The CEO

by

Victoria Purman

CEO Callum Malone has it all: power, Italian suits, a house on one of Sydney’s stunning beaches and a new life without a woman in it. Just the way he likes it, ever since his nasty divorce.

Landscaper Ava Gibson is in no position to turn down a job, even if it is for her despised ex-brother-in-law. But when resentment gives way to underlying attraction, Ava is finally forced to confront her truth… she’s falling for him.

Will Ava be able to keep her growing desire in check? Because the irresistible Cal doesn’t want her to…

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Lightning split the Sydney sky with earth-shattering cracks on the afternoon Callum, Chris and Cooper Malone buried their father.

Sydney had turned on a tropical thunderstorm that darkened the sky like a thick, swirling purple cloak, and the rain drenched the brothers as they each threw a handful of dirt on the grave of William James Malone who, until his death four days before, had been a larger-than-life figure in their lives, the family business and in Australia’s business community. He’d died at home at The Meadows, one of Sydney’s historic harbour-side mansions, gazing out at the yachts and the ferries as he faded, railing and brawling, eschewing the best hospital care to live out the final agonising stages of his cancer in the house he’d called home since the day he was born.

Callum lifted his dripping umbrella and shifted his gaze from the freshly covered grave at Waverley Cemetery to the crashing ocean, a sheer drop from the rocky edge. Sydney had been burying its dead here since 1877, in land on the edge of the cliff tops between Bondi and Coogee. Callum thought it must be comforting for those left behind, to visit and grieve loved ones in such a magnificent place, with its statues of white marble, angels and tombstones, crosses and spires, silhouetted against the blue of the Pacific Ocean. It was a place of peace in this city that he loved and hated in equal measure.

‘Callum.’

He turned to his older brother, Chris. ‘Hey.’

Chris’s eyes were dark and unforgiving. ‘Damn glad that’s over.’

Callum clenched his jaw and looked from side to side to see that no-one else had heard the intemperate remark. ‘Not exactly how I would have put it.’

‘Hey,’ Chris straightened his shoulders, his look now as fierce and as ominous as the clouds hovering above them. ‘Just because I thought the guy was the worst kind of bastard, doesn’t mean I wanted him to suffer, you got that?’

Callum reached for his brother’s forearm and rested his hand on the soaking sleeve of his suit. Chris had taken their father’s death hard. Even though he’d been back in Australia for a year now, having given up his career as an international photojournalist, he’d still been estranged from their father. It wasn’t that Chris hadn’t tried, especially when he and Ellie had married six months ago, but their father held a grudge like he’d held on to his disease: he’d fought both bitterly.

‘Bro, I get it,’ Callum said. ‘You think I don’t know what he was like? I spent every damn day at work smoothing over the bad judgement calls and poor investments he’d made during the past few years. You don’t want to know how many times I kept us out of court. Sometimes I wonder how Malone Enterprises is a going concern.’

‘It’s still a Top 100 company precisely because you’ve been running it, Callum,’ Chris said. ‘We all know that. Hell, all of Sydney knows that.’

It was the truth. Callum had worked way too hard for way too long to make sure the company not only survived, but thrived. But it had taken its toll on his marriage to Lulu. His health. His private life. What the hell was he talking about? What private life?

A fresh burst of rain thudded in huge drops on to their black umbrellas and both men scowled at the sky.

‘Where’s Cooper?’ Callum looked over his shoulder at the thinning crowd of mourners. They’d had to hire security to keep gawkers and paparazzi at bay. Only those who were close to the Malone family had been present for William Malone’s farewell.

‘Over there. On the phone.’

The brothers could see Cooper, the youngest Malone by ten minutes, pacing and gesticulating as he talked.

‘Probably organising a hook-up for tonight.’ Chris shook his head in thinly disguised contempt.

Callum huffed. ‘Like you didn’t have women waiting for you in every danger zone in the world when you were on the road.’

‘No comment. And you’d better shut up now because here comes my wife.’ Chris’s face split in a smile as Ellie waddled over to them, dodging puddles in her flat shoes, her pink umbrella decorative but totally ineffective.

‘Hello, gorgeous.’ Chris took the umbrella from her and shielded her with his own. He rested his free hand on the underside of his wife’s swollen belly and kissed her lips tenderly.

‘Hello, handsome,’ she answered with a sad smile right back. ‘You okay?’

‘I am now you’re here.’

Callum turned away from them. He wasn’t in the mood for loved up. Not today. Not any day, in fact, since his divorce.

‘Hey, Callum,’ Ellie said. ‘I talked to your ex-wife.’

Speaking of which. ‘You called Lulu?’

‘No.’ Ellie shook her head. ‘I mean I talked to her a minute ago.’

Callum stiffened. ‘She’s here?’

‘Why do you sound surprised? Why wouldn’t she come?’ Ellie looked up at him, her brows furrowed. ‘I thought you two were on speaking terms, despite everything. And he was her father-in-law. I mean, ex-father-in-law.’

