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'Over my dead body!' Daniel Caruana hadn't made it past the first paragraph of his sister's email before he crumpled the printout in his fist and hurled it in fury at the closest wall. Monica marrying Jake Fletcher? No way in the world!
Not if he had anything to do with it!
Too wound up to sit, too agitated to stand still, he gave in to the need to pace, his long strides eating up length after length of his sprawling office's floor, while his restless hands took turns clawing though his hair. By his side, full-height windows took full advantage of the view of a white, sandy palm-lined beach and the azure sea that glinted under the tropical Far North Queensland sun.
Daniel saw nothing of it.
Daniel saw only red.
Whatever had possessed him to allow Monica to study in Brisbane? So far from Cairns, so far away from his influence. And clearly nowhere near far enough away from the grasping hands of Jake Fletcher.
He stopped pacing, his mind making connections that sent ice floes careening down his spine. Fletcher had called twice this week out of the blue, leaving messages for Daniel to call back, messages Daniel had brushed aside like he was swiping at an annoying insect needling at his skin. For he had no desire to speak to Fletcher ever again. Had no purpose.
But now it appeared Fletcher had purposeif only to gloat
Bile rose in his throat, its bitter taste the perfect accompaniment to his mindset. Please God, not Fletcher.
Please God, not his sister.
Especially after what had happened before.
Daniel leaned his forehead against the glass and closed his eyes, a vision remaining of a girl with laughing blue eyes and a sweet, sweet smile.
As long as he drew breath, he would not forget Emma.
Nor what Jake Fletcher had done to her!
He opened his eyes and gazed far out to where the cerulean sea met the sky, searching for answers and solutions. Ordinarily the picture-postcard view was a sight that inspired him. Cheered him. Even, on occasion, soothed his fractured nerves.
Today all that sun-drenched perfection only served to mock the storm-tossed contents of his mind.
He slammed one palm against the glass. Damnnot Monica! He'd barely seen off Monica's last so-called boyfriend, an effort that had left him twenty-thousand dollars poorer on the deal. Small change, given what the jerk might have held out for if he'd done his homework a little more thoroughly and found out what his girlfriend was really worth.
Fletcher, on the other hand, probably knew how much the Caruana fortune was worth down to every last cent. Twenty-thousand dollars would be nowhere near enough to deter his kind, especially not now he probably imagined he was practically family.
No way. His fingers pressed hard against the glass, as rigid as his resolve. As long as Daniel had any say in it, Jake Fletcher would never be family.
Fletcher wouldn't come cheapthere was no doubt of thatbut everyone had their price, and whatever it took to free Monica of his poison influence would be worth it.
The phone on his desk buzzed behind him. Daniel scowled at the interruptionsurely his empire could cope for just ten minutes without him? Then he reached for it. After all, he hadn't taken the Caruana name from the brink of financial disaster to its dizzy heights by ignoring his businesses, whatever the reason.
He would deal with Fletchernothing was surerbut he would not lower his game in the process. His hand snatched up the receiver. 'What?'
A moment's hesitation met his retort, a moment in which he remembered it was a temp sitting outside and not his usual indestructible PA.
'Mr Caruana?' she squeaked. 'There's a Missa Miss Turner here to see you.'
His scowl deepened and for a second the problem of Fletcher took a back seat. He couldn't remember anything about any Miss Turner. 'Who?'
'Sophie Turner: from One Perfect Day.'
The name made no sense to him but he was used to people trying to talk their way into his office, looking for favours, or more frequently cash contributions towards shaky business-plans the banks had already turned down. This Miss Sophie Turner was no doubt another of their ilk. 'Never heard of her. Get rid of her.' He slammed the phone back down, annoyed again with the unnecessary interruption when he had important things on his mind.
Even more annoyed when the phone buzzed a second time not thirty seconds later. 'What is it this time?' he growled into the mouthpiece, unforgiving at the interruption, even if the girl didn't know better.
