Untouched Until Her Ultra-Rich Husband
The only woman to challenge him…
…is the only woman he’ll marry!
Multibillionaire Gabriel Dean is so outrageously wealthy that when computer genius Luli Cruz uses her skills to hold his inheritance to ransom, her audacity simply amuses him! Innocent Luli needs Gabriel’s help to avoid destitution. Gabriel’s solution? He’ll secure both their futures by marrying her! But sweeping wide-eyed Luli into his luxurious world, Gabriel discovers the chemistry with his untouched wife is priceless…
Welcome to the exclusive world of the ultra-rich…
“I thought you were a form of AI, but there’s nothing artificial about you. Is there?”
— Gabriel, Untouched Until Her Ultra-Rich Husband
My son, Sam, took a two-year computer programming class at British Columbia Institute of Technology. Essentially, they cram four years of learning into two. The course is widely known to be intensive and gruelling and generally the only thing a student does–eating and sleeping are luxuries. Calling home, even for money, hardly ever happened.
But on one of our rare calls, he mentioned a classmate, Luli. I fell in love with her name and said, “I might steal that for a heroine.” He said, “It’s actually Lucrecia.” I said, “Even better, but what kind of name is it?” He said her family was from Venezuela and I thought that was intriguing enough to keep it.
I later had the good fortune to meet real-life Luli. She’s lovely and no, they’re not dating. Strictly comrades in computer programming, but I have it on good authority–Sam–that she’s a really great coder.
I accidentally lifted Luli’s vocation of computer programming for my fictional Luli. I needed my Luli to develop a skill while she’s trapped for years with Gabriel’s rich, eccentric grandmother, something that would allow her to be a pain in Gabriel’s behind. Luli locks him out of his own software–which makes him mad, but secretly appeals to the nerd in him. He wants to unravel what she’s done.
I have no idea if my description of Luli’s hacking holds water. My son is generous with his time if I have research questions, but I’ll be honest. I don’t want to say, “I want this and this and this to happen” and hear him go, “Yeah, Mom, that can’t happen.” Ignorance is very much bliss! So if you happen to know something about computer programming and read this book and roll your eyes at the artistic license I’ve taken, that’s all on me. Sam and real-life Luli are innocent bystanders.
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Untouched Until Her Ultra-Rich Husband
Born in the year of the dragon, Gabriel Dean was dominant, ambitious, passionate and willing to take risks. He jumped for no one.
His signature detachment, however, was not impervious to his grandmother’s ringtone.
The distinctive tinkle of a brass tea bell might have struck some as a sign of affection. And yes, he had seen her shake such a bell on two of the three occasions he had spoken to her in person, but sentiment was not a gene either of them possessed.
No, the bell was a practical choice, being odd enough to draw his attention no matter what was going on around him. Mae Chen’s missives were financial in nature, time-sensitive and always lucrative. He didn’t need more money, but he hadn’t joined the eleven-zeroes club at thirty by ignoring opportunities to make more.
Therefore, at the first peal, he held up a finger to pause the roundtable discussion of an energy takeover that would make him the defacto owner of a small country. He turned his titanium smartphone onto its backing of iguana-leather and touched the sapphire crystal screen.
Transmitted from Luli: Your grandmother has experienced a medical event. Her instructions in such case are to promptly advise you that you are her designated heir. Contact details for her physician are below.
That was new information.
In one fluid move, he tagged the doctor’s number, picked up the phone, and rose to leave without explanation. He moved with purpose from the room, more disturbed by the label ‘heir’ than his grandmother’s condition.
For one thing, Mae was far too bellicose to suffer anything for long, particularly ill health. She would be on her feet before this call was picked up.
As for Gabriel being her heir, she wouldn’t stipulate such a thing without attaching a symphony’s worth of strings. She had been trying to maneuver him into a beholden state for two decades. It was the reason he had kept his interest in her fortune objective and made no assumptions about his entitlement to it. He religiously returned her invitations to invest with equally advantageous opportunities of his own. Tit for tat, scoop for scoop. No obligations incurred on either side beyond reciprocal courtesy.
“A stroke,” the doctor advised him seconds later. “It’s unlikely she will survive.”
Her transfer to the private clinic had been swift and discreet, the doctor continued.
“I expect this will cause ripples through the financial districts when it’s announced? I didn’t know you were her grandson.”
While Gabriel’s agile brain sifted through the implications of his grandmother being incapacitated, possibly disappearing from his life altogether, the inquisitiveness of the physician’s tone penetrated. He could hear the man’s thoughts buzzing like an annoying mosquito. Buy? Sell? Were there properties that could be snatched up before they were officially on the market? How could the fine doctor take advantage of this news before anyone else?
Thanks to their mutual exchange of information over the years, Mae had expanded from relatively stable investments in real estate to tech and renewable energy, precious metals and that fickle mistress—oil. None of that could be left without a sitter.
Gabriel assured the doctor he would be there as soon as possible. He messaged his executive assistant to reschedule the meeting he’d abandoned. He also told her to clear his calendar and notify his pilot to ready the jet. As he headed to the elevator, he glanced at the nearest face at a desk and said, “My car, please.”
The woman quickly put her call on hold and his chauffeured Rolls Royce Phantom arrived at the curb as he pushed through the revolving door at the bottom of his building.
The humidity of a New York summer hit him in the face, but it would be monsoon rains in Singapore. His butler kept his jet packed for all climes and occasions, though. His grandmother kept a room at her house for him, not that he had ever used it. Invitations had come periodically, maybe to discuss the fact she was designating him her heir. He also owned a building of flats in that city. The top one was designated for his use, so he never too his grandmother up on—
“Gabriel!” A woman moved into his path and dipped her sunglasses to reveal her fake lashes and waxed brows. “I thought you might like to take me to lunch. It’s Tina,” she reminded after a beat where he only stared, trying to place her. She splayed her hand on the upper swells of her breasts where they were revealed by her wide-necked blouse. “We met at my father’s retirement party last weekend. You said you liked my song.”
