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RONAN CARLISLE scanned the glamorous crowd filling the hotel reception room. A snake like Wakefield couldn't have this many friends.
Yet there were always people wanting to get close to the rich and powerful. Ronan had no time for sycophants himself, but then he didn't have Wakefield's need for fawning admiration.
He glanced past the Sydney Harbour view to where Wakefield preened amongst his cronies. The sight made him want to plant his fist in the man's smarmy face. But that would only bring temporary satisfaction.
Soon, very soon now, Wakefield would get his just desserts. Ronan would make sure of it.
He felt a swell of savage anticipation. Tonight he'd let slip a hint as to his next major commercial move. No doubt by morning Wakefield would be eager to follow suit. And that was when Ronan would bring him down. It was simple. It was ruthless. And it was long overdue.
Ronan shrugged his shoulders free of their stiffening tension and turned to leave. But something in the colourful, noisy room caught his attention. Someone.
Over the artistically coiffed heads he saw her move away from the entrance to plunge into the crowd. She was alone, starkly dressed among the throng of decorative trophy wives and well-fed executives. A woman with a purpose, he decided, as she carved a path through the party. It was there in her glittering dark eyes, in the jut of her chin, in her palpable aura of determination.
She paused to ask a question, then changed direction. Towards Wakefield.
In that moment Ronan decided he'd stay a little longer. Instinct told him the party was about to get a whole lot more interesting.
Marina took a deep breath and forged on. Triumph warred with fear as she neared her goal, and her heart thumped a telltale double beat. Her palms were damp, but she resisted the impulse to wipe them down her skirt, just as she ignored her trembling knees and the nervous roiling in her stomach.
You can do this, Marina. You have to do it.
It's your last chance.
She almost wished she'd grabbed a glass of Dutch courage from the waiter. But she needed all her wits, not to mention luck, for this confrontation. Failure was a luxury she couldn't afford. Not when her whole future and her family's depended on it.
So she pushed her way through the crowd, as out of place as a household tabby cat among a coven of pampered Persian thor-oughbreds. She felt curious eyes on her and lifted her chin a notch. She had important business with Charles Wakefield and nothing, not his evasion tactics nor her own trepidation, would stop her this time. Previously, his minders had stonewalled, pretending he was too busy to see her. But tonight he'd have no choice!
She was almost at the windows when her skin prickled. She raised her eyes and stumbled to a halt, ensnared by an intense indigo gaze that seemed to blaze straight past her protective barriers and delve into her inner fears. Her throat dried as she stared up into the face of the man who stood head and shoulders above the crowd.
A stranger. She'd never seen him before. And she knew from the press cuttings that he wasn't Wakefield. But his unblinking scrutiny held her motionless, confused.
The party hubbub faded, replaced by the heavy beat of her pulse, loud in her ears. And still she couldn't look away from that compelling stare.
His was a stark face, hard and intriguing. Beyond handsome. His height and the breadth of his shoulders signalled pure masculinity. But, more than that, she was mesmerised by the barely leashed tension in him, as if he were poised for action.
Potent. Vital. Commanding. The words tumbled through her brain as she swallowed hard and fought against the swirl of heat, heavy and low, that rippled through her.
Then there was a shout of laughter, someone jostled her, and a movement ahead revealed her quarry.
Wakefield stood by the windows, smiling confidently. He looked exactly what he was: one of Australia's wealthiest men, scion of a famous business dynasty.
This was her chance. She had to concentrate on her mission, on Wakefield. Yet she didn't move. She stared at him, but it was the presence of the dark-haired man looming nearby that filled her mind. She felt his eyes on her still, and her skin heated with sizzling awareness.
She resisted the temptation to turn her head and meet his look again. She couldn't let herself be sidetracked. Not now.
Taking a deep breath, she marched over to Wakefield, the man who'd ripped her world apart.
He was shorter than she'd imagined, barely her height. But he had a smile like a crocodile. A shudder of apprehension slithered down her spine at the sight of it.
Her voice was too strident, loud enough to make all eyes fix on her. Heat flared in her cheeks as conversation around them stalled. At the same time the stranger moved forward into her line of sight. A group of women gathered close, welcoming him.
Annoyed that she'd even noticed, Marina dragged her attention back to Wakefield.
His eyes flicked over her, cataloguing the plain suit, flat shoes and neat hair. His brows rose, and she stiffened at the dismissal she read in his face. She'd had a lifetime to get used to the fact that looks weren't everything, and she'd be damned if she'd let him judge her like that.
