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"Marry me. I'll make it worth your while."
What the hell was she doing here? Amira Forsythemore frequently known as the Forsythe Princesswas as out of place here in the Ashurst Collegiate Chapel men's room as she was in his life, period. He didn't know which he found more startling. Her demand or the fact she'd actually followed him in here. Brent Colby straightened from the basin and casually reached for a fresh towel. He painstakingly dried his hands and dropped the towel in the deep wicker basket before turning to face her.
His eyes raked over the expensively styled, natural honey-blond hair that tumbled over her shoulders, the immaculate makeup, the exquisitely tailored black suit that hugged her generous curves and threw her luscious creamy skin into sharp relief against its unrelenting somberness. Her fragrancean intriguing combination of flowers and spicereached across the sterile atmosphere of the tiled room to infiltrate his senses. Against his better judgment, he inhaled. Stupid mistake, he silently rebuked himself as his blood thickened and heated, pooling low in his groin.
At her throat, her pulse beat rapidly against the single strand of pearls that shimmered in their priceless perfection against the nacre of her skin. A dead giveaway. Beneath that well-groomed exterior, she was scared.
Scared of him? She ought to be. Since she'd left him at the altar eight years ago, he'd had a wealth of anger simmering silently inside. When she'd made it absolutely clear she wouldn't be providing any excuses for her behaviour, he'd rebuilt his world without her in it. For the better.
Brent allowed his gaze to meet and clash with hers, took satisfactionin the way her pupils dilated, almost consuming the icy-blue irisesthe distinctively chilling Forsythe stare. Marry her? She had to be kidding.
"No," he replied.
He started to walk past her. Even going back into the chapel where the throng of mourners exchanged platitudes after Professor Woodley's wife's memorial service would be preferable to this. Her hand on his arm halted him in his tracks.
"Please. Brent, I need you to marry me."
He stopped and looked pointedly at her ringless fingers on his arm, not betraying for a second what her touch did to him. How his nerves tautened and his heart rate increased. How he'd like nothing better than to push his fingers through the thick silk of her hair and bend his mouth to the smooth column of her throat. Even after all this time, she still had this effect.
Rather than let go immediately, her grip tightened on his forearm before she eased her hold and contradictorily he wished she hadn't. He didn't know what she had in mind, but one thing, at least, was certain. He didn't want a bar of it.
"Amira, even if I was open to discussion on the matter, this is neither the time nor the place."
"Look, Brent, I know we have some bitterness between us"
Some bitterness? The woman had left him standing at the front of the church swelled with a couple of hundred guests with little more than a text message to his best man. Yeah, there was "some bitterness" between them, all right. Brent had to fight to hold back the derisive bark of laughter that rose in his throat.
"Please. Won't you hear me out?"
Amira's voice had a tiny wobble in it. Another betrayal of the inimitable Forsythe calm. If her grandmother were alive today, no doubt she'd be deeply disappointed in her only granddaughter, and sole remaining direct descendant, for exhibiting such weakness.
"As I recall, you had your shot at marrying me. You blew it. We have nothing to say to one another." Brent bit the words out through a jaw clenched on all the things he'd like to say. In two long strides he was at the men's room door.
"You're the only man I can trust to do this."
He halted in his tracks, his hand resting on the metal push plate on the door. Trust? That was laughable coming from her.
"I think you'll find you're mistaken. If I were you, I wouldn't trust me not to take you for every last red cent. After all, money is the issue here, isn't it?"
"How how did you know?"
Brent sighed inwardly before meeting her strained gaze. "Because with your kind it always is."
He should have kept on walking. Engaging in conversation with Amira was the last thing he needed.
"Wait. At least give me an opportunity to explain why. Honestly, I will make it worth your while. I promise."
"Like your word is worth anything?"
"I need you."
There was a time he'd have walked through a burning building to hear her say that again, but that time was long past. The Forsythes of this world didn't need anyone. Period. They used people. And when they were done using, they discarded. But there was something in the tone of her voice and the fine lines of strain around her eyes that piqued his interest. That she had a problem on her hands was evident. That she thought he could solve that problem, equally so.
"All right, but not now. I'm working from home tomorrow. Meet me there. Nine thirty."
"Nine thirty? I have"
"Or not at all." He'd be damned if he'd cater to her social schedule. She'd see him on his turf, on his terms, or not at all.
"Yes, nine thirty's fine."
Amira turned to go. Typical, Brent thought. She got what she thought she wanted. Now he was summarily dismissed. But then she halted in her tracks and turned around.
Don't thank me yet, Brent added silently. He followed her outside through the chapel and into the adjoining Jubilee Hall of Ashurst Collegiate where, as he watched, she disappeared into the throng. It occurred to him that she must have been the woman his assistant said had been persistently phoning his inner-city office each day and refusing to leave a message when told he was still overseas on business. How on earth had she tracked him down here? He'd only returned late last night in a mad dash attempt to make the service. Attending Mrs. Woodley's memorial was a deeply personal matter, one of respect. It rankled him that Amira had soured what was already a difficult day.
He scanned the hall. He didn't even need to close his eyes to still see the rows of impeccably uniformed boys lined up for assembly each morning, hear the sonorous tones of the headmasterexperience again that sensation of not truly belonging.
He hadn't wanted to come to Ashurst, one of New Zealand's most prestigious private boys' schools, but his uncle, his mother's brother, had insisted, saying even though he didn't bear the Palmer name, he still deserved the education that came with his familial lineage.
That was the trouble with old money. Everyone thought they called the shots, knew what was best for you, if only because it was the way things were "done."
