the costarella conquest

Temptation…

The stronger it was, the harder it was to resist.

She wanted him, too. No doubt about that. If she was up for a wild fling with him, Jake would be only too happy to oblige. He'd been itching to oblige all week. Satisfying the lust Costarella's daughter had triggered in him was fast becoming a must-do.

Spicy company, spicy food, spicy sex.

That had to be the limit of his involvement with the daughter of his enemy.

Lust always burned out after a while, he assured himself.

In the meantime, the fire had been lit for tomorrow night and he looked forward to some very spicy heat.

All about the author…
Emma Darcy

EMMA DARCY'S
life journey has taken as many twists and turns as those of the characters in her stories, whose popularity worldwide has resulted in sixty million books in print.

Born in Australia, and currently living on a beautiful country property in New South Wales, she has moved from country to city to towns and back to country, sporadically indulging her love of tropical islands with numerous vacations.

Her ambition to be an actress was partly satisfied by playing in amateur theater productions, but ultimately fulfilled in becoming a writer, where she has the exciting pleasure of playing all the roles, as well as directing them and ringing down the curtain calls.

Initially a teacher of French and English, she changed her career to computer programming before marriage and motherhood settled her into a community life. Her creative urges were channeled into oil painting, pottery, and designing and overseeing the construction and decorating of two homes, all in the midst of keeping up with three lively sons and the very busy social life of her businessman husband.

A voracious reader, the step to writing her own books seemed a natural progression and the challenge of creating wonderful stories was soon highly addictive. With her strong interest in people and relationships, Emma found the world of romance fiction a happy one.

Books by Emma Darcy

Harlequin Presents
®

2977—WIFE IN PUBLIC

2942—THE BILLIONAIRE'S HOUSEKEEPER MISTRESS

2878—THE MASTER PLAYER

Emma Darcy
THE COSTARELLA CONQUEST

THE COSTARELLA CONQUEST
CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER ONE

F
RIDAY
afternoon in the office of the man Jake Freedman had every reason to hate, and he could barely contain his impatience to leave. Soon, very soon, he would have all the evidence to indict Alex Costarella for the vulture he was, picking over the carcasses of bankrupted companies to feed his own bankroll. Then he could leave for good. In the meantime, the facade of aspiring to be Costarella's right-hand man in the liquidation business could not afford any cracks.

‘It's Mother's Day on Sunday,' the big man remarked, eyeing Jake with speculative interest. ‘You don't have any family, do you?'

Not since you helped to kill my stepfather.

Jake managed a rueful smile. ‘Lost both my parents in my teens.'

‘Yes, I remember you saying so. Difficult for you. Makes it all the more admirable that you pushed on with a career path and have made such a fine job of it.'

Every step of the way had been burning with the
ambition to take this man down. And he would. It had taken ten years to get to this point—accountancy, law, building up experience in Costarella's business, gaining his confidence. Only a few more months now…

‘I'd like you to meet my daughter.'

Shock startled Jake out of his secret brooding and rattled his ruthless determination. He'd never thought about the vulture's family, or what effect his own actions might have on them. He raised his eyebrows enquiringly. Was the daughter about to come into her father's business or…was this some weird attempt at matchmaking?

‘Laura is a stunner in any man's language. Smart girl and a great cook,' Costarella declared with an inviting smile. ‘Come to lunch at my home on Sunday and find out for yourself.'

A sales pitch! And a set-up for a connection to be made!

Jake inwardly recoiled from an up-close-and-personal involvement with anyone related to this man. His hand moved instinctively in a negative gesture. ‘I'd be intruding on your family day.'

‘I want you to come, Jake.'

The expression on his face brooked no refusal. It was a strong, handsome face, framed by thick, steel-grey hair and dominated by steel-grey eyes—a face imbued with the confidence of a man who could and did take control of anything and bend it to his will.

Jake knew instantly that if he persisted in
declining the invitation, the approval rating that gave him access to the evidence he needed could be lost. ‘That's very kind of you,' he rolled out with an appreciative smile. ‘If you're sure I'd be welcome…'

Any doubt on that score was clearly irrelevant. What Costarella wanted, he got. ‘Make it eleven-thirty,' he said without hesitation. ‘You know where I live?'

‘Yes. Thank you. I'll look forward to it.'

‘Good! I'll see you then.' The grey eyes glittered with satisfaction. ‘You won't be disappointed.'

