Read an Excerpt
"Danielle Hammond? I have a proposition for you."
Dani blinked, jolted out of a pleasant daydream, the Northern Queensland sun that had been warming her face at the outdoor café now hidden behind a wall of a man.
"May I join you?" The softly spoken deep brogue sounded more continental than Australian. She blinked again. It took a few seconds for her to understand that the subject of her daydream, the man she'd seen walk into her shop just minutes ago, had now crossed the road to the café and stood towering above her.
It took another few seconds to realise that she'd seen him before, and to swallow her jolt of dismay. It was himwhat's his nameQuinn Everard!
The name exploded in her head as he tossed a business card on the table and pulled out the flimsy white chair opposite her.
Dani eased her sunglasses down her nose and needlessly read the card. "Quinn Everard. Broker." Simple, classy, on a satiny-silver card. They'd never met personally, but she'd seen his face in many jewellery publications over the years.
His head turned toward the café door and immediately a waitress materialised. He ordered coffee while Dani's curiosity ran riot. What could the great Australian gem expert want with her? He'd made it very plain, very publicly, that she wasn't good enough to wipe his shoes on.
"Did you see anything you liked?" she asked, sipping on the straw of her thick shake.
Chocolate brown eyes under thick brows scanned her face.
"In the shop," she qualified, easing one hot foot out of her shoe under the table.
"I was looking for you.Your assistant pointed you out."
"You were checking out my window. I saw you." He rested hiselbow on the table and subjected her to a leisurely inspection. Just another nail in his coffin, as far as she was concerned. Dani stared boldly back, seeing in her mind's eye his tall broad form as he'd scrutinised her display window. How she'd admired what looked like an Armani suita rarity in the tropicsand his smooth, rolling gait as he'd straightened and disappeared inside. He moved like a fighter, and who's to say he wasn't? There was a definite break in his nose, the telltale bump high on the bridge, and a scar, smooth and pale, traced the corner of his mouth.
His inspection completed, he sat back in his seat. "I've been hearing your name around lately."
Thanks to Howard Blackstone, Dani's benefactor, who'd nominated her as his featured designer for the annual launch last February. "The Blackstone Jewellery launch, probably." Blackstone Jewellery was one retail division of Blackstone Diamonds, Howard's mining and manufacturing company. Dani pursed her lips sardonically. "Oh, I forgot. You weren't invited."
A flicker of amusement deepened the creases on both sides of his mouth, showing up an unexpected dimple. "I've never said I don't find your work interesting, Ms. Hammond. Which is why I'm here. As I said, I have a proposition for you."
She relished the sharp stab of triumph. This man had never made a pretence of liking her stuff, yet here he was. What on earth could he want to proposition her about?
Dani could think of some things and they were all tied up with sizing him up as a hunk a few moments ago, before she'd realised who he was.
Hopeful that the lick of attraction she felt wasn't written all over her face, she cleared her throat. "A proposition for me? April Fools was a couple of days ago."
"I want you to design a setting for a large and very special diamond."
This was very satisfying. The great Quinn Everard wanted her, Dani Hammond, to make him a diamond necklace.
Oh, but there was that one small problem. They hated each other.
She raised her head. "No."
His eyes narrowed.
"Diamonds aren't really my specialty." His words, aimed at her four years ago at the prestigious Young Designer of theYearAward competition, the one everyone tipped her to win, came back to her. He'd said something along the lines of "A jewellery designer should stick to what she knows and is comfortable with. Ms. Hammond may have cut her teeth on diamonds, but she has little flair and understanding of the essence of the stones."
That wasn't the only public dressing-down Dani had received from Quinn Everard. She'd assumed it was because of the spat between he and Howard years ago.
"Remember?" she asked sweetly, and received a coolly assessing gaze in response. How could he sit there in his gazillion-thread suit and not melt?
"I am offering a generous commission."
