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She was here.
Chase stood in the shadows of the portico just outside the banquet room of the Vista del Mar Beach and Tennis Club. The room glittered and sparkled with both people and jewelry, the people in full cocktail-party mode, the jewelry, too, he supposed. Dead center in the middle of all that glitter and sparkle stood Emma, the woman he'd spent a single incredible night romancing, seducing and then losing.
While dance music played in the background, voices rose and fell, determined laughter taking the edge off the rocky undercurrents that flowed around the room. Ostensibly the cocktail party celebrated the impending sale of Worth Industries to Chase's stepbrother and closest friend, Rafe Cameron. But old grudges and past secrets stirred restlessly beneath the surface. As his brother's money manager and one of those involved in negotiating the purchase of Worth, tonight marked the start of a rough and treacherous passage.
Chase studied Emma while he sipped a thirty-year-old Laphroaig that his brother had stashed for those not interested in the free-flowing champagne. The single-malt Scotch whiskey went down as smooth as silk. Almost as smooth as Emma's skin. She had a good portion of that skin on display, the pearl-gray silk dress she wore clinging to curves he'd do just about anything to uncover once again.
Her dress appeared vaguely Grecian in style, one shoulder bared while the silk draped from the other shoulder across her breasts. It hitched in a clever knot on her hip before flowing to just beneath the knee. Continuing with the Grecian theme, she wore toothpick-heeled sandals with straps that wrapped around narrow ankles and trim calves. With her ice-blond hair swept into an elegant chignon, she looked like a goddess. Like a player.
His eyes narrowed. Which begged the question what the hell was she doing here? Since the guests were all connected in one way or another to either Cameron Enterprises or Worth Industries, she was, too. Either that, or she was the "plus one" gilded on to a guest's invitation.
Maybe he'd wander over and find out. And maybe while he was finding out, he'd ask her why the hell she disappeared the way she had, leaving him ripping apart all of New York City in a fruitless search for the mysterious Emma With No Last Name. Before he could, Ronald Worth, soon-to-be ex-owner of Worth Industries, joined Emma and placed a proprietary hand on her bare shoulder.
Chase straightened, his mouth settling into a grim line. No way. Surely she wasn't the arm candy of Rafe's nemesis. Oh, hell, no. She couldn't possibly be sharing a bed with that sixtysomething-year-old bastard. But based on the way good ol' Ron lowered his head and whispered a loving comment in her ear and the affectionate manner in which she leaned into him and kissed his cheek, that was precisely what she was. Son of a
"Don't even think about it."
Chase glanced over his shoulder at the sound of Rafe's voice, his pale blond hair giving away his location in the darkness. "What?"
"The Princess. I see you staring at her, and I'm telling you. Don't even think about it. That one will eat you up and spit you out just for the sheer pleasure of it."
Chase fell silent, a tactic he'd learned during those rough, early years when he'd gone to live with his father. He turned to face his stepbrother, careful to conceal the anger surging through him. "You know her?" he asked mildly enough.
"Emma Worth, aka Spawn of Satan."
Chase lifted an eyebrow, relief replacing his anger. So she wasn't Ronald Worth's mistress, but his daughter. "I gather Worth is cast in the role of Satan?"
Rafe's grin lacked even a shred of humor. "What can I say? It comes naturally to him."
"And the daughter? What do you know about her?" Since Chase didn't want his brother to think he had a personal interest, he added, "Is she a factor in the sale?"
"She better not be a factor or she'll find herself moved out of the way by whatever means necessary," Rafe responded with characteristic ruthlessness. "But I don't think she'll be a player in any of this. She's shallow. Overindulged. Pure useless fluff."
"A party girl?"
Rafe hesitated. "A little lower profile than that. You don't see her plastered across the scandal sheets. More of a private party girl."
Chase turned and studied Emma once again while he considered this latest information. A private party girl. That fit with his experience, even though he hadn't picked up on the cues when they'd been together. Nor had she come off as shallow. But considering they'd only spent one night together, what the hell did he know?
More than anything he wanted to confront her, demand an explanation for her disappearing act. But perhaps he already had his answer, courtesy of Rafe. She was a party girl. One-night stands were as common to her as shopping for groceries was to the average woman. Even so, he hated being made a fool of, another throwback to his formative school years.
