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Leo Zamos loved it when a plan came together.
Not that he couldn't find pleasure in other, more everyday pursuits. He was more than partial to having a naked woman in his bed, and the more naked the woman the more partial he was inclined to be, and he lived for the blood-dizzying rush from successfully navigating his Maserati Granturismo S at speed around the sixty hairpin turns of the Passa dello Stelvio whenever he was in Italy and got the chance.
Still, nothing could beat the sheer unmitigated buzz that came from conceiving a plan so audacious it could never happen, and then steering it through the ensuing battles, corporate manoeuvrings and around the endless bureaucratic roadblocks to its ultimate conclusionand his inevitable success.
And right now he was on the cusp of his most audacious success yet.
All he needed was a wife.
He stepped from his private jet into the mild Melbourne spring air, refusing to let that one niggling detail ruin his good mood. He was too close to pulling off his greatest coup yet to allow that to happen. He sucked in a lungful of the Avgas-flavoured air and tasted only success as he headed down the stairs to the waiting car. The Culshaw Diamond Corporation, owner and producer of the world's finest pink diamonds and a major powerhouse on the diamond market, had been in the hands of the one big Australian diamond dynasty for ever. Leo had been the one to sense a change in the dynamic of those heading up the business, to detect the hairline cracks that had been starting to show in the Culshaw brothers' management team, though not even he had seen the ensuing scandal coming, the circumstances of which had made the brothers' positions on the board untenable.
There'd been a flurry of interest from all quarters then, but Leo had been the one in pole position. Already he'd introduced Richard Alvarez, head of the team interested in buying the business, to Eric Culshaw senior, an intensely private man who had been appalled by the scandal and just wanted to fade quietly into obscurity. And so now for the first time in its long and previously unsullied history, the Culshaw Diamond Corporation was about to change hands, courtesy of Leo Zamos, broker to billionaires.
Given the circumstances, perhaps he should have seen this latest complication coming. But if Eric Culshaw, married nearly fifty years to his childhood sweetheart, had decreed that he would only do business with people of impeccable family credentials and values, and with Alvarez agreeing to bring his wife along, clearly Leo would just have to find himself a wife too.
Kind of ironic really, given he'd avoided the institution with considerable success all these years. Women did not make the mistake of thinking there was any degree of permanence in the arrangement when they chanced to grace his arm or bed.
Not for long anyway.
But a one-night wife? That much he could handle. The fact he had to have one by eight p.m. tonight was no real problem.
Evelyn would soon find him someone suitable.
After all, it wasn't like he actually needed to get married. A fiancée would do just fine, a fiancée found after no doubt long years of searching for that 'perfect' soulmateEric Culshaw could hardly hold the fact they hadn't as yet tied the knot against him, surely?
He had his phone in hand as he nodded to the waiting driver before curling himself into the sleek limousine, thankful they'd cleared customs when they'd landed earlier in Darwin to refuel, and already devising a mental list of the woman's necessary attributes.
Clearly he didn't want just any woman. This one had to be classy, intelligent and charming. The ability to hold a conversation desirable though not essential. It wouldn't necessarily matter if she couldn't, so long as she was easy on the eye.
Evelyn would no doubt be flicking through her contacts, turning up a suitable candidate, before she hung up the phone. Leo allowed himself a flicker of a smile and listened to the burr of a telephone ringing somewhere across the city as his driver pulled effortlessly into the endless stream of airport traffic.
Dispensing with his office two years ago had been one of the best decisions he had ever made. Now, instead of an office, he had a jet that could fly him anywhere in the world, a garage in Italy to house his Maserati, lawyers and financiers on retainer, and a 'virtual' PA who handled everything else he needed with earth-shattering efficiency.
The woman was a marvel. He could only applaud whatever mid-life crisis had prompted her move from employment in a bricks and mortar office to the virtual world. Not that he knew her age, come to think of it. He didn't know any of that personal stuff, he didn't have to, which was half the appeal. No more excuses why someone was late to work, no more hinting about upcoming birthdays or favourite perfumes or sultry looks of availability. He had to endure none of that because he had Evelyn at the end of an email, and given the references she'd proffered and the qualifications and experience she'd quoted in her CV, she'd have to be in her mid-forties at least. No wonder she was over life in the fast lane. Working this way, she'd be able to take a nanna nap whenever she needed it.
The call went to the answering-machine and a toffee butler voice invited him to leave a message, bringing a halt to his self-congratulations. He frowned, not used to wondering where his PA might be. Normally he'd email Evelyn from wherever he happened to be and not have to worry about international connections or time differences. The arrangement worked well, so well in fact that half the time he'd find her answering by return email almost immediately, even when he was sure it must be the middle of the night in Australia. But here in her city at barely eleven in the morning, when she'd known his flight times, he'd simply expected she'd be there to take his call.
