Tycoon Takes A Wife 

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The Tycoon Takes a Wife
by Catherine Mann
Silhouette Desire, May 2010

CHAPTER ONE:
Pensacola, Florida: Present Day

“Congratulations to the bride to be, my little princess!”

The toast from the father of the bride drifted from the deck of the paddleboat, carried by the muggy Pensacola breeze to Eloisa Taylor back on the dock. Eloisa sat dipping her aching feet in the Florida Gulf waters, tired to the roots of her ponytail from helping plan her half sister’s engagement party. Her stepfather had gone all out for Audrey, far more than a tax collector in a cubicle could afford, but nothing was too good for his “little princess.” Still he’d had to settle for a Monday night booking to make the gala affordable.

The echo of clinking glasses mingled with the lap of waves against her feet. Dinner was done, the crowd so well fed no one would miss her. She was good at that, helping people and keeping a low profile.

Putting together this engagement party had been bittersweet, forcing her to think about her own vows. Uncelebrated. Unknown even to her family. Thank God for the quickie divorce that had extracted her from her impulsive midnight marriage almost as fast as she’d entered it.

Usually she managed to smother those recollections, but how could she not think about it now with Audrey’s happily-ever-after tossed in her face 24/7? Not to mention the cryptic voice message she’d received this morning with his voice. Jonah. Even a year after hearing it last, she still recognized the sexy bass.

Eloisa. It’s me. We have to talk.

She swept her wind-whipped ponytail from her face, shivering from the phantom feel of his hand stroking her face. A year ago, she’d indulged herself in checking out the heritage of her real father. A summer indulgence had led her to one totally wrong man with a high-profile life that threatened her carefully protected world. Threatened secrets she held close and deep.

Eloisa blinked back the memories of Jonah, too many given how little time she’d spent with him. They were history now since she’d divorced him. Not that their twenty-four-hour marriage counted in her mind. She should ignore the call and block his number. Or at least wait until after her sister’s “I do” was in the past before contacting him again.

A fish plopped in the distance, sailboat lines clinking against masts. The rhythmic, familiar sounds soothed her. She soaked up the other sounds of home, greedily gathering every bit of comfort she could find. Emerald-green waters reflected a pregnant moon. Wind rustled through palm trees.

An engine growled softly in the distance.

So much for a late-night solitary moment. She shook dry one foot, then the other and glanced over her shoulder. A limo rolled closer. Late arriving guests? Really late since after-dinner dancing was well underway.

Reaching for her sandals she watched the long black stretch of machine inching beside the waterway. The shape of the sleek vehicle wasn’t your average wedding limo. The distinctive grille glinted in the moonlight, advertising the approach of an exclusive Rolls-Royce. Tinted windows sealed off the passengers from view, but left her feeling like a butterfly pinned to the board of a science project. The private area should be safe. Yet, was anywhere totally secure, especially in the dark?

Goose bumps stung along her skin and her mouth went dry. She yanked on her shoes, chiding herself for being silly. But still, Audrey’s fiancé was reputed to have some shady connections. Her stepdad could only see power and dollar signs, apparently unconcerned with the crooked path that money took.

Not that any of those questionable contacts had cause to hurt her. All the same, she should return to the floating party barge.

Eloisa jumped to her feet.

The limo sped up.

She swallowed hard, wishing she’d taken a self-defense class along the way to earning her library studies degree.

Okay, no need to go all paranoid. She forced her hands to stay loose and started walking. Only about thirty yards ahead, and she would alert the crew member at the gangway. Then she could lose herself in the crowd of dancers under the strings of white lights. The engine grew louder behind her. Eloisa strode longer, faster.

Each breath felt heavier, the salt in the air stinging her over-sensitive pores. Her low heel caught between planks on the boardwalk. She lurched forward just as the car stopped in front of her.

A back door swung wide—not even waiting for the chauffeur—and blocked her getaway. She couldn’t continue ahead, only sideways into the car or into the water. Or she could back up, which would take her farther from the boat. Frantically she searched for help. Would any of those seventy-five potential witnesses in party finery whooping it up to an old Kool and the Gang song notice or hear her?

