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Zac Delucca stepped out of the chauffeur-driven limousine and glanced up at the four-storeyed Georgian-style building in front of him: the head office of Westwold Components, a company he had finally acquired two weeks ago. He had left Raffe, his top man, in charge of the changeover, so he had not expected to be needed in London in June, and he was not pleased….
He was ruggedly attractive, with black hair and shrewd dark eyes, and the navy silk and mohair suit he wore was a testament to the expertise of his tailor. The jacket stretched taut across shoulders as wide as a barn door, and at six feet five he was a powerful, impressive figure of a man in every respect. Not a man anyone could overlook, though the fierce frown at present marring his bold features would scare all but the bravest into glancing the other way.
Orphaned at a year old by the tragic death of his young parents in a car crash, Zac Delucca had spent his early years in a children's home in Rome. He had left at fifteen, with nothing but the clothes he stood up in and a burning ambition to become a success in life.
Tall, and looking older than his years, he had by sheer guts, determination and keen intelligence dragged himself up from the gutter that beckoned. He had studied by day and used his physical strength in the testosterone-fuelled world of the fighting game at night to earn money and build up a stake to set up his own company: Delucca Holdings.
He had fought masked, under an assumed name, because he'd had total belief in his ability, mentally and physically, to be a winner in life. From a young age he had known he was destined to succeed on a worldwide scale…never mind in a canvas ring…
His first purchase at the age of twenty had been a rundown farm in southern Italy that had included three cottages, a large farmhouse and a thousand acres of neglected land. A few weeks later the government had bought a chunk of the acreage to build a new runway to expand a local airport for the increasing tourist trade.
Some people said he'd had inside information. He had said nothing and recouped the money he had invested and more besides. He'd converted the farm house, which was situated on the coast at the southernmost tip of Italy, with stunning views over the sea, and kept it for his own use.
The remaining land had included an overgrown olive grove he had tried to cultivate himself, but he had quickly realised agriculture was not for him and finally hired an expert in the field to restore, enlarge and manage the farm, while converting the cottages for the staff. Eventually he'd marketed the produce as Delucca Extra Fine Virgin Olive Oil, and Delucca Oil was today the choice of the connoisseur and priced accordingly…
It was the first business Zac had bought and kept.
Now, fifteen years later, Delucca Holdings was an international conglomerate that owned a vast array of companies, including mines, manufacturers, properties and oil of the petroleum variety as well as from the olive tree. Nothing was out of Delucca's grasp.
Ruthless, arrogant, and merciless were some of the terms used by his enemies, but none in the business world friend or enemy could deny he was a financial wizard, and basically honest…A master of the universe who went after what he wanted and always succeeded.
'Are you sure about this, Raffe?' Zac demanded of the man who had exited the car to join him on the pavement.
Raffe Costa was his right-hand man and his friend. They had met over a decade ago, when Zac had applied for funding for a deal from a bank in Naples, where Raffe had been working in the commercial loan office. The pair had hit it off immediately, and two years later Raffe had joined Zac's swiftly expanding company as an accountant-cum-PA. The title was not important. Zac trusted him completely, and knew him to be shrewd and rarely wrong.
'Sure…?' Raffe responded slowly. 'No, I am not absolutely sure, but enough to want you to check it out,' he qualified as they walked towards the entrance. 'It wasn't noticed in the due diligence we conducted before buying, because the siphoning off of funds—if that is what it is—has been done very cleverly, and been deeply hidden in the accounts for years.'
'You'd better be right. Because I had plans to take a holiday, and I did not intend it to be in London,' Zac said dryly, flicking his friend a glance as they entered the building. 'I had a hot climate and a hot woman in mind.'
Zac Delucca was not a happy man. He had no trouble in thinking on several levels at the same time, and right now, while smiling at the security guard as Raffe introduced him, another part of his mind was wondering how quickly—if Raffe's suspicions were correct—he could sort out the problem and leave…
He had, after months of prolonged negotiation, finalised this deal. Coincidentally it had been the following morning, standing in the shower, that he realised he had been celibate for almost a year. Ten months since he had parted with his last lady, because she was becoming too proprietorial and the M word had surfaced more than once.
Amazed at his own restraint, he had swiftly decided to rectify the situation by arranging a couple of dates with a rather striking model from Milan. He had planned to take her out on his yacht for the day and make her his mistress. If they proved to be compatible he had actually considered breaking the habit of a lifetime and allowing her to accompany him on a cruise around the Caribbean for a few weeks.
He had never taken more than a week's holiday in years, but just lately he'd found himself questioning if work was the be-all and end-all of life. Unusual for him. He was not usually given to bouts of introspection and immediately he had decided to do something about it—hence Lisa the Milan model…
Unfortunately, the call last night from Raffe, voicing some concern over the recent acquisition of Westwold Components, looked like scuppering his plan.
He signed the log-in book where the security guard indicated—a formality, but no doubt the man wanted to impress—and was then introduced to the receptionist: Melanie.
'I'm sure Mr Costa will have told you,' the girl simpered, while hanging on to Zac's hand like a leech. 'We are all really happy to become part of Delucca Holdings, and if there is anything I personally can do…' The busty blonde fluttered her eyelashes at him. 'Just ask.'
The woman gushed and pouted at the same time, which was quite a feat, Zac thought cynically.
'Thank you,' he replied smoothly, and, disentangling his hand from the receptionist's grasp, he turned. 'Come on, Raffe, let's get—' And he stopped, his dark eyes instinctively flaring in primitive masculine appreciation of the woman walking into the building.
