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"Six weeks until the tender closes, mate."
Declan Knight leaned back his office chair and grimaced at his youngest brother's words as they echoed down the telephone line. He shot an irritated glance at his Rolex--yeah, six weeks. He could count off the seconds he had left to find the finance he needed to pull this project off.
"Don't remind me," he growled.
"Hey, it isn't my fault Mum put that stipulation in her will for our trust funds. Besides, who'd have thought you'd still be one of New Zealand's most wanted bachelors?"
Declan remained silent. He sensed Connor's instant discomfort over the crackling line.
"Dec? I'm sorry, mate."
"Yeah, I know." Declan interrupted swiftly before his brother could say another word. "I gotta move on."
Move on from the reality that he hadn't been able to save Renata, his fiancée, when she'd needed him most. For a minute he allowed her face to swirl through his memory before fading away to where he kept the past locked down--locked down with his guilt.
"So, you want to go out tonight? Have a drink maybe? Show theAuckland nightspots how to have a really good time?" Connor's voice brought him back instantly.
"Sorry, previous engagement." Declan scowled into the mouthpiece.
"Well, don't sound so excited about it. What's the occasion?"
"Steve Crenshaw's prewedding party."
"You're kidding, right? Watch-the-paint-dry Steve?"
"I wish I were kidding." The pencil Declan had been twiddling through his fingers snapped--the two pieces falling unheeded to the floor. His staid and übercautious finance manager was marrying the one woman in the world who was aconstant reminder of his failure, and his deepest betrayal--Renata's oldest and dearest friend, Gwen Jones.
"Maybe you should ask him for some tips on how to find a wife."
Declan's lips tweaked into a reluctant smile as he heard the suppressed laughter in his brother's voice. "I don't think so," he answered.
"You're probably right. Okay then. Don't do anything I wouldn't do. Ciao, bro'."
Declan slowly replaced the receiver. It wasn't that he was short of women, in fact the opposite was true, but he sure as hell didn't want to marry any of them. There wasn't a single one who wouldn't expect declarations of undying devotion--devotion he was incapable of giving.
He'd been there, done that. He would bear the scars forever. Losing Renata had been the hardest thing in his life. He was never going down that road again. And he wasn't going to make promises he knew he couldn't hold to. It just wasn't his style, not now, not ever.
If he hadn't had his business to pour his energies into when Renata had died he may as well have buried himself with her. In some ways he probably had, but it was a choice he'd made, and one he stuck to.
He spun out of his chair and headed for the shower in the old bathroom of the converted Art Deco building, thankful--not for the first time--that he'd kept a fully functional bathroom in the office building. It gave him no end of pride to base the administrative side of his work here--his first completed project--the one his father had said would never succeed.
The house had been in a sorry state of repair, stuck in the middle of what had once been a residential area and which had slowly been absorbed by the nearby light-industrial zone. It had been just the sort of project he'd needed to get his hands on, literally, and had given him the opportunity to showcase his talents to restore and convert historical buildings for practical as well as aesthetic means. Cavaliere Developments had come a long way from the fledgling business he'd created eight years ago--and had a long way further to go if he had any say in the matter.
As he peeled off his work clothes, bunching them into a large crumpled ball in his fists, he wondered for the hundredth time if maybe he hadn't bitten off more than he could chew with the Sellers project. Buying the building outright wasn't the problem, he could do that without a blip on his financial radar. But converting it to luxury apartments, reminiscent of the era the building was constructed, took serious bucks. Bucks his board of directors, now headed by his father, would never authorise.
He'd worked out a way he could do it, though, a way to skip past any potential stonewalling by the board, and had liquidated everything he owned--his house, his stock in his father's company--everything, except his car and this building. He'd even temporarily moved in with his other brother, Mason, to minimise his expenses. But without the buffer of more funds his dream would be out of the running before he could even begin.
Declan rued, not for the first time, how easily he'd let his father take control of the board of directors when Renata died. How, in his grief, he'd let Tony Knight capitalise on his situation and take the seat of power for the one thing Declan had left that still meant anything. The old man had called most of the shots ever since. The board would never sanction taking on a loan the size he needed to make this job work.
But he had to make it work. He just had to. Somehow he'd get his hands on the money to make this dream come alive. After that, he'd resume control of his own company. It was all that mattered anymore, that and ensuring that he never laid himself open to being so weak that he'd lose control ever again.
Gwen Jones snapped her cell phone shut in frustration and drummed her fingers on the steering wheel of her car. If she couldn't put a halt to her wedding proceedings she'd be out of more than the deposits, she'd be out of her home, too. It had been Steve's idea to mortgage her house, and she'd reluctantly agreed, on the condition they only draw down sufficient funds to cover the wedding and some additional renovation costs on the late-nineteenth-century villa. But now he'd drawn down the lot and skipped the country. She'd never be able to cover the repayments on her own and she'd be forced to sell the only true home she'd ever known.
How could he do this to her?
