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"Marry you?" Cassandra Roth whispered as she sank down on the leather sofa.
Dominic Roth stood in front of the terrace doors with the city of Melbourne's skyline in the distance behind him and watched his beautiful sister-in-law gasp in shock. He'd almost feel sorry for her if he didn't know her better. "That's right. You and I are getting married."
His voice seemed to draw her from herself, and she lifted her ash-blond head, her eyes clouding over. "But Liam's been dead only a week."
Pain clawed through him. "I know exactly how long my brother has been dead." And early December would never be the same for his family. The start of summer, then Christmas, would always hold the memory of Liam.
There was a flash of sympathy before she pulled back her slim shoulders. "And he was my husband."
"For less than three years. He was my brother for twenty-eight." Liam had been the youngest, Adam was two years older, and Dominic was two years older than Adam. Never had any of them dreamed that an illness would take Liam at such a young age.
"That's a low blow, Dominic," she admonished.
He kept any hint of remorse out of his expression. He wouldn't have said that to any other woman but this one. She'd married Liam only to get her hands on the Roth family fortune. His great-grandfather would roll over in his grave if he knew that Roth's, his Australian luxury goods department store chain, was keeping this woman in her own brand of luxury.
He reached inside the jacket of his business suit and pulled out an envelope. "I have a letter here. It's from Liam. He wanted me to give it to you. To explain."
Her finely arched eyebrows drew together. "Explain?"
"Why he wanted you to marry me."
Her blue eyes widened. "What! My husband wanted me to marry you?"
"He wanted his daughter to grow up a Roth."
Her forehead creased; her eyes looked confused. "But Nicole is already a Roth."
Something turned inside him. He knew that more than anyone.
"Liam wanted his daughter to grow up a Roth, living under the Roth name. He didn't want you marrying someone outside the family. He thought you might, especially considering your affair with Keith Samuels."
She drew in a sharp breath. "You know about that?"
"Liam told me."
"But—but it wasn't like that."
"No excuses please, Cassandra," he snapped, carrying the letter over to her. "I don't want to hear the details."
She stared up at him, a tremor touching her lips, but he was unmoved by her performance. He thrust the sealed envelope at her and moved back to his original position, scrutinizing her as she tore open the envelope and began to read. How could any woman be so stunningly beautiful yet be so hard and demanding underneath? What was in the way she carried herself that was so deceptive? What was her allure for a man?
Her soft pink ensemble of matching trousers, camisole top and jacket projected an image of elegance and grace. Strappy sandals added style, as did the delicate gold earrings and thin gold chain at her neck. Her makeup was refined, her skin flawless, her ash-blond hair gently fluffed and falling down to her shoulders.
And that flawless face was white by the time she finished reading. "Did you read this?"
"No, but Liam apprised me of its contents when he gave it to me."
Something shifted in her expression, but it disappeared as she jumped to her feet, the letter held tightly in her hand. "I'm sorry, but I can't do this."
"I think you'll find you don't have a choice."
There was a fleeting pause. "Why do you say that?"
"The reading of Liam's will is tomorrow. I thought I'd break it to you beforehand to avoid a scene." Thank God his father had taken his mother away on the family yacht to mourn.
"If you don't marry me within two weeks, the bulk of the estate will go to Nicole when she turns twenty-one, rather than being shared between you now. You'll receive only enough to live on, solely for Nicole's well-being, until then. If that happens, every cent you need will have to go through me."
He would not let himself feel sorry for her. "Liam told me how much allowance you receive each month. He was extremely generous. I'd say you have a lot to lose, wouldn't you? "
Her throat convulsed. "But that was for—"
"There you have it," he said, cutting her off, not wanting to hear excuses.
"This is ridiculous! It's an abomination. I'll contest it."
"You could try. Liam tied it up pretty good. As it stands, you'll have just enough to live on, and certainly nothing like the standard of living you have now," he mocked, glancing around the room.
