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Amber Odell had just washed up after her solitary evening meal when the doorbell sounded a long, imperative ring.
She closed a cupboard door with a click of the old-fashioned catch, hastily hung the tea towel on its rail and hurried along the short hallway.
The rimu floorboards beneath the faded carpet runner creaked under her bare feet. The old building in a once-fashionable Auckland suburb had endured a chequered career from grand home to orphanage to boarding house until, towards the end of the twentieth century, some crude renovations had converted it into flats. Amber was lucky to have leased one on the ground floor at a reasonable price, in return for some badly needed redecorating.
She switched on the porch light and hesitated at the sight of a large, dark shape behind the blue-and-red stained glass panes on the top part of the door. After a second or two the shape moved and raised a hand to rap on the wooden panel between the panes.
Cautiously she opened the door, braced to slam it shut again.
The porch light shone down on glossy waves of night-black hair combed back from an arresting olive-toned face with high cheekbones and a commanding nose. The forbidding features and uncompromising, beard-shadowed jaw were at odds with a sensuous male mouth, even though at the moment it was stubbornly set and unsmiling.
Vaguely she was conscious of broad shoulders, a pristine white T-shirt moulded over a toned chest, and long powerful legs encased in olive-green trousers. Casual clothes that somehow managed to convey a sense of style and expense.
But most of her attention was riveted by a nearly coal-dark gaze, burning with what looked like anger.
Which didn't make sense. She'd never laid eyes on the man in her life.
Not that he wasn't worth laying eyes on. She was perturbed by a stirring of unbidden female response to the potent aura of masculinity that invisibly cloaked him.
Pushing back a strand of fine, fair hair that flowed over shoulders bared by her brief tube top, she opened her mouth to ask what he wanted.
Before she could say anything, a comprehensive, searing gaze traversed downward over the wide strip of ribbed cotton hugging her breasts, and lingered on the pale flesh between the top and her blue shorts before quickly taking in the length of her legs and then returning to her face.
Amber went hot all over with anger of her ownand shock at the way her pulse points had leapt to life under the bold inspection. Lifting her chinas she needed to anyway to look the man in the eyeshe was about to ask again what he wanted when he forestalled her with the abrupt query "Where is he?" issued in a low, grating voice.
She blinked, startled. "I think you've" Made a mistake, she'd been going to say, but she was cut off.
"I said, Where is he?" the manrasped. "Where is my son?"
"Well, certainly not here!" Amber told him. Maybe he was looking for one of the other tenants. "You've got the wrong place. Sorry."
She began to close the door, but the man reached out and with apparent ease pushed it back again and stepped into the hallway.
Amber instinctively retreated, then realised that was the worst thing to do as the intimidating stranger kicked the door shut behind him, and when she turned to flee along the passagewaynot that it would do her much gooda hard hand clamped about her arm and swung her to face him.
She opened her mouth to scream, hoping the two students next door or the journalist in the flat directly above hers would hear and investigate.
All she got out was a choked sound before the intruder put his other hand over her mouth and crowded her against the wall. She felt the warmth of his lean, hard body almost touching hers, and smelled a faint whiff of leather with a hint of newly cut grass. Aftershave? Although he looked as if he hadn't shaved for a couple of days.
He said, moderating his voice with its slight foreign accent in an apparent effort to reassure her, "Don't be foolish. You have no need to fear me."
Now he looked exasperated rather than angry. Amber contemplated kneeing him, weighing her chances of disabling him and escaping, but suddenly he let her go and said, "Now let us be sensible."
Yes, let's! Amber thought grimly. "The sensible thing is for you to leave before I call the police!"
A frown appeared between his dark brows, and a flash of temper lit his eyes again. He said flatly, "All I ask is to see my son. You have"
"I told you" Amber raised her voice "your son is not here! I don't know why you should think"
"I don't believe you."
"Look" she edged towards the door and kept talking "you've made a mistake. I can't help you, and I'm asking you to leave."
"Leave?" He seemed affronted. "After flying from Venezuela to New Zealand? I have not slept since"
"That's not my problem," she informed him.
