No Longer Forbidden?
BOOK 1 in the Makricosta Dynasty
The limits of his control…
Rowan O’Brien will always be the thorn in Nic Marcussen’s side. She was the only woman to tempt him beyond his steely control…the only woman strictly forbidden to him.
Years later, Nic’s sole focus is business – the boy who grew up under a cloud of shame now has the world at his feet. Until tragedy brings Rowan back into his life and his façade begins to crack.
In the seclusion of the Marcussen mansion in the Mediterranean their deeply buried secrets surface and they are forced to confront their darkest desires!
Nic, my bank cards aren't working. Kindly sort it out and send the new ones to Rosedale. I'm moving in this weekend for some downtime.
— Rowan, No Longer Forbidden?
The very first manuscript I ever mailed off went to Harlequin Presents when they were still accepting submissions in Toronto, back in the eighties. Not even joking.
By the time I was a runner up in their Instant Seduction contest it was 2008. It took another four years after that before I received The Call for this book.
I can’t tell you what was going through my mind as I wrote Nic and Rowan’s story except to say I was committed, grittily determined that I would reach the finish line if not with this book, then the next. I was going to keep at it until it happened.
And honestly, when you’re getting revision letters and the changes are getting easier each time, you kind of get the message that you’re pretty close. Still, it was a huge kick to have an editor call and say she wanted to offer me a two book contract.
It was an enormously gratifying moment, even though she told me it wouldn’t come out in North American, only in the UK. I had to run to work so I couldn’t get drunk on bubbly. We celebrated that evening and then the real panic set in. Website, head shot, social media. I stepped onto the roller coaster and haven’t stopped since.
No Longer Forbidden? is the first book in the Makricosta Dynasty Quartet, which was an accidental series. I didn’t know Nic had siblings until he mentioned them in the scene after the memorial in the middle of this book. I started thinking about his brothers and sister. That led to More Than A Convenient Marriage?, which is Book Two, Adara and Gideon’s story.
An Heir To Bind Them, with Theo and Jaya, is Book Three and Demitri turned up with Natalie in Book Four, Seduced Into The Greek’s World, the following year.
Bonus! No Longer Forbidden? was eventually published in North America as a 2-in-1 with More Than A Convenient Marriage?
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No Longer Forbidden?
Nicodemus Marcussen rose to shake hands with his lawyer, muscles aching with tension as he kept his reaction to all they’d discussed very much to himself.
“I know this is a difficult topic,” his lawyer tried.
Nic shook off the empathy with a cool blink and a private, No you don’t. Nic trusted Sebastyen, but only within the framework of the media conglomerate Nic had fought to run after Olief Marcussen’s disappearance. Sebastyen had been one of Nic’s first supporters, believing in Nic’s leadership skills despite his inexperience. Nic was grateful, but they weren’t friends. Nic eschewed close relationships of every kind.
“I appreciate your advice,” Nic said with aloof sincerity. Everything Sebastyen had presented was the height of practicality, outweighing any sentiment that might have held Nic back. “It’s definitely time to consider it as the anniversary approaches. I’ll let you know how I’d like to proceed,” he concluded in dismissal.
Sebastyen hovered, appearing to want to add something, but Nic glanced at his watch. His days were busy enough without social chit-chat.
“I only wanted to reiterate, it would be helpful if both next of kin agreed,” Sebastyen blurted.
“I understand,” Nic drawled, keeping the patronizing tone muted but heard. It was enough of a butt-out to have the lawyer nodding apologetically and making haste to leave. Nic was quite sure the entire corporation along with the rest of the world followed the escapades of the other next of kin, but he wouldn’t abide open speculation about how he’d gain her cooperation.
The fact was, he already had an idea how he’d accomplish it. He’d been putting things together in his mind even as Sebastyen had been stating his case.
As Sebastyen closed the office door, Nic went back to his desk and the courier envelope he’d received this morning. Bills of every description came out by the handful, their disarray as fluttery and frivolous as the woman who’d racked them up. The forget-me-not notepaper was a particularly incongruous touch. He reread the swooping script:
My bank cards aren’t working. Kindly sort it out and send the new ones to Rosedale. I’m moving in this weekend for some downtime.
His initial reaction had been Downtime from what?! But for once Rowan’s self-serving behavior was a convenience to him. Since she hadn’t got the message when he’d stopped her credit cards two months ago, he’d confront her and do what Olief should have done years ago. Make her grow up and act responsibly for a change.
A warm sense of homecoming suffused Rowan O’Brien as she climbed the hill and looked over the sprawling vineyard surrounding the sturdy house of gray stone and mullioned windows. The turreted Old English mansion was out of place against the white beach and turquoise water, pure folly on a Mediterranean Island where whitestone columns and flowing architecture typically reigned, but it was built to indulge a loved one so Rowan adored it with all her heart. And here, she was free.