He must have been speaking out of politeness because he had no recollection of her voice, her father, or the party.
“I’m traveling,” he dismissed, and stepped around her.
If there was one thing he needed less than more money, it was another social climber throwing herself at him.
He slid onto a cool leather seat and his driver closed him into the air conditions interior.
Gabriel glanced at the square face of his gold Girard-Perregaux and calculated the approximate time until he would land.
Such affectations as vintage watches and Valentino briefcases meant nothing to him, but appearances mattered to everyone else. He always played to win, even at ‘who wore it best,’ so he ordered hand-sewn suits in rare wools like vicuña and qivuik. He had his alligator-leather shoes lined with goat-skin when they were custom cobbled in Italy. He hung all of it off a body that he ruthlessly kept in peak athletic condition.
He wore sunscreen and moisturized.
And he genuinely didn’t care that folding his grandmother’s net worth into his own would tip him into the exalted echelon of World’s First trillionaire. All it meant, quite inconveniently, was more work—yet another thing he didn’t need.
His grandmother was his only relative of note, however, despite being both strange and estranged. He might lack strong feelings toward her or her money, but he did feel a responsibility to preserve her empire. He respected what she had built in her seventy years. He might be progressive by nature, but he didn’t tear down institutions for the sake of it.
He flicked back to the original message and brought the phone to his chin as he spoke a text. “Who is Mae’s business manager?”
Transmitted from Luli: I assist Mrs. Chen in managing her transactions. May I help with a specific inquiry or instruction?
Artificial intelligence was so delightfully passive aggressive, always deferential when it was being obstructive.
“Send me the contact details of the man or woman who carries out Mae’s personal banking transactions.”
Transmitted from Luli: I perform those tasks. How may I help?
Gabriel bit back a curse. Once this news was released and his connection to Mae Chen made public, a global circus would erupt around her financial holdings. The clock was already ticking, given her doctor had learned of their connection.
He switched gears and began sending instructions to his own team of advisors and brokers to reach out to hers. Once he was on the ground, he would learn exactly who ran things for Mae Chen and firmly take the reins from him.
“Luli.” The butler introduced her last, since she had deliberately positioned herself at the end of the line of staff, after the housemaids and cook. She was practically standing around the corner of the house where vines grew against the wall that ensured the privacy of Mae Chen’s colonial era mansion.
His mansion now.
If she was, Gabriel Dean was the first to notice in her twenty-two years of existence.
Of course, Luli experienced very human reactions as she shook hands with Mae’s grandson, bowing slightly and murmuring, “Sir,” as she did. Her heart was pounding, her skin coated in cold perspiration, her stomach churning like a pit of snakes.
Aside from the married butler and the gardeners, she rarely saw men. Not this sort of man, especially. His black, glossy hair was precision-trimmed and disheveled with equal precision. He was clean-shaven, his cheekbones a masterpiece, his mouth—she didn’t know what to compare it to, having never studied a man’s lips before. They weren’t the feminine peaks and sensual fullness with corner curls like hers. They were thinner, straighter and as much a statement of unspoken authority as the rest of him.
“Is that your full name? Luli?”
“Lucrecia,” she provided, tacking on the other half of a name she had nearly forgotten. “Cruz.”
His gaze flickered down her pleat-neck dress. Its straight cut was belted with the same pale yellow cotton and the hem ended just above her ankles, revealing her bare feet in sandals. The maids wore an apron over theirs and looked efficient and smart. Luli wished she had that extra layer of protection, but even a plate of armor wouldn’t hide the fact she was significantly more endowed in the chest than the delicately built Malaysian women beside her. On her, the fabric pulled across her hips and required a higher slit to accommodate her longer stride.
Gabriel was taller than she had expected. No wonder Mae was always telling her to sit. It was intimidating to have someone look down on you.
Gabriel’s gaze came back to her face, taking in features she knew to be striking. It wasn’t just that her skin was paler than the rest of the staff’s, or her eyes distinctly Caucasian. Her light brown hair was naturally streaked with ash blond and her nose slender and elegant.
Gabriel’s eyelids were distinctly Asian, his irises an unexpected gray-green.
She had seen enough photos to expect him to be beautiful, but she had not expected this radiation of power. She should have. His grandmother possessed a version of it, but this man’s force of will nearly knocked her off her feet and all he had done was step out of his car.
Now he relaxed his grip so she wasn’t sure if the handshake was over. She took too long to draw her hand from his. It made her feel ignorant and foolish. The maids would be laughing at her later, but she couldn’t help this weakness of fascination that overcame her.
“May we offer refreshments, sir?” the butler asked. “Your room has been prepared, if you wish to rest.”
“I’m here to work.” He glanced toward the front of the house. “Coffee will do.”
“Of course.” The butler clapped his hands to send everyone filing back to their duties.
Luli breathed out a subtle sigh of relief and started to follow.
“Luli.” Gabriel’s voice jolted her. “You’ll show me to my grandmother’s office.”
He spoke English with an American accent, not the British one she was used to hearing and copying. He waved for her to join him as he climbed the front steps.
She was disturbed by it. She struggled to find acceptance here as it was. Mae gave her special treatment in some ways, but Luli never liked to do anything that made it seem as though she was trying to rise above everyone else.
Besides, her guilty conscience wasn’t ready to confess to him what she’d done.
She concentrated on her breathing and maintaining a tall posture. She ensured her expression was serene, her movements graceful and unhurried despite her unsteady pulse and the shakiness brought on by sleep deprivation.
She had had twenty hours to react to this sudden change in her circumstance. It was her habit, through years of boredom and confinement, to mentally plan for every conceivable situation. Thus, she had known from the first call of alarm into the garden what she would have to do.