Jake nodded, taking his dismissal as gracefully as he could, knowing he had to turn up on Sunday, knowing he had to show an interest in
the daughter
, and hating the idea with every fibre of his being.

Why Costarella wanted this, he didn't know. It seemed ridiculously patriarchal in this day and age to be lining up a suitor, as though people were pawns to be moved as he wished. Nevertheless, it was typical of the callous mentality of the man. He moved to his own beat, not giving a damn about anyone else's interests.

Jake had to go along with him, play for time, protect his own agenda. If he had to start dating Laura Costarella he would, but no way would he allow himself to become emotionally attached to her, regardless of how beautiful and smart she was.

She was the daughter of the enemy.

He wasn't about to forget that.

Ever.

Mother's Day…

Laura Costarella wished it could be what it was supposed to be—a beautiful, memorable day for her mother with her children showing their love and appreciation for all she'd done for them, and their father being happy with the family they'd created together.

It wasn't going to be like that.

Her father had invited a special guest to the family lunch and from the smug little smile accompanying this announcement, Laura strongly suspected that the guest would be used to show up the shortcomings in his son and daughter, as well as the failings of the mother who had raised them.

Jake Freedman—a hard name, and undoubtedly as hard in character as her father was, or he wouldn't have risen so fast to the top of the tree in the Costarella Accountancy Company, which raked in millions from bankrupt firms. Did he know how he was going to be used today? Did he care?

Laura shook her head over the futile speculation. What would happen would happen. She couldn't stop it. All she could do was cook her mother's favourite foods for lunch and try to deflect the barbs of her father's discontent with his family. Keep smiling, she told herself, no matter what.

She hoped her brother would follow that advice today, too, for their mother's sake. No eruption into a resentful rage. No walking out. Just smile and shrug off any critical remarks like water off a duck's back.
Surely it wasn't too much to ask for Eddie to keep his testosterone in check for one short day.

The doorbell rang as she finished preparing the vegetables for baking as she'd seen done on the cooking show that was one of her favourite television programs. They were ready to slip into the oven with the slowly roasting leg of lamb when the time was right. The pumpkin and bacon soup only had to be reheated. The cream was whipped and the lemon-lime tart was in the refrigerator waiting to be served.

She quickly washed her hands, removed her apron and pasted a smile on her face, determined to greet their visitor with all the charm she could muster.

 

Jake stood at the front door to Alex Costarella's Mosman mansion, steeling himself to be an appreciative and charming guest. The huge two-storey redbrick home was one of Sydney's old establishment houses, set in immaculately kept grounds, oozing solid respectability—a perfect front to hide the true nature of the man who had acquired it by ripping off other people.

He remembered how hard his stepfather had fought the bankruptcy officials to hold back the sale of their family home while his mother was still alive—just a few more months until the cancer finally took her. No caring, no mercy from the money men. And the whole rotten process had been started by Costarella, who had deliberately turned a blind eye to how a company and hundreds of jobs could
have been saved, preferring the prospect of lining his own pockets while being in charge of selling off all the assets.

No caring, no mercy.

His stepfather's heart had given out only a few weeks after his mother had died. Two funerals in close succession. Jake couldn't lay both of them at Costarella's door, but he could certainly lay one. It amused him to think of himself as the wolf outside, waiting to be given open entry to another wolf's home.

Taronga Park Zoo was nearby.

But the dangerous animals were right here.

Costarella didn't know Jake was on the prowl, waiting for the right moment to attack. He was holding his daughter out as bait for a bright future with the young gun in the company, unaware that
he
was the targeted prey. As for Laura, herself…

The door opened and Jake was faced with a woman who instantly excited an interest. She
was
beautiful; long black curly hair, incredible blue eyes, a mouth with lush full lips stretched into a greeting smile of perfect white teeth. She wore a clingy top in purple and white, the neckline dipping down low enough to reveal the upper swell of breasts that were more than big enough to fill a man's hands. Tight purple jeans outlined the rest of her hourglass figure and emphasised the seductive length of her shapely legs. The sexual animal inside Jake growled with the desire to take.

It was several moments before he recovered wits enough to identify himself as the expected guest. ‘I'm Jake. Jake Freedman,' he said, hoping she hadn't noticed how
taken
he was by her.

Alex Costarella's daughter was a man-trap.

Falling into it did not fit into his plan.