At the ripe age of ten, when he'd first arrived in New York to live with his father, Chase had been dubbed Barron's Bastard. That might have had something to do with the fact that his driven, world-renowned businessman father and his laid-back, California-mellow mother had never formalized their affair with traditional "I dos." He'd soon had the "California" knocked out of him by his peers at the private school where he'd been dumped and learned to keep his emotions and personal opinions under tight control. It was a lesson he never forgot and one that had helped propel him to the top of his field as a money manager.
His gaze narrowed on Emma in careful assessment. As Rafe suggested, she exuded wealth, privilege and glamour. From the elegant twist of her pale blond hair to the discreet glitter of diamonds at her earlobes and wrist, she sent out signals that mixed a sultry come-hither sexiness with an Ice-Princess touch-me-not facade. It all boiled down to one compelling objective. Chase wanted her with an unrelenting hunger. And one way or another, he'd have her again.
"How are you feeling, Dad?" Emma asked quietly, slipping her arm through her father's. "The party isn't too much, is it?"
"Don't fuss, sweetheart. I'm fine." Ronald Worth softened the testy edge in his voice with a smile. "It's a minor heart ailment, as you know damn well."
"Oh, really?" she challenged. "Apparently, it's bad enough to convince you to sell Worth Industries to Rafe Cameron."
He grimaced. "That's only one factor in my decision. I keep telling you, if you'd step in"
"which I won't, as I keep telling you."
"Well, there you have it. I could continue chugging along for another decade or two." He glared down at her. "Don't give me that look, missy. I'm only in my mid-sixties. The prime of my life."
Emma smothered a smile. "I didn't say a word."
"You didn't have to."
She sighed, giving his arm a swift hug. "Are you sure you're doing the right thing? Even if running Worth isn't something I'd care to do, you don't have to sell if you'd rather not. You could delegate more. Hire someone to handle a greater portion of your day-to-day responsibilities."
"That's an option." Ronald's jaw firmed. "Selling is the one I chose instead."
"But selling to Rafe Cameron, of all people. From what little I've seen of him, he puts the a in arrogance."
His thick silver mane of hair glinting beneath the overhead lights, her father turned to glance in Rafe's direction. "Nothing wrong with arrogance when you have a solid pair of brass ones to back it up." A wistful note colored his words. "I was just like him at his age."
"Enough, Emma. It's practically a done deal." Laser-sharp ocean-blue eyes gazed down at her and his harsh expression softened. "Have I told you how lovely you look this evening?"
She allowed her head to rest against his shoulder for a moment. "Just a chip off the old block."
He snagged her chin and tipped her face up to his. "You have all my best qualities and none of my worst. Same could be said about your mother. You have her staggering beauty but none of her weaknesses."
Emma's eyes misted. The fact that he'd mention her mother was startling enough. But for him to say anything positive about his late wife, even if it came across as a rather backhanded compliment, was downright shocking. Now if she could just get her father to reconcile with her brother. They weren't completely estranged. After all, her brother managed the family ranch at Copper Run Ranch. But it had been more than a decade since the three of them had sat down like a family and talked to each other. Painful, irreversible events from the past prevented that from happening. "Dad "
He must have guessed the direction of her thoughts because he shook his head. "Forget it, princess. Not going to happen." He dropped a kiss on the tip of her nose. "Business calls. It's going to be a late night for me. Need to get out there and shake hands, kiss babies and steal lollipops. Will you be all right? If you want to leave early, you can take the car. Just send it back for me."
"Don't worry about me, Dad. I'll find my own way home." She gestured toward his executive assistant with a smile. "Kathleen's coming over. I'll ask her for a ride."
She could tell he'd already shifted gears. "Fine, fine. You do that. I have a few questions for William."
He made a beeline for Rafe Cameron's chief financial officer, William Tanner, a tall, gorgeous New Zealander who'd flown in for the party. He exuded a ruthless power similar to his employer's. Her father's departure left Emma standing alone, shaking her head. Not that she was alone for long. Kathleen Richards descended on her, snatching her up in an exuberant hug.