The spacious town house was a showcase of modern living, with a design reflecting space and light, a white-on-white decor, state-of-the-art technology second to none, and a private courtyard ideal for extensive entertaining. He'd been here only a few times, but he'd always thought it was ideal for them both.
Yet studying Cassandra now, he realized she didn't seem to fit in the place at all. Had it suited Liam more? And why suddenly not her? The coolness, the whiteness, the automation of it all should fit her, but it didn't, and he didn't know why it wasn't reflecting what he knew of this woman.
He grimaced to himself at that. Hell, what did he care, anyway? Damn Liam for entangling him in all this. If only he hadn't unknowingly gone to the hospital that day to see Liam during the artificial insemination process. If only…
"You forget that I have this town house, Dominic," she said, sounding more in control now. "I could sell it. Nicole and I could live on the proceeds."
Her voice drew him from his thoughts. "The town house is in my name, Cassandra. Liam deeded it over to me a month ago."
She lost more color. "Oh, God, he didn't want me to get any of it, did he?"
"No, he didn't."
Hurt flashed across her face so fast, he almost missed it. He allowed her that. Having a husband do this to you wouldn't be an easy thing to accept, no matter that she'd done the wrong thing by Liam in the first place.
Of course, she'd never loved Liam. She'd proven that when she'd pushed him to go home to their parents' house to die, rather than letting him die in his own home with his wife beside him. As it should be. Oh, she'd acted like she'd been there for him until the end, and she'd cried after it was over, but a truly grieving widow? He didn't believe so.
"I'll say he wasn't in his right mind," she said, desperate now.
"His lawyer will attest to the opposite."
More panic flared in her eyes. "What's to stop me from marrying you, then getting the money and walking away?"
Dominic knew it was time to wrap this up. He didn't want to see this woman beg—not unless it was in the bedroom. At the thought, he could hear the blood fighting through his veins to get to her, like it always did.
It gave him the impetus to say what needed to be said. She was the mother of a nine-month-old Roth child—a child who was right now asleep in the bedroom and had no idea of what was going on out here in the living room with the adults. And whether either he or Cassandra liked it or not, this had to be done.
"If you don't marry me, or you marry me and then ask for a divorce, I'll fight for custody of Nicole."
She swayed a little and flopped back down on the sofa, closing her eyes. He went to go to her, then stopped. He had no doubt she loved her child now. It was her one and only saving grace, regardless that Liam had told him she hadn't wanted a baby at first. But he had to remember he was fighting for the rights of that child. Nicole deserved to be brought up a Roth.
If only he could put paid to all this by telling Cassandra the truth about her daughter. But dammit, he couldn't say a word. Not until the time was right. He'd promised Liam he'd keep the secret to himself until Nicole's future was cemented, and only after he and Cassandra were married. And then there were his parents to consider. He had to wait until their grief eased before he dumped another bombshell on them.
"Look around you," he said, letting his gaze sweep the magnificent living room. "You and Nicole are living a first-class lifestyle. You don't think a judge couldn't be persuaded that money and privilege aren't your child's right?"
All at once she had a fierce look about her. "A mother's love is more important."
"Yes, if you get a judge who believes love comes before the rest. Regardless of that, a wife who could be unfaithful to her husband would make the judge question that woman's morals, don't you think?"
"But I wasn't unfaithful," she said, turning pale.
"Save it for the judge, Cassandra."
She winced. He could see her balancing it all up. Then, "This is absurd," she burst out.
"I agree, but it's what Liam wanted, and as far as I'm concerned, I'm going to make sure my brother's dying wish is fulfilled."
His words hung in the air.
Then she shot him a penetrating look, bouncing back, like he knew she would. "Tell me, Dominic. What do you get out of all this if I marry you, besides a wife who doesn't love you or a child that isn't yours?"
His heart lurched. "I'll get the satisfaction of knowing my niece has a father."
"Why you? Why not Adam?"