Executing those actions, however, had taken nerves of steel and hours of careful coding into the night. There was no room for error—and likely no forgiveness from this man no matter how things played out.
Gabriel paused inside the opulent foyer, taking in the mosaic tiles beneath their feet, the inlaid wood in the stair banister, the priceless art and the arrangements of fresh flowers. All his now.
Luli halted as well, waiting until he glanced at her expectantly.
“Mrs. Chen’s office is the third door,” she murmured with a nod toward the hallway.
In a confusing war of chivalry against her effort to be subservient, he waited for her to go first then fell into step beside her.
“I’m very sorry about your grandmother,” she said. “We’ll miss her deeply.”
“It sounds like it was very swift.”
It had been. They’d all known the quick, anxious efforts of Mae’s nurse were futile. Even as Mae’s helicopter had airlifted her from the garden where it had happened, a blanket of subdued reflection had hung over the entire house.
Luli brought him into Mae’s office. The room was designed along spare lines, more staid than the other rooms, but still had feminine touches in the pastel color scheme and the English teapot that Luli filled for both of them every afternoon.
It felt terribly empty in here. Who would she drink tea with now? What was going to happen?
Her future was no longer in the tight, but secure hands of Mae Chen. Luli could kid herself that she was taking her destiny into her own hands, but that wasn’t true. The way this man reacted once he learned what she had done would dictate how the rest of her life proceeded.
His hands were long-fingered and lightly tanned. They looked powerful. Deadly.
Luli stood beside the rolling chair at the delicate writing desk that was her workstation, waiting for him to sit. He took in the room, glancing beyond the windows to the garden and gave each painting and vase a brief, incisive glance.
She found herself holding her breath, waiting for his assessing gaze to come back to her, hoping for a sign of approachability in him. Approval on some level. Something that would reassure her.
“I thought you were a form of AI, but there’s noting artificial about you. Is there?” His head turned and his expression eased, revealing a slant of something that invited and appreciated, even as it caused her inner radar to tingle with caution.
She had the most bizarre sensation of being chased, breaths growing uneven despite not moving. Her middle filled with fluttering butterflies, but they weren’t fear. They were the excitement of the unknown. Of playful pursuit.
This was sexual awareness, she realized with a pressure in her throat that was an urge to both laugh and scream. She understood sexual attraction in a very abstract way. She had been exposed to the feminine tricks of making herself appealing to the opposite sex far too young, but she wasn’t trying any of them right now. She was bare-faced and the only reason she stood tall and sucked in her stomach was in an effort to seem confident and competent.
And she had been judged on her external attributes from an early age, but hadn’t felt it, not like this. If anything, she’d been repulsed by older men studying her and assigning her a score. Occasionally, since being here, one of Mrs. Chen’s visitors had noticed her and made a remark before she was shooed out of sight. She had been an odd duck, if not an outright ugly duckling.
She hadn’t realized a man’s gaze could make her stomach wobble and her blood feel as though it fizzed in her veins. That a force field could encompass her like a cup over a spider, so she could be scooped into the palm of his hand to be crushed or freed on his whim.
The butler came in with the tray, breaking their locked gaze.
“How shall I prepare your kopi, Mr. Dean?” the butler asked, pouring from the carafe into a jade green cup with a gold handle that he balanced on its matching saucer.
“Black.” His sharp gaze touched on the single cup and swung back to Luli. “You’re not having any?”
The butler didn’t react, but Luli read his affront in the angle of his shoulders and the stiffness beneath his impassive expression. They’d been at war for years because she had Mae’s confidence in ways he didn’t. He’d been incensed that he had learned from Luli who Mrs. Chen’s grandson was—after Luli had informed Gabriel.
What could Luli have said, though? She doesn’t trust you. She doesn’t trust men. Mae had encouraged Luli to trust no one but her and Luli had given her the loyalty that Mae craved.
None of which changed the fact that if the butler had to fetch Luli a cup right now, he would die.
If she was a small person, she would force him to do it, but she was saving her energy for a greater revolt. A more daunting target.
“You’re very kind,” she murmured. “But that’s not necessary.”
“The bell is here if you require anything further, Mr. Dean,” the butler said, glancing darkly toward Luli before he closed the door firmly on his way out.
Gabriel waved at the arrangement of sofa and chairs, all upholstered in silk brocade, and waited for her to lower onto a cushion before he sat across from her.
Honestly, this regard he was extending to her was laughable. Her conscience writhed as she folded her hands in her lap. He was going to explode when he realized how undeserving she was of this respect.
Despite the fact she would have to take control of the discussion eventually, she waited for him to lead. There were so many ways this could go, some of them life-altering—maybe even life-threatening. Her research had revealed he was a black belt in kung fu. Her morning tai chi in the courtyard with Mae and the rest of the household was no match for the lightning fast and lethal moves he no doubt possessed.
“After signing papers at the hospital, I met with my grandmother’s solicitor,” he informed her. “My power of attorney was finalized so I could assume the helm during probate. A press release has been issued to announce our connection. Legally and publicly it is accepted that I have taken possession of Chen Enterprises. Yet, when I arrived at the head office, very few of my instructions could be fully executed. I was told that every instruction and transaction goes through Luli.”
He sipped his coffee while his gaze stayed pinned on her.
“They couldn’t even run me a comprehensive list of her assets and accounts, so I could begin contacting the banks for access.”
A coal of heat burned in her center, but she said nothing, knowing that stammering out explanations when he hadn’t yet asked a question would betray her nerves.
“You realize I’m not the only person under the impression you’re a sophisticated task-management app?”
“I believe that is the impression your grandmother preferred to cultivate.”
“Why?” His voice was whip sharp. She had to concentrate not to flinch as it landed on her.
