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Exacting his revenge...in the bedroom!

Sophie Watts is mortified when she crashes into billionaire Matias Rivero’s luxury sports car. But even worse is his proposition that she work off her debt by becoming his chef for a glamorous weekend party at his mansion!

Having Sophie at his beck and call is a golden opportunity for Matias to find out everything there is to know about her father—the man who ruined his family. He’ll seduce the truth out of her and exact his revenge... Except Matias doesn’t count on their passion having unexpected nine-month consequences!

‘Don’t you feel the chemistry between us as well?’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Sophie whispered, and Matias raised his eyebrows in an expression of frank incredulity.

‘Of course you do,’ he corrected her casually. ‘Although,’ he continued, ‘I understand that you might want to deny it. After all, it’s not exactly something either of us bargained for, is it?’

No truer words spoken, Matias thought wryly. All things considered, he would have placed greater odds on him catching a rocket to the red planet.

He shrugged eloquently. ‘But there you are. These things happen.’

Sophie’s brain finally cranked into gear and anger began building inside her with the force of suppressed molten lava. He was a rich, powerful man who had her on the run, and because of that he figured he could come on to her because he happened to find her attractive.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said coldly, ‘but I’m not interested.’

Matias laughed as though she’d cracked a hilarious joke. ‘Are you telling me that you don’t feel that electric charge between us?’ He noted the blush that crept into her cheeks. ‘Ah, yes. Of course you do. You’re feeling it now. Why deny it?’

CATHY WILLIAMS can remember reading Mills & Boon books as a teenager, and now that she is writing them she remains an avid fan. For her, there is nothing like creating romantic stories and engaging plots, and each and every book is a new adventure. Cathy lives in London. Her three daughters—Charlotte, Olivia and Emma—have always been, and continue to be, the greatest inspirations in her life.

Books by Cathy Williams

Mills & Boon Modern Romance

Cipriani’s Innocent Captive

The Secret Sanchez Heir

Bought to Wear the Billionaire’s Ring

Snowbound with His Innocent Temptation

A Virgin for Vasquez

Seduced into Her Boss’s Service

The Wedding Night Debt

A Pawn in the Playboy’s Game

At Her Boss’s Pleasure

The Real Romero

The Uncompromising Italian

The Argentinian’s Demand

Secrets of a Ruthless Tycoon

The Italian Titans

Wearing the De Angelis Ring

The Surprise De Angelis Baby

One Night With Consequences

Bound by the Billionaire’s Baby

Seven Sexy Sins

To Sin with the Tycoon

Visit the Author Profile page

at millsandboon.co.uk for more titles.

Legacy of His Revenge

Cathy Williams

Legacy Of His Revenge - fb3_img_img_94884c67-93ea-5b0d-9e2b-74886189589a.png

www.millsandboon.co.uk

Contents

Cover

Back Cover Text

Introduction

About the Author

Title Page

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

Extract

Copyright

CHAPTER ONE

‘THERE’S A DAUGHTER.’

In receipt of this revelation, Matias Rivero looked at his friend and trusted associate, Art Delgado. Like Matias, Art was thirty-two. They had gone to school together and had formed an unlikely friendship with Matias the protector, the one who always had his friend’s back. Small, asthmatic and bespectacled, Art had always been an easy target for bullies until Matias had joined his class and, like a dangerous, cruising shark, had ensured that no one came near the boy who had spent the past two years dreading the daily onslaught of beatings.

Now, all these years later, Matias was Art’s boss and in return Art was his most loyal employee. There was no one Matias trusted more. He motioned for Art to sit and leaned forward to take the mobile phone handed to him.

He scrolled down the three pictures capturing a small, homely, plump little creature leaving Carney’s mansion in an old car that looked as though its only wish was to breathe its last breath and depart for the great automobile parking lot in the sky.

Matias vaguely wondered why she wasn’t in a car befitting a man who had always made social climbing his priority.

But more than that he wondered who the hell the woman was and why he hadn’t heard of her before.

‘How is it that I am only now finding out that the man has a child?’ Matias murmured, returning the mobile phone to his friend and relaxing back in the chair. ‘In fact, how do you know for sure that the woman is his daughter?’

At a little after seven, his office was empty. It was still summertime hot, it was Friday and everyone else had better things to do than work. There was nothing pressing to hold his attention. His last lover had been dispatched a few weeks ago. Right now, Matias had all the time in the world to think about this development in his campaign.

‘She said so,’ Art told him, pushing his wire-rimmed spectacles up his nose and looking at his friend with some concern. ‘But I don’t suppose,’ he added uneasily, ‘it makes any difference, Matias. Does it?’

Matias pushed his chair back and stood up. Seated, he was formidable. Standing, he towered. He was six feet three of solid, packed muscle. Black-haired and black-eyed, the product of an Argentinian father and a dainty Irish mother, Matias had resoundingly come up trumps in the genetic lottery. He was sinfully beautiful, the hard lines of his lean face wonderfully chiselled into absolute perfection. Right at this moment, he was frowning thoughtfully as he strolled towards the floor-to-ceiling bank of glass that overlooked the busy London streets in the heart of the city.

вернуться

Exacting his revenge...in the bedroom!

Sophie Watts is mortified when she crashes into billionaire Matias Rivero’s luxury sports car. But even worse is his proposition that she work off her debt by becoming his chef for a glamorous weekend party at his mansion!

Having Sophie at his beck and call is a golden opportunity for Matias to find out everything there is to know about her father—the man who ruined his family. He’ll seduce the truth out of her and exact his revenge... Except Matias doesn’t count on their passion having unexpected nine-month consequences!

вернуться

‘Don’t you feel the chemistry between us as well?’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Sophie whispered, and Matias raised his eyebrows in an expression of frank incredulity.

‘Of course you do,’ he corrected her casually. ‘Although,’ he continued, ‘I understand that you might want to deny it. After all, it’s not exactly something either of us bargained for, is it?’

No truer words spoken, Matias thought wryly. All things considered, he would have placed greater odds on him catching a rocket to the red planet.

He shrugged eloquently. ‘But there you are. These things happen.’

Sophie’s brain finally cranked into gear and anger began building inside her with the force of suppressed molten lava. He was a rich, powerful man who had her on the run, and because of that he figured he could come on to her because he happened to find her attractive.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said coldly, ‘but I’m not interested.’

Matias laughed as though she’d cracked a hilarious joke. ‘Are you telling me that you don’t feel that electric charge between us?’ He noted the blush that crept into her cheeks. ‘Ah, yes. Of course you do. You’re feeling it now. Why deny it?’

вернуться

CATHY WILLIAMS can remember reading Mills & Boon books as a teenager, and now that she is writing them she remains an avid fan. For her, there is nothing like creating romantic stories and engaging plots, and each and every book is a new adventure. Cathy lives in London. Her three daughters—Charlotte, Olivia and Emma—have always been, and continue to be, the greatest inspirations in her life.

Books by Cathy Williams

Mills & Boon Modern Romance

Cipriani’s Innocent Captive

The Secret Sanchez Heir

Bought to Wear the Billionaire’s Ring

Snowbound with His Innocent Temptation

A Virgin for Vasquez

Seduced into Her Boss’s Service

The Wedding Night Debt

A Pawn in the Playboy’s Game

At Her Boss’s Pleasure

The Real Romero

The Uncompromising Italian

The Argentinian’s Demand

Secrets of a Ruthless Tycoon

The Italian Titans

Wearing the De Angelis Ring

The Surprise De Angelis Baby

One Night With Consequences

Bound by the Billionaire’s Baby

Seven Sexy Sins

To Sin with the Tycoon

Visit the Author Profile page

at millsandboon.co.uk for more titles.

