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A veteran waitress at the Vista del Mar Beach and Tennis Club, Sarah Richards knew the number one rule for servers: never spill hot coffee on a man's cojones.
For the first time in fourteen years, she was tempted to risk her job.
Sarah tucked a signed receipt into the register while her gaze tracked along the lunch crowd to a table by the window. Where he sat. Her old high school boyfriend.
He settled into a chair across from his stepbrother, Chase Larson, seemingly oblivious to everyone else whispering about him even five months after his fateful homecoming. Why couldn't he have turned into a troll? Instead, the years had been so very kind to him. He looked even better than when they'd dated during their senior year. And he'd been mighty fine, unforgettable eye candy even then.
Rafe's blond hair had darkened to more of a tawny shade, his blue eyes icy-sharp even across the bustling dining room. Thick muscles roped his frame with a maturity that had only been hinted at during their teenage years when she'd wrapped herself around him in the back of his El Camino. Her traitorous body turned warm and tingly now, as it had then.
Apparently she hadn't made as large an impact on him. In all the time since he'd come back, Rafe Cameron hadn't spoken to her even once. At some point the man could have at least stuck out his hand for a "Hi, great to see you again" kind of greeting. She might have thought he was going so far as to avoid her. But it appeared she had become an insignificant part of his past.
The self-absorbed jackass deserved a pot of coffee in his lap.
Even worse than thumbing his nose at her, he'd stomped on the dreams of everyone in Vista del Mar. When the hometown poor boy returned as a mogul, everyone had hoped he would save the microchip factory, the small California community's lifeblood. But no. Last month, the Seaside Gazette had run an article announcing Rafe's plans to halt operations at the plant.
Just thinking about that expose in the newspaper Anger steamed to life hard and fast at the prospect of her hardworking parents losing their jobs. She slammed the register drawer with extra oomph. And in seconds she would speak to Rafe "Judas" Cameron since bad luck had placed him at one of her tables.
Eyes off the coffee, sister.
She needed this job. She didn't have a family trust fund cushion like the patrons dining here.
A quietly cleared throat interrupted her thoughts. Heaven forbid somebody would catch her gawking at Rafe and mistake her curiosity for rekindled interest. Expecting her boss or another waitress, Sarah spun around to find her grandmother, arms crossed and brows high.
Busted. Nobody got jack past Kathleen Richards. Best to play this cool though.
Sarah met green eyes the same shade as her own. Looking at Grandma Kat was like peering into a fast-forward mirror of herself a few decades from now, with the help of a little auburn hair dye. They even shared fiery natures, impulsive to the end. Although Kathleen edged closer to the flamboyant side as years went by. Sarah adored her, this woman who'd known the secret wishes of a preschooler that wanted roller skates rather than a china doll.
"Hi, Grandma Kat. Are you here for lunch?" She sidestepped a waitress balancing a tray. The scent of chlorine wafted in through the open French doors where some patrons ate lunch outside under sleek black umbrellas.
Kathleen had come to the exclusive club often during her tenure as personal assistant to Ronald Worth, prior owner of the microchip factory. "I think not. It's more than a little out of my price range now that I'm retired on a fixed income." She patted her purse, shaped like a pink-and-black bustier. "I've come to see you, sweetie, since you're ignoring my calls.
Nilda and I are meeting up at Bistro by the Sea. We would love for you to join us."
"So you can tell me all about whatever new eligible bachelor has crossed your path, a bachelor I absolutely must meet?" She winced at the possibility Grandma Kat may have caught her gobbling up Rafe with her eyes. "Seriously, have you ever considered opening a speed dating service?"
"You could be my first client." Her outrageous grandmother winked, silver Siamese cat earrings swaying.
Kathleen had doubled down on her matchmaking efforts last month once Sarah reached the third anniversary of her husband's death in a car accident. She missed Quentin, always would, but she would deal with that on her own, without well-meaning interference.
"Thanks, but I think I'll pass." Sarah hooked an arm around Kathleen for a quick hug, urging her toward the door flanked by palm trees. "Love you so much. Don't need the help. Now shoo. I have to work."
