It’s done. Henry returned the telephone to its austere black cradle with a decisive click, his face as stoic as the marble busts in David Tate’s executive office in central London. â€œThe takeover of Tate Unlimited is complete.â€
Delanie sat perfectly still and stared across the desk ather father’s massive, empty chair. Most women thrust into her situation would be apuddle of tears. Fretful. Scared. But she felt curiously numb. Detached, as if she was watching someone else go through the death of a parent, the subsequent ordeal of a swift hostile takeover of his corporation and now a very uncertain future.
Though sheâ€™d been unable to display grief at his funeral, she had at least shown respect. Considering her relationship with her father, even that was a lot.
â€œMy bid to exclude the house and my familyâ€™s personal assets?â€ she asked, holding onto the hope that she had salvaged something from her fatherâ€™s empire.
Henry, whoâ€™d been her fatherâ€™s attorney for as long as she could remember and who sheâ€™d affectionately called Uncle Henry all of her life, shook his head, his papery lips pulled into a thin line that sent her hopes plummeting. â€œAll gone. However the new owner has trumped your bid to buy Elite Affair with a counter offer.â€
â€œWhat does he want?â€ she asked.
Not that it mattered. Her only means to negotiate a deal in the first place hinged on selling the vintage cars. But those were gone, leaving her with nothing tangible to trade or sell.
â€œHis solicitor wouldnâ€™t say, stating the owner will inform us of the details upon his arrival,â€ Henry said.
Of course, more waiting. More drama added to this corporate piracy.
She huffed out a weary breath and pushed to her feet, smoothing her dress over her hips. Fittingly, she was garbed in a somber black Dolce and Gabbana sheath, although it made her pale complexion seem waxy and lifeless. Right now she felt bloodless but was too angry to surrender.
The fall of her fatherâ€™s company had been inevitable, yet sheâ€™d hoped that the corporate dragon breathing fire down on them for the past two weeks would have the decency to show respect. That he would at least listen to her request. That the unknown entity hiding behind the group called Varsi Dynamics was, in fact, human and not a machine or monster.
Now she wasnâ€™t sure. She wasnâ€™t sure of anything.
It would be so easy to toss in the proverbial towel. Certainly people would understand that losing both parents and every worldly thing she possessed in such a short span of time was simply too much for her to bear. But her pride wouldnâ€™t let her give in to pity and pride was all she had left.
Narrow shoulders squared, she strode to the draped window and gathered her courage around her for this meeting with the tycoon who had gobbled up everything her father had owned. Everything she owned and valued as well, damn him!
She flung back the drapes and stared at the cold rain streaking down the mullioned windows. Steel-gray clouds barred the sun from making an appearance.
The gloomy weather was appropriate to laying her father and his wretched empire to rest once and for all. If she could just get back what was hersâ€¦.
â€œDo we at least now know whoâ€™s behind Varsi Dynamics?â€ she asked as she faced her fatherâ€™s loyal attorney.
â€œNo.â€ Henry consulted his Baume & Mercier watch, a gift for service long ago. The brown leather band now seemed too bulky and masculine for his bony wrist that was only slightly bigger than her own. â€œBut we shall soon find out. Heâ€™s scheduled to arrive at quarter past two.â€
Any time then, she thought. â€œGood. I want to get this over with and go home.â€
Only she didnâ€™t have a home anymore. She had nothing. So where would she go? Impose on friends? Pound the streets looking for a job?
Delanie tried to tuck an errant strand of hair behind her ear but the tremor that continued to rock through her undermined the effort. She gave it up with a heavy sigh and let the pale gold strand fall as it had repeatedly done at the cemetery.
If she were prone to outbursts then this would be the ideal time to have one. What kind of man would demand that this meeting be held in the closed offices of Tate Unlimited on the heels of her fatherâ€™s burial?
Perhaps a visceral man with horns and a tail. Clearly he was a man without principles.
The man behind Varsi Dynamics had launched his takeover on Tate Unlimited in her fatherâ€™s last hours. Before her father was interred at the Tate family plot at Sumpton Park, the corporate shark had gained control of her fatherâ€™s assets, right down to the furniture in the mansion and the fleet of Rolls Royces in the garages.