вернуться

Legacy of His Revenge

Cathy Williams

Legacy Of His Revenge - fb3_img_img_94884c67-93ea-5b0d-9e2b-74886189589a.png

www.millsandboon.co.uk

вернуться

CHAPTER ONE

‘THERE’S A DAUGHTER.’

In receipt of this revelation, Matias Rivero looked at his friend and trusted associate, Art Delgado. Like Matias, Art was thirty-two. They had gone to school together and had formed an unlikely friendship with Matias the protector, the one who always had his friend’s back. Small, asthmatic and bespectacled, Art had always been an easy target for bullies until Matias had joined his class and, like a dangerous, cruising shark, had ensured that no one came near the boy who had spent the past two years dreading the daily onslaught of beatings.

Now, all these years later, Matias was Art’s boss and in return Art was his most loyal employee. There was no one Matias trusted more. He motioned for Art to sit and leaned forward to take the mobile phone handed to him.

He scrolled down the three pictures capturing a small, homely, plump little creature leaving Carney’s mansion in an old car that looked as though its only wish was to breathe its last breath and depart for the great automobile parking lot in the sky.

Matias vaguely wondered why she wasn’t in a car befitting a man who had always made social climbing his priority.

But more than that he wondered who the hell the woman was and why he hadn’t heard of her before.

‘How is it that I am only now finding out that the man has a child?’ Matias murmured, returning the mobile phone to his friend and relaxing back in the chair. ‘In fact, how do you know for sure that the woman is his daughter?’

At a little after seven, his office was empty. It was still summertime hot, it was Friday and everyone else had better things to do than work. There was nothing pressing to hold his attention. His last lover had been dispatched a few weeks ago. Right now, Matias had all the time in the world to think about this development in his campaign.

‘She said so,’ Art told him, pushing his wire-rimmed spectacles up his nose and looking at his friend with some concern. ‘But I don’t suppose,’ he added uneasily, ‘it makes any difference, Matias. Does it?’

Matias pushed his chair back and stood up. Seated, he was formidable. Standing, he towered. He was six feet three of solid, packed muscle. Black-haired and black-eyed, the product of an Argentinian father and a dainty Irish mother, Matias had resoundingly come up trumps in the genetic lottery. He was sinfully beautiful, the hard lines of his lean face wonderfully chiselled into absolute perfection. Right at this moment, he was frowning thoughtfully as he strolled towards the floor-to-ceiling bank of glass that overlooked the busy London streets in the heart of the city.

From this high up, the figures down below were matchstick small and the cars and taxis resembled kids’ toys.

He ignored the latter part of his friend’s remark and instead asked, ‘What do you mean “she said so”? Surely I would have known if the man had offspring. He was married and it was a childless union.’ But in truth, Matias had been uninterested in the personal details of James Carney’s life.

Why would he care one way or another if the man had kids or not?

For years, indeed for as long as he could remember, he had been focused on bringing the man to his knees through his company. The company that should never have been Carney’s in the first place. The company that had been founded on lies, deceit and Carney’s outright theft of Matias’s father’s invention.

Making money and having the power associated with it within his grasp was so entwined with his driving need to place himself in a position to reach out and wrench Carney’s company from under his feet, that it would have been impossible to separate the two. Matias’s march towards wealth had also been his march towards satisfying his thirst for revenge. He had gained his first-class degree, had bided his time in an investment bank for two years, making the money he needed to propel himself forward, and then he had quit with money under his belt and a black book stuffed with valuable connections. And he had begun his remorseless rise to the top via mergers and acquisitions of ailing companies, getting richer and richer and more and more powerful in the process.

Throughout it all, he had watched patiently for Carney’s company to ail and so it had.

For the past few years, Matias had been circling the company, a predator waiting for exactly the right time. Should he begin the process of buying shares, then flooding the market with them so that he could plunge the company into a premature meltdown? Should he wait until the company’s health deteriorated beyond repair so that he could instigate his hostile takeover? Choices, choices.

He had thought about revenge for so long that there was almost no hurry but the time had finally come. The letters he had recovered from his mother’s possessions, before she had been admitted to hospital three weeks previously, had propelled him towards the inevitable.

‘Well?’ he prompted, returning to his chair although he was suddenly restless, itching now to start the process of retribution. ‘You had a convivial conversation with the woman? Tell me how you came to your conclusion. I’m curious.’

Matias looked at Art, waiting for clarification.

‘Pure coincidence,’ Art admitted. ‘I was about to turn into Carney’s drive when she came speeding out, swerved round the corner, and banged into the car.’

‘The woman crashed into my car? Which one?’

‘The Maserati,’ Art admitted. ‘Nasty dent but her car, sadly, was more or less a write-off. No worries. It’ll be sorted.’

‘So she banged into my Maserati,’ Matias hurried the story along, planning on returning to this little episode later down the line, ‘told you who she was and then...what?’

‘You sound suspicious, Matias, but that’s exactly what happened. I asked her if that was the Carney residence and she said yes, that her dad lived there and she had just seen him. She was in a bit of a state because of the accident. She mentioned that he was in a foul mood and that it might be a good idea to rearrange whatever plans I had with him.’

‘So there’s a daughter,’ Matias said thoughtfully. ‘Interesting.’

‘A nice girl, Matias, or so it would seem.’

‘Impossible.’ That single word was a flat denial. ‘Carney is a nasty piece of work. It would be downright impossible for him to have sired anything remotely nice.’ The harsh lines of his face softened. For all his friend’s days of being bullied, Art had an instinctive trust in the goodness of human nature that he, Matias, lacked.

Matias had no idea why that was because they were both mixed race, in Art’s case of Spanish descent on his mother’s side. They had both started at the bottom of the pecking order and had had to toughen up to defend themselves against casual racism and snobbery.

But then, Matias mused not for the first time, he and he alone had witnessed first-hand the way criminal behaviour could affect the direction of someone’s life. His father had met James Carney at university. Tomas Rivero had been an extraordinarily clever man with a gift for all things mathematical. He had also been so lacking in business acumen that when, at the age of twenty-four, he invented a computer program that facilitated the analysis of experimental drugs, he was a sitting duck for a man who had very quickly seen where the program could be taken and the money that could be made out of it.

James Carney had been a rich, young thing with a tribe of followers and an eye to the main chance. He had befriended Tomas, persuaded him into a position of absolute trust and, when the time was right, had accumulated all the right signatures in all the right places that ensured that the royalties and dividends from the software went to him.

In return, Tomas had been sidelined with a third-rate job in a managerial position in the already ailing family business Carney had inherited from his father. He had never recovered mentally.

This was a story that had unfolded over the years, although, in fairness to both his parents, nothing had ever been said with spite and certainly there had never been any talk of revenge on the part of either of them.

Matias’s father had died over a decade previously and Rose Rivero, from the very start, had not countenanced thoughts of those wheels turning full circle.

What was done, was done, as far as she was concerned. The past was something to be relinquished.

Not so for Matias, who had seen his father in those quieter moments, seen the sadness that had become a humiliating burden. You didn’t have to be a genius to work out that being shoved in some dingy back office while you saw money and glory heaped on undeserving shoulders had damaged his father irreparably.

As far as Matias was concerned, his father had never fully recovered from Carney’s theft. He had worked at the company in the pitiful job condescendingly given to him for a couple of years and then moved on to another company, but by then his health was failing and Rose Rivero had had to go out to work to help make ends meet.

