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She opened her eyes and let out a slow breath. “I know my brother isn’t himself at the moment”—she struggled to keep her voice calm—“but he’s not normally aggressive.” She focused on the pristine canvas before her. She seriously needed to regain control of her emotions. Not an easy task. Not when the predominate thought in her head was, I’m gonna kill him. Was her petulant half brother or reprobate father the walking corpse? At this point in time, Sienna conceded that either would suffice. “Are you sure Zach was involved in the fight?”
A snooty sniff came through the connection. What did Mr. Fenchurch look like? Clearly, he was one of those men who considered being the principal of an elite private school more important and worthy than being Mother Teresa. Definitely small in stature, receding hairline, uptight bowtie, and socks held up by suspenders… “Zachary is absolutely responsible,” Mr. Fenchurch blustered. Damn, was the very notion of Zach’s possible innocence tantamount to heresy? “He admitted to starting the fight. In fact, he boasted about it.”
She rubbed her eyes again. Oh, Zach. What am I going to do with you? “Why didn’t you call me when this happened? Surely I should have been informed straight away. Three hours after the event seems a little strange.”
A long pause stretched through the connection. “Zachary informed us you weren’t available. He said you were posing for a…ahem, a Playboy photo shoot.”
She almost dropped her phone. “A what?”
That’s it, Zach. You’re dead.
“It is of no consequence, Ms. Roberts,” Fenchurch hurried on, embarrassment clear in his thin voice. “The Point School is not here to judge the family of our students. We are here to educate the children of our community’s finest citizens. We are here to shape and mold our country’s future leaders. I’m sure you can understand Zachary has no place in such an environment. I’m afraid I had no choice but to expel him and send him home. We will not accept antisocial behavior on our grounds, regardless of the situation.”
She blew a puff of frustrated breath into her fringe. The situation. It always came back to the situation. The famous father with a major gambling addiction in jail for embezzlement, the trophy-wife stepmother dead from a heroin overdose, the estranged daughter lumped with her father’s exorbitant legal bills—how that happened, she still couldn’t work out. She had, after all, wiped her hands of her father over eight years ago. Plus, there was the extremely spoiled and overindulged half brother sent to live with her, intent on making life hell for everyone, and next to no money coming in because her once prosperous art career had seemingly gone the way of the dodo. That was the situation.
Add to that no social or sex life to speak of, and now a bill for 3,500 dollars to replace a musical instrument Zach didn’t even play, along with the threat of more costly court bills she couldn’t afford, and Sienna felt pretty damn miserable. This was just not her year.
She snorted. Hey, at least now I have a legitimate reason for sending Zach to a public school. If nothing else, no more ridiculously expensive monthly tuition fees, right?
The depressing memory of the broken violin and broken wrist came back to her, and she sighed into her fringe again. “Is there any way we can work this out?”
“Absolutely.” The condescension in his voice made her teeth ache. “Pay the three and a half thousand dollars and contact your solicitor.” Another one of those deliberate pauses followed, and then the man continued, his thin voice no longer prissy but snide. “May I suggest, however, you don’t use the same man who represented your father?”
Hot anger yanked Sienna out of her self-pity. “Thank you for that advice, Mr. Fenchurch. And may I suggest you remember exactly where my father is at this moment. Annoying the daughter of an inmate of Long Bay Jail isn’t overly smart. I’ve met some of his new associates, and they would delight in making your acquaintance, I’m sure. In fact, Steel-bar Tony is due for parole tomorrow. Perhaps I can give him your number?”
Not so snide or prissy now, are you, Fenchurch? “Now, if you’ll excuse me,” she put a wide smile in the dismissal, “Hugh Hefner himself is supervising the photo shoot. Have a good day.”
She killed the call halfway through Fenchurch’s flustered but, but, but.
“Damn you, Zach.” She tossed her phone onto a nearby chair and stormed around the various easels and drawing boards in her small studio, clenching and unclenching her fists. “Damn you.”
