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Rafael de Luca had been in worse situations before, and he'd no doubt be in worse in the future. He could handle it. These people would never make him sweat. They'd never know that he had absolutely no memory of any of them.
He surveyed the crowded ballroom with grim tolerance, sipping at the tasteless wine to cover the fact that he was uneasy. It was only by force of will that he'd managed to last this long. His head was pounding a vicious cadence that made it hard to down the swallow of wine without his stomach heaving it back up.
"Rafe, you can pack it in," Devon Carter murmured next to him. "You've put in enough time. No one suspects a thing."
Rafael swiveled to see his three friendsDevon, Ryan Beardsley and Cameron Hollingsworthstanding protectively at his back. There was significance there. Always at his back. Ever since they were freshmen in college, determined to make their mark on the business world.
They had come when he was lying in the hospital, a yawning black hole in his memory. They hadn't coddled him. Quite the opposite. They'd been complete bastards. He was still grateful for that.
"I've been told I never leave a party early," Rafe said as he tipped the wine toward his mouth again. As soon as the aroma wafted through his nostrils, he lowered the glass, changing his mind. What he wouldn't give for a bloody painkiller.
He'd refused any medication. He despised how out of control painkillers made him feel. But right now, he'd gladly take a few and pass out for several hours. Maybe then he'd wake up without the god-awful pain in his temples.
Cam's lips twisted in a half snarl. "Who gives a damn what you typically do? It's your party. Tell them all to"
Ryan held up his hand. "They're important business associates, Cam. We want their money, remember?"
Cam scowled as he scanned the room.
"Who needs a security team with the three of you around?" Rafael drawled. He joked, but he was grateful for people he could trust. There was no one else he'd admit his memory loss to.
Devon leaned in quickly and said in a low voice, "The man approaching is Quenton Ramsey the third. His wife's name is Marcy. He's already confirmed for the Moon Island deal."
Rafael nodded and took a step away from the shelter of his friends and smiled warmly at the approaching couple. A lot rode on making sure their investors didn't get nervous. Rafael and his business partners had located a prime spot for their resorta tiny island off the coast of Texas just across the bay from Galveston. The land was his. Now all they had to do was build the hotel and keep their investors happy.
"Quenton, Marcy, it's wonderful to see you both again. And may I say how lovely you look tonight, Marcy. Quenton is a very lucky man."
The older woman's cheeks flushed with pleasure as Rafael took her hand and brought it to his lips.
He nodded politely and pretended interest in the couple, but his nape was prickling again, and he squelched the urge to rub it. His head was lowered as if he were hanging on to every word, but his gaze rapidly took in the room, searching for the source of his unease.
At first his gaze flickered past her but he yanked his attention back to the woman standing across the room. Her stare bore holes through him. Unflinching and steady even when his eyes locked with hers.
It was hard for him to discern why he was so arrested by her. He knew he generally preferred tall, leggy blondes. He was a total sucker for baby blues and soft, pale skin.
This woman was petite, even in heels, and had a creamy olive complexion. A wealth of inky black curls cascaded over her shoulders and her eyes were equally dark.
She looked at him as if she'd already judged him and found him lacking. He'd never seen her before in his life. Or had he?
He cursed the gaping hole in his memory. He remembered nothing of the weeks before his accident four months ago and had gaps in his memory preceding the weeks that he remembered nothing of. It was all so random. Selective amnesia. It was complete and utter bull. No one got amnesia except hysterical women in bad soap operas. His physician suggested that there was a psychological reason for the missing pieces of his memory. Rafael hadn't appreciated such a suggestion. He wasn't crazy. Who the hell wanted to lose their memory?
He remembered Dev, Cam and Ryan. Every moment of the past decade. Their years in college. Their success in business. He remembered most of the people who worked for him. Most. But not all, which caused him no end of stress in his offices.
Especially since he was trying to close a resort development deal that could make him and his partners millions.
Now he was stuck not remembering who half his investors were and he couldn't afford to lose anyone at this stage of the game.
