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Da Rocha's Convenient Heir

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‘ARE YOU WORRIED about something?’ Freddie asked Claire gently, striving to redirect her anxiety about meeting up with Zac in an hour’s time towards something hopefully less threatening to her peace of mind. ‘You’ve seemed so preoccupied lately...’

Her aunt, a brunette with her hair tied up in a casual ponytail, shrugged a shoulder and almost squirmed in her seat beneath Freddie’s troubled appraisal. ‘Oh, you know...things get on top of me sometimes.’

‘You must miss Richard,’ Freddie said sympathetically, because Claire’s boyfriend had recently gone out to Spain to help his parents set up the business they had bought out there. At the same time he was expected home within days.

‘Obviously,’ Claire muttered rather cuttingly, rising from the kitchen table with heightened colour in her cheeks. ‘I’ve got some emails to catch up on. See you later.’

And there it was, the refusal to spill the beans again, Freddie reflected ruefully while wondering if she should simply mind her own business because the two women had never been best friends who shared everything. Furthermore, didn’t she have enough to worry about?

Ever since she had made that agreement with Zac da Rocha, she had been regretting it. Her worst sin was impulsiveness. What if the guy turned nasty? From his point of view, she would be wasting his time and he would probably refuse to cough up the money he had offered, so all she was likely to do was embarrass herself and infuriate him. Was that wise when he could—possibly—be her employer? Ridiculous as it still seemed to Freddie, the rumour of his ownership of the hotel was spreading in spite of the fact that for some strange reason he apparently didn’t want anyone to know.

Regret and uncertainty stabbing at her nerves, she had tried to take a rain check on the arrangement she had made with him by text, but Zac was set on denying her any wriggle room while adding that he was looking forward to seeing her, which, in the circumstances, only made Freddie feel worse because by no stretch of the imagination was it going to be a date.

Yet, for all that awareness, Freddie found herself taking more care with her appearance than she usually did on such trips. Her hair was freshly washed and she put on her best jeans and newest top while also ensuring that the children looked presentable. Eloise danced alongside the buggy containing Jack because she adored the park where she could swing and run about. Freddie approached the bench by the central fountain where she had arranged to meet Zac and breathed in deep and slow.

‘Who we meeting?’ Eloise demanded again.

‘A man. A...a friend,’ Freddie fibbed.

‘Name?’ Eloise pressed.

‘It’s Zac,’ Freddie told her reluctantly, fairly sure that Zac would not last five minutes in their company once he registered that she had called his bluff in the most basic way possible. Did he even have a sense of humour?

Freddie stood up to pace the instant she saw Zac in the distance. He was so tall he was easy to spot. Jack grizzled to get out of the buggy and, with a sigh, she freed him, praying that she could keep him out of the water because she had not brought spare clothing out with her. Jack had confounded all expectations by getting up and walking at ten months old on his sturdy little legs. He had never crawled, he had just pulled himself up to walk and Freddie had discovered that her baby boy was suddenly a toddler with even less wit than the average toddler because he was still so young.

Eloise pushed the empty buggy along the path, Jack at her side. Freddie focussed on Zac’s approach, her heart beating very, very fast until it reached such a pitch that even breathing became a challenge. It was nerves, she told herself. He strode with the innate fluidity of a predator and she was hyperaware of every facet of him: the blue-black hair blowing back from his bronzed and perfect features, the sheer beauty of his bold masculinity in the sunlight, those strikingly light eyes of his, the colour of which she was still unsure of, glittering with the same charisma as his wide slashing smile. Oh, heavens, he was going to hate her, she thought with a sudden sharp pang of regret that startled her.

* * *

Were those kids with her? Surely not, Zac reasoned, deeming her too young for such a role while glancing around hopefully for another adult and failing to see one in the vicinity. They were her kids? She had kids? And not just a modest single one, but two? Inferno, what had he got himself into? But Zac had always been a quick study and light on his feet and he was careful not to betray an ounce of his discomfiture while feasting his attention on the slender blonde by the fountain. It was her body, he told himself urgently, just something about those seemingly fragile little bones and tiny curves that hugely turned him on. Or maybe it was the hair, thick and streaky blonde and definitely natural in his opinion, long twirling strands with a slight wave shifting in the breeze. Or was it the face, the unexpectedly dark eyes that were so much more unusual with that hair colour than blue? Or that incredibly voluptuous pink mouth of hers that left him painfully turned on?

