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Callum halted at the threshold, his attention riveted on the woman pacing in front of the reception desk. The slanting rays from a lofty skylight caught her hair and turned it into a nimbus of glowing gold.
He took a step forward.
"Callum Ironstone demanded my presence here at three o'clock." She cocked her wrist and glanced at a serviceable watch. "It's already ten past. How much longer does he intend to keep me cooling my heels?" Her husky voice held an edge of impatience.
Callum stilled as her words penetrated. This was Miranda Owen?
His gaze tracked up from slender ankles encased in sheer black hose along the sleek lines of the narrow black, hip-hugging skirt. A black polo-neck sweater emphasized the indent of her waist and a saffron-colored coat hung over her arm.
Digging deep into his memories produced an image of a plump teenager, more at home in a baggy sweatshirt, jeans and muddied yellow Wellingtons. The sunlit locks held no resemblance to the long, untidy ponytail. No doubt the braces were gone, too.
He cleared his throat.
She spun around. Wide caramel-brown eyes met his. His stomach tightened as he took in the lambent hostility.
One thing hadn't changed. Miranda Owen still blamed him for her father's death.
Callum didn't let the knowledge show as he crossed the marble tiles, toasty from the state-of-the-art under-floor heating system. "Miranda, thank you for coming in."
That one snapped-out word hinted at long-held resentments.
He stretched out a hand. For a moment he thought she was going to refuse to take it. Then with a small sigh she relented.
Her fingers werestrong, her grip firm, yet her skin was soft against his. Before he could come to terms with the interesting dichotomy of her touch, she pulled away.
"Why did you want to see me?"
A woman who got straight to the point—he liked that. Callum shook himself free of the bemusement that this grown-up Miranda evoked. "Let's talk in my office. Would you like a cup of coffee?"
A picture flickered across his mind of a three-year-younger Miranda spooning several teaspoons of sugar into a cup of hot chocolate at her father's funeral.
"No, thanks." Her reply was clipped.
He glanced across to the receptionist. "Bring Ms. Owen a hot chocolate and I'll have coffee. Bring some extra sugar," he tacked on before placing his hand under Miranda's elbow and steering her along the corridor and into his spacious office.
"I'm not a child." She slanted him a look from beneath ridiculously long lashes, and a frisson of awareness startled Callum. "And I no longer drink chocolate."
"I can see you're not a child," Callum drawled, giving her a slow, sweeping perusal. "You've changed."
"You haven't." Miranda broke free of his hold and stepped away.
Still truculent. The heat of desire receded. "Maybe I'm mistaken," he mused. "I'd gotten the notion you'd grown up."
Chagrin filled her face. "I'm sorry."
Callum doubted she regretted her lack of courtesy. Yet when her gaze met his again, he read apprehension in the wide eyes. What was she frightened about? Even as he watched, she straightened her spine and the moment of vulnerability vanished.
He waved to the two boxy leather sofas facing each other under an immense wooden bookshelf packed with books. A tall Christmas tree covered with red bows and silver balls reminded Callum that it was the season of reconciliation. But Miranda's frozen face warned him that reconciliation was the last thing on her mind. And how could he blame her? Feeling carefully for words, he said, "Look, let's start over."
Ignoring him, Miranda passed the cozy seating arrangement heading for a round walnut conference table beside a wall of glass, where she slung her coat and black bag over the closest of the four chairs in a militant fashion.
Okay, so she was going to play this tough, all business. Callum gave a mental shrug and seated himself opposite her. "I asked you to come in because I have a proposition for you."
"A proposition?" Confusion clouded her features. "For me?"
He rocked his chair back. "You're a chef, right?" Hell, he knew she was—he'd paid for every cent of her exclusive training. Though he'd been surprised to learn she'd used her qualifications to gain employment at a popular pub chain rather than some fashionable, upmarket café or boutique hotel. Before she could question how he knew she was a chef, he added, "Adrian told me you work at one of The Golden Goose outlets."