If his mother had cautioned against revenge, then he had had enough of a taste for it for the both of them.

But he knew that over the years the fires had burned a little less brightly because he had become so intensely consumed in his own meteoric rise to the top. It had been propelled by his desire for revenge but along the way had gathered a momentum of its own, taken on its own vibrant life force...distracted him from the goal he had long ago set himself.

Until he had come upon those letters.

‘She must have produced her insurance certificate,’ Matias mused, eyes narrowing. ‘What’s the woman’s name?’

‘I’ll email you the details.’ Art sighed, knowing without having to be told the direction of his friend’s thoughts. ‘I haven’t had a chance to look at it but I took a picture of the document.’

‘Good,’ Matias said with some satisfaction. ‘Do that immediately, Art. And there will be no need for you to deal with this matter. I will handle it myself.’

‘Why?’ Art was the only person who would ever have dared ask such a forthright question. Especially when the question was framed in a tone of voice that carried a warning.

‘Let’s just say that I might want to get to know her better. Knowledge is power, Art, and I now regret that I didn’t dig a little deeper into Carney’s private life. But don’t look so worried! I’m not the big bad wolf. I don’t make a habit of eating innocent young girls. So if she’s as nice as you imply, then she should be as safe as houses.’

‘Your mother wouldn’t like this,’ Art warned bluntly.

‘My mother is far too kind for her own good.’ For a few seconds, Matias thought of Rose Rivero, who was recuperating from a near fatal stroke at one of the top hospitals in London. If his father had never recovered from Carney’s treachery, then his mother had never recovered from his father’s premature death. When you looked at it, Carney had not only been responsible for his family’s unjust state of penury, but beyond that for the stress that had killed his father and for the ill health and unhappiness that had dogged his mother’s life. Revenge had been a long time coming but, if only James Carney knew it, it was now a juggernaut rolling with unstoppable speed towards him...

* * *

Sophie Watts stared up at the soaring glass tower in front of her and visibly quailed.

The lovely man whose car she had accidentally bruised three days previously had been very accommodating when she had phoned the number he had given her when they had exchanged details. She had explained the situation with her insurance policy and he had been sympathetic. He had told her in a friendly enough voice that she would have to come and discuss the matter personally but he was sure that something could be sorted out.

Unfortunately, the building in front of her did not look like the sort of user-friendly place in which cheerful and accommodating people worked, sorting out thorny situations in a cordial and sympathetic manner.

She clutched her capacious bag tightly and continued staring. Her head told her that she had no option but to move forward with the crowd while her feet begged to be allowed to turn tail and flee back to her low-key corner of East London and her little house in which she did her small-scale catering and baking for anyone who needed her services.

She didn’t belong here and the clothes she had carefully chosen to meet Art Delgado now felt ridiculous and out of place.

The young women sweeping past her with their leather computer bags and clicking high heels were all dressed in sharp black suits. They weren’t dithering. They were striding with purpose into the aggressive glass tower.

A small, plump girl with flyaway hair wearing a summery flowered dress and sandals didn’t belong here.

Sophie propelled herself forward, eyes firmly ahead. It had been a mistake to come here first thing so that she could get it over with. That idea had been great in theory but she hadn’t banked on the early rush-hour stampede of city workers. However, it was too late now to start chastising herself.

Inside, the foyer was a wondrous and cruel blend of marble, glass and metal.

Arrangements of sofas were scattered here and there in circular formations. The sofas were all very attractive and looked enormously uncomfortable. Clearly management didn’t want to encourage too much lounging around. Ahead of her, a bank of receptionists was busily directing people while streams of smartly dressed worker bees headed for the gleaming lifts opening and closing just beyond an array of stunted palm trees in huge ceramic pots.

Sophie felt a pang of physical longing for her kitchen, where she and Julie, her co-worker, chatted and baked and cooked and made big plans for the upmarket bakery they would jointly open one day. She craved the feel of her apron, the smell of freshly baked cake and the pleasant playing around of ideas for meals they had booked in for catering jobs. Even though she was now talking to one of the receptionists, explaining who she wanted to see, confirming that an appointment had been made and stuttering over her own name, she was unhappily longing to be somewhere else.

Frayed nerves made her miss what the snappily dressed girl in front of her had just said but then she blinked and registered that a mistake had been made.

‘I don’t know a Mr... River,’ she said politely.

‘Rivero.’ Eyebrows arched up, lips tightened, eyes cooled.

‘I’m here to see a Mr Delgado.’

‘Your meeting is with Mr Rivero.’ The receptionist swivelled the computer towards her. ‘You are to sign in. Anywhere on the screen will do and just use your finger. Mr Rivero’s secretary will be waiting for you on the tenth floor. Here’s a clip-on pass. Make sure you don’t remove it because if you do you’ll be immediately escorted out of the building.’

In a fluster, Sophie did as she was told but her heart was hammering inside her as she obeyed instructions, allowing herself to be swept along in a group towards the nearest lift and then staring fixedly at nothing in particular as she was whooshed up to the tenth floor, as directed.

Who was Mr Rivero? She had banked on the comfort of explaining her awkward situation to the very nice Mr Delgado. What sort of hearing was she going to get from a complete stranger? She was as tense as a bow string when, disgorged into the plushest surroundings she had ever seen, she was taken in hand by a very tall, middle-aged woman whose expression of sympathy did nothing to quell her escalating nerves.

And then she was being shown into an office, faced with a closed door, ushered through it and deposited like an unwanted parcel in a room that was simply breathtaking.

For a few seconds, eyes as round as saucers, Sophie looked around her. She hadn’t budged from where she had been placed just inside the door of a gigantic office. She cravenly recoiled from actually being bold enough to walk forward. Bag clutched tightly in front of her, she gradually became aware of the man sitting behind the desk. It was as if, suddenly, she focused, and on focusing felt the thudding impact of shock because the guy she was staring at was the most stunningly drop-dead gorgeous specimen she had ever seen in her entire life.

Her breathing slowed and even though she knew she was staring, she couldn’t help herself. His hair was raven black, his eyes the colour of the darkest, richest chocolate, his features lovingly and perfectly chiselled. He oozed the sort of stupendous sex appeal that made heads swing round for a second and third look.

The silence stretched and stretched between them and then it dawned on her that she was making an absolute fool of herself.

‘Miss Watts.’ Matias was the first to speak. ‘Do you intend to hover by the door for the duration of this meeting?’ He didn’t get up to shake her hand. He didn’t smile. He did nothing to put her at ease. Instead he nodded at the chair in front of his desk. ‘Sit down.’

Sophie shuffled forward, not knowing whether she was expected to shake his hand as a formality, but his expression was so forbidding that she decided against it and instead sank into the leather chair. She almost immediately leaned forward and rushed headlong into the little speech she had earlier rehearsed.

‘I’m really sorry about the car, Mr...er... Rivero. I honestly had no idea that your friend was turning into the drive. It’s so difficult to see round that bend, especially in summer. I admit I may have been driving a little faster than usual but I want to impress upon you that it was unintentional.’ What she could have added but didn’t was that her vision had been blurred because she had been doing her utmost not to cry after a stormy and upsetting meeting with James Carney.

* * *

Matias was watching her intently, his dark eyes narrowed on her flushed and surprisingly pretty face. He was a man who went for catwalk models, with long, angular bodies and striking, photogenic faces, yet there was something alluring about the woman sitting in front of him. Something about the softness of her face, the pale, vanilla shade of her unruly hair, the perfect clarity of her aquamarine eyes, held his attention and he could only assume that it was because of her connection to James Carney.

