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The cold rose up from the ground, seeping through Antonia's boots and into her bloodstream as she stood, immobile. Icy air stung her cheeks and caught the back of her throat when she breathed.
Through her dark glasses she surveyed the others. The minister's cheeks were apple-red, and his breath as he spoke came out in white puffs. Most of the small gathering had reddened noses from the crisp wind that swirled flurries of white around their ankles. Antonia watched as they surreptitiously shifted their feet, trying to keep warm.
Stuart Dexter stood farthest away, two spots of colour painting his aristocratic cheeks. She should be furious he was here, but she didn't have the energy even for that.
It was easier to study the mourners than to absorb the minister's sonorous words. The flow of Swiss German was intended to soothe, yet Antonia found no comfort in his platitudes. Despite the coffin being lowered into the dark hole at her feet, she felt divorced from the proceedings.
Her dad wasn't here. Not in that cramped box. She blinked, almost expecting to hear some whispered aside from him, as if he leaned over her shoulder. Some thoroughly outrageous statement, inappropriate but inevitably witty, that would make her lips tilt into a reluctant smile despite the solemnity of the occasion.
She swallowed a sudden constriction in her throat as she reminded herself she wouldn't hear his voice again.
Her beloved, full-of-life, ready-for-anything, daredevil of a father was gone. He'd left her alone.
Guilt clutched her heart. She'd failed him miserably. This was her fault.
The chill of the Swiss churchyard was nothing to the deep freeze inside Antonia's body. The cold that spread out from her bones and her heart was every bit as frigid as the air temperature.
Six days since the accident. She was used to the numbness noweven found comfort in it. For she suspected if her heart were to thaw the pain would be unbearable.
She lifted her gaze to the clear alpine sky. Beyond the village Antonia saw the steep white slope of a mountain. Could even make out a zigzag of road, snow poles marking its edges. From here she couldn't see the spot where the car had skidded, slid, and then tumbled down the slope.
A tremor shuddered through her and swiftly she averted her eyes.
Movement caught her attention on the other side of the churchyard. She peered at the figure, now motionless in the blue-black shadow of the church.
He didn't approach, but she sensed his intense regard. The height, the breadth of shoulder, his stance, proclaimed him a man at the height of his vigour. He stood straight and tall. Even from this distance she sensed power, strength, and a solidity that told her he would never meld easily into a crowd.
He moved into the sunlight and Antonia frowned. She'd seen that face before, just last week. The evening this nightmare had begun.
She'd agreed to meet Stuart Dexter alone, to discuss his concerns about her father, opting for the safety of a popular bar instead of sharing a meal in his suite. Yet in the quiet foyer he'd groped her, sliding his hands over her as he helped her with her jacket, urging her back to his place for a private 'party'.
Bile rose to her mouth as she remembered the smell of his vodka-laden breath, hot against her face, his heavy hand grasping at her breast.
And over his shoulder the face of this man. A disturbing sky-blue gaze had locked on the pair of them as the stranger's severe features drew tight in supercilious distaste. His eyebrows had crammed together in a black smudge of disapproval.
For an instant she'd thought he was going to flatten Stuart as he grabbed at her and she fought to keep them both upright against his unsteady weight. Stuart had been pawing at her bra by the time she'd finally forced him away.
By that time the stranger had vanished.
What was he doing here today?
His brows were tilted in a V. With his night-dark hair, long black coat and the stark lines of his face accentuated by the slanting morning light, he looked like a disapproving angel, come to supervise her father's interment.
A bubble of something that might have been hysteria rose, threatening her composure. Her dad had joked that he'd never make it through the pearly gates. Despite the wonderful things he'd achieved, he said he'd made too many mistakes and enjoyed life far too much.
Something about the stranger's smouldering intensity, the forbidding set of his jaw and his utterly still posture was uncanny, catching her breath in her raw throat.
He was no angel. That firm, sculpted mouth spoke of experience, not innocence. And despite his dour expression Antonia had seen in an instant that he was the sort of man who'd draw women like a magnet.
The sound of the minister clearing his throat attracted Antonia's attention. He was winding up the service, watching her expectantly. She forced herself to look down into the chasm at her feet, to the coffin lying at the bottom.
