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Friday afternoon in the office of the man Jake Freedman had every reason to hate, and he could barely contain his impatience to leave. Soon, very soon, he would have all the evidence to indict Alex Costarella for the vulture he was, picking over the carcasses of bankrupted companies to feed his own bankroll. Then he could leave for good. In the meantime, the facade of aspiring to be Costarella's right-hand man in the liquidation business could not afford any cracks.
'It's Mother's Day on Sunday,' the big man remarked, eyeing Jake with speculative interest. 'You don't have any family, do you?'
Not since you helped to kill my stepfather.
Jake managed a rueful smile. 'Lost both my parents in my teens.'
'Yes, I remember you saying so. Difficult for you. Makes it all the more admirable that you pushed on with a career path and have made such a fine job of it.'
Every step of the way had been burning with the ambition to take this man down. And he would. It had taken ten years to get to this pointaccountancy, law, building up experience in Costarella's business, gaining his confidence. Only a few more months now
'I'd like you to meet my daughter.'
Shock startled Jake out of his secret brooding and rattled his ruthless determination. He'd never thought about the vulture's family, or what effect his own actions might have on them. He raised his eyebrows enquiringly. Was the daughter about to come into her father's business or was this some weird attempt at matchmaking?
'Laura is a stunner in any man's language. Smart girl and a great cook,' Costarella declared with an inviting smile. 'Come to lunch at my home on Sunday and find out for yourself.'
A sales pitch! And a set-up for a connection to be made!
Jake inwardly recoiled from an up-close-and-personal involvement with anyone related to this man. His hand moved instinctively in a negative gesture. 'I'd be intruding on your family day.'
'I want you to come, Jake.'
The expression on his face brooked no refusal. It was a strong, handsome face, framed by thick, steel-grey hair and dominated by steel-grey eyesa face imbued with the confidence of a man who could and did take control of anything and bend it to his will.
Jake knew instantly that if he persisted in declining the invitation, the approval rating that gave him access to the evidence he needed could be lost. 'That's very kind of you,' he rolled out with an appreciative smile. 'If you're sure I'd be welcome '
Any doubt on that score was clearly irrelevant. What Costarella wanted, he got. 'Make it eleven-thirty,' he said without hesitation. 'You know where I live?'
'Yes. Thank you. I'll look forward to it.'
'Good! I'll see you then.' The grey eyes glittered with satisfaction. 'You won't be disappointed.'
Jake nodded, taking his dismissal as gracefully as he could, knowing he had to turn up on Sunday, knowing he had to show an interest in the daughter,and hating the idea with every fibre of his being.
Why Costarella wanted this, he didn't know. It seemed ridiculously patriarchal in this day and age to be lining up a suitor, as though people were pawns to be moved as he wished. Nevertheless, it was typical of the callous mentality of the man. He moved to his own beat, not giving a damn about anyone else's interests.
Jake had to go along with him, play for time, protect his own agenda. If he had to start dating Laura Costarella he would, but no way would he allow himself to become emotionally attached to her, regardless of how beautiful and smart she was.
She was the daughter of the enemy.
He wasn't about to forget that.
Laura Costarella wished it could be what it was supposed to bea beautiful, memorable day for her mother with her children showing their love and appreciation for all she'd done for them, and their father being happy with the family they'd created together.
It wasn't going to be like that.
Her father had invited a special guest to the family lunch and from the smug little smile accompanying this announcement, Laura strongly suspected that the guest would be used to show up the shortcomings in his son and daughter, as well as the failings of the mother who had raised them.
Jake Freedmana hard name, and undoubtedly as hard in character as her father was, or he wouldn't have risen so fast to the top of the tree in the Costarella Accountancy Company, which raked in millions from bankrupt firms. Did he know how he was going to be used today? Did he care?
Laura shook her head over the futile speculation. What would happen would happen. She couldn't stop it. All she could do was cook her mother's favourite foods for lunch and try to deflect the barbs of her father's discontent with his family. Keep smiling, she told herself, no matter what.
She hoped her brother would follow that advice today, too, for their mother's sake. No eruption into a resentful rage. No walking out. Just smile and shrug off any critical remarks like water off a duck's back.
Surely it wasn't too much to ask for Eddie to keep his testosterone in check for one short day.
The doorbell rang as she finished preparing the vegetables for baking as she'd seen done on the cooking show that was one of her favourite television programs. They were ready to slip into the oven with the slowly roasting leg of lamb when the time was right. The pumpkin and bacon soup only had to be reheated. The cream was whipped and the lemon-lime tart was in the refrigerator waiting to be served.
She quickly washed her hands, removed her apron and pasted a smile on her face, determined to greet their visitor with all the charm she could muster.
Jake stood at the front door to Alex Costarella's Mosman mansion, steeling himself to be an appreciative and charming guest. The huge two-storey redbrick home was one of Sydney's old establishment houses, set in immaculately kept grounds, oozing solid respectabilitya perfect front to hide the true nature of the man who had acquired it by ripping off other people.
He remembered how hard his stepfather had fought the bankruptcy officials to hold back the sale of their family home while his mother was still alivejust a few more months until the cancer finally took her. No caring, no mercy from the money men. And the whole rotten process had been started by Costarella, who had deliberately turned a blind eye to how a company and hundreds of jobs could have been saved, preferring the prospect of lining his own pockets while being in charge of selling off all the assets.
