended to provide brilliant sunshine followed by rain with matching temperatures in contrary variation on the same day.
Rain and cool temperatures seemed incredibly appropriate, Romy decided with unaccustomed cynicism as the tram slid to a halt and disgorged several passengers before crossing the bridge spanning the Yarra River.
Tall inner-city buildings of varied design rose as concrete and glass sentinels, and she alighted at the next tram stop, caught a break in traffic and reached the pavement.
The nerves in her stomach clenched into a painful ball as she crossed the next intersection and entered the marble-tiled foyer of an imposing office building. Given a choice, she'd have preferred to deal with a class filled with hormone-charged, testosterone-fuelled recalcitrant teenage students who'd decided to give their English teacher the hardest day on record than confront the man who held her father's fate in his hands.
Of Spanish origin, New York born and bad boy made good, Xavier DeVasquez was an electronics whizz whose skills had elevated him to one of the world's wealthiest top five hundred. A man reputed for his cut-throat business methods. A force to be reckoned with in the boardroom…and the bedroom.
As she should know, she acknowledged silently, and endeavoured to quell the icy shiver feathering the length of her spine as the past three years vanished in the blink of an eye, providing startlingly vivid recall of a social charity event attended by several top employees of the DeVasquez Corporation, of which her father had been one. Head of the accountancy department, Andre Picard had been accompanied that evening by his wife and daughter, but it had been Romy who had drawn Xavier DeVasquez's attention.
The news media had failed to depict the degree of electric sexual chemistry the man exuded in person. On reflection, she hadn't stood a chance. Too many years spent studying to be a schoolteacher had meant a meagre social existence confined mainly to the company of girlfriends in the little free time she had permitted herself.
To suddenly have had someone of Xavier DeVasquez's calibre express a personal interest in her had been exciting. To discover he'd wanted to see her again, almost beyond belief. He'd had his pick of women, yet he'd chosen to spend time with her. When she'd asked why, he'd merely smiled and said he admired her lack of artifice.
Twelve weeks and three days. Romy could still remember the number of hours, the minutes.
She'd fallen in love with him. So soon, too soon, ignoring the faint niggle of disquiet that it wasn't real, couldn't be real. A fantasy of shared laughter, dinners, the theatre, a movie she'd wanted to see. Their parting kiss at evening's end, and the knowledge mere kisses would never be enough. The night she had gone back to his apartment and willingly into his bed…an innocent who had gifted him her virginity, her heart, her soul. And moved in with him the next day.
The affair had lasted three months before she'd made what became the ultimate mistake. At dawn's first opalescent glow, after a long night of lovemaking, she had told him that she loved him. Only to shatter into a thousand tiny pieces when he'd merely brushed his lips to her temple and said he didn't do love.
It had taken tremendous effort to calmly leave, to refuse his calls, accept a teaching position in another country and attempt to forget his existence.
Impossible, when his image had taunted her in vivid dream form through the long, lonely nights, and his name, together with photographic evidence appeared in the media relating yet another business coup, or a picture of him with a stunning female at his side had been displayed on a social page.
It had been her mother's fight against a progressive form of cancer two years later which had brought Romy home on three month's compassionate leave. An incredibly sad time, after which Andre had insisted she return to fulfil the remaining year of her teaching contract.
At first she'd been reluctant to leave him, but his reassurance had been convincing, which, together with the promised support of a few close family friends, helped ease her mind.
Her father's desperate bid to ensure his wife's every comfort had involved expensive treatments, the highest quality of care, and the fact he'd succeeded was laudable. Maxine Picard had gone to her grave unaware of the price her husband had paid, or the sequence of events which was to follow.
Who could have predicted the stock market crash that sent Andre Picard to the wall? Worse, that a once honourable man would stoop to defraud, then compound the crime with a desperate gambling bid in an effort to regain financial security.
Even Romy could have told her father it was a recipe for disaster, had she known.
Except it had only been when her teaching contract had ended and she'd returned to Melbourne to take up a new teaching position on home ground that she'd learnt the true state of her father's affairs.
Everything sold, including the small apartment which had replaced the family home following Maxine's death, the car, furniture and possessions.
Chilling to learn Andre had been arrested, charged and was awaiting trial with a prison sentence a certainty. None of which he'd revealed in letters, emails or intermittent telephone contact during her absence.