 

‘Hello. I'm Laura, the daughter of the house.'

She heard herself say the words as though from a great distance, her mind totally stunned by how handsome Jake Freedman was. Though
handsome
didn't say it all, not by a long shot. She'd met a lot of good-looking men. Her brother's world was full of them, actors making their mark in television shows. But this man…what was it that had her heart racing and her stomach fluttering?

His hair was dark brown and cut so short the wave in it was barely noticeable. Somehow the lack of careful styling made his dark brown eyes more riveting. Or maybe it was the unusual shape of them, his eyelids drooping in a way that made them look triangular and incredibly sexy. A strong straight nose, a strong squarish jaw and a strongly sculptured mouth added to the male impact of his face. He would have been perfectly cast as James Bond, Laura thought, and had the nervous feeling he was just as dangerous as the legendary 007 character.

He had the physique to go with it, too. As tall as her father but more lethally lean and looking powerfully masculine in his black jeans and
black-and-white sports shirt, the long sleeves casually rolled up to the elbows, revealing hard muscular forearms. Jake Freedman was so male, it was stirring everything female in her. Even though she knew he was her father's man, it was impossible not to feel interested in him.

‘Pleased to meet you,' he said, offering his hand with a smile that made him even sexier.

‘Likewise,' Laura replied, extending her own hand and finding it subjected to an electric sensation that was so shocking she wanted to snatch it away. ‘Please come in,' she rattled out, needing movement to excuse the quick extraction from physical contact with him.

‘Daughter of the house,' he repeated musingly as he stepped inside. ‘Does that mean you still live here at home?'

The curious assessment in his eyes gave her the sense he was summing up possibilities between them. ‘Yes. It's a big house,' she answered drily. Big enough to keep out of her father's way most of the time.

Jake Freedman had to be years older than her university friends, given his position in her father's business, and remembering that unpleasant fact she should avoid him like the plague, apart from getting through this visit today. They would have nothing—absolutely nothing—in common.

‘The family is enjoying the sunshine on the back patio,' she said, leading him down the wide hallway
that bisected the house. ‘I'll take you out to Dad, then bring you some refreshments. What would you like to drink?'

‘A glass of iced water would be fine, thank you.'

It surprised her. ‘Not a Scotch on the rocks man like my father?'

‘No.'

‘What about a vodka martini?'

‘Just water.'

Well, he wasn't James Bond, she thought, swallowing down a silly giggle.

‘Do you have a job, Laura?'

‘Yes, I'm a Director of First Impressions.' It was okay to let the laughter gurgle out at his puzzled expression. ‘I read it in the newspaper this morning,' she explained. ‘It's the title now given to a receptionist.'

‘Ah!' He smiled at the pretentiousness of it.

‘You know what they call a window cleaner?'

‘Please enlighten me.'

‘A vision clearance executive.'

He laughed, making his megawatt attractiveness zoom even higher.

‘A teacher is a knowledge navigator,' Laura rattled on, trying to ignore his effect on her. ‘And a librarian is an information retrieval specialist. I can't remember the rest of the list. All the titles were very wordy.'

‘So putting it simply, you're a receptionist.'

‘Part-time at a local medical practice. I'm still at
uni, doing landscape architecture. It's a four-year degree program and I'm currently making my way through the last year.'

‘Working and studying? Your father doesn't support you?' he queried, obviously not quite in tune with a wealthy man who wouldn't finance his children's full education.

She slanted him a derisive look. ‘My father doesn't support what he doesn't approve of. You should know that since you work with him.'

‘But you're his daughter.'

‘Who was expected to fall in with his wishes. I'm allowed to live here. That's as much support as my father will give to my career choice.'

‘Perhaps you should have sought complete independence.'

It was an odd remark, coming from a man who had to have made an art form of falling in with her father's wishes. However, she wasn't about to discuss the dynamics of her family with an outsider, particularly not someone who specialised in siding with her father.

‘My mother needs me.'

It was a brief reply and all he was going to get from her. She opened the back door and ushered him out to the patio, quickly announcing, ‘Your Jake is here, Dad.'

‘Ah!' Her father rose from his chair at the patio table, which was strewn with the Sunday newspapers. His whole face beamed a welcome at the man
who was undoubtedly performing up to his expectations in every respect. ‘Good to see you here, Jake. Beautiful autumn day, isn't it?'

‘Couldn't be better,' he agreed, moving forward to shake her father's offered hand.

