The Executive's Vengeful Seduction(2) by Maxine Sullivan

“I’m sure they can cope without you.”

“That’s not the point.”

“Then what is?” he challenged. She was only making excuses and they both knew it.

She held his gaze for a long moment, then her eyes clouded over and she sighed with surrender. “Okay, I’ll come home. But I’m only staying until my father’s out of danger.”

“Deal.” By then he would have her in his bed again and out of his system once and for all.

The thought was completely satisfying.

Long after they were airborne and heading toward Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia, Gabrielle finished making numerous calls to explain the situation to her clients, then turned off her cell phone to take a break from it all. Before the plane had left Sydney, she’d spoken to Eileen, who’d been supportive of her situation and had made her promise to phone as soon as she was settled.

Dear Eileen. If it hadn’t been for the older woman taking her in and treating her like one of her daughters, Gabrielle didn’t think she would be as “together” as she was now. Eileen had helped her through so much.

And so had Lara and Kayla, Eileen’s daughters. Not only had she been homeless on her arrival in Sydney, but if it wasn’t for all three, she would’ve had to swallow her pride and call her father for help when she’d been in that car accident.

Her heart wrapped in pain, she looked over at Damien Trent, sitting opposite her reading some business papers he’d taken out of his briefcase. If he only knew… Oh God. No, she wouldn’t think about that. She’d think about him instead. That would give her something to do.

In his early thirties, he looked as trim and taut as ever, with dark hair and moss-green eyes that always made her catch her breath. He was a lethal combination of manhood.

Her Damien.

The man she’d loved without question five years ago. The man she’d let glimpse her soul. The man she’d have died for. How had she found the courage to walk away from him, knowing she was carrying his child?

Yet how could she have stayed when she’d known he hadn’t loved her? Their relationship had never been about emotional depth. Not on his part, anyway.

Oh, she’d had no doubt he would have married her once he’d known she was pregnant. But she hadn’t wanted that. Not after her father’s drunken rage that night telling her to go, when she’d decided then and there that she’d rather her child not have a father at all, than one who hadn’t loved its mother. She just hadn’t been able to bear the thought of Damien treating her with disdain in front of their child in the years to come. She’d been that child with her own parents, and it wasn’t a nice feeling.

No, it had been better to cut the ties back then. And from that point on she’d decided she had to stand guard and protect herself from hurt. Love brought too much pain, and she’d wanted nothing more to do with letting anyone so deeply into her heart. And she hadn’t.

Until today.

Until Damien had stepped back into her life.

All at once she realized Damien’s eyes were upon her. “Everything okay?” he asked, watching her with a light in his eyes that went beyond the sexual, as if he were trying to decipher her thoughts. It made her uncomfortable.

She nodded and turned away, looking out the small window at the blue sky surrounding them, then down at the unimaginable vastness below. They’d left the red dust of the Outback behind some time ago, and now she could see greenery beneath them, growing increasingly greener with each mile, and the closer they got to the coast.

Then time passed and not far in the distance, she could just catch sight of the ocean at the “Top End” of Australia. She sat there for ages absorbing it all, letting it wash over her. This was where she’d been born… where she’d grown up…been happy and sad…passionate and heartbroken.

“You’re home,” Damien said as the plane swept around over the ocean then banked toward the runway. Beneath them the city of Darwin glistened in the hot tropical sun.

A lump swelled in her throat and she had to blink rapidly. Damien was right, no matter how much she’d denied it to herself all these years. This was home. And home was where her heart was.

It always had been.

Two

O nce Damien’s plane landed they stepped straight through the invisible sheet of humidity and into a waiting BMW, before speeding through the Darwin suburbs toward the private hospital.

Gabrielle tried to hold her apprehension and worry at bay, but all she could think about now was her father. All these years she’d believed she’d prepared herself for news like this, but now she knew that wasn’t possible. The emotional distance she’d worked so hard to maintain was going down the drain. No matter what had gone on between them, he was still her father and she loved him despite everything, and the thought of him dead brought a lump to her throat.

