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Kimberley Blackstone's long strideand the Louis Vuitton suitcase she towed in her wakegathered momentum as she left customs at Auckland's international airport and headed toward the exit. Despite the handicap of her three-inch heels, she hit the Arrivals hall at a near jog, her focus on grabbing the first taxi in the rank outside, her mind making the transition from laid-back holiday mode to all that awaited her at House of Hammond on her first workday after the Christmas-New Year's break.
She didn't notice the waiting horde of media until it was too late. Flashbulbs exploded around her like a New Year's light show. She skidded to a halt, so abruptly her trailing suitcase rammed into her legs.
Surely, this had to be a case of mistaken identity. Kimberley hadn't been on the paparazzi hit list for close to a decade, not since she'd estranged herself from her billionaire father and his headline-hungry diamond business.
But, no, it was her name they called. Her face the focus of a swarm of lenses that circled like avid hornets. Her heart started to pound with fear-fuelled adrenaline.
What did they want?
What the hell was going on?
With a rising sense of bewilderment she scanned the crowd for a clue and her gaze fastened on a tall, leonine figure forcing his way to the front. A tall, familiar figure. She stared in stunned recognition and their gazes collided across the sea of heads before the cameras erupted with another barrage of flashes, this time right in her exposed face.
Blinded by the flashbulbsand by the shock of that momentary eye-meetKimberley didn't realise his intent until he'd forged his way to her side, possibly by the sheer strength ofhis personality. She felt his arm wrap around her shoulder, pulling her into the protective shelter of his body, allowing her no time to object, no chance to lift her hands to ward him off.
In the space of a hastily drawn breath, she found herself plastered knee-to-nose against six feet of hard-bodied male.
Her lover for ten torrid weeks, her husband for ten tumultuous days.
Her ex for ten tranquil years.
After all this time, he should not have felt so familiar but, oh, dear Lord, he did. She knew the scent of that body and its lean, muscular strength. She knew its heat and its slick power and every response it could draw from hers.
She also recognised the ease with which he'd taken control of the moment and the decisiveness of his deep voice when it rumbled close to her ear. "I have a car waiting. Is this your only luggage?"
Kimberley nodded. A week at a tropical paradise did not require much in the way of clothes. Especially when she was wearing the one office-style dress and the only pair of heels she'd packed. When he released his grip on her shoulder to take charge of her compact suitcase, she longed to dig those heels into the ground, to tell him exactly what he could do with his car, and his presumptuous attitude.
But she wasn't stupid. She'd seen Perrini in action often enough to know that attitude yielded results. The fierce expression and king-of-the-jungle manner he did so well would keep the snapping newshounds at bay.
Not that she was about to be towed along as meekly as her wheeled luggage.
"I assume you will tell me," she said tightly, "what this welcome party is all about."
"Not while the welcome party is within earshot."
Barking a request for the cameramen to stand aside, Perrini took her hand and pulled her into step with his ground-eating stride. Kimberley let him because he was right, damn his arrogant, Italian-suited hide. Despite the speed with which he whisked her across the terminal forecourt, she could almost feel the hot breath of the pursuing media on her back.
This was neither the time nor the place for explanations. Inside his car, however, she would get answers.
The initial shock had been blown awayby the haste of their retreat, by the heat of her gathering indignation, by the rush of adrenaline fired by Perrini's presence and the looming verbal battle. Her brain was starting to tick now. This had to be her father's doing. And if it was a Howard Blackstone publicity ploy, then it had to be about Blackstone Diamonds, the company that ruled his life.
The knowledge made her chest tighten with a familiar ache of disillusionment.
She'd known her father would be flying in from Sydney for today's opening of the newest in his chain of exclusive, high-end jewellery boutiques. The opulent shopfront sat adjacent to the rival business where Kimberley worked. No coincidence, she thought bitterly, just as it was no coincidence that Ric Perrini was here in Auckland ushering her to his car.
Perrini was Howard Blackstone's right-hand man, second in command at Blackstone Diamonds and head of the mining division, that position of power a legacy of his short-lived marriage to the boss's daughter. No doubt her father had sent him to fetch her; the question was why.
