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MARRIAGE IDEAL CHAPTER ONE Gabbi eased the car to a halt in the long line of traffic hanked !

behind the Ne" #o th Head Road interaction ad$acent to #%dne%&s s b rban Eli'abeth (a%) A slight fro"n creased her forehead as she checked her "atch* and her fingers ta!!ed an i+!atient tattoo against the steering "heel) #he had !recisel% one ho r in "hich to sho"er* "ash her hair* dr% and st%le it* a!!l% +ake, !* dress* and greet in-ited dinner g ests) The loss of ten +in tes ca ght ! in hea-% traffic didn&t for+ !art of her !lan) Her e%es slid to the +anic red length of her nails* and she d"elt +o+entaril% on the fact that ti+e s!ent on their lac. ered !erfection had cost her her l nch) An a!!le at her desk +id,afternoon co ld hardl% be ter+ed an ade. ate s bstit te) The car in front began to +o-e* and she follo"ed its !ath* !icking ! s!eed* onl% to de!ress the brake !edal as the lights changed) Da+n) At this rate it "o ld take t"o* if not three atte+!ts to clear the intersection) #he sho ld* she ad+itted silentl%* ha-e left her office earlier in order to +iss the hea-% earl% e-ening traffic) /et st bborn single,+indedness had !re-ented her fro+ doing so) As 0a+es #tanton&s da ghter* she had no need to sit "ork) Pro!ert%* an e1tensi-e share !ortfolio and a handso+e ann it% !laced her high on the list of #%dne%&s inde!endentl% "ealth% %o ng "o+en) As (enedict Nicols& "ife* her !osition as assistant +anage+ent cons ltant "ith #tanton,Nicols Enter!rises "as -ie"ed as ne!otis+ at its -er% "orst) Gabbi thr st the gear,shift for"ard "ith nacc sto+ed force* attaining +o+entar% satisfaction fro+ the so nd of the Mercedes& refined engine as she eased the car for"ard and follo"ed the traffic&s cra"ling !ace* onl% to halt scant +in tes later) The cell!hone rang* and she a to+aticall% reached for it) &Gabrielle)& Onl% one !erson steadfastl% ref sed to abbre-iate her Christian na+e) &Moni. e)& &/o &re dri-ing2& &#tationar%*& she infor+ed her* !ondering the ! r!ose of her ste!+other&s call) Moni. e ne-er rang to si+!l% sa% &hello)& &Annaliese fle" in this afternoon) 3o ld it be an i+!osition if she ca+e to dinner2& /ears s!ent attending an elite boarding,school had instilled re. isite good +anners) &Not at all) 3e&d be delighted)& &Thank %o * darling)& Moni. e&s -oice so nded like li. id satin as she ended the call) 3onderf l* Gabbi accorded silentl% as she ! nched in the a!!ro!riate code and alerted Marie to set another !lace at the table) &#orr% to land this on %o *& she added a!ologeticall% before re!lacing the handset do"n onto the console) An e1tra g est !osed no !roble+* and Gabbi "asn&t s fficientl% s !erstitio s to consider thirteen at the table a !re+ise for an ns ccessf l e-ening) The traffic began to +o-e* and the faint tension in her e%es threatened to de-elo! into a headache)

0a+es #tanton&s re+arriage ten %ears ago to a t"ent% nine %ear,old di-orcee "ith one %o ng da ghter had gifted hi+ "ith a content+ent Gabbi co ld ne-er begr dge hi+) Moni. e "as his social e. al* and an e1e+!lar% hostess) It "as nfort nate that Moni. e&s affection didn&t e1tend to 0a+es&s da ghter) As a - lnerable fifteen,%ear,old Gabbi had sensed her ste!+other&s s !erficialit%* and s!ent si1 +onths agonising o-er "h%* ntil a friend had s!elled o t the basic !s%cholog% of a d%sf nctional relationshi!) In retaliation* Gabbi had chosen to e1cel at e-er%thing she did4she&d stri-en to gain straight As in each s b$ect* had "on s!orting cha+!ionshi!s* and grad ated fro+ ni-ersit% "ith an hono rs degree in b siness +anage+ent) #he&d st died lang ages and s!ent a %ear in Paris* follo"ed b% another in Tok%o* before ret rning to #%dne% to "ork for a ri-al fir+) Then she&d a!!lied for and "on* on the strength of her e1!erience and credentials* a !osition "ith #tanton,Nicols) There "as a certain danger in allo"ing one&s tho ghts to d"ell on the !ast* Gabbi + sed a trifle "r%l% as she s" ng the Mercedes into the e1cl si-e 5a cl se street* "here hea-%* "ide,branched trees added a certain a+bience to the l 1 rio s ho+es nestled o t of sight behind high concrete "alls) A fe" h ndred +etres along she dre" the car to a halt* de!ressed a re+ote +ode+* and "aited the necessar% seconds as the do ble set of ornate black "ro ght,iron gates slid s+oothl% aside) A "ide c r-ed dri-e"a% led to an elegant t"o,store%ed Mediterranean,st%le ho+e set "ell back fro+ the road in bea tif l landsca!ed gro nds) Enco+!assing fo r allot+ents originall% ac. ired in the late 6789s b% Conrad Nicols* the e1isting fo r ho ses had been re+o-ed to +ake "a% for a + lti,+illion,dollar residence "hose +agnificent harbo r -ie"s !laced it high in #%dne%&s real,estate stratos!here) Ten %ears later e1tensi-e +illion,dollar ref rbish+ent had added e1tensions !ro-iding additional bedroo+ acco++odation* garages for se-en cars* re+odelled kitchen* nderco-er terraces* and balconies) The re-a+!ed gardens boasted fo ntains* co rt%ards* orna+ental !onds and English,ins!ired la"ns bordered b% cli!!ed hedges) It "as incredibl% sad* Gabbi reflected as she released one set of a to+atic garage doors and dro-e beneath the+* that Conrad and Diandra Nicols had been -icti+s of a freak high"a% accident +ere "eeks after the final landsca!ing to ches had been co+, !leted) /et Conrad had achie-ed in death "hat he hadn&t achie-ed in the last ten %ears of his life: His son and heir had ret rned fro+ A+erica and taken o-er Conrad&s !artnershi! in #tanton,Nicols) Gabbi slid the Mercedes to a halt bet"een the sleek lines of (enedict&s ;0<<9 0ag ar and the +ore staid fra+e of a black (entle%) Missing "as the to!,of,the,range fo r,"heel dri-e (enedict sed to co++ te each da% to the cit%) The garage doors slid do"n "ith a refined click and Gabbi ca ght ! her briefcase fro+ the !assenger seat* sli!!ed o t fro+ behind the "heel* then crossed to a side door to ! nch in a series of digits* deacti-ating the sec rit% s%ste+ g arding entr% to the ho se) Mansion* she corrected herself "ith a t"isted s+ile as she lifted the in,ho se !hone and rang thro gh to the kitchen) &Hi* Marie) E-er%thing nder control2& T"ent% %ears& ser-ice "ith the Nicols fa+il% enabled the ho sekee!er to res!ond "ith a "ar+ ch ckle) &No !roble+s)&

&Thanks*& Gabbi ackno"ledged gratef ll% before h rr%ing thro gh the "ide hall"a% to a c r-ed staircase leading to the !!er floor) Marie "o ld be ! tting the final to ches to the fo r,co rse +eal she&d !re!ared= her h sband* #erg* "o ld be checking the te+!erat re of the "ines (enedict had chosen to be ser-ed* and #o!hie* the cas al hel!* "o ld be r nning a final check of the dining, roo+) All she had to do "as a!!ear do"nstairs* !erfectl% groo+ed* "hen #erg ans"ered the ring of the doorbell and shered the first of their g ests into the lo nge in aro nd fort% +in tes) Or less* Gabbi accorded as she ascended the stairs at a ra!id !ace) (enedict&s +other had chosen l sh,!iled ea ,de,nil car!et and !ale te1t red "alls to offset the classic lines of the +ahogan% f rnit re* e+!lo%ing a skilf l blend of toning colo r "ith +atching dra!es and bedco-ers* ens ring each roo+ "as s btl% different) The +aster s ite "as sit ated in the eastern "ing "ith glass doors o!ening onto t"o balconies and co++anding i+!ressi-e -ie"s of the harbo r) Panora+ic b% da%* those -ie"s beca+e a +agical -ista at night* "ith a fair%,like tracer% of distant electric and flashing neon light) Gabbi kicked off her shoes* re+o-ed $e"eller%* then . ickl% shed her clothes en ro te to a +arble,tiled en s ite "hich al+ost ri-alled the bedroo+ in si'e) Elegantl% decadent in !ale gold,streaked i-or% +arble* there "as a h ge s!a,bath and a do ble sho"er to co+!le+ent the s al facilities) Ten +in tes later she entered the bedroo+* a to"el fastened sarong,st%le o-er her sli+ c r-es* "ith another "o nd into a t rban on to! of her head) &C tting it fine* Gabbi2& (enedict&s faintl% accented dra"l held a +ocking edge as he shr gged off his s it $acket and loosened his tie) In his late thirties* tall* "ith a broad* hard,+ scled fra+e* his sc l!ted facial feat res ga-e a hint of his +aternal Andal sian ancestr%) Dark* al+ost black e%es held a !o"erf l intensit% that ne-er softened for his fello" +an* and rarel% for a "o+an) &3hate-er ha!!ened to >Hi* hone%* I&+ ho+e>2& she retaliated as she crossed the roo+ and selected fresh nder"ear fro+ a recessed dra"er* h rriedl% donned briefs and bra* then ste!!ed into a silk sli!) &?ollo"ed b% a sal tator% kiss2& he +ocked "ith a tinge of + sing c%nicis+ as he shed his shirt and attended to the 'i! of his tro sers) #he felt the te+!o of her heartbeat increase* and she "as conscio s of an ele-ated tension that began in the !it of her sto+ach and flared along e-er% ner-e,end* firing her bod% "ith an ac te a"areness that "as entirel% !h%sical) D%na+ic +asc linit% at its +ost !otent* she ackno"ledged silentl% as she snatched ! a silk robe* thr st her ar+s thro gh its slee-es* and retraced her ste!s to the en s ite) Re+o-ing the to"elled t rban* she ca ght ! the hair,drier and began blo", dr%ing her hair) Her attention ra!idl% beca+e nfoc sed as (enedict entered the en s ite and crossed to the sho"er) Mirrored "alls reflected his naked i+age* and she deter+inedl% ignored the oli-e,toned skin sheathing hard + scle and sine"* the s!ring% dark hair that co-ered his chest and arro"ed do"n !ast his "aist to reach his +anhood* the fir+l% sha!ed b ttocks* and the !o"erf l length of his back)

Her e%es follo"ed the !o"erf l strength of his sho lders as he reached for"ard to acti-ate the flo" of "ater* then the glass doors slid closed behind hi+) Gabbi t gged the br sh thro gh her hair "ith nnecessar% force* and felt her e%es !rick at the s dden !ain) It "as one %ear* t"o +onths and three "eeks since their +arriage* and she still co ldn&t handle the effect he had on her in bed or o t of it) Her scal! tingled in !rotest* and she rela1ed the br shstrokes then s"itched off the drier) Her hair "as still slightl% da+!* its nat ral ash,blonde colo r a!!earing faintl% darker* highlighting the crea+% s+oothness of her skin and accent ating the dee! bl e of her e%es) 3ith !racticed +o-e+ents she ca ght the length of her hair and deftl% s"e!t it into a chignon at her na!e* sec red it "ith !ins* then began a!!l%ing +ake, !) Min tes later she heard the "ater sto!* and "ith conscio s effort she foc sed on blending her e%e shado"* st dio sl% ignoring hi+ as he crossed to the long +arbled !edestal and began dealing "ith a da%&s gro"th of beard) &(ad da%2& Her fingers +o+entaril% stilled* then she re!laced the e%eshado" !alette and selected +ascara) &3h% do %o ask2& &/o ha-e e1!ressi-e e%es*& (enedict obser-ed as he s+oothed his fingers o-er his $a") Gabbi +et his ga'e in the +irror* and held it) &Annaliese is to be a last,+in te g est at dinner)& He s"itched off the electric sha-er and reached for the c t,glass bottle containing an e1cl si-e brand of cologne) &That bothers %o 2& #he tried for le-it%) &I&+ ca!able of sla%ing +% o"n dragons)& One e%ebro" lifted "ith sardonic h +o r) &5erbal s"ords o-er dessert2& Annaliese "as kno"n not to +iss an o!!ort nit%* and Gabbi co ldn&t i+agine tonight "o ld !ro-e an e1ce!tion) &I&ll do +% best to !arr% an% barbs "ith !ractised ci-ilit%)& His e%es s"e!t o-er her sli+ c r-es then ret rned to st d% the faint* brooding . alit% e-ident on her finel% etched feat res* and a slight s+ile t gged the edges of his +o th) &The ob$ecti-e being to "in another battle in an ongoing "ar2& &Has an%one beaten %o in battle* (enedict2& she . eried lightl% as she ca!!ed the +ascara "and* ret rned it to the dra"er ho sing her cos+etics and concentrated on a!!l%ing a soft !ink colo r to her li!s) He didn&t ans"er) He had no need to assert that he "as a +an e. all% feared and res!ected b% his conte+!oraries and rarel%* if e-er* fooled b% an%one) 0 st "atch +% back) The "ords re+ained n ttered as she t rned to"ards the door* and +in tes later she selected a long black !encil,sli+ silk skirt and tea+ed it "ith a si+!le scoo!,necked slee-eless black to!) #tiletto,heeled e-ening shoes co+!leted the o tfit* and she added a !ear,sha!ed dia+ond !endant and +atching ear,st ds* then sli!!ed on a sli+* dia+ond,encr sted bracelet before t rning to"ards the +irror to cast her reflection a c rsor% glance) A fe" dabs of her fa-o rite Le M st de Cartier !erf +e added the final to ch) &Read%2& Gabbi t rned at the so nd of his -oice* and felt her breath catch at the i+age he

!resented) There "as so+ething abo t his stance* a sense of ani+alistic strength* that fine tailoring did little to ta+e) The dra+atic +esh of ele+ental r thlessness and !ri+iti-e !o"er added a +agnetis+ fe" "o+en of an% age co ld s ccessf ll% ignore) ?or a fe" ti+eless seconds her e%es locked "ith his in an atte+!t to deter+ine "hat la% behind the st died inscr tabilit% he al"a%s +anaged to !ortra%) #he en-ied hi+ his s !erb control)))and "ondered "hat it "o ld take to break it) &/es)& Her -oice "as stead%* and she s ++oned a bright s+ile as she t rned to !recede hi+ fro+ the roo+) The +ain staircase c r-ed do"n to the gro nd floor in an elegant s"ee! of "ide* !artiall% car!eted +arble stairs* "ith highl% !olished +ahogan% bannisters s !!orted b% ornatel% scrolled black "ro ght,iron bal sters) #et against floor,to,ceiling lead,!anelled glass* the staircase created an elegant foc s highlighted b% a +agnificent cr%stal chandelier) Marble floors lent s!acio sness and light to the large entr% fo%er* s stained b% te1t red i-or%,colo red "alls "hose nifor+it% "as broken b% a series of "ide* hea-il% !anelled doors* "orks of art* and a collection of elegant Mediterranean,st%le cabinets) Gabbi had $ st !laced a foot on the last stair "hen the doorbell !ealed) &#ho",ti+e*& she + r+ red as #erg e+erged fro+ the eastern hall"a% and +o-ed . ickl% to"ards the i+!ressi-el% !anelled do ble front doors) (enedict&s e%es hardened fractionall%) &C%nicis+ doesn&t s it %o )& Innate !ride lent her e%es a fier% s!arkle* and her chin tilted slightl% in a gest re of +ild defiance) &I can be g aranteed to beha-e*& she ass red hi+ . ietl%* and felt her ! lse . icken as he ca ght hold of her hand) &Indeed)& The ackno"ledge+ent held a dr% softness "hich "as lethal* and an ic% chill feathered across the s rface of her skin) &Charles*& (enedict greeted s+oothl% seconds later as #erg anno nced the first of their g ests) &Andrea)& His s+ile "as "ar+* and he a!!eared rela1ed and totall% at ease) &Co+e thro gh to the lo nge and let +e get %o a drink)& Most of the re+aining g ests arri-ed "ithin +in tes* and Gabbi !la%ed her role as hostess to the hilt* circ lating* s+iling* all the ti+e "aiting for the +o+ent Moni. e and Annaliese "o ld !recede her father into the lo nge) Moni. e belie-ed in +aking an entrance* and her arri-al "as al"a%s caref ll% ti+ed to !ro-ide +a1i+ + i+!act) 3hile she "as ne-er n!ardonabl% late* her ti+ing ne-ertheless bordered on the edge of social acce!tabilit%) #erg&s anno nce+ent coincided "ith Gabbi&s e1!ectation and* e1c sing herself fro+ con-ersation* she +o-ed for"ard to greet her father) &0a+es)& #he br shed his cheek "ith her li!s and acce!ted the fir+ clas! on her sho lder in ret rn before t rning to"ards her ste!+other to acce!t the sal tator% air,kiss) &Moni. e)& Her s+ile "as "itho t fa lt as she ackno"ledged the st nning %o ng "o+an at Moni. e&s side) &Annaliese) Ho" nice to see %o )& (enedict $oined her* the light to ch of his hand at the back of her "aist a dist rbing sensation that !ro-ided s btle reass rance and a hidden "arning) That it also s cceeded in shar!ening her senses and +ade her incredibl% a"are of hi+ "as entirel% a secondar% consideration) His greeting echoed her o"n* his -oice ass +ing a s btle inflection that held

gen ine "ar+th "ith her father* tter char+ "ith her ste!+other* and an eas% tolerance "ith Annaliese) Moni. e&s s"eet s+ile in res!onse "as fa ltless) Annaliese* ho"e-er* "as ! re feline and ade!t in the art of flirtation) A skill she see+ed to delight in !ractising on an% +ale !ast the age of t"ent%* "ith scant res!ect for his +arital stat s) &(enedict)& 3ith $ st one "ord Annaliese +anaged to con-e% a "ealth of +eaning that set Gabbi&s teeth on edge) The !ress re of (enedict&s fingers increased* and Gabbi ga-e hi+ a st nning s+ile* totall% ignoring the "arning flare in the de!ths of those dark e%es) Dinner "as a s ccess) It "o ld ha-e been diffic lt for e-en the +ost discerning go r+and&s !alate to find fa lt "ith the ser-ing of fine food bea tif ll% cooked* s !erbl% !resented* and co+!le+ented b% e1cellent "ine) (enedict "as an e1e+!lar% host* and his inherent abilit% to absorb facts and fig res co+bined "ith an al+ost !hotogra!hic +e+or% ens red con-ersation "as -aried and interesting) Men so ght and -al ed his o!inion on a b siness le-el* and en-ied hi+ his a!!eal "ith "o+en) 3o+en* on the other hand* so ght his attention and co-eted Gabbi&s !osition as his "ife) A Match Made in Hea-en* the tabloids had anno nced at the ti+e) The 3edding of the Decade* a n +ber of "o+en&s +aga'ines had headlined* de!icting a -ariet% of !hotogra!hs to endorse the !ro$ected i+age) Onl% the ro+anticall% inclined acce!ted the +edia co-erage as !ortra%ed* "hile the cit%&s4indeed* the entire co ntr%&s4 !!er social echelons recognised the facts beneath the fair% floss) The +arriage of (enedict Nicols and Gabrielle #tanton had occ rred as a direct res lt of the +ani! lati-e strateg% b% 0a+es #tanton to ce+ent the #tanton,Nicols financial e+!ire and forge it into another generation) The reason for (enedict&s !artici!ation "as clear)))he stood to gain total control of #tanton,Nicols) The bon s "as a !ersonable %o ng "o+an e+inentl% eligible to sire the necessar% !rogen%) Gabbi&s co+!liance had been +oti-ated in !art b% a desire to !lease her father and the realistic recognition that* gi-en his enor+o s "ealth* there "o ld be -er% fe" +en* if an%* "ho "o ld disco nt the financial and social ad-antage of being 0a+es #tanton&s son, in,la") &#hall "e ad$o rn to the lo nge for coffee2& The s+ooth "ords ca ght Gabbi&s attention* and she took (enedict&s c e b% s ++oning a gracio s s+ile and rising to her feet) &I&+ s re Marie has it read%)& &Treas re of a chef* &"onderf l +eal&* &delightf l e-ening&) 3ords echoed in !olite !raise* and she inclined her head in ackno"ledge+ent) &Thank %o ) I&ll !ass on %o r co+!li+ents to Marie) #he&ll be !leased)& 3hich "as tr e) Marie -al ed the high salar% and se!arate li-e,in acco++odation that for+ed !art of the e+!lo%+ent !ackage* and her gratit de "as reflected in her c linar% efforts) &/o "ere rather . iet at dinner* darling)& Gabbi heard Moni. e&s softl% toned -oice* and t rned to"ards her) &Do %o think so2& &Annaliese is a little h rt* I think)& The re!roach "as acco+!anied b% a "istf l s+ile* and Gabbi allo"ed her e%es to "iden slightl%) &Oh* dear*& she +anaged "ith credible regret) &#he ga-e s ch a con-incing dis!la%

of en$o%ing herself)& Moni. e&s e%es ass +ed a +istiness Gabbi kne" to be contri-ed) Ho" did she do that2 Her ste!+other had +issed her -ocation= as an actress she "o ld ha-e e1celled) &Annaliese has al"a%s regarded %o as an elder sister)& There "as nothing fa+ilial abo t Annaliese&s regard4for Gabbi) (enedict* ho"e-er* fell into an entirel% different categor%) &I&+ dee!l% flattered*& Gabbi ackno"ledged gentl%* and inc rred Moni. e&s shar! glance) The% had lingered slightl% behind the g ests e1iting the dining,roo+ and "ere te+!oraril% o t of their earshot) &#he&s -er% fond of %o )& Do btf l) Gabbi had al"a%s been regarded as a ri-al* and Annaliese "as her +other&s da ghter) Perfectl% groo+ed* bea tif ll% dressed* !erf +ed)))and on a +ission) To tease and tantalise* and en$o% the challenge of the chase ntil she ca ght the right +an) Gabbi "as sa-ed fro+ +aking a res!onse as the% entered the lo nge* and she acce!ted coffee fro+ Marie* choosing to take it black* strong and s"eet) 3ith a cal+ that "as contri-ed she lifted her c ! and took a si! of the strong* aro+atic bre") &If %o &ll e1c se +e2 I reall% + st ha-e a "ord "ith 0a+es)& It "as al+ost +idnight "hen the last g est de!arted* a ti+e dee+ed neither too earl% nor too late for a +id,"eek dinner !art% to end) Gabbi slid off her heeled sandals as she crossed the fo%er to the lo nge) Her head felt i+!ossibl% hea-%* a knot of tension t"isting a !ainf l !ath fro+ her right te+!le do"n to the edge of her na!e) #o!hie had cleared the re+aining coffee c !s and li. e r glasses* and in the +orning Marie "o ld ens re the lo nge "as restored to its s al i++ac late state) &A s ccessf l e-ening* "o ldn&t %o agree2& (enedict&s la'% dra"l stirred the e+bers of resent+ent she&d ke!t caref ll% banked o-er the !ast fe" ho rs) &Ho" co ld it not be2& she co ntered as she t rned face hi+) &/o "ant to orchestrate a !ost,+orte+2& he . eried "ith dece!ti-e +ildness* and she gli+!sed the tightl% coiled strength beneath the indolent facade) &Not !artic larl%)& He cond cted a brief* enco+!assing a!!raisal of her feat res) @Then I s ggest %o go !stairs to bed)& Her chin tilted fractionall%* and she +et his dark ga'e "ith e. ani+it%) &And !re!are +%self to acco++odate %o 2& There "as a flicker of so+ething dangero s in the de!ths of his e%es* then it "as gone* and his +o-e+ents as he closed the distance bet"een the+ held a s+ooth* !anther, like grace) &Acco++odate2& he stressed silkil%) He "as too close* his height and broad fra+e an inti+idating entit% that in-aded her s!ace) The clean* +ale s+ell of hi+ co+bined "ith his e1cl si-e brand of cologne "eakened her defences and lodged an attack against the -er% core of her fe+ininit%) He had no need to to ch her* and it irked her nbearabl% that he kne" it) &/o r se1 al a!!etite is)))& Gabbi !a sed* then added delicatel%* &Consistent)& Her e%es flared slightl%* the bl e de!ths ! re cr%stalline sa!!hire) He lifted a hand and ca ght hold of her chin* lifting it so she had little o!tion b t to retain his ga'e) &It&s a "o+an&s !rerogati-e to decline)& #he looked at hi+ caref ll%* noting the fine lines fanning o t fro+ the corners of his e%es* the dee! -ertical crease slashing each cheek* and the fir+* sens al lines of his

+o th) The t g of se1 al a"areness intensified at the tho ght of the ha-oc that +o th co ld "reak "hen it !ossessed her o"n* the !leas re as it e1!lored the soft c r-es of her bod%) &And a +an&s inclination to e+!lo% nfair !ers asion*& Gabbi offered* da+ning the slight catch of her breath as the !ad of his th +b traced an e-ocati-e !attern along the edge of her $a"* then slid do"n the ! lsing cord to the hollo" at the c r-e of her neck* c !!ing it "hile he loosened the !ins holding her hair in !lace) The% fell to the car!et as his fingers co+bed the blonde length free* then his head lo"ered and she closed her e%es as his li!s br shed her te+!le* then feathered a !ath to the edge of her +o th* teasing its o tline as he tested the soft f llness and sensed the faint tre+bling as she tried for control) #he sho ld sto! hi+ no"* !lead tiredness* the e1istence of a headache)))sa% she didn&t "ant to ha-e to tr% to co!e "ith the after+ath of his lo-e+aking) The f tilit% of e1!eriencing tter $o% and kno"ing !h%sical l st "as an nsatisfactor% s bstit te for lo-e) His bod% +o-ed in close against her o"n* its hard length a !otent force she fo ght hard to ignore) 3itho t s ccess* for she had little defence against the fir+ !ress re of his li!s as he angled her +o th and !ossessed it* gentl% at first* then "ith an increasing de!th of !assion "hich de+anded her ca!it lation) #he didn&t care "hen she felt his hands slide the length of her skirt ! o-er her thighs* and she cared e-en less "hen he sha!ed her b ttocks and lifted her ! against hi+) There "as a sense of e1 ltant !leas re as she c r-ed her legs aro nd his hi!s and tangled her ar+s together behind his neck* the +o-e+ent of his bod% an e1citing entice+ent as he ascended the stairs to their bedroo+) #he "as on fire* aching for the feel of his skin against her o"n* and her fingers fe-erishl% freed his tie and attacked the b ttons on his shirt* not satisfied ntil the% fo nd the silken "horls of hair co-ering his ta t* + scled chest) Her +o th slid do"n the fir+ col +n of his throat* sa-o red the hollo" at its base* then so ght a tantalising !ath along one collarbone) At so+e stage she beca+e di+l% a"are she "as standing* her clothes* and his* no longer a barrier* and she ga-e a soft cr% as he ! lled her do"n onto the bed) No"* hard and fast) No !reli+inaries) And after"ards he co ld take all the ti+e he "anted) His dee!* h sk% la gh bro ght faint colo r to her cheeks) A colo r that dee!ened at the co+!rehension that she&d inad-ertentl% said the "ords o t lo d) He sank into her* "atching her e1!ressi-e feat res as she acce!ted hi+* the fleeting changes as she stretched and the slight gas! as he b ried his shaft dee! inside her) He sta%ed still for endlessl% long seconds* and she felt hi+ s"ell* then he began to "ithdra"* slo"l%* before !l nging e-en +ore dee!l%* re!eating the action and the te+!o of his rh%th+ ntil she "ent ! in fla+es) The long* slo" after,!la%* his e1!ertise* the "icked treacher% of skilf l fingers* the erotic +o th* co+bined to bring her to the brink and hold her there ntil she begged for release4and she "as ns re at the !eak of ecstas% "hether she lo-ed or hated hi+ for

"hat he co ld do to her) Good se1) 5er% good se1) That&s all it "as* she reflected sadl% as she slid thro gh the -eils of slee!) CHAPTER T3O @5ogel on line t"o)& Gabbi&s office "as located high in an inner cit% architect ral +aster!iece and offered a !anora+ic -ie" be%ond the s+oke,tinted glass e1terior) It "as a bea tif l s ++er +orning* the sk% a clear a' re* "ith the s n&s ra%s !ro-iding a da!!led effect on the harbo r) A Manl%,bo nd ferr% clea-ed a s+ooth !ath se-eral kilo+etres o t fro+ the cit% ter+inal and -ied "ith s+all !leas re craft of -ar%ing si'es* all of "hich "ere ecli!sed b% a h ge tanker heading slo"l% into !ort) 3ith a s+all degree of rel ctance Gabbi t rned back to her desk and !icked ! the recei-er to deal "ith the call) ?i-e +in tes later she re!laced it* con-inced no "o+an sho ld ha-e to cross -erbal s"ords "ith an arrogant* se1ist +ale "hose sole ! r!ose in life "as to nder+ine a fe+ale conte+!orar%) Coffee* hot* s"eet and strong* see+ed like a good idea* and she rose to her feet* intent on fetching it herself rather than ha-e her secretar% do it for her) There "ere se-eral files she needed to check* and she e1tracted the !ertinent folders and laid the+ on her The !ri-ate line bee!ed* and she reached for the recei-er* e1!ecting to hear 0a+es&s or (enedict&s -oice) A lesser !ossibilit% "as Marie and4e-en +ore re+ote4 Moni. e) &Gabbi)& The soft* fe+inine* breath% so nd "as n+istakable) &Annaliese*& she ackno"ledged "ith a sinking feeling) &Care to do l nch2& Dela%ing the in-itation "o ld do no good at all* and she s!ared her a!!oint+ent diar% a . ick glance) &I can +eet %o at one)& #he na+ed an e1cl si-e resta rant close b%) &3ill %o +ake the reser-ation* or shall I2& &/o do it* Gabbi*& Annaliese re!lied in a bored dra"l) &I ha-e a +eeting "ith +% agent) I co ld be late)& &I ha-e to be back in +% office at t"o,thirt%*& Gabbi "arned) &In that case* gi-e +e ten +in tes& grace* then go ahead and order)& Gabbi re!laced the recei-er* had her secretar% +ake the necessar% reser-ation* fetched her coffee* then ga-e "ork her ndi-ided attention ntil it "as ti+e to freshen ! before lea-ing the b ilding) The !o"der,roo+ +irror reflected an elegant i+age) #oft crea+ designer,label s it in a light"eight* ncr shable linen +i1* and a silk ca+isole in +atching tones) Her ?rench !leat didn&t need attention* and she added a to ch of !o"der* a re,a!!lication of li!stick* then she "as read%) Ten +in tes later Gabbi entered the resta rant fo%er "here she "as greeted "ar+l% b% the +aitre d& and !ersonall% escorted to a table) #he ordered +ineral "ater and "ent thro gh the +otions of !er sing the +en * o!ting for a Caesar salad "ith fresh fr it to follo") Three,. arters of an ho r after the a!!ointed ti+e Annaliese $oined her in a "aft

of e1cl si-e !erf +e) A slink% slither of red silk accent ated her +odel,slender c r-es) #he "as tall* "ith long sli+ legs* and her skilf ll% a!!lied +ake, ! enhanced her e1otic feat res* e+!hasised b% dark hair st%led into a sleek bob) No a!olog% "as offered* and Gabbi "atched in silence as Annaliese ordered iced "ater* a garden salad and fresh fr it) &3hen is %o r ne1t assign+ent2& A feline s+ile tilted the edges of her red +o th* and the dark e%es t rned to li. id chocolate) &#o keen to see +e gone2& &A !olite en. ir%*& she res!onded "ith gentle +ocker%) &?ollo"ed b% an e. all% !olite . er% regarding +% career2& Gabbi kne" !recisel% ho" her ste!sister&s +odelling career "as !rogressing) Moni. e ne-er failed to rela%* in intricate detail* the e-ents +onitoring Annaliese&s rise and rise on the "orld&s cat"alks) &It "as %o "ho initiated l nch)& #he !icked ! her glass and took a deliberate si!* then re!laced it do"n on the table* her e%es re+arkabl% le-el as she +et those of her ste!sister) Annaliese&s ga'e narro"ed "ith s!ec lati-e conte+!lation) &3e&-e ne-er been friends)& In !ri-ate* the %o nger girl had !ro-en herself to be a -indicti-e -i1en) &/o "orked hard to de+olish an% bond)& One sho lder lifted "ith careless elegance) &I "anted centre stage in o r shared fa+il%* darling) N ,+ero no)& One long* red,lac. ered nail ta!!ed a careless tattoo against the ste+ of her glass) Gabbi s!eared the last !ortion of cantalo !e on her !late) &# !!ose %o c t to the chase and e1!lain %o r ! r!ose2& Annaliese&s e%es held a calc lated glea+) &Moni. e infor+ed +e 0a+es is beco+ing increasingl% an1io s for %o to co+!lete the deal)& The fresh +elon "as s cc lent* b t it had s ddenl% lost its taste) &3hich deal are "e disc ssing2& &The necessar% #tanton,Nicols heir)& Gabbi&s ga'e "as caref ll% le-el as she rested the fork do"n onto her !late) &/o &re "a% o t of line* Annaliese)& &E1!eriencing !roble+s* darling2& The barb "as intentional) &Onl% "ith %o r intense interest in so+ething that is none of %o r b siness)& &It&s fa+il% b siness*& Annaliese res!onded "ith deliberate e+!hasis) Res!ect for the resta rant&s fello" !atrons !re-ented Gabbi fro+ ti!!ing a glass of iced "ater into her ste!sister&s la!) &Reall%2& Confrontation "as the fa-o red o!tion) &I ha-e diffic lt% acce!ting +% father "o ld enrol %o as +essenger in s ch a !ersonal +atter)& &/o disbelie-e +e2& @/es)& The !rice of bra-er% +ight be high) @Oh Darling)& The "ord held a !atronising intonation that i+!lied the antithesis of affection) &The onl% difference bet"een da ghter and ste!da ghter is a legal ado!tion decree) #o+ething*& she contin ed after a deliberate silence* &Moni. e co ld easil% !ers ade 0a+es to initiate)& Oh* +%) No" "h% didn&t that de-io s !lan s r!rise her2 &0a+es&s "ill is "atertight) Moni. e inherits the !rinci!al residence* art and $e"eller%* !l s a genero s ann it%) #hares in #tanton,Nicols co+e directl% to +e)& One delicate bro" arched high) &/o think I don&t kno" that2& #he lifted a fork

