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The doors to the Eden Resort opened with a quiet whoosh as Jesse Harwood stepped into luxury.
Even after all the things he'd seen and done over the years with McMillan Motorsports, he wasn't prepared for the staggering extravagance of the lobby. The ultrahigh ceilings were painted with pastel beach scenes and trimmed in gold. Giant, leafy palms speared out of decorative urns. Vases boasting wildly colorful tropical flowers rested on thick glass tables, sitting on tiled floors of soft coral. And, because it was nearly Christmas, potted poinsettias, wreaths and a tree that had to be twenty-five feet decorated the room, giving it a holiday feeleven if it was seventy-five degrees outside.
He was equally unprepared for the stunning, curvy blonde standing, right where she belonged, in the middle of the opulence.
"Oh, good," Tiffany McMillan said, striding briskly but still somehow sensuallytoward them. "You're finally here."
But he didn't belong here. And moments like now baffled him as to just how he'd managed to drag himself from outcast to respectable, responsible engineer.
"Lady Tiffany," Greg Foster, the crew chief of the No. 56 team they all serviced, stepped forward and lightly brushed her cheek with his lips.
Jesse said nothing. Former outcasts didn't talk much around the boss's silver-spoon-fed daughter.
But then none of the other guys did more than nod at Tiffany. She was the kind of woman who turned confident men speechless and made the rest fight the urge to fall at her feet.
She smiled warmly at Greg, a teasing light in her sea-blue eyes, her long, straight, platinum-blond hair flowing down her back. "I've told you guys a dozen times not to callme that."
She wasn't simply beautiful and rich. She was nice. And seemed not to notice that every man in the room was staring at her with longing, while most of the women watched with envy.
Of course it hadn't always been that way. Well, the money and staring had always been there, but the niceness had come along more recently. Back in high schoolthe private and privileged school he'd attended only due to a financial scholarshipshe'd been the stuck-up head cheerleader, homecoming queen and prom queen who'd dated the perfect, Ken-doll quarterback, while Jesse was the motorcycle-riding rebel pariah in torn, hand-me-down jeans.
As much as it was a cliché, that was their past.
Ten years later, the present was entirely different. Ken the Quarterback had gotten some other girl pregnant in college, gotten tackled too hard his junior year and lost his scholarship, and now supported their five kids with the liquor store they owned, though the rumor was he drank more than he sold.
And while Jesse had gotten his degree in mechanical engineering, thanks to a full scholarship, Tiffany had moved on to another loser guy, then another, and yet another. The last disastrous relationship had ended with Mr. McMillan driving down to the local police department to pick up the family silver that the guy had lifted on his most recent visit to the McMillan lakeside mansion.
Tiffany, after taking the lumps of her misfortune, had apparently come to the conclusion that so many wise people had before hermoney doesn't buy happiness.
Tiffany Phase Two was nice. Everyone from the janitor at the shop to the CEO of Parsons Motor Oil, whose company sponsored their team, earned a sweet, welcoming smile from the boss's daughter. She knew the names of everyone's spouses, kids and mothers.
For Jesse, though, she still managed to reserve a special, hard place in her heart.
"You need to address her as Your Highness, Greg." Jesse smirked at her. "She is Daddy's Little Princess, after all."
Her gaze flicked to him, her eyes icing over.
Since he'd earned the hard place, he took no offense and instead smiled back sweetly.
Darrell, one of his oldest friends and a fellow engineer on the team, nudged him. "Cut it out," he whispered.
He wished he could, but he resented her being the one weakness in his life he hadn't overcome, cut out or simply ignored. Still, it wasn't her fault he'd fallen head over heels for her in high school and had never managed to completely let go of those feelings.
She walkedreally more like slinkedtoward him, her green-and-white halter-top sundress hugging that amazing body, her smile firmly in place, though the steely gleam in her eyes remained. She drew her pink-painted fingernail down the center of his chest. "I'm especially glad to see you, Jesse Harwood," she said in a sweet-as-sugar, exaggerated Southern drawl.
Though all the spit had dried in his mouth, he cocked his head insolently. "Is that so?"
She licked her lips, painted the same glossy shade as her nails. "Oh, yeah."
Every molecule in his body had stopped moving. Heat and longing spread through him like a fever.
How many times had he fantasized about her walking up to him one day, throwing herself into his arms, declaring she'd had a wild crush on him for years, and she just couldn't hold back her feelings any longer?
While he was tempted to punch himself to see if he was dreaming, she pulled out a stack of paper and envelopes from the designer briefcase slung over her shoulder. "For you," she said, handing him a sheet and an envelope.
As she turned away, handing the same items to the rest of the assembled group of shop employees and pit crew, it took him several moments to realize she'd dismissed him. The haze of desire began to lift. He glanced down at the paper. Schedule of Obligations.
What the hell was this?
As if she'd heard his thoughts, Tiffany faced the group and said, "My father and I are pleased you've all come to enjoy the weekend at the Eden Resort here on the beautiful Grand Bahama Island." She waved her hand to encompass the opulent lobby around them.
Like a damn spokesmodel, Jesse thought bad-temperedly.
"Together, McMillan Motor and Parsons Motor Oil," she went on, "are funding your entire trip. Our only request is that you fulfill the obligations to Hope House, the shelter for abused women and their children in the Charlotte area, which our company and Parson's have selected as our holiday charity project.