One black-clad leg swung out of the limo, the rest of the man still hidden. However that Ferragamo python loafer was enough to send her heart skittering. She’d only met one man who favored those, and she hated how she still remembered the look and brand.

She backed away, one plank at a time, assessing the man as he angled out. She hoped, prayed for some sign to let her off the hook. Gray hair? A beer belly?

Anything non-Jonah.

But no such luck. The hard-muscled guy wore all black, a dark suit jacket, the top button of his shirt undone and tie loose. He wore his brown hair almost shoulder length and swept back from his face to reveal a strong, square jaw.

A jaw far more familiar than any shoes. Nerves danced in her stomach far faster than even the partiers gyrating to the live band on the boat.

He pivoted on his heel, facing her full on, the moonlight glinting off the chestnut hints in his wavy hair. Sunglasses shielded his eyes from her. Shades at night? For a low profile or ego?

Regardless, she knew. Her ex-husband wasn’t content with just calling and leaving a message. No, not Jonah. The powerful international scion she’d divorced a year ago had returned.

Jonah Landis whipped off his sunglasses, glanced at his watch and grinned. “Sorry I’m late. Have we missed the party?”

To hell with any party. Jonah Landis wanted to find out why Eloisa hadn’t told him the entire truth when she’d demanded a divorce a year ago. He also wanted to know why his passionate lover had so dispassionately cut him off.

The stunned look on Eloisa’s face as she stopped cold on the dock would have been priceless if he wasn’t so damn mad over the secret she’d kept from him, a secret that he’d only just found out was gumming up the works on their divorce decree.

Of course when he’d met her in Madrid a year ago, he’d been distracted by the instantaneous, mind-blowing chemistry between them. And looking at her now, seeing her quiet elegance, he figured he could cut himself some slack on missing details that could have clued him in—like how much she’d fit into her Spanish surroundings.

The woman was a walking distraction.

Wind molded her tan silk dress around her body. The dimly lit night played tricks with his vision until she looked nearly naked, clothed only in shifting shadows.

Had she known that when she chose the dress? Likely not. Eloisa seemed oblivious to her allure, which only served to enhance her appeal.

Her sleek dark hair was slicked back in a severe ponytail that gave her already exotic brown eyes a tug. Without so much as lip gloss, she relegated most models to the shadows.

Once he had her name on the dotted line of divorce papers—official ones this time—he would have nothing to do with her ever again. That had been the plan anyway. He didn’t need round two of her hot-cold treatment. So he’d misread the signs, hadn’t realized she was drunk during the “I do” part. That didn’t mean she had to slap his face and fall off the planet. He was over Eloisa.

Or so he’d thought. Then he’d seen her and felt that impact all over again, that kick-in-the-gut effect he’d thought must have been exaggerated by his memory.

He tamped back the attraction and focused on seeing this through. He needed her signature and for some reason he refused to leave it up to lawyers. Maybe it had something to do with closure.

Eloisa inched her heel from between the planks and set both feet as firmly as her delicate jaw. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to accompany you to your sister’s engagement party.” He hooked an elbow on the open limo door, the chauffeur waiting up front as he’d been instructed earlier. “Can’t have my wife going stag.”

“Shhh!” Lurching toward him, she patted the air in front of his face, stopping just shy of touching his mouth. “I am not your wife.”

He clasped her hand, thumb rubbing over her bare ring finger. “Damn, I must have hallucinated that whole wedding ceremony in Madrid.”

Eloisa yanked her hand away and rubbed her palm against her leg. “You’re arguing semantics.”

“If you would prefer to skip the party, we could grab a bite to eat and talk about those semantics.” He watched the glide of her hand up and down her thigh, remembering well the creamy, soft texture under his mouth as he’d tasted his way up.

She stared at him silently until he met her eyes again. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Climb into the car and see.”

She glanced back at the boat, then at him again, her long ponytail fanning to rest along her shoulder. “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.”

“Afraid I’ll kidnap you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” She laughed nervously as if she’d considered just that.

“Then what’s holding you back? Unless you want to continue this conversation right here.” He nodded toward the boat full of partyers. “I thought you wanted me to be quiet.”