Brent hadn't wanted any handouts. He'd seen what having the Palmers pay his fees had done to his father's pride. Zack Colby might never have had the wealth of his wife' s family but he'd taught Brent the benefit of working for his place in the world. As a result Brent had worked his backside off to be awarded one of the rarely bestowed Ashurst Scholarships for Academic Excellenceand he'd repaid every cent to his uncle before he'd left school.
But he hadn't been so perfect a student that there weren't some rough patches. He and his two best friends had excelled at their share of mischief as well. He glanced across the milling crowd of past and present students and faculty members, searching for the faces of his cohortshis cousin, Adam Palmer, and their friend, Draco San-drelli. He wasn't disappointed; they were making their way over to him already. Adam was first at his side.
"Hey, cuz. Was that who I thought it was coming out of the men's room a minute ago?"
"What? You need glasses now?" Brent responded with a smile that didn't quite make it to his eyes. He lifted a glass of mineral water from the tray being circulated by one of the waitstaff and took a long quenching gulp.
"Very funny. So what did her highness want?" Adam persisted.
Brent weighed up telling them the truth. There had never been any secrets between them before. Now wasn't the time to start holding back.
"She asked me to marry her."
"You're kidding us, right?" Draco laughed, his faint Italian accent betraying his origins despite the number of years he'd spent living and working around the world.
"I wish I was. Anyway, I'll find out more tomorrow."
"What? You're considering seeing her again? After what she did?" Adam shook his head.
"Yeah. I am. But don't worry. I don't plan on saying yes anytime soon."
Brent looked around the room, scanning for a golden-blond head, but she was nowhere to be seen.
"Do you know why she asked you?" Draco asked, his voice threaded with disbelief and a healthy dose of mistrust.
"Last time I heard from her was that bloody text she sent when we were at the church waiting for her to turn up," Adam added.
Brent clenched his jaw at the memory. They'd been at the altar, the three of them lined up and good-naturedly joking about the lateness of his bride and Brent's soon-to-be married status when Adam's cell phone, nestled in his breast pocket, had discreetly vibrated several times in succession. They'd ignored it. Time had continued to tick past with no sign of Amira. Eventually Adam had checked his phone, his face turning gray at the message.
Tell Brent I can't go through with it. Amira.
Initially Brent had wondered whether it would have made any difference if they'd gotten the message soonerif he'd been able to get to her house before she'd disappeared with her grandmotherbut he'd long discounted that as a waste of energy. And once the shock had diminished into cold, hard anger, he'd cursed himself for a fool for having believed her when she'd said she was different from the mold her grandmother had cast her in.
Back then she'd told him money didn't matter to her, and he'd believed her. In the lead-up to their wedding, though, disaster had struck his business. The container load of imported products, with which he'd swept the young adult games market and seen his fortunes soar, had been faulty. To save Amira from anxiety he'd delayed telling her his first million dollars was slowly being filtered down the drain as he recalled stock and personally backed each and every warranty claim. He'd managed to keep the news quiet for days, but somehow it had broken in the national papers as front page news the morning of their wedding.
It turned out that money mattered to her a whole lot more than she'd admitted. He'd learned that the hard way when she'd sent that text, not even having the guts to face him in person and call things off. Brent always made certain he learned his lessons the first time around. The Forsythe Princess wouldn't get another shot at screwing with his lifeor his headagain.
"I have no idea what she's up to, but I'll find out eventually," Brent replied. "C'mon, let's go and pay our respects to Professor Woodley, then get out of here."
Suddenly all he wanted was the open road and the powerful roar of his Moto Guzzi taking him away from his demons. Together the three men shouldered their way through the throng, oblivious to the admiring glances of many of the women thereyoung and oldto where a small group spoke with the professor. One by one, the members of the group disappeared, leaving them alone with their favorite tutor from their school days.
"Ah, my rogues. Thank you for coming, boys."
Brent stiffened. He hadn't been called a rogue since the day the professor had caught the three of them demon riding on the dark and winding coast road five miles from school. He could still hear the professor's words of censure when they'd arrived back at their hall of residence, and the disappointment in his voice that they'd taken such crazy risks with their lives.
"All of the students in your year are diamonds some polished, some still a little rough. All, except you three. You, sirs, are rogues!"
They'd escaped with four weeks of detention and loss of privileges, but none of them had ever lived down the regret that they'd caused the older man such pain with their actions. Especially when they later learned his only son had died on the stretch of road they'd been riding. They'd spent the rest of their final year at Ashurst making it up to him.
"So, how are you all? Married, I hope. There's nothing quite like the love of a good woman, or the constancy of having her at your side." The older man's eyes filmed over. "It's times like this that I realize just how much I'm going to miss her."
"Sir, we're really sorry for your loss." Ever the group spokesman, Adam's voice rang with sincerity.
"As am I, my boy, as am I. But don't think you can dodge me that easily." A faint twinkle appeared in the old man's eyes. "Are you married or not?"
One by one each of them shifted under his penetrating gaze, until he hooted with laughter, drawing the attention of the people around them.
"I take it, not, then. Never mind. I have a good feeling about you boys. It'll happen when the time is right."
"Perhaps marriage isn't for all of us," Brent replied, which only opened up the professor to one of his famous lectures on the sanctity of marriage.
But Brent stopped listening, his attention suddenly caught by Draco's expression. The man looked as if he'd seen a ghost. In the next instant Draco had excused himself and hightailed it across the room, toward the catering staff.
"What was that about?" Adam asked as the professor's attention was taken by another group stopping to give their condolences.
"Don't know, but it looks interesting," Brent answered, his eyes locked on the body language of the tall slender woman with short spiky dark hair, who appeared to be in charge of the catering.