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'Eight-three, my serve.'
Cruz Rodriguez Sanchez, self-made billionaire and one of the most formidable sportsmen ever to grace the polo field, let his squash racquet drop to his side and stared at his opponent incredulously. 'Rubbish! That was a let. And it's eight-three my way.'
'No way, compadre! That was my point.'
Cruz eyeballed his brother as Ricardo prepared to serve. They might only be playing a friendly game of squash but 'friendly' was a relative term between competing brothers. 'Cheats always get their just desserts, you know,' Cruz drawled, moving to the opposite square.
Ricardo grinned. 'You can't win every time, mi amigo.'
Maybe not, Cruz thought, but he couldn't remember the last time he'd lost. Oh, yeah, actually he couldbecause his lawyer was in the process of righting that particular wrong while he blew off steam with his brother at their regular catch-up session.
Feeling pumped, he correctly anticipated Ricardo's attempted 'kill shot' and slashed back a return that his brother had no chance of reaching. Not that he didn't try. His running shoes squeaked across the resin-coated floor as he lunged for the ball and missed.
'Now, now,' Cruz mocked. 'That would be nine-three. My serve.'
'That's just showing off,' Ricardo grumbled, picking himself up and swiping at the sweat on his brow with his sweatband.
Cruz shook his head. 'You know what they say? If you can't stand the heat..'
'Too much talking, la figura'
'Good to see you know your place.' He flashed his brother a lazy smile as he prepared to serve. 'El pequeño''
Ricardo rolled his eyes, flipped him the bird and bunkered down, determination etched all over his face. But Cruz was in his zone, and when Ricardo flicked his wrist and sent the ball barrelling on a collision course with Cruz's right cheekbone he adjusted his body with graceful agility and sent the ball ricocheting around the court.
Not bothering to pick himself up off the floor this time, Ricardo lay there, mentally tracking the trajectory of the ball, and shook his head. 'That's just unfair. Squash isn't even your game.'
Polo had been his game. Years ago.
Wiping sweat from his face, Cruz reached into his gym bag and tossed his brother a bottle of water. Ricardo sat on his haunches and guzzled it.
'You know I let you win these little contests between us because you're unbearable to be around when you lose,' he advised.
Cruz grinned down at him. He couldn't dispute him. It was a celebrated fact that professional sportsmen were very poor losers, and while he hadn't played professional polo for eight years he'd never lost his competitive edge.
On top of that he was in an exceptionally good mood, which made beating him almost impossible. Remembering the reason for that, he pulled his cell phone from his kitbag to see if the text he was waiting for had come through, frowning slightly when he saw it hadn't.
'Why are you checking that thing so much?' Ricardo queried. 'Don't tell me some chica is finally playing hard to get?'
'You wish,' Cruz murmured. 'But, no, it's just a business deal.'
'Ah, don't sweat it. One day you'll meet the chica of your dreams.'
Cruz threw him a banal look. 'Unlike you, I'm not looking for the woman of my dreams.'
'Then you'll probably meet her first,' Ricardo lamented.
Cruz laughed. 'Don't hold your breath,' he replied. 'You might meet an early grave.' He tossed the ball in the air and sent it spinning around the court, his concentration a little spoiled by Ricardo's untimely premonition.
Because there was a woman. A woman who had been occupying his thoughts just a little too often lately. A woman he hadn't seen for a long time and hoped to keep it that way. Of course he knew why she was jumping into his head at the most inopportune times of late, but after eight years of systematically forcing her out of it that didn't make it any more tolerable.
Not that he allowed himself to get bent out of shape about it. He'd learned early on that the things you were most attached to had the power to cause you the most pain, and since then he'd lived his life very much like a high-rolling gamblereasy come, easy go.
Nothing stuck to him and he stuck to nothing in returnwhich had, much to everyone's surprise, made him a phenomenally wealthy man.
An 'uneducated maverick', they'd called him. One who had swapped the polo field for the boardroom and invested in deals and stock market bonds more learned businessmen had shied away from. But then Cruz had been trading in the tumultuous early days of the global financial crisis and he'd already lost the one thing he had cared about the most. Defying expectations and market trends seemed inconsequential after that.
What had really fascinated him in the early days was how people had been so ready to write him off because of his Latino blood and his lack of a formal education. What they hadn't realised was that the game of polo had perfectly set him up to achieve in the business world. Killer instincts combined with a tireless work ethic and the ability to think on his feet were all attributes to make you succeed in polo and in business, and Cruz had them in spades. What he didn't have right nowwhat he wantedwas a text from his lawyer advising him that he was the proud owner of one of East Hampton's most prestigious horse studs: Ocean Haven Farm.