He hadn’t known the woman existed but the minute he had found out he had recognised the gift that had landed in his lap for what it was.

He thought back to those letters he had unearthed, and his jaw tightened. That soft, wide-eyed, innocent look wasn’t going to fool him. He didn’t know the full story of the woman’s relationship to Carney but he certainly intended to find out, just as he intended to exploit the situation he had been handed to discover if there were any other secrets the man might have been hiding. The broader the net was cast, the wider the catch.

‘Employee,’ Matias replied. This just in case she got it into her head that special favours were going to be granted because of Art’s personal connection with him.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Art Delgado is my employee. He was driving my Maserati. Miss Watts, do you have any idea how much one costs?’

‘No, I don’t,’ Sophie said faintly. He was having the most peculiar effect on her. It was as though the power of his presence had sucked the oxygen out of the air, making it difficult to breathe.

‘In that case, allow me to enlighten you.’ He named a sum that was sufficiently staggering to make her gasp. ‘And I have been told that your insurance policy is invalid.’

‘I didn’t know,’ Sophie whispered. ‘I’m usually so good at dealing with all that stuff but things have been a bit hectic recently. I know I cancelled my old policy and I had planned on renewing with somewhere cheaper but...’

Matias held up one imperious hand to stop her in mid flow. ‘I’m not interested in the back story,’ he informed her coolly. ‘To cut to the chase, the damage you have done to my car will run to many, many thousands.’

Sophie’s mouth dropped open. ‘Thousands?’ she parroted.

‘Literally. I’m afraid it won’t be a simple case of sorting out the dent. The entire left wing of the car will have to be replaced. High-performance cars charge high-performance prices.’

‘I... I had no idea. I haven’t got that sort of money. I...when I spoke to your friend...sorry, your employee Mr Delgado on the phone, he said that we would be able to work something out.’

‘Sadly working something out really isn’t in his remit.’ Matias thought that his old friend would raise a sardonic eyebrow at that sweeping statement.

‘I could pay you back over time.’ Sophie wondered what sort of time line would be acceptable to the unforgiving man staring coldly at her as though she were an undesirable alien that had suddenly invaded his personal space. She somehow didn’t imagine that his time line was going to coincide with hers. ‘I run a little catering business with a friend,’ she hurtled on, desperate to bring this uncomfortable meeting to an end and even more desperate to find some sort of solution that wouldn’t involve bankruptcy for her and Julie’s fledgling start-up company. ‘We only opened up a year and a half ago. Before that we were both primary school teachers. It’s taken an awful lot of borrowing to get everything in order and to get my kitchen up to the required standard for producing food commercially, and right at this moment, well...there isn’t a great deal of spare change flying about.’

‘In other words you’re broke.’

‘We’re really making a go of things, Mr Rivero!’ Heat flared in her cheeks. ‘And I’m sure we can work something out when it comes to a repayment schedule for your car...’

‘I gather you’re James Carney’s daughter.’ Matias lowered his eyes, then he pushed back his chair and stood up to stroll across to the impressive bank of windows, in front of which was a tidy sitting area complete with a low table fashioned in chrome and glass.

Sophie was riveted at the sight of him. The way he moved, the unconscious flex of muscle under the expensive suit, the lean length of his body, the casual strength he exuded that was frankly spellbinding. He turned to look at her and it took a big effort not to look away.

His throwaway remark had frozen her to the spot.

‘Well?’ Matias prodded. ‘Art was on his way to pay a little visit to James Carney on business,’ he expanded, ‘when you came speeding out of his drive like a bat out of hell and crashed into my car. I had no idea that the man even had a family.’ He was watching her very carefully as he spoke and was mildly surprised that she didn’t see to ask him a very fundamental question, which was why the heck should Carney’s private life have anything to do with him?

Whatever she was, she clearly didn’t have a suspicious nature.

Sophie was lost for words. She had been shaken by the accident, upset after the visit to her father, and Art Delgado, so different from this flint-eyed guy assessing her, had encouraged her into a confidence she rarely shared with anyone.

‘Of course...’ Matias shrugged, curiosity spiking at her continued silence ‘...I am not primarily concerned with the man’s private life but my understanding was that he was a widower.’

‘He is,’ Sophie whispered, ashamed all over again at a birthright she hadn’t asked for, the consequences of which she had been forced, however, to live with.

‘So tell me where you fit in,’ Matias encouraged. ‘Unless, of course, that was a little white lie you told my employee on the spur of the moment.’ He appeared to give this a little thought. ‘Maybe you were embarrassed to tell the truth...?’

‘Sorry?’ That garnered her attention and she looked at him with a puzzled frown.

‘Young girl having an affair with an old man? I can see that you might have been embarrassed enough to have said the first thing that came to your head, anything that sounded a little less unsavoury than what you really are to Carney.’

‘How dare you?’ Sophie gasped, half standing. ‘That’s disgusting!’

‘I’m just trying to do the maths.’ Matias frowned and tilted his head to one side. ‘If you’re not his lover, the man must have had a mistress while he was married. Am I right? Are you Carney’s love child?’

Sophie laughed bitterly because nothing could have been further from the truth. Love had never come into the equation. Before her untimely death, her mother, Angela Watts, had been an aspiring actress whose great misfortune had been her Marilyn Monroe blonde-bombshell looks. Prey to men’s flattery and pursued for her body, she had made the fatal error of throwing her net too wide. James Carney, young, rich and arrogant, had met her at a club and, like all the others, had pursued her, but he had had no intention of ever settling down with someone he considered a two-bit tart with a pretty face. Those details had been drummed into Sophie from as soon as she was old enough to understand. He had had fun with Angela and she had foolishly thought that the fun would actually go somewhere, but even when she had contrived to trap him with a pregnancy he had stood firm, only later marrying a woman he considered of the right class and social position.

‘He met my mother before he was married,’ Sophie confessed, belatedly adding, ‘not that it has anything to do with...well, anything. Mr Rivero, I would be more than happy for you to draw up a schedule for repayment. I will sign it right here and right now and you have my word that you will have every penny I owe you back. With interest if that’s what you want.’

Matias burst out laughing. ‘That’s very obliging of you,’ he drawled lazily. ‘Believe it or not, I haven’t become a successful businessman by putting my faith in the impossible. I have no idea what you owe the bank but I suspect you’re probably barely making ends meet. Am I right?’

He tilted his head to one side and Sophie looked at him with loathing. He might be sinfully handsome but she had never met anyone she hated more on the spot. She wasn’t stupid. He had all the money in the world, from the looks of it, but he wasn’t going to be lenient when it came to getting back every penny she owed him and she knew that he wouldn’t give a hoot if he drove her little company into the ground to do it.

Right now, he was toying with her like a cat playing with a mouse.

‘We could work out a schedule,’ he mused, ‘but I would be on my walking frame before you made the final payment.’ She really had the most wonderfully transparent face, he thought. Impossible though it was, she looked as pure as the driven snow.

But perhaps she wasn’t fashioned in the same mould as the father. Certainly, she wouldn’t have had the example set by him on a daily basis if she was the product of a youthful affair. He was surprised, in fact, that she had any contact with the man at all and he wondered how that had worked when Carney’s socially acceptable wife had been alive.

Matias wasn’t going to waste time pondering stuff like that, however. Right now, he was working out how best to use her to his advantage. When he pulled the plug on Carney, he intended to hit him on all fronts and he wondered whether she could be of use to him in that.