She reached out to open the door again but he put a hand on it, holding it shut and looking down at her through narrowed eyes. "If he is not here," he said quietly, as though struggling to control himself, "what have you done with him?"
A new expression had appeared in his eyessurely not fear? Or at least genuine anxiety.
Again the black brows drew together. Lucifer must have had that same terrible, ferocious male beauty.
She shivered, and he said, the harsh note back in his voice, "What are you up to?" His eyes made another hostile survey of her. "If you ever had a child it certainly does not show."
Amber gaped. "I've never had a child!" She reminded herself that most mentally ill people weren't dangerous.
Then he grabbed her upper arms and she thought, But a few are! and forced herself not to kick and hit. That might trigger him into real violence. If she kept calm maybe she could talk him into leaving. He muttered something that sounded suspiciously like swearing in Spanish. White teeth showed as his lips curled back in a near-snarl. "What devil's game are you playing?" he demanded. "Why did you write to me?"
"Write to you?" Amber's voice rose in disbelief. "I don't even know you!"
His hands tightened until she winced, and he dropped them, his tawny skin darkening. "In a sense that is true," he said with an air of hauteur, his eyes almost hidden by lowered lids that had the longest, thickest lashes she'd ever seen on a man. "But for a short time we knew each other intimately. That you cannot deny."
About to do so in no uncertain terms, she hesitated as a fantastic suspicion slithered into her mind. Venezuela. South America.
No. She shook her head to dislodge the shameful notion. The guy was raving.
"Very well," he said, impatient again and misinterpreting her action. "It is a matter of semantics. It was not
an emotional intimacy. But whatever you call it, you have not forgotten. What did you expect when you wrote that letter? That I would send money and put it out of my mind?"
"Wh-which letter?" Was it possible
"Were there others?" he asked, the lift of those almost satanic brows expressing cynical doubt. "The one," he continued with exaggerated patience, "that asked for a contribution towards the welfare of the child you had borne, apparently to me."
For a moment Amber felt dizzy, sick, and her hand involuntarily flew to her mouth to stop an exclamation escaping. Her voice shaking, she said, "I never sent you any letter, I swear."
Maybe she'd got through to him at last. He appeared briefly disconcerted, then his expression hardened again. "You were desperate, it said. Was it simply an attempt at extortion and there truly is no child?"
She breathed in, thinking, and slowly said, "Would you believe me if I told you that you have the wrong woman?"
His brows shot up again and he laughed. Not pleasantly. "I know I had far more wine that night than was wise, but I was not so drunk that I don't remember the face of the woman I shared a bed with."
Feeling sicker still, her heart pounding erratically, Amber couldn't speak.
Not that she'd have had a chance. His lips curling in a sneer, he asked, "Do you make a habit of asking men to pay you off after
I believe you would call it a one-night stand."
"I don't do one-night stands," she flashed, "and neither" caution intervened "neither do I try to blackmail
"I'm the only one so privileged?" he asked, the harsh, accusative tone turning dark and silken, which paradoxically made her feel even more threatened. "And if it was not a one-night stand I'm not sure what you think it was. You yourself have denied any real connection between us, and we have had no contact sinceuntil you claimed to have borne me a son."
"I haven't claimed anything of the sort!" Amber snapped. And as he made a move towards her, fright and anger sharpened her voice. "Don't you dare come near me!"
He stopped dead, as if she'd shot him. "I will not hurt you," he said.
"Oh, really?" She hoped her derisive tone didn't set him off, but she couldn't help adding acidly, "I expect I'll have bruises on my arms tomorrow."
To her surprise, a look of chagrin crossed his face. Stiffly, his accent stronger, he said, "If that is so, I apologise. I was
Not hard to guess he wasn't accustomed to apologising.
The change in him was at least marginally reassuring. Encouraged, Amber tried again, even more forcefully. "You're not listening to me, are you? I don't know"
"Why should I listen to lies?"
"I'm not lying. You've got it all wrong!"