"Well, hello there, Emma. Aren't you a picture?" So was Kathleen. With her flaming red hair, bright green eyes and feisty personality, she never failed to light up the room, especially when dressed in eye-popping amethyst. "I swear, the only girl prettier than you is my granddaughter, Sarah."
Emma smiled, playing along. "Considering she's the image of you, that must make me the third prettiest girl."
Kathleen chuckled, the laugh unfettered and downright contagious. As always, heads swiveled in her direction at the trademark sound. "That's what I've always loved about you. You look upper crust, but you've always been real folk, same as that adorable brother of yours." She spared a swift look in Ronald's direction and lowered her voice. "How's he doing, by the way? I swear I haven't seen him in a solid fifteen years."
"Neither have I. Since he decided to walk out on us, we"
Emma broke off and inhaled sharply. No! It couldn't be. Of all the men in the entire world to show up out of the blue, Chase was the last one she'd ever expect to see. She'd spent every single day of the past two months trying to get this man out of her head, with zero success. And yet, there he was, walking toward her with the sleek, predatory prowl of a cougar, his ruffled blond hair the exact same golden-brown shade as a mountain cat's pelt.
"What's wrong?" Kathleen demanded. She glanced over her shoulder and chuckled. "Oh, I see. Let me tell you, Emma, I had the exact same reaction when Chase Larson walked into your dad's office. Took me a solid minute to find my jaw and pull it up off the floor. Tell you what. Why don't I introduce you?"
"No, you don't"
She waved a hand at Chase. "Mr. Larson? I'd like to introduce you to Ronald's daughter, Emma."
"You don't have to" Emma hastened to explain in an undertone. But it was too late to stop her. Far too late to stop him. "Chase and I have already met," she finished lamely.
"You've met?" Kathleen's gaze darted from one to the other and she grinned. "Well, then. Isn't that interesting. I'll tell you what. Why don't you two get reacquainted on the dance floor, while I get out of your way?"
"An excellent idea," Chase said. There was an unmistakable darkness edging his expression and lending a harshness to the deep timbre of his voice. He took her hand in his and gave a sharp tug, jerking her into his arms. He stared down at her, his blue eyes full of threat and promise. "Dance with me, Emma."
But all she heard was "Gotcha."
Chase took her in his arms, pulling her far too close. "Do you mind?" Emma attempted to ease back a precious few inches, only to have him tighten his grip. "In case you're unaware, breathing is a necessary component to dancing."
"If I don't hold you close you may run away again."
"I didn't run away before," she instantly denied.
She spared Chase a swift look, then wished she hadn't. At a smidge over six feet, he was an impressive man, his features attractively chiseled with a firm chin, strong, nicely shaped mouth and intelligent gray-blue eyes. She'd grown up around tough men and this was one more example of the breed, despite the patina of sophistication that cloaked him like a second skin.
When they'd met while flagging down a cab on that fateful November day the weekend before Thanksgiving, he'd been so charming that they'd ended up sharing the taxi. Granted, the charm had been rough-hewn and deliciously edgy. But that had only added to the romantic ambiance of the lovely fall weather. They'd ended up spending the entire day together, followed by the entire night.
Chase swung her around in an easy circle, his hand resting tantalizingly low on her back and sending frissons of temptation racing through her. "Funny. As I recall, you were there when I fell asleep and you were gone when I woke up. No goodbye kiss. No note. No way to find you."
Her brows drew together. "Then how did you?"
He gave a short, hard laugh. "You think I'm here for you?"
A hint of warmth drifted across her cheekbones. "I take it you're not," she said drily.
"I'm here to help finalize the Worth deal, Ms. Worth." He leaned on her last name. "Our meeting tonight is sheer coincidence since you didn't even bother to tell me who you were when we first met."
"I don't recall you asking. Nor do I recall you sharing your name at the time," she replied with impressive calm.
"Now you know it. It's Larson. Chase Larson." The name rang a vague bell, but she couldn't quite place it. As though aware of that fact, he added, "I'm Rafe Cameron's brother."
She missed a step and Chase supported her weight while she recovered her footing. "Please tell me you're kidding."