She’d sent the taxi ahead with her things, initially frustrated that her finances had stalled to the point she’d had to take the ferry from the mainland, but the slow boat had turned out to be therapeutic. As much as she’d ached to see the house again, she had needed the time to brace herself for its emptiness.
With a bittersweet throb in her chest, she descended to the lawn, ignored her luggage on the stoop and tried the door, half expecting it to be locked and wondering where she’d put her key. She’d left a message for the housekeeper, but wasn’t sure Anna received it. Rowan’s mobile had stopped working with everything else. Very frustrating.
The door was unlocked. Rowan stepped into silence and released a sigh. She had longed to come for ages but hadn’t been able to face it, too aware that the heart of the home was missing. Except…
A muted beat sounded above her. Footsteps crossed the upper floor to the top of the stairs. Male, heavy steps…
Before she could leap to the crazy conclusion that by some miracle her mother and stepfather had survived and were here after all, the owner of the feet descended the stairs and came into view.
She told herself her reaction stemmed from the unexpectedness of seeing him face to face after so long, but it was more than that. Nic always made her heart trip and her breath catch. And—this was new since throwing herself at him in a hideous moment of desperation two years ago—die a little of abject mortification.
She hid that, but couldn’t help react to his presence. He was so gorgeous! Which shouldn’t matter. She knew loads of good looking men. Perhaps none combined the blond Viking warrior with the cold Spartan soldier quite the way he did, but marble-carved jaws and chilly, piercing blue eyes were a mainstay among her mother’s film and stage crowd.
Nic’s looks were the least of his attributes though. He was a man of unadulterated power, physically honed and confident to the point of radiating couched aggression. Nic had always been sure of himself, but the authority he projected was ramped to new heights. Rowan felt it as a force that leapt off him to catch hold of her like a tractor beam that wanted to draw her under his control.
She reflexively resisted. There was no room for quiet defensiveness when she came up against this man’s aura. She instinctively feared she’d drown if she buckled to his will so she leapt straight to a stance of opposition. Besides, he was one of the few people she could defy without consequence. She’d never had anything to lose with Nic, not even his affection. He’d hated her from day one, something that had always stung badly enough without him proving it on her twentieth birthday by reacting to her kiss with such contempt. She tried very hard not to care that he didn’t like her. She definitely didn’t let herself show how much it hurt.
“What a lovely surprise,” she said in the husky Irish lilt that had made her mother famous, flashing the smile that usually knocked men off their guard. “Hello, Nic.”
Her greeting bounced off the armor of his indifference. “Rowan.”
She felt his stern voice like the strop of a cat’s tongue, rough yet sensual and strangely compelling. It was a challenge to appear as unmoved as he was.
“If you left a message, I didn’t get it. My mobile isn’t working.” She hooked the strap of her empty purse on the stair post next to him.
“Why’s that do you suppose?” he asked without moving, eyes hooded as he looked down on her. His accent always disconcerted her. It was as worldly as he was, vaguely American with a hint of British boarding school, but colored by the time he’d spent in Greece and the Middle East.
“I have no idea.” Needing distance from the inherent challenge in his tone, she slipped out of her light jacket and moved into the lounge to toss the faded denim over the back of a sofa. Her boots clipped on the tiles with a hollow echo, sending a renewed pang of emptiness through her.
It struck her that Nic might be here for the same reason she’d come. She glanced back, searching for homesickness in his carved features, but his face remained impassive. He folded his arms, bunching his muscles into a stance of superior arrogance.
“No, I don’t expect you do,” he remarked with dry disparagement.
“I don’t what?” she asked absently, still hopeful for a sign of humanity in him, but there was nothing. Disappointment poked at her with an itch of irritation. Sometimes she wished… Stop it. Nic was never going to warm up to her. She had to get over it. Get over him.
But how? she wondered, restlessly tugging away the elastic that had kept her hair from blowing off her head on the ferry. She gave her scalp a rub, rejuvenating the dark waves while trying to erase the tingling awareness of Nic.
“Your mobile stopped working along with your cards,” he reiterated, “but the obvious reason hasn’t occurred to you?”
“That everything expired at the same time? It occurred to me, but that doesn’t seem likely. They’ve always managed to renew themselves before.” She used her fingers to comb her hair back from her face, glancing in time to see his gaze rise from an unabashed appraisal of her figure.
Her pulse kicked in shock. And treacherous delight. The wayward adolescent hormones that had propelled her to the most singularly humiliating experience of her life were alive and well, responding involuntarily to Nic’s unrelenting masculine appeal. It was aggravating that it took only one little peek from him to ramp her into a fervor, but she was secretly thrilled.
