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ZANE BASTIANI stepped on to the tarmac of Broome International Airport and felt the late wet-season humidity close around him like a vice. He glanced skyward in irritation, to where the source of the melting heat shone so unforgivingly above.
He'd forgotten about the heat. Other things had slipped his mind, too--like the sharp blue of the sky, the clear salt-tinged air and the sheer quality of the light. Nine years of dreary London weather and grey concrete architecture had disarmed him completely. He felt like a foreigner in his home town.
Hard to believe it was so long since he'd left with just his name and the conviction to make it big time on his own. Not that he'd wasted a minute of it. Now, with a terrace house in Chelsea, a chalet in Klosters and the chairmanship of the most aggressive merchant bank in London, he was well on his way.
And for every one of those nine years he'd been waiting for his father to call and admit that he'd been wrong, but when the call had finally come it hadn't been from his father at all.
"Not critical," the doctor had assured him, "but Laurence asked to see you."
He'd asked to see Zane.
It might have taken a heart attack, but after all the bitterness between them, any request had to be worth something.
So Zane had taken the first flight out of London to anywhere that might offer the fastest connection with this remote north-west Australian location. His platinum credit card had taken care of the details.
He shrugged the kinks out of his shoulders as he headed for the terminal, steeling himself for meeting his father once again. When Zane had been just a kid growing up, Laurence Bastiani hadalways seemed larger than life, always the big man with the big voice and the big ideas who'd never succumbed to as much as the common cold. It made sense that it would take something like a heart attack to stop him in his tracks. Even so, it was impossible to picture him now, lying ill in hospital. His father would hate it. He'd probably have checked himself out of there already.
Inside the arrivals' terminal, ceiling fans spun languidly overhead, stirring up barely more than a breeze as travel-weary passengers began to crowd around the luggage carousel.
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His one hastily packed leather bag, its red Priority tag swinging, came through first. He reached down, hauling it from the carousel, then headed towards the exit, making for the line of waiting taxis, increasingly aware the fine cotton of his shirt was already heavy with perspiration.
How long would it take to re-acclimatise to Broome's tropical temperatures, given he'd been away so many years? Not that it really mattered, he thought dismissively as he curled himself into a taxi and snapped out a brisk command to the driver. He'd be back in London long before there was any chance of that happening.
THE CRASH TEAM had departed, the tubes and needles removed, the equipment turned off. Strange--she'd grown to hate that incessant beeping of the monitor over the last couple of days with its constant reminder of Laurence's increasingly frail condition. But right now Ruby Clemenger would give anything to have that noise back--anything to break the deathly quiet of the room--anything at all if it meant that Laurence was still really here.
But Laurence was gone.
Her eyes felt scratchy and swollen, but there were no tears, not yet, because it was just so hard to accept. And so unfair. Fifty-five was way too young to die, especially when you had the vision and energy of Laurence Bastiani, the now late head of the largest cultured South Sea pearl operation in the world.
Even now he looked like he was sleeping, his hand still warm in hers. But there was no tell-tale rise and fall of his chest under the sheet, no flicker of eyelashes as if he was merely dreaming, no answering squeeze of his fingers.
She let her head fall forward on her chest, her eyelids jammed together as she tried to see past the yawning pit of despair inside her. But logic had deserted her tonight just as swiftly as Laurence's unexpected departure. And now all she could think about were his final words to her, half whispered, half choked, his fingers pressing urgently into her flesh as the attack that had finally taken his life overcame him.
"Look after him,'he'd managed to whisper. "Look after Zane. And tell him--I'm sorry..."
And then the monitor's note had changed into one continual bleep and her thoughts had turned to panic. A heartbeat later the doors to the room had crashed open to a flurry of blue cotton and trolleyed machinery and in one swift blur she'd been expertly manoeuvred outside.
By the time they'd let her back in it was over and she'd never had a chance to ask him what he'd meant and why the son who hadn't bothered to contact his father the best part of a decade should need looking after or why Laurence felt he was the one who should apologise for his son's neglect. And she'd never had a chance to demand to know why the hell Laurence would expect her to be the one to do it.
But she had no time to squander on the prodigal son. After the way he'd neglected his father, Zane was so low on her radar he didn't register. Right now she'd lost her mentor, a father figure and an inspiration. Most of all, she'd lost a dear friend.
