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It's my company. Mine.
The mantra throbbed in Cal Prescott's brain until, with a growl of frustration, he slammed his palms on the desk and shot to his feet.
Victor had really done it this timenot only pitting his sons against each other for the ultimate prize of VP Tech but demanding an heir in the bargain. With a sharp breath Cal whirled to study the panoramic view of Sydney's Circular Quay and Botany Bay below, the gun-metal arch of Sydney Harbour Bridge nestled comfortably in the foreground. The unusually sunny June morning did nothing to smooth his anger; Victor's trademark directness still smouldered away in his gut.
You must both marry and produce an heir. The first one to do so gets the company.
Zac, his stepbrother, didn't deserve VP Tech. He was Victor's real flesh and blood, yes, but the younger man had turned his back on them years ago. It was Cal who'd stuck with family, who had put in the long hours, steadily growing the business until his One-Click office software package had finally cracked the biggest seller spot in Australia last year.
Cal Prescott didn't walk away. Ever. He'd put every waking hour, every drop of sweat into his stepfather's company. Damned if he'd let it slip through his fingers now.
With long-legged strides he stalked over to a discreet wall panel and jabbed a button to reveal a well-stocked bar. He smoothly poured himself a glass of whiskey, neat.
Making money, proving himself, had been an all-consuming desire for so long he barely remembered a time he hadn't lived and breathed it. And with every million he'd made, every deal he'd brokered, he could've sworn he'd seen pride on Victor's craggy face, felt the rushof approval when the gruff, emotionally spare man imparted brief praise. Obviously he was good enough to bring in millions but not good enough to be a Prescott, to be automatically entrusted with the legacy of VP Tech.
Unfamiliar bitterness knotted his insides, curled his lip. Victor hadn't even given him the courtesy of an explanation; he'd simply issued the ultimatum then left on some business trip, leaving Cal to sort through the bombshell's wreckage.
The phone rang then and Cal sat, grabbing the receiver.
"There's a woman I'd like you to meet," Victor said by way of greeting.
Speak of the devil. "You're back."
"Yes. You remember Miles Jasper, the Melbourne heart surgeon?"
The sour taste of futility burnt the back of his throat. "No."
Victor ignored him and continued. "He has a daughter. She's twenty-seven, blond, attractive and"
"I don't give a damn if she's Miss Universe," Cal ground out. "I'm not some prize stallion at auction. I may have agreed to this ludicrous arrangement, but I will pick my own wife." He slammed the phone down with a satisfying crack.
After a long, drawn-out moment he dragged in a controlled breath, slid a sealed envelope from his desk drawer and slowly centred it on the desk with meticulous care.
Thanks to a local investigator and a helpful cabbie, his obsession with the elusive Ava Reilly could now be put to rest.
For the past nine weeks he'd refused to think about her, about that one amazing night, shoving it from his mind with the decisive efficiency he was renowned for. But now, as he let his thoughts wander back to their chance encounter, the walls began to crack.
Long limbs, soft black hair and a pair of bright blue eyes teased his memory. Ava. A movie-star name, one that evoked a woman with poise, elegance. Presence.
She'd gotten under his skin and stayed there, disrupting his thoughts at awkward timesin meetings, with clients. The worst were the early mornings, before the sun rose. Time and again he'd hauled himself from the depths of a hot erotic dream where her mouth had been on his, her lips trailing over his chest, her skin hot and silky beneath his hands. It had left him frustrated and aching with need way too many times.
He'd been determined to forget her, forget what had just been a one-night stand. Ironically, he'd gotten his wish three days ago. Three days since his stepfather had issued his ultimatum, seventy-two hours in which VP Tech had dominated his thoughts and he'd seesawed between dull, throbbing rage and aggravated tension.
With a flick of his wrist, he ripped open the envelope and scanned the report.