The woman was still staring at him, but she'd made no move to approach him. Her eyes had grown colder the longer their gazes held, and her hand tightened perceptibly on her small clutch.
"Excuse me," he murmured to the Ramseys. With a smooth smile, he disengaged himself from the group who'd assembled around him and discreetly made his way in the direction of his mystery woman.
His security team followed at a short distance, but he ignored them. They didn't shadow him for fear of his safety as much as his partners feared it getting out that he'd lost his memory. The security team was an annoyance he was unused to, but they kept people at arm's length, which served him well at the moment.
The woman didn't pretend to be coy. She stared straight at him and as he approached, her chin thrust upward in a gesture of defiancé that intrigued him.
For a moment he stood in front of her, studying the delicate lines of her face and wondering if in fact this was their first meeting. Surely he would have remembered.
"Excuse me, but have we met?" he asked in his smoothest voice, one that he knew to be particularly effective on women.
Likely she'd titter and then deny such a meeting. Or she'd blatantly lie and try to convince him that they'd spent a wonderful night in bed. Which he knew couldn't be true, because she wasn't his type.
His gaze settled over the generous swell of her breasts pushed up by the empire waist of her black cocktail dress. The rest of the dress fell in a swirl to her knees and twitched with sudden impatience.
She did none of the things he'd supposed. When he glanced back up at her face, he saw fury reflected in the dark pools of her eyes.
"Met? Have we met?" Her voice was barely above a whisper, but he felt each word like the crack of a whip. "You sorry bastard!"
Before he could process the shock of her outburst she nailed him with a right hook. He stumbled back, holding his nose.
"Son of a"
Before he could demand to know if she'd lost her damn mind, one of his guards stepped between him and the woman, and in the confusion accidentally sent her reeling backward. She stumbled and went down on one knee, her hand automatically flying to the folds of her dress.
It was then, as she cupped her belly, that the realization hit him. The folds had hidden the gentle curve of her body. Had hidden her pregnancy and the evidence of a child.
His guard went to roughly haul her to her feet.
"No!" Rafael roared. "She's pregnant. Do not hurt her!"
His guard stepped back, his startled gaze going to Rafael. The woman wasted no time scrambling to her feet. Her eyes flashing, she turned and ran down the marble hallway, her heels tapping a loud staccato as she fled.
Rafael stared at her retreating figure, too stunned to do or say anything. The last time she'd looked at him, it wasn't fury he'd seen. It wasn't the fiery anger that prompted her to hit him. No, he'd seen tears and hurt. Somehow, he'd hurt this woman and damned if he knew how.
The vicious ache in his head forgotten, he hurried down the hallway after her. He burst from the hotel lobby, and when he reached the steps leading down to the busy streets, he saw two shoes sparkling in the moonlight, the silvery glitter twinkling at him. Mocking him.
He bent and picked up the strappy sandals and then he frowned. A pregnant woman had no business wearing heels this high. What if she'd tripped and fallen? Why the devil had she run? It certainly seemed as if she wanted a confrontation with him, but at first opportunity, she'd fled.
At least she'd had the common sense to ditch them so she wasn't running down some street on a pair of toothpicks.
"What the hell is going on, Rafe?" Cam demanded as he hurried up behind him.
In fact, his entire security team, along with Cam, Ryan and Devon, had followed him from the hotel into the crisp autumn air. Now they gathered around him and they looked as though they were concerned. About him.
He blew out his breath in frustration and then shoved the pair of sparkly, ultra-feminine shoes at Ramon, his head of security.
"Find the woman who wore these shoes."
"What would you like me to do with her when I find her?" Ramon asked in a sober voice that told Rafael he'd definitely find the woman in short order. Ramon didn't typically fail in any task Rafael set him to.
Rafael shook his head. "You aren't to do anything. Report back to me. I'll handle the situation."
He was treated to a multitude of frowns.