Stopping once more in front of the large blank canvas, she studied its untouched purity. Over the next six weeks, she’d planned to transform it into a portrait that would, hopefully, win her the Barton National Portrait Prize and elevate her once flourishing career to a wider public level. Now, however, it was likely to stay a blank square of white. The money required to enter the prestigious art contest, pay for materials and framing, plus entertain a prominent Australian figure while they sat for her had just disappeared in one phone call.
She dragged her hands through her hair and stared at the canvas. She didn’t know who she was angrier with—Zach, her father, Mr. Fenchurch, or herself. What the hell was she to do now?
It didn’t help that neither she nor Zach had received any normal kind of upbringing. Zach had been raised by a series of nannies hired more for their bust size than their parental skills. Their father had done him no favors by giving him whatever he wanted and never disciplining him, while his mother had spent every day in a drug-induced haze until the night she’d drowned in their guitar-shaped swimming pool. Great role model there.
She shook her head and crossed to her drawing board. At least her mother had tried to instill some morals in Sienna. However, she’d been fourteen when her parents divorced. The subsequent custody dispute for which she was the prize had ended months later when her mother died in a car accident. Joseph Roberts had turned to the first in his series of voluptuous nannies to raise his daughter and Sienna’s life had become somewhat surreal.
Which left her in a disadvantaged position with Zach now. She was twenty-six years old and attempting to raise an angry, sad, and moody fifteen-year-old boy without a clue how. But as long as their dad was in jail—four years and six months, if he made parole—that’s exactly what she was going to do. Somewhere in amongst the war zone, she’d try to rebuild her struggling art career.
What career? With the exception of mysterious businessman Mason Xavier, my work seems to be the artistic equivalent of Ebola.
Staring at the drawing board, she chewed on her bottom lip. How things had changed. Only six months ago, her work was beginning to gain respect, curators were approaching her about exhibiting her paintings, she was beginning to make ends meet, and then…nothing. Buyers vanished, dried up. No one seemed interested. Apart from Xavier.
Perhaps it was time to cash in on her father’s fame and notoriety? People would buy anything if it was attached to such a famous—infamous—public figure, and her dad definitely fell into that category.
Damn, that was a depressing thought. Had things sunk that—
Someone knocked on her studio door. She shot a quick glance at her watch.
Since when had Carrie ever been early? Especially for an afternoon of chocolate-biscuits therapy? She wasn’t due for another half an hour.
Another more-insistent knock came. “Okay, okay.” She glared at the empty canvas one more time before crossing the room, grabbing the doorknob, and pulling the door open. “Keep your pants…”
Icy shock froze Sienna. Her words died in her throat. Her mouth turned to dust.
The tall man with impossibly broad shoulders and thick black hair on her doorstep smiled, eyes sharp. “On?”
“What are you doing here?”
James Dyson, ruthless billionaire, media mogul, Time Australia’s Businessman of the Year, and the last man Sienna ever wanted to see again, slid his hands into his hip pockets. The firm muscles in his arms and shoulders flexed under his tailored designer suit, and Sienna’s pulse leaped away on a little excited masochistic trip at the sight. Stupid pulse. “I’m here to see you, Ms. Roberts.”
She raised her eyebrows, ignoring her gallivanting pulse. Getting excited over James Dyson was foolish. Getting excited over him again was just plain idiocy. “Is that right?” She crossed her arms over her breasts, staring him down. “If I remember correctly, only six months ago you told me never to come near or speak to a member of the Dyson family again. You seem to be breaking your own commandment.”
Dark, dark brown eyes studied her, and then James shrugged. “A man can change his mind.”
“The Dyson men don’t change their minds.” She narrowed her eyes. “You’re famous for it.”
An evil dimple appeared in his left cheek. “There are other…things…we’re famous for, Sienna. Don’t you want to find out what they are?”
His voice played with her senses, smooth and tantalizing like whiskey and honey. Swallowing a sudden flush of hot excitement, she met his dark stare.
The first time they’d been this close, he’d offered to buy her a drink. They’d flirted—her with an unschooled hesitancy, him with a mischievous glint in his eyes. Only when he’d found out who she was—twenty minutes into their playful and very mutual romantic advances—did their flirtation end.