What other secrets was the man hiding? Matias knew that the company was beset with financial problems but, in the ether, there had been rumours of foul play... Sometimes skeletons were hard to find, however hard you dug, and Carney was a man who was sly and smart enough to cover his tracks. Wouldn’t it be satisfying if all his dark secrets were to be exposed to the cruel glare of light...?

Could this fresh-faced girl be the key to unlock more doors? And what if there were personal skeletons? An attack on all fronts was certainly worth considering. He was honest enough to acknowledge that this level of revenge was probably beneath him, but those letters he’d found...they had made this personal...

‘You could always ask Daddy for the money,’ he ventured smoothly, knowing what the answer would be.

‘No!’ This time she did stand up. Her full mouth was drawn into a thin, obstinate line. ‘I won’t have...my father involved in this. Bankrupt me if you want.’ She reached into her bag, pulled out one of the business cards, remembering how filled with optimism she and Julie had been when they had had them printed. ‘Here’s my business card. You can come and see the premises. It’s just in my kitchen but the equipment must be worth something. I have a number of big jobs lined up, so if you’re patient I can do those and you can have the money. As for the rest... I will sell my house and I should be able to sort out the rest of the debt with money left over after the mortgage has been covered.’

Matias looked at her, every line of his powerful body indicating a man totally relaxed, totally unfazed by her emotional outburst.

Dark eyes roamed over her. She had tried to do something businesslike with her hair but somewhere along the line it had rebelled and tangled, white-blonde strands already curling around her cheeks. Her eyes were wide and a curious shade of turquoise and fringed, he noted, with thick dark lashes, which was at odds with the colour of her hair. And her body...

He shifted in his chair, astonished that he was even bothering to notice that she had curves in all the right places and luscious breasts that were prominent against the truly appalling flowered dress she was wearing.

She lacked sophistication and clearly had no style gene whatsoever, so what, he wondered, with a certain amount of irritation, was it about her that captured his attention so completely?

‘You’re overreacting,’ he told her as she remained standing, her blue eyes dark with worry, anger and distress.

‘You’ve just told me that you’re not willing to come to any kind of arrangement with me about the money I owe you for your stupid car!’ Easy-tempered by nature, Sophie was shocked at the stridency of her voice and the fact that she was yelling at him! ‘I can’t go to my bank and draw out the kind of money I would need to make good the damage. So, of course I’m going to be upset.’

‘Sit down.’

‘No. I’m going. You can get in touch with me on the number on the card! I’m going to have to talk this through with Julie. I don’t know what she’s going to say. She’s put in most of her savings to try and get this business of ours going, as have I, so I’m going to have to find the money to pay her back too and make sure she doesn’t have to pay for my mistake.’ Her voice was wobbling and she stared off into the distance in an attempt to stop herself from crying.

Matias squashed all feelings of guilt. Why should he feel guilty? He was staring at a woman whose father had destroyed his family. In that scenario, guilt didn’t exist. After all, all was fair in love and war, wasn’t it?

‘You could do that,’ he murmured, ‘or you could sit back down and listen to the proposition I have for you.’

вернуться

CHAPTER TWO

‘GO EASY ON THE GIRL,’ Art had urged his friend the previous day. ‘Because Carney’s her father, doesn’t mean that she has been cut from the same cloth.’

Matias hadn’t argued the point with his friend, but he had privately held the view that the apple never fell far from the tree and an innocent smile and fluttering eyelashes, which he was guessing had been the stunt the woman had pulled on Art, didn’t mean she had a pure soul.

Now, however, he was questioning the judgement call he had made before he had even met her. He was seldom, if ever, wrong when it came to summing people up, but in this instance his friend might have had a point. Matias wasn’t going to concede that the woman spent all her spare time helping the poor and unfortunate or that she was the sort who wouldn’t have recognised an uncharitable thought if it did a salsa in front of her. What he did recognise was that he would be better served in his quest for revenge by getting to know her.

She was an unexpected piece of a puzzle he had thought was already complete and he would have to check her out.

He had waited years for retribution. Waiting a couple of weeks longer wasn’t going to kill him and it might put him in an even stronger position than he already was.

He looked at her anxious face and smiled slowly. ‘There’s no need to look so worried,’ he soothed. ‘I’m not a man who beats about the bush, Miss...it is Miss, isn’t it?’

Sophie nodded and automatically touched her ring-free finger. Once upon a time, she had had a boyfriend. Once upon a time, she had had dreams of marriage and kids and a happy-ever-after life, but reality had had something different to say about that.

‘Boyfriend?’ Matias hadn’t missed that unconscious gesture. No ring on her finger. Had there been one? Once? Was she divorced? She looked far too young, but who knew? It wasn’t his business but it paid to know your quarry.

Sophie sat on her hands. ‘I don’t see what that has to do with...your car, Mr... Rivers...’

‘Rivero.’ Matias frowned because it wasn’t often that anyone forgot his name. In fact, never. ‘And in point of fact, it has. You owe me money but if you’re telling the truth, then it would seem that you have little to no hope of repaying me.’

‘Why wouldn’t I be telling the truth?’

Matias debated whether he should point out that her father would surely not be keen to see his child slaving in front of a hot oven cooking food for other people, so how likely was it that catering was her full-time occupation? Or maybe she was the sort who rebelled against their parents by pretending to reject money and everything it stood for? When you came from money and had comfort and security as a blanket to fall back on, it was easy to play at enjoying poverty. From what he knew of the man, keeping up appearances ran to a full-time occupation and surely his offspring would have been dragged into that little game too?

However, he had no intention of laying any of his cards on any tables any time soon. At any rate, it would be a matter of seconds to check her story and he was pretty sure she was telling the truth. Her car, for one thing, did not suggest someone with an enviable bank balance and the oversight with the insurance added to the impression.

He shrugged. ‘Maybe you imagine that pleading poverty will touch some kind of chord in me.’

‘That never crossed my mind,’ Sophie said honestly. ‘I can’t think that anyone would be mad enough to try and appeal to your better nature.’

‘Come again?’ Momentarily distracted, Matias stared at her with outright incredulity.

The woman was here on the back foot, staring bankruptcy in the face if he decided to go after her, and yet she had the cheek to criticise him? He almost couldn’t believe his ears.

Sophie didn’t back down. She loathed arguments and avoided confrontation like the plague, but she was honest and forthright and could be as stubborn as a mule. She had had to be because she had had to take up where her mother had left off when it came to breathing in deep and pursuing what she felt James Carney owed her.

Right now, she had no idea where Matias was going with some of his remarks. He had mentioned a solution to the problem staring her in the face, but she couldn’t help noticing that he hadn’t actually said what that solution might be.

If he was stringing her along only to pull the rug from under her feet, then she wasn’t going to sit back and allow him to bully her in the process.

‘If you had a better nature,’ she pointed out, ‘then you would try and understand what it’s like for me. You probably don’t have a clue about what it’s like to struggle, because if you did then you would be able to put yourself in my shoes, and if you did that you might try and find a solution to the problem instead. If you give me a chance, then I will pay you back, but first you have to give me a chance.’

‘Is this your idea of buttering me up?’ Matias said coldly. ‘Because if it is, then you’re heading in the wrong direction. Let’s not forget that you’re here with a begging bowl.’ He would come back to her father and exactly how hard he’d made Matias’s family struggle in due course.

Sophie’s soft mouth tightened. She had a lot of experience when it came to begging bowls and she had learned the hard way that buckling under threat never got anyone anywhere.