She looked back over her shoulder again, and while it appeared no one noticed them, who knew how long that would hold? Not that he gave a damn what anyone thought, unlike his enigmatic wife. He’d learned a long time ago he had two choices in this world. Let others rule his life or take charge.

The second option won hands down.

He cocked an eyebrow and waited.

“Fine,” she bit out between gritted teeth.

She eyed him angrily as she angled past and slid into the car without even brushing against him. Eloisa settled into the leather seat.

Jonah tucked himself inside next her, closed the door and tapped the glass window between them and the chauffeur, signaling him to drive. Just drive. He would issue a destination later.

“Where are we going?” she asked as the limo eased into motion, the tinted windows closing them in their own private capsule.

“Where do you want to go? I have a penthouse suite farther down on Pensacola Beach.”

“Of course you do.” Her gaze flicked around the small space, lingering briefly on his computer workstation to her left before moving on to the minibar and the plasma screen TV.

“I see you haven’t changed.” He’d forgotten how prickly she could be about money. Still, it had been refreshing. He’d had plenty of women chase him because of the Landis portfolio and political influence.

He’d never had a female dump him because of it. Of course back then he hadn’t known she had access to money and influence beyond even his family’s reach. Mighty damn impressive.

And confusing since she hadn’t bothered to share that even after they married.

He put a damper on the surge of anger, a dangerous emotion given the edge of desire searing his insides. To prove to himself he could stay in control, he slid two fingers down the length of a sleekly straight lock of her black hair.

Eloisa jerked her head away. “Stop that.” She adjusted the air-conditioning vent nervously until the blast of air ruffled her ponytail. “Enough playing, although you certainly seem to be an expert at recreation. I just want to know why you’re here, now.”

With all he knew about her, she still understood so little about him. “What’s wrong with wanting to see my wife?”

“Ex-wife. We got drunk and ended up married.” She shrugged casually, too much so. “It happens to lots of folks, from pop stars to everyday Joes and Josephines. Just check out the marriage logs in Las Vegas. We made a mistake, but we took steps to fix it the morning after.”

“Do you consider all of it a mistake? Even the part between ‘I do’ and waking up with a hangover?” He couldn’t resist reminding her.

A whisper of attraction smoked through her dark eyes. “I don’t remember.”

“You’re blushing,” he noted with more than a little satisfaction, grateful for the soft glow of a muted overhead light. So he was smug. Sue him. “You remember the good parts all right.”

“Sex is irrelevant.” She sniffed primly.

“Sex? I was talking about the food.” He turned the tables, enjoying the cat-and-mouse game between them. “The mariscada en salsa verde was amazing.” And just that fast, he could all but taste the shellfish casserole in green sauce, the supper she’d shared with him before they had after-dinner drinks. Got hitched. Got naked.

He could see the same memory reflected in her eyes just before her mouth pursed tight.

“You’re a jackass, Jonah.”

“But I’m all yours.” For now at least.

“Not anymore. Remember the morning-after ‘fix’? You’re my ex-jackass.”

If only it were that simple to put this woman in his past. God knows, he’d tried hard enough over the past year to forget about Eloisa Taylor Landis.

Or rather Eloisa Medina Landis?

He’d stumbled upon the glitch in a church registry, a “minor” technicality she’d forgotten to mention, but one that had snarled up their paperwork in Spain. The sense of shock and yeah, even some bitter betrayal rocked through him again.

No question, he needed to put this woman in his past, but this time he would be the one to walk away.

“Now there you’re wrong, Eloisa. That fix got broken along the way.” He picked up a lock of her hair again, keeping his hand off her shoulder.

Lightly he tugged, making his presence felt. A spark of awareness flickered through her eyes, flaming an answering heat inside him. He looked at the simple gold chain around her neck and remembered the jewels he’d once pictured there while she’d slept. Then she woke up and made it clear there would be no summer together. She couldn’t get out of his life fast enough.

Her breath hitched. He reminded himself of his reason for coming here, to end things and leave.

Now he wondered if it might be all the more satisfying to have one last time with Eloisa, to ensure she remembered all they could have had if only she’d been as upfront with him as he’d been with her.

He glided his knuckles up her ponytail to her cheek, gently urging her to face him more fully. “The paper work never made it through. Something to do with you lying about your name.”

