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By Robyn Donald
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJake saw Aline Connor the moment he walked into the drawing-room. Heat and desire hit him like a blow, bringing his body alive and nearly overpowering his confident self-possession.
How the hell, he thought with savage self-mockery, did she do that to him? Witchcraft?
He'd had a pig of a week, culminating in a delayed, turbulent flight from Canada to New Zealand the previous night, yet one glance and he knew he'd have travelled ten times as far to see her.
"Ah, there's the guest of honour," cooed Lauren Penn, who'd pulled up outside the old Victorian villa at the same time as Jake, and strolled in with him. "She's such a little darling, isn't she? Wasn't she good in the church - not a murmur as the vicar splashed her forehead! I think she's inherited Keir's massive self-assurance, lucky little girl."
An undercurrent in her voice caught Jake's attention. Meeting his swift scrutiny with a sideways glance and a challenging smile, she used the doorway as an excuse to brush against him. Perfume, overtly erotic, rose in a clinging, cloying cloud; neither it nor the swift friction of skin against skin when she touched his hand affected Jake.
He'd grown cynical since he'd begun to appear in the eligible bachelor lists; certain women - those whosemain aim in life was to fascinate a rich man into marriage - had targeted him. Although some had inspired casual desire, it had been nothing like the violent, elemental hunger he felt whenever he looked at Aline - or whenever he thought of her, or heard her, or touched her ...
It had to be witchcraft, a spell spun by a black-haired, blue-eyed witch with a voice like cool music and skin so silkily transparent he wondered whether it would show bruises after making love.
His mouth curled sardonically. In spite of her aloofness and reserve, he'd sensed a reluctant, involuntary response, but it clear as hell irked her, and it certainly wasn't anything as strong as the basic need that clawed through him.
Not that Aline's aloofness was personal; she didn't target anyone. Lauren Penn displayed more overt welcome in one smile than Aline showed in her whole graceful, elegant body. Yet from the moment he'd seen her he'd wanted her with a raw, consuming hunger that had nothing to do with logic or intelligence. Until then always able to control his passions, it angered and astonished him that he couldn't do it now.
Lauren sent him another melting glance and murmured, "They look such a happy group, don't they? Aline cuddling baby Emma while Hope sits proudly by. Hope strikes me as the possessive sort, so all those rumours about Aline being Keir's lover can't be true."
It wasn't the first time Jake had heard that particular suggestion, although usually as innuendo. It had angered him previously; it enraged him now. He liked Lauren, and if he hadn't heard a feverish note buried in her brittle words he wouldn't have bothered to silence his cutting response.
Something was clearly going on. It concerned Aline - and that meant it concerned him.
Lauren's gaze was fixed on Aline. Without waiting for an answer she drawled, "Aline's cold-blooded enough to swap passion for friendship if it worked to her advantage, but I don't think Hope would welcome her husband's discarded lover as a friend."
One of the reasons Jake hated the insinuation was that he suspected it had some basis; he'd sensed a certain tension between Keir Carmichael and his tall, exquisite executive, but he knew men - whatever had happened in the past, Keir wasn't interested in Aline now. Although his face made granite look expressive, he couldn't hide the way he felt about his wife.
Just as well, Jake thought with cold purposefulness. If he'd wanted Aline, Carmichael would have had a fight on his hands.
"Champagne, madam? Sir?" a waiter offered smoothly.
"Oh, lovely - perfect for such a glorious day," Lauren accepted eagerly, her hand shaking as she took the glass. She raised it to Jake. "I love spring - all those new beginnings make you glad to be alive, don't they?"
Every sense alert, Jake took a glass too, listening with half an ear as she delivered a rapid, amusing commentary on several other guests, infuriated when he caught himself glancing above her head at the woman who haunted him.
Poised, slender body disposed on a big sofa, patrician face alight, Aline Connor smiled at the baby in her lap. For the past two months she'd been negotiating with him on behalf of Keir Carmichael's merchant bank, displaying an intelligence sharp enough to keep Jake on his toes, disciplined enough to almost convince him of her indifference. Almost ...
Beside her, Keir Carmichael's glowing wife, the mother of the baby, said something that set both women laughing. Laughing with them, the baby reached out chubby fingers to pat Aline's cheek. She caught the little hand and kissed it.
A shaft of pure sensation stabbed Jake with ferocious impact.
From beside him Lauren said with brittle intensity, "I'm surprised to see Emma so happy in Aline's lap. I know Aline doesn't like children - she refused to have any when she was married to Mike, and he really wanted them."
Jake had good instincts, and by now they were on full alert.
He lifted an intimidating eyebrow and glanced down at the woman beside him. She held her glass to her mouth like a shield; above the rim, her eyes were shiny and opaque.
Neutrally he said, "I hadn't realised you knew them both so well."
Her shoulders sketched a shrug. "Aline was in my class at school." Deepening her voice to add emphasis to her next words, she went on, "She was the classic nerd - a skinny, conceited kid who never forgot to do her homework and scored top marks year after year until she took them for granted. I was the class clown and she despised me." Lauren directed a wry look upwards, making clever use of long curling lashes. "Not that I blame her - children are cruel, and we were awful to her." She sipped more champagne before saying with a slow smile, "Mind you, that was over twenty years ago and we were only kids."
The implication being that Aline never forgot grudges, no matter how old and insignificant?
Negligently Jake observed, "Did you go to school with her husband too?"
A fugitive emotion flashed over her exquisitely made-up face; Lauren took another, longer sip of champagne and shook her head. "No, he was three years older than me, and went to a different school. His death was such a tragedy. We were all shattered." Her glance stabbed across the room. "I admired Aline enormously; she didn't cry at the funeral even though it must have been hell for her."
The implication being that Aline hadn't cared much about her husband ...?
Grimly aware that he'd have cut this conversation off before it had started if he hadn't been obsessed by its subject, Jake said, "I'd heard it was a great romance."
Lauren's face froze. For a second he saw malice and a dreadful bitterness in the wide eyes before they were hidden by those curling lashes.
"So everyone says," she agreed tonelessly. "Which is why I find it so difficult to believe that she was sleeping with Keir within a year of Mike's death."
Her blind smile setting off more alarm signals, she continued brightly, "It doesn't fit into the grieving widow scenario at all, does it? And then, of course, Mike ..."
"Mike?" Jake probed, trying to keep his voice mildly interested, and failing. A faint rasp to his words betrayed his interest.
After a swift, furtive glance, Lauren veiled her eyes and stretched her mouth into a dazzling smile. "Nothing important. But most men find being married to a snow queen pretty depressing. Oh, there's someone I have to say hello to! I'll see you later, Jake." And, waving to an elderly man on the verandah, she set off across the room fast enough to suggest her departure was a definite escape.
Frowning, he watched as she embraced her quarry - Tony Hudson, a famous athlete of forty years previously, esteemed now for his work with at-risk children. Because of that Michael Connor had appointed him one of the trustees of his charitable trust, set up before his death and hugely supported by New Zealanders, one of whom was Jake's personal assistant.
His frown deepening, Jake drank some of the excellent champagne without tasting it. Lauren had looked off balance enough to cause a scene.
That hadn't worried him too much; his deliberate probing did. He didn't normally pump women - especially not social butterflies with bigger hair than brains - but he was becoming absurdly sensitive about Aline Connor.
Excerpted from Forgotten Sins by Robyn Donald Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.