Meu Deus, she was finally smiling at him and it lit up her solemn little face like the sun. True, the smile was a tad awkward and stiff, which it ought to be, considering that she had set him up with two kids in tow. Involuntarily, Zac was amused for no woman had ever tried to block him with children before, and he also knew that if he had known in advance what her reservations related to he would have run a mile, because kids and the freedom he valued so highly didn’t work together at all. And how the hell could she even try to fulfil the bet with Vitale for him with two little kids around? To his intense annoyance, the possibility of retaining his precious sports car seemed to move further out of his grasp.

‘Well, you said you wanted to get to know me,’ Freddie reminded him with more than a little desperation, for the silence had stretched far longer than she could be comfortable with.

‘And this is my life pretty much...the kids.’

Zac watched her settle down on the bench while the little girl hovered with huge dark eyes below her mop of blonde curls and the baby clung to her knees. ‘What do you call them?’ he asked.

‘I’m Eloise,’ the little girl informed him importantly while lifting up her dress to show off her underwear.

‘Eloise, leave your dress alone,’ Freddie interposed.

‘And you’re Auntie Freddie’s friend, Zac,’ Eloise completed, skipping over to him to grab his bare arm where a tattoo of a dragon writhed. ‘What’s that?’

‘A dragon.’

‘Like in my storybook?’ Eloise screamed with excitement.

‘And this is Jack,’ Freddie supplied, her face pink with embarrassment.

Auntie Freddie?’ Zac queried, his hopes rising afresh while the little girl clambered uninvited onto his lap, the better to examine his tattoo.

‘Get down, Eloise,’ Freddie instructed.

Eloise ignored her. Zac lifted the child down onto the bench between them and extended his arm in the slender hope of getting some peace.

‘I can’t really talk about it here with little ears,’ Freddie admitted awkwardly, wondering if ever a woman had been more punished for trying to outface a man. ‘But my sister...er...passed last year.’

‘And there’s no one else?’ Zac pressed, insanely conscious of the little girl’s eyes clinging to his.

‘Well, there’s my aunt, Claire, who’s twenty-eight and their official foster carer, but my agreement with her is that she’s the official but I do the caring,’ Freddie volunteered in a horrid rush that mortified her because she felt as if she were apologising for her unavailability. ‘As you know I work evenings, so there’s really no room in my life for anything else.’

‘I’m not still trying to...gave up on that,’ Zac lied.

He had so many tells when he lied, Freddie recognised, noting the downward shift of his outrageously long black lashes, the evasive gaze, the clenching of one hand on a long, powerful thigh. Yes, he was still interested in her but currently pretending not to be for some strange reason.

‘So, why did you want to meet up, then?’ she enquired, striving not to sound sarcastic because he had taken the presence of the kids like a gentleman, even if she was convinced that he was far from being one.

Jack wobbled over to him like a homing pigeon and clutched at both his knees, beaming up at Zac with a sunny Jack smile of acceptance. Zac unfroze and stood up with care, trying not to dislodge Jack. ‘Let’s walk,’ he suggested. ‘It’ll occupy the children.’

It was well timed, with both her niece and nephew treating him like a wonderful and mesmerising new toy. When she had made the decision to meet Zac in the park with the children, it should have occurred to her that Eloise and Jack would be fascinated with him because they very rarely had any contact with men. Claire had complained bitterly about the way they hogged her boyfriend’s attention when he came round.

‘We’ll move on to the playground,’ she agreed, lifting Jack, who wailed in protest and putting him back into the buggy.

Finding himself in possession of a trusting little girl’s hand, Zac strode along the path below the trees, trying and failing to slow his stride to match Eloise’s tiny steps. Without further ado, he began telling Freddie about his bet with his brother, Vitale.

‘My goodness, that’s so childish...what age are you?’ Freddie asked in sincere wonderment.