For a moment roiling emotions stirred deep inside. Her eyes prickled hot with the threat of tears.
Then, mercifully, the permafrost of numbness closed round her again. Wherever her father was, it wasn't here.
Bending quickly, she scraped up a little gravel and let it fall. The sound of it spattering against wood was loud in the still ness. Final.
Abruptly she turned and shook the minister's hand, thanking him in flawless German for the service. Then, without waiting to talk to any of the others present, she strode off towards the street.
She felt their eyes on her as she left. Heard their murmurs. And on the bare flesh of her nape a prickling sensation teased her, made her falter in mid-stride.
Antonia didn't turn round. An atavistic sense told her what it was: reaction to the stranger's laser-sharp stare.
Some people liked to gawk. Well, let him. She was beyond caring about anyone else right now.
'Ms Malleson, excuse me.'
Antonia paused, unbuttoning her coat, and looked across to the concierge's desk in a corner of the lobby.
'Herr Weber.' Not the concierge but the manager. She nodded and summoned a vague smile for the man who had been so kind and helpful this past week. 'How are you?'
'Very good, thank you.' His voice had lost its appealing local burr and he spoke formally, with a precision totally unlike his usual warm manner. 'Could we talk, please? Privately.'
He looked uncomfortable. The determined set of his mouth was at odds with his normally ready smile.
Instantly Antonia's brain clicked to alert. It was fourteen years since her mother's deaththat dreadful time when her father had gone off the rails. But Antonia remembered it vividly. Her father's restless energy, the reckless expenditureas if he'd been trying to hide his grief in a whirl of new faces and fast living.
Some things stayed with you. Even after all this time Antonia knew instantly the look of a creditor about to demand payment in full. Polite, but worried. Unwilling to broach the unpleasant subject, but grimly determined.
How long had they been here? Frantically she calculated the rate for the suite her father had insisted on and the money left in her account. The result wasn't pretty, but she knew better than to let her concern show.
Damn! She should have been prepared. But in the last few days nothing had seemed to matter. She'd gone through the motions of everyday life in a weird vacuum, barely noticing what went on around her.
'Of course, Herr Weber.' She curved her lips into a more convincing smile as she walked towards the open office door he'd indicated. 'I wanted to speak with you too. I'll be leaving here soon and I'd like to see the account.'
'Ah.' That was definitely relief in his round brown eyes. 'As you wish, Ms Malleson. I understand that you will want to go home now that '
Now that her father had been buried.
For an instant fierce emotion gripped her heart, squeezing so hard she almost cried out from the pain. Her face froze in rictus paralysis. It took a supreme effort to force the smile back in place.
'That's right,' she murmured at last, her voice husky. 'It's time I went home.'
No need to share the fact that she didn't have a home. That the closest thing she'd had to one in fourteen years had been an English boarding school.
Home had been wherever her dad was. And now.
Herr Weber lowered his voice to a whisper. 'I'm sorry to bother you at this time, Ms Malleson, but I've been fielding calls from a number of businesses. I took it upon myself to say you couldn't be contacted yet, but'
'It's all right, Herr Weber, I understand.' Her heart plunged. Not just the hotel, then. How many accounts had her father run up?
Suddenly it all clicked into place.
Antonia had been away when her father had received his latest cardiologist's report. She was sure now it had been worse news than expected. Of course her father had kept that to himself. She'd known something was wrong, her father hadn't been himself, but she'd let him reassure her.
Pain twisted low in her stomach.
She should have realised.
She reached out to touch the manager's arm reassuringly. The poor man looked so guilty. It wasn't his fault Gavin Malleson had started living extravagantly beyond his means again. Just like in his youth, when he'd been the darling of the jet set, and again when grief for his wife had set him on a downward spiral.
Antonia nodded to the worried man beside her. 'I'm afraid that with my father's accident I've been remiss in settling his accounts.'
'That's completely understandable, Ms Malleson.' The manager bowed his head in a courtly gesture and motioned for her to precede him into his office.
As he closed the door behind them Antonia spied a flicker of movement in the far corner of the foyer. The swing of a black coat, the sure stride of long legs.
The stranger from the funeral.
