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Her Tycoon Hero (Heartsong Presents)

By Narelle Atkins

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Everything was in place for her sister's engagement party.

Cassie Beaumont pulled out a stool from under the granite counter in a quiet corner of her father's enormous kitchen, resting her weary body on the cushioned seat. Platters of gourmet appetizers filled the kitchen and the large round table in the breakfast nook. She'd given the caterers detailed instructions and they were ahead of schedule, preparing additional food at the island in the center of the kitchen. Everything was going brilliantly. Dad and Laura should be happy.

She twisted a lock of blond hair around her finger and glanced at the time illuminated on the microwave oven. Eight-fifteen. Guests had started arriving at eight.

The aroma of mini quiches fresh from the oven stirred her appetite. She'd only eaten a muesli bar for lunch, squeezed in between appointments. Her feet ached from rushing around at the hotel. Fridays were always hectic and today had been no exception. Snatching a few minutes to rest her feet felt like a precious gift.

Her father strode through the busy kitchen, coming to a halt a few feet in front of her. "Cassandra, I've been looking for you everywhere."

She clenched her fists and tipped up her chin, pasting a smile on her face. What had she done wrong this time? "What's up?"

John frowned, shoving his hands in the pockets of his conservative gray suit and lowering his voice. "Laura and Greg are expecting a big turnout. Do you have enough staff?"

"It's all organized." She'd made sure he would have no reason to worry. She'd scrutinized all the arrangements, leaving nothing to chance.

His gaze swept over his spacious kitchen. "Have you ordered enough food?"

She pointed to the trays of canapés lined up on the nearby table, keeping her tone even. "There's a mountain of food ready to be served. I have it all under control." Thankfully her competent catering staff couldn't overhear their conversation.

"I expect this party to be perfect." An icy tone permeated his low voice.

"It will be." She held his gaze, refusing to be intimidated. She'd worked hard to pull this party together. Why couldn't he acknowledge her efforts with a thank-you?

He leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms. "I told Laura she should have hired a professional party planner."

"And what am I?" Pain flooded her heart and old insecurities resurfaced. Her professional role as an events manager for a five-star Sydney hotel wasn't good enough for him. What would it take to convince him she'd changed? She was twenty-six years old and no longer the unreliable daughter with a drinking problem.

"I offered to pay top dollar for the right person." He smoothed back the few remaining strands of gray hair on his balding head. "Instead I find you in the kitchen worrying about food."

"Dad, I'm Laura's maid of honor. She asked me to organize her party and it will be a big success."

He snorted. "We'll see. At least you're not drinking on the job."

Her jaw fell slack, his stinging words further damaging their fragile relationship. Did he want to push her away and out of his life forever?

She sucked in a deep breath, determined to prove him wrong. "I haven't had a drink in nearly two years and my faith helps me to stay on track. Why can't you believe me when I tell you I'm a different person now?"

"That's what your grandmother used to say."

She stood, placing her hands on her hips. "I'm not like Grandma."

"She went to church every week and it never did her any good."

"I'm dealing with my problems." Her grandmother had struggled for many years with alcoholism and liver disease.

"You don't need religion. You just need someone to keep you in line."

Like a husband. His unspoken words cut open another raw wound. She straightened her spine, standing taller. "I'm doing okay on my own."

"Why can't you settle down like your sister?" His voice softened. "Is that too much to ask?"

She looked away, realizing she'd failed him again by her inability to find an appropriate man who met with his approval.

He uncrossed his arms and moved closer. "Why don't you stop hiding in the kitchen and mingle with Greg and Laura's friends? There must be a few good prospects here tonight."

She stepped back, frowning. Did he mean Ryan Mitchell, his right-hand man at JB Management? Had Laura been talking to Dad behind her back? "I'm capable of finding my own dates and I don't need help from you or anyone else."

He looked down his nose and let out an exasperated sigh. "I hear you loud and clear. I really hope this religious conversion of yours fixes your problems, but you'd better not screw up tonight." He threw his hands in the air and stormed out of the kitchen.

Her father's anger tore at her heart. Cassie took a deep breath and counted to ten. Please Lord, give me patience.

She placed her trembling palms flat on the kitchen counter and blinked away her impending tears. Her family didn't share her faith, and her difficult relationship with her father had deteriorated after she made the life-changing decision to become a Christian eighteen months ago.

She sucked in a steadying breath. Dad wanted to provide the best possible engagement party for Laura, his perfect daughter. She didn't begrudge her sister's close relationship with their father, but how could she improve her own relationship with him when they couldn't manage to hold a civil conversation for five minutes? Her head hurt from hammering it against the unbreakable wall between them.

She'd had enough. Tomorrow she would update her résumé and apply for a position in North Queensland. The job—an executive events manager at an exclusive island resort—appealed to her for many reasons. Sunshine, sandy beaches and days spent diving around the reefs. What more could she want?

Cassie stared at her younger sister's engagement cake. Would she ever meet the right man? She prayed for a husband who shared her faith and prioritized family over work. A man of honor and integrity, the exact opposite of Sean.

