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So, she'd come. Sooner than Donovan Keane had anticipated, given the weather and the travel necessary to reach the resort's remote location. And, Van noted with satisfaction, she'd come alone.
A grim half smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he watched her dismiss the bellhop's substantial umbrella and jog up the steps toward reception. Under the shelter of the portico she paused to acknowledge the doorman, and something in the swing of her red-gold hair and the lift of her hand triggered a weird flash of déjà vu. For a fraction of a second, time vacillated from present to past, between dream and reality.
Then she disappeared inside the building, gone in a flurry of long legs and designer raincoat, leaving Van alone and stripped of his satisfied smile.
Punching gloved fist against palm, he searched his memory but came up blank. "Big surprise," he told a captive audience of weight stations and treadmills.
He'd identified Susannah Horton the second he caught sight of her arrival through the rain-streaked window. But that recognition was due to the number of photos he'd viewed during the past weeks of intensive researchAustralian society cameras loved the local hotel heiressand not from the weekend she'd spent in his company. Shoving away from the window, Van shook the tight grip of frustration from his muscles and circled the punching bag he'd deserted minutes earlier.
He'd flown in from San Francisco the previous morning, but twenty-four hours at The Palisades at Stranger's Bay, the Tasmanian resort where they'd supposedly spent that weekend, had done nothing to fill the dark hole in his memory. Hell, he'd come within a whisker of buying the place, yet nothing rang any bells. Not his flight into Australia's island state, not the helicopter transfer to the isolated retreat. Not even his first stunning view of the scattered villas perched high on a rocky promontory overlooking the southern ocean.
Nothing. Thud. Nada. Thud. Zilch. Thud.
Van hit the punching bag with a lethal barrage of punches that did little to soothe his frustration. The insistent internal burn came from more than the forgotten weekend, more than losing the prime property to anAustralian hotel group. It stemmed from how he'd lost out.
The below-the-belt punch had been thrown while he lay unconscious in an ICU, incapable of defending himself let alone fighting back. Thud. A knockout counter-bid, perfectly timed and perfectly presented. Thud. And all due to a treacherous redhead named Susannah Horton. Thudthudthud.
Despite the veiled threat in the voice mail he'd left last night, he hadn't expected her to turn up so promptly. At best, he'd expected a return call. At worst, another don't-you-dare-call-again reply from her mother. The fact that Susannah had scurried down here without any advance warning or any entourage in tow, suggested he hadn't misread the signs.
She'd come because he'd hit a vein, and she hadn't wasted a minute seeking him out here in the resort's state-of-the-art fitness centre.
He hadn't heard her entrance, but he caught a glimpse of reflected movement in the expansive window. And a jolt of awareness travelled the length of his spine, strong enough that his next punch miscued and slid off the side of the bag. Recovering, he delivered a final combination of punches, sharp, swift, relentless, until his breath rasped in his lungs and his inner physical therapist barked, enough!
Then he dispensed with the boxing gloves and pulled on a T-shirt. Snagging his towel and water bottle he turned, and, dodging the arc of the still swinging bag, started toward the plush reception area. As he walked, he drank from his bottle and he drank in the woman.
Up close Susannah Horton packed even more punch than that first glimpse through glass and rain. She wasn't a bombshell; her beauty was more about class than flash. Tall, willowy, feminine. Generous lips balanced by a long, straight nose. Red-gold hair and the kind of redhead's complexion that would burn in the sun. Green eyes that tilted upward and smoked with wariness.
Until that second, he'd harboured a lingering doubt over how they'd spent their days, and nights, that July weekend. He couldn't recall one damn detail. All he had to go on was Miriam Horton's wordand hadn't that been one helluva phone conversation!and his own instincts. Those he trusted. And when his eyes locked on hers, when he detected the suppressed heat in their sea-green depths, his body responded with a powerful jolt of elemental recognition. As he came to a halt in front of her, his instincts hummed like a mesotron.
Oh, yeah, she'd slept with him, all right.
And then she'd really screwed him over.