Confident, smooth, at ease with himself and the situation…and Laura definitely wasn't. She felt dreadfully at odds with the strong tug of attraction that wouldn't go away. It was wrong. It had to be wrong. The last thing she wanted was a man like her father messing with her life.

‘Go and fetch your mother, Laura. She's showing Eddie the latest innovations in the garden. You can tell them both to come and meet our guest.'

‘Will do,' she said, glad to leave the two men together, though knowing that the stirring of the family pot couldn't be delayed for long. Her father expected instant obedience to his call.

The garden was her mother's refuge. She was never happier than when discussing what could be done next to it with Nick Jeffries, the handyman who shared her enthusiasm for creating wonderful visual effects and did all the heavy work for her. Laura loved this garden, too, loved every aspect of landscape design, making something beautiful instead of tearing something down…as her father did.

And as Jake Freedman did.

It would be stupid to forget that. She could never, never be in tune with a mind that dealt with destruction.

‘Mum, Eddie…' she called out. They were by the rockpool, where Nick had installed the new solar lights. ‘Dad's guest is here.'

Her mother's smile of pleasure instantly drooped into a grimace. She darted an anxious look at her son, worried about an imminent clash of personalities.

Eddie hugged her shoulders, smiling reassurance. ‘I promise I'll be good, Mum. No bad boy today.'

It won a wry little laugh.

Eddie made a great
bad boy
in the soap opera he currently starred in. The wild flop of his thick black hair, the designer stubble along his angular jawline, the dimple in his chiselled chin, the piercing blue eyes…all made him a very popular pin-up, especially on his flash motorbike. He was wearing black leathers today, though he was now carrying his jacket, discarded because of the heat of the morning. His white T-shirt was emblazoned with a Harley-Davidson. He played a bikie and he looked like one, much to her father's disgust.

The three of them started strolling back towards the patio, son and daughter flanking their mother, determined to keep a happy ball rolling for her. Why she stayed with their father was beyond their comprehension. There was no joy in the marriage. Having a very dominant husband who controlled everything seemed to have sapped her of any will for an independent life.

Laura always thought of her mother as a lady,
never anything but beautifully dressed and groomed, imbued with gracious manners, doing everything correctly and tastefully, making a special ritual of keeping fresh floral arrangements in the house, which she did herself. Even her name, Alicia, was somehow very ladylike.

She looked particularly lovely today, her newly dyed blond hair cut into a short, fluffy style, a blue silk tunic giving her eyes more colour. They had seemed so dull and washed out lately, Laura had worried there might be a health problem her mother was not admitting to. She was getting too thin, as well, a fact hidden by the loosely fitting long-sleeved tunic. The white slacks were also loose, affecting a casually elegant look. Certainly no one would notice anything amiss with her, not on the surface. Jake Freedman would probably pigeonhole her as the typical rich man's wife.

‘What's he like?' her mother asked.

‘James Bond,' popped straight out of Laura's mouth.

‘What? Loaded and dangerous?' Eddie queried.

She grinned at him. ‘Plus gorgeous and sexy.'

He rolled his eyes. ‘Don't you go falling for him, Laura. That's bad territory.'

‘Yes, be careful,' her mother quickly warned, her eyes anxious again. ‘Your father might want you to like this man. There has to be some motive behind inviting him here today.'

‘Could be that marrying the boss's daughter is
on Jake Freedman's agenda,' Eddie put in, grinning wolfishly, then snapping his teeth to make the point.

Marriage?

Never!

She'd walked out of every relationship she'd had once the guy started making demands on her, which always happened sooner or later. From what she'd witnessed at home, marriage was an endless string of demands, plus abuse thrown in if the demands weren't met. No man was ever going to own her as his wife.

She rolled her eyes back at Eddie. ‘I'm not so easy to gobble up. I'll be feeding him lunch. He can whistle for anything more from me.'

‘Humphrey Bogart,' her mother murmured.

‘What?'

‘Humphrey Bogart. He whistled for Lauren Bacall. It was in an old movie.'

‘Well, I haven't seen it.'

‘Did he get her in the end?' Eddie asked.

‘Yes.'

‘No doubt she wanted to be got,' Laura said, giving her brother a quelling look. ‘Different story.'

