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Cesar was not in the best of moods as he swung his Bentley down the small street into which his sat nav had guided him. It was a little after nine in the evening and the weather, which had looked promising in London for taking his car out for a run, had become increasingly poor the farther east he had travelled. Flurries of snow had kept his wipers busy for the past forty-five minutes.
When he had arranged a meeting with his brother, this venue was not what he had had in mind. In fact, his club in London had been his preferred choice, but Fernando had insisted on meeting in his God-forsaken stamping ground of Kent, a place which held no interest for Cesar and therefore one which he had never seen the need to visit.
He now cursed under his breath as he pulled up in front of a building that had all the charm of a disused warehouse. For a few seconds after he had killed the engine, he stared at what looked suspiciously like graffiti on the walls and wondered whether his faith in computer technology had been misplaced. Had that disembodied female voice which had guided him away from the city centre got the directions all wrong?
With a sharp, impatient click of his tongue, Cesar swung himself out of his car in search of a door of sorts.
He would personally donate his car to the nearest vagrant if his brother lived in this dump. Fernando was not the sort of guy who did dumps. In fact, Fernando was the sort of guy who specialised in avoiding them at all costs.
Cesar did his best to swallow his anger at having to deal with this massive personal inconvenience. He was here for a specific purpose and, to that end, there was no point in dwelling on the fact that his Friday night had been ruined. Nor was there any point in getting annoyed with his brother. By the end of the night Fernando would have enough to deal with, never mind his lack of foresight in arranging this meeting, in the dead of winter, miles away from civilisation.
The door was cunningly concealed amidst the graffiti and, for a few seconds after he had pushed it open, Cesar took time to adjust to his surroundings.
This wasn't what he had expected. Disused from the outside the place might well appear to be, but once inside, the picture was vastly different. A few dozen people were milling about what seemed to be a club of sorts. To one side of the semi-darkened room, a cluster of leather chairs and sofas were scattered around low tables. Elsewhere people stood drinking by a long, sleek bar which curved in a U shape to encompass most of the back of the room. To the left there appeared to be a raised podium and yet more chairs.
It didn't take long to spot his brother, talking in a small group, animated as he usually was and the centre of attention.
Having specifically told Fernando that he wanted to have a one-on-one meeting to discuss the small matter of his trust fund, Cesar was enraged to now discover that he had been conned into attending what looked like a private party. The subdued lighting didn't give him much of a clue as to the nature of the guests involved, but he didn't have to exert his brain too much to work out that they would all be his brother's usual cronies. Blonde bimbos, gambling partners and general wastrels who shared the same ambitions as Fernando to spend the family money as flamboyantly as possible whilst simultaneously dodging anything that smelled remotely like hard work.
Cesar grimly thought that his brother was on the wrong track if he thought he could avoid discussing his financial future by conniving to have a bunch of chaperons around him.
By the time he descended on Freddy, all of the group bar one had departed and Cesar treated his brother to a smile of pure displeasure. He didn't bother to look at the crop-haired youth standing next to him.
'Fernando,' he said through gritted teeth. He held out one hand, his cursory nod to courtesy. 'This is not what I expected.' It had been several months since he had laid eyes on his brother. In fact, the last time had been at a family gathering in Madrid, where yet again Cesar's attempts to interest his brother in the fortunes of the company had met with a resounding lack of interest. It was then that he had told Fernando in no uncertain terms that he would be putting his trust fund under the microscope. It was within his power to defer it until such time as he considered it wise to release it and he wouldn't hesitate to use his power of attorney. 'Get your act together,' he had warned, 'or kiss sweet goodbye to that lifestyle of yours.'
Of course, Fernando had responded by staying as far away from the company head office as he physically could.
'I thought Friday night ' Freddy's smile was pure charm. 'Live a little, big brother! We can talk tomorrow. Actually, I wanted to show you ' He spread his hands in a gesture to encompass the room and Cesar looked at him in cool silence. 'But I am being rude.' He turned to the woman he'd been talking to who had been displaced by Cesar striding in front of her. 'This is JudithJudemeet my brother, Cesar What can I get you, Cesar?' He edged away. 'Whisky? As usual?'
'And I'll have another glass of wine, Freddy.' Jude had to take a few sideways steps until she was standing directly in front of the most intimidating man she had ever set eyes on in her life.
So this was the famous Cesar. No wonder Freddy had been quaking in his proverbial boots at the prospect of having a meeting with him. He was a good four inches taller than his brother and where Freddy was good-looking in an approachable, flirtatious kind of way, this man was stunning. His face was dark and lean and, with its perfect bone structure, somehow forbidding. This was a face that could chill to the bone.
She did her best to smile. This elaborate set-up had been meticulous in the planning. Freddy had been so desperate to introduce his brother to the place he had bought. It was a converted warehouse which was halfway to becoming the sexy jazz club of his dreams, waiting only for the injection of cash from the trust fund which, he had told her worriedly, was in danger of being wrenched away before he could get his hands on a single penny of it. He had invested heavily in the place but it would get no further without Cesar's approval.
How better to get his brother's backing than to entice him into it, show him what it could be, prove to him that he was no longer the layabout playboy kid brother he had always been. He had invited all the right people to help him create the perfect setting, including her. Bankers were there, lawyers, a couple of accountants, everybody who had had any input in his burgeoning venture.
'Freddy's told me a lot about you.' She was wearing her flats and had to crane her neck to look up at him.
'Well, I have no idea who you are, nor do I know why Fernando has arranged to meet me here.' He frowned at the girl standing in front of him. He had barely noticed her and he knew why. With her short dark hair, she hardly oozed femininity.
Inherently Spanish, Cesar had a very clear image of what a woman should look like and this wasn't it.
