Cruz De Carrillo surveyed the thronged reception room in his London home, filled with a veritable who’s who of London’s most powerful players and beautiful people, all there to celebrate his return to Europe.
He felt no sense of accomplishment though, to be riding high on the crest of his stratospheric success in North America, having tripled his eponymous bank’s fortunes in less than a year – because he knew his zealous focus on work had had more to do with avoiding this, than the burning ambition he’d harboured for years, to turn his family bank’s fortune and reputation around.
And it killed him to admit it.
This, was standing just feet away from him now – tall and slender yet with generous curves. Pale skin. Too much pale skin, exposed in a dress that left far too little to the imagination. Cruz’s mouth compressed with distaste even as his blood ran hot, mocking him for the desire which time hadn’t diminished – much to his intense irritation. It was unwelcome and completely inappropriate. Now more than ever. She was his sister – in – law.
Her blonde hair was up in a sleek chignon and a chain of glittering gold trailed tantalisingly down her naked back, bared in the daring royal – blue backless dress. She turned slightly in Cruz’s direction and he had to tense every muscle to stave off the surge of fresh desire when he saw the provocative curves of her high full breasts, barely disguised by the thin draped satin.
She looked almost vulnerable, set apart from the crowd slightly but he knew it was just a mirage.
He cursed her. And he cursed himself. If he hadn’t been so weak, he wouldn’t know how incendiary it had felt to have those curves pressed against his body. He wouldn’t remember the way her eyes had turned a stormy darker blue as he’d plundered the sweetness she’d offered up to him that fateful night almost eighteen months ago in this very house, when she’d worked for him as a house – maid.
He wouldn’t still hear her soft breathy moans in his dreams, forcing him awake, sweating, with his hand wrapped around himself and every part of him straining for release…aching to know the intimate clasp of her body, milking him into sweet oblivion.
Sweet. That was just it. There was nothing sweet about this woman. He might have thought so at one time – she used to blush if he so much as glanced at her. But it had all been an elaborate artifice, because his younger half – brother, Rio, had told him the truth about what she really was, and she was no innocent.
Her seduction of Cruz had obviously been far more calculated than he’d believed, and when that hadn’t worked, she’d diverted her sights onto Rio – his illegitimate brother, with whom Cruz had a complicated relationship – to put it mildly. A chasm had been forged between the brothers since they were children, when Cruz had been afforded every privilege as the legitimate heir to the De Carrillo fortune, and Rio, who had been born to a house – maid of the family castillo, had been afforded nothing – not even the De Carrillo name.
But Cruz had never felt that Rio should be punished for their charismatic and far too handsome father’s inability to control his base appetites. So he had done everything in his power after their father had died some ten years previously to make amends – going against their father’s will which had left Rio nothing – by becoming his guardian, giving him his rightful paternalistic name and paying for him to complete his education.
Then when he had come of age, Cruz had given him a fair share of his inheritance; and a job, first in the De Carrillo bank in Madrid, and now London, much to his conservative board’s displeasure.
At the age of twenty – one, Rio had become one of Europe’s newest millionaires, the centre of feverish media attention with his dark good looks and mysterious past. And he had lapped it up, displaying an appetite for the kind of playboy lifestyle Cruz had never indulged in; quickly marrying one of the world’s top supermodels in a lavish wedding that had gone on for days, only for it to end in tragedy nearly a year later when she’d died in an accident shortly after giving birth to twin boys.
And yet, as much as Rio’s full – throttle existence had unnerved Cruz, could he have begrudged him that? His conscience pricked. By giving Rio his due inheritance and his rightful name, perhaps he’d made his brother a target for gold – diggers? Rio’s first wife had certainly reveled in her husband’s luxurious lifestyle, and it would appear as if nothing had changed with his second wife.
As if sensing his intense regard, his sister – in – law turned now and saw him. Her eyes widened and her cheeks flushed. Cruz’s anger spiked. She could still turn it on. Even now. When he knew her real capabilities.
