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"Have you gone mad?" A deep male voice rang off the high stone walls of the old house.
Lily Wharton whipped her head around.
Recognition flashed through her, hot and sharp, at the sight of that hard, handsome face. Declan Gates.
She fought a mad urge to laugh. She might have known Declan would skip over all pleasantries and cut right to the point.
"I'm pruning the roses. As you can see, they're a little overgrown." She gestured at the head-high tangle of thorns around them. She'd been so immersed in trying to tame the old rose garden that she hadn't even heard his car.
"That doesn't explain what you're doing here, on the grounds of my house." His aggressive gaze made her skin prickle.
His strong jaw, proud nose and high cheekbones had changed little in ten years, but this new Declan wore a tailored suit, his jet hair slicked back. His broad shoulders and solid chest hinted at hard muscle beneath his fine clothing.
Fierce excitement swelled in her chest. He'd come back. "I've been trying to contact you for months. I was sorry to hear about your mother's death."
One black brow lifted.
Lily colored slightly at the knowledge that he'd caught her in a lie. The town of Blackrock, Maine, had heaved a collective sigh of relief when the witch on the hill had finally passed.
"I don't know how many messages I left for you. Your office told me you were in Asia, but you didn't return my calls. I couldn't bear to see the house left empty and forgotten."
"Ah, yes. I'd almost forgotten that it was your family's ancestral home."
His pale eyes shimmered in the sun, sparking a trail of memories. She'd fought so hard not to fall under his spell all those years ago, when theunspoken hatred between their families made even friendship a crime.
Even now a familiar sting of attraction made her skin feel tight.
All her plans and the very future of Blackrock rested on this man's goodwill. She was counting on his natural sense of honor and his deep instinct for right and wrong.
But Declan Gates had never been nice.
Heat crept up her neck as she recalled the once-familiar growl of his motorcycle engine. The sound had roared over the town and echoed off the cliffs, making the townspeople gnash their teeth and curse him and his family.
He hadn't cared.
He wasn't bothered by anything so conventional as propriety or other people's feelings.
The last time she'd seen himten years agohe'd thundered right up her driveway and banged on the door. She'd tried to get rid of him fast, before her mother came home. Before he noticed he still made her pulse quicken, and stirred panic mingled with longing in her heart. He'd said he was leaving Blackrock. That he'd never come back. And for ten years he'd been as good as his word.
But now she needed him.
His eyes drifted over the front of her striped oxford shirt, along the length of her grubby khakis. Unwelcome heat gathered under his predatory gaze.
"You haven't changed a bit, Lily."
The way he said it, she wasn't sure if it was intended as a compliment or an insult.
"You haven't, either." She swallowed.
"That's where you're wrong."
She tightened her grip on the pruning shears as his words sank in. Ten years was a long time.
One thing hadn't changed. His eyes still seemed to see right through her. To strip her bare of pretensions with their stark intensity.
She inhaled sharply. "This house was chiseled out of the rock more than two hundred years ago with nothing but primitive tools and sweat. Since it's high on a cliff you can see it from everywhere. It's the face of the town. It's not right that it should be left to fall into a ruin."
He stared up at the wide stone walls. "This house used to be black. How did you get it clean?" His voice rang with genuine curiosity.
"I power-washed it. It scoured off all the soot the coal-fired boiler at the mill belched out for decades."
He turned to her. "You felt it was your duty to blast away the sins of the past?"
"I would have asked permission if you'd returned my calls. Blackrock is falling apart, Declan. I hoped that if I cleaned the house it would show people that we can make a fresh start."
She hesitated for a second, then screwed up her courage and took a deep breath. "I want to restore the house and live in it, and I'd like to buy the old mill, too."
Darkness flickered in his eyes. "They're not for sale."
"Why?" Alarm stirred in her heart. "There's nothing for you in Blackrock anymore. The old Gates mill has been closed for a decade, you have no family there, you're successful and have your own life"
Declan laughed. "What do you know about my life?"
She blinked, unable to respond. She truly didn't know this cool stranger who bore so little resemblance to the rough-edged but caring Declan she remembered.
"Now that my mother is dead, you want to reinstall the ancient and genteel Wharton family in their ancestral home, so they can once again take up their rightful place as Blackrock's first family?"
His accusation tightened her shoulders, but she wasn't going to let past grudges ruin the future of Black-rock. "I have my own company now, creating fabrics and wallpapers. The mill is the perfect place to make my handmade, organic textiles. I want to provide work for the people of Blackrock."
"I'm afraid that won't be possible."
"Why? What do you mean to do with them?" Her chest heaved as she stared at him.
"That's my business." His chiseled features showed no emotion.
Fury mingled with exasperation at his casual dismissal of all her hopes and dreams. "Your business? From what I've read, you're a corporate raider, a vulture capitalist, you buy things so you can tear them apart. Is that your plan for the house and Blackrock?"
He raised a dark brow. "I see you've done your research about me, so I'm sure you know the house is mine to do with what I like. My family bought it from yours."
"They swindled them out of it." She'd heard the story from her cradle. "After my great-grandfather got wiped out in the crash of twenty-nine and committed suicide, his widow was desperate."
"And I'm sure she appreciated the good money she was paid for the old pile."
"Money your family earned on the black market, selling guns and bootleg liquor."
Declan didn't look the least bit rattled. "And rattraps.
My great-grandpa wasn't called Rattrap Gates for nothing. He used to travel the country selling them before we settled here in Blackrock." His eyes gleamed with humor.