Now, that was interesting "How generous?" A little extra cash and she could make the final payment on her loan from Howard. Of course, she'd repay his estate, since he'd died earlier in the year. Generous enough to include some new display cabinets, maybe? A face-lift for the tired signage?
Quinn took out what looked to be a solid-gold pen, wrote something on the business card and turned it around so she could see.
A surprised cough escaped and she jerked her head up at the numbers on the business card. "You want to pay me that to make you a piece of jewellery?"
The amount was obscene. Damn the spruce-up. This could be the deposit for the bigger, more modern and vacant premises two doors down.
"That's way over the odds. You know that."
"Yes or no?"
She shook her head, positive she was the butt of someone's joke. "The answer's no."
Quinn leaned back, not attempting to cover his displeasure. "You and your family have endured quite a bit of unwelcome publicity lately, haven't you? Howard's death three months ago. Not to mention his companion on the plane."
Tell her something she didn't know. No one survived when the flight Howard Blackstone had chartered to take him to Auckland one night in January, plunged into the sea. When it turned out Marise Hammond was on board, the media were beside themselves. Marise was married to Howard's arch enemy, Matt Hammond, head of House of Hammond, an antique and fine jewellery company in New Zealand. Matt was also Dani's cousin, although they'd never met because of the feud between Howard and the Hammonds that spanned three decades.
The reading of Howard's will a month later rocked the family to its core. Marise was named as a substantial beneficiary and a trust fund was set up for her son, Blake, giving rise to the assumption that Marise and Howard were having an affair. Who was Blake's true father, everyone wanted to know, Howard Blackstone or Matt Hammond? All the old family history and hostility had been bandied around for months.
Despite a growing anxiety, Dani feigned nonchalance. "So?"
"And poor Ric and Kimberley," he continued. "They must have been bummed when the TV cameras crashed their wedding."
That was an understatement. Dani grew up in Howard Blackstone's mansion, along with her mother and cousins, Kimberley and Ryan. Kim had recently re-married her ex-husband, Ric Perrini. Their lavish wedding on a yacht in Sydney Harbour was nearly ruined when the media sent in helicopters.
What did Quinn Everard know about that?
"I haven't officially met Ryan," Quinn resumed, "but I do know Jessica slightly. I think she'll make a lovely bride, don't you?"
She opened her mouth to agree, then snapped it closed. Ryan and Jessica had recently announced their engagement, but the wedding details were a closely guarded family secret.
"I have no idea what you're talking about," she said warily.
Ryan was the most private of people. That's why he'd asked Dani to help arrange a secret ceremony up here, away from the Sydney gossip-mongers. Port Douglas was an excellent choice. Chances were, the family members wouldn't be recognised, and there were any number of world-class venues and caterers to choose from. With Dani's help, arrangements for the perfect intimate wedding in three weeks' time were well under way.
"Really?" Quinn mused. "There are some lovely beaches up here, aren't there? I hear Oak Hill is nice."
Dani's heart sank. He couldn't possibly have found out. Almost everything had been confirmed and all participants sworn to secrecy. "Your information is out of date, Mr. Everard," she lied. "There won't be a wedding in Port Douglas, after all. That was just a ploy to get everyone off the scent."
"A ploy? My source seems adamant that on the twentieth of April, the van Berhopt Resort is staging a very special event. It looks fantastic on the Web site, just the place for an intimate, discreet family wedding."
She heard the sound of her own teeth grinding. "How the hell did you know that?"
He tapped his nose. "The diamond world is surprisingly small."
Dani knew when her back was against the wall. "That's blackmail," she muttered.
He shrugged, all traces of amusement gone. "It's business, Ms. Hammond. Are you so successful you can afford to turn down a commission of this size?"
Intimidation really got her back up. "Do your worst." She pushed her glass away and picked up her purse. This was precisely why she had chosen to live up here, away from the city gossip. "The Blackstones and I are used to media attention." Howard's womanising and close-to-the-edge business dealings guaranteed that.