To hide her confusing reaction, she challenged him, a vaguely smug smile on her face. It wasn’t easy to stare into his eyes and let him know she knew exactly where his attention had been. She’d been drilled from an early age to make the most of her looks. She knew she appealed to men, but she’d never caught a hint of appealing to this one. What an intriguing shift of power, she conveyed, even as the eye contact had the effect of making her feel as though she stood at a great height, dizzy and at risk of a long fall.
Deep down, she knew she was kidding herself if she thought she had any power over him, but she let herself believe it long enough to take a few incautious steps toward him. She cocked her hip, aware that her boot heels would make the pose oh-so-provocative.
“You didn’t have to come all this way to bring me new cards, Nic. You seem like a busy man. What happened? Decided you needed a bit of family time?” Again she searched for a dent in his composure, some sign he craved human contact the way lesser mortals like she did.
His iceman demeanor chilled several degrees and she could almost hear his thoughts. Her mother might have been his father’s lover for nearly a decade, but he’d never once thought of Ro as family.
“I am busy,” he informed her with his patented complete lack of warmth. She’d never seen him show affection to anyone so she ought not to let his enmity bother her, but he always seemed extra frosty toward her. “I work, you see. Something you wouldn’t know anything about.”
For real? She shifted her weight to the opposite hip, perversely pleased that she snared his attention again even though his austere evaluation was not exactly rich with admiration of her lean limbs in snug designer denim. He just looked annoyed.
Fine. So was she. “These legs have been dancing since I was four. I know what work is,” she said pointedly.
“Hardly what I’d call earning a living when all your performances involve trading on your mother’s name rather than any real talent of your own. Next you’ll tell me the appearance fee you get for clubbing is an honest wage. I’m not talking about prostituting yourself for mad money, Rowan. I’m saying you’ve never held a real job and supported yourself.”
He knew about the club? Of course he did. The paparazzi had gone crazy, which was the point. She’d hated herself for resorting to it, very aware how bad it had looked while her mother was still missing, but her bank account had bottomed out and she’d had no other choice. It’s not as if she’d spent the money on herself, although she wasn’t in a mood to air that dirty little secret. Olief had understood that she had an obligation toward her father, but she had a strong feeling Mr. Judgmental wouldn’t. Better to fight Nic on the front she could win.
“Are you really slagging me for trading on my mother’s name when you’re the boss’s son?” He didn’t even know how wrong he was about her mother’s reputation. Cassandra O’Brien had pushed Rowan onto the stage because she hadn’t been getting any work herself. Her reputation as a volatile diva with a taste for married men had been a hindrance to everyone.
“My situation is different,” Nic asserted.
“Of course it is. You’re always in the right no matter what and I’m wrong. You’re smart, I’m stupid.”
“I didn’t say that. I only meant that Olief never promoted through nepotism.”
“And yet the superiority still comes across! But what-ev-er, Nic. Let’s take your condescension as read and move on. I didn’t come here to fight with you. I didn’t expect to see you at all. I was after some alone time,” she added in a mutter, looking toward the kitchen. “I’m dying for tea. Shall I ask Anna to make for two, or…?”
“Anna isn’t here. She’s taken another job.”
“Oh. Oh,” Rowan repeated, pausing three steps toward the kitchen. Renewed loss cut through her. Anna’s moving on sounded so…final. “Well, I can manage a cuppa. Do you want one or may I be so optimistic as to assume you’re on your way back to Athens?” She batted overly innocent lashes at him while smiling sweetly.
“I arrived last night for as long as it takes.” His Adonis mask remained impassive. The man was an absolute robot—if robots came in worn denim, snug T-shirts that strained across sculpted shoulders and cropped their blond hair so closely it gleamed like a golden helmet.
“As long as it takes to what?” she asked as she started again for the kitchen, tingling with uneasy premonition as she scoffed, “Throw me out?”
“See? I knew you weren’t stupid.”
Rowan swung back fast enough to make her hair lift in a cloud of brunette waves. She was so flabbergasted Nic might have laughed if he wasn’t so dead serious.
“You stopped all my credit cards. And closed my mobile account. You did it!”
“Bravo again,” he drawled.
“What a horrible thing to do! Why didn’t you at least warn me?”
Outrage flushed her alabaster skin, the glow sexy and righteous. A purely male reaction of lust pierced his groin. It was a common enough occurrence around her he was able to quickly ignore it, focusing instead on her misplaced indignance. A shred of conscience niggled that he hadn’t tried to call, but when dealing with a woman as spoiled as she was, reasoning wasn’t the best course. She was too sure of her claim. Far better to present a fait acompli. She had.