"We Gateses may not have been born with silver spoons in our mouths, but we do know how to make a buck, and when it comes right down to it, that's what counts." He crossed his expensively suited arms over his broad chest.
"No, it isn't. People count. Happiness is what matters." Heat surged in her chest.
"Oh, really." His grim smile unnerved her. "So why do you need the house back to be happy?"
"Because it's a beautiful old house that deserves to be treasured."
"How would you know? You never came inside it, not when we were kids."
She shrank a little. He was right.
"You never invited me." Her protest sounded false. They both knew she never would have come even if he had. Her mother would have gone berserk if she even had any idea they were friends.
"Have you been inside now?" His narrowed eyes amounted to an accusation.
"No," she answered honestly. "The door's locked and I don't have the key."
He laughed. "You always were a straight shooter, Lily." Then his expression hardened. "Up to a point."
"I love this town, Declan. I've spent most of my life here, and I'd like to spend the rest of it here, too. But Blackrock is under siege right now. There's been no work here for ten years since your mother closed the pulp mill"
Declan held up his hand. "Wait a second, are you telling me you're sorry my mother closed the mill? I remember you leading a protest, shouting about air pollution and poisoned water and how the mill was ruining the quality of life in the town. You were quite the crusader with your billboards and your smug friends." His ice-colored eyes glittered.
She swallowed. "I deserved that. It must have hurt to have people up in arms about the factory your family owned."
Declan chuckled. A cold, metallic sound so different from the raw passionate laughter she remembered. "I remember one sign that said the sulfurous emissions from our mill made the town smell like Hell, and it had a picture of me as the devil." He paused and pinned her with his gaze. "I've been doing my best to live up to that one ever since."
Heat rose to her cheeks. She didn't recall the sign, but she'd been young and callous. Full of ideals and energy.
She cleared her throat. "I've learned a lot since then. Clean air and water don't mean so much if you can't earn money to eat."
"And now Good Queen Lily's going to save the town?"
"It would be a win-win situation. I get to live and run my business from the town I love, and my wallpaper factory will bring work to the town."
"A wallpaper factory hardly uses the same skills and equipment as a pulp mill."
"I'll retrain the workers. I plan to keep the old brick building's shell but entirely refit it. I'll certainly get rid of the coal-fired boiler that turned this town black."
"Shame." His eyes glinted. "A coating of soot fits the town so nicely. It won't be familiar old Blackrock anymore if it all looks like this." He gestured at the back of the house, which faced the rose garden.
Soft afternoon sun bathed the sparkling stone in warm light. Windows caked with grime for decades now shone like bright eyes. Three stories high, the house was a fine example of classically inspired Georgian architecture. Simple and unpretentious, it perfectly suited its rugged and demanding environment.
A thrill rushed through her at the sight of it restored to its former glory. "Doesn't it look beautiful? The whole town came out to help."
Her chest expanded as she remembered that amazing day. When people looked up over the town and saw what she was doing, men who hadn't worked in years shoved each other aside to relieve her at the power-washer. Women brought sandwiches and lemonade, and by the end of the afternoon there'd been a party of sorts taking place on the weedy terrace, with burgers grilling and people toasting the future of the town with cold beers.
She'd warned them they were trespassing and that her actions were possibly a crime, but they'd all been willing to take the risk.
That afternoon they'd shared a vision. Believed in a new future for Blackrock. "You should have seen it, Declan. It meant so much to them to see the old house brought back to life."
"You mean to scrub away every trace of the Gates family you all hate so much." His voice sounded calm, but she saw something odd in his expression. A twinge of pain.
A curl of guilt unwound inside her. Guilt at how she'd betrayed their friendship.
He straightened his shoulders. "You want this house back so badly, but you're forgetting about the curse that runs with it. All those stories the townspeople tell about it? They're true."
"Oh, rubbish." She fought a frisson of fear. The house still looked somewhat spooky and forbidding through the snarl of briars. It was easy to imagine a sleeping princess and a black-bearded pirateor worsehovering in one of the cavernous rooms.
She cleared her throat. "I don't believe in any silly superstitions, but even if the curse does exist it's on your family, not the house."
"Ah, yes. The old curse that makes the Gates men turn bad."
"As if they ever needed any help." Her quip died on her lips as his jaw stiffened. She swallowed hard. "I'm sorry about what happened to your brothers."
She shivered, suddenly cold. The sea air could turn on you like that. She didn't know what exactly had happened to Declan's brothers, but they were gone. Dead before they'd even reached twenty-five. "Yes." He stared out at the sea, his achingly perfect profile silhouetted against the bright, clear sky. His devilish good looks only enhanced his dangerous reputation as a teen and the years had done nothing to diminish them. If anything he was more agonizingly handsome than ever.
He rubbed a hand over his mouth. "Don't forget my dad. Killed in a mysterious hunting accident." He fixed his ice-gray gaze on her. "I guess I'm the black sheep of the family because I'm beating the odds just by standing here. I'm a survivor."
Determination showed in the set of his jaw. "You won't get rid of me. No one can, not even lovely Lily Wharton."
Lovely Lily. The name he used to call her shot through her with a stab of longing.
My lovely Lily of the fields.
That's where they'd been together. Alone, high on the cliff top, lying in the soft fields of clover, staring up at the clouds. Or running through the mossy woods, laughing, chasing each other. Splashing through a brook hunting for frogs or blowing dandelion clocks until their lungs hurt.
She bit the inside of her mouth as a strange mess of emotions welled near the surface.
They'd been so close.
You're everything to me, Lily. He'd said it to her time and time again. Such a serious look on his face for a boy so young. What had they been, fourteen? Fifteen?