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"This can't be happening," Rebecca Layton murmured.
She lifted her stunned gaze to the floor-to-ceiling picture window fronting her Waikiki suite. Of all the times to be away from New York. Palms swayed in the tropical trade winds, danced rhythmically against white-capped turquoise waves. So beautiful and peaceful. A stark contrast to the turmoil raging inside her.
She'd just gotten off the phone with Layton International's chief financial officer. The news wasn't good. If she didn't get back to New York and take control of the situation she could lose everything. Her cell phone rang again and she automatically picked it up. Very few people had her private number, and even fewer would dare disturb her when she was on a business trip.
Unless it was important. And right now Layton International's vulnerability was nothing short of cataclysmic.
"Yes?" she said as she reached for her planner. She could at least make a few calls while her executive assistant booked their return flight. She would not lose this company her family had built, in spite of the problems her father had left her with when he had died unexpectedly. He'd trusted her to take care of things. She would not fail him.
Rebecca's breath sliced into her lungs as her head whipped up. The planner slid from her lap. "Alejandro?"
"You did not expect to hear from me again, no?"
Rebecca closed her eyes, her gut clenching with a mixture of need and sorrow. Five long years since she'd heard that voice speak her name. Once he'd meant everything to her. Now?
Now she couldn't even begin to sort out how speaking to him made her feel. Sweat moistened her palms. "This is a bad time, Alejandro. I really can't talk."
His laugh, so cool and controlled, brought an image back to her. Alejandro Arroyo Rivera de Ramirez, the sexiest man she'd ever seen, naked to the waist, water streaming from his muscular chest in rivulets as he'd lifted himself from the pool. His sexy laugh as he'd scooped her up and hauled her into the bedroom. He hadn't even dried off. The second she'd said yes he'd come for her. And then he'd spent the night showing her how amazing he truly was.
"You need only listen, querida"
Something in his tone silenced her automatic protest.
Her heart kicked into double time. She reached for her forgotten wineglass, took a steadying sip.
"I expect you in Madrid in twenty-four hours. Spend the flight thinking how you will convince me to keep you on Layton International's board of directors."
Shock rocketed her to her feet. Her heart threatened to pound right out of her chest. "You're the one trying to steal my company?"
"You have made poor decisions, Rebecca. Do not continue to do so." His voice dripped ice.
Rebecca speared a hand through her hair as cold sweat spread over her skin. Oh, God. She wasn't the one who'd made poor decisionsbut what did it matter now? Her father had thought he'd been doing the right thing.
They'd tumbled far in the five years since she'd last seen Alejandro. Then, she'd been the one with the knowledge about the hotel business, the one with the might of a multimillion-dollar company behind her. He'd been the new kid on the block, the one with everything to learn.
How had everything changed so drastically?
There was still time. Not much, but a little. She could turn it around, could stop him. She would stop him, or she wasn't a Layton through and through. She forced herself to sound calm, controlledthough she was anything but. "It's not over yet. You're counting chickens."
"Counting chickens?" His laugh jarred her with its sudden warmth. "Ah, one of your Americanisms." She heard him speaking to someone in Spanish. "It is a done deal, Rebecca. Layton International belongs to Ramirez Enterprises."
She felt the chill of his words as if someone had picked her up and thrust her into the arctic. It was an odd sensation, totally at odds with her memory of the heat he'd once incited. She swallowed the knot in her throat. "I don't believe you."
"Then stay in Hawaii while I hire a new CEO. Or come advise the board on how to handle my new acquisition. Your choice."
He knew she was in Hawaii? Did he also know about the deal she'd just closed to acquire a chain of resorts in the islands?
The deal that would have saved everything in just a few short months. Rebecca sank onto a rattan chair as her legs refused to hold her up any longer. The certainty in his voice was undeniable.
She knew from personal experience how determined Alejandro could be when he wanted something. He didn't rest until he'd won, until he'd imposed his will and gotten exactly what he wanted. If he was calling her now, he was very certain he had control.
Lock, stock and barrel, as her dad would have said. Jackson Layton was probably spinning in his grave right this instant.
