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The house had not improved since she'd seen it last. It loomed over New York City's tony Fifth Avenue like a displeased society matron, all disapproving elegance and a style that dated to the excesses of the Gilded Age. Becca Whitney sat in the vast and chilly parlor, stuffed with priceless paintings and fussy, disturbingly detailed statuary, and tried to pretend she couldn't feel the way her two so-called relatives were glaring at her. As if her presence there, as the illegitimate daughter of their disinherited and long-disparaged late sister, polluted the very air.
Maybe it did, Becca thought. Maybe that was one reason the great hulking mansion felt like a soulless crypt.
The strained silencethat Becca refused to break, since she'd been called here this time and was thankfully no longer the supplicantwas broken suddenly, by the slight creaking sound of the ornate parlor door.
Thank God, Becca thought. She had to keep her hands tightly laced together in her lap, her teeth clenched in her jaw, to keep the bitter words she'd like to say from spilling out. Whatever this interruption was, it was a relief.
Until she looked up and saw the man who stepped inside the room. Something like warning, like anticipation, seemed to crackle over her skin, making it hum in reaction. Making her sit straighter in her chair.
"Is this the girl?" he asked, his voice a low, dark rumble, his tone brisk. Demanding.
Everythingpower, focus, the strained air itselfshifted immediately. Away from the horrible aunt and uncle she'd never planned to see again and toward the man, dark and big and goose bump-raising, who moved as if he expected the world to shuffle and rearrange itself around himand with the kind of confidence that suggested it usually did exactly that.
Becca felt her lips part slightly as their eyes met, across centuries of artifacts and the frowns of these terrible people who had tossed her mother out like so much trash twenty-six years ago. His were a rich, arresting color, an electric amber, and seared into her, making her blink. Making her wonder if she'd been scarred by the contact.
Who was he?
He was not particularly tall, not much over six feet, but he was there. A force to be reckoned with, as if a live wire burned in him, and from him. He wore the same kind of clothes they all wore in this hermetically sealed world of wealth and privilegeexpensive. Yet unlike her fussy relatives, in their suits and scarves and ostentatious accessories, everything about this man was stripped down. Lean. Powerful. Impressive. A charcoal-gray sweater that clung to his perfectly shaped torso, and dark trousers that outlined the strength of his thighs and his narrow hips. He looked elegant and elemental all at once.
He gazed at her, his head cocking slightly to one side as he considered her, and Becca knew two things with every cell in her body. The first was that he was dangerous in a way she could not quite graspthough she could see the fierce intelligence in him, coupled with a certain ruthless intensity. And the second was that she had to get away from him. Now. Her stomach cramped and her heart pounded. Something about him just spooked her.
"You see it, then," Becca's pompous uncle Bradford said in the same patronizing tone he'd used when he'd thrown Becca out of this very same house six months ago. In the very same tone he'd used to tell her that she and her sister Emily were mistakes. Embarrassments. Certainly not Whitneys. "The resemblance."
"It is uncanny." The man's remarkable, disconcerting eyes narrowed, focused entirely on Becca even as he spoke to her uncle. "I thought you exaggerated."
Becca stared back at him. Something was alive, hot, in the air between them. She felt her mouth dry, her palms twitch. Panic, she thought. It was only panic, and perfectly reasonable! She wanted to leap to her feet and run out into the streets, far away from this overwrought place and the scene unfolding around her that she no longer wanted to understandbut she couldn't seem to move. It was the way he looked at her. The command in it, perhaps. The heat. It kept her still. Obedient.
"I still don't know why I'm here," Becca said, forcing herself to speak. To do something other than mutely obey. She turned and looked at Bradford, and her mother's pursed-mouthed sister, the censorious Helen. "After the way you threw me out the last time"
"This has nothing to do with that," her unclea technical title at best, in Becca's opinionsniffed impatiently. "This is important."
"So is my sister's education," Becca replied, a snap in her voice. She was too aware of the other man, like a dark shadow in her peripheral vision. She could feel the way his eyes ate her up, consumed her. It made her lungs feel tight in her chest. It made her body. ache.
"For God's sake, Bradford," Helen murmured to her brother, twisting the elegant rings on her fingers. "What can you be thinking? Look at this creature. Listen to her! Who would ever believe that she was one of us?"
"She has about as much interest in being 'one of you' as she does in walking back home to Boston naked, over a sea of broken glass," Becca retorted, but then reminded herself to focus on the reason she'd come back here, the reason she'd subjected herself to this. "All I want from you people is what I've always wanted from you. Help with my sister's education. I still don't see how that's too much to ask."
She waved a hand at the immense and obvious wealth all around them, from the thick, soft rugs beneath their feet to the paintings all over the walls, to the graceful ceilings above them, bursting with exquisite chandeliers. To say nothing of the fact that this was a family-owned mansion that took up a full city block in the middle of New York City. Becca did not have to know anything about Manhattan real estate to understand that the family who didn't want to claim her could certainly afford to do so, if they wished, without noticing the difference.
Not that it was Becca who needed them to claim her. It was her seventeen-year-old sister, Emily. Bright, smart, destined-for-great-things Emily, who deserved more than the kind of life Becca could fashion for her on a paralegal's salary. Only Emily's need could ever have inspired Becca to seek out these people and prostate herself before them in the first place. Only Emily's best interests could ever have compelled her to respond to this latest summons after Bradford had called her mother a whore and had Becca removed from these very premises half a year ago. Just as it was only thoughts of the tuition money Emily still desperately needed, now that Becca's savings were depleted, that kept her from making a rude gesture at Bradford as he scowled at her now.