Thoughts of her and Adam together were not pleasant. He loved his other brother, but Adam wasn't planning on getting married again, not after his wife died a few years ago in a car accident. Besides, he wasn't willing to share. It had been hard enough ignoring his lust for Cassandra as Liam's wife. He wouldn't go through that again. If marriage was the only option—and it was—then it would be with him.
"I'm the oldest. I'll do what's necessary."
Her cheeks took on some color, though whether through anger or embarrassment he couldn't tell. "There's something you've forgotten, Dominic. What about your parents?"
"They've lost a precious son, and now they'll have the chance to keep their grandchild in their lives. I think they'll understand, don't you?"
She blanched. "But they don't even like me."
"You did the wrong thing by their son. You expect they would? "
Her chin went up. "I married your brother for love, Dominic. Nothing else."
"Sure," he mocked.
She gave him one of her cool looks. "You've always thought I married him for his money, haven't you?"
"Not merely his money. There are a lot more things that go with being a Roth."
Her mouth took on a cynical twist. "Oh, I see. I was fostered, then adopted as a child, so automatically that makes me want what you have?" Her eyes held steady. "I thought you were more intelligent than that."
The comment stung. "My intelligence isn't at stake here."
"No, my future is, and that of my daughter's."
He hardened his heart. "It's only your daughter's future I'm concerned with."
"Thanks very much. Perhaps I should just hand her over and leave you to it?" she choked out.
Anger filled him. "You would do that?"
"Of course not!"
His heart settled, and then he recognized it was a real possibility. "How about a cool million for her?"
"Don't insult me, Dominic."
She looked wounded but recovered. "This is my daughter, and I intend to keep her. Nicole comes first. She needs her mother. And I need her."
Relief filled him. He could handle knowing this woman was a gold digger and an adulterer, but the possibility of a child finding out her mother had given her away was something else.
"Then it's marriage or nothing," he stated firmly.
She looked down at the letter in her hand and swallowed. "I—"
"Yes or no, Cassandra?"
She took a ragged breath and lifted her head. "It looks like I don't have a choice."
"Neither do I, but this isn't about us."
"No, it's about my daughter, and she's the only reason I'll marry you, Dominic."
He smiled cynically. "Are you trying to dent my ego?"
"I haven't got a big enough jackhammer for that."
His lips twitched despite himself, and her mouth curved a hint and suddenly he was aware it wasn't the jackhammer he had to worry about. It was that wispy little smile he'd seen on those soft lips. Lips he intended to kiss one day soon.
"I'll make the arrangements," he said brusquely and strode from the house without another word. He had to remember that his younger brother had been sucker punched by this woman's beauty. Liam had given her the Roth name, a luxurious town house, furs, expensive jewelry, and she'd taken it all without a qualm.
Sure, she had come through for Liam and had proceeded with giving him the one thing he'd desperately wanted before he died—a child with whom to leave something of himself behind. But had it really been such a sacrifice? She would have known she was set for life by having a Roth child.
Of course, what she didn't know was that Liam's blood ties to his oldest brother had won out over conscience in the end. Blood ties through Nicole.
And one day Cassandra would have to know the truth. That the daughter she thought was her late husband's was actually his.
Cassandra stayed sitting long after her brother-in-law left, thankful Nicole was taking her afternoon nap.
The letter in her hand said it all.
Oh, God, how could Liam have done this to her? Liam, the man who'd totally swept her off her feet three years ago. A dashing young man who'd declared he'd fallen in love with her from the moment he'd seen her working behind the cosmetics counter at the Roth's flagship store in the city. He hadn't taken no for an answer. She wished he had.
Cassandra, forgive me for doing this, but I have no choice. I want Nicole to be raised a Roth.
Their marriage had been a sham almost from the start. She'd loved him, but Liam had wanted only a trophy wife and hadn't really loved her beyond her looks. He'd showered her with presents, but it had all been about putting her on display.