"Oh, Laurence," she whispered, her voice cracking under the strain. "I'll miss you so much."
The door swung open behind her. She sniffed and took a calming breath. The staff would be wanting her to leave so they could complete the formalities. She lifted her head to acknowledge their presence.
"I'm almost ready," she said, only half turning towards the door. "Just a moment longer, if that's okay."
There was no immediate response, no drawing back and closing of doors, and a strange feeling of unease crawled its way up her spine. Her back straightened in reaction, her arms prickling into goosebumps as the room chilled to ice-cold.
"I'd prefer to visit with my father alone."
Her head snapped around to where the stranger with the ice-cold tone filled the doorway. And yet, for the briefest second, her heart skipped with recognition--until harsh reality resurfaced, snuffing out her momentary joy.
Oh, they might have been Laurence's eyes she'd been staring at, with their same dark caramel richness, the same shape and heavy-hooded, almost seductive lids. But whereas the older man's eyes had been filled with a mixture of affection and respect, their corners crinkled with laughter over a shared joke or with natural delight at discovering the perfect pearl, the eyes turned upon her now were cold and imperious.
Zane, she realised, her first-impression sensors screaming a red-light warning. So what that he was Laurence's son?--clearly that didn't make him her friend.
His body language made that more than plain. His unyielding stance was imbued with antagonism, from his unshaven jaw and short finger-combed dark hair to his designer black jeans and hand-crafted leather boots, planted on the tiled floor like they owned it. Even the contrasting white shirt failed to soften the impression, instead only emphasising his olive skin and dark features. He wore power like a birthright.
She forced her aching back ramrod straight in her chair as his icy gaze swept over her, noticing when it finally came to a halt where her fingers rested, still curled around his father's hand. Disapproval came off him in waves, but she pointedly maintained her hold. She had a right to be here even if he didn't like it. And he obviously didn't. Too bad.
And yet, whatever his faults, part of her recognized that he had to be hurting, too. Despite the two not speaking for years, his father's death must still have come as a huge shock. Even just one day ago Laurence had been expected to make a complete recovery, so when Zane had boarded that plane from London, the prospect of his father's death would have been a remote and unlikely possibility. He would have to be made of granite not to be affected by what he'd discovered once he'd arrived. Nobody could be that hard. Nobody could that insensitive.
"You must be Zane," she said, trying to steer some kind of course through the jagged ice floes cluttering the atmosphere between them. "I'm Ruby Clemenger. I worked with your father."
"I know who you are," he snapped.
She blinked and took a steadying breath, instantly rethinking her earlier assumption. Maybe he was that hard and insensitive, after all.
"I am sorry about your father," she persisted, trying again, if only for Laurence's sake, because even if she didn't give a rat's about Zane, she'd wanted so much for Laurence to have his last wish met. She shook her head. "He wanted so much to see you. But you're too late."
His eyes narrowed in on hers, intensifying their laser-like quality.
"Too late?" he repeated. "Oh, yeah, it sure looks that way from where I'm standing."
She shivered in the frosty atmosphere. Why did she get the distinct impression he was talking about more than his father's untimely death?
Zane battled to hold his mounting irritation in check. Trust her to be here. He hadn't seen a single photograph of his father over the last few years that hadn't also featured this woman clinging to his arm. Ruby Clemenger--his father's constant companion, his father's right-hand woman. His father had always been a leg man, and, judging by the long sweep of golden limbs tucked beneath her on the armchair, nothing much had changed.
But right now all he wanted was for her to use those legs to get out of here. This was his father, his grief, his anger. He'd travelled the best part of twenty-four hours, only to be cheated out of seeing his father by one. He didn't want to share this time with anyone, let alone with the likes of her.
At last it seemed she was taking the hint. The spark of fight that had flared in her azure eyes had dimmed as she unwound herself out of the chair, her movements slow and deliberate, like she'd been sitting too long. But still she didn't move away from the bed, her filmy skirt floating just above knee length.
Even in their jet-lagged state his eyes couldn't help but notice--he'd been right about the legs. But now she was standing, it was clear her attributes didn't stop there--they extended much further north, an alluring mix of feminine curves and sun-kissed skin, of blue eyes framed by dark lashes and lips generous enough to be begging to be kissed--just the way he liked them.
Just the way his father liked them.