Gwen flipped the phone open again and stabbed at the numbers, silently willing her maid-of-honour and hostess for tonight's celebrations, Libby, to be off the line. But for the sixth time in a row she went straight to Libby's answer phone, and there was no point in leaving another, even more frantic, message. Worse, there was no one answering at Cavaliere Developments. Even the cell number given in the message at Cavaliere rang unanswered before switching to the out-of-office auto service.
She raked impatient fingers through her long blond hair and tried to ignore the burning sensation in her stomach. Somehow, she had to be two places at once--but which was the most important? Cancelling her pre-wedding party for the forty or so friends Steve had said they couldn't afford to invite to the wedding, and which was due to start within the hour, or telling Declan Knight that his finance manager, her fiancé, had just fled the country after clearing out Cavaliere Developments' bank account along with her own?
There was no contest. As much as she dreaded facing him, she had to tell Declan.
She shifted gear and crawled another half metre forward, cursing once more Auckland's southern motorway gridlock that held her helpless in its grip, and tried to console herself the Penrose exit was only a short distance away.
By the time she pulled her station wagon up at the kerb outside Cavaliere Developments' offices the sharp burning in her stomach had intensified. She slammed her car door shut and, walking with short swift steps to the front of the building, popped an antacid from the roll in her bag.
Declan Knight hated her already, but when he heard what Steve had done... They didn't still shoot the messenger, did they? Her stomach gave a vicious twist, wrenching a small gasp of pain from her throat. She had to pull herself together.
The sparsely designed single-storey building, so typical of houses built in New Zealand during the late twenties, loomed in front of her. The old front lawn had been converted into car parks, but some of the gardens had been kept and edged the front of the building. Standard roses and gardenias scented the summer evening air.
She forced one foot in front of the other until she reached the entrance and dragged a steadying breath deep into her lungs before pushing open the front door to the reception area.
"Hello?" She waited, one hand clutching the straps of her bag while the other settled against her stomach as if doing so could calm the galloping herd of Kaimanawa wild horses that pranced there.
He had to be here. His distinctive classic Jag was still parked in the driveway that ran down the side of the house. Steve had just about bent her ear off covetously extolling the virtues of the black 1949 XK120. She could recite every statistic about the vehicle, from its butter-soft leather upholstery to the horsepower rating under the hood. The car was the perfect accessory for the man Declan Knight had become and the man Steve, she now knew, had envied with every bone in his body. With Declan's aura of success, devilish smile, long hair and cover-model body, he was a must on every society matron's guest list and came complete with a different woman for every day of the week.
Quite a different guy to the one Renata had so excitedly introduced her to just over eight years ago. Quite a different guy to the one who, blinded by grief, had reached for her in the awful dark days after Renata's death, and then, with the lingering scent of their passion still in the air, had accused her of seducing him. He had cut her as effectively from his life as a surgeon removes a cancerous growth.
Her mouth flooded with bitterness at the memory. She swallowed against the sour taste and resolutely pushed the past aside. Their actions had been a complete betrayal of Renata's memory. Thinking about it sure wouldn't help now. The only thing she could do was fulfil the promise she'd made as Renata sliced through the rope that threatened to pull them both to their deaths--to look out for Declan where she'd failed to do so for her dead friend.
Gwen looked around the empty reception area. For a Friday it was unnaturally quiet, but, of course, instead of hanging back for an end-of-week drink, everyone was on their way to her party. Everyone except the groom. She had to get through this as quickly as possible and then let Libby know the wedding was off. Oh, Lord, today was a total nightmare with no respite within her grasp.
She popped another antacid and her heart skittered in her chest. Maybe she'd even missed Declan altogether--he could've taken a ride with someone else. No, not with the front door still unlocked, she rationalised.
Focus, she admonished herself, you can't afford the luxury of falling apart now. Gwen gripped the handle of her bag and strode through the front reception and down the hallway that led to the private offices. She hesitated as she reached the office Steve had used. At the lightest touch the door swung open.
It looked so normal inside. No clue to show that the man who'd worked here until lunchtime today had been on the verge of fleeing the country, his job and his fiancée. She pulled the door shut behind her, wishing she could as effectively close the door on her troubles. She wouldn't find the help she needed here.
Somewhere at the back of the house she heard a faucet snap closed.
"Hello? Is anyone here?" she called out.
As she reached the end of the hallway an erratic squeaking penetrated the air, as if someone was wiping a cloudy mirror with his hand. She laid her ear against the nearest door. The noise peppered the silence again with its staccato screech, setting her teeth on edge. She hesitated, her hand resting against the painted surface of the door. Should she knock?
Suddenly the door swung inwards, pulling her off balance. Wham! She crashed face first against a bare wall of male torso. She dropped her handbag in shock and her hands flung upwards to rest against a bare chest. Her senses filled with the aroma of lightly spiced, warm, damp skin, dizzying her with its subtle assault. Of their own accord, her eyes fastened to the slow rise and fall of the broad, tanned expanse of skin in front of her. To the flat brown nipples that suddenly contracted beneath her gaze.
Declan Knight. She remembered the taste of him as if it were yesterday.