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Chase Evans pushed aside the folder in front of her and glanced at her watch. For the fourth time. She had now been kept waiting in this conference room for twenty-five minutes. As a lawyer, she knew what this was about. Actually, even if she hadn't been a lawyer she would have known what this was about. It was about intimidation. Intimidation by a juggernaut of a company that was determined to get its own way.
She stood up, flexed her muscles and strolled over to the floor-to-ceiling panes of glass that overlooked the teeming streets of the city.
At this time of year, London was swarming with tourists. From way up here, they appeared to be small little stick figures, but she knew if she went down she would join foreigners from every corner of the globe. You couldn't escape them. You couldn't escape the noise, the crowds and the bustle although here, in the opulent surroundings of AM Holdings, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were a million miles away from all that. It was deathly quiet.
Yet another intimidation tactic, she thought cynically. She had seen a lot in the past few years since she had been a practising lawyer, but the antics of this company took some beating.
She thought back to meeting number one, when they had imagined that buying up the women's shelter would be a walk in the park. For meeting number one, they had sent their junior lawyer, Tom Barry, who had become embroiled in a tangle of logistics with which he had patently been unable to cope.
For meeting number two, they had dispatched a couple of more experienced guys. Alex Cole and Bruce Robins had come prepared, but so had she. Out of all the pro bono cases in which she specialised, the women's shelter was dearest to her heart. If they had come prepared to wipe it out from under her feet, then she too had upped the stakes, pulling out obscure precursors and covenants that had sent them away scratching their heads and promising that they would be back.
Chase had had no doubt that they would. The shelter, or Beth's House, as it was nicknamed, sat on prime land in West London, land that could earn any halfway canny speculator a great deal of money should it be developed. She knew, through contacts and back doors, that it had been targeted for development by the AM group. An ambitious transformation-from a women's shelter to an exclusive, designer shopping mall for the rich and famous.
Well, over her dead body.
Staring down as the minutes of the clock ticked past and no one appeared, she knew that there was a very real possibility that she would have to let this one go, admit defeat. Yet for so many reasons she refused to let herself think that way.
After Alex and Bruce, her next meeting-this time with her boss by her side-had been with their top guy, Leslie Swift. He had cleverly countered every single magic act they had produced from their rapidly shrinking hat. He had produced by-laws, exemptions and clauses that she knew had been designed to have them running back to the drawing board. Now, alone in this sprawling conference room, Chase knew that she was in the last-chance saloon.
Once again she glanced at her watch before moving back to her seat at the thirty-seater table. Lord only knew who they would send this time to take her on. Maybe they would realise that she was mortally wounded and see fit to delegate her right back to the junior lawyer so that he could gloat at the woman who had sent him packing.
But she had one more trick up her sleeve. She wasn't going to give up without a fight. The memory of giving up without fighting was too embedded in her consciousness for her ever to go down that road again. She had dragged herself away from a dark place where any kind of fighting had never been a good idea and she wasn't about to relinquish any of the grit and determination that had got her where she was now.
Banishing all thoughts of a past that would cripple her if she gave it a chance, Chase Evans returned her attention to the file in front of her and the list of names and numbers she had jotted down as her final attempt to win her case.
'Shall I tell Ms Evans how long she might be expected to wait?'
Alessandro Moretti glanced up at his secretary, who stared back at him with gimlet-eyed steeliness. She had announced Chase Evans's arrival half an hour ago, longer, and had already reminded him once that the woman was waiting for him in the conference room. From anyone else, a second reminder would have been unthinkable. Alicia Brown, however, had been with him for five years and it had been clear from the start that tiptoeing around him wasn't going to be on the cards. She was old enough to be his mother and, if she had never tiptoed around any of her five strapping boys, then she certainly wasn't going to tiptoe around anyone. Alessandro Moretti included. He had hired her on the spot.
'You can't keep her waiting for ever. It's rude.'
'But then,' Alessandro countered drily, 'you've been with me long enough to know that I'm rude.' But he stood up and grabbed his jacket from where he had earlier flung it on the long, low, black leather sofa that occupied one side of the office.
In the concrete jungle where fortunes were made and lost on the toss of a coin, and where the clever man knew how to watch his back because the knives were never far away, Alessandro Moretti, at the tender age of thirty-four, ranked as one of the elite pack leaders.
Well, you didn't get to that exalted position by being soft and tender-hearted. Alessandro understood that. He was feared and respected by his employees. He treated them fairly; more than fairly. Indeed they were amongst the highest paid across the board in the city. In return, the line they trod was the line he marked. If he wanted something done, he expected it to be done yesterday. He snapped his fingers and they jumped to immediate attention.
So he was frankly a little put out that his team of lawyers had, so far, singularly failed in nailing the deal with the shelter. He couldn't imagine that it was anything but routine. He had the money to buy them out and so he would. Why then, four months down the line, was he having to step in and do their job for them?
He had elaborate plans to redevelop the extensive land the place was sitting on. His price was more than fair. Any fool should have been able to go in, negotiate and come out with the papers signed, sealed and delivered.
Instead, in a day which was comprised of back-to-back meetings, he was having to waste time with a two-bit pro bono lawyer who had set up camp on the moral high ground somewhere and was refusing to budge. Did he really need to take valuable time out to demolish her? Because demolish her he most certainly would.
He issued a string of orders as he left his office and threw over his shoulder, as he was about to shut the door behind him, 'And don't forget how good I am at sacking people! So I'd better not find that you've forgotten any of what I've just told you! Because I don't see your trusty notepad anywhere ' He grinned and shut the door smartly behind him before his secretary could tell him what she thought of his parting shot.