That and the fact she'd made her mother a promise on her deathbed: that she would do whatever she had to do to protect Emily from suffering. Anything at all. And how could she break that promise when her mother had given up this whole, glittering world for Becca years ago?
"Stand up," came the silky demand from beside hermuch closer than it should have been. Becca jumped slightly in her seat, and then hated herself for showing that much weakness. Somehow, she knew it would count against her. She turned, and the devil himself was standing too close to her, still looking at her in that disturbing way.
What was it about this man that got under her skin like this? So quickly? So completely? When she didn't even know his name?
"I what?" she asked, startled.
This close, she could see that, while he could never be called handsome, precisely, the way his features came togetherso dark and brooding, with that olive skin and his piercing eyesmade him distractingly compelling in a purely, breathtakingly masculine way. It was as if the very fact of his full lips made something in her want to revel in her own femininity, like a cat in a sunbeam.
Where had that thought come from?
"Stand up," he said again, with that note of command ringing in his voice, and she found she was moving without meaning to do so. Drifting up and on to her feet like a marionette in his control. Becca was horrified at herself. It was as if he'd hypnotized heras if those eyes of his were a snake charmer's, and she was helpless to do anything but dance for his pleasure.
On her feet, she found he was taller than she'd thought, forcing her to tilt her head back slightly to meet his gazewhich she did, even though the wild beat of her pulse wanted her to break and run, to escape, to get far away from him..
"This is fascinating," he murmured. His lean, intriguing face was closer now, and she had the sense of the great control he practiced, the power he kept to himself, the hum and the kick of it, as if he operated on a different frequency than the rest of the world. "Turn."
Becca only stared at him, and so he lifted a hand and twirled a finger in the air, demonstration and command. It was a hard, strong hand. Not soft and pale like her uncle's. It was the hand of a man who was not afraid to use it to do his own work. She had a sudden, stark and erotic vision of that hand against her own skin, and had to swallow against it. Hard.
"I would love nothing more than to obey your every command," she managed to say, shocked at the sudden swell of carnal need that washed through her, and fighting to shove it behind her carefully cultivated tough exterior. "But I don't even know who you are, or what you want, or why you think you have the right to command anyone in the first place."
As if from a distance, she heard her aunt and her uncle let out sharp gasps and exclamations, but Becca couldn't bring herself to care about them. She was mesmerized, spellbound, caught up in the man before her and his searing amber eyes.
How strange that she should find him so unsettling, while at the same time she had the notion that he could keep her safe. Even here. She pushed the absurdity away. Unlikely, she thought. This man is about as safe as broken glass.
He did not smile. But his gaze warmed, and Becca felt an answering warmth flood her, turning into flame wherever it touched.
"I am Theo Markou Garcia," he said in the way men did when they expected to be known, recognized. Celebrated. When she only stared back at him, his lips curved slightlyalmost wryly, she thought. "I am the CEO of Whitney Media."
Whitney Media was the great jewel of the Whitney familythe modern-day reason they still held on to so much of their old robber baron money and were able to maintain latter-day castles like this one. Becca knew very little about the actual company. Except perhaps that through it and because of it, thanks to the newspapers and cable channels and movie studios, the Whitneys owned far too much, had too much influence, and had come to regard themselves as demigods in the way only the very rich could.
"Congratulations," she said dryly. She raised her eyebrows. "I'm Becca, the bastard daughter of the sister no one dares mention out loud." She shot a look toward her aunt and uncle, wishing she could incinerate them with the force of it. "Her name was Caroline, and she was better than the both of you put together."
"I know who you are." This time, it was his low, insinuating voice that blocked out the noise from the other, legitimate, and now further affronted Whitneys.
It seemed to reverberate behind her ribs, and spread out through her bones. "As for what I want, I don't think that's the right question."
"It's the right question if you want me to whirl around in front of you," Becca countered, some recklessness charging through her, making her courageous. "Though I doubt you'll give me the right answer."
"The right question is thiswhat do you want, and how can I give it to you?" He crossed his arms over his chest, and Becca was distracted by the play of his lean muscles, his corded strength. The man was a deadly weapon, and she felt as if she'd already sustained a body blow.
"I want to fund my sister's Ivy League education," Becca said, wrenching her gaze back to his, ordering herself to concentrate. "I don't much care if you give me money or they do. I only know that I can't do it myself." The unfairness of it almost choked her then, the sheer injustice that allowed worthless human beings like Bradford and Helen so much money, so much easy access to things like a college educationthings they probably took for grantedwhile Becca fought to make her rent each month. It was maddening.
"Then the only other question is, how far are you willing to go to get what you want?" Theo asked softly, his gaze still so intent on hers, still managing to make her feel as if they were all alone in the roomthe world.
"Emily deserves the best," Becca said fiercely. "I'll do whatever I have to do to make sure she gets it."
Life wasn't fair. Becca didn't begrudge a single thing she'd had to do. But she wouldn't stand by and watch Emily's dreams slip away when they didn't have to. Not when she'd vowed to her mother that she'd never let that happen. Not when Becca could do something to fix it. Even if it was this.