Susannah thought she was ready for this moment. Since hearing his voice mail last night, she'd had enough time to prepare. More than once she'd cursed herself for her impulsive, panicky reaction to his voice mail. More than once she'd considered turning straight around and flying back home.
But what good would that have done? She hadn't imagined the aggressive edge to that recorded message any more than she'd misheard the threat inherent in his words. She may not have adopted her usual analytical approach before deciding to fly down hereimpulsiveness seemed to be a feature of her dealings with Donovan Keanebut she had made the right decision.
And after five hours of travelling and analysing, Susannah's initial anxiety had developed a decent head of indignation. After weeks of ignoring her calls, he'd turned up, two months later, making threats that sounded ominously close to blackmail. She had many, many regrets about that weekend and its aftermath, but she was not the guilty party. And the more she thought about his message, the more questions it raised.
In that frame of mind she'd marched into The Palisades'gym and found Donovan naked from his low-slung sweatpants up, muscles rippling with lean strength as he pummelled that unfortunate hunk of leather into submission. All the simmering indignation had deserted her mind. She was left empty, hollow, underprepared, and so so susceptible to the flood of sensations that came from seeing him again.
When he turned and his eyes locked on hers, the blow to her senses was more powerful than any he'd thrown against the leather bag.
It was just like the first time they'd met, the first time she became the sole focus of that riveting silver-grey gaze. She experienced the same rush of awareness, the same slow somersault in her stomach, the same sweet explosion of warmth in her skin.
Instantly entranced. At a loss. Slow to react.
So slow that he'd come to a halt in front of her before she realised what was wrong with this picture. It was too much like that first meeting. The way he was silently taking her all in, not like a lover, not even like an acquaintance, but almost like a stranger.
What was going on? Did he not remember her? Was this even the same man she'd fallen for with such un-characteristic haste on that wintry July weekend?
"Donovan?" she asked in a second's uncertainty.
"Were you expecting someone else?"
Head tilted at a slight angle, he narrowed his eyes in an expression as familiar as the defined angle of his cheekbones and the fullness of his bottom lip. Oh, yes, this was Donovan Keane. His hair cut ruthlessly short, his face sharper and harder, his expression as cold as an Antarctic wind, but definitely Donovan.
"After the tone of your message, I wasn't sure what to expect," she replied, battling to collect her scrambled composure. "Although I must say I didn't expect you to look me over as if you were having trouble remembering me."
He'd lifted the towel slung around his neck to wipe the sheen of perspiration from his face, but that didn't disguise the flicker of emotion deep in his eyes. Not belated friendliness. Not the teasing humour that had caught her off guard so many times the weekend they'd met.
"My message wasn't clear?" he asked.
"Frankly, no, it wasn't."
The towel paused midswipe and in the hard set of his jaw and the thin line of his lips, Susannah recognised the signs of restraint. He wasn't cold and distant; he was struggling to hide his anger. "What part do I need to make clearer?"
Bewildered by his hostility, she shook her head. "The part where you're so angry with me."
"You can drop the innocent act, Goldilocks. You know what this is about."
Innocent act? Goldilocks?
Susannah's confusion sharpened with irritation. "I can assure you, this is no act."
"Then let me spell it out for you. Right after our weekend togethera weekend you spent in my well-paid employmentmy bid to acquire this resort was rejected."
"Your bid was bettered."
"By Carlisle Hotel Group, which is headed by your close friend and business ally, Alex Carlisle."
Was he implying that things weren't aboveboard? "Alex's bid was legitimate."
"So I was led to believe. Imagine my surprise when I discovered, a week ago, that he's also your fiancé. Tell me," he continued conversationally, "did he suggest you sweet-talk me into revealing details of my proposal? Was that how he perfected a counterbid so quickly?"
"That makes no sense," she fired back, her composure splintered by that outrageous accusation. "Your recollection of that weekend appears to be seriously flawed."
A muscle in his cheek jumped but he replied in the same deceptively even tone. "Perhaps you had better refresh my memory."
"You hired me. You had to sweet-talk me into changing my schedule to take the job. I warned you there could be a conflict of interest with my mother owning a significant stake in The Palisades, but you insisted. You wanted me."