'It's Leo,' he growled, after the phone had beeped for him to leave his message. Still he waited, and kept waiting, to see if that announcement would make his virtual PA suddenly pick up. When it was clear no one would, he sighed, rubbed his forehead with his other hand and spat out his message. 'Listen, I need you to find me a woman for tonight '
'Thank you for your call.'
Leo swore under his breath as the butler terminated the message. Come to think of it, there was a damn good reason he usually emailed.
Eve Carmichael dropped the third peg in as many pairs of leggings and growled in frustration as she reached down to scoop up the offending article and fix the final item on the line. She'd been on tenterhooks all day. All week more like it. Ever since she'd known he was coming to Melbourne.
She looked up at the weak sun, willing it to dry her washing before Melbourne's notoriously fickle weather suddenly changed seasons on her, and shivered, a spidery shiver that descended down her spine and had nothing to do with the weather and everything to do with the fact Leo Zamos was coming.
And then she glanced down at her watch and the spider ran all the way up again.
Wrong. Leo Zamos was here.
It made no difference reminding herself that it was illogical to feel this way. She had no reason, no reason at all, to feel apprehensive. It wasn't like he'd asked her to meet his plane. In fact, it wasn't like he'd made any arrangements to see her at all. Logically, there was no reason why he shouldshe was his virtual PA after all. He paid her to run around on his behalf via the wonders of the world wide web, not to wait on him hand and foot.
Besides, there was simply no time to shoehorn her into his busy schedule even if he did have reason. She knew that for a fact because she'd emailed him the latest version this morning at six, just before she'd got into the shower and worked out her hot water service had chosen today of all days to die, not twenty-four hours after her clothes line had turned up its toes. A sign? She sure hoped not. If it was, it wasn't a good one. No wonder she was edgy.
And no wonder this strange sense of foreboding simmered away inside her like a pot of soup that had been on the boil so long that it had thickened and reduced until you could just about stand a spoon in it.
She shot a warning look at a cloud threatening to block out the sun and gave the old rotary clothes hoist a spin, hoping to encourage a breeze while cursing the fact that right now she probably had more hope of controlling the weather than she did reining in her own illogical thoughts, and there was no chance of controlling Melbourne's changeable weather.
And then she stiffened her jittery spine and headed back to the house, trying to shake off this irrational urge to do a Rip Van Evelyn and go to sleep until Leo Zamos was safely and surely out of her city.
What the hell was her problem?
Simple, the answer came right back at her, catching her so unawares she forgot to open the back door and almost crashed into it instead.
You're afraid of him.
It stopped her for a moment. Stilled her muscles and cemented her bones with the certainty of someone who had good reason to fear.
Ridiculous, she chided, her mind swiftly writing off the possibility, her breath coming short as she finally forced her fingers to work enough to turn the door handle and let herself in. Leo Zamos was nothing to her but the best hourly rate she'd ever been paid. He was a meal ticket, the ticket to renovating her late-nineteenth-century bungalow she affectionately referred to as the hovel, a ticket to something better in her life and getting it a hell of a lot sooner than it would ever happen otherwise. She just wished she didn't have to spend her renovation money on appliances now, before she even had an idea of what she'd need when the final plans came in.
She glanced upward at the strips of paint shredding from the walls of the laundry and the ivy that was creeping inside through the cracks where sixty years ago her grandfather had tacked it onto the back of the bungalow, and told herself she should be grateful for Leo's business, not a jittery bundle of nerves just because he was in town. Their arrangement worked well. That was all that mattered. That's what she had to concentrate on. Not some long-ago dusty memory that she'd managed to blow out of all proportion.
After all, Leo Zamos certainly wasn't wasting any time fretting about her. And in less than forty-eight hours he'd be gone. There was absolutely nothing at all to be afraid of.
And then she pulled open the creaking laundry door and heard a deep rich voice she recognised instantly, if only because it instinctively made her toes curl and her skin sizzle, " find me a woman for tonight " and the composure she'd been battling to talk herself into shattered into a million pieces.
She stood there, rooted to the spot, staring at the phone as the call terminated, emotions warring for supremacy inside her. Fury. Outrage. Disbelief. All of them tangled in the barbed wire of something that pricked at her skin and deeper, something she couldn't quiteor didn't want toput a name to.
She ignored the niggling prickle. Homed straight in on the fury.
Who the hell did Leo Zamos think he was? And what did he think she was? Some kind of pimp?
She swooped around the tiny kitchen, gathering dishes and piling them clattering into the sink. Oh, she knew he had his women. She'd arranged enough Tiffany trinkets and bottles of perfume to be sent to his countless Kristinas and Sabrinas and Audrinas over the last two yearsand all with the same terminal message
Thanks for your company.
to know he'd barely survive a night without a bed-warmer. But just because he was in her home town it didn't mean he could expect her to find him one.