The Man to Be Reckoned With

BOOK: The Man to Be Reckoned With
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“That's what this is all about? What I offered wasn't enough?” Nathan said, coming closer. Satisfaction practically coated every word. “Name your price.”

“I don't want money. I was trying to explain how much that estate means to me … I was—”

“Then
what
do you want?”

It took every ounce of her will to stand still, bearing the judgment in that gaze. The pain in his words cut through her. “I want you to see your father.”

The silence that dawned was so tense that Riya felt the tension wind around them like a tangible rope. The knot in his brow cleared, the icy blue of his eyes widened. It was the last thing he had expected to hear. That she had surprised him left her only shaking in her leather pumps.

“No.”

Fisting her hands behind her, Riya pushed the words that refused to come under his scornful gaze. “Then I won't sign it over. Ever.”

She could practically hear him size her up, saw him reassess his assumptions about her in the way disbelief and then pity filled his gaze. He looked at her as though he was seeing her anew.

“Don't push me into doing something I don't want to. That estate—it's the one thing in the entire world that means something to me.”

His words were laden with emotion and so much more. And she understood that attachment—because she loved the estate too. But she couldn't weaken now … now that he was here in San Francisco, so close to Robert.

“I've already made my decision.”

TARA PAMMI
can't remember a moment when she wasn't lost in a book—especially a romance, which was much more exciting than a mathematics textbook. Years later Tara's wild imagination and love for the written word revealed what she really wanted to do. Now she pairs alpha males who think they know everything with strong women who knock that theory and them off their feet!

The Man to Be Reckoned With

Tara Pammi

www.millsandboon.co.uk

From mathematics class to master's degrees, through crushes on boys to crushing debts, through fights with our moms to marriages and babies—you've always been constant and unflinching in your support and love. This one's for you, Sushma.

PROLOGUE

“H
E
MIGHT
DIE
any minute of any day or he might live to be a hundred. There's nothing to be done for it.”

Nathaniel Ramirez looked up at the snowy, whitecapped mountain peak and gulped in a big breath. The words he had overheard the cardiologist say to his mother all those years ago reverberated inside his skull. The cold air blasted through his throat, his lungs expanding greedily.

Would this be the day?

He raised his face to the sky as his vision cleared and his heart resumed its normal beat.

At some point during the trek, he had realized he couldn't finish the climb today.

He didn't know whether it was because, after almost twelve years of courting death, he was finally bored of playing hide-and-seek with it, or because he was just plain tired today.

For a decade, he had been on a constant go across the world, without planting roots anywhere, without returning home, making real estate deals in corners of the world, making millions.

An image of the roses in the garden his mother had loved, back in California, their color vividly red, the petals so soft that she had banned him from touching them, flashed across his mind's eye.

A stab of homesickness pierced him as he followed the icy path down. Sweat drenched him as he reached the wooden cabin he had been living in since he closed the Demakis deal in Greece six months ago. Restlessness slithered under his skin.

And he knew what it meant. It meant he was thrashing against the cage he had made for himself; it meant he was getting lonely; thousands of years of human nature were urging him toward making a home, to seek companionship.

He needed to chase a new challenge, whether clinching a real estate deal or conquering a new corner of the world he hadn't stamped with his name yet. Fortunately for him, the world was vast and the challenges it presented numerous.

Because staying still in one place was the one thing that made him weak, that made him long for more than he could have.

* * *

He'd just stepped out of a hot shower when his satellite phone beeped. Only a handful of people could reach him via this number. He pushed a hand through his overlong hair and checked the caller ID.

The name flashing on the screen brought an instant smile to his face.

He connected the call, and the sound of their old housekeeper Maria's voice coming down the line filled him with a warmth he had missed for too long. Maria had been his rock after his mom passed.

Suddenly he realized he missed a lot of things from home. He clamped down on the useless yearning before it morphed into the one thing he despised.

Fear.

“Nathan?”

“Maria, how are you?”

He smiled as Maria called him a few names in Spanish and then asked after him as if he were still a little boy.

“You need to come home, Nathan. Your father... It's been too long since you've seen each other.”

The last time Nate saw him, his father had been the epitome of a selfish bastard instead of a grieving husband or a comforting father. And despite the decade and the thousands of miles that Nathan had put between them, the bitterness, the anger he felt for him was just as fresh as ever.

Maybe there was no running away from a few things in life.

“Is he ill again, Maria?”

“No. He recovered from the pneumonia. They, at least that woman's daughter, she took good care of him.”

Praise from Maria, especially for
that woman's daughter
, as she put it, meant Jackie's daughter had slaved to take care of his dad.

Nathan frowned, the memory of the one time he had seen his father's mistress's daughter leaving a sour taste in his mouth. She had been kind even then.