He'd never liked Alejandro, would be shattered to know the company he'd built had fallen into his enemy's hands. And all because his daughter hadn't seen it coming.
"I think I hate you," she said softly.
"Then we are even." The line went dead.
Rebecca leaned numbly against the soft leather seat of the Mercedes that had picked her up at the Madrid Barajas International Airport. She stared bleary-eyed at the scenery as the car carried her down the Gran Via.
He'd said he hated her. It shouldn't surprise her, but somehow it did.
Five long years. She hadn't seen himother than glimpses on television or in the pages of a magazinein all that time. For one month he'd been everything to her. He'd been there when she woke, when she fell asleep, when she swam or shopped or ate. He'd laughed and made love to her and made her think she was the most special woman in the world.
Now? She pinched the bridge of her nose. God only knew what happened now. He was ruthless, and he'd gained control of Layton International. He owned every last share. She'd confirmed it during her endless hours of travel.
She had nothing left. If he fired her, she could only limp away in shame. Without her company she was stone-cold broke. She could pay her mortgage for the next three months, and she could eat. If she hadn't found a job by then she'd lose her apartment and all her belongings.
Somehow the loss didn't compare to the loss of self-respect, the knowledge that she'd failed to protect her family legacy. She didn't know how to do anything except run a chain of hotels. It was what she'd been brought up to dohowever reluctantly on her father's behalfwhat she'd spent her life training for and trying to excel at. What would her father say if he could see her now? He'd wanted a son to leave the business to, but she was all he'd had. Would he now believe his concern about leaving a woman in charge was justified? She couldn't bear to think of his disappointment.
The car wound through the busy streets, nearing the ornate gray facade of the Villa de Musica, the Ramirez crown jewel in the heart of Madrid. Her heart hurt with the memories seeing it again brought. She'd been staying in the newly renovated hotel when she had first met Alejandro.
Rebecca shoved away thoughts of the sexy Spaniard who had ruined her life. She'd see him soon enough, and though her stomach twisted, she reminded herselffirmlythat she was here for business. She would not be intimidated. His mere presence wouldn't turn her to mush like it once had.
She was only mildly surprised when the car continued past the hotel. She hadn't really expected to be shown to a room, allowed to freshen up, maybe sleep a little, before being dragged into Alejandro's presence. Since she had no idea where they were going, she tried to close her eyes and get a few minutes' sleepbut rest eluded her.
Finally, after what seemed like hours in traffic, the limo pulled into a private drive somewhere in the hills of Madrid. She wasn't sure where they were, but she vaguely remembered passing the Palacio Real, the official residence of the King and Queen of Spain. A uniformed man helped her from the vehicle while another retrieved her bags. Within moments she was whisked through a stunning marble atrium and into a masculine office overlooking a terrace with a pool. How far Alejandro had come in five years.
Rebecca drifted over to the window and clasped her hands together. Oddly, they were shaking. But she'd been traveling for almost twenty-four hours straight. Her wrinkled suit clung to her body like an old rag, her curls had lost their bounce hours ago and she desperately needed a hot shower. Clearly Alejandro would give her no quarter before he gloated over his triumph.
Well, fine. She'd endure it, and she'd refuse to react to his insults.
When the door behind her opened again, she put on her battle face and turned to meet him head-on.
And, oh heavens, he was still the most amazingly handsome man she'd ever met. Her knees threatened to buckle at the sight of him. She had an inexplicable urge to rush into his embrace, the way she used to do, but she crossed her arms and stood her ground. It took every ounce of reserve she had not to give in to the desire to touch him.
She didn't know if she was questioning her reaction or if the word was meant for him.
Why, Alejandro? Why did you deceive me when I loved you? Why have you done this to me now?
As if she'd spoken aloud, he halted, his gaze locking with hers. What lay behind those silver-gray eyes was anyone's guess, but she didn't think they held any warmth for her. And it hurt. Surprisingly, it hurt. She felt like she should do or say something, but she simply stood and drank him in.
If he'd changed at all, she couldn't see it. He was tall, six-three or six-four, and as muscular as ever. The years had not been unkind to him. He still looked every inch the hardened ex-bullfighter. She'd once teased him that he was a warrior clad in Armani.