Her eyes darted away. “I never lied about my name—”

Millionaire in Command 

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Phoebe Slater brought a baby to the millionaire military hero’s seaside welcome-home gala.

Undoubtedly most of the guests plucking canapés and champagne from silver trays at this high-profile affair could afford nannies. Of course the Hilton Head Island wealthy could also afford tailored tuxedos and sequined high-end dresses as they mingled the evening away in the country club gardens by the shore. Her basic little black dress had been bought at a consignment store to wear to the few mandatory cocktail parties related to her position as a history professor at the University of South Carolina.

Of course she usually didn’t accessorize with baby drool dotting her shoulder.

Phoebe jostled the fractious five-month-old infant on her hip, smoothing down the pink smocked dress. “Hang on, sweetie. Just a few more minutes and I can feed you before bedtime.”

As waves crashed in the distance, a live band played oldies rock, enticing guests to the dance floor with a Billy Joel classic. Even South Carolina’s governor was dancing under the silver silk canopy with his wife. Darn near gawking, Phoebe stumbled on the edge of the flagstone walkway.

Definitely this was a party for the movers and shakers in the political world—as well as on the polished wood dance floor planked over the sandy lawn. She untangled her low heel from between two decorative rocks. She wasn’t here to socialize tonight. She’d come to find little Nina’s father.

If only she had a better idea of what he looked like.

Her longtime friend and old sorority sister— Nina’s biological mother—had told Phoebe that Kyle Landis was the baby’s daddy a couple of months ago when she’d asked for “just a little help” with Nina while she went on an audition for a dinner-theater production in Florida. Bianca had been so excited to get her prebaby body back, insisting this was her chance to provide a better life for her daughter.

Who could have known Bianca wouldn’t return?

Phoebe hugged Nina closer, all the more determined to make sure this precious baby had a stable life. Which meant finding Kyle Landis, a man she’d never met in the flesh. She’d hoped to ID him by his Air Force uniform, but the place was packed with tall, dark-haired guys decked out in formal military gear. Medals gleamed in the moonlight.

Cupping the back of Nina’s bonnet-covered head as the little one finally dozed off, Phoebe scanned the sea of faces, their profiles shadowy with only the illumination of moon, stars and pewter tiki torches. She only had an older photo to go by, a picture tucked deep in the bottom of the flowered diaper bag slung over her clean shoulder. No way was she going to disturb Nina by looking, not now that the baby was nearly out for the count.

He used to appear in the newspapers frequently when his late father had been a senator. Then his mother and brother had stepped into the political spotlight, too. But the family kept Kyle out of the media’s scrutiny as much as possible for safety’s sake because of his tours of duty in war zones.

The crush of people grew thicker, faces tougher to see. As much as she hated to draw attention to herself, she was going to have to ask for help finding—

“Can I get you something?”

The deep voice rumbled from behind her as if in answer to her very thoughts, jolting her with a clear shot of sexy bass on the salty ocean breeze. Lordy, the waiter must rack up tips with that bedroom voice of his. She glanced over her shoulder to ask for a napkin—she’d forgotten the burp rag again, damn it.

Her smile froze.

Captain Kyle Landis—in the flesh, all right.

His dark brown hair was trimmed military short, mellow blue eyes creased at the corners from a deep tan she knew he’d earned in a Middle Eastern desert. A broad forehead and strong jawline gave him a masculine appeal just shy of harsh.

She should have realized the guy would be even better looking in person. He was a lucky son of a gun from an established old Southern family—handsome and rich, with a smoky voice to boot. He’d even reportedly survived a crash unscathed. His muscled chest in a blue uniform jacket sported at least double the medals of most here, perhaps only outdone by his stepfather, a general.

What were the odds of Kyle finding her tonight, instead of the other way around? But then, as the guest of honor, maybe he felt obligated to make sure everyone else was having a good time.

“Can I get you something?” he repeated, a cut-crystal whiskey glass cradled in his hand.

An older woman angled past, whipping a full, ruffled train against Phoebe’s leg. The scent of strong perfume made Nina sneeze. She readjusted the baby, wishing they were at home in her bentwood rocker rather than here with this man. “I actually don’t need help anymore, since I was looking for you.”

