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Kain Gerard looked at his aunt with affection and exasperation. 'Not again!'
She bridled. 'It's not Brent's fault! He's just—'
'An idiot when it comes to women,' Kain supplied more than a little tersely. 'He falls violently in lust with the most unsuitable female in sight, showers her with gifts, promises her undying love, then wakes up one morning and realises he has nothing in common with her. Worse than that, she knows nothing about computers, which means he can't even hold a conversation with her. So he dumps her and she goes off and wails tearfully—and lucratively—to the media.'
'He just gets carried away,' Brent's mother protested weakly. 'He doesn't know what he really needs.'
Kain's brows rose. 'He seems to know exactly what he needs,' he said in his driest voice. Big breasts, long legs and a wet-lipped simper—those were Brent's criteria. 'Temporarily, anyway. Why are you concerned this time?'
'Kain, you—of all people!—know perfectly well he's just had a very well-publicised payout on his internet firm—more than twenty million dollars.' Amanda Gerard hesitated, before saying in a rush, 'And she's not his usual type. To start off with she's older than he is, and she's not a model or a game show hostess or a beauty contest winner.'
Kain's black brows met in a frown. 'So you think she's after the money.'
'Brent has a reputation for rather foolish generosity,' his mother said unwillingly.
'What evidence have you got that she's a shark?'
Not for the first time Amanda Gerard decided it was positively sinful that as well has being brilliant and inordinately successful, Kain should look like something out of a fantasy—six foot three, shoulders big enough for a couple of women to cry on, and the sort of lean, potent vitality that stopped any woman's breath.
Most men would have been more than content with that. But Kain also had perfect features, a mouth to send shivers down even her spine, and grey eyes that were a stunning contrast to olive skin and sable hair.
Brent was good-looking, but not even a doting mother's bias would allow her to put him in Kain's class.
She thrust a photograph at her nephew. 'Look.'
She watched that sexy, sculpted mouth compress and his eyes narrow into ice chips as he scanned the image. Finally he looked up. 'She's definitely a change from Brent's usual inamoratas. Who is she?'
'Sable Jane Martin.'
'Well, that's what she calls herself.' His aunt dismissed the pretentious name with a curled lip. 'She's at least five years older than Brent, and you'll notice she isn't hanging onto him or gazing worshipfully—or seductively—into his eyes,' Amanda pointed out, adding, 'And he speaks differently about her.'
'So what is the problem?' Kain was fond of the aunt who'd brought him up after his parents died, but he deplored her fierce, overprotective love for her only child.
He had no illusions about his cousin; Brent was spoilt. His open good looks—not to mention his assets—meant that most women succumbed to his laid-back approaches. Because he'd never had to work for a woman's notice he'd probably been intrigued by the cool, touch-me-not air of the one in the photograph.
A little impatiently he said, 'Perhaps this time he's found a normal woman—one he can actually have a conversation with.'
'Do you consider someone whose father was the town drunk normal?'
'That's hardly her fault.'
She grimaced. 'I know that, but you have to admit she probably has serious issues.'
'How do you know her father's an alcoholic?'
'He was—he's dead now. She comes from Hawkes Bay, from a little town quite close to Blossom McFarlane, so I rang Bloss and asked her if she knew the girl.'
Kain concealed a smile. His aunt's network of old school friends were affectionately known in the family as Amanda's mafia. And what did Blossom McFarlane tell you about her?'
His aunt gave him a suspicious glance. 'Bloss not only knew her, she'd felt sorry for her when she was growing up, even admired her for her loyalty to her deadbeat father. After he died she worked for an elderly solicitor for a few months, but there was some scandal.' His aunt hesitated, then said in a rush, 'Bloss said it was all very hush-hush, but she thought it involved stealing.'
Kain didn't like the sound of that. 'By Sable Martin?'
'Yes. Anyway, if she did steal anything she got off lightly. Nothing was ever done about it, but she left town under a cloud.'
Kain looked down at the woman standing beside Brent in the photograph, an enigmatic half-smile curling her lips. Unlike his cousin's previous girlfriends Sable Jane Martin didn't ooze sexuality, but Kain could see the attraction. That cool air was a challenge in itself; combine it with a sleekly elegant figure and a mouth that promised carnal delights galore, and Brent probably hadn't stood a chance.
Echoing his thoughts, Amanda said bitterly, 'Brent's already spent the best part of thirty thousand dollars on her.'