“Why didn’t you tell me you’d dropped out of school?” he countered.
If she experienced a moment of culpability, she hid it behind a haughty tilt of her chin. “It was none of your business.”
“Neither are your lingerie purchases, but they keep arriving on my desk.”
A blush of discomfiture hit her cheeks, surprising him. He hadn’t thought her capable of modesty.
“This is so like you!” Rowan charged. “Heaven forbid you speak to me. Seriously, Nic. Why didn’t you call to discuss this?”
“There’s nothing to discuss. Your agreement with Olief was that he would support you while you were at school. You chose to quit so the expense fund closed. It’s time to take responsibility for yourself, Rowan.”
Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you? You’ve always hated me and you’re jumping on this chance to punish me.”
“Punish you?” The words hate and stupid danced in his head, grating with unexpected strength. He pushed aside an uncomfortable pinch of compunction. “You’re confusing hate with an inability to be manipulated,” he asserted. “You can’t twine me around your finger like you did Olief. He would have let you talk him round to underwriting your social life. I won’t.”
“Because you’re determined my style of life should be below yours. Why?”
Her conceit, so unapologetic, made him crack a laugh. “You really think you can play the equality card here?”
“You’re his son; he was like a father to me.” Her attempt to sound reasonable came across as patronizing. Entitled. And how many times had he buckled to that attitude, too unsure of his place in Olief’s life? He’d adopted the man’s name, but only because he’d wanted to be rid of the one stuck on him at birth. In the end, Olief had treated Nic as an equal and a respected colleague, but Nic would never forget that Olief hadn’t wanted his son. He’d been ashamed he’d ever created him.
Then, when Nic had finally been let into Olief’s life, this girl and her mother had installed themselves like an obstacle course that had to be navigated in order to get near him. Nic was a patient man. He’d waited and waited for Olief to set aside time for him, induct him into the fold. Acknowledge him. But it had never happened.
Yet Rowan thought she had a daddy in the man whose blood made Olief Nic’s father. And when it had come down to choosing between them two years ago, Nic recalled with a rush of angry bile, Olief had chosen to protect Rowan and disparage Nic. Nic would never forgive her setting him up for that disgrace.
“You’re the daughter of his mistress.” How Olief could want another man’s whelp by his mistress but not his own had always escaped Nic. “He only took you on because the two of you came as a package,” Nic spelled out, never having been this blunt before, but old bitterness stewed with fresh antagonism and the only person who had kept him from speaking his mind all these years was absent. “You’re nothing to him.”
“They were lovers!” Her Irish temper stoked unwilling excitement in him. With her fury directed toward him, his response flared stronger than ever before. He didn’t want to feel the catch. She was off limits. Always had been even before Olief had warned him off. Too young. Too wrong for him. Too expressive and spoiled.
This was why Nic hated her. He hated himself for reacting this way. She pulled too easily on his emotions so he wanted her removed from his life. He wanted the confused wanting to stop.
“They weren’t married,” he stated coldly. “You’re not his relation. You and your mother were a pair of hangers-on. That’s over now.”
“Where do you get off saying something like that?” she demanded, storming toward him like a rip curl that wanted to engulf him in her maelstrom of wild passion.
He automatically braced against being torn off his moorings.
“How could you justify that to Olief?”
“I don’t have to. He’s dead.”
His flat words shocked both of them. Despite his discussion with Sebastyen, Nic hadn’t said the obvious out loud and now heard it echo through the empty house with ominous finality. His heart instantly became weighted and compressed.
Rowan’s flush of anger drained away leaving her dewy lips pale and the rest of her complexion dimming to gray. She was close enough he felt the change in her crackling energy as her fury grounded out and despondency rolled in.
“You’ve heard something,” she said in a distressed whisper, the hope underlying the words threadbare and desperate.
He felt like a brute then. He’d convinced himself that the disappearance hadn’t meant that much to her. She was nightclubbing in their absence for God’s sake, but her immediate sorrow gave him the first inkling she wasn’t quite as superficial as he wanted to believe. That quick descent into vulnerability made something in him want to reach out to her even though they weren’t familiar that way. The one time he’d held her—
That thought fuelled his unwanted, incendiary emotions so he shoved it firmly from his mind. He was having enough trouble hanging onto control as it was.
“No,” he forced out, trying to work out why he’d been able to hold it together in front of Sebastyen, who was closer to him than anyone, but struggled in front of Rowan. He feared she would see too deeply into him at a time when his defenses were disintegrating like a sandcastle under the tide. He couldn’t look into her eyes. They were too anxious and demanding.
“No, there’s been no news. But it’ll be a year in two weeks. It’s time to quit fooling ourselves they could have survived. The lawyers are advising we petition the courts to—” He had to clear his throat. “Declare them dead.”