After too many broken nights and unfocused days, he'd taken action. Now he steeled himself for reality to shatter the fantasy. She could be married, or engaged. His thoughts darkened. He could've been her last fling before she'd settled down to marry her childhood sweetheart
As his eyes flipped over the paragraphs, his brows took a dive. Ava Reilly owned a bed-and-breakfast in rural western New South Wales.
He reached for his computer mouse, clicked on the Internet connection and typed "Jindalee retreat" in the search engine. Seconds later he was looking at Jindalee's basic Web page. No wonder she was up to her eyeballs in debt with the bank about to foreclose next month. The place was under-promoted and unremarkable for a simple outback town with less than five hundred people.
He went back to the report, skimming over her finan-cials until he got to the summary of her weekly errands. Cal snorted. That PI was thorough, he'd give him that.
Approximately eight weeks pregnant.
"What the hell?"
Office walls suddenly closed in on him, tight and airless, forcing Cal to take a deep gulp.
In one sharp movement, he crushed the offending paper and hurled it across his office, where it hit the wall with a soft thud. No. No way. Not again.
A shuddering breath wracked through him as shock stiffened every muscle. He'd had that, once. A baby. His baby. A child to follow in his footsteps, to nurture and love. To shower with his wealth and experience and to ensure the past was never repeated. He'd been ecstatic when Melissa had told him. Vulnerable.
She'd faked everything and he'd vowed never to repeat that failure again.
But this this changed everything.
He tightened his jaw, teeth grinding together. After making mad, passionate love, Ava had run like a thief in the night. If not for those black bikini knickers he'd found tangled in the sheets, it could have all been just a delicious, erotic dream.
His thoughts spun out of control, fed by heated memories. And as he recalled every sigh, every touch, his shock morphed into something more sinister. Swiftly his mind clicked through options. Chance encounter or deliberate? Perhaps part of a calculated blackmail plan?
His harsh laugh exploded in the quiet office. If the child was his, it provided a neat solution to all his problems.
He slammed down his glass then picked up the phone. "Jennyarrange for a car and inform the airstrip I'll be flying within the hour."
Replacing the receiver with deliberate slowness he stood, a low curse softly rumbling across his lips.
Shards of intense possessiveness stabbed, threatening to choke off his air. If Ava thought he'd pay up and stay out of her life, she was very much mistaken. Every single day, in the midst of everything he'd attained, who he was and where he'd come from were never far from his mind. And no long-legged, dark-haired seductress with wide blue eyes would compromise his beliefs.
With gnawing apprehension, Ava realized she had to face factsJindalee was spiralling into a money pit and she had no way of stopping it.
She sighed, eyeing the final notices spread before her on the kitchen table. Absently she ran a frustrated hand over the tangle of hair that had slipped from its ponytail. She'd been certain people would jump at the chance to spend time at a real get-away-from-it-all rural retreat, so certain she'd sunk all her parents' insurance money into the venture. She'd converted the homestead into a reception and dining area, built a five-cabin extension and refurbished the kitchen.
All to emphasise her spectacular downfall.
Her rooms were empty most weekends and she didn't have the money or experience to keep on advertising. Despite her fierce determination to ignore the town gossips, she knew they'd feed on this until her belly started to grow, and then the Gum Tree Falls grapevine would be buzzing anew with "have you heard the latest on Ava Reilly?"
With burning cheeks she stood, eased out the kink in her back and took a deep breath. Tentatively, she placed a hand on her still-flat stomach.
A baby. Hers.
Wonder and shock tripped her breath, adding a shaky edge to the inhale. She tried to swallow but tears welled in her eyes. Quickly, she dashed them away. She hadn't gone looking for a one-night stand, yet the stranger had commanded her eyes the instant he'd settled on the barstool next to hers at Blu Horizon, an exclusive cocktail lounge at Sydney's Shangri-La Hotel. He'd radiated confidence and wealth as if powered by some inner sun, from every thread of his sharply tailored black suit to the closely cropped, almost military haircut. Yet there was something more, something a little vulnerable beneath that chiselled face, all angles and shadow.