Callum spotted his ex-wife’s familiar petite form. She was wearing a respectful black dress, protected by a large and colourful golf umbrella held aloft by a man. She had one arm looped through his, and was huddled protectively against him. Lulu had called Callum a few months before to let him know, before he heard it from someone else, that she was seeing someone. She didn’t have to say the words but he knew what she meant: she was seeing him. The man she’d left him for. She’d told him she didn’t want the half-life she’d had with him. She wanted normal and that meant being involved with someone whose face wasn’t splashed all over the business pages every other day; someone who wasn’t the subject of personal gossip at every turn, and someone who didn’t attract attention everywhere he went and with everything he did.

It had been a long twelve months since the divorce.

It had been even longer since Callum Malone had realised marrying Lulu Gibson had been a big mistake.

Ellie was apologetic. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t want to get in the way of anything, Callum, but it’s nice that she’s paying her respects, don’t you think?’

Callum cleared his throat. ‘Let’s just say that William Malone didn’t think Lulu came from the right side of Sydney. A bit like you, Ellie. There was only ever one side of the tracks that counted to him, and that was his side. He thought Lulu was after nothing but our money and that’s why he didn’t come to our wedding.’ His father had been wrong about that, too. Lulu hadn’t been in it for the money. She’d left without a cent. Guilt does that to people, Callum thought wryly.

Chris reached a protective arm around his wife, huddling her closer under the umbrella.

‘I met her new partner. Michael something. He’s a teacher. And,’ she added, ‘her sister is here, too.’

Callum’s jaw clenched. ‘Oh, that’s just great.’ Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Lulu, Michael and Ava approaching.

‘Hi, Cal,’ Lulu said softly when she was next to him, a comforting hand coming to rest on his arm. She came forward and kissed him tentatively on the cheek. ‘I was so sorry to hear about your father.’

‘Thank you,’ Callum said stiffly. A year ago, he’d have wanted to punch the teacher. Now, he honestly wished them the normal life Lulu had craved.

‘Look at you, Chris,’ Lulu said, looking happy at an excuse to change the subject and steer herself away from Callum. ‘Congratulations on the baby. That’s wonderful news.’

‘Thank you,’ Ellie said. ‘We’re very excited.’

Lulu cleared her throat. ‘Can I introduce Michael to you both?’

The men shook hands formally with muttered and understated greetings.

Callum looked past Lulu and Michael to Ava, waiting for her to meet his eye so he could at least acknowledge her and thank her for coming. But she was hanging back, using her sister and her umbrella as a shield, looking out over the stormy waters of the ocean instead of choosing to be part of the conversation. He wasn’t surprised. Since the day he’d met Lulu, Ava had never been backward about revealing the disdain in which she held him and his entire family. He’d dubbed her Ava the Terrible, a nickname Lulu had always hated. Callum had always put it down to the massive chip she carried on her shoulder like an epaulette, but today—he didn’t know why—he wasn’t going to play her game. All the money and influence in the world couldn’t fight cancer. Even the rich had to bury their dead. On today of all days, they were more alike than he knew she would ever care to admit: they were flesh and bone and heart and loss.

‘Hello, Ava.’ Callum lifted his umbrella higher so he could see her. She, too, was wearing a black dress, and had tossed a big scarf in the same colour over her shoulders. Her long dark hair was held in a messy bun at her neck and she appeared to be drenched, just like the rest of the party.

‘Hello,’ she murmured, looking at everyone else but him.

Yeah, he thought, still terrible. Which suddenly made him more determined to get her attention. ‘You look well.’

Ava flicked a look down at her sodden shoes, as if she was checking that he was being facetious, and then to his face. ‘Thank you.’

She did look well, he thought, always had. There was a deep tan on her strong arms and on her face, and her long legs were bare and honey coloured. She’d always had a body that would attract a man’s attention, he remembered that much, but she had an attitude that would surely drive them away. How had Lulu always described her older sister? ‘Funny, smart, talented and dedicated.’

All he’d ever seen was the bug wedged firmly up her ass.

‘Thank you for coming.’ Callum said, louder now. ‘My brothers and I appreciate it.’

‘It was a lovely service.’ And then, with barely a glance at him, Ava took a surreptitious step in the opposite direction. Her disdain was still so robust that she couldn’t even manage to say his name.

Chris and Ellie, Lulu and Michael all turned as one to look over their shoulders. When Ava realised she was the focus of their attention, her mouth fell open on an unspoken word. Soaked to the skin, her eyes wide and her lashes wet with the rain, she looked at Callum with something he didn’t recognise. Something new. For the first time since he’d known her, the expression on her face was something other than her stock-standard contempt.

Her shoulders rose and fell on a deep sigh and she didn’t say another word before her eyes dropped to her shoes.

‘Sorry about that everyone. I had to take that call.’ Cooper had joined them, and all the attention was drawn away from the sullen Ava Gibson to the youngest Malone brother. Callum noticed the look of sheer relief that skittered across her face.

But Callum didn’t turn to his brother when everyone else did. He listened to the greetings and the sad voices, but his eyes were still on Ava. There had been a moment when their eyes had met, and held, a gaze under the sodden wet umbrellas and the heavy, purple sky, that had him thinking about her later that night.

He was sure of it: her eyes had been wet with tears, not rain.

End of Excerpt

The CEO is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN:

July 2, 2015