Authors: Jane Beckenham
To Nicole, Yvonne, Frances and Annie, and my fab editor Linda. Thank you for being great friends and wonderful supporters.
With every step up the grand marble entrance of Mackenzie International, Leah Talbot-Grainger wanted to spit tacks. Fury somersaulted in her stomach as she focused on one man.
She’d thought he’d disappear. Definitely wanted him to. Needed him to.
His velvety smooth messages left on her answer phone reminded her every single day he wasn’t backing off. What the heck did her dead husband’s brother want?
“I won’t wait any longer” had been the last one.
Then she received his letter demanding she attend a meeting. No “come and see me”. Just do it, or else.
Leah had stewed, waiting, and wondering, until eventually, anger overrode common sense, and here she was about to storm into the lion’s den.
Standing at the columned entrance, she tilted her head back. The midday sun glinted off the towering edifice that housed his international conglomerate.
Mac Grainger might have money, and lots of it, if the tabloids were correct about the elusive Midas Man returning to New Zealand’s shores, but he was
going to tell her what to do.
A little part of her subconscious stamped down the fact that right now she
doing exactly what he wanted, because she had come to see him on his turf, just as
demanded. But there was too much at stake, and she intended to tell him to back off.
Perspiration dotted her brow and seeped a sticky trail between her shoulder blades. She rotated her shoulders as if it would afford her the luxury of relaxation, then rubbed damp hands down the sides of her T-shirt. Exhaling a long, trembling breath, she entered the marble lobby and headed toward the bank of elevators.
The elevator doors hissed open, and a millisecond later, she realized the elevator wasn’t empty. She stepped in and gave the man on the other side a momentary glance.
The guy was…well, big. Tall. Strong. And broad shouldered enough to do a linebacker proud. He seemed kinda familiar, in a vague sort of way.
But looking wasn’t a good idea, because he gazed right back, and the hairs on Leah’s forearms prickled to attention.
You’re over men, remember?
The elevator doors closed and sealed off her last chance to escape. Dread pooled in her stomach as the conveyance whizzed past floor after floor. She hated confrontation and had learned to back away from it. Anything for a quiet life. But enough was enough. She was the mother lion, the protector, and nobody would threaten the sanctuary she’d worked long and hard to create.
As the elevator ascended, Leah found herself overpowered by temptation and stole a quick glance at the stranger, then immediately regretted it.
The man oozed authority. Muscular legs encased in dark trousers, his crisp white shirt a sharp contrast to tanned skin. Gold cufflinks glinted from beneath the sleeve edge of his worsted wool jacket, while the hint of his exotic cologne, a fusion of sandalwood and citrus, tickled her overactive senses. Just looking at him caused heat to shoot from the tips of her fingers to her toes and right back up again, while her heartbeat danced a nervous rat-a-tat.
Lordy! She shouldn’t be feeling like this. Feeling guilty. Or looking. But she was.
Shame on me. Shame.
The electronic voice announced her floor, and she dragged her wayward thoughts back to the reason for being here. This was about protecting Charlee, her daughter.
Her worried gaze directed straight ahead, she stepped out, surprised to find the reception area deserted.
Too bad. She wasn’t prepared to wait. This had to end, right now.
She turned and headed with purposeful strides down the luxuriously carpeted hallway to a door that stood ajar. She focused on the nameplate etched in gold lettering: Mackenzie Grainger, C.E.O. This was it.
Hand fisted, about to knock, she heard a voice from behind.
“Can I help you?”
That voice! Still smooth. Still velvety. No answer phone to dull the incendiary tone. But real…and in person.
Leah spun round on the soles of her well-worn shoes, accusations on the tip of her tongue. Her jaw dropped as recognition registered. “You were in the elevator.”
A single dark brow arched. “So I was.”
She clenched and unclenched her hands at her sides, willing herself to stay calm and focused. “And you know who I am.”
“That depends on who you are.” One corner of his mouth quirked, offering her a clear view of a dimpled cheek.
She was a sucker for dimples.
Leah stamped that thought right back down and drew in a desperate breath, fingers fidgeting with her hair as humor-filled eyes followed her nervous movements. Damn him, he was laughing at her. “It seems you do know who I am, so I’m presuming you’re Mackenzie Grainger.”
He nodded, and that darn dimple deepened.
Leah squeezed her eyes shut for a moment to block it out. She wouldn’t look. She wouldn’t.
“Would you care to come in?”
Her eyes shot open, and when she took her time peering through the door and into in his well-appointed office, he shrugged and strode passed her. “Well, are you coming in?” He stood back for her.
Leah stepped over the threshold, and he shut the door behind her, the click of the latch reverberating a thousand-fold, though nothing could drown out the thud of her heartbeat.
With precision, he walked to the other side of his mahogany desk and sat, stretching out his long legs beneath it. He linked his fingers and fixed an inquisitive stare on her for the briefest of moments. Then that same haughty examination slid down her length with an unquestionable curiosity, detonating a wave of discomfort through her. She shook her head and brushed away a tangled curl.
Focus. She needed to focus. She stood behind one of the two leather club chairs facing his desk, fingers biting into the luxurious hide. She tossed her head and lifted her chin as if it would afford her more bravado than she possessed. “You have no right demanding this meeting, Mr. Grainger.”
“But you came nevertheless.”
“Only to tell you to back off,” she stated baldly. “Charlee and I are fine on our own. We don’t need anyone else.”
The light in his eyes burned, though his expression remained coolly assessing. “Really? Sit down, Leah.” His request wasn’t a social nicety but an order.
Leah clamped down the rampant urge to bolt, looped her hands through her handbag strap and held on tight. “Thank you, but I prefer to stand. I don’t intend staying.”
