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"She rejected the offer, sir."
Ethan Hardesty's head snapped up. "She?"
"Yes." His newest assistant cleared his throat and checked his notes, the nervous flutter of his hands betraying his unease. "A Ms. Cate Carrington."
Shock spiraled through Ethan's gut, threatening to upend the control he'd honed over the years. But he kept his voice even as he said, "I was unaware Franklin had retired."
"He didn't." His assistant swallowed noisily and avoided Ethan's eyes. "Mr. Carrington passed away five months ago. Of a stroke."
Beyond his recent bid for the Carrington family's island, Ethan hadn't kept up on the pompous brute who'd once been his employer. Even so, he felt a twinge of irritation that he hadn't been apprised of Carrington's death earlier. "The daughter inherited everything, I presume?"
The birdlike man nodded once before inching forward to place a manila folder on Ethan's desk. "This is all the information we could gather on her," he said, retreating to his typical deferential distance. "But you might find it of interest nonetheless."
Ethan didn't spare the folder a second glance. He didn't care to read about the happy, idyllic life he was sure Cate had led. He didn't care to learn about her picturesque estate in upstate
Vermont, or to see photos of her perfect husband and angelic, flaxen-haired children. He'd stopped caring about Cate ten years ago.
"Did Ms. Carrington indicate what her plans for the island were?"
"Yes." Ethan's assistant adjusted his weight from one foot to the other. "She plans to auction it off at the family's annual charity event."
His cheek creased in a predatory smile. "Excellent. I'll need an invitation by the end of the day."
A pained grimace crossed his employee's face. "None are available, sir. I've checked. It's a very exclusive event."
Ethan's voice and gaze were equally flat. "Is that so?"
The pained grimace tightened. "You don't honestly expect me to get you in without an invitation, do you? "
"Would you rather be fired?"
Two weeks later, Ethan's chauffeur drew to a halt outside the Carrington Industries headquarters in downtown Manhattan. Exiting the limousine, Ethan straightened his custom Brioni tuxedo and tipped his head back to survey the imposing building.
It had been ten years since he'd been here. Ten years since he'd dared to set foot in his old employer's domain. Though Ethan's own life had changed dramatically, the citadel of Carrington wealth and dominion hadn't changed at all. Its twenty-five stories of black marble, glass and steel still echoed the ruthless power of its founder and his duplicitous daughter, Cate.
A grim smile tugged at Ethan's lips as he imagined Cate's reaction to his uninvited presence, the distress she'd surely feel when she realized the boy she'd rejected as beneath her had returned. No longer the unworthy son of a laborer, a nobody who'd worked on the Carringtons' Caribbean island estate just to be near her, Ethan could now buy the Carrington holdings ten times over.
Tonight's purchase, years in the making, promised to be worth every sweat-stained cent.
Anticipation unfurled in his chest as he stepped over the threshold and entered the brightly lit lobby. Clustered just inside the imposing glass doors, dozens of New York's richest philanthropists and politicians mingled, sipping champagne and preening for each other. He scanned the crowd for Cate's distinctive platinum hair, but was soon interrupted by a knot of fawning females, eager to make the acquaintance of a new, monied man in their midst.
It's as bad as London. He tolerated the meaningless small talk and overt flirtation as he slowly made his way across the lobby. Determined to extricate himself from the crowd, he entered the lavishly decorated ballroom and wended his way through a maze of linen-draped tables. An octet of musicians played in one corner while miniature white lights and flickering candles cast shadows against the pristine cream-colored name cards.
Spotting the seat he'd finagled from a business associate, Ethan pulled out the chair and slid into his designated place. Though he'd had to trade a month's use of his yacht and agree to the sale of one of Hardesty International's subsidiary companies in exchange, he knew acquiring the island would make the sacrifice worth it.
With his father growing older by the day, Ethan's time was running out. More than anything, he wanted to gift the island to his father, to prove to him once and for all that the Hardesty men needn't scrape and bow to others simply because they'd been born poor. They had every right to reach above their station, to savor the pleasures that had previously been off-limits. Just once, before age or illness claimed his father permanently, Ethan wanted him to feel like a king, to be spoiled and pampered on the island paradise he'd always loved. Maybe then, he'd believe the Hardestys were just as good as anyone else.