Instead, he'd deliberately waited until a week after her return before confiding the grim facts. A week in which she'd leased a furnished apartment, purchased a car, and taken up her new teaching position.
How could you have been so careless? were words she'd barely refrained from uttering…followed closely by what were you thinking?
Except the tired, care-worn man facing her looked old beyond his years, physically, mentally and emotionally beaten.
Instead, she'd swung into action, verifying fact, attempting to negotiate, but to no avail. Not surprising, given her father's total debt ran into millions…plural. A horrifying situation with no foreseeable way out. Except one…a personal appeal to Xavier DeVasquez as a last-ditch effort.
Phone calls, messages left, each more urgent than the last. Messages Xavier DeVasquez's PA assured were relayed. Except none elicited a return.
Which left Romy two options…and giving up wasn't one of them.
Three years teaching English to children in underprivileged areas had fashioned her into the young woman she'd become. At twenty-seven, she was a long way from the trusting romantic who'd believed a man's charm to be genuine and spun a fantasy web that had no basis in reality.
A man she was determined to confront today…one way or another. Even if it meant resorting to unconventional methods.
Yet what other option did she have?
So…suck it up, she admonished silently as she checked the Directory Board and crossed to the bank of lifts.
All too soon an electronic cubicle arrived, and she stepped inside, depressed the appropriate floor button and took a steadying breath as she was transported to her destination.
Understated luxury was clearly evident as she stepped off the lift and crossed the plush carpet to Reception where a perfectly groomed young woman manned the modern desk.
Romy summoned a smile. 'Xavier is expecting me.'
'May I have your name?' Fingers were poised fractionally above the computer keyboard, ready to check an electronic appointment schedule.
Assertiveness was key, together with a degree of easy familiarity. 'This is a personal visit.'
'I need your name so I can alert Mr DeVasquez's PA.'
The words remained polite, but firm, and Romy merely slanted an eyebrow. And spoil the surprise?'
The receptionist's mouth thinned a little. 'The DeVasquez Corporation observes a strict procedure.'
This was going nowhere, and any access would be denied, sans brute force, unless she identified herself. 'Romy Picard.'
Fingers tapped in the relevant letters, and Romy caught the moment a return message appeared on the screen, for the receptionist's eyes widened and her features assumed a cool expression.
'Mr DeVasquez is unavailable.'
Polite words issued without warmth or the hint of a smile, Romy noted as she bit back a few impolite uncool words of her own she'd like to utter.
'In that case I'll take a seat.'
'I should clarify Mr DeVasquez is not available for the rest of the day.'
'Nevertheless I'll wait.'
At that moment the phone buzzed, and Romy crossed to a clutch of deep-cushioned chairs, selected one and sank gracefully into it.
There were magazines fanned across a glass-topped coffee table, and she took one and pretended an interest in the pages.
Face it, she remonstrated silently some twenty minutes later. Waiting was a fruitless exercise. Any attempt to face Xavier DeVasquez was going to take affirmative action.
Determination strengthened her resolve…that, and a slow anger simmering beneath the surface of her control.
Dammit, enough was enough.
She rose to her feet and walked past Reception towards a wide aperture, leading, she presumed, to a number of offices, one of which had to belong to Xavier.
'You can't go through there.'
The words were sharp and a little harried…concern for the interruption, or fear of repercussion from Xavier DeVasquez himself?
Romy merely lifted her head and kept walking.
She made it halfway down the corridor into a luxury lounge area where an impeccably attired woman barred her progress.
'Please return to Reception.'
Xavier DeVasquez's PA?
Romy directed a levelled look that would have struck terror into the heart of any of her former students. 'Where I'll be forced to wait indefinitely?'
'Mr DeVasquez is in a meeting.'
'Really? Then he's due for a break.' She moved to bypass the woman, only to have her step in the same direction.
'I'll call security to have you removed,' came the firm response.
So she could, but it would take time…time Romy intended to use to her advantage.
There were two closed doors bracketing the lounge. Romy took a punt and chose the left, entering without knocking to discover an empty executive suite. She turned back, aware the PA had picked up the phone, and she caught the woman's distressed expression as she crossed the lounge. It took only seconds to reach the second door, and she felt a moment of elation as it opened beneath her touch.
