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It was hurricane season in St Lucia and the warnings had gone out. 'Michael' was a category three, but was gathering pace at sea and heading for shore. The weathermen were predicating a direct hit sometime within the next twenty-four hours.
But for now the sun was setting in a perfect blaze of glory over the lush rainforests, and not a breath of air rustled the tall palms that encircled the stables.
Abbie, however, was not taken in by the deceptive calm. She had experienced the full force of a hurricane the previous year; it had taken the roof off her house and almost decimated the stables. It had taken a long time to put everything right, and financially she was still reeling from the disaster. She couldn't afford another direct hit.
So she had spent the afternoon trying to prepare. She had nailed down everything she could, and long after most of her hired help had gone home for the day she was still moving heavy equipment into the storerooms.
'Abbie, your father has been on the phone for you again,' Jess called across to her as she came out of the house. 'He's left another message on the answer machine.'
'OK, thanks.' Abbie brushed her blonde hair distractedly back from her face. She had nothing to say to her father, and she wasn't interested in his messages, but she couldn't help but wonder why he had started ringing her again.
Putting the last of her work tools away, she headed up to the veranda. Mario was in Jess's arms, and as he saw his mother walk towards them his eyes lit with excitement and he held out his arms to her.
With a smile, Abbie reached to take her baby. He snuggled in against her and she kissed him, breathing in the clean scent of his skin. Mariowas twenty-one months now, and adorable. He was the one thing in Abbie's life that made everything worthwhile.
'Do you want to get off now, Jess? You've got a date tonight, haven't you?' she asked as she cuddled the child.
'Yes. If you are sure you can manage, that would be a great help.'
'Absolutely. You go and have a good time.'
For a moment Abbie stood and watched as the young woman strolled towards her four-wheel drive. At eighteen, Jess was the youngest member of her staff, and also the hardest working. Not only was she a qualified child-minder and a superb horsewoman but she helped out a lot around the stables. Sometimes Abbie wondered how she would manage without her.
She waved to Jess as she reversed and pulled away down the long driveway.
Darkness was closing in now. The stables were on a lonely track leading down to a deserted cove. Her nearest neighbours were miles away, and very few cars passed this way. Usually Abbie didn't mind being on her own; she enjoyed the solitude. But for once as Jess's car disappeared she was acutely conscious of her isolation.
It was probably the approaching storm that was making her feel so on edge, she told herself as she went back into the house. Plus all these phone calls from her father.
As she stepped inside, her eyes were immediately drawn towards the phone, where a flashing light proclaimed there were now ten messages.
Whatever her father wanted, she wasn't interested. She would put Mario to bed and delete the calls later, she told herself as she headed for the stairs.
The child went down into his cot easily. Abbie set the musical mobile playing above his head and watched over him until he fell asleep. Then, leaving the night light on, she crept from the nursery to her bedroom across the corridor to shower and change.
Abbie had just put on her silk dressing-gown and was about to go back downstairs to make herself a drink when the phone in her room rang again, and the answer machine clicked on.
'Abbie, where the hell are you?' Her father's irate tones seemed to fill the house. 'Have you received any of my messages? This is important.'
It was strange how just hearing his voice made her nervous. She supposed it was all those years of conditioningof being afraid to ignore his commands.
Wrapping her dressing gown more closely around her body, she reminded herself fiercely that her father no longer had a hold over herhe couldn't hurt her any more.
'Do you hear me, Abigail?'
He probably wanted to summon her back to Vegas to host one of his parties. She shuddered at the thought. She'd escaped from that life over two years agoshe would have thought he'd got the message by now. His bullying blackmail tactics no longer worked. She wasn't going back.
She was on her way across her bedroom to switch off the machine when she heard him mention a namea name that made her freeze and the world start to zone out as darkness threatened to engulf her. Damon Cyrenci.
For so long she had tried to block that name out of her mind, pretend he had never existed. And the only way she had been able to do that was by filling her every waking hour and making herself so bone-tired that personal thoughts were a luxury. But, even so, sometimes in the silence of the night he would come to her as she slept and she would see his darkly handsome face again. Would imagine his hands touching her, his lips crushing against hers, and she would wake with tears on her cheeks.
'I've lost everything, Abigaileverythingto Damon Cyrenci, and that includes the stables because they are part of the company's assets.'
Through the turmoil of her thoughts, Abbie tried to concentrate on what her father was saying. The stables were hers, weren't they?
'And he's on his way out there now to look over his property.'
The words hit her like a hurricane at force five. Damon was on his way here! Her heart racedher body felt weak. Damonthe love of her life, the father of her child, the one man she had given herself to completely. The memories that went along with all those facts twisted inside her like a serpent intent on squeezing her very soul. And along with the memories there was a fierce longinga longing that had never really gone away, a longing that she had just learnt to live with.
She sat down on the bed behind her; it was either sit down or fall down. Damon was coming here. It was all she could focus on.
What would he look like now, what would he say to her? Would he still be angry with her? What would he say when he discovered he had a child?
Had he forgiven her? The wrench of yearning that idea brought with it was immense.
As the phone connection died, she buried her head in her hands.
She remembered the day she had first met Damon. She remembered that the blistering heat of the midday sun had come nowhere near matching the heat he had stirred within her. She remembered shading her eyes to look up at him as she'd climbed out of the pool. He was tallwell over six-foot-four and he had been wearing a lightweight suit that had sat perfectly on his athletic build.
'You must be Abbie Newland?' he had said quietly, and the attractive accent had added fuel to a fire that had quietly and instantly started to blaze inside her.
