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SHE'D never known fear like it.
Breathing so rapidly that she felt light-headed, Kimberley stood in the imposing glass-walled board-room on the executive floor of Santoro Investments, staring down at the throbbing, vibrant streets of Rio de Janeiro.
The waiting was torture.
Everything rested on the outcome of this visit--everything--and the knowledge made her legs weaken and her insides knot with vicious tension.
It was ironic, she thought helplessly, that the only person who could help her now was the one man she'd sworn never to see again.
Forcing herself to breathe steadily, she closed her eyes for a moment and tried to modify her expectations. He'd probably refuse to see her.
People didn't just arrive unannounced and gain access to a man like Luc Santoro.
She was only sitting here now because his personal assistant had taken pity on her. Stammering out her request to see him, Kimberley had been so pale and anxious that the older woman had become quite concerned and had insisted that she should sit and wait in the privacy of the air-conditioned board-room. Having brought her a large glass of water, the assistant had given her a smile and assured her that Mr Santoro really wasn't as dangerous as his reputation suggested.
But Kimberley knew differently. Luc Santoro wasn't just dangerous, he was lethal and she knew that it was going to take more than water to make her face the man on the other side of that door.
What was she going to say?
How was she going to tell him?
Where was she going to start?
She couldn't appeal to his sense of decency or his conscience because he possessed neither. Helping others wasn't high onhis agenda. He used people and, more especially, he used women. She knew that better than anyone. Pain ripped through her as she remembered just how badly he'd treated her. He was a ruthless, self-seeking billionaire with only one focus in his life. The pursuit of pleasure.
And for a short, blissful time, she'd been his pleasure.
Her heart felt like a heavy weight in her chest. Looking back on it now, she couldn't believe how naïve she'd been. How trusting. As an idealistic, romantic eighteen-year-old, she'd been willing and eager to share every single part of herself with him. She'd held nothing back because she'd seen no reason to hold anything back. He'd been the one. Her everything. And she'd been his nothing.
She curled her fingers into her palms and reminded herself that the objective of today was not to rehash the past. She was going to have to put aside the memory of the pain, the panic and the bone-deep humiliation she'd suffered as a result of his cruel and careless rejection.
None of that mattered now.
There was only one thing that mattered to her, only one person, and for the sake of that person she was going to bite her tongue, smile, beg or do whatever it took to ingratiate herself with Luc Santoro--because there was no way she was leaving Brazil without the money she needed.
It was a matter of life and death.
She paced the length of the room, trying to formulate some sort of plan in her mind, trying to work out a reasonable way to ask for five million dollars from a man who had absolutely no feelings for her.
How was she going to tackle the subject? How was she going to tell him that she was in serious trouble?
And how could she make him care?
She felt a shaft of pure panic and then the door opened and he strolled into the room unannounced, the sun glinting on his glossy black hair, his face hard, handsome and unsmiling.
And Kimberley realised that she was in even more trouble than she'd previously thought.
She looked like a baby deer caught in an ambush.
Without revealing any of his thoughts, Luc surveyed the slender, impossibly beautiful redhead who stood shivering and pale on the far side of his boardroom.
She looked so frightened that he almost found it possible to feel sorry for her. Except that he knew too much about her.
And if he were in her position, he'd be shaking, too. She had one hell of a nerve, coming here!
Seven years. He hadn't seen Kimberley Townsend for seven years and still she had the ability to seriously disturb his day.
Endless legs, silken hair, soft mouth and a wide, trusting smile--
For a time she'd truly had him fooled with that loving, giving, generous act that she'd perfected. Accustomed to being with women who were as sophisticated and calculating as himself, he'd been charmed and captivated by Kimberley's innocence, openness and her almost childlike honesty.
It was the first and only occasion in his adult life when he'd made a serious error of judgement.
She was a greedy little gold-digger.
He knew that now. And she knew that he knew. So what could possibly have possessed her to throw herself in his path again?