“Among other things, it forces people to express themselves in writing,” she explained in an unruffled tone. “It creates a traceable trail. She told me once that when your grandfather died, his business manager attempted to take advantage of her. She wasn’t able to prove his wrongdoing and she wasn’t able to take control of the wealth she had inherited. Not without a terrible fight.”
“Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Apparently.” Sip.
Bam, bam, bam. Her heart threatened to crack open her breastbone.
“Since then, it has been her practice to maintain tight oversight with regards to her finances. She personally approves all but the most routine transactions.”
“Does she? Because it sounds like you do.”
“She didn’t care for computers. I work under her direction.” And steered her direction, when opportunities presented, but that wasn’t important right now.
“Your actions strike me as empire-building.” He crossed his legs, hitching his pants as he did. “You have made yourself indispensible in a grasp for power. I’ve seen it before, many times.”
“I have no empire,” she assured him.
His cynical look said he saw right through her, which shouldn’t cause her stomach to bottom out, but it did. He was nothing to her, but it was taking every ounce of courage she possessed to hold his gaze.
It struck her that she had never had the courage defy Mae. What chance did that give her against someone like him?
“You live here?” The cynical twitch of his mesmerizing mouth called her a parasite.
“A room is assigned to me, yes.”
“Where did you come from?”
“That wasn’t what I was asking, but I hear that in your accent now.” His gaze shifted as he took in her features once again. “It’s sultry. Exotic.”
He sounded vaguely mocking, which stung. Her rudimentary English, taught to her by a chaperone, had been perfected here, where Mae had learned it from a British boarding school. The staff spoke broken versions peppered with Indian, Malay and Pilipino accents.
As he stared at her, the tingle of sensual, elemental awareness shimmered around her again, disconcerting her. Logically, she presumed she could use her voice and looks to charm and distract him, but she had no practice wielding those weapons. Instead, she found herself fascinated by the subtle inflections in his voice and the slightest twitch of his lips.
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“Not Singapore. In this house, employed by my grandmother.”
“I came to this house when I came to Singapore eight years ago.”
He frowned. “How old are you?”
“Were you hired as a housemaid?” He was taken aback. “How did you come to be doing high level work like this?” He jerked his chin toward the sleeping laptop on the writing desk.
She licked her lips. How to explain?
“As I said, your grandmother found computers tiresome, but she wished to be as hands-on as possible with every facet of her business.”
“You’re her hands?”
He was skeptical, but it was true. Luli couldn’t count the number of times May had nudged her in the back of the shoulder and told her, ‘Go back. Show me that again.’
“I perform various confidential tasks at her direction.”
“Bank transfers, stock purchases…?”
“Yes. If a broker or middleman is used, I follow up after transmitting requests to ensure the task has been completed. I compile background information on potential employees and business partners, assist her in reviewing performance reports, and run random secondary checks on various budgets and accounts, helping spot discrepancies that could point to misuse.”
“People love audits, especially random ones. I bet you’re very popular.” He was being sarcastic.
‘A necessary evil,’ was probably the kindest thing she’d been called, usually in an email chain not meant for her eyes.
Was she evil? She would have called her mother that, until she had been backed into a corner herself and now had to think about how she would survive.
“As you say, most people think I’m a computer program. I’ve never concerned myself much with whether people like me so long as your grandmother was satisfied with my work.”
A small lie. She would love a friend, a real one, not an old woman who had forgotten what it was like to be young and curious about the world. One who was scared to let her see any of it, in case it made her leave.
“On the topic of programs,” she said, feeling clammy sweat break on her palms. “It might interest you to know that your grandmother requested I switch exclusively to using your operating system. She had reservations about cloud-based so she purchased the download versions. We use all your business modules, accounting and security, the productivity suite… She wanted to know her most important records and crypto-currency were backed up and protected against intrusion. She liked that you claim it’s next to impossible to hack. I’m sure you could get in, though. If you had to.”
There. She was inching onto the limb she had chosen.
It might hold her or it might snap and send her plummeting to her death.
Lucrecia. It sounded like the Latin name for one of those exotic flowers found in remote jungles. The kind with waxy petals in shades of ivory streaked with lush crimson and mysterious indigo. The kind with a perfume that drew a bee inexorably into her honey trap.
Where she paralyzed and ate him alive.
What a way to go. Gideon almost didn’t see a down side, except that he’d learned very early not to fall for any sort of manipulation. They’d all been tried—threats, flattery, guilt, false friendship and—frequently—lust. Sex was something he enjoyed like whiskey over rocks or a cool swim on a hot day. It wasn’t something he needed or succumbed to.
Yet this woman had put a coil of tension in him merely by existing and was notching it with each lift of her thick, curled lashes over her piercing blue-green eyes.
To think, he had only come to the house as a last resort, thinking he would fire up his grandmother’s laptop and ascertain exactly what this ‘Luli’ software was all about.
Her wares were soft, all right. In all the right places, despite being draped in the least flattering dress imaginable. The color was wrong for her skin-tone, turning it olive instead of the pale caramel it was, but there was no hiding her catwalk height or her flawless complexion. She didn’t need make-up or adornments. In his mind, she only had to remove that dress and the pins from her hair and she would be perfect.
But she was his employee, he reminded himself, in the same way the workforce of any company became his responsibility and resource after a take-over.
Therefore, while he enjoyed fantasizing each time she threw one of those doe-eyed, speculative glances his way, looking ever so innocent as she let the tip of her tongue dampen her lips suggestively, he refused to let her see it was having the desired affect on him. I.e. Desire.
He definitely didn’t let his carnal reaction blind him to the nuanced threat she was making.
“Why would I need to hack into accounts that belong to me?” he asked, muscles activating as though preparing to face an opponent on the mat.
She didn’t say it, but he heard the lilt of suggestion in the way she trailed off.
He set aside his half-finished coffee with a click of bone china meeting lacquered wood.
