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Elena Lyon would never get a man in her life until she surgically removed every last reminder of Nick Messena from hers!
Number one on her purge list was getting rid of the beach villa located in Dolphin Bay, New Zealand, in which she had spent one disastrous, passionate night with Messena.
As she strolled down one of Auckland's busiest streets, eyes peeled for the real estate agency she had chosen to handle the sale, a large sign emblazoned with the name Messena Construction shimmered into view, seeming to float in the brassy summer heat.
Automatic tension hummed, even though the likelihood that Nick, who spent most of his time overseas, was at the busy construction site was small.
Although, the sudden conviction that he was there, and watching her, was strong enough to stop her in her tracks.
Taking a deep breath, she dismissed the overreaction which was completely at odds with her usual calm precision and girded herself to walk past the brash, noisy work site. Gaze averted from a trio of bare-chested construction workers, Elena decided she couldn't wait to sell the beach villa. Every time she visited, it seemed to hold whispering echoes of the intense emotions that, six years ago, had been her downfall.
Emotions that hadn't appeared to affect the dark and dangerously unreliable CEO of Messena Construction in the slightest.
The rich, heady notes of a tango emanating from her handbag distracted Elena from an embarrassingly loud series of whistles and catcalls.
A breeze whipped glossy, dark tendrils loose from her neat French pleat as she retrieved the phone. Pushing her glasses a little higher on the delicate bridge of her nose, she peered at the number glowing on her screen.
Her heart slammed once, hard. The sticky heat and background hum of Friday afternoon traffic dissolved and she was abruptly transported back six years .
To the dim heat of what had then been her aunt Katherine's beach villa, tropical rain pounding on the roof. Nick Messena's muscular, tanned body sprawled heavily across hers-
Cheeks suddenly overwarm, she checked the phone, which had stopped ringing. A message flashed on the screen. She had voice mail.
Her jaw locked. It had to be a coincidence that Nick had rung this afternoon when she was planning one of her infrequent trips back to Dolphin Bay.
Her fingers tightened on the utilitarian black cell, the perfect no-nonsense match for her handbag. Out of the blue, Nick had started ringing her a week ago at her apartment in Sydney. Unfortunately, she had been off guard enough to actually pick up the first call, then mesmerized enough by the sexy timbre of his voice that she'd been incapable of slamming the phone down.
To make matters worse, somehow, she had ended up agreeing to meet him for dinner, as if the searing hours she'd spent locked in his arms all those years ago had never happened.
Of course, she hadn't gone, and she hadn't canceled, either. She had stood him up.
Behaving in such a way, without manners or consideration, had gone against the grain. But the jab of guilt had been swamped by a warming satisfaction that finally, six years on, Messena had gotten a tiny taste of the disappointment she had felt.
The screen continued to flash its message.
Don't listen. Just delete the message.
The internal directives came a split second too late. Her thumb had already stabbed the button that activated her voice mail.
Nick's deep, curt voice filled her ear, shooting a hot tingle down her spine and making her stomach clench.
This message was simple, his number and the same arrogant demand he'd left on her answerphone a number of times since their initial conversation: Call me.
For a split second the busy street and the brassy glare of the sun glittering off cars dissolved in a red mist.
After six years? During which time he had utterly ignored her existence and the fact that he had ditched her after just one night.
Like that was going to happen.
Annoyed with herself for being weak enough to listen to the message, she dropped the phone back into her purse and stepped off the curb. No matter how much she had once wanted Nick to call, she had never fallen into the trap of chasing after a man she knew was not interested in her personally.
To her certain knowledge Nick Messena had only ever wanted two things from her. Lately, it was the recovery of a missing ring that Nick had mistakenly decided his father had gifted to her aunt. A scenario that resurrected the scandalous lie that her aunt Katherine-the Messena family's housekeeper-had been engaged in a steamy affair with Stefano Messena, Nick's father.
Six years ago, Nick's needs had been a whole lot simpler: he had wanted sex.
The blast of a car horn jerked her attention back to the busy street. Adrenaline rocketing through her veins, Elena hurried out of the path of a bus and stepped into the air-conditioned coolness of an exclusive mall.