‘Really?’ Her wondering gaze grew even wider.

‘Maybe it’s a boy thing, but I just can’t imagine making such a crazy bet and risking losing something I valued out of pride.’

His nostrils flaring, Zac computed that far from complimentary comment and drew in a long steadying breath before continuing, ‘Vitale was the guy I was with the day you had your...episode,’ he selected finally, shooting her a sidewise glance.

‘Oh, you mean when I screamed and shouted at you?’ Freddie translated with unexpected amusement. ‘Yeah, it was a rough day after too many rough days in a row...sorry about that. So, your brother was the nice guy?’

Zac jerked his chin in affirmation even while his temper rocketed at that unjust designation being bestowed on Vitale. What was so bloody nice about Vitale? His half-brother had hushed her like a sympathetic audience and every word he had spoken had been fake as hell! Hadn’t she realised that? Was she blind or deaf? He wasn’t fake or a smoothie like Vitale! But were those qualities what she found attractive in a man?

‘And the nice guy who was present when you broke down,’ Zac enunciated with raw precision, ‘bet me that I couldn’t bring you “all lovelorn and clingy”, as he put it, to his precious royal ball at the end of this month.’

As Eloise released Zac’s hand to race off ahead of them to the swings, Freddie stopped dead with the buggy, her face a mask of shock. ‘Me?’

‘And suitably polished up to royal standards,’ Zac said with even greater scorn.

‘I don’t do lovelorn and clingy,’ Freddie muttered blankly, still struggling simply to accept that Zac could have a brother with some sort of royal connection. ‘Are the two of you crazy competitors or something?’

‘Or something,’ Zac fielded non-committally. ‘But I’m here today because I was wondering if, for a very generous price—’

‘No,’ Freddie slotted in flatly straight away. ‘And don’t embarrass me by quoting figures! I was annoyed with you last week when you offered to pay me for an hour of my time and I wanted to teach you a lesson by landing you with me and the kids, but this paying me nonsense has to stop now.’

Zac frowned, level black brows pleating, his bewilderment patent. ‘But why?’

And he didn’t get it, he really didn’t get that it was offensive to try and buy people like products, she registered in frustration. ‘Because it’s wrong.’

His eyes were a very light, almost crystalline blue in the sunshine, she marvelled as he stared down at her, her brain momentarily a complete blank. ‘You accept my tips,’ he reminded her stubbornly.

‘Because the tips go into a communal pot for all the staff and when I turned your tip down the first time, it naturally annoyed the other wait staff,’ Freddie explained. ‘That’s why I returned and accepted it and didn’t refuse again.’

Zac was furious at the explanation and immediately resolved to change the rules in the bar, so that Freddie got to keep her own tips: her sneakers were faded and had a hole in one toe. Even the buggy was threadbare—in fact all three of them looked poverty-stricken in comparison to the children he saw around the hotel. Jack lurched out of the buggy again and headed straight for his knees and Zac let him cling, grudgingly impressed by the baby’s huge smile. Jack definitely knew how to make friends. Zac’s wide, full mouth compressed.

‘Obviously... I mean, I assume,’ Freddie stumbled, unable to read the sleek, taut lines of Zac’s darkly handsome face and trying not to offend, ‘you’re not short of money but people who are short of money have pride too.’

‘But if I’ve got it and you need it, it’s a simple exchange and not offensive,’ Zac incised with ringing, argumentative conviction.

‘I won’t take that thousand pounds under any circumstances because it is wrong and it would make me feel like a con artist! Or like a person you could buy, like a hooker or something!’ Freddie declared vehemently.

Passion fired her eyes to glowing gold, Zac noted absently, the fit of his jeans tightening as a wave of desire washed over his body. ‘But that’s not how I think of you,’ he objected in a driven tone, wondering why absolutely everything had to be so infuriatingly complicated with her and hating it. He was reminded of Vitale and all his many dos and don’ts, which prevented his half-brother from enjoying the freedom that Zac cherished.

‘How could you feel like a hooker when I haven’t even touched you?’ Zac asked thickly, thinking about touching her to such an extent that even a vacant swing was pushing him into highly inappropriate fantasies.