That day in the garage, with the August sun shining gloriously outside with blatant disregard to the fact that Nathan's entire world had crumbled around him. There had been blooms everywhere, the gardeners keeping it up for his mother even though she had stopped venturing into the garden for months.

The grief that his mother was gone, the chilling fear, the cold fist in his chest that he could drop dead any minute like her, and the little girl who had stood nervously by the garage door, a silent witness to the choking sobs that had racked him.

He hated everything about that day.

“I'm so sorry that your mother died. I can share my mother with you if you want,”
she had said in a small voice.

And in return, he had ripped through her.

“He's getting married, Nathan.” Maria's anxiety cut through his thoughts. “That woman,” she said again, refusing to even speak Jacqueline Spear's name, the loathing in her voice crystal clear even through the phone line, “she'll finally have what she wanted, after all these years. Eleven years of living shamelessly with him under his roof...”

Nathan grimaced as Maria spouted a few choice words for Jacqueline Spear. Bitterness filled his veins at the thought of his father's mistress, the woman he had taken up with even before Nathan's mother had passed.

“It's his damn life, Maria. He has every right to spend it as he pleases.”

“He does, Nathan. But your mama's house, Nathan...she's preparing to sell it. Just two days ago, she asked me to clean out your mother's room, told me to take anything I wanted. Your mama's belongings, Nathan—all her jewelry's in there. She's putting the entire estate on sale—the grounds, the furniture, the mansion, everything.”

Every piece that had been painstakingly put together by his mother with love. And now in the hands of a woman who had been everything his mother hadn't been.

“If you don't come back, it will forever be gone.”

Nathan scrunched his eyes closed, and the image of a brick mansion rose in front of him. A strange anger gripped him. He didn't want that house to go to someone else, he realized.

He had lived the life of a loner for a decade, and the image of the house he had run away from hit him hard in his gut. “She doesn't have the right to sell it.”

The silence on Maria's end stretched his nerves taut. “He gave it to her, Nathan. As a gift.”

Nausea rolled around in his mouth. His father had killed his mother, as clearly as if he had choked the life out of her, with his disgusting affair, and after he'd lived in her house with his mistress and now... His knuckles turned white around the phone.

This he wouldn't, couldn't, tolerate.

No matter that he didn't want to live in the house any more than he wanted to put roots down and settle anywhere in the world.

“He's giving away my mom's house as a wedding gift?”

“Not to Jackie, Nathan. To her daughter, from her first marriage. I don't know if you ever saw her. Your father deeded the house to her a few months ago. After he was dreadfully ill that first time.”

Nathan frowned. So Jackie's daughter was selling his mother's house. Getting rid of it for the monetary value it would yield, he supposed.

The restlessness that had simmered inside him a few hours ago dissipated, washed away by furious determination.

It was time to go home. He didn't know how long he would stay or if he could bear to even stay there at all after so many years.

Neither could he let the house, his mother's house, fall into some stranger's grubby hands. He just couldn't.

He bid goodbye to Maria and switched on his laptop.

In a few minutes, he was chatting with his virtual manager, Jacob. He gave orders for a local manager to look after his cabin, for his airline tickets to be booked to San Francisco and last but not the least, for any information the man could dig up on his father's mistress's daughter.

CHAPTER ONE

“I
HEARD
THE
investors sold the company to some reclusive billionaire.”

“Someone in HR said he's only bought it for the patented software. That he intends to fire the whole lot of us.”

“I didn't realize we had value to attract someone of that ilk.”

What ilk? What billionaire?

Riya Mathur rubbed her temples with her fingers, slapping her palms over her ears in a gesture that in no way could silence the useless speculation around her.

What had changed in the week she had been gone for the first time in two years since Drew and she had started the company? What wasn't he telling her?

Her chat window from their internal IM program pinged, and Riya looked down at her screen.

A message from Drew:
Come to my cabin, Riya.

Riya felt a knot in her stomach.

Things had steadily been going from bad to worse between her and Drew for six months now. Since New Year's Eve to be exact. And she hadn't known how to make it better except to put her head down and do her job.

Stepping out of the small cubicle she occupied, only separated from the open cabins in the huge hall by one movable shelf, she marched past an anxious, almost hyper group of staff amassed in the break room toward the CEO's cabin. She had spent the better part of the morning waiting on tenterhooks, walking around the different teams and trying to persuade them to get back to work while Drew's door remained resolutely closed.

But his continuing silence, even after an email from her, peppered with little tidbits of gossip, was making her head spin. Running her damp palms over her baggy trousers, she came to a halt at the closed door.

She tapped a couple of times cursorily, and every whisper gathered momentum in pitch and volume. Without waiting for an answer, she turned the handle and the pandemonium behind her descended into a deathly silence.

Stepping inside, she closed the door.

Drew's lean frame was molded by the sunlight streaming through the windows, the San Francisco skyline behind him.