"There are two main events. The bachelor auction and fashion show will be held tonight by the pool, then the team dinner tomorrow night. Most of you will simply have to volunteer a bit of time tonight as service staff." She turned toward Greg. "Though you and Danny will be the stars of our bachelor auction."
Obviously unsurprised, Greg grinned. "Looking forward to it."
Jesse exchanged a relieved look with Darrell. At least they didn't have to strut around onstage like cattle. Their obligations were the sameassisting the resort's bartenders at the auction fund-raiser. Greg and their driver, Danny Walker, could have the embarrassing, high-profile jobs all to themselves.
"Where is Danny?" Greg asked.
"He arrived a few hours ago," Tiffany said.
As one of the top drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Danny, like many drivers, could afford his own jet for traveling. Not that the rest of them had suffered on their journey. The McMillan Motorsports plane was lush and fast. Jesse still couldn't help shaking his head in amazement every time he stepped on board.
"He was by the pool last time I saw him," Tiffany continued. "Your rooms are all ready, and your luggage is being transported to them now. Inside the envelope are your room key, which also serves as your resort charge card, a map of the resort and information about Hope House. All your purchases will be taken care of with the exception of souvenirs. The concierge desk will be glad to organize any golf or shopping outings. My room number is listed on your schedule, and I can be reached by walkie-talkie at any time during the weekend if you just ask a member of the resort staff to contact me. Any questions?"
"When does the bar open?" one guy asked.
Tiffany glanced at her diamond-encrusted watch. "It opened ten minutes ago. I hear the drink of the day is Santa's Special Bahamian Delight. It packs quite a punch, so be careful. Anybody else?"
Darrell poked Jesse with his elbow, a clear warning to keep silent.
Since Jesse's only question was wondering what colorand how smallher bikini was, he decided to keep that to himself.
"Thanks for coming," Tiffany said cheerfully when no one else spoke up. "Enjoy your weekend."
The group broke apart, couples heading off together, while the single guys remained in a gathered knot. Unfortunately, this gathering of employees from McMillan didn't have any single women, except for Tiffanyand she was off-limits.
Since the business had grown so much over the past several years, the trips had been broken into two groups. The office staff, flight crews, maintenance, research and development and interns had come down the beginning of the week. Now, for the weekend, they had the shop employees, pit crew and hauler drivers.
The beach, though, was sure to provide plenty of curvy distraction for Jesse and his buddies.
As he and Darrell started to head toward their rooms, he overheard Tiffany say to Greg, "Please make sure Danny doesn't overindulge today and gets to the auction on time."
He bowed. "Your wish is my command, Lady McMillan."
She smiled slightly, then caught Jesse's gaze and all but snarled. With one last, fulminating look at him, she turned and walked away.
"Why are you always such a jerk to her?" Greg wanted to know.
Shoulders hunched, Jesse jammed his hands in the pockets of his jeans. "Damned if I know."
"He's got a thing for her," Darrell said.
"I do not." The fact that he'd once worn a black leather jacket to school, while Darrell had cherished his pocket protector, but they'd become like brothers in the years since, was one of the great mysteries of growing up. "She's too prissy for me."
"Prissy?" Greg echoed. "You're crazy, man. She's smokin' hot."
"And way out of our league," Darrell added with a sigh.
And always will be, Jesse thought, watching her go with no small pang of regret.
Jesse Harwood. What a jerk.
Why he had to be a dangerously gorgeous, rebellious, successful and smart-as-the-devil jerk was atopic she and God needed to have a serious discussion about.
Even though her temper was bubbling, Tiffany forced herself to walk down the hotel hallway as calmly as if she were attending a board meeting in a downtown Charlotte high-rise office building.
No telling what sort of debauchery he and his buddies would get into this weekend.
Debauchery she certainly wouldn't be invited to.
Nobody ever invited the boss's daughter, whose sole job was running the family charitable foundation, which, like everything else in her life, had been handed over without request.
No mother. A father who ignored her. But plenty of cash and a trust fund to weep glorious tears over.
Poor, pitiful Tiffany.
She turned her nose up in the air. Didn't everyone whisper behind her back that was her best, if expected, pose?
Why should she care what everyone thought of her? As long as Jesse and his gang didn't ruin her auction, she didn't care what they did. Though it did annoy her that Jesse didn't seem to notice her like other men did.
But then who knew what thoughts lurked behind his dark brown eyes? Who knew how many women had brushed their fingers across the jet black waves that fell over his forehead?
The way she'd always longed to do.
She stopped, watching absently as a group of tourists clad in brightly colored Bermuda shorts walked by her. One wore a red velvet Santa's hat trimmed in white fur.
It was Christmas. She was supposed to feel positive and charitable toward her fellow man.
Still, she wondered why he wasn't a loser, as she continued down the hall. If the world were spinning on its axis in the correct direction, Jesse Harwood would have been a major loser.
But he wasn't.
It was long past time she came to terms with that reality, she told herself, even as her mind drifted into the past. Her junior year in high school, her quarterback boyfriend had given her a gorgeous diamond bracelet that had turned her wrist green a couple of months later. Ultra-Nerd Darrell had given her a sappy poem written on notebook paper. Motorcycle rebel and charity case Jesse had either ignored her or said something cutting and sarcastic. Now Jesse and Darrell were successful engineers and devoted members of a first-class race team.