Resisting another urge to check his phone, he prowled around the squash court, using the bottom of his sweat-soaked T-shirt to swipe at the perspiration dripping down his face.
'Nice abs,' a feline voice quipped appreciatively through the glass window overlooking the court. Ah, there she was now.
Lauren Burnside, one of the Boston lawyers he sometimes used for deals he didn't want made public knowledge before the fact, her hip cocked, her expression a smooth combination of professional savvy and sexual knowhow.
'I always thought you were packing a punch beneath all those business suits, Señor Rodriguez. Now I know you are.'
'Lauren.' Cruz let his T-shirt drop and waited for her hot eyes to trail back up to his. She was curvy, elegant and sophisticated, and he had nearly slept with her about a year ago but had baulked at the last minute. He still couldn't figure out why. 'Long way to come to make a house call, counsellor. A text would have sufficed.'
'Not quite. We have a hitch.' She smiled nonchalantly. 'And since I was in California, just a hop, skip and a jump away from Acapulco, I thought I'd deliver the news mano-a-mano.' She smiled. 'So to speak.'
Cruz scowled, for once completely unmoved by the flick of her tongue across her glossy mouth.
He knew women found him attractive. He was tall, fit, with straight teeth and nose, a full head of black hair, and he was moneyed-up and uninterested in love. It appeared to be the perfect combination. 'Untameable,' as one date had purred. He'd smiled, told her he planned to stay that way and she'd come on even stronger. Women, in his experience, were rarely satisfied and usually out for what they could get. If they had money they wanted love. If they had love they wanted money. If they had twenty pairs of shoes they wanted twenty-one. It was tedious in the extreme.
So he ignored his lawyer's honey trap and kept his mind sharp. 'That's not what I want to hear on a deal that was meant to be completed two hours ago, Ms Burnside.' He kept his voice carefully blank, even though his heart rate had sped up faster than during the whole squash game.
'Let me come down.'
For all the provocation behind those words Cruz could tell she had picked up his not interested vibe and was smart enough to let it drop.
'She your latest?'
Cruz's curt response raised his brother's eyebrows. 'She wants to be.'
Cruz folded his arms as Lauren pushed open the clear door and stepped onto the court, her power suit doing little to disguise the killer body beneath. She inhaled deeply, the smell of male sweat clearly pleasing to her senses.
:You boys have been playing hard,' she murmured provocatively, looking at them from beneath dark lashes.
Okay, so maybe she wasn't that smart. 'What's the hitch?' Cruz prompted.
She raised a well-tended brow at his curtness. 'You don't want to go somewhere more private?'
'This is Ricardo, my brother, and vice-president of Rodriguez Polo Club. I repeat: what's the hitch?'
Lauren's forehead remained wrinkle-free in the face of his growing agitation and he didn't know if that was due to nerves of steel or Botox. Maybe both.
'The hitch,' she said calmly, 'is the granddaughter. Aspen Carmichael.'
Cruz felt his shoulders bunch at the unexpectedness of hearing the name of the female he was doing his best to forget. The last time he'd laid eyes on her she'd been seventeen, dressed in nothing but a nightie and putting on an act worthy of Marilyn Monroe.
The little scheme she and her preppy fiancé had concocted had done Cruz out of a fortune in money and, more importantly, lost him the respect of his family and peers.
Aspen Carmichael had bested him once before and he'd walked away. He'd be damned if he walked away again.
'She wants to keep Ocean Haven for herself and her uncle has magnanimously agreed to sell it to her at a reduced cost. The information has only just come to light, but apparently if she can raise the money in the next five days the property is hers.'
Cruz stilled. 'How much of a reduced cost?'
When Lauren named a figure half that which he had offered he cursed loudly. 'Joe Carmichael is not the sharpest tool in the shed, but why the hell would he do that?'
'Family, darling.' Lauren shrugged. 'Don't you know that blood is thicker than water?'
Yes, he did, but what he also knew was that everyone was ultimately out for themselves and if you let your guard down you'd be left with nothing more than egg on your face.
He ran a hand through his damp hair and sweat drops sprayed around his head.
Lauren jumped back as if he'd nearly drenched her designer suit in sulphuric acid and threw an embarrassed glance towards Ricardo, who was busy surveying her charms.
Cruz snapped his attention away from both of them and concentrated on the blank wall covered in streaks of rubber from years of use.