It was only after she'd snuck back to her girlfriend's place at 2:00 a.m. that she'd discovered the real identity of the man who'd rocked her world. Mr. One-Click, heir apparent to the great Victor Prescott's vast technology empire. Cal Prescott's computer software had recently become number one in national sales. Hell, she'd just upgraded her office computer with the latest version.
She snorted at the irony. Cal Prescott was one of the richest men under thirty-five, a man who regularly dated supermodels and socialites. He was a man who avoided emotional entanglements, who revelled in his bachelor lifestyle. If working long hours and staying single was an Olympic event, he'd have a cupboard full of gold medals.
It was a good thing you left. A smart choice. The right choice. Still, a tiny doubt niggled. How could she single-handedly bring a baby into her life, a debt-ridden life to which she could add the grim possibility of being homeless, too?
She'd wavered between absolute joy and utter despair a million times this past week. And every time she always returned to one realization: fate. Karma. Destiny. Whatever it was called, the universe was telling her that despite everything, this baby was meant to be.
Ava Rose, life never throws anything your way you're not capable of handling. Her mother's favourite phrase teased her mouth into a too-brief smile before the familiar throb of loss hit. She let it sit there for a second before shoving it aside. Death and tragedy hadn't defeated her before. A new life wouldn't now.
She dropped her hands to the table and gathered up the papers. The pity party's over. It was time to take action and get her life back on track. Somehow.
"Doing your paperwork, I see."
Ava whirled, her brain tingling at the sound of that oh-so-delicious voice. A millisecond later, her stomach fell to the floor.
Cal Prescott stood in the doorway, broad and immaculately dressed in a dark grey suit, a chilly gleam in his eyes. Those eyes, once so intensely passionate, now so cold and distant that she wondered if she'd just imagined that night in Sydney two months ago. Those same eyes had creased with serious concentration as they'd shared hot, wet kisses in the privacy of his Shangri-La Hotel penthouse suite. Flared with hunger as he'd slipped her dress from her shoulders
She slammed the door on those memories, barely managing a croak. "Cal."
"Ava." Cal's voice, a slow-burning rasp that had turned her on so quickly, so completely, was the same, but little else was. His face was a study in frozen control, eyes reflecting only an impersonal, razor-sharp study as he remained still, somehow dwarfing her kitchen even from the relative safety of the doorway.
She was alone with Cal Prescott. Again.
The air thickened, heavy with expectation. A warm throb started up between her legs as she swallowed a single desperate groan.
"What " She croaked then cleared her throat. "What are you doing here?"
His lip curled but he said nothing, abroad, tense statue intent on letting the moment swirl and grow. She steeled herself as his eyes flickered over her in thorough scrutiny, gathering up her dignity with a smoothing of her wayward hair. Yet his eyes followed those fluttery movements until she firmly jammed her hands in her back pockets.
He snorted, a sound so full of contempt that Ava took a cautious step backwards.
"Are you pregnant with my child?"
Ava grabbed the edge of the kitchen counter, reeling from the blow. How could he know? She'd barely had time to get used to it herself. She'd driven into Parkes for an over-the-counter test, then followed up at a free clinic. She'd told no one, not even Aunt Jillian.
She opened her mouth but nothing came out. Like an idiot she just stood there, blinking in shock.
"Who how..?" She finally managed.
"Do not play the innocent, Ava." His eyes narrowed, his jaw tightening imperceptibly. "Now answer me."
The subtle threat behind his silky words, the fury reflected in every tightened muscle, was all too clear. Ava felt her cheeks flush and just like that, she snapped.
"Do you think I planned this? I didn't even know who you were until after I" she paused.
"Ran away?" He finished, his eyes way too perceptive.
She crossed her arms, refusing to let him see he'd struck a nerve. Yet her mind raced a million miles an hour until something finally clicked.