"I don't like it, Rafe," Ryan said. "This screams setup. It's not impossible that your memory loss hasn't already been leaked to the press or even a few confidential sources who haven't yet gone wide with it. A woman could manipulate you in a thousand ways by using it against you."
"Yes, she could," Rafael said calmly. "There's something about this woman that bugs me, though."
Cam's brow lifted in that imperious way that intimidated so many people. "Do you recognize her? Is she someone you knew?"
Rafael frowned. "I don't know. Yet. But I'm going to find out."
Bryony Morgan stepped from the shower, wrapped a towel around her head and then pulled on a robe. Even a warm shower hadn't stopped the rapid thump of her pulse. Try as she might, she hadn't been able to let go of her rage.
Have we met?
His question replayed over and over until she wanted to throw something. Preferably at him.
How could she have been so stupid? She wasn't typically one to lose her mind over a good-looking man. She'd been immune to a good many with charm and wit.
But from the time Rafael de Luca had stepped onto her island, he'd been it for her. No fighting. No resisting. He was the entire package. Perfection in those uptight business suits he wore. Oh, she'd managed to get them off of him. By the time he left the island, his pilot hadn't even recognized him.
He'd gone from a sober, uptight, type A personality to laid-back, relaxed and well vacationed.
And in love.
She closed her eyes against the sudden surge of pain that swamped her.
He obviously hadn't been in love. Or anything else. He came. He saw. And he conquered. She was just too hopelessly naive and too in love herself to consider his true motives.
That may well have been the case, but it didn't mean he was going to get away scot-free with his lies and deception. She didn't care what she had to do, he wasn't going to develop the land she'd sold him into some ginormous tourist mecca and turn the entire island into some playground for bored, wealthy jet-setters.
It had taken all her courage to crash his party tonight, but once she'd learned the purposea gathering of his potential investors for the project he planned to ruin her land with she'd been determined to confront him. Right there in their midst. Daring him to lie to her when the entire room knew of his plans.
She hadn't counted on him denying that he'd ever met her. But then how better to paint her as the village idiot? Or some crazy do-gooder granola bar out to halt "progress."
The force of just how wrong she'd been threatened to flatten her. She sighed heavily and shook her head. She had to calm down or her blood pressure was going to skyrocket.
Slowly she unclenched her jaw. Her teeth were ground together with enough force to break them.
Where was room service? She was starving. She rubbed her belly apologetically and made a conscious effort to let all the anger and stress flow out of her body. It couldn't be good for the baby to have her mother so pissed off all the time.
She gritted her teeth before she realized that she'd done so again. Forcing her jaw to relax once more, she performed the arduous task of combing out her hair and blow-drying it.
She was finishing up when a loud knock sounded at her door.
"Food. Finally," she murmured as she turned off the hair dryer.
She hurried to the door and swung it open. But there was no food cart or hotel employee. Rafael stood there, her abandoned shoes dangling from his fingertips.
She stepped back and tried to slam the door, but he stuck his foot in, preventing her from shutting it.
As indomitable as ever, he pushed his way in and stood in front of her. She hated how small and vulnerable she felt against him. Oh, she hadn't always hated it. She'd loved how protected and cherished he'd made her feel when she curled her much smaller body into his.
She bared her teeth into a snarl. "Get out or I'll call hotel security."
"You could," he said calmly. "But as I own this hotel, you might have a hard time having me thrown out."
Her eyes narrowed. Of course he'd own the hotel she'd chosen to stay in. What were the odds of that?
"I'll call the police then. I don't care who you are. You can't force yourself into my hotel room."
He raised an eyebrow. "I came to return your shoes. Does that make me a criminal?"
"Oh, come on, Rafael! Stop playing stupid games. It's beneath you. Or it should be. I get it. Believe meI get it! I got it as soon as you looked right through me at the party. Though I have to say, the 'have we met?' line? That was priceless. Just priceless. Not to mention overkill."
It was all she could do not to hit him again, and maybe he realized just how badly she wanted to because he took a wary step back.