When he looked for her reaction, he found a glare of condemnation so hot it gave him radiation blisters. With a sudden re-ignition of her temper, she spat, “You have the nerve to call me a freeloader, you sanctimonious bastard? Who benefits from declaring them dead? You, Nic. No. I won’t allow it.”
She was smart to fling away from him then, slamming through the door into the kitchen and letting it slap back on its hinges. Smart to walk away because that insult demanded retaliation and he needed a minute to rein in his temper before he went after her and delivered the set down she deserved.
As Rowan banged through the cupboards for a kettle, she trembled with outrage.
And fear. If her mother and Olief were really gone…
Her breath stalled at how adrift that left her. She’d come here to find some point to her life, some direction. She’d made quite a mess of things in the last year, she’d give him that, but she needed time to sort it all out and make a plan for her future. Big, sure, heartless Nic didn’t seem to want to give her that though.
He pushed into the room, his formidable presence like a shove into deeper water. She gripped the edge of the bench, resenting him with every bone in her body. She wouldn’t let him do this to her.
“I don’t know why I’m surprised,” she seethed. “You don’t have a sensitive bone in your body. You’re made up of icicles, aren’t you?”
He jerked his head back. “Better that than slots of a piggy bank,” he returned with frost. “It’s not Olief being gone that worries you, but his deep pockets, isn’t it?”
“I’m not the one taking over his offices and bank accounts, am I? What’s wrong? The Board giving you a hard time again? Maybe you shouldn’t have been so quick to jump into Olief’s shoes like you owned them.”
“Who else could be trusted?” he shot back. “The Board wanted to sell off pieces for their personal gain. I kept it intact so Olief would have something to come back to.”
She’d been aware in those early weeks of him warring with Olief’s top investors, but she’d had her own struggles with rehabilitating her leg. The corporation had been the last thing on her mind.
“I looked for them even while sitting at his desk,” Nic continued. “I paid the searchers long after the authorities gave up. What did you do?” he challenged. “Kept your mother’s fan club rabid and frenzied.”
Rowan curled her toes in the tight leather of her boots, stabbed with inadequacy and affront. “My leg was broken. I couldn’t get out in a boat to look for them. And doing all those interviews wasn’t a cakewalk!”
He snorted. “Blinking back manufactured tears was difficult, was it?”
Manufactured? She always fought back tears when she couldn’t avoid facing the reality of their lost plane. Snapping her head to the side, she refused to let him see how upset talking about the disappearance made her now. He obviously didn’t see her reaction as sincere and she wasn’t about to beg him to believe her.
Especially when she had very mixed feelings, some that scared her. Guilt turned in her like a spool of barbed wire as she thought of the many times she had wished she could be out from under her mother’s controlling thumb. Since turning nineteen, she had been waffling constantly between outright defiance that would have cut all ties to Cassandra O’Brien and a desire to stay close to Olief, Rosedale, and—she admitted silently with a suffocating squeeze of mortification—within the sphere of Olief’s black sheep son.
But she hadn’t wished Cassandra O’Brien would die.
She couldn’t declare her mother dead. It was sick. Wrong. Rowan swiped her clammy palms over the seat of her jeans before running water into the kettle. She wouldn’t do it.
“If you want to run Olief’s enterprise, fill your boots,” she said shakily. “But if all you want is more control over it, and by extension me, don’t expect me to help you.” She set the kettle to boil then risked a glance at him.
He wore the most painfully supercilious smirk. “I’m willing to forgive your debts to gain your cooperation,” he levied.
“My debts,” she repeated laughingly. “A few months of credit card bills?” She and her mother had been in worse shape dozens of times. We’re in dire straits, love. Be a good girl and dance us out. Appearance fees were a sordid last resort, but Rowan wasn’t above it. “You’ll have to do better than that,” she said coldly.
He leaned a well-muscled arm on the refrigerator. His laconic stance and wide chest, so unashamedly male, made her mouth go dry. “Name your price then.”
His confidence was as compelling as his physique, all the more aggravating because she didn’t possess any immunity to it. She wanted to put a crack in his composure.
“Rosedale,” she tossed out. It was a defiant challenge, but earnest want crept into her tone. This was her home. This was where Olief would return…if he could.
“Rosedale,” Nic repeated. His frigid stare gave her a shiver of apprehension before she reminded herself she was being crass because he was. She tensed her sooty lashes into protective slits as she held his intimidating gaze.
“Why not?” she challenged. “You don’t want it.”
“Not true. I don’t like the house,” he corrected, shifting his big body into an uncompromising stance, shoulders pinned back, arms folded in refusal. “The location is perfect though. I intend to tear down this monstrosity as soon as it’s emptied and build something that suits me better. So no, you may not have Rosedale.”