‘You said that you had a proposition for me,’ she reminded him, clinging to that lifebelt and already willing to snatch at it whatever the cost. Perhaps if she had had only herself to think about, she might have backed off, but there were more people at stake here than just her.

Matias was already pleased that he had decided to go with the flow and exploit the opportunity presented to him. Soft and yielding she might look, but it had quickly become apparent that she was anything but.

He felt the kick of an unexpected challenge. So much of his life was predictable. He had reached the pinnacle of his success and he was still in his early thirties. People kowtowed to him, sought his advice, hung onto his every word, did their utmost to please him. Bearing in mind that financial security and the power that came with it had been his ambition for as long as he could remember, he was now disappointed to acknowledge that there was something missing from his life, something that not even the glowing fires of revenge had been able to fulfil.

He had become jaded over time. When he thought back to the hungry young man he had once been, his whole body alive for the task he had set himself, he felt as if he were staring backwards at a stranger. Certainly, on a personal level, the fact that he could have any woman he wanted was something that had long lost its novelty value. Now, for the first time in ages, he was facing a challenge he could sink his teeth into and he liked the feeling.

‘In two weeks’ time...’ Matias had returned to his desk and now he pushed back his leather chair and relaxed with his hands folded behind his head ‘...I am due to host a long weekend party at one of my houses. Around eighty people will be descending and they will be expecting the highest standard of catering. I will provide the food. You will handle everything else. Naturally, you won’t be paid. Succeed and we can carry on from there. I have no intention of exercising my right to frankly bankrupt you because, for a start, driving without being insured is illegal. If I went the whole way, you’d be in prison by dusk. Instead, I will play it by ear.’

‘In other words,’ Sophie said stiffly, ‘you’ll own me until you consider the debt to be paid off.’

Matias tilted his head to one side and smiled coolly. ‘That’s one way of putting it...’ Okay, so it was the only way of putting it. He would be able to take his time finding out about her and thereby finding other ways back to her father. Were those rumours of foul play in the company vaults true? Was that something the man had confessed to his offspring? If so, if that level of information could somehow be accessed, then he would have the most powerful weapon for revenge within his grasp. He couldn’t care less about the damage to his car. He could take it to the nearest scrapyard and buy a replacement without even noticing any dent in his limitless income.

‘And when you think about the alternatives,’ he mused, ‘you’ll conclude, pretty fast, that it’s a sweet deal for you.’ He gave a gesture that was as exotically foreign as he was. ‘You might even be able to...’ he flicked out the business card she had earlier given him ‘...distribute these discreetly during the weekend.’

‘And will I be able to bring my business partner?’

‘I don’t think so. Too many cooks and all that. I will ensure that you have sufficient staff to help but essentially this will be your baby.’ He glanced at his watch but didn’t stand, leaving it to Sophie to deduce that he was done with her. She stood up awkwardly and looked at him.

How could someone so effortlessly beautiful be so utterly cold-hearted?

Although, she had to acknowledge, at least he hadn’t done what he had every right to do and contacted the police. She could have kicked herself for that little window during which she had forgotten to renew her insurance with a different company. So unlike her but then she had had so much on her mind.

‘Will there be something...er...in writing?’

‘Something in writing?’

‘Just so that I know how much of the debt will be covered when I handle the catering for you that weekend...’

‘You don’t trust me?’

Sophie gazed off and thought of her father. She’d had to learn fast how to manage him. Trust had never been in plentiful supply in their relationship and she thought that it would be prudent not to rely on it in this situation either.

‘I don’t trust many people,’ she said quietly and Matias’s ears pricked up.

He looked at her carefully. ‘No?’ he murmured. ‘I don’t trust many people either but then, as you’ve pointed out, I don’t have a better nature whereas I expect you probably do. Am I right?’

‘I’ve found that people inevitably let you down,’ Sophie told him painfully, then she blinked and wondered what on earth had induced her to say that. ‘So it would work if I could have something in writing as I go along...’

‘I’ll get my secretary to draw something up.’ All business now, Matias stood up, signalling that her time was up. ‘Rest assured, you won’t be required to become my personal slave in return for a debt.’

His dark eyes flicked to her as she shuffled to her feet. She gave the impression of someone whose eyes were always downcast and he could see how Art had been knocked sideways by her meek persona, but he wasn’t so easily fooled. He had seen the fire burning just below the surface. She blushed like a virgin but those aquamarine eyes flashed like a siren call and he couldn’t wait to get to the bottom of her...and discover in the process what she could contribute to the picture he had already compiled of her father.

* * *

‘But I just think that there must have been some other way of sorting this situation out! I’m going to be left here for several days on my own and I just don’t know whether I can manage the Rosses’ cocktail party on my own!’

Sophie’s heart went out to Julie and she looked at her friend sympathetically. Sympathy was about all she could offer. She had signed up to a deal with the devil and it was a better deal than she might have hoped for. Even though she hated it.

She had been over all the pros and cons of the situation, and had apologised profusely to her friend, who was not as confident in the kitchen as she was.

‘But on the bright side,’ she said in an upbeat voice, ‘think of all the possible connections we could make! And,’ she felt compelled to repeat because fair was fair, ‘he could have just taken everything from us to sort out the damage to his car. I honestly had no idea that a car could cost that much to repair! It’s mad.’

He was sending a car for her and Sophie looked at her watch with a sense of impending doom. A fortnight ago, his secretary had emailed her with an extensive list of things she ‘should bring, should know and should be prepared to undertake’.

There was to be no veering off from the menu and she would have to ensure that every single dish for every single day was prepared to the highest possible specification.

She was told how many helpers she would have and how they should behave. Reading between the lines, that meant no fraternising with the guests.

She was informed of the dress code for all members of staff, including herself. The dress code did not include jeans or anything that might be interpreted as casual.

She gathered that she was being thrown in at the deep end and this detailed information was his way of being kind to her. She assumed that he had diverted his original catering firm to some other do specifically so that he could put her through her paces and she had spent the past two nights worrying about what would happen if she failed. Matias Rivero wasn’t, she thought, callous enough to take the shirt off her back, but he intended to get his money’s worth by hook or by crook. He might be unwilling to throw her to the sharks, but he wasn’t going to let her get off lightly by agreeing to monthly payments that would take her decades to deliver what was owed.

This was the biggest and most high-profile job she had ever got close to doing and the fact that he would be looking at her efforts with a view to criticism filled her with terror. She wondered whether he hadn’t set her an impossible task just so he could do his worst with a clear conscience when she failed. He struck her as the sort of man who saw ruthlessness as a virtue.

His car arrived just as she was giving some final tips to Julie about the catering job she would be handling on her own, and Sophie took a deep breath and reached for her pull-along case.

There would be a uniform waiting for her at his country house, which was in the Lake District. However, his instructions had been so detailed that she had decided against wearing her usual garb of jeans and a tee shirt to travel there and, instead, was in an uncomfortable grey skirt and a white blouse with a short linen jacket. At a little after ten in the morning, with the sun climbing in the sky, the outfit was already making her perspire.

She hung onto the hopeful thought that she would probably find herself stuck in the kitchen for the entire time. With any luck, she wouldn’t glimpse Matias or any of his guests and she knew that, if that were the case, then she would be all right because she was an excellent chef and more than capable of producing the menu that had been emailed to her.

She wouldn’t even have to bother about sourcing the ingredients, because all of that would already have been taken care of.