The sound he made in his throat was akin to an animal growl, alarming her again. He reached out, and long fingers closed about her wrist. "Then show me he is not here."
She wanted to snap at him again, but perhaps it would be safer to humour the man, persuade him he'd made a mistake, and he might leave. Or to distract him so she'd have a shot at escaping. "All right," she said finally. It wouldn't take longthe flat had only three small rooms besides the kitchen and bathroom. "Feel free to look around."
His gaze suspicious, he tugged at her imprisoned wrist. "Show me."
She wasn't going to be given a chance to flee outside and call for help.
Amber shrugged, hiding the fact that her heart was thumping, and led him to the doorway of her cosy sitting room, reaching aside to switch on the light.
A soft, cushioned olive-green sofa faced the fireplace, in front of which she'd placed a Chinese jar filled with white plumes of native toe-toe.
Two armchairs with calico slip-covers hiding their shabby upholstery were set at right-angles to the sofa, a couple of bright-red wooden boxes serving as end tables. Her TV and sound system sat in the chimney corners, and on the mantel a row of books was held by the South Island jade bookends she'd inherited from her grandmother.
The man glanced over the room without entering, and Amber took him across the hallway to her bedroom.
The bed was covered in white broderie-anglaise, and thick sheepskin rugs lay on the varnished floor. This time the man walked into the room as she tugged her wrist from his grip and stepped to one side, leaning with folded arms against the curve of the second-hand Queen Anne style dressing table.
The man threw her a glance that gave a silent warning and strode to the mirror-doored wardrobe, briefly looked at the clothes hanging there and closed it again. When his gaze went to the dressing table drawers she looked back at him defiantly and said, "You are not going through my underwear drawers. Are you some kind of pervert?"
For an instant fury flared in his eyes, then she thought he almost laughed, and she could see he was weighing whether he should ignore her ban before he headed for the door. Amber breathed a little more easily.
"Sure you don't want to look under the bed?" she inquired as he snagged her wrist again.
He didn't respond to the sarcasm, merely striding down the hall to the door opening into the minuscule bathroom.
Obviously no one was lurking in the shower cubicle behind its clear plastic curtain printed with coloured fish, or hiding in the cupboard beneath the washbasin.
Next was her office-cum-spare room, hardly large enough for the single guest bed, her filing cabinet, a compact desk that held her laptop computer, and the crowded shelves of reference books along one wall.
That left the narrow kitchen with a small dining area at one end. The man opened the back door onto the little walled and paved patio, saw the potted plants and the wrought-iron table and chairs for two, and on closing the door allowed her to free herself of his grasp and retreat against the sink counter.
He turned to the bank of cupboards on the opposite wall, and the counter below that held her toaster and bread-bin. Amber noticed how the glossy black hair was allowed to flow past his nape and curl at the neckline of his T-shirt.
Wondering if she could make a dash along the passageway to the front door, she saw his shoulders stiffen, his entire body go utterly still. Had he stopped breathing?
He reached for something, making a hissing sound between his teeth, and turned abruptly to face her. "If you have no child, what is this?"
Oh, Lord! she prayed, staring at the baby's pacifier in his broad palm. How do I get out of this? "My
my friend must have left it when she brought her baby to visit."
His hand closed over the small object, then he dropped it onto the counter and began opening cupboard doors, shifting jars and bottles and tins, cups and plates, until in a lower cupboard he found a basket filled with small stuffed toys, a board book, rattles, a toy xylophone and a jumble of plastic blocks.
"For visiting children," she said. "Some of my friends have babies or toddlers. You won't find anything else. I keep telling you, you've made a mistake!"
He whirled then, fixing her with a glittering, hostile stare. "My mistake was almost two years ago, when I was est pido enough to let cheap wine and a pretty tourist send my good sense and disciplina to the winds."
Bristling at his dismissal of the "pretty tourist" as on a par with "cheap wine," Amber said, "Whatever your problem is"
"It is our problem," he argued, "if what was in that letter is true. No matter how often you deny it, or how distasteful I find it."
Distasteful? If that was how he thought of his supposed offspring, what sort of a father would he be?