The last time they’d been this close, he’d refused her entry to his brother’s funeral, his eyes unreadable, his jaw clenched, his words cutting and cruel.
He was the embodiment of everything she despised—money, power, greed. Getting excited in his presence was not only insane, it was admitting to the Devil her soul was up for grabs. “What I want, Mr. Dyson, is for you to leave. I’m expecting someone.”
A thick black eyebrow cocked. “Is he running late?”
“No. She isn’t.”
He ran his gaze over her body from head to toe in a languid inspection, taking in her old cropped tank top, paint-splattered boy-leg panties, and bare feet. Heat flushed through her cheeks at the realization she’d answered the door in her underwear, thinking the person on the other side was Carrie. It didn’t help that she remembered without any problem the compliment he’d paid her about her free-spirited nature to clothing during that first meeting. “I see,” he said. “Kinky.”
Heavy innuendo threaded through the word. Her temper flared again. “No, you don’t see. She is my best friend. Not that I have to explain my actions to you. Now, if you’ll excuse me…” She flicked a pointed look over his shoulder at the street behind him.
A lazy grin pulled at James’s lips, and he stepped inside, reaching for the door and swinging it shut without removing his stare from her face.
“What are you doing?”
He closed the distance between them with a single stride, dominating the space around her. “Changing my mind.”
“At this very moment, the state of my trousers.”
A slow grin stretched lips that more than once had featured in her deluded, idiotic fantasies. “I’m reconsidering keeping them on. If I recall correctly, we once decided undressing each other would be a fabulous idea.”
“Are you kidding?” She planted her hands on her hips. “That was before we knew who each other was. When we thought we were…”
She trailed off, her heart racing.
Were what? Possible one-night stands? Potential lovers?
“I haven’t forgotten the night I first met you, Sienna.” His gaze moved to her lips. “I remember it very well.”
She narrowed her eyes. She remembered it with vivid clarity as well, but she wasn’t going to let the memory—and its tormenting pang for what could have been—affect her now.
Not now. Not after what he’d said to her at Clinton’s funeral. “Listen, Mr. Dyson. I don’t give a rat’s bum if you are the richest man in Sydney. I don’t like the game you’re playing.” Anger coursed through her. Anger and confusion and excitement all jostling to take control of her response. Yeah, she remembered this sensation. One she only experienced when she was around him, damn it. “And, after the last time we met, I sure as hell don’t like you.”
He studied her face with enigmatic contemplation, standing so close to her his heat caressed her bare limbs. His subtle aftershave filled every breath she pulled. Threaded into her being. Unsettled her. She remembered the way he smelled without any trouble. It still teased her in her dreams, the ones she never wanted to admit to having.
But right now, it was his eyes sending her pulse racing. They were the same color as his younger brother’s, as dark as rich chocolate with the same midnight lashes framing them. Unlike Clinton’s, which had been warm and full of laughter, James’s were hard and unflinching. Arrogant.
Here was a man used to dominating people. Used to getting his way. If she were to look into their dark depths for too long, she feared she would crumble under the sheer strength of his will. She’d once seen laughter in those eyes, and playful but undeniable interest. And then he’d discovered who she was, and that interest had turned to something…else.
Hot butterflies stirred in her stomach. She swallowed. There was no damn way she could deny how sexy she still found him. That fact had not changed since their first meeting, no matter how much she wished it had. But she wasn’t stupid, and believing James Dyson was at her home for any other reason than to bring her misery was just plain lunacy.
Taking a step backward, she glared at him. “Any time you want to leave…”
He grinned again, his lips parting to reveal perfect white teeth, the deep crease in his cheek returning. Why the hell did her body have to react at that grin? “I’m not going anywhere, Sienna.” He dipped his head lower to hers, as if to share a secret. “I’ve decided it’s time I reacquaint myself with my brother’s muse. To see if you inspire me the way you did him.” And with that, he slid his arm around her waist and pulled her against him.
He slipped his hand under her tank and smoothed it down the curve of her hip. A spark of wicked electricity passed through her, and she sucked in a sharp breath, her pulse pounding. She’d remembered this as well, what it was like to be touched by him.