A dimple dug into his cheek with his one-sided smile. “I’m sorry, if we’ve met before, I’m not remembering.”

That dimple would have been charming if she hadn’t already heard from Bianca to be wary of his prep-school-polished sense of humor. She might be out of her financial league here, but she was a smart, determined woman.

Phoebe forged ahead, needing to say something before he turned her over to a bouncer. “I’m not here for myself.”

He glanced behind her quickly, then focused his full, deep-blue-eyed attention on her face again. “Which one of my pals are you with? We don’t get many chances to meet the wives.”

“I’m not married.” But she had been. She shoved away even the thought of Roger before the inevitable stab of pain could steal her focus.

Kyle’s gaze flicked briefly to Nina, then away. So much for him recognizing his child on sight.

To be fair, he didn’t even know about Nina’s existence. Bianca had insisted early in the pregnancy that, while she wasn’t sure if she wanted to keep the baby, she would inform the baby’s father. Then later said she’d chickened out, then couldn’t find him and certainly didn’t want to send this kind of news to him overseas through his family.

As if Bianca would’ve even gotten past personal assistants to talk to anyone in his famous family. It had been a major challenge to gate-crash this shindig, but no security could outdo her determination.

That drive—along with channeling some acting tips she’d picked up from Bianca—and Phoebe had convinced them all she was the caterer’s assistant’s wife. Easy enough to do, since she was more the friend-next-door than the flashy-leading-lady.

Nothing could stop her, not now that Kyle had come home. Somebody had to tell him about his new “little” responsibility and since Bianca was MIA, that left it up to her.

Might as well get this over with. “Is there somewhere we can step aside to talk?”

“I’m sorry, but my mother would haul me back in by my ear if I tried to duck out of my own welcome-home party.” He angled closer, the fresh scent of his aftershave teasing her nose. “Maybe later, though?”

Undeniable interest flared in his cobalt-blue eyes, his full attention fixed on her.

Holy crap. Could he actually be hitting on her? She’d prepared herself for any possible reaction from him—except that.

She jolted back a step, holding up one hand. “Wait, that’s not what I meant.”

And even if he were interested enough to actually contact her, what if it took him a week to call? She didn’t have another week to waste waiting for him to phone her back.

Nina didn’t have a week.

Phoebe patted between the baby’s shoulders, praying she would stay asleep. The last thing she needed was a colicky nuclear meltdown. “I have to speak with you for five minutes out of earshot of everyone else. …”

His Expectant Ex 

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Hilton Head, S.C. – 2 Months Ago:

Sebastian Landis had been in courthouses more times than any hardened criminal. He was one of South Carolina ’s most successful lawyers, after all. But today, he’d landed a front row seat for how it felt having attorneys hold complete power over his life.

He didn’t like it one damned bit.

Of course getting divorced ranked dead last on his “things I like to do” list. He just wanted to plow through all the paperwork and litigation so the judge could make it official.

Gathering files off the table in one of the courthouse’s conference rooms, he barely registered his goodbyes to his attorney, his polite handshakes with Marianna’s counsel. Power ahead. Eyes on the finish line. Clipping his BlackBerry to his belt again, he kept his eyes off his wife, the only woman who’d ever been able to rattle his cool – his calm under fire being a renowned trait of his around courthouse circles.

At least they’d completed the bulk of the paperwork with their lawyers on this overcast summer day, leaving only the final court date. The settlement was fair, no easy feat given his family’s fortune and her thriving interior decorator career. They hadn’t even fought over the dissolution of their multi-million dollar assets – probably the first time they hadn’t argued.

The only wrinkle had come in deciding what to do with their two dogs. Neither wanted to lose Buddy and Holly, or split the sibling pups up. Ultimately, though, they had each taken one of the Boston terrier/pug/mystery parent mutts they’d rescued from the shelter.

What would they have done if he and Marianna actually had children?

He backed the hell away from that open wound fast. Not going there today, no way, no how, because even a brief detour down that path kicked a hole in his restraint on one helluva crap day.

Which left him checking on Marianna in spite of his better judgment.