For a long moment, their gazes clashed. The air between them crackled with animosity and with a different kind of heat, the kind that flared from those last three words. You wanted me. And he hadthere'd been no disputing the physicality of his desirebut it had been secondary to the real reason he'd sought the services of her private-concierge business.
"You wanted me," she said tightly, "because of my mother's shareholding. You wanted my recommendation in her ear to ensure all the board voted yes to your proposal. But once you'd had me, you got complacent. You only had to play nice a little longer and your bid would have won approval."
His eyes narrowed. "I didn't play nice?"
"When you went back to America, you shouldn't have screened my calls. I wasn't about to make a pest of myself. All you had to say was 'We had fun, Susan-nah, but we're not looking for the same thing here. Let's leave it at that.' If you hadn't thought your bid was in the bag if you'd taken my calls instead of hiding behind your assistant"
She broke off, annoyed at revealing how much she'd let that stonewalling silence hurt. For letting the emotion seep into her words and to rasp the edges of her voice. But she straightened her shoulders and met the stillness of his gaze with quiet dignity. "All you had to do was pick up the phone, Donovan. Just once."
For a short beat his eyes remained on hers, their depths stark with what looked like frustration, and Susannah braced herself for his next attack. But he only shook his head briefly before turning to pace the short distance to the window. Hands on hips, he stared out into the sodden landscape and belatedly she realised that the rain had relented to a thin drizzle, painting the glass a misty grey.
The same colour as his morning eyes, she recalled with a jab of regret, and when he swung around, those eyes fixed on hers without a hint of that remembered softness. "Let me get this straight. You're saying I lost an eight-figure deal I'd spent months pursuing because I didn't return your calls?"
Put like that it sounded like a game of school-yard pettiness, and when Donovan exhaled a disbelieving huff of breath, Susannah knew he was thinking the same. The awful truth churned sickly in her stomach. He was right. There had been an element of "the hell with you" in her decision, but there'd been a whole lot more going on, as well.
Lifting her chin, she met his gaze across the blue-matted floor. "It was more complicated than that."
"The complication being Alex Carlisle. Your fiancé."
"That was one thing," she replied carefully. One thing that Donovan Keane should not have known.
"And it brings us to my original question."
With the same slow, deliberate pace as he imbued the words, he started back toward her and the new determination in his expression caused a shiver of disquiet in Susannah's skin. When he stopped right in front of her, her heartbeat skittered with anxiety. She didn't have to ask which question. She knew he referred to the one he'd left on her voice mail last night.
Does your fiancé know you slept with me? The unspoken question arced between them for several seconds in the tense stillness. Susannah didn't have to say a word. She knew he'd read the answer in her eyes and that any denial wouldn't be worth the breath it took, yet one thing needed saying. One very important thing. "I wasn't engaged to Alex then."
"Yet you hared down here today. I can only assume you want to protect your dirty little secret."
Susannah's eyes widened with the sting of those words. They cheapened what she'd once thought special, but then she'd been a prize fool to think they'd shared anything other than a one-weekend stand. "Since you haven't contacted Alex, I can only assume you want something from me in return for keeping quiet about my error in judgment?"
Something flared in his eyes, a brief indication that he'd noticed her choice of words. Score one, Susannah. Her battered ego rallied instantly.
"Why did you come back here, Donovan?" she asked. "What do you want from me?"
"I want to know how and when Carlisle became involved in this deal. The Palisades wasn't officially on the market, I did all the legwork, I convinced them to sell." His gaze locked on hers, gimlet sharp and merciless. "Did you take the deal to him?"
"Yes," Susannah admitted after a moment. "But only"
"No buts or onlys. You brought him into this deal, you can take him out again."
"How do you expect me to do that?" Her voice rose, incredulous. "Horton's management accepted the Carlisle offer. The contracts are drawn."
"Drawn, but not signed."
Of course the contracts weren't signedthey wouldn't be until both sides of the deal she'd negotiated with Alex were fulfilled.