She swallowed, eyes shielded by her lashes, but she was watching him through them. Cautious. Scared, even.
He let his lip curl to let her know he was amused by her adorable attempt to extort from him.
“You understand I could have you arrested.” Which was a strangely appalling thing to imagine. He had brought charges to bear in the past, when laws had been broken. He never thought twice about protecting himself and always sought justice through due process.
But there were exceptions to every rule, he supposed. Even the rules he made for himself.
“You could bring in the police,” she agreed in that same trailing tone. This time the adjunct was, but. “I haven’t done anything illegal, though. Not yet.”
Not yet? “Ah. You’ve planted a cyber bomb.” He ought to be furious, but he was so flabbergasted by her audacity, he wanted to laugh. Did she know who he was?
“May we call them incentives?” Her gaze came up, crystal as the Caribbean sea. Placid and appealing and full of sharks and deadly jellyfish with stinging tendrils.
His divided mind wanted to watch the shift of color in those eyes as he immersed himself in her even as the other half absorbed the word ‘incentives.’ Plural.
“Call them anything you like. I’m calling the police.” Even he didn’t know whether he was bluffing. He took longer than he needed to bring his phone from his pocket, though, watching for her next move.
“If I don’t login soon, a tell-all will release to the press.”
“Has my grandmother been running an opium den? What terrible tales could you possibly have to tell about her?” As far as he knew, Mae Chen’s worst crime was being stubbornly resentful of her daughter’s choice in husband—and rightfully so.
Luli’s face went blank. “I’d rather not reveal it.”
“Because you have nothing.”
“Because your grandmother’s good name would be smeared and she’s been good to me.”
“Yet you’ll destroy her reputation to get what you want from me.”
“I’ll tell the truth.” Her tone was grave, her comportment calm enough to make him think she might have something more than threats of revealing a dodgy tax write-off or a penchant for young men in small bathing suits.
“Something to do with my mother?”
“Not at all.” That seemed to surprise her.
“What then? I’m not playing twenty questions.”
She pinched her mouth and glanced toward the door to ensure it was firmly closed.
“Human trafficking and forcible confinement.”
She didn’t laugh.
“That’s a very ugly accusation.” There was a thriving black market in everything from drugs to kidneys, but it wasn’t a shop on Fifth Avenue where women in their golden years could drop in and buy house staff. “Who? You?”
She swallowed. “Ask anyone here how many times I’ve been outside the front door of this house. They’ll tell you today was the first time in eight years.”
“Because you’ve coached them to say that? Are you ring-leading?”
“I’m acting alone. I would be surprised if anyone else knows my situation as anything but a preference for staying inside the grounds.” Her watchful gaze came up. “As I say, it would damage their memory of your grandmother if staff began gossiping. I’d rather you didn’t make serious inquiries.”
“You know as well as I do that without a thorough investigation, it’s very much ‘she said, no one else said.’ I’ve weathered disgruntled employees making wild accusations many times. I’m not concerned.” He was a little concerned. This woman was not like the others here, that much was obvious. Not just in looks and background, either. At twenty-two, she had inveigled her way into controlling an elderly woman’s fortune. She was infinitely more dangerous than she looked.
Luli’s cheeks drew in as she set her chin. “Whether the police believe me or not, I expect they will deport me, seeing as I have no legal right to be here. My prospects in Venezuela are dim. I’ve had to make arrangements for that possibility.”
“I bet you have.” He couldn’t recall the last person to be so bold in their stalk of his money. He was reluctantly fascinated. “Stealing is a crime.”
“Only if I collect it.”
“Indeed.” He picked up his cup to sip and allow that lethal threat to sink in.
She might have paled slightly, but the sun had set and the light was changing.
“You could kill me,” she acknowledged. “Or I could simply disappear. Contingencies have been prepared for that possibility as well. The investigation into that would be very thorough and go on a very long time.”
“Hell hath no fury like a woman with a keyboard. What did I do to deserve this wrath?”
Her hands, so prettily arranged in her lap, turned their palms up in a subtle entreaty. “I’m aware that my only value right now is my ability to reverse the inconveniences I’ve arranged.”
“I’m confident I can reverse them myself before they do too much damage. Your value is nil.”
“You’re probably right.” She nodded, not even sweating. Her only betrayal of nerves was the rapid tattoo of her artery in her throat.
Gabriel had a weakness for puzzles. There was a twelve-year-old boy inside him itching to lock the door, put on his noise-cancelling headphones, and hack his own system until he’d found every Easter eggs she’d hidden there. Not because he was worried. Purely for the game of it.
And there was a thirty-one-year old man who wanted to put his hands on the twisted pieces of this woman and see how quickly he could untangle her and make her come apart.
“If what you say about your circumstance here is true…” He set aside his coffee mug again. “One could argue that by taking control of my grandmother’s assets, I am taking possession of you.”
There was that intriguing stillness again. The screen of her mink lashes, so ridiculously long and curled like a filly’s, hid her eyes while her mouth might have trembled.
“One could argue that,” she admitted in a voice that wasn’t quite steady. “I’ve done my utmost to protect all of her assets. Including me. Which wouldn’t stop you from unloading me. As assets go, I’m probably at my top valuable right now. If you were to sell me, for instance.”
He told himself she was mistaking him for someone with a conscience that could be played upon, but his stomach clenched in revulsion.
“Of course, if you were to do that, I would make every effort to use what I know of her business interests to my advantage.”
Such a cool delivery. He told himself to focus on that, her complete lack of emotional hysteria despite the topic they were discussing.
Instead, he was compelled to ask, “Is that how she acquired you? Off some auction block?” He would turn the fortune over to the authorities, not wanting a penny of it if it was built on something so ugly.