No caring, no mercy.
His stepfather's heart had given out only a few weeks after his mother had died. Two funerals in close succession. Jake couldn't lay both of them at Costarella's door, but he could certainly lay one. It amused him to think of himself as the wolf outside, waiting to be given open entry to another wolf's home.
Taronga Park Zoo was nearby.
But the dangerous animals were right here.
Costarella didn't know Jake was on the prowl, waiting for the right moment to attack. He was holding his daughter out as bait for a bright future with the young gun in the company, unaware that hewas the targeted prey. As for Laura, herself.
The door opened and Jake was faced with a woman who instantly excited an interest. She wasbeautiful; long black curly hair, incredible blue eyes, a mouth with lush full lips stretched into a greeting smile of perfect white teeth. She wore a clingy top in purple and white, the neckline dipping down low enough to reveal the upper swell of breasts that were more than big enough to fill a man's hands. Tight purple jeans outlined the rest of her hourglass figure and emphasised the seductive length of her shapely legs. The sexual animal inside Jake growled with the desire to take.
It was several moments before he recovered wits enough to identify himself as the expected guest. 'I'm Jake. Jake Freedman,' he said, hoping she hadn't noticed how takenhe was by her.
Alex Costarella's daughter was a man-trap.
Falling into it did not fit into his plan.
'Hello. I'm Laura, the daughter of the house.'
She heard herself say the words as though from a great distance, her mind totally stunned by how handsome Jake Freedman was. Though handsomedidn't say it all, not by a long shot. She'd met a lot of good-looking men. Her brother's world was full of them, actors making their mark in television shows. But this man.what was it that had her heart racing and her stomach fluttering?
His hair was dark brown and cut so short the wave in it was barely noticeable. Somehow the lack of careful styling made his dark brown eyes more riveting. Or maybe it was the unusual shape of them, his eyelids drooping in a way that made them look triangular and incredibly sexy. A strong straight nose, a strong squarish jaw and a strongly sculptured mouth added to the male impact of his face. He would have been perfectly cast as James Bond, Laura thought, and had the nervous feeling he was just as dangerous as the legendary 007 character.
He had the physique to go with it, too. As tall as her father but more lethally lean and looking powerfully masculine in his black jeans and black-and-white sports shirt, the long sleeves casually rolled up to the elbows, revealing hard muscular forearms. Jake Freedman was so male, it was stirring everything female in her. Even though she knew he was her father's man, it was impossible not to feel interested in him.
'Pleased to meet you,' he said, offering his hand with a smile that made him even sexier.
'Likewise,' Laura replied, extending her own hand and finding it subjected to an electric sensation that was so shocking she wanted to snatch it away. 'Please come in,' she rattled out, needing movement to excuse the quick extraction from physical contact with him.
'Daughter of the house,' he repeated musingly as he stepped inside. 'Does that mean you still live here at home?'
The curious assessment in his eyes gave her the sense he was summing up possibilities between them. 'Yes. It's a big house,' she answered drily. Big enough to keep out of her father's way most of the time.
Jake Freedman had to be years older than her university friends, given his position in her father's business, and remembering that unpleasant fact she should avoid him like the plague, apart from getting through this visit today. They would have nothingabsolutely nothingin common.
'The family is enjoying the sunshine on the back patio,' she said, leading him down the wide hallway that bisected the house. 'I'll take you out to Dad, then bring you some refreshments. What would you like to drink?'
'A glass of iced water would be fine, thank you.' It surprised her. 'Not a Scotch on the rocks man like my father?' 'No.'
'What about a vodka martini?' 'Just water.'
Well, he wasn't James Bond, she thought, swallowing down a silly giggle.
'Do you have a job, Laura?'
'Yes, I'm a Director of First Impressions.' It was okay to let the laughter gurgle out at his puzzled expression. 'I read it in the newspaper this morning,' she explained. 'It's the title now given to a receptionist.'
'Ah!' He smiled at the pretentiousness of it.
'You know what they call a window cleaner?'
'Please enlighten me.'
'A vision clearance executive.'
He laughed, making his megawatt attractiveness zoom even higher.
'A teacher is a knowledge navigator,' Laura rattled on, trying to ignore his effect on her. 'And a librarian is an information retrieval specialist. I can't remember the rest of the list. All the titles were very wordy.'
'So putting it simply, you're a receptionist.' 'Part-time at a local medical practice. I'm still at uni, doing landscape architecture. It's a four-year degree program and I'm currently making my way through the last year.'
'Working and studying? Your father doesn't support you?' he queried, obviously not quite in tune with a wealthy man who wouldn't finance his children's full education.
She slanted him a derisive look. 'My father doesn't support what he doesn't approve of. You should know that since you work with him.'
'But you're his daughter.'
'Who was expected to fall in with his wishes. I'm allowed to live here. That's as much support as my father will give to my career choice.'
'Perhaps you should have sought complete independence.'
It was an odd remark, coming from a man who had to have made an art form of falling in with her father's wishes. However, she wasn't about to discuss the dynamics of her family with an outsider, particularly not someone who specialised in siding with her father.
'My mother needs me.'
It was a brief reply and all he was going to get from her. She opened the back door and ushered him out to the patio, quickly announcing, 'Your Jake is here, Dad.'