She paused, then made up her mind to tell him. A diamond ring.'
And that, Kain decided, he liked even less. 'Did he tell you that?'
'Of course he didn't. He must have bought it before he moved into that ridiculous penthouse, because the valuation documents came to my address.'
Mildly shocked, Kain asked, 'And you opened the letter?'
'I didn't even look at the address,' she told him indignantly. 'Well, not until after I picked myself up off the floor!'
Kain leaned back in his chair. 'So what do you want me to do?'
'I thought you could get someone from your security branch to look into this Sable person,' his aunt said, a little diffidently this time.
'My security men are paid to look after my business interests, not my personal ones.'
'I know, but in this case…' Her voice trailed away.
Kain gave her a sardonic smile. 'I'll get them to check. As an employer I can't approve of stealing.'
'And I thought you might make a play for her,' his aunt said in a rush.
'There's no one quite so ruthless as a devoted mother,' Kain said cynically. 'You must be seriously worried if you're prepared to sacrifice Brent's feelings as well as my time, my reputation, and his opinion of me.'
'Since when have you cared about what Brent thinks of you?' she shot back, flushing.
Actually, he valued his friendship with his cousin, but if this Sable Martin turned out to be a thief he was quite prepared to do what he could to protect Brent from any entanglement.
And if Kain had learned anything in his life it was that everything, even his aunt's affection, came with a price tag. 'I'll get back to you.'
She wasn't satisfied, but she knew when to stop pushing. Kain had given his word, and that meant it would be done. If there was anything at all suspicious in Sable Jane Martin's past, he'd soon know.
Narrowing his eyes, Kain looked over the heads of the crowd. Auckland's pre-Christmas racing carnival was in full swing; New Zealand's summer had swept into town, and, as well as the graceful thoroughbreds, elegant women in exquisite clothes were parading for an extremely attractive prize.
Kain's gaze homed in on the woman wearing a simple, superbly cut dress in soft dove-grey that contrasted with the pale purity of her skin and a black shimmer of hair beneath the frivolous hat. High heels emphasised long, glorious legs, and the silk clung to a narrow waist and curves that were alluring without being opulent. The only colour in the outfit was the true, vivid red of the lipstick that emphasised the woman's sultry mouth.
Definitely not Brent's usual type.
From just behind Kain a woman said, 'That's Maire Faris's entry. It's superb, but she won't win.'
'Too restrained,' her companion agreed. 'The judges always go for feathers and tulle and lots of overt glamour at these events. Who's the model?'
Kain didn't try to resist the temptation to eavesdrop. Although they were a few paces away from him the women's voices—sharpened by a little too much of the freely available champagne—reached him clearly.
'Mark Russell's secretary. You know, the Russell Charitable Foundation.'
'She looks far too decadent for such a worthy institution—well, stuffy is probably a better word for it.'
The woman was right; Sable Jane Martin certainly didn't look as though she spent her days dealing with the poor and needy of the world.
'Oh, well,' the other woman said with a gurgle of laughter, 'I suppose even such an upright, philanthropic citizen as Mark Russell likes something good to look at in the office.'
Indeed, Kain thought sardonically. Eyes narrowing, he scanned the face of the woman they were discussing. The demure outfit couldn't mask a subtle, exotic sensuality that made the other women on the dais fade into the background.
Kain's mouth thinned. Brent, he thought mordantly, you're in real trouble with this one.
His security check had come up with a very nasty scandal. Like most workplace scandals it had been covered up, but Sable Jane Martin had been in it right up to her very pretty neck.
Once a thief, always a thief…
And blackmail was the most despicable of thefts, especially in this case. A man had killed himself because of it.
Somebody had to chisel Sable Jane Martin out of his too-impressionable cousin's life before she got her greedy hands on his money and broke his heart.
Getting Brent out of the way had been reasonably easy; Kain had pulled strings to offer him the trip of a lifetime, crewing on a barquentine that was recreating a famous nineteenth century voyage of discovery. However, if things got brutal and basic, Kain knew his relationship with his cousin would take a battering.
Still, better a few months of tension between them than Brent being cheated of the money he'd earned over the past few years through damned hard work and the application of his intelligence.
'She looks up for anything,' the second woman remarked astutely. 'But with great discretion. Perfect mistress material.' Both women laughed. 'Is she attached?'
'Oh, yes, she's moved in with young Brent Gerard,' her companion said dryly.
Kain stiffened. This he hadn't known—it must have happened just before Brent left.
