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Грэхем Линн

Dark Angel

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ARRIVING at the office at eight the next morning, Luciano found Costanza sniggering over Kerry’s business plan.

‘Have you looked at this yet?’ the brunette demanded with positive glee.

‘No.’ Reaching for the file, Luciano set it back on the desk. ‘I didn’t ask you to look at it either.’

Today he would bring down the curtain on Kerry’s hope that a compromise could be reached where the castle was concerned. How could she still be that naive? But then she had no real idea who she was dealing with, had she? A brooding smile of acknowledgement formed on Luciano’s sculpted mouth. For her benefit, he had once subdued all that was tough, unsentimental and aggressive in his own nature. He had even once sunk to the level of seeking out a field filled with poppies to stage a romantic proposal. He still felt quite queasy at that recollection and he moved fast to suppress other equally disturbing images.

On the dot of eleven, Kerry approached Luciano’s office door for the second time. Adrenalin was pumping through her, for the prospect of confronting Luciano with his lowest moment had steadily gathered more punitive appeal. He wanted the personal dimension? He was about to get it in spades!

‘Let’s keep this brief,’ Luciano drawled before Kerry could even get the door shut behind her.

Unwarily, Kerry let herself look at him. A breathtakingly gorgeous guy in a charcoal-grey business suit. Once he had been her guy. That painful thought threatened to swallow every drop of her bravado. In an effort to banish that pain, she reminded herself of Luciano’s most essential flaw: he was too handsome for any woman’s good. Why should he confine himself to one woman when so many others were happy to share his bed without attaching strings? He got chased by her sex, he met with endless temptation, but that did not excuse what he had done to her. He had asked her to marry him, built up her hopes and then smashed her heart to smithereens.

Wounded blue eyes veiling in self-protection, Kerry straightened her taut shoulders. ‘I’m afraid that you’re not going to enjoy hearing what I have to say—’

‘Just get to the point,’ Luciano advised drily.

‘Yesterday you claimed that you had no idea why I dumped you five years ago.’ Kerry could not help savouring that word, ‘dumped’, and watching from below her lashes as he literally froze in receipt of it. ‘But I find that hard to credit. Why didn’t you just examine your own conscience?’

‘It was clean.’ At that hint that she was about to foist blame of some kind on him, Luciano’s temper leapt straight onto a razor edge.

‘The evening I returned your ring…I’m sure you remember…I’d just returned from spending the weekend at Ballybawn. You’d said you were far too busy to go with me—’

‘I was.’ His smoky drawl now had an audible roughened edge.

‘Yes, you were certainly busy that weekend.’ Kerry’s tense mouth tightened even more with distaste as she steeled herself to continue. ‘The day I got home, Rochelle picked one of your cuff-links up off her bedroom carpet and told me that you had slept with her the night before.’

Luciano closed his eyes on a soundless groan. ‘Are you trying to wind me up with this silly spiel?’

His complete lack of guilty reaction infuriated Kerry. ‘You think you can deny it, don’t you? I bet you also think that I don’t have any proof!’

Ebony lashes swept up on hard golden eyes. ‘At this moment, you are walking a tightrope with me.’

The silence stretched, thick and heavy.

‘Do we have to go through with this stupid pretence?’ In spite of Kerry’s valiant attempt to remain calm and unemotional, she heard her own voice taking on a sharp note of accusation that she could not control. ‘Why after all this time can’t you just own up to being an absolute rat and betraying my trust?’

‘Rochelle told you that I’d slept with her? If you were stupid enough to believe that, why would I argue the toss now when I don’t give a damn?’ Luciano angled that derisive question at her with cutting clarity.

Kerry flinched and coiled her taut hands together in front of her. ‘So…er…you’re more or less admitting it—’

‘Like hell I am!’ His steady golden gaze flamed with outrage.

‘But I even know what you’re going to say…that Rochelle was lying and that she could’ve taken that cufflink from the office!’

‘You don’t know what I’m going to say.’ Luciano’s response was one of dangerous, menacing quietness.

‘Or maybe you’re about to suggest that I’m making this all up in an effort to cover up that crazy family conspiracy you mentioned yesterday!’ Kerry condemned with even more dismissive scorn, but she was trembling with the force of her own emotions and her voice was shaking. ‘But I know for a fact that you did sleep with my stepsister that night!’

‘Dio mio…I refuse to listen to another word of this!’

‘Only you could have told Rochelle that I was still a virgin and why!’ Kerry slammed back at him in agonised condemnation. ‘And if I’d needed any further confirmation, you lied to me—’

‘I have never lied to you.’ Lean, arrogant face clenched hard, Luciano made that emphatic statement with conviction.

‘—about where you were that night! I phoned your apartment and there was no answer. But when I called again the next morning, you insisted that you had been in all evening and that you must’ve been in the shower. But you did go out, you were at Heathlands, you were at my father’s home that night!’ Ashen pale as she had to force out those distressing facts, Kerry had to pause to draw breath.

By this time Luciano was so still that he could have rivalled a stone statue. But just as swiftly, he unfroze and his lean hands curled straight into powerful fists. Rage and frustration were eating him alive. He had driven over to Heathlands to see Harold Linwood that evening. He had lied about it. One of those harmless little untruths that only another guy could have understood, he rationalised in a fiercer fury than ever. And in the circumstances, who of an earthly ilk could have blamed him? What male in his right mind would have risked unleashing yet another painful three-act tragedy from Kerry with the news that he had quite accidentally found Rochelle…home alone?

Kerry’s hands were coiled into tight fists too. Her entire being was concentrated on Luciano. At last, it had come: his moment of truth when at the very least he should be unable to meet her eyes. In a head-on collision his sizzling dark golden gaze sought hers in defiance of that belief. Her mouth ran dry and confusion claimed her.