“No.” She shifted the fit of her hands, interlacing her fingers, but her knuckles remained white, telling him she was in a state of heightened stress, even though that was the only visible sign of it. Why? Because her story was true? Or because the lie she was telling had grown too heavy and unweildly to carry?
“My mother lived in a building my father owned in Caracas. She was his mistress. He was in government, married to someone else. He sold the building to your grandmother without making arrangements for my mother’s upkeep. Mae was trying to have her thrown out. My mother cut a deal with her to take me as an employee in exchange for allowing her to stay there. I’m working off my mother’s debt.”
She named a figure in Bolivars that would calculate to about a hundred thousand dollars.
Was that what a human life was worth? Pocket change?
“You were fourteen?”
“Why haven’t you left? Even if she deducted room and board, I would think you’d have paid that off by now.”
“Where would I go?” Her hands came up empty. “If your grandmother has my passport, it’s long expired. I have no right to be here and there’s nothing for me in Venezuela if they deport me. I could live on the streets, I suppose, and work under the table as other illegals do. How is that better than this? At least here I’m safe, fed, and clothed.”
And now that safety net was gone. He began to understand her motive.
“I’m grateful to your grandmother,” she continued. “I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but there was a man who had also come to the apartment. If Mae hadn’t insisted on taking me, I’m quite sure my mother would have given me to him. My computer work these last years would have been purely as content.” Her faint smile was an inscrutable Mona Lisa of agonized acceptance.
No. A sharp spike of repugnance slid deep into his gut at the idea of any woman being exploited that way. At fourteen. Ever.
“She really doesn’t pay you?”
“Please don’t be offended when I say this.” She angled her head with apology. “I think she looked on me as a sort of daughter. She didn’t pay me because you don’t pay family for working in the family business.”
“If that’s how she saw you, why didn’t she leave everything to you?”
“She said…” Luli sighed toward the ceiling. “She said that when the time was right, she would arrange a marriage for me. I don’t know if she was serious, but if I brought up money, she would get defensive and ask me if I would be happier scrubbing pots in the kitchen.”
“No one else knows about this agreement?” Could it be called an agreement if Luli hadn’t been given a choice?
“I’ve never told anyone. I don’t believe she ever did.”
Because, no matter the lofty motives she might have had, holding Luli here like this was a crime.
Or a complete fabrication.
And his grandmother was gone. He couldn’t ask her if she had really kept a young woman as an indentured servant for eight years.
“Mr. Dean.” Her voice made his scalp prickle, her accent so musical and warm despite her formal address. “I very much appreciate that you’ve given me this opportunity to explain myself.” Her gaze slid to the clock on the mantel, an ornate bronze piece atop a trumpeting elephant, likely from one of the Louis periods.
“If you’re willing to continue this conversation, I would like to reset the timer on the laptop.”
He was impossible to read. Intimidating with his innate physical power on top of his wealth and influence. She had to continually remind herself to breathe. Inhale, exhale. No sudden movements. Predators were attracted by panic and the stench of fear.
She suspected he deliberately let the seconds tick audibly in the silent room as a small form of torture to her. A test, perhaps, to see how nervous it made her.
Poise was something she had begun cultivating as soon as she understood the word. She made herself hold his gaze, refusing to give up her small advantage until he agreed to her condition. If he thought what she had told him about herself was a complete fabrication, they would discover the hard way that it was true.
His head jerked in an abbreviated nod.
In a smooth, unhurried motion that hid the gallop of her heart, she went to the desk and opened the laptop with a single minute to spare. She used the opportunity of having her back turned to gather her composure. Her fingerprint unlocked the screen, but she had to enter a code at the same time and she had to get it right in two tries. She managed it then navigated to give them another thirty minutes of playing chess on a minefield.
As she turned, she found him on his feet. He removed his suit jacket and draped it over the arm of the sofa. His shirt strained across the virile expanse of his shoulders and chest and tucked into the narrow belt to accentuate his lean waist.
“More kopi?” She moved to the tray where the urn sat, more to avoid approaching him than a desire to be a conscientious servant.
He brought his cup to the tray. “No, thank you.”
A deliberate effort to approach her? His jawline was what some might refer to as ‘chiseled.’ It was a clearly defined, angular structure from corner to corner, quite a fascinating study for an artist’s eye.
Or the eye of a woman who’d spent her adolescence in something like a harem, surrounded by women and a few off-limits, middle-aged men.
Gabriel’s chin went up a degree so his narrow eyes looked down his straight nose at her. “How much do you want?”
She dropped her hands to the sides of her skirt, palms gently cupped, fingers pointed, but relaxed. No fidgeting.
“This isn’t blackmail.”
“If it looks like blackmail and smells like blackmail…” he scoffed darkly.
“I don’t want it to be,” she clarified, making herself hold her ground despite the twitches of alarm pulsing in her limbs. “I’ve had ample opportunities to steal. I enjoy this position of trust with your grandmother because I’ve never betrayed her. I’ve worked for her in good faith, not to repay my mother’s debt, but to thank her for removing me from my mother’s power.”
“And you no longer owe her that allegiance?”
“I don’t owe it to you.”
His expression didn’t change, but the scent of danger stung her nostrils, making her want to skitter away out of self-preservation.
“Not yet,” she allowed, fighting to keep him from seeing how unsure and frightened she really was.
“Oh, might I earn the privilege of your holding my fortune for ransom? Do tell me how.”
That was sarcasm. She could tell.
Saying nothing, she took refuge in her long-ago training, tucked her heel into the arch of her other foot and squared her shoulders. A smile of any kind was beyond her in this moment, but she kept her expression relaxed, stood tall with a long neck. She tucked in her butt and did her best to project self-assurance and limitless patience.
“What kind of person are you, Luli of the deceitful intelligence?” He sounded scathing, but as his gaze swept down, she thought it caught on her chest, lingered.