Her heart hit a faltering beat and then resumed its rhythm. Antonia wondered about the coincidence of seeing him here, in her hotel. Then the door shut and she forced herself to focus on more immediate problems.
* * *
Rafe watched the door close discreetly behind them.
So that confirmed it. His first instinct about her had been right. She was short of cash, so she played on her beauty, flashing those dark velvet eyes and cosying up to a man old enough to be her father in order to manoeuvre her way out of trouble. There'd been no mistaking the intimate warmth of her smile, or her hand on the manager's arm, the subtle invitation of her soft, throaty voice as she agreed to a private meeting.
Disappointment tasted bitter on Rafe's tongue. And that fuelled his anger. Surely he'd learned all he needed to about avaricious women in the years since he'd made the rich list? He'd been the target of too many gold-diggers, using every trick they could find to snare his interest.
Had he been foolish enough to hope Antonia Malleson was different? One look had made him want to believe that cool, classic beauty was more than skin deep.
Rafe had seen her and instantly wanted her, craved her with a hunger that had stopped him in his tracks. He'd been in the act of shouldering his way to where she stood alone when someone had joined her. A man he knew only too well. Stuart Dexter: twice her age and with a reputation that would keep decent women away. His girlfriends all had one thing in commona mercenary streak that overcame the revulsion they must feel in his bed.
Since then Rafe had gathered details about this woman who still, to his chagrin, drew his gaze and heated his blood. She lived a life of pleasure, trailing from one expensive resort to another. Obviously she had no qualms about trading on her looks to secure a wealthy lover. Only last week Rafe had seen her and Dexter at a nightclub known for its ready supply of designer drugs. She'd let Dexter half undress her as they'd swayed drunkenly together.
No, she was as shallow as the rest of that crowd. Self-absorbed and greedy.
Just like Stuart Dexter.
Rafe's long-lost, not-at-all-lamentedfather.
When Rafe had seen her at the graveside this morning, pale and still and composed, she'd been like an ice princess, aloof and remote. As if the loss of her father meant nothing to her. He'd wondered if it could be true what the gossips said: that she was cold at heart. No lasting relationship with a man. No host of female friends.
Then he'd looked more closely. Had that been a hint of vulnerability behind her reserve? She'd looked brittle, as if she held back her grief only by desperate self-control.
And even then Rafe had wanted her.
The hunger he'd felt when he'd first seen her had morphed now into a blood-deep need. Its impact still rocked him, like a pounding blow to the chest.
Lust shouldn't be on his agenda. He had other, more important things on his mind.
Rafe hadn't understood the compulsion to follow her from the churchyard. He'd told himself he wanted to stretch his legs as he walked up the road to the hotel, leaving his rental car behind. It had nothing to do with unwilling concern for a girl who looked to be deep in shock.
But what he'd just seen had dispelled that illusion.
Rafe eyed the closed door to the manager's office and felt a twist of revulsion in the pit of his belly. Obviously the fact that she'd just buried her father meant little to her. Certainly not enough to prevent her playing manipulative games for her own ends.
He turned on his heel and strode out through the entrance.
The cold, distant look he'd seen on her face in the graveyard summed her up. She wasn't suffering from shock or grief at all.
Antonia Malleson had shown her true colours. And in doing so she'd provided him with a perfect weapon. He had no compunction about using it to his own advantage. The bonus would be the personal satisfaction he'd derive from turning the tables on the beautiful little gold digger.
'I'm sorry, Ms Malleson. Your father's annuity ended with his death. There will be no more payments.'
Antonia sat rigidly upright beside the writing desk. This wasn't news, she told herself. It merely confirmed what she'd suspected. All the same, it was a blow. Her fingers tightened around the receiver.
'I understand,' she said wearily. 'Thank you.'
'Of course,' her father's lawyer explained, in his carefully modulated tone, 'once probate is finalised, as Gavin Malleson's sole heir his assets will pass to you.'
His assets. That almost made her laugh.
Her dad had never been one to scrimp and save. He'd lived lavishly. And if ever there had been money to spare it had gone to the Claudia Benzoni Foundation, the charity he'd established twelve years ago to support victims of the rare cancer that had killed his beloved wife.