She faced him in that provocative dress and her luscious body filled his vision, and made his blood thrum with need. He hated her for it. She moved towards him, almost hesitantly, the slippery stain material moving sinuously around her long legs.
He called on every atom of control he had and schooled his body not to respond to her proximity, even as her tantalising scent tickled his nostrils, threatening to weaken him all over again. It was all at once innocent yet seductive. As if he needed reminding that she presented one face to the world while hiding her other, far more mercenary one.
‘Trinity.’ His voice sounded unbearably curt to his ears and he tried to ignore the striking light – blue eyes. And how lush her mouth was, adding a distinctly sensual edge to her pale blonde innocence. An innocence that was skin – deep.
‘Cruz…it’s nice to see you again.’ Her voice was husky, reminding him vividly of how it had sounded in his ear that night, please…
His dry tone disguised his banked rage. ‘You’ve come up in the world since we last met.’
She swallowed, the long delicate column of her pale throat moving. ‘Wh – what do you mean?’
Cruz’s jaw tightened at the faux innocence. ‘I’m talking about your rapid ascent from the position of nanny to wife and stepmother to my nephews.’
That brought back the unwelcome reminder that he’d only been informed about the low – key wedding by a text from Rio: I have you to thank for sending this beautiful woman into my life. I hope you’ll be very happy for us, brother.
The news had precipitated shock, and something much darker into Cruz’s gut. And yet, he hadn’t had any reason at that point not to cautiously believe it was a good idea, in spite of his own previous experience with Trinity, which he’d blamed himself for. Rio was a widower and he and Trinity had obviously forged a bond based on caring for his nephews. Cruz had believed that she was a million light years away from Rio’s glamorous hedonistic first wife. Then.
The fact that he’d had dreams for weeks afterwards of being held back and forced to watch a faceless blonde woman making love to countless men was something that made him burn inwardly with shame, even now.
Trinity looked pale now. Hesitant. ‘I was looking for you actually. Could we have a private word?’
Cruz crushed the unwelcome memory and arched a brow. ‘A private word?’ He flicked a glance at the crowd behind her and then back to her, wondering what the hell she was up to. Surely she wouldn’t have the gall to try and seduce him under the same roof she had before, with her husband just feet away?
‘We’re private enough here. No – one is listening.’
She flushed and then glanced behind her, and back, clearly reluctant now. ‘Perhaps this isn’t the best time or place…’
So he’d been right. Disgust settled in his belly. ‘Spit it out, Trinity. Unless it’s not talking you’re interested in.’
She blanched, the delicate flush disappearing. Once, her ability to display emotions intrigued him. Now it incensed him.
‘What do you mean?’
‘You know very well what I mean. You tried to seduce me in this very house and when it didn’t work, you transferred your attentions to my brother and he obviously proved to be more susceptible to your wiles.’
She shook her head and frowned, a visibly trembling hand coming up to her chest as if to contain shock, disbelief. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
Disgust filled Cruz that she could stand here and so blatantly lie while her enormous rock of an engagement ring glinted at him mockingly. All he could see was her and her treachery. But he had to crush the recriminations that rose up inside him, it was too late for them now.
Rio had revealed to Cruz on his return to the UK a few days before that he was on the verge of bankruptcy – his huge inheritance all but wiped out. And Trinity De Carrillo’s name was all over nearly every receipt and docket that had led his brother further and further into the mire. The extent how badly Cruz had misread her was galling.
An insidious thought occurred to him and it made his blood boil. ‘Your innocent act is past its sell by date. I might not have realised what you were up to, more fool me, but I know now. Rio told me how you’ve single – handedly run through almost every cent he has to his name in a bid to satisfy your greedy nature, and now you’re realising his fortune isn’t a bottomless pit perhaps you’re looking for a way out, or even a new benefactor?’