She became aware of the weight of cotton across the swells of her breasts. A prickly, heavy sensation made her ultra-conscious that she had breasts. A tight, pinched sensation hit her nipples, making heat flush from the pit of her stomach up to her cheeks for no reason at all.
When his gaze came back to hers, something flickered in his expression. Curiosity and something avid. Luli had known about him for years and had studied him online in the same way she read facts about bears and deadly vipers, without quite believing such a creature existed because she’d never seen one with her own eyes. Even so, she knew she ought to be terrified if she ever came face to face with one.
She was terrified.
But she continued to stand there. Had to. She held her ground because she had no other options.
“I propose that I work for you in the same capacity as I have for your grandmother.”
“More or less.” She cleared the strain from her throat. She had known this would be a tough sell, given the anvil she had positioned over all that he was poised to inherit. “I would assist in the transition at no cost to you in exchange for other considerations.”
“I have no reason to trust you. Clean up your mess—” He nodded at the laptop. “—and your debt to my grandmother is zero. You’ll be free to go.”
The floor seemed to fall away from beneath her.
“Where?” She carefully modulated her tone so her fear of abandonment wasn’t obvious. “I have no money. If I wanted to live as a refugee, I would have run away years ago.” She was so tired of being powerless. Of feeling as though she owed her very existence to someone else.
“You want to stay here?” He folded his arms, signaling his refusal. “No. I will take control of her fortune, if only to knock your fingers off of it. You are no longer needed, Luli.”
“I know that. Why do you think I’m doing this?” It came out with the fervent anger she had sublimated for years, emotions flaring so hot, her eyes burned.
“What do you want then?”
The things she wanted were so far out of reach, she had stopped thinking about them long ago. Love, security, a place where she belonged…those were luxuries. She had to focus on what she needed—a means to support herself.
“I want to move to one of the modeling capitals. New York, preferably.”
“You want to be a model?” He said it with such disparagement, she let her weight shift onto her back foot.
“You don’t think I’m pretty enough?” Panic edged in from all sides. This was all she had!
“Why haven’t you done it already? Singapore has a thriving fashion district.”
“Of Asian models. My look doesn’t fit this market. It’s not a profession where you walk in a door and get a job anyway. You have to build up to it, provide headshots and find an agent.”
He waved at the laptop. “You have options. Why haven’t you made inroads?” He sounded incredulous.
“Your grandmother couldn’t run her business without me. Not the way she likes to run it.” Her conscience grew heavy with the familial obligation she had alluded to a few minutes ago. “And she would never have forgiven me. She was furious with your mother for leaving without her permission.”
The sudden flash in his eyes told her that particular topic was off limits.
She resisted the urge to tangle her hands together and wring them.
“I’ve been struggling these last few years, aware that she needs me, but also aware that the two advantages I possess—youth and looks—won’t be available to me forever. If I’m going to exploit them, it has to be now.”
“Don’t overlook that cunning brain of yours.”
“Much as I would prefer to be valued for my intellect, who will hire someone without accreditation or even a home and a computer of her own? The work I do for your grandmother isn’t transferable to anyone except you. And my use to you has a very short shelf life. I know that.”
She sighed, trying to keep hold of her composure as she continued.
“Her passing has forced me to secure my future as quickly and expediently as possible. Models with the right look can work anywhere. They’re paid well and agencies help with the travel and residency paperwork.”
“You just pointed out that no one walks into that career.”
“It depends who escorts me, doesn’t it?” She was way out on her wobbly limb now, grip slipping and the whole tree swaying in hurricane-force wind.
His brows went up. She’d watched those raptor wings lift like that several times, expressing his astonishment at the audacious mouse in his taloned foot, chittering no matter how hard he squeezed her.
He smiled faintly. “I wondered when we were going to get to an offer like that.”
The tip of his finger grazed her temple in a caress that tucked a stray hair behind her ear.
Any further words she might have found became tangled in her throat because his fingertip continued that nascent caress into the hollow beneath her ear, then stroked the soft flesh beneath her jawbone, tilting up her chin before she had realized she was obeying his silent command.
“Pleasant as that inducement promises to be…” His voice grated sensually across her nerve endings. “I won’t be persuaded to let you handle my grandmother’s money. Or me.”
He dropped his touch, sending a chill through her whole body.
Dragging his gaze off the temptation of her plum, shiny, parted lips took every ounce of Gabriel’s well-honed discipline. He controlled all that he did because he controlled himself. Giving into impulse, especially the sexual kind, was juvenile.
But the flare of yearning and disappointment in his eyes was almost his undoing.
“I wasn’t, um, trying to offer s-sex for—”
“The stutter is a nice touch. Most men go crazy for the helpless damsel act. Good on you for trying it.” It was her first show of vulnerability amid a nerves-of-steel performance. He wasn’t buying it, though. “I’m impervious.”
Mostly. His hands itched to drag her against his chest, not only because he wanted to do things to her—carnal, wicked things—but because the tremble in her lashes tugged at something in him. Against his better judgment, he felt an urge to shelter her. Reassure her.
She didn’t argue or stammer out more protestations. There might have been a glimmer of injury behind her eyes, but it was gone so quickly, he knew it was only a strategy that was briefly considered before she discarded it. Within seconds, she returned to her true, iron butterfly persona.
“Sex is firmly off the table?” Her tone gave him the sense he was missing something.
“I never force sex and I never pay for it. I am, however, open to enjoying it anywhere, including on tables.”
“I’m willing to offer other acts that might be of value to you, then. Marriage, for instance.”
“You want me to marry you? I honestly didn’t think you could astound me further. Not my first offer. Thank you, but no.” He rejected her firmly even as a voice in the back of his brain reminded that he would have to begin thinking of marriage. Was he going to leave his fortune to those idiot cousins of his father’s?