'Do you?' he asked coolly.
'I think he wanted you to meet some of his friends '
'I've met Freddy's friends in the past. Believe me when I tell you that I have no desire to meet any more.' That said, he hadn't met this particular one before and she certainly wasn't the sort his brother usually went for. In fact, just the opposite. So what was she doing here? He looked at her narrowly, his shrewd brain coming up with possibilities and playing with them. 'Who are you, anyway? And how do you know Fernando? He's never mentioned your name to me in the past.' His brother had a lavish lifestyle and was cavalier with his money. Cesar knew because he had access to all Fernando's bills. He also knew that his brother was fond of spending money on his women. From the age of eighteen, the boy had been a magnet for gold-diggers. This one didn't have the outward appearance of a gold-digger, but Cesar was suddenly keenly interested in finding out what her connection was to his brother. He looked across the room to where the clutch of sofas was being studiously ignored by people who seemed to prefer standing. In a minute Fernando would return with drinks and Cesar was pretty sure a round of boring and pointless introductions would then commence. With his suspicions suddenly roused, he nodded curtly to the sofas.
'I've had a hell of a long trip here. Let's sit and you can tell me all about your relationship with my brother.'
Jude wondered how an invitation to converse could sound like a threat. Having disappeared in the direction of the bar, Freddy had obviously been waylaid. This was one of Freddy's bad habits. He was capable of striking up a conversation and getting lost in it until he was forcibly dragged away.
'I don't have a relationship with your brother,' she said as soon as she was sitting on one of the mega-expensive sofas artfully arranged at an angle to the wall. The mood lighting here was even more subdued and Cesar's face was all shadows and angles. She laughed nervously and drained the remainder of her glass. 'I feel as though I'm being interviewed.'
'Do you? I have no idea why. I'm just interested in finding out how you know Fernando. Where did you meet?'
'I'm helping him work on a project ' Jude's brief had been simply to promote Freddy's new-found gravitas and work with him in convincing his brother that he could make a success of his venture.
'What project?' Cesar frowned. As far as he knew, his brother hadn't been near any projects, at least not since his school days, when they had involved felt-tip pens and maps.
'He might want to tell you that himself,' Jude said vaguely, and he sat forward, leaning towards her with his elbows resting lightly on his thighs. Six foot two inches of pure threat.
'Look, I came here to have a serious talk with Fernando about his future. Instead, I find myself in a bar, surrounded by people I have no desire to meet and now treated to some mysterious nonsense about a project Fernando hasn't mentioned to me. What work, exactly, are you doing on this so-called project?'
'I'm not sure I like your tone of voice!'
'And I'm not sure I like whatever game it is you're playing. How long have you known Fernando?'
'Nearly a year.'
'Nearly a year. And how close have you become in that time?'
'Where are you going with this?'
'Let's just say that I may not see a great deal of my brother, but I know the way he operates and long-standing platonic friendships with the opposite sex have never been high on his agenda. He's always liked his women willing, able and bedded. He's also always been predictable in his preferences. Blonde, busty, leggy and lightweight in the brains department. So where do you fit in?'
Jude felt outraged colour seep into her cheeks and she took a few deep breaths to gather herself. In the silence, Cesar continued remorselessly, 'If he's spoken to you about me, then you are clearly more than just a business acquaintance ' He invested that with thinly veiled scepticism. 'So what exactly, are you, then?'
Saved by the bell. Or rather, saved by Freddy, who appeared with drinks on a tray. Cesar watched her expression of relief. He was taking in everything, from that quick look that passed between them to the way his brother leaned towards her and whispered something in her ear, something to which she shook her head and removed herself just as soon as she feasibly could. He lazily watched her departing back, allowing his eyes to rest briefly on the movement of her rear. She might look like a boy but there was something unconsciously sexy and graceful about the way she walked. He'd get back to her later. Something was going on. He could feel it, and he wasn't going to let up until he got to the bottom of it. But, for the moment, he would bide his time.
Watch and wait. A very good motto, he had always maintained and he stuck to it as the predictable round of introductions began and he was treated to a suspiciously normal group of people. Where were the bimbos? The pampered young men with their idle, vapid conversation and roving eyes? Disconcertingly, everyone here this evening seemed intent on discussing investments with him.
By the end of the evening he found that he was almost enjoying the mystery.
Outside, the snow was now falling much harder. Amidst the throng of people dashing out to their cars, which were parked in a designated area at the back of the building, unlike his which was skewed at an angle at the front, Cesar spotted Jude wrapping a long scarf around her neck and stuffing her hands into her pockets. The lights had been turned on in the foyer and he could see her properly now. Her short hair was streaked with auburn and her face was not at all boyish. The opposite. Long, dark lashes fringed widely spaced brown eyes and her mouth was full and lush, at odds with the gamine appearance.
Fernando may have always had a soft spot for the obvious but who was to say how a gold-digger could be packaged? The more subtle, in a way, could be all the more deadly.
And there she was again, talking in a fast, low undertone to his brother. Talking about what?
'I hadn't planned on staying the night,' Cesar said to his brother, barging in on their conversation, which came to an abrupt halt. He wasn't looking at her but he could feel her eyes on him and mentally he flexed his muscles, intrigued at whatever was stirring beneath the surface.
Ah.' Freddy smiled apologetically. 'There's an excellent hotel in the city '
Cesar frowned. 'Don't you have a house locally?'
'Well. Apartment, in actual fact. Pretty small '
Cesar glanced across at Jude, whose eyes were studiously averted, and his mouth tightened a fraction.
'It's snowing pretty heavily,' Cesar said bluntly, 'and I have no intention of driving around in circles looking for somewhere to stay. What's the name of the hotel?'