Her voice sounded even more timid. 'Miss Turner says it should have been in the email your sister sent you. All the details about her visit were apparently there.'
'You did read it?' the temp continued apologetically, a crack in her voice; she sounded as if any moment she would burst into tears. 'It was on your desk. I printed it out especially.'
That email? His eyes crossed to the crumpled ball of paper that had come to rest in a corner of the room. He hadn't got past the casual bombshell Moni had dropped that she intended to marry the one man he had reason to hate with a passion. How the hell was he expected to absorb anything more?
'Hold on,' he said, dropping the phone down on the desk and crossing the office floor in long, purposeful strides. He swept up the ball of paper and unscrewed it, flattening it against his broad palm. The paragraph stared out at him, the same one that had turned his vision red scant minutes before:
Daniel, please be excited for me. I thought I was sworn off men for ever, especially after being dumped for the third time in quick succession, but then I met Jake Fletcher and the last few weeks couldn't have been more perfect. He treats me like an absolute princess and he's asked me to be his wife, and I've said yes.
No; his mind revolted. Never! He closed his eyes, the same rush of anger winning supremacy over his veins, the same flood of revulsion as the first time. Little wonder he'd been unable to bring himself to read the rest. His fingers ached to crumple the page into a tight ball once more, but this time he took a deep breath, willed his eyes open and read on.
I know you two never used to get on in the past, and maybe that's why you didn't return Jake's calls last week, but I'm hoping you can put the past behind you when you see how much we love each other.
Put the past behind you? A thousand snapshots of a young woman's bright smile formed a moving slide-show through his consciousness. How was he ever supposed to put the past behind him when she would never get to see another day?
I know it's sudden but I want you to be among the first to know our happy news and just how much we love each other. It's the real thing this time, I know.
Daniel snorted his contempt. The real thing? He had no doubt Fletcher thought it the real thing, but if he was in love with anything it was the Caruana fortune. When would his sister ever learn that that was all men wanted? Especially men like Fletcher.
But she'd soon see the light, just as she had before, just as soon as he'd dispensed with this latest in a long line of gold-diggers whose so-called love didn't extend past her trust fund.
I wish I could give you this news personally, but you were in transit, and now Jake is whisking me off to Honolulu for two weeks for a surprise engagement present and there simply wasn't time to get a connection through Cairns to meet up before we left.
He growled, the fingers of his free hand curling and uncurling into a fist; bile wasn't the only bitter taste that filled his mouth. The thought of his little sister with him made him want to catch the next flight to Honolulu and drag her back before the bastard got her pregnant.
Or was that his intentionTo make this marriage a done deal before the ceremony?
Daniel shook his head. It would take more than a baby before this marriage went ahead. The fires of hell would freeze over before he let someone like Fletcher marry his sister.
Monica was twenty-one now, so physically dragging her back was hardly an option, but there was no way he was going to stand by and let her get cornered into this marriage. Not by a long shot. He glanced down at the last few lines.
So instead I've arranged for our wedding planner to visit you. Her name is Sophie Turner and she's already much more than a friend. Will fill you in on the details later.
Meanwhile, be nice to her!
His sister had signed off with a promise to send a postcard from Waikiki Beach, but that wasn't what held his attention. It was the 'be nice to her'.
What did his sister take him forsome kind of monster?
He wasn't a monster. He was a businessman and a brother: a brother who had his eye out to protect his little sister from those who sought to take advantage of both her and the family fortune.
He was careful. Cautious. Protective of his own.
Did that make him such a monster?
Of course he'd see this Sophie Turner. And he'd be nice, just as his sister had requested. He'd invite her in, listen to her spiel and then he'd set her straight.
Because her services would not be required. As long as he drew breath, there would be no wedding between his sister and the likes of Jake Fletcher.
He picked up the receiver that lay abandoned on his office desk.
'Send Miss Turner in.'
