An icy blade streaked through every cell in Lily Fontaine's body. The fine hair on the back of her neck rose with a chill of foreboding that had nothing to do with the afternoon sea breeze rolling in off the beach.
He was here.
It had always been that way between themthat immediate awareness, the instant connection. Five minutes into her first foray back to her hometown of Onemata, New Zealand, in nearly ten years and it appeared little had changed. The same electricity crackled between them. She knew she had to face him, this ghost from her pasta past she'd been running from for so long and so hard it had finally brought her full circle. She lifted her eyes, compelled to seek confirmation even though she knew without doubt he was within a couple of metres of her right now.
And there he was. Jack Dolan. Her first love. Her last. A waft of expensive cologne filtered past her, overriding the scent of petrol fumes on the service station forecourt as surely as he'd overwhelmed her with his passion and eventually his indifference, leaving her to cope with her father's scorn resting squarely and solely on her slender shoulders.
Unconsciously she stiffened those shoulders as she removed the nozzle from the rental car's tank and replaced it on the petrol bowser.
"So it is you."
The low pitch of his voice had matured; it was deeper, richer, than it had been ten years ago. The sound of it still had the power to send a shiver down her spine, a shiver quite different to the old days. But then, she had to expect that, didn't she? Neither of them were still the same.
He lifted a tanned hand to slide expensive sunglasses down the aristocratic bridge of his nose. She wishedhe hadn't done that. She would have preferred the barrier, however tiny, between her gaze and the stormy look that crossed his as their eyes met. Fine lines feathered from the corners of his eyes as they adjusted to the sudden glare of bright February summer sunlight reflected off the concrete forecourt. Eyes the colour of liquid amber. Eyes that held her, for a split second, trapped in the past, immobilised, rendered speechless.
Lily swallowed convulsively, desperate to relieve the arid dryness in her throat. She felt the precise second his attention swept from her face to the muscles working in her neck. Tiny flickers of heat grew where his gaze touched. Damn him for still having that effect on her.
"You're not what I expected." Jack didn't so much as blink.
"What were you expecting?" Lily lifted her chin and met his stare full-on.
Instantly she knew her mistake. You never beard a lion in its own den. She should have ignored him, gone in and paid for her petrol and left.
"Certainly not someone who could pump her own gas," he drawled, snapping her out of her temporary fugue.
Goaded, she couldn't hold back her reply. "It's amazing what can happen when someone grows up then, isn't it? I can't say you're what I was expecting, either." She flicked what she hoped was a scathing gaze over the fine tailored suit he wore right down to the hand-tooled Italian leather shoes that encased his feet. Yes, she noticed things like that. It was what had kept her afloat in the artificial world she'd dwelled in for far too long. "Not exactly a part-time fuel-pump boy anymore. Still remember how to do it?"
His eyes narrowed speculatively at her careless remark. Lily gave an inward groan. When would she learn to shut up and let silence be her voice?
"You know what I meant, Jack." She spun away from him, her Manolos clicking a staccato echo in her wake.
His eyes continued to bore a virtual hole into her back as she went inside the store and paid for her gas. She could feel it, like the searing concentration of power from a magnifying glass in the sun. It was a relief to get inside the petrol station store, to hear the tinted sliding doors whoosh shut behind her.
She didn't know what she had expected inside but it certainly wasn't the modernised countertop and the stands of groceries and household consumables that stood in colourful rows. Time hadn't stood still here. She wasn't the only one who had changed since her ignominious departure from a town she'd learned to loathe with every cell in her body.
The swish of the automatic opening doors behind her and that same tantalising waft of sandalwood and lime gave her advance warning of Jack's approach. With a swift smile she accepted her receipt from the attendant and turned to leave only to find her way barred by six-foot-plus of solid never-take-no-for-an-answer male.
"What brings you back, Lily?" His tone was couched in a way that wouldn't alert any eavesdropping ears to the history that hung between them, but there was no mistaking the seriousness in his eyes.
"Nothing in particular," she lied as smoothly as she could. She wasn't about to unload her financial woes on Jack's shoulders any time this millennium. "Just thought it was time for a trip back."
"So you won't be here long then?" His eyes became blank, making it harder to read what was behind his question.
"Long enough, Jack. I don't have any plans to leave in a hurry. Satisfied?"
"Leaving in a hurry was your speciality, wasn't it'And as to whether I'm satisfied
" He let his voice trail away.
Heat bloomed across Lily's chest and up her neck. She grabbed her sunglasses out of her handbag, shoved them onto her face and stalked out to her waiting carher brief sanctuary. She was shaking as she opened her car door and settled into the seat. She had the engine running and the car in gear when a loud knock on her driver's window made her jump.
Jack. What now? She stifled her irritation and the scathing remark begging to be freed from her tongue and instead flipped the switch that lowered the car window.
"Yes?" She imbued the monosyllabic question with as much tedium as she could manage.
Her heart lurched as Jack's face softened into a smile. Even after all these years he could still see straight through her and quite clearly knew how much his comment had rattled her.
"It's been a long time," he drawled. "Let's not get off on the wrong foot. I apologise for baiting you back there. I didn't mean to upset you on your first trip home."
"Yeah, whatever, Jack. No offence taken. Water under the bridge and all that."