and !icked at her salad) >/o &-e +issed the !oint)& No* she hadn&t) &(enedict)& Annaliese&s e%es ass +ed an a-aricio s glea+) Cle-er of %o * darling)& @/o "ant to be his +istress)& Her soft* tinkling la gh held no h +o r) &His "ife)& &/o ai+ high)& @The to!* s"eetheart)& Iced "ater or hot coffee2 Either "as at her dis!osal* and she "as sorel% te+!ted to initiate an e+barrassing indent) &There&s $ st one !roble+) He&s alread% +arriedA @( t can be so easil% freed*& her ste!sister ! rred) @/o so nd -er% s re)& Ho" "as it !ossible to so nd so cal+* "hen inside she "as a +olten +ass of f r%2 @A "ealth% +an "ants an e1e+!lar% hostess in the lo nge and a "hore in his bedroo+)& Annaliese e1a+ined her !erfectl% lac. ered nails* then shot Gabbi a direct look) &I can&t i+agine !assion being %o r forte* or ad-ent re %o r se1 al !reference)& Gabbi didn&t blink so + ch as an e%elash) &I&+ a . ick st d%)& &Reall%* darling2 I "onder "h% I don&t belie-e %o 2& Gabbi s ++oned the "aiter* re. ested the bill* and signed the credit sli!) Then she rose to her feet and slid the stra! of her bag o-er her sho lder) &#hall "e agree not to do this again2& &Darling*& the %o ng +odel al+ost ! rred) &I&+ bet"een seasons* and "here better to take in so+e rest and rela1ation than one&s ho+e cit%2& Her e%es glea+ed "ith satisfaction) &As fa+il%* "e&re bo nd to see . ite a lot of each other) The social scene is so interesting)& &And %o intend being incl ded in e-er% in-itation*& Gabbi res!onded "ith soft +ocker%) &Of co rse)& There "asn&t a single "ord she "anted to add) A contradiction4there "ere se-eral)))not one of "hich "as in the least lad%like* and therefore n tterable in a ! blic arena) It "as easier to lea-e in dignified silence) Three +essages "ere "aiting for her on her ret rn) T"o "ere b siness,oriented and she dealt "ith each* then logged the necessar% notations into the co+! ter before crossing to the !ri-ate !hone) There "as a strange c rling sensation in the !it of her sto+ach as she "aited for (enedict to ans"er) @Nicols)& His -oice "as dee! and retained a slight A+erican dra"l that see+ed +ore noticeable o-er the !hone) The so nd of it ca sed her ! lse to accelerate to a faster beat) @/o rang "hile I "as o t)& #he had a +ental i+age of hi+ easing his length% fa+e in the high,backed leather chair) &Ho" "as l nch2& Her fingers gri!!ed the recei-er +ore tightl%) &Is there an%thing %o don&t kno"2& &Annaliese re. ested %o r e1tension n +ber)& He rela%ed the infor+ation "ith i+!ert rbable cal+) An% e1c se to ha-e contact "ith (enedict= Gabbi silentl% derided her ste!sister) @/o didn&t ans"er +% . estion)& His -oice held a tinge of c%nicis+ and !ro+!ted

a terse res!onse) @L nch "as fine)& #he dre" a dee! breath) &Is that "h% %o rang2& @No) To let %o kno" I "on&t be ho+e for dinner) A Tai"anese associate "ants to in-est in !ro!ert%* aid has re. ested I reco++end a re! table agent) It "o ld be i+!olite not to effect the introd ction o-er dinner)& @5er% i+!olite*& she agreed sole+nl%) &I "on&t "ait !& &I&ll take !leas re in "aking %o *& he +ocked gentl%* ending the call) A tin% shi-er slithered the length of her s!ine as she recalled n +ero s occasions "hen the to ch of his li!s had "oken her fro+ the de!ths of slee!* and ho" she&d instincti-el% "elco+ed hi+* l 1 riating in the agilit% of his hands as the% tra-ersed a tactile !ath o-er the slender c r-es of her bod%) 3ith concentrated effort she re!laced the recei-er do"n onto the handset* then foc sed her attention to "ork for "hat re+ained of the afternoon) It "as al+ost fi-e,thirt% "hen she left the b ilding* and altho gh traffic "as hea-% thro gh the inner cit% it had beg n to ease "hen she reached R shc tter&s (a%* res lting in a relati-el% clear r n to 5a cl se) The s n&s ra%s "ere hot* the h +idit% le-el high) Too high* Gabbi reflected as she garaged the car and entered the ho se) A long* cool drink* follo"ed b% a fe" lengths in the !ool* "o ld ease the strain of the da%* she decided as she sli!!ed off her $acket and +ade her "a% to"ards the kitchen) Marie "as ! tting the finishing to ches to a cold !latter* and her s+ile "as "ar+ as she "atched Gabbi e1tract a glass and cross to the large refrigerator) &Are %o s re all %o "ant is salad2& Gabbi ! shed the ice,+aker le-er* filled the glass "ith a!!le $ ice* then crossed to !erch on one of fo r b ffet stools lining the "ide ser-er%) &# re*& Gabbi confir+ed as she leaned for"ard and filched a slice of fresh +ango fro+ the tastef ll% decorated bed of cos lett ce* a-ocado* n ts* and ca!sic +) &Lo-el%*& she sighed blissf ll%) Marie cast her an affectionate glance) &There&s fresh fr it and gelato to follo")& Gabbi took a long s"allo" of iced $ ice* and felt the strain of the da% begin to ebb) &I think I&ll change and ha-e a s"i+)& The tho ght of a fe" la!s in the !ool follo"ed b% half an ho r basking in the "ar+ s nshine held definite a!!eal) &3h% don&t %o finish ! here2 There&s no need for %o to sta% on $ st to rinse a fe" !lates and stack the+ in the dish"asher)& &Thanks)& The ho sekee!er&s !leas re "as e-ident* and Gabbi reci!rocated "ith an i+!ish grin) It "asn&t the first e-ening she&d s!ent alone* and "as nlikel% to be the last) &Go*& she instr cted) &I&ll see %o at breakfast in the +orning)& Marie re+o-ed her a!ron and folded it neatl%) &#erg and I&ll be in the flat* if %o need s)& @I kno"*& Gabbi said gentl%* gratef l for the older "o+an&s solicito s care) Min tes later she drained the contents of her glass* then "ent !stairs to change* discarding her clothes in fa-o r of a black bikini) O t of habit she re+o-ed her +ake, !* a!!lied s nscreen crea+* then she ca ght ! a + lti,!atterned silk sarong and a to"el and +ade her "a% do"n to the terraced !ool) Its free,for+ design "as totall% enclosed b% non,reflecti-e s+oke,tinted glass*

ens ring total !ri-ac%* and there "ere se-eral lo ngers and c shioned chairs !ositioned on the tiled !eri+eters) Gabbi dro!!ed the sarong and to"el onto a nearb% chair* then !erfor+ed a racing di-e into the s!arkling "ater) #econds later she e+erged to the s rface* cleared e1cess +oist re fro+ her face* then began the first of se-eral leis rel% la!s before sli!!ing deftl% her back to idle ai+lessl% for a "hile* en$o%ing the solit de and the . ietness) It "as a "onderf l "a% to rela1* she + sed* both totall% and !h%sicall%) The cares of the da% see+ed to di+inish to their correct !ers!ecti-e) E-en l nch "ith Annaliese) No* she a+ended "ith a faint gri+ace) That "as taking things a bit too far) Calc lating her ste!sister&s ne1t +o-e didn&t re. ire + ch effort* gi-en the social scene of the cit%&s so!histicated elite) #tanton,Nicols s !!orted a n +ber of "orth% charities* and (enedict genero sl% contin ed in Diandra and Conrad Nicols& tradition4ast tel% a"are that as + ch b siness "as done o t of the office as in it* Gabbi concl ded "r%l%) The tho ght of facing Annaliese at one f nction or another o-er the ne1t fe" "eeks didn&t e-oke + ch $o%) Nor did the !ros!ect of !arr%ing Moni. e&s s btle hints) Da+n) The rela1ation c%cle "as "ell and tr l% broken) 3ith a deft +o-e+ent* Gabbi rolled onto her sto+ach and s"a+ to the !ool&s edge* ha led her sli+ fra+e onto the tiled ledge* then reached for the to"el and began blotting her bod%) ?aced "ith a choice of eating indoors or b% the !ool* she chose the latter and carried the salad and a glass of chilled "ater to a nearb% table) The -ie" o t o-er the harbo r "as s!ectac lar* and she idl% "atched the seasca!e as n +ero s s+all craft cr ised the "aters in a bid to +ake the +ost of the da%light, sa-ing ti+e) On finishing her +eal* scorning tele-ision* Gabbi +ade herself so+e coffee* selected a fe" gloss% +aga'ines and ret rned to "atch the s nset* the glorio s streak of orange that changed and +elded into a dee! !ink as the s n&s orb sank slo"l% beneath the hori'on !ro-iiding a soft !ale reflected glo" before d sk t rned into darkness) A to ch on the electronic +ode+ acti-ated the nder"ater light* t rning the !ool a brilliant a. a,bl e) Another to ch lit se-eral electric flares* and she stretched o t co+fortabl% and fli!!ed o!en a +aga'ine scanning the gloss% !ages for so+ething that +ight ca!t re her interest) An article based on the behind,the,scenes life of a !ro+inent fashion g r !ro-ided a ri-eting insight* and endorsed her o"n -ie" on the artificialit% of a societ% "here one "as ne-er s re "hether an ac. aintance "as friend or foe beneath the token facade) The ! blishers had seen fit to incl de an in,de!th acco nt b% a high,class +ada+* "ho* the article re-ealed* had !roc red escorts for so+e of the co ntr%&s rich and fa+o s* notabl% !oliticians and -isiting rock stars* for a fee that "as astrono+ical) #o+eho" the article foc sing on cell lite that follo"ed it see+ed e1tre+el% !rosaic* and Gabbi fli!!ed to the tra-el section) Paris) 3hat a cit% for a+bience and $oie de -i-re) The lang age* the scents* the fashion) ?rench "o+en !ossessed a certain Blan that "as n+atched an%"here else in the "orld) And the foodC Tres +agni,fa. e) she accorded "istf ll%* recalling fond +e+ories of the ti+e she&d s!ent there) ?or a "hile she&d i+agined herself in lo-e "ith a dashing %o ng st dent "hose sens al e1!ertise had al+ost !ers aded her into his bed) Gabbi&s

+o th c r-ed into a soft s+ile* and her e%es danced "ith hidden la ghter in re+e+bering) &An interesting article2& Gabbi looked ! at the so nd of that dee!* dra"ling -oice and sa" (enedict&s tall fra+e o tlined against the screened a!ert re leading into the large entertain+ent roo+) His $acket "as hooked o-er one sho lder* and he&d alread% re+o-ed his tie and loosened a fe" b ttons on his bl e cotton shirt) Her e%es still held a hint of +ischief as the% +et his) &I didn&t realise it "as that late*& she +anaged lightl%* "atching as he closed the distance bet"een the+) &It&s $ st after ten)& He !a sed at her side* and scanned the o!en +aga'ine) &Pleasant +e+ories2& Gabbi +et his ga'e* and sensed the st died "atchf lness beneath the s rface) &/es*& she said "ith innate honest%* and sa" his e%es narro" fractionall%) &It "as a long ti+e ago* and I "as -er% %o ng)& &( t old eno gh to be enchanted b% a %o ng +an&s attentions*& (enedict ded ced "ith a degree of c%nical a+ se+ent) &3hat "as his na+e2& &0ac. es*& she re-ealed "itho t hesitation) &He "as a ro+antic* and he kissed di-inel%) 3e e1!lored the art galleries together and drank coffee at n +ero s side"alk cafes) On "eekends I -isited the fa+il% -ine%ard) It "as f n*& she infor+ed hi+ si+!l%* reflecting on the -ol ble and often gregario s +eals she&d shared* the -i-acit% and sheer ca+araderie of a large e1tended fa+il%) &Define >f n>)& The te+!tation to tease and !re-aricate "as -er% strong* b t there see+ed little !oint) &He had a -er% strict +a+an& she re-ealed sole+nl%) &3ho "as b s% on +atching hi+ "ith the da ghter of a neighboring -intner) An Anglaise +iss* albeit a -er% rich one +ight !ers ade hi+ to li-e on the other side of the "orld)& A+ se+ent l rked in the de!ths of his e%es) &He +arried the -intner&s da ghter2& @His de-oted +a+an des!atches a letter t"ice a %ear "ith fa+il% ne"s)& @Did %o lo-e hi+2& The . er% "as soft* his -oice s+ooth) Not the "a% I lo-e %o ) &3e "ere -er% good fends*& she said "ith the t+ost care) His intense ga'e sent a tin% fla+e flaring thro gh her -eins* "ar+ing her skin and heating the central core of her fe+ininit%) @3ho !arted "itho t regret or re+orse "hen it "as ti+e for %o to lea-e2& (enedict !ro+!ted gentl%) A "inso+e s+ile c r-ed the edges of her +o th) @3e !ro+ised ne-er to forget each other) ?or a "hile "e e1changed !oetic !rose)& @Predictabl% the letters beca+e shorter and fe" and far bet"een2& @/o &re a terrible c%nic& @A realist*& he corrected her "ith s btle re+onstrance) Gabbi closed the +aga'ine and !laced it do"n on the nearb% table) 3ith an elegant econo+% of +o-e+ent she rose to her feet* ca ght ! the sarong and sec red it at her "aist) &3o ld %o like so+e coffee2& @Please)& he t rned to follo" her* and the hairs on the back of her neck !rickled in a"areness) #he s bconscio sl% straightened her sho lders* and forced herself to "alk at a leis rel% !ace) In the kitchen she crossed to the ser-er%* +ethodicall% filled the coffee,+aker "ith "ater* s!ooned gro nd beans into the filter basket* then s"itched on the +achine)

The large kitchen "as a chefAs delight* "ith e-er% concei-able +odern a!!liance) A central cooking island held se-eral hobs* and there "ere t"in o-ens* t"o +icro"a-es* and a ca!acio s refrigerator and free'er) 3ith considerable ease Gabbi e1tracted t"o c !s and sa cers* then set o t +ilk and s gar) &Ho" "as dinner2& &Gen ine interest* or idle con-ersation* Gabbi2& 3as he a"are of the effect he had on her2 In bed* "itho t do bt) ( t o t of it2 Probabl% not* she tho ght sadl%) Men of (enedict&s calibre "ere +ore concerned "ith creating a financial e+!ire than e1a+ining a relationshi!) It took considerable effort to +eet his lightl% +ocking ga'e) &Gen ine interest)& &3e ate Asian food in one of the cit%&s finest resta rants*& (enedict infor+ed her indolentl%) &The b siness associate "as s itabl% i+!ressed* and the agent "ill !robabl% earn a large co++ission)& &Nat rall% %o ha-e offered the+ se of the !ri-ate $et* "hich "ill earn %o k dos "ith the Tai"anese associate* "ho in t rn "ill reco++end %o to his conte+!oraries*& she concl ded dr%l%* and his li!s for+ed a t"isted s+ile) @It&s called taking care of b siness)& @And b siness is all,i+!ortant)& @ItAs that a state+ent or a co+!laint2& Her e%es "ere re+arkabl% stead% as she held his e%e) &It&s a "ell,kno"n fact that !rofits ha-e soared be%ond !ro$ected esti+ates in the !ast fe" %ears* #tanton,Nicols& contin ing s ccess is attrib ted to %o r dedicated efforts)& &/o didn&t ans"er the . estion)& The "ords held a dangero s softness that sent a tin% shi-er do"n her s!ine* and her e%es clashed "ith his for a fe" i++eas rable seconds before she s ++oned a credible s+ile) @3h% "o ld I co+!lain2& she . eried e-enl%* s !inel% conscio s of the . ickening ! lse at the base of her throat) @3h%* indeed2& he lightl% +ocked) &/o ha-e a nested interest in the fa+il% fir+)& @In +ore "a%s than one)& His e%es narro"ed fractionall%) &Elaborate)& Gabbi didn&t hedge) &The dela% in !ro-iding 0a+es "ith a grandchild see+s to be the s b$ect of fa+il% con$ect re)& ?or a brief +illisecond she ca ght a gli+!se of so+ething that rese+bled anger* then it "as lost behind an i+!enetrable +ask) &A fact "hich Annaliese co+!elled to bring to %o r attention2& One finger ca+e to rest against the corner of her +o th* "hile his th +b traced the hea-%* ! lsing cord at the side of her throat) His hand trailed lo"er to the fir+ s"ell of her breast* teased a !ath along the edge of her bikini to!* then br shed against the aro sed !eak before dro!!ing back to his side) &3e agreed birth control sho ld be %o r !rerogati-e*& (enedict declared "ith nr ffled ease* and she s"allo"ed !ainf ll%* hating the "a% her bod% reacted to his to ch) &/o r ste!sister is too self,foc sed not to take an% o!!ort nit% to initiate a -erbal ga+e of thr st and !arr%) 3ho "on2& &3e each retired "ith s !erficial "o nds*& Gabbi declared sole+nl%) &Dare I ask "hen the ga+e is to contin e2& &3ho can tell2& &And the "ea!on2&

#he +anaged a s+ile) &3h%4Annaliese herself) 3ith %o as the !ri'e) Her for+al ado!tion b% 0a+es "o ld +ake her a #tanton) O r di-orce is a +ere for+alit% in order to change #tanton to Nicols)& He lifted a hand and br shed light fingers across her cheek) &A+ I to nderstand %o are not i+!ressed "ith that scenario2& No) ?or a +o+ent she tho ght she&d screa+ed the negati-e o t lo d* and she stood in +es+erised silence for se-eral seconds* totall% na"are that her e1!ressi-e feat res "ere +ore e1!licit than an% "ords) &Do %o belie-e*& (enedict began . ietl%* &I deliberatel% chose %o as +% "ife "ith the f t re of #tanton,Nicols fore+ost in +ind2& #traight for the $ g lar) Gabbi had e1!ected no less) Her chin tilted slightl%) &# itable +arriages are +ani! lated a+ong the "ealth% for n +ero s reasons*& she said fearlessl%) &Lo-e isn&t a necessar% !rere. isite)A His e1!ression didn&t change* b t she sensed a s!ot of anger and felt chilled b% it) @3hat "e share in bed2 Ho" "o ld %o define it2A (ile rose in her throat* and she s"allo"ed it) @#killed e1!ertise)& #o+ething dark +o+entaril% hardened the de!ths this ga'e* then it "as gone) &/o &d relegate +e to the !osition of st dA Oh* God) #he closed her e%es* then o!ened the+ again) &No) No*& she reiterated* stricken b% his deliberate inter!retation) @I sho ld be thankf l for that s+all +erc%)& He "as angr%) Icil% so) And it h rt* terribl%) /et "hat had she e1!ected2 A heartfelt declaration that she "as too i+!ortant in his life for hi+ to consider an%one taking her !lace2 Gabbi felt as if she co ldn&t breathe) Her e%es "ere a!!end b% his* her bod% transfi1ed as tho gh in a state of s s!ended ani+ation) &The coffee has finished filtering)& His -oice held that fa+iliar c%nicis+* and "ith an effort she foc sed her attention on !o ring coffee into both c !s* then added s gar) (enedict !icked ! one) &I&ll take this thro gh to the st d%)& Her e%es settled on his broad back as he "alked fro+ the kitchen* her e1!ression !ensi-e) Dann Annaliese* Gabbi c rsed silentl% as she discarded her coffee do"n the sink) 3ith a to+atic +o-e+ents she rinsed the c ! and stacked it in the dish"asher* then she s"itched off the coffee,+aker and do sed the lights before +aking her "a% !stairs) Reaching the bedroo+* she "alked thro gh to the en s ite* stri!!ed off her bikini* t rned on the "ater and ste!!ed into the sho"er) It didn&t take long to sha+!oo her hair* and fifteen +in tes "ith the blo",drier restored it to its s al silk% state) In bed* she reached for a book and read a cha!ter before s"itching off the la+!) #he had no idea "hat ti+e (enedict slid in beside her* nor did she sense hi+ lea-e the bed in the earl%,+orning ho rs* for "hen she "oke she "as alone and the onl% signs of his occ !ation "ere a dented !illo" and the i+!rint of his bod% against the sheet) CHAPTER THREE

Gabbi glanced at the bedside clock and ga-e an in,a dible groan) #e-en,thirt%) Ti+e to rise and shine* hit the sho"er* breakfast* and $oin the . e e of traffic leading into the cit%) Thank hea-ens toda% "as ?rida% and the "eekend la% ahead) (enedict had acce!ted an in-itation to attend a tennis e-ening "hich Chris E-ington* head !artner in the acco ntanc% fir+ #tanton,Nicols e+!lo%ed* had arranged at his ho+e) To+orro" e-ening the% had tickets to the A stralian !re+iere !erfor+ance at the #idne% Entertain+ent Centre) The !ossibilit% of Annaliese disco-ering their !lans for tonight "as re+ote* Gabbi decided as she slid in behind the "heel of her car) And it "as do btf l e-en Moni. e "o ld be able to arrange an e1tra seat for the !re+iere !erfor+ance at s ch short notice) It "as a bea tif l da%* the sk% clear of clo d* and at this earl%,+orning ho r free fro+ !oll tion ha'e) Gabbi "as greeted b% #ec rit% as she entered the car !ark* ackno"ledged at Rece!tion en ro te to her office* and "elco+ed b% her secretar% "ho bro ght coffee in one hand and a notebook in the other) As the +orning !rogressed Gabbi fo ght against gi-ing last night&s scene too + ch tho ght* and failed) D ring the afternoon she o-erlooked a +iscalc lation and lost -al able ti+e in cross,checking) Conse. entl%* it "as a relief to sli! behind the "heel of her car and head ho+e) (enedict&s -ehicle "as alread% !arked in the garage "hen she arri-ed* and she felt her sto+ach clench "ith nbidden ner-es as she entered the ho se) Gabbi checked "ith Marie* then "ent !stairs to change) (enedict "as in the !rocess of discarding his tie "hen she reached the bedroo+) &/o &re ho+e earl%)& As a greeting it lacked originalit%* b t it "as better than silence) #he +et his dark ga'e "ith e. ani+it%* her e%es lingering on the hard !lanes of his face* and settling briefl% on his +o th) 3hich "as a +istake) &Dinner "ill be read% at si1)& &#o Marie infor+ed +e)& He began nb ttoning his shirt* and her e%es trailed the +o-e+ent* !a sed* then ret rned to scan his feat res) Nothing there to deter+ine his +ood) Da+n) #he hated friction) 3ith Moni. e and Annaliese it "as na-oidable4b t (enedict "as so+ething else) &I sho ld a!ologise)& There* it "asn&t hard at all) Did he kno" she&d s ++oned the co rage* "restled "ith the need to do so* for +ost of the da%2 A faint s+ile t gged at the edges of his +o th* and the e1!ression in his e%es "as "holl% c%nical) &Good +anners* Gabbi2& He shr gged off the b siness shirt* reached for a dark,colo red o!en,necked !olo shirt and t gged it o-er his head) Honest% "as the onl% "a% to go) &Gen ine re+orse)& He re+o-ed his tro sers and donned a cas al cotton !air) He looked !* and she ca ght the dark intensit% of his ga'e) &A!olog% acce!ted)& Her ner-o s tension dissol-ed* and the breath she&d nconscio sl% been holding sli!!ed silentl% free) @Thank %o )&

Retreat see+ed a -iable o!tion and she crossed to the ca!acio s "alk,in "ardrobe* selected tennis gear* then e1tracted cas al linen tro sers and a blo se) The b '' of the electric sha-er so nded fro+ the en s ite bathroo+* and he e+erged as she finished changing) Gabbi felt the fa+iliar flood of "ar+th* and fo ght against it) &3hat ti+e do %o "ant to lea-e2& It "as a+a'ing that her -oice so nded so cal+) &#e-en,fifteen)& The% descended the stairs together* and ate the delectable chicken salad Marie had !re!ared* "ashed it do"n "ith +ineral "ater* then !icked fro+ a selection of fresh fr it) A light +eal "hich "o ld be s !!le+ented b% s !!er after the last ga+e of tennis) Con-ersation "as confined to b siness and the !ro!osed agenda at the ne1t board +eeting) Chris and Leanne E-ington resided at 3oollahra in a large* ra+bling old ho+e "hich had been lo-ingl% restored) Neat la"ns* bea tif l gardens* !recisel% cli!!ed hedges and shr bbed to!iar% lent an air of a !ast era) The i++ac late grassed tennis co rt +erel% added to the i+!ression) A fe" cars lined the circ lar foreco rt* and Gabbi slid fro+ the (entle% as (enedict retrie-ed their s!orts bags fro+ the boot) #ocial tennis took on r les of its o"n* according to the host&s inclination and the n +ber of !artici!ating g ests) The best of se-en ga+es "o ld ens re a relati-el% . ick t rn,aro nd on the co rt* Chris and Leanne deter+ined) Partners "ere selected b% !ersonal choice* and it "as acce!ted that t"o ro nds of +i1ed do bles "o ld !recede t"o ro nds of "o+en&s do bles and concl de "ith t"o ro nds of +en&s do bles) Gabbi and (enedict "ere no+inated first on the co rt* o!!osing a co !le "ho+ Gabbi hadn&t !re-io sl% +et) All fo r "ere good !la%ers* altho gh (enedict had the height* strength and skill to ! t the ball "here he chose* and the% e+erged -ictorio s at the end of the ga+e "ith a fi-e,t"o lead) Chris and Leanne&s son Todd had no+inated hi+self +!ire for the e-ening) A !ro+inent athlete and la" st dent* he had an% n +ber of !rett% girls beating a !ath to his door) That there "asn&t one in e-idence this e-ening ca+e as so+ething of a s r!rise) Dntil Annaliese arri-ed on the scene* looking sensational in designer tennis "ear) &#orr% I&+ late)& Annaliese offered a "inning s+ile) &Mi1ed has $ st finished*& Leanne infor+ed her) &The girls are on ne1t)& Annaliese t rned to"ards Gabbi) &3ill %o be +% !artner2 @It&ll be $ st like the old da%s)& 3hat old da%s2 Gabbi . eried silentl%) # rel% Annaliese "asn&t referring to an occasional +is+atch d ring school holida%s2 Leanne allocated the !air to the second ro nd* and Gabbi acce!ted a cool drink fro+ a !roffered tra%) His g ests reasse+bled as Todd directed !la% fro+ the +!ire&s seat) The +en gra-itated into t"o gro !s* and in no ti+e at all Annaliese had +anaged to gain Gabbi&s attention) &I had a "onderf l afternoon !honing friends and catching ! on all their ne"s)& @One of "ho+ $ st ha!!ened to +ention the E-ington tennis !art%2& Gabbi . eried dr%l%) &3h%* %es: &3ho better to kno" the g est list than Todd2& &He&s a s"eet bo%)&

&And easil% flattered)& Annaliese&s s+ile "as ! re feline) &Aren&t +ost +en2& &#hall "e $oin the others2& It "as thirt% +in tes before the% took their !osition on the co rt* and e-enl% +atched o!!onents ens red a tight score) De ce "as called three ti+es in the final ga+e before Annaliese took an ad-antage to "inning !oint b% ser-ing an ace) An elaborate seafood s !!er "as !ro-ided at the close of the final ga+e* follo"ed b% coffee and a selection of delicio s !etits fo rs) Gabbi e1!ected Annaliese to co++andeer (enedict&s attention) 3hat she didn&t antici!ate "as an elbo" $olting her ar+) It ha!!ened so . ickl% that she "as !o"erless to do an%thing b t "atch in dis+a%ed silence as coffee s!illed onto the tiled floor) &I&+ fine*& Gabbi ass red (enedict as he reached her side) #he bore his s"ift a!!raisal "ith a deter+ined s+ile) Onl% a s!lash of hot li. id "as s!lattered on her tennis shoes* and a cloth took care of the s!illage) &/o co ld ha-e been b rnt*& Annaliese declared "ith a!!arent concern) &?ort natel%* I "asn&t)& &Are %o s re %o &re OE* Gabbi2& Leanne . eried) &Can I get %o so+e +ore coffee2& Her e%es took on a tinge of h +o r) &#o+ething stronger2& #he "as te+!ted* b t not for the reason her hostess i+agined) A read% s+ile c r-ed her +o th and she shook her head) &Thanks all the sa+e)& It "as al+ost +idnight "hen she slid into the !assenger seat of the (entle%) (enedict sli!!ed in behind the "heel and acti-ated the ignition) &3hat ha!!ened in there2& The car "heels cr nched on the !ebbled dri-e"a%* and Gabbi "aited ntil the% gained the road before res!onding) &Co ld %o be s!ecific2& He shot her a . ick glance that lost + ch of its intensit% in the darkness) &/o &re not gi-en to cl +siness)& &Ah* s !!ort)& &Annaliese2& Tiredness settled like a +antle aro nd her sli+ sho lders) Indecision forced a tr thf l ans"er) &I don&t kno")& @#he "as standing beside %o )& &I&d rather not disc ss it)& Gabbi "as first indoors "hile (enedict garaged the car and she "ent !stairs* stri!!ed off her clothes and ste!!ed into the sho"er,stall* A fe" +in tes later (enedict $oined her* and she s!ared hi+ a brief glance before contin ing her actions "ith the soa!) The% each finished at the sa+e ti+e e+erged together and reached for indi-id al to"els) Ignoring (enedict* es!eciall% a naked (enedict* "as i+!ossible* and there "as nothing she co ld do to slo" the . ickened beat of her heart or !re-ent the "ar+th that cre!t thro gh her bod% as she cond cted her fa+iliar nightl% rit al) A hand closed o-er her ar+ as she t rned to"ards the door* and she didn&t tter a "ord as he ! lled her ro nd to face hi+) E%es that "ere dark and i+!ossibl% sl +bero s held her o"n and she bore his

scr tin% in silence* hating her inner fragilit% as she da+ned her inabilit% to hide it) More than an%thing she "anted the co+fort of his ar+s* the satisfaction of his +o th on her o"n) #lo"l% she lifted a hand and traced the -ertical indentation slashing his cheek* then !ressed her fingers to the edge of his li!s) Her e%es flared as he took her fingers into his +o th* and heat nf rled dee! inside her as he gentl% bit the ti! of each finger in t rn) Dnbidden* she reached for hi+* dra"ing hi+ close* e1 lting in the feel of his bod%* his "ar+* + sk% scent* and she o!ened her +o th in genero s acce!tance of his in a dee!* e-ocati-e kiss that hardened in irref table !ossession* "i!ing o t an% -estige of conscio s tho ght) Gabbi ga-e a h sk% ! rr of !leas re as he dre" her into the bedroo+ and ! lled her do"n onto the bed* lost in the sens al +agic onl% he co ld e-oke) If b siness co++it+ents didn&t intr de* (enedict elected to s!end #at rda%s on the golf co rse* "hile Gabbi !referred to set the da% aside to catch ! on a -ariet% of things a "orking "eek allo"ed little ti+e for) Occasionall% she took in a +atinee +o-ie* or had l nch "ith friends) Toda% she chose to add a fe" ! rchases to her "ardrobe and kee! an a!!oint+ent "ith a bea tician and her hairdresser) Conse. entl% it "as al+ost si1 "hen she t rned into their residential street and follo"ed (enedict&s fo r,"heel dri-e do"n the dri-e"a%) He "as "aiting for her as she bro ght the car to a halt) &Great da%2& Gabbi asked teasingl% as she e+erged fro+ behind the "heel) &Indeed) And %o 2& &I flashed !lastic in a fe" too +an% bo ti. es*& she said r ef ll%* indicating se-eral brightl% assorted carrier bags on the rear seat) He looked rela1ed* his height and breadth accent ated b% the cas al o!en,necked shirt that fitted sn gl% o-er his "ell,honed + scles) His !otent +asc linit% ignited a fa+iliar res!onse dee! "ithin her as he reached !ast her and gathered , ! rchases together) Ma%be one da% he "o ldn&t ha-e . ite this heightened effect on her e. ilibri +* she tho ght "r%l% as she follo"ed hi+ indoors) Then a silent la gh rose and died in her throat) Perha!s in another lifeti+eC It "as after se-en "hen the% left for the entertain+ent Centre to "itness the Ne" 0erse%,born son of a +ens"ear storekee!er* "ho "as kno"n to +es+erise an a dience "ith an% one of the t"o h ndred and fift% +agic ill sions in his re!ertoire) Gabbi adored the sho") P re esca!is+ that n +bed the logical +ind "ith "i'ardr% and chilled the s!ine) The fact that Annaliese "as no"here in sight added to her !leas re4a feeling that "as co+!o nded the ne1t da% "hen Gabbi and (enedict $oined friends on a l 1 r% cr iser) Monda% !ro+ised to be b sier than +ost* Gabbi realised "ithin +in tes of arri-ing at the office and liaising "ith her secretar%) The +orning ho rs s!ed b% s"iftl% as she fed data into the co+! ter) Concentration "as re. ired in order to +aintain a high le-el of acc rac%* and she didn&t break at all "hen coffee "as !laced on her desk) It "as after +idda% "hen Gabbi sank back against the c shioned chair and fle1ed her sho lders as she s r-e%ed the co+! ter screen) The fig res "ere ke%ed in* all she had