Sophie perched uneasily on the edge of the waiting-room chair, the leather portfolio that contained all the details of Monica and Jake's wedding resting on her knees. She couldn't help but notice the bloom of pink spread over the young PA's cheeks as reluctantly she placed the second call to her boss in less than a minute. Clearly what she'd read on the Internet about Daniel Caruana's take-no-prisoners reputation extended beyond his business rivals and his girlfriends to his staff; the girl looked petrified.
Sophie might have felt guilty at insisting the girl call again and explain, but she wasn't about to waste an entire day travelling from Brisbane to Cairns and back again for no good reasonnot when Monica had told her today's meeting had been all arranged and how much they were both relying on her.
'Oil on the waters', Jake had labelled her role, not exactly imbuing her with confidence. Apparently Daniel was super-protective of his little sister, having practically raised her since their parents had died, so of course he'd take the news of Monica's plans with less than enthusiasm. Especially given Jake and Daniel hadn't exactly hit if off back in high school, which Jake had admitted when attempting to explain why Daniel might not have bothered to answer his calls.
Something seriously wrong had gone on between them, Sophie mused, if Daniel wouldn't even speak to him. Her suggestion had been for Jake and Monica to visit Daniel themselves, given he could hardly refuse to see Jake if Monica was with him, but Monica had come up with what she thought was a more diplomatic solution.
She'd break the news to her brother in an email and then the to-be-weds would disappear for two weeks while Sophie ran through the wedding arrangements with Daniel. By the time the happy couple returned from Hawaii, Sophie would have everything arranged and Daniel would have come to terms with the idea that his little sister was a grown woman, old enough to make her own decisions about getting married and to whom.
It was simple, Monica had told her.
Monica had hugged her tight and thanked her. She'd looked so hopeful, if not half-desperate, this bride-to-be who wanted everything to be absolutely perfect, Sophie had swallowed back all her arguments that it should be them visiting Daniel and ironing out any problems face to face, and had nodded her agreement instead.
Now it seemed a crazy idea. Conscious of time spinning away while the PA waited for a response, she clamped down on the bubble of nervousness that had her suddenly fidgeting with the folder perched on her knees.
Failsafe? She wished she could be so sure. Anyone who could put the fear of God into his receptionist with just a word or two was hardly likely to be the pushover Monica imagined her brother to be. But she supposed she had to meet the man some time, especially given they were practically related.
How ironic. She'd always wanted family; reconnecting with Jake after all their years apart had been amazing, even if it had taken their mother's death to get the siblings back together. Now it looked like her tiny family was set to expand. Monica was a sweetheart. The two of them had hit it off from the first time they'd met, and she couldn't imagine a nicer sister-in-law.
But somehow the prospect of being Daniel's sister-in-law didn't come with quite the same thrill. That was the down side of families, she supposed: you didn't always get to choose your relatives.
What was taking the man so long? Impatiently she crossed and uncrossed her ankles, unclipping the portfolio to check its contents were all present and correct before snapping it shut without having registered a thing. Damn the man and his arrogance! If he'd just bothered to talk to her brother, she wouldn't have to be here at all.
The girl shrugged apologetically at Sophie's questioning glance, and Sophie sighed and turned her attention out of the full-length windows to where the palm-fringed, sandy shore met the Coral Sea. Some PA's office, she thought. It was a million times better than her own office in Brisbane which boasted not even a sniff of river view between the multi-storey office blocks. Maybe there were compensations for working for the boss from hell. At least his PA had a decent view between the no-doubt frequent ear-bashings.
'Mr Caruana will see you now.'
Sophie jumped, her insides lurching at the announcement, and not entirely with relief. Sure, she'd got what she'd come here foradmittance to the hallowed inner sanctum for an audience with Mr High and Mightybut there was no sudden burst of enthusiasm at the prospect. The time he'd taken to make up his mind was hardly welcoming, and if it was up to her she'd like nothing better than to turn and snub one Daniel Caruana's churlish and clearly reluctant agreement.
But this wasn't about her.