As for her mother, she was still amazed Caroline Kane had returned home to be a wife again. Her mother had been a well-paid doormat to her rich husband, but infidelity was the one thing she hadn’t been able to accept. Caroline had been distraught when she’d left the house for good after discovering that Russell had been having an affair with his secretary. She was too upset even to take her teenage daughter with her, even though Gabrielle had begged her.

Repeatedly.

God, did she really have the courage to face them both again? She knew so little about them now. They were her flesh and blood, yet they’d hurt her a great deal. How was she to treat them? Like parents? Like strangers?

Dear God, did any of that matter right now anyway? she wondered as she rode the elevator in silence, her senses conscious of Damien’s strong presence, the scent of aftershave a vivid reminder of being in his arms all those years ago.

But once they stepped out of the elevator and into the corridor on her father’s floor, she shook off her reaction to Damien’s closeness when an attractive woman stepped out of the room ahead of them. As if in slow motion, Gabrielle watched the woman turn toward them. And shock ran through her.

“Mum?” she murmured.

The woman froze. Her eyes widened and her mouth opened, only nothing came out.

Gabrielle stared back. Gone was the pretty but drab woman who’d always worn sedate clothes and her brunette hair in a bun. In her place stood a vibrant fifty-year-old woman with a stylishly cut blond bob and clothes to match.

Suddenly Caroline rushed forward. “Gabrielle!” she cried, and wrapped her arms around her daughter tightly.

Gabrielle couldn’t breathe. She stood stiffly. One part of her wanted to sink into the embrace and acknowledge she’d missed this feeling of belonging that went bone deep. This was her mother after all. The woman who’d given birth to her.

It was also the woman who’d left her teenage daughter to cope alone with an increasingly volatile father, she reminded herself.

Caroline pulled back, tears in her eyes. “Oh, my goodness. I can’t believe it’s you, darling.” She blinked rapidly, not seeming to notice Gabrielle’s lack of response. “Let me look at you. You’re beautiful.” Caroline glanced at Damien with a watery look in her eyes. “She’s beautiful, isn’t she, Damien?”

Gabrielle forced herself to glance at Damien, seeing a hard but admiring look in his eyes before he gave her mother a slight smile.

“Yes, she is, Caroline. Very beautiful.”

Despite the moment, his comment sent a tingle through her that she didn’t appreciate. She’d always known he’d found her attractive. He’d totally swept her off her feet five years ago, but hearing him say it now after so long away from him made her cheeks grow warm.

“Oh, wait until your father knows you’re here,” Caroline said excitedly. “It’ll be the best medicine.”

At the mention of her father, anguish came rushing back. “How is he, Mum? What did the doctors say?”

Caroline squeezed her arm. “Darling, he’s doing better than expected.”

“Thank God.”

“Yes, thank God,” Caroline said in a shaky voice. Then she reached up to Damien and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. “And thank you for bringing my daughter home, Damien. I can’t tell you how much this means to me and Russell.”

“She was happy to come.” He turned toward Gabrielle with mocking eyes. “Weren’t you, Gabrielle?”

Gabrielle held his gaze, but her face felt tight. “Yes,” she lied.

For the first time her mother seemed to notice Gabrielle’s lack of warmth. The light in her eyes dimmed. “Darling, I know we have a lot to say to each other,” she said cautiously. “But perhaps that can wait until later? Let’s just get through this first.”

Gabrielle nodded, thankful for her mother’s suggestion. The past didn’t disappear just because her father was so ill, but neither was this the right time to air grievances.

Caroline put on a bright face. “Good. Now let’s go take a peek at your father,” she said, heading back to the room she’d just exited. “He’s not supposed to have any visitors except me, but I’m sure it’s okay for you to just see him for a moment.” At the door she stopped to look at Gabrielle. “Prepare yourself, darling. He’s not his best at the moment.”

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