He brushed that aside, needing all his concentration to deal with this surprisingly daring and skillful con-woman. Especially when she seemed genuinely taken aback by his words.
“I don’t want to marry you. You’re far too young.”
“I stand corrected,” he drawled. “I am further astounded.”
“I would make an excellent trophy wife. I’m open to considering marriage to a man of advanced years at your direction, provided I’m granted residency in a major center like New York or London.”
“You want to marry someone twice your age?”
“Three at least.” She frowned. “I’m only twenty-two.”
“Now you’re trying too hard.” He couldn’t help it. He laughed openly.
“Marrying an older man worked out well for your grandmother. She was widowed at thirty.”
“They say emulation is the sincerest form of flattery.” He folded his arms. “But I am not a pimp. Old men may find their trophy wives without my assistance.” The idea of lecherous, gnarled hands claiming those curves revolted him to the point of violent rage.
She looked to the window. There might have been a sheen on her eyes and a pout in her lips as she ran out of gambits, but he felt no triumph. He was captivated by the sheer perfection in her exquisite profile, graceful as a cameo carved into ivory.
She was so remote and untouchable in that moment, his abdomen clenched with craving for something he couldn’t articulate.
“Very well.” She moved to the laptop and glanced at him. “I’ll undo everything I’ve done if I have your word it will square my debt with your grandmother and I’ll be free to go. No police.”
He heard the defeat in her tone and experienced loss, even though he had won. He wasn’t ready for this game to end, but he made himself nod agreement.
She touched the tip of her finger to the sensor.
“Just to be clear…” She slanted a glance at him
Foreboding filled him—and thrill. He had thought she was giving up, but this delightfully tricky wench didn’t seem to know the meaning of the word ‘quit.’
“Yes?” he asked with deliberate lack of concern that bordered on tedium.
“When I say everything…”
“That doesn’t exactly clean up your mess, does it?” He let fury lick at him because it was better than allowing her magnificence to blind him.
“If Luli isn’t needed, everything under that profile must also be unnecessary,” she said with simple logic.
She stayed where she was, but had the good sense to take her hands off the laptop and close the screen.
“Do you realize how dangerous I am?”
“Do you realize,” she asked in an even quieter voice, lips white, “how little I have to lose? How much I’ve already lost?”
Eight years, if she was to be believed.
Her hands were curled into angry fists, but stayed at her sides. “You’re welcome, by the way, for all the times I’ve asked your grandmother, ‘Is this an opportunity you would like me to bring to your grandson’s attention?’ You could have stepped in at any time to help her manage her affairs. You didn’t. I did. For nothing but a roof over my head and three meals a day.”
“And you think you can strike back at me for that? By deleting a few paper trails? Any database or personnel records you compromise can be rebuilt from backups. It won’t take long and the price tag won’t be that high.”
“I estimate the cost at ten million US dollars, based on penalties for failing to finalize certain contracts on time. Or you could keep me on and not lose a penny.”
“Is that what you think you’re worth?” he scoffed. “Ten million dollars?”
His words pushed a pin in her back, forcing her to take a step toward him. Anger smoldered around her in a cloud, making her entirely too sexy and distracting when her voice was so sharp and profound.
“I’ve spent years thinking my value is less than zero. I thought I had to stay here because Mae is the only person who wanted me, and only if I was useful to her. From the moment I emailed you that she had collapsed, my only thought has been that I have to prove my worth to you, but how do I do that when I’m a walking, unpaid debt?” Her hand moved to press into her middle, as though clutching at a knife stuck in her navel. “The debt is my mother’s. I am worth exactly what I decide I’m worth. If I’m to be exploited, I will choose the terms. And if you’re going to put me on the street like a stray dog, you will feel the bite of it.”
A discreet knock on the door had him snapping out, “Busy!”
An older, brown-faced woman was already peeking in. “I’m sorry, Mr. Dean. I was told you left instructions I report to you the minute I returned.”
“Mrs. Chen’s nurse,” Luli said, stepping back and letting her hair fall forward to shield how color had risen in her face during their confrontation.
He swore under his breath and nodded at the woman. “Come in.”
He swung back to Luli and pointed at her laptop. “Put that on hold for a few hours. Then tell the butler to prepare us dinner.” He needed a damned minute to think.
The nurse bounced her gaze between the two of them as Luli moved to the desk and tapped a few keys. Seconds later, Luli closed the door behind her.
The nurse didn’t give him any information he didn’t already have. She offered condolences, he promised a severance package so she could take her time finding another position. She bowed slightly when he dismissed her.
“Wait,” he said. “How long have you been with my grandmother?”
She turned back, expression brightening the way most of his employees did when he gave them the opportunity to prove their value to him.
“Almost twenty years, sir.”
“You’ve known Luli since she came here? How long has she been working here in my grandmother’s office?”
“From the beginning, sir.”
“That was my grandmother’s idea? Was she competent? My grandmother, I mean. Mentally.”
“Oh, completely, sir! But Mrs. Chen never cared for telephones or computers.” Her hand washed such things from the air. “She thought them unhealthy and brought Luli in as a convenience. Luli spoke Spanish and your grandmother had recently acquired properties in South America.”
“Luli was quite young when she arrived? What was she like?” Scared? Angry?
“Quiet.” The nurse’s expression faltered as she delved into her memory.
“Because she only spoke Spanish?” He seldom thought about his teen years, but recalled adolescent girls traveling in colorful flocks and relentlessly twittering at each other. No matter what the truth was today, Luli must have felt isolated at the time.
“She spoke a little English, but it was the patch that was the problem. I had to remove it from her tongue. I had completely forgotten about that,” the nurse said with a distant frown.
“What kind of patch?” he asked sharply.
“For weight loss. It makes it painful to eat solids. She was already stick thin, but young women will do the stupidest things to themselves in the name of fashion. Mrs. Chen saved her from herself, if you want my opinion.”