Quinn stroked his chin. "Poor Ryan and Jessica, their beautiful day ruined. And the rest of your familyespecially your motherwill they be so blasé? All that distasteful speculation, old family wounds reopened, over and over "
"Leave my mother out of this," Dani snapped. That was the worst of it. The Blackstone-Hammond feud had ripped her mother's blood brother away from her thirty years ago, leaving a massive heartache. With Howard's death, Sonya Hammond's dearest wish was to bring the family factions together again.
"I can empathise, being a private person myself." His tone was sympatheticreasonable, even.
Dani jutted her chin out defiantly, despite a sinking feeling that he was right. Did she have the right to expose those closest to her to more scandal and shame?
"You could spare them all that unwelcome attention. Ryan and Jessica will have the day of their dreams. And you, Danielle, will make a lot of money."
She glared at him. Only her family called her Danielle. Up here in Port, as it was affectionately known, she went by Dani Hammond, the brand name for her jewellery. Most of the locals had no idea she was connected to one of Australia's richest and most notorious families. Those who did, didn't care.
Quinn shifted impatiently. "Yes or no?"
Could she bear her anonymity here to be shattered by all the old gossip and innuendo she had lived with all her life? And worse, how could she let him ruin Ryan and Jessica's day and put that hunted look back in her mother's eyes? "Bring your damn diamond to the shop, then." Grasping her change purse in a white-knuckled grip, she stood abruptly and scowled down at him.
Quinn Everard tilted his head, peering up under his brows again. Then he rose, gesturing to the cars parked across the street. "My car is right over there. Take a ride with me."
Her internal alarm sounded. It wasn't that she thought a man with his reputation would try anything dangerous. It was her reactionher attractionthat worried her. And how could she refuse a man who held such sway in her profession, especially one offering dream money?
"I don't carry this diamond around in my pocket." Quinn frowned at her hesitation. "I've rented a house in Four Mile Beach."
Four Mile was an outlying district in the shire of Port Douglas, and where her apartment was. "I'm working."
"Exactly. Time is money, Danielle."
She eyed him moodily, weighing her options. "Whereabouts in Four Mile?"
He impatiently motioned her to start crossing the road.
"You may be famous," Dani said tightly, "but you're a stranger to me. I'm going nowhere without telling my assistant."
He inclined his head. "Number 2 Beach Road." He stopped beside a sleek black BMW. "I'll wait."
Taut with indignation, she poked her head into the shop and told Steve, her assistant, and told him where she was going. Then she got into Quinn's car. They spoke little on the short drive, but her eyes widened in surprise when they pulled up outside his house. She'd walked past here nearly every day on her way to work. Never a morning person, she needed the fifty-minute walk along beautiful Four Mile Beach to improve her mood.
The house was right on the sand dunes, surrounded by high walls. A discreet plaque on the wall by the entrance said Luxury Executive Accommodation. Dani had always wondered what it was like inside.
She followed Quinn through the gate and entrance into a large multilevelled living and dining area. The house was a blend of Asian and Australian designs, the furnishings rattan, leather and teak. Striking floral arrangements with birds-of-paradise and heliconias seasoned the air with tropical scents, stirred by lazily rotating ceiling fans. This place was even better than she'd imagined.
Quinn stood at the door leading to the stairs. Dani hesitated for a second. She didn't trust Mr. Quinn Everard one inch, but it wasn't a threat of physical violence that made her pause. More his attitude, the impression that he got what he wanted so effortlessly. He smelled good, looked good, obviously lived well. She'd need her wits about her with a man prepared to resort to blackmail to get his own way.
He opened the first door and intense light flooded what was obviously a dream workroom. In one corner, under the perfect lighting, sat an easel. A workbench ran fully down one side, two stools at the end and tool organisers that held an array of implements, everything from tweezers to gauges to loupes. There was a waxing station, engraving blocks, micro torch, rollers and grinderseverything she had in her shop, except the equipment was new and top-of-the-range and must have cost a fortune.