In the brief moment they’d shared flirting at Clinton’s exhibition opening—before Clinton arrived and introduced them to each other—they’d brushed fingers over arms, backs of hands, hips, more than once. Back then, the simple contact electrified her.
Even after their second—and last—meeting at Clinton’s funeral, she’d been unable to banish the memory of those playful caresses. But this… His hand on her bare hip… His warm skin against hers… It was so much more consuming. So much more intoxicating.
James moved his head closer to hers. “Clint told me your skin truly is softer than silk.” The low murmur played with her sanity. “I see he didn’t exaggerate.”
He slid his hand farther down her hip and over the curve of her bottom to cup her right butt cheek, drawing her closer to him with a slight tug.
She didn’t resist. She didn’t want to. Was she really that stupid?
His corded thigh deftly parted her legs, his powerful gaze keeping her captive as he pulled their bodies closer together.
And still, she didn’t protest.
Pleasure erupted through her, hot and wicked and tormented. It claimed her. Shamed her. “Oh God.” The words slipped from her lips, a surrender to her memory of their previous connection. An acceptance of his power over her body and desire.
“I wanted to kiss you the very first moment I saw you.”
His whisper stole her breath. “When?” How was she even talking when her heart hammered so much? “In the art gallery? Or on my door just now?”
He kissed her, his lips as dominating and masterful as she’d always fantasied they would be. The way she’d known they would. His arrogant kiss invaded her senses, filled her core with liquid heat. He swept his tongue over hers, confident and determined. The subtle hint of toothpaste teased her, delighted her. His distinct scent joined in. A shiver rippled up her spine.
Idiot. Sucker for punishment.
She stiffened in his arms, her blood roaring in her ears. What was she doing? What was he doing? They hated each other. He’d told her just as much on the steps of the church the day Clinton was buried. So what the hell were they doing now?
She slammed her bare heel down onto the instep of his foot. Hard.
“Hey!” The protest burst from him in a strangled grunt. He dropped his arms from around her body and jerked back a step, his frown furious.
Ignoring the pain screaming in her heel, she retreated her own step, determined to stay out of his reach. She couldn’t let him touch her again. With the ridiculously easy way she’d melted in his arms, it would be suicide. Once upon a time, before life screwed her over, melting in his arms would have been the most natural thing to do. But now? No.
Until she knew what was really going on, what game he was playing, she needed to keep her distance.
Narrowing her eyes, she balled her fists. “What are you doing, Mr. Dyson? What do you want?”
He studied her, his expression once again enigmatic. “As I’ve already explained, I want to get to know Clinton’s muse. I want to know what he craved so much about you.” He paused, eyes unreadable. “What drove him to his death.”
Ice filled her veins. Her heart slammed into her throat “You bastard. Who the hell do you think you are?”
“The brother of the man you manipulated, used, and then rejected.”
Anger sliced through her, stole her breath, but she held her ground. “Clinton was my friend.” She couldn’t crack. She had to keep control of her voice. Inside, her stomach churned.
James snorted with disgust, his lip curling. “Clinton was your target. You manipulated his feelings for you, you exploited his weakness for beautiful women, you teased him into a sexual frenzy until you had him exactly where you wanted him, and then, when he told you our father had disinherited him, you refused his proposal. Cut him loose.” He took a deliberate step toward her, destroying the space she had made between them. “So, Sienna, I’m independently wealthy, Dad can’t touch my money, and I like what I’ve tasted so far. Am I good enough to sleep with?”
She slapped him. Hard. The sound of her palm smacking against his cheek cracked air, bounced around her studio. “Get out. Just get out.”
They stared at each other, the heat from his body radiating against hers, his eyes regarding her with equal fire. Sienna glared back, her ears roaring, her heart pounding. “Leave. Now. I never want to see you again.”
James didn’t stir, his body completely still as a slow smile played with his lips. “Can’t do that.” He shook his head, his voice low but oh so smug. “I know how desperately broke you are at the moment, what with your young half brother to care for and your father’s legal bills piling up. And I also know how important your benefactor, Mason Xavier, is to you. After all, it’s only his financial backing that’s keeping you fed and your art career alive, isn’t it? But what you don’t know is I happen to be very close to Xavier. Close enough, in fact, for him to arrange a rather unique birthday present for me this year. A portrait. Painted by a young, emerging artist he’s discovered.”