Had she really spent hours exploring his tanned skin? It seemed so long ago that it must surely be her imagination. But she remembered with every last nerve-ending in her body how extraordinary it had felt when he slid his hard length inside her. Over and over and over, until she'd shuddered from the exquisite pleasure.
Rebecca pushed a hand against the stucco window casing to steady herself. Alejandro didn't seem to notice. He was completely unaffected by the current whipping through the room. It was all she could do to keep from being sucked into the vortex, while he pressed on as if nothing had changed.
For him, it probably hadn't.
"I have a schedule for you," he said, walking to the desk and pulling out a folder. "You will read through these papers and be prepared to meet with the board first thing in the morning. We will discuss your duties then."
Rebecca stepped forward and clutched the folder, glad to have a new focus. Something hot and thick lurched to life in her sluggish veins. "That's it? No Hi, how have you been? No explanation?"
Ice-gray eyes regarded her dispassionately. "I owe you no explanation, Rebecca. I owe you nothing, in fact. Be grateful you're getting this much."
"I've been doing okay, thanks for asking, Alejandro," she said, ignoring him. "Or I was until yesterday. And you? How are you? Did you marry the woman you conveniently forgot to tell me about?"
"I did," he said coolly.
She blinked back tears. Ridiculous to still be hurt over such a thing, or to expect an explanation so many years after the fact. He was Alejandro Arroyo Rivera de Ramirez, international playboy, billionaire financier.
Women had always fallen over him. Always would.
And she'd been no different, had she? He hadn't been a billionaire back then, merely a famous man in his own country, making his way in a new business. She'd been the one with a privileged background, the one from hotel royalty. But she'd fallen hard for him; his betrayal still stung even now. She should have known better.
"You will be pleased to know we are divorced," he continued. "Alas, arranged marriages never work as planned."
"Good for her, for wising up."
"Like you did?"
A bitter laugh burst from her throat before she could stop it. "There was never a choice for me, Alejandro. You were already engaged."
"Promised, not engaged."
Rebecca scoffed, hoping he wouldn't see how the subject still affected her. "What is that? Spanish hair-splitting? The truth is you were to marry another woman when you so conveniently seduced me."
"You did not mind being seduced, as I recall."
Heat blossomed in her belly. Flooded her senses. Gathered between her thighs. "I was stupidand blind to your true nature."
His square jaw flexed. He hitched a leg onto the corner of the desk, his custom-made trousers stretching tight against one hard thigh. "And just what is my true nature, querida?"
Danger saturated his voice, but she was too angry and hurt to heed the warning. No, what she itched to do was slap his sculpted profile. How dare he steal her company and then stand there and defend his actions of five years ago like he'd been the one wronged?
"You're a liar and a cheat."
She stood her ground as he stalked her. One arm snaked around her waist, yanked her against every last inch of his muscled body. The other hand gripped her jaw, forcing her to accept his kiss. Fire exploded in her veins when his lips pressed to hers.
Shock reverberated through her system. It was too much, too soon. She was still processing what it meant to see him again, to be flooded with conflicting emotions. She didn't want this, didn't need it.
Couldn't resist it for much longer.
Her hands went to his chest of their own volition, whether to push away or touch him she wasn't sure. She marshaled what was left of her willpower and pressed her palms against a granite wall. He simply upped the ante, his tongue sliding along the seam of her lips, teasing her with remembered bliss.
She gave one last push. But he smelled good, felt good, and
There would be time for recriminations later. Besides, nothing was ever as good as the memory. Surely one kiss would inoculate her to Alejandro's masculine charm. It was just what she needed to prove to herself he no longer meant a thing to her.
Her mouth parted and his tongue slipped inside. Big mistake.
But it was too late. She shuddered as she met him stroke for stroke. Was she out of her mind? She had to stopbut she didn't want to. Not yet. For a moment she was flooded with memorieshis mouth on hers, his naked skin beneath her fingers, their bodies moving together in perfect rhythm. Ecstasy unlike any she'd ever known. Happiness and love and a feeling of rightness.