He was ten years older than Abbie, Sicilian, with thick dark hair and searing, intense dark eyes, and to say he was good-looking would be an understatement of vast proportions. He was quite simply gorgeous.
'I'm Damon Cyrenci. Your father said I would find you here.'
The disappointment inside Abbie was almost as intense as her attraction for him. Because this was the man her father had ordered her to date. The command had infuriated her, but she wasn't at liberty to refuse; her plan had been to snub him, then just walk away. Then she could honestly tell her father that he hadn't invited her out. But, as soon as her eyes met with the handsome Sicilian, her body didn't want to comply with that idea at all.
'Do you want to join me for a drink?' He nodded over towards a bar that was cocooned in the tropical shade of the gardens.
'Maybe just for ten minutes,' she found herself saying. 'I haven't got much time.'
'Why, what else have you got to do?' The question had been asked with a glint of humour, and it had been apparent right from the outset that he had judged her as little more than a social butterfly.
She didn't really blame him. To the outside world, that was probably exactly how her life appeared, but the remark still smarted. She wanted to tell him that appearances could be deceptive, that she was in fact trapped within her gilded cage, forced to dance attendance on a father whose every whim was her command. But of course she didn'the wouldn't have been interested and anyway, if word got back to her father that she had said anything, the consequences would have been dire.
So somehow she just forced herself to shrug. 'Let's see. I'm the rich, spoilt daughter of a millionairewhat else could I be doing this afternoon?' She slanted him a sardonic look. 'Apart from lying in the sun, shopping and visiting the beauty salon, you mean?'
He smiled, unapologetic. 'Must be a tough life.'
'It is. But someone has to do it.' Although she tried to sound flippant, something of her annoyance or distress must have shown in her eyes, because suddenly his tone softened.
'Shall we start again?' he asked, and held out his hand. 'I'm Damon Cyrenci, and I'm in town to negotiate the sale of a chain of restaurants owned by my father.'
She looked at the hand he held out, and she hesitated a moment before taking it. What exactly was her father up to? she had wondered. What harm would following his orders do?
Then her eyes met with Damon Cyrenci's and she told herself that, no matter what her father was up to, this man was more than capable of looking out for himself.
'Abigail Newland.' The net was cast as she placed her hand in his. She liked the touch of his skin against hers, liked the feeling in the pit of her stomach when he smiled.
She remembered having dinner with him that night. She remembered him kissing her, a searing, intensely passionate kiss that had made her long for so much more.
She had dated him for five short weeks, but with each meeting her feelings for him had intensified. Her hands curled into tight fists just thinking about the way he'd made her feel. But because of the situation she had always forced herself to pull back.
Damon hadn't been used to a woman pulling away from him, and somehow it had made him all the more determined to pursue her.
Yes, the net had been castbut she had been the one caught in its fine weave, because somewhere along the way in those few short weeks she had fallen in love with Damon Cyrenci.
The phone rang again, interrupting Abbie's thoughts, and she listened as once more the answer machine cut in.
'Abbie, please pick up the phone.'
Abbie just sat numbly, listening. She hadn't spoken to her father since her mother's death just over two years ago. And, no matter what was at stake, she still couldn't speak to him now.
'This is about revenge, Abigailand you are next on Cyrenci's list. He knows what you didknows you were perfectly complicit in his father's destruction.'Her father's voice was abrasive. 'But luckily I'm still thinking for both of us. I told him about Mario. He was shocked and angry, I could see it in his face. But the child gives us a bargaining chipit means he doesn't hold all of the aces.'
Abbie felt sick inside. She hated her fatherhated the sordid, horrible way he even thought.
The line went dead again. Abbie didn't know how long she just sat there after that. Her father stopped phoning, but the silence of the house seemed to swirl around her with his words.
Then she heard the distant sound of a car engine. He's on his way out there now to look over his property Certainly, whoever was in that car was heading for this housethere was nowhere else out here.
The shrill ring of the doorbell cut through her. And for a few moments she was immobilised.
Was Damon really outside her door? There had been moments when she had dreamed of this, dreamed that he'd come to her when he found out about his child, and that he would forgive her.
But they were just dreams. She was sensible enough to realise that the reality was encapsulated in her father's phone messages.
Damon wasn't going to forgive hershe'd known that at their last meeting, when he had angrily confronted her about what she had done, and she had tried desperately to explain her actions. He hadn't wanted to listen; all he'd been able to think about was the fact that she had assisted in his father's downfall. Even when she had falteringly tried to tell him that she was as much a victim as his father he had cut across her contemptuously.
'You must consider me really naïve if you think I'm going to fall for any more of your lies. I know what you are. I have evidence to support exactly what a lying, conniving, deceitful'
'Damon, please!' She had broken across him tremulously.
'Please believe me, I never wanted any of this to happen. The time I spent with you was special to me, and I'
'Give the acting a rest, Abbie.' The scorn in his voice had cut through her like a sword. 'At least the one good thing about this whole sorry mess is the fact that, as far as I was concerned, our time together was all about sexI felt nothing for you, other than the pleasure of taking your body. Nothing at all.'
There had been a harsh coldness in his words and in his eyes that she had never seen before. It was as if a mask had been ripped away at that moment and she had seen the true Damon for the first time. It had shocked her to the core, and it had hurt. God help her, it still hurt!
But it also made her very sure that if it was Damon outside he wasn't here for any sentimental reasons, and he certainly wouldn't be interested in the fact that she'd had his child.
The shrill ring of the doorbell sliced through the night again, and Abbie tried to focus on what she should do. There were a few heartbeats of silence whilst whoever it was gave her a moment to come to the door. When she didn't, he put his finger on the bell again and held it there.