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No Longer Forbidden(4)

By:Dani Collins

“Neither are your lingerie purchases, but they keep arriving on my desk.”

A blush of discomfiture hit her cheeks, surprising him. He hadn’t thought her capable of modesty.

“This is so like you!” Rowan charged. “Heaven forbid you speak to me. Seriously, Nic. Why didn’t you call to discuss this?”

“There’s nothing to discuss. Your agreement with Olief was that he would support you while you were at school. You chose to quit, so the expense fund has closed. It’s time to take responsibility for yourself.”

Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you? You’ve always hated me and you’re jumping on this chance to punish me.”

“Punish you?” The words hate and stupid danced in his head, grating with unexpected strength. He pushed aside an uncomfortable pinch of compunction. “You’re confusing hate with an inability to be manipulated,” he asserted. “You can’t twine me around your finger like you did Olief. He would have let you talk him round to underwriting your social life. I won’t.”

“Because you’re determined my style of life should be below yours? Why?”

Her conceit, so unapologetic, made him crack a laugh. “You really think you can play the equality card here?”

“You’re his son; he was like a father to me.”

Her attempt to sound reasonable came across as patronizing. Entitled. And how many times had he buckled to that attitude, too unsure of his place in Olief’s life? He’d adopted the man’s name, but only because he’d wanted to be rid of the one stuck on him at birth. In the end Olief had treated Nic as an equal and a respected colleague, but Nic would never forget that Olief hadn’t wanted his son. He’d been ashamed he’d ever created him.

Then, when Nic had finally been let into Olief’s life, this girl and her mother had installed themselves like an obstacle course that had to be navigated in order to get near him. Nic was a patient man. He’d waited and waited for Olief to set aside time for him, induct him into the fold. Acknowledge him. But it had never happened.

Yet Rowan thought she had a daddy in the man whose blood made Olief Nic’s father. And when it had come down to choosing between them two years ago, Nic recalled with a rush of angry bile, Olief had chosen to protect Rowan and disparage Nic. Nic would never forgive her setting him up for that disgrace.

“You’re the daughter of his mistress.” How Olief could want another man’s whelp mothered by his mistress but not his own child had always escaped Nic. “He only took you on because the two of you came as a package,” Nic spelled out. He’d never been this blunt before, but old bitterness stewed with fresh antagonism and the only person who had kept him from speaking his mind all these years was absent. “You’re nothing to him.”

“They were lovers!”

Her Irish temper stoked unwilling excitement in him. With her fury directed toward him, he felt his response flare stronger than ever before. He didn’t want to feel the catch. She was off-limits. Always had been—even before Olief had warned him off. Too young. Too wrong for him. Too expressive and spoiled.

This was why Nic hated her. He hated himself for reacting this way. She pulled too easily on his emotions so he wanted her removed from his life. He wanted this confused wanting to stop.

“They weren’t married,” he stated coldly. “You’re not his relation. You and your mother were a pair of hangers-on. That’s over now.”

“Where do you get off, saying something like that?” she demanded, storming toward him like a rip curl that wanted to engulf him in its maelstrom of wild passion.

He automatically braced against being torn off his moorings.

“How would you justify that to Olief?”

“I don’t have to. He’s dead.”

His flat words shocked both of them. Despite his discussion with Sebastyen, Nic hadn’t said the obvious out loud, and now he heard it echo through the empty house with ominous finality. His heart instantly became weighted and compressed.

Rowan’s flush of anger drained away, leaving her dewy lips pale and the rest of her complexion dimming to gray. She was close enough that he felt the change in her crackling energy as her fury grounded out and despondency rolled in.

“You’ve heard something,” she said in a distressed whisper, the hope underlying the words threadbare and desperate.

He felt like a brute then. He’d convinced himself that the disappearance hadn’t meant that much to her. She was nightclubbing in their absence, for God’s sake. But her immediate sorrow now gave him the first inkling that she wasn’t quite as superficial as he wanted to believe. That quick descent into vulnerability made something in him want to reach out to her, even though they weren’t familiar that way. The one time he’d held her—