to do "as r n a check on the+ after l nch) A "orking l nch* she decided* fired "ith deter+ination to +eet a !ersonal deadline) 0a+es had re. ested the infor+ation b% one o&clock to+orro") #he intended that he "o ld ha-e it this afternoon) Gabbi rose fro+ her desk* e1tracted the chicken salad sand"ich her secretar% had !laced in the concealed bar fridge an ho r earlier* selected a bottle of a!!le $ ice and ret rned to her seat) The bread "as fresh* the chicken soft on a bed of cris! salad to!!ed "ith a tang% +a%onnaise dressing) 3ashed do"n "ith $ ice* it re!lenished her energ% store) The !hone rang and she h rriedl% !l cked free a fe" tiss es fro+ the bo1 on her desk* then reached for the recei-er) &?rancesca Angeletti on line one)& # r!rise "as . ickl% follo"ed b% !leas re) &P t her thro gh)& T"o seconds ticked b%) &?rancesca) 3here are %o 2& &Ho+e) I fle" in fro+ Ro+e %esterda% +orning)& &3hen are "e going to get together2& There "as no . estion that the% "o ldn&t) The% had shared the sa+e boarding,school* the sa+e classes* and each had a ste!+other) It "as a co++on bond that had dra"n the+ together and fostered a friendshi! "hich had e1tended be%ond school %ears) ?rancesca&s la gh so nded faintl% h sk%) &Tonight* if %o and (enedict are attending Leon&s e1hibition)& &Leon&s soirees are high on o r social calendar*& she ackno"ledged "ith an ans"ering ch ckle) &0a+es "ill be there "ith Moni. e2& &And Annaliese*& Gabbi added dr%l%* and one e%ebro" lifted at ?rancesca&s forthright res!onse) &Nice girls don&t s"ear*& she teased in ad+onition) This one does*& ca+e the s"ift re!l%) &Ho" long has %o r dear ste!sister been dist rbing %o r ho+e t rf2 @A "eek)& @#he is fond of !la%ing the di-a*& ?rancesca co++ented) &I had the +isfort ne to share a fe" of the cat"alks "ith her in Ital%)& &? n)& &Not the kind that +akes %o la gh) Gabbi* I ha-e to dash) 3e&ll catch ! tonight* OE2& &I&ll reall% look for"ard to it*& Gabbi ass red her* and re!laced the recei-er) ?or the s!ace of a fe" +in tes she allo"ed her +ind to ski+ the %ears* highlighting the +ost -i-id of shared +e+ories: school holida%s abroad together* g est of hono r at each other&s engage+ent !art%* brides+aid at each other&s "edding) The a to+atic back, ! flashed on the co+! ter screen* and s cceeded in ret rning her attention to the task at hand) 3ith deter+ination she dre" her chair for"ard* reached for the sheaf of !a!ers* and s%ste+aticall% began checking fig re col +ns) An ho r later she !rinted o t* collated* then had her secretar% deli-er co!ies to 0a+es and (enedict) #he "as "ell !leased "ith the res lt) The red ction of a !ercentage !oint gained b% s ccessf l negotiations "ith the leasing fir+ for #tanton,Nicols& co+!an% car fleet co ld be sed to boost the e1isting e+!lo%ee incenti-e !ackage) At no e1tra cost to #tanton,Nicols* and no loss of ta1 ad-antage) It "as after fi-e "hen she rode the lift do"n to the car !ark and al+ost si1 "hen

she entered the ho se) &(enedict $ st called*& Marie infor+ed Gabbi "hen she a!!eared in the kitchen) &He&ll be another t"ent% +in tes)& Ti+e for her to sho"er and "ash and dr% her hair) &#+ells delicio s*& she co+!li+ented as she "atched Marie deftl% stir the contents of one sa ce!an* then tend to another) &As!arag s in a hollandaise sa ce* beef 3ellington "ith -egetables and le+on tart for dessert)& Gabbi grabbed a glass and crossed to the refrigerator for so+e iced "ater) &A fe" in-itations arri-ed in the +ail) The%&re in the st d%)& &Thanks*& she said* s+iling) A fe" +in tes later she ran lightl% ! the stairs* and in the bedroo+ she . ickl% discarded her clothes then +ade for the sho"er) After"ards she donned fresh nder"ear* ! lled on fitted $eans and a loose to!* then t"isted her da+! hair into a knot on to! of her head) A . ick a!!lication of +oist riser* a light to ch of colo r to her li!s and she "as read%) (enedict entered the bedroo+ as she e+erged fro+ the en s ite* and she +et his +ocking s+ile "ith a deliberate slant of one e%ebro") &A dela%ed +eeting2& &T"o !hone calls and a traffic snarl*& he elaborated as he shr gged off his $acket and loosened his tie) #he +o-ed to"ards the door) &Dinner "ill be read% in ten +in tes)& The glea+ in those dark e%es "as "holl% sens al) @I had ho!ed to share %o r sho"er)& #o+ething t gged at her dee! inside* flared* then !riced thro gho t her bod%) &Too late*& she declared co%l% as she dre" le-el "ith hi+) His s+ile "idened* accent ating the -ertical lines echoing each cheek) &#ha+e)& Her breath rose nsteadil% in her throat as she atte+!ted to still the ra!id beat of her ! lse) Did he take !leas re in deliberatel% teasing her2 @A cool sho"er +ight hel!)& @#o +ight this)& He reached for her* angling his +o th do"n o-er hers in a kiss that held the !ro+ise of !assion and the control to kee! it at ba%) Gabbi felt her co+!os re "a-er* then s!linter and frag+ent as he dre" dee!l%* taking %et gi-ing* ntil she s rrendered herself to the e-ocati-e !leas re onl% he co ld !ro-ide) A tin% +oan so nded lo" in her throat as he slo"l% raised his head* and she s"a%ed slightl%* her e%es "ide* l +ino s !ools as she s r-e%ed his feat res) Her breathing "as ra!id* her skin "ar+* and her +o th tre+bled as she dre" back fro+ his gras!) @/o don&t !la% fair*& she acc sed hi+ shakil%* and stood still as he br shed the backs of his fingers across her cheek) His li!s c r-ed* the corners lifting in a se+blance of la'% h +o r) &Go check "ith Marie*& he bade her gentl%) &I&ll be do"n soon)& Dinner "as s !erb* the as!arag s tender* the beef s cc lent and the le+on tart an e1cellent finale) &Coffee2& Marie asked as she !acked dishes onto a trolle%) Gabbi s!ared her "atch a . ick glance) It "o ld take thirt% +in tes to dress* a!!l% +ake, ! and st%le her hair) &Not for +e)&

@Thanks* Marie) (lack*& (enedict re. ested as Gabbi rose fro+ the table) CHAPTER ?ODR Gabbi chose red silk e-ening tro sers* +atching ca+isole and beaded $acket) It "as a striking o tfit* co+!lete "ith +atching e-ening sandals and cl tch,! rse* the colo r enhanced her delicate hone%,colo red skin and !ro-ided an attracti-e contrast for her blonde hair) 3ith e1tre+e care she ! t the finishing to ches to her +ake, !* donned the tro sers and ca+isole* then br shed her hair) Loose* she decided* after s"ee!ing it high and discarding the c sto+ar% ?rench !leat) Her +irrored i+age re-ealed a confident %o ng "o+an "hose clothes and $e"eller% bore the e1cl si-it% of "ealth) There "as a coolness to her co+!os re* a serenit% she "as far fro+ feeling) 3hich !ro-ed $ st ho" dece!ti-e one&s a!!earance co ld be* she decided "r%l% as she slid her feet into the elegant sandals) &Is the colo r choice deliberate2& &3h% do %o ask2& Gabbi co ntered as she +et (enedict&s indolent ga'e) &I get the i+!ression %o &re bent on +aking a state+ent*& he dra"led* and she directed a dece!ti-el% s"eet s+ile at hi+) &Ho" !erce!ti-e of %o )& He looked the e!ito+e of +ale so!histication* the dark e-ening s it a stark contrast to the "hite cotton shirt and black bo" tie) It "as al+ost a sin* she reflected* for an% one +an to e1 de s ch a degree of se1 al che+istr%) The strong angles and !lanes of his facial feat res bore the sta+! of his character) The n"a-ering e%es "ere hard and infle1ible in the boardroo+* %et the% filled "ith brooding !assion in the bedroo+) And the !ro+ise of his +o th "as to die for* she concl ded* all too a"are of the ha-oc it co ld ca se) He !ossessed the a ra of a !redator* arresting and !otentiall% dangero s) Co+!elling* she added silentl%) A tin% thrill of e1cite+ent . i-ered dee! inside her at the tho ght of the !leas re it "o ld gi-e her to ! ll his tie free and hel! discard his clothes) And ha-e hi+ re+o-e her o"n) &3h% the faint s+ile2& The desire to shock dee!ened the s+ile and lent her e%es a tantalising s!arkle) &Antici!ation*& she enlightened hi+ "ickedl%) &Of Leon&s e1hibition2& #he do bted he "as fooled in the slightest* for he see+ed to find her achingl% trans!arent) &Nat rall%)& &3e co ld al"a%s arri-e late*& (enedict s ggested in dr%* +ocking tones* and the edges of her +o th for+ed a delicio s c r-e) &Leon "o ld be disa!!ointed)& Not to +ention Annaliese* she added silentl%* +entall% "eighing ! "hich +ight be the "orst offence) &I co ld al"a%s !lacate hi+ b% +aking an e1orbitant ! rchase)& #he ga-e it consideration* then shook her head "ith a!!arent rel ctance) &Teasing inc rs a !enalt%*& (enedict declared "ith soft e+!hasis) &I a+ s itabl% chastened)& &That co+!o nds "ith e-er% ho r*& he co+!leted silkil%* and sa" the +o+entar%

flicker of ncertaint% clo d those bea tif l e%es) It +ade hi+ "ant to reach o t and to ch his hand to her cheek* see the ncertaint% fade as he bent his head to clai+ her +o th) He s cc +bed to the first b t !assed on the latter) Gabbi collected her cl tch,! rse and !receded hi+ fro+ the roo+* and* seated inside the 0ag ar* she re+ained silent* a"are that the latent !o"er of the s!orts car e. alled that of the +an seated behind the "heel) To atte+!t to !la% a ga+e "ith hi+* e-en an innoc o s one* "as foolish* she !ercei-ed as the car ! rred along the s b rban streets) ?or e-en "hen she "on she reall% lost) It didn&t see+ . ite fair that he held s ch an enor+o s ad-antage) /et the likelihood of ti!!ing the scales in her fa-o r see+ed incredibl% re+ote) &Ho" did 0a+es react to %o r !ro!osal2& ( siness "as al"a%s a safe s b$ect) (enedict t rned his head slightl% and directed a brief glance at her before foc sing his attention on the road) &#+all talk* Gabbi2& &I can ask 0a+es*& she res!onded steadil%) @I fl% to Melbo rne in a co !le of "eeks)& @I not "e* she tho ght d ll%) &Ho" long "ill %o be a"a%2& &Three* +a%be fo r da%s)& #he sho ld ha-e been sed to his fre. ent tri!s interstate and o-erseas) /et she felt each absence +ore keenl% than the last* intensel% a"are of her o"n - lnerabilit%* and* da++it* incredibl% insec re e+otionall%) Gabbi "anted to sa% she&d +iss hi+* b t that "o ld be tanta+o nt to an ad+ission she "asn&t !re!ared to +ake) Instead* she foc sed her attention on the scene be%ond the "indscreen* noting the soft ha'e that had settled o-er the cit%* the a' re* !ink, fringed sk% as the s n sank be%ond the hori'on) # ++er da%light,ti+e dela%ed the onset of d sk* b t soon n +ero s street,la+!s "o ld !ro-ide a fair% tracer% of light* and the cit% "o ld be lit "ith flashing neon) The -ie"s "ere +agnificent: n +ero s co-es and inlets* the grande r of the O!era Ho se against the backdro! of Harbo r (ridge) It "as a -ista she took for granted e-er% da% as she dro-e to "ork* and no" she e1a+ined it caref ll%* a"are that the !la dits acclai+ing it one of the +ost attracti-e harbo rs in the "orld "ere "ell deser-ed) Traffic at this ho r "as relati-el% +ini+al* and the% reached Do ble (a% "itho t dela%) There "as !ri-ate !arking ad$acent to the galler%* and (enedict bro ght the 0ag ar to a s+ooth halt in an e+!t% ba%) Gabbi released the door,latch and slid o t of the !assenger seat* resisting the rge to s+ooth s ddenl% ner-o s fingers o-er the length of her hair) It "as +erel% another e-ening in "hich she "as re. ired to s+ile and con-erse and !retend that e-er%thing "as as it a!!eared to be) #he&d had a lot of !ractice* she ass red herself silentl% as she "alked at (enedict&s side to the entrance) The galler% held an interesting +i1 of !atrons* Gabbi co ld see as she !receded (enedict into the elegant fo%er) Their !resence elicited an eb llient greeting fro+ the galler% o"ner* "hose fla+bo%ant dress st%le and e1tra-agant $e"eller% "ere as + ch an act as "as his eff si-e +anner) A decade de-oted to creating an i+age and fostering clientele had !aid off* for his &in-itation onl%& soirees "ere considered de rig e r b% the cit%&s social elite)

&Darlings* ho" are "e* .a -a2A Gabbi acce!ted the sal tator% kiss on each cheek and s+iled at the shre"d !air of e%es regarding her "ith affection) &Leon*& she res!onded . ietl%* a"are that the Italian,born Leo had ackno"ledged his ?rench roots after disco-ering his ancestors had fled ?rance d ring the ?rench Re-ol tion) &3ell* +erc%A @That is good)& He ca ght hold of (enedict&s hand and ! +!ed it enth siasticall%) &There are so+e "onderf l !ieces) At least one I&+ s re "ill be of i++ense interest) I shall sho" it to %o !ersonall%) ( t first so+e cha+!agne* o i2A He beckoned a ho-ering "aiter and !l cked t"o fl tes fro+ the tra%* then co++anded a nifor+ed "aitress to bring forth a selection of hors d&oe -res) &(el ga* s+oked sal+on* ancho-%)& Gabbi selected a thin "afer artf ll% decorated "ith s+oked sal+on to!!ed "ith a crea+ cheese and ca!er dressing) &Delicio s*& she co+!li+ented) &?ran' has e1celled hi+self)& &Thank %o * darling*& Leon said gentl%) &No"* do +ingle) /o alread% kno" al+ost e-er%one) I&ll be back "ith %o later)& #he +o-ed for"ard* conscio s of the interest their !resence aro sed) It "as definitel% s+ile,ti+e* and she greeted one fello" g est after another "ith innate char+* !a sing to ind lge in idle chatter before +o-ing on) Ho" long "o ld it be before 0a+es +ade an entrance "ith Moni. e on one ar+ and Annaliese on the other2 Ten* fifteen +in tes2 T"ent%* Gabbi ackno"ledged "hen she ca ght sight of her father* ca ght his s+ile and ret rned it as he threaded his "a% thro gh the throng of g ests) &Hello* darling)& He s. ee'ed her hand* then t rned to greet his son,in,la") &(enedict)& &Moni. e)& Gabbi "ent thro gh "ith the air,kiss ro tine) &Annaliese)& Her ste!sister&s !erf +e "as s btle) Her dress* ho"e-er* "as not) (lack* it fitted Annaliese&s slender c r-es like a glo-e* the he+line re-ealing an al+ost obscene length of long* s+ooth thigh and highlighting the absence of a bra) There "asn&t a red,blooded +an in the roo+ "hose e%es didn&t +o+entaril% glea+ "ith a!!reciation) Nor "as there a "o+an in do bt of her +an "ho didn&t fail to still the slither of alar+ at the sight of this feline fe+ale on the !ro"l) Gabbi co ld ha-e ass red each and e-er% one of the+ that their fears "ere nfo nded) (enedict "as the target* she the -icti+) &Ha-e %o seen an%thing %o like2& To an%one o-erhearing the en. ir%* it so nded re+arkabl% gen ine) Gabbi* infinitel% +ore sensiti-e* recognised the inn endo in Annaliese&s -oice and searched for it in (enedict&s re!l%) &/es) One or t"o !ieces ha-e ca ght +% interest)& &Are %o going to b %2& asked Moni. e* intrig ed* %et able to !ortra% dis!assionate detach+ent) Gabbi do bted if 0a+es "as a"are of his ste!da ghter&s +achinations or her coll sion "ith his "ife) &Possibl%*& (enedict enlightened her s+oothl%) &/o + st !oint the+ o t to +e*& Annaliese ! rred in a -oice filled "ith sed cti-e !ro+ise)

Gabbi "anted to hit her) ?or a "ild second she en-isaged the scene and dre" satisfaction fro+ a +ental -ictor%) &N +bers fi-e and thirt%,se-en*& (enedict "as infor+ing Annaliese) &Gabbi* "h% don&t %o take Moni. e and Annaliese on a to r of the e1hibits2& 0a+es s ggested) &I ha-e so+ething I&d like to disc ss "ith (enedict)& Oh* +%) Did her father realise he&d $ st thro"n her to the lions2 @The girls can go*& Moni. e said s"eetl%) &I&ll ha-e a "ord "ith (ertrice Oster+an)& Ho" o!!ort ne for one of the societ% do%ennes to be "ithin close !ro1i+it%) Gabbi offered Annaliese a faint s+ile) &#hall "e begin2& It took t"o +in tes and so+ething like t"ent% !aces to reach (enedict&s first choice) &It leans to"ards the a-ant garde*& Gabbi declared) &( t it "ill brighten ! one of the office "alls)& &C t the s!iel* Gabbi*& Annaliese said in bored tones) &These art e1hibitions are the !its)& &( t sociall% sti+ lating* "o ldn&t %o agree2& &Moni. e ca+e along to be seen* and4& &#o did %o *& Gabbi interceded . ietl%) &(% (enedict)& #he felt the breath catch in her throat* and "illed her e1!ression not to change) &# rel% %o didn&t do bt it* darling2& &I e1!ected nothing less*& she +anaged ci-ill%) &Then "e nderstand each other)& Gabbi e1tended a hand to"ards a ro" of !aintings) &#hall "e !retend to look at the other e1hibits2& #he e-en +anaged a credible s+ile) &It "ill !ro-ide %o "ith a to!ic of con-ersation)& Annaliese "as* Gabbi conceded* a cons ++ate actress) No one in the roo+ "o ld g ess there "as no lo-e lost bet"een the t"o ste!sisters) And Gabbi hated !artici!ating in the facade) ?or fifteen +in tes the% "andered* !a sed and e1a+ined* before re$oining 0a+es and (enedict) Moni. e "as no"here in sight) &3onderf l choice* (enedict*& Annaliese said in a deliberatel% throat% tone) &There&s a sc l!t re that "o ld look incredible in the corner of %o r office) /o + st co+e and see it)& #he t rned to"ards Gabbi) &It is . ite s!ectac lar* isn&t it* darling2& &#!ectac lar*& Gabbi conceded* taking a fresh fl te of cha+!agne fro+ the tra% !roffered b% a "aiter) #he lifted the glass to her li!s and took a !ensi-e si!* then dared to raise her e%es to +eet those of her h sband) The% "ere dark and faintl% brooding* "ith $ st a tinge of latent h +o r) He "as a+ sed* da+n hi+C &Then I shall ha-e to take a look)& &Talk to 0a+es* darling* "hile I drag (enedict a"a%)& It "as a bea tif l +anoe -re* Gabbi a!!la ded silentl% as Annaliese dre" (enedict across the roo+) &#he&s gro"n into a -er% attracti-e girl*& 0a+es said . ietl%* and Gabbi inclined her head) &5er% attracti-e*& she agreed sole+nl%) &Incredibl% s ccessf l* too)&

&/es)& #he took a caref l si! of cha+!agne and steeled herself not to glance to"ards "here Annaliese held (enedict&s attention) &I looked at those fig res %o s b+itted) The%&re e1cellent)& @Thank %o *& she acce!ted* !leased at his !raise) &/o !ossess %o r +other&s integrit%* her sense of st%le*& he said gentl%) &I&+ -er% !ro d of %o * Gabbi) And of "hat %o &-e achie-ed)& #he br shed a . ick kiss o-er his cheek) &I lo-e %o too)& &0a+es)& Gabbi t rned at the so nd of an nfa+iliar -oice* s+iled* and stood . ietl% as her father co+!leted an introd ction) A b siness associate "ho see+ed intent on disc ssing the effects of an !co+ing state election) 3ith a + r+ red e1c se* she left the t"o +en to con-erse and began threading her "a% to"ards the o!!osite side of the roo+) There "ere . ite a fe" !eo!le !resent "ho+ she kne"* and she !a sed to e1change greetings) A !ainting had ca ght her e%e shortl% after the%&d arri-ed* and she "anted to take another look at it) &Gabbi)& &?rancescaC& Her s+ile "as gen inel% "ar+ as she e+braced the tall* s-elte a b rn,haired +odel) &It see+s ages since I last sa" %o )& &Too long*& ?rancesca agreed) @The cat"alks "ere e1ha sting* and4& she !a sed fractionall% &4the fa+il% da nting)& &Do "e get to talk abo t this o-er l nch2& ?rancesca&s s+ile "as infectio s) &To+orro"2& &Lo-e to*& Gabbi agreed* and na+ed a fashionable resta rant a short distance fro+ the office) &T"el-e,thirt%2& &Done)& ?rancesca took hold of her ar+) &Do %o !artic larl% "ant to "atch Annaliese&s atte+!t to snare (enedict2& &No)& @Then let&s do the ne1!ected and e1a+ine the art e1hibits for an% hidden talentC& An e%ebro" arched in a sardonic gest re as she cast a glance at a nearb% sc l!t re) &There has to be so+e* s rel%2& &It&s a case of bea t% being in the e%e of the beholder*& Gabbi -o chsafed sole+nl% as the% +o-ed fro+ one !ainting to another) &The !rices are scandalo s*& ?rancesca o!ined in a . iet aside) &Does an%one act all% +ake a ! rchase2& &/o &d be s r!rised)& &Dtterl%)& &#o+e of the cit%&s rich and fa+o s are kno"n to b % on a "hi+* then %ears later +ake a killing "hen the artist beco+es "ell,kno"n)& &And if the artist doesn&t2& Gabbi s+iled) &The% !lace it in the fo%er of their office and !retend its obsc re origin +akes it a c riosit% !iece) The added ad-antage being the ite+ then beco+es a legiti+ate ta1 ded ction)& &Oh* +%*& ?rancesca breathed) &3hen did %o beco+e so c%nical2& &I gre" !)& It sho ldn&t h rt so + ch) ( t it did) &And (enedict2&

#he hesitated a +o+ent too long) &3e nderstand each other)& @That&s a loaded state+ent* darling) I rather i+agined he "as %o r knight in shining ar+o r)& &That +%th belongs in a stor% book)& &Not al"a%s*& ?rancesca disagreed gentl%) &I e1!erienced a brief taste of it)& Too brief) ?rancesca&s +arriage to a "orld,fa+o s Italian racing,car dri-er had lasted si1 +onths) A freak accident three %ears ago on a tight t rn had clai+ed his life and that of another dri-er* the horrific scene ca!t red for e-er on ne"s,fil+) Gabbi had flo"n to Monaco to attend the f neral* and hadn&t been able to e1!ress ade. ate "ords then* an% +ore than she co ld no") &It&s OE*& ?rancesca said . ietl%* al+ost as if she kne") &I&+ learning to deal "ith it)& Gabbi had "itnessed the +agic* seen for herself the rare de!th of their shared lo-e* and "ondered if it "as !ossible to co!e "ith s ch a loss) &Mario "as4& &One of a kind*& ?rancesca interr !ted gentl%) &?or a "hile he "as +ine) At least I ha-e that)& #he !ointed o t a glaring can-as "hose colo rs shrieked "ith -i-id* bold strokes) &3as that a kindergarten tot let loose "ith br sh and !alette* do %o s !!ose2 Or is there so+e +%sterio s b t +eaningf l s%++etr% that +o+entaril% esca!es the sco!e of +% i+agination2& &It&s an abstract*& an a+ sed +ale -oice re-ealed) &And %o &re looking at the kindergarten tot "ho took an afternoon to slash the can-as "ith !aint in the ho!e so+eone +ight !a% for the !ri-ilege of ! tting bread on +% table)& &E1!ensi-e bread*& ?rancesca re+arked "itho t +issing a beat) &The artist fa-o rs hand,stitched shoes* a Her+es tie and "ears a Role1)& &The% co ld be fake*& he declared) &No*& ?rancesca asserted "ith the certaint% of one "ho kne" designer a!!arel) Gabbi "atched the inter!la% bet"een her friend and the tall* broad,fra+ed +an "hose dark e%es held a !iercing brilliance) &Ne1t %o &ll tell +e "here I li-e and "hat car I dri-e)& &Not "hat !eo!le "o ld e1!ect of an artist*& ?rancesca considered "ith scarcel% a tho ght) &Northern s b rbs* o-erlooking "ater* trees in the garden* a detached st dio and a (M3 in the garage)& Gabbi sensed (enedict&s !resence an instant before she felt the to ch of fir+ fingers at the edge of her "aist* and she s ++oned a da''ling s+ile as she ta+ed slightl% to"ards hi+) The e%es that lanced hers "ere dark and i+!ossible to fatho+ so she didn&t e-en tr%) &(enedict*& ?rancesca greeted hi+ "ar+l%) &It&s been a "hile)& &Indeed*& he agreed rbanel%) &/o &-e +et Do+inic2& &3e ha-en&t been for+all% introd ced)& ?rancesca&s s+ile "as deliberatel% "ar+ as she t rned her head to"ards the +an at her side) &Do+inic Andrea) Entre!rene r and !art,ti+e artist*& (enedict infor+ed her) &?rancesca Angeletti)& &Ho" o!!ort ne) The designer l ggage "on&t re. ire a change of initials)& Gabbi registered Do+inic&s "ords and heard ?rancesca&s al+ost ina dible gas!

one second ahead of (enedict&s h sk% ch ckle) &/o + st co+e to dinner*& Do+inic insisted) &(ring ?rancesca)& &Gabbi2& (enedict deferred* and she ca ght her breath that the decision sho ld be hers) &Thank %o * "e&d lo-e to)& &No*& the gla+oro s "ido" declined) &I ha-e %et to no+inate a night*& Do+inic said in +ild re+onstrance) &And "ith (enedict and Gabbi !resent %o &ll be . ite safe)& His s+ile "as dangero sl% soft and filled "ith latent char+) &Aren&t %o in the least c rio s to see if %o &re right2& Gabbi "atched ?rancesca&s e%es narro" and heard -oice chill to ice) &3here %o li-e doesn&t interest +eA &To+orro"*& he insisted gentl%) &#i1,thirt%)& He t rned and threaded his "a% to the o!!osite side of the galler%) &3hat a !re!ostero s +an*& ?rancesca hissed disdainf ll% the +o+ent he "as o t of earshot) &A -er% rich and s ccessf l one*& (enedict added +ildl%) &3ho dabbles in art and donates his "ork to "orth"hile charities)& &He&s a friend of %o rs2& &3e occasionall% do b siness together) He s!ends= a lot of ti+e o-erseas) Ne" /ork* Athens* Ro+e*A (enedict enlightened her) &Cha+!agne* ca-iare and ca+araderie aren&t +% st%le*& ?rancesca dis+issed) &/o share so+ething in co++on*& (enedict infor+ed her "ith a degree of c%nical a+ se+ent) &Then "h% the dinner in-itation2& &He ad+ires %o r char+ing "it*& (enedict res!onded "r%l%* and his +o th c r-ed to for+ an a+ sed s+ile) &An atte+!t to char+ "asn&t +% intention*& ?rancesca declared "ith an e1!ressi-e lift of one e%e bro") &Perha!s he is s fficientl% intrig ed to "ant to disco-er "h% not2& (enedict -ent red in a dr% ndertone) &I !res +e "o+en rarel% ref se hi+)& A lo" ch ckle esca!ed (enedict&s throat) &Rarel%)& Gabbi "itnessed the faint s!arkle e-ident in her friend&s e%es* and "as nable to re!ress a "inso+e s+ile) &#o %o &ll acce!t2& &It&s a long ti+e since I&-e been offered s ch an interesting e-ening*& ?rancesca conceded) &I&ll let %o kno" at l nch to+orro")& (enedict dre" their attention to an intricate steel sc l!t re that "as garnering a great deal of notice* and after a fe" +in tes ?rancesca indicated her intention to lea-e) &Do %o "ant to sta% for Leon&s !art%2& (enedict . eried +in tes later* and Gabbi cast hi+ a st died glance) &I i+agine %o &-e alread% !resented hi+ "ith a si'eable che. e* s fficient to a!!ease an% regret he +ight e1!ress at o r absence2& The "ords "ere lightl% -oiced and bro ght a faint s+ile to his li!s) &E1hibits fi-e and thirt%,se-en* !l s the sc l!t re Annaliese ad+ired)& A knife t"isted inside her sto+ach) &A gift for 0a+es*& he added "ith gentle +ocker%) #he held his ga'e "ith diffic lt%* ns re "hat inter!retation to !lace on his "ords* or if there "as an% hidden inn endo in the+) &I&+ s re he&ll be +ost a!!reciati-e*&

she said after a +eas rable silence) &/o didn&t ans"er +% . estion*& (enedict re+inded her gentl%) &0a+es* Moni. e and Annaliese ha-e %et to lea-e)& It "as a+a'ing that her -oice so nded so cal+* e. all% s r!rising that she "as able to !ro$ect an o t"ard serenit%) ( t then she&d had !lent% of !ractice at con-e%ing both) H +o r t gged at the edges of his +o th) &I "as na"are that their !resence* or absence* dictated o r o"n*& he co ntered "ith dece!ti-e +ildness) It didn&t* b t she hadn&t . ite forgi-en hi+ for being so easil% led a"a% b% Annaliese or for being ca ght so long in con-ersation) #he effected a slight shr g he co ld inter!ret an% "a% he chose) &If %o "ant to lea-e4& &/o &re not going2& Moni. e inter-ened* her -oice tinged "ith +ild re!roach* and Gabbi "ondered if li!,reading "as one of her ste!+other&s ac. ired skills) &Leon "ill be +ost !set if %o +iss his !art%)& &A headache*& (enedict in-ented s+oothl%) Moni. e s!ared Gabbi a !enetrating look) &Oh darling* reall%2& Her e%es shar!ened s s!icio sl%) Annaliese&s +o th for+ed a !rett% !o t) &3hat a sha+e to end the e-ening so earl%)& #he t rned s ltr% e%es to"ards (enedict) &Perha!s Gabbi "on&t +ind if %o dro! her ho+e and co+e back for the !art%2& (enedict&s s+ile didn&t . ite reach his e%es) &I&+ the one "ho is s ffering*& he infor+ed her* s b$ecting Gabbi to a deliberate a!!raisal that left no one in an% do bt that his s ffering "as of a se1 al nat re) Moni. e&s e1!ression didn&t change and 0a+es&s feat res re+ained deliberatel% bland* altho gh Gabbi tho ght she gli+!sed a fleeting h +oro s t"inkle in his e%es) Annaliese* ho"e-er* shot her a brief* +ale-olent glare before +asking it "ith a faint s+ile) &Ha-e f n*& Annaliese + r+ red* !ressing her scarlet,ti!!ed fingers to (enedict&s ar+ in a light caress) Gabbi !ra%ed that the soft flood of "ar+th to her cheeks "asn&t acco+!anied b% a telling tide of !ink as (enedict s+oothl% ttered the fe" necessar% "ords in fare"ell* and her fingers clenched against his in silent retaliation as he ca ght hold of her hand and began threading his "a% across the roo+ to "here Leon "as holding co rt "ith a ca!ti-e a dience) &Oh* darlings* %o &re lea-ing2& &/o don&t +ind2& &I&+ so !leased %o "ere able to attend)& Leon&s s+ile "as beatific* co rtes% of (enedict&s che. e in his "allet) Gabbi "aited ntil (enedict had steered the 0ag ar clear of the car !ark before la nching into a -erbal attack) &That "as nforgi-ableC& &3hat* !recisel%* did %o find nforgi-able2& (enedict dra"led in a+ se+ent as he $oined the trafic tra-elling east"ard along the Ne" #o th Head) #he "anted to rage at hi+* !h%sicall% hit hi+) Instead she chose to re+ain silent for the ti+e it took hi+ to reach 5a cl se* garage the car and enter the ho se) &Coffee2& (enedict en. ired as he t rned fro+ resetting the alar+ s%ste+)