On his last visit to Auckland, Howard had attempted yet again to lure her back to Blackstone's, to the job she'd walked away from the day she walked out on her marriage. That meeting had escalated into an ugly word-slinging bout and ended with Howard vowing to write her from his will if she didn't return to Blackstone's immediately.
Two months later Kimberley was still here in Auckland, still working for his sworn enemy at House of Hammond. They hadn't spoken since; she hadn't expected any other outcome. When her father said he was wiping his hands of her, she took him at his word.
Yet here she was, being rushed toward a gleaming black limousine by her father's number-one henchman. She had no clue why he'd changed his mind or what the media presence signified, apart from more Blackstone headlines and the certainty that she was being used. Again. Sending Perrini was the final cruel twist.
By the time they arrived at the waiting car, her blood was simmering with a mixture of remembered hurt and raw resentment. The driver stowed her luggage while Perrini stowed her. She slid across the silver-grey leather seat and the door closed behind her, shutting her off from the cameras that seemed to be multiplying by the minute.
Perrini paused on the pavement beside the hired car, his hands held wide in a gesture of appeal as he spoke. Whatever he was saying only incited more questions, more flash-bulbs, and Kimberley steamed with the need to know what was going on. She reached for her door handle, and when it didn't open she caught the driver's eye in the rearview mirror. "Could you please unlock the doors? I need to get out."
He looked away. And he didn't release the central locking device.
Kimberley's blood heated from slow simmer to fast boil. "I am here under duress. Release the lock or I swear I will"
Before she could complete her threat, the door opened from outside and Perrini climbed in beside her. She'd been closer inside the airport terminal, when he'd shielded her from the cameras with the breadth of his body, but then she'd been too sluggish with disbelief to react. Now she slid as far away as the backseat allowed, and as she fastened her seat belt the car sped away from the kerb.
Primed for battle, she turned to face her adversary. "You had me locked inside this car out of earshot while you talked to the media? This had better be good, Perrini."
He looked up from securing his seat belt and their eyes met and held. For the first time there was nothing between themno distraction, no interruptionand for a beat of time she forgot herself in those unexpectedly blue eyes, in the unbidden rush of memories that rose in a choking wave.
For a second she thought she saw an echo of the same raw emotion deep in his eyes but then she realised it was only tiredness. And tension.
"I wouldn't be here," he said, low and gruff, "if this wasn't important."
The implication that he would rather be anywhere but here, with her, fisted tightly around Kimberley's heart. But she lifted her chin and stared him down. "Important to whom? My father?"
He didn't have to answer. She saw it in the narrowing of his deep-set eyes, as if her comment had irritated him. Good. She'd meant it to.
"Did he think sending you would change my mind?" she continued coolly, despite the angry heat that churned her stomach. "Because he could have saved himself"
"He didn't send me, Kim."
There was something in the delivery of that simple statement that brought all her senses to full alert. Finally she allowed herself to take him all in. He was not lounging with his usual arrogant ease but sitting straight and still. Sunlight spilled through the side window onto his face, highlighting the angles and planes, the straight line of his nose and the deep cleft in his chin.
And the muscle that ticked in his jaw.
She could feel the tension now, strong enough to suck up all the air in the luxury car's roomy interior. She could see it, too, in the grim line of his mouth and the intensity of his cobalt-blue eyes.
Despite the muggy summer morning Kimberley felt an icy shiver of foreboding. Beneath the warmth of her holiday tan her skin goose-bumped. Something was very, very wrong.
"What is it?" Her fingers clutched at the handbag in her lap, gripping the soft leather straps as if that might somehow anchor her against what was to come. "If my father didn't send you, then why are you here?"
"Howard left Sydney last night. Your brother received a phone call in the early hours of this morning when the plane didn't arrive in Auckland."
"Didn't arrive?" She shook her head, unable to accept what he wasn't telling her. "Planes don't just fail to arrive. What happened?"
"We don't know. Twenty minutes out of Sydney it disappeared from radar." His eyes locked on hers, and all she needed to know was etched in their darkened depths, and in the dip of his head and the strained huskiness of his next words. "I'm sorry, Kim."
No. She shook her head again. This couldn't be happening. How could her all-powerful, larger-than-life father be dead? On the eve of his greatest moment, the day when he'd vowed to rub the Hammonds' faces in his accomplishments right here on their home turf.