Best to take Rafe's order quickly, like bolting back bad-tasting medicine. A sense of dread swept through her at the thought of going over there. Not just because of her temper, but because of that traitorous heat he inspired with memories that clearly meant nothing to him, yet still had the power to make her heart beat faster.
Grandma Kat stayed stubbornly in her path. "Is there anything wrong with wanting to invite my favorite granddaughter out for coffee on her break?"
"I'm your only granddaughter and my break isn't for another hour. Stop worrying. I'm fine." Fine, and trying not to think about all the sensual reminiscences tied up with that infuriating man across the room. "I'm just concerned about the factory closing like everyone else."
Rafe's need for revenge against one person would cost the town so muchtoo much. During their teens, she'd listened to him plan how he would bring down Worth Industries, bring down Ronald Worth. When Rafe had left the night of graduation, she'd never expected him to carry those plans out, and especially not at the expense of so many others. It seemed like only yesterday they'd disdained the sort of people who threw away their hard-earned money on a single meal that cost more than some weekly grocery bills.
Kathleen gave Sarah's ponytail a teasing tug. "All right then. I'll let you off the hookfor now. But I really do need to speak with you. Let's have dinner tomorrow. I'll cook, and I already know that's your day off so don't try to fool me," her grandmother ordered, then fast-footed it out the door before Sarah could argue.
No more delays in speaking to Rafe. She checked his table, and sure enough, he hadn't done them all a huge favor by evaporating into thin air. And he still looked bad-boy dreamy, blond and rugged.
Her fist clenched around the pen and pad in her apron pocket, arming herself for the showdown. She strode across the dining room, toward the picture window with its million-dollar view of the Pacific. About fifteen feet above sea level, the club sported stone steps carved into the bluff leading to a sandy beach swept clean of pebbles. A natural cove, rocky and secluded and romanticshe knew that firsthand from when she'd dated Rafe.
As she closed the distance between them, snippets of conversation hit her ears like someone changing radio stations. A business deal was made over Cobb salads. At another linen-covered table, two wafer-thin trophy wives pushed fruit and cottage cheese around their plates while discussing jaunts to Hawaii.
Eyes on the target, she reminded herself.
Having him walk away after high school, never contacting her, had been painful. The way he acted now just made her plain old mad. She whipped out her pen and notepad with a speed worthy of any quick draw from a Wild West cowboy.
Waiting and wondering what it would be like to run into Rafe Cameron again had come to an end. She would take the lead in instigating a showdown reunion he would never forget.
Rafe Cameron had tried to forget Sarah Richards over the past fourteen years, with little success. The woman had stayed stamped in his memory long after she'd married some other guy mere seconds after Rafe left town.
Not that he held grudges. Much.
Half listening to his stepbrother seated across from him, Rafe watched Sarah make her way toward them. Red hair scraped back in a ponytail, she dodged a silver serving cart of tea and coffee. Her curvy body was mouthwateringly showcased in a simple white shirt with black slacks, typical uniform for the staff. But Sarah had always been anything but typical.
As she charged closer, her feisty temper crackled in her jade eyes. He was used to animosity since he'd announced his plans to close the factory. In fact, he was surprised Sarah hadn't unloaded on him sooner. She'd never been one to hold back in the past and she was gunning for bear now. Apparently some things never changed.
Like how his body reacted to just a simple glimpse of her heart-shaped face her generous breasts. Heat pumped through him, uninvited and unwelcomed. He'd come back to Vista del Mar to settle a score, to destroy Worth Industries. After all, Ronald Worth had shown no mercy when firing Rafe's parents without cause. Rafe refused to feel guilty for doling out justice in his dead mother's name.
No one, not even Sarah Richards, would distract him.
She stopped at his table, pad and pen in hand. "May I take your order, Mr. Cameron?"
"Of course, Miss Richards." He spun the stem of his empty crystal glass between two fingers. "Or wait, that should be Mrs. Dobbs."
"It's Richards again."
A tic started in the corner of his eye. Interesting that she would return to her maiden name after Quentin Dobbs's death. "Sarah Richards then."