Freddie’s heart was hammering again. Those eyes of his filled her vision, full of glitter and a kind of wild rebellion that was strangely appealing to a young woman who always, always played safe. She so badly wanted him to understand her point of view that she wanted to shake him into properly listening, which she knew he wasn’t doing.

Eu quero voce... I want you,’ Zac growled in English the instant he realised what he had spoken in his own language. ‘Why is that wrong?’

‘I didn’t say it was wrong!’ Freddie gasped. ‘I said it was wrong to try and use money to tempt me.’

Zac was on firmer ground now and he extended a hand to wind long brown fingers very slowly through the fall of her hair, his every hunting instinct on high alert in an adrenalin charge beyond anything he had ever experienced. ‘But you already want me,’ he contended with devastating assurance. ‘You wanted me the first time you saw me, so why are we still arguing about it?’

And Freddie deflated as suddenly as a balloon that had had an unfortunate collision with a pin. Colour surged hotly up her face in a crimson tide. That he should know that with such appalling certainty, that he should feel in his bones what she had studiously denied even to herself, shook her rigid and utterly silenced her.

Zac tugged her closer and bent his arrogant dark head lower and lower until he finally found her mouth, where the sultry sweet taste of her released a surge of such powerful lust he trembled with it. He eased her up into his arms, ignoring Jack’s pleas to be lifted, indeed forgetting the child’s very existence.

Freddie had never ever had a kiss of that magnitude. Admittedly, life had ensured that she had not had the opportunity to have many kisses, but when she got her arms wrapped round Zac’s neck for the merest fraction of a second she felt as if she never ever wanted to let go because she felt safe, safe for the first time since she had lost her parents, safe as if nothing bad could ever happen to her again. And that unholy kiss, the passionate pressure of that wide, sensual mouth on hers, the plunge of his tongue, that tiny provocative flick he performed across the roof of her mouth... All of a sudden, Freddie wanted what she had never wanted before and she wanted it so very badly, an ache stirred between her slender thighs, heat bursting in her pelvis, her nipples tightening so hard and fast it prickled and hurt.

Zac set her down on the ground again, vindicated in his every claim, rejoicing in her responsiveness, wishing he had had the chance to demonstrate their potential chemistry when he had first met her. Showing worked better for him than telling, he acknowledged, now in a good enough mood to scoop up a red-faced, crying Jack and hold him against his shoulder to console him for being ignored.

Freddie almost fell over when Zac returned her to earth. She was dizzy, disorientated, her brain refusing to function, her legs wobbling while her mouth felt swollen and hot. Her hands clenched into fists because she wanted to hit Zac for that lethal demonstration of power over her. Her pride was stung, her heart was still racing and for one unforgivable instant she had forgotten the children. Eloise was shouting to be pushed on the swing and Jack? Jack, astonishingly, she registered, was in Zac’s arms, his little head laid down trustingly on Zac’s shoulder as the need for his morning nap overcame his little body. Since Freddie could not think of a single thing to say, she rushed over to push her niece on the swing, leaving Zac standing.

Zac scanned her stiff and flushed little face with growing annoyance. What was wrong with her now? This was why he didn’t date, didn’t chase women, didn’t ever make an effort. He thought about planting Jack back in the buggy and strapping him in and leaving, but Jack was clutching his jacket in one hand and emanating a rather endearing little snore of contentment, a contentment that would be shattered by any sudden movement. It would be good practice for him when he became a father some day, he told himself begrudgingly. His own child might be horrible; at least Jack was smiley with relatively simple needs.

Eloise, though, would be more demanding, he recognised as the little girl called for him to push her instead of her aunt and he studiously ignored the invite. And then the oddest memory occurred to him, a very early one as he cried for his mother’s attention and failed to receive it. Before he knew what he was doing, Zac had stalked over to the swings, passed Jack over to Freddie, who was still acting like a frozen popsicle, and he had taken over pushing the swing. Sometimes children should get what they wanted, he decided generously. Just because he hadn’t didn’t mean others should be disappointed too.

