‘Things will be calmer then,’ Jake said. ‘If I tell her now, she’ll walk. She’ll take out a restraining order and I won’t see the kids.’

‘What if I go with you and speak to the bank? Maybe if you can sign a guarantee that the money’s coming.’

‘The guys I’m dealing aren’t going to wait for the bank to make up their mind, Em. I need…’ Jake gulped as he told her the appalling figure—he needed nearly one million dollars by the close of business tomorrow. ‘Every day that passes it goes up more…’

Those poor kids…Emma almost wept as she pictured Harriet’s and Connor’s innocent, trusting faces. Poor Beth, too. God alone knew what she must be putting up with.

What would her parents want her to do?

‘I can’t take this much longer, Emma.’

There was her answer. So now, with Jake’s veiled threat still ringing in her ears, for the first time since her parents’ funeral Emma dressed carefully.

But it took for ever.

Since their death it had felt as if her brain was working in slow motion. Her stomach was knotted in constant tension and the simplest decision took for ever to make: which shoes to wear, hair up or down, even whether to apply make-up—all required a mammoth effort, one she didn’t want to make. And she’d never thought she would be making it for Zarios.

The putrid words of their last conversation still rang in her ears at times. She hated what she’d said to him, but hated what he’d done to her even more. She could see clearly how he’d used her that weekend—she’d been nothing more than a small diversion in an otherwise boring weekend. Emma had played with the big boys, she realised, and only had herself to blame for getting well and truly burnt.

And now she had to face him. Had to swallow her pride and ask the snake for help.

Which was easier said than done. His work life, as Emma had found out when she had tried to contact him, was as capricious as his personal life—Rome one week, Singapore the next. He was flying from his office in Sydney down to Melbourne today, Emma had discovered on her third attempt to contact him, and surprisingly he’d agreed to meet her—or rather his secretary had arranged an appointment for 2:00 p.m. the following day, which had given her twenty-four hours to change her mind.

As if she had a choice.

She frowned at her dressing table as if it belonged to someone else, noticing that her hand was shaking as she stroked her make-up brush into powder. The two pink dots that appeared on her cheeks were just too much against her pale complexion and Emma wiped them off with a tissue, giving up on her face and grabbing her bag instead, clipping down the steep stairs of her flat. What the hell was the point of wearing make-up anyway? Nothing was going to disguise her humiliation—nothing was going to mask the shame of going to Zarios with a begging bowl in her hand.

‘My appointment was at two.’ Emma tried to keep the slightly desperate note from her voice. ‘It’s almost three now.’

The receptionist gave her a pussycat smile, which without words told Emma in no uncertain terms that she was more than capable of telling the time. ‘Mr D’Amilo is an extremely busy man. As I’ve said, I’ll inform you as soon as he’s ready to see you.’

Not that busy!

Strolling through the lavish foyer, Zarios looked completely refreshed and relaxed after his extended lunch. Maybe it had something to do with the company he was keeping.

A well-groomed brunette was beside him, hanging on his every word, laughing at whatever it was that Zarios had just said.

Emma had forgotten just how beautiful he really was. In the past few weeks, whenever her mind had drifted to him, or she’d read about his heartless, torrid break-up with Miranda, somehow her mind had managed to distort his image to almost devil-like proportions, marring his beauty perhaps to shield herself. But seeing him now, breathtakingly elegant in a charcoal-grey suit, his shirt gleaming white against his olive skin, there was no denying his beauty. He’d had his hair cut, those jet locks cropped closely to his head, which made him look more menacing and somehow more striking, if that were possible. Seeing him in the flesh even more than two months on had Emma’s stomach curling—not at what she must now ask, but at what they had once shared.

When he spoke briefly to his receptionist, Emma was unclear whether she had let him know that his 2:00 p.m. appointment was waiting, because Zarios didn’t even deign to give her a glance. Instead he headed towards the lifts and disappeared, leaving Emma more intimidated than ever at the prospect of what lay ahead.