&No*& she ref sed tightl%* raising stor+% e%es to +eet his as he closed the distance bet"een the+) He +ade no atte+!t to to ch her* and she stood fir+l% resol te* hating hi+ for a -ariet% of reasons that "ere too n +ero s to +ention) &#o + ch anger*& he obser-ed indolentl%) &3hat did %o e1!ect2& &A little gratit de* !erha!s* for initiating a !re+at re esca!e2& 3ords "arred "ith each other in her +ind as she fo ght for control) More than an%thing she "anted to lash o t and hit hi+* and onl% the silent "arning a!!arent in those dark feat res sto!!ed her) &/o take e1ce!tion to the fact I "ant to +ake lo-e "ith %o 2& he . eried silkil%) Lifting a hand* he it beneath the c rtain of her hair) &I didn&t e1!ect a cliched anno nce+ent of %o r intention*& she thre" at hi+ angril%* gas!ing as he c !!ed her na!e and angled his head do"n to hers &Don&t)& The !lea "ent nheeded as his +o th closed o-er hers* and she strained against the strength of his hand as it c r-ed do"n her back and held her to hi+) #lo"l%* insidio sl%* "ar+th co rsed thro gh her -eins ntil her "hole bod% "as one aching +ass* cra-ing his to ch* and she o!ened her +o th to acce!t the !ossession of his o"n) Passion re!laced anger* and a tin% !art of her brain registered the transition and "ondered at the traitoro s dictates of her o"n heart) It "asn&t fair that he sho ld ha-e . ite this effect on her* or that she sho ld ha-e so little control) #e1 +oti-ated b% l st "asn&t ndesired* b t lo-e "as the lti+ate !ri'e) #he "anted to !rotest "hen he s"e!t an ar+ behind her knees and lifted her against his chest) #he sho ld as he cli+bed the stairs to the !!er floor ) And "hen he entered their bedroo+ and let her di! do"n to her feet she stood* . iescent* as he gentl% re+o-ed the beaded $acket and tossed it o-er a nearb% chair) The soft light fro+ t"in la+!s reflected against the +irror and she ca ght a +o+entar%& gli+!se of t"o fig res* one tall and dark* the other slender in red* beca+e lost in the heat of (enedict&s i+!assi-e ga'e* her fingers as de1tero s as his in their l st to re+o-e each la%er of clothing) /et there "as care a!!arent* al+ost a teasing . alit% as the% each dealt "ith b ttons and 'i!,fastenings* the slide of his hands on her e1!osed flesh increasing the stead% s!iral of e1cite+ent) He "asn&t n+o-ed b% her +inistrations either* and she e1 lted in the feel of tightening sine"s as she caressed his + scled chest* the ta t "aist and the thr st of his !o"erf l thighs) His heartbeat . ickened in te+!o "ith her o"n as he ! lled her do"n onto the bed and she rose ! abo-e hi+* e-er% ner-e* e-er% cell ali-e "ith antici!ation) #he so ght to gi-e as + ch !leas re as she kne" she&d recei-e* taking the !ath to cli+actic nir-ana "ith deliberate slo"ness* en$o%ing and enhancing each ste! of the e+otional $o rne% ntil there "as no sense of the indi-id al* onl% the +erging of t"o so ls so in t ne "ith each other that the% beca+e one) And after"ards the% la%* ar+s and legs ent"ined* e1changing the soft caress of fingers against "ar+ flesh* the light* lingering br sh of li!s* in an after,!la% that held great tenderness and care* ntil slee! clai+ed the+ both)

CHAPTER ?I5E The s n&s ra%s "ere hot after the controlled coolness of the b ilding&s air, conditioning* and Gabbi felt the heat co+e ! fro+ the !a-e+ent co+bined "ith the $ostle of +idda% cit% staff an1io s to +ake the +ost of their l nch ho r* elderl% +atrons en ro te fro+ one sho!!ing +all to another and +others "ith %o ng children in to") #%dne% "as a -ibrant cit% ali-e "ith !eo!le fro+ different c lt res* and Gabbi "itnessed a -i-id kaleidosco!e of co t re and gr nge as she "alked the block and a half to +eet ?rancesca) The resta rant "as filled "ith !atrons* b t she&d r ng ahead for a reser-ation* and the +aitre d& offered an eff si-e greeting and shered her to a table) There "as barel% ti+e to order iced "ater before ?rancesca slid into the o!!osite seat in a soft clo d of Her+es Caleche !erf +e) &The traffic "as e-er% bit as bad as I e1!ected*& ?rancesca co++ented as she ordered the sa+e drink as Gabbi) &And sec ring a !arking s!ace "as "orse)& Gabbi s+iled in co++iseration) &Cit% co++ ting is the !its)& #he !icked ! the +en ) &#hall "e order2& &Good idea) I&+ star-ing*& ?rancesca ad+itted "ith relish* selecting the so !e d $o r follo"ed b% a Greek salad and fresh fr it) Gabbi also selected her friend&s choice* b t o!ted for ling ini instead of so ! as a starter) &Ho" long "ill %o be #%dne%,based2& Her s+ile "as "ar+* her interest gen ine) Ice,c bes chinked as ?rancesca !icked ! her glass) &Not long) A fe" "eeks* then I&ll head back to E ro!e)& Tr e friendshi! "as rare* and "ith it ca+e the benefit of dis!ensing "ith the niceties of idle con-ersation) &#o* tell +e abo t Ro+e)& ?rancesca&s e1!ression beca+e !ensi-e) &Mario&s +other "as diagnosed "ith ino!erable cancer)& Gabbi&s heart constricted "ith !ain* and she reached o t and co-ered her friend&s hand "ith her o"n) &?rancesca* I&+ so sorr%)& &3e had a fe" short "eeks together before she "as hos!italised* and after that it "as onl% a +atter of da%s)& ?rancesca&s e%es darkened "ith re!ressed e+otion) &#he be. eathed +e e-er%thing)& &Mario "as her onl% child*& Gabbi re+inded her gentl%) &Ne-ertheless* it "as4& she !a sed fractionall% 4 ne1!ected)& The "aiter&s a!!earance "ith their starters !ro-ided an interr !tion) &3hat&s ne" "ith the fa+il%2& ?rancesca asked as soon as he "as o t of earshot) &Not a thing)& &(enedict is to die for* Moni. e s !erficiall% gracio s* Annaliese a bitch and 0a+es re+ains obli-io s2& The assess+ent "as so acc rate* Gabbi didn&t kno" "hether to la gh or cr%) &#electi-el% obli-io s*& she . alified) &A cle-er +an* %o r father)& &And %o rs* ?rancesca2& &Cons +ed "ith b siness in order to kee! +% dear ste!+a+a in the incredible st%le she insists is i+!ortant)& #he +anaged a tight s+ile) &3hile Mother contin es to flit fro+ one +an to the ne1t "ith ti+e o t in bet"een for the re. isite ni! and t ck)&

The% finished the starters and began on the salads) &Do+inic Andrea*& ?rancesca -ent red s!ec lati-el%) &Greek2& &#econd generation) His +other is A stralian)& &Irritating +an)& Do+inic "as +an% things* b t irritating "asn&t one of the+) &Do %o think so2& &And arrogant)& Perha!s) Altho gh Gabbi "o ld ha-e s bstit ted self,ass red) &/o "ant to o!t o t of dinner tonight2& ?rancesca forked the last +o thf l of salad* took her ti+e "ith it* then re!laced the tensil onto her !late) &No*& she said tho ghtf ll%* her ga'e startlingl% direct) &3h% den% +%self an interesting e-ening2& Gabbi&s +o th c r-ed "ith h +o r) &A clash bet"een t"o Titans2& ?rancesca&s e%es ass +ed a s!ec lati-e glea+) &It "ill be an intrig ing challenge to beat the +an at his o"n ga+e)& Indeed* Gabbi accorded silentl%) Altho gh she "asn&t s re that ?rancesca "o ld "in) The "aiter bro ght a fr it !latter and the% ordered coffee) &#hall I gi-e %o Do+inic&s address2& Gabbi . eried as she !icked ! the bill* . elling ?rancesca&s !rotest) &Or "ill "e collect %o 2& &I&ll +eet %o there)& #he e1tracted a !en and !a!er fro+ her handbag and took do"n the address) &#i1,thirt%2& &/es*& Gabbi confir+ed as the% e+erged o t onto the !a-e+ent) #he acce!ted ?rancesca&s light kiss on each cheek* and to ched her hand as the% !arted) &It&s been great to catch !) Take care)& &Al"a%s*& ?rancesca !ro+ised) &#ee %o tonight)& There "ere se-eral +essages on Gabbi&s desk "hen she ret rned* and she dealt "ith each* dictated se-eral letters and "orked on strea+lining o-erheads in a s bsidiar% co+!an%) #%ste+atic checking "as re, . ired to disco-er alternati-e s !!liers "ho* she "as con-inced* co ld !ro-ide an e. al ser-ice for a +ore co+!etiti-e !rice) #he +ade a list of rele-ant n +bers to call) The interco+ b ''ed* and Gabbi de!ressed the b tton) &/es* Halle2& &There&s a !arcel in Rece!tion for %o ) #hall I bring it do"n2& #he eased her sho lders and ! shed a stra% tendril of hair behind one ear) &Please)& A +in te later her secretar% a!!eared carr%ing a flat rectang lar !arcel "ra!!ed in bro"n !a!er) &There&s an en-elo!e) 3ant +e to o!en it2& It co ldn&t be)))co ld it2 Gabbi rose to her feet and crossed ro nd to the front of her desk) &No* I&ll take care of it) Thanks* Halle)& #he !laced the attached en-elo!e on her desk* then ndid the "ra!!ing* !leas re lighting ! her feat res as she re-ealed the !ainting she&d ad+ired at Leon&s galler%) It "as !erfect for the so thern "all of her office) The card held a si+!le +essage: &?or %o )& It "as signed &(enedict)& Gabbi reached for the !ri-ate !hone and ! nched in (enedict&s coded n +ber) He ans"ered on the second ring) &Nicols)& &/o noticed +% interest in the !ainting*& she said "ith e-ident "ar+th) &I lo-e it) Thanks)& &3h% don&t %o take a "alk to +% office and thank +e in !erson2& The la'% dra"l held +ild a+ se+ent* and a soft la gh e+erged fro+ her throat) &A +o+entar%

di-ersion2& &5er% +o+entar%*& (enedict agreed "ith light h +o r) &An associate is "aiting in +% !ri-ate lo nge)& &In that case* %o sho ldn&t dela% seeing hi+*& she chastised hi+ s"eetl%* and heard his h sk% ch ckle in res!onse) &Tonight* Gabbi)& #he heard the faint click as he re!laced the recei-er) The rest of the afternoon "ent . ickl%* and at fi-e she sh t do"n the co+! ter* signed the co+!leted letters then collected her briefcase and took the lift do"n to the car !ark) (enedict&s fo r,"heel dri-e "as in the garage "hen she arri-ed ho+e* and as the% "ere to dine o t she b%!assed the kitchen and +ade for the stairs) It "o ld be nice to stri! off and rela1 in the 0ac ''i* she tho ght longingl% as she entered the +aster s ite* b t there "asn&t ti+e) T"ent%,fi-e +in tes in "hich to sho"er* dress* a!!l% +ake, ! and st%le her hair didn&t allo" for a leis rel% a!!roach) The so nd of an electric ra'or in action co ld be heard fro+ the bathroo+ and she . ickl% shed her clothes* ! lled on a silk robe and ! shed o!en the door) (enedict "as standing in front of the "ide +irror dis!ensing "ith a da%&s gro"th of beard* a to"el hitched at his "aist) It "as e-ident fro+ his da+! hair that he hadn&t long e+erged fro+ the sho"er) &Hi)& It irked her that her -oice so nded -ag el% breathless) Ma%be in another t"ent% %ears she "o ld be able to -ie" his !artl% naked for+ and not feel so co+!letel% cons +ed b% the sight of hi+) If* that far do"n the track* she "as still !art of his life) The tho ght that she +ight not be bro ght a stab of nbearable !ain) He looked ! fro+ his task and +et her e%es in the +irror) &Hi* %o rself)& His a!!raisal "as "ar+ and lingered a little too long on the soft c r-e of her +o th) 3ith deter+ined effort she reached into the sho"er,stall* t rned on the "ater* sli!!ed off her robe and ste!!ed beneath the "ar+ $et,s!ra%) 3hen she e+erged it "as to find she had sole occ !anc% of the bathroo+) Ten +in tes later her hair "as s"e!t into a sleek !leat* her +ake, ! co+!lete) In the bedroo+ she crossed to the "alk,in closet and selected silk e-ening tro sers in delicate i-or%* added a beaded ca+isole and slid her ar+s into a +atching silk $acket) Gold $e"eller% and elegant e-ening sandals co+!leted the o tfit* and she took ti+e to dab her fa-o rite !erf +e to a fe" e1!osed ! lse,!oints before catching ! an e-ening ! rse) &Read%2& 3ith a fe" +in tes to s!are) #he directed a cool glance at hi+) &/es) #hall "e lea-e2& Do+inic&s ho+e "as a brilliant e1a+!le of architect ral design in s b rban (ea t% Point o-erlooking the +iddle harbo r) Do+inic greeted the+ at the door and dre" the+ into the lo nge) High ceilings and floor,to,ceiling glass lent the roo+ s!acio sness and light* "ith folding "hite,!ainted "ooden sh tters and dee!,c shioned f rnit re !ro-iding a hint of the Caribbean) There "as no sign of ?rancesca* and Gabbi "ondered if she "as deliberatel%

!lanning her arri-al to be a fashionable* b t e1c sable* fi-e +in tes late) Ten* Gabbi noted* as the bell,chi+es !ealed "hen she "as !art"a% thro gh a delicio s fr it cocktail) Do+inic allo"ed his ho sekee!er to ans"er the door) It "o ld see+ that if ?rancesca had a strateg% Do+inic had elected to choose one of his o"n) #t nning "as an a!t descri!tion of ?rancesca&s a!!earance* Gabbi silentl% a!!la ded as she greeted her friend) ?rancesca&s e1!ression "as caref ll% bland* b t there "as a "icked t"inkle a!!arent in those dark e%es for one infinitesi+al second before she t rned to"ards her host) &Please acce!t +% a!ologies)& &Acce!ted*& dra"led Do+inic) &/o &ll $oin s in a drink2& &Chilled "ater*& ?rancesca re. ested "ith a sing larl% s"eet s+ile) &3ith ice)& &(ottled2 #!arkling or still2& &#till* if %o ha-e it)& Gabbi hid a faint s+ile and took another si! of her cocktail) ?rancesca had dressed to kill in black* designed !erha!s to e+!hasise her "ido"ed state2 #he looked e-er% inch the s ccessf l international +odel) The length of her a b rn hair "as s"e!t into a careless knot* "ith a fe" "is!% tendrils allo"ed to esca!e to fra+e her face) The +ake, ! "as !erfection* altho gh Gabbi do bted it had taken ?ran +ore than ten +in tes to a!!l%) The !erf +e "as her !referred Her+es Caleche* and there "as little do bt that the go"n "as an Italian designer original bo ght or bargained for at an o trageo sl% disco nted !rice) Gabbi "ondered ho" long it "o ld take Do+inic to dig beneath ?rancesca&s !rotecti-e shell and re-eal her tr e nat re) Or if ?rancesca "o ld !er+it hi+ to tr%) Dinner "as a con-i-ial +eal* the co rses -aried and +an%* and "hile e1. isitel% !resented on the finest bone china the% "ere the antithesis of designer food) There "as* ho"e-er* an artisticall% dis!la%ed !latter of salads adorned "ith a-ocado* +ango and s!rinkled "ith !ine n ts) A s btle concession to "hat Do+inic s s!ected "as a +odel&s necessit% to diet2 Gabbi "ondered) ?rancesca* Gabbi kne"* ate "isel% and "ell* "ith little need to "atch her intake of food) Tonight* ho"e-er* she forked daint% !ortions fro+ each co rse* declined dessert and o!ted for herbal tea instead of the r ino sl% strong black coffee she !referred) &Northern s b rbs* o-erlooking "ater and trees in the garden*& ?rancesca +ocked lightl% as she +et Do+inic&s le-el ga'e o-er the ri+ of her delicate teac !) &Three o t of fi-e*& he conceded in a -oice that "as tinged "ith h +o r) &Are %o s fficientl% c rio s to disco-er if %o &re right abo t the re+aining t"o2& Her e%es "ere cool) @The detached st dio and a (M3 in the garage2& &/es)& One e%ebro" lifted) &A s btle in-itation to ad+ire %o r etchings2& &I !aint in the st dio and confine lo-e+aking to the bedroo+)& Gabbi had to ad+ire ?rancesca&s !anache* for there "as no artifice in the long* considering look she cast hi+) &Ho"4!rosaic& Gi-e it !* ?rancesca* Gabbi beseeched silentl%) /o &re !la%ing "ith d%na+ite) (esides* the &(M3& is a Le1 s and altho gh the st dio is detached it&s abo-e the treble garage and linked to the ho se -ia a glass,enclosed "alk"a%) &More tea2& Do+inic en. ired "ith rbanit%)

&Thank %o * no)& (enedict rose to his feet in one s+ooth +o-e+ent* his e%es enig+atic as the% +et those of his "ife) &If %o &ll e1c se s* Do+inic2& His s+ile "as "ar+* and tinged "ith h +o r) &Dinner "as s !erb) Do gi-e o r co+!li+ents to Lo ise)& &It&s been a lo-el% e-ening*& Gabbi said gentl%* collecting her ! rse) #he s!ared ?rancesca a brief* en. iring glance and co ld deter+ine little fro+ her friend&s e1!ression) Their i++inent de!art re !ro-ided an e1cellent e1c se for ?rancesca to lea-e* and Gabbi&s interest intensified "hen her friend failed to e1!ress that intention) Perha!s* Gabbi s!ec lated* ?rancesca "as deter+ined not to c t and r n at the fli+siest e1c se to a-oid being alone "ith Do+inic) &?rancesca is . ite able to handle herself*& (enedict ass red her as he eased the car thro gh the electronicall% controlled gates and t rned onto the street) &#o is Do+inic*& Gabbi re+inded hi+ as she s!ared hi+ a fro"ning glance) &That "orries %o 2& &/es*& she ans"ered starkl%) &I "o ldn&t like to see ?rancesca h rt)& &I failed to see an% hint of coercion on Do+inic&s !art*& (enedict ret rned tolerantl%) &And she chose not to take the o!!ort nit% to lea-e "hen "e did)& He bro ght the car to a halt at a traffic,controlled intersection) &Ne1t %o &ll !redict "e&ll dance at their "edding*& Gabbi declared "ith a degree of acerbit%* and heard his s bd ed s!l tter of la ghter) &It "o ldn&t s r!rise +e*& &Mario4& @Is dead*& (enedict stated gentl%) &And ?rancesca is a bea tif l %o ng "o+an "ho deser-es to be ha!!%)& The lights changed and the car !icked ! s!eed) Gabbi t rned her attention to the tracer% of electric lights on the o!!osite side of the harbo r) It "as a !ict re,!ostcard scene* and one she&d ad+ired on +an% occasions in the !ast) Tonight* ho"e-er* it failed to hold an% attraction) &/o don&t think she co ld fall in lo-e again2& Gabbi "as silent for se-eral long seconds) &Not the "a% she lo-ed Mario*& she decided at last) &Affection* stabilit% and sec rit% can be a satisfactor% s bstit te)& #he felt so+ething clench dee! inside her* and she ca ght her breath at the s dden !ain) 3as that "hat he tho ght abo t their +arriage2 The fire and the !assion )))"ere the% solel% hers2 The car tra-ersed the Harbo r (ridge* then t rned left to"ards the eastern s b rbs) #oon the% "o ld be ho+e) And* like the nights that had !receded this one* she "o ld go to slee! in his ar+s) After the lo-ing) To den% hi+ "as to den% herself) /et tonight she "anted to* for the sake of sheer !er-ersit%) Gabbi +ade for the stairs as soon as the% entered the ho se) &I&ll go change)& And sli! into the 0ac ''i* she decided as she gained the !!er floor) The ! lsating $ets "o ld ease the tension in her bod% and hel! rela1 her +ind) It didn&t* at least not to an% satisfactor% degree) The do bts that "ere e-er,!resent in her s bconscio s rose to the s rface "ith da+ning ease) One b% one she e1a+ined the+) (enedict "anted her in his bed* b t did he need her2 Onl% her2 Probabl% not* she ad+itted sadl%* all too a"are that there "ere a h ndred "o+en "ho "o ld r sh to take her !lace) 3ith or "itho t +arriage)

One co ldn&t den% the sec rit% factor)))for each of the+) In her* (enedict had a "ife "ho one da% "o ld inherit a share of a billion,dollar cor!oration* thereb% do bling his share) /et* con-ersel%* she also stood to gain) And stabilit% "o ld be ce+ented "ith the addition of children) 3h%* then* did she contin e to take !reca tions to a-oid conce!tion2 Gabbi closed her e%es as i+ages s"irled in her +ind) The shared $o% of earl% !regnanc%* her bod% s"ollen "ith (enedict&s child* and after"ards the ne"born s ckling at her breast) ( t it "as +ore than that) M ch +ore) The ne"born "o ld de-elo! and gro" into a child "ho beca+e a"are of its s rro ndings* its !arents) ?inancial sec rit% "o ld not be an iss e) ( t e+otional sec rit%2 Di-orce had a tra +atic effect* and ha-ing to acce!t a ste!!arent in the !lace of a lo-ed one "as infinitel% "orse) ?iercel% !rotecti-e* she "anted des!eratel% for her child to gro" ! in a ha!!% ho+e "ith t"o e+otionall% co++itted !arents) A +arriage based on a b siness +erger lacked the one ingredient essential for a + t all% s ccessf l long,ter+ relationshi!: lo-e) A one,sided lo-e "asn&t nearl% eno gh) Da+n) Intros!ection didn&t hel! at all) &#lee!ing in a 0ac ''i isn&t a good idea)& Gabbi didn&t o!en her e%es) &I "asn&t slee!ing)& @I&+ relie-ed to hear it) Do %o intend sta%ing there long2& @A "hile)& He didn&t co++ent* and she sensed rather than heard hi+ lea-e) Perha!s he&d go do"nstairs and !er se the latest financial b lletin fa1ed thro gh fro+ London* Ne" /ork and Tok%o) #o+eho" she do bted he&d si+!l% ndress and slide bet"een the sheets* for he "as a +an "ho co ld +aintain +a1i+ + energ% on si1 ho rs& slee! in an% gi-en t"ent%, fo r) The "ar+* ! lsating "ater had a so!orific effect* and she allo"ed her tho ghts to drift) To her childhood* earl% treas red +e+ories of her +other* and 0a+es) After 0a+es follo"ed Moni. e* and4 Gabbi&s e%es fle" o!en as a foot br shed her o"n) Her startled ga'e +et a !air of dark bro"n* al+ost black e%es hea-% "ith sl +bero s* -ag el% +ocking h +o r) &3hat are %o doing here2& 3h% did she so nd so4shocked2 It "as hardl% the first ti+e the%&d shared the 0ac ''i) &Is +% !resence s ch an n"elco+e intr sion2& &/es)& E1ce!t that "asn&t strictl% tr e) &No*& she a+ended* nable to tear her e%es a"a% fro+ the strong feat res "ithin to ching distance of her o"n) (road cheekbones* a "ell,defined $a" and the sens al c r-e of his +o th) The +o th tilted slightl%* and she ca ght sight of strong "hite teeth) &/o so nd ns re)& Her ga'e didn&t "a-er) &Perha!s beca se I a+)& #ine"s +o-ed beneath the s+ooth skin sheathing the !o"erf l breadth of his chest as he e1tended a hand to trail a gentle !attern across her cheek) The faint aro+a of his cologne had a tantali'ing effect on her e. ilibri +* and her ! !ils dilated as one finger traced the o tline of her lo"er li!) Please* she begged silentl%) Don&t do this to +e)

#lo"l%* "ith infinite !atience* he began to erode her defences* breaking the+ do"n one b% one "ith the br sh of his fingers against the ! lse at the base of her throat "here it beat in an increasingl% -isible tattoo) Those sa+e fingers trailed the conto rs of each breast* c !!ed and "eighed the+ in his !al+* then teased each tender n b) Her li!s !arted and her e%elids droo!ed lo") No one !erson sho ld ha-e this + ch e+otional control o-er another* she tho ght) There sho ld be so+e in,b ilt +echanis+ in one&s !s%che to !re-ent s ch an in-asion) Possession* she s bstit ted as her bones began to li. ef%) #trong hands settled at her "aist* and "ith no effort at all he t rned her ro nd to sit in front of hi+) #he felt caged b% the strength of his sho lders* the + scled ar+s that c r-ed beneath her o"n) There "as "ar+th* a heat that had nothing to do "ith the te+!erat re of the "ater* and "hen his li!s gra'ed the delicate hollo" at the edge of her neck Gabbi sighed in ns!oken acce!tance) He had the to ch* she + sed drea+il%* and the kno"ledge to aro se a "o+an to the brink of +adness) And the control to hold her on the edge ntil she al+ost "e!t for release) It "as a sens al $o rne% that tra-ersed +an% !aths* along "hich Gabbi had no desire to tra-el "ith an%one b t hi+) #he kne" she&d gi-e ! her fort ne* her life* e-er%thing)))if onl% he felt the sa+e) His hands slid to her sho lders* shifting her so that she faced hi+* and his +o th took !ossession of her o"n) Her ar+s lifted to encircle his neck* her fingers b r%ing the+sel-es in the thickness of his hair as she held hi+ close) There "as !assion as he tasted and took his fill* and she +et his ra" energ% "ith +atching ardo r* then let her +o th soften beneath the teasing infl ence of his* sa-o ring the lingering s"eetness* all too a"are of the leashed !o"er as he traced the f ll c r-e "ith the ti! of his tong e) #he "anted to tease hi+* test the le-el of his control) And see if she co ld break it) Gabbi let her ar+s drift do"n* trailing her fingers o-er the + scled cord of his neck* taking ti+e to e1!lore the hard ridges* the strong sine"s stretching do"n to each sho lder) Dark* s!ring% hair co-ered his chest* and she !la%ed "ith the short c rls* t"isting the+ ro nd her fingers* ! lling gentl%* onl% to release the+ as she +o-ed to ca!t re a fe" +ore) #he lo"ered her head and to ched her li!s to his sho lder* then gentl% trailed a !ath inch b% inch to his ear* sing the ti! of her tong e "ith "icked delight on the hollo" beneath the lobe before n ''ling and ni!!ing at the sensiti-e flesh) 3ith e1tre+e care she caressed the length of his $a"* traced a !ath across his cheek* then +o-ed to br sh each e%elid closed before trailing the slo!e of his nose) The sens al +o th "as a te+!tation she co ldn&t resist* and she to ched her li!s to its edge* nibbling and tasting as she e1!lored the lo"er f llness before tra-ersing the !!er c r-e* "ithdra"ing as she felt it fir+ in !re!aration to take control)

Gabbi shook her head in silent re+onstrance* then slid to her feet and ste!!ed o t of the 0ac ''i* grabbed a to"el and "ra!!ed it ro nd her slender for+* reaching for another as she t rned and e1tended a beckoning hand) (enedict held her ga'e for a fe" heart,sto!!ing seconds* and she sa" his e%es darken "ith s+o ldering !assion as he reared to his feet) He loo+ed large* his fra+e a testa+ent to +ale +agnificence* + scled sine" +o-ing "ith eas% fl idit%* darkened "horls of hair glistening on his "ater,drenched skin) His +o-e+ents "ere deliberate as he ste!!ed onto the +arble,tiled floor* his !ace slo" as he shortened the distance bet"een the+* and his e%es ne-er left hers for a second) He held o t his hand for the to"el* and she shook her head* b nching it in her hand as she reached for"ard to blot the +oist re fro+ his skin) Gabbi began "ith one sho lder* then the other* and +o-ed to his chest* taking ti+e and care as she slo"l% tra-ersed his ribcage* his "aist* the lean hi!s* then the + scled length of his !o"erf l thighs) 3ith deliberate cas alness she ste!!ed behind hi+ and tended to the "idth of his back* "atching the !la% of + scles as the% fle1ed and tensed at her to ch) &Nice b tt*& she teased gentl% as she trailed the to"el do"n the back of each thigh) &/o &re !la%ing a dangero s ga+e*& (enedict "arned "ith o+ino s softness as she +o-ed ro nd to stand in front of hi+) &Reall%2& Her li!s tilted slightl% as she feigned a lack of g ile) &I ha-en&t finished %et)& &And I ha-en&t e-en beg n)& Each "ord !ossessed the s+oothness of silk* and a slight tre+or slithered across the s rface of her skin) 3as she +ad2 In setting o t to s+ash his control* "as she in-iting so+ething she co ldn&t handle2 /et she co ldn&t* "o ldn&t thro" in the to"el) Literall%* she established "ith a choked la gh as she br shed the thick cotton !ile o-er the +att of dark* c rling hair at the a!e1 of his thighs) A +an&s aro sal "as a !otent erotic testi+on% to his se1* his !o"er and his strength) And instr +ent of a "o+an&s !leas re) 3ith kno"ledge and e1!ertise* it co ld dri-e a "o+an "ild) Gabbi looked at it "ith fascination) Dnbidden* she trailed the length* gentl% traced the ti!* and br shed a light finger do"n the shaft) #he "anted to taste hi+* to se her tong e and her +o th as if she "ere sa-o ring an e1otic confection) &Do %o kno" "hat %o &re in-iting2& Did he read +inds2 And "as it her i+agination* or did his -oice so nd h sk% and -ag el% strained2 #he lifted her head and +et the b rning intensit% of his darkened ga'e) &/es)& A thrill of antici!ator% e1cite+ent arro"ed thro gh her bod% at the tho ght of "hat de+ands he +ight +ake "hen ca ght in the throes of !assion) 3ith it ca+e a sense of fear of his strength if it "as e-er nleashed "itho t restraint) #he s"allo"ed* the onl% -isible sign of her ner-o sness* and his e%es registered the +o-e+ent then flicked back to tra! her o"n) @Then "hat are %o "aiting for2& he . eried softl%) The silent challenge "as

e-ident in the de!th of his e%es and a!!arent in the sens al slant of his +o th) #he&d beg n this= no" she needed to finish it) 3itho t a "ord she held o t her hand* and felt the enclosing "ar+th as he clas!ed it in his o"n) In silence Gabbi led hi+ into the bedroo+) 3hen she reached the bed she leant for"ard and dragged the co-ers free) #he t rned to"ards hi+ and !laced both hands against his chest* then gentl% ! shed ntil he la% s!ra"led against the !ale !ercale sheets) This "as for his !leas re* and she slid do"n onto her knees beside hi+) #lo"l% she set abo t e1!loring e-er% inch of his hair,ro ghened skin* tangling the ti! of her tong e in the "horls and soft c rls* the s+ooth te1t re that "as neither soft nor hard* b t "holl% +ale and + sk% to the taste) #he felt a thrill of satisfaction as + scles tensed and contracted* as she heard the faint catch of his breath* the slight hiss as it "as e1!elled* the soft groan as her hands so ght the t rgid length of his aro sal) 3ith the t+ost delicac% she e1!lored the sensiti-e head* traced the shaft and flicked it gentl%) Then she lo"ered her +o th and began a si+ilar e1!loration "ith a feather,light to ch* allo"ing sheer instinct to g ide her) Not content* she trailed a !ath to his hi!* tra-ersed the ta t sto+ach* and traced a series of soft kisses to his inner thigh) 3ith deliberatel% slo" +o-e+ents she raised her head and looked at hi+* then she loosened the !ins fro+ her hair and shook its length free) A tin% s+ile c r-ed her li!s as she bent her head and trailed her hair in a teasing !ath do"n his chest* !ast his "aist* for+ing a c rtain for the delights her li!s offered to the +ost - lnerable* sensiti-e !art of his anato+%) Control) He had it) /et she co ld onl% "onder for ho" long as she lifted her head and lightl% traced his +oistened shaft "ith the ti!s of her fingers) Her e%es ne-er left his as she bro ght her fingers ! to her +o th* and his e%es flared as she s cked each ti!* one b% one) Then she rose to her knees and straddled his hi!s "ith a gracef l +o-e+ent) He didn&t to ch her* b t his e%es "ere dark* so dark the% "ere al+ost black* and his skin bore the faint fl sh of restrained !assion) #he "anted to kiss hi+* b t didn&t dare) This "as her ga+e* b t there "as no do bt "ho "as in charge of the score) The ele+ent of s r!rise "as her onl% "ea!on* and she sed it sha+elessl% as she shifted slightl% and teased his length "ith the +oist* sensiti-e heart of her fe+ininit%) Then she arched against hi+* sa-o ring the antici!ation of co+!lete !ossession for a fe" heart,sto!!ing seconds before she acce!ted hi+ in a long* slo" descent) Totall% enclosed* she felt hi+ s"ell e-en f rther* and gas!ed at the sensation) Then she began to +o-e* en$o%ing the feeling of !artial loss follo"ed b% co+!lete enclos re in a slo"* circling dance that tore at the le-el of her o"n control) Her fingers tightened their gri! on his sho lders as she fo ght against the insidio s de+ands of desire* and she cried o t "hen his hands ca ght hold of her hi!s and held the+* stead%ing her as he thr st dee! inside her* then re!eated the action again and again ntil she beca+e lost to the rh%th+* +indless* in a -orte1 of e+otion) 3hen she "as s!ent he slid a hand behind her na!e and bro ght her head do"n to rest against hi+)