She rose from the leather chair, too damn beautiful for her own good, but then she always had been. With dark eyes and even darker long hair, she’d been every guy’s exotic fantasy when they’d met on a graduation cruise to the Caribbean .

Thinking about that sex-slicked summer would only pitch him into a world of distraction. Scooping up his briefcase, he put his mind on what he could accomplish back at his office with the remainder of the afternoon. Of course he could also work into the evening. It wasn’t like he had anything to go home to now, living in a suite at his family’s compound. He reached the exit right in step with Marianna.

He held the door open, her Chanel perfume tempting his nose. Yeah, he knew a lot about his soon-to-be ex, like what scents she chose. Her favorite morning-after foods. Her preferred lingerie labels. He knew everything.

Except how to make her happy.

“Thank you, Sebastian.” She didn’t even meet his gaze, her lightweight suit skirt barely brushing against him as she strode past and away.

That was it? Just a thank you?

Apparently he could still feel something besides attraction for her after all, because right now he was torqued off. He didn’t expect they would celebrate with a champagne dinner, but for heaven’s sake, they should at least be able to exchange a civil farewell. Not that civility had ever been one of his volatile wife’s strong points. She’d never been one to run from a potentially contentious moment.

So why was she making tracks to the elevator, her designer pumps clicking a sprinter’s pace? God, she made heels look good with her mile-long legs. She’d always been a shoe hound, not that he’d minded since she modeled her purchases for him.

Naked.

Damn it all, how long would it take for the flashes of life with Marianna to leave his head? He wanted his polite goodbye. He needed to end on a composed note. Needed to end this marriage. Period.

Sebastian made it to the elevator just before it slid closed. He hammered both hands against the part in the doors until they rebounded open. Marianna’s eyes went wide for an instant and he thought, oh yeah, now she’ll snap back. Toss a few heated words around and maybe even her leather portfolio gripped against her chest.

Then boom. Her gaze shot straight down and away, looking anywhere but at him.

He tucked into place beside her, the two of them alone in the elevator chiming down floors. “How’s Buddy?”

“Fine.” Her clipped answer interrupted the canned music for a whole second.

“Holly chewed up the grip on Matthew’s nine iron yesterday.”

His brother had pushed him to play eighteen holes of golf and unwind. Sebastian had won. He always won. But unwinding didn’t make it anywhere on the scorecard. “Luckily, Matthew’s in a good mood these days with his new fiancée and the senatorial race. So Holly’s safe from his wrath for now.”

She didn’t even seem to be listening. Strange. Because while she’d stopped loving him, she still loved those dogs.

He normally wasn’t one for confrontation outside the courtroom, but he’d seen enough divorce cases to know if they didn’t settle this now, they were only delaying a mammoth blow up later. “You can’t expect we’ll never talk to each other again. Aside from having the final court date to deal with, Hilton Head is a relatively small community. We’re going to run into each other.”

She chewed her full bottom lip, and just that fast he could all but feel that same mouth working over his body until he broke into a sweat.

He thumbed away a bead of perspiration popping on his brow, irritation spiking higher than her do-me-honey heels. “Seems we should have spelled out the rules for communication in that agreement. Let me make sure I get the gist of this right. We aren’t speaking anymore except for hello and goodbye. But is a nod okay if we’re both walking the dogs on the beach? Or should we section areas off so we don’t cross paths?”

Her fingers tightened around her leather portfolio, her gaze glued to the elevator numbers. “Don’t pick a fight with me, Sebastian. Not today.”

What the hell?

He never picked fights. She did. He was the calm one, at least on the outside. So what was going on with her? Or with him, for that matter? “Was there something with the lawyers that didn’t go the way you hoped?”

She chuckled, dark and low, a sad echo of the uninhibited laughter that used to roll freely from her. She sagged back against the brass rail. “Nobody wins, Sebastian. Isn’t that what you always say about divorce cases?”

She had him there.

Sebastian planted a hand beside her head. Sure he was crowding her but they only had one more floor left for him to get his answer. “What do you want?”