He'd stopped to inquire how young Adrian was getting along as a temporary driver for the company. The young man had been grateful for the vacation job and had revealed that Miranda dreamed of one day starting her own catering business. That had given Callum the perfect solution… a way to wipe Miranda Owen from his conscience forever. He gave her his most charming grin.
"Yes," she said guardedly.
She certainly wasn't blowing him away with an effusive response. Tipping his chair back to earth, he leaned forward and planted his elbows on the conference table. "Here's the deal. I plan to invite the outgoing chairman of a company Ironstone Insurance has recently taken over to a private dinner party at my home on Saturday night."
"Oh, yes. Gordon's staying on as a shareholder and I want to introduce him to the other directors. It's a celebration."
The melting brown eyes hardened. "I suppose that makes sense. Your brothers will want to get on side with a significant shareholder."
Callum stopped smiling. The merger had been his initiative—a successful one that would give Ironstone Insurance a strategic advantage over their competitors for years to come. And Gordon Harris had been even hungrier for the merger than the Ironstone family. Gordon wanted to retire, to take it easy. But Miranda's words stopped Callum from confessing that there was another, more celebratory reason for the dinner. That would only lead to a dig about protecting his assets.
Two fine lines furrowed her brow. "When you say Saturday…do you mean this week?" At his nod the lines deepened. "That doesn't leave much time."
He'd intended to railroad her into agreeing… and not leave any time for second thoughts.
"You don't think you can do it?" he challenged.
Angry fire kindled in the caramel eyes. "How many people?"
Hiding a grin of triumph, Callum rose to his feet and retrieved a manila folder from the polished expanse of his desk. Returning to the conference table, he dropped the file in front of her. "The details are all in there."
If he could start Miranda on the road to success, introduce her to some people, perhaps he'd be able to forget the hatred a pair of eighteen-year-old eyes had once held….
Or at least that had been the plan.
But having met Miranda again, he had a suspicion it wasn't going to be nearly that simple.
Standing behind her, all too conscious of the subtle fragrance of warm vanilla she exuded, Callum watched her elegant fingers flip the file open to the first page of the agreement his PA had prepared. Her shoulders stiffened as she read the figure he proposed to pay for a one-night job.
Satisfaction swept through him. She wouldn't refuse. His offer was too good. Helping Miranda get started in a business that must presently be nothing more than an impossible dream would be the perfect way to excise the disturbing memory of the wild accusations she'd flung at him.
You killed my father.
Of course he knew he hadn't, didn't he? Thomas Owen had killed himself once he realized there would be a trial—where he would almost certainly be found guilty on the overwhelming evidence against him. The courts showed no mercy against employees who stole from their employers. Thomas Owen would have known he was facing prison.
Yet Thomas's suicide had shaken Callum more than he cared to admit, leaving him haunted by a long shadow of guilt.
A legacy that he was determined to shake.
The black-and-white print on the paper in front of her blurred. Miranda was no longer aware of the maplewood furniture, or Callum's spacious office. Instead she experienced again the hot ball of misery that had burned constantly in her chest from the moment her father's PA had called with the news of her father's arrest.
But her father's assistant had insisted it was true: the police had been, and had taken her father away. Miranda needed to get hold of her mother urgently. Callum Ironstone would be issuing a press statement soon.
At barely eighteen, Miranda's first sighting of Callum Ironstone on television had swung rapidly from interest in the handsome devil with dark hair, a sensual mouth and eyes that held a mesmerizing intensity, to hatred when she'd heard what he had to say. The press statement had been brief but damning.
All of it lies. By the time it came to an end, Miranda was numb with disbelief.
There had been a mistake. Yet Callum Ironstone clearly didn't believe that. Rage had set in. Her father was not a thief.
Her father was granted bail, and emerged from the courthouse pale, shaken, but determined to clear his name. He had done nothing to justify the indignity the Ironstones had heaped upon him after two decades loyal service. Miranda had been confident it would all be sorted out.
