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Authors: Abby Green

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Physically she wasn’t his type at all, and yet he couldn’t deny that, much as last year, something about her compelled him to keep looking at her. He preferred statuesque voluptuous beauties who were confident and experienced. Jesse Moriarty was petite and athletically slim. She more closely resembled a pale shadow than a sexually confident woman. Her figure was completely obscured in a conservative uniform of narrow charcoal-grey trousers, and a white silk shirt buttoned up underneath a jumper. Her hair was cut almost militarily short, the strawberry-blonde strands feathered close to her skull.

So why was it that Luc felt the irritating urge to deny the frisson of something hot in his bloodstream? He was a red-blooded, sexual man, so her very ascetic non-appeal should
not
be triggering a flare of sensation along his nerve-endings.

He frowned inwardly and told himself that it was the memory of his last lover that was heating his blood—not this woman who looked as if she’d prefer to jump out of his window than be here facing him. Not a reaction he was used to having from a woman. He wondered idly if his solicitor had been right; perhaps she
was
gay?

Jesse wished that Luc Sanchis would stop looking at her as if she was a specimen on a lab table. He opened his mouth to speak and her eye was effortlessly drawn to his sensuous lower lip. She wondered helplessly when she had ever noticed a man’s mouth as being sensual before.

‘Ms Moriarty, unless you’re willing to give me an explanation as to why you don’t want me to invest in O’Brien then I’m afraid this meeting is over. I don’t deal in riddles.’

His voice rumbled through her and Jesse folded her arms across her chest tightly. Feeling unbelievably threatened, she
blurted out, ‘He’s practically bankrupt … his business is in tatters … surely he has nothing to offer you?’

Luc Sanchis’s mouth tightened. ‘At the risk of repeating myself, once again I’m afraid the onus is on
you
to tell me why you’re so interested in him.’

When Jesse was obstinately silent for a long moment he said, with an icy bite of reluctance, ‘O’Brien still has stakes in Eastern European construction that I’m interested in acquiring before it’s too late to salvage anything.’ He shrugged one wide shoulder. ‘If that means saving O’Brien in the process then so be it. You have to admit that I can claim a far more legitimate interest in his concerns than you.’

Jesse’s brain hurt; what he said made perfect sense. At first she’d thought Luc Sanchis must be in league with O’Brien, but she’d checked him out and his reputation was pristine. Not a hint of misdeed or corruption, which an association with O’Brien might have indicated. And he had no previous connection to O’Brien. He’d literally come out of nowhere as a last-minute saviour.

Luc Sanchis shifted on the desk now, and Jesse felt his renewed interest with a shiver of foreboding down her spine.

‘Why haven’t you just gone directly to O’Brien with a better offer?’

Jesse paled, not wanting to remember her first face-to-face meeting with O’Brien the week before. She should have expected Luc Sanchis to ask the most logical question of all, but inside her head she was wondering hysterically what he would do if she was to blurt out the full, ugly and lurid truth of her relationship with O’Brien.

She avoided his eye. ‘I have my reasons.’ It was a pathetic non-answer, but she couldn’t explain that, having confronted O’Brien once already, she couldn’t approach him again. She’d burnt her bridges in that meeting but had only done it because
she’d thought she was safe—that no one else would bail him out before it was too late.

The reason why she couldn’t be cool and calm and answer Luc Sanchis’s questions with logical answers was because this had nothing to do with business; this was about hurt and pain. Grief and suffering. And, above all, revenge. How could she even begin to make someone else understand the whirling cauldron of dark emotions inside her? She’d lived with this for so long …

Luc Sanchis unfolded his tall frame from the desk and stood up. Jesse couldn’t help her gaze going to him, as if pulled against her will. His face was stern. He’d had enough.

‘Whatever your mysterious reasons are, the question is this: who wants to invest in him more?’

Jesse could sense Luc Sanchis’s intractability. She might be powerful in her own right, having built up a multi-million-pound IT software business, but she couldn’t compete with this man if he chose to fight her.

She had to make him believe it didn’t mean that much to her. When it meant
everything
.

‘Look,’ she said now, with a studied nonchalance that belied the thumping of her heart and the bead of sweat forming between her breasts, ‘I’m willing to double the amount you’ve offered O’Brien if you’ll drop your plans to invest.’

