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Rio de Janeiro, April
Carnaval had ended almost two months ago, but Rio didn't seem to know it.
Lincoln Aldridge wasn't surprised. He'd been to Rio before. The city could be an endless party, especially for a man with money, rugged good looks and connections.
Linc had all three but he wasn't in a partying mood. He'd been on the go for almost two weeks, first flying to Argentina, then Colombia, then Brazil. His business meetings had gone well, but he had a more important matter on his mind.
Too much time had gone by since he'd heard from his sister. Kathryn and her husband, married five months, were on what she'd called a belated honeymoon, seeing the world.
New York City was part of the world, Linc had said wryly, and he damned well expected that Kath and the husband he'd never met intended to make it part of their trip.
"Absolutely," she'd answered, sounding almost like the kid he still thought of her as being. "We're going to stop there last so we can spend some time with you. And, Linc? Get ready for a wonderful surprise!"
The best surprise would be seeing her again. Kath was twenty-two and he'd all but raised her. Now she lived in L.A., where she'd met Mark and eloped to Vegas. Linc, ten years her senior, would have felt better if he'd laid eyes on the guy before the wedding, but at least he would meet him soon.
It was why he was eager to get home.
First, though, he had to finalize the deal he'd made with entrepreneur Hernando Marques. They'd shaken hands on it but Marques wanted to sign the contract at his home. An odd request, maybe, but when a man was about to spend twenty-five million bucks a year giving Aldridge Inc. fullresponsibility for the security of all his residential and commercial properties, an odd request was okay.
"This is my poker night, Lincoln," Marques had said. "I spend it with a few old friends whose company I am sure you would enjoy. Please. Join us."
So Linc had smiled and said he looked forward to it.
A little before eight, his taxi glided through the massive iron gates that guarded the Marques estate.
Force of habit made Linc check the perimeter. One of his teams had installed the latest security systems a couple of weeks ago. Electric eyes. Hidden cameras. Sensors. He couldn't spot them all, which was as it should be, but what he saw looked perfect.
The taxi stopped at the foot of wide stone steps. His host flung the door open before Linc could ring the bell.
"Lincoln!" Marques grinned and extended his hand. "I was afraid you might have forgotten my invitation, meo amigo."
"Traffic," Linc said with a quick smile, even as he wondered at his host's reaction. Brazilians were a friendly people but Marques seemed to be taking things to a new level.
Marques led him to a leather-walled game room where a dozen or so men stood chatting in small groups near an expansive buffet laid out on a mile-long table.
"Come and meet my friends, Lincoln."
Linc shook hands, smiled, said hello and how are you to men he'd met before and others he knew by reputation. This was a gathering of some of the wealthiest men in South America. Eight years ago, when he'd started Aldridge Inc. with nothing but guts and his Special Forces experience, he'd have given anything to have been invited to an evening like this.
Now, it was Marques's guests who expressed pleasure at meeting him.
He moved from group to group, eating a little, drinking hardly at all, wondering when he could get away. No one seemed in a hurry to play cards.
At last, Marques sought him out again. He was smiling but tiny drops of sweat stood out on his forehead. Something was wrong. Had the man decided against the deal despite the binding handshake?
"Hernando," he said pleasantly. "I was just going to look for you. This is great but"
"But you have had a long day and you wish for an early night."
"I'm glad you understand."
"I do. So perhapsperhaps, now, we might adjourn to the library toto"
"To sign the contract," Linc said, his eyes on the other man's.
"Certainly. To sign the contract." Marques hesitated. "And to talk."
The library was big and leather-paneled like the game room. A pair of French doors graced the far end; a fire blazed on the hearth of a stone fireplace to ward off the faint chill of the night.
Marques offered brandy. A cigar. Coffee. Linc said no to all three.
"Something's on your mind, Hernando." Linc's tone was polite but cool. "I'd appreciate it if you'd just get to it."
His host nodded. Licked his lips. Fussed at the logs on the hearth with a poker before finally looking at Linc.
"This is difficult for me, Lincoln."
"But there is something I must ask." A quick laugh. "I am not good at asking for favors. Not that this is a favor, exactly. I mean, it is something that will surely benefit you, as well as me."
Here it comes, Linc thought, folding his arms over his chest. A request to change the terms of their agreement? To renegotiate the price? What else could it be?
"And what is it you must ask?"
Marques cleared his throat. "You are unmarried Lincoln. That is correct, yes?"
"I said, you are single. Am I right?"
Linc frowned. What did his marital status have to do with anything? "Uh, yes. Yes, I'm single."
"No children, then?"
"Marques. What is this about?"
"Because, you see, it is possible only a man with a childwith a daughterwould understand my feelings on this matter."
Marques looked at him, then away. "I have a daughter. She is youngbut," he added quickly, "mature for her age."
"I'm afraid I don't see what"
"She is also bright and well-educated. Obedient and well-mannered. And"
And, Linc thought in horror, as the truth began to sink in, Marques wanted to marry her off. To him?
"I am a modern man, Lincoln. Still, when it comes to my daughter, I have some old-fashioned ways."
Hell. Absolutely to him. He'd heard about this kind of thing, of course, arranged marriages, especially in wealthy families in Europe and South America
" would never hand her off to a man I didn't trust and respect "
They did this back home, too. Not quite this openly but he'd been the target of a couple of attempts at marriage brokering. He was in his thirties, he was single, he was well-off
Why think in polite euphemisms? He was rich and that was fine because he'd gotten that way strictly on his own. Nobody had given him anything in this life, which made what he'd acquiredthe homes, the cars, the private planeall the more enjoyable.
And his looks were acceptable.