Before she could respond, he continued in a low bitter voice, ‘I underestimated your capacity to play the long game, Trinity. You lulled Rio into a false sense of trust by manipulating his biggest vulnerability, his sons. I’m very well aware of how my actions pushed you in the direction of my brother, and that is not something I will ever forgive myself for. Needless to say, if he requires financial help, he will receive it, but your days of bankrupting him are over. If you’re hoping to bargain your way out of this predicament, then think again, you’ll get no sympathy from me.’
Trinity was so white now, Cruz fancied he could see the blood vessels under her skin. A part of him wished she would break out of character and get angry with him for confronting her with who she really was.
Her hand dropped back to her side, she shook her head. ‘You have it all wrong.’
‘That’s the best you can come up with?’ he sneered, ‘I have it all wrong? If I have it all wrong then please, tell me what you wanted to discuss.’
Cruz could see the pulse at the base of her neck beating hectically. His own pulse – rate doubled.
‘I wanted to talk to you about Rio…about his behaviour. It’s been growing more and more erratic…I’m worried about the boys.’
Cruz let out a short incredulous laugh, ‘Worried about the boys? You’re really trying to play the concerned stepmother card in a bid to deflect attention from the fact that you’re more concerned about your lavish lifestyle coming to an end?’
Bitterness filled Cruz. He knew better than most how the biological bond of a parent didn’t guarantee love and security. Far from it. ‘You’re not even related to them, you’ve just used them as pawns to manipulate your way into my brother’s bed and get a ring on your finger.’
Trinity took a step back, eyes wide with feigned shock. He had to hand it to her. She was a good actress. Almost as if she was talking to herself now, she said, ‘I should have known he’d protect himself somehow, of course you’d believe him over me.’
A sliver of unease pierced Cruz’s anger but he pushed it aside. ‘I’ve known Rio all of his twenty – five years. I think it’s safe to say I’d trust my brother over a conniving gold – digger any day of the week.’
Hectic colour came back into Trinity’s cheeks. She looked at him, big blue eyes beseeching with commendable authenticity. ‘I’m not a gold – digger. You don’t understand, everything you’re saying is all wrong – my marriage with Rio is not what you –‘
‘There you are, darling. I’ve been looking for you. Charlotte Lacey wants to talk to you about next week’s charity function.’
Cruz blanched. He hadn’t even noticed Rio joining them, he’d been so consumed with the woman in front of him, whose arm was now taken firmly in her husband’s hand. Rio’s dark brown eyes met Cruz’s over Trinity’s head, they were hard. Trinity had gone even paler, if that was possible. ‘If you don’t mind, brother, I need to steal my wife away.’
Cruz could see it in Rio’s eyes then, a familiar resentment. And intense shame and anger. Futility choked him. There was nothing he could do, he knew Rio would already be despising the fact that he’d allowed Cruz to see him be brought so low at this woman’s greedy hands.
He watched as they walked back into the crowd and it wasn’t long before they left for the evening, without saying good – bye. Rio might have shown Cruz a chink of vulnerability by revealing his financial problems, but if anything it only demonstrated how much Trinity had got to him, because he’d never before allowed his brother to see a moment’s weakness. Cruz’s sense that his determination to see Rio treated fairly had been futile rose up again – it had never truly bridged the gap between them.
A short while later, Cruz stood at the window in his drawing – room and watched his brother handing Trinity into the passenger seat of a dark Jeep in the forecourt outside the house, before he got into the driver’s seat himself.
He felt grim. All he could do now was be there to pick up the pieces of Rio’s financial meltdown and do his best to ensure that Rio got a chance to start again, and that his wife didn’t get her grasping hands on another cent.
At the last second, as if hearing his thoughts, Trinity turned her head to look at Cruz through the ground – floor window. For a fleeting moment their eyes met and he could have sworn he saw hers shimmer with moisture, even from this distance.
He told himself it had to be tears of anger to know that she’d been found out. To know that she was trapped in a situation of her own making, and it should have filled Cruz with a sense of satisfaction but instead all he felt was a heavy weight in his chest.
Rio’s Jeep took off with a spurt of gravel and Cruz didn’t realise it then, but it would be the last time he saw his brother alive.