Luc stared at Jesse Moriarty. He didn’t like the questions she was posing in his mind with this determination to match his offer—
more
than match it. She obviously desperately wanted O’Brien. Something inside him hardened. The problem was, so did he. He’d worked far too hard and long to let this opportunity pass. Especially not for some prickly slip of a woman who was starting seriously to irritate him with those huge eyes and the way colour flooded her cheeks so easily—as if she didn’t knowingly use that to good effect.

Women like Jesse Moriarty didn’t get to be successful in
business by being nice or kind. They were ruthless and single-minded and didn’t care who they stepped on to get ahead. He’d learnt a valuable lesson early on at the hands of a woman determined to succeed at all costs, and he had no intention of letting Jesse Moriarty divert him from a path he’d set out on almost fifteen years before.

Resolutely he went towards her.

Jesse’s eyes grew wide when she saw Luc Sanchis move. She had to consciously battle the urge not to take a step back. Her arms dropped and her hands clenched into fists again. She felt inordinately threatened by the sheer size and presence of the man. He was built more like an athlete than a titan of industry. All six foot four of him towered above her, and she wished for the umpteenth time that she was taller and more formidable.

He held out a hand and said with the utmost civility, ‘You could quadruple the amount, Ms Moriarty, and I still wouldn’t back down. If you do go to O’Brien with a higher bid, even if it’s anonymous, I’ll just match it until I’ve priced you out. I’m sorry your journey has been a wasted one today.’

CHAPTER TWO

J
ESSE
looked at Luc Sanchis’s hand dumbly; he’d just confirmed her worst fear. He would thwart her no matter what.

She had a burning urge to get out of there now. With the utmost reluctance she lifted her hand and slipped it into his to shake it. The physical effect was instantaneous; it was like a nuclear reactor exploding deep inside her, sending a mushroom cloud of devastating sensation to the far corners of her body.

Like a scalded cat, she pulled her hand free, even though they’d touched for less than a second. She saw belatedly that Luc Sanchis was also holding out her slim briefcase from where she must have dropped it onto the floor near the desk. She hadn’t even noticed and her cheeks burned. She grabbed it inelegantly and looked up at him, forcing her brain to work.

Stiffly she said, ‘I’m sorry that I can’t persuade you to rethink your plans to invest. Good day, Mr Sanchis.’

His voice took on a far more ambiguous tone. ‘Don’t be sorry. Meeting you was certainly … interesting.’

Mortification rushed through Jesse.
Interesting
felt like a slap in the face. She couldn’t be further removed from this man’s world, which she imagined to be peopled with all sorts of sensual pleasures and women to match. Never had she felt so gauche. Bitter gall rose in her throat, tasting of defeat, but
she couldn’t deal with that now—not in such close proximity to this man.

She turned and walked blindly to the door across what felt like acres and acres of dark grey carpet. The door was heavy, and it was only when it shut behind her with a quiet thud that she breathed in again, light-headed from holding her breath.

The rather austere-looking middle-aged secretary stood up to show her to the outer door, saying politely, ‘Good day, Miss Moriarty, I trust you can find your way back to the lift?’

Jesse nodded and said her thanks. It was only when she’d stepped into the sleek lift to descend that the enormity of what had just happened and what it now meant hit her.

Luc stared at the closed door for an inordinately long moment. A delicate scent tickled his nostrils, and he realised it was
her
scent. It was somehow opulent and
sexy
. Totally at odds with the uptight image she portrayed. And yet the thought of that buttoned-up shirt sent a very unwelcome shot of desire through his lower body.

Luc scowled and shook his head, turning to face the spectacular view of London, digging his hands into his pockets. Jesse Moriarty was an enigma, all right, with her bizarre request for him not to invest in O’Brien Construction. What the hell was she up to? Why was it so important that she’d spend millions to stop him?

A disembodied voice came from the phone on his desk. ‘Luc, the video conference call is ready. They’re waiting in New York for you to join them.’

Luc turned and strode towards his desk. ‘Thanks, Deborah, just give me a minute …’

As Luc shifted his mind from Jesse Moriarty with more difficulty than he’d like to admit, he recalled the way she’d visibly flinched away from the barest of contacts with his
hand. Definitely gay, he surmised, not liking the way something within him rebelled at that thought.

Cursing this uncharacteristic blip in his concentration, he turned his attention to the next item on his agenda.

