Read an Excerpt
Kayla's features paled as consternation meshed with disbelief, then magnified into a sense of dread.
"You think it was easy for me to go to Duardo Alvarez and beg?" Defensive anger rose to the surface, and something else...rage.
Jacob's words fell with hammer-like pain, and for a few brief seconds she hovered between retaliatory anger and despair.
The mention of his name was enough to send ice slithering down the length of her spine.
Bad boy made good, now billionaire entrepreneur with homes in several major cities around the world.
Her ex-husband...and the last person on earth likely to help her, or her brother.
"Why in hell would you do that?" 'I had no choice!'Jacob's expression revealed a torment that twisted her stomach muscles into a painful ball.
Oh, dear God.
The last time she'd seen her ex-husband had been at her father's funeral. A deeply sorrowful occasion with few genuine mourners, several curiosity-seekers...and she'd been too stunned with shocked grief to do anything other than act on autopilot.
She hadn't had contact with Duardo since. Didn't want any.
"Dammit, Jacob! How could you?"
He didn't answer. But then he had no need.
And right now there was no time for further argument or castigation. In nine minutes she had to catch a train into the city. Or be late.
Kayla caught up her jacket, slung the strap of her bag over one shoulder and turned towards him. "We'll continue this discussion later."
Jacob offered a slip of paper. "Duardo's number. Call him by midday."
Hell would freeze over first. "Please." Jacob's eyes were dark,desperate, and she pocketed the number.
"You ask too much." Way too much. More than she could give.
Without a further word she left the small two-bedroom walk-up for the hard inner-city pavement in one of the city's less salubrious suburbs. Old terraced houses lined the street, each in various stages of decay and neglect.
A far cry from her former life. Five years ago the Enright-Smythe family had numbered high among Sydney's rich and famous. Kayla, at twenty-two, held a degree in business management and had took out a handsome salary for a token position in the 'firm'.
A member of the 'young social-set," she attended every party in town, spent an outrageous sum on clothes, traveled, and was seen on the arm of a different man every week.
Until Duardo Alvarez entered the field. In his mid-thirties and cloaked in sophistication, on the rise within the city's financial sector, his youthful past hinted at association with the shady underbelly of New York.
He was everything Kayla's parents didn't want for their only daughter.
All the more reason, in her year of tilting at windmills, coupled with boredom, for deliberately setting Duardo in her sights.
He excited her. So, too, did a sense of the forbidden. Winning him over became a game. Holding him off took enormous self-restraint. She succeeded, and in a moment of sheer madness she accepted his proposal to fly to Hawaii and marry him.
Seventy-two hours later the marriage was over. Courtesy of Benjamin Enright-Smythe's ultimatum and her mother's death...a heart attack which put Blanche Enright-Smythe into Intensive Care and took her life.
A tragic loss for which Benjamin attributed the blame to his daughter, referring privately and publicly to the marriage as Kayla's folly.
Her father's denunciation speared a stake through Kayla's heart and left her racked with guilt at the thought that her whirlwind marriage might have contributed to Blanche's death. Confidante and friend, Blanche had always been there for her, frequently acting as a calming buffer between two clashing personalities...Benjamin's arrogance and Kayla's defiance.
In the devastating numbness that followed Blanche's funeral, she stood at her father's side, comforted Jacob and somehow managed to get through each day. Wanting, needing the comfort of the one man who could help ease her grief...her husband.
Medical results indicated Blanche had been dealing with heart disease for some time, evidence Benjamin refused to accept in his demented quest to wreak revenge on the man he blamed for Blanche's death.
It proved a heart-wrenching time, with divided loyalties whittling away at Kayla's emotional heart. She was painfully aware of Benjamin's fragile mental state and Jacob's need for comfort and stability.
How could she give her personal life priority at such a time?
Yet how long could she expect Duardo to be patient? Benjamin's ultimatum--Leave this house, and you'll never be welcome inside it again--almost tore her in two.
Family. Something her mother had considered to be sacrosanct.
Except Benjamin was hell-bent on denigration, dredging up written proof that acquisition of the Enright-Smythe empire was part of Duardo's agenda. And that Kayla had merely been a pawn in his game plan.
That day something within her withered and died. She refused Duardo's calls, acceded to her father's demands that Duardo be forbidden entry to the family home.
Then Duardo issued an ultimatum of his own. Choose. Your husband or your family.
She didn't utter so much as a word beneath Benjamin's torrent of anger. Instead, she slid off her wedding band and handed it to the man whose name she'd taken as her own. And watched him turn and walk away.
Then she witnessed, in the ensuing months, Duardo Alvarez's acquisition of the Enright-Smythe business empire, with Duardo now firmly labeled a predator with one goal in mind.
Absent was the desire to party, and Kayla's friends gradually gave up issuing invitations as she refused each and every one of them. The association with frivolity and flirtatious fun seemed firmly embedded in pain. The kind of pain she never wanted to suffer again in her lifetime.
The only social occasions she attended were those instigated by her father: dull, boring business dinners where she was forced to watch Benjamin's decline among his peers.