Okay. Most women made it clear his looks were more than acceptable. He'd always had his pick of women, even back in the days he'd never had more than ten bucks in his pocket. So, yeah, he'd been here before. Approached, you could call it, by some of New York's best-known grands dames. They had daughters and he was, by their reckoning, eligible, and so what if his blood wasn't as blue as theirs?
You'd love my Emma, they said. Or, Why don't you come out to our place in Easthampton this weekend? Glenna will be there. You do remember Glenna, don't you?
Yes, but nobody had ever come straight out and said, Here's my daughter. I'd like you to marry her.
" a charming young woman, Lincoln, polite and very willing to accommodate. If you'd simply agree to meet her"
"Hernando." Linc took a deep breath. "II want you to know I appreciate howhow direct you're being. This can't be easy for you."
Marques gave a little laugh. "It's one of the most difficult things I've ever done."
"I'm sure it is but the thing isthe thing is"
A polite knock sounded at the door. A servant popped his head in, smiled apologetically and said something in rapid Portuguese.
Marques sighed. "My wife is on the phone, Lincoln. I'll take the call in my office. She is visiting her sister, but you know how it is with women."
Linc didn't. Not with wives, at any rate, and he had every intention of keeping it that way.
"I'll only be a minute. Help yourself to some brandy while you consider my proposition."
Linc waited until the door closed. Then he muttered an oath and decided brandy was a fine idea.
How did a man turn down what Marques called a proposition? Grimly, he poured an inch of amber liquid into a snifter. He didn't want to insult him. He didn't want to lose this account, either, but if that was what it took to get out of here
What was that?
Had something stirred outside the French doors? Clouds had moved in to obscure the moon; the light was poor, but Yes. There it was again. He had a better look now, enough to be sure what was out in the darkness wasn't a something.
It was a someone.
Linc put down the brandy glass. He moved slowly, instinctively falling back into survival tactics honed to a fine edge years ago. Adrenaline pulsing through him, breathing steady, he felt himself come alive as he always had in moments like this.
The handles to the French doors were almost within reach. One more step
He exploded into action, yanked the doors open, threw himself into the night and wrapped his arms around the intruder.
Wrapped his arms around a woman.
Definitely a woman. Her long hair swept across his face. Her breasts filled his hands. Her rounded bottom pressed against his groin. She fought him with all her strength, which was considerable, but it was no match for his.
A cry rose in her throat. Linc sensed it coming and clapped his hand over her mouth. For all he knew, she had an accomplice.
The feel of his hand increased her frenzy. She twisted like a wild thing caught in a trap. Linc lifted her off the ground and drew her, hard, against his body. She grunted. Her elbows slammed into his belly. Her heels rapped his shins.
He put his mouth to her ear.
"Stop it," he hissed.
She fought harder. Deliberately, he spread his hand over not just her mouth but her nose.
"I said, stop!"
Another jab. Another kick. His hand pressed more insistently. After a few seconds she sagged against him but he wasn't fooled. The fight had gone out of her too fast. She was faking it.
He put his mouth to her ear again. She smelled of roses or maybe lily of the valley. He wasn't much on flowers or scents. All he knew was that she fought like a man, but she sure as hell smelled like a woman.
"Behave, or it's lights out. You hear me?"
A second passed. Then she nodded. Slowly, carefully, he eased his hand from her face and swung her toward him.
"Who are you?" he demanded. "What are you doing here?"
"Let go of me!"
It was too dark to see her features, but he could hear the fury in her voice, sharp with command and condescension. It was almost enough to make him laugh, but laughing when your best security system had been breached didn't quite cut it.
"I asked you a question, lady. What's your name? How'd you get past the gate?"
"You asked two questions. And I gave you an order. Let go of me. Now!"
He did laugh then; how could he help it? The woman, who had been speaking in lightly accented English, spat out a phrase in Portuguese he was pretty sure women didn't generally use.
Right then, the moon decided to put in an appearance. It was only a quarter moon but it gave enough light for him to see her.
His breath caught.
She was, in a word, spectacular. Long blond hair. Big blue eyes. Razor-sharp cheekbones, an elegant nose, lush mouth and a body made for sin, poured into a black one-piece thing that lovingly molded every feminine curve.
"How dare you look at me that way?"
He'd seen a lot of thieves in his life but never one who looked like this.
"Damn you," she said, "are you deaf? I said"
"I heard what you said."
Was that really his voice? So low? So hoarse? Better still, was this really happening? Was he holding an intruder in his arms who looked like every man's dream?
She began to struggle. He drew her closer. Her breasts, her belly, pressed against his. Was it the sense of danger? Was it the feel of her? Whatever the cause, his body responded in a heartbeat.
He froze. So did she.
"Let go," she said, her voice suddenly trembling. "If you don't, I swear, you'll pay for this."
She was right, he would. Once he dragged her into the house, told Marques, the contract they'd yet to sign would go down the drain
In which case, wasn't he entitled to some compensation?
The thought was cold; the swift rise of heat in his blood was not. He wasn't a man to take what had not been offered, but suddenly that didn't matter. Nothing did, except the feel of the woman in his arms.
Deliberately, he cupped her face with one hand. Tilted it up to his. She read what was coming and gasped, beat her fists against his shoulders.
He didn't give a damn. Slowly, he bent his head to hers and kissed her.
She made a sound of protest. Tried to twist her head away. He wouldn't let it happen. He thrust his fingers into her hair, felt it slide like silk through his hand and went on kissing her.
Kissing her. Kissing her
She ignited like dry tinder under the flame of a match. Her hands slid up his chest. Her mouth softened. She gave a sexy little moan
A light came on just outside the house.
The woman stiffened. Linc, lost in the moment, started to draw her into the shadows.
"No!" she gasped, and sank her teeth into his bottom lip.