Her high hopes lasted for as long as the very smooth car journey took. Then nerves kicked in with a vengeance as the car turned between imposing wrought-iron gates to glide soundlessly up a tree-lined avenue on either side of which perfectly manicured lawns stretched towards distant horizons of open fields, shaded with copses. It was a lush landscape and very secluded.

The house that eventually climbed into view was perched atop a hill. She had expected something traditional, perhaps a Victorian manor house with faded red brick and chimneys.

She gasped at the modern marvel that greeted her. The architect had designed the house to be an organic extension of the hill and it appeared to be embedded into the side so that glass and lead projected as naturally from rock and foliage as a tree might grow upwards from the ground.

The drive curved around the back, skirting a small lake, and then they were approaching the house from the side where a sprawling courtyard was large enough to house all those important guests she had been expecting to find. Except the courtyard was empty aside from three high-performance cars parked haphazardly.

All at once, a quiver of nervous tension rippled through her. She could have become lost in a crowd of people. In an empty mansion, and it certainly looked empty, getting lost wasn’t going to be that easy.

And for reasons she couldn’t quite understand, reasons that extended well beyond the uncomfortable circumstances that surrounded her presence here, Matias made her feel...awkward. Too aware of herself, uncomfortable in her own skin and on edge in a way she had never felt before.

Her bag was whipped away from her before she had time to offer to take it herself and then she was being led through a most marvellous building towards the kitchen by a soft-spoken middle-aged woman who introduced herself as Debbie.

It was a cavernous space of pale marble and pale walls on which were hung vast abstract canvasses. She could have been walking through the centre of a fabulous ice castle and she actually shivered because never had she felt so removed from her comfort zone.

It had been hot outside but in here it was cool and quite silent. When she finally turned her attention away from her impressive surroundings, it was to find that Debbie had disappeared and instead Matias was lounging in the doorway of the kitchen.

‘You’re here,’ he commented, taking in the prissy outfit and the flat black pumps and the neat handbag, which had apparently replaced the Santa’s sack she had been carrying the last time he had seen her. He straightened and headed straight back in the direction of the kitchen, expecting her to follow him, which she did.

Sophie was tempted to retort where else would she be when she’d had no choice, but instead, she said politely to his back, ‘I expected it to have been a bit busier.’

‘The first of the guests don’t arrive until tomorrow.’ Matias didn’t bother to turn around. ‘I thought you might find it helpful to acquaint yourself with the kitchen, get to know where everything is.’

They had ended up in a kitchen that was the size of a football field and equipped to the highest possible standard. Sophie felt her fingers itch as she stared around her, dumbstruck.

‘Wow.’ She turned a full circle, eyes as wide as saucers, then when she was once again looking at him, she asked, ‘So are you going to show me where everything is?’

Matias looked blankly around him and Sophie’s eyebrows shot up.

‘You don’t know your way around this kitchen at all, do you?’

‘I’m not a cook so it’s true to say that I’ve never had much time for kitchens. I’m seldom in one place for very long and I tend to eat out a great deal. I’m a great believer in the theory that if someone else can do something better than you, then it would be cruel to deny them the opportunity.’

Sophie laughed and was surprised that he had managed to make her laugh at all. Her cheeks warmed and she looked away from those piercing dark eyes. Her heart was beating fast and she was confused because once again she could feel the pull of an attraction that went totally against the grain.

For starters, he had proven himself to have all the characteristics she despised in a man. He was arrogant, he was ruthless and he had the sort of self-assurance that came from knowing that he could do what he wanted and no one would object. He had power, he had money and he had looks and those added up to a killer combination that might have been a turn-on for other women but was a complete turn-off for her.

She knew that because he was just an extreme version of the type of men her mother had always been attracted to. Like a moth to an open flame, Angela Watts had been drawn to rich, good-looking men who had always been very, very bad for her. She had had the misfortune to have collided with the pinnacle of unsuitable men in James Carney, but even when that relationship had died a death she had still continued to be pointlessly drawn to self-serving, vain and inappropriate guys who had been happy to take her for a ride and then ditch her when she started to bore them.

Sophie had loved her mother but she had recognised her failings long before she had hit her formative teens. She had sworn to herself that, when it came to men, she would make informed choices and not be guided into falling for the wrong type. She would not be like her mother.

It helped that, as far as Sophie was concerned, she lacked her mother’s dramatic bleached-blonde sex appeal.

And if she had made a mistake with Alan, then it hadn’t been because she had chosen someone out of her league. It had just been...one of those things, a learning curve.

So why was she finding it so hard to tear her eyes away from Matias? Why was she so aware of him here in the kitchen with her, lean, indolent and darkly, dangerously sexy?

‘Why don’t you look around?’ he encouraged, sitting at the kitchen table, content to watch her while he worked out how he was going to engineer the conversation into waters he wanted to explore.

She was very watchable. Even in clothes that were better suited to a shop assistant in a cheap retail outlet.

He was struck again by how little sense that made considering who her father was, but he would find out in due course and in the meanwhile...

He looked at her with lazy male appreciation. She had curves in all the right places. The hazy picture he had seen on Art’s phone had not done justice to her at all. His eyes drifted a little south of her face to her breasts pushing against the buttons of the prissy, short-sleeved shirt. At least the jacket had come off. She was reaching up to one of the cupboards, checking the supply of dishes, he presumed, and the shirt ruched up to reveal a sliver of pale, smooth skin at her waist, and a dormant libido that should have had better things to do than start wanting to play with a woman who was firmly off the cards kicked into gear.

‘Everything looks brand new.’ Sophie turned to him, still on tiptoes, and he could see that indeed the crockery and the glasses in the cupboards could have come straight out of their expensive packaging. ‘How often has this kitchen been used?’

‘Not often,’ Matias admitted, adjusting position to control his insurgent body. He glanced away for a few moments and was more in charge of his responses when he looked at her once more. Her hair was extraordinarily fair and he could tell it was naturally so. Fine and flyaway—with her heart-shaped face it gave her the look of an angel. A sexy little angel.

‘In summer, I try and get up here for a weekend or so, but it’s not often possible. Taking time out isn’t always a viable option for me.’

‘Because you’re a workaholic?’ Not looking at him, Sophie stooped down to expertly assess what the situation was with pots and pans and, as expected, there was no lack of every possible cooking utensil she might need. Next, she would examine the contents of the fridge.

With her catering hat firmly in place, it was easy to forget Matias’s presence on the kitchen chair and the dark eyes lazily following her as she moved about the kitchen.

‘I’ve discovered that work is the one thing in life on which you can depend,’ Matias said, somewhat to his astonishment. ‘Which, incidentally, is how I know your father.’

Sophie stilled and turned slowly round to look at him. ‘You know my father? You actually know him?’

‘I know of him,’ Matias admitted, his dark eyes veiled. ‘I can’t say I’ve ever met the man personally. In fact, I was contemplating a business venture with him, which accounts for Art heading towards the house when you came racing out of the drive and crashed into my Maserati.’ The delicate bones of her face were taut with tension and his curiosity spiked a little more.

‘You had an appointment with my father?’

‘Not as such,’ Matias told her smoothly. ‘Art was going to...let’s just say...lay the groundwork for future trade...’ In other words, he had sent Art to do the preliminary work of letting Carney know that his time was drawing to a close. He, Matias, would step in only when the net was ready to be tightened.

‘Poor Art,’ Sophie sighed, and Matias looked at her with a frown.

‘Why do you say that?’

‘I don’t think he would have got very far with James even if he’d managed to gain entry to the house.’

‘James? You call your father James?’