Freddie defrosted while Zac pushed Eloise because he was being so unexpectedly helpful and it was very immature to want to punish him for making her enjoy a kiss. What was a kiss? Or what was it about a single kiss that made her dangerously crave another? It was too risky for someone in her position, she reasoned unhappily.

‘I can’t have a fling with you!’ she whispered to Zac over the top of her niece’s head.

‘What’s a “fling”?’ Zac fielded in his usual speaking voice.

‘Work it out!’ Freddie urged impatiently.

‘But why not?’ he asked equally baldly. ‘You’re not married. You don’t have a boyfriend.’

‘We can’t talk about it here,’ Freddie incised, her colour rising again.

‘And whose fault is that? You arranged this,’ Zac reminded her harshly.

‘You were supposed to walk away and lose interest!’ Freddie flung at him accusingly, striving not to focus on that tantalisingly tempting mouth of his.

‘I’m obstinate,’ Zac declared with a sudden slashing grin of one-upmanship that emanated extraordinary charisma. ‘It takes more energy to put one over me, meu pequenino.’

Freddie dropped her head, dark streaky golden hair semi-screening her troubled expression, because she abruptly recognised that on some level she was dragging out their meeting for her own purposes and there was no point in wasting Zac’s time when she had no plans to let anything go any further. ‘Look, it’s time for us to go,’ she declared, fighting her awareness of his compelling appeal with all her might.

‘Or I could treat you to lunch.’

‘No, Jack will scream if he’s wakened,’ Freddie muttered woodenly, wondering how Zac had contrived to travel from hateful to almost bearable in the course of an hour and hurriedly squashing the pointless reflection. ‘We have to go home.’

Zac shrugged a wide shoulder and fell into step beside her as she gathered up Eloise and lowered Jack back into the buggy. ‘Aren’t you leaving?’ Freddie demanded in surprise.

‘I’ll see you home,’ Zac countered stiffly, angrily aware that his welcome seemed to have worn out, questioning why he should care when there were so many more available women around.

Freddie didn’t know how to shake him off politely and she felt she had to be polite because, whether she liked it or not, he had been a good sport and at least he was no longer trying to stuff banknotes in her direction.

‘You must have some social life,’ Zac remarked drily, walking down the small dismal street of terraced houses.

‘Not really,’ Freddie mumbled, fumbling for her key and about to unlock the door when it opened without warning and framed Claire. ‘Oh, hi, Claire!’ she began.

‘And who’s this?’

Zac extended a hand and introduced himself and Claire invited him in, completely ignoring Freddie’s frantic mute grimaces from behind him.

‘Hot, hot, hot,’ Claire whispered in surprising delight as Freddie passed by her into the cramped hall and Zac lifted in the buggy. ‘I’ll put on the kettle, shall I?’ she added with enthusiasm.

Freddie took Jack upstairs to his cot and when she went down to the lounge, Zac was drinking coffee, comfortably ensconced like a welcome guest while Claire acted as hostess. Maybe he would be attracted to Claire, she thought abruptly and then killed the suspicion, taken aback by how something visceral inside her rose in rage at that idea.

‘I’ll babysit for you so that you can go out with Zac,’ Claire announced, startling her with that unprecedented offer. ‘I keep on telling Freddie that she has to make her own life beyond the kids. You’re not working tonight, are you?’

‘Well, no, but—’

‘Thanks, Claire. I’ll pick you up at eight,’ Zac delivered, sidestepping Eloise’s offer of her dragon storybook and vaulting upright to seize the moment.

Freddie chased him into the hall but he was too quick for her, already out of the front door and down the steps before she could reach him.

‘Why did you do that?’ she returned to ask Claire. ‘I don’t want to go out with him.’

‘Of course, you do. He’s gorgeous,’ Claire parried crushingly. ‘All work and no play will make Freddie a very dull girl and if I can help you to see that I’ll be happier.’