'Brent Gerard? One of the—oh, yes, I remember now, the kid who set up that internet company and has just sold it for gazillions to some big overseas corporation?'
To Kain's company, actually. He was beginning to think that he should have stayed well out of it—although Brent had been ready to move on to something new.
'Yes, that's the one—Kain Gerard's cousin.'
'An excellent move on her part, but why doesn't she aim higher? Kain's unattached, and he's worth billions, not a measly twenty or so million.'
Good thinking, Kain thought with distaste. He might suggest it to Sable Jane Martin. But a faint tinge of colour heated his sweeping cheekbones at the woman's next words.
'Besides, he looks like a god.' Her voice dropped into a sexy purr. 'I adore men who tower over me, especially when they've got olive skin and dark hair and pale, pale eyes that bore right into your soul and suggest all sorts of wickedly exciting things.'
With a sly laugh the first speaker said, 'Well, for her I suppose it's a case of better the millionaire in the hand than the billionaire in the bush. For all his brains Brent is easy pickings; his cousin is an entirely different kettle of fish.'
Whatever she was going to say next was stopped by her companion, who said, 'Oh, look, there's Trina Porteous beckoning us over.'
Grimly, Kain watched Brent's new fling walk gracefully across the platform to take her place beside the other contestants competing for the best-dressed award.
The information his security men had dug up would make Miss Butter-wouldn't-melt-in-her-luscious-mouth feel very, very uncomfortable.
And he'd have no hesitation at all in using it.
Tiny hairs on the back of Sable's neck lifted in a primitive reaction to danger. Her hand tightened around the dove-grey bag and her stomach contracted in a fight-or-flee response that startled her. For a moment her smile faltered before she forced herself to breathe slowly and the world righted itself again.
Until she met an icy scrutiny across the crowd that sent her pulse shooting into warp speed. Kain Gerard—Brent's cousin. And he knew who she was. A chilly emptiness expanded beneath her ribs.
Applause from the crowd startled her until she realised that the next contestant had stepped up onto the dais. Relieved, she joined the polite clapping.
But that level, intimidating gaze remained fixed on her. Her breath locked in her throat. Embarrassed at being singled out by Kain Gerard, she angled her chin upwards in automatic defiance. Brent's cousin could project silent intimidation until the sun went down, but she wouldn't allow him to frighten her.
But that cold gaze made her so uneasy she had to fight a growing tension until the last contestant came onto the stage, a lovely nineteen-year-old blonde who was bound to win the contest with her bright, summery, carefree look.
Sure enough she did, accepting her prize with a bubbly delight that reinforced the carnival atmosphere.
'Well, we gave it our best,' the elderly woman who'd designed Sable's costume told her when the crowd had filtered away to get good places for the last race, the big one of the day.
Sable smiled down at her. 'I'm sorry I didn't do your dress justice.'
'My dear, you wore it superbly. Here they want young and innocent and fresh, a salute to summer. You are sophisticated and stylish and a little bit mysterious—the sort of woman I'm designing for. I didn't expect to win, but even reaching the finals will be very good publicity for me.'
She turned her head as someone came up behind Sable. 'Hello, Kain,' she said, a note of surprise colouring her tone. 'I didn't realise you were back from wherever you've been these past months. I suppose you've got a horse running in the Cup?'
Deep and cool, his voice held a note of unsparing authority that sent little shivers through Sable. She stiffened her spine and tried to look calm and controlled.
'Is it going to win?' Maire asked.
'Of course,' he said with such calm confidence that Sable wondered if he'd managed to fix the race.
'What's its name? I'll go and put a bet on it before the tote closes.'
'Very appropriate,' Maire said dryly. 'Thanks so much.'
He said, 'You haven't introduced us, Maire.'
The older woman looked surprised. 'Oh—sorry, I assumed you two would know each other.'
Reluctantly, Sable turned.
Her dark eyes clashed with glacial grey ones. Bludgeoned by sensation, a bewildering mixture of apprehension and violent awareness, she dragged in a swift breath. She'd seen pictures of Brent's cousin, of course, and during the past few minutes she'd been uncomfortably aware of his coldly measuring gaze, but not even that had prepared her for the potent impact of his brand of male charisma.
'Sable, this is Kain Gerard,' her companion told her. 'I'm sure I don't have to tell you anything much about him—he turns up in the media quite often.'
'Not of my own volition,' he said crisply.