‘I'll be watching the mouth of Dad's man of the moment,' he tossed back at her, wicked teasing in his eyes. ‘If he starts whistling…'

‘It's more likely the man of the moment is about to be used to show you up as a footloose lightweight, Eddie, so watch your own mouth.'

‘I don't know…I don't know…' their mother fretted.

‘It's okay, Mum,' Eddie quickly soothed. ‘Laura and I have put our walls up and nothing is going to crack them today. Just you relax now. We're both on guard.'

It was a relief to hear Eddie so sure that his protective armour was in place. Laura wished she could say the same for herself. Despite what her mind dictated, as soon as they came into view of the two men on the patio and she caught Jake Freedman's gaze on her, there was no wall at all to hold off the sexual chemistry he triggered in her.

Immediately she felt a wild tingling in her breasts, shooting her nipples into hard bullets. Her hips started swaying provocatively, driven by some primitive instinct to show off her femininity. Heat whooshed to the apex of her thighs and somehow melted the normal strength in her legs. Her toes curled. And turbulent temptation crashed through every bit of common sense that told her to keep away from this man.

She would love to have him.

Regardless of how wrong it would be.

She would love to have him.

Just for the experience!

CHAPTER TWO

J
AKE
found it difficult to tear his gaze away from Laura to make a quick assessment of the other two people he was about to meet. The mother was more or less what he expected of Alex Costarella's wife—a lady-of-the-manor type who undoubtedly kept his house as beautifully as she kept herself—but the son was a surprise…unkempt, longish black hair, designer stubble, clothes indicative of a bikie. Obviously Eddie didn't toe his father's line, either.

Two rebellious children and one submissive wife.

Was he supposed to tame Laura, draw her into becoming the kind of woman her father would approve of, sharing his world instead of striking out on her own, pleasing herself?

He looked at her again and felt a tightening in his groin. She was, without a doubt, the most desirable woman he'd ever come into contact with, dangerous to play with, yet the idea of drawing her
away
from her father made her all the more tempting. It was fair justice for Costarella to feel the loss of someone dear
to him as well as the loss of the business that gave him the power to wreck people's lives.

He was acutely aware of Laura watching him as her father performed the introductions, weighing up how he responded to her family.

‘Alicia, my wife…'

‘Delighted to meet you,' Jake rolled out with a smile.

She returned it but there was a wary look in her eyes as she replied, ‘Welcome to our home.'

‘And my son, Eddie, who obviously didn't bother to shave this morning, not even for his mother.'

The acid criticism was brushed off with a nonchalant grin. ‘Couldn't do it, Dad. We're shooting tomorrow. Got to stay in character.' He turned the grin to Jake as he offered his hand. ‘I guess you're the son my father should have had, Jake. Happy days, man!'

Jake laughed and took his hand, shaking his head as he replied, ‘Don't know about that but thanks for the good wishes, Eddie.'

‘You're welcome.'

‘Eddie is an actor,' Laura put in proudly. ‘He plays the bad boy in
The Wild and the Wonderful
.'

Jake frowned apologetically. ‘I'm sorry. I don't know the show.'

Her father snorted. ‘It's rubbish. A TV soapie.'

‘Rubbish or not, I enjoy doing it,' Eddie declared, totally unabashed. ‘How about you, Jake? Do you enjoy doing what you do?'

‘It's challenging. I guess acting is, too,' he said, careful to be even-handed in his reply.

‘Totally absurd la-la-land,' Costarella jeered. ‘Jake and I deal with the real world, Eddie.'

‘Well, Dad, lots of people like to have a break from the real world and I help give it to them.' He deftly turned attention back to the guest. ‘How do you relax from the pressure-cooker of work, Jake?'

Jake found himself liking Laura's brother. He stood up for himself and was clearly his own man. ‘Something physical does the trick for me,' he answered.

‘Yeah, got to say sex does it for me, too,' Eddie drawled, eyes twinkling with reckless mischief.

‘Eddie!'

The shocked cry from his mother brought a swift apology. ‘Sorry, Mum. It's all Laura's fault, saying Jake was sexy.'

‘Did she now?' Costarella said with satisfaction.

‘Eddie!' Laura cried in exasperation. ‘I told you to watch your mouth.'

Jake turned to her, curious to see the reaction to her brother's claim. Her eyes were flashing furious sparks and her cheeks were flushed with embarrassment. As she met his gaze, her chin tilted defiantly and her own tongue let loose.

‘Don't look at me as though you haven't heard that about yourself before because I bet you have. It's purely an observation, not an invitation.'