Five men were seated at a curved rectangular conference desk, and Romy refused to be intimidated as five heads turned towards her, four pairs of eyes expressing varying degrees of surprise, interest and speculation.
With the notable exception of the man seated at the head of the desk, whose eyes captured and held her own.
Dark, dangerously so…forbidding.
Xavier sensed his associates' masked surprise at the intrusion. No one, without exception, was permitted entry into a boardroom meeting without Xavier DeVasquez's approval.
At that moment his cellphone pealed, and he brushed aside his PA's apology, then ended the call.
His gaze didn't move from her own, and Romy was supremely conscious of his strong facial bone structure, the dark, almost black eyes, and fine lines fanning from their outer edges. Thick black hair worn a fraction too long lent him an air of leashed savagery…elemental and vaguely primitive. A generous mouth…so incredibly sensual, she could remember the ease with which it had captured her own and robbed her of any sane thought she might have had at the time.
Helpless. Utterly and completely helpless, she'd exulted in his touch, believing his apparent rapture mirrored her own…only to discover it to be a figment of her imagination.
Did he have any idea what it cost her to face him? Or know that she'd give almost anything to avoid doing so?
'I don't believe you have an appointment.'
Romy's eyes glittered as she absorbed his drawled rebuke, and her chin lifted fractionally.
'Difficult to achieve, when your PA refused my every request to make one.'
'On my instruction.'
She inclined her head. 'Naturally.'
'We have nothing to discuss.'
'Yes, we do.' Her gaze speared his own. 'Here, now…or in private.' She waited a beat. 'Your choice.'
There was a part of him that admired her tenacity, her courage.
A security team was poised on the other side of the door, awaiting his instruction to forcibly remove her from the building. All he had to do was lift the phone and say the words.
Except he did neither.
Instead, he deliberately raked her petite frame, silently challenging her to drop her gaze, only to be met with unblinking icy resolve as startlingly blue eyes held steady beneath his encompassing scrutiny.
A fashionable grey dress worn over a black cotton polo top accentuated her slender frame. Thin black leggings adorned her legs, and soft leather boots with killer heels added inches to her naturally petite height.
The young woman standing before him was the antithesis of the rather naive innocent he remembered. Inherent strength emanated from her small frame, determination and a degree of defiance he reluctantly admired.
It led him to speculate what she might offer in a vain attempt to save her father's skin. A woman's known asset…the use of her body?
Something stirred deep within. A pleasing memory of innocent wonder and uninhibited delight, her generosity, the sweet fervour of her mouth. Genuine, not a calculated act.
Heaven knew he'd become bored with his recent female companions and their predictable modus operandi. Practiced sycophants who used every known guise to attract his attention in a game as old as time.
Romy Picard could prove an interesting diversion. He'd blocked off every avenue of contact available to her…except one. And made it extremely difficult, almost impossible for her to circumvent. Yet she hadn't disappointed, and there was a part of him that applauded her persistence.
Xavier made a split-second decision, lifted the interoffice phone, and issued his PA with instructions to accommodate Romy Picard until the meeting's conclusion.
During which his eyes never left her own, and she refused to look away. Instead, she merely inclined her head, then turned and exited the room.
The cool, composed persona was a sham, one she maintained as she crossed to a comfortable leather chair and sank gracefully into its cushioned depths. Romy selected a magazine at random, studied the index, then chose an article and pretended interest in a stock-market graph.
She should have experienced a mild sense of elation at having succeeded in gaining an audience with Xavier DeVasquez. Except there was only anxiety existent, and a feeling of dread.
Ridiculous, she rationalized, when she'd dealt with rebellious young teens in a classroom of misfits and miscreants whose command of the English language comprised sassy belligerence in a deliberate attempt to diminish her authority. She'd achieved the unexpected, in a hard-won fight for the kind of mutual respect that promoted a degree of enthusiasm for learning. Because she cared enough to take the knocks in order to gain the end result.
Whether she could expect to win any form of reprieve for her father was something else…but she had to try.
Romy replaced the magazine and selected another, pretending interest in current electronic technology, when there was nothing further from her mind.
How long before Xavier concluded the meeting?
A hollow laugh rose and died in her throat. Five minutes—an hour…what difference did it make?