Jesse sat in a huge armchair which was positioned right in front of the floor-to-ceiling window in her penthouse apartment. The view, much like the one in Luc Sanchis’s office today, encompassed London’s city centre. Her legs were curled up beneath her and she’d changed into loose sweats, a tank top and a cashmere V-necked jumper. Her hands were tightly clasped around a mug of tea. The rest of the apartment around her was dark, the only light coming from her kitchen which was off the main living area.

Jesse usually found this time of night and the view soothing. It always served to remind her of just how far she’d come: from the monosyllabic, grief-stricken, traumatised child she’d been to a woman who controlled a multi-million-pound company and who had been named Entrepreneur of the Year by a leading financial establishment.

She’d been a young girl filled with blind rage and grief who had discovered she could escape from real life into school and do better than everyone around her. It hadn’t earned her any friends in the series of grim comprehensives she’d gone to, but gradually she’d seen a way she could use her intelligence to climb out of her challenged circumstances and had earned a scholarship to university.

Her hatred had morphed into something more ambitious: a desire to be able to stand in front of her father one day and let him know that she was the architect of his downfall. To let him know that she hadn’t forgotten, and that he hadn’t escaped unscathed from the sins of his past. Jesse’s mother could have been saved if she’d received adequate medical
treatment in time, but her father had been too drunk and self-absorbed to care.

He’d killed her as effectively as if he’d done it with his own bare hands.

Jesse’s hands tightened around her mug unconsciously as she recalled standing in front of her father last week. It had only been her second time seeing him in the flesh since she was a child. The first time had been at that function where she’d run into Luc Sanchis—literally—a year ago. Seeing her father that night had shaken her to her core, and she’d realised she needed to be a lot more prepared for when she came face to face with him.

Last week he’d had no idea that the JM in JM Holdings stood for Jesse Moriarty. She’d received an awful jolt to be reminded that she’d inherited her distinctive eye colour from him, but he hadn’t recognised her and she’d hated the dart of hurt when she’d realised that.

He’d blithely launched into a spiel about how he needed a sizeable investment to stay afloat, and all the while Jesse had battled waves of sickness as she’d been hurtled back in time to when he’d stood over her, sweating, his belt marked with her blood.

She’d cut short his obsequious appeal and stood up. When he’d realised who she was he’d morphed effortlessly back into a bully and tyrant. He’d stood up too, small eyes piggy in his fleshy face, and sneered at her. ‘Don’t tell me this is some sort of petty revenge; did you lie awake at night dreaming of this moment?’

Jesse had flushed, because she
had
. It was the only thing that had got her through years of loneliness and bullying. The long, unending and terrifying months of grief after her mother’s death. The way the world around her had become a place of deep hostility, insecurity and fear, peopled by faceless
social workers and harried foster carers in the grimmest parts of England.

‘You’re pathetic,’ her father had spat out. ‘Just like your mother was pathetic and naive. I should have forced her to get rid of you when I had the chance, but she begged me to let her keep you … and
this
is how you repay me?’

Jesse had focused on the deep abiding grief she felt, drawing on it for strength. ‘This moment is only the culmination of my efforts to see you destroyed. No one will help you now, and when you descend into the hell of oblivion I’ll be there to witness every moment of it.’

Jesse shivered a little as the distasteful memory faded. She wanted a feeling of triumph to break through the numbness but it was elusive. All she did feel, in truth, was weary. As if she’d been toiling for a long time with nothing to show for it … Yet she’d succeeded beyond her wildest dreams and she’d finally begun to realise her most personal and fervent desire …

She put down her cup and walked to the window, leaning her forehead against it, her hands on the glass either side of her shoulders. The irony of the thick glass between her and the view struck her with a sad note. Her whole life she’d felt somehow separated from everything around her.

She could picture what lay behind her all too easily: the very bare and ascetic nature of her apartment, which mirrored her personal life. Even though she’d bought it three years before, the only furniture she owned was her bed, the armchair and some kitchen furniture. She’d bought nothing because despite the wealth she’d accrued and the success she’d garnered she still didn’t feel settled. She still feared her world being upended at any moment.

All she’d ever known was the certainty of inconsistency—every time she’d come to trust a social worker they’d moved on; every time she’d felt safe in a foster home she’d been moved. She’d long ago learnt to rely only on herself, trust
only herself. The only constant in her life that she could depend on was her hatred of her father …

She hadn’t cultivated friends or a social life.
Once
she’d been vulnerable, and there had been a man. She’d succumbed to his seduction because on some level she’d craved human contact, some tenderness. But when he’d made love to her it hadn’t touched her. She’d felt like ice.