‘Laura!' Another shocked protest from the mother.

She threw up her hands. ‘Sorry, Mum. I'm off to bring out refreshments. Iced water coming up.'

Jake couldn't help grinning as she turned tail—a very sexy tail—and left the rest of them to patch a conversation together.

‘I did try to bring my children up with good manners,' Alicia stated with a heavy sigh.

‘No harm done,' her husband declared cheerfully.

‘Actually, I like working out at a gym,' Jake said to remove sex from everyone's minds.

‘'Course you do,' Eddie chimed in. ‘Can't get those muscles from sitting at a desk.'

‘I do a yoga class,' Alicia offered, anxious to promote non-contentious chat as she gestured for everyone to sit down, tidying the newspapers on the table before sitting down herself.

Jake hadn't expected to find himself interested in Costarella's family. Even less had he expected to
like
any of them. In fact, the only one he'd given any thought to was Laura, whom he'd imagined to be a pampered princess, revelling in the role of Daddy's little girl.

The family dynamics were certainly intriguing and Jake was not averse to exploring them further…watching, listening, gathering information…and maybe, maybe, he might go after what he wanted with Laura Costarella, satisfying himself on several levels.

 

Laura cursed Eddie for being provocative, cursed herself for reacting so wildly, cursed Jake Freedman
for making her feel stuff that completely rocked any sensible composure. Her escape to the kitchen should have settled her nerves but they were still jumping all over the place even after she'd loaded the traymobile with the preferred drinks and the platter of hors d'oeuvres.

There was no hiding from the man. He had to be faced again. She could only hope he wouldn't try capitalising on her remark or she'd be severely tempted to pour the jug of iced water over his head. Which just went to show how out of control she was and that just wouldn't do. Better to freeze him off with good manners. She had to keep remembering that Jake Freedman was her father's man and any close connection with him could not lead anywhere good.

Not emotionally.

No matter how good he might be in bed.

And she had to stop thinking of that, too.

Having taken several deep breaths and gritting her teeth with determination to behave as she should, Laura wheeled the traymobile out to the patio. It was a relief to find the four of them chatting amicably about relaxation techniques; meditation, Tai Chi, massage and flotation tanks. Even her father appeared to be in good humour. She noted glumly that the only empty chair left for her at the round table was between Jake Freedman and her mother so she couldn't avoid being physically close to the man.

She set the platter on the table for everyone to help
themselves, handed the ice-bucket containing a bottle of her mother's favourite white wine to Eddie and told him to open it, placed the jug of iced water and a crystal tumbler in front of Jake, served her father his Scotch on the rocks, and supplied the wineglasses before bowing to the inevitable of taking the designated chair and addressing the gaffe she'd made.

‘I'm sorry for blowing my stack with you, Jake. I was annoyed with Eddie. And embarrassed.'

The riveting brown eyes sparkled with amusement, making her stomach flutter again. ‘No offence taken, Laura. I dare say Eddie hears that said about himself so often, it's lost any currency with him. And I doubt he thought it had any currency with me, either.'

Letting her know he didn't have tickets on himself, not on that score anyway. Though Laura wasn't sure she believed him.

Her father snorted in rank disbelief. ‘If it didn't have any currency with Eddie, he'd be out of a job. It's only because all the teeny-boppers think he's sexy that he's built up a fan base.'

‘Lucky for me!' Eddie said flippantly. ‘Though I do work at it, Dad.'

‘Some people just have it,' her mother said, trying to divert a clash. ‘I always thought Sean Connery…'

‘Back to James Bond,' Eddie cut in, grinning at Laura.

She bared her teeth at him in warning.

He stood up to pour the wine, cheerfully saying,
‘Mum's a great movie buff, Jake. I bet no one could beat her on that topic in a quiz show. And she's a champion Mum, too. Let's drink a toast to her.' He lifted his glass. ‘Mother's Day!'

They all echoed the toast.

Having been handed the movie ball, Jake Freedman proceeded to run with it, giving her mother so much charming attention, Laura couldn't help liking him for it. He was probably working hard at being an amenable guest, showing off his talent for diplomacy to her father. Nevertheless, it was giving her mother pleasure, and her father, for once, was not souring it with any acid comments.

In fact, he looked surprisingly content with the situation.

Laura didn't really care why.

It was good that he wasn't putting her mother down as he usually did.