'Exquisite,' he murmured under his breath, his stunned gaze roaming over her. She had the face of an angel, and a body to tempt any man with blood in his veins…
Big, misty-blue eyes, pale, almost translucent skin, a small nose and a wide mouth with full lips that begged to be kissed. Long ruby-red hair fell in soft curls around her slender shoulders, and the elegant white obviously designer dress she wore caressed every curve of her slender body. Sleeveless, with a low square neck and a broad white belt circling her tiny waist, it accentuated her high full breasts.
She looked bridal…The unbidden thought flashed in his mind. But the evocative tap of high-heeled shoes on the marble floor knocked it straight out as his gaze lowered to where the hem of the skirt ended on her knees. The red stiletto sandals she wore screamed sex.
His heart almost stopped. She had legs to die for…A mental image of them clamped around his waist had his body hardening instantly.
'Who is that?' he demanded of Raffe.
'I have no idea, but she is gorgeous.'
Zac looked at his friend and saw he was watching the girl as she drew nearer. He had to bite his lip to stop himself saying, Take your eyes off her. She is mine.
In that instant he came to a decision. Admittedly she was not his usual type. Tall, elegant brunettes had been his preference up until now. This woman was average height, with that long, red hair, but for some inexplicable reason he wanted her with a hunger he had not felt in a long time. He decided he was going to have her…
His firm lips parted in a loaded smile aimed directly at her, but amazingly the girl walked straight past him with a dismissive shake of her head…
Sally Paxton strode across the foyer of Westwold Components, determination in every step. She flicked a glance at the group of people at the reception desk and caught a brilliant smile from the tallest man in the group. Her heart missed a beat and she felt her shoulders stiffen with tension. She had to appear confident, as if she belonged here. Maybe he was someone she should recognise…She gave a brief nod of her head in acknowledgment.
Sally Paxton was a woman on a mission…and nothing and no one was going to stop her…
Her blue eyes fixed with a determined light on the two elevators situated to the rear of the elegant foyer. One elevator she knew was for general use; the other—the one she wanted—went directly to the top floor, where her father's office was situated.
Zac Delucca, for the first time in his adult life, had been virtually overlooked by a woman, and for a moment it left him dumbfounded.
Recovering, he demanded of the receptionist, 'Who is that girl, and what department does she work in?'
'I don't know. I've never seen her before.'
'Security,' he said, alerting the guard standing nearby, but he was already calling out.
'Stop, miss, you have to sign in!'
Sally stopped in front of the elevator and jabbed at the button, lost in her own angry thoughts. The one and only time she had visited her dad's London office had been over seven years ago. She had been eighteen and had called in unannounced one Wednesday afternoon, after watching her beloved mother open a birthday card from her husband that morning.
Sally had been hoping to persuade her dad to return with her that evening to their home in Bournemouth, rather than waiting until the weekend. It was her mum's birthday, for heaven's sake…At least he had remembered to post a card…But as her mother had recently been discharged from hospital after a mastectomy, Sally had been determined to make him see that his wife needed his support.
The success of the surprise dinner party Sally had planned for the evening had depended on her father's presence.
Her lips tightened in disgust, and briefly she closed her eyes. Even now the scene that had met her eyes was still scorched into her brain, and made her simmer with rage…
Nigel Paxton's secretary had not been in the outer office, so Sally had knocked on her father's door. When no one had answered she had opened it and walked in.
It had not been a pretty sight…There was her dad, leaning over his desk with his half-naked secretary, half his age, sprawled across the desk beneath him.
No wonder they hadn't heard her knock…
Her father…the slick seducer…the serial adulterer…the slimy lying toad…the man her mother loved and thought could do no wrong—the man Sally had slowly grown to despise.
The elevator arrived and she stepped in and pressed the button. Leaning back against the wall, she closed her eyes.
As a young child she supposed she had loved her father, even though he hadn't been around a lot. Their home in Bournemouth had been a large detached Victorian house overlooking the sea. But her father, as chief accountant for Westwolds Components, was based in the London headquarters of the company, and kept a studio apartment in the city where he stayed during the week.
As an idealistic teenager, anti-war of any kind, she had been horrified when she'd realised the firm her dad worked for manufactured essential parts for weapons. She had announced that it was morally wrong to work in the arms industry, and he had told her she was a silly girl, and to stick to looking good and leave the running of the world to men.
To call him a male chauvinist pig was to insult pigs! Dark haired, handsome and charming to those who did not know him, her father was at the top of his game in the accountancy stakes—but in Sally's book he was a spineless apology for a man.
Well, today he was going to hear just what she thought of him—yet again, and demand he accompany her to visit her mother in the private nursing home in Devon that had been her mum's home for almost two years.
It was over six weeks since her father had shown his face, and she blinked tears from her eyes as she pictured again the look on her mum's face every time Sally arrived to visit. The gleam of hope that faded as she realised her latest visitor was not her husband yet again. Sally's excuse for her dad that 'pressure of work' kept him in London was wearing very thin.
Her mother knew about his affairs, because Sally at eighteen had blurted out what she had seen. And her mother had admitted she had always known about her husband's other women—in the plural!
Sally had been horrified when her mother had actually made excuses for him. Explaining how it was difficult for him as a virile man, because she had not been a very able wife in the bedroom department for quite some time even before she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and that he was a good and generous husband and father and she loved him.
Nothing Sally said had affected her mother's opinion or her love for her husband, and, not wanting to upset her mother, she had been forced to drop the subject.
As for her father—she'd told him exactly what she thought of him, and he had simply responded with the usual: that she was a silly girl who knew nothing of the wants and needs of adults, and that she should mind her own business and concentrate on her studies, because he was paying enough for them…
Immediately, she had wanted to give up her place at Exeter University, where she'd been in her first year studying Ancient History, but her mother would not hear of it. Reluctantly, Sally had to agree, but she could barely bring herself to be civil to her father when he did occasionally return home the same weekend as her.