“Tear it down?” The words hissed in her throat like the steam off the kettle. “Why would you even threaten such a thing? Just to hurt me?”
“Hurt you?” He frowned briefly. Any hint of softening was dismissed in a blink. “Don’t try to manipulate me with your acts of melodrama, Rowan. No, I’m not doing anything to you. You’re not on my radar far enough for me to be that personal.”
Of course not, and she shouldn’t let him so far into her psyche that she was scorched by that, but there he was, making her burn with humiliation and hurt.
“Unlike you, I don’t play games,” he continued. “That wasn’t a threat. It’s the truth. The house is completely impractical. If I’m going to live here I want open rooms, more access to the outdoors, fewer stairs.”
“Then don’t live here!”
“Athens has been my base most of my life. It’s a short helicopter or boat trip from here to the city. The vineyard is profitable in its own right, which I’m sure is the real reason you want your hands on this place, but I’m not going to hand you a property worth multi-millions because your mother slept her way into having a ridiculous house built on it. What I will do is allow you to take whatever Cassandra left here if you do it in a timely manner.”
Rowan could only stare into his emotionless blue eyes. His gall left her speechless. Her mind could barely comprehend all he was saying. Rosedale gone? Pick over her mother’s things like she was snatching bargains at a yard sale? Give up hope?
A stabbing pain drove through her, spreading an ache like poison across her chest and lifting a sting into her throat and behind her eyes.
“I don’t want things, Nic. I want my home and family!”
She was going to cry and it was the last thing she could bear to do in front of this glacier-veined man. It was more like her to go toe-to-toe than run from a fight, but for the second time in half an hour, she had to walk out on him.
After hiking the length of the island once in heels, her feet refused a visit to all her favored haunts so Rowan went as far as the sandy shoreline and kicked off her boots. The water was higher than she’d ever seen it, but she usually only swam in summer, rarely coming to the beach in winter and she hadn’t been looking at the water when she’d followed Nic down here.
Wincing, she turned her mind from that debacle only to become conscious of how grim a place the beach was to visit since her mother and Olief had likely drowned somewhere out there in the Mediterranean.
Starting up the beach, she tried to escape the hitch of guilt catching in her, not wanting to dwell on how she’d asked them to come for her when she’d broken her leg. She hadn’t been able to come to them, not physically and more significantly, because she had feared running into Nic.
Oh, that hateful man! She hated him all the more for having a point. He wasn’t right, but she had to acknowledge he wasn’t completely wrong. She hadn’t expected to find her mother and Olief in residence, but she’d wanted to feel close to them as she faced the anniversary of their disappearance and accepted what he’d come out and said: it was very unlikely they would ever come back.
And tell her what to do.
The rest of her life stretched before her like the water, endless and formless. Until the dance school had kicked her out, she’d never faced anything like this. Logically she knew she ought to celebrate this freedom and opportunity, but it looked so empty.
Her life was empty. She had no one.
Rowan drank salt-scented air as she inhaled, trying to ease the constriction in her lungs. Not yet. She didn’t have to face all that until the year was officially up. Nic could go to hell with his court documents and demands that she face reality.
As she contemplated dealing with his threats against Rosedale, a moment of self-pity threatened. Why did he dislike her so much? His cloud of harsh judgment always seemed directed inexorably toward her, but why? They were nothing to each other. He might be Olief’s son, but who would know it? He’d only ever referred to Olief by name, never even in conversation as ‘my father,’ yet he wanted the rights of a son, the full inheritance. That egotistical sense of privilege affronted her. She wanted to stand up for Olief if for no other reason than that Nic didn’t deserve the position of sole heir. He’d never made a proper effort to be part of the family and wasn’t looking out for what was left of it: her. ‘Estranged’ seemed to be his preferred depth of any relationship. That wall of detachment had broken Olief’s heart.
And it made Rowan nervous because it made Nic formidable. Her insides clenched at the thought of Rosedale being torn down. She couldn’t lose her home.
Reaching the end of the beach where a long flat rock created the edge of the cove, she clambored up to a well-used vantage point. The waves were wild, coming in with a wind that cycloned her hair and peppered her with sea spray. Barnacles cut into her bare souls while bits of kelp in icy tide pools made for slippery steps in between.
She picked her way to the edge, reveling in the struggle to reach it under the ferocious mood of the sky. Another wave smashed against the rocks under her toes, high enough to spray her thighs and wash bitter swirls of cold water around her ankles before it sucked back to open water. Uncomfortable, but not enough to chase her away.
Throwing back her head, she sent out a challenge to the gathering storm as if standing up to Nic. “I won’t let you scare me off.”