She was either very brave or very, very stupid. He strolled towards her, watching her flinch and tremble and decided that she didn't look particularly brave.
Which just left stupid.
Kimberley stood with her back to the wall and wondered how she could have forgotten the impact that Luciano Santoro had on women. How could she ever have thought she could hold a man like him?
Time had somehow dimmed the memory and the reality was enough to stun her into a temporary silence.
She was tall but he was taller. His shoulders were broad, his physique lithe and athletic and his dark, dangerous looks alone were enough to make a woman forget her own name. The truth was that, even among a race renowned for handsome men, Luc stood out from the crowd.
She stared at him with almost agonizing awareness as he strolled towards her, her eyes sliding over the glossy blue-black hair, the high cheekbones, those thick, thick lashes that shielded brooding, night-dark eyes and down to the darkened jaw of a man who seemed to embody everything it meant to be masculine. He was dressed formally in standard business attire but even the tailored perfection of his dark suit couldn't entirely disguise a nature that bordered on the very edges of civilised. Although he moved in a conventional world, Luc could never be described as 'safe' and it was that subtle hint of danger that added to his almost overwhelming appeal.
His attraction to the opposite sex was as powerful as it was predictable and she'd proved herself to be as susceptible as the rest when it came to his particular brand of lethal charm.
Feeling her heart pound against her chest, she wondered whether she'd been mad to come here.
She didn't move in his league and she never had. They played by a completely different set of rules.
And then she reminded herself firmly that she wasn't here for herself. Given the choice she never would have come near Luc again. But he was her only hope.
His eyes mocked her in that lazy, almost bored way that she used to find both aggravating and seductive. "Very formal. You used to call me Luc."
He spoke with a cultured male drawl that held just a hint of the dark and dangerous. The staggeringly successful international businessman mingled with the raw, rough boy from the streets.
There was enough of the hard and the tough and the ruthless in him to make her shiver. Of course he was tough and ruthless, she reasoned, trying to control the exaggerated response of her trembling body. Rumour had it that he'd dragged himself from the streets of Rio before building one of the biggest multinational businesses in the world.
"That's in the past." And she didn't want to remember the past. Didn't want to remember the times she'd cried out his name as he'd shown her yet another way to paradise.
He raised an eyebrow and from the look in his dark eyes she knew that he was experiencing the same memories. The temperature in the room rose by several degrees and the air began to crackle and hum. "And is that what this meeting is about? The past? You want closure? You have come to beg forgiveness and repay the money you stole?"
It was typical of him that the first thing he mentioned was the money.
For a moment her courage faltered. "I know it was wrong to use your credit cards--" she licked her lips '--but I had a good reason--" She broke off and the carefully prepared speech that she'd rehearsed and rehearsed in her head dissolved into nothing and suddenly she couldn't think how on earth she was going to say what needed to be said.
Now, she urged herself frantically, tell him now!
But somehow the right words just wouldn't come. "You did give me the cards--" 'One of the perks of being with me," Luc said silkily, "but when you spent the money, you were no longer with me. I have to congratulate you. I thought that no woman had the ability to surprise me--" he paced around her, his voice a soft, lethal drawl '--and yet you did just that. During our relationship you spent nothing. You showed no interest in my money. At the time I thought you were unique amongst your sex. I found your lack of interest in material things particularly endearing.'His tone hardened. "Now I see that you were in fact just clever. Very clever.You held back on your spending but once you realised that the relationship was over, you showed your true colours."
Kimberley's mouth fell open in genuine amazement. What on earth was he implying? It was definitely time to tell him the truth. "I can explain where the money went--" She braced herself for the ultimate confession but he gave a dismissive shrug that indicated nothing short of total indifference.
"If there is one occupation more boring than watching a woman shop, it's hearing about it after the event." Luc's tone was bored. "I have absolutely no interest in the finer details of feminine indulgence."
"Is that what you think it was?" Kimberley stared at him, aghast. "You think I spent your money in some sort of childish female tantrum?"