She shuddered, thankful she'd escaped Sean's maze of lies.

Additional waiters arrived. Satisfied with progress on the catering front, she exited the kitchen to check out the party.

Her high heels tapped on the tiled floor as she strode into the spacious living room of her father's waterfront mansion. A large number of the one hundred invited guests mingled indoors while a few others braved the cooler evening temperatures on the balcony.

Cassie gazed through a panoramic window, admiring the multimillion-dollar views of the city skyline and Sydney Harbour Bridge. Fairy lights strung around the gazebo next to the pool lit up the immaculate gardens in a soft glow.

Regret tainted her pleasure. She rarely visited her father's home and she'd already broken her promise to Laura by arguing with Dad. Would she ever learn to control her tongue?

The soothing tones of the hired jazz quartet lifted her spirits. If she avoided her father for the rest of the evening, everything should be okay.

Her sister had enough to worry about tonight. Top of her list would be wondering if their divorced parents could peacefully coexist at the party.

She scanned the room and did a double take when she spotted her parents standing together. Her father made a comment and her mother laughed with him.

Wow. But could it last?

Cassie strolled through the open French doors and onto the balcony, looking for Laura. The breeze off the harbor cooled her bare arms and her new sapphire-blue evening gown swirled around her calves.

She stumbled on the pavers as she negotiated her way down the steps to the landscaped gardens. At least her ankle didn't collapse. A few years ago she'd worn flimsy high-heeled sandals on a regular basis, often with disastrous consequences. She needed to take more care, although her sobriety made a big difference.

Her sister stood in the gazebo, her sleek dark brown hair flowing loose around her shoulders. Surrounded by friends, she held her left hand in the air and showed off her large diamond solitaire engagement ring. The joy on Laura's face spoke volumes about her love for her future husband.

A twinge of envy filled Cassie. She stamped out her uncharitable thoughts when Laura waved and raced over to her.

"Has Ryan arrived yet?" Laura asked. "I'm dying to introduce you to him."

Cassie rolled her eyes. "How would I know?"

"Maybe he's inside." Laura tilted her head sideways. "Greg said he was snowed under with work."

"I'm sure Ryan will turn up soon." He sounded like a younger version of Dad, boring and obsessed with work. Not her type.

"He'd better, considering he's going to be the best man at our wedding."

"Stop fretting. You're supposed to be enjoying a fun night."

"Okay, but I know you'll like Ryan." Laura's blue eyes sparkled. "He's gorgeous and a very good catch."

Cassie shrugged. Laura's romantic notion of the maid of honor and best man falling in love was not going to happen.

"You two are perfect for each other," Laura continued. "He recently moved back to Sydney after a three-year stint in London. Did I tell you he once dated an Aussie model?"

Cassie lifted a brow. A few years ago she might have been impressed, but now she couldn't care less. "Have you forgotten he's Sean's older brother?"

"Sean's long gone, and it's not like you dated him or anything." Laura waved away Cassie's concerns. "You're Ryan's type and you should go for it."

"What? How do you know his type?"

"Greg may have mentioned that Ryan's partial to blue-eyed blondes. Trust me—he's a class above the last few guys you've dated."

Cassie squirmed. "Life isn't all about money. I'm looking for someone who shares my faith."

"Maybe he believes in God, but who cares?" Laura flicked her brunette locks back over her shoulder. "I don't get why you're so hung up on religion."

She bit back a sharp retort. Let it go. Now wasn't the time to have this conversation. "Mom and Dad appear to be getting on okay." She relayed the scene she'd witnessed a few minutes earlier.

"You're kidding!" A huge smile broke out on her sister's face. "It's about time they buried the hatchet."

Cassie nodded. "Look, Greg's waving at you to join him by the pool. We can talk later." She hugged Laura before heading indoors.

Cassie meandered through the throng of guests gathered in the living room, greeting several aunts, uncles and cousins as she made her way back to the kitchen. Her parents congregated with their respective relations on opposite sides of the room. One pleasant conversation was progress and had exceeded her expectations.

A quick perusal of the kitchen reassured her that everything was fine. Happy with the caterers, she selected an iced tea from a passing waiter and returned to the living room.

A man appeared at the entrance of the room. He stood tall, with dark brown hair cropped short against his collar but styled longer at the front, sweeping back off his broad forehead. She was too far away to discern the color of his eyes but close enough to feel his commanding presence. Other heads turned his way, but he seemed oblivious to all the speculative glances.

Her gaze collided with his and a jolt of pure awareness shot through her. Something about him seemed familiar.

The crowd shifted, breaking their connection. She searched the doorway, unable to see him.

What had she been thinking, letting a handsome stranger set her pulse racing? She took a sip from her glass, her first impression of him lingering in her mind like the tangy lemon flavor of her iced tea.

Then it hit her. Could he be Ryan? The general shape of his head and jawline showed an uncanny resemblance to Sean.

She selected a mini quiche from a passing waiter and her future brother-in-law joined her.

"Thanks for organizing our party," Greg said. "You've done a fantastic job."