‘I know that you lied to me…’ Kerry found herself repeating in case he had yet to get that message.

Luciano shifted a broad shoulder in a fluid shrug but rage was smouldering like hot lava inside him. After all he had said and done, she had still let Rochelle come between them. Even now, she was so gullible that she could not see the bigger picture. He knew only one Linwood capable of winding Rochelle up to stage such a stunt. And it had worked and the timing had been perfect, he acknowledged with savage bitterness. He had been arrested and Kerry, who might have become a very useful ally in the enemy camp while he fought to prove his innocence, had walked away from him.

‘Don’t you have anything to say?’ Kerry muttered in growing bewilderment. ‘Does that mean that you’re ashamed of yourself?’

‘No…’ Luciano breathed with savage restraint. ‘I’m just thinking that you got what you deserved—’

‘What…I…deserved? Are you telling me that I deserved to have you go behind my back to carry on with my stepsister?’ Kerry gasped strickenly.

‘Don’t you understand anything yet?’ Luciano demanded with derisive force. ‘Nothing happened between Rochelle and me that night or on any other occasion while we were engaged.’

‘But you lied about being there that night!’ Kerry almost shouted back at him in her distress.

Luciano subjected her to a withering appraisal. ‘I was sick and tired of the way you reacted every time Rochelle came anywhere near me. I drove over to Heathlands to see your father. Rochelle said he was due home. I waited about fifteen minutes and then decided it would make more sense to see him at the office. I knew you’d go into a real mood if I told you that I’d seen her, so I took the easy way out and chose not to mention it.’

Kerry was trembling but her face was stiff with discomfiture. He was forcing her to remember how much friction her insecurity over Rochelle had caused between them and how her own constant need for reassurance had taxed his patience. ‘It couldn’t have happened like that—’

‘It did.’ The very indifference with which Luciano spoke shook her faith in her own conviction of his guilt. ‘But it hardly matters now.’

But to Kerry it still mattered a great deal, and his explanation plunged her into confusion. Was it possible that Rochelle had lied to her? That it could all have been lies? That Luciano had decided not to mention his visit to Heathlands simply because he knew that she would have made a fuss when she learned that he had seen Rochelle there? She refused to believe that, refused to credit that she was listening to anything more than a clever story.

‘You o-owe me the truth…’ Kerry stammered in turmoil.

‘I owe you nothing but I’m not about to admit to something I didn’t do just to make you feel better,’ Luciano countered with lethal cool.

‘It’s not a matter of making me f-feel better!’ Tears of frustration flooding her eyes without warning, Kerry spun away, fighting to regain control of the tempestuous emotions he had unleashed. But it was as if he had yanked the very ground from beneath her feet. She needed him to admit that he had been unfaithful. To make her feel better? A choking sob clogged up her throat but mercifully remained there. If she had to face the unimaginable and terrifying alternative; that she had ditched him when he had done nothing, how could she live with that? How could she ever learn to live with that?

‘What…about….that…cuff-link?’ she pressed in near desperation.

‘I was always losing them.’ His attention welded to her bent head and pinched profile, Luciano was rigid with angry tension. He did not want to hear her stammer or see her tears. He resented being made to feel like a bully when all he wanted to do was get on with business. ‘The fact that your stepsister knew that we weren’t lovers? I imagine that she knew you well enough to make an accurate guess.

Now, let’s leave the subject there.’

‘I can’t…’ Kerry admitted jaggedly as she lifted her head, bright blue eyes full of anguished appeal.

‘You must,’ Luciano traded with icy cool. ‘We have more important issues to deal with.’

Kerry could not dredge her mind as fast as he could from the past. ‘Luciano—’

‘To save us both from extending this meeting, I’ll cut to the base line. The repossession order on the castle will proceed.’

Kerry stared at him in shock. ‘You’re not even giving me a chance to—?’

‘To what?’ Leaning back against the edge of his fancy desk, Luciano surveyed her with grim golden eyes and a cynical slant to his beautiful mouth. ‘To witter on about great-uncles and the like and try to make me feel guilty about sins I never committed? Let’s not pretend that you came here today with any intent other than to try and make me feel bad. Business is business, Kerry. Wake up and join the real world.’

As he spoke, Kerry had become so pale that the sunlight coming through the windows made her hair glitter like fire illuminating snow. For a minute, he thought she might be on the brink of passing out on him. His aggressive jawline clenched as he sensed his own readiness to move forward and catch her. No, he wasn’t about to back down. Kerry had the fragile build of a fairy in a child’s story book, and could not help looking pathetic when she got bad news. But he was no longer the stupid bastard who had once been possessed by a need to protect her from every hurt, was he? So why the hell did he feel sick to his stomach?

Utilising every atom of courage she possessed, Kerry flung her head back, copper and russet ringlets cascading back from her taut cheekbones. ‘I already live in the real world. I wouldn’t have come here to try and persuade you to change your mind if I didn’t. All I’m asking for is more time—’

‘Kerry…’ Luciano trailed his heated gaze from the fiery gleam of her hair just as the pink tip of her tongue snaked out to wet her full lower lip. Desire exploded like a burning flare in him and ricocheted through every hard angle of his big, powerful frame. He wanted her but only on his terms. What his terms would be he had no idea but he had no intention of allowing lust to interfere with business. ‘I won’t change my mind.’

‘Do you realise how many people are depending on the castle to give them a living?’ Kerry prompted sickly.

While Luciano shrugged, he took note of that point. It would be foolish to antagonise the locals before he had even decided what to do with the castle. In the short term, he would instruct that staff should be retained and that any business-related arrangements dependent on the estate continue without interference.


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