Marianna raised her eyes, finally. That dusky dark gaze sucker punched him with the last thing he expected to find, especially after they’d spent six months sleeping apart. And he saw the one thing he absolutely could not resist taking when it came to this woman. Marianna’s eyes smoked with flaming hot…

Desire.

Rich Man’s Fake Fiancée 

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CHAPTER ONE

Only one thing sucked worse than wearing boring white cotton underwear on the night she finally landed in bed with her secret fantasy man.

Having him walk out on her before daylight.

Ashley Carson tensed under her downy comforter. Through the veil of her eyelashes, she watched her new lover quietly zip his custom fit pants. She’d taken a bold step – unusual for her – by falling into bed with Matthew Landis the night before. Her still-tingly sated body cheered the risk. Her good sense, however, told her she’d made a whopper mistake with none other than South Carolina ’s most high profile Senatorial candidate.

Moonlight streaked through the dormer window, glinting off his dark hair trimmed short but still mussed from her fingers. Broad shoulders showcased his beacon white shirt, crisp even though she’d stripped it from him just hours ago when their planning session for his fundraiser dinner at her restaurant/home had taken an unexpected turn down the hall to her bedroom.

Matthew may have been dream material, but safely so since she’d always thought there wasn’t a chance they could actually end up together. She preferred a sedentary, quiet life running her business, with simple pleasures she never took for granted after her foster child upbringing. He worked in the spotlight as a powerful member of the House of Representatives just as adept at negotiating high profile legislation as swinging a hammer at a Habitat for Humanity site.

People gravitated to his natural charisma and sense of purpose.

Matthew reached for his suit jacket draped over the back of a corner chair. Would he say goodbye or simply walk away? She wanted to think he would speak to her, but couldn’t bear to find out otherwise so she sat up, floral sheet clutched to her chest.

“That floorboard by the door creaks, Matthew. You might want to sidestep it or I’ll hear you sneaking out.”

He stopped, wide shoulders stiffening before he turned slowly. He hadn’t shaved, his five o’clock shadow having thickened into something much darker – just below the guilty glint in his jewel green eyes that had helped win him a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Five months from now, come November, he could well be the handsome sexy-eyed Senator Landis if he won the seat to be vacated by his mother.

With one quick blink, Matthew masked the hint of emotion. “Excuse me? I haven’t snuck anywhere since I was twelve, trying to steal my cousin’s magazines from under his mattress.” He stuffed his tie in his pocket. “I was getting dressed.”

“Oh, my mistake.” She slid from the bed, keeping the sheet tucked around her naked body. The room smelled of potpourri and musk, but she wouldn’t let either distract her. “Since yesterday, you’ve just developed a light step and a penchant for walking around in your socks.”

Ashley nodded toward his Gucci loafers dangling from two fingers.

“You were sleeping soundly,” he stated simply.

A lot of great sex tended to wear a woman out. Apparently she hadn’t accomplished the same for him, not that she intended to voice her vulnerability to him. “How polite of you.”

He dropped the shoes to the floor and toed them on one after the other. Seeing his expensive loafers on her worn hardwood floors with a cotton rag rug, she couldn’t miss the hints that this polished, soon-to-be Senator wasn’t at home in her world. Too bad those reminders didn’t stop her from wanting to drag him back onto her bed.

“Ashley, last night was amazing–”

“Stop right there. I don’t need platitudes or explanations. We’re both single adults, not dating each other or anyone else.” She snagged a terrycloth robe off a brass hook by the bathroom door and ducked inside to swap the sheet for the robe. “We’re not even really friends for that matter. More like business acquaintances who happened to indulge in a momentary attraction.”

Okay, momentary for him maybe. But she’d been salivating over him during the few times they’d met to plan social functions at her Beachcombers Restaurant and Bar.

Ashley stepped back into the bedroom, tugging the robe tie tight around her waist.

“Right, we’re on the same page then.” He braced a hand on the doorframe, his gold cufflinks glinting.

“You should get going if you plan to make it home in time to change.”

He hesitated for three long thumps of her heart before pivoting away on his heel. Ashley followed him down the hall of her Southern antebellum home/turned restaurant she ran with her two foster sisters. She’d recently taken up residence in the back room off her office, watching over the accounting books as well as the building since her recently married sisters had moved out.