Gabbi la% still* her breathing grad all% slo"ing in t ne "ith his) There "as a sense of !o"er* of satisfaction that had little to do "ith se1 al cli+a1 in her !ost, orgas+ic state) His skin "as "ar+ and da+! and tasted -ag el% of salt) #he sa-o red it* and felt the s!as+ of hard,+ scled flesh "ithin her o"n) Did a +an e1!erience this sensation of glor% after taking a "o+an2 That the se1 al s%+!hon% he&d orchestrated and cond cted had cli+a1ed "ith s ch a "ondro s crescendo2 And "hen it "as o-er* did he "ant an encore2 Gabbi lifted her head and stared do"n at the sl +bero s "ar+th in (enedict&s dark e%es* gli+!sed the latent h +o r in their de!ths and ca ght the soft slant of his +o th) &Thank %o *& he + r+ red gentl% as he angled her +o th do"n to +eet his in a !ossession that "as a si+ lation of "hat the%&d $ st shared) His hand slid do"n her s!ine* and she gas!ed as he rolled "ith her ntil she felt the +attress beneath her back) It "as a long "hile before she la% c rled in the circle of his ar+s) As an encore* it had s r!assed all that had gone before) And* she reflected a trifle sadl%* it "as she "ho had lost control* she "ho had cried o t in the throes of !assion) On the edge of slee!* she told herself she didn&t care) If !leas re "as the !ri'e* it "as !ossible to "in e-en "hen %o lost) CHAPTER #I; 3h% "as it that so+e da%s "ere destined to be +ore e-entf l than others2 Gabbi "ondered silentl% as she entered the ho se and +ade her "a% thro gh to the kitchen) #he&d been -er% cal+ at the board +eeting "hen Ma1"ell ?re+ont had -erball% challenged her to e1!lain in +in te detail "h% it "o ld be beneficial to re,finance a s bsidiar% ar+ to +a1i+ise the co+!an%&s ta1 ad-antage) The initial +argin "as narro"* gi-en the re,financing costs in-ol-ed* b t the long,ter+ !ros!ect "as considerabl% +ore fa-o rable than the e1isting financial str ct re) Her research had been thoro gh* the fig re !ro$ections caref ll% checked* and there had been a degree of satisfaction "hen the !ro!osal had gained acce!tance) The afternoon had concl ded "ith a +is!laced file and a co+! ter glitch* and on the "a% ho+e a careless +otorist hadn&t braked in ti+e and her car had s ffered a fe" scratches and a broken tail,light) 3hich "as a n isance* for ins rance red ta!e +eant that the Mercedes "o ld be o t of action "hile the da+age "as assessed* and again "hen it "ent into the "orksho! for re!air) A fe" la!s of the s"i++ing !ool* follo"ed b% an alfresco +eal on the terrace* held +ore a!!eal than dressing ! and attending a for+al f nd,raising ball) Ho"e-er* the ball "as a !ro+inent ann al e-ent for "hich (enedict had tickets and a -ag e disinclination to attend "as not s fficient reason to initiate a !rotest Altho gh the tho ght of crossing -erbal s"ords "ith Annaliese o-er !ate* roast beef and chocolate +o sse "asn&t Gabbi&s idea of a f n e-ening) And an% +in te no" (enedict "o ld dri-e into the garage* see a s+ashed tail, light and de+and an e1!lanation) #he crossed to the refrigerator* filled a glass "ith fresh orange $ ice and took a long* a!!reciati-e s"allo")

&Care to tell +e "hat ha!!ened2& Right on c e) #he looked at hi+ and rolled her e%es) &Hea-% traffic* a dri-er +ore intent on his +obile !hone con-ersation than the road* the lights changed* I sto!!ed* he didn&t)& That abo t enca!s lated it) &3e e1changed na+es and ins rance details*& she concl ded He crossed to "here she stood and his fingers !robed the back of her neck) &Headache2 An% s%+!to+s of "hi!lash2& &No)& His concern "as gratif%ing* b t his standing this close didn&t do + ch to stabilise her e. ilibri +) &Traffic "as cra"ling at the ti+e)& &3ant to cancel o t on tonight2& #he looked at hi+ caref ll%) &3hat if I said %es2& &I&d +ake a !hone call and "e&d sta% at ho+e)& &0 st like that2& One e%ebro" rose) &I didn&t reali'e I held s ch !o"er) Aren&t %o "orried I +ight +is se it2& His hand slid for"ard and ca!t red her chin* tilted it slightl% so that he co ld e1a+ine her e1!ression) &Not %o r st%le* Gabbi)& At this !recise +o+ent she felt disinclined to ! rs e an inde!th e-al ation) &3hat ti+e do %o "ant to lea-e2& He released her and crossed to the refrigerator) &#e-en)& #he had an ho r* !art of "hich she intended to s!end ind lging in a leis rel% sho"er) In the bedroo+ she stri!!ed do"n to her nder"ear then crossed to the bathroo+ and acti-ated the "ater) (liss* she ackno"ledged se-eral +in tes later as she rinsed off sha+!oo and allo"ed the "ater to strea+ do"n her back) #cented soa! freshened her skin "ith a delicate fragrance* and she lifted her hands to slick back her hair) The glass door slid o!en and (enedict ste!!ed into the stall) His naked bod% ignited a fa+iliar fire dee! inside her* and she atte+!ted to da+!en it do"n) &I&-e al+ost finished)& Ho" co ld her -oice so nd so cal+* so +atter,of,fact* "hen inside she "as slo"l% going ! in fla+es2 she "ondered) 3o ld he)))2 No* there "asn&t ti+e) Dnless the% "ere to arri-e late)C) Gabbi s bconscio sl% held her breath as he +o-ed behind her* then released it as his hands settled on her sho lders) ?ir+ fingers began a soothing +assage that felt good) #o good that she + r+ red her a!!reciation) #he let her head fall for"ard as he "orked the tense M scles and she rela1ed* n"illing to +o-e) &?re+ont ga-e %o a hard ti+e at the board +eeting this +orning)& &Antici!ating his . eries ke!t +e on +% toes)& &/o ca+e "ell !re!ared)& &(eing fa+il% isn&t regarded b% so+e as an ad-antage*& she res!onded dr%l%) &#ho ld it be2& &/o ob-io sl% didn&t think so)& (enedict&s ringers didn&t still) &M% father "as a -er% !o"erf l +an) I chose not to co+!ete on his t rf)& &/et %o &re "here he "anted %o to be)& &There "as ne-er an% . estion I "o ldn&t e-ent all% take his !lace)&

) No* $ st a +atter of "hen* Gabbi added silentl%* and "ondered "hether destin% had !la%ed a !art) ?or if Conrad hadn&t died (enedict "o ld still be li-ing in A+erica) And the +arriage bet"een (enedict Nicols and Gabbi #tanton "o ld not ha-e taken !lace) It "as a sobering tho ght) #he lifted her head and +o-ed a"a% fro+ hi+) &I + st get read%)& He +ade no atte+!t to sto! her as she ste!!ed o t of the stall) It took fifteen +in tes to dr% and st%le her hair* a f rther fifteen to co+!lete her +ake, !) The go"n she&d chosen to "ear "as dra+atic black in a fig re,h gging design "ith shoestring sho lder,stra!s) Long black glo-es added gla+o r* as did $e"eller%* black hosier% and stiletto,heeled e-ening shoes) A fe" dabs of her fa-o rite !erf +e co+!leted the i+age) (enedict&s fra+e* height and looks "ere g aranteedC to "eaken a "o+an&s knees no +atter "hat he "ore)))or didn&t "ear) In a tailored black e-ening s it and "hite cotton shirt he "as !ositi-el% a"eso+e) Gabbi cast hi+ a st died glance* and felt the fa+iliar tri! of her ! lse as it lea!t to a . ickened beat) The heat flared inside her sto+ach and slo"l% s!read* licking each ner-e,ending into -ibrant life) Less than an ho r ago she&d stood naked "ith hi+ in the sho"er* %et she felt +ore ac tel% - lnerable no"* f ll% clothed* than she had then) To dis!el the feeling she s!read her ar+s* co+!leted a f ll t rn and s ++oned a +ischie-o s s+ile) &3hat do %o think2& His e%es "ere dark* and his +o th t gged "ide o-er glea+ing teeth as he deliberated) Perha!s she sho ld ha-e "orn her hair do"n* instead of ca ght into a carelessl% contri-ed knot2 3as black too dra+atic* too stark2 &#t nning*& (enedict co+!li+ented* and sa" relief beneath her caref ll% g arded e1!ression) &?latter% is an e1cellent "a% to begin the e-ening*& Gabbi said lightl% as she t rned a"a% to collect her e-ening bag) Thirt% +in tes later a !arking -alet s"e!t the (entle% do"n into the -ast concrete ca-ern beneath the hotel as she "alked at (enedict&s side thro gh the +ain entrance) #+ile,ti+e* sho",ti+e) #he kne" she sho ldn&t be s ch a c%nic at t"ent%,fi-e) /et %ears s!ent taking an acti-e !art in the social scene had ta ght her she "as e1!ected to !la% a !art) And she&d learned to do it "ell4the radiant s+ile* the light,hearted greeting* the s!ontaneo s s+all talk) The Grand (allroo+ looked res!lendent "ith its decorati-e the+e* the D0 had nobtr si-e +ood,+ sic !la%ing* and i+!eccabl% nifor+ed "aiters and "aitresses ho-ered d tif ll%* taking and deli-ering drink orders) A sell,o t* one of the co++ittee +e+bers delighted in infor+ing (enedict as she directed hi+ to their a!!ointed table) Gabbi entertained the slight ho!e that Annaliese +ight bring a !artner* and she brightened -isibl% for all of t"o seconds before recognising the +an on her ste!sister&s ar+ as none other than Do+inic Andrea) More of a +is+atch "as diffic lt to i+agine* and hot on the heels of that tho ght "as)))"hat abo t ?rancesca2 &A +igraine*& Do+inic said for her ears onl% as he seated Annaliese on his right

and then slid into the seat beside Gabbi) &Annaliese&s date "ill be late)& A s+ile c r-ed her +o th) &/o read +inds2& &I antici!ated %o r reaction)& &A+ I that trans!arent2& His s+ile "as slo" and his e%es s!arkled "ith de-ilish h +o r) &# btlet% isn&t +% strong !oint)& No* b t deter+ination "as) #he tho ght of ?rancesca and s+iled) If Do+inic "as intent on ! rs it* ?rancesca didn&t ha-e + ch of a chance) &#he intrig es +e)& Gabbi&s s+ile "idened) &I had noticed)& &3ish +e l ck2& &All %o need)& 0a+es arri-ed "ith Moni. e and the% took the seats o!!osite* e1changed greetings* and !laced orders "ith the drinks "aiter) Moni. e looked radiant in a ro%al bl e go"n and a +atching e-ening $acket) #a!!hire and dia+ond $e"eller% graced her neck and her "rist* and a large sa!!hire and dia+ond dress ring on her right hand al+ost ecli!sed the +agnificent dia+ond abo-e her "edding band) Annaliese had chosen dee! e+erald silk that h gged her c r-es like a second skin* "ith a side,s!lit that bordered on the indecent) The t"o re+aining co !les at their table slid into their seats as the D0 changed CDs and !la%ed an introd ctor% n +ber that "as follo"ed b% the charit% chair+an&s "elco+ing s!eech) A !ra"n cocktail starter "as ser-ed) #oft + sic filtered nobtr si-el% "hile the g ests ate* !ro-iding a !leasant backgro nd) The +ain co rse follo"ed* co+!rising grilled chicken breast ser-ed "ith +ango sa ce and -egetables) Delicio s* Gabbi co+!li+ented silentl% as she forked delicate !ortions) A sand"ich eaten at her desk aro nd +idda% see+ed inade. ate s stenance b% co+!arison) A fe" si!s of e1cellent Chardonna% !ro-ed rela1ing* and she listened "ith interest as the host e1tolled the -irt es of the charit%* cited the +one% raised at this e-ening&s e-ent and thanked -ario s s!onsors for their genero s donations) A tall +ale fig re slid into the e+!t% seat beside Annaliese and* "hen the s!eech "as concl ded) Annaliese !erfor+ed the necessar% introd ctions) Not that one "as needed) Aaron 0acob "as e. all% "ell,kno"n as an e+inentl% s ccessf l +ale +odel as he "as as a star in a long,r nning tele-ision series) A heartthrob and a h nk* Gabbi ackno"ledged "ith fe+inine a!!reciation of a near,!erfect +ale s!eci+en) Pit% he had an inflated ego and a re! tation for changing his dates as often as his socksC As a co !le* Annaliese and Aaron "ere g aranteed to ha-e their !hoto !ro+inentl% dis!la%ed on the societ% !age in to+orro"&s ne"s!a!er) Perha!s that "as the ! r!ose of their date2 (e nice* Gabbi silentl% chided in self,ad+onish+ent as she si!!ed her "ine) #oon the D0 "o ld increase the -ol +e of the + sic and in-ite g ests to take to the dance floor) It "o ld be a signal for e-er%one to +i1 and +ingle dance and !ro-ide an o!!ort nit% for the societ% do%ennes to fla nt their latest designer go"ns)

&More "ine2& Gabbi t rned slightl% and +et (enedict&s ga'e) &No* thanks) I&d !refer "ater)& One e%ebro" lifted in silent en. ir%* and she offered hi+ a brilliant s+ile) &I tho ght %o +ight like +e to dri-e ho+e)& &Considerate of %o )& His . iet dra"l held a great deal of + sing c%nicis+* a"are as she "as that he hasnAt took +ore than one glass of "ine "ith the e-ening +eal and that therefore the offer "as nnecessar%) &/es* isn&t it2& I&-e +anaged to get a fe" tickets to Phanto+ of the O!era* 3ednesda% e-ening) /o and Gabrielle "ill $oin s* "on&t %o 2& 3as it coincidence that Moni. e had tickets for the sa+e night that Gabbi and (enedict had in-ited ?rancesca and Do+inic to +ake ! a fo rso+e2 &Thank %o * Moni. e) I alread% ha-e tickets)& &Perha!s "e co ld arrange to +eet after"ards for s !!er2& ?a+ilial togetherness "as a fine thing* Gabbi ackno"ledged) ( t Moni. e&s stage,+anaging "as beco+ing a little o-ert) &Dnfort natel% "e&-e +ade other arrange+ents)& &Annaliese and Gabrielle are so close* and see so little of each other)& Moni. e in$ected $ st the right a+o nt of regret into her -oice then +o-ed in for the fig rati-e kill) &It see+s s ch a sha+e not to take ad-antage of e-er% o!!ort nit% to get together "hile Annaliese is ho+e)& Oh* +%* her ste!+other "as good) Gabbi al+ost held her breath* "aiting for (enedict&s res!onse) &Another ti+e* Moni. e)& &/o + st co+e to dinner) 0 st fa+il%) Monda%* T esda%2 @Either e-ening is free)& Persistence* th% na+e is Moni. eC &Gabbi2& That&s right* she tho ght "r%l%= !ass the b ck) A-oiding the dinner "as i+!ossible* therefore e-asi-eness "as the onl% "a% to go) &Monda%) 3e&ll look for"ard to it)& 3ere !olite lies considered real lies2 #o* she&d be da+ned in hell) /et she felt $ stified telling the+ for her father&s sake) &#hall "e dance2& No" there "as a . estion) Dancing "ith (enedict ine-itabl% beca+e a dangero s !leas re) &Thank %o * darling)& #he rose to her feet and allo"ed hi+ to lead her onto the dance floor) The Celine Dion n +ber "as !erfect* the l%rics re-ealing a certain !oignanc% that echoed +ost "o+en&s ho!es and drea+s) Gabbi&s bod% fitted the conto rs of his "ith eas% fa+iliarit%* and she had the cra'% desire to discard her con-entional hold and "ind her ar+s ro nd his neck) Did he sense ho" she felt2 He "as the -er% air that she breathed) E-er%thing she "anted* all she "o ld e-er need) In a "a% it "as frightening) 3hat if she e-er lost hi+2 &Cold2& #he lifted her head and looked at hi+ for a fe" seconds "itho t co+!rehension) &/o shi-ered*& (enedict enlightened her gentl%)

Get a gri!* Gabbi* she chided herself) #he s ++oned a s+ile and dis+issed it lightl%) &Old ghosts)& &3ant to go back to the table2& &/o think I need to conser-e +% strength2& she . eried sole+nl% as he led her to the edge of the dance floor) &To+orro"&s #at rda%)& #he shot hi+ a s!arkling s+ile) &An ho r of +orning decadence before en$o%ing a late breakfast on the terrace2& &Earl%,+orning decadence* breakfast on the terrace* follo"ed b% a dri-e to the air!ort)& &3e&re esca!ingC& Gabbi looked at hi+ "ith d e re-erence) &Alone2 3here2 No* don&t tell +e) #o+eone +ight o-erhear)& &3itch*& he + r+ red close to her ear) Dessert "as ser-ed as the% res +ed their seats* follo"ed b% coffee and after, dinner +ints) Annaliese drifted onto the dance floor "ith Aaron* then !a sed and !osed for a -igilant !hotogra!her) &Ma% I2& Gabbi glanced at Do+inic and rose to her feet) (enedict broke his con-ersation "ith 0a+es and cast her a . ick s+ile) &(enedict is selecti-e "ith +en "ho "ant to !artner his "ife)& Gabbi cast Do+inic a startled glance as he led her to"ards the dance floor and ! lled her gentl% into his ar+s) &Don&t %o belie-e +e2& Ho" did she res!ond to that2 Her light* a+ sed la gh see+ed relati-el% nonco++ittal) The% circled the floor* t"ice* then Do+inic ste!!ed to one side as Aaron and Annaliese s ggested an e1change in !artners) Gabbi s+iled as she +o-ed into Aaron&s clas!* then "inced as he ! lled her close) Too close) &3atch +% sho"2& The . er% "as s+ooth* and she felt rel ctant to enter the ga+e he e1!ected e-er% fe+ale to !la%) &No* I don&t)& #he tried to so nd -ag el% regretf l* b t it didn&t . ite co+e off) &/o don&t "atch tele-ision2& The te+!tation to take hi+ do"n "as diffic lt to resist) &Of co rse) Mainl% ne"s and doc +entaries)& &/o &re a brain)& Gabbi "asn&t s re it "as a co+!li+ent) &3e all ha-e one)& &In +% b siness %o ha-e to look after the bod%) It&s the -is al thing* %o kno"2 N trition* g%+* bea t% thera!ist* +anic rist* hair st%list) 3a1ing&s the "orst)& &Painf l*& she agreed) &Oh* %eah*& he conceded "ith a realistic sh dder) &I&+ $etting o t to LA ne1t "eek) (een offered a !art in a fil+) Co ld be the big break)& #he atte+!ted enth sias+) &Good l ck)& &Thanks)& &Mind if I c t in2&

Gabbi heard the . iet* dra"ling tone and detected the faint edge to her h sband&s -oice) &# re)& Aaron relin. ished her "itho t arg +ent) &/o interr !ted an interesting con-ersation*& she said +ildl% as (enedict dre" her close) &Define interesting)& &3a1ing bod% hair) His)& &D! front and !ersonal* h++2& #he stifled a b bble of la ghter) &Oh* %eah*& she agreed in "icked i+itation) As the% circled the floor she "ondered ho" he "o ld react if she said she h ngered to feel his skin ne1t to her o"n* his +o th in !ossession of hers in the slo" dance to"ards se1 al f lfil+ent) &Darling Gabrielle) Isn&t it abo t ti+e I danced "ith +% brother,in,la"2& No) And he isn&t) At least* not technicall%) Ho"e-er* the "ords sta%ed locked in her throat as she gracio sl% ackno"ledged Annaliese and +o-ed into Do+inic&s ar+s) &I "as o tfo1ed*& Do+inic + r+ red* and Gabbi offered a !hiloso!hical s+ile) &3ant +e to co+!lete a ro nd of the floor* inter-ene and s"itch !artners2& &No* b t thanks an%"a%)& A fe" +in tes later there "as a break in the + sic and the% ret rned to the table) Gabbi collected her e-ening bag and "ith a + r+ red e1c se she +o-ed to"ards the fo%er "ith the intention of freshening her +ake, ! in an ad$acent !o"der roo+) There "as a . e e* and it "as so+e ti+e before she "as able to find free s!ace at the +irror to effect re!airs) A n +ber of !eo!le had esca!ed the ballroo+ to s+oke in the ad$oining fo%er* and Gabbi e1changed a greeting "ith one g est* then another* before t rning to re,enter the ballroo+) &Ah* there %o are* darling)& Annaliese !ro$ected a high,-oltage s+ile) &I "as sent on a resc e +ission)& &(% "ho+2& Annaliese&s e%es "idened in artf l s r!rise) &3h%* (enedict) 3ho else2& &An absence of ten +in tes hardl% constit tes the need for a search !art%*& Gabbi said e-enl%) Annaliese e1a+ined the !erfection of her +anic red nails) &(enedict likes to g ard his !ossessions)& Attack "as the best for+ of defence* %et Gabbi o!ted for a tactical sideste!) &/es)& &Doesn&t it bother %o 2& &3hat* !recisel%2& &(eing regarded as an e1!ensi-e orna+ent in a "ealth% +an&s collection)& This co ld get nast% "itho t an% effort at all) &A tro!h% "ife2& Gabbi arched one e%ebro" and !roffered a "inso+e s+ile) &Did it e-er occ r to %o to e1a+ine the re-erse sit ation2 In (enedict I ha-e an attenti-e h sband "ho ind lges +% slightest "hi+)& #he ticked off the ad-antages one b% one) &He&s attracti-e* sociall% e+inent and he&s good in bed)& #he allo"ed the s+ile to "iden) &I consider I +ade the !erfect choice)& A flash of f r% "as clearl% e-ident before Annaliese +anaged to con. er it* &/o see+ a little !eak%* darling) Pre,+enstr al tension2& &#ibling aggra-ation*& Gabbi corrected her* resisting the te+!tation to add +ore

f el to her ste!sister&s fire) &#hall "e ret rn to the ballroo+2& &I intend to se the !o"der roo+)& &In that case)))& #he !a sed* and effected a faint lift of her sho lder) &#ee %o back at the table)& The +inor -ictor% "as s"eet* b t she entertained no do bt that the "ar "as far fro+ o-er) Ho"e-er* a "eekend a"a% "o ld !ro-ide a "elco+e break fro+ the battlefield) The tho ght "as eno gh to lighten her e1!ression and bring a s+ile to her li!s) (enedict "as dee! in con-ersation "ith Do+inic* Aaron and Moni. e "ere cond cting ani+ated s+all talk and 0a+es see+ed content being an obser-er) Gabbi took the -acant seat beside her father) &3o ld %o like so+e +ore coffee2& #he shook her head) &/o co ld ask +e to dance)& A s+ile slanted his +o th) &Dear* s"eet Gabbi) I&+ hono red)& He rose to his feet and held o t his hand) #hall "e2& En$o%ing %o rself2& Gabbi considered his . estion as the% circled the dance floor* and o!ted to co nter it) &Are %o 2& &Moni. e ass res +e s ch occasions are a social ad-antage)& &I s s!ect she considers %o need a "elco+e break fro+ "heeling and dealing*& she teased lightl%* and inc rred his soft la ghter) &More likel% a "o+an&s !lo% to $ stif% s!ending a s+all fort ne on a ne" go"n and half the da% being !a+!ered b% a bea tician and hairdresser)& &3hich +en are content to allo"* in the kno"ledge that said social occasions !ro-ide e. al o!!ort nit% for !ro!osing or ce+enting a b siness deal)& He s!ared her a tho ghtf l glance) &Do I detect a note of c%nicis+2& &Perha!s)& &(enedict adores %o )& #he co ld acce!t res!ect and affection* b t "asn&t adore a little o-er the to!2 ?ort natel% "ith 0a+es there "as no need to !er!et ate the +%th) &He&s -er% good to +e)& &I "o ld ne-er ha-e sanctioned the +arriage if I hadn&t been con-inced that he "o ld take care of %o )& The + sic "o nd do"n for a break bet"een n +bers* and Gabbi !receded her father to their table) Annaliese had taken an e+!t% seat ne1t to (enedict* Moni. e "as con-ersing "ith Do+inic and Aaron "as no"here in sight) M sical chairs* Gabbi decided "ith a to ch of black h +o r as she slid into a -acant one) G ests "ere slo"l% beginning to dissi!ate) In half an ho r the bar "o ld close and the D0 "o ld sh t do"n for the night) An% ti+e soon the% co ld begin drifting to"ards the fo%er* take the lift to the +ain entrance and ha-e the door+an s ++on their car) (enedict lifted his head at that +o+ent and cast her a searching glance* raised one e%ebro" a fraction* then s+oothl% e1tricated hi+self fro+ Annaliese&s cl tches) Literall%* as the scarlet,ti!!ed fingers of one hand trailed a !ers asi-e !ath do"n the fabric sheath, ing his forear+* follo"ed b% a co% s+ile and an !"ard s"ee! of +ascaraed e%elashes in a deliberate atte+!t at flirtation)

Gabbi tried to ass re herself that it didn&t +atter) ( t it did) #he s+iled gracio sl% all the "a% to the +ain entrance* co+!leted the air,kiss ro tine "ith Moni. e and Annaliese* br shed li!s o-er her father&s cheek* bade Do+inic and Aaron goodnight* then sli!!ed into the !assenger seat of the (entle%) (enedict eased the car to"ards the b s% +ain street* !a sed ntil he gained clear !assage into the flo" of traffic then . ickl% increased s!eed) Gabbi leaned her head back and foc sed her attention on the -ie" of the cit%) (right flashing neon signs and ill +inated sho! "indo"s soon ga-e "a% to inner,cit% s b rban streets and sh ttered "indo"s* so+e dark* others sho"ing a gli++er of + ted electricit%) And* as the% began to ascend the Ne" #o th Head road* the% gained a -ie" of the harbo r* its "aters darkened b% night and ti!!ed "ith ribbons of reflected light) &/o &re -er% . iet)& #he t rned her head and e1a+ined (enedict&s shado"ed !rofile) &I "as en$o%ing the !eacef l silence after se-eral ho rs of + sic and nois% chatter)& It "as tr e* b t she do bted he "as fooled b% her e1!lanation) &If there&s so+ething %o "ant to disc ss)))& #he trailed off* and ga-e a slight shr g) &Annaliese)& No do bt abo t it* he ai+ed straight for the +ain target) ( t t"o co ld !la% at that ga+e) The (entle% t rned into their street* slo"ed as the% reached the electronicall% controlled gates g arding their !ro!ert%* s"e!t along the c r-ed dri-e"a% and ca+e to a halt inside the garage) Gabbi released the seat belt* nfastened the door,clas! and slid o t of the car* a"are that (enedict "as +irroring her actions) He attended to the ho se alar+ and follo"ed her indoors* ke%ed in the re,set code then dre" her into the lo nge) &3o ld %o like a drink2& #he looked at hi+ caref ll%* and chose a light,hearted res!onse) &Cha+!agne)& He crossed to the bar* re+o-ed a bottle fro+ the fridge* o!ened it* filled t"o fl tes then retraced his ste!s) Gabbi took one fl te and raised it in a silent sal te* then si!!ed the contents) &3hat !artic lar as!ect of +% ste!sister&s character do %o "ant to disc ss2& #he co ld read nothing in his e1!ression* and she had no idea "hether he intended to da+n her "ith faint !raise or offer a co+!li+ent on her re+arkable restraint) &Annaliese&s deter+ination to ca se tro ble)& Gabbi allo"ed her e%es to "iden +eas rabl%* and she !laced a hand o-er her heart) &Oh* +% goodness) I hadn&t noticed)& @Don&t be facetio s)& &It&s ob-io s2A &#to! it* Gabbi*& (enedict "arned) &3h%2 I&+ on a roll)& &F it "hile %o &re ahead)& &OE) Pick a scenario) Annaliese "ants %o * %o "ant her) Annaliese "ants %o * %o don&t "ant her)& @The latter)& #he hadn&t realised she&d been holding her breath* and she released it slo"l%) &3ell* no"* that&s a relief) I can kiss goodb%e -isions of thro"ing o t +onogra++ed

to"els* r ining %o r hand,stitched shoes and c tting ! e-er% one of %o r s its)& #he ga-e hi+ a hard s+ile that didn&t . ite +atch the - lnerabilit% a!!arent in her e%es) &I had intentions of being . ite -icio s if %o decided on di-orce)& H +o r glea+ed in those dark e%es* and a dee! ch ckle e+erged fro+ his throat) &It&s not f nn%)& &No)& &Then don&t la gh) I "as serio s)& (enedict took a long s"allo" of cha+!agne and !laced his fl te do"n on a nearb% !edestal) &3h% in hell "o ld I consider di-orcing a sass% %o ng "o+an "ho delights in challenging +e on e-er% le-el in fa-o r of so+eone like Annaliese2& He re+o-ed her cha+!agne fl te and lo"ered it to $oin his o"n) Then he ! lled her into his ar+s) Gabbi didn&t ha-e a chance to ans"er before his +o th closed o-er hers* and she drank in the taste of hi+ +ingled "ith the s"eet tang of -intage ?rench cha+!agne* genero sl% gi-ing e-er%thing he asked* +ore than he de+anded* ntil + t al need s!iralled to the edge of their control) &I co ld take %o here* no"*& (enedict groaned h skil% as his li!s gra'ed a !ath do"n her throat* and she arched her head to allo" hi+ eas% access to the sensiti-e hollo" at its base* the s"ell of her breasts as he trailed lo"er) A soft la gh choked in her throat as he freed one tender globe and took a libert% "ith its !eak) Then she cried o t as he lifted her o-er one sho lder and began striding fro+ the roo+) &Ca-e+an tactics*& she acc sed as he ascended the stairs) He gained the !!er floor* then headed for the +ain s ite) 3hen he reached it* he released her to stand "ithin the circle of his ar+s) &3ant to ndress +e2& Her e%es s!arkled "ith "icked h +o r) &Might be . icker if %o did it %o rself)& @That bad* h h2& &/es*& she said "ith honest si+!licit%* her o"n fingers as b s% as his as clothes la%ered the car!et) Their lo-ing "as all heat and h nger the first ti+e ro nd* follo"ed b% a long* s"eet after,!la% that led to the slo" slaking of + t al need) After"ards she la% "ith her head !illo"ed against his chest* the so nd of his heartbeat beneath her cheek) &I don&t think I co ld bear to lose %o *& Gabbi said* on the edge of slee!* and "asn&t s re "hether she heard or drea+ed his res!onse) &3hat +akes %o think %o "ill2& CHAPTER #E5EN F eensland&s Gold Coast la% little +ore than an ho r&s flight north of #%dne%* and the #tanton,Nicols& Lear $et ens red !ri-ate air!ort access* l 1 rio s cabin s!ace and !ersonalised ser-ice) Cleared for take,off* the strea+lined $et cr ised the r n"a% and achie-ed a ra!id ascent before le-elling o t) &No la!to!2& Gabbi . i''ed as she loosened her seat belt) &No !a!ers in %o r briefcase2&