She couldn't believe how stupid she had been to walk across a busy street without taking careful note of the traffic. Almost as stupid as she'd been six years ago on her birthday when she'd been lonely enough to break every personal rule she'd had and agree to a blind date.
The date, organized by so-called friends, had turned out to be with Messena, the man she'd had a hopeless crush on for most of her teenage years.
At age twenty-two, with a double degree in business and psychology, she should have been wary of such an improbable situation. Messena had been hot and in demand. With her long dark hair and creamy skin, and her legs-her best feature-she had been passable. But with her propensity to be just a little plump, she hadn't been in Messena's league.
Despite knowing that, her normal common sense had let her down. She had made the fatal mistake of believing in the heated gleam in Nick's gaze and the off-the-register passion. She had thought that Messena, once branded a master of seduction by one notorious tabloid, was sincere.
Heart still pumping too fast, she strolled through the rich, soothing interior of the mall, which, as luck would have it, was the one that contained the premises for Coastal Realty.
The receptionist-a lean, elegant redhead-showed her into Evan Cutler's office.
Cutler, who specialized in waterfront developments and central city apartments, shot to his feet as she stepped through the door. Shadow and light flickered over an expanse of dove-gray carpet, alerting Elena to the fact that Cutler wasn't the sole occupant of the room.
A second man, large enough to block the sunlight that would otherwise have flooded through a window, turned, his black jacket stretched taut across broad shoulders, his tousled dark hair shot through with lighter streaks that gleamed like hot gold.
A second shot of adrenaline zinged through her veins. "You."
Nick Messena. Six feet two inches of sleekly muscled male, with a firm jaw and the kind of clean, chiseled cheekbones that still made her mouth water.
He wasn't male-model perfect. Despite the fact that he was a wealthy businessman, somewhere along the way he had gotten a broken nose and a couple of nicks on one cheekbone. The battered, faintly dangerous look, combined with a dark five-o'clock shadow-and that wicked body-and there was no doubting he was potent. A dry, low-key charm and a reputation with women that scorched, and Nick was officially hot.
Her stomach sank when she noticed the phone in his hand.
Eyes a light, piercing shade of green, clashed with hers. "And you didn't pick up my call, because ?"
The low, faintly gravelly rasp of his voice, as if he had just rolled out of a tangled, rumpled bed, made her stomach tighten. "I was busy."
"I noticed. You should check the street before you cross."
Fiery irritation canceled out her embarrassment and other more disturbing sensations that had coiled in the pit of her stomach. Positioned at the window, Nick would have had a clear view of her walking down the street as he had phoned. "Since when have you been so concerned about my welfare?"
He slipped the phone into his jacket pocket. "Why wouldn't I be? I've known you and your family most of my life."
The easy comment, as if their families were on friendly terms and there hadn't been a scandal, as if he hadn't slept with her, made her bristle. "I guess if anything happened to me, you might not get what you want."
The second the words were out Elena felt ashamed. As ruffled and annoyed as she was by Nick, she didn't for a moment think he was that cold and calculating. If the assertion that her aunt and Stefano Messena had been having an affair when they were killed in a car accident, the same night she and Nick had made love, had hurt the Lyon family, it went without saying it had hurt the Messenas.
Her jaw tightened at Nick's lightning perusal of her olive-green dress and black cotton jacket, and the way his attention lingered on her one and only vice, her shoes. The clothes were designer labels and expensive, but she was suddenly intensely aware that the dark colors in the middle of summer looked dull and boring. Unlike the shoes, which were strappy and outrageously feminine, the crisp tailoring and straight lines were more about hiding curves than displaying them.
Nick's gaze rested briefly on her mouth. "And what is it, exactly, that you think I want?"
A question that shouldn't be loaded, but suddenly was, made her breath hitch in her throat. Although the thought that Nick could possibly have any personal interest in her now was ridiculous.
And she was absolutely not interested in him. Despite the hot looks, GQ style and killer charm, he had a blunt, masculine toughness that had always set her subtly on edge.
Although she could never allow herself to forget that, through some weird alchemy, that same quality had once cut through her defenses like a hot knife through butter. "I already told you I have no idea where your lost jewelry is."
"But you are on your way back to Dolphin Bay."