"I'm Marina Lucchesi, Mr Wakefield." She plastered on a smile and held out her hand. If her face felt stiff and the smile forced, it was the best she could do.
Recognition flared in his eyes. Then it was gone, lost in the give-nothing-away blandness of polite enquiry.
"Ms...Lucchesi." His grin made her long to snatch her hand away. "Welcome to my little celebration." His handshake was brief. "Do you work for me?"
Before she could answer he continued. "If it's a message from the office, sweetheart, you'd better talk to my assistant." He half turned. "Damien! Take the message."
"No, Mr Wakefield, I'm not an employee." Her voice betrayed her anger, but she didn't care. He knew exactly who she was. "But I am here on business. I was hoping to arrange a private meeting with you."
"Ah. Damien." He turned to the sleek young man who'd appeared beside him. "Ms Lucchero wants an appointment. Organise something for her. Perhaps with recruitment."
"It's Lucchesi, Mr Wakefield. Marina Lucchesi." She stepped forward, deliberately crowding his personal space, and felt a jab of satisfaction as she got his full attention. "I'm sure you remember the name. After all, you know my brother, Sebastian."
Know him well enough to strip him of everything he owns. And a few things he doesn't own as well.
She didn't say it out loud, but the knowledge pulsed between them, raw and undeniable. His eyes widened and Marina waited, poised for his inevitable acknowledgement.
But it didn't come. "I'm sorry, Ms...Lucchesi, but I don't recall. I meet so many people." He spread his hands and looked around his entourage. "Very few of them make an impact on me."
Marina ignored the stifled titters and kept her gaze fixed on her nemesis. A wash of embarrassment scalded her cheeks and throat. It was the final straw.
Fury such as she'd never experienced surged through her, stiffening every sinew in her body. She'd expected stonewalling, murmurs of regret or, if she were lucky, a reluctant agreement to meet and discuss the situation. Naïve as she was, she'd actually believed she'd be able to reason with the man. Bargain for more time.
She hadn't expected scorn. Not from someone who had nothing to gain from humiliating her.
"You surprise me, Mr Wakefield." Her voice was harsh and unsteady, but no way would she back down now. He might have her brother's measure, but he was about to find out she was a completely different proposition.
She pitched her voice to carry. "Surely you should remember the name of the man whose company you stole."
The whispering voices ceased abruptly and a tense hush fell. Marina felt her heartbeat thrum heavily once, twice, three times, before she continued.
"Or is that such a common occurrence you don't recall those details either?" She stared straight into his wrathful eyes.
The frozen silence lengthened as Wakefield's companions leaned closer. A decisive movement to Marina's left caught her attention and she looked up.
And up. Into the deepest, most amazing eyes she'd ever seen. Ink-blue and fringed with long black lashes, those same eyes had held her in thrall only minutes before. Now they sizzled with a dangerous heat.
Up close, the man was stunning. It wasn't just the aura of power he wore like a mantle, or the innate authority of a height well over six feet. It was the combination of strongly angled cheekbones, sharply defined jaw, authoritarian nose and slashing dark eyebrows. No wonder the women clustered so close around him.
Abruptly the stranger moved. He broke eye contact, inserting himself between her and the avid onlookers, murmuring something that made them reluctantly step away. He made the manoeuvre seem deceptively easy.
A minder of Wakefield's, she decided, still dazed by the inexplicable fizz of reaction that bubbled through her veins. She'd never felt anything like it before. And then to discover he worked for her enemy, was a yes-man to Charles Wakefield... The moment shattered in ridiculous disappointment.
Wakefield found his voice again, his smooth tone laced with a venom that demanded all her attention. She turned back to face the ire of the man she'd just accused.
"I'm afraid, Ms Lucchesi, you're completely in error." His eyes iced over and she shivered. "You shouldn't make such accusations when you don't know the facts." He lowered his voice. "That's slander, sweetheart. And it can be a costly mistake."
A cold, hard knot of fear plummeted through her stomach and she sucked in a gasping breath. What more did this man want? Blood? Hadn't he taken enough?
Dimly she realised that the tall bodyguard and Wakefield's assistant had moved the onlookers aside. Nearby people laughed and gossiped. But here, in this small circle of quiet, she stood alone. Face to face with the man who'd destroyed her brother's future and her own.
"I see you're having second thoughts about your accusation." Those wintry eyes regarded her steadily, and she read satisfaction in the slight curve of his mouth.
It was the look of a man who knew he'd won.
What the hell! He couldn't take anything else from her. There was nothing left to steal.
"No," she responded. "No second thoughts. You and I both know it's true. What else would you call duping an innocent out of his inheritance?"