The fact that Ethan would now purchase the island from the high-and-mighty Cate Carrington instead of her father simply made the transaction that much sweeter.
Ethan resumed his search for Cate, dismissing one woman after another as he hunted for the slim back of the evening's hostess. When he didn't see her, he wondered if she'd taken ill at the last moment. Not that he'd care. As long as he left in possession of the island, he'd be content.
Ten seconds later, his gut seized up in recognition and a jolt of unexpected emotion fisted within his chest.
Standing next to an elderly socialite, Cate looked better than in any of the grainy pictures his staff's report had supplied. Dressed in a tiered concoction of greens and sea foam, her pale arms and shoulders bare beneath a fall of thick blond hair, she looked better than he remembered, better than even his most ardent fantasies had painted her. Graceful, willowy and as sleek as the horses they'd ridden in their youth, she exuded an aura of vulnerable sweetness that drew a cluster of admirers from every corner of the room.
His eyes narrowed, remembering how he'd once counted himself among their number, slavishly trailing after her in the hopes of gaining her attentions. He'd loved her then, before he learned everything about her was a lie. Before he learned that beneath the haunting beauty of her features and the innocent openness of her wide green eyes, she possessed a core of cold, heartless cruelty.
Suddenly, after more than a decade without her, he realized that he wanted more than just the Carringtons' family island. Yes, he still wanted the property for his father. But for himself? A coil of heated anticipation settled deep in his gut. For himself, he wanted her.
A prickling sense of unease, of being watched, had Cate turning to scan the sea of auction attendees. It's just nerves, she reasoned, dismissing her apprehension. Gesturing to her caterer, she indicated that it was time to bring out the desserts. Cate hadn't eaten yet, as she had been too busy making sure that those with deep pockets ended the meal with a feeling of generosity and largesse.
Unwilling to trust the details of this night to anyone else, she'd engaged the best caterer in the city, chosen all of the decor and hired every first chair the New York Philharmonic string section had to offer. And just as she'd hoped, just as she'd planned, the evening had progressed without a hitch.
All that remained was the auction.
The auction she was expected to emcee.
A twist of nervousness cinched her stomach tight and she felt her palms grow damp. She knew she should be used to her new role by now, but she still felt uncomfortable in front of crowds. With all of them staring up at her, expecting her to be the composed, entertaining and gracious president of Carrington Industries, she sometimes wished she could disappear. To become invisible the way she'd been for so many years before Father had died.
Taking a deep breath, she summoned a smile and took to the stage. She nodded to the front row of patrons, hoping they'd be too engrossed in their creme brulee to stare at her, and began her rehearsed speech.
"Welcome, concerned New Yorkers, medical personnel, businessmen and philanthropists alike. Carrington Industries' annual charitable auction would never experience its continued success were it not for your patronage and support."
She smiled and nodded while a smattering of applause traveled across the room.
"As I'm sure you're all aware, this year we've chosen to donate all our proceeds to Manhattan Medical Center's neonatal intensive care unit. And in attendance tonight, we have the president of the MMC board and his lovely wife, Dr. and Mrs. Whitman."
The couple stood and lifted their hands in an acknowledging wave before resuming their seats.
"We are also fortunate to have multiple donations to auction off tonight, not the least of which is an antique fifteen carat diamond and platinum necklace, courtesy of Mrs. Rutherford." Cate held up the glittering piece and slowly rotated so the audience could view it. "I'd like to start the auction with her generous gift, and begin the bidding at fifty thousand."
Within moments, the bidding had risen to two hundred thousand and Cate felt her nerves start to relax. She could do this. She could get through the night without embarrassing the Carrington name. The neonatal unit would not go without its needed funding, and more babies would survive.
In no time at all, she reached the last item, the placement traditionally reserved for the Carrington donation. This year, she'd decided to gift the private island of her youth. The island held too many painful memories, and she hadn't traveled there since well, now was not the time to revisit the past. It was time to move forward. Past time to forget.