She slipped away to attend to the lunch preparations, feeling slightly more at ease with Jake Freedman's presence. It was making the day run more smoothly than she had hoped for. The only negative was his sexual impact on her.

She hadn't been able to stop herself from slyly checking him over; the neat curl of his ears, the length of his eyelashes, the sensuality of his lips, the charismatic flashes of his smiles, the light sprinkle of black hairs on his strong forearms, the elegant length of his fingers with their clean clipped nails, the way his muscular thighs stretched the black fabric of his
jeans. And long feet! Didn't that mean his private parts would be…very manly?

Which, of course, would be in keeping with the rest of him.

It was all very difficult, knowing he was her father's man. It was also difficult to concentrate on getting everything right for the meal; vegetables to go into the oven, reheating the soup, greens ready for last-minute microwaving, mint sauce on the dining-room table. She would have to sit next to him again; probably a blessing since this table wasn't a round one and he couldn't see what was written on her face unless he turned to her.

So far, he wasn't giving her any special attention and it was probably better if it stayed that way—no dilemma between temptation and caution. He was bound to have a woman in the wings, anyway. Eddie had girls falling all over him and she couldn't imagine it would be any different for Jake Freedman—another reason for not getting involved with him. Being perceived as just one of an available crowd had no appeal.

Although being the boss's daughter, he would have to treat her with respect.

Which she'd hate.

Whatever way she looked at it, having Jake Freedman was no good. Besides, he wasn't exactly holding out the chance to have him, though he might before the day was over. As her mother said, there had to be a purpose behind this visit. If a connection
with her was the desired end, she had to be ready for it, ready to say no.

The soup was hot enough to serve. Telling herself she was lucky to have the distraction of being the cook, Laura returned to the patio to invite everyone inside for lunch. Eddie escorted her mother to the dining room. Jake Freedman followed with her father, the two men obviously on congenial terms.

Another warning.

Her father must have once been charming to her mother or she wouldn't have married him. His true character could not have emerged until she was completely under his domination. If Jake Freedman was of like mind, thinking he had the right—the power—to rule others' lives as he saw fit, she wanted nothing to do with him.

 

Jake continued to get his bearings with the Costarella family over lunch. Eddie had dropped out of school and left home at sixteen, getting himself a job as a backroom boy in one of the television studios.

‘One day you'll regret not going on with your education,' his father said balefully.

He shrugged. ‘Accountancy was never going to suit me, Dad.'

‘No. Head in the clouds. Just like your mother.'

The tone of disgust caused Alicia to flush. She was a more fragile person than her perfectly groomed image presented, very nervy and too anxious to please. He was recalling Laura's comment
that her mother needed her when she leapt to Alicia's defence.

‘Oh, I think Mum's totally grounded when it comes to her garden.'

‘Garden…movies…' Costarella scoffed. ‘Alicia has led both of you astray with her interests. I had high hopes for you, Laura. Top of your school in mathematics…'

‘Well, I have high hopes for myself, Dad. Sorry I can't please both of us,' she said with a rueful smile.

‘Gardening…' he jeered.

‘Landscape architecture is a bit more than that, Dad.'

No hesitation in standing up for herself.

Costarella huffed. ‘At least you can cook. I'll say that for you. Enjoying the meal, Jake?'

‘Very much.' He shot an appreciative smile at Laura. ‘Top chef standard. The soup was delicious and I've never tasted better lamb and baked potatoes.'

She laughed. ‘Top chef recipes from a TV cooking show. All it takes is dedication to following the instructions. You could do it yourself if you had the will to. It's not a female prerogative. In fact, most of the top chefs are male. Do you cook for yourself?'

‘No. Mostly I eat out.'

‘Need a woman to cook for you,' Costarella slid in.

It was a totally sexist remark and he saw the re
coil from it in Laura's eyes, followed by a derisive flash at him…if he thought the same.

He turned to Costarella and allowed himself one risky remark, grinning to take away any sting. ‘Given that most top chefs are male, a man might be better.'

Eddie found this hilarious, cracking up with laughter.

‘What's so funny?' his father demanded.

‘It's just that lots of guys in the service industry are gay and I don't see Jake as gay,' he spluttered out.

Laura started giggling, too.

‘I'm not,' Jake said.

‘Certainly not,' Costarella declared emphatically.

‘We know you're not,' Laura assured him, still tittering.