"Uh," his stepbrother, Chase Larson, interjected, looking from one to the other, "good to see you again, Sarah, but if you two will excuse me for a minute, I have to make a call. Just put me down for the pasta primavera and iced tea." With a half smile, Chase checked out.
Leaving Rafe alone with her.
He nudged aside his crystal glass. "Good to see you again, Sarah."
"Oh, so you do remember me." Acrimony dripped from her every word. "Not that you've so much as said boo to me since coming to town five months ago. That leads me to wonder. Are you too good to speak with your old friends these days?"
Surprise jolted him. How odd that she was mad about a rebuff, rather than the factory. Or at least that she'd found the slight important enough to bring up.
A flash of pride shot through him to register that far up on her radar after all this time. "That's a lot of animosity to carry around for a high school sweetheart."
"This isn't about the past." She jabbed the table with her pen. "It's about the present, how you're acting now. I'm surprised you have the guts to come here and casually knock back some cocktails after what you've done."
"It's lunchtime. Everybody's gotta eat, Kitten."
Her mouth went tight as he used his nickname from their past. They'd told the world his nickname for her had come because she looked so much like her grandmotherlittle kitten to Grandma Kat. But in reality, he'd given Sarah the label because of her temperand because she'd left scratch marks on his back during a make-out session. And of course there was also that sweet way she purred in the back of her throat when he
Rafe adjusted his tie. While they'd never gone all the way, they'd experimented plenty with other means for taking the edge off their sexual frustration. His thumb rubbed absently against two fingers and he could swear he still felt the silky slickness from bringing Sarah to completion.
Nostrils flaring, he tapped her notepad. "What's the lunch special today?"
"You're really going to pretend nothing's wrong? I guess I shouldn't be surprised. From what I hear you're so heartless now, you eat puppies and babies for breakfast." Her voice rose with each word, until two ladies in tennis skirts peered at her over their menus. "The way you're shutting down the plant, you're lucky nobody's poisoned your meals. Yet."
"Guess I'll have to hire a food taster." He'd forgotten about her sharp tongue, but rather enjoyed it now. Not many stood up to him these days. Most folks were too busy kissing his ass in hopes of currying favor.
Too fast, his mind zipped back to other ways she used to drive him crazy with that very same smart mouth of hers.
"It shouldn't be too tough to find a sucker willing to work for you since over half the town will be out of a job soon, thanks to you. Hey " She snapped her fingers, her smile theatrically bright. "Maybe you have an application handy so I can pass it along to my parents since they'll undoubtedly be first to get the ax."
She had a lot of nerve chewing him out. He'd worked his tail off making something of himself after leaving this place. Every step of the way he'd envisioned riding back into town on his proverbial white horse and freeing Sarah from poverty's grip. Great plan. Except she'd quickly shifted her undying love to another guy, a man she'd married. Sure, the guy had died three years ago, but that didn't change the past.
So yeah, he'd ignored her since returning to Vista del Mar. Why the hell would he think she even wanted to speak to him now?
Gasping for air, Sarah paused her tirade, but not for long. "What? Nothing to say for yourself? You may have fooled some people at first with all your phony philanthropy, setting up a literacy charity in your mother's name. Hannah's Hope." She shook her head. "But you didn't trick me with your tax write-off attempt to get people to lower their guards. Is your need for revenge against Ronald Worth and his cronies really important enough to destroy so many lives?"
He held his peace for the moment, surprised stunned evento be called on the carpet so openly, so publicly. Although frankly, most of her accusations were true. He had come back to town for revenge. He was about to shut the factory and make a huge windfall.
Sure, the factory could be viable, but the effort and expense No. He hadn't come this far in the work world by being a sap. And hell, yes, he was enjoying rubbing Ronald Worth's nose in every bit of the success.
But Sarah missed the mark in a huge and unforgivable way when she mocked anything to do with his mother. Anger steamed slowly. "Business is business, Kitten."
"Do not call me that." Her knuckles went white as she clenched her pen tighter.
Her ire fueled his own. "But that name holds such fond memories for me. Remember the way you"
"Argh!" She stomped her foot. "I never thought you would turn into a smug, stuck-up snob."
"Why don't you speak a little louder? I don't think they heard you over at table ten."