"I have better reasons for going there than looking for your mythical lost ring." She lifted her chin, abruptly certain that Nick's search for the ring, something that the female members of his family could have done, was a ploy and that he had another, shadowy, agenda. Although what that agenda could be, she had no clue. "More to the point, how did you find out I would be here?"
"You haven't been returning my calls, so I rang Zane."
Her annoyance level increased another notch that Nick had intruded even further into her life by calling his cousin, and her boss, Zane Atraeus. "Zane is in Florida."
Nick's expression didn't alter. "Like I said, you haven't returned my calls, and you didn't turn up for our appointment in Sydney. You left me no choice."
Elena's cheeks warmed at his blunt reference to the fact that she had failed to meet him for what had sounded more like a date than a business meeting at one of Sydney's most expensive restaurants.
She had never in her life missed an appointment, or even been late for one, but the idea that Nick's father had paid her aunt off with jewelry, the standard currency for a mistress, had been deeply insulting. "I told you over the phone, I don't believe your father gave Aunt Katherine anything. Why would he?"
His expression was oddly neutral. "They were having an affair."
She made an effort to control the automatic fury that gripped her at Nick's stubborn belief that her aunt had conducted a sneaky, underhanded affair with her employer.
Quite apart from the fact that her aunt had considered Nick's mother, Luisa Messena, to be her friend, she had been a woman of strong morals. And there was one powerful, abiding reason her aunt would never have gotten involved with Stefano, or any man.
Thirty years ago Katherine Lyon had fallen in love, completely, irrevocably, and he had died.
In the Lyon family the legend of Katherine's unrequited love was well respected. Lyons were not known for being either passionate or tempestuous. They were more the steady-as-you-go type of people who tended to choose solid careers and marry sensibly. In days gone by they had been admirable servants and thrifty farmers. Unrequited love, or love lost in any form was a novelty.
Elena didn't know who Aunt Katherine's lover had been because her aunt had point-blank refused to talk about him. All she knew was that her aunt, an exceptionally beautiful woman, had remained determinedly single and had stated she would never love again.
Elena's fingers tightened on the strap of her handbag. "No. They were not having an affair. Lyon women are not, and never have been, the playthings of wealthy men."
Cutler cleared his throat. "I see you two have met."
Elena turned her gaze on the real estate agent, who was a small, balding man with a precise manner. There were no confusing shades with Cutler, which was why she had chosen him. He was factual and efficient, attributes she could relate to in her own career as a personal assistant.
Although, it seemed the instant she had any contact with Nick Messena, her usual calm, methodical process evaporated and she found herself plunged into the kind of passionate emotional excess that was distinctly un-Lyon-like. "We're acquainted."
Nick's brows jerked together. "I seem to remember it was a little more than that."
Elena gave up the attempt to avoid the confrontation Nick was angling for and glared back. "If you were a gentleman, you wouldn't mention the past."
"As I recall from a previous conversation, I'm no gentleman."
Elena blushed at his reference to the accusation she had flung at him during a chance meeting in Dolphin Bay, a couple of months after their one night together. That he was arrogant and ruthless and emotionally incapable of sustaining a relationship. "I don't see why I should help drag the Lyon name through the mud one more time just because you want to get your hands on some clunky old piece of jewelry you've managed to lose."
His brows jerked together. "I didn't lose anything, and you already know that the missing piece of jewelry is a diamond ring."
And knowing the Messena family and their extreme wealth, the diamond would be large, breathtakingly expensive and probably old. "Aunt Katherine would have zero interest in a diamond ring. In case you didn't notice, she was something of a feminist and she almost never wore jewelry. Besides, if she was having a secret affair with your father, what possible interest would she have in wearing an expensive ring that proclaimed that fact?"
Nick's gaze cooled perceptibly. "Granted. Nevertheless, the ring is gone."
Cutler cleared his throat and gestured that she take a seat. "Mr. Messena has expressed interest in the villa you've inherited in Dolphin Bay. He proposed a swap with one of his new waterfront apartments here in Auckland, which is why I invited him to this meeting."
Elena suppressed her knee-jerk desire to say that, as keen as she was to sell, there was no way she would part with the villa to a Messena. "That's very interesting," she said smoothly. "But at the moment I'm keeping my options open."