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In a voice that iced through the solicitor's office, Luc MacAllister said, 'Perhaps you can explain why my stepfather insisted on this final condition.'
Bruce Keller resisted the urge to move uncomfortably in his chair. He'd warned Tom Henderson of the possible repercussions of his outrageous will, but his old friend had said with some satisfaction, 'It's time Luc learned that life can mean dealing with situations you can't control.'
In his forty years of discussing wills with bereaved families Bruce had occasionally been shocked, but he'd never felt threatened before. The familiar sound of the traffic in the street of the small New Zealand town faded as he met the hard grey eyes of Tom's stepson.
He squared his shoulders, warning himself to cool it. MacAllister's formidable self-possession was a legend. 'Tom didn't confide in me,' he said steadily.
The man on the other side of the desk looked down at the copy of the will before him. 'So he refused to give any reason for stipulating that before I attain complete control of Henderson Holdings and the Foundation, I must spend six months in the company of his—of Joanna Forman.'
'He refused to discuss it at all.'
MacAllister quoted from the will. '"Joanna Forman, who has been my companion for the past two years."' His mouth twisted. 'It wasn't like Tom to be so mealy-mouthed. By companion he presumably meant mistress.'
The solicitor felt a momentary pang of pity for the woman. Thanking his stars he was able to be truthful, he said austerely, 'All I know about her is that her aunt was your stepfather's housekeeper on Rotumea Island until she died. Joanna Forman cared for her during the three months before her death.'
'And then stayed on.'
The contempt in Luc's voice angered the solicitor, but he refrained from saying anything more.
Whatever role Joanna Forman had played in Henderson's life, she'd been important to him—so important he'd made sure she'd never want for anything else again, even though he'd known it would infuriate his formidable stepson.
MacAllister's broad shoulders lifted in a shrug that reminded the older man of Luc's mother, an elegant, aristocratic Frenchwoman. Although Bruce had met her only once he'd never forgotten her polished composure and what had seemed like a complete lack of warmth. She couldn't have been more different from Tom, a brash piratical New Zealander who'd grabbed the world by the neck and shaken it, enjoying himself enormously while setting up a worldwide organization in various forms of construction.
Bruce had done his best to convince Tom that this unexpected legacy was going to cause ructions, possibly even cause his will to be contested in court, but his friend had been completely determined.
Anyway, MacAllister had no reason to be so scornful. The solicitor could recall at least two rather public liaisons in his life.
A just man, Bruce accepted that a relationship between a sixty-year-old and a woman almost forty years younger was, to use his youngest granddaughter's terminology, icky. Involuntarily his mouth curved, only to vanish under another cold grey stare.
Luc said crisply, 'I don't find the situation at all amusing.'
In his driest tone, Bruce said, 'I realise this has been a shock to you. I did warn your stepfather.' 'When did he finalise this will?' 'A year ago.'
MacAllister pushed the document away. 'Three years after he had that ischaemic stroke, and a year after this Forman woman moved in.'
'Yes. He took the precaution of having a thorough check—both physical and mental—before he signed it.'
In a clipped voice MacAllister said, 'Of course he did. On your recommendation, I assume.' Without waiting for an answer he went on, 'I won't be contesting the will—not even this final condition.'
The solicitor nodded. 'Sensible of you.'
MacAllister got to his feet, towering over the desk, his arctic gaze never leaving Bruce's face.
Bruce rose also, wondering why the man facing him seemed considerably taller than his height of a few inches over six feet. Presence
Luc MacAllister had it in spades.
MacAllister's lip curled. 'Presumably this Forman woman will play along with Tom's condition.'
'She'd be extremely stupid not to,' Bruce felt compelled to point out. The other man's intimidating glance made him say bluntly, 'However difficult the situation, both you and she have a lot to gain by sticking to the terms Tom set out.'
In fact, Joanna Forman had the power to deprive Luc MacAllister of something he'd worked for all his adult life—complete control of Tom Henderson's vast empire.
Which was why the younger man's face looked as though it had been carved out of granite.
Once more MacAllister glanced down at the will. 'I assume you tried to persuade Tom not to do this.'
Bruce said crisply, 'He knew exactly what he wanted.'
'And like a good solicitor and an old friend, you've done your best to see that this is watertight.'
Luc didn't expect an answer. He'd get his legal team to go through the will with a fine-tooth comb, but Bruce Keller was a shrewd lawyer and a good one. He didn't expect to be able to challenge it.
He asked, 'Does Joanna Forman know of her good fortune yet?'
'Not yet. Tom insisted I tell her in person. I'm flying to Rotumea in three days.'
Luc reined in his temper. It was unfair to blame the solicitor for not preventing this outrageous condition. His stepfather was not a man to take advice, and once Tom had made up his mind he couldn't be swayed. He'd been a freebooter, his recklessness paying off more often than not until that tiny temporary stroke had messed around with his brain.