"My pleasure." She popped the warm pastry in her mouth.

"Your Dad's house is amazing and it's great he let us hold the party here."

She nodded, savoring the superb flavor of the quiche. "He's happy to entertain as long as someone else does the catering."

Greg grinned, glancing over her shoulder. "Here comes Laura with Ryan."

Cassie spun around and gasped. A shiver of anticipation hurtled up her spine as her gaze once again locked with his. His light gray eyes complemented his tanned complexion.

She dragged her gaze away and tried to focus her attention on her sister. A mischievous glint flickered in Laura's eyes as she made the introductions.

"Hi." Cassie shook the hand Ryan offered, his grasp warm and firm.

Ryan smiled. "Good to see you again."

It took a few moments for his words to sink in. She drew her brows together. "We've met before?"

"Please excuse us." Laura grabbed hold of Greg's arm. "It's nearly time for the speeches and cake so we'll leave you two to chat."

Ryan watched Greg and Laura disappear into the crowd. "We met a few years ago at a party." He looked her straight in the eye. "Sean introduced us and, if I remember correctly, you gave me an enthusiastic hug."

She lowered her lashes, shame cloaking her. Her partying days were a blur she'd rather forget.

"You were wearing a little black dress." A smile twitched at the corner of his mouth. "My brother kept you close by his side all night."

She cringed. Could things get any more embarrassing? She'd thrown the figure-hugging dress in the trash long ago. "Sean and I went to lots of parties." She frowned. "I'm sorry, but I don't remember."

"No worries." He stepped closer, lowering his deep voice to a whisper. "You're more beautiful than I remember."

"Thanks." Her cheeks heated and she switched her attention to his silk tie. Conservative hues of blue and green. Had he chosen the tie especially for tonight or had he been wearing it all day at the office?

She inhaled a deep breath. Why did she feel such a powerful connection with Sean's brother?

"Is something wrong?" he asked.

"It's a little awkward not remembering we'd met before."

"Okay, I confess I have an unfair advantage. Your father has a photo of you and Laura on his desk."

Did Dad display her photo to keep up appearances? Or did he care about her despite his abrupt attitude?

A ray of hope lighted inside her. Lord, please help me find a way to mend my relationship with Dad.

Curiosity drove her to ask the one question burning in her mind. "How's Sean doing?"

A dark look shadowed his face. "I've no idea. You're the last person to see him before he left the country. Even my parents haven't heard from him in over two years."

"Really? He hasn't contacted anyone?"

Ryan nodded, his mouth set in a grim line.

She sipped the remainder of her tea, struggling to understand why she had once contemplated Sean's crazy idea of turning their friendship into a more serious relationship. Not that they'd have stood a chance. Her drinking problems combined with his irresponsible actions had destroyed any potential for a healthy relationship or future together.

The passing of time and a clear head had revealed Sean's character flaws. But they'd been close friends, inseparable before he'd left, and she'd known another side of him. She couldn't forget or dismiss from her mind the many times he'd been caring and considerate.

"Ryan, I'm sorry about how everything turned out with Sean. I'd hoped he'd sorted himself out by now."

"My brother chose his life path and he has to live with the consequences."

Her father didn't let her forget her troubled past. The consequences seemed never ending.

Ryan's eyes softened as he met her gaze. "Do you keep in touch with any of Sean's friends?"

"Not anymore." She twirled a lock of hair around her finger. "I avoid the party scene."

"Have you heard anything about Sean's whereabouts?"

She shook her head. "I'm not interested in seeing him again."

He nodded. "You've done a great job organizing this party."

"I haven't done much." She loosened her grip on her glass, thankful he'd changed the subject. "The caterers and waiters have done most of the work."

"They deserve a bonus." He removed his jacket and draped it back over his shoulder, emphasizing the broad expanse of his chest.

She drew in a few deep breaths and tried to calm her tightly coiled nerves. She felt like a schoolgirl in the throes of her first teenage crush.

Her father began speaking into the microphone, calling Laura and Greg to join him up on the musician’s dais. She welcomed the distraction from the man standing close by her side.

Dad’s short, humorous speech drew plenty of laughter, even from her. But her aggravation with him remained. She’d do her best to stay out of his way.

Laura and Greg thanked everyone for coming and proceeded to cut their engagement cake.

Ryan signaled a waiter, who immediately came over.

"What can I offer you?" Ryan asked.

"I'm good, thanks." She passed her empty glass to the waiter.

Ryan selected a beverage, his eyes twinkling. "Let's go outside?"

"Sure." She should stop by the kitchen. But her staff were on top of their game and distributing cake to appreciative guests. The kitchen could wait.

She walked with Ryan toward the balcony. His honesty regarding his brother demonstrated his integrity. Sean had insisted that Ryan and his parents were critical and judgmental, but who could blame his family for being concerned about him?

Ryan came to a halt, his fingers cupping her elbow for a brief moment. "John's waving at me."

Her smile froze on her lips. Talk about bad timing. Why did her father need to see Ryan right now?

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