A chill swept through her and she stared at James. Had she heard right? Had he said what she thought he said? Disbelief—no, horror—crept over her, cold and clammy at once.
His smile widened, never reaching his eyes. “That rather large commission you accepted two nights ago?” he continued, his voice no longer smug but triumphant. “Xavier’s gift to me. I’ve just become your next subject.”
He stared into Sienna’s jade-green eyes, a distant part of him unable to deny the hypnotizing intensity of their depths despite who she was. Regardless of how she’d fooled his brother, Clinton had been right about her eyes. They were the eyes of a temptress. If he wasn’t careful, his well-laid plans could unravel.
He drew in a deep breath, filling his lungs with her delicate but somehow heady scent.
When he first met her, her scent had filled his head with wild thoughts and even wilder desires, desires he’d been more than eager to act upon as they stood almost touching in front of one of his brother’s more ridiculous paintings.
Right now, in this very moment, it sank straight to his groin, raw and carnal and animalistic.
Lust was not unfamiliar to him, but he had to remember who she was. He had to remember why he was here. He had to forget the playful heat of their flirting a lifetime ago. He had to forget everything he’d discovered about her since.
He had to remember what she’d done to Clinton. What she’d caused his only brother to do.
“When do we begin?” he asked, still staring into her eyes.
“Never.” Her response was exactly what he’d anticipated. Short. Final. Angry.
“And disappoint Xavier?” He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think so.” He took another step forward, his thighs brushing hers. “It’s just a painting.” He paused, letting a lazy grin pull at his lips. “That is, unless you’re afraid of what will happen if we’re alone together?”
She glared at him. “You flatter yourself.”
“Maybe, but I don’t think so. I remember the way we flirted at Clint’s exhibition. The way you looked at me. And I certainly remember the way you melted in my arms just now.”
“And you’ve forgotten the way I stomped on your foot? The way I slapped your face? Or do you call that foreplay?”
Her words were sharp, like barbed wire, and he could almost believe she wanted nothing to do with him. But she hadn’t taken a step back when he’d closed the distance between them. In fact, she remained so close to him her thighs still brushed his, the barest contact sending hot charges through his body.
Yet at the same time, her eyes were wide and nervous, and the pulse point at her neck fluttered like a trapped butterfly. He frowned, puzzled. This was not how he expected the calculating vixen Clinton had so thoroughly described to behave. As much as she wanted him to think otherwise, she appeared confused, almost innocent. And vulnerable.
The dull ache in his foot made him rethink that last one. Perhaps vulnerable wasn’t the right word.
Slight movement drew his eyes, instant sexual hunger roaring through him as she quickly wet her bottom lip with her tongue.
He pulled in his own long breath. Christ, did she know how hot that simple act looked?
A manipulating prick tease. That’s what she is. Remember that. She can’t get under my skin. I won’t let her. I will use her and destroy her. Just like she did Clinton.
“Foreplay, Sienna?” He let his voice become a murmured drawl. “I know other ways to whet the appetite. Far more delicious ways. Whenever you’re ready to begin…”
She leveled a cold stare at him, her jaw bunching. “Take a hike, Mr. Dyson. I want you out of my studio. Out of my home. Now.”
“No, you don’t,” he corrected her. “And I’ll tell you why. Not just because of how well we connect, but because you need money. Your half brother is sucking you dry, your father’s legal bills are still piling up, and you cannot afford to disappoint the only benefactor you have at the moment. And if Mason Xavier is told his favorite little artist refused a commission…” He cocked an eyebrow and left the sentence unfinished.
She stared at him, wide eyed. “How do you know all that?”
“How do I know?” He chuckled, letting his gaze roam over her face. Such a beautiful face for one so calculating. The face of a true femme fatale. “I know everything about my dead brother’s girlfriend. I know everything about the woman who caused his death.”