Which was the reason, Luc thought grimly, he and Joanna Forman would be forced to live in close proximity for the next six months.
Not only that, at the end of the six months she'd make the decision that would either hand him the reins of Tom's empire, or deprive him of everything he'd fought for these past years.
One thing he had to know. 'Will you tell her that she'll decide who controls Henderson's?'
And watched closely as the solicitor expostulated, 'You know I can't reveal that.'
Luc hid a bleak satisfaction. When required, Bruce Keller could produce a poker face, but Luc was prepared to bet that Tom had stipulated Joanna Forman not be told until it was time for her to make her decision.
Which gave him room to manoeuvre. 'And if her decision is against me, what will happen?'
Keller hesitated, then said, 'That's another thing I can't divulge.'
Well, it had been worth a try. Tom would have organised someone he trusted to take over, and Luc knew who that would be—Tom's nephew.
He'd fought Luc for supremacy in various overt and covert ways, culminating a year previously in his elopement and subsequent marriage to Luc's fiancée. Who just happened to be Tom's goddaughter.
Damn you, Tom.
Jo stood up from the desk and stretched, easing the ache between her shoulder blades. After two years in the tropical Pacific she was accustomed to heat and humidity, but today had left her exhausted.
The last thing she wanted to do was play gooseberry to a pair of honeymooners, but her oldest friend had brought her new husband to stay one night at Ro-tumea's expensive resort so her two favourite people could meet
And Lindy and she had been best friends since they'd bonded on their first day at school in New Zealand, and it would be lovely to see her again.
Also, she was eager to meet the man who'd generated Lindy's rave reviews during the past year. A nonexistent bank balance had prevented Jo from accepting her friend's request to be maid of honour, and the current recession meant there wasn't much chance of things improving financially for her for a while.
Not that she was going to dim the couple's happiness with any mention of her business worries. But the sooner she got home and made herself ready, the better.
Several hours later she realised she was wishing she'd made an excuse. The evening had started well; Lindy was radiant, her new husband charming and very appropriately besotted, and they'd sipped a champagne toast to the future as the sun dived suddenly beneath the horizon and twilight enfolded the island in a purple cloak shot with the silver dazzle of stars.
'You're so lucky,' Lindy had sighed. 'Rotumea has to be the most beautiful place in the world.'
Before she'd had a chance to do more than set down her glass, Jo heard a familiar smooth voice from behind, and the evening immediately lost its gloss.
'Hi, Jo-girl, how're things going?'
Jo froze. Of all the people on the island, Sean was the one she least wanted to see. Only a few days after Tom's death she'd refused his suggestion of an affair. His reaction had left her nauseated and furious.
However, she wasn't going to let his presence spoil the evening for her friends. She turned, wishing she'd chosen to wear something a little less revealing when Sean's gaze immediately dropped to her cleavage.
'Fine, thanks,' she said calmly, trying to convey that she didn't want him there without making it obvious to her companions.
Sean lifted his eyes to give the other two a practised smile. 'Hi. Let me guess—you're the honeymooners Jo's been looking forward to seeing, right? Enjoying your stay in the tropics?'
Seething, Jo wished she'd had the sense to realise what sort of man he was before she'd told him about Lindy.
Sure enough, her friend beamed at him. 'Loving everything about it.'
His smile broadened. 'I'm Sean Harvey.' Glancing at Jo, he drawled, 'A friend of Jo's.'
So of course Lindy invited him to sit down. Jo cast a harried look around the open-air restaurant, her gaze colliding with that of a man being seated at the next table.
Automatically she gave a brief smile. Not a muscle in his hard, handsome face moved and, feeling as though he'd slapped her, Jo looked away.
Fair men usually looked amiable and casual—surfer-style. Well, not always, she admitted, the most recent James Bond incarnation springing to mind. In spite of the sun-bleached streaks in his ash-brown hair, this stranger had the same dangerous aura.
Surfer-style he was not.
Tall and powerfully muscled, good-looking in an uncompromising, chiselled fashion, he had eyes like cold grey lasers and a jaw that gave no quarter. He also looked familiar, although she knew she'd never seen him before.
Perhaps he was a film star? He wasn't the sort of man anyone would forget.
As though that moment of eye contact somehow forged a tenuous link between them, Jo's pulses picked up speed and she rapidly switched her gaze to Lindy.
Don't be an idiot, she told herself, and concentrated on ignoring the stranger and enduring the evening.
Not that she could fault Sean's behaviour; he was gallant with Lindy, man-to-man with her husband, and managed so well to indicate his interest in Jo that when he eventually left Lindy challenged her.
'You haven't mentioned him at all—is he your latest?'
