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'Mr Venadicci has magnanimously offered to squeeze you in between appointments,' the receptionist informed Gabby with crisp, cool politeness. 'But he only has ten minutes available for you.'
Gabby schooled her features into impassivity, even though inside she was fuming and had been for the last hour, as Vinn Venadicci took his time about whether he would respond to her urgent request to see him. 'Thank you,' she said. 'I will try not to take up too much of his precious time.'
No matter how galling it would be to see Vinn again, Gabby determined she would be calm and in control at all times and under all circumstances. Too much was at stake for her to jeopardise things with a show of temper or a tirade of insults, as she would have done without hesitation seven years ago. A lot of water had flowed under the bridge since then, but she was not going to tell him just how dirty some of it had been. That would be conceding defeat, and in spite of everything that had happened she wasn't quite ready to shelve all of her pride where Vinn Venadicci was concerned.
His plush suite of offices in the heart of the financial district in Sydney was a reflection of his meteoric rise to fame in the property investment industry. From his humble beginnings as the born-out-of-wedlock bad-boy son of the St Clair family's Italian-born house-cleaner Rose, he had surprised everyone—except Gabby's father, who had always seen Vinn's potential and had done what he could to give him the leg-up he needed.
Thinking of her father was just the boost to her resolve Gabby needed right now. Henry St Clair was in frail health after a serious heart attack, which meant a lot of the responsibility to keep things running smoothly while he went through the arduous process of triple bypass surgery and rehabilitation had fallen on her shoulders, with her mother standing stalwartly and rather stoically by her father's side.
This hiccup to do with the family business had come out of the blue—and if her father got wind of it, it was just the thing that could set off another heart attack. Gabby would walk across hot coals to avoid that—even meet face to face with Vinn Venadicci.
She raised her hand to the door marked with Vinn's name and gave it a quick two-hit tattoo, her stomach twisting with the prickly sensation she always felt when she was within striking distance of him.
She straightened her shoulders and opened the door, her chin at a proud height as she took the ridiculously long journey to his desk, where he was seated. That he didn't rise to his feet was the sort of veiled insult she more or less expected from him. He had always had an insolent air about him, even when he had lived on and off with his mother, in a servants' cottage at the St Clair Point Piper mansion.
In that nanosecond before he spoke Gabby quickly drank in his image, her heart giving a little jerk inside her chest in spite of all of her efforts to control it. Even when he was seated his height was intimidating, and the black raven's wing of his hair caught the light coming in from the windows, giving it a glossy sheen that made her fingers itch to reach out and touch it. His nose was crooked from one too many of the brawls he had been involved in during his youth, but— unlike many other high-profile businessmen, who would have sought surgical correction by now—Vinn wore his war wounds like a medal. Just like the scar that interrupted his left eyebrow, giving him a dangerous don't-mess-with-me look that was disturbingly attractive.
'So how is the Merry Widow?' he said with a mocking glint in his eyes as they ran over her lazily. 'Long time no see. What is it now… ? One year or is it two? You look like grief suits you, Gabriella. I have never seen you looking more beautiful.'
Gabby felt her spine go rigid at his sardonic taunt. Tristan Glendenning had been dead for just over two years, and yet Vinn never failed to refer to him in that unmistakably scathing manner whenever their paths crossed. She felt each and every reference to her late husband like a hard slap across the face—not that she would ever admit that to Vinn.
She pulled her temper back into line with an effort. 'May I sit down?'
He waved a hand in a careless manner. 'Put your cute little bottom down on that chair. But only for ten minutes,' he said. 'I have back-to-back commitments today.'
Gabby sat down on the edge of the chair, hating that his words had summoned such a hot flush to her cheeks. He had the most annoying habit of unnerving her with personal comments that made her aware of her body in a way no one else could.
'So,' he said, leaning back in his chair with a squeak of very expensive leather, 'what can I do for you, Gabriella?'
She silently ground her teeth. No one else called her by her full name. Only him. She knew he did it deliberately. He had done it since she was fourteen, when his mother had been hired as the resident cleaner, bringing her brooding eighteen-year-old son with her. Although Gabby had to grudgingly admit that the way he said her name was quite unlike anyone else. He had been born in Australia but, because he had been fluent in Italian from a very young age, he made her name sound faintly foreign and exotic. The four distinct syllables coming out of his sensually sculptured mouth always made the hairs on the back of her neck stand to attention like tiny soldiers.
'I am here to discuss a little problem that's come up,' she said, hoping he couldn't see how she was tying her hands into knots in her lap. 'With my father out of action at present, I would appreciate your advice on how to handle it.'
He sat watching her in that musing way of his, clicking and releasing his gold ballpoint pen with meticulously timed precision: on, off, on, off, as if he was timing his own slow and steady heartbeat.
'How is your father this morning?' he asked. 'I saw him last night in Intensive Care. He was looking a little worse for wear, but that's to be expected, I suppose.'
Gabby was well aware of Vinn's regular visits to her father's bedside, and had deliberately avoided being there at the same time. 'He's doing OK,' she said. 'His surgery is scheduled for some time next week. I think they've been waiting for him to stabilise first.'
'Yes, of course,' he said putting the pen to one side. 'But the doctors are hopeful of a full recovery, are they not?'
Gabby tried not to look at his hands, but for some reason her eyes drifted back to where they were now lying palm down on the smoothly polished desk. He had broad, square-shaped hands, with long fingers, and the dusting of masculine hair was enough to remind her of his virility as a full-blooded male of thirty-two.