He offered a half smile and leant forward. “Shame.”
The waft of his cologne intensified, and she gritted her teeth, inhaled and held her breath. Maybe she could not breathe, not smell him and just leave. “Stay away, Mr. Grainger. I was married to your brother, but Curtis is dead. I don’t want anything more to do with
Grainger. So no more phone calls, and,” she said, retrieving his letter from her handbag, “no more demanding letters.” She slammed the offending envelope on his desk to make her point.
But he made no move to pick it up, and her fear escalated. She waited for the explosion. He was Curtis’s brother, after all. Then he did something Curtis never would have. He smiled, and in that instant she knew this man was far more dangerous than her dead husband. “Right, I’ve said all I’ve come to say.” She went to turn away.
“Not so fast, Leah. Now it’s my turn.”
She swung back to face him, more bluster in her voice than she actually felt. “What’s there left to say? I don’t know you. Your brother barely mentioned you in all the years we were married.”
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
“It’s too late to establish the familial bond, if that’s what you’re after.”
“It’s never too late.”
For a moment, she digested his words, or tried to. “Look, Mister—”
“Mac,” he offered. “We are related, after all.”
“Were. I’m sorry Curtis committed suicide, but he was…unwell. Now I have to go. I have an olive farm due to be harvested in a few weeks.”
“And you need to make sure it’s a good harvest.”
Her brow crinkled, suspicion tangling with fear inside her overstimulated brain. “Of course. High yield means high payout, as in all business.”
“Crucial,” he agreed.
The ever-increasing dread in her stomach coiled tighter.
“The thing is, Leah, I know about Aroha Farm,” he said silkily. “I also know it eats up a lot of money.”
Her shoulders sagged. “The farm is my inheritance from my grandfather. Curtis had no interest in it.” Except for what he could get out of it.
“Ah…there’s the difference. You see, I’m not Curtis. You have a debt. A rather large one, I believe.”
With those few words, Leah’s world teetered on the edge. Her jaw clenched, but she held herself in check. “That is none
of your business.”
is where you’re definitely wrong, sweetheart.” His dark eyes narrowed, an aura of satisfaction in their depths giving Leah the distinct impression he was reeling her in. “You
to sit down.” His clipped intonation offered no hint of sympathy, or kindness. Just cold, hard, grim determination.
She reached for the chair in front of her, fingers clawing at it for support. Unable to stem the icy shivers inching along her spine, she sat, then linked her fingers together to stop their shaking and hooked her gaze with his impenetrable one. “What do you want,
“Want?” he asked, mouth quirking on one side and a slight teasing in his tone. “It’s not
I want, believe me, but I have no choice.”
Choice? Leah restrained her disbelief. The man had no idea about choices. She glanced around the room, taking in the accoutrements of wealth—the cut crystal decanters and champagne flutes on the antique sideboard, the diamond Rolex on his wrist. Her gaze dropped to her faded jeans and T-shirt, and she shrugged. She wasn’t here to win prizes for best dressed or to make an impression.
Pushing his chair back, he stood and unhooked the buttons of his jacket, the edges of the exquisite fabric folding back to reveal his silk shirt and tie. He sidestepped the desk and hitched himself on its edge.
Leah studied him, from the tips of his leather shoes, moving up long legs, and finally settling on his chiseled, unsmiling face. The man remained cool, showing not a flicker of emotion, while her stomach heaved.
“So what is it you have no choice over?” she asked.
“Curtis emailed me before his death. He wants…wanted me,” he corrected, his expression unreadable, “to spend some time with my niece, to get to know Charlee.”
“Yes. Perhaps take her out sometime.”
“She’s too young. You’ve never met her. She doesn’t know you.” Leah scrambled for any excuse. She didn’t want her daughter anywhere near Curtis’s relations.
But her defense didn’t faze him. “That’s obviously what I’m wanting to remedy,” he said, offering her a smile. In any other circumstances, she might have thought it charming. Disarming, even. Now it proved lethal, and she flicked her gaze away from his dimples.
“Time to get to know you too,” he suggested.
“Absolutely not!” She shot to her feet. She’d be dead before she let another Grainger into her life. “Charlee is my daughter. She’s four years old. Curtis…” She clamped her mouth closed. Should she tell him the truth?
Impossible. Then it would all be over.
From the day Charlee arrived in her life, Leah had
like her mother, believed it. And so did Charlee.
Mac pushed away from the desk, coming closer, and Leah noticed the faint shadow on his jaw and the fine creases around his eyes—dark, bottomless eyes that condemned her. He stood so close she could reach out and wipe that self-satisfied smirk right off his face. She wanted to, a whole lot.
“What you want makes no difference to me,” he stated. “I’m her uncle. I’d like the chance to get to know her. How about I come round later?”
Said the spider to the fly.
“Not now. Maybe in a month or two.”
“No, Leah. Soon. Very soon.”
Leah snatched up her battered leather handbag and tossed the worn strap over her shoulder. “We’ll see about that.” Without offering a good-bye, she strode from his office to the elevator, knowing full well he followed her, a silent predator. A Grainger. The man was too smooth, too rich, too arrogant. And in control, damn him.
Every skin cell on her body burned with an awareness at his closeness, and her heart hammered as the old fear she’d fought so hard to keep in check reared to the surface. She shot him a baleful glare as she punched the elevator call button repeatedly. She needed to get out of a world that had begun to spin out of control. She needed to think. “There’s no way I’ll give up my daughter.”
He leaned against the wall to the right of the elevators, arms folded across his chest as if he had no cares in the world. “Who said anything about giving her up?”
“I don’t want another Grainger near her.”