It was another ten minutes till she was directed to his floor.

And another half an hour spent sitting in another waiting room—albeit a lavish one.

The groomed brunette must be his personal assistant, Emma realised, when she brought her an extremely welcome glass of iced water and peered at her from her desk when she thought Emma wasn’t looking. Emma bit her lip as she awaited her fate, and then, with just an hour till the office building closed, the intercom buzzed and the snooty brunette finally gave her a nod. She was shown through.

‘You wanted to see me.’ There was no small talk, no apology for the delay. He curtly gestured for her to take a seat, his face utterly unreadable as tentatively she nodded.

‘Regarding?’

He certainly wasn’t making this easy.

‘It’s difficult…’ Emma attempted.

‘Then let me help you. We slept together approximately two months ago, and now you urgently need to meet with me—I can hazard a guess—’

‘No!’ Emma interrupted. The arrow he had shot had missed its mark, skimming over her shoulder surely to be forgotten. Except a sound resonated, a small hollow summons to tell her that somewhere it had hit a mark. But with a determined, irritated shake of her head she ignored it. ‘I got my period on the day of my parents’ funeral. That’s not the reason I called.’ Only now did he frown. Only now did he seem curious as to why she might be here. ‘I wanted to see you about the release of my parents’ money.’

‘Of course!’ Zarios gave a tight smile. ‘Silly me for assuming otherwise!’

Emma ran a dry tongue over even dryer lips, embarrassment stinging every pore at his implication, regretfully acknowledging that after their bitter parting he was right to think as he did. She forced herself to continue. ‘The house has been sold…’

‘I believe so.’

‘The thing is…’ She blew a breath skywards, but her fringe barely moved; it was plastered to her moist forehead. ‘I need access to my share of the funds now.’

‘Now?’

‘Yes. Today.’ She watched his eyebrows rise just a fraction.

‘Can I ask why you need money so quickly?’

‘No.’ She choked the single word out, then, clearing her throat, said it more firmly. ‘No. I’d rather not say, but as soon as the sale of the house goes through I will repay the money. It would just be a loan until then.’

‘I can see that a lot of work has gone into your proposal!’

His sarcasm, though merited, wasn’t exactly helping. ‘I realise it can’t look good, me just walking in and asking for money. But I have my reasons, and the inheritance—’

‘I can’t help you.’ He interrupted her, shaking his head.

‘Please.’ She hated that she was reduced to begging, but she had no choice. ‘Zarios, please. You’re the only person who has access to that type of funds…’

‘Not quite…’ He flashed a mirthless smile. ‘Have you ever heard of banks?’ Tears pricked her eyes as he savagely continued. ‘If you are so convinced it is just a short-term loan, that in two weeks you can repay, then you should have no trouble securing a bridging loan. Of course a bank would want to know where the money was going, why a twenty-five-year-old woman needs access to such a sum of money at such short notice. Have you even tried the banks?’

She tried to say no, but the word wouldn’t come out. Emma settled instead for a tiny shake of her head.

‘Then am I right in assuming that is because you couldn’t suitably answer their questions?’

Oh, how he must be enjoying this, Emma thought, the tears in her eyes drying as she stared at him across the desk, their mutual contempt meeting in the middle.

‘Anyway,’ he continued when she didn’t answer, still holding her stare, ‘even if I wanted to help you I could not.’ He gave a dismissive shrug. ‘There’s a potential conflict of interest. I have excused myself from the board in regard to the execution of your parents’ estate.’

‘That’s not what I’m asking…’

‘I know that!’ Zarios sneered. ‘You are playing on the fact that we once slept together.’

‘No!’ Emma quivered. ‘I’m pleading to you as a friend of the family.’

‘Did you approach my father with your request?’ Zarios snapped his very good point out. ‘Of course not!’

‘You know,’ he continued bitterly, ‘he said I was overreacting when I removed myself from having any dealings with your parents’ estate.’ He stood up, clearly ending the meeting. ‘Clearly I was right to follow my instincts.’

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