The words were tossed away on a whistling wind, but it felt good to say them. To stand firm against another crash and gush and pull of wintery water that soaked her calves before dragging at the denim in retreat.
It wasn’t until a third monster, higher than all the rest, rolled in and exploded in a wall of water that soaked her to the chest that she realized she might not be strong enough to win against such a mighty enemy.
If Rowan thought he’d bring her luggage out of the rain or pour her tea while she stamped around outside throwing a hissy fit, she had another think coming. Nic went upstairs to his office and did his best to dismiss her from his mind.
It didn’t go well. That heartbreaking catch in her voice when she’d said, I want my home and family, kept ringing in his mind, making him uncomfortable.
He wasn’t close to his own mother and after many times hearing Rowan and Cassandra fight like cats in a cage had assumed their relationship was little better than an armed truce. Of course he’d observed over the years that regard for one’s parents was fairly universal and he obviously would have preferred Olief had survived rather than disappeared, but he hadn’t imagined Rowan was feeling deep distress over any of this. Her anguish startled him. Throughout this entire year, as always, he had tried not to think much of her at all, certainly not dwelling on how she was coping emotionally.
Because he coped by working long hours and avoiding deep thoughts altogether. Getting emotional and wishing for the impossible was a waste of time. Nothing could be changed by angst and hand-wringing.
Moving to the window, he tried to escape doing anything of the sort now, telling himself he was only observing the weather. On the horizon, the haze of an angry front was drawing in. It was the storm that had been promised when he’d checked the report and the reason he’d come over last night on the yacht rather than trying to navigate choppy, possibly deadly seas today.
A storm like this had taken down Olief’s plane. He and Cassandra had been off to fetch Rowan from yet another of her madcap adventures. She was the reason Nic had no chance of knowing Olief or ever grasping the seemingly simple concept she’d bandied at him so easily: family. Rowan might not be the whole reason, but one way or another she had interfered with Nic’s efforts to get to know his father. She had demanded Olief’s attention with cheeky misbehavior and constant bids for attention, interrupting whenever Nic found a moment with the man and constantly distracting Nic with her unrelenting sex appeal. He’d had to walk away from progress a thousand times. Away from her.
Prickling with antipathy, he unconsciously scanned the places he’d most often observed her over the years, not aware he was looking for her until he felt a twinge of confusion when he didn’t find her where he usually would. She wasn’t at the gazebo or up the hilltop or on the beach—
He spotted her and swore. Fool.
Bare feet had been a bad idea. Rowan couldn’t move fast enough across the sharp, uneven rocks to outrun the tide that was coming in with inescapable resolve. She couldn’t even see where she was stepping. The water had come in deep enough to eddy around her knees, keeping her off balance. With her arms flapping, she silently begged her Mum and Olief, If you can hear me, please help me get back to shore alive.
The response to her plea was the biggest wave yet, visible as a steel gray roll crawling up behind her with such ominous size and strength, Rowan dug in with her numb toes and braced for impact. Her whole body shuddered as the weight of the water began to climb her already soaked clothes, gathering height as it loomed behind her.
She held her breath.
It broke at her shoulders and with a cry she felt herself thrown forward onto what felt like broken glass. Her hands and knee felt the scarf of barnacles as she tried to scramble for purchase, but then she was lifted. Her heart stopped. The wave was going to roll her across these rocks before it dragged her out to die.
Rowan clawed toward the surface long enough to get a glimpse of Nic running flat out down the beach. “Ni—” Her mouth filled with water.
Nic lost sight of her as the surf chundered into itself. He pushed his body to the limit, tormented anger bubbling like acid inside him. Questions pounded with his footsteps digging across the wet sand. What did God have against him? Why did he have to lose everything? Why her—
An arm flailed, fighting to stay in the foam that drained off the ledge of rocks. If the retreating wave carried her into deeper water, she’d be thrown back into the rocks with the next surge that came in. Rowan fought for her life and so did Nic. He leapt onto the ledge and waded into the turbulence, able to read the terror on her face as she valiantly fought to keep herself from being pulled beyond reach.
At the last second she surged forward enough he was able to clamp his hand on her wrist. He dragged her up and out of the water, clutching her to his chest as he made for safer ground. The tide poured in with another wave big enough to soak his seat and spatter his back before he reached the sand and finally the grass. He stopped, heart racing with exertion, too close to seeing her die to ease his vice-like grip.
Rowan clung tightly to Nic even as he crushed her, stunned by how close she’d come to being sucked into certain death. She was shocked to the core that he’d arrived at just the right time to help her. Astounded that he’d bothered.