He opened his mouth to speak but stopped abruptly. Her heart in her throat, Riya took a step in his direction. He stiffened a little more and tilted his head.

That same awkwardness that had permeated their every conversation filled the air thickly now.

But this was work. Their company truly had been a product of them both. “The whole office is buzzing with rumors...” She came to a stop a couple of steps from him. “Whatever our personal differences, this is our company, Drew. We're in it together—”

“It was your company until you took the first seed capital from an investor,” a new voice, every syllable punctured with a sardonic amusement, said behind her.

Riya turned around so fast she didn't see him for a few seconds. Blinking, she brought her focus back to the huge table and the man sitting at the head of it. The chair faced away from the window. With his long legs sprawled in front of him, only his profile was visible to Riya.

The entire room was bathed in midmorning sunlight and yet the man sat in the one area of the room that the light didn't touch. Ungluing her feet from the spot next to Drew, Riya walked across the room so that she could see better.

She felt the newcomer's gaze on her, studying everything about her. Her usually articulate mind slowed down to a sluggish pace. The feeling that he had been waiting to see
her
tugged at her, a strange little premonition dancing in her gut.

“I've been dying to meet you, Ms. Mathur,” he said, turning the vague feeling into solid dread. “The smart mind that built the software engine that drives the company,” he added silkily. He had left something else unsaid. She knew it, just as surely as she could feel her heart skidding in her chest.

He had even pronounced her last name perfectly, elongating the
a
after the
M
just right. After knowing her since her freshman year at college, Drew still didn't say it right. It was a small thing, and yet she felt as though this stranger knew her entire history.

Taking the last step past the overfilled bookshelf, Riya came to a halt. Her stomach did a funny dive, her sharp exhale amplified to her own ears.

Her first thought was that he belonged in a motorcycle club and not in a boardroom.

Electric eyes, a brilliant shade of ice blue, set deep in a starkly angled face, collided with hers. That gaze was familiar and strange, amused and serious. A spark of recognition lit up inside her, yet Riya had no idea where she had seen him.

Dark blond hair, so unruly and long that her fingers itched to smooth it back, fell onto his forehead. Copper highlights shimmered in his hair. The sunlight streaming in played hide-and-seek with the hollows of his cheekbones, the planes darker than the hollows. Which meant he spent a lot of time outdoors.

His skin, what she could see of it, was sunburned and looked rough. An untrimmed beard covered his jaw and chin, copper glinting in it too.

That beard, those haphazard clothes, his overall appearance—they should have diluted the intensity of his presence in the small room. It should have made him look less authoritative. Except those eyes negated everything.

They had a bright, alert look to them, a sardonic humor lurking beneath the sharp stare he directed at her.

He wore a dark leather jacket that had obviously seen better days, under which the collar of a faded shirt peeked through.

A cough from behind her brought her up short and Riya felt her cheeks heat up.

Amusement deepened in those eyes.

“Who are you?” The awkwardly phrased question zoomed out of her mouth before she realized. Suddenly it was tantamount that she remember him.

Because she did, Riya realized with a certainty.

He leaned back into his chair, not in the least affected by her tone. There was a sense of contained movement about him even though he remained seated. As though he was forcing his body to do it, as though staying still was an unnatural state for him.

“Nathaniel Ramirez.”

Riya's mouth fell open as an article she had read just a few months ago in a travel magazine flashed through her mind's eye.

Luxury Travel Mogul. Virtual Entrepreneur. Billionaire Loner.

Nathaniel Ramirez had been called a visionary in developing hotels that were an extension of the environment, a man who had made millions with zero investment. The string of temporary hotels, which he'd envisioned and built with various landowners in different parts of the world, were all the rage for celebrities who wanted a private vacation, away from prying eyes.

He had tapped into a market that not only had met an existing demand but had opened a whole new industry to the local men in so many remote corners of the world.

And more than any of that, he was an enigma who'd traveled the world over since he was seventeen, didn't stay in one place past a few months, didn't own a home anywhere in the world and worst of all, had no family ties or relationships.

Even the magazine hadn't been able to get a picture of him. It had been a virtual interview.

The quintessential loner
, the magazine had called him, the perfect personality for a man who traveled the world over and over. The fact that he made money doing it was just a perk, someone had heard him remark.

He'd only said his name, and nothing more about what he was doing here, in San Francisco, in Travelogue, in their start-up company's headquarters.

Why? Why would he give his name instead of stating why he was here?

She threw a quick look behind her and noticed Drew still stood unmoving at the bay windows, his mouth tight, his gaze swinging between her and Mr. Ramirez.

“You make a living out of traveling the world. What can a small online travel sales company do for you?” She shot Drew a look of pure desperation. “And why are you sitting in Drew's chair?”

The intensity of his gaze, while nothing new to Riya, still had a disconcerting element to it. Men stared at her. All the time.