"Our final item for the night, as I'm sure you're all aware, is the Caribbean retreat that has been in the Carrington family since 1920." She motioned for her assistant to launch the presentation. Against a backdrop of classical music, the video they'd compiled highlighted the pristine beach, the subtropical garden, the empty horse stables and paddock awaiting new stock, the main residence with its caretaker cottage and miles of calm, clear turquoise sea.
When the presentation drew to a close amid murmured exclamations, she addressed the audience yet again. "I'm confident my father would approve of having his island retreat donated to such a worthy cause, and I am humbled to be part of his mission to help those less fortunate than we. In his memory, and to help save the fragile lives that are so dependent upon us for their survival, I'd like to start the bidding at four million dollars."
"Four million, five hundred thousand," offered Mrs. Rutherford.
An elderly gentleman with a buxom brunette pressed against his side countered with, "Five million."
"Five million, one hundred thousand," called a mink-draped woman from the front row.
The spirited bidding war continued until the price had risen to seven million. At that point, the bidders had been thinned down to two. They volleyed back and forth, upping the price in increments of a hundred thousand until a deep voice from the back cut through the competition.
"Twenty-five million dollars."
Silence reigned for several suspended breaths until as one, the entire audience turned to determine who'd offered such an outrageous bid. Cate searched along with them, scanning the dim shadows along the rear of the room as speculation surged.
"Twenty-five million dollars," she repeated as she exchanged a disbelieving glance with her assistant. "Do I hear twenty-five million, one-hundred thousand?"
No one upped the bid and silence descended yet again.
"Going once." She scanned the crowd, wishing the candles and tree lighting were brighter. "Twice." One more pause as she searched the dim periphery of the crowd. "Sold to the gentleman in the rear."
Murmurs rippled through the attendees, making it difficult for Cate's voice to be heard. "Sir," she said, leaning close to the microphone, "if you would be so kind as to come forward, I'd like to personally thank you for your support."
From the back of the room, a man unfolded his considerable length and rose to his feet. She could only make out his silhouette's profile as he moved around the tables and toward the side aisle, but something something indefinable in his movements had her stomach quivering and the hairs on her arms standing on end.
The smooth glide of his broad shoulders, the loose-hipped momentum of his long legs and the shock of unruly black hair grazing his brow resurrected memories she'd meant to bury ages ago. Memories that snuck up on her when she couldn't sleep and was curled up alone, staring into the fire and plaguing herself with pointless what-ifs.
But it couldn't be.
So she watched, not breathing, until he reached the end of the aisle and pivoted toward the stage. A pulse of recognition flashed through her veins and for a crazy, endless moment, time stopped.
Then he met her eyes and the past slammed back into the present, colliding against her chest with bruising clarity.
She felt her pulse everywhere: drumming in her ears, throat, head and chest. "Ethan," she whispered. The light at the edges of the room dimmed to blackness while the damaged legs she'd worked years to strengthen threatened to give way.
Panicked, she locked her knees and gripped the edges of the podium. Forcing herself to breathe, she ordered her slamming heart to calm. She would not collapse while all of New York society looked on. She could fake composure. She could feign cool benevolence.
Still clutching the podium's sharp edge, she mustered her poise, feeling like a wounded butterfly caught in a net. Here on the stage, her turmoil visible to everyone, she didn't have the luxury of solitude to gather her thoughts, to corral her emotions. The only thought she could frame, her mind running in a frantic circle of panic, was Just don't touch me. I can't touch you. I can't, can't
He touched her anyway, leaning to curl his fingers around her forearm while his lean body eclipsed her only avenue of escape. Her bare flesh trembled beneath the scorching press of his hand. A terrifying heat, electric and sharp, pummeled her veins, her muscles and her nerves, incapacitating her with a frantic wash of emotion that felt entirely too close to fear.
"Cate," he murmured. His voice, deep and rich and imbued with an authoritative edge it hadn't held ten years ago, sent awareness careening through her. "It's been too long."