He didn't take his hand off the windowsill and Lily's foot itched to press down on the accelerator and just get away. She stared pointedly at his fingerstrying, and failing, to indicate he should remove them from her vehicle. His hands were broad, his fingers long and neatly manicured. Somewhat different and vastly more polished than those of the apprentice motor mechanic who had caressed her teenage body to giddy heights so long ago. A sudden pull of longing from deep inside her womb made her fight to suppress a gasp.
Coming home had been a terrible mistake.
"I'll see you around." The way he said it made it a certainty, not just an observation.
"Yeah. Later, then."
Her knuckles were white where she gripped the steering wheel and she forced herself to relax, breathing from deep in her diaphragm. He took his hand off the sill and gave her a small wave. Lily put her car into gear and eased away from the forecourt. She doubted she'd be seeing Jack Dolan anytime soon. Not if she had any choice in the matter. The water that had flowed under their particular bridge had been turbulent and full of debris, enough to undermine their supports and bring the bridge crashing down.
Well, there was one thing in favour of having met up with him so early on in her return to Onemata. It was over and done with. Now all she had to do was to face her fatheroh, and get her life together. Her mouth twisted into a rueful smile, if only it was that simple.
As she drove through the town at the base of the peninsula she noticed the changessome subtle, some not. It was both familiar and strange at the same time, and left her unsettled. No less so because of the direction she was taking toward her father's beachfront home near the distant tip of the finger of land that gave Onemata its name. She hadn't set foot inside the house since the night he'd ripped her teen romance with Jack into tiny pieces and ordered her away to Auckland. Since then, unwilling to return, she'd stayed in New Zealand's largest city for a couple of years, attending university and enjoying the anonymity of being one of many instead of being in the town where everyone knew each other's business.
A chance encounter with a modelling scout had seen her catapulted into Fashion Week and then overseas. Returning to Onemata had been the furthest thing from her mind. But there came a time in everyone's life when they had to take stock and assess their direction. A succession of poor investments, on top of a persistent bout of mono that made it impossible for her to accept new work, made that time now.
Jack watched through narrowed eyes as Lily drove away from him and through the main street of town. Did she even know that most of it was his? he wondered. Did she have any idea of what she was dealing with now she was home?
He doubted it.
His body still radiated the heat that had flamed through him at the first sight of her. He'd thought he'd have been immune after all these years, but no. His reaction had been as instantaneous and immediate as the first day she'd turned up at Onemata High. Hot, hard and hungry for a taste of her.
She was thinner than she used to be, almost fragile-looking, and there was a distance in her pale blue eyes he'd never encountered in her before. A distance that reminded him of her father and his business ethics.
Jack's vow, the one that had driven him to the peak of Australasia's business elite, echoed through his mind. The Fontaine family would never again wreak harm on those dear to him.
His mind ticked over, weighing his next move. Lily's arrival home was more portentous, and less of her own making, than she realised. Over the past few years he'd systematically bought out every asset previously owned by Charles Fontaine, and was now poised for the coup de grâcethe decimation of Fontaine Compuware, Charles Fontaine's own mother lode of wealth, within the next month. How rich would be the satisfaction to use Lily Fontaine as a tactical weapon in his final campaign? Oh yeah, Charles had it coming to him, all right. And so did his deceitful daughter.
Lily knew she should be back up in the house having something to eat and gearing up to face her father when he returned home from the office. Instead she hunched in the sand dunes, oblivious to the lights spilling behind her and across the manicured lawn from the two-storied Spanish-style house her father had built as a monument to his wealth, her eyes fixed on the glittering beauty of moonlight reflected on the heaving sea and foaming water. Tonight, each hungry, rolling wave appeared to relentlessly devour another piece of the shoreline as it advanced and retreated with military precision.
Onemata had that effect on you, she decided. Bit by bit, it consumed. Slowly. Inexorably.
There'd been a brief handwritten note from the housekeeper, Mrs. Manson, waiting for her when she'd let herself in with her old key. Her father had been detained at the office and she was to make herself at home and not to wait dinner for him.
A wave of guilt had swept through her at the relief she'd felt when she knew she had a brief respite from their reunion. Guilt followed by a pang of hurt that he couldn't be bothered to be home when she'd arrived.
The distance that the years away had given her was nothing. It had passed in a blink. She'd sworn she'd never come back, a tearful promise made into her sodden pillow after her father had sent her to Auckland. To anyone who'd asked, she'd gone up to start university there, but there'd been more to it. Her father had seen. He'd known. And the knowledge had shamed him. She had shamed him.
While her father had driven her to leave, Jack Dolan had made certain she'd never want to return. In those first few weeks after she'd gone she'd hoped with all her heart he'd return her phone call, that he'd find some way to come after her. But he hadn't so much as tried to contact her. Not once. He'd chosen to accept her father's money rather than her love. His rejection had been more painful than she'd ever believed possible, and she knew all about pain.
Now here she was. Home. For most people the four-letter word invoked warmth and comfort. The secure knowledge that whatever you'd done, wherever you'd been and whoever you'd become, you could always come back to a sense of family and belonging. But not for her, not now.
Try as she might over the years of self-exile, she still couldn't come to terms with how her father had treated her like nothing more than a business enterprise. Throwing money at her whenever a problem arose. Knowing his wealth would keep her occupied like a child at an amusement park. While she was certain he'd dined out on her success as a model and society hostess, emotionally he'd all but washed his hands of her.