‘Get on with it!’ She glared at him. ‘And tell me about your proposition.’
‘So delightfully put,’ he murmured, then crossed one long leg over the other. ‘Very well. We’ve tarried for long enough. You see, it’s not your money I need, Scarlett—it’s you.’
To her fury, her heart had resumed its excited little pitter-pattering. Some long-forgotten yearning deep within her flared into tentative life. She found herself swallowing. ‘What did you say?’ she whispered.
He smiled. ‘I want you to do me a little favour, Scarlett,’ he said softly.
The yearning crumbled into dust, but some glittering message which sparked at the depths of his eyes warned her not to simply ignore his statement. ‘What kind of favour?’
He smiled again. He looked invincible. ‘I have a big business merger going through. Contracts are about to be signed. All I need to do is put the icing on top of the cake, so to speak, so I’m holding a house party at one of my homes in Australia for my prospective business colleagues and their wives. I want everything to run like clockwork, and I need a hostess—someone who knows how to play the part to perfection—and who better than you, Scarlett?’ he finished mockingly.
SCARLETT stared at Liam as though he had just spouted horns and a tail. She shook her head from side to side in disbelief. ‘It’s a preposterous suggestion! Laughable! It doesn’t even deserve the dignity of an answer.’
He didn’t seem in the least bit perturbed by her negative response. ‘You won’t do it, then?’
She nearly choked on the last of the brandy she had been drinking to gain a bit of Dutch courage. ‘Of course I won’t do it! I don’t know how you’ve got the brass neck to even consider it! As if I’d endure even a minute more of your company than I have to—let alone take part in some farcical ‘‘house party’’ to impress your business cronies. And if I did meet any of them, I’d take great delight in telling them—’
‘How great I am in bed?’ he mocked softly, giving a deep laugh as he saw the colour which scorched over her pale skin.
‘That was completely unnecessary, and below the belt!’
He raised his eyebrows infinitesimally and gave a very sexy smirk. ‘I certainly hope so,’ he drawled.
Scarlett gave up. His sexual innuendo she couldn’t cope with—not when she was marooned out in the middle of nowhere with him. It was time to put her foot down—once and for all!
‘How many times do I have to tell you? Watch my lips, Liam! I am engaged to someone else! And, just in case that’s still not clear enough, watch my lips again! In five weeks’ time you and I will be divorced!’
‘So I take it the answer is no?’ came the mocking reply.
‘Have the last ten years done something to your powers of reasoning?’ she demanded. ‘Of course the answer’s no!’
He shook his head, as though mildly irritated, nothing more. ‘Oh, dear. And there was me hoping that we would be able to agree on this amicably.’
‘Which just goes to show how wrong you can be!’
‘Scarlett,’ he drawled, ‘I’m afraid that there isn’t really a pleasant way to say what I’m about to say—’
‘Then why bother?’ she cut in.
‘You’ll see. Do you have any knowledge of your stepfather’s affairs?’
She shot him a bewildered look. ‘What are you talking about?’ she demanded. ‘He’s always been completely faithful to my mother.’
‘Not those kinds of affairs,’ he chided. ‘Heavens, Scarlett—you always did have a one-track mind. I’m talking about his business affairs.’
What on earth did Liam know about Humphrey’s business affairs? ‘What about them?’
‘Your stepfather is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy,’ he stated baldly.
There was something about the flat, unequivocal statement that had the undeniable ring of truth about it. Scarlett tried to swamp the sudden fear which rose in her throat.
‘I don’t believe you,’ she said quietly.
There was a grim expression on his face which hardened the brilliant blue of his eyes into shards of glittering sapphire. ‘Believe it,’ he said flatly. ‘This cottage I now own—as I do the majority of your stepfather’s old estate.’
Scarlett’s heart started thudding loudly. ‘Liar,’ she whispered.
He ignored the interruption. ‘His business is in trouble and his house is mortgaged up to the hilt. And if the bank were to call in its loans, well...’ He gave a sardonic smile as he paused for dramatic emphasis.
‘And why should the bank want to do that?’ she asked steadily. ‘And what has all this got to do with you? And me?’
‘It has everything to do with you and me,’ he said, in the kind of hard, harsh voice which took her back years, to the twin emotions of sorrow and joy inextricably linked in her mind with Liam.
‘I own the controlling interest in the bank which has allowed Humphrey to remortgage his house and finance his business. I could call in his loans tomorrow. If you force me to.’
‘What are you saying?’ she whispered. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘I’ve told you, Scarlett. I want you to play hostess for me. Do that—just that—and I’ll leave him alone.’
She looked at the hard-eyed man who sat before her, his face as unreadable as if he were playing poker. ‘You big bully!’ she cried. ‘He’s getting old—how can you possibly—?’
‘Shut up,’ he ground out, and she saw his pupils dilate as his temper finally snapped. ‘Don’t talk to me about bullying, or tactics! However misguided our brief marriage might have been there was no excuse for the way your stepfather behaved.’
Scarlett felt hot colour flare into her cheeks. She knew exactly what he was referring to. ‘If it’s about your mother, I made him promise to get her—’
‘You made him promise!’ he said bitterly. ‘What good could a mere slip of a girl do against a man whose reputation was paramount to him? Damn him and his reputation!’
The anger was suddenly replaced with a stealthy watchfulness, which was somehow even more intimidating than the fury which had preceded it. ‘Shall I tell you what your stepfather did, Scarlett?’ he queried softly. ‘Or do you already know?’
‘He said he had found her another job...’ Her voice died away as she read the contempt in his eyes.
‘He was lying. You knew that there was no other job for her, didn’t you?’ he said coldly.
‘And what was I supposed to do?’ she demanded. ‘Create one for her? At eighteen? Besides, I—’
‘Your pride was hurt because I’d left you? Yes? So my mother deserved everything she got?’
Maybe for an instant—but no more than that. ‘I always liked and respected your mother,’ she said.
‘Pity that Humphrey’s response wasn’t so measured,’ he grated sarcastically. ‘She’d done nothing but work hard for him, but not only did he sack her, he also refused to give her a reference.’
Scarlett felt a bitter pang of shame sweep over her. She didn’t know whether he saw it, but he suddenly sprang to his feet, his back to her, the set of his shoulders iron-hard and rigid, his body as tightly controlled as that of an automaton. And somehow she knew that he was breaking up inside—Liam, the man who so rarely showed emotion.
She wanted suddenly, quite instinctively, to