He hadn’t hesitated though. His clothes were as soaked as her own, his heart pounding as loud and rapidly as hers. As her senses crept back to a functioning state, she realized how thoroughly she was plastered to him. They were embracing like soulmates.
She lifted her face from the hollow of his shoulder, but his arms remained iron hard, pinning her to a chest roped with muscle, holding her so close she could smell faded aftershave and sea spray. Warmth crept into the seam of their bodies, spilling a teasing pleasure under her skin wherever their wet clothes adhered.
Gratitude, she tried dismissing, but it was more. It didn’t matter that she’d been here two years ago, very close to this place on the beach even, and had received a harsh set down on the heels of experiencing this rush. Nic was the only man to affect her like this no matter how often she’d dated and tried to let other men arouse her. Nic had set the bar impossibly high when she’d first begun noticing the opposite sex. She had yet to find anyone else who measured up. It meant that his arms were the ones she secretly longed to feel around her. Now he was ruining her even more because the fit of her body to his was so perfect. The flood of tingling awareness so exciting.
His gaze caught her own and stillness came over him. She mentally braced herself, but instead of fury, something hot flickered in his eyes. His expression darkened with a flush that almost looked like— Rowan caught her breath, confused. Lust? Impossible. He hated her.
Nevertheless, she could feel an unmistakable male reaction against her abdomen. An answering trickle of desire made her wriggle her hips in embarrassed curiosity.
His arms hardened, holding her still for his penetrating gaze as their mutual reaction became undeniable. He knew she was getting turned on. He was turned on and wanted her to see it, was forcing her to acknowledge it.
Her mind blanked as her unsteady heart kicked into overdrive. She’d been drunk the last time and insulated against what was really happening. The moon behind him had kept his face in shadow. He’d kissed her, but angrily, and had pushed her away as fast as he’d yanked her close.
This hadn’t happened. Rowan was a skilled flirt and ever conscious of the power of her sex appeal, but real sexual need had never ignited in her properly. She’d never felt another man’s arousal and been intrigued and excited. She’d always kept a clear head and been able to put on the brakes.
Not now. She longed to let Nic support her as she melted in abject surrender.
Panicked by her dwindling willpower, she pushed against his chest. “What are you doing?” she sputtered. The power of his spell glinted like fairy dust around her, disorienting her. Perhaps she’d fantasized from afar too long. She was seeing things that weren’t there. Nic had never shown any kind of desire for her. Where had his arousal come from? Why now?
Nic’s half step back was by his choice, not her forceful shove, and his grim expression held none of the heat she had thought she’d seen. If anything, he seemed vaguely disgusted. A cloak of reserve fell around him, turning him into the distant, condescending man she’d always known. “I’m saving your life. What were you thinking climbing out there when the water is this high?”
“Everyone climbs out there,” she excused, wondering if she’d imagined that brief press of hard male flesh. Wishful thinking? Hardly. Getting into bed with this man would be like climbing into a cage with a tiger. When she finally slept with someone, she’d choose a domesticated housecat. “How was I supposed to know the waves would come up like that? It’s never happened before.” She crossed her arms, feeling her soaked clothes and wet hair as the wind cut through her. Her chin rattle and she shivered.
“It’s called a tide table and a weather report, Rowan.” He kept his gaze locked onto the horizon, jaw like iron.
“Anyone reading tide tables in their leisure time is in danger of drowning in boredom. Who does that?”
“I checked both before bringing the yacht over yesterday,” he said stiffly, barely glancing at her as he added derisively, “Anyone who ignores basic precautions deserves the natural selection that results.”
“Then why didn’t you let nature take its course with me today?” she groused. The bottom of the Med sounded infinitely more comfortable than suffering a lecture while turning into an icy pop.
A barely discernible flinch was gone before she was sure whether she’d really seen it. His face hardened into an inscrutable mask as he glared out to sea. “You disappearing along with the others would look suspicious. I have to keep you alive long enough to sign the documents I brought. Since I just did you a very solid favor, you’ll comply.” His blue eyes came back to her with freezing resolve.
“Dream on,” she retorted, but he was already turning away, everything in him dismissive of her and sure of his success.
Annoyed beyond measure, she stayed where she was, longing to be stubborn but it was bloody cold out here. Other sensations were penetrating as well. Her hands and feet burned along with her knee. The denim was torn out of her jeans on her bad leg exposing bloody, scraped skin. Her palms were rashed raw and cuts on her fingers welled with blood. The bottoms of her feet felt like they’d been branded.
Sickened, she lifted her head to call Nic, but he was without sympathy, striding away without a backward glance, his wet clothes clinging to his form as he rounded the hedge and disappeared. He didn’t care if she was hurt. He had his own agenda.
Grimly aware she had no one else to call for help, she gritted her teeth and limped her way back to the house.