Sure enough, more than one floorboard creaked under his confident strides as they made their way past the gift shop and into the lobby. She unlocked the towering front door, avoiding his eyes. “I’ll send copies of the signed contract for the fundraising dinner to your campaign manager.”

The night before, Matthew had stayed late after the business dinner to pass along some last minute paperwork. She never could have guessed how combustible a simple brush of their bodies against each other could become. Her fantasies about this man had always revolved around far more exotic scenarios.

But they were just that. Fantasies. As much as he tried to hide his emotions, she couldn’t miss how fast he’d made tracks out of her room. She’d been rejected often enough as a kid by her parents and even classmates. These days, pride starched her spine far better than any back brace she’d been forced to wear to combat scoliosis.

Matthew flattened a palm to the mahogany door. “I will call you later.”

Sure. Right. “No calls.” She didn’t even want the possibility of waiting by the phone, or worse yet, succumbing to the humiliating urge to dial him up, only to get stuck in voicejail as she navigated his answering service. “Let’s end this encounter on the same note it started. Business.”

She extended her hand. He eyed her warily. She pasted her poise in place through pride alone. Matthew enfolded her hand in his, not shaking after all, rather holding as he leaned forward to press a kiss…

On her cheek.

Damn.

He slipped out into the muggy summer night. “It’s still dark. You should go back to sleep.”

Sleep? He had to be freaking kidding.

Thank goodness she had plenty to keep her busy now that Matthew had left, because she was fairly certain she wouldn’t be sleeping again. She watched his brisk pace down the steps and into the shadowy parking lot which held only his Lexus sedan and her tiny KIA Rio. What was she doing, staring after him? She shoved the door closed with a heavy click.

All her poise melted. She still had her pride but her ability to stand was sorely in question. Ashley sagged against the counter by the antique cash register in the foyer.

She couldn’t even blame him. She’d been a willing participant all night long. They’d been in the kitchen where she’d planned to give him a taste of the dessert pastries her sister added to the menu for his fundraiser. Standing near each other in the close confines of the open refrigerator, they had brushed against each other, once, twice.

His hand had slowly raised to thumb away cream filling at the corner of her mouth…

She’d forgotten all about her white cotton underwear until he’d peeled it from her body on the way back to her bedroom. Then she hadn’t been able to think of much else for hours to come.

Her bruised emotions needed some serious indulging. She gazed into the gift shop, her eyes locking on a rack of vintage-style lingerie. She padded on bare feet straight toward the pale pink satin nightgown dangling on the end. Her fingers gravitated to the wide bands of peek-a-boo lace crisscrossing over the bodice, rimming the hem, outlining the vee slit in the front of the 1920’s look garment.

How she’d ached for whispery soft underthings during her childhood, but had always been forced to opt for the more practical cotton, a sturdier fabric not so easily snagged by her back brace. She didn’t need the brace any longer. Just a slight lift to her left shoulder remained, only noticeable if someone knew to check. But while she’d ditched the brace once it finished the job, she still felt each striation on her heart.

Ashley snatched the hanger from the rack and dashed past the shelved volumes of poetry, around a bubble bath display to the public powder room. Too bad she hadn’t worn this yesterday. Her night with Matthew might not have ended any differently, but at least she would have had the satisfaction of stamping a helluva sexier imprint on his memory.

A quick shrug landed her robe on the floor around her feet.

Ashley avoided the mirror, a habit long ingrained. She focused instead on the nightgown’s beauty. One bridal shower after another, she’d gifted her two foster sisters with the same style.

Satin slid along her skin like a cool shower over a body still flushed from the joys of heated sex with Matthew. She sunk onto the tapestry chaise, a French Restoration piece she’d bargained for at an estate auction. She lit the candle next to her to complete the sensory saturation. The flame flickered shadows across the faded wallpaper, wafting relaxing hints of lavender.

A deep breath at a time she willed her anger to roll free as she drifted into the pillowy cloud of sensation. She tugged a decorative afghan over her. Maybe she could snag a nano nap after all.

Timeless relaxing moments later, Ashley inhaled again, deeper. And coughed. She sat up bolt right, sniffing not lavender, but…

Smoke.