Within a year, the firm of Enright-Smythe held a list of unfulfilled contracts, union problems, and was the subject of a takeover bid by none other than Duardo Alvarez.
By then everything had been auctioned off...the family home, staff, the Bentley, her mother's jewellery, works of art.
The media made much of it at the time.
Benjamin proceeded to gamble his way into bankruptcy, only to compound his fall from grace by committing suicide. This tragic act devastated Kayla and sent Jacob into a downward spiral of despair.
For the past three years she'd worked her day job, waitressing in a local restaurant five hours each night and on weekends in an effort to keep a roof over their heads and help pay off a mountain of debt.
Jacob put in similar hours, quitting university at nineteen and abandoning all hope of entering medical school.
Yet it wasn't enough. It would never be enough.And the money-lenders were closing in. No thanks to her brother, who in an act of desperation had played the casino, and lost.
Forget the banks, she had no collateral. Everything she'd owned of any worth had been sold. And her working hours were at a maximum.
The entrance to the subway loomed, and she rode the escalator, saw the train and watched with a sense of fatalism as it pulled away from the station.
A hollow laugh rose and died in her throat.
How much worse could the day get?
It was unwise to tempt Fate, even in humour. Add cynicism, and it could turn round and bite you, Kayla reflected as she dealt with irate phone calls, negotiated a peaceful solution between two aggressive staff members and soothed a client who threatened to take his business elsewhere unless his demands were met.
Yoghurt and fruit eaten at her desk sufficed as lunch, and the afternoon involved a series of meetings, both in-house and via conference calls.
It was after five when she shut down the laptop, relieved this part of the day was over.
Not the night, Kayla reflected wearily as she collected her bag and slung the strap over one shoulder.
A forty-five-minute time-frame was all she had in which to catch a train and report for work at an Italian restaurant in her local shopping centre. Working there offered the bonus of supplying her with a meal, usually eaten on the run between serving customers, and it was within walking distance of home.
The phone on her desk rang, and she hesitated over answering it. Whoever it was, she decided as she picked up the handset, she'd give them two minutes, tops, then she was out the door.
"Thank God I caught you," a familiar male voice breathed in relief.
"Jacob?" Something was wrong. She could sense it, almost feel it.
"I won't be home tonight." His voice was jerky. "Hospital. Smashed kneecap."
"Which hospital?" She stifled an inaudible groan as he cited one on the other side of the city. "I'll be there as soon as I can." 'Call Duardo, Kayla. I don't need to spell out why." Ice ran through her veins as he cut the connection.
A smashed kneecap as a warning? What next, broken ribs, damaged kidneys, wrecked spleen? How long would the thugs wait before they meted out another lesson? A few days? A week?
Her financial situation wasn't going to change. Heaven knew how long it would take for Jacob to return to work. Without his wages to complement her own, together with a swathe of medical bills...it was hopeless.
Kayla closed her eyes, then opened them again.
The slip of paper Jacob had handed her this morning was in her jacket pocket. She retrieved it, punched in the series of digits and waited for Duardo to answer.
What if he knew where she worked, and recognized the number on caller ID? Worse, what if he chose not to pick up?
The sound of his voice curled round her nerve-ends, tugged a little and almost robbed her of the ability to speak.
"It's Kayla." Oh, dear heaven, how could she go through with this?
His silence seemed to reverberate down the line. "I need your help."
Would he agree, or sever communication? "My office." He gave precise directions. "Ten minutes." And he ended the call.
She reconnected, only to have the call go to voicemail. He was pulling her strings. It irked unbearably that he could. Dammit. She had the irresistible urge to throw something, preferably at him.
Given it was impossible for her to be in three different places at once, she rang the restaurant, relayed the reason why she'd be late, promised to be there as soon as she could and listened to a heated response.
It was all she needed right now to be in the firing line of rapidly spoken Italian ire, soothed only in conclusion by expressed sympathy for her brother's accident.
Kayla emerged onto the pavement and cast an eye at the leaden sky. Rain, why don't you? Make my day!
Almost in direct response, the first raindrops fell. Great big fat ones, increasing with a speed and intensity that showed no intention of abating any time soon.
Great. So now she'd face her ex-husband looking very much like a drowned rat.
The price of an evening newspaper helped ward off the worst of the downpour, and some ten minutes later she entered the impressive marble lobby of one of the city's glass and steel architecturally designed office buildings, ditched the sodden paper and rode the lift to the top floor.
Alvarez Holdings occupied an executive suite, which at first sight appeared to cover the entire floor, Kayla perceived as she took in the thick tinted glass, luxurious fittings, furnishings and the latest technology.
A perfectly groomed young woman manned Reception. Moonlighting as a model for Vogue?
Stop with the cynicism.
Image, she reminded herself, was everything, and Duardo Alvarez could afford whatever image he chose to project on planet Earth.
"Kayla Smythe." She'd left off the preceding hyphenated Enright some time ago. "I have an appointment with--" she hesitated fractionally. This was business, not personal--"Mr Alvarez.