(enedict sank back in his chair and regarded her "ith indolent a+ se+ent) &Each "ithin eas% access)& &Are %o going to "ork d ring the flight2& &3o ld %o !refer +e to2& &No)& Her e%es ass +ed a +ischie-o s glea+) &It&s not often I get one ho r of %o r ndi-ided attention)& #he sa" one e%ebro" slant* and . ickl% . alified this) &Alone) O t of the bedroo+*& she added* then s!read her hands in hel!less acce!tance at ha-ing ste!!ed into a -erbal . ag+ire) &I&ll gi-e ! "hile I&+ ahead)& &3ise)& &Coffee* Mr Nicols2 0 ice* Mrs Nicols2& &Thanks* Melanie)& The cabin ste"ardess&s intr sion "as ti+el%) Her s+ile "as !rofessional as she nloaded the tra%* then !o red coffee and $ ice) &I&ll be in the cock!it) ( '' +e if %o need an%thing)& Gabbi leaned for"ard* !icked ! the glass of fresh orange $ ice and took an a!!reciati-e si!) &Tell +e abo t the deal %o and 0a+es are in-ol-ed in "ith Gibson Electronics)& He !roceeded to do so* ans"ering her . eries as she debated -ario s !oints) &It&s tight* b t fair*& she conceded after a length% disc ssion) &Think "e&ll ! ll it off2& &Gibson needs #tanton,Nicols& !ro-en re! tation "ith the Asian +arket)& &And in ret rn "e gain a slice of Gibson Electronics)& ( siness) The co++on factor that forged the link bet"een the+) 3itho t it* she do bted she&d be (enedict Nicols& "ife) A chilling tho ght* and one she chose not to d"ell on) The &fasten seat belt& sign flashed on as the $et began its descent to"ards Coolangatta air!ort) A car "as "aiting for the+* and it took onl% a fe" +in tes to transfer the +ini+al l ggage into the boot) (enedict signalled to the !ilot and had a brief "ord "ith the dri-er "hile Gabbi took the !assenger seat* then he strode ro nd and slid in behind the "heel) The Gold Coast "as A stralia&s +a$or to rist +ecca) Long* s"ee!ing beaches* s rf* golden sands* to"ering high,rise b ildings* +odern sho!!ing co+!le1es and a s btro!ical cli+ate all co+bined to +ake it a highl% so ght,after holida% destination) The+e !arks* a casino* hotels* cr ise boats* canal de-elo!+ents and l 1 rio s !restige ho sing estates !ro+oted a lifest%le that belonged in !art to the rich and fa+o s) Gabbi lo-ed the cas al at+os!here* the s!acio s residential s!ra"l) A cit% "ith fe" disad-antages* she + sed as (enedict $oined the north,bo nd traffic) High,rise a!art+ent b ildings lined the foreshore* their na+es -ar%ing fro+ the !rosaic to the e1otic) 3ar+ te+!erat res* s nshine* a' re,bl e sk%* !al+ fronds s"a%ing beneath a gentle bree'e) A s+ile c r-ed her genero s +o th* and her e%es filled "ith latent la ghter) Paradise) And (enedict) The% "ere hers for t"o da%s) Conrad and Diandra Nicols had ! rchased a beachfront block of land and b ilt a three,le-el -acation ho+e in the da%s before !restigio s real estate lining Mer+aid (each&s Hedges A-en e had gained + lti+illion,dollar !rice,tags) (enedict had chosen to retain it as an in-est+ent* !ers aded fro+ ti+e to ti+e to lease it short,ter+ to -isiting dignitaries "ho desired the !ri-ac% of a !ersonal residence

instead of a hotel s ite or a!art+ent block) Gabbi lo-ed its location* its direct access onto the beach and the o!en,!lan design) A sigh of ! re !leas re left her li!s as (enedict dre" the car to a halt before the electronicall% controlled gates* de!ressed the +ode+ that released the+ and ke%ed in a code to o!erate the garage doors) The three,car garage "as backed b% a ga+es,roo+ that led o t to a terraced s"i++ing !ool) The first le-el co+!rised an office* lo nge* kitchen and dining,roo+* "ith a +aster s ite* three g est bedroo+s and t"o bathroo+s on the !!er floor) Each le-el "as connected b% a "ide c r-ed staircase leading onto a se+i,circ lar* bal straded landing* !ro-iding a circ lar central s!ace highlighted b% a +agnificent chandelier s s!ended fro+ the to!,le-el ceiling and reaching do"n to al+ost to ching distance fro+ the gro nd,le-el entertain+ent roo+) Lit ! at night* it "as a s!ectac lar sight) &/o so nd like a st dent let o t of school*& (enedict co++ented as the% ascended the stairs to the !!er+ost floor) &I lo-e it here*& she said si+!l% as she s" ng ro nd to face hi+) &3hat do %o s ggest "e do "ith the da%2& &Oh* +%* "hat a res!onsibilit%)& Her e%es danced "ith i+!ish h +o r* and she !retended to deliberate) &I co ld drag %o off to -isit a the+e !ark) 3e co ld hire a boat and cr ise the broad"ater) Do a bit of s n,"orshi!!ing b% the !ool) Or take in a +o-ie at the cine+a)& Her +o th c r-ed into a "inso+e s+ile) &On the other hand* I co ld be an nderstanding "ife and tell %o to go set ! a ga+e of golf))) so+ething %o &d en$o%)& (enedict reached o t a hand and br shed light fingers across her cheek) &And in ret rn2& &I get to choose "here "e ha-e dinner)& &Done)& He bent do"n and ga-e her a brief* hard kiss) &3e&ll go on to a sho" or the +o-ies)& &/o ring the golf co rse "hile I n!ack)& #he had a !lan* and she ! t it into action) &Do %o "ant to take the fo r,"heel dri-e or the sedan2& &The fo r,"heel dri-e)& Half an ho r later she backed the sedan o t of the garage and headed for the nearest +a$or sho!!ing co+!le1) It "as f n to bro"se the bo ti. es* si! a ca!! ccino* before getting do"n to the serio s b siness of sho!!ing) #he had a list* and she entered the food hall* selected a trolle% and began) It "as al+ost +idda% "hen she re,entered the ho se "ith no less than fi-e carrier bags* the contents of "hich "ere s%ste+aticall% stored in the refrigerator and !antr%) The +en "as basic) The acco+!an%ing sa ces "o ld be an%thing b t) 3ine* ?rench breadsticks) A delicio s tira+is for dessert) Li. e r coffee) And she had hired a -ideo) At fi-e she set the table "ith fine linen and lace* sil-er c tler% and china) Then she checked the kitchen and "ent !stairs to sho"er) After selecting fresh nder"ear* she donned elegant bl e silk e-ening tro sers and a +atching to!* then groo+ed her hair into a s+ooth knot on to! of her head) #he then tended to her +ake, !* "hich "as nderstated* "ith $ st a hint of bl sher* soft e%eshado" and a to ch of clear rose,!ink li!, gloss) It "as after si1 "hen the sec rit% s%ste+ bee!ed* alerting her to the fact that the

gates "ere being released* follo"ed b% the garage doors) #he heard a refined cl nk as the -ehicle door closed* then (enedict ca+e into -ie") Gabbi stilled the ner-o s fl ttering inside her sto+ach as she +o-ed o t onto the landing to greet hi+) He looked +agnificent) Dark hair teased b% a faint bree'e) (road sho lders and s !erb + sc lat re e+!hasised b% a na-% o!en,necked !olo shirt) #trong facial feat res* tanned a dee!er shade b% se-eral ho rs s!ent in the s n) &Hi) Ho" "as the ga+e2& He looked intensel% +ale* e+anating a slight air of aggressi-e good"ill that s!oke of achie-e+ent and satisfaction at ha-ing !itted his skill against a ri-al and "on) He reached the landing and +o-ed to"ards her* !a sing to besto" a brief* e-ocati-e kiss) &I&ll hit the sho"er)& &Don&t bother dressing)& One e%ebro" lifted and his li!s t"isted to for+ a h +oro s s+ile) &M% dear Gabbi) /o "ant +e to be arrested2& &3e&re eating in)& No" that she&d taken the decision !on herself* she "as ns re of his reaction) &I&-e +ade dinner)& He looked at her caref ll%* noting the slight ncertaint%* the faint ner-o sness a!!arent* and her effort to ca+o flage it) &Gi-e +e ten +in tes)& He re$oined her in nine) ?reshl% sha-en* sho"ered* and dressed in cas al tro sers and a short,slee-ed shirt) &3o ld %o like a drink2& Gabbi shook her head) &/o ha-e one) I&ll "ait ntil "e eat)& He follo"ed her into the kitchen* ca ght sight of n +ero s sa ce!ans "ashed and stacked to drain) &Looks !rofessional) #+ells delicio s) Hidden talents* Gabbi2& #he "rinkled her nose at hi+* then s"atted his hand as he reached for"ard to sa+!le the sa ce) &No ad-ance tasting* no !eeking) O!en the "ine) It needs to breathe)& #he ser-ed the starter) Delicate st ffed + shroo+s that +elted in the +o th) ?rench bread heated to cr nch% !erfection) The +ain co rse "as an e1. isite filet +ignon so tender that the flesh !arted at the slightest !ress re of the knife) 3ith it the% had as!arag s "ith hollandaise sa ce* bab% !otatoes in their $ackets s!lit and anointed "ith garlic b tter and gla'ed bab% carrots) 3hen the%&d finished* (enedict to ched his glass to hers in a silent sal te) &I ha-en&t tasted better in an% resta rant)& &To the ?rench* food is a !assion) The +eals I shared "ith 0ac. es&s fa+il% "ere gastrono+ical feasts* -is al "orks of art)& Her e%es s!arkled "ith re+e+bered !leas re) &I +ade a deal "ith his +other*& she said sole+nl%) &/o ke!t %o r hands off her son* and she ta ght %o to cook2& Gabbi began to la gh) &Close)& &One look at %o and an% +other "o ld fear for her son&s e+otional sanit%*& (enedict dra"led) #he +et his ga'e and held it) 3hat abo t his e+otional sanit%2 3as it so controlled that no "o+an co ld dist rb it2 &I&ll get dessert)& #he rose to her feet and stacked his !late and c tler% "ith her o"n* then took the+ thro gh to the kitchen) T"o "ide indi-id al cr%stal bo"ls held the crea+% a+brosia of li. e r,soaked

s!onge* crea+ and sha-ed chocolate that "as tira+is ) It "as good= she&d e-en ha-e said delicio s) (enedict sat back in his chair and discarded his na!kin) &# !erb* Gabbi)& #he lifted one sho lder in a negligible shr g) &3e dine o t so often* I tho ght it "o ld +ake a change to sta% ho+e)& &I&ll hel! "ith the dishes)& &All done*& she ass red lightl%) &I&ll +ake coffee) There&s a -ideo in the 5CR)& 3hen the coffee had filtered* she !o red it* added li. e r and to!!ed it "ith crea+* then took both ste++ed glasses thro gh to the lo nge) (enedict had chosen one of three do ble,seater leather settees* and he indicated the e+!t% s!ace beside hi+) The +o-ie "as a co+ed%* loosel% ada!ted fro+ the original La cage a 1folies) It "as a+ sing* "ell acted and entertaining) Gabbi si!!ed her coffee slo"l%* then* "hen she had finished* (enedict took the glass and !laced it together "ith his on a side table) #he rela1ed and leaned her head back against the c shioned rest) (eing here like this "as +agical) No g ests* no intr sions) An ar+ c r-ed ro nd her sho lders and dre" her close) #he felt his breath stir her hair) And she +ade no !rotest as he sed a +ode+ to s"itch off the lights) The onl% ill +ination ca+e fro+ the tele-ision screen* and the electric candles reflected fro+ the chandelier) 3hich he di++ed) A"areness flared as his fingers br shed against her breast and sta%ed) His li!s lingered at her te+!le) #he let her hand rest on his thigh* and didn&t e1!lore) Occasionall% his fingers "o ld +o-e in an absent !attern that . ickened her ! lse and triggered the heat dee! inside her) It "as a delightf l* leis rel% !rel de to a rha!sod% that "o ld gather +o+ent + and crest in a !assionate cli+a1) Gabbi "asn&t disa!!ointed) 0 st "hen she tho ght there "ere no +ore !aths she co ld tra-el* (enedict took her along another* gentl% coa1ing* !acing his !leas re to +atch her o"n before ti!!ing her o-er the edge) Close to slee!* she "his!ered* 0e t&ai+e* +on a+o r* to the +eas red heartbeat beneath her li!s) And "ondered if he heard* if he kne") The% rose earl% and took a leis rel% "alk along the beach* then stri!!ed do"n to s"i+"ear and -ent red into the ocean) The "ater "as cool and cal+* the "a-es ta+e* and after"ards the% s!rinted back to the ho se and rinsed the sea fro+ their skin and hair* donned cas al clothes and ate a heart% breakfast o t on the terrace) &Ho" do %o feel abo t a dri-e to the +o ntains2& Gabbi took a si! of coffee* then rested the c ! bet"een both hands) 5isions of a !icnic l nch and !anora+ic -ie"s "ere enticing) &3hat of the call %o &re e1!ecting2& (enedict s b$ected her to a +eas red a!!raisal* then +o-ed his sho lders in an indolent gest re) &Di-ert the ho se !hone to +% +obile* sling the briefcase and la!to! onto the rear seat)& It "asn&t often he took an entire "eekend off) All too fre. entl% his ti+e "as s!ent in the st d% in front of the co+! ter* s rfing -ario s global financial sites on the

Internet) Leis re "as relegated to social occasions* and e-en then b siness "as ine-itabl% an ongoing to!ic of disc ssion) Hesitation "asn&t an o!tion) &Let&s do it)& #he re!laced her c ! on the table and rose to her feet) &I&ll +ake sand"iches)& He ! t a restraining hand on her ar+) &3e&ll !ick ! so+ething along the "a%)& The !hone rang* and Gabbi fro'e as (enedict crossed into the ho se to take the call) The da%&s !leas re disa!!eared as she heard the c rt tone of his -oice* sa" hi+ +ake notes on !a!er then fold the sheet into his shirt !ocket) Nice !lans* she tho ght "ith "istf l regret as she cleared their breakfast dishes onto a tra% and carried the+ thro gh to the kitchen) Pit% the% had to be abandoned) #he "as deter+ined not to sho" her disa!!oint+ent) &#hall I take +ore coffee thro gh to the st d%2& He shot her a shar! look) &I need an ho r* +a%be less) Then "e&ll lea-e)& &Can I hel!2& He ga-e a brief nod of assent* and she follo"ed hi+ to the st d%) The fa1 +achine held !a!er* and (enedict collected it en ro te to the desk) 3ithin seconds the la!to! "as ! and r nning) The% "orked together side b% side and* "hen the doc +ent "as done and checked* it "as consigned to the !rinter then fa1ed thro gh to the #tates) &OE) Let&s get o t of here)& ?i-e +in tes later (enedict re-ersed the fo r,"heel dri-e fro+ the garage and* once clear of s b rbia* he headed "est* taking the +o ntain road to Mo nt Ta+borine) &Thanks)& &3hate-er for2& The terrain "as l sh green after seasonal s btro!ical rain) Grassed !addocks* b sh,clad hills* ho+es on acreage* "orking far+s) The% "ere gaining height as the bit +en road c r-ed ro nd the foothills and began its snaking ascent to"ards the !eak) &The "eekend*& Gabbi elaborated) &Toda%)& ?or the si+!le !leas res that cost onl% his ti+e and therefore "ere infinitel% +ore !recio s to her than an%thing +one% co ld b %) &It&s not o-er %et)& No) The s n s ddenl% a!!eared + ch brighter* the sk% a +agical a' re) As the road "o nd higher there "as a s!ectac lar -ie" of the hinterland* and in the distance la% the ocean* a sa!!hire $e"el) The% reached the !!er+ost !eak and tra-elled the road that tra-ersed its crest* !ast ho ses of -ario s ages and designs* an old,English,st%le hotel* and a . aint cafe) The -illage "as a +i1t re of sho!s "ith broad -erandahs cl +!ed together* and the% sto!!ed to ! rchase a large bottle of chilled +ineral "ater* so+e delicio s ha+ and salad rolls and fr it) Then the% "alked back to the fo r,"heel dri-e and dro-e to a grassed reser-e "ith +agnificent -ie"s o-er the -alle%) It "as isolated* !ict res. e* and Gabbi felt as if the% "ere !erched on to! of the "orld* re+o-ed fro+ e-er%thing and e-er%one) It "as a head% feeling* +ore into1icating than "ine* breathtaking) (enedict nfolded a r g and s!read it o-er the grass beneath the shade of a nearb% tree) The% ate ntil the% "ere re!lete then s!ra"led co+fortabl%* at ease "ith the -ista

and the silence) A tr e !icnic* it re+inded Gabbi of the +an% she&d shared "ith 0ac. es in the da%s "hen la ghter had risen readil% to her li!s and the onl% cares she had had "ere st d%ing and e1celling in her e1a+s) &Penn% for the+)& Gabbi t rned at the so nd of (enedict&s dra"ling -oice* and ga-e hi+ a slo" s+ile) &3e sho ld do this +ore often)& &That&s it2& He so nded +ildl% a+ sed* b t she co ld !la% the faintl% teasing ga+e as "ell as he) &/o "ant +% inner+ost tho ghts2& &It "o ld be a start)& &I lo-e %o & "as so eas% to sa%* so diffic lt to retract) 3his!ered in the dee! night ho rs "as one thing4-oiced in the earl% afternoon on a +o ntain,to! "as so+ething else) &6 "as thinking this is a little bit of !aradiseA she said lightl%) &?ar a"a% fro+ the cit%* b siness !ress res* !eo!le)& &The !lace* or the fact "e&re sharing it2& #he offered hi+ a "ide s+ile that reached her e%es and lit the+ as -i-idl% as the bl e of the ocean in the distance) &3h%* both* of co rse) It "o ldn&t be nearl% as + ch f n on +% o"n)& He c rled a hand beneath her na!e and bro ght his +o th do"n o-er hers in an e-ocati-e kiss that teased* tantalised and sto!!ed $ st short of total !ossession) &3itch*& he + r+ red a fe" +o+ents later against her te+!le) &Do %o "ant to sta% here* or e1!lore the +o ntain f rther2& #he !ressed a kiss to the hollo" at the base of his throat and sa-o red the faint taste that "as his alone4+ale heat +ingled "ith cleanliness and e1cl si-e cologne) &3e&re close to a ! blic road* it&s a ! blic !ark* and "e "o ldn&t "ant to shock an%one !assing b%*& she teased* sing the edge of her teeth to ni! his skin) &(esides* there&s a !lane "aiting to take s back to the rat race)& &To+orro" +orning) Da"n)& The% had the night) &3e sho ldn&t "aste a +o+ent*& Gabbi said "ith +ock re-erence* and ga-e his chest a gentle ! sh) &3hen "e reach the coast "e&ll get so+e !ra"ns and Moreton (a% b gs "hich %o can cook on the barbec e "hile I get a salad together) 3e&ll o!en a bottle of "ine* eat* and "atch the s n go do"n)& He let her go* "atched as she rose lithel% to her feet* then took her o tstretched hand and le-ered hi+self !right in one fl id +o-e+ent) It "as after fi-e "hen the% entered the ho se* and b% tacit agree+ent the% took a long "alk o-er the da+!* !acked sand of an o tgoing tide* then rel ctantl% t rned and retraced their ste!s) Her hand "as held lightl% clas!ed in his* and a faint bree'e t gged her blo se and teased loose tendrils free fro+ the careless knot of her hair) Her skin glo"ed fro+ its e1!os re to the fresh sea air* and her e%es held a +%stic de!th that o"ed + ch to the !leas re of the da%* and the antici!ation of the night) After !re!aring the +eal there "as ti+e,to change into s"i+"ear and s"i+ se-eral lengths of the !ool before e+erging to dr% the e1cess "ater fro+ their skin) The aro+a of barbec ed seafood heightened their a!!etite* and* seated o t on the terrace* Gabbi reached for a !ra"n "ith her fingers* declared it a+brosia* then reached for another as she d g her fork into a delectable !ortion of salad)

&/o &-e got !ra"n $ ice on %o r chin*& (enedict said la'il%* and she directed a da''ling s+ile at hi+) Terribl% inelegant)& #he tore flesh fro+ the shell of a !erfectl% cooked b g and ate it in slo"* delicate bites) Moni. e "o ld ha-e been a!!alled) There "asn&t a le+on,scented fingerbo"l in sight) And !a!er na!kins "eren&t an acce!ted s bstit te for fine Irish linen) The s n began to sink* and the light di++ed* streaking the sk% to the "est "ith reflected !ink that slo"l% changed to orange* a brilliant flare of colo r that slo"l% faded* then disa!!eared* lea-ing behind a d sk% glo") Ti+ed lights s!rang ! aro nd the !ool* lit the terrace* and cast a reflection that "as al+ost ethereal ntil darkness fell and obliterated e-er%thing be%ond their i++ediate line of -ision) Gabbi heard the !hone* and "atched as (enedict rose fro+ his chair to ans"er it) #he gathered the seafood debris together* stacked !lates onto the tra%* took it indoors to the electronic food trolle%* then !ressed the b tton that lifted it ! to the kitchen) Then she closed the doors onto the terrace and acti-ated the sec rit% s%ste+) Dishes and c tler% "ere dis!ensed into the dish"asher* the kitchen soon restored to order) Her hair had long since dried* b t needed to be rinsed of chlorine fro+ the !ool* and she +ade her "a% !stairs to the sho"er) After"ards she donned briefs* ! lled on long "hite tro sers in a soft cheesecloth* then added a +atching slee-eless b tton,thro gh blo se) #e-eral +in tes "ith the hair, drier re+o-ed the e1cess +oist re fro+ her hair* and she left it loose* added a to ch of li!,gloss* then ran lightl% do"n to the kitchen) Coffee) Hot* strong and black* "ith a dash of li. e r) The coffee had $ st finished filtering into the glass carafe "hen (enedict $oined her* and she cast hi+ a searching look) &Proble+s2& &Nothing I can&t handle)& #he didn&t do bt it) #he !o red the bre" into a c ! and handed it to hi+) &Need +e2& His e%es flared) &/es)& His i+!lication "as n+istakable* and her heart ski!!ed a beat* . ickened* then slo"l% settled) &( t right no" I ha-e to +ake a series of !hone calls)& He lo"ered his head and took her +o th in a soft kiss that +ade her ache for +ore) Then he t rned and +ade his "a% across the landing to the st d%) Gabbi took her coffee into the lo nge* settled in a co+fortable settee and s"itched on the tele-ision set) Cable T5 ens red instant entertain+ent to satisf% e-er% "hi+* and she flicked thro gh the channels ntil she fo nd a sitco+ that !ro+ised lightness and +irth) One !rogra++e ran into another* and she fo ght against an increasing dro"siness* s cc +bing "itho t conscio s effort) There "as a -ag e feeling of being held in strong ar+s* the sensation of being di-ested of her o ter clothes* then the softness of a !illo" beneath her cheek* and a "ar+ bod% +o lded against her back) CHAPTER EIGHT The Lear $et t rned off the r n"a% and cr ised slo"l% into a !ri-ate !arking ba% at #%dne%&s do+estic air!ort)

#erg "as "aiting "ith the (entle%* and after transferring o-ernight bags into the boot he sli!!ed behind the "heel and headed the car to"ards the eastern s b rbs) Gabbi sank back against the leather c shioning and -ie"ed the scene be%ond the "indscreen) Traffic "as alread% b ilding !* clogging the +ain arterial roads as co++ ters dro-e to their !laces of "ork) In an ho r she&d $oin the+) #he looked at her cas al cotton shirt* tro sers and trainers) #oon she&d e1change the+ for a s it* tights and high heels) E-en no" she co ld sense (enedict "ithdra"ing* his +ind alread% !reocc !ied "ith b siness and the da% ahead) Marie ser-ed breakfast "ithin +in tes of their arri-al ho+e* and shortl% after eight Gabbi slid behind the "heel of her car and trailed (enedict&s (entle% do"n the dri-e) The da% "as ne-entf l* altho gh b s%* and l nch "as so+ething she sent o t for and ate at her desk) 3aiting for a fa1ed confir+ation and acting on it !ro-ided an n"anted dela%* and conse. entl% it "as al+ost si1 "hen she garaged the car) 3hile Moni. e took liberties "ith ti+e as a g est* as a hostess she insisted on ! nct alit%) #i1,thirt% for se-en +eant e1actl% that) 3hich left Gabbi t"ent% +in tes in "hich to sho"er* dress* a!!l% +ake, ! and tend to her hair) #he began nb ttoning her s it $acket as she raced ! the stairs* ho!!ing fro+ one foot to the other as she !a sed to re+o-e her heeled ! +!s) (% the ti+e she reached the bedroo+ she&d released the 'i!,fastener of her skirt and her fingers "ere b s% "ith the b ttons on her blo se) (enedict looked ! fro+ a!!l%ing the electric ra'or to a da%&s gro"th of beard and raised an en. iring e%ebro" as she entered the en s ite bathroo+) &Don&t ask*& Gabbi fl ng at hi+ as she slid o!en the sho"er door and t rned on the "ater) (lack silk e-ening tro sers* a +atching singlet to! and a black beaded $acket) High,heeled black ! +!s) Gold $e"eller%) Hair s"e!t on to! of her head* light +ake, ! "ith e+!hasis on the e%es) Gabbi didn&t e-en think* she $ st "ent "ith it* rel%ing on s!eed and de1terit% for a finished res lt "hich* she acce!ted "ith a c rsor% glance in the che-al,glass* "o ld !ass + ster) #he reached for her e-ening bag* ! shed its long gold chain o-er one sho lder and t rned to see (enedict regarding her "ith a degree of la'% a+ se+ent) &No one "o ld g ess %o achie-ed that res lt in so short a ti+e*& he co++ented as the% descended the staircase and +ade their "a% to the garage) &I&ll take three dee! breaths in the car and think !leasant tho ghts)& #he did) Not that it hel!ed + ch) 3ith e-er% !assing kilo+etre the ner-es inside her sto+ach intensified* "hich "as foolish* for Annaliese "as nlikel% to +isbeha-e in Moni. e and 0a+es&s !resence) &Darlings)& Annaliese greeted the+ indi-id all% "ith a kiss to both cheeks) &T"o of +% fa-o rite !eo!le)& Her s+ile "as st nning as she +o-ed bet"een Gabbi and (enedict and linked an ar+ thro gh each of theirs) &Co+e thro gh to the lo nge)& One e%ebro" slanted as she r ef ll% glanced fro+ Gabbi&s black e-ening s it to her o"n fig re,+o lding black cocktail go"n) &Great +inds* darling2& The light tinkling la gh held h +o r that failed to reach her e%es) &3e al"a%s did ha-e an e1traordinaril%

si+ilar taste in clothes)& E1ce!t I !aid for +% o"n* "hile %o racked ! Alaia and Cal-in Elein on 0a+es&s credit card* Gabbi added silentl%) #to! it* she chided herself) Her father&s ho+e "as bea tif l* tastef ll% if e1!ensi-el% decorated* and a s !erb sho",case for a +an of 0a+es&s "ealth and social !osition) 3h%* then* did she feel nco+fortable e-er% ti+e she ste!!ed inside the door2 3as it beca se Moni. e had caref ll% redecorated* s%ste+aticall% re!lacing dra!es* s btl% altering colo r sche+es* ntil al+ost e-er% +e+or% of Gabbi&s +other had been re+o-ed2 /et "h% sho ldn&t Moni. e i+!ose her o"n taste2 0a+es had ob-io sl% been "illing to ind lge her) And the !ast* no +atter ho" id%llic a +e+or%* had little !lace in toda%&s realit%) &Gabbi) (enedict)& Moni. e +o-ed to"ards the+ "ith both hands o tstretched) &I "as afraid %o "ere going to be late)& 0a+es ga-e his da ghter a h g and laid a hand on (enedict&s ar+) &Co+e and sit do"n) I&ll get %o both a drink)& Innoc o s social s+all talk) The% "ere each ade!t at the art4the s+iles* the la ghter) To an o tside the% rese+bled a ha!!%* nited fa+il%* Gabbi reflected as she took a seat ne1t to (enedict at the dining table) Moni. e&s cook had !re!ared e1. isitel% !resented co rses that tantalised the taste b ds) Tonight she e1celled "ith -ich%ssoise -erte as a starter) &3e arranged an i+!ro+!t tennis e-ening last night*& Moni. e re-ealed as the% finished the so !) &I ! t a call thro gh* ho!ing %o +ight be able to $oin s* b t Marie infor+ed +e that %o "ere a"a% for the "eekend)& Moni. e !ossessed the abilit% to !hrase a state+ent so that it rese+bled a . estion* and Gabbi fingered the ste+ of her "ater,glass* then chose to lift it to her li!s) &3e fle" to the coast*& (enedict dra"led in res!onse) &Reall%2& Annaliese directed a brilliant s+ile at Gabbi) &I&+ s r!rised %o "ere able to drag (enedict a"a% fro+ #%dne%)& #he s"itched her attention to (enedict and the s+ile beca+e co. ettish) &I tho ght it "as a re. isite of the cor!orate "ife to be able to entertain herself)& Gabbi re!laced her glass caref ll%) &# rel% not to the e1cl sion of s!ending . alit% ti+e "ith her h sband2& The cook ser-ed a s !erb !o let frangais* "ith acco+!an%ing -egetables) &Of co rse not* darling)& Annaliese !roffered a condescending s+ile) &It "as -er% tho ghtf l of (enedict to ind lge %o )& Gabbi !icked ! her c tler% and s!eared her !ortion chicken* then she sliced a bite,si'e !iece "ith delicate !recision) &/es* "asn&t it2& #he forked the +orsel into her +o th* sa-o red it* then offered a co+!li+ent that the chef deser-ed) @This is delicio s* Moni. e)& &Thank %o * Gabrielle)& Gabbi co+!leted a +ental co nt to three) An% second no" Moni. e "o ld instigate a s btle third degree) &I tr st %o had an en$o%able ti+e2& &It "as -er% rela1ing)& &Did %o take in a sho" at the Casino2& &No*& (enedict inter-ened) &Gabbi cooked dinner and "e sta%ed ho+e)& He t rned

to"ards Gabbi "ith a "ar+ inti+ate s+ile "hich +elted her bones) Great* Gabbi sighed silentl%) /o &-e taken control of Moni. e&s ga+e* and !ro-ided Annaliese "ith the a++ nition to fire another ro nd) &/o ne-er cooked at ho+e* darling)& The tinkling la gh "as "itho t h +o r) @There "as no need) 3e al"a%s had a chef to !re!are +eals)& (esides* Moni. e hadn&t "anted her in the kitchen* e-en on the chefAs night off) &It co ld ha-e been arranged* Gabbi)& #he looked at 0a+es and s+iled) &It "as ne-er that i+!ortant)& &/o sho ld gi-e s the o!!ort nit% to sa+!le %o r c linar% efforts* Gabrielle)& After all these %ears* Moni. e2 &I "o ldn&t think of h rting Marie&s feelings b% s ggesting I s r! her !osition in the kitchen)& &Marie does ha-e a night off* darling*& Annaliese re+onstrated in faintl% bored tones) &/es*& she res!onded e-enl%) &On the e-enings (enedict and I eat o t)& Her ste!sister e1a+ined the !erfection of her lac. ered nails* then s!ared Gabbi a teasing s+ile) &/o &re hedging at e1tending an in-itation)& 5eno+* !ackaged in -el-et and !resented "ith !se do,sincerit%) Gabbi handled it "ith the ease of long !ractice) &Not at all) 3hich e-ening "o ld s it2& It "as a !olite battle* b t a battle nonetheless) &Moni. e2 0a+es2& Annaliese "as gracio s in her deferral) &Can I check +% diar%* darling* and get back to %o 2& Gabbi "as e. all% gracio s) &Of co rse)& &I&+ intrig ed to learn "hat %o "ill ser-e*& Annaliese ! rred) &Marie can al"a%s be g aranteed to !resent an e1cellent +eal*& Gabbi s !!lied* deter+ined not to be backed into a corner) Moni. e&s e%es narro"ed* as did her da ghter&s* and each +an !icked ! on the tension* electing to def se it b% initiating a disc ssion totall% nrelated to social niceties) (o+be a chocolat "as ser-ed for dessert) After"ards the% retired to the lo nge for coffee) &I tho ght "e +ight !la% cards*& Moni. e s ggested) &Poker2& &As long as it&s not stri! !oker*& Annaliese teased "ith a !ro-ocati-e s+ile) &I&ll lose e-er% stitch I&+ "earing)& And lo-e e-er% +in te of it* Gabbi tho ght hatef ll%) &3e close the table at ele-en,thirt%) 3inning hand takes the !ool)& 0a+es deferred to (enedict) &Agreed2& &Agreed)& The ga+e "asn&t abo t skill or l ck* "inning or losing) The stakes "ere +in sc le* the ens ing t"o ho rs +erel% entertain+ent) Annaliese see+ed to delight in leaning for"ard at e-er% o!!ort nit% in a deliberate atte+!t to dis!la% the delicate c r-e of her breasts and the fact that she "ore nothing to s !!ort the+) Add a tantalising s+ile and s!arkling "itcher% e-er% ti+e she looked at (enedict and Gabbi "as feeling !ositi-el% feral b% the ti+e the e-ening dre" to a close) &No co++ent2& (enedict -ent red as he dro-e thro gh the gates and t rned onto

the road) Gabbi dre" a dee! breath then released it slo"l%) &3here "o ld %o like +e to begin2& He s!ared her a . i''ical glance* then concentrated on +erging "ith the traffic) &An%"here "ill do* as long as %o release so+e of that fine rage)& &/o noticed)& &I "as !robabl% the onl% one "ho did)& &It&s s ch a relief to kno" that)& Da++it* she "anted to hit so+ething) &Don&t*& (enedict ca tioned "ith dangero s softness* and she t rned on hi+ at once) &Don&t4"hat2A &#la+ a fist against the dashboard) /o &ll onl% h rt %o rself)& &Perha!s I sho ld hit %o instead)& &3ant +e to ! ll o-er* or can it "ait ntil "e get ho+e2& &Don&t tr% to h +o r +e* (enedict)& #he foc sed her attention on the scene be%ond the "indscreen: the bright headlights of onco+ing traffic* fl orescent street,la+!s and the elongated shado"s the% cast in the darkness) Gabbi h rried indoors as soon as (enedict released the alar+ s%ste+* not e-en !a sing as he reset it) #he +ade for the fo%er and had al+ost reached the staircase "hen a hand cla+!ed on her ar+) An% "ords she +ight ha-e ttered "ere stilled as he s" ng her ro nd and ca ght her close) There "as nothing she co ld do to halt the descent of his +o th* or den% its !ossession of her o"n) Hard* h ngr%* al+ost ! nishing) It def sed her anger* as he +eant it to do) And "hen her bod% softened and leant in against his he altered the nat re of the kiss* dee!ening it ntil she cl ng to hi+) A h sk% groan e+erged fro+ her throat as he s" ng an ar+ beneath her knees and lifted her into his ar+s) There "asn&t a "ord she co ld think of ttering as he carried her ! the stairs to their roo+) Or an action she "anted to take to sto! hi+ re+o-ing her clothes and his* before he dre" her do"n onto the bed) A long* slo" e1!loration of the !leas re s!ots* the to ch of his li!s against the c r-e of her calf* the sensiti-e crease behind her knee* then the e-ocati-e !ath along her inner thigh))) Gabbi felt her bod% begin to +elt like "a1 beneath the onsla ght of fla+e* ntil she "as totall% +alleable* his* to do "ith as he chose) #hared inti+ac%) M t al se1 al gratification) 3as that all it "as to (enedict2 Lo-e) 3hile her heart cra-ed the "ords* her head r led that she sho ld be content "itho t the+) Pre+i + seating tickets for Phanto+ of the O!era "ere sold o t "eeks in ad-ance) (enedict had ndo btedl% "ielded so+e infl ence to gain fo r tickets at s ch short notice* Gabbi + sed as she took her seat beside hi+) &3onderf l !osition*& ?rancesca + r+ red as the orchestra began an introd ctor% n +ber !rior to the o!ening of the first act) &/es* isn&t it2& &/o look st nning in that colo r)& The co+!li+ent "as gen ine* and Gabbi acce!ted it "ith a s+ile) &Thanks)& Peacock,bl e silk shot "ith green* it highlighted the te1t re of her skin and e+!hasised