â€œI imagine the new owner will take great delight in personally firing everyone on staff,â€ she groused as she stopped behind the burgundy leather chair her father had ruled from.
Henry fidgeted with his crimson-and-gold striped tie, the first sign that he wasnâ€™t quite as calm as he let on. â€œActually, his solicitor assured me that all Tate employees would remain on staff through a six-month vetting period.â€
She blinked, that news the one ray of sun on this gloomy day. â€œThatâ€™s a surprise.â€
â€œIndeed,â€ Henry said, consulting his watch again. â€œTime to go below stairs to meet and show him up. Wouldnâ€™t want the gent wandering around the building and getting lost. Will you be all right alone?â€
His concern brought a bittersweet smile to her face. â€œYes, Iâ€™ll be fine.â€
Henry gave a crisp nod and left, his gait swift and sure for a man his age.
Silence thrummed in the room that held only bitter memories. No, she wouldnâ€™t miss Tate Unlimited. But Elite Affair, the company her father had swindled out of her, meant everything to her. It was her dream. Her means to support herself. Her freedom from a manâ€™s control.
She was anything but fine, she thought as her palms pressed into the sumptuous leather back of the executive chair.
The scent of spice wafted in the air. Her fatherâ€™s aftershave. Faint, as if heâ€™d just stepped out of the office.
The old urge to run pinged through her like a cold pounding rain and she shivered. To her father, a womanâ€™s main purpose was to marry well and produce an heir. A male heir, according to the verbal barbs heâ€™d flung at her mother for failing to uphold her duty.
In his eyes, Delanie was no better. Her fingers dug into the leather as his biting diatribes played over and over in her mind. A failure. A liability. No better than her mother.
If he hadnâ€™t blackmailed her to stay on this past year she would have left. In hindsight she should have done that, for sheâ€™d ended up with nothing anywayâ€”unless by some miracle she could meet the new ownerâ€™s counteroffer.
The ding of the elevator echoed dully down the corridor. Masculine footsteps pounded the marble floor like an advancing army. Her pulse rose with each step.
The waiting was over.
He was here.
Chills skipped up her spine, but she forced herself to stand straight and greet this next hurdle straight on. Deep breath in, slow exhalation. But even that failed to calm her racing heart or lessen the knocking of her knees.
As for offering a serene smile, she wasnâ€™t about to attempt one. Only a fool would smile at the shark swimming toward them.
Henryâ€™s voice drifted to her, so clear she knew he was standing in the corridor outside the waiting-room door. â€œMiss Tate is in her fatherâ€™s office. If youâ€™ll come this way, sir.â€
â€œThat will be all,â€ replied a deep masculine voice that ground Delanieâ€™s thoughts to a screeching, nerve-grating halt.
No! Her mind must be playing cruel tricks on her.
But there was no mistaking that husk of an Italian accent that she hadnâ€™t heard in ten long years except in her dreams. That sheâ€™d wished never to hear again.
â€œSir,â€ Henry sputtered. â€œI insist I be on hand â€¦â€
â€œLeave us!â€ The clipped order blew open the lid on painful memories sheâ€™d tucked away long ago.
The man from her past was here. But why? Was he the corporate raider, the one with the wherewithal and ruthless bent to strip everything from her?
Her gaze swept the room to find a way out; her pulse raced so fast she was light-headed. Were the walls closing in on her?
No, just her past.
The waiting-room door slammed shut, likely in Henryâ€™s face. She jumped in heels that suddenly pinched, her skin pebbling and her heart thundering with each determined step that brought Marco closer.
Footsteps stopped outside the office door. She swallowed hard. Had Marco paused to straighten his tieâ€”a quirk heâ€™d done often because he detested wearing one? Or, on a wilder thought that mirrored her rising hysteria, was he sharpening his teeth for the proverbial kill?
Her heart thundered, her body swayed as the dizzying rush of memories swirled around her like a choking fog. Each second nipped along her skin, chipping away at the confidence she tried desperately to shore up.
The man sheâ€™d thought never to see again stepped into the office and shut the door behind him with a deafening click. Her traitorous eyes drank him in: tall and commanding, broad shoulders racked tight. Breathtakingly handsome.
Piercing dark eyes set in a classic face drilled into her, impaling her to the spot. â€œCiao, Delanie.â€