She had never learned how to handle the attention or divert it, much less enjoy it, as Jackie did. Only painstakingly cultivated an indifference to those heated, lingering looks. But something about him made it harder.

Finally he uncoiled from his lounging position. And a strange little wave of apprehension skittered through her.

“I bought controlling interest in Travelogue last night, Ms. Mathur.”

She blinked, his soft declaration ringing in her ears. “I bought a gallon of milk and bread last night.”

The sarcastic words fell easily from her mouth while inside, she struggled not to give in to the fear gripping her.

* * *

“It wasn't that simple,” Nathan said, getting up from the uncomfortable chair. The whole cabin was both inconvenient and way too small for him. Every way he turned, there was a desk or chair or a pile of books ready to bang into him. He felt boxed in.

Walking around the table, he stopped at arm's length from her, the fear hidden under her sarcastic barb obvious. Gratification filled him even as he gave the rampant curiosity inside him free rein.

Like mother, like daughter.

He pushed the insidiously nasty thought away. True, Riya Mathur was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and as a man who had traveled to all the corners of the world, he'd seen more than his share.

She was also, apparently, extremely smart and as possessed of the talent for messing with men's minds as her mother, if everything he had heard and Drew Anderson's blatantly obvious craze for her was anything to go by.

But where Jacqueline met the world with a devil-may-care attitude, flaunting her beauty with an irreverent smile, her daughter's beauty was diluted with intelligence and a carefully constructed air of indifference.

Which, he realized with a self-deprecating smile, made every male of the species assume himself equal to the task of unraveling all that beauty and fire.

Exquisite almond-shaped, golden brown eyes, defiant, scared and hidden behind spectacles, a high forehead, a straight, distinctive nose that hinted at stubbornness and a bow-shaped mouth. All this on the backdrop of a golden caramel-colored silky smooth complexion, as though Jackie's alabaster and her Indian father's brown had been mixed in perfect proportions.

She had dressed to underplay everything about herself, and this only spurred him on to observe more. It was like a cloud hovering over a mountaintop, trying to hide the magnificence of the peak beneath it.

A wary and puzzled look lingered in her eyes since she had stepped inside. Which meant it was only a matter of time before she remembered him.

Because he had changed his last name, and he looked eons different from the sobbing seventeen-year-old she had seen eleven years ago.

He should just tell her and get it over with, he knew. And yet he kept quiet, his curiosity about her drumming out every other instinct.

“I had to call in a lot of favors to find your investors. Once they were informed of my intent, they were more than happy to accommodate me. Apparently they're not happy with the ways things are being run.”

“You mean disappointed about the bucket loads of money they want us to make?” A flash of regret crossed her face as soon as she said it.

She was nervous, which was what he'd intended.

“And that's wrong how, Ms. Mathur? Why do you think investors fund start-ups? Out of the goodness of their hearts?”

“I don't think so. But there's growth
and
there's risk.” She took a deep breath as though striving to get herself under control. “And if it's profits that you're after, then why buy us at all?”

“Let's just say it caught my fancy.”

Frustration radiated out of her. “Our livelihood, everything we've worked toward the past four years is hanging in the balance. And all you're talking about is late night shopping, things catching your fancy. Maybe living your life on the periphery of civilization all these years, cut off from your fellow man, traipsing through the world with no ties—”

“Riya, no....” She heard Drew's soft warning behind her. But she was far too scared to pay heed.

“—has made you see only profit margins, but for us, the human element is just as important as the bottom line.”

“You make me sound like a lone wolf, Ms. Mathur.”

“Well, you are one, aren't you?” She closed her eyes and fought for control. “Look, all I care about is what you intend to do with the company. With us.”

Something inched into his features, hardening the look in his eyes. “Leave us alone, Mr. Anderson.”

“No,” Riya said aloud as Mr. Ramirez walked around the table and toward her. Panic made her words rushed. “There's nothing you have to say to me that Drew can't hear.”

Stopping next to her, Drew met her gaze finally. The resignation in his eyes knocked the breath out of her as nothing else could. “Drew, whatever you're thinking, we can fight this. We own the patent to the software engine—”

“Does nothing else matter to you except the blasted company? Statues possess more feelings than you do.”

Bitterness spewed from every word, and the hurt festering beneath them lanced through her. She paled under his attack, struggled to put into words why.

“I'm done, Riya,” Drew said, with a hint of regret.

“But, Drew, I...”

His hands on her shoulders, Drew bent and kissed her cheek, all the while the deep-set ice-blue gaze of the arrogant man who was kicking Drew out stayed on her without blinking.

Something flitted in that gaze. An insinuation? A challenge? There one minute, chased away by a cool mockery the next.

But Riya didn't look away. Locking her hands by her side, she stood frozen to the spot.

Stepping back from her, Drew turned. “I'll set up something with your assistant, Nathan.”

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