Afterwards he’d declared disgustedly, ‘It’s true what they say—you are like a machine.’

Jesse hadn’t made the same mistake again. It had been a weakness on her part to admit to that vulnerability. Since then she’d focused on two things: her work and seeing her father brought to justice.

And now,
finally
, she was seeing the light at the end of the tunnel—a chance to let go of the past and perhaps start to
live
. She scowled. More accurately, she
had
been seeing the light at the end of the tunnel until it had been blocked by the broad shoulders of Luc Sanchis.

Jesse turned around and faced her dark and lonely-looking apartment. The thought that her father would escape defeat now, would have a chance to become successful again thanks to an investment from Luc Sanchis, was untenable. Not only that, she’d now exposed herself to her father and he would be out for her blood.

She worried at her lower lip with small teeth. She’d prepared for this day so well. Knowing how dangerous her father was, she’d investigated him thoroughly and left nothing to chance. He was rotten to the core and had avoided being put in gaol before now only because of a prodigious amount of luck, his dubious connections and his vast fortune. However, with the protection of his fortune all but gone, it was only going to be a matter of time before all his misdeeds caught up with him.

Despite her own very personal vendetta against her father,
when Jesse had become aware of the corrupt extent of his greed and excess, thanks to the private investigators she’d hired, it had become about avenging much more than just her and her mother. Hers was only one tiny sad story amongst many others.

In fairness, all Jesse had had to do was to systematically attack him in a very legal and above-board way. Over the years she’d slowly but surely been buying the stocks and shares of his various concerns under the guise of different companies. She’d been weakening him from the inside out, until his foundations had grown more and more flimsy.

He’d had a lot of enemies only too happy to help that process along; she’d merely provided the push … And yet now it looked as if it had all come to naught if Luc Sanchis was going to bail him out.

Resolve made Jesse’s spine tense. She couldn’t give up now—not when she was so close. She had to prevent Luc Sanchis from going ahead with the deal.

She shivered slightly when she remembered the sheer physicality of the man and his presence, not to mention the power that had oozed from every cell. He would be a formidable enemy. He could break her in two if he wanted, without even batting an eyelid … but to achieve her goal she had to take that risk.

Luc was distracted and irritated. And deadly tired. He ran a hand over his face. He’d been up for almost twenty-four hours straight, making sure that his deal with O’Brien had no possible loopholes or potential hitches. The snarly London traffic wasn’t helping his mood right now. At least, he thought to himself, he didn’t have to worry about making his flight on time. He’d chartered a private jet to take him to his meeting in Switzerland.

He’d met with JP O’Brien the previous day and, despite
O’Brien’s clear desperation, had insisted on a ten-day grace period before signing the contracts. The ten days would bring them up to the last possible date of survival for O’Brien—twenty-four hours before the banks closed in if he didn’t come up with the funds. This suited Luc, as he wanted O’Brien nervous and desperate—he wanted to be O’Brien’s only hope.

He smiled to himself grimly. The tiredness was worth it. He’d made sure that no one could match his offer … this time O’Brien would be
his
.

Luc found that the memory of seeing O’Brien was leading him to a much more potent memory: that of Jesse Moriarty in his office a week ago. He frowned with displeasure at finding himself thinking of her again, but her delicate features slid into his mind with annoying persistence and vividness, and his insides tightened against a frisson of awareness.

He assured himself that he was only thinking of her again because he associated her with O’Brien. There was no way she could compete with him now. If O’Brien had a counteroffer Luc would know about it. O’Brien was too desperate not to be greedy and up the stakes by playing two bidders off against each other.

Much to Luc’s chagrin, his mind slid back to Jesse Moriarty like a traitor. He’d tried to get some information on her but she’d proved to be annoyingly elusive. The only details about her background were something sketchy about having been brought up in care. Maybe she was an orphan? Luc didn’t like the way that thought made him remember her inherent fragility, despite her chutzpah in storming into his office the way she had and demanding answers. He had to concede that it had been a long time since anyone had had the guts to do that. And it hadn’t been altogether unpleasant …

He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that they’d left the city behind and were on the open road. The sooner he was airborne and onto his next meeting the better. It would
mean welcome distraction from thinking about a pixie-sized, short-haired enigma. Just then his phone rang, and his mouth curved into a smile when he saw a familiar name.

He answered with affection, ‘
Cherie
… how are you today?’

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