But what followed had been traumatic. And, in the end, Thomas Owen simply gave up. Miranda could still remember the set, serious face of the policewoman who'd knocked on the door to break the news that her father was dead.
Then came the funeral. Miranda's hands grew clammy and nerves fluttered in her stomach at the memory of the last terrible occasion she'd seen Callum Ironstone— it still made her cringe. Devastated by her father's death, her white-hot hatred boiling over, she'd confronted him in the stone-walled forecourt of the church.
The men beside him moved to cut her off. But she barged past them. Standing in front of Callum, she inspected him with angry eyes. "How could you take a good man's life and destroy it?" she'd challenged.
His jaw had set, and his face had grown harder than the marble tombstones in the churchyard. "He stole money from me."
"So you decided to teach him a lesson and humiliate him?"
A flush seared his carved cheekbones.
A man who resembled Callum—a brother perhaps— stepped forward. "Wait a minute, young lady—"
She brushed him aside, focusing all her emotion on Callum. "You killed him. You know that?" Tears of rage and pain spilled onto her cheeks. "He worked for you for twenty years, you gave him a gold watch, yet you never gave him a chance?"
Her father had been given no opportunity to avow his innocence. Callum had relentlessly pushed the police to the conclusion he'd wanted.
"You're overwrought," he said dismissively.
That made the ball of anger swell inside her. "And what's going to happen to my mother, my brother?" Me? "Now that you've destroyed our family?"
Callum gave her a stony stare. He raised a dark, devilish eyebrow and asked sardonically, "Finished?"
She hadn't been. Not by a long shot. But before she could vent any more he'd cut her off, snapping "Grow up" in a supercilious, condescending way that made her feel childishly inadequate.
Callum's words had been unkindly prophetic. She'd had to grow up, and quickly. Much as Miranda loved her mother, she knew Flo could never be practical. Overnight Miranda had become the adult in the home. There'd been no choice.
And now that same man was trying offer her money. A bribe?
Miranda felt Callum Ironstone start as she spoke. The sensitive skin of her nape prickled. A moment later a pair of bright blue eyes glared down at her. She'd never noticed their color before.
"What do you mean ‘No'?"
Closing the folder with a snap, Miranda slammed it down against the glossy wood. "I mean I have no intention of accepting your blood money."
"Blood money?" he said softly, dangerously, and his gaze narrowed to an intimidating glitter.
She refused to be cowed. "Yes, blood money for what you did to my father."
"Your father stole from Ironstone Insurance."
Miranda shook her head. "You got the wrong man."
"Give me strength." Callum made a sharp, impatient sound. "You're not a child anymore."
"Stop it!" She put her hands over her ears.
Blue eyes bored into hers.
Feeling foolish, like the immature child he'd accused her of being almost three years ago, she uncovered her ears and dropped her hands out of his line of sight into her lap and curled them into fists.
With hard-won composure, Miranda said, "I'm sure being wealthy beyond belief means you've gotten used to throwing money around to make all your problems go away. But not this time. I won't take a cent."
His jaw had hardened. A shiver closely allied to fear feathered down her spine as he bit out, "Don't you think it's rather late for fine principles?"
Miranda stared at him blankly. "What do you mean?"
"You've conveniently forgotten?"
His lips compressed into an impatient line. "Taking money from me."
"That's a lie—I've never taken a cent from you."
She'd die of starvation before she did that. He'd caused her family so much grief.
After the funeral, the house where Miranda had grown up with its apple orchard and paddocks had, by necessity, been sold along with her horse Troubadour and Adrian's expensive racing bicycles. Her mother had never gotten used to the cramped terrace house in a rundown street south of the Thames that the three of them had moved into. Even with Adrian away during the term at the exclusive boarding school Flo had refused to countenance him leaving, space was tight.
Thankfully the lump sum Ironstone Insurance had paid out after her father's death had been invested wisely, the interest paying for Adrian's and Miranda's education as well as a modest retainer to support her mother, though it left Flo only a shadow of the lifestyle she'd once taken for granted.