He was carrying nothing, because as far as he was concerned he didn't need to. He had been briefed on the woman's arguments. He didn't anticipate needing to strong-arm her at all into giving up. He had managed to unearth a couple of covenants barely visible to the naked eye that would subvert any argument she could put forward. Additionally, she had now been waiting for over forty minutes in a conference room that had been deliberately stripped bare of anything that could be seen as homely, comforting, soothing or in any way, shape or form, designed to put someone at ease.
He briefly contemplated summoning those losers who had not been able to do their job so that they could witness first hand how to do it, but decided against it.
One on one. Over and done with in fifteen minutes. Just in time for his next conference call from Hong Kong.
Having had plenty of time to mull over the intimidation tactics, Chase was standing by the window waiting for a team of lawyers. In bare feet, she was five-eleven. In heels, as she was now, she would tower over her opponents. The last one had barely reached her shoulders. Maybe, as a last resort, she could stare them down into submission. She was gazing out of the window when she heard the door to the conference room opening behind her and she took her time turning round.
If they could keep her waiting in a room that had all the personality of a prison cell, then she could take her time jumping to attention.
But it wasn't a team of lawyers. It wasn't Tom Barry, Alex Cole, Bruce Robins or Leslie Swift.
She looked at the man standing by the door and she felt the colour drain from her face. She found that she couldn't move from her position of dubious advantage standing by the window. Her legs had turned to lead. Her heart was beating so violently that she felt on the verge of a panic attack. Or, at the very least, an undignified fainting spell.
'You!' This wasn't the strong, steady voice of the self-confident twenty-eight-year-old woman she had finally become.
'Well, well, well ' Alessandro was as shocked as she was but was much more adept at concealing his response and much faster at recovering.
And yet, as he moved slowly towards her, he was finding it almost impossible to believe his eyes.
At the speed of light, he travelled back in time, back to eight years ago, back to the leggy, gloriously beautiful girl who had occupied his every waking hour. She had changed, and yet she hadn't. Gone was the waist-long hair, the jeans and sweater. In its place, the woman standing in front of him, looking as though she had seen a ghost- which he supposed she had-was impeccably groomed. Her shoulder-length bob was the same blend of rich caramel and chestnut, her slanting eyes were as green and feline as he remembered, her body as long and willowy.
'Lyla Evans ' He strolled towards her, one hand in his trouser pocket. 'Should I have clocked the surname? Maybe I would have if it hadn't been preceded by Chase ' He was standing right in front of her now. She looked as though she was about to pass out. He hoped she wouldn't expect him to catch her if she fell.
'Alessandro No one said I wasn't expecting '
'So I see.' His smile was cold and devoid of humour. Of their own accord, his eyes travelled to her finger. No wedding ring. Not that that said very much, all things considered.
'Will you be here on your own, or can I expect the rest of your team ?' Chase tried desperately to regain some of her shattered composure but she couldn't. She was driven to stare at the harsh, sinfully sexy contours of a face that had crept into her head far too many times to count. He was as beautiful as she remembered. More so, if that were possible. At twenty-six, he had been sexy as hell but still with the imprint of youth. Now he was a man, and there was nothing warm or open in his face. She was staring at a stranger, someone who hated her and who was making no attempt to mask his hatred.
'Just me. Cosy, as it turns out. Don't you think? So many years since last we saw one another, Lyla or Chase, or whoever the hell you really are.'
'Chase. My name is Chase. It always was.'
'So the pseudonym was purely for my benefit. Of course, it makes sense, given the circumstances at the time.'
'Lyla was my mother's name. If you don't mind, I think I'll sit.' She tottered over to the chair and collapsed on it. The stack of files in front of her, her briefcase, her laptop, they were all reminders of why she was in this conference room in the first place, but for the life of her she couldn't focus on them. Her thoughts were all over the place.
'So, shall we play a little catch-up, Lyla? Sorry Chase? A little polite conversation about what we've been doing for the past eight years?' Alessandro perched on the edge of the sprawling conference table and stared down at her: the one and only woman he had wasted time chasing, only to be left frustrated when she'd failed to fall into his bed. For that reason alone, she occupied a unique spot in his life. Add all the other reasons and she was in a league of her own.
'I'd rather not.'
'I bet. In your shoes, I'd plead the fifth as well.'
'Alessandro, I know what you must think of me, but-'
'I really don't need to hear any sob stories, Lyla.'
'Stop calling me that. My name is Chase.'
'So you became a lawyer after all. I take my hat off to you-although, thinking about it, you did prove you were the sort of girl who would get what she wanted whatever the cost.'
Chase's eyes flickered up to him. The expression on his face sent the chill of fear racing up and down her spine, yet how could she blame him? Their story had been brief and so full of things that had to be hidden that it was hardly surprising.
'And I notice that there's no telling wedding ring on your finger,' he continued in the same mildly speculative voice that wouldn't have fooled an idiot. 'Did you dispose of the hapless husband in your ever-onwards and upwards climb?'
When he had met her-sitting there in the university canteen with a book in front of her, a little frown on her face, completely oblivious to everyone around her-she had knocked him sideways. It was more than the fact that she'd stood out, that she possessed head-turning looks; the world was full of girls who could turn heads. No, it had been her complete and utter indifference to the glances angled in her direction. He had watched as she had toyed with her sandwich before shoving it to one side and heading out. She had looked neither right nor left. The canteen could have been devoid of people.
Standing here now, looking at her, Alessandro could recreate that feeling of intense, incomprehensible attraction that had swept over him then as though it had been yesterday.
Significantly, she hadn't been wearing a wedding ring then either.