Anger glinted in her hazel eyes, like chips of ice. “Well, I guess you don’t know everything, James Dyson, because I was never Clinton’s girlfriend. We were good friends. Roommates. He turned to me after his family rejected him for choosing to go to art school instead of following in the footsteps of his older brother.” She tilted her head to the side. “Tell me, Mr. Dyson, how much do you pay the federal government each year for them to turn their back on the fact Dyson Media Corporationhas almost complete monopoly of this country’s media?” She lifted her chin. “As for my causing Clinton’s death…I was not the one who forced him to choose between his love of art and his family. That was your dear old dad.”
He narrowed his eyes. “He didn’t choose art. He chose you. And when he told you our father had cut him from his will because he wouldn’t come home… Well, you didn’t want him if he didn’t come with the Dyson fortune, did you?”
She stepped back from him and folded her arms across her breasts. Breasts that would feel firm and heavy and perfect against his palms. “It’s definitely time you left.” She looked up at him, a faint pink painting her checks. The glorious copper mane of her hair tumbled around her face in wild abandon, brushing her serious, straight eyebrows, emphasizing the creamy velvet of her flawless flesh.
She looked completely and utterly sexual, a creature of heightened passion that would willingly throw herself at the mercy of her desire.
Her legs were parted and her bare feet planted firmly on the studio’s wooden floor. James noted the painted burgundy of her trimmed toenails and a delicate butterfly tattoo on her right ankle. That butterfly had featured more than once in his dreams. It had stirred something in him the night of Clinton’s exhibition, something completely male. It stirred that same something in him now.
He devoured the length of her legs exposed to his gaze. So smooth and toned and sun-kissed. He had imagined more than once how they would feel wrapped around his naked hips, her skin slicked with perspiration, her breath short and panting.
Did he need to imagine any longer? Despite her obvious hatred for him, something else smoldered below the icy fury. He’d witnessed it burning in her eyes the very first time they’d met. He’d recognized it then because it had surged through him as well. Primitive and carnal. Hungry and eager.
It throbbed through him now. It throbbed through her as well. He had no doubt. The way she looked at him, the way her body spoke to him…
A hot lump filled his throat. Christ, he wanted her.
“James…” Her voice played with him, her gaze as confused as he suddenly felt. “If only we could talk about what happened?”
“Talk?” He shook his head. “That’s not my plan.”
“I can’t believe you can be this much of a Neanderthal. I don’t care how sexy it is, you—”
She stopped, her hand pressing to her mouth, her eyes wide above it.
“You think I’m sexy?” Why did the admission stir him so much?
“Sure.” She narrowed her eyes, hands back on the delicious curve of her hips. “And arrogant and smug and narcissistic and…and…too damn tall.”
She glared at him. But she didn’t back away. In fact, she’d inched toward him during her tirade. Drawn closer. Close enough the warmth of her body caressed his own.
He met her eyes, enjoying the defiance—and excitement—he saw there.
Why deny what he wanted? He’d never done so before. Why now? And he wanted Sienna Roberts. More than he could fathom.
A sudden rap on the door sounded through the studio, shattering the charged silence arcing between them.
“Sienna?” A female voice called from the other side. “Open up, girl.”
“Coming, Carrie,” she called back, holding his stare. A small frown dipped her eyebrows, a flash of disappointment filled her face a second before triumph danced in her eyes. “I told you it was time for you to leave. I’m sure I’ll never see you again.”
He returned her smile. “And I’m sure you’ll see me tomorrow.” She opened her mouth, no doubt to lash him further with farcical contempt, but before a word could pass her lips, he covered the distance between them to tower over her. “And let me assure you, tomorrow we won’t be interrupted.”
He kissed her then, demanding and taking, his entire being igniting as she immediately kissed him back. Perfect. Wild and untamed. Just as he’d imagined.
Just as he’d fantasied.
He let her go and strode away. If he didn’t now, he never would.
“I hate you,” she whispered at his back.
He swung open the door. “Hate has never stopped good sex, Sienna,” he replied over his shoulder before dropping a wink at the blonde gaping at him from the step. “And from the moment we first met, great sex is exactly what we were destined for. You know it, just as much as I do.”