He was no longer the youth of the past. His skin was clear and cleanly shaven, and at six foot four he carried not a gram of excess flesh; every toned and taut muscle spoke of his punishing physical regime. It made Gabby's ad hoc attempts at regular exercise with a set of free weights and a home DVD look rather pathetic in comparison.
Gabby gave herself a mental shake and dragged her eyes back to his. He had such amazing eyes. And his ink-black hair and deeply olive skin made the smoky grey colour of them all the more striking.
She had never been told the details of his father, and she had never really bothered to ask Vinn directly— although she assumed his father wasn't Italian, like his mother. Gabby had heard one or two whispers as she was growing up, which had seemed to suggest Vinn's mother found the subject painful and refused ever to speak of it.
'Um… I'm not really sure,' she said, in answer to his question regarding her father's recovery. 'I haven't really spoken with his doctors.'
As soon as she said the words she realised how disengaged and uncaring they made her sound—as if her father's health was not a top priority for her, when nothing could be further from the truth. She wouldn't be here now if it wasn't for her love and concern for both of her parents. She would never have dreamed of asking for Vinn's help if desperation hadn't shoved her headfirst through his door.
'I take it this unprecedented visit to my lair is about the takeover bid for the St Clair Island Resort?' he said into the ringing silence.
Gabby had trouble disguising her reaction. She had only just become aware of it herself. How on earth had he found out about it?
'Um… yes, it is actually,' she said, shifting restlessly in her seat. 'As you probably know, my father took out a substantial loan for the refurbishment of the resort about a year and a half ago. But late yesterday I was informed there's been a call. If we don't pay the loan back the takeover bid will go through uncontested. I can't allow that to happen.'
'Have you spoken to your accountants about it?' he asked.
Gabby felt another layer of her professional armour dissolve without trace. 'They said there is no way that amount of money can be raised in twenty-four hours,' she said, lowering her gaze a fraction.
He began his on-off click with his pen once more, a little faster now, as if in time with his sharp intelligence as he mulled over what strategy to adopt.
'I don't suppose you've mentioned it to your father,' he said, phrasing it as neither a question nor a statement.
'No…' she said, still not quite able to hold his gaze. 'I didn't want to stress him. I'm frightened the news could trigger another heart attack.'
'What about the on-site resort managers?' he asked. 'Do they know anything about this?'
Gabby rolled her lips together as she brought her gaze back to his. 'I spoke to Judy and Garry Foster last night. They are concerned for their jobs, of course, but I tried to reassure them I would sort things out this end.'
'Have you brought all the relevant documentation with you?' he asked after a short pause.
'Um…no… I thought I would run it by you first.' Gabby knew it was the wrong answer. She could see it in his incisive grey-blue eyes as they quietly assessed her.
She felt so incompetent—like a child playing with oversized clothes in a dress-up box. The shoes she had put on were too big. She had always known it, but hadn't had the courage to say it out loud to her parents, who had held such high hopes for her after her older brother Blair's tragic death. The giant hole he had left in their lives had made her all the more determined to fill in where she could. But she still felt as if the shoes were too big, too ungainly for her—even though she had trudged in them with gritted teeth for the last seven and a half years.
Vinn leaned back in his seat, his eyes still centred on hers. 'So you have less than twenty-four hours to come up with the funds otherwise the takeover bid goes through unchallenged?' he summated.
Gabby ran the tip of her tongue across lips dryer than ancient parchment. 'That's right,' she said, doing her level best to quell her dread at the thought of such an outcome. 'If it goes through our family will be left with only a thirty-five percent share in the resort. I'm not sure what you can do, but I know my father. If he wasn't so unwell he would probably have run it by you first, to see if there's anything we can do to avoid losing the major sharehold.'
His eyes were still locked on hers, unblinking almost, which unsettled Gabby more than she wanted it to.
'Do you know who is behind the takeover?' he asked.
She shook her head and allowed a tiny sigh to escape. 'I've asked around, but no one seems to know anything about the company that's behind it.'
'How much is the margin call?'
Gabby took an uneven breath, her stomach feeling as if a nest of hungry bull ants were eating their way out. 'Two point four million dollars.'
His dark brows lifted a fraction. 'Not exactly an amount you would have sitting around in petty cash,' he commented wryly.
'It's not an amount that is sitting anywhere in any of the St Clair accounts,' she said, running her tongue over her lips again, as if to wipe away the residue of panic that seemed to have permanently settled there. 'I'm sure my father never expected anything like this to happen— or at least not before we had time to recoup on the investment. The markets have been unstable for several months now. We wouldn't be the first to have redeveloped at the wrong time.'
Gabby shifted in her chair again. 'So… I was wondering what you suggest we do…' She sucked in a tiny breath, her heart thumping so loudly she could feel a roaring in her ears. 'I… I know it's a bit of an imposition, but my father respects your judgment. That's basically why I am here.'
Vinn gave a deep and utterly masculine rumble of laughter. 'Yes, well, I can't imagine you pressing for an audience with me to share your observations on the day's weather,' he said. And then, with a little sneering quirk of his mouth, he added, 'You have five minutes left, by the way.'
Gabby pursed her lips as she fought her temper down. 'I think you know what I'm asking you to do,' she said tightly. 'Don't make me spell it out just to bolster your already monumental ego.'
A flicker of heat made his eyes look like the centre of a flame as he leaned forward across the desk. 'You want me to pay off the loan, is that it?' he said, searing her gaze with his.
'My father has done a lot for you—' she launched into the speech she had hastily prepared in the middle of the night '—he paid bail for that stolen car charge you were on when you were eighteen, not long after you came to live with us. And he gave you your very first loan for university. You wouldn't be where you are today without his mentorship and his belief in you.'