Eight years ago Ocean Haven had been his home. For eleven years he had lived above the main stable and worked diligently with the horsesfirst as a groom, then as head trainer and finally as manager and captain of Charles Car-michael's star polo team. He'd been lifted from poverty and obscurity in a two-dog town because of his horsemanship by the wealthy American who had spotted him on the hacienda where Cruz had been working at the time.
Cruz gritted his teeth.
He'd been thirteen and trying to keep his family from going under after the sudden and pointless death of his father.
Charles Carmichael, he'd later learned, had ambitious plans to one day build a polo 'dream team' to rival all others, and he'd seen in Cruz his future protégé. His mother had seen in him an unmanageable boy she could use to keep the rest of his siblings together. She'd said sending him off with the American would be the best for him. What she'd meant was that it would be the best for all of them, because Old Man Carmichael was paying her a small fortune to take him. Cruz had known it at the timeand hated itbut because he'd loved his family more than anything he'd acquiesced.
And, hell, in the end his mother had been right. By the age of seventeen Cruz had become the youngest player ever to achieve a ten handicapthe highest ranking any player could achieve and one that only a handful ever did. By the age of twenty he'd been touted as possibly the best polo player who had ever lived.
By twenty-three the dream was over and he'd become the joke of the very society who had kissed his backside more times than he cared to remember.
All thanks to the devious Aspen Carmichael. The devious and extraordinarily beautiful Aspen Carmichael. And what shocked Cruz the most was that he hadn't expected it of her. She'd blindsided him and that had made him feel even more foolish.
She had come to Ocean Haven as a lonely, sweet-na-tured ten-year-old who had just lost her mother in a horrible accident some had whispered was suicide. He'd hardly seen her during those years. His summers had been spent playing polo in England and she had attended some posh boarding school the rest of the year. To him she'd always been a gawky kid with wild blonde hair that looked as if it could use a good pair of scissors. Then one year he'd injured his shoulder and had to spend the summerher summer breakat Ocean Haven, and bam! She had been about sixteen and she had turned into an absolute stunner.
All the boys had noticed and wanted her attention.
So had Cruz, but he hadn't done anything about it. Okay, maybe he'd thought about it a number of times, especially when she had thrown him those hot little glances from beneath those long eyelashes when she assumed he wasn't looking, and, okay, possibly he could remember one or two dreams that she had starred in, but he never would have touched her if she hadn't come on to him first. She'd been too young, too beautiful, too pure.
He found himself running his tongue along the edge of his mouth and the taste of her exploded inside his head. She sure as hell hadn't been pure that night.
Gritting his teeth, he shoved her out of his mind. Memory could be as fickle as a woman's nature and his aviator glasses were definitely not rose coloured where she was concerned.
'You okay, hermano?'
Cruz swung around and stared at Ricardo without really seeing him. He liked to think he was a fair man who played by the rules. A forgive-and-forget kind of man. He'd stayed away from Ocean Haven and anything related to it after Charles Carmichael had given him the boot. Now his property had come up for sale and objectively speaking it was a prime piece of real estate. The fact that he'd have to raze it to the ground to build a hotel on it was just par for the course.
Of course his kid brother wouldn't understand that, and he wasn't in the mood to explain it. He'd left Mexico when Ricardo had been young. Ricardo had cried. Cruz had not. Surprisingly, after he'd returned home with his tail between his legs eight years ago, he and his brother had picked up from where they'd left off, their bond intact. It was the only bond that was.
'I'm fine.' He swung his gaze to Lauren. 'And I'm not concerned about Aspen Carmichael. Old man Carmichael died owing more money than he had, thanks to the GFC, so there's no way she can have that sort of cash lying around.'
'No, she doesn't,' Lauren agreed. 'She's borrowing it.'
Cruz stilled. Now, that was just plain stupid. He knew Ocean Haven agisted horses and raised good-quality polo ponies, but no way would either of those bring in the type of money they were talking about.
'She'll never get it.'
Lauren looked as if she knew better. 'My sources tell me she's actually pretty close.'
Cruz ignored Ricardo's interested gaze and kept his face visibly relaxed. 'How close?' 'Two-thirds close.'
'Twenty million! Who would be stupid enough to lend her twenty million US dollars in this economic climate?' And, more importantly, what was she using for collateral?
Lauren raised her eyebrows at his uncharacteristic outburst, but wisely stayed silent.
'Hell!' The burst of adrenaline he used to feel when he mounted one of his ponies before a major event winged through his blood. How on earth had she managed to raise that much money and what could he do about it?
'Do you want me to start negotiating with her?' Lauren queried.