her blonde hair) &#o do %o *& she ret rned "ar+l%) Dee! r b%,red -el-et did "onders for ?rancesca&s colo ring* and +o lded her sli+ c r-es to !erfection) The + sic s"elled* the c rtain rose* and Act One began) Gabbi adored the -is al di+ension of li-e !erfor+ance4the !resence of the actors* the cost +es* the faint s+ell of grease!aint and +ake, !* the so nds) It "as a totall% different e1!erience to fil+) The inter-al bet"een each act allo"ed s fficient ti+e for !atrons to e+erge into the fo%er for a drink* or a cigarette for those "ho s+oked) Gabbi e1!ected to see 0a+es* Moni. e and Annaliese in the cro"d) 3hat she didn&t e1!ect "as for Annaliese to readil% abandon Moni. e and 0a+es and s!end the inter-al con-ersing "ith ?rancesca* Do+inic and (enedict) A!art fro+ a !erf nctor% greeting* Gabbi "as barel% ackno"ledged) The b ''er so nded its "arning for !atrons to res +e their seats) As soon as the lights di++ed (enedict reached for her hand and held it fir+l% "ithin his o"n) At the close of the ne1t act he didn&t release it "hen the% stood and +o-ed to"ards the fo%er) @The !o"der,roo+2& ?rancesca . eried* and Gabbi inclined her head in agree+ent a s!lit second before she ca ght sight of Annaliese "ea-ing a deter+ined !ath to"ards the+) &?ab lo s e-ening*& her ste!sister enth sed "ith a da''ling s+ile) &/es* isn&t it2& Gabbi agreed as she sli!!ed her hand free) &If %o &ll e1c se ?ran and +e for a fe" +in tes2& &Of co rse)& Annaliese&s delight "as al+ost e-ident) I&ll kee! (enedict and Do+inic a+ sed in %o r absence)& And relish e-er% second* Gabbi obser-ed ncharitabl%) &Doesn&t gi-e !* does she2& ?rancesca said . ietl% as she follo"ed Gabbi thro gh the cro"d) &Ha-e %o told her to get lost2& &/es)& The% entered the !o"der,roo+ and $oined the . e e) &The !olite -ersion2& ?rancesca asked) &Or the no,holds,barred cat,fight rendition2& &3o ld %o acce!t icil% ci-il2& Gabbi co ntered "ith a s+ile) &A little bit of fire "o ldn&t go a+iss) Italians are -er% good at it)& A "icked glea+ lit her e%es) &3e %ell* "e thro" things)& &I&-e ne-er seen %o in action*& Gabbi said "ith gen ine a+ se+ent) &That&s beca se I&-e ne-er been +ad at %o )& &Hea-en forbid)& The% +o-ed for"ard a fe" !aces) &Dare I ask ho" things are going bet"een %o and Do+inic2& &I shall !robabl% thro" so+ething at hi+ soon)& A b bble of la ghter rose in Gabbi&s throat) &#ho ld I "arn hi+* do %o think2& &Let it be a s r!rise)& Do+inic "as a +an of (enedict&s calibre) D%na+ic* co+!elling* electrif%ing) And +ercilessl% indo+itable in his ! rs it of the see+ingl% nattainable) Gabbi "as ns re ho" + ch longer Do+inic "o ld allo" ?rancesca to +aintain an !!er hand) The o tco+e* she decided "ith a secret s+ile* "o ld be interesting) The b ''er for the co++ence+ent of the follo"ing act so nded as the% freshened their +ake, !* and the% res +ed their seats as the lights began to di+) It "as a fa ltless !erfor+ance* the singers in e1cellent -oice) As the c rtain fell

on the final act there "as a b rst of a!!la se fro+ the a dience that s cceeded in a f rther c rtain call) E+erging fro+ the cr sh of the dis!ersing cro"d took so+e ti+e) &#hall "e go on so+e"here for a light s !!er2& Do+inic asked as the% reached the car !ark) &Lo-e to*& Gabbi acce!ted) &3here do %o ha-e in +ind2& &(enedict2& &/o r choice* Do+*& he dra"led) &There&s an e1cellent !lace at Do ble (a%)& He na+ed it) &3e&ll +eet %o there)& &Rela1*& (enedict bade Gabbi as the (entle% b%!assed the (otanical Gardens) &I do bt Annaliese "ill e+bark on a cl b cra"l in an effort to deter+ine o r "hereabo ts)& &Ho" ast te*& Gabbi congrat lated "ith a degree of +ocker%) &Her enth sias+ hasn&t esca!ed %o )& &And %o * Gabbi*& he contin ed* &are f ll% a"are I !ro-ide Annaliese "ith no enco rage+ent "hatsoe-er)& &Darling (enedict* are %o a"are that %o don&t need to2& &/o so nd like a $ealo s "ife)& &3ell* of co rse)& He slanted her a dark glance and chided softl%* @Don&t be facetio s)& Her li!s c r-ed to for+ a "icked s+ile) &One has to de-elo! a sense of h +o r)& &I co ld* and !robabl% sho ld* s!ank %o )& &Do that* and I&ll seek +% o"n re-enge)& He ga-e a h sk% la gh) &It +ight al+ost be "orth it& &I think*& Gabbi said $ dicio sl%* &%o sho ld gi-e the road %o r f ll attention)& The resta rant "as sit ated abo-e a block of sho!s on the +ain Do ble (a% thoro ghfare) The a+bience "as a thenticall% Greek* and it soon beca+e a!!arent that Do+inic "as not onl% a fa-o red !atron b t also a !ersonal friend of the o"ner) Gabbi declined strong coffee in fa-o r of tea* and nibbled fro+ a !latter filled "ith a -ariet% of s"eet and sa-or% !astries) Do+inic "as a skilled raconte r* !ossessed of a dr% sense of h +o r "hich fre. entl% bro ght la ghter to Gabbi&s li!s and* nless she "as +istaken* !enetrated a chink in ?rancesca&s facade) It "as after +idnight "hen the% bade each other goodnight and slid into se!arate cars* al+ost one "hen Gabbi slid bet"een the sheets and (enedict sna!!ed off the bedside la+!) CHAPTER NINE #tanton,Nicols s !!orted a fe" select charities* and tonight&s e-ent "as in the for+ of a !restigio s ann al dinner held in the ban. et roo+ of a !ro+inent cit% hotel) Noted as an i+!ortant occasion a+ong the social elite* it achie-ed attendance in the region of a tho sand !atrons) Ha te co t re "as clearl% e-ident as societ% do%ennes stro-e to o tdo each other* and Gabbi s !!ressed the "r% obser-ation that their $e"eller%* collecti-el%* "o ld !robabl% f nd a star-ing nation "ith food) Men fared + ch better than "o+en in the fashion stakes) The% si+!l% chose a black e-ening s it* "hite shirt and black bo",tie* albeit the s it +ight be Ar+ani or

Gegna* the shoes hand,stitched and the shirt e1!ensi-e ! re cotton) Gabbi had chosen a f ll,length sli+line stra!less go"n of + lticolo red silk organ'a feat ring the + ted colo rs of s!ring) C t lo" at the back* it "as co+!le+ented b% an attached !anel and co+!leted b% a long* trailing neck,scarf in +atching silk organ'a) Tonight she&d elected to lea-e her hair loose* and the carefree "inds"e!t st%le enhanced her attracti-e feat res) #i1,thirt% for se-en allo"ed ti+e for those "ho chose to arri-e earl% to +i1 and +ingle o-er drinks in the large fo%er) The ban. et,roo+ doors "ere o!ened at se-en* and dinner "as ser-ed thirt% +in tes later) &A glass of cha+!agne2& &Orange $ ice*& Gabbi decided as a "aiter ho-ered "ith a tra% of !artl% filled fl tes) #he re+o-ed the a!!ro!riate fl te and ca ght the gli++er of a+ se+ent a!!arent in (enedict&s dark e%es) &The need for a clear head2& Her +o th c r-ed to for+ a "inso+e s+ile) &/o read +e "ell)&) 0a+es* Moni. e and Annaliese "o ld be seated at the sa+e table* together "ith fi-e fello" g ests) &E-er% ti+e* . erida& he +ocked softl%* and sa" the faint dilation of her ! !ils at his se of the #!anish endear+ent) Did he kno" the occasional se of his late +other&s nati-e lang age had the !o"er to stir her e+otions2 Her +o+entar% disconcertion "as . ickl% +asked as (enedict greeted a colleag e* and "ith skilled ease she engaged in s+all talk "ith the colleag e&s "ife for the fe" +in tes ntil (enedict indicated the necessit% to locate their designated table) #tanton,Nicols "as one of se-eral s!onsors contrib ting to the e-ent* and alread% seated at their table "as the charit% chair+an and his "ife and a -isiting titled dignitar% together "ith his "ife and son) The fi-e +in tes re+aining before dinner "as ser-ed "ere cr cial for those "ho chose to +ake an entrance) 0a+es* Moni. e and Annaliese slid into their seats "ith barel% one +in te to s!are* "ith the obligator% air,kiss* the s+iles and the faint to ch of a hand) Perfect* Gabbi noted silentl%) Moni. e had done it again* ens ring the% "ere the last to arri-e* and their !assage* "ea-ing thro gh co ntless tables* obser-ed b% al+ost e-er%one in the roo+) As the "aiters distrib ted the first of three co rses* the co+!ere "elco+ed the g ests* o tlined the e-ening&s !rogra++e* and thanked e-er%one for their !atronage) Light backgro nd + sic filtered nobtr si-el% fro+ n +ero s s!eakers as Gabbi lifted her fork and started on an a!!etising !ra"n and a-ocado cocktail) #o+eone4Moni. e* as a dedicated co++ittee +e+ber2 Gabbi !ondered4had seen fit to seat Annaliese on (enedict&s left and the -isiting titled dignitar%&s son on Gabbi&s right) The see+ingl% careless !lacing of Annaliese&s hand on (enedict&s thigh d ring the starter co ld ha-e been coincidental* altho gh Gabbi do bted it) &Pleasant e-ening*& the dignitar%&s son obser-ed) &Good t rn,o t)& Hardl% scintillating con-ersation* b t it !ro-ided a necessar% distraction* and Gabbi offered a !olite re$oinder) &An interesting +i1*& he contin ed) &A !rofessional singer and a fashion !arade)& &Pl s the obligator% s!eeches)&

His s+ile "as disar+ing) &/o &-e been here before)& Gabbi&s +o th slanted to for+ a genero s c r-e) &N +ero s ti+es)& &Ma% I sa% %o look enchanting2& Her e%es held +ild a+ se+ent as she took in his kindl% feat res) &Thank %o )& Their !lates "ere re+o-ed* and she offered (enedict a "ide s+ile as he filled her "ater glass) His e%es "ere dark* enig+atic* and she !ressed a hand on his right thigh) &Thank %o * darling)& &M% !leas re)& A do ble entendre if e-er there "as one* and she deliberatel% held his ga'e* silentl% challenging hi+) An anno nce+ent b% the co+!ere that the% "ere to be entertained "ith t"o songs b% the g est singer "as a ti+el% di-ersion* and Gabbi listened "ith !olite attention) The +ain co rse "as ser-ed: chicken Eie-* bab% !otatoes and an assort+ent of -egetables) &3onderf l food*& the dignitar%&s son declared as he de+olished his ser-ing "ith enth sias+* and Gabbi tried not to notice Annaliese&s scarlet,ti!!ed fingers settling on (enedict&s forear+) The singer !erfor+ed another +edle%* "hich "as follo"ed b% dessert* then the charit% chair+an took the !odi +) At that !oint Annaliese slid to her feet and discreetl% disa!!eared to one side of the stage) Coffee "as ser-ed as the co+!ere anno nced the fashion !arade* and "ith !rofessional !anache three +ale and three fe+ale +odels a!!eared on the cat"alk* dis!la%ing creations fro+ !ro+inent #%dne% designers in a -ariet% of st%les ranging fro+ resort* cit% and career* to designer da%* cocktail and for+al e-ening "ear) &#t nning* isn&t she2& Gabbi t rned to"ards the titled dignitar%&s son and sa" his attention "as foc sed on Annaliese&s !rogress do"n the cat"alk) &/es)& It "as nothing less than the tr th) Her ste!sister e1 ded self,confidence and had the height* the bod%* the face)))all the . alities essential for s ccess in the +odelling arena) Most +en took one look and "ere entranced b% the -is al !ackage= +ost "o+en recognised the artificialit% beneath the fla"less fig re and e1. isite feat res) Annaliese !artici!ated in each section* her s+ile !ractised and serene) Altho gh as the !arade !rogressed it beca+e increasingl% ob-io s that she singled o t one table for s!ecial attention)))one +an as the reci!ient of an incredibl% se1% s+ile) Gabbi&s tension +o nted "ith each s ccessi-e !rocession do"n the cat"alk* and it irked her nbearabl% that she "as !o"erless to do an%thing abo t it) E1ce!t s+ile) (enedict* da+n hi+* took an interest in each +odel and e-er% ite+ dis!la%ed) Resort "ear incl ded s"i+,"ear) The bikini* the high,c t +aillot) Annaliese looked s !erb in a +in sc le bikini)))and "as "ell a"are of her effect) Gabbi felt the rge to kill and controlled it) The slightest hint of her dis!leas re at Annaliese&s !ro-ocati-e beha-io r "o ld be seen as a -ictor%* and she ref sed to gi-e her ste!sister that satisfaction) E-ening "ear !ro-ided Annaliese "ith another o!!ort nit% to st n "hen she a!!eared in a backless* stra!less creation that +o lded her c r-es like a second skin) The finale bro ght all the !artici!ating +odels on stage for one last t rn on the

cat"alk) &Is there an%thing that catches %o r e%e2& (enedict en. ired) &The tall blond +ale +odel*& Gabbi res!onded "ith a deliberate s+ile* and gli+!sed the a+ se+ent that lightened his feat res) &Nat rall% %o refer to the clothes he&s "earing)& #he allo"ed her e%es to "iden* and the% held a glint of "icked h +o r) &Nat rall%) Altho gh the "hole !ackage is -er% attracti-e) He "as +agnificentl% i+, !ressi-e in s"i+"ear)& &Pa%back ti+e2& &3h%* (enedict) 3hate-er do %o +ean2& His e1!ression held a degree of la'% tolerance) &It&ll kee!)& &/o think so2& A glea+ lit his dark e%es) &3e co ld al"a%s lea-e and contin e this con-ersation in !ri-ate)& &And co++it a social fa 1 !as2A 3ith indolent ease he reached for her left hand and raised it to his li!s) &I&+ fort nate) I get to take %o ho+e)& He kissed each finger in t rn* then enfolded her hand in his on the table) #ensation flared and tra-elled like fla+e thro gh her -eins* b t there "as no -isible change in his e1!ression e1ce!t for the crooked s+ile t"itching the edges of his +o th as his th +b traced an idle !attern back and forth across the throbbing ! lse at her "rist) His e%es s!eared hers* faintl% +ocking beneath slightl% hooded lids* and the breath ca ght in her throat) &#o+e consolation*& she +anaged in an atte+!t at h +o r) &The !ri'e)& #he "anted . ite des!eratel% for it to be the tr th* b t she "as all too a"are it "as !art of the ga+e) &Ah*& she said "ith soft c%nicis+) &/o sa% the s"eetest things)& &Gracias)& The "aiters ser-ed another ro nd of coffee as g ests +o-ed fro+ one table to another* !a sing to chat "ith friends as the% +ade a slo" !rogression to"ards the fo%er) &I&-e en$o%ed %o r co+!an%)& Gabbi heard the "ords and t rned to"ards the dignitar%&s son) &Thank %o )& #he incl ded his !arents) &It&s been a !leasant e-ening)& &Most !leasant*& 0a+es agreed as he +o-ed to his da ghter&s side and br shed a light kiss o-er her cheek) &/o look "onderf l)& &Thanks*& she + r+ red* and endea-o red to kee! a s+ile in !lace as Annaliese re$oined the+) &A fe" of s are going on to a nightcl b)& Her e%es foc sed on (enedict as she to ched a hand to his sho lder) &3h% don&t %o $oin s2& Gabbi "asn&t a"are that she held her breath as she "aited for his re!l%) &Another ti+e !erha!s)& &3e + st do l nch* Gabrielle*& Moni. e insisted as she bade the+ goodnight) &I&ll ring)& Gabbi felt a sense of re+orse at "anting to ref se) It "asn&t -er% often that her ste!+other s ggested a tete,a,tete) &Please do)& It "as half an ho r before the% reached the car !ark and a f rther thirt% +in tes

before (enedict bro ght the (entle% to a halt inside the garage) &A record attendance*& he co++ented as the% entered the ho se) &The co++ittee "ill be !leased)& &/es)& &/o so nd less than enth sed)& &I&+ disa!!ointed)& &E1!lain*& (enedict co++anded as he reset the sec rit% alar+) &I "as $ st d%ing to go on to the nightcl b)& He t rned and closed the distance bet"een the+* and her e%es took on a defiant glea+ as he ! shed a hand beneath her hair and ca!t red her na!e) &3ere %o * indeed2& He "as + ch too close) His cologne teased her nostrils and +elded "ith the + sk% +ale fragrance that "as his alone) &/es) It "o ld ha-e been* s ch f n "atching Annaliese tr%ing to sed ce %o )& #he lifted a hand and trailed her fingers do"n the la!el of his s it) &/o r cla"s are sho"ing)& &And I tho ght I "as being so s btle)& &Do %o "ant to debate Annaliese&s beha-io r2& Her e%es glittered "ith inner anger* their de!ths darkening to dee! sa!!hire) &I don&t think >debate> . ite co-ers it)& One e%ebro" slanted in . i''ical h +o r) &It&s a little late for a ! nishing set of tennis) (esides* I&d !robabl% "in)& His "ar+ breath teased the tendrils of hair drifting close to one ear) &And that*& he !ersisted . ietl%* &"o ldn&t be the ob$ect of the e1ercise* "o ld it2& #he "anted to generate a reaction that "o ld allo" her to -ent her o"n indignation) &At least I&d get so+e satisfaction fro+ thrashing the ball "ith a rac. et)& His e%es "ere dark* fatho+less) &I can think of a far +ore !rod cti-e "a% to e1!end all that !ent, ! energ%)& A th +b traced the edge of her $a"* then trailed lightl% do"n the ! lsing cord of her neck) Gabbi co ld feel the insidio s "ar+th s!read thro gh her -eins* her skin begin to tingle as fine bod% hair rose in antici!ation of his to ch) &/o &re not !la%ing fair)& He lo"ered his head and br shed his li!s against her te+!le) &I&+ not !la%ing at an%thing)& Gabbi closed her e%es and absorbed the into1icating feel of hi+ as he angled his +o th o-er her o"n) His fingers tangled in her hair as he steadil% dee!ened the kiss* intensif%ing the slo"* b rning heat of her aro sal ntil it threatened to rage o t of control) Her bod% strained against his* ! lsing* needing so + ch +ore* and she "as hardl% conscio s of the s+all* enco raging so nds lo" in her throat as she rged hi+ on) #lo"l%* gentl%* he eased back and broke the contact* then s"e!t an ar+ beneath her knees and crossed the fo%er to the stairs) &The bedroo+ is so ci-ilised*& Gabbi breathed softl% as she traced the lobe of his ear "ith her tong e and gentl% bit its centre) 3hen the% reached their s ite the door closed behind the+ "ith a satisf%ing cl nk) &/o "ant nci-ilised* Gabbi2& he de+anded as he let her slide do"n to her feet) The "ords con$ red ! a +ental i+age so e-ocati-el% erotic that she had to fight

to control the $olt of feeling that s rged thro gh her bod%) &This is a -er% e1!ensi-e go"n*& she anno nced in a dis+al atte+!t at fli!!anc%) &One I&d like to "ear again)& #o+ething lea!t in his e%es and re+ained there) A dark* !ri+iti-e glitter that +o+entaril% arrested the th dding beat of her heart before it kicked in at a "ildl% accelerated !ace) The breath ca ght in her throat as he reached for the 'i!,fastening and freed it so that the go"n slid do"n to the car!et) 3ith +es+erised fascination she ste!!ed aside and "atched as he carelessl% tossed it o-er a nearb% chair) His e%es ne-er left hers as he traced the s"ell of her breasts* teased each sensiti-e !eak* then slo"l% sli!!ed his fingers beneath the band of her briefs and slid the+ to her feet) Her e-ening sandals ca+e ne1t* and she "atched as he re+o-ed his $acket and tossed it across the -alet,fra+e) The bo",tie follo"ed* and his shirt) #hoes and socks "ere abandoned* and his tro sers landed on to! of his $acket) Then he ca!t red her face in his hands and lo"ered his +o th to hers* initiating a kiss that took !ossession and de+anded co+!lete ca!it lation) This "as no sed ction) It "as clai+,staking) R thless h nger and treachero s de-astation) #he didn&t fight it) Didn&t "ant to) #he rode the crest of his !assion* and e1 lted in the ra-ish+ent of nleashed e+otions) It beca+e a ra-aging of bod% and +ind4hers4as she ga-e herself ! to hi+* her s rrender co+!lete as he tasted and s ckled* tor+enting her to the !oint of +adness) #he had no control o-er her sh ddering bod%* or the "a% it con- lsed in the stor+ of her o"n !assion) And she "as co+!letel% na"are of the e+otional sobs tearing free fro+ her throat as she begged hi+ not to sto!) A bea tif l "a% to die* Gabbi decided "ith di''%ing certaint% as he dragged her do"n onto the bed) Then she "as conscio s onl% of ns!eakable !leas re as he dro-e hi+self into her* again and again* dee!er and dee!er as she arched ! to hi+ in a dark* rh%th+ic beat that fl ng the+ both o-er the edge) After"ards she la% in a tangle of sheets* her li+bs ent"ined "ith his* disinclined to +o-e) #he didn&t ha-e the energ% to lift a hand* and her e%es re+ained closed* for to o!en the+ re. ired too + ch effort) &Did I h rt %o 2& #he ached) Dear God* ho" she ached) ( t it "as "ith ac te !leas re* not !ain) &No)& A soft s+ile c r-ed her li!s) &Altho gh I don&t think I&+ read% for an encore $ st %et)& He leaned for"ard and !ressed a lingering kiss to the sensiti-e hollo" at the base of her throat* then trailed a !ath to the edge of her +o th) &Rela1* . erida) It&s not an act I co ld follo" too soon)& &#o+e act)& #he felt hi+ +o-e* and the sheet settled do"n onto soft* highl% sensitised skin) #he sighed and let her head settle into the c r-e of his sho lder) Hea-en didn&t get an% better than this) Gabbi "oke to the to ch of li!s br shing against her cheek* and she stretched*

arching the sli+ bo" of her bod% like a contented feline beneath the stroke of its +aster) A s+ile teased her +o th and she let her e%es drift o!en) &Is it late2& &Late eno gh* . erida)& He "as dressed* sha-en and* nless she "as +istaken* read% to lea-e) Regret tinged her e1!ression) &I "as going to dri-e "ith %o to the air!ort)& &Instead %o can rela1 in the 0ac ''i* en$o% a leis rel% breakfast and scan the ne"s!a!er before going in to the office)& &/o sho ld ha-e "oken +e*& she !rotested* and sa" the glea+ of h +o r e-ident in the dark e%es abo-e her o"n) &I $ st ha-e)& He indicated a tra% on the bedside !edestal) &And bro ght orange $ ice and coffee)& #he eased herself into a sitting !osition and h gged her knees) A +ischie-o s t"inkle lightened her e%es) @In that case* %o &re forgi-en)& &/o can reach +e on +% +obile !hone)& He had ass +ed the +antle of b siness e1ec ti-e along "ith the three,!iece s it) His +ind* she kne"* "as alread% on the first of se-eral +eetings sched led o-er the ne1t fe" da%s in Melbo rne) #he reached for the orange $ ice and took a long s"allo"* gratef l for the refreshing* cool taste of freshl% s. ee'ed $ ice) #he&d "anted to "ake earl%* share a slo" lo-ing* $oin hi+ in the 0ac ''i and linger o-er breakfast) No" she had to settle for a s"ift kiss and "atch hi+ "alk o t the door) The kiss "as +ore than she&d ho!ed for* b t less than she needed* and her e%es "ere "istf l as he disa!!eared fro+ the roo+) ?o r da%s* three nights) Hardl% an% ti+e at all) He&d been gone for + ch longer in the !ast) 3h% no" did she !lace s ch e+!hasis on his absence2 #he finished the orange $ ice* slid fro+ the bed and +ade for the bathroo+) Half an ho r later she ran lightl% do"n the stairs and +ade her "a% to the kitchen) &Morning* Marie)& The ho sekee!er&s s+ile held gen ine "ar+th) &Good +orning) Do %o "ant to eat inside* or on the terrace2& @The terrace*& Gabbi ans"ered !ro+!tl%) &Cereal and fr it* toast* coffee2 Or "o ld %o !refer a cooked breakfast2& &Cereal* thanks) I&ll get it)& #he !l cked a bo"l fro+ the c !board* retrie-ed the a!!ro!riate cereal container* added a banana* e1tracted +ilk fro+ the refrigerator then +o-ed thro gh the "ide sliding glass doors that led o t onto the terrace) The s n "as "ar+ on her skin* des!ite the earl%,+orning ho r) It "o ld be all too eas% to banish "ork fro+ the da%* sta% ho+e and s!end se-eral la'% ho rs reading a book beneath the shade of an +brella))) CHAPTER TEN &#erg asked +e to re+ind %o to take the (entle% this +orning)& Gabbi looked ! fro+ scanning the dail% ne"s!a!er and !laced her c ! do"n onto its sa cer) #he offered Marie a teasing s+ile) &Not the ;0<<92&

&3e "on&t gi-e hi+ a heart attack*& Marie res!onded dr%l%* and Gabbi la ghed) &No* let&s not)& The !o"erf l s!orts car +ight be (enedict&s !ossession* b t it "as #erg&s !ride and $o%) Together "ith the (entle% and Mercedes* he ens red it "as i++ac latel% +aintained) If the engine of an% one of the+ didn&t ! rr to his satisfaction* he organised a +echanical check, !) ?or the ne1t fe" da%s the Mercedes "o ld be in the !anel sho! ha-ing a ne" tail,light fitted and the scratches !ainted o-er) The tele!hone rang* and Marie crossed to ans"er it) &Nicols residence)& A fe" seconds later she co-ered the +o th!iece and held o t the recei-er) &It&s for %o ) Mrs #tanton)& Gabbi rolled her e%es and rose to her feet to take the call) &Moni. e) Ho" are %o 2& &?ine* Gabrielle) I tho ght "e +ight do l nch toda%) Is that s itable2& E1changing social chit,chat "ith her ste!+other o-er iced "ater and a lett ce leaf didn&t rank high on her list of fa-o red !asti+es) There had to be a reason for the in-itation* and do btless she&d find o t "hat it "as soon eno gh) &Of co rse*& she res!onded !olitel%) &3hat ti+e* and "here shall I +eet %o 2& Moni. e na+ed an e1cl si-e establish+ent not too far fro+ #tanton,Nicols To"ers) &T"el-e,thirt%* darling2& &I&ll look for"ard to it)& Oh* +%* ho" %o lie* an inner -oice ta nted) No* that "asn&t strictl% fair) Life "as f ll of interesting e1!eriences) Her relationshi! "ith Moni. e $ st ha!!ened to be one of the+) The traffic "as hea-%* dri-ers see+ed +ore i+!atient than s al* and an accident at an intersection banked ! a line of cars for se-eral kilo+etres) Conse. entl% Gabbi "as late* there "as a +essage to sa% her secretar% had re!orted in sick and the co rier bag failed to contain !ro+ised doc +entation) Not an a s!icio s start to the da%* she decided as she +ade the first of se-eral !hone calls) (% +id,+orning she&d elicited a !ro+ise that the +issing doc +entation "o ld arri-e in the afternoon co rier deli-er%) It +eant the loss of se-eral ho rs* and if she "as to asse+ble the fig res* check and collate the+ for the board +eeting to+orro" she&d need to "ork late* take "ork ho+e or co+e in earl% in the +orning) L nch "ith Moni. e loo+ed close* and "ith a resigned sigh she closed do"n the co+! ter and retreated to the !o"der,roo+ to re!air her +ake, !) Ten +in tes later she e+erged fro+ the b ilding and set o t at a brisk !ace* reaching the resta rant "ith less than a +in te to s!are) Gabbi follo"ed the +aitre d& to Moni. e&s table and slid into the seat he held o t) &Gabrielle)& &Moni. e)& # !erficial "ar+th* artificial affection) Ten %ears do"n the track* Gabbi "as resigned to it ne-er being an% different) As al"a%s* Moni. e "as !erfectl% groo+ed* "ith coordinated accessories) Chanel bag* Magli shoes* and a fe" !ieces of e1!ensi-e $e"eller%) Tastef l* b t not ostentatio s) &Annaliese "ill $oin s) I ho!e %o don&t +ind2& 3onderf l) &Of co rse not*& she res!onded !olitel%* and ordered +ineral "ater fro+ the ho-ering drinks "aiter) &Annaliese felt %o +ight a!!reciate so+e fa+il% s !!ort "hile (enedict is a"a%)& Gabbi do bted it -er% + ch) The onl% !erson Annaliese considered "as herself)

&Ho" tho ghtf l)& &The ban. et dinner "as -er% en$o%able)& As a con-ersational ga+bit* it "as entirel% ne tral) &A "ell,!resented +en *& she agreed) &And the fashion !arade "as e1cellent)& &#hall "e order a starter2 Annaliese +ight be late)& Annaliese rarel% arri-ed on ti+e* so "h% sho ld toda% be an% different2 Gabbi settled on a-ocado "ith diced +ango ser-ed on lett ce* then took a si! of +ineral "ater) &I&-e +anaged to !ers ade 0a+es to take a holida%*& Moni. e began as the% "aited for their starters) &3hat a good idea) 3hen2& &Ne1t +onth) A cr ise) The FEII) 3e&ll !ick it ! in Ne" /ork)& The cr ise "o ld be rela1ing for 0a+es* and s fficientl% social to !lease Moni. e) &Ho" long do %o !lan on being a"a%2& &Al+ost three "eeks* incl ding flights and sto!o-ers)& &It&ll be a nice break for %o both)& And "ell deser-ed for her father* "hose de-otion to #tanton,Nicols& contin ed s ccess e1tended "a% be%ond the nine,to,fi-e* fi-e,da%,a,"eek ro tine) Their starters arri-ed* and the% "ere a"aiting the +ain co rse "hen Annaliese sa ntered ! to the table in a clo d of !erf +e) &The sho"ing "ent "a% o-er ti+e*& she offered as she sank into the chair o!!osite her +other) T"o "aiters ho-ered solicito sl% "hile she +ade a selection* then each recei-ed a ha ght% dis+issal) As soon as the% "ere o t of earshot she t rned to"ards Gabbi) &Ho" are %o +anaging "itho t (enedict2& The te+!tation to elaborate "as irresistible) &3ith great diffic lt%)& Annaliese&s e%es narro"ed fractionall%) &If %o "ere so4& #he !a sed* then "ent on to add "ith deliberate e+!hasis* &#o des!erate* %o co ld ha-e acco+!anied hi+)& Gabbi deter+ined to e-en the score) &It&s not al"a%s eas% to co,ordinate ti+e a"a% together)& Annaliese !icked ! her "ater,glass and took a delicate si!) &Reall%* darling2 3h%2& #he re!laced the glass do"n on the table) &E-er%one kno"s %o hold a token $ob and take a si'eable salar% fro+ a co+!an% "hich regards %o r ser-ices as s !erfl o s)& T"o do"n) This "asn&t looking good) And she "as ha+!ered fro+ entering into a -erbal cat,fight b% Moni. e&s !resence) &M% . alifications earned +e the token $ob and standard salar% fro+ in e1cess of t"ent% a!!licants*& she declared cooll%* kno"ing she didn&t need to $ stif% an%thing) Ho"e-er* the barb had str ck a - lnerable target) &At the ti+e* 0a+es +ade it -er% clear his final choice "as based entirel% on !ro-en res lts and !erfor+ance)& &/o e1!ect +e to belie-e he didn&t "ield an% infl ence2& It "as ti+e to end this* and end it cleanl%) &The directorial board "o ld ne-er sanction "asting co+!an% f nds on a +an fact red !osition)& Her ga'e "as le-el* "ith onl% a hint of caref ll% banked anger a!!arent) #he "anted to get ! and lea-e* b t a degree of co rtes% and innate good +anners ens red she sta%ed for the +ain co rse and coffee) The food "as s !erb* b t her a!!etite had disa!!eared* and there "as a hea-iness at her te+!le that signalled the onset of a headache) As soon as she finished her coffee she e1tracted a credit card fro+ her bag) &P t that a"a%* Gabrielle*& Moni. e instr cted) &/o &re +% g est)&

&Thank %o ) 3o ld %o e1c se +e2 I ha-e a t"o o&clock a!!oint+ent)& Annaliese lifted one e%ebro" in silent derision* then o!ined* &# ch dedication)& &Consideration*& Gabbi corrected her . ietl% as she rose to her feet) &To a client, co+!an% re!resentati-e&s kno"n ! nct alit%)& As an e1it note it ser-ed her reasonabl% "ell) A !it% Moni. e had been !resent* Gabbi + sed as she "alked back to the office) On a one,to,one "ith Annaliese she "o ld ha-e fared + ch better) On her ret rn* she fo nd a single red rose in an elegant cr%stal -ase on her desk* along "ith a "hite e+bossed en-elo!e) Gabbi tore it o!en and re+o-ed the card: &Missing %o ) (enedict)& Not as + ch as I +iss %o * she -o"ed silentl% as she bent to s+ell the s"eet fragrance fro+ the tight b d) To+orro" he "o ld be ho+e) #he&d cons lt "ith Marie and arrange a s!ecial dinner a de 1) Candles* fine "ine* soft + sic) And after"ards))) The b '' of the interco+ bro ght her back to the !resent* and she leaned across the desk and de!ressed the b tton) &Michelle (o chet is "aiting in Rece!tion)& @Thanks* Halle) Ha-e Eatherine bring her do"n)& Gabbi re!laced the recei-er and lifted a hand to ease the faint throbbing at her te+!le) A soft c rse left her li!s as she ca ght sight of the ti+e) It "o ld take at least an ho r before she finished re-ie"ing the files on her desk* and a f rther thirt% +in tes to log the+ into the co+! ter) There "ere t"o o!tions) #he co ld take the files and the co+! ter disk ho+e and co+!lete the "ork there* or she co ld sta% on) Let&s face it* "hat did she ha-e to r sh ho+e for2 (esides* Annaliese&s deliberate barbs had fo nd their +ark) The decision +ade* she !laced a call thro gh to Marie and let her kno" she&d be late) Then she sent o t for coffee* took t"o headache tablets and set to "ork) It "as al+ost se-en "hen Gabbi e1ited the !rogra+ and sh t do"n the co+! ter) ?reshl% !rinted !ages "ere collated read% for !resentation* and there "as satisfaction in kno"ing the board "o ld be !leased "ith her anal%sis) #he collected her bag and -acated the office* bade the attending floor,sec rit% officer a !olite goodnight* then "hen the lift arri-ed she ste!!ed into the c bicle and !rogra++ed it for the ndergro nd car !ark) A s"i+ in the !ool* she decided as the lift descended in electronic silence) ?ollo"ed b% a long hot sho"er) Then she&d settle for a !late of chicken salad* "atch tele-ision and retire to bed "ith a book) The lift ca+e to a halt* and she ste!!ed o t as soon as the doors slid o!en) The car !ark "as "ell lit* and there "ere still a n +ber of cars re+aining in reser-ed ba%s) E1ec ti-es t%ing ! the da%&s b siness* a!!oint+ents r nning o-er ti+e) Dedication to their e+!lo%er* a deter+ination to earn the +ight% dollar2 Most likel% the latter* Gabbi + sed as she "alked to"ards the (entle%) Deacti-ating the alar+ s%ste+* she released the locking +echanis+ and de!ressed the door,handle) &F ietl%* +iss)& The -oice "as +ale* the co++and o+ino sl% soft) #he felt so+ething hard !ress against her ribs in the sa+e instant that a hand

closed o-er her ar+) &Don&t screa+* don&t str ggle and %o "on&t get h rt)& &Take +% bag)& Her -oice "as cool* cal+* altho gh her heart "as ha++ering inside her ribs) &Take the car)& The rear door "as "renched o!en) &Get in)& He "as going to kidna! her2 I+ages flashed thro gh her brain* none of "hich "ere reass ring) Da++it* she "asn&t going +eekl%) &No)& &Listen* s"eetheart*& the -oice "his!ered coldl% against her ear) &3e don&t "ant an%thing e1ce!t a fe" !hotos)& &3e&) #o there "as +ore than one) It narro"ed her chances considerabl%) &No"* %o can co,o!erate and +ake it eas% on %o rself* or %o can fight and get h rt)& Hands ! shed her ncere+onio sl% onto the rear seat* and she gas!ed o t lo d as he ca+e do"n on lo! of her) &Get off +eC& Hands fo nd her blo se and ri!!ed it o!en) Gabbi fo ght like a "ildcat* onl% to cr% o t in !ain as first one "rist "as ca ght* then the other* and the% "ere held together in a +erciless gri!) #he felt a sa-age t g as her bra "as dragged do"n* and she t"isted her head in a des!erate bid to esca!e his +o th) Her strength didn&t +atch his* and an o traged gro"l so nded lo" in her throat as he gro nd his teeth against her li!s) Lights flashed as she t"isted against hi+* and "hen he freed her hands she reached for his head* raking her nails against his scal! and do"n the side of his neck) &/o bitchC& He lo"ered his +o th to her breast and bit hard) It h rt like hell) #heer rage and di-ine assistance allo"ed her to s cceed in +anoe -ring her knee bet"een his legs) The tight* !"ard $erk bro ght forth an ang ished ho"l and a strea+ of inco+!rehensible e!ithets) Then Gabbi heard the o!!osite door o!en* and t"o hands dragged her assailant o t of the car) &Co+e on* +an) Let&s get the hell o t of here) I&-e got "hat I need)& &(lood% little "ildcat) I&+ going to get herC& &/o "ere told to ro gh her ! a little) Nothing else) Re+e+berA The door sh t "ith a refined cl nk* and Gabbi ! lled the door closest to her closed and hit the central locking +echanis+) Then she "riggled o-er the centre console and slid into the dri-er&s seat) The ke%s) 3here "ere the ke%s2 Oh* God* the% "ere !robabl% still in the lock) The t"o +en "ere "alking . ickl%* one not . ite as steadil% as the other* and she "atched the+ get into a -an* heard the engine roar into life* then s!eed to"ards the e1it ra+!) Onl% "hen the -an "as o t of sight did she lo"er the car "indo" and retrie-e the ke%s) Her blo se still ga!ed o!en* and she sec red it as best she co ld) #he "as shaking so badl% it took t"o atte+!ts to insert the ignition ke%* then she fired the engine and eased the (entle% onto gro nd le-el) Gabbi foc sed on the traffic* glad for once that there "as so + ch of it) Cars*

b ses* tr cks) Noise) Peo!le) The% +ade her feel safe) Ho+e) #he had ne-er felt +ore gratef l to reach the sec rit% of (enedict&s !alatial 5a cl se +ansion) Marie and #erg "o ld be in their flat* and she had no intention of alar+ing the+) Once indoors* she "ent straight !stairs to the bedroo+ and re+o-ed her clothes) #kirt* torn blo se* nder"ear) #he b ndled the+ together read% for dis!osal into the r bbish bin) #he ne-er "anted to see the+ again) Then Gabbi "ent into the en s ite bathroo+ and ran the sho"er) Ho" long she sta%ed beneath the strea+ of "ater she "asn&t s re) #he onl% kne" she scr bbed e-er% inch of skin t"ice o-er* sha+!ooed her hair not once* b t three ti+es) Then she stood still and let the "ater cascade o-er her glea+ing skin) 3ho2 3h%2 The . estions re!eated the+sel-es o-er and o-er in her brain as she re!la%ed the scene again and again) Photos) (lack+ail2 The idea see+ed l dicro s) 3ho "o ld "ant to threaten her2 3hat "o ld the% ha-e to gain2 Then other "ords intr ded)))and she stood still* e1a+ining each one slo"l% "ith a sense of gro"ing disbelief) &/o "ere told to ro gh her ! a little) Nothing else) Re+e+ber2& 3ho "o ld "ant to frighten b t not h rt her2 Dared not har+ her* to gi-e s ch e1!licit instr ctions2 Gabbi shook her head as if to clear it) Photos) Da+ning shots taken "ith a s!ecific ! r!ose in +ind) Annaliese) E-en her ste!sister "o ldn&t go to s ch lengths))) 3o ld she2 #lo"l% Gabbi reached o t and t rned off the "ater) Then she fro'e) #o+eone "as in the bedroo+) &Gabbi2& (enedict) #he s"a%ed* and ! t o t a hand to stead% herself) He co ldn&t be ho+e) He "asn&t d e back ntil to+orro") In a gest re born of des!eration she reached for a to"el and sec red it abo-e her breasts as he entered the en s ite bathroo+) Her e%es skidded o-er his tall fra+e* registered his s+ile* and gli+!sed the faint narro"ing of his dark ga'e as it s"e!t o-er her feat res) &/o &re back earl%)& Dear God) #he had to get a gri! on herself) #he "as too !ale* her e%es too dark* dilated and "ide* and it "as al+ost i+!ossible to still the faint tre+bling of her +o th) 3itho t benefit of +ake, ! and a fe" essential seconds in "hich to ado!t a nonchalant air* she didn&t stand a chance) His silence "as o+ino s* filling the roo+ ntil she felt like screa+ing for hi+ to break it) 3hen he did* she al+ost "ished he hadn&t* for his -oice "as so . iet it t rned the blood in her -eins to ice) &3hat ha!!ened2& No !rea+ble* $ st a chilling de+and that brooked no e-asion) 3as she so trans!arent that he had onl% to take one look2 she "ondered) #he fingered the to"el* and fi1ed her attention on the knot of his i+!eccable silk tie) &Ho" "as the flight2& &It doesn&t +atter a da+n in hell abo t the flight*& he dis+issed "ith lethal softness) &Tell +e)& #he heard the tension in his -oice and "as a"are there "as no eas% "a% to sa% the

"ords) &I sta%ed back at the office to "ork on so+e fig res)& His e%es ne-er left hers) &3h% did %o do that* "hen %o co ld easil% ha-e bro ght the disk ho+e2& Good . estion) 3h% had she2 #he s"allo"ed* and sa" his e%es follo" the +o-e+ent at her throat) &#o+eone sli!!ed thro gh car !ark sec rit%)& &Are %o h rt2& The "ords held a deadl% softness* and a tre+or shook her bod% as his e%es raked e-er% -isible inch of her slender fra+e) #he lifted a hand* then let it fall) &A fe" br ises)& He&d see e-idence of the+ soon eno gh) &#lo"l%* Gabbi*& (enedict bit o t softl%) He reached o t a hand and soothed her cheek "ith his !al+) &?ro+ the beginning) And don&t o+it a single detail)& His anger "as !al!able* and she felt afraid) Not for herself) ( t fearf l of "hat +ight ha!!en sho ld that anger sli! free) &I nlocked the car door*& she re-ealed steadil%) &Then so+eone grabbed +e fro+ behind and ! shed +e onto the rear seat)& &Don&t sto! there)& His -oice so nded like the s"ish of a "hi!* and she flinched as if its ti! had fla%ed her skin) &He cli+bed in after +e)& A + scle tensed at the edge of his $a") &Did he to ch %o 2& #he shi-ered at the +e+or% of those br tal fingers +anacling her "rists "hile he ri!!ed o!en her blo se) &Not the "a% %o +ean)& (enedict&s e%es hardened) &/o called the !olice2& #he shook her head) &Nothing "as stolen) The car "asn&t da+aged) I "asn&t assa lted)& His hands settled on her sho lders and slid gentl% do"n her ar+s) &Assa lt is a + lti,faceted ter+)& His fingers "ere incredibl% gentle and thoro gh) Her breath ca ght "hen he to ched her "rists* and she flinched as he caref ll% e1a+ined first one then the other before raising the+ to his li!s) His hands reached for the to"el* and she fro'e* all too a"are of se-eral dee! !ink s+ dges darkening the !aleness of her breasts) Naked f r% darkened his feat res* and his hands clenched ntil the kn ckles sho"ed "hite) Gabbi registered di+l% that she had "anted to test his control and break it) ( t ne-er like this) &I scratched hi+ rather badl%*& she offered in e1!lanation) &And he retaliated)& There "as so+ething !ri+iti-e in his e1!ression* a stark r thlessness that frightened her) #he needed to di+inish it to so+ething a!!roaching ci-ilised restraint) &His ! r!ose "asn&t to har+ +e) He had an acco+!lice "ith a ca+era)& Dark* nearl% black e%es ass +ed an al+ost !redator% alertness) The shrill so nd of the tele!hone +ade her $ +!* and she stared in +es+erised fascination at the bath, roo+ e1tension) &Pick it ! "hen I lift the bedroo+ connection)& Each "ord "as a harsh directi-e she didn&t think to ignore* and she "atched* "ide,e%ed* as (enedict . ickl% crossed to the bedside !edestal) Her +o-e+ents s%nchronised "ith his* she reached o t and lifted the recei-er) &Gabbi Nicols)&

&Gabrielle)& Her na+e "as a distincti-e ! rr on the line* and Gabbi&s fingers tightened +eas rabl%) &Annaliese*& she greeted ca tio sl%) &I ha-e in +% !ossession !hotos "hich sho" %o in a state of re+arkable dishabille* +on enfant)& It "as al+ost !ossible to see Annaliese&s cr el s+ile) &Co!ies of the+ "ill be des!atched to (enedict b% co rier an ho r after his ret rn to+orro") Together "ith a file on Ton% detailing his career as a !rofessional escort)& #he !a sed* then added "ith delicate e+!hasis* &And listing other ser-ices he&s onl% too "illing to !ro-ide for a !rice)& Gabbi felt sick at the tho ght of being a -icti+ of so + ch hatred) &Lost for "ords* darling2& &#!eechless)& A tinkle of brittle la ghter so nded do"n the line) &If %o had taken +e serio sl%* it "o ldn&t ha-e been necessar% to go this far)& Gabbi tightened her gri! on the recei-er) &Don&t be s r!rised if Ton% hits %o ! for danger +one%) He recei-ed a knee in the groin and a fe" dee! scratches)& &The !hotogra!hs are "orth it) #ho" a little "isdo+ and start !acking*& Annaliese s ggested "ith saccharine s"eetness) &(enedict4& &3ill be shocked at the e-idence)& &/es)& There "as a +o+entar% silence) &/o can !resent +e "ith the !hotos and the file !ersonall%* Annaliese*& (enedict directed in a -oice so silk,s+ooth it sent shi-ers sc dding do"n the length of Gabbi&s s!ine) &If %o &re "ise* %o &ll be "aiting at %o r front door "ith the+ in %o r hand ten +in tes fro+ no") After "hich %o &ll e1!lain to Moni. e and 0a+es that %o &-e recei-ed an rgent call fro+ %o r agent de+anding %o r !resence else"here) #o rgent*& he contin ed "ith deadl% softness* &that %o need to board a !lane to+orro") I&ll arrange the airline ticket) &If %o sho ld be s fficientl% foolish to set foot in #%dne% again I&ll la% charges against %o for assa lt and e1tortion) And don&t*& he ad-ised icil%* &! t a "arning call thro gh to the infa+o s Ton%) There isn&t a !lace he can go that I "on&t e-ent all% find hi+) Do "e nderstand each other2& (enedict re!laced the recei-er "ith s ch care* Gabbi felt afraid) 3ith n +bed fingers she re!laced the bathroo+ recei-er onto the "all handset) Her e%es "ere i+!ossibl% large as he crossed the roo+* and she "as !o"erless to tter so + ch as a "ord "hen he lo"ered his head do"n to hers and took re-erent !ossession of her +o th) &I&ll be back)& Then he "as gone* "ith a s"iftness that +ade her shi-er) 3ithin +in tes she heard an engine start !* and the refined ! rr as the car headed to"ards the gates) Then silence) Gabbi discarded the to"el and selected a !air of i-or% satin !%$a+as) #he crossed to the large bed and t rned back the co-ering) Then she sank do"n onto the stool in front of the +irrored dressing table and !icked ! her hairbr sh) It "as t"ent%,fi-e +in tes later "hen (enedict re,entered the bedroo+* and her ar+ slo"ed to a faltering halt as he +o-ed to her side)

Her +o th tre+bled "hen he re+o-ed the br sh fro+ her hand) &3here are the%2& 3as that her -oice2 It so nded so h shed it "as al+ost indistinct) &I destro%ed the+*& (enedict said gentl%) #he had to ask) &Did %o look at the+2& His hands c r-ed o-er her sho lders) &/es)& Her e%es filled* and she barel% ke!t the tears at ba%) &I i+agine the% "ere4& &Da+ning)& A + scle contracted in one cheek) &3o ld %o ha-e belie-ed42& &No)& He to ched a finger to her cheek* then trailed its ti! to the corner of her +o th) &The% "ere intended to be held against %o as black+ail)& He traced the f llness of her lo"er li!) &3hat "as the !rice* Gabbi2& &Me*& she enlightened hi+ "ith stark honest%) &O t of %o r life)& His hand slid to her throat and caressed the soft hollo"s at its base) @/o i+agined I "o ld let %o go2& &Annaliese "as co nting on it)& His fingers slid to the to! b tton of her !%$a+a shirt and dealt "ith it* before sli!!ing do"n to the ne1t one) The second b tton slid free* as did the third and last) Gentl%* he ! lled the satin shirt free fro+ her ar+s) Gabbi "atched his e%es darken as the% rested on the !ink s+ dges +arking each !ale globe) &It&s to be ho!ed the infa+o s Ton% "as "ell !aid) E1!ert +edical care can be e1!ensi-e)& Her +o th o!ened* then closed again as he br shed it "ith his o"n) #he shi-ered at the e1tent of his !o"er) At ho" . ickl% he co ld e1ert it* and ho" far it co ld reach) &/o ca+e ho+e earl%*& Gabbi "his!ered) &3h%2& His li!s c r-ed) &(eca se I didn&t "ant to s!end another night a"a% fro+ %o )& Dnbidden* the tears "elled ! and s!illed* trickling do"n each cheek in t"in ri- lets) Gentle fingers tilted her chin* and she felt the to ch of his +o th as it trailed one cheek* then the other* before he kissed each e%elid in t rn) &Don&t*& (enedict bade her . ietl%) #he "anted to sa% she lo-ed hi+) The "ords ho-ered near the edge of her li!s* b t re+ained ns!oken) &To+orro" +orning "e&re fl%ing o t to Ha"aii)& A !rotest rose to her li!s) &The office4& &Can get b% "itho t s*& (enedict ass red her as he scoo!ed her into his ar+s) &The Gibson deal4& &0a+es "ill handle it)& &(enedict4& &#h t !*& he ordered softl% as he sank do"n onto the bed "ith her cradled on his la!) Her ! lse lea!t then accelerated to a faster beat as his +o th br shed her te+!le then slid to the sensiti-e hollo" beneath her ear) #he felt sec re) And !rotected) ?or no"* it "as eno gh) Gabbi&s fingers "orked the knot on his tie* then slid to the b ttons on his shirt) &I need to feel %o r skin ne1t to +ine)& (enedict !laced her caref ll% against the nest of !illo"s* then straightened to his

feet) He didn&t h rr%* and she "atched e-er% +o-e+ent as he di-ested hi+self of one gar+ent after the other) Then he ca+e do"n onto the bed and ! lled her to lie beside hi+) He !ro!!ed hi+self ! on an elbo" and e1a+ined the soft +o th* the bl e e%es looking at hi+ "ith nblinking sole+nit%) &Do %o "ant to talk2& Gabbi considered the . estion* then slo"l% shook her head) To+orro"* +a%be) Tonight she "anted the reass rance of his ar+s aro nd her* his bod% inti+atel% $oined to hers) Lifting a hand* she trailed his cheek "ith tentati-e fingers* and her e%es "idened fractionall% as he ca ght and carried the+ to his li!s) 3ith infinite care he kissed the+* one b% one* before tra-ersing to the bones at her "rist) Then he released her hand and bent his head to her breast* caressing each br ise "ith his +o th) &(enedict)& He lifted his head and +et her ga'e in silent . er%) &I need %o *& she said . ietl%* and sa" desire flare in the dark e%es close to her o"n) Her hands lifted to encircle his neck* and her +o th tre+bled beneath the soft to ch of his before the !ress re increased) His tong e "as an in-asi-e entit% as it e1!lored the soft tiss es* and she felt hi+ tense as he fo nd the abrasions "here Ton% had briefl% gro nd his +o th against her o"n* heard the lo" gro"l of his anger* and so ght to soothe it) The slo" re-erence of his lo-e+aking +ade her "ant to cr%* and after"ards she sle!t in his ar+s* her head !illo"ed against his chest) CHAPTER ELE5EN 3aikiki (each "as a glorio s sight) Dee! bl e ocean* "hite sand* "ith + lti, le-el high,rise hotels and a!art+ent b ildings lining the foreshore) There "ere beaches to e. al and s r!ass it in A stralia* and +an% belie-ed F eensland&s Gold Coast to be co+!arable to Honol l ) The cli+ate "as si+ilar* the designer bo ti. es +an% and -aried* b t it "as the cos+o!olitan !o! lation and the friendl% Ha"aiian !eo!le "hich fascinated Gabbi) It "asn&t her first -isit nor* she ho!ed* "o ld it be her last) (enedict had chosen the Ro%al Ha"aiian hotel* kno"n as the &!ink !alace& d e to its !ink,"ashed e1terior) Originall% ho+e to Ha"aiian ro%alt%* it held an a ra of tradition and ti+elessness* and "as ni. e in co+!arison to the +an% +odern hotels bordering the foreshore) Cr%stal chandeliers feat red in the fo%er* and there "as an ab ndance of l 1 rio s Oriental rose,!ink car!ets) Gracio s "as a "ord that s!rang to +ind* Gabbi decided as she sank into a chair and ordered a -irgin !ifia colada fro+ the ho-ering drinks "aiter) ?i-e da%s of blissf l rela1ation had done "onders to re!air her !eace of +ind* she + sed as she ga'ed idl% o t to sea) Caref l s nbathing had colo red her skin to a "ar+ hone%,gold) (% tacit agree+ent* the%&d a-oided the to rist attractions* choosing instead to co++ission a li+o sine "ith dri-er for a da% to dri-e ro nd the +ain island)

#ho!!ing "asn&t a !riorit%* altho gh she had e1!lored so+e of the bo ti. es and +ade a fe" ! rchases) &?eel like sharing2& Gabbi ! shed her s nglasses ! on to! of her head as she t rned to"ards (enedict) &M% !ifia colada2& she co ntered "ith a teasing s+ile) &/o &-e been dee! in tho ght for the !ast fi-e +in tes*& he dra"led) Gabbi allo"ed her ga'e to "ander to"ards a %o ng "o+an "hose slender* +odel,!ro!ortioned c r-es "ere nadorned e1ce!t for a black thong,bikini brief) Tall* gorgeo s and tanned* she see+ed intent on s!ending e. al ti+e anointing her fir+ bod% "ith oil and "orshi!!ing the s n) &I "as $ st s r-e%ing the scene*& she said easil%) &And "ondering "here %o &re taking +e to dinner)& &H ngr%2& ?or %o ) Onl% %o ) 3as it s ch a sin to "ant to be "ith one +an so badl%2 To la gh* !leas re* lo-e hi+ so + ch that he beca+e the -er% air that she breathed2 &/es)& #he "rinkled her nose at hi+) &I think it + st be all the fresh sea air and s nshine)& A s+ile lifted the edges of his +o th) &/o get to choose)& &#o+e"here e1otic* I think)& &Define >e1otic>)& &#oft lights* drea+% + sic* e1. isitel% !resented food and4& she !a sed* her e%es filling "ith "icked "ar+th &4black,s ited "aiters "ho look as if the%&re $ st "aiting to be disco-ered b% so+e international fil+,st dio e1ec ti-e)& His e%elids droo!ed fractionall%* and his e1!ression "as dece!ti-el% indolent) &/o ha-e a !artic lar resta rant in +ind2& A soft b bble of la ghter e+erged fro+ her throat) &/es) It "ill be interesting to disco-er if one !artic lar "aiter still "orks there) He dis!la%ed s ch flair* s ch !anache)& Her e%es glea+ed "ith irre!ressible h +o r) &Definitel% sigh +aterial)& &And did he sigh o-er %o 2& &No +ore than that attracti-e* scantil% clad br nette is sighing at the sight of %o )& #he hadn&t +issed the -eiled interest or the s btle !reening as the sli+,c r-ed bea t% dis!la%ed her !erfect bod%) (enedict&s ga'e ski++ed to the girl in . estion* assessed and dis+issed her* and ret rned to Gabbi) &Pleasant to look at)& &Is that all %o ha-e to sa%2& His e%es "ere dark* sl +bero s) &#he&s not %o )& A fli!!ant res!onse rose to her li!s* and died before it co ld be -oiced) &3ords are eas%*& she +anaged after a long silence) &There&s an a1io+ abo t actions s!eaking lo der than "ords*& he offered* and she held his ga'e* s ddenl% bra-e) &Ma%be I need both)& He leaned for"ard in his chair and s r-e%ed her e1!ressi-e feat res) &A -erbal attestation of lo-e2& Gabbi tried for nonchalance and failed) &Onl% if %o +ean it)& #he tore her e%es

a"a% fro+ his and looked be%ond the !ink and "hite stri!ed cano!ies fronting the terrace to the distant hori'on) It see+ed as if she&d "aited ages for this !recise +o+ent) ( t no" that it had co+e she "asn&t s re she "as read%) The breath see+ed locked in her throat* s s!ending her breathing* and she "as obli-io s to the !eo!le aro nd the+* the d ll chatter of -oices* the soft backgro nd + sic) &Look at +e)& It "as a softl% -oiced co++and she chose not to ignore) His feat res a!!eared sc l!ted* the glea+ of artificial and fading nat ral light accent ating the strong !lanes and angles* toning his skin a dee!er shade and highlighting the darkness of his hair) ?or one brief second she "as re+inded of boardroo+ +eetings "here a glance fro+ those dee! dark e%es co ld lance a colleag e&s facade and red ce hi+ to a . i-ering* inartic late fool) &Lo-e* Gabbi2& A slo"* "ar+ s+ile lightened his feat res* and she ca ght a gli+!se of the !assion* the desire) And the need) &I don&t "ant to s!end a da%* a night "itho t %o b% +% side) /o &re s nshine and la ghter)& He took hold of her hand and bro ght her !al+ to his li!s and besto"ed an e-ocati-e* o!en,+o thed kiss on its centre) &3ar+th and lo-e) E-er%thing)& Heat co rsed thro gh her -eins* sensitising ner-e cells ntil her "hole bod% "as an aching entit% de+anding his to ch) The "ords that had lain i+!risoned in her heart for so long see+ed hesitant to e+erge) #he s"allo"ed* and sa" that his e%es follo"ed the +o-e+ent) A faint s+ile t gged at the corners of his +o th) &Is it so diffic lt to reci!rocate2& he . eried gentl%) Gabbi looked at hi+ caref ll%) #he hadn&t e1!ected to find - lnerabilit% in an% for+) /et it "as there* in his e%es) A "aiting* "atchf l . alit% that allo"ed her a gli+!se of his inner so l) There "as a sense of "onder in the kno"ledge that she "as !robabl% the onl% one "ho "o ld e-er be !er+itted to "itness it) &The first da% %o entered the boardroo+*& she began . ietl%* &it "as the e+bodi+ent of e-er% cliche)& An i+!ish s+ile c r-ed her +o th) &Electric) I don&t re+e+ber a "ord I said) /et %o r "ords sta%ed engra-ed in +% +ind) E-er% gest re* e-er% s+ile)& #he reached ! and to ched the !al+ of her hand to his $a") &3hen 0a+es in-ited %o to dinner* I think I kne"* e-en then* the idea for+ lating in his +ind) It sho ld ha-e +attered) ( t it didn&t*& she said si+!l%) (enedict "atched the !la% of e+otions in her e1!ressi-e e%es) The% held fe" secrets fro+ hi+) #oon the% "o ld hold none) &I fell in lo-e "ith %o ) Not Conrad Nicols& son heir) If I hadn&t felt like that* I "o ld ne-er ha-e agreed to +arriage)& @/et %o chose to establish a facade*& he ! rs ed* her e%es re+ained stead%) @Moni. e congrat lated +e after the "edding)& The "ords "ere al+ost !ainf l as she forced the+ !ast the l +! in her throat) &On "inning an e+inentl% s ccessf l h sband) I hadn&t realised +arr%ing %o "as a co+!etition* or that Annaliese had been a contender)& The lea! of anger "as clearl% e-ident in the de!ths of his e%es) &/o belie-ed

her2& &It all see+ed to fit)& Too "ell* Gabbi reflected) &Moni. e is 0a+es&s "ife) I "o ld ne-er sa% or do an%thing to destro% his ha!!iness)& &I don&t share %o r generosit%)& &I can afford to be genero s*& she said gentl%) And it "as tr e) The light "as fading to d sk) Alread% the candles "ere being lit o tside on the terrace tables* and electric la+!s !ro-ided a "elco+e glo") A faint s+ile tilted the edges of Gabbi&s +o th) &Are %o going to feed +e2& His feat res softened) &3e co ld al"a%s order Roo+ #er-ice)& The s+ile dee!ened) &The food is s !erb at the #heraton 3aikiki&s resta rant)& #et on a high floor* the resta rant offered !anora+ic -ie"s fro+ e-er% "indo") #he cast hi+ a teasing glance) &3e co ld dance a little* linger o-er coffee)& &If that&s "hat %o "ant)& #he la ghed* a light* b bbl% so nd that echoed her ha!!iness and dee!ened the teasing glea+ in her e%es) &It&ll s ffice* for a fe" ho rs)& &And after"ards2& &3e ha-e the night)& A lo" ch ckle esca!ed fro+ his throat) &#o nds interesting)& Gabbi fo ght the te+!tation to lean for"ard and kiss hi+) &/o can co nt on it)& #he +ade no !rotest as he stood and ! lled her to her feet) Then together the% "alked do"n to the +ain entrance and crossed the !ath to the #heraton 3aikiki hotel) It "as earl%* and there "as a choice of se-eral e+!t% tables) Gabbi chose one b% the "indo"* and (enedict ordered cha+!agne4Cristal) The food "as !resented "ith i+aginati-e flair* and each co rse "as a s !erb attestation to the chefs c linar% skill) &Magical*& Gabbi declared as she glanced at the fair% tracer% of lit high,rise b ildings lining the darkening foreshore as it c r-ed to"ards Dia+ond Head) &/es)& E1ce!t (enedict "asn&t looking at the -ie") A delicate bl sh colo red her cheeks at the degree of "ar+th e-ident as his ga'e lingered on her feat res) &#hall "e dance2& 3hen the% reached the dance floor he gathered her close* and she +elted against hi+* nselfconscio sl% lifting her ar+s to link her hands together at his na!e) The + sic "as slo" and drea+%* the lights lo"* and she rested against hi+ as the% drifted together) Her bod% stirred* "ar+ing "ith the !ro+ise of !assion) It "as . ite re+arkable* she + sed* ho" she co ld al+ost feel the blood co rsing thro gh her -eins* the hea-%* faster beat of her heart) And the kindling fire dee! "ithin her that slo"l% in-aded e-er% ner-e* e-er% cell* ntil she "as a"are of nothing else b t a dee!* !h%sical need for +ore than his to ch) /et there "as a certain !leas re in dela%ing the +o+ent "hen the% "o ld lea-e and "ander back to their s ite) It heightened the senses* dee!ened the desire* and slo"l% dro-e her "ild) His breath "his!ered against her ear) &Let&s get o t of here)& #he lifted her face and br shed his li!s "ith her o"n) &#oon)& As soon as the% reached their table a "aiter a!!eared) @3o ld %o care for coffee2 A li. e r2&

(enedict deferred the decision to Gabbi* and his e%es ass +ed a + sing glea+ "hen she agreed "ith the "aiter that a li. e r coffee "o ld be an e1cellent choice "ith "hich to end the +eal) It "as late "hen the% entered their s ite* and Gabbi slid off her heeled sandals* then reached to loosen the !ins confining her hair) His hands closed o-er her sho lders and ! lled her close* then he lo"ered his head and took !ossession of her +o th) Heat s ff sed her bod%* bringing it achingl% ali-e) A tin% groan e+erged fro+ her throat as his li!s slid do"n the sensiti-e cord of her neck* teased the hollo"s* then trailed the edge of her go"n) La%er b% la%er the% slo"l% dis!ensed "ith their clothes* and Gabbi stifled a +oan as (enedict began a slo" tasting of each breast before tracing a !ath do"n to sa-o r the +ost inti+ate cre-ice of all) #he felt the initial "a-e of sensation and gloried in and ca ght the ne1t* e1 lting in each s ccessi-e contraction as she rode higher and higher before soaring o-er the !reci!ice to sens al nir-ana) It "as so intensel% erotic that her "hole bod% shook "ith e+otional in-ol-e+ent* and after"ards she la% still* en$o%ing the gentle drift of his fingers o-er )her skin) 3ith one sin o s +o-e+ent she rose ! and !laced her li!s against his* initiating a long* e-ocati-e kiss) No" it "as his t rn* and she took her ti+e* treas ring each indra"n breath* e-er% tensed + scle* the faint so nd dee! in his throat as she teased and tantalised) #o + ch !o"er* harnessed* %et al+ost totall% beneath her control) It "as a head% sensation to take hi+ to the brink* and see ho" long she co ld hold hi+ there before he t +bled her do"n beside hi+) His !ossession "as s"ift* and she gas!ed at the le-el of his !enetration* arching again and again as she rose to +eet each dee! thr st) After"ards he rolled onto his back* carr%ing her "ith hi+* and he cradled her close* his li!s br shing across her te+!le as he trailed his fingers la'il% ! and do"n her s!ine) &I lo-e %o )& #he felt f lfilled and at !eace) Gone "ere the agonising aftertho ghts* the "ishf l longing for so+ething +ore) (enedict slid a hand beneath her chin and so ght her +o th "ith his o"n in a slo"* s"eet kiss) After"ards she settled her head do"n onto his chest) &Co+fortable2& >M++)> she + r+ red slee!il%) &3ant +e toH)I Gentle fingers stroked thro gh her hair) &No)& Gabbi s+iled and !ressed her li!s into the hollo" at the base of his throat) This "as as close to hea-en as it "as !ossible to get) Ho" do %o feel abo t babies2& @In general2& @O rs)& The fingers stilled) &Are %o tr%ing to tell +e so+ething2& Her li!s teased a !ath along his collarbone) &It sho ld be a + t al decision* don&t %o think2&

&Gabbi)& Her na+e e+erged as a soft gro"l* and she s+iled) &Is that a %es* or a no2& &Of co rse4%es) The tho ght of %o enceinte is eno gh to4& A h sk% la gh esca!ed fro+ her throat) &M++*& she + r+ red a!!reciati-el% as she felt his length harden and e1tend dee! "ithin her) &# ch a !ositi-e reaction)& (enedict&s !ossession of her +o th "as an e-ocati-e e1!erience* and she sighed as she trailed a b tterfl% caress along the edge of his $a") @I&d like to contin e +% role "ith #tanton,Nicols) ?le1ibilit%* an office at ho+e "hen I&+ !regnant and after"ards)))& #he deliberated* her e1!ressi-e e%es beco+ing !ensi-e) &Once the children are in school I&d like to ret rn to the cit%) Part,ti+e*& she added* kno"ing she&d "ant to be ho+e to greet the+* to be in-ol-ed in their e1tra, c rric lar acti-ities) #he ind lged herself in a fleeting i+age of a s+all* dark,haired bo%* a !etite* !ale, haired girl) (all !ractice* s"i++ing lessons* ballet* + sic* g%+nastics) Ho+e"ork) 3alks in the !ark* !icnics at the beach) La ghter) ?a+il%) And (enedict) Dear God* al"a%s (enedict at her side) &I lo-e %o *& Gabbi reiterated . ietl%) (enedict kissed her dee!l%* then slo"l% rolled ntil she la% beneath hi+) &/o &re +% life*& he ass red her si+!l%* and kissed her again) #he ga-e a satisfied sigh as he began to +o-e* and she linked her hands together behind his neck) Magic* she concl ded a long ti+e later as she la% c r-ed close against his side) #heer +agic) The +erging of t"o bodies* t"o so ls* in a + t al e1!loration of !leas re) And lo-e) Al"a%s lo-e)

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