‘He prefers that to being called Dad.’ Sophie blushed. ‘I think he thinks that the word dad is a little ageing. Also...’

‘Also,’ Matias intuited, ‘you were an illegitimate child, weren’t you? I expect he was not in the sort of zone where he would have been comfortable playing happy families with you and your mother. Not with a legitimate wife on the scene.’

Sophie went redder. What to say and how much? He was being perfectly polite. He wasn’t to know the sort of man her father was and, more importantly, the reasons that had driven her mother to maintain contact with him, a legacy she had passed on to her daughter. Nor was she going to fill him in on her private business.

But the lengthening silence stretched her nerves to breaking point, and eventually she offered, reluctantly, ‘No. My mother was a youthful indiscretion and he didn’t like to be reminded of it.’

‘He got your mother pregnant and he refused to marry her...’ Matias encouraged.

Sophie stiffened because she could see the man in front of her was busy building a picture in his head, a picture that was spot on, but should she allow him to complete that picture?

The conversation she had had with her father just before she had blindly ended up crashing into Matias’s car had been a disturbing one. He was broke, he had told her.

‘And don’t stand there with your hand stretched out staring gormlessly at me!’ he had roared, pacing the magnificent but dated living room that was dark and claustrophobic and never failed to make Sophie shudder. ‘You can take some of the blame for that! Showing up here month in month out with bills to settle! Now, there’s nothing left. Do you understand me? Nothing!’

Cringing back against the stone mantelpiece, truly fearful that he would physically lash out at her, Sophie had said nothing. Instead, she had listened to him rant and rave and threaten and had finally left the house with far less than she had needed.

What if he was telling the truth? What if he was going broke? Where would that leave her...? And more importantly, where would that leave Eric?

As always, thinking of her brother made her heart constrict. For all her faults and her foolish misjudgements, her mother had been fiercely protective of her damaged son and had determined from early on that she wasn’t going to be fobbed off by a man who had been happy enough to sleep with her for four years before abandoning her as soon as the right woman had finally appeared on the scene. She had used the only tool in her armoury to get the money she had needed for Eric to be looked after in the very expensive home where his needs were catered for.

Blackmail.

How would those fancy people James mixed with like him if they knew that he refused to support his disabled son and the family he had carelessly conceived, thinking that they would all do him a favour and vanish when it suited him?

James had paid up and he had continued paying up because he valued the opinion of other people more than anything else in the world, not because he felt any affection for either the son he had never seen or the daughter he loathed because she was just an extension of the woman who, as far as he was concerned, had helped send him to the poorhouse.

If there was no money left, Eric would be the one to pay the ultimate price and Sophie refused to let that happen.

If Matias was interested in doing a deal with her father, a deal that might actually get him solvent once again, then how could it be in her interests to scupper that by letting him know just how awful James was? If her father had money then Eric would be safe.

‘That’s life.’ She shrugged, masking her expression. ‘There aren’t many men who would have found it easy to introduce an outside family to their current one.’ She took a deep breath and said, playing with the truth like modelling clay, ‘But he’s always been there for my mother... And now...er...for me...financially...’

Matias wondered whether they were talking about the same person. ‘So you would recommend him as someone I should have dealings with?’

Fingers crossed behind her back, Sophie thought of her brother, lost in his world in the home where she visited him at least once a week, her brother who would certainly find life very, very different without all that care provided, care that only money could buy. ‘Yes. Of course. Of course, I would.’ She forced a smile. ‘I’m sure he would love to have you contact him...’

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CHAPTER THREE

MATIAS LOWERED HIS stunning dark eyes. So she either had no idea what kind of man her father was or she knew perfectly well enough and was tainted with the very same streak of greed, hence her enthusiasm for him to plough money into the man.

He wondered whether, over time and with her father’s finances going down the drain faster than water running down a plughole, she had found herself an accidental victim of his limited resources. She had just declared that her father had supported her and her mother and Matias had struggled to contain a roar of derisive laughter at that. But she could have been telling the truth. Perhaps the dilapidated car and the debt owed to the bank were the result of diminishing handouts. She might have been an illegitimate child but it was possible that Carney had privately doted on her, bearing in mind that his own marriage had failed to yield any issue. Advertising a child outside marriage might have been no big deal for many men, but a man like Carney would have been too conscious of his social standing to have been comfortable acknowledging her publicly.

For a moment and just a moment, he wondered whether he could notch up some extra retribution and publicly shame the man by exposing a hidden illegitimate child, but he almost immediately dismissed it because it was...somehow unsavoury. Especially, he thought, shielding the expression in his dark eyes, when the woman sitting in front of him emanated innocence in waves. There was such a thing as a plan backfiring and, were a picture of her to be printed in any halfway decent rag, a sympathetic public would surely take one look at that disingenuous, sensationally sincere face and cast him in the role of the bad guy. Besides, Carney’s close friends doubtless knew of the woman’s existence already.

‘I will certainly think about contacting your father,’ Matias intoned smoothly, watching her like a hawk. He became more and more convinced that she was playing him for a sap because she was suddenly finding it seemingly impossible to meet his eyes. ‘Now, you’ve looked at the menu. Tell me whether you think you’re up to handling it.’

Sophie breathed a sigh of relief at the change of subject. She hated the little white lie she had told, even though she was surely justified in telling it. Matias might be disgustingly rich and arrogant but he still didn’t deserve to be deceived into believing her father was an honourable guy. On the other hand, if the choice was between her brother’s future safety and well-being and Matias investing some money he wouldn’t ever miss, then her brother was going to win hands down every time.

But that didn’t mean that she’d liked telling Matias that fib.

She jumped onto the change of topic with alacrity. ‘Absolutely.’ She looked around her at the expensive gadgets, the speckled white counters, the vast cooking range. ‘And it helps that your kitchen is so well equipped. Did you plan on doing lots of entertaining here when you bought the house?’

‘Actually, I didn’t buy the house. I had it built for me.’ He went to the fridge, extracted a bottle of chilled white wine and poured her a glass. It seemed wildly extravagant to be consuming alcohol at this hour of the afternoon but she needed to steady her nerves, which were all over the place. ‘And I had no particular plans to use the space for entertaining. I simply happen to enjoy having a lot of open space around me.’

‘Lucky you,’ Sophie sighed. After two sips of wine, she was already feeling a little less strung out. ‘Julie and I would have a field day if we had this sort of kitchen. I’ve done the best with what I’ve got, but getting all the right equipment to fit into my kitchen has been a squeeze and if the business really takes off, then we’re definitely going to have to move to bigger premises.’

Matias wondered whether that was why she had encouraged him to contact her father and put some work his way. Was it because she would be the happy beneficiary of such an arrangement?

Suspicious by nature and always alert to the threat of someone trying it on, he found it very easy to assume the worst of her, in defiance of the disingenuous manner she had. Judge a book by its cover and you almost always ended up being taken for a ride.

Not only did he have the example of his father to go on, who had paid the ultimate price for judging a book by its cover, but he, Matias, had made one and only one catastrophic misjudgement in his heady youth. On the road to the vast riches that would later be his and caught up in the novel situation of being sought after by men far older than himself who wanted to tap his financial acumen, he had fallen for a girl who had seemed to be grounded in the sort of normality he had fast been leaving behind. Next to the savvy beauties who had begun forming a queue for him, she had seemed the epitome of innocence. She had turned down presents, encouraged him to sideline the sort of fancy venues that were opening up on his horizon and professed a burning desire to go to the movies and share a bag of popcorn. No boring Michelin restaurants for her!

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