To Marina's surprise, Wakefield cast a frowning glance at the imposing man beside them. Did he have qualms about airing his dirty linen in front of his staff? Surely his underlings were used to cleaning up the mess left behind by his dubious business practices?
"Ms Lucchesi." Wakefield spread his hands and offered the semblance of a smile. If it weren't for his eyes, as cold as a reptile's, she might have been taken in by it. "There's obviously been a misunderstanding,'he continued. "Your brother hasn't told you everything."
"So you admit to knowing Sebastian?"
He shrugged. "I remember him now. A very...impetuous young man. But hardly an innocent."
Not by the time you got your claws into him, she thought. "And you call it legitimate business practice to steal a prosperous company the way you did?"
She saw his sidelong look at the man to his right. "Come, come, Ms Lucchesi. Marina. It was hardly theft." He was denying it, damn him. Brazening it out. Marina clenched her fists at her sides so no one would see how they shook. She'd never hit anyone in her life. But now, face to face with this slick playboy, she was so close.
"You say it's normal commercial practice," she asked in a voice no longer her own, "to get a twenty-one-year-old so drunk he doesn't know what he's doing? Then get him to sign your legal documents?"
For a single shocked moment no one spoke or moved. Even the two men flanking Wakefield seemed to stiffen. Then he spoke, as smoothly and patiently as if reasoning with a child. "Your brother obviously knew you'd be upset and didn't give you the full picture."
"That's a lie! I know exactly what happened and—"
A deep voice interrupted before she could get into her stride. "Surely this isn't the time or the place, Charles? Why not take this somewhere more discreet?" It was the bodyguard who spoke and, despite her anger, Marina couldn't ignore the responsive shimmer of deep-seated excitement as his words seemed to roll across her skin.
Wakefield scowled. "And give this lunatic accusation any more credibility? Thanks for the suggestion, but I can take care of my own business."
"Like you've taken care of Ms Lucchesi's?" came the dry response.
Marina stared at the man who dared to interrupt the tycoon. One of his dark eyebrows rose in a slashing line of enquiry as he stared down at his boss. His square jaw was tensed but his tone had been mild. He didn't seem at all fazed by the fact that he'd just taken issue with his furious employer.
Whoever the guy was, he didn't scare easily. Charles Wakefield had looked at her with dislike. But it was nothing compared to the naked hatred in his eyes as he glared at the man beside them. "I'll thank you to keep out of this, Carlisle. The woman's misguided, but I can handle it." He looked over Marina's shoulder, not even sparing her a glance. "Ah, here's the chief of security now."
"No need for that," said the man, Carlisle. "I'll escort Ms Lucchesi."
Like hell he would! She still had plenty more to say to Charles Wonderboy Wakefield.
"No way! I'm not finished yet." Incensed, she glared up at the man beside her. "If you think you can keep me quiet about what he's done you're dead wrong."
Slowly he shook his head, and she thought she saw understanding in his eyes. Maybe he didn't always like doing his job, but that wouldn't stop him performing his duty. That much was obvious from his determined face and the implacable set of his broad shoulders.
"It's not a matter of keeping you quiet," he said, dropping his voice and moving close so that the heat of his body radiated against hers. "You can't win this now. Not here, like this."
There was a bustle of movement and Marina tore her gaze away to take in the group of thickset men in dark suits that closed in to circle them. Charles Wakefield was already talking in an undertone to their leader.
"Official security," said the man beside her, nodding at the newcomers, who seemed all brawn and muscle. "You've got a choice now. You can let them frogmarch you out of here as an intruder. They'll probably hold you till the police come to investigate Wakefield's complaint that you're trespassing or disturbing the peace."
He paused, his gaze holding hers. "Or you can leave with me."
As if she could trust him. He was Wakefield's man. And, more than that, her sixth sense warned her not to take him at face value. He was up to something.
Outraged, Marina spun round, but another dark suit blocked her view. Piggy little eyes stared back blankly at her from a face that gave nothing away.
Carlisle was right. Wakefield would have her tossed out. It wouldn't do to upset his guests with anything as unflattering as the details of her story.
"I can promise to get you out of here with your dignity intact." Carlisle's low voice whispered in her ear and she felt the seductive temptation of his words.
Escape. Solitude. Safety. They beckoned strongly.
But she had to resist their lure. This would be her only chance to confront Wakefield and she had to try again, no matter what the consequences.
She shook her head, then felt a large hand close on her elbow. Carlisle's touch was light but insistent as he bent again to feather words against her ear.