'No,' Jo said shortly.
Her friend had spoken in a rare moment of general silence, and the man at the next table looked across at her. Again, no emotion showed in the sculpted features, yet for some reason an uneasy shiver skated across her skin.
All evening she'd been aware of him—almost as though his presence indicated some form of threat.
Oh, don't over-dramatise, she scoffed. The stranger didn't deserve it; she was still—unfairly—reacting to Sean's intrusions. Because of him she was totally off good-looking men.
For the rest of the evening she kept her gaze scrupulously away from the grey-eyed newcomer. But that sense of his presence stayed with her until she left the hotel and walked into the car park, stopping abruptly when a dark shadow detached itself from the side of her car.
She froze, then forced herself to relax. On Rotu-mea the only danger came from nature—seasonal cyclones, drownings—or the very rare accident on the motor scooters that were everywhere on the roads. There had never been an assault that she was aware of.
Nevertheless, Sean's presence jolted her. She asked briskly, 'What do you want?'
This time he didn't bother smiling. 'I want to talk to you.'
Without changing her tone she answered, 'You said everything I needed to hear the last time we met.'
He shrugged. 'That's partly why we need to talk.' His voice altered. 'Jo, I'm sorry. If you hadn't turned me down so crudely, I wouldn't have lost it. I really thought I was in with a chance—after all, if old Tom had been able to keep you happy you wouldn't have made eyes at me.'
It wasn't the first time someone had assumed that Tom had been her lover, and each time it nauseated her. As for making eyes.
Jo reined in her indignation. Distastefully she said,
'As an apology that fails on all counts. Leave it, Sean. It doesn't matter.'
He took a step towards her. 'Was it worth it, Jo? No matter how much money he had, sleeping with an old man—he must have been at least forty years older than you—can't have been much fun. I hope he left you a decent amount in his will, although somehow I doubt it.' His voice thickened, and he took another step towards her. 'Did he? I believe billionaires are tight as hell when it comes to money—'
'That's enough!' she flashed, a little fear lending weight to her disgust. 'Stop right now.'
'Why should I? Everyone on Rotumea knows your mother was a call girl—'
'Don't you dare!' Her voice cut into his filthy insinuation. 'My mother was a model, and the two are not synonymous—if you understand what that means.'
Sean opened his mouth to speak, but swivelled around when another male voice entered the conversation, a crisp English accent investing the words with compelling authority.
'You heard her,' the man said. 'Calm down.'
Jo jerked around to face the man who'd sat at the next table as he finished brutally, 'Whatever you're offering, she doesn't want it. Get going.'
'Who the hell are you?' Sean demanded.
'A passing stranger.' His contempt strained Jo's nerves. 'I suggest you get into your vehicle and go.'
Sean started to bluster, stopping abruptly when the stranger said coolly, 'It's not the end of the world. Things have a habit of looking better a few weeks down the track, and no man's ever died just because a woman turned him down.'
'Thanks for nothing.' Sean's voice was surly. He swung to Jo. 'OK, I'll go, but don't come running to me when you find yourself kicked out of Henderson's house. I bet anything you like he left everything to his family. Women like you are two a penny—'
'Just go, Sean,' she said tensely, struggling to keep the lid on her embarrassment and anger.
He left then, and when his footsteps had died away she dragged in a breath and said reluctantly, 'Thanks.'
'I suggest you let the next one down a bit more tactfully.' A caustic note in the stranger's voice was overlaid with boredom.
Jo caught back a terse rejoinder. In spite of his tone she was grateful for his interference. For a few moments she'd almost been afraid of Sean.
'I'll try to keep your advice in mind,' she said with scrupulous politeness, and got into her car.
Once on the road she grimaced. The spat with Sean had unsettled her; she'd totally misread the situation with him.
Like her he was a New Zealander, in Rotumea to manage the local branch of a fishing operation. Although from the first he'd made it clear he found her attractive, he'd appeared to accept the limits she put on their contact with good grace. Several times she'd searched her memory in case something she'd said or done had given him the idea that she wanted to be more than friendly. She could recall nothing, ever.
Frustrated, she swerved to avoid a bird afflicted with either a death wish or an unshakeable sense of its immortality. Naturally, the bird was a masked booby the clown of the Pacific.
Concentrate, she told herself fiercely.
After Tom's death, Sean's suggestion of an affair had come out of the blue, but she'd let him down as gently as she could, only to be shocked and totally unprepared for his sneering anger and contempt.
She didn't like that he'd lain in wait for her to deliver that insulting apology. His belief that she and Tom were lovers still made her feel sick. It seemed that Sean believed any relationship between a man and a woman had to have a sexual base.
Neanderthal! In a way Tom was like the father she'd never known.
Posted July 11, 2013
Posted January 20, 2014
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