"He was coming for the opening of the Queen Street store," she said softly.
"Yes. He was due to leave at seven-thirty but there was a delay. Some contracts to be signed."
There always were. Every childhood memory of her father concerned business papers, negotiations, dealing in the fabulous wealth of the diamonds that underpinned it all. She couldn't remember ever seeing him dressed in anything other than a business suit. That was his life.
Diamonds and contracts and making headlines.
"When I saw you at the airport," she said, "with all the cameras and media hubbub, I thought it was to do with the opening. Some strategy he'd come up with to grab attention for the new shop." The awful reality of tomorrow's headlines churned through her, tightening her chest in a painful vise. "They were there because they knew."
While she'd been enjoying her last walk on the beach, her last breakfast of papaya and mango and rambutan, while she'd laughed with the resort staff and flirted with the twenty-year-old charmer seated next to her on the flight home
"I didn't know," she said on a choked whisper. Despite their bitter estrangement of the past decade, despite everything she held her father accountable for, she'd grown up adoring the man and vying with her brother to win his favour. For thirty-one years he had shaped her decisions, her career, her beliefs. For the last ten of those years she'd done everything she could to distance herself, but he was still her father. "I walked out of the terminal and into those cameras . How did they know?"
"About your father?" He exhaled, a rough sound that doubled as a curse. "I don't know. They shouldn't have had names this quickly. They sure as hell shouldn't have known you were coming through the airport this morning."
The sick feeling in Kimberley's stomach sharpened. She hadn't worked her way around to that, but now he'd brought it up. Her forehead creased in a frown. "How did you know where to find me?"
"When you didn't answer your phone, I called your office."
Kimberley digested that information. Obviously he didn't mean in the predawn hours when her brother Ryan first received the news, otherwise he wouldn't have called her office. Wouldn't have found someoneLionel, the office manager, no doubtto point him in the direction of the airport. "You didn't call me as soon as you heard?"
"No." His voice dropped to the same harsh intensity that darkened his eyes to near black. "This wasn't something to hear over the phone, Kim."
"You thought it might be better if I heard from a news crew?" she asked.
"That's why I flew over here. To stop that happening."
"Yet it almost did happen."
"Because Hammond's office manager wouldn't give me your flight information over the phone." Ric ground out that information with barely leashed restraint. He didn't need her derisive tone reminding him of his impotent frustration on the drive to and from the city, not knowing if he'd make it back in time to meet her flight. Not knowing if the media would discover her whereabouts when that information had been deliberately withheld from him.
It hadn't been a surprise, just a damn aggravation.
There was no love lost between the employees of House of Hammond and Blackstone Diamonds. The enmity of a thirty-year feud between the heads of the two companiesHoward and his brother-in-law, Oliver Hammondhad spilled over and tainted relationships into the next generation. Kimberley had reignited the simmering feud when she took a position assisting Matt Hammond, the current CEO of House of Hammond.
"You can't blame Lionel for exercising caution," Kim said archly, as if she'd read his mind.
There was something in that notion and in her tone that trampled all over Ric's prickly mood. Ten minutes together and despite the gravity of the news he'd brought, they teetered on the razor's edge of an argument. He shook his head wearily and let it roll back against the cool upholstery. Why should he be surprised? From the moment they'd met, their relationship had been defined by fiery clashes and passionate making up.
He'd never had a woman more difficult than Kim nor one who could give him more pleasure.
When the phone call about Howard came in, he'd made the decision to fly to her without a second's hesitation. As much as he hated what had brought him here, he relished the fact it would bring her home. She belonged at Blackstone's. Ric sucked in a deep breath, and the scent of summer that clung to her skin curled into his gut and took hold.
Just like she belonged in his bed.
"You must have left very early this morning," she said. "I was on my way back to Sydney from the Janderra mine when Ryan called. An emergency trip, last minute, so I took the company jet. When Howard knew I wouldn't be back, he chartered a replacement for his trip."
"You were already in the air. That's why you were the one to come."
Ric turned his head slowly and found himself looking right into her jade-green eyes. They were her most striking feature, not only because of that dramatic colour offset by the dark frame of her brows, but because of how much they gave away. The trick, he'd learned, was picking the real emotion from the sophisticated front she used to hide her vulnerabilities.