Silenced by that assurance, reluctant to get into a disagreement with Claire, whose opinions tended to be strident, Freddie swallowed hard. She didn’t want to spend more time with Zac when she found him so attractive and was finally admitting that to herself. But pursuing that attraction in any way would be futile. She didn’t want a sleazy one-night stand with him and that was all he was after, a little recreational sex to fill a fleeting moment. That wasn’t her, would never be her. After a frightening attack in her teens, her sister had gone on to have a lot of casual sex and that was ultimately how she’d ended up with her creepy boyfriend. Freddie was still a virgin because she had had little time for a social life, but she still knew that she wouldn’t settle for a meaningless fling. She wanted feelings involved as well as mutual respect and consideration and Zac wasn’t programmed to offer any of that. She needed more before she could give her trust and if that was old-fashioned, well, she was content to be old-fashioned.

* * *

Zac was equally discomfited at the prospect of the evening ahead. He had never been on a date, had never sought that kind of relationship and hadn’t a clue how to go about it. But he had no problem in asking his other brother, Angel, for clarification when he met him out of his office for coffee that afternoon, because his Greek sibling didn’t annoy him the way Vitale did. Angel had a much more laid-back and less judgemental attitude.

‘Never?’ Angel queried in some surprise. ‘By the sound of it, your sex life is pretty basic.’

‘Very basic,’ Zac admitted without embarrassment. ‘But I really want this woman.’

‘Merry would probably be more help than me,’ Angel acknowledged wryly, referring to his new wife. ‘I screwed up very badly with her, so we never really dated as such. Take your lady for a drink or dinner, keep it casual.’

Zac’s ego was mollified by Angel’s confession, but he need not have worried because Freddie had agonised throughout the afternoon before finally texting him her suggestion that they try go-karting.

Zac was astonished by the suggestion because it seemed ridiculously boyish and competitive for a woman who struck him as ultra-feminine, but it appealed much more to his energetic nature than an evening that had to be based on conversation. It did not once occur to him that he was being managed.

* * *

Freddie was delighted by Zac’s assent. The setting would ensure she wasn’t silly and prevent him from getting too handsy. When Claire looked at her in almost comical surprise when she told her where they were going, Freddie simply laughed.

Zac arrived to pick her up on a motorbike, a big black and gold beast that disconcerted her when she had expected him to arrive in some flash sports car. He got off the bike and said very drily, as if he was offering her a huge compliment, ‘I’ve never had a girl on the back of my bike before.’

‘First time for everything,’ Freddie quipped, putting on the helmet he handed her. ‘I haven’t been on a motorbike before.’

He flipped out the foot pegs for her, climbed back astride and voiced several terse instructions. With difficulty, Freddie hopped up behind him and wrapped her arms round him, belatedly appreciating that, while a car would have marooned them in dangerous privacy, a bike offered physical intimacy of a possibly more dangerous kind. Her palms rested against rock-hard abs, her fingers brushing against his belt, and then the bike started up and vibrations travelled through her from head to foot in an unexpectedly exciting way.

She rested her face against the back of his jacket, strands of his black hair whipping against her brow, and the scent of him engulfed her like a rip tide, sent to torment. He smelled clean and male with a hint of some exotic cologne and the combination was one to savour, she acknowledged absently, marvelling that such a reality could make her skin tingle and her body heat while she felt every flex of his powerful abdominal muscles shift beneath her clinging hands. Her fingers spread against the heat of him, her own body savouring the connection in the most astonishing way.

Zac wanted to push her hands down to where he really needed her attention below the belt where she was being so very careful not to touch him. Why was she so inhibited? What did she have against pleasure? He had to work that out before sheer sexual frustration drove him crazy. It had been weeks since he had had a woman and that was a new development for him and not one he appreciated. After all, sex was one of life’s greatest free pleasures and a need he was accustomed to indulging in regularly.

Why was a single woman as attracted to him as he was to her refusing him? Something in her past? What else could it be? Had she been assaulted? Abused? His guts twisted at the suspicion because he despised men who used physical force against the weaker and more vulnerable. Meu Deus, could she be even more complicated than he had already recognised? Once again he asked himself angrily, Why her? Why was he chasing a woman for the first time in his life? Why wasn’t he simply moving on? He swore furiously to himself then that if she refused him again, he would forget about her and seek his pleasure elsewhere...


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