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In Dante's Debt
By Jane Porter
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter One"A half million dollars?" Daisy Collingsworth repeated incredulously, her lips curving tightly, heart thumping with sickening speed. "You might as well slit my wrists, Count Galv�n, I'd bleed faster that way."
A trio of sleek glossy thoroughbreds pounded past, jockeys sitting high in the saddle, hooves kicking up fine pink-brown dust.
But Dante Galv�n ignored the yearlings in training. "I don't want to kill you. I just want my share."
"The lion's share," she retorted fiercely, grinding the heels of her boots into the soft racing track dirt, unable to fathom how fate, and her father's mistakes, had so completely turned their lives upside down. This should never have happened. Not in a thousand years. The family farm was not negotiable. Never had been. Never would be.
But he clearly was unmoved by her argument. "I only take what is mine."
She suddenly pictured him as a lion, a massive glorious leo sunning on a rock while a half dozen lionesses loyally, happily did his work.
The mental picture infuriated her. Yes, he was Dante Galv�n, the son of one of her father's former business associates - an associate notorious for underhanded business practices - but that had no weight with her. She wasn't about to be knuckled under. "I willget a lawyer and fight you all the way."
"Lawyers are expensive, Miss Collingsworth, and in this case even an excellent lawyer will be a waste of money."
Her lips parted to interrupt but he held up a finger, momentarily silencing her.
"And if I might use a clich�," he continued smoothly, the expression on his handsome face genial, downright friendly. "Even with a good attorney, you have no legal leg on which to stand. Your father signed a contract. My stables provided the stallion. Your mare delivered a foal. It's time you paid the stud fee."
She didn't need to look at the contract to remember the outrageous amount the Galv�ns had charged them for the stallion's stud fee. It was so outrageous she'd actually laughed out loud the first time she'd seen the statement. "Nearly half a million dollars, Count Galv�n? Can we please be serious? No stallion is worth a half-million-dollar stud fee."
"Your father seemed to think so."
She colored, her face burning in hot fierce bands.
"My father -" She broke off, swallowed hard, fighting the wave of nausea that threatened to overtake her. After a moment she felt calm enough to try again. "My father wasn't thinking clearly."
It was as close to the truth as she could admit. Anything else would be revealing too much of their own personal tragedy, and that she'd never do, especially not to a man as calculating and self-serving as Count Dante Galv�n. He was, she thought contemptuously, no different from his greedy, manipulative father. Nothing like a chip off the old block.
His eyes suddenly narrowed, his expression subtly hardening. "I'm not interested in excuses. Your father knew what he was doing."
"Call a spade a spade, Count Galv�n! Your father knew exactly what he was doing. You know how much my father looked up to him -"
"If you hope to appeal to my heart," he interrupted curtly, "you're going about it the wrong way. There is no love lost between my father and me."
"Even though he's gone?"
"Especially now that he's gone. Death doesn't excuse or forgive incompetence."
"My goodness, you're cold."
"Not entirely." His hands went to his hips, pushing aside the soft suede coat, and he half-smiled, a small ironic smile. "I'm not immune to the plight of a beautiful young woman facing bankruptcy and eviction. I do feel for you and understand perfectly why your father sent you to meet with me."
His lips were stretched into a smile, and yet she'd never seen more teeth or such an impression of a snarl. He looked like a big cat about to take down its prey. Her heart thumped double hard. "And why is that?"
"You're to butter me up, sweet-talk your way into more time, perhaps a better deal?"
She felt herself blush. "If my father wanted to butter you up, he would have sent Zoe. My sister is the sugar in the family. I'm the vinegar."
Dante Galv�n threw his dark head back and laughed, melting the tension from his shoulders, easing the lines from his mouth and eyes. He suddenly looked lazy, relaxed, completely at ease. "So you're not trying to butter me up? You're not going to ask for favors?"
His supple brown leather coat hung open over an oatmeal-colored knit sweater. The sweater clung to the hard curved planes of his shoulders and chest. He was gorgeous. And there was nothing worse than a man who knew he looked good.
Daisy cast his dark sun-streaked hair a critical glance. Just look at him! He wore his hair long, well past his collar. She saw the way he'd ruffled it earlier as he sighed, feigning boredom. What an ego. And now he was standing here, licking his chops, anticipating his money.
Fury surged through her, fury and indignation. He, who had so much, now wanted to strip them of the little they had left.
"I wouldn't call it a favor," she said flatly. "But we do need time. We don't have a half million dollars in the savings account. We don't even have five thousand dollars in the savings account. But we can work out a payment plan -"
"Your father said that a year ago but there's been no payment. There's been nothing at all."
"I sent you a check last month."
"Yes, and it bounced."
His sarcasm made her wince, and her stomach plummeted, a speedy free fall that left her cold and clammy.
Deeply embarrassed by the reminder, she felt the blood drain from her face.
The bounced check had been an awful, ungodly and yet ridiculous mistake, a mistake she rarely made with finances. Somehow last month, in her hurry to get bills paid on time, she'd failed to record a cash withdrawal from the ATM in downtown Lexington. The cash withdrawal hadn't been huge, but it was large enough to insure that the check to the Galv�ns wouldn't clear. And it didn't.
Daisy cursed herself yet again, bitterly heaping blame on her head.
If she'd only double-checked her ATM slips, if she'd only waited an extra day before mailing off the payment to the Galv�ns, none of this would have happened.
If she hadn't made that silly error, Count Galv�n would have accepted the delinquent but legitimate payment, and the Collingsworths would finally be working their way out of debt.
Instead Count Galv�n was here, and he wanted blood.
Daisy drew herself tall and met his cynical gaze head-on. "The check would have cleared the next day. If you'd given the check a chance to clear. But you wouldn't do that."
He didn't look the least bit remorseful. "No, I wouldn't. I learned my